Does It Work?

Does It Work?

Advent 2

 

For the next 24 days we are going to discuss prayer.  Obviously, since I have dedicated a total of twenty-six days to this subject, I think it must bear discussing.  Prayer is many things to many different people.  We could probably each define it and have almost as many different definitions as we would answers.  For some it is a request; others see it as a connection.  Nearly every church has its own manner of prayer and procedures regarding such.  But does it really work?

 

We just finished the season called Pentecost, a season that celebrates the Holy Spirit.  We celebrated this season by delving into the various mythologies of the world, both past and present.  Many believe prayer releases a deity’s spirit.  In the New Testament, the Book of Acts states that when people pray, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized in their faith.

 

Some connect prayer with theurgy.  Somewhere around 480 ACE, Proclus described theurgy as “a power higher than all human wisdom embracing the blessings of divination, the purifying powers of initiation and in a word all operations of divine possession.”  Not everyone agrees with that definition.  Pierre A Riffard describes it as “a type of magic.  It consists of a set of magical practices performed to evoke benefit spirits in order to see them or know them or in order to influence them, for instance by forcing them to animate a statue, to inhabit a human being (such as a medium), or to disclose mysteries.” 

 

We will discuss whether or not prayer does indeed have benefits, a topic still being studied and debated today.  We will also visit the various manners or forms of prayer.  From quiet meditation to jubilant dancing to the solitary walking of a labyrinth, prayer is much more than whispered words said by a child before going to bed.

 

There are archaeological documents dating back some five thousand years to give evidence to mankind engaging in the act of prayer.  Not everyone agrees prayer is beneficial or even religious.  British author and religious journalist Christopher Hitchens quotes a nineteenth century American writer regarding prayer:  “The man who prays is the one who thinks that God has arranged all matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct God how to put them right.”

 

Others believe that people use prayer as something of an excuse or cop out and instead of taking positive action to correct a situation, hide behind their praying.  Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett explains:  “surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me!  No, I’m not at all sure about that.  For one thing, is they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about.”

 

Dennett’s argument is used by those who feel some religious groups such as the Christian Scientists put young children in harm’s way by praying over medical conditions instead of seeking medical aid and resolution.  Others feel prayer is a nebulous concept and that since it cannot be measured or even defined universally, it must not have value.

 

As I stated before, I clearly think the topic has some merit because I have devoted twenty-six days to discussing it.  To those who would say that prayer is a nebulous concept, I would counter with the argument that so is love.  Certainly love is not universally defined by all.  Some married people believe love is evident by their partner’s gifts while others would argue it is in the daily mundane chores that no one particularly enjoys doing.

 

Whether or not prayer works is also not something we can take a yardstick out and give a measurement that everyone will accept.  For some, the mere act of praying offers consolation that lends them strength to then undertake corrective and restorative action.  Others find comfort in the mere thought that someone cares enough to offer prayer on their behalf. 

 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of prayer is that it offers us a connection, not only to a deity but to each other.  I firmly believe that in prayer we are all equal.  Tyrone Edwards wrote:  “Whoever in prayer can say “Our father”, acknowledges and should feel the brotherhood of the whole race of mankind.”

 

As we go through this series, I welcome your comments but I encourage you to try your own experiment with prayer if it is not familiar to you.  If you do daily engage in prayer, then I suggest you try another form of it.  Let your body move in prayer.  Offer up prayers for those you dislike.  Talk to your deity or spiritual guide as you go through those daily chores that are necessary but not particularly fun.  In her book “Praying with Strangers”, River Jordan had a stunning realization.  The act of praying for these strangers had a profound effect on her, a most unexpected result.  “They are rescuing me from my indifference.”  Maybe that is the true purpose of prayer after all.  It rescues us from ourselves.

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The Art of Prayer

The Art of Prayer

Advent #1

 

There is a Jamaican proverb that states “Prayer only from the mouth is no prayer.”  Earlier this year I was at a branch of our local library.  I was in something of a hurry and as I looked for my much-needed reference book, I spied a volume shelved incorrectly.  Combine a habit gained while working in a library with a pet peeve involving books that one needs and cannot find because they are not shelved properly and you will realize why I picked up this orphan book and felt I really had to – positively had to – reshelve it correctly.  Then I took a good look at the book.

