Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
“Today is our Confirmation Day. We have been instructed in the Christian faith, and today we will share what we have learned and publicly confess the faith into which we were baptized.”
With the above words, confirmands from my classes used to answer the first of many questions on their Confirmation Day. They went on to share what they knew and believed. Unless some surprise visitors attended the service, everything they said was fully understandable to everyone present. I believe that a major goal in Confirmation instructions is that the youth learn enough about the Christian faith and life that they can tell their friends and family about them. My questioning took the form of an ongoing conversation rather than an oral test. With a combination of their own words and some memorized phrases, teachings and Bible passages, the students did confess the faith into which they were baptized.
The memorized words were the words of Martin Luther and Biblical authors, but, in the strictest sense, they were not. A visitor from Germany, Israel or Greece who did not understand English would not have recognized the words of those authors because the words were translated into English—more accurately, American. Even a native of Great Britain might have found some words confusing. George Bernard Shaw once said of the British and Americans that we are two peoples separated by a common tongue.
Mario Pei, in All About Language, says there are about 2,796 different languages spoken in the world today. This does not include all the dialects within each language or the language of teenagers, which is unique to every generation and culture. So, while I struggled to enable young people to express their faith in words understandable to themselves and others, the very words they used automatically limited the number of people who could understand them. LCMS Missionaries spend their first two years on the field learning the language and culture of the people they serve so that they can at least attempt to speak in the language of the people’s hearts.
Hundreds of thousands of international students come to the United States every year to study in our universities and colleges. Some of these “foreigners” have difficulty understanding us and communicating with us. Hasty courses in the language of another people often make for amusing conversations. An international student was asked about the health of his convalescing wife. He replied, “She is not as painful as she was, but she is still very tiresome.”
If one of these travelers from a different culture had attended Confirmation services at my congregation, all the training of the confirmands, as well as all of my own ability in communication, would have been useless if the student did not understand English (American). An interesting question arises from that situation. When that happens, are we speaking in a “foreign” tongue or are they listening with “foreign” ears? The question can be turned around if they attempt to talk to us.