Language

With the Icelandic students and the American team during our last day of ESL class. Also, I promise the Icelandic students were actually smiling before this picture was taken.
With the Icelandic students and the American team during our last day of ESL class. Also, I promise the Icelandic students were actually smiling before this picture was taken.

I caused quite the guffaw the other day when I admitted to a group of new friends that I couldn’t quite tell the difference between Polish and Icelandic. As I learned when the laughter died down, this is somewhat akin to admitting that Lady Gaga reminds one of Bach. Afterwards Bill thanked me for making him look like a native in comparison, which reminded me of the time my French Professor wrote on my report card that I brought a “humorous element to the classroom” while also recommending that I withdraw from continuing language studies. Win some, lose some, I guess.

All this goes to say that Icelandic is not the easiest language to just pick up. While it features the usual assortment of accentuations common to other European tongues (é, í, ó, etc…) there are several letters I’d only ever seen in old editions of Beowulf that cranky English professors handed out on the first day of literature class as some weird form of a joke. For example, frequent appearances are made by this strange d- looking letter which appears to have been mortally wounded by an arrow (ð). This quirky fellow is apparently pronounced like a “th”. But then there’s a p whose flag is lowered to half-mast (þ) which is also pronounced like a “th”. Why are there two? I’ve no idea. It’s all Polish to me.

As if the appearance of these befuddling letters weren’t enough, there’s the addition of strange accentuations and combinations of letters to further confuse the linguistically impaired American. Take, for instance, the o, which is joined by some dots having a pow-wow atop its head (ö). I think that sounds like a “u” or something. Someone equated it to a French word for me which made things about as clear as mud. Then there’s this funky “a” and an “e” who simply aren’t leaving room for the Holy Spirit (æ) and as a result, I’ve no clue what sound they’re making.

So while we haven’t been learning much Icelandic in our time here, we have been teaching a little English. Last week, Mollie and I assisted another team of Americans who came over to put on an ESL (English as a Second Language) Camp as a ministry of our church. The camp had been advertised to the local community for quite some time, and since English is a required language for most Icelanders, many local parents jumped at the opportunity for their kids to get free language training. Come opening day, we had over fifteen children to tutor in English language.

Most of the children were aged eight to thirteen and at first meeting were rather quiet and shy. If I had to guess, I would have said that they didn’t know much English at all. If I asked them a question, they looked at me as though I’d inquired as to the chemical make-up of Eyjafjallajökull then whispered something to each other in Icelandic. And since my Icelandic is about as competent as my basket weaving, I was incapable of communicating with them. So for the most part I’d just sit, smile, color a smiley face, and maybe stick out my tongue on the whimsical hope that cross-cultural barriers didn’t translate my goofiness to some sort of rude or lewd gesture. It didn’t seem too. They laughed.

The next day, a few of these shy kids showed up with new friends who were as shy as they’d been just a day previously. But now the shy kids were lively and interactive. They strolled right up to me at the registration table and asked for their nametags in perfect English, then requested I make one for their friend. I was so taken aback that they had to ask a second time, and they even repeated the name slowly. One child took the liberty of spelling it out for me before asking: “Are you learning English too?” As it turns out, many of these kids knew English pretty darn well. All they needed was a little confidence.

There’s something beautiful about being around languages I don’t understand. Last year, my wife and I worshiped with a church in Nicaragua. She knows some Spanish, so she picked up on parts of the worship service. The only Spanish I knew I’d learned while working at Wendy’s in high school (and, let’s just say, it was hardly appropriate for the house of God). So she was able to sing some of the songs while I just clapped along and shouted “Jesús!” whenever I could manage the timing. It was wonderful.

As I type this I’m sitting in a café, listening to a group of students talk in German beside me. Yesterday I talked to someone from Holland who spoke five languages; a girl from Switzerland overheard our conversation and spoke with us as well. Today, we attended a prayer service with other leaders in the city; at the end of it we read along as the group prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Icelandic. Sunday services here sometimes consist of worship songs in Icelandic, and other times one of the congregants leads us with a beautifully thick British accent. One of the members of the congregation here has read the Bible in 7 different languages (and counting!).

The beautiful thing about the kingdom of God is that it transcends language barriers. Every time I get to experience this truth, every time I meet believers from a different culture, every time I hear the Lord’s Prayer in a different tongue or worship with people who speak a different language, I’m humbled by the magnificence of the God we praise. The God we all proclaim, the God we all attempt to magnify, whether it be in Spanish, French, Icelandic, German, English or the Dutch tongue, this God is the real God. He is the only God.

And, as God, He transcends all language. None of our human attempts at communication contain Him; none of us get it right. But we are still trying, and our attempts make something beautiful. Something beautiful indeed.

Every time I worship with a church in another culture, every time I have the honor of teaching Icelandic children my language, I’m reminded of the day when all Christians will be gathered and will worship God together in the heavenly tongue. Oh glorious day! the glimpses of it I see in smiling children, setting suns and hands clapping to the tune of hymns on Sunday mornings.

I’ll tell you one thing: I can’t wait until I get to speak in the heavenly tongue. I can’t wait until I learn that language.

But until then, I guess I’ll try and learn some Icelandic. Or maybe Polish. After all, they’re not that different.

 

 

 

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Radio

My wife, sitting in the Lindin radio studio with Reykjavik in the background.
My wife, sitting in the Lindin radio studio with Reykjavik in the background.

