I swore in front of my students while leading a mission trip.
It was the S word.
And it was quite embarrassing.
But it may have been even more embarrassing when I answered my phone in a thick British accent only to realize that it was not a kid in the other van calling, but rather the guardian of one of the students on the trip.
Let me explain. On Friday we made the 10 hour trek home from the Indian Reservation in Zuni, New Mexico, one of my favorite places on earth. A few hours into the drive, the van right in front of us lost a hubcap that came hurtling straight for us. I swerved and “sugar-honey-ice-tea” slipped out.
Then while the kids slept most of the 10 hour drive, for the last 2 hours they all spoke is surprisingly accurate British accents. It’s hard to speak American when everyone around you sounds so posh, so naturally I joined in and naturally that’s when the guardian called. Bugger.
Besides learning to watch for hubcaps and be normal when answering unknown numbers on my phone, I learned several other lessons in Zuni. This was my fourth year going and each year God teaches me new things and reveals Himself in new ways. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I love it here so much.
Here is part 1 of the things I learned this time around:
1. Cow tipping isn’t real.
Did you know this? I didn’t. My mind was blown. Seriously blown. Like it’s been 4 days and I am still shocked. I mean, something I believed all my life to be true is actually just a joke among the farming community? How did I not know this for so long?!
Apparently, cows don’t sleep standing up. And if you try to push them when they’re awake, they’ll just move and look at you like you’re an idiot. I sure felt like an idiot when Alex, a chipper young chap who works at the Zuni school, convinced me of this hard-to-believe truth.
2. One should steer clear of men dressed like eagles.
Each year we attend the Zuni religious dances where the men dress as the kachinas, which are their gods, asking for rain or good health or other blessings. Each year I am struck by how this bizarre nature of worship is so similar to what is found in our own culture.
Before nightfall another leader and I scoped out the area where the dances would be and we noticed small fires being tended in front of most of the homes. When we asked about this, the women explained that they were feeding their ancestors. Apparently, they had been setting aside a sacrifice of their dinners from the past months and that food was burned on this night to welcome home and feed their ancestors.
This night was a special night since the ancestors would return to watch the young boys be initiated into the religious society with a whipping done with the yucca plant. The dances happened in homes rather than the plaza, so the dancers waiting to enter the homes stood awkwardly close to those watching the dances, ie- people like us. The dances are solemn affairs and it was not okay for us non-Zunis to be in such close proximity to the men that Zunis believe become the gods when dressed as the kachinas. Thus, some of the men dressed as eagles spread their arms as if they were flying and cleared us out of the way so we wouldn’t be too close to the other dancers.
Sounds bizarre, right?
But I’ve been learning this year that no matter what one worships, it always looks a little weird. Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Tom Cruise, atheist, or agnostic, as humans we all naturally worship something or someone. We find meaning and value in something and devote our lives to it. And whether we are worshipping God, or gods, or cars, or money, or sports teams, or celebrities, or our bodies, or clothes, or food, or our ancestors, or our living family, or ourselves, worship always looks strange to an outsider.
So yes, the Zuni rituals seem rather bizarre. But so does this:
So who am I to judge?
3. Worship isn’t about the dances we dance or the songs we sing. It’s about the lives we live.
We can identify what someone worships based on how they live, or in some cases, based on what they paint on their body. Our devotion is seen by what we think about and talk about most. Where we spend our time, money, and efforts all reveal our objects of worship. Because as Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”
The Zuni people treasure their ancestors and their gods and their traditions. They burn fires and wear strange costumes while performing odd dances. But they are simply doing what we all do; they’re worshipping.
There are often times when I am worshipping our God and see myself as an outsider would. I watch myself take communion or hold hands in a circle while singing the doxology and I think, “This is so bizarre. We look like a bunch of nuts!”
But all worship looks a little nutty.
Whether burning fires to feed spirits, eating the body and the blood, shopping at the mall, cheering for a sports team, drooling over a celebrity crush, or obsessing over appearance or relationships, worship always looks odd.
This week I relearned the importance of recognizing what I am worshipping with my life. Because if I’m not intentional about making my day about Jesus and His kingdom, 15 other things are vying for my attention and my worship. Usually it’s myself. But if I start each day acknowledging that my life belongs to Him and my day should be lived for Him, it’s easier to give proper worship to my Creator.
And when I forget, when I ignore God and focus on the things other than Him that I’m tempted to worship, well, then I’m like that fool trying to tip a cow, wasting my time believing a lie.