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On Pilgrims and Indians

IMG_0254It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving and I am sitting at the piano in our little church on the reservation. We talked, last Sunday evening, about how the Navajo word for Thanksgiving was, for a long time, Little Christmas (Kishmish).  Our pastor says there was no understanding of the history of Thanksgiving and so it was seen as a precursor to Christmas, minus the presents.

He is a good and kind person and it shows in his view of life. He says he is grateful for boarding school because, even in the hardship, it was the place he first heard of God. He is grateful for his wife who followed Christ before him and helped to lead him to Christ and away from Native traditional religion. He is a gentle person and it is seen in how he treats those around him. I have read that after a few years, a church will take on much of the personality of the pastor and I see that here. There is a yearning to learn and a kindness which seems to flow from him and is seen exhibited in the church body as a whole.

We planned our feast last week. Jokingly, someone asked who would be a Pilgrim and I raised my hand, “I will!” We all had a good laugh over that and one of the ladies spoke of how the history of Thanksgiving is being erased because of political correctness. Yes, we live out here where many have only a generator and haul their water, and outhouses are not an unknown, but the reality of life helps one to see through much of the falseness of our present culture. 

On this special morning, our son and daughter-in-law sit by our side and shi nali, our grandson, sits on my husband’s lap. We sing in English and we sing in Navajo as the room continues to fill. My husband comes forward to play the guitar and I am blessed to sing with the pastor’s daughter – God Binahji’ Adaniit’e – Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. My heart fills with joy as our voices blend and we sing from our beautiful Navajo hymnal, Jesus Woodlaaji Sin. We have all been leaning on those arms and they are holding us now as we join in worship.

Our longtime friends have arrived from Window Rock. We have spent many Thanksgivings together. They look at our son and remember  aloud the day we laid him in his cradleboard, their gift to us at his birth. How did he grow so tall? They share his Navajo name with the others – Little Boy of White Clay Mountain – Ash Kii Glaesh Ni De Gai, the name given to him by one of  the men in our church there.  Of course he does not remember this, but he is the baby they cared for before he even knew them and they will always remember him brand new and wrapped tightly in his cradleboard.  It is a bittersweet moment as they are reminded of their own son in heaven awaiting them. Our hearts are closely joined, having experienced the joys and sorrows of life as we have traveled through the years.

The Pastor preaches and shares his thankfulness to God for many things – for His beautiful creation of each one of us, His plan for each life, His sacrificial death. He talks of how Christ loved us so. His life was not taken; it was given. He reads a Psalm of thankfulness and I look around and am filled to overflowing with thankfulness for this gathering. His words flow from English to Navajo and back again, making sure all understand. It is a beautiful scene, with the wood stove crackling cheerfully in a little church in a big desert.

We worship simply, there is no fanciness about us, but we are a family, united in the bonds of Christ. Time is given for testimony and several rise to thank God for their families, His provision, His work in lives.  We are thankful for the small things and the big things and we realize the importance of both.

After the service we gather next door to eat and fellowship. We have all been generous in our contributions of food.  There is everything — turkey, mashed potatoes, freshly made tortillas, homemade yeast rolls, olives, sweet potatoes, steamed corn and mutton. We visit and eat and enjoy one another just as the attendees at that first Thanksgiving. It began in 1621, when Pilgrims and Indians joined to Give Thanks.  398 years later we remain, Pilgrims and Indians, grateful for God’s provision and each other.

Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, that went down to the skirts of his garments; as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore. – Diyin God Bizaad – Psalm 133 

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Walk in Beauty

IMG_1859My husband and I often talk of the lives we’ve lived. Yes, I meant lives, plural, for we have journeyed much and been allowed the experience of learning different people and places. There is a distinct culture to every place. Each person has a tribe, not just those we think of as tribal peoples. We are all tribal to a certain extent, for we know our ways and our family’s ways and we find comfort in the familiar.  We know this, my husband and I, and we have talked of the differences and similarities of cultures. We have learned that people are different and people are the same. Some behaviors are everywhere and some behaviors are particular to certain places.  It is the nature of humanity.

Years ago, we began our foray into other cultures on the grand Navajo reservation. Our hearts were captured by this gentle and beautiful people. We delighted to see the sheep herder and to sit in a hogan drinking coffee while shi’ma spun her wool, spindle on her leg rolling back and forth, or shuttle sliding quickly on the loom.

It was years ago, full of child, that our good friend set up a loom for me and I sat cross-legged on the porch overlooking the Rio Puerco wash, weaving. My rug was rough, boring by Navajo standards, no Grey Mountain design for me,  simple stripes running across it, not evenly woven as the master weavers in their simple homes. I was the student and I learned to respect their art.

When our baby was born, the neighbor women arrived at our door, cradleboard in hand, and he was soon swaddled and safe in the leather thongs, wound firmly to keep him comforted. It was their tradition and we knew this was good.

That was a long time ago, and we wondered, when we moved near the reservation again, if things had changed, if the old ways still held true, if the culture we loved had vanished, if cell phones and technology had claimed another tribe as it has claimed ours. And so, we found ourselves, on a Sunday morning, headed out to the reservation just a few miles away, to join our people in worship. The road wound out into the desert and I gazed at the wide open country.

Was it? It was. It was true. A beautiful sight met my eyes – a man herding his sheep and goats – and though others will not understand, to our eyes, it was a beautiful sight. It was our first gift of the day and we did not know that God had a plan and our cup would overflow with His goodness to us.

For fifteen miles we drove, until we came to a small town and found a simple church. Climbing out of our car, we looked at each other. It had been many years, but we wanted the simpleness of this place. We have been in many churches and heard many speakers. We have listened to men with many letters after their name. And along the way, we have wondered if somehow, there has been a puffing up with knowledge and a loss of wisdom.

Quietly, we stepped into the sparse room and found a spot to sit on the side. The pastor, an elderly Navajo gentleman, was just finishing his Sunday School lesson and the sound of the beautiful Navajo language fell soothingly on our ears. Smiles came our way and a woman showed us where the teacher was in the book of Romans. Another came and whispered that there was water, lemonade, coffee, and cookies in the back on the table. Help ourselves as we wished. A man came and asked my husband who we were and he replied we lived on a nearby ranch.

Soon it was time to sing and a beautiful elderly lady stepped forward to lead the singing.

“We’re going to sing in Navajo.” she told us. “You can join us.”

We were given a Navajo songbook. Our hearts lifted with the goodness of God. It had been years since we sang in Navajo, back in that little mission church so like this one. I found myself gulping back tears as we lifted our voices to sing.

Of course, our fellow worshipers noticed our singing and when it was time for testimonies, they called us forward.

“Come! Share a testimony with us!” and we stepped to the front and briefly shared our history – that we were so happy to be with them and we delighted to sing with them and that it felt like we had come home. They rejoiced with us and the pastor claimed us as one of their own.

Then he preached – going from Navajo to English and back for our benefit. The simple words of a man who trusts, who gets up every morning and simply trusts. These people do not have the luxury of going off to some school of higher education and it sometimes seems as if they, knowing they must rely on God for everything, humbly begging for His wisdom, are less full of themselves and more full of Him. I work in a world of educators, but I am not foolish enough to think these gentle, beautiful people cannot teach me many things.

As the service closed, one of the ladies motioned to me, asking if I could play the long unused piano. I stepped forward and as I stepped to the piano, the years fell away and I was back on that reservation of old, back with God’s blessed people, worshiping in spirit and in truth.  As two women prepared the frybread for the following potluck, my husband’s voice rang with joy as he joined the small group of believers in the last song.

The Navajo are known for hozho naasha – the belief that it is important to Walk in Beauty. There is much to this, including traditional worship. However, there is a respect for God’s creation and for His goodness that I believe is easily understood and exhibited by these gentle people because of this and is brought to fullness in their understanding of God. Their very view and expectation of life directs them to look for truth, for goodness, and for beauty….and that is found in Christ.

Last Sunday, we went to church and walked in beauty in a special place with special people.

 

The Story Of The Blanket

It was hot, very hot, in the northern Arizona desert. The traveler wandered slowly along, serape draped over his shoulders, bare feet blistered and burning. The intense heat of the IMG_1168(2)sun had surprised him. He never expected the Navajo reservation, located so far north in the state, to be as inhospitable in its temperatures. The Navajo had taken pity on him and offered him butter for his burnt feet and a blanket to throw over his reddened shoulders.  Foolishly, he had slathered the butter on and now paid the price as the heat of the burn drove inward.  

His stomach ached with hunger and he looked for a place to find some food. There wasn’t much in this remote area, but he’d been told by the natives he met, that the missionaries at the house up ahead might help him.  Shading his eyes with his hand, he gazed toward the mission house. It stood tall, its red porch standing out among the white rocks of the mountain behind it. He readjusted his blanket, a gift given by strangers to a stranger.  His heart overflowed with gratefulness as he thought of the goodness he had encountered in this lonely place.

Heading toward the house, he stumbled up the steps of the red porch and threw himself on one of the empty benches by the porch railing, his buttered feet leaving oily footprints. The door opened and a tall man stepped out. His face showing his surprise at the source of the sound on the porch.

“Do you need help?”

Was there more goodness in this place? His heart leapt. If only he could get to the nearest city where he might find a rescue mission, get some food, some sleep, some  hope to begin again.

“I need help, yes. I need to get to Flagstaff.” He might as well put it out there and ask; he had no choice.

“I can do that. I can take you to where you can catch a bus and I’ll buy you a ticket to Flagstaff. Sit right there, I’ll be back in a minute.”

The traveler leaned back against the porch and rested.

“Would you like a drink and something to eat?”

Opening his eyes with surprise, the traveler looked up into the face of a woman. It must be the man’s wife. He found a cold drink placed in his hand and looked down as a thick sandwich was handed to him.  What was this? Another kindness? He drank the drink thirstily and quickly gulped down the sandwich.

The tall man was his hero now as he eagerly scrambled into the waiting truck. Together, they headed down the highway and the traveler soon found himself settled comfortably on the Greyhound bus headed for Flagstaff. He reached to pull his blanket around his shoulders. Wait! Where was it? Where could he have left it? His gift from the reservation was gone! Ah! The porch. In his excitement, he must have left it on the porch. Well, alright.  The tall man could have it. Maybe he could use it. It felt good to be the giver for once. Bless that blanket. It had been a long time since he’d given a gift.

As her husband headed off in the truck with their latest visitor, the woman sighed. Living just off I-40 with only a few curio shops and truck stops nearby, she was used to having travelers stop in. There weren’t many places to go for help when stranded in this part of the country.  She’d fed other weary travelers, people finding their way. Picking up the plate and glass left on the porch, she noted the footprints left by their recent visitor. That was odd. It looked as if he must have had some sort of oil on his feet. Well, she’d seen all sorts here.  Something flapped in the wind, and she noticed a striped Mexican blanket laying on the porch seat. She picked it up. After a good washing, it would be pretty handy and the colors were pretty too. 

Over the next few years, the family — the man and woman had six children in the span of time — moved from the Navajo reservation in the northeast corner of the state to the northwestern side of the state, living now in a little town, still far from cities and the rush of life. The blanket moved with them. Sometimes it wrapped toddlers and kept them warm while swinging on the new porch’s swing. Sometimes it laid decoratively on the back of the couch, reminding all who came that they were in the great Southwest. The blanket traveled with them wherever they went, stored in a cupboard or used on a daily basis. Few knew its story, a story of giving from one person to the next, but the tall man and the woman remembered.

When one of the last daughters married, the woman gave her the blanket to take to her new home. Blankets are always needed and indeed this one had weathered the storms of life very well, and still looked almost new. The daughter took the blanket to her new home and settled in.  It was put away for just a little while as the couple prepared for a baby. Along the way, the daughter was given a gift of a rocker. Purchased at a thrift store, it lacked pillows. Someday, she decided, I’ll make pillows for that rocker.

And then one day the daughter had an idea. She opened her wooden chest and took out the blanket.

“Perfect!” she said to herself, and smiled quietly. This was her project for the day. Without hesitation, she cut and sewed and hummed as she worked. When her project was finished, joy filled her heart as she looked at her handiwork. Yes, yes it was just as it should be. That old blanket looked as good as new. The rocker was ready and she picked up her little boy and sat him in it. He looked just right. Now to tell her mother of her accomplishment…..

“Mom, you know that blanket you gave me? Let me send you a picture of it now.”

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“Do you know the story of the blanket?” said the woman. “Let me tell you….”

And so, the blanket continues its work, begun on a remote reservation by generous people who did not know the journey the blanket would take, protecting a weary soul, making homes more welcoming, holding sleeping babies, and providing comfort for a new mother. Hope revived is precious, a kindness is never too small and goodness is never out of fashion.