Ruth Caldwell

Three vignettes to begin:

1) I am a sophomore in college, babysitting my history professor’s three little children. At 11:00 p.m. the two-year-old wakes up crying. I come into her room and try to comfort her, but she keeps murmuring “Dumb Jude.” My mind races: who is Jude, and why is he dumb? A nightmare? A frantic sorting operation in my head comes up with the translation: “some juice.” I hug her and get some. All becomes quiet.

2) Flash forward to a department store in Japan. I am there with my own little girl, who has torn her coat, and I need to repair it. The uniformed woman in white gloves greets me at the entrance, but we cannot agree on a language in which to communicate. Finally, I say, loudly and clearly, “Sewing?” while showing the motion. A stream of Japanese washes over me, and I hear only two words: “Hai” (yes) and “sangai.” I say to my daughter, “Well, ‘san’ means three in Japanese, so I guess if we go to the third floor we will find what we need. We went and we did.

3) I am in a Parisian hotel lobby finishing a continental breakfast when I observe an argument between an American guest speaking English and a French hotel clerk speaking French. He is disputing what he believes to be a charge, and they are getting nowhere. I approach the clerk and ask her in French if I can help. She asks me to tell him what “arrhes” means. I turn and say “deposit” and immediately there is peace.

These three scenarios have in common an old story thread: the magical words that “open Sesame,” that bring discovery and understanding, of other worlds and other people. Recurring experiences such as these have helped lead me to my vocation. Through the seemingly magical operations of language, I have figured something out for myself or helped another person achieve an “aha” moment. The joy I feel in perceiving the power of words has made me understand more deeply the centurion in Matthew 8 when he says “Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word….” It is my hope that I can help my students deepen their appreciation of the power of the word in this and other texts, as well as the spoken word, whatever field they ultimately choose.

But as a college sophomore, at the time of the first vignette above, I considered my required language classes as just a game, a distraction from more serious studies. It took some wandering, especially to Europe, before I realized that my greatest joy came in deciphering the “foreign,” communicating with and seeing the humanity of “the other,” and helping people see and hear something new, outside their usual words and worlds. I would advise future Luther students to cast their nets widely in the seas of learning and be attentive to any recurring joy they feel in a particular subject or endeavor. That recurrent feeling is a distinct “call,” pointing the way to how they might use their gifts and time.

Ruth Caldwell