spirituality

Four Vision Quests of Jesus

Written by Steven Charleston, citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and ordained at Wakpala, South Dakota on Standing Rock Reservation. He has served as national director for Native American ministries in the Episcopal Church, tenured professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, Bishop of Alaska, and President and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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A friend recommended this book to me. I’m only half-way through yet this book has unmoored my faith and at the same time rooted me more firmly in God as made known through the life of Jesus.

A Native American Spirituality

I am struck by the care with which Charleston writes. He shares of his own experiences as a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, raised as a Christian. His tribe, friendly with the Spanish, French, and English people, and allies fighting alongside American soldiers during the War of 1812, had invited Presbyterian ministers to their nation because they wanted to learn more about European religious practices. Because Christian theology “resonated with our own religious traditions, we quickly adopted Protestantism.”

But then in the 1830s, the Choctaw people were among many Native American nations, betrayed by the American government, were forced to take the Trail of Tears.

Charleston also deconstructs the non-Native understanding of quest and teaches the components of a classic Native American vision quest: preparation, community, challenge, lament.

Not a long book (162 pages), the first chapters give us context and setting, share Native American telling of history, and deconstruct terms understood a particular way within the Native American communities.

I believe Jesus both corrects and confirms the original covenants God made with God’s people. Israel and Native America are not alone in having a sacred memory of the encounter with God. There are many “old testaments.”

Having just finished the chapter on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, I’m now at the point to read about the four vision quests of Jesus.

If you have a desire to strengthen your spirituality or better understand a Native American approach to Christianity, I highly recommend this book.



on death

Does the title sound depressing? 

Its inspiration came from some wonderful mind-meanders as I read Quinn Caldwell's daily devotional from the United Church of Christ website.

United Church of Christ logo

United Church of Christ logo

At the beginning of each daily devotional is a Scripture reading.

the prophets: Ezekiel vs Jonah

Caldwell's use of Ezekiel 33:14-15 reminded me of Ezekiel's hospitality towards people who repent, in direct contrast to Jonah's pinching at people who actually did repent. 

Now I'm not putting this up as one is better than the other. We need the diversity of the prophets.

  • Ezekiel speaks to Jewish people who are in need of encouragement and sustenance. They are living in exile and having a difficult time. The inclusion of Ezekiel shows us that even during difficult times, even when we live in exile in a foreign land or find ourselves in a foreign place, God is there with us. Always.  
  • Jonah speaks to the Israelite's northern neighbors, the Ninevites. He doesn't want to share God's mercy with them. The inclusion of Jonah in the canon of the Bible shows us that God does not belong to any of us. We are all children of God, who come to God by way of many paths. 

death itself

Have you ever had thoughts that you just didn't share with other people because you wondered if you were being a bit too radical for people to understand? 

Death is actually absolutely necessary in our world. Without it, there is no way for nutrients, for minerals, for energy to cycle through the system.
Quinn G. Caldwell

Isn't that quote an amazing thought? Or perhaps you do find it depressing. Caldwell has a lot more in-depth to say about this subject, how we think that death entered the world through sin, when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

That recycling or cycling through death, that's what also makes us children of the dust of long dead stars! Caldwell also wrote that we do not own our bodies but are merely borrowing the bodies we live in. 

The Cross and The Empty Tomb

I've often wondered too, why the symbol of Christianity is a cross. It's a symbol of torture. Too often it was used as a disguise for a sword or a knife. Why the cross, which focuses us upon death? Why not the empty tomb? 

What does the empty tomb symbolize? Just a few thoughts...

  • New life that springs from violence, from death. 
  • God, through Jesus, reigns over death
  • Easter
  • God's love and laughter overcomes the bonds of human sin, human weakness, human pride

Could we wear this symbol as a necklace? The letter "t" symbolizes the cross. The letter "O" could symbolize the empty tomb. An upside-down "U" could also.   

What do you think? 

Rituals and Formulas

Today’s post was inspired by KM Wieland’s blog post: Four Ways to Prevent Formulaic Story Structure.  

