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Learning the Language

Back in the day, when Todd was a youth minister on church staff, we had the privilege of working with a young man named Rusty.  An energetic seventh grader, he was full of life. He was enthusiastic. He was deaf.

At first, we weren’t sure what to do with him.  We didn’t know sign language, and he didn’t read lips. His interpreter, Robert, was very helpful when present, but we found ourselves alone with Rusty quite a bit and found out pretty quickly that pointing at objects and raising your eyebrows for emphasis will only get you so far.

My first attempt at trying to communicate with Rusty on my own happened during a youth group ski trip.  By some random turn of events, Rusty and I ended up on a ski lift alone. Halfway up the mountain, the ski lift broke down, stranding us 100 feet in the air with nothing to entertain Rusty but a lift seat that rocked like a playground swing if you leaned into it. It didn’t take Rusty long to figure this out.

The lift began to creak and pop, but Rusty couldn’t hear it.  Unable to remember the sign that Robert used for “stop,” I did what any other mother who wanted to make it back to her babies in Oklahoma would do. I grabbed Rusty’s chin, turned his face toward me, and shook my head “no” until I had a headache.

Rusty only laughed and rocked harder.  Panicked, I pointed at the cable. I pointed at the ground. I played dead, tongue hanging out and all. Giggles and more wild rocking ensued. I almost lost my poles.

Desperate, I grabbed Rusty’s arm, pointed at him, and made the universal sign for “I’m about to choke you if you don’t quit it RIGHT NOW!”   That did it, but I felt awful for the rest of the day. I knew something had to change.

Thankfully, a young woman named Brittany had just begun to attend our church.  A friend of Rusty’s, she was also deaf, but read lips with ease and was able to speak audibly. She’d come on the trip with us, but I hadn’t spent much time with her. Eyes wide with adrenaline and regret, I told her what had happened, and she took it upon herself right then to teach me how to communicate with our exuberant lad.

Eager to learn, I sat by Brittany on the long bus ride home and talked with her about anything and everything that came to mind, school, her family, my family, how her mother discovered that she was deaf, how she felt about it, how much I wanted to learn sign language, how bad I felt about losing my cool with Rusty, and how grateful I was for her tutelage.   

As we talked, Brittany signed, her words and mine.  Before long, I began to pick up common signs like a first-grader learns sight words, and Brittany encouraged me to use the ones I knew as we talked. When I made a mistake, she stopped me with an amused smile and taught me the right word for what I wanted to say.

When we got back home, I tried out the little I’d learned on Rusty.  Surprised, he looked from me to Brittany. She signed quickly. Rusty signed back just as quickly and then signed slowly to me. I didn’t understand everything he said, so Brittany helped. We continued this way for months before I got the hang of it.

I wish I could tell you that I still know the sign language that Brittany taught me way back when, but I don’t.  At random moments, the appropriate sign for a word that I’ve just spoken will come to mind, and I smile at the memories that come with it, but that’s about as deep as my connection to Rusty, Brittany, and sign language goes for me now.

No surprise, really.  When you fall out of practice, you forget.

People talk a lot about God being silent when they pray.  I know this happens sometimes, but I don’t think it happens as often as people seem to think it does. When we don’t hear from God in prayer, it’s far more likely that there are communication issues on our end.

This is how it works.  When we accept God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and surrender our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ—when we become a Christian—the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts for eternity, proving that we belong to God and guaranteeing that we will spend eternity in Heaven with God when we die.

For as long as we live here on earth, the Holy Spirit helps Christians communicate with God by translating our groanings in prayer, helping us make sense of God’s Word, the Bible, and calling Scripture to mind when we need it.  In this way, He helps us to understand God’s character and will and to pray in accordance with that will so that we can grow spiritually and contribute to the work of the Kingdom.

The Bible is a big part of this process.  It is the vocabulary that God uses to communicate with us, every verse learned being a new “word” that the Holy Spirit is able to bring to mind at the right moment. The more we read and study the Bible, the easier it becomes to communicate with God.

God has promised to let us find Him when we seek Him with all of our hearts.  Maybe, instead of being so quick to say God is silent next time we have trouble hearing Him, we should do a little trouble-shooting on our end to make sure that we’re doing our part to keep the lines of communication clear. 

If you are having trouble communicating with God, the first thing you need to do is make sure that you belong to Him.   Have you truly surrendered every aspect of your life to Jesus Christ and accepted God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection? If you have, the Holy Spirit will confirm it, and you will see evidence of His presence in your life. If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present to do so!

Second, make sure that sin hasn’t crept in and caused relational static between you and God.   The Bible tells us that when Christians accept the presence of sin in our lives, God doesn’t hear our prayers.  Ask God to search your heart and show you anything that needs to go, attitudes, actions, thoughts, etc. Take your time and listen. When He shows you something offensive to Him, confess it as sin, accept His forgiveness, and turn away from it.

Finally, determine whether or not you have given Bible study your best effort.  Are you relying on Scriptural “sight words” you learned as a child to get you through grown-up challenges, either because you’ve never made the effort to go beyond the basics or because you never applied what you learned and so forgot it?  If so, make a sincere effort to grow spiritually by studying your Bible, committing it to memory, and applying it to your life.  Learn the language.  Practice.  Remember, God is silent sometimes.  You sure don’t want to miss it when He does speak!  

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