I just recently got back from vacation. My husband and I went on a road trip, discovering sites along Highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierras, then crossing Death Valley National Park (we skipped over Vegas) and then visited the trifecta of National Parks in Utah: Zion, Bryce and Arches. But beyond that, we also saw Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks, which also happen to be in Utah, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and several state parks.
The weather was pretty bad for the most part, but we enjoyed our travels nevertheless. What amazing beauty, we were just blown away! What a great trip!
Now if you travel the U.S. American Southwest, you will also encounter Native American culture and art. Many tribal lands today are found in the American Southwest, and among the more prominent nations are the Navajo, Apaches, Shoshones and Paiutes in that region. The biggest of these nations is the Navajo Nation, whose territory spans parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
I’m going to talk about the cultures of these nations, and here is a disclaimer: I’m not an expert! I may be generalizing, but if what I heard and learned is correct, the Native American nations of the Southwest (and beyond) share certain beliefs; for example, there is the belief that everything created, from living beings like humans, animals and plants to water, rocks and wind, has a spirit, a special essence, a soul – something that is given by the creator god to everything, something that makes the created special and worthy of respect and care.
I read somewhere that it is the creator’s spirit that gives everything and everybody personality – I like this image a lot. Nothing remains just a thing that could be mindlessly used and maybe even abused – there is a bit of the creator in everyone and everything, and makes everyone and everything holy, sacred. And this spirit that we share with all of creation is a kindred spirit – everything is related, everything is connected.
Of course the idea of a spirit that gives a soul to living beings – and sometimes non-living entities as well – is not exclusively a Native American belief. No, pretty much every faith on this planet knows of this special essence, this special gift from a creator force. We have this idea in our own faith tradition. Right in the bginning of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, God’s Spirit, the ‘ruah’, which also can be translated as ‘breath’ or ‘wind’, is already there in the very beginning, a powerful lifeforce that is over the waters and creates life out of chaos. The same ruah makes Adam human – it is the breath, the Spirit of God that transforms this lifeless pile of mud into a living being.
So many faith traditions agree on the following: Spirit is life.
But back to the Native American spirituality. My husband and I mainly drove through Navajo territory, and most of the art we encountered was Navajo. In one gift shop that sold authentic Native American art, we got more than we bargained for when we showed interest in some of the pieces they had for sale. The owner of that particular gift shop, though not a Native American himself, was a scholar of Native American art, and so our looking at different things animated him to give us an extensive passionate lecture – about this technique and how that is made, and how you can distinguish authentic art from knock-offs, and which families of artisans have what kind of signature patterns and symbols.
I have to admit, after a day of hiking the Grand Canyon, I was tired, and my mind started wandering at some point. But my ears perked up when he mentioned ‘spirit’. That’s in my wheelhouse!
At this point, I would like to invite you to look at the picture above. What do you see? Can you tell that it’s a basket? To be exact, it’s a Navajo basket. Is there anything that maybe seems unusual about the pattern? It’s perfectly symmetrical, except there is this strip that seems to be left intentionally blank. It kinda throws off the symmetry of the piece, doesn’t it?
Does anyone happen to know what this blank space is? There is a lot of symbolism in it, but one of the special meanings of this space is that it’s a pathway for the spirit. It’s called a ‘spirit line’. You can also find this in Navajo woven art.
So what does this spirit line mean? Well, the Navajo artist is very much aware that he or she is a spiritual being, endowed with the spirit of life by the creator. They also acknowledge that they have been given a special gift for their arts, that this is something that they can’t take for granted or achieve for themselves. The spirit line symbolizes the imperfection of human endeavors – but also the openness of the artist to the creative spirit.
The Navajo believe that true creativity only exists if we leave that channel for the divine to enter in. If this channel is closed off, we become self-centered, self-indulgent and stagnant – we become trapped in past accomplishments, trapped in our idea of how things are supposed to be, trapped in our past. We lose the curiosity to learn and experience new things, we can’t imagine the future because we lose the openness to what the creative power of the spirit has to offer.
Spirit is life. Spirit is new life.
The Pentecost story from the Book of Acts we heard this morning makes this very clear. It’s 52 days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 50 days after the resurrection, and 10 days after the ascension. What a time it has been for Jesus’ followers, his disciples. It’s a time of trauma, of change, of confusion – but also a time of joy and hope. Nothing can ever be the same for them, nothing will ever be the same for them. They can’t go back to their old lives. Following Jesus and encountering the risen Christ has made that very clear to them. But what’s next?
Even before Jesus was arrested and crucified, he knew that it would be hard for his disciples to grapple with the new reality of him not being around anymore – at least not in a physical sense. We heard in today’s gospel from John how Jesus promises his followers a special divine presence after his departure from this earth: God’s Spirit, who will guide and aide them, who will advocate for them, who will encourage and push them – and at the same time give them peace.
And as the disciples are gathered and, as it seems, still in hiding on that 50th Day after the resurrection, not sure about what’s next -as many Jews from all over the known world are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavu’ot, a harvest festival during which the giving of the Torah, God’s law for the chosen people, is commemorated – as the Romans have additional forces stationed in Jerusalem as a precaution against any Jewish nationalistic sentiments and insurrections – as there is a celebration of tradition and the hope for a different, a better future, and consequently some tension – the time has come. God’s Spirit comes down and into the disciples, like a mighty wind, like a fresh breath of air, like fire. The Spirit drives them out of hiding, into the streets where thousands of international revelers are gathered, the Spirit gives them courage and loosens their tongues, and they start proclaiming the good news of God’s love and grace and life for all to all. The band of simple folks from the backwater of Galilee is turned into a force that eventually change the world.
Now most people rightly think that this was the great miracle of Pentecost: that the disciples somehow knew how to speak to all, that they knew how to speak in all those different tongues and reached many people with their message. For me, there is a miracle even greater than that – I think the fact that the disciples were open to the Spirit, that they didn’t wallow in self-pity and a longing for the good old past, that they allowed God’s Spirit to enter them, that they kept their Spirit lines and the channel for divine presence open – that’s quite astonishing. It’s astonishing that they allowed God to push them in ways they never would have and could have imagined themselves. It’s amazing that they accepted the chutzpa God gave them and overcame their fears – their fear of the Romans and their brutal force, their fear of the unknown future – their fear of stepping out and stepping up.
And today we remember and celebrate that God’s Spirit is a gift offered to all of us, a gift that pushes us, challenges us, encourages us, guides us in new ways, comforts us and gives us peace. It is a gift that keeps us from being stagnant and stuck in the past. It is a gift that keeps us from taking ourselves and our ideas and notions too seriously. It is a gift that opens the future for all of creation. God’s Spirit is life. God’s Spirit is new life.
And as we celebrate Pentecost today, I encourage you to not just think about the Pentecost story as something that happened a long time ago in Jerusalem, but as a story that continues up to this day – and beyond. I encourage you to keep that spirit line within yourself open – I encourage you to become a basket case in a sense, the Navajo sense – and to give God the opportunity to enter in, full of love, grace, and peace.
And may our prayer always be: come, Holy Spirit, come. For Spirit is life. Spirit is new life.