 

How a book that belonged in religion and spirituality ended up in the middle of gardening and cookbooks is a mystery.  Like most public libraries, this one shelves books according to the Dewey Decimal System.   The Dewey Decimal System is an American invention, a system for classifying books first developed by librarian Melvil Dewey in 1876.  Prior to Dewey’s system of arranging books according to a numerical designation based upon subject matter, books were catalogued by date of acquisition.  Currently over two hundred thousand libraries in over one hundred and thirty countries use the Dewey Decimal System as does the Online Computer Library Center.

 

It can at times be difficult to know exactly how a book will be classified if one is not familiar with the system and even if one has a great understanding of it, sometimes classification is a matter of opinion.  Philosophy books are found under the “100” heading while religion books are located under “200”.  Whether something is philosophical or religious can be a matter of context or the classifier’s opinion.  One must have some patience then when books in one area are found in another.  Prayer and cooking, I felt, were enough of a different subject matter that they should not be confused.  I did check the book’s spine and saw that it had the correct Dewey designation; it had simply be put down one the wrong bookcase.  Then I looked even closer at the book.  What truly interested me from that point forward was the name of the author.  “Surely it is a pseudonym” I thought confidently.  It did seem a bit corny, trite even, was my next thought.

 

The book in my hand that needed to find its proper shelf home was titled “Praying for Strangers”.  The author whose name caught my eye was …River Jordan.  As I mentioned before, I was in a hurry and yet, the author’s name really caught my attention.  I didn’t have the time to read the back cover which usually contained the author’s bio so I did the next best thing – I checked the book out.  That way I could resolve my curiosity about the author’s name at home when I had more time.  Then I could determine if the author’s obvious pen name was lever, corny, or inspired.  In today’s high stakes marketing world, everything on the book jacket is scrutinized for its appeal, even the author’s name.  This one had certainly captured my attention.

 

What I expected with this book was not what I received.  I thought the book was a manual about praying, perhaps a collection of written prayers.  I was positive the author’s name was a pseudonym, a pen name.  I was incorrect in both of those expectations.  The author’s name really is River Jordan and she has quite a few books published, although not in the religious genre.  “Praying for Strangers” is not a how-to book; in fact, many would call it self-help rather than religious or spiritual.  (Self-help would be a different Dewey classification entirely.)  The book is actually a diary, a journal that began out of a frustrating few minutes.

 

Much about life starts with “a few minutes of frustration”.  A bully can begin a person’s downward spiral into suicide with a few minutes of frustration.  A couple caught up in the throes of divorce, a time of pain and anguish hurl insults at each other in a few minutes of frustration.  A man reaches behind his head as he experiences a few minutes of frustration on the highway and fires the shotgun he’s positioned in the gun rack of his truck.  At the beginning of this book, the author tells about going to a public restroom and overhearing a woman in a neighboring stall berating a small child who is wearing blue shoes.  The author imagines a variety of scenarios in which she plays hero, rescuing the child and criticizing the verbally abusive woman but both have left by the time the author exists her own stall.  All the author can do is pray.

 

I seriously doubt there is anyone who has not uttered a prayer.  I am certain there are those out there who will claim they never have but I think they might be forgetting their own “few minutes of frustration”.  Quaker Richard Foster describes prayer as “finding the heart’s true home”.  For some people, prayer is conversation with a spirit.  For others it is an intensely deep religious event. 

 

During this series of 26 essays we will delve into the art of prayer, not so much from a specific theological perspective but from a more all-encompassing human angle.  My own system of classification of these daily essays or blog posts is based upon the calendar of the Christian year.  Today is New Year’s Day, the first day of the Christian calendar, the first day of the season of Advent.  Advent is perhaps one of the best known of all the seasons.  Stores sell advent calendars which help count down the days until Christmas with everything from candy canes to toys to scripture and quotations. 

 

Whether you consider Advent a season of preparation or introspection, we can most likely all agree that it is a season of waiting in great anticipation.  The same could be said about prayer, especially the great anticipation part.  Prayer can seem so natural and yet, it remains clouded in mystery.  I have no magic answers but it will make for a most interesting series as we explore this thing called prayer.  Some cultures use a prayer wheel while others have prayer beads.  This most ancient form of communication is most curious since it involves conversing with the unknown, the unproven, and the unseen.  Do you believe in the power of prayer?  How do you define it?  Most importantly, can anyone pray?  I am eager to do this series.  There are some scriptures regarding prayer that I take issue with and then there are others that comfort me.  I believe in the power of prayer … or do I just believe?

