Native American teachings & music

This last Sunday we were honored to have guests David and Amy Maack with us to share some Native American stories, experiences and music. David is a former City of Racine Alderman and is active in the community. His grandfather was born and raised on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in northwestern Minnesota and the Maack’s frequently return there for cultural camps. Amy is a professional vocalist and a choir teacher at Starbuck Middle School. Her grandparents came from Piedras Negras, Mexico and she is Lipan Apache.

(For the full audio version of the sermon and the “Strong Women’s Song,” click here.)

To begin, two of our youth assisted as the congregation held small bits of tobacco, placed our intentions and prayers into them and then returned them to a different bowl. David promised to find a special place later that day and smoke the tobacco, bringing our intentions and prayers to the Creator.










David also shared a wonderful story with the kids about how turtle’s shell got its pattern.









With a powerful voice, Amy sang an amazing rendition of “Amazing Grace” in both Cherokee and English, and shared the Strong Women’s Song with us at the end.








As David shared more stories with us, we were all reminded once again that we are all part of creation and yet we each have a unique, individual role to fulfill. Their messages were filled with love and compassion and a true desire to bring people together.  A heartfelt thank you to both of them for sharing of themselves and reminding us of who we are and who we were created to be.



A Hand Up

Sometimes weird stuff happens to me. Last week I was trying to find an angle for preaching from the prescribed lectionary reading from Acts 3:1-10. It told the story of Peter and John healing a man who had been lame his whole life, and giving him a hand to help him stand again. Healing scripture are tricky to preach on because they make it sound like if you just had enough faith, God would heal you. Sigh.

(To listen to the full audio version, click here.)

Anyway, I had settled on the concept of giving others “a hand up” when it occurred to me reaching outthat the man who was healed probably had an interesting story to share. I hadn’t preached in character in quite a while and decided perhaps it was time to give it a try again. So, it seemed like the first logical thing I should do would be to give this nameless man a name. As I pondered this, the name Shelah just popped into my head. Actually, I wasn’t even sure it was a name so I googled it and sure enough, it is a Hebrew name. Now, here’s the freaky part, the definition said comes from a verb which could be “used in the sense of stretching out, especially of a hand towards something.” I took it as a sign I was on the right track!

As Shelah took shape and character, I found that his brokenness wasn’t just on the outside. Being unable to walk his whole life had put him in the category of the unclean and unwanted. He felt no love from God or his family, or the normal people of the city. The worst part was the indifference. Most people didn’t want to look at him or acknowledge his existence in any way. I was certain that he’d had his share of beatings, ridicule and bad treatment over the years. The brokenness inside from all this was palpable to me as I created his story.

When Peter and John came upon him and commanded that he look at them, this was something that never happened. And as this lame man looked into their eyes, in my mind he saw a depth of love and compassion that he had never experienced before. Being healed physically brought him back into circulation among the “normal” folks, but for me, that look of love helped to heal the brokenness within. And for Shelah, experiencing a love that touched his soul was worth even more than the physical healing.

We’re not Jesus, or Peter and we’re probably not going to make the lame walk anytime soon (I know, I’m a pessimist). But, we can reach out in love and help people to heal inside through caring, compassion, understanding and acceptance.




Radical Change

So, have you thought about the resurrection and what it means to you? Seriously, don’t you wonder what actually happened? The four Gospels only agree on the fact that the tomb was empty, after that there are four differing stories about who goes to the tomb, who meets them there, what the disciples think, where Jesus appears and what he says.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Does one have to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian? viceroy-butterfly-lgEarly orthodox Christianity thought so. Remember the creed they wrote: “Jesus was crucified, dies and was buried and on the third day he rose again.” In the flesh.

If we go outside of the Biblical gospels, the gnostics thought that believing in any sort of physical resurrection was ridiculous. They understood resurrection in different ways. To encounter the risen Christ meant to encounter him on a spiritual level – visions, dreams, moments of spiritual illumination.  Elaine Pagels, in her book, The Gnostic Gospels writes, “Some gnostics called the literal view of resurrection the ‘faith of fools.’ The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present… Resurrection is the moment of enlightenment. It is … the revealing of what truly exists… and a migration into newness.”

