Spending time with my in-laws can be a bit confusing. Don’t get me wrong; we enjoy each other. But, you see, they speak a different language from me.
I don’t mean the different languages of rural and urban, or East Coast and West Coast, or even British and American. No; they speak Arabic, and I am at least a 5th generation white American. I have learned a smattering of words in a smattering of languages, but I am an infant in proficiency with any of them.
Because I have not yet learned the ancient and beautiful language of Arabic myself, I can’t understand them when they (naturally) decide to communicate with one another in the language of their hearts, of their childhoods, of their people. I find myself sad to be divided from them in this way. Oh, I’ve learned a few necessary words: “eh” (yes), “la” (no), “ye’lla” (let’s go), and most importantly, “habibi” (beloved). And I have great plans to study the language more in-depth… if only life would slow down and give me the space to do it.
Thankfully, my husband’s family members also speak English, so we are generally able to communicate just fine. It’s just when they talk amongst themselves that I am particularly aware that I am separated from them. I literally have no idea what they’re talking about unless someone gives me an explanation on the side. There is a barrier there, a language barrier which I am currently unable to cross. I have the folks at Babel to thank for that, I suppose. I’ve started calling it the Babel Barrier.
But the Babel Barrier is so much deeper than words. The power of language lies in its ability to express ideas, emotions, depths of soul so that we can connect personally and meaningfully. Although language is limited, at least we can try to give articulation to what’s going on inside of us.
To those of us who share a common language, we have learned phrases that help. We string words together that would not make sense to a language outsider, but to those of us who have grown up using this language, the phrase makes an abstract concept into something understandable. It turns words into ideas and emotions. My dad “busts his buttons” with pride over his kids. My sister is “brimming with good news.” A person may be “feeling really down,” or she may be “jumping for joy.” So for my husband’s relatives for whom English is truly a second language, these phrases that help communicate the heart are sometimes lost.
On rare occasion, my husband, who is second-generation Lebanese (meaning he was born and raised in the States), will say a phrase in Arabic because there’s just no English phrase that quite captures his sentiment the way the Arabic phrase does. Every culture has its phrases that give expression to how its people view the world. The English translation of an Arabic idiom doesn’t have quite the same punch!
Last weekend, my husband and I went to lunch with his mom and sister. The three of them (and some other family) had gone to see an Arabic play the evening before. They thoroughly enjoyed it, and over lunch, they chatted freely about it, back and forth in both English and Arabic. They were cracking up! My mother-in-law attempted to explain the jokes to me, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Babel Barrier.
And yet, spoken language is not the only means of communication that we have. Despite the language barrier that was imposed eons ago on that plain in Shinar, there is, in fact, a language more powerful than any human words. It is the language of Love. We learned it from Jesus. The language of Love bursts through the Babel Barrier.
My first exposure to my husband’s extended family came about in a hospital. We were dating. His dad was dying. The family gathered. In this stressful setting, I met THE FAMILY. Aunts and uncles and cousins, dad’s side, mom’s side – all came together to support my husband, his parents, his brother and sister.
They talked in hushed undertones in the hospital room. When the gathered family was too much for my husband’s exhausted father, they were gently shooed out of the room into the waiting room down the hall. There, the stories abounded as they tried to pass the anxious time. I learned a lot!
They were interested to meet me – my husband had never brought a girl home before – and they accepted me right off the bat, even in the midst of their impending grief. Long before my husband proposed to me and verbalized those precious words, “I love you,” his family communicated their love to me. Aunts pulled me in for kisses to both cheeks, worn and weary, but ready to love. Uncles welcomed me with sad eyes but open arms. And my husband’s father, over and over again, told me he loved me in plain English!
And I was able to communicate love back to them. One of the greatest honors of my life was to give the deep soul-expression of music at my now-husband’s father’s funeral. The glory of music is its ability to transcend spoken language. The church was overflowing with people who loved this precious man, Arabic-speakers and English-speakers alike. As I sang the beautiful old hymns of grief and love, of faith in the midst of sorrow, I was so thankful that I could express my love for them in a way that even the ones from the oldest generation who only knew a smattering of English could understand.
So here we find ourselves living both on the plain in Shinar and on the streets of Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. In the new era, the era of union with Christ, an olive-skinned man and a red-headed woman learned that our cultural differences could enrich our lives together instead of causing discord. In the unity we have in Christ, my family in-law extended grace to bring me into the conversation. Instead of being scattered by our inability to communicate, we have been brought together in Christ. At our wedding, a foreshadow of that glorious Wedding to come, our brown and white families spoke blessings over us, in Arabic and in English. They continue to do so daily, defying the Babel Barrier with the greater language of Love.
Becca Hermes earned her Master of Arts from the Atlanta campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, where she continues to work full-time. She is married to Nagib.