 

Lessons from a Modern Mythology

Lessons from a Modern Mythology

Pentecost #190

 

Someone asked me if I identified with the Thinking Woman.  LOL!  It is an interesting question and I will succinctly say “Yes, I do”, although probably not for the reasons one might assume.  I think most if not all women would like to be thought of as “thinking women”.  I would feel complimented of someone identified me as a “thinking woman”.  However, I actually was not considering that aspect when I thought to answer affirmatively.  The Thinking Woman or Spider Woman we discussed yesterday wove stories.  In other words she was a story teller and weaving stories into modern-day life illustrations is one of the main purposes of this blog.  The other purpose is to start conversation and get you the reader to think.

 

Today we conclude our series on the mythologies of the world.  Thank you for your time and comments.  During the season of Pentecost, a Christian church calendar season that celebrates the Holy Spirit, we have discussed ancient and not-so-ancient mythologies from the world, exploring and celebrating the spirits of mankind.  During our mythical world tour we also discovered how very diverse cultures had very similar deities.

 

Storytelling has long been used to instruct and illustrate, to educate and to recreate.  We may think of mythology as an old art form but its principles are still being used today.  Take for instance the talk given by Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore, Maryland in 1971. Dr. McNeish was a science teacher who happened to deliver a sermon at his church one Sunday.  His text was very similar in its usage of the spirit of one group of animals to illustrate life lessons.  Since its original speech, the text has been used by others who have become much more famous than the originator.  Still, the lessons are just as valid.

 

Dr. McNeish used a very common sight to those living in Maryland.  Twice a year, geese fly in formation over the rooftops and beautiful waters of the various rivers, Chesapeake Bay, and the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.  In the fall geese are flying towards warmer southern climates.  In the spring they return to their northern homes.  Dr. McNeish sought to use stories about the habits and spirit of the geese as he created his modern mythology.  It went something like this …

 

Geese flying in V-formation have always been a welcome sign of spring, as well as, a sign that heralds the coming of winter. Not only is this a marvelous sight, but there are some remarkable lessons that we can learn from the flight of the geese; all they do has significance.  As each goose flaps its wings, it creates uplift for others behind it. There is 71% more flying range in V-formation than in flying alone.  Lesson:  People who share a common direction and sense of purpose can get there more quickly.

 

Whenever a goose flies out of formation, it feels drag and tries to get back into position. Lesson:  It’s harder to do something alone than together.

 

When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies at the head.  Lesson:  Shared leadership and interdependence give us each a chance to lead, as well as an opportunity to rest.

 

The geese flying in the rear of the formation honk to encourage those upfront to keep up their speed.  Lesson:  Encouragement is motivating.

 

We need to make sure our “honking” is encouraging and not discouraging.  When a goose gets sick or wounded and falls, two geese fall out of formation and stay with it until it revives or dies. Then they catch up or join another flock. Lesson:  We may all need help from time to time. We should stand by our colleagues in difficult times.

 

I don’t know why Dr. McNeish was speaking at his church nor do I know why he had selected geese to discuss.  Having lived in the region and having had hundreds of geese fly over my house and property, I can tell you that sight is both beautiful and …well, messy at times.  Geese will stop for a night or two and takeover an area.  Once they claim a picnic spot as their own, they can be very territorial and aggressive.  They are, no doubt, beautiful birds and it is really lovely to see them in the familiar “V” formation.

 

If Dr. McNeish had simply gotten up at his church and stated five facts, I’m sure his speech would not have been as memorable.  His use of a well-known, beautiful waterfowl animal made the talk interesting.  Illustrating the actions of geese and then comparing those actions to our own took away any defensiveness the listener might have felt.

 

The lessons from geese are life lessons about teamwork.  People who share a common direction and sense of purpose can get there more quickly.  They also encourage people to work together without feeling lesser for asking for help.  It’s harder to do something alone than together.    Geese need each other for protection, direction, and basic living.  Shared leadership and interdependence give us each a chance to lead, as well as an opportunity to rest.  We all like applause.  It is not something simply for performers on a stage.  We all need motivation in order to continue on a positive path.  Encouragement is motivating.  No one is perfect and no one person can do everything.  We may all need help from time to time.   It is easy to be popular when you have no problems but a true friend is one who will stand by you when you are having difficulties.  True friends see our hearts, not just our outer shell.  We should stand by our colleagues in difficult times.

 

Mythology is not just something from our past.  We are writing new mythologies every day, not just in our actions but in how we live.  Tomorrow we begin a new series.  Leonard Cohen once wrote that “Prayer is translation.  A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.”  Tomorrow we will begin Advent and during Advent we will explore that language, the language of prayer.  Lest you think you already know all there is to know about prayer, stay tuned.  You might just be surprised!