Right now you’re probably wondering why I can’t leave well enough alone. Why confuse the issue with facts, or other opinions? Sorry, but I have all these questions. And, I have a problem suspending reason for what could very well be myth and legend. Feel free to just ignore me if it makes you feel better.

Moving on… regardless of how you want to understand resurrection, one thing seems certain: something happened. Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his book Easter, puts it this way, “The dynamic, energized birth of the Christian Church took place at the Moment of Easter. It had enormous power. It affected human life and human history… [S]omething happened – something of significance, power, and impressive strength. The issue is so personal, so immense, so life-determining that even the most skeptical non-believer must give it consideration.”

The evidence (if you will) is clear if we look at Peter and the disciples before and after the Easter Moment (the Bible never tells us when and how that actually occurred), the radical change in them is obvious. Something happened.

Before the Easter Moment Peter was prone to argue with Jesus, or to simply not understand what was being said or done. At one point, Peter is even the recipient of one of Jesus’ most scathing rebukes to his disciples, “Get behind me Satan!” (Remember that Satan referred the one who was an “adversary”, sort of like a prosecuting attorney.) Peter also wouldn’t let Jesus wash his feet, swore he’d never deny him and then goes on to do just that. When Jesus is finally crucified, Peter is nowhere to be found.

The other disciples are just as bad. In Mark 9:14 Jesus says to them, “How unbelieving you are. How long must I stay with you? How long do I have to put up with you?” Jesus was constantly trying to explain things to them because, over and over again, they just didn’t get it. James and John wanted to wheedle their way into the seats of power next to Jesus in heaven, then they fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane with Peter. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled and went into hiding. Only one, whom John calls the Beloved Disciple, stands watch at the foot of the cross with the women.

Truly, as followers of one they considered was the Messiah, their behavior was cowardly and scandalous.

But after the Easter Moment, they all did a one-eighty. They emerged from hiding, became fearless and took to the streets of Jerusalem and to the world to proclaim that Jesus who had died was alive again. They endured ridicule, arrest, torture, beatings, and even death, yet never wavered from their story or denounced Jesus. The movement they launched created a new holy day, began a new religion and claims two billion followers today.

Something happened. Something HUGE.

And the reality that I’ve experienced through the years is that something continues to happen. When you pay attention, you will hear people talk of mystical, ineffable experiences in their lives or in the lives of others. Some may have been so dramatic as to have changed lives forever, others not so much. The amazing thing is that they happened and they continue to happen. There is something more within us, around us, through us, that can bring us to resurrection moments radically changing our direction and our lives.




The Cross

The cross… I used to be ok with the cross. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometimecross (1) in the middle of my ministry someone pointed out that the cross was an instrument of torture and death. Like I didn’t already know that, right? But for some reason it hit me differently, and I started to think deeper… why on earth would I elevate that symbol? Why glorify the cross? Why render it an impotent symbol by putting it in gold, making it fancy, or stylized? Why brush over its original use by taking Jesus off of it and making the empty cross a symbol of resurrection, of joy… as if the blood and the suffering never happened there?

Even worse than all that, though, was that the cross was inexplicably tied to the traditional Christian theology that insisted that God needed, demanded even, a perfect human sacrifice to make up for the sins of humanity, and especially the sins of a woman named Eve. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that thinking. It is archaic and no different that sacrificing animals on altars, or virgins in volcanoes.

Yet, crosses are so commonplace that they are hard to escape – in homes, around people’s necks, I’ve used them for confirmation gifts, and preached in front them for 14 years. But, when we began Sacred Journeys, I was done. We needed a different symbol… one of life, of growth and change, of hope and newness. And so our Sacred Journeys’ tree was developed.

