In Ayapan, Tabasco, a village in southern Mexico, a tragedy is on the horizon. As in any other city on any given day, two men have stopped talking to each other; they say they have drifted apart and no longer wish to speak. But unlike other cities and other feuding men, the elderly men of Ayapan are the last two remaining speakers of the local Zoque language. Without their attempts to keep the language alive, many fear the language will soon become extinct. While the hope is that others will learn Ayapan Zoque or that the men will choose to pass down the knowledge to their families, those who study indigenous languages are all too aware of the statistics. Across the world, the United Nations calculates, one language disappears every two weeks.
Language specialists remind us that the loss of any language, however few once spoke it, is no small loss. “Language death is symptomatic of cultural death: a way of life disappears with the death of a language,” note authors Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. “The fortunes of languages are bound up with those of its speakers.”(1) When the critical insight contained within a language is forgotten, an irreplaceable resource has vanished from the world and its future generations, leaving in its place a certain void. The cry to remember is often voiced by those who foresee the darkened glimpse of a world that has forgotten. Such a description is reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth at the onset on the story. “The world is changed,” says Galadriel. “I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”
Since the biblical story is uttered simultaneously with a cry to remember, it is not surprising that we should find the same quality in the prayers of its characters. When Jehoshaphat stood up in the temple to pray in front of the entire assembly, he was speaking a language that sought desperately to remember the character of God. “O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you. O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?” His prayer was perhaps even a cry for God too to remember, to bear in mind the Lord they had come to know, the relationship God had sought with them, the history that existed between them. Speaking this common language and story, bringing the acts of God in history to the forefronts of their minds, Jehoshaphat then cried to God to act among them in the present. “O our God, will you not judge…the vast army that is attacking us? We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:6-12). Prayer is a language of remembrance. It is taught by those who have gone before us, those who have witnessed the power of God in history, those who were commanded to remember and now call us to do the same.
Speaking this language, teaching our children the fortunes bound within it, Christlans remember the person of God, and the people we are before the throne of heaven. Standing before a religious crowd, Jesus offered a parable about prayer. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner'” (Luke 18:10-13). To the shock of the crowd, Jesus then revealed the one who spoke the language of heaven: “I tell you that this tax collector, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (14).
Prayer is a language whose fortunes keep before us the person and character of God, even as it keeps before us our own need for the kingdom and its mercies. So too, it is a language that helps us remember the whole story.
On the night before he was placed in the hands of those who would lead him to death, Jesus prayed that God would take away the task that stood before him. In prayer, Jesus pled with God to spare him; in prayer he sought the Father’s intervention; yet in prayer he remembered the entire story, such that even on the Cross he was able to pray for those who had no idea what they were doing. On his knees in Gethsemane, Jesus remembered our desperate need for his sacrifice. He concluded his prayer to the Father, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). At these words, Christ forever bound within the biblical language a fortune we ought never to forget.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, Vanishing Voices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 7.