What language does God speak?
In the summer of 1998, I journeyed to Tanzania to take part in a cross-cultural internship sponsored by the Seminary. I worked in western Tanzania in an Anglican Church led by a Tanzanian priest. While there, I was asked several times, “What is your mother tongue?” You see in East Africa, everyone speaks Swahili, and many people speak English. But these are not the languages of home. Among their own tribe, their own family, most East Africans speak their tribal language. This language is their mother tongue. Whenever I explained that English was my mother tongue, people always felt sorry for me. They knew that I was a much poorer person for not having a mother tongue, a special language spoken only among my own people.
This concern about a mother tongue is reflected in a story told in East Africa of a man from the Dodomo district of Tanzania named Msafiri. Msafiri followed the traditional African religion of his people, the Wagogo. He believed in one God, the creator who is the source of all good things. Msafiri approached God by praying to his ancestors who he believed still watched over their people.
An Anglican evangelist came to his small village and began teaching the people about Christianity. Msafiri listened to the evangelist as he told about God sending his son Jesus to live among us. The stories of Jesus life, his death and resurrection touched Msafiri and he converted to Christianity. He studied with the evangelist and was baptized, taking the name Simon, for Simon of Cyrene, the African saint who had carried Jesus’ cross to Calvary.
Simon Msafiri went to church faithfully, always attending the Wednesday fellowship meetings and Sunday services. Gathered with the other Christians under the grass roof of the mud-walled church they had built together, he learned the stories from the Bible.
Simon Msafiri prayed to God in Kigogo, the language of his own people instead of the Swahili that he used in town with others. This was Simon’s mother tongue and was part of Simon’s ties to his extended family. Simon knew that God understood him when he spoke Kigogo, but he decided that God, too, must have a mother tongue—a language that was God’s own language from before time. Simon wanted to learn to pray to God in God’s own mother tongue. One day he asked the evangelist, “What is God’s mother tongue?” The evangelist thought for a moment and then said that God doesn’t have a mother tongue—all languages are the same to God.
Simon listened and thanked the evangelist. But as he went home, he began to wonder about the evangelist’s answer. Everyone Simon knew had a mother tongue they learned as a child and used among their own people. If the people Simon knew had a mother tongue, then God must as well. He decided to ask some of the elders of the village to get the answer to his question. One man said that God, as the great ancestor, must speak the language of their ancestors, Kigogo. Another said that surely God’s mother tongue is Swahili. These answers didn’t sound right to Simon and he decided to set out on a great safari, a journey to find his answer.
The full text of the sermon is online here: What language does God speak?