I know some of you have commented that you miss the cross up front. And, I know some of you miss the traditional cross hymns. Personally, I’ll admit that I loved belting out “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Lift High the Cross” on Easter morning, but I can’t do it anymore. As I read the words of the cross, they are full of a theology that I can’t abide by. We are not washed and cleansed in the blood of Jesus. I will not glorify the cross as a place where humanity had to be redeemed. His death was not a cosmic battle between the forces of God and Satan. He did not conquer mortality (again caused by Eve) so we could all live. How can I sing things like, “what wondrous love is this that caused the lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul”?

Believe it or not, I actually feel that as a loss, mostly because there are few songs to replace them.

Anyway, because one of you has nudged me about the cross a few times, I’ve mulled it over in my head over and over, trying to determine if there was a way I could reconcile my feelings about the cross, transform them, re-frame them. And I think the answer is a qualified yes.

You see, as I did my research, I found that the symbol of the cross is a much more ancient symbol than Christianity. It has been used to symbolize the division of the world into four basic elements: earth, water, air and fire. And, it has been used to symbolize the intersection of the divine (vertical axis) and the world (horizontal axis).

It is this last definition that resonates with me. The cross re-framed becomes the intersection of the light and love of divinity, and the imperfect, ego-driven, materialistic, human world. I can work with that.

Theologian and author, Cynthia Bourgeault, speaks of the union of the vertical and horizontal axes as the point of enlightenment. This is the coming together of the finite and the infinite within oneself. Jesus had this, though most didn’t recognize it until the event of the cross and his subsequent appearances (whether literal or spiritual or metaphorical is up to you).

When the earthly and sacred come together our perception shifts, we live in this world with deeper understanding, with infinite compassion, with wisdom. It is any moment – no matter how ordinary, or how extraordinary – when we sense and feel the Presence of Something More. It is the moment of transformation when the everyday becomes holy, when pain is infused with hope, when light enters darkness, when we are not an individual fighting the universe, but one with the universe.

This is the cross…  where the vertical axis and the horizontal axis meet…  where the disciples meet Jesus… where the Divine intersects our realities…. where all things are seen in a new way… this is Easter.



A Broken Hallelujah

This is a brief synopsis of my Day of Tears (aka “Good Friday”) message.

Last week was what is known as Holy Week. It is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem crossto the last supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest, conviction, beating and brutal death on a cross.

Though I’m sure Jesus was not so naïve nor arrogant as to believe that his entry on the back of a colt, to cheering crowds, and the chanting of Hosanna to the King, could last, I’m sure the people wanted it to, hoped it would. Their excitement was real, their dreams of life without oppression suddenly flitted within arm’s reach. Please, God, let it be true. By the end of the week, their hopes and their hallelujah were broken and shattered.

It may have seemed an odd choice for the service on Friday, but the choir sang a shortened version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” right before my message. The song has a gut-wrenching, haunting quality  that calls out to us in the words, “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter what you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah….”

(For the full audio version, click here.)

This week led us from the holy to the broken hallelujahs. Our voices were proud, strong, joyful and hopeful at the beginning of the week. But by Friday night, whatever praise we could eek out, was in a voice broken by grief, torn by despair.

What the heck happened here?

Everything was going so well?

Certainly he was the Messiah, the one to bring peace and harmony?

All the signs were there. How could it all go wrong?

The holy and the broken hallelujahs are not just part of religious life and the religious story. They are your story and my story. They are the huge highs and lows of life. Those times when all is right with the world, life is good, we are happy, we sing at the top of our lungs, we thank God for our blessings, we feel invincible… and then there is a plot twist, an unexpected turn for the worse – an accident, a job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a sick child, a betrayal, a death. Life turns on us and we say… what on earth just happened here? How could it all go wrong so quickly? Our hallelujahs are broken and mournful. We know God is still with us, but we find it hard to croak out a word of thanksgiving, much less a hallelujah.

Though it wasn’t intended to, the last verse seems to fit Jesus pretty appropriately:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

The strength, the integrity, and the love with which he lived until the end is an amazing example for each of us when we experience our own times of brokenness, loss and pain.