Category Archives: Theology Thoughts

Remembering Our Interconnectedness

Gadugi. Though only a few syllables in Cherokee, it carries within its vocalization a value system centered around people becoming one with each other and helping each other. It is a recognition that we are more than just individuals burning time on a spinning planet in the middle of nothing. Rather to speak of gadugi is to feel the connection we have as members of a community and, in that connection, strive to help each other according to what is best for the other.

Echoes of the Cherokee’s gadugi can be found in the instructions of the Creator for the people Israel to practice a year of rest every seven years. Similar to the Sabbath day which happened each week, the Sabbath year was a time of rest in which the people were told by the Creator not to sow their fields or prune their vineyards (Lev 25:1-7). Rather they were to give the land rest in remembrance of the seventh day of creation when the Creator rested. The food that was to be eaten that year by the people, their livestock, and the wild animals was to be not from plowed lands, but from the natural produce grown by a land in rest (Lev 25:7). 

Though we might forget about it, the Creator made a covenant with the land, plants, and animals (Gen 9:10, 12, 15, 16, 17) just like he did with humanity. In fact, humanity is part of nature as we are all interconnected though relationship with each other. Hence to observe a Sabbath year would be to place yourself at the mercy of nature and the Provider. It would be to practice a type of gadugi in which our non-human relatives help feed us as we walk through a time of individual and community purification and soul seeking. 

After seven such purifying years, the people would celebrate a Year of Jubilee in which liberty was proclaimed nationwide and each person returned to their ancestral home (Lev 25:8-10).  The land was to rest for a second year in row while all debts were forgiven, slaves of Hebrew blood were set free (others, sadly, stayed in captivity), and families throughout the nation gave away the property that they had acquired over the years to the families who were originally granted the land by the Creator (Lev 25:11-55). 

In following these instructions, the people of Israel would be acting out gadugi in that they would be helping each other while remembering their own interconnectedness. The outcast would be able to return home with debts forgiven. Those in slavery would find freedom along with access to resources to change their family’s future. The wealthy would be given the chance to stave off the destination of their soul that comes through unchecked growth and greed by having the opportunity to give away that which they have acquired. The land, plants, and animals would be able to show their gadugi to the people while the people showed gratitude to the land from which they came.   

Though the original Year of Jubilee was given by the Provider to a people group many years removed from us, I feel that the celebration is still valuable. We need to be reminded just like the people of old that we belong to a community beyond ourselves (gadugi). We need to have a check on our own greed and desire to accumulate material things. We need to remember that the land around us is living, breathing, and working to keep up with us. We all need rest. We all need time to stop and reflect upon our interconnectedness while giving glory to our Creator/Provider. We are all in need of a year of Jubilee.

Hell: My View on this DEBATABLE Topic

Hell. It is a painful topic for some while divisive to others. Even sadder, hell has become a symbol of Christian orthodoxy within the US Evangelical church. Countless statement of faiths published by churches across the country include the belief of literal eternal damnation as a key part of the faith. Historically, however, the church at large has ALWAYS allowed for different views on hell as it isn’t a salvation issue. 

Though my admit at writing may pale in comparison to others before and perhaps even after me, I am going to try to outline some of the key points of consideration in rethinking the typically literal view of hell. I will also include my own personal option on the topic for those who may be curious about where I stand on the issue. =)

Rather than jumping straight into the biblical text, I feel that we must start by looking at history to see what our fellow Jesus disciples have thought about the topic. From there we can shift our focus to the bible though it would be best if we started with an understanding of the grand story of the faith as well as the central message of Jesus as that will impact how we read/understand the few verses that reference ‘hell.’

History

“We do not read the Bible as isolated individuals,” Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Eastern Orthodox Church reminds us, “interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism. We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages” (The Orthodox Way, 110).

I call this out as we should always reminder that we are but one link in a long chain of the Faith. Though we may feel passionately about this topic or another, we should nevertheless hold things humbly knowing that Christianity belongs not solely to the living but also to those who walked on long before we graced the surface of this planet.

In looking back towards the early church it is extremely noteworthy that the doctrine of hell was not included in the major ecumenical Creeds which outlined the faith (e.g., Creed of Nicaea, 325 AD; Nicaea-Constantinoplitan Creed, 381 AD; Chalcedonian Creed, 451 AD)). Nor was the doctrine of hell considered important enough to devout a church council for nor was it used as a boundary line to say who is and isn’t a Christian. Rather the Church Mothers and Fathers recognized that the Scriptures allowed for multiple views of the subject.

To put this into perspective, we should remember that the Church Mothers and Fathers debated just about every part of the Faith for HUNDREDS of years. Yet despite their hyper-focus on a lot of things, they choose to leave the doctrine of hell off the list of key points of the Faith. IMHO, I feel that this fact should give us pause before we start trying to include our particular view of hell in the list of non-negotiable items. Rather we should keep things open handed while noting that is it okay if Christians differ on this subject.