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As I read through Wieland’s article, it reminded me of conversations I've had about worship rituals and some of the codifications and objections that a community of faith will have about their specific rituals. She asks a couple of frequently asked questions, including,

Indeed, won’t story structure inhibit your creativity by forcing you to conform to a preconceived format?
— KM Wieland

A similar question can be asked about ritual, “won’t the same ritual, performed each week, inhibit our ability to connect with God because we are asking God to meet us on (or conform to) our terms?

Rituals, within the context of a community of faith gathering, have a structure, some set pieces within a certain order. Speaking as a United Church of Christ pastor, our rituals go roughly along the lines of:

  • Lighting of candles/Gathering song/Welcoming Guests/Announcements
  • Call to Worship
  • Opening Song
  • Prayer of Invocation or Confession or People's Concerns and Joys
  • Passing of Peace and/or Children's Time
  • Theme Song that relates to Scripture passage or sermon 
  • Reading Scripture passage from the Bible
  • Sermon/Reflection/Meditation
  • Prayers-Pastoral/Concerns and Joys/Silence/Lord's Prayer
  • Collecting the offering of money and Prayer of Dedication
  • Closing Song
  • Being sent out with a blessing or a commission

Other denominations within the Christian tradition will have their own specific rituals. And Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists all have their ways of gathering in community to honor the Higher Being, the Holy One.

Ritual or story structure does not have be rigid, following a particular path. Instead, ritual and story structure provide a framework, that allows connection with the Divine or a flow of creativity.

The trick is that we need to have the formula or ritual so deeply ingrained within us that it lays underneath our writing or our worship. As Wieland writes,

Rather, with the strong basis of that structure underneath you, you have the security to try as many new and interesting things as your imagination can dream up.
— KM Wieland

Take the Lord’s Prayer. It is something that is said during every worship service within many Christian church worship service, as noted above. After a while we say it by rote, by memory. When I taught confirmation to youth, some of the youth complained about the boredom of saying the Lord’s Prayer. And it is! Memorizing and stating something each Sunday, without thinking about it is tedious.

But if we take time to study the words, something happens. I remember reading a commentary about the Lord’s Prayer several years ago, that remains with me to this day. That author wrote that if we had any consciousness at all about what we are praying for, we would not enter the church unless we wore hardhats, ready for a rollercoaster ride. Because we are asking for God’s kingdom/realm/community to come on earth…as it is in heaven.

For Christians who believe that God created all things for good, we have strayed a long ways from our Biblical role as stewards of the earth itself and all the sentient creatures who inhabit this planet.

Whether we are writing or worshiping, we have a process to create great stories or an inspiring community of faith. It’s a process that involves:

  • becoming aware of and desiring involvement or participation in the craft of writing or in a worship ritual
  • learning the foundation of story structure or of faith rituals and why the foundation is used
  • intellectual memorization, repetition, boredom
  • more learning
  • an internalization of the foundation of structure or ritual that, in crafting story, allows us to be truly creative and original and, in our faith life, allows an opening in our hearts for the Holy to find us in the most unexpected of places.

A quiet stillness

It’s October. A time for wood-burning candles that pop and snap, for steaming cappuccinos (decaffeinated please), and entering the threshold into the dark time of the year.

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The streets are littered with yellow and orange leaves. There’s outdoor work to be done but most of it will wait until next year—painting the other two sides of the shed, painting the deck floor, digging up the patch of dirt to plant tomatoes.

And for the writers among us, we are 15-days away from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

I’ve not yet participated in NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in a month that holds a couple of birthdays, the Thanksgiving celebration, and a fun but frenetic day of Christmas candy making is too intimidating. And I’m still working on my first novel.

However, I am there in spirit. There’s something about the barrenness of November that lends itself to the pursuit of a creative endeavor. Even with the revising of a story. There’s something about going ever deeper into the lives of our characters, of polishing the plot, of shining the light brighter on a certain scene That’s enthralling.

