I met a man last week who described himself as a Navajo Holy Man, or a Medicine Man. His name was Calvin. He explained that he had grown up without knowing anything about Christianity, or even speaking a language that the bible existed in. When he came to faith as a teenager, it was in the context of a camp meeting, where a tribal man shared the gospel message in their native tongue. This man explained to him that just as some of the disciples has been called from their roles fishing to become fishers of men, so they were called to serve God in their context, and with the gifts that they bring. He was to be a Holy Man, in both his cultural tradition, and in our faith.
As I sat next to him in meetings for a few days, I heard him describe concepts of the gospel, of preaching, of church, all utilizing imagery from his native tradition, from his training as a Holy Man, from his work as a horse-trainer, and even from his brief stint as a professional bull-rider.
It had me thinking a lot about translation, and how there are images of God, ways of knowing God, that I have never gotten the chance to hear before. This Holy Man is a perfect example of the gift that translation provides for those who hear it, but I had never before understood that when we translate for a new audience, it’s not just the hearers who are transformed, but all of us. When new people step into the kingdom of God, and add their images, their metaphors, their stories, all of us get a more complete glimpse of an infinite God.
Here is something Calvin told me that I want to share with you. This is a paraphrase, and I can’t verify all the details, but I’ll tell the story as he told it:
There are 18 nights of the year that the moon disappears. When the moon disappears the water turns over, and all the sediment churns up. During this time, the spirits protecting us hide. There is an ancient, sacred dance to call the spirits back to carry us through this longest night and point towards the moon’s return. There is a lead dancer with a sacred connection to the spirits, and he guides the steps. You have to follow the lead dancer as you dance along the journey back towards when the moon returns.
Christ is the lead dancer. Christ is God, but Christ is also human like us, and as we join the dance, and follow Christ’s steps, we journey through our long night, and call back the light, together.
I went for a hike that evening in the red rocks of St. George, Utah, the landscape that the Holy Man called home. And I couldn’t get the image of the dance out of my head. A dance with Christ. A dance to bring back the light. A dance to carry us through the longest night.
I had the chance to see God in a new way. What a gift.
When we reach new people, when we do the work of finding where God might be able to meet people who are looking for that relationship, we build not only their world, but ours, because every new translation – be it cultural, socioeconomic, by age, identity, or location in the world – adds new depths of color and wisdom to our understanding of an infinite God. Every new image only adds to all of our faith, and is such a gift to all of us who continue to pursue connection with God.
As we seek to invite new people into our communities, to welcome a broader diversity into our churches, may we be encouraged that the work of translating our Good News for new people can only change our faith for the better, because the more perspectives we include, the richer our image of God becomes. I’ll be thinking about the Holy Man, about the dance, and about all the new images of God that we are invited to discover as we invite people to journey alongside us as we welcome the light.