A quick side note on a few things before moving on as I’m sure someone will bring this up. It is true that the Apostles’ Creed (120-250 AD) mentions hell; though the reference is in the context of Jesus descending into hell in order to conquer the powers therein. What the creed does not do is outline what ‘hell’ is nor the fate of people who don’t follow Jesus.

The Athanasian Creed (500~AD), which was NOT written by Athanasius of Alexandria despite the name, includes a line towards the bottom that says that those who have done evil will go “into everlasting fire.” This would, I grant, be considered a doctrine of hell – specifically in support of the eternal damnation view. The thing to remember, however, is that this creed was not crafted nor adopted by any of the global church councils. Rather it is a creed of unknown origins that showed up in the six century among the western European portion of the church. As such, this creed is more of a subset of the Faith rather than a major ecumenical creed agreed upon by the church at large.

Major Views on Hell

Before we start looking at the Scriptures, I wanted to list out the three major views of hell along with some proponents of the views. I’m not going to go into detail about each of the views, rather my goal is just to highlight the fact that there are solid Jesus followers who hold these views.

  • Literal eternal damnation – the belief that those who don’t follow Jesus will be tortured by fire and brimstone for eternity; this is the main view within US Evangelicalism
  • Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality – the belief that those who don’t go to heaven will simple cease to exist; proponents include John Wenham, Edward Fudge, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and John Scott
  • Christian Universalism the belief that all humans will ultimately be restored in relationship with the Creator; proponents include Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltman, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry), David Bentley Hart, and Brad Jersak

In addition to the above three, there are variations and other views – including the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory or the belief that hell is simply a state of being rather than place.

The Hebrew Scriptures

The bound book that we call the Bible is actually a collection of 66 books written over approximately 1,500 years by at least 40 different authors. Of these books, 39 are in the Old Testament. Interestingly enough, if you were to read through these books you will find that heaven and hell does NOT place a role in any of these books. Rather the Hebrew Scriptures are fairly focused on the here and now – though, I would admit, there is a certain amount of eschatological hope within the books that point to something in the future. However this future hope was not centered on living forever in heaven or hell; instead it was centered on the coming rule of the Creator in Heaven breaking into this current broken world (see chapters 2-7 in my book The Here and Not Yet for more details)

The Old Testament does, however, mention sheol. Though sometimes confused with ‘hell’, this term referred to a place of darkness to which all the dead go (both the righteous and unrighteous). In other words, to the ancient Hebrew people, when you die, your body was buried and your soul went to sheol. Period. There was no resurrection, rewards, punishment, etc. You were just dead.

Now during the inter-testament period of the Second Temple (500 BEC – 70CE) things begin to change. The Jewish people came into contact with Greek and Roman culture which started to influence their thought process. Slowly the thought started to develop that righteous people went to Abraham’s Bosom while the unrighteous went somewhere else. The concept of a personal resurrection also came into being as seen in 2 Maccabees 7.

All of this is notable because it shows how the doctrine of hell WASN’T an issue for the followers of the Creator for MOST of human history. Rather the concept of hell is fairly new once placed upon the grand timeline of human history. =)

The New Testament Scriptures

Jesus, Paul, and all the other early church leaders/writers grew up under the overarching rule of the Roman Empire. Though they were ethnic Jewish people (well, Jesus, Paul, and most of early leaders), they were also heavily influenced by the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Throughout the lands in which Jesus walked there were Roman/Greek temples, buildings, armies, entertainment, etc. This reality is VERY important because both first century Judaism and then Christianity afterwards was influenced by Greek/Roman theology and philosophy.

Immortality was something the Greek philosophers pondered quite a bit. Plato, for example, believed that the body was mortal and the soul immortal. Hence it was important to focus on what was immortal while denying that what was mortal. This view – and others – started to shift Judaism to the point in which they started to see things differently than they used too – as I noted in the previous section. I call it out here as I wanted folks to understand that views about afterlife (i.e., hell and heaven) are fluid rather than unchanging.

In turning to the New Testament, we must note that hell isn’t a major topic. Paul never talks explicitly about it nor do any of the evangelistic passages in Acts (i.e., there is no ‘turn or burn’ passage in Acts). The Gospels record a few references to Gehnna, Hades, and fire. Typically these references are within stories told by Jesus with the main message being about other topics rather than hell itself. This quote from UK Evangelical Alliance study The Nature of Hell summarizes things nicely (pulled from Stephen Burnhope’s book How to Read the Bible Well, page 156):

Matthew, Mark, Luke, Jude, and Revelation refer mainly to Gehenna, Hades, and fire, and imply some duration of punishment. John, Paul, and other letters refer mainly to perishing, destruction, and death.

