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“That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” Genesis 11:9.

“Button.” It was the only word I understood as I leaned over the battered young man. He was asking for help and his broken body left him helpless – helpless to push a button.

There were any number of buttons that I could have pushed for him; after all, he was wired up to the usual baffling array of technology we expect in hospitals.

I glanced at the array and looked at him. He did not want me to push any of these.

There were some buttons I could push. I reached for the call button dangling above his head. No. I could also push the buttons to change the position of his bed.

No, again.

But I was not at his bedside for technical support. I was the weekend chaplain and I had been called in to answer his questions.

The nurse in charge briefed me before I entered the room. The young man was from France, spoke only broken English, and had just attempted suicide. He was awaiting surgery to repair some shattered bones. He had requested a chaplain.

The challenge was daunting. I don’t even have high school French. There would be no help from that end.

Painful questions

By the time the “button” request had been made, we had already spent an hour in linguistic puzzlement.

It was not without some progress though, and two questions had emerged. “Why is there so much pain in the world?” and “Where does Jesus fit into this world of pain?”

I had discovered that, for him, “Jesus” was the the wafer of the Catholic mass and probably not much more. He had also managed to convey grief at the pain humanity was inflicting on the earth. This seemed to have led to his concluding that one less human being taking up space and energy on earth would be for the best.

He was asking very reasonable questions – questions I am trained to answer. They aren’t simple, of course, but for nearly 2,000 years the brightest and best theologians, writers, and preachers have given brilliant, insightful answers. If only I could cross the language barrier, I would share these with him.

“I have a friend who grew up in France,” I told him. “Tomorrow I will come back with him.” The most sensible part of our conversation was my promise to bring someone who knew his language. His eyes lit up.

It was then we began to wrestle with the mystery of the “button.” I was stumped, so with a Herculean effort, he dragged his less-broken arm across his chest and reached for his neck. Then I saw it: the neck of his gown was pulled tight around his throat, the offending button strained the fabric of his gown.

I reached down, and in a split second, he had the relief he was asking for.

Comic relief

The absurd comedy of it all was not lost on us. Here I had come to answer questions of life and death yet couldn’t understand his request to undo a button until he nearly accomplished it himself. I couldn’t help laughing and we laughed together.

“How are we supposed to talk about life and death when I can’t understand this?” And the solution would be on its way. That was very good.

My French friend never was available. Twice I returned to tell the young man this and each time we talked at length about the problems of Jesus and pain with all the eloquence and sophistication of two-year-olds.

And just as we were starting to understand each other, he disappeared into the void. I had written my phone number on a piece of paper for him, but the likelihood of that fragment surviving is slim. He has not called. It is unlikely that I will see him again.

Deep revelations

It was a frustrating ending, but I learned something. When two people are determined to understand each other, it is amazing what happens. I wonder if I would have accomplished more without the language barrier. I suspect not. The discussion would certainly have been more sophisticated but possibly less insightful.

And I was also reminded that the same God who confused human language at Babel has things “revealed to us by his Spirit….even the deep things of God” 1 Corinthians 2:10.

I pray that in my bumbling efforts and his desperate yearning for answers the Holy Spirit did reveal some portion of those deep things to my friend.

I do think it happened.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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