Image: Great Bear Lake
In the region of the diocese called the Sahtu, just south of the Arctic circle, is the peaceful village of Deline on the shore of Great Bear Lake. Each summer the people of Deline come together for a spiritual gathering, a time of prayer, reflection, and renewal. For the past couple of summers, the focus has been on sharing the traditional knowledge of the prophets of their community, 4 elders who helped shape the spiritual fabric of their people through their moral and religious teachings.
Though the prophets are all deceased their families continue on and their descendants shared with the community their understanding of the teaching of the patriarchs and were even to able translate some of their lessons into English so that the younger generation and outsiders, like myself, would be able to understand as well.
The teachings were about Dene Law, the natural law of the people which helped them live in harmony with the land and with each other. The wise men also shared prophecies about the future, events in the world that would challenge and shape the community and how the people ought to prepare themselves for a future which was bringing great changes to their way of life. The prophets also spoke at great length about God. As I read the lessons that were presented, I thought I was reading scripture directly from the bible. I asked if they had learned this from the missionaries and was told that all of this was oral tradition in the community long before the Christian missionaries ever arrived.
I tell this story because I think I can understand how Priscilla and Aquila, the two missionaries who had been trained by Paul, felt when the itinerant preacher by the name of Apollos arrived in Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila had received the “Good News” from Paul and were eager to share it with the people living in Ephesus, but in Apollos, they realized that God’s word was already present and active among the people.
How Priscilla and Aquila responded to Apollos is important to us as we carry on the work of sharing the Gospel. They could have found themselves in competition with him and attempted to undermine his authority, claiming for themselves the sole ownership of God’s revelation to the world, but they chose a different route. They befriended Apollos, they shared with him and learned from him his understanding of the scriptures, they compared their notes and helped him and instructed him with ideas they had learned from Paul. Then they encouraged him to continue the work he was doing. There was no competition, no jealousy or dispute over territory. They recognized, in each other, fellow workers in the vineyard.
When Canada’s northern regions were opened to missionary activity there was a race to see which Christian denomination could claim the most territory for itself and convert the most people to their particular understanding of God. I am happy to say that this rivalry, which divided communities and families, is more or less at an end with the understanding that cooperation and mutual understanding is a far better method of modeling the Church which Christ founded.
More important is the understanding that the Christian missionaries did not “bring God” to the people of the north. The spirituality of the people here was being formed long before they arrived. Today’s missionaries have as much to learn as we do to share. Though our language might not be exactly the same, it is the same Spirit at work in us all.