The verses that imply duration would seem to support eternal damnation while perishing or death verses seem to support annihilationshism (i.e., to perish is to cease to exist).

Time and space does not allow for us to breakdown every verse or concept within the New Testament. If you are interested, there are multiple books which do that. Instead, I would like to highlight a few items of note.

  • Gehenna – Mark 9:42-48 is one of the main passages within the Gospels that folks brings up about hell. Though some English bible translations may use the term ‘hell’ for place of ‘gehenna’, these terms are not the same. Gehenna refers to a valley outside of Jerusalem that was also called the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place of idolatrous worship during the Old Testament where the Hebrew people offered child sacrifices to Molech and Baal. During the time of Jesus this place as a rubbish heap where the people of Jerusalem would throw their waste. As such, it was a nasty place with methane gas, worms, and other things connected with sewage dumps.
  • Hades – The Gentile writer Luke mentions the term hades in chapter 16 of his letter within the context of a story told by Jesus (Lazarus and the rich man). Hades, it should be noted, is a Greek/Roman term typically used of the underworld where the dead went. Hades was also the name of the Greek/Roman god who ruled the underworld. It was not a place of torment per se but rather a place of “shadowy existence, hardly conscious and without memory of their former life” (The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary). In using this term, I would suggest that Jesus is painting a world picture for his audience to help them understand his main point – which wasn’t about hell but money, rich, and poor.
  • Eternal – Of special note to me is the term ‘enteral’ as used within the Gospels. As noted within chapter 8 of my book The Here and Not Yet , the phrase ‘eternal life’ is directly connect with the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ which was about the coming rule and reign of the Creator. Hence the Greek terms normally translated as ‘eternal life’ is better translated as ‘the life of the age to come.’ (NT Wright, as a side note, does this in Mark 10:17 of The Kingdom New Testament.) In following this same inaugurated eschatology view of things, I would suggest that ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:46 isn’t about lasting forever a kin to the Greco-Roman view of immorality, but rather about receiving the punishment of the age to come in this age just like those who do follow Jesus receive the life of this age to come in this age.

Practical Considerations

Now that we have outlined some of the issues concerning hell, I feel that it is time to think about the practical outworking thereof. Though it is easy to forget, theology isn’t something done in a vacuum or somewhere removed from daily life. Our theology directly impacts our daily lives and how we treat people so we must think through the implications of our theological viewpoints.

  • Literal eternal damnation – Practically speaking, if we believe that people who do not follow Jesus are doomed to spend eternity in torture, what does that say about us? Why is it so important that people burn in hell while others spend eternity in heaven? Is it so that we who follow Jesus can somehow feel special? Should it not pain us to think of such eternal punishment? Also, what does it say about our God? How could a God of love create and sustain such a torture location? Furthermore, as history has shown, the belief in a literal hell has been used to control people (i.e., believe my way or burn in hell, pay this money to escape hell, etc.).
  • Annihilationism – If people just cease to exist, should that not motivate us to tell them about Jesus? For in this case, following Jesus become not only about today but also about gaining life eternal.
  • Christian Universalism – Practically speaking, if everyone makes it to heaven then why would we spend our time telling people about Jesus? At least that would be a common thought. My response is that following Jesus is about the here and now just as much, if not more so, than about the afterlife. Hence we should be sharing Jesus with people because of what is happening now. We all need more the Age to Come in our midst today.

Conclusion

Early on I established the fact that historically the doctrine of hell has never been key to the Faith. Also despite US Evangelicalism focus on hell, the bible supports multiple views. As such, it could be said that we have a choice on what we think. And if we have a choice, why not choose a view that shows grace and love? Would that not be in keeping with the life and message of Jesus?

For me personally, I fall into would be called a ‘hopeful universalist’ in that my hope is that everyone will be restored in relationship with the Creator. However, I’m not a full universalist as the subject has a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding it that I can not be fully certain. As such, I will occasionally drift towards the annihilationism camp in that I can see the concept of evil just ceasing to be. What I can not do is support the literal eternal damnation view of hell in any way. To me, that view has more to do with Greco/Roman philosophy and culture then with the character of the Creator. And, well, since the Faith gives us a choice, I will gladly choose life, grace, and love over punitive punishment.

Rethinking the Atonement (with Powerful Decolonial and Missiological Ramifications!)

Despite the Cross being central to the Way of Jesus, it is also one of the most misunderstood parts of Christianity. We all know that Jesus of Nazareth died upon the Cross, was buried, and then was resurrected three days later. But why? What was the purpose of the Cross? How does Jesus’ death fit within the story of Israel and how does that death and resurrection affect us today? These are the questions Stephen Burnhope seeks to answer in his book Atonement and the New Perspective: The God of Israel, Covenant, and the Cross.

Starting with the doctrine of the atonement, Stephen shows how the various atonement theories normally tossed around (e.g. ransom, Christus Victor, penal substitutionary, etc.) within the Evangelicalism carry within them a thread of supersessionist in which the story of Israel is effectively removed from the Cross. In response to this trend, Stephen proposes a view of the atonement in which “Israel’s story is both the context in which God’s covenantal work in Christ is situated and the means by which it can best be understood” (pg xxx).

It is this framework that makes Stephen’s book worth buying as he helps us remember the story of Israel and the importance of the Torah – which, contrary to popular option, isn’t about ‘works’ or ‘earning one’s salvation.’ Rather the Torah helped guide Israel in their response to God’s saving race. As Stephen puts it, “Just as the covenant ‘in Torah’ brings about and maintains an atoned relationship, so too does the covenant ‘in Christ’” (pg 235). The Cross isn’t about a legal transaction in which we gain a relationship with God but rather the way in which we are to live within that relationship. Our relationship with the Creator has always been there, it was just fractured and damaged due to the death, sin, and pain present within the world.

To return to Stephen’s book, “Atonement ‘in Christ’ defined in this manner does not start at the cross, any more than ‘in Torah’ it starts with a sin offering. In each case, it begins with a decision in the heart of God to enter into a covenant with humanity…The covenant provides the framework and terms according to which an at-one relationship is firstly established and secondly maintained” (pg 235). Though this may strike many within Evangelicalism as being out there, this framework and conclusion is actually more Scriptural than most atonement theories – especially penal substitutionary atonement which relies on 16th century European culture more than Scriptures.

In addition to grounding the atonement in the story of Israel, Stephen’s view of the atonement opens a fairly powerful decolonial and missiological door. “By reconceiving the relationship of the gospel to Torah in this non-competitive way, accepting each way of relating to God – ‘in Torah’ and ‘in Christ’ – as valid, but different” (pg 226) allows us to think missiological about the ways in which God worked in and through other cultures and people. Consider the story of Jonah, for a moment.  You have a Israelite prophet who goes to a foreign country and preaches a message of repentance to a bunch of people who don’t know a thing about the Mosaic covenant. There are no priests, temple, altars, Levities, etc. Nothing. And yet, the Creator honors their heart and breathes his mercy and grace upon them without having them abandoned their culture (i.e. they repented in accordance with their customs and culture).  “Human life,” as Stephen notes, “has always been lived under the blessing of a covenant promise of God that offered relationship with him through a covenantal nomism” (pg 243).  

For those getting nervous, I must point out that accepting the legitimacy of the Torah (or the repentance of Nineveh within their culture) doesn’t lessen the work of Jesus. Isn’t about the “efficacy or permanence of one [Torah] versus the other [Jesus]” (pg 226). Rather it is about knowing the Creator directly through Jesus or indirectly through the Torah (pg 219). Though Stephen doesn’t go there, I would say that just like God showed himself indirectly through the Torah to the Israelites, we can look for echoes of the Creator within the culture, stories, and customs of people groups around the globe. In finding these echoes, we can use them to introduce people to Jesus of Nazareth, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15, NET).  Powerful ramifications to say the least!!!

ST. Paul, Ephesus, Multiculturalism, and the Church

In the book of Ephesians, St. Paul encourages two vastly different cultural groups to come together as one body. Though it is easy to skim over, this encouragement was – and is – HUGE! Think about it: Paul isn’t saying that the Greek-Romans have to give up their culture to become like the Jews; nor does he say that the Jews have to give up their culture to be like the Greek-Romans. Rather he is calling for both groups to embrace the discomfort that comes with having two cultures intermingled as one. Powerful teaching that is need today more than ever before! Learn more about this topic in the below video as we look to become one body with multiple cultures.

The Mystery of the Divine Incarnation

Icon of St. Maximus

Let us contemplate with faith the mystery of the divine incarnation and in all simplicity let us simply praise Him who in His great generosity became man for us. For who, relying on the power of rational demonstration, can explain how the conception of the divine Logos took place? How was flesh generated without seed? How was there an engendering without loss of maidenhood? How did a mother after giving birth remain a virgin? How did He who was supremely perfect develop as He grew up (cf. Luke 2:52)? How was He who was pure baptized? How did He who was hungry give sustenance (cf Matt. 4: 2; 14:14-21)? How did He who was weary impart strength (cf. John 4:6)? How did He who suffered dispense healing? How did He who was dying bestow life?

And, to put the most important last, how did God become man? And – what is even more mysterious – how did the Logos, while subsisting wholly, essentially and hypostatically in the Father, also exist essentially and hypostatically in the flesh? How did He who is wholly God by nature become wholly man by nature, not renouncing either nature in any way at all, neither the divine, through which He is God, nor ours, through which He became man? Faith alone can embrace these mysteries, for it is faith that makes real for us things beyond intellect and reason (cf. Heb. 11:1).

-St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662 C.E), “Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice”

Cherokee Seven Direction Dreamcatcher

For the past few years I have been sitting with the Cherokee concepts of seven directions. I knew that I wanted to create something to physically represent the concepts held within these seven directions. However I couldn’t quite figure out how to do this….then during a Labor Day backpacking trip, things just fell into place with a picture of what could be. Though the final result was a bit different, the concepts and points given to me by the Creator on that trip stayed the same. And with that, I would like to share the seven directions with you all. =)

The Seven Directions

Like a lot of Indigenous people across Tuttle Island (i.e. North America), the Cherokees assigned a color and a meaning to each the four cardinal directions:

  • East -> red -> success; triumph
  • North -> blue -> defeat; trouble
  • West -> black -> death
  • South -> white -> peace; happiness

What is unique (at least as far as I’ve been able to determine) is that the Cherokees recognize three other directions:

  • Above -> yellow -> the sky above
  • Below -> brown -> the earth below
  • Center -> green -> where we are right now

Though I’m still researching the symbolism of the latter three, I do know that ‘above’ doesn’t represent ‘heaven’ nor does ‘below’ represent ‘hell.’ Heaven and hell are Greco Roman concepts that were combined with Hebraic thought through the move of Christianity into Europe.  Cherokee cosmology has a different outlook on those directions of which I have barely scratched. Hopefully I will be able to understand more about them as time goes on…but for now just know that ‘above’ and ‘below’ are separate from the modern cultural concepts of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell.’

Praying to the Directions

For a lot of Indigenous people prayers physical in nature. We will commonly turn to the four directions (east, west, north, & south) while praying to the Creator. It is a way to physically connect with our surroundings while lifting our voice to the Lord. I would connect this to the ancient Hebraic practice of sacrifices or the offering of incenses at the Temple. Both practices include a physical action in conjunction with prayers to the Creator. Modern Christian practices along these lines include prayer walking, pacing during prayer meetings, dancing, flag waving, clapping, etc. The primary difference being, of course, that these latter actions aren’t necessarily done in a specific order whereas praying to the directions includes turning to face a certain direction before saying a prayer.

In pondering the seven directions of the Cherokees, there have been times when I have physically faced each of the directions while giving thanks to the Creator. Though it seemed strange at first, there is something refreshing about having a physical response to act out while praying. It is also a good reminder that Jesus surrounds and protects us from harm in all directions. I would liken it to Saint Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ with me, Christ before me,

Christ behind me, Christ within me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ at my right, Christ at my left,

The 8th section of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

Dreamcatchers

As you all no doubt noticed from the title and below picture, the end result of my art project was a seven direction dreamcatcher. This was because the circular structure of the dreamcatcher just seemed to fit with the theme and concepts I wanted to convey. Historically dreamcatchers are from the Ojibwe people of the Great Lake region and southern Canada. They were adopted as a generic symbol of identification for Native Americans/First Nations cultures during the Pan-Indian Movement of the 1960s/70s. The mainstream public also started seeing them around this time with dreamcatchers being a craft item in the 80s and 90s.

Among the Ojibwe people, dreamcatchers were associated with Asibikaashi (Spider Women) who would protect them from harm by weaving a spider web around them. Hence the spider web design of the dreamcatchers. Noting, of course, that the Ojibwe concept was less about dreams and more about protection from harm in general. The dream component became attached to the object as it went out from the Ojibwe to the rest of the country.

Though I’m not one for charms, I do like the symbolism of the dreamcatcher with protection. It goes back to Saint Patrick’s Breastplate and the prayers to the seven directions for Christ to surround us with his protection. Psalm 91 would be a good example of prayers of this type as would Psalm 139. This latter psalm, by the way, includes several of the seven directions as King David declares the presence of the Creator around himself:

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:2-5, NIV

The Materials

I have often said that the way in which you do something is just as important as what you do. In this case, I sought out seven different biological materials to form the foundations of my seven direction dreamcatcher. Circles were used as a primary design motif due to the symbolism of circles in the cycle of the seasons, life, time, and nature itself.  I initially wanted seven circles (one per direction) but in the end I went with six circles due to the ease of construction and overall look.

The rings themselves are made of the following materials:

  • East -> pine -> One of the few trees who stayed awake throughout the seven days of the Cherokee creation story. Since the east is the direction of creation, I placed the pine ring in that direction.
  • North  -> aspen -> When I think of the north, aspen trees come to mind as they are native to the colder regions of North America. Hence the placement of this wood.
  • West -> sage  -> Sage is a ceremonial plant for many Native Americans and is burned when praying as a way to purify oneself. I figured that since the west was the direction of death, it could use some extra prayer and purity.
  • South  -> corn  -> South is the place of happiness and peace to the Cherokee. Hence I used the leaves of the corn plant as the foundation under the white leather in remembrance of Selu the Corn Mother.
  • Up Above and Down Below  -> willow -> Running through and surrounding the other directions is a large ring of willow which represents Jesus of Nazareth through whom all things that were, are, and will be made (e.g. John 1:3, Col 1:16). The weeping nature of the willow played a part in choosing this wood as Jesus wept over Jerusalem when the people failed to respond to his call to walk with him in peace and love (Luke 19:41-44). Furthermore, willows need a lot of water to survive hence why they are normally found near creeks and rivers. Hence the connection (at least in my mind) with the living water of the Holy Spirit that flows throughout Creation (Revelation 22:1-5).
  • Center  ->  oak  -> The oak tree was an important part of Cherokee life with acorns being ground up to make bread, the inner bark used in baskets, and the wood itself used to keep the Sacred Fire alive. Hence the usage of this wood to create the center ring of where each us stands. This is the place where we are; where we live and breathe.

In addition to the six rings, there is a collection of other material used within this dreamcatcher. Below are some thoughts on these items:

  • The Weave – At first I wasn’t sure about the weave as dreamcatchers aren’t really my style. However as I thought about it, I like the concept of the Holy Spirit weaving his way throughout the seven directions and within our lives. He is the one, after all, who calls us toward the Cross which is in the center of life (John 14:15-17).  
  • The Cross – Inside the center ring is a small cross made of spruce. Similar to the pine, the spruce tree stayed awake throughout creation and therefore was blessed with the gift of staying green year-round. The Cross, though bloodied with death and pain, forms the genesis of a new life in and through Jesus. It is a symbol of what was and what is to come.
  • Beads – There are seven small beads within the three center circles (west, center, and east). The three larger gray ones are jasper while the four smaller ones are mahogany obsidian. The mahogany obsidian bead represents the blood of Christ that saves us (east), is saving us (center), and one day will save us (west). There are four obsidian beads in each of the three groups of seven for the four gospel letters which tell us the story of Jesus while the total of 12 is for the twelve apostles who walked with Christ. The three jaspers in each group of seven are for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit). Surrounding the center ring within the weave itself are four jasper beads for the four winds that blow across the earth carrying with them the Spirit of the Living Creator (John 3:8).  
  • Feathers – The feathers are more for me than to share as some things are better left a mystery. Just know that they have a personal meaning that are not connected to the seven directions. =)

BLM, Jesus, and Historical Trauma

A few days ago I attending a Black Lives Matter prayer vigil in front of the Idaho State capital building. There were close to 5,000, if not more, people at the vigil which was very peaceful and well organized. The central part of the vigil was the moment in which we paused in silent in remembrance of the black lives killed at the hands of the police. Every 15 seconds during this time a name was read out loud with the crowd repeating it. To say that this was a holy and powerful experience would be an understatement.

Black Lives Matter prayer vigil on June 2, 2020

Towards the end of the vigil during the singing of a spiritual, a chain of trucks and cars drove around the crowd with Trump and USA flags flying high. Verbal comments were thrown out of the vehicles towards the people peacefully remembering and praying for those lost.

In watching this display, I was struck by the context of a symbol can affect how it is perceive and received. An American flag by itself can bring to the forefront a fairly neutral memory of a nation. Flying this same flag on a vehicle driving around a Black Lives Matter prayer vigil change it to one of horror and pain. You see, it was under the American flag that African women and men were taken from Africa and sold into slavery within this country. And it is under this same flag that modern black women and men are oppressed and killed.

In a similar way, it was those under the USA flag who sought to wipe out the indigenous nations of this land. This includes members of my family who lived and died as Cherokee Indians. The memory of these relatives remain strong despite the years that have gone by.

Before attending the Black Lives Matter prayer vigil, I watched a video by one of the organizers. In this video, the comment was made that they did not trust the police because of the centuries of abuse at the hands of the people in power. This was because the police, National Guard, and USA Military have been used to harm communities of color (black, brown and red) for hundreds of years. Trust, once lost, is extremely hard to regain.

It wasn’t that long ago that the FBI was worked against the Civil Rights and American Indian Movements through their Counterintelligence Program by discrediting organizations the government didn’t like. It wasn’t that long ago that police forces tried to stop Marin Luther King Jr. and the peaceful nonviolent protests of the Civil Right era.

Sheriffs and US Marshals were used by the government to arrest Cherokee citizens living in their land without a warrant and haul them across the national border to prison without a trial. It was the police and other law enforcement members who forcefully took Cherokee children away from their homes to be raised in government sponsored boarding school. “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man” as USA Brigadier General Richard H. Pratt said in 1892.

What we are seeing today is the result of hundreds of years of community trauma and built up rage. People can only be oppressed for so long before they rise up. Shoot, the USA nation itself was founded by people who rioted and looted (e.g. Boston tea party) after been oppressed by a government who didn’t seem to care about them.

Being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t help but go back and look at him.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the 1st century to a Jewish family living under the rule of the Roman Empire. The people of Israel had at that time spent hundreds of years living under various oppressive regimes (Babylon, Greek, Roman). Yes, they had a brief time of independence under the Hasmonean dynasty, but that just sought to strength their resolve to be free.

Each of these regimes sought to wipe out the Jewish culture/religion/language (not unlike how the USA treated the Native Americans). In response to this, many of the Jews turned to riots and violence in hopes of finding justice. Jesus himself lived through multiple of these upraising.

Interestingly enough, we don’t have record of Jesus condemning these uprisings beyond the simple statement that those who live by the sword die by the sword. In contrast to this we have TONS of records of him condemning the religious leaders who supported the status quo (Sadducees and Pharisees). We also see Jesus recurring one of the nationalist rebels (Simon the Zealot) along with someone who could be considered a traitor to the nation of Israel (Matthew the tax collector) and making them part of his inner group. Through love and reconciliation, Jesus brought them together as a family who loved and carried for each other.

Building from this place of reconciliation, Jesus added in members of the occupying military force (i.e. various Roman army leaders) along with some Sadducees, Pharisees, regular folks, and, most likely, other Zealots. The unifying point was love and justice as seen in and through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Noting, of course, that Jesus led multiple peaceful protests and at least one violence protest (i.e. turning over the money tables in the temple) against the powers that be. It was these actions that got him killed.

Bring this back to modern times, I strongly feel that true leadership is one that acknowledges and works to heal the historical trauma experienced by African-Americans, Latinos, Indigenous, and other minority groups within the USA by the government and dominant culture of the USA. We need a national dialogue on race, gender and class through a Truth and Conciliation Commission similar to what happened in South Africa, Canada, and other countries. Without such a commission, we will never be able to truly heal our country and our people.

Thoughts From The Long Man

The water ran fast and high. Snow melt from the mountains hundreds of miles away flowed through the veins of this creek, filling its banks and covering the roots of the trees whose company it loved. Named the Long Man by the Tsalagi (Cherokee) of old, creeks and rivers like this one were honored for the liquid life it brought to the land. Throughout the year when things were out of balance, they would visit the Long Man to reset themselves with the pains of the past flowing downriver while the life of the new waters covered them from above.

Though I was thousands of miles from the origins of the blood and the land of my youth, I needed to find the Long Man. My shoulders hurt from the weight of the last few weeks and the decisions made and being made. Easter, that time of renewal for the followers of Jesus, was a dark time this year filled with pain and hurt. The screams of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross were felt more powerfully in my core this year than ever before. I needed a reset. Only I didn’t know how to break away from the daily grind and the insolation of the Covid home rest.

On a whim I decided to humor my oldest son with a bike ride through the neighborhood. Starting off without a plan, we rode forward into the West – chasing afternoon sun towards the darkening land of death as symbolic known to the Tsalagi. Today’s death was to be the weight on my shoulders as we stumbled upon the Long Man winding his way through the land. Finding him was a surprise as we did not expect to locate him where we did. He’s path was further south, or so we though.  

Laying down our bicycles, we proceed to climb over the trees leaning out into his path. Water flowed rapidly under us as we sat and watched. Reaching down, the cold snow feed water froze my hand as the force of the flow pulled me downward. Now was the time, he seemed to say. Let go your stress; let go your burdens; let them flow downward into the depths.

Perhaps, I thought, this is why the ancient Israelites made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and other such festivals. They knew that they need to let things go as we all take on too much. Perhaps, even, this is why Jesus told us to partake of Communion when we gather together. We all need to be reminded that he took our burdens while on the cross. It isn’t just the burden of salvation, as important as that is, but of daily life. We need to be cleaned on a regular basis. We need to jump into the water and let the waves of the Long Man wash over us.

On a theological basis, I understand why people only get baptized once. However, there isn’t a hard rule as to why we can’t continue to die to ourselves and be baptized again and again. We need to be reset from time to time. We need to have the flow of water – the Long Man or the Living Water of the Spirit – flow over us, washing us clean and carrying our burdens downstream away from us.

I write this a day after this event and even though something mystical happened that day at the Long Man, I can feel the burdens of life starting to come back. Keeping them off is a hard thing. Second by second, the weight of the world tries to come back to rest of the shoulders of those of us who walk this land. Thank you, Creator, for walking with us and for knocking off these burdens as they fly back to us! We survive only because of your mercy, love, and grace. May we always look to you each moment of each day. Wado and Amen.

HOW THEY BROUGHT BACK THE TOBACCO: A Holy Spirit Reinterpretation of an Old Cherokee Story

In the beginning of the world, when people and animals were all the same, there was only one tobacco plant, to which they all came for their tobacco until the Dagûlʻkû geese stole it and carried it far away to the south. The people were suffering without it, and there was one old woman who grew so thin and weak that everybody said she would soon die unless she could get tobacco to keep her alive.

Different animals offered to go for it, one after another, the larger ones first and then the smaller ones, but the Dagûlʻkû saw and killed every one before he could get to the plant. After the others the little Mole tried to reach it by going under the ground, but the Dagûlʻkû saw his track and killed him as he came out.

At last the Hummingbird offered, but the others said he was entirely too small and might as well stay at home. He begged them to let him try, so they showed him a plant in a field and told him to let them see how he would go about it. The next moment he was gone and they saw him sitting on the plant, and then in a moment he was back again, but no one had seen him going or coming, because he was so swift. “This is the way I’ll do,” said the Hummingbird, so they let him try.

He flew off to the east, and when he came in sight of the tobacco the Dagûlʻkû were watching all about it, but they could not see him because he was so small and flew so swiftly. He darted down on the plant—tsa!—and snatched off the top with the leaves and seeds, and was off again before the Dagûlʻkû knew what had happened. Before he got home with the tobacco the old woman had fainted and they thought she was dead, but he blew the smoke into her nostrils, and with a cry of “Tsâ′lû! [Tobacco!]” she opened her eyes and was alive again.

The above story was recorded by James Mooney in the late 1890’s during his time with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Western Cherokees in Indian Country (i.e. Oklahoma). Tobacco to the ancient Cherokee was a sacred plant that was used as the “guarantee of a solemn oath in nearly every important function—in binding the warrior to take up the hatchet against the enemy, in ratifying the treaty of peace, in confirming sales or other engagements, in seeking omens for the hunter, in driving away witches or evil spirits, and in regular medical practice.” As such, loosing access to the tobacco plant was a bad thing that caused a lot of harm to the People. To help the People, the Hummingbird braved the circle of Dagûlʻkû geese and took back some leaves and seeds so that the Cherokee could regrow the plant and be restored.

Accordingly, it is said that the Hummingbird is the hero of the story with the Dagûlʻkû geese being the antagonist. However, I’m wondering if there isn’t another way to read this story in which these roles are switched. Stories, after all, typically have layers of meanings within them that come to light depending on the situation at hand. They are not meant to be static text but rather dynamic tellings that help us navigate this crazy world.

As a proponent of the Holy Spirit being the Wild Goose (An Geadh-Glas), I see the workings of the Spirit in the actions of the Dagûlʻkû. In his last hours, Jesus of Nazareth told his followers that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them into truth and “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Because of this job, the Spirit sometimes must get our attention and let us know that what we are doing isn’t healthy.

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Therefore when the Dagûlʻkû steals the tobacco from the People, he isn’t doing it out of spite or to harm the Cherokees. Rather he is trying to bring them to the understanding that tobacco isn’t the ‘thing’ that is going to save them. The only true savior of the People is the Creator himself who brings health, peace, and balance to our lives. Our guarantee for life isn’t found in a plant, but rather in the Spirit himself who is our seal of salvation (Eph. 1:13).

This interpretation of the story gains strength when you realize that the Dagûlʻkû flew south with the tobacco. To the ancient Cherokee each of the four cardinal directions had their own symbolic meaning. Mooney records that Power (War), Peace, Death, and Defeat were the symbolic meaning of East, South, West, and North respectively. When the Dagûlʻkû flew south, he went towards peace and happiness rather than west which would have been death. This is a small detail, but an important one when considering the value of the tobacco plant to the Cherokees. The ‘theft’ of their sacred plant didn’t usher in pain and death, but peace and happiness.  

The Hummingbird, when he left, flew east towards power, war, and success. This direction foreshadows the recovery of the sacred tobacco as told within the story. Though the old woman is healed (or resurrected?) by the smoke of the plant, she will eventually die again. There are a lot of things in this world that bring temporary health to our lives even though the end is actually death. Fame, wealth, pride, greed, and selfishness are few ‘plants’ of this world that we seek after – and may even find – only to discover that they leave us empty and hollow. After all, like the Red Letters say, “What does it profit us to gain the world but lose our souls?” (Mt 16:26)

Something to think about. And in pondering it, perhaps you may see that it is right.