During my recent sabbatical, I spent eight weeks abroad–about two-thirds of it in Spain, with 12 days in Italy, and a couple of brief peeks into France. My Spanish got fairly decent for most practical purposes, which helped me a great deal with Italian. French will always be a bar too high for me; I can read a good bit but my mouth just can’t make those sounds! It was good for me to try to speak–and, to some extent, to think–in the language of the locals. Doing so adds texture and depth to the experience of being in those places.
But I don’t live in Spain or France or Italy, so, when I returned home, it was entirely appropriate that I allow my brain to cease dividing its linguistic attention and revert to my “mother tongue” of English. English is the language of home for me, the language which I both understand most deeply and express myself in most completely.
But … is it? In this life, and in this world, I am an American who speaks English. But, as the song says, “This world is not my home; I’m just apassin’ through.” As one who has been bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ, “American” is only a temporary descriptor, not an identity. My identity is “Christian.” I am grateful to be an American, and consider it a blessing in my life, but it is not who I am. Who I am is a citizen of the Kingdom of God. As St Paul reminds me, my “citizenship is in Heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
With that in mind, then, what can I say about my “mother tongue?” I’m less clear on what it is than on what it’s not, and it’s not English! When I pass from this world to the next, English will cease to be of any interest to me. My job in this world, then–and the job of all in this world who bear on their brow the seal of him who died, marked as Christ’s on forever–is to cooperate with God’s grace in preparing me to live happily in the next. Part of that work of preparation is to learn the “language” of the Kingdom of God. (I invite you here not to take me merely literally, but more than literally; I speak of realities that can be understood only dimly, so I resort to the techniques of poetry–metaphor, image, allusion.) The language of the Kingdom has its own vocabulary and grammar and syntax. There are “right” ways of saying things and … “less right” ways of saying things.
The way we speak, of course, is closely tied to the way we think. Christians appropriately learn to “think christianly.” This is neither easy nor automatic. We won’t do it without wanting to and trying to. And it’s particularly challenging when we live in a secular societal environment that is anxious and polarized, as American society is. We’re trying to catch our collective breath after an election season that was already too long and arduous, and which a great many have also found bruising. The tone of public rhetoric has ratcheted up, establishing a disturbing “new normal” in post-election discourse. There are those among us who were more anxious before the election and there are those among us who are more anxious as a result of the election. Some were afraid before and some are afraid now–and some have just been afraid all along!
We do well in this hour to remember where our true citizenship lies and what our true mother tongue is. We do well in this hour not to merely sprinkle some holy water onto our fiercely-held political opinions and thereby call our views “Christian.” It doesn’t come that cheaply. Our identity in Christ is greater and more enduring than our identity as Americans, and it is time for us to realize that. This is the time, if there has ever been such a time, for us to dive deeply into the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the Kingdom and allow our Christian identity to set the table for our political engagement.
This requires, of course, the cultivation of specific habits and practices. At the top of the list is faithfully coming together at the Eucharist every Lord’s Day “unless for good cause prevented.” Following closely on that is the regular study of sacred scripture–patiently and humbly, and in company with other believers. It is in scripture and liturgy that we most efficiently learn the language of our citizenship. Next comes a robust daily life of prayer, followed by regular participation in the community of the church–in fellowship, study, and service. When we clothe ourselves in these habits, we create a space in which the Holy Spirit can operate in our hearts, minds, and wills, the circumstances that enable us to think theologically, as citizens of Heaven, and not just as part of the political noise of the world that surrounds us.
As disciples of Jesus, we are to be salt and light in the world. We can only fulfill that vocation by speaking our own language, the language of our true homeland, a language we are still in the process of learning.