Missionary Journal: God Can Understand My Imperfect Prayers
Karina Brabham is a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in France. She is currently in a language school near Paris. In the new year she will move to Poitiers where she will be involved in encouraging and equipping university students with the gospel of Christ as a staff member of the University Bible Groups (GBU).
“The pronunciation,” says my teacher. She makes me “point” to the word I’m having trouble with. Taking a long bamboo stick, I point to the different colors on a board. Each color represents a different sound. I articulate each sound that makes up the correct pronunciation of the word. Slowing things down like this means I make sure I move my mouth and tongue to the right place to form each sound.
My teacher often corrects me on a pronunciation like this. She says it takes time to build muscle and that’s exactly what we do. There are sounds in French that we don’t have in English, or the way a consonant is pronounced may be different. Learning to speak another language is the slow work of building new habits. I often remember the story of the tortoise and the hare – slowly and steadily winning the race. Learning to communicate in another culture and another language is a slow perseverance.
I have been in France for over ten months now as a new missionary and much of my time has been spent in language classes. The teaching method at my language school is interactive and focuses a lot on pronunciation and speaking. It is also a Christian language school where many of my classmates prepare to work in ministry in the French-speaking world. One of the benefits of this is that we learn and practice how to communicate in a way that is relevant to what we will do in the future. For example, once a week, someone from my middle school class will prepare a Bible study that we will do together – all in French, of course.
Today my class is spending time in prayer. It’s the last day of the session and the last day for one of our classmates. She goes to West Africa to work as a missionary. While what we address to God lasts only a few sentences each, our prayer time takes up the whole morning. First, we share prayer points aloud and there are any corrections to be made by our teacher or vocabulary to polish. Someone volunteered to be a scribe and write summaries of each prayer point on the whiteboard, so sometimes we stop to check the spelling and grammar of what she wrote is correct. We are dividing the prayer points between us and now it is time to pray. Our teacher records us as we hesitantly say our short prayers.
My prayers may not always be grammatically correct, but that does not stop my mighty God from understanding or acting.
Our teacher replays to us what we have prayed. It interrupts the recording in the event of a problem. Sometimes she raises her hands, each finger representing a word we have said, and makes us repeat a sentence. She will wave a finger to show where the problem is so we can try to fix it ourselves. Then she will have us repeat the phrase again at a natural pace. We often end up saying a phrase multiple times. This is another muscle being built – the muscles of how a Frenchman would express an idea with the correct preposition or word order.
Doing this every week in language class slowly built my confidence in my ability to pray in French. During the summer, I participated in a camp for students organized by the University Bible Groups (GBU), the student ministry with which I will work long term. It was my first taste of university ministry in French and each time we broke into small groups to pray during the week, I felt anxious about participating. Still, the experience of prayer in class reassured me that I had the basics to pray, even if it was just a sentence or two. Then there are the reminders I give myself of whom I pray to. My prayers may not always be grammatically correct, but that does not stop my mighty God from understanding or acting.
In slow learning, you can’t always see the progress you’ve already made.
Our teacher brought the game Taboo for us to play this afternoon. In the game, you take turns describing words written on cards without saying any of the listed “taboo” words, and everyone tries to guess the answer correctly. One of my classmates is nervous – she’s afraid she doesn’t know enough vocabulary to play well. Our teacher reassures her that she can skip all the words she doesn’t know and can even use the words that are on the taboo list.
It can be easy to get discouraged when you feel so far off the level of proficiency you’re used to in your native language. When I’m with French people at church or at a GBU Bible study, I often feel awkward in conversation or have trouble following what someone is saying when they speak fast. I can start doubting myself and have days where I just want to give up. There is a level of perseverance required in acquiring language and culture that is often tiring. And often, in the slowness of learning, we do not always see the progress already made.
after playing Taboo, my classmate exclaims how encouraging she found the game. She was surprised how many words she knew and could even describe in French. Which does not mean that we understand everything. We all laugh when our teacher explains that “switch” doesn’t mean someone interrupting you (as it’s described) but is actually the French word for a switch.
Language learning is slow but essential for the reason I came to France – to share the gospel with the people here. It’s easy to feel weak and overwhelmed as an outsider. I continually remind myself to trust in the sovereignty of God. 2 Cor 12:9 has been a favorite verse for me lately: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness. In all the learning I have done this year, the best thing God has taught me is that the good news of the gospel is a message I always need to hear too.