Thinking Woman

Thinking Woman

Pentecost #189

 

The really neat thing to me about the mythology of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere is that their mythologies are alive.  They are not simply stories of the past.  They are lived out by the cultures from which they arose and they continue to be told and augmented.  Rather than just be a neat campfire or bedtime story, these mythologies are still being woven, created with each new telling.  Artist Lauren Raine describes mythology this way:  “Myth comes alive as it enters the cauldron of evolution, drawing energy from the storytellers who shape it.” 

 

The Thinking Woman is not just an American Indian myth, although she is prominent in the cultural oral tradition of many different tribes.  The Greek mythological character Penelope’s name literally means “webbed vision” or “web on her face”.  In some cultures, Thinking Woman is called Thought Woman.  The Pueblo called her Thinking Woman; The Navajo Referred to her as Grandmother Spider Woman or “Na’ashje’ii’sdfzq’q”; the Hopi Indians knew her as ‘Sonukfang”.

 

I will be the first to admit I am not a huge fan of spiders.  I probably border on having arachnophobia, in fact.  I am amazed, nonetheless, at their ability to weave such fine webs and marvel at their ability to use such delicacy to capture their prey.  We’ve discussed the Spider mythology of African cultures and, as mentioned before, even the Greeks made reference to the web of life.  It is in the mythologies of the Western hemisphere that we really see the emphasis on the connectedness of mankind.

 

Many cultures have always referenced a female creator spirit.  Some historians and archaeologists feel that Christianity is the influence behind male creator deities but, in truth, we have no real basis for this.  While it is an undeniable fact that women bear children, they cannot do so without a male.  In mythology science takes a back seat so some believe the first creator made the world from a discard blood clot while others believe the universe was woven from a great spirit’s imagination.

 

In her book “The Trail of Spider Woman”, Carol Patterson-Rudolph wrote: “It is through the poetry of myth, mask and metaphor Spiderwoman comes alive. The rock surface of an ancient petroglyph site is merely a veil between the observer and the other transcendental realms; it becomes a portal through which to enter the world of Spider Woman. “

 

The Keres tribe believed that in the beginning there was only one being, a spider named “Sus’sistinako”.  Being all alone, she sent her thoughts out into the galaxies or space.  With these thoughts, Sus’sistinako wove together the universe.  Under the earth she placed the Corn Mother, “Iatiku”.  Credit was given to Iatiku for creating the physical and emotional elements of the world, even the concept of fun called Koshare, a clown supposedly made from her own discarded skin cells.

 

Like another deity we recently discussed, Iatiku was two-fold.  One part stayed underground and it was to this characterization that the dead returned.  The other piece of Iatiku lived in the world and gave life to it.  Iatiku had her own myth which featured her two daughters.  One was named after her mother with the other named Nautsiti.  Eventually, daughter Iatiku became the mother of the Indians while Nautsiti became the mother of the “whites” or Europeans.

 

The Thinking Woman or “Tse Che Nako” spun her webs from her imagination.  Her stories became real as she continued to spin, organizing life into patterns that continued to grow in size and complexity.  Her webs continue to be woven and, the Pueblo believe, we become part weaver and part storyteller as we also are part of the web.

 

The mythology of Thinking Woman has no real ending.  There is even one version of her story that predicts she will return.  Historian and writer John Loftin mentions this:  “Spider Woman was the first to weave. Her techniques and patterns have stood the test of time, or more properly, the test of timelessness – because they have always been present. It makes sense that one would follow the instructions of a deity who helped form the underlying structure of the world in which one lives…..…..Weaving is not an act in which one creates something oneself – it is an act in which one uncovers a pattern that was already there.”

 

So what web will you weave today?  Do you believe as Loftin does that weaving uncovers what was already present? It is an interesting concept, I think.  Our lives are a web of interconnected relationships, even for those who feel disenfranchised.  No one becomes born alone.  Our very introduction to this universe took at least two people – the female and male parents.  And because infants are unable to feed themselves or even find food, none of use reached the age of five or six years without the help of others.

 

Let me give you one more quote from anthropologist Carol Patterson-Rudolph:  “The Navajo have their own version of Spider Woman. As with all metaphors, Spider Woman is a bridge that allows a certain kind of knowledge to be transmitted from the mundane to the sacred dimension………they believe that an individual must undergo an initiation before he or she can be fully receptive to this kind of knowledge. Thus, to the eyes of the uninitiated, Spider Woman appears merely as an insect, and her words go unheard. But to the initiated whose mind has been opened the voice of this tiny creature can be heard. This is the nature of wisdom, conveyed through the metaphor of Spider Woman.”