For the record: there are three things I really don’t like hearing in life: nails on a chalkboard, the words “there’s going to be a lot of people there” (#introvertproblems) and my own voice being played back to me. Since Iceland is technologically savvy and also the most sparsely populated European country, I was never really in fear of being forced to a massive party with thousands of people running their nails on old-school chalkboards. There’d at least be marker-boards.

But what I never expected to be hearing in Iceland was my own voice through headphones. I certainly didn’t expect to hear it the first day, and certainly not while on the radio.

We landed shortly before midnight Iceland time though, truth be told, it didn’t look like midnight. Because Iceland is so far north, the days during the summer are incredibly short; midnight appears more like dusk and during summer solstice the sun doesn’t actually set but just dips down like its taking a sip out of the ocean before beginning another day. When we landed and looked out the window of our plane it didn’t seem like we’d jumped forward several hours, it just felt like late evening in New England.

When we’d gathered our luggage and made it through customs, we made our way to the exit where we were greeted by our hosts Bill and Gunnar. Bill is the aforementioned pastor (ya know, the one I found on Google) and though we’d had a series of email conversations over the past 18 months, this was only the second or third time I’d seen him in person. All that being a grand justification for why I simply walked by him the first time I saw him; my wife grabbed me by the arm to get my attention.

We introduced ourselves; Gunnar offered to help carry our luggage to the car. We piled into the car all while exchanging pleasantries and remarking upon our shared delight that, to this point, the other didn’t appear to be a psychopath. Because you never know with people you meet on the Internet.

Driving north from Keflavík International Airport towards Reykjavík (two names which are all t00 easy to mix up) I stared out the window and listened to Bill and Gunnar explain our agenda for the next day. I heard Bill say something about “radio show” but didn’t think anything of it; I was too busy staring out the window.

The landscape around me was bare and desolate, rugged but mostly flat and completely encompassed in fog. The terrain appeared as though I would imagine the moon might, if it were covered in vegetation. In the midnight dusk I could see the rumors of Nordic irony I’d heard my entire life were true: Iceland is very green.

Needless to say, we were driving along and I was somewhat in a daze. Mollie asked a few questions and again I heard the words “radio show” coupled with “you” and “on it” but none of it seemed to register. I was just trying to soak in the lunar scenery passing by my window, along with sporadic splatterings of towns, the most prominent of which was named Hafnarfjörður (translated “harbor fjord”). Soon we arrived at our housing, where Bill and Gunnar assisted us with our luggage and bid us a goodnight.

We awoke late the next day and spent most of what remained of the morning and afternoon walking around the area where we were staying. Shortly thereafter, Bill picked us up to join him and his family for dinner. It was over dinner that he laid out the plan for the evening and this time I heard him: we were going to join him on a radio show.

As it turns out, there’s a Christian radio station in Iceland that was started by an Assemblies of God missionary here over twenty years ago. Most of the programming is in Icelandic, but once a week they have an international show that’s hosted in English. When the regular DJ is out of town, as he happens to be for the next month, Bill hosts the show. Bill informed us that we would be his guests on the show and, pending any (incredibly likely) gaffs, might join him in the coming weeks.

Thus it was that I found myself in a radio studio, wearing headphones, looking out over downtown Reykjavík on a typical, dreary, late summer evening. Bill was a gracious host and assured Mollie and I not to be nervous. Nonetheless, my leg was shaking as he signaled us that we were about to go “On Air”. I looked at Mollie and she smiled back; but what did she have to be nervous about? Her voice sounds like angels over coffee.

Bill introduced the show and “his new friends here for six weeks on an internship” while I prayed that my voice wouldn’t break the first time I opened my mouth. Then he asked me a question. I took a deep breath and answered.

I cannot tell you what the question was or if my answer was even remotely relevant. If I had to guess I’d say it was something like: “WELL, BILL OH MY GOSH IT’S SO NICE TO BE HERE. ICELAND PRETTY. PRAISE GOD. I LIKE TURTLES” followed by the sound of a diver taking their first gasp of air upon surfacing.

But I did it. I winced as I heard my own voice over the radio, smiled as Mollie’s came on and tried to answer the questions as best I could. Thus the evening progressed. Bill asked a question and, if directed at me, I answered all while dreaming that I sounded something like the professionals I listen to on NPR knowing that in reality I was actually a little closer to a chipmunk with a sore throat.

But ya know what? I did it. And as the night went on, I heard less of my voice through the headphones and saw more of the landscape through the window of the studio.

From where I sat I could see the largest peak in a range of volcanoes, Mount Esja, looming over the bay, its summit capped by clouds. Sun pushed through a sliver of the coverage and spread across the bay like fire. It was all so dreary, somewhat regular and a little bit commonplace: cars passed on the highway below; houses lined the bay beneath my view. Yet, at the same time, it was also so brilliant to behold.

And to be honest, I just couldn’t believe it. There I was sitting in a radio studio looking out on a cloudy sunset over Reykjavík, Iceland. After months of preparation, we were here to try and join in building God’s kingdom, to try and be a blessing to the people of this country. But that’s the thing about serving a graceful God, a God whose divine humility and love is reflected in his utilization of nervous, broken voices over radio channels to spread his Word. Throughout my time in seminary, ministry and just life in general, I’ve found that I often enter something thinking that I’m the one who will be giving. But I’ve found, time and time again, that I can never give more than he gave; the beauty of partaking in his grace is exemplified in the reality that the more I give, the more I receive.

I don’t know if anything I said on the radio the other night was any sort of blessing to anyone. But I do know one thing: time and time again, I feel like I’m the one who’s being blessed.

Mostly that’s because there weren’t a lot of people or chalkboards.