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Essay

Ghosts

By July 15, 2016 No Comments
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There we were, driving down a driveway made up of two deep ruts, moving deeper and deeper into the Arizona forest. At 7,500 feet, we drove along a ridge, weaving in and out of different pathways. Finally, we came to a clearing with a number of small buildings and children playing amongst a pack of dogs. From one of the buildings came an older Navajo man and his wife; they greet us with broken english and invite us into their home. We’re there to fix a window. Asked the day before if I knew how to fix a window I said, “Sure”, which was a lie. I know nothing about fixing windows, I just wanted to go along. The house is small, basically two rooms, with no running water or electricity. In the middle of the kitchen is a wood burning stove, which is cooking lunch. Matthew, my Navajo guide, and I make work of taking out the broken window, which I found out was purposely smashed by an upset relative, and we begin the long process of putting in a new pane of glass. That in itself is an interesting story—let’s just say McGuiver would have been proud. What made this experience so rich is what I saw as we put the window in. The breathtaking view of the valley and white cliffs off in the distance, and the kitch nailed to the walls, fascinated me. When we finished with the window he offered us some lunch—raw hot dogs and a diet Coke, poured into the good glasses mind you. He was grateful for our help and enjoyed telling us stories. I noticed a picture of a car in a picture frame and asked about it. He told me it was a 1969 Dodge Charger, his favorite type of car. He had six Chargers through his lifetime and wrecked them all. This particular one he wrecked in a head on collision on the highway that went in front of his driveway. Before I could ask more questions he went on to talk about the Samurai sword hanging on the other wall. He told me about a relative who fought in WWII; he had mailed this particular sword home before he returned. Then he pointed to the frame below it, it was an award of appreciation for his work as an ironworker. Next to it was hanging one of the old wrenches he used, mimicking the climb he used to make to the top of a piece of a machinery. He used to travel all around the southwest doing iron work, this old certificate revealing the pride and meaning it once provided. As we walked toward the truck he and my partner exchanged a few words in their Navajo language, laughing and slapping each other’s backs. Finally, he shook my hand, and thanked us for the help. With that, we drove down the driveway, out of Arizona, back to New Mexico.

That night I shared my experience with some high school kids. I talked about the beauty of difference—Jimmy’s way of life (Jimmy was his english name) was different from my own. His life experience as  Navajo, as an ironworker, as someone who lives on the high plateaus of Arizona, is different from my life. And yet, I felt like I knew him. At least, I know his type. I can remember seeing pictures of cars, guns, and long knives, displayed prominently in my grandpa’s garage. I remember stories about WWII and the Korean War, stories about working with their hands, creating things out of wood and driving big iron locomotives. I recognized his bark, telling the kids to get out from under foot, and the playfully frank—yet irritated— way he responded to his wife’s suggestions and insights. In some weird way I felt homesick, not for my actual home, but for the people who continue to haunt me.

Before we left for New Mexico I decided to dust off the CD collection. I put together a bunch of music for the 18 hour trip. Once we crossed into the desert of New Mexico I put on the Indigo Girls, who, if you’ve never listened to them, make much more sense in the desert southwest. Ever since my afternoon with Jimmy I haven’t been able to get the song “Ghost” out of my head.

Though it’s about two lovers, I can’t help but think about the ghosts that keep speaking to me through the people I encounter. This, I believe is what it means to love our neighbor—to be so opened up by the encounter with the other that God speaks. And when God speaks, we’re opened up to the memories of those we love—encountering not only the Holy Ghost, but also the ghosts of those who have shaped our lives.

 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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