 

No matter how independent we think we are, we need those who make up the strands of our webs of living.  “What might we see, how might we act, if we saw with a webbed vision? The world seen through a web of relationships…as delicate as spider’s silk, yet strong enough to hang a bridge on.”  In her book “From a Broken Web”, theologian Catherine Keller posed these thoughts.

 

No matter how delicate or ethereal a spider’s web might appear, they actually are very strong.  I think sometimes we underestimate the webs in our own lives.  We might not want to “bother” someone and ask for help.  Perhaps it is the fragility of our own ego that prevents us from doing so.  At this time of year, depression is at its highest.  We need our webs to give us strength.

 

Today when someone mentions the word ‘web”, a spider is not the first thing that comes to mind.  “Web” is the nickname for the Internet, the World Wide Web of technology that connects us all whether we like it or not.  I read a statistic that is probably an exaggeration but it mentioned that an infant’s vital information will be posted on the “web” within an hour of its birth.

 

Today the myth of the Thinking Woman or Spider Woman is most often seen in the weavings of the southwestern Indian tribes.  The pattern of the cross of the Spider Woman has become an important and popular symbol.  The cross represents balance with the unification of the four directions or elements of the world.  In the middle, though, is the most important element for it is the unifying force, the center.

 

Ecologists reference a great web of life and even physicists have an entanglement theory.  There really is no denying that we are all connected.  Neith was the primal weaver of ancient Egypt while Celtic mythology references the web of Wyrd.  In India the great jewel net of Nedra has each gemstone reflecting every other gem.  The Greeks believed the great weaver spirit gave Theseus a thread to lead him through his personal labyrinth.  The original myths of Thinking Woman told of her sitting on one’s shoulder, whispering correct choices.  Psychologists might call this our subconscious while some religious people might consider it an example of a guardian angel.  Perhaps she is there with us, guiding us through the labyrinth of our own lives.  Clearly we all need to be Thinking Men and Women, living to weave a web that benefits all.

Wandering Blessings

Wandering Blessings

Pentecost #188

 

The Alaskan Inuit are a very interesting group of indigenous people.  For one, they are not just an ancient culture, they are a modern one.  Many of the tribe live as their ancestors did, in spite of the modern world being all around them.  For another thing, the Inuit mythology has no gods, no deities.  Today’s Inuk, the singular form for a member of this culture, is thought to be descended from the Thule culture around 1000 ACE.  The Thule culture denotes those indigenous people who did not settle in the Alaskan tundra but continued their migration eastward.  Some left the tribe and headed south, inhabiting the lower regions of Canada and becoming part of the Algonquin and Iroquois groups of tribes.  The majority continued their travels until their reached Greenland and interacted with the Vikings.

 

Today’s Inuit are a group of similar indigenous people who live in the Arctic areas of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.  While many use the designation Eskimo as a synonym for the Inuit, this is really not correct.  Eskimo is a group term which includes the Inuit as well as the Yupik and Inupiat tribes.  Most Canadian and Greenland Inuit consider the term “Eskimo” to be derogatory as they see themselves as distinctively different cultures.  Oral languages of these people are not do distinctive, however.  Inuit languages are classified in Eskimo-Aleut language families while Inuit sign language is spoken in Nunavut, the northernmost section of Canada newly formed as the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  Further differences between Eskimo and Inuit are noted in the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 which refers to the Inuit as “a distinctive group of Aboriginal Canadians who are not included under either the First Nations or the Metis.”  Those Inuit in Greenland are citizens of Denmark but not of the European Union.

 

So what spirits were important to the Inuit?  As with all of the indigenous people who inhabited and became the earliest of settlers and immigrants in North America, animism was an important part of life.  Animism is a belief that things in the universe possess souls. [ A typical modern-day descendant living the ancient customs will apologize to a table leg that is kicked, recognizing the spirit within the table and respecting it.]  The Inuit believed deeply that there were spirit masters of the animals they hunted and shared space with on the planet.  Qayaq is the mythology of a hero who could transform himself into all sorts of living creatures – animals, birds, and fish.  His journeys are told in an epic cycle of Alaskan Inuit tales, portraying his journey of discovery and mastery of the environment and natural world.  In short, his story is an illustration of the process of learning by being.