A couple of years ago, I took a week of vacation to go to a retreat home. An acquaintance who owns a second home in a small village, situated mid-hillside, overlooking the Mississippi River. I stayed there three nights. And I couldn’t get online with my computer although I could read my writing blogs via my phone. I’ve refused to access my various emails and facebook pages through my phone). And there was no television. Only the big window which overlooked the river to watch the eagles and the barges.

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That disconnect? That silence? Broken only by a wood-burning candle or Advent songs I had brought along? A balm to my soul. 

Although these short days are hard, especially when they are grey and cloudy, they are blessed days. A time for mystery. A time for the dark soils of our souls to be fallow, to lie still, and gather energy for the spring that always follows.  

Story-shaped lives

If you've checked out my About Me page, you will know that I am a pastor in addition to being a wanna-be author of fiction.

About a month ago, one of the blogs I read recommended this book, Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Wonderful book. Thought-provoking. Written by a woman who describes herself as a None, a person who does not belong to any particular faith community although she was raised in the Christian tradition.

A person can be spiritual without belonging to a religious community. But (remember, I'm a pastor and therefore biased) how does spirituality develop, mature, and become action if not through the relationships nurtured within a faith community--whether it be church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. How can the stories or tenets of our faith be fully understood if our interpretation is not challenged or confirmed.

Faith can be shallow if we only have yes people around us. Faith can be destructive if a narrow parameter of what is God is fenced around us. 

I have not finished reading this book yet but my attention was particularly engaged through her chapter titled, Moral Authority.  

My muddied thoughts or take-away from that chapter:  

If we believe stories from ancient texts no longer have meaning for us today, what will pull at or draw a commitment from individuals or groups to be concerned for the other, to give of their time or money, to seek justice and love kindness. If we do not care to become steeped within a common story or narrative, are at danger of becoming narcissistic people? 

We are a story people, whether the stories are autobiographical or historical or fictional. Stories shape us and form us, whether written as poetry or prose. What stories do you reread? Those stories, and their underlying themes and subtexts, shape you. 

As a teen, I listened to John Denver songs over and over, and over and over and I'm sure my parents wished they had never introduced me to him!  But through his songs (and our family camping and canoeing trips), I developed a deep abiding affection for earth. I try to live a life that is sustainable, green, simple, minimalist, a lifestyle which focuses my money and my time on relationships with people rather than necessitating overtime hours in order to pay or care for things that I've purchased. 

Growing up, I heard many Bible stories and, especially the stories about Jesus, many were repeated. After being social worker for several years, I went to seminary and studied those same Bible stories. For 20 years I have preached from the Bible. Those stories tell us so much about the people of that time--what was important to them, how they perceived God, how their faith shaped their tribe, and how their understanding of God changed through the generations. 

At any rate, I encourage you to check out this book if you're at all interested in spirituality and how religion affects the broader fabric of our nation. 

Diversity and Post Election thoughts

I am struggling to understand. I listen to voices who voted for Donald Trump. I listen to voices who voted for Hillary Clinton. 

We are a divided people.

We live in bubbles, insulated within clans that reflect our own thoughts, feelings, perspectives.

Unless a person is part of a minority group.

Because we are all encompassed within the big bubble(s) of institutions and policies that favor particular white people whose parents had money or they were able to climb the ladder provided by the common good (usable roads, tax subsidies, public education, a degree that did not put students $40,000 in debt and land them in retail at minimum wage).

And now that people who were able to get up that ladder have their pot of money, they want to yank that common good (heaven forbid they need to share their pot) away from anyone, poor white but especially people of color, from using it.

There is a rash of racist behavior, of sexist behavior. There are young children who are bullying and youth who are spraying denigrating graffiti at schools. Just stop! 

Why is it ok to devalue people who look different from you/me?

It's not ok. We are all children of God.

And so we have protesters, who want to make sure that they are included, that they are not forgotten in maintaining, keeping, reinstating the common good.

A shared life is messy. Uncomfortable,  A life together may even feel intolerable for some people. It's so hard. It's so impossible.

But diversity is what God gave us, continues to give us. Along with the great gift of compassion.

Use that compassion.

Find someone unlike you. Befriend that person who doesn't look like you, who doesn't act like you.

Maybe even develop a friendship.