A few years ago I decided to try to fill what I thought was a gap in my education. I signed up for a Latin course, and had a blast. The teacher was engaging, the textbook – complete with handy cartoons illustrating the difference between the bull chasing the farmer and the farmer chasing the bull (exactly the same words, just different endings) – was brilliant, and all in all I think I made good progress.
Then life got in the way and a move to a different part of the country led to Latin lapsing.
A couple of months ago I picked up the textbook again and started from scratch. I was back to learning tables of verbs and nouns, racking my brains to understand why a word had this ending rather than that and picking through sentences word by word trying to see how they worked.
I'm getting there, I think. I'm frustrated when I forget something I thought I'd learned, or when I just can't make sense of a phrase or sentence. I beat myself up when I get an exercise question wrong. And no, I'm not a naturally gifted linguist. But the sheer pleasure of reading a sentence and genuinely getting it makes everything worthwhile. There are moments of illumination that are deeply satisfying. They make me think that one day I will pick up a Latin text and – probably still with a dictionary to hand – just read it and understand it.
I'm learning the grammar and the vocabulary of a different language. Some of the words are familiar, because they're like English words, but the language works in a different way. As I learn it, I'm rewiring my brain. Perhaps one day I'll be able to read it without mentally translating every word; it will become natural to me.
And there is, I think, something quite Christian about all this.
My Baptist tradition draws a sharp distinction between those who are 'in' and those who are 'out', as opposed to those who practise infant baptism, for whom a Christian spirituality grows and matures as part of a whole developing personhood. I see the strengths in both positions. But none of us grows up speaking 'Christian' as a native. It's a language that has to be learned. Perhaps those who grow up in a Christian setting – whether baptised or not – have something of an advantage. But we are born as citizens of a different kingdom, and have to be reborn into the household of faith.
There's a new vocabulary to learn and new rules of grammar. We have to try to understand ideas like forgiveness, repentance and salvation. And those are the easy bits: as time goes by we are retraining our minds so that we react differently to what we experience. Those words of Paul, 'Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace' (Ephesians 4: 2-3) represent an entirely different way of relating to other people.
To begin with, this is a foreign language. We have to pause and translate as we go along, often referring to living dictionaries, older and wiser Christians who can interpret the faith for us. As time goes by we may, if we're patient and hard-working, become more and more fluent in 'speaking Christian'. The language becomes part of us, our vocabulary expands and we use it without really having to think about it.
It takes time, effort and persistence. We won't always get it right, and we will be frustrated and angry when we get it wrong. That's the cost of doing anything worth doing. Our frustrations might well be taken out on other people, and theirs on us, and very often it's because we are all trying to learn the same new language and not speaking it very well.
But there's a trajectory through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation that gives us hope. Genesis 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel, when the languages of the earth were confused and we ceased to be able to understand each other. Revelation 7:9 says: 'After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.' They are praising God together, the confusion over at last. And between them there is Pentecost, when the disciples 'were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues...' (Acts 2:4); a foreshadowing of God's desire for the world.
Learning a language is hard.But it stands for something about breaking down barriers between people and making communication possible. It helps us think in different ways. And in slow, patient Christian discipleship, we are learning with others to speak the language of God.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods