In preparation for next Sunday's sermon, I was drawn to my file cabinet. No, I wasn't looking for a past sermon to recycle; instead, I wanted to find a report I wrote in seminary. Of all the papers I wrote in seminary, I've only kept two of them: a 30-page "Credo," and the one I was looking for, a report on Navajo spirituality that I did as part of an independent study course.
My idea for this independent study course arose when I found myself taking part on a two-week trip to Dzilth-na-o-dith-hle, a small Navajo town centered around a boarding school and a health center in northwest New Mexico. I was an adult counselor on this trip, which included 53 youth and adults from various Disciples congregations in Indiana.
We drove for two days, spending a night in Okalahoma City on the way, and arrived at Dzilth-na-o-dith-hle late on a Tuesday evening. We were greeted and welcomed by Johnny Henderson, who ran the dorm at the school and who served as our host for our stay. His first words to us were, "the Navajo don't have a religion. We have a way of life."
Prior to the trip, I had done quite a bit of research in preparation for both the trip and my course. What Johnny told us confirmed what I had read. I had read that it is difficult to find Native American words for "religion." I had read that the Navajo would not recognize the dichotomy that exists in our culture between what is spiritual and what is material. And, I had read that "the Navajo Way" means the totality of life, both spiritual and material. There is no separating the two.
However, despite my preparation and despite Johnny's comment to us, I became frustrated in the days that followed. I knew that when I got back to Indiana, that report would be waiting for me; but so far, I was finding it hard to learn about and experience Navajo religion.
Then, about halfway through our stay, it dawned on me: everything that I had experienced so far on the trip was related to Navajo spirituality. I had not recognized it as such, because I was searching for a separate component of Navajo culture that would fit the concept of religion with which I was familiar. This, despite my research, and despite Johnny Henderson's comments that first night, all of which should have prepared me for this realization. I was, in fact, surrounded by--and immersed in--Navajo spirituality, and I didn't even realize it.
What I had been looking for was a system of belief, because that's how my religion, Christianity, had been defined to me. I had been told that Christians are people who believe certain things. Believe this, believe that,... and you're a Christian.
Navajo religion, on the other hand, is not a system of belief. It is, as Johnny said, a way of life. It cannot be separated from other aspects of life, because it encompasses everything.
There is a deep spiritual hunger among people today; but what most people are looking for is not a system of belief. They're looking for a way of life, one that gives life meaning and purpose; a way of life that connects them to the universe and to the creator.
This Sunday, I am introducing a sermon series that will last through Easter. Each Sunday, I will present one of the ancient practices (aka "disciplines") that have helped Christianity be a way of life for people throughout the centuries. The series is inspired in part by my own experiences, and in part by resources like the current "Ancient Practices" series of books edited by Phyllis Tickle. I'm looking forward to it.