"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." John 10:27
Many of the missionaries in the Congo that I met had been to France, Switzerland, or Belgium to learn French before they arrived in the country. Most of these families had spent nine months to a year in intensive language school training in an effort to be able to speak French well enough to get along in a foreign land.
My father was born in the Congo so we did not go to France first. I remember landing at Njili Airport and hearing the confusing noise of words that I did not understand spoken all around me. My inability to understand people's chatter made me feel small, isolated, and scared. Were they angry with me, happy with me, or not talking to me at all? I could not tell. I felt left out and lonely as I listened to their laughter, not understanding what had made them laugh.
When we arrived at our bush mission station three months later, my sister, brother, and I threw ourselves into the most informal, unstructured language lessons imaginable. With no teacher or classroom, we simply started learning Kituba by learning a two-word phrase, "Nki yai?" ("What's this") and pointing at an object nearby. Our Congolese friends loved the game they thought we were playing with them. They would give us the Kituba word for "chair," "dog," "water," etc. We would then tell them the English equivalent for those words. After a few weeks, we could start putting words together into full sentences. After several months, we could carry on a conversation with almost anyone. The more we practiced the words we had learned in our interactions with the Congolese, the more fluent we became in our new language.
The same principles have applied in my relationship with the Lord. I do not have a degree from a Bible college, although I have taken Biblical classes. I left my Christian college unable to distinguish God's voice. I lived for many years without ever trying to learn what His voice sounded like. Because I did not know God's character, I could not know if He was angry, sad, or happy with me. Was He even talking to me at all? I felt lonely and lost. Finally, in desperation at age thirty, I started asking Him to talk to me through His words in Scripture. When my children went down for their naps, I practiced learning His language. It was halting at first. I couldn't put more than one or two words together in prayer without my mind wandering. But after more practice, I found that my faltering talks with Him were suddenly becoming deeper and bringing me more joy than I could have imagined.
I still have a long way to go. I am not even close to being fluent in understanding all that Jesus says to me. I make many mistakes. I remember while learning Kituba that I loved being with a person who was patient and didn't laugh at me when I mispronounced a word unfamiliar to me. The person who mocked me was the one I avoided talking to. My Jesus never mocks me. His patience with me is unfathomable and His mercy unending. He understands that it takes time to learn a new language. Because of the time we have spent talking together, I now know His voice even when many other voices are shouting for my attention. And when He talks to me now, I no longer feel lonely, sad, or confused. I know that I am His and try to follow wherever He leads.