 

Qayaq wandered all over and had many different adventures, overcoming enemies and making new friends.  IF ever caught and eaten, he would be reborn and continue his journey.  Sadly, when he did return home, he discovered his parents had died during the course of his explorations.  In grief he turned himself into a hawk, spreading his wings to fly over the land from which his family had been born.

 

Today in the United States of America it is Thanksgiving Day.  It is a day for people to celebrate and give thanks for all they have.  The first such festivity was supposedly between different cultures – the American Indians of Massachusetts and the Pilgrims.  It was a day of peace and sharing, a time to give thanks for a harvest and, I’m sure, to pray for the future.

 

The story of Qayaq is one that encourages us to step outside of our comfort zone and live.  It also warns of being so focused on the future that we forget the past and our own heritage.  The world is a glorious place and we all hope to make it better.  However, we should not and cannot forget the blessing of the past.  They are the cornerstones of the future.

 

Today I will give thanks for my life and the ability to live.  It is not a perfect life but is continually offers lessons and chances to be reborn and to rebuild.  I will also give thanks for each of you.  You are my environment and are shaping the future by your own living.  My wish for you is a healthy life, one full of prosperity and joy.  Most of all, I will give thanks that we have a future.  Spread you wings and soar, my friends.  We can make it great!

A Stolen Sun

A Stolen Sun

Pentecost #187

 

They were called the poles that held up the sky.  To many in modern times they represent religious beliefs or perhaps identification.  Totem poles were much more than the first name badges, however.  They were a type of family tree.  They represented what a family believed in and who, to a stranger, might offer hospitality.  It was easy to identify which families shared similar totems or beliefs and what those beliefs were.  Common to the indigenous people of the northwestern part of North America, totem poles often traced the lineage these “First Families” felt they had with animal ancestors.

 

A common representation found on totem poles is that of the raven.  There are many myths that feature the raven and in British Columbia, the mythology begins with the world covered in darkness.\ and the Kungalas tribe.  The chief of this tribe and his wife had a son they loved very much but unfortunately their son died.  Every morning the chief and his wife, accompanied by the entire tribe would grieve by the son’s corpse.  One morning a young man who seemed to glow was found sitting where the corpse had been.  The chief’s wife was convinced her son had come back to life and when asked by the chief if he was their son, the young boy answered affirmatively.

 

The tribe was overjoyed at the return of the chief’s son but the boy would not eat.  Finally a slave called Mouth-at-Each-End offered the boy a piece of whale meat.  The boy ate it and then began eating everything else in sight.  The son, in an effort to save his tribe from starvation, decided to send his reborn son away.  He gave the boy a raven blanket as well as berries and fish eggs to scatter on the land so that he himself would never be hungry.

 

The legend tells that the young man put on his raven blanket, which was nothing more than a complete skin from a human-sized raven, and flew up to what the Kungalas called the sky world, a world much different from theirs, a world of light.  He waited by a fresh water stream until the daughter of Chief-of-the-Skies happened along.  The boy changed himself into a leaf and when the girl partook of the water, she swallowed the leaf.  Soon thereafter a young baby was born to the girl.  The baby was the darkling of the Sky People but he would never stop crying.  They finally deduced he wanted to play with the ball in which daylight was kept.

 

The lad played with his ball of light for several years but one day put it on his shoulder and ran to the hole in the sky where the ball had once been.  Putting on the raven suit, he flew the ball of light back to earth.  He found the Kungalas by the Nass River eating what the natives called olachen or candle-fish.  He asked them to throw him a fish but they refused.  He then told them he wanted to make a trade – the ball of light for the fish.  The clan refused and began shouting insults at him.  The boy in anger cut the ball open, throwing light upon all the ends of the earth.

 

The myth addresses a common concept of ravens being trickster spirits and, as any farmer can tell you, there might be some truth to that.  What I find most interesting is that the type of fish the people were eating at the end when the boy returns to earth is so specifically identified.  The candle fish has many names such as olachen, eulachon, hooligan, oolichan, or ooligan.  Found along the Pacific coast of the northwest coasts of both the United States of America and Canada.  The name eulachon is a Chinook tribal name but some of the other names come from English and Irish names.

 

The candle fish during spawning season packs on an extra fifteen percent of body weight and if caught, was sometimes dried and then used as a candle.  It is a very greasy fish and they were often processed for their oil.  The oil was then traded and the trade routes were often called grease trails.  The fish eats smaller fish along the ocean floor and is an integral part of the aquatic food chain of the region as well as being a staple of the tribes in the area.

 

The