Photo: Marie Foote

Photo: Marie Foote, cross-posted from

I’m hyperventilating, just writing the words: lowest common denominator.

It conjures up images of me quasi-drowning, only instead of a roaring ocean swell on a beautiful beach holiday, I’m sweating through fourth-grade fractions and the numbers are pounding me with panic. No amount of studying and memorization can  prevent that little bubble of fear from traveling up my esophagus the moment Miss Hunt shows me the flashcard of doom, the silent timer of her poker-faced blinking, synchronizing with my shallow breaths. No lifeguard on duty. How can such tiny numbers bring me such mental pain and cause such confusion? And why do I even have to care about discovering the lowest common denominator between these two numbers when someday I’ll be able to calculate my pumpkin muffin flour measurements by 2.5 batches on my iPhone and allrecipes?

Fast forward 30 years.

I am no longer a sweaty fourth-grader, but am a 38-year old Spanish-language student, missionary wife of one and adoptive mother of two in San José, Costa Rica. Miss Hunt is now Alejandra, my grammar teacher, who has a demeanor as sweet as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mary Poppins combined, but the moment her flashcards of doom come out … the grammatical rules are not to be trifled with and I’m in fourth grade all.over.again. Hey, this beach looks familiar … here come the waves!

This is ridiculous. Give me a verb in Spanish. Any verb. Regular or irregular. There’s a 90% chance I’ll be able to conjugate it correctly in 5 or more tenses, without knowing the definition of the verb. Hold the scratch-and-sniff sticker, really!  BUT … once I know what that verb means and I have to use it in a sentence, reducing the nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, and name-it-whatever-phrases to the lowest common denominator by using pronouns which agree with all objects, both direct and indirect … OH.MY.GOODNESSwhendiditurnintosuchanidiot???!!!  I  love/hate the humbling/humiliation that comes with learning another language as an adult.

So it used to be digits ranging from 0-9 which ruined my mental self-worth … now it’s amazingly teeny, tiny palabras like: le, lo/la, and se. And a. Don’t forget the personal “a.” (Personally, I have a few unforgettable thoughts for the personal a, but it’s a letter which simply does not have enough room to shove whatever I give it). I feel like I’m “supposed” to know this stuff, like I was “supposed” to know that the lowest common denominator of 3 and 4 is 12. But it just doesn’t make EASY, natural sense to me why lo cuida is correct but la gusta is not. But oh, se lava fits in this equation and le lava does not. I’m learning. I’m studying. Most importantly, I’m speaking. Sometimes, it comes out of my mouth correctly and other times, I wonder if I just told someone that I wanted to wash something other than my own, personal hands which the good Lord gave me  … ohnoididn’t. ohyesidid.

Why not just phone it in? I mean, there isn’t a college entrance acceptance letter coming to me in the mail. No one is going to see my report card unless they decide to dig in the pile of paperwork for it. Social services in Colorado isn’t going to un-adopt my kids from me if I struggle or succeed in Spanish language learning. In all honesty, the grades I get really do not matter and, while they might shed light on my grammatical command of the language in a particular form of exercise, they really mean nothing when it comes to conversation, which, the last time I checked, happens face-to-face and on the phone … not on paper with 20 fill-in-the-blank, hypothetical sentences. It means nothing to my language helper that I’m acing my classes because I need to be able to talk with her on a heart level. When I asked the ladies from the precario (slum) with whom I had the privilege of hanging out last Monday, “¿Cómo se mete?” (referring to the Christmas craft we were putting together), they didn’t stand and applaud that I had used the reflexive verb correctly. They just answered my question and no fireworks were released in the exchange. WHAT?! And when I knew I had messed up one of those lowest common denominator words, they didn’t give me a quizzical look … they still understood me and watched me multiple-choice myself into the correct pronombre. So, given all these facts, why not just coast and stop working so hard to learn this beautiful language well?

I’ll be honest … I’m tempted to do exactly that.

BUT … I won’t.  Because God made it clear to us that speaking English and Spanish fluently will make us flexible for ministry in almost 40% of the countries of the world. Because we were commissioned to come here, learn Spanish language and Latin American culture. Because we’ve been tasked to see how we can help to train Latino missionaries in business skills, so when they are sent into restricted access countries, they might have the ability to enter and remain on a business visa. Business visa = sustainability = longevity = more souls impacted in Christ’s name, Lord-willing. Because there is value in the humbling that comes with not being the know-it-all, but being the life-long-learner, instead. And the “becauses” go on and on.

Above all, I have one major motivation for getting these lowest common denominator words correct in my mind, on my tongue. It’s not because the correct usage of le vs. lo vs. se means I’m a better Christian, or a better person, even. Newsflash: It’s not because getting an A on a test makes me a better missionary than getting any other grade! It’s because my life has been transformed by a grand truth, which, reduced into the greatest lowest common denominator of speech, translates into a phrase which has revolutionized history and has sealed the future for all who would believe: Jesús me ama.

Equally important: Jesús los ama a todos.

God bless the pronouns which trip me up. He knows exactly which pronoun I am. Which one you are. And He cares.

And God bless the personal a which is required to communicate such a profound & personal truth. We are the direct object recipients of His active love. My friends, that is all we need to know for today.

“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:3,4 (ESV)



    • admin

      Thank you, Stacey! This week, it was tough to persevere. I love the new things I’m learning, but my brain needs a break from thinking hard after a while. Much love to you, Jeff & Alexander!

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