Last month, I pushed the boundaries of my Spanish-language skills while helping the Chispa Project build libraries in Honduras. Honestly, the only Spanish I know is how to exchange names and greetings with the children.
Eventually, I had to admit that I didn’t speak Spanish or “No hablo español.” However, each time I’d say that, the kids erupted with laughter at my miraculous ability to suddenly speak their language.
They heard irony in someone who insisted he didn’t know the very language he was clearly speaking. I dare say you will experience this same sort of irony if you attempt to speak a language of faith that you don’t really know.
I first learned this principle as a 10-year-old while attempting to convert my neighbors, brothers Bobby and Jerry Lusk.
The Lusks were both enrolled in Catholic school, so they weren’t an easy mark for this Baptist. They needed softening.
One day after school, I encouraged them to visit the Baptist church where my father was the pastor. They were naturally curious to see their first Southern Baptist church, so the Catholic siblings agreed.
My dad greeted us at the front door, but excused himself to take a phone call. We then stepped inside the sanctuary where the brothers’ probing gazes searched the plain walls for artwork or statues. They saw none.
If you were not Baptist, you wouldn’t know that Baptists often referred to their sanctuary as an “auditorium.” So, to the brothers’ Catholic thinking, they likely considered the art-deprived expanse as a bingo hall.
Within a few minutes, the boys shifted into free-roaming casual mode. They crisscrossed the building, examining the hymnals and removing the little rubber o-rings that held the communion cups in place on the seatbacks.
Eventually, Bobby found the pulpit where he did a pretty good Billy Graham impression while Jerry tested the piano keys.
Suddenly feeling I was sharing the “House of the Lord,” with Thing 1 and Thing 2, I redirected their attention to a closed curtain behind the pulpit.
I vaguely recall a conversation that may, or may not, have sounded something like this:
“What’s this?” Jerry asked, pulling the curtain back.
“That’s our baptistry,” I proudly announced. My voice echoed down into the six-foot sunken receptacle that Evangelicals use to totally immerse their converts.
Bobby leaned in to swirl the water with his hand. “Where are the fish?”
“Isn’t this a fish tank?” Jerry said.
“No! This is where my dad would baptize you.”
“You mean if we came here, we’d be dunked in a fish tank?” asked Bobby.
“No. I mean, yes.”
“Nope,” Jerry insisted. “We were baptized as babies.”
“But Jesus taught ‘you must be born again,’ ” I said in a tentative tone.
“Bored again?” Jerry asked. “Jesus never said that!”
“No, ‘born again!’ That’s what happens when you ask Jesus in your heart.”
“Jesus comes inside us when the priest gives us Communion wafers,” Bobby said.
At some moment, like the kids puzzled at my Spanish incompetency, the Lusks and I became aware that we were speaking different religious languages but talking about the same God.
The problem was that I wasn’t sharing my faith with my friends; I was discounting theirs. Mine were the foolish steps of a child mimicking what he thought to be his father’s faith.
Years later, this sort of experience lent understanding to the cryptic statement of Jesus in John 10:16: “You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen.”
Meaning, Baptist isn’t the only game in town. God has plans for us all. Love wins, no matter what language people speak or what faith they practice.
Or put another way, not all of God’s followers will surface through the fish tank.