Category Archives: Theology Thoughts

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.

Exchange of Sovereignties (Part 3 of 3)

Click here for part one and two of this series about the our allegiance to the Creator King.

Lest we forget, claiming Jesus as our Lord and King goes beyond giving him priority over our country, religion, and holy book. There is a very real, albeit unseen, transfer of allegiance that happens when we bow our knees to the Risen King and call upon him to rescue us (e.g. Romans 10:9-13, Colossians 1:12-13). At that precise moment in time we are “delivered from Satan’s kingdom and catapulted into the kingdom of God.”[1] No longer are we bound by the chains of sin, addictions, pain, sorrow, death, and evil. We are now children of the Living God, joint heirs with Jesus the Messiah (e.g. Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:4-7).

                Though unseen, and sometimes even unfelt, this spiritual exchange of sovereignties is at the core of the good news of Jesus. Throughout the Scriptures there is a paradox where the Creator God is described as both the current King and the coming King of the world. This paradox is set against the backdrop of a battle being raged across the visible and invisible dimensions of creation between the forces of evil and the Lord Almighty. Though the origin of this war is shrouded in mystery with the Scriptures being silent on the details that we so desperately crave, the biblical authors understood that fighting against “such things as injustice, oppression, greed, and apathy toward the needy was to participate directly or indirectly in a cosmic war that had engulfed the earth.”[2]

Photo by Ricky Turner

                Accordingly, the choice to follow Jesus is also a choice not to follow the ways of the evil one.  Hence the early followers of Jesus understood that the “one who professed in response to the gospel, ‘I believe,’ was the one who said simultaneously: ‘I renounce you Satan, your pomp, your service, your works’ (Chrysostom); ‘I renounce the devil and his work, this age and its pleasure’ (Ambrose).”[3] Theologian and pastor Don Williams elaborates on this exchange of sovereignties in declaring that:

To say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ means to renounce all other lords. No ideology, political philosophy, drug or person can have a higher claim on our lives. All our idols must be pulled down, repented of and crushed at Jesus’ feet. The idols of pride, power, control, self-medication, family, friends, illicit sex, internet pornography, legalism, self-righteousness, mind-altering meditation, witchcraft, magic, cults, gambling, work, self-advancement, children, health, and security in old age must go. Anything that takes the place of Jesus in our hearts, in our passions and in our devotion is an idol. As Elijah the prophet said to the nation of Israel, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him’ (1 Kings 18:21). God has called us and revealed Jesus as Lord to us. Follow Him![4]


Endnotes

[1] Don Williams, Start Here: Kingdom Essentials for Christians (Ventura, California: Regal, 2006), 7.

[2] Gregory A. Boyd, God At War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 14.

[3] Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 221.

[4] Don Williams, Start Here, 16-17.

The Enthroned King (part 2 of 3)

Part one of this three part series can be found here.

The four historical narratives of Jesus’ life and ministry (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all agree that Jesus’ primary message was that the active, dynamic rule and reign of God (i.e. the kingdom of God) had broken into the world. No longer were the people of God waiting for the promised day of the Lord when all would be made right. That day had come in and through Jesus, though he also told them that the kingdom was yet to come in its fullness. It was a paradox in which the age to come had come, is coming, and would one day fully break into the present evil age.[1]

Writing a few decades after Jesus, the Apostle Paul would summarize the message of Jesus in terms of “incarnation and enthronement.”[2] Jesus was the promised one about whom the prophets had foretold. Furthermore, he was also the incarnated Creator King of heaven and earth who entered into the world through “David’s seed in terms of flesh” (Romans 1:3, TKNT). While this statement itself is powerful, Paul goes to say that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and enthroned as “the King, our Lord” (Romans 1:4, TKNT).

               The enthronement of Jesus as the King of heaven and earth can be seen most clearly in the first chapter of Acts. After giving his followers some last-minute instructions, Jesus is lifted up into the skies and hidden from sight by a cloud (Acts 1:9). This action harkens back to Daniel 7:13-14 (NIV) in which “one like a son of man” approaches the Ancient of Days with “clouds of heaven” and is enthroned with “all nations and peoples of every language” worshiping him.  Jesus, the Son of Man as he commonly called himself (e.g. Matthew 9:6, Mark 8:38, John 8:28), is now the “true world ruler, with all the warring pagan nations made subject to him.”[3]

               Though we don’t think much about such language, for Paul to say that Jesus is the “blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, ESV) is to effectively commit treason against the Roman Empire and its divine ruler. Starting in the days of Caesar Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), the emperors of the land were seen as divine gods with temples dedicated to their worship being built across the empire from Spain to Judea.[4] Accordingly, for Paul to claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Creator God and the true King of the earth was to effectively deny the exclusive rule of the Caesars (e.g. Acts 7:6-8). Later followers of Jesus would face death at the hands of Roman authorities for upholding these claims as they refused to renounce their loyalty to Jesus and offer sacrifices to the human emperor of the land. 

Pledging our undivided allegiance to Jesus doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t be proud of our nation, religion, or holy book. Paul, for example, was a Roman citizen who obeyed the laws of the land even though he disagreed with common worship practices of the day (e.g. Acts 16:37-38, 22:25-29, Romans 13:1-7). He also was proud of his Jewish heritage and Scriptures of his youth even if he now reinterpreted them through the lens of Jesus the Messiah (e.g. Acts 22:3-21, Philippians 3:2-11). As Paul’s life shows us, following Jesus means that our first allegiance is to Jesus our King and Lord. We are first and foremost disciples of Jesus before we are citizens of a nation, followers of a religion, and/or readers of a holy book. If ever there is a disagreement or test of loyalty between these things, may we echo words of Simon Peter and the apostles as they stood before the same Assembly who tortured and killed Jesus a few weeks previously: “We must obey God, not human beings!” (Acts 5:29, TKNT)


Endnotes

[1] Joshua S. Hopping, The Here and Not Yet: What is Kingdom Theology and Why Does It Matter? (Ladysmith, South Africa: Vineyard International Publishing, 2017), 23-38

[2] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 30-34.

[3] N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, And Why He Matters (New York: HaperOne, 2011), 196.

[4] N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Book 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 311-343.

Allegiance to the King (part 1 of 3)

Every morning at 8:30 am during the school year my son lines up with his classmates to recite three pledges before starting the day. They start by reciting the Pledge to the American Flag[1] before moving on to the Pledge to the Christian Flag[2] and the Pledge to the Bible.[3] Though these young students may not realize the full impact of their words, they are declaring their loyalty to the nation they live in (i.e. United States of America), their religion (i.e. Christianity), and their holy book (i.e. the Bible). 

                I would wager a guess that there are millions of people around the world reciting similar pledges.  They may even recite these pledges in the same order – giving allegiance first to their nation (e.g. USA, India, China, Israel, Russia, Canada, etc.), then to their religion (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Wicca, Atheism, etc.), and finally to their holy writings (e.g. Bible, Koran, Tripitaka, Vedas, etc.). I would further guess that most of these people, Jesus followers include, don’t even think twice about the pledges they are reciting. After all, it is normal to love the nation you live in, the religion you follow, and the holy writings you read.

                Yet, if I may vocalize a nagging question in the back of my head, should a follower of Jesus pledge their loyalty and allegiance to a nation, religion, or holy book? And if so, should we be concerned about the order in which we pledge our allegiance? Say, instead of pledging our loyalty to our nation first, maybe we should pledge our allegiance to our religion, our holy writings, and then to our nation…. or should we just stop saying the pledges all together?

                Jesus followers throughout history have come to different conclusions concerning those questions. They are not easy questions to answer as they have wide ranging implications for how we live our lives and how we interact with the world around us. For my part, I go back and forth between saying all three pledges, saying some of them, and not saying them at all. My country, religion, and holy writings have all impacted my life to a degree that words cannot fully express. Yet despite of my love for all three, there’s a war deep inside of me for I know how my love for my nation, religion, and holy writings can, and does, compete for my love for Jesus.  And that concerns me.

Photo by Samuel Schneider via Unsplash.com
Photo by Samuel Schneider via Unsplash.com

Loving Jesus

I was first introduced to Jesus by my parents who met him from their parents who likewise met the King through the influence of their parents. I remember early morning livestock feedings on the farm with my father talking about Creator or times under the hood of a vehicle talking about doing all things unto the King. There were also times of talking with my mother about the strange and odd verses in the Scriptures that didn’t seem to make sense.  Though some might think that this genealogy would lead to a lackluster religion more concerned about keeping tradition than knowing the person of Jesus, that wasn’t the case for me. Somehow my parents had managed to escape the religiosity and skepticism of the day, even while feeling the pain and disappointment that often leaks out from the rotting corpses housed in whitewashed tombs. And in doing so they taught me to love Jesus and watch for his presence in all areas of life.

These early lessons of seeing past the trappings of life to find Jesus helped me navigate the “witch’s brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus.”[4] Sadly, throughout history there have always been people who have used Jesus to support their own political and religious agendas. This is especially true for those in power in the United States of America, to the point that to “millions of people around the world, Jesus Christ is synonymous with Western society and America.”[5] 

During the 1st century when Jesus walked the earth, there were multiple views of the kingdom of God and how that kingdom was manifested in real life.[6] Jesus could have embraced the strict religious rules of the Pharisees who sought to perfectly follow the Mosaic Law for one day as to usher in the rule and reign of the Heavenly Father. Or Jesus could have retreated into the desert to study the Scriptures and worship the Lord like the Essenes. The Sadducees also offered Jesus a way forward, a way of wealth and riches through their partnership with the Roman Empire. 

The Romans themselves would have loved it if Jesus would have endorsed their way of life. After all, they were the greatest nation in the world at the time with an empire that stretched across three continents. Or if Jesus didn’t like the pagan worshiping Romans being in the land of promise, he could have joined the Zealots and fought to take back the land for God.  There were plenty of people at the time who would have loved to make Jesus king of Israel. All he needed to do is say the word and the revolution would have begun.

Jesus, however, did not and does not “endorse any other way, any other moral code except his own. Jesus was [and is] exclusively the Way.”[7] He is “the way and the truth and the life” as the Apostle John wrote quoting our Lord (John 14:6, NIV). Knowing God is a “matter of personal contact”[8] with Jesus rather than doctrine, religious duties, money, ethics, lifestyle, or any of the other boundaries people have created over the years.


Endnotes

[1] Pledge to the American Flag – “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

[2] Pledge to the Christian Flag – “I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.”

[3] Pledge to the Bible – “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word, I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

[4] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1.

[5] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism (Colorado Spring, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2011), 61.

[6] Additional information on the different political and religious views of the kingdom of God challenged by Jesus can be found in chapter seven and nine of my previous book, The Here and Not Yet (Vineyard International Publishing, 2017).

[7] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus, 155.

[8] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus, 70.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 2 of 2)

The first part of this series can be found here.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536 C.E.) is the first change agent under review. Born in the Netherlands towards the latter half of the fifteenth century, Erasmus was a Roman Catholic priest and Augustinian monk who was not content to live life inside the monastery walls.[1] Rather, his desire to ask questions and learn about the broader world pushed him to travel all over Europe, meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Early on in his career Erasmus collected and subsequently published a book of sayings and phrases “culled from antiquity”[2] which not only broadened his perspective of life but helped broaden the perspective of those around him.

As he processed the information and knowledge gained through his questions and travels, Erasmus began to challenge the status quo of his time. His personal moral character did not allow him to sit idly by while narrow-minded, though intelligent, people took advantage of the average person through a devotion to prescribed answers. Writing with humor and tact Erasmus tackled the abuses of the Roman Church while insisting “that righteousness was more important than orthodoxy.”[3] The wisdom of using humor and satire rather than straightforward logical arguments can be seen in that fact that it “enabled Erasmus to satirize everything and everyone in the world of his time while escaping the condemnation that would have been hurled at him had he tackled his subjects straight on.”[4]

In summary, Erasmus was a change agent who placed a high value on asking questions rather than being content with prescribed answers. In helping others navigate the changing cultural landscape, he acted with wisdom, humility, and humor, rather than seeking rather than seeking to build himself up with pride and knowledge. Throughout his life, Erasmus refused to rely solely on his intelligence; rather he constantly sought to develop his personal character by placing “ethics and spirituality at the center of [his] theology and philosophy with Christ’s teaching as the model for fruitful Christian reflection.”[5] All of this led to a broad perspective of life with friends and admirers on both sides of the primary cultural and religious divide of his time, that of the Protestant Reformation.[6]

The second change agent under review is Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Like Erasmus, Luther was an Augustinian monk and priest within the Roman Catholic Church. He also placed a high regard on questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life, though his personal journey with these values took him in a different direction than Erasmus. For Luther, his desire to better understand the Way of Christ led him to reject the answers traditionally given by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.[7] The end result of Luther’s questions was the posting of the famous Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 which led to the Protestant Reformation.[8]

Throughout his life, Martin Luther engaged in an introspective journey to know and understand himself. Despite his fame as an international religious leader, Luther “never gave off the aura of a medieval saint”; rather, he would “realistically evaluate his strengths and weaknesses”[9] while publicly confessing his personal flaws. Luther’s focus on truly knowing himself led to his theological masterpiece, mainly that salvation is a “free gift of divine mercy for which the human person can do nothing.”[10] This conclusion was in direct opposition to the predominant view that salvation could be bought and sold by the Roman Catholic Church by drawing on the “merits of Christ – and of his saints.”[11] In challenging this perspective of salvation, Luther became a major change agent who helped bring correction to the wider church of his day.

As a change agent, Martin Luther was one who was not afraid to pursue questions despite the uncertainty of where they might lead. He also demonstrated wisdom in knowing how to navigate the politically charged landscape of his day. Luther’s deep moral conviction was, as previously mentioned, a major bulwark against the pressures of fame, prescribed answers, and the narrow-mindedness of those in leadership roles above and around him. All in all, Luther was able not only to broaden his own perspectives of life, but those of others across Europe and, eventually, the world.

Around the same time that Erasmus and Luther were changing the religious landscape of Europe, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564 C.E.) was changing the art world to the point that “no artistic education could be complete without a thorough knowledge of his work.”[12] Born in the Republic of Florence, Michelangelo loved to question the world around him in a desire to broaden his perspective of life. This desire to learn earned Michelangelo the label as the “greatest artist who had ever lived, supreme above all rivals in the fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture.”[13]

Even though he was famous during his lifetime, Michelangelo “cared not a whit for riches, nor even for food or clothing.”[14] Rather, he maintained a humble lifestyle, seeking to devote all his energy and focus to crafting works of art. Michelangelo’s desire to create items of beauty was constantly challenged by the political upheaval within the courts of Pope Julius II, his primary benefactor. The wisdom he showed in navigating the treacherous waters of artistic rivalry, political backstabbing, and full-out national war is commendable.

In summary, Michelangelo was a change agent who managed to capture the “expressive possibilities of the human form” [15] in a way that no one else had ever done before while maintaining his personal character in the midst of a city full of political upheaval. He also challenged the status quo of the art world in an effort to broaden the perspective of those who gazed upon his work. Writer and Episcopal priest Ian Cron once stated that “artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal.”[16] Perhaps this is why Sir Joshua Reynolds described Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel as “the language of the Gods.”[17]

Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all possessed the rare ability to tap into the emotions of their time and help people navigate the changing cultural landscape. Though their personalities and beliefs differed, they all valued the act of asking questions, seeking wisdom, being true to one’s personal character, and having a broad perspective of life over and above preset answers, factual knowledge, personal intelligence, and narrow-mindedness. In doing so, they changed the course of their culture and, ultimately, the world.

 

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York City: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2013), 135.

[2] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 132-133.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 11.

[4] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 136.

[5] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 315.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 13.

[7] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 155-157.

[8] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 22.

[9] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 164.

[10] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 380.

[11] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 151.

[12] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 313.

[13] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 312.

[14] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 109.

[15] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 299.

[16] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 110.

[17] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 313.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 1 of 2)

The world is changing. Or, at least, more people are noticing the change as the world has always been changing. Humanity, in general, prefers to experience change in small doses with time enough to process the ramifications before the next wave of change sweeps over them. Although much of human history has progressed in small steady steps, the global events of the last few decades have rendered this luxury elusive. The rapid pace of change has escalated uncertainty with people “crying for justice, honesty, and solutions” [1] while being scared and angry.

This response is not new as people throughout history tend to respond to rapid change with fear and anger. Standing strong against this tidal wave are leaders who embrace the change and help lead others through the darkness of the unknown. These leaders, or change agents, are people who are able to maintain a broad perspective on life while valuing questions, wisdom, and personal character over intelligence, knowledge, and presumed answers.

While history is brimming with amazing examples of such leaders, this paper will focus on three change agents within the pandemonium of sixteenth-century Europe who embraced the values previously mentioned. This time frame was chosen due to the parallel between it and the furor of modern culture within the United States. Both periods experienced change at a rapid pace as new concepts and ideas poured into their culture through globalization  (i.e. European colonies in the Americas and Asia vs. airplanes, global tourism, and mass immigration), increased knowledge (i.e. Gutenberg’s printing press vs. the internet), religious discord (i.e. the Protestant Reformation vs. religious pluralism), and political mayhem (i.e. the end of the feudal system vs. the rebirth of nationalism).[2] The agents themselves, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo, were chosen due to their ability to give a voice to the emotions of their time while personally reflecting the values of questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life.

However, before looking at the lives of these change agents, it is worth pausing a moment to better understand the four values in question and how they interact with each other. The first value is that of asking questions. Though this may sound like an odd value, it is actually the protovalue from which the other three flow. The prerequisite of asking a question is the humble acknowledgment that the answer is unknown to the one asking the question. Hence to value questions is to recognizes one’s own limitations while seeking to move beyond those limitations. It a multi-layered value that carries within it humility and curiosity coupled with a boldness to receive answers that one may not like.

Wisdom, the second value, flows from the first in that one must understand the world around oneself before being able to wisely choose a course of action. The New Bible Dictionary defines wisdom as “the art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results”[3] whereas Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action.”[4] Both definitions carry a sense of practicality where information and knowledge is transferred from the theoretical into the best course of action for that time and place.

The third value is that of personal character development. This value can be defined as having moral strength and fortitude to embrace the uncertainty of questions while seeking the path of wisdom. Change agents who embrace this value are ones who seek to truly know themselves and learn their “strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview”[5] rather than being content to rely on their inherent intelligence and talent. Having embraced such a journey, the change agent is then able to move forward into the unknown, forearmed with the wisdom that comes with personal reflection and a deep moral conviction.

Having a broad perspective of life is the last value under consideration. This value means having the “ability to see things in a true relationship”[6] across the broad spectrum of life. It is a value that embraces the vastness of humanity as reflected in the plethora of human culture, personalities, and behavior. One cannot, however, embrace the broadness of humanity or begin to see the interconnectivity of things if one does not ask questions or have the personal character to move beyond past assumptions and narrow-minded views of life. Hence, to value a broad perspective of life means opening oneself up to new ideas and concepts that may or may not challenge previously held ideologies.

Those who embrace the values of questions, wisdom, personal character development, and a broad perspective of life may find themselves living on the edge of the unknown. While this may sound frightening to some, it is the best place to be as it means having to trust God as one enters into the uncertainty of life. This is why these four values can be seen so clearly in the lives of change agents both in the modern era as well as in sixteenth-century Europe. A word of warning though, not everyone who embraces these values end up in the same place. As this paper will soon demonstrate, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all espoused similar values even though they ended up in different ideological and theological places. It is as Justo Gonzalez once commented, “in such an age of turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they themselves could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions.”[7]

 

Endnotes

[1]  Tri Robinson, Re:Form: The Decline of American Evangelicalism and a Path for the New Generation to Re:Form Their Faith (Sweet, Idaho: Timber Butte Publishing, 2017), 92.

[2] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005), 4.

[3] The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[4] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[5] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership, 95-96.

[6] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “perspective.”

[7] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 10.

Being Missional

Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” No truer words can be spoken about Kingdom Theology and the three themes intertwined within that worldview. Our theology is to be lived out clearly for the world to see. Otherwise we fool ourselves into thinking that we are something we are not. James put it this way in his letter:

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

If we claim to be servants of the King, then we must focus on our lives and set our hearts on the King’s business. Everything we do must be centered around and lead to the promotion of the King’s mission. We are to be intentional and deliberate in declaring that the rule and reign of the Creator King has broken into human history and has provided humanity with a new way to live life. It is this deliberateness that causes one to become missional in everything. Our life no longer belongs to ourselves, but has become pledged to the King of Kings.

I cannot overstate the power of living on mission. All too often we think that following Jesus means praying a short prayer of salvation one day then spending the remaining decades sitting on a church pew each Sunday. During the week, we are free to pursue whatever dreams or desires we want as long as we read our Bible, pray occasionally, pay our tithes and don’t do this or that like all good little Christians. This view of the Christian life does not reflect the reality of what it means to follow Jesus and join with him on his mission. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for a country club; I signed up to change the world with Jesus and to defeat the forces of evil that destroy and enslave billions of people worldwide!

We, the people of God, need to change the stories that we are telling each other. We need to get rid of the “American Dream”, where we pursue the nice little house with the white picket fence, two cars, a boat, some kids and a steady job. Life is not about shopping, hunting, sports, parties, how many activities you do or how much stuff you own. Life isn’t even about how often you show up at church or what religious activities you perform. Jesus said life was about following him.

In the first century, disciples of a Jewish rabbi would leave their families, homes and communities with the single-minded focus of learning to live life like their rabbi. They didn’t just want to know what information their rabbi knew; they wanted to think, act and be like them. There are even stories of disciples following their rabbi into the bathroom in an effort to know everything about them, so that they could replicate it in their own lives. While slightly humorous, those stories tell us a lot about those disciples. They weren’t fooling around, adding on religious activities or mindless prayers to their daily schedules. They were serious about living life. They had a mission and nothing, not even a bathroom door, was going to stop them from their goal of being like their rabbi.

Shouldn’t we be that way towards our rabbi, the King of Kings? Perhaps, instead of simply going to church and doing all the “right” things, we should be intentional and deliberate in being like him. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that if they loved him, they would keep his commands (John 14:15–21). And what were his commands? To proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, heal the sick, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, love God the Father with their whole heart, body, mind and soul and love their neighbors as themselves. Seven things. That’s it. If we have bowed our knees to King Jesus, we are to daily crucify our own desires and pick up the cross of Jesus, committing to walk out these seven commandments of the King. And though we may fail – or rather, even though we will fail – we are to get back up and try again and again and again and again.

Paul told the church in Corinth that they were to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). How awesome would it be if the churches around the world were filled with people so dedicated to the King of Kings that they told their neighbors, co-workers, family members and strangers to follow their example as they followed the example of Jesus? If this happened, it would radically change the world in which we live. Religiosity would stop, people would be quick to ask for, and give, forgiveness, the hungry would be fed and people would know there was another way to live life. Sin, evil and death would lose their power as people embrace the rule and reign of the Creator King.

 

Excerpt from my book The Here and Not Yet (pages 219-221) published by Vineyard International Publishing. Available in paperback and ebook versions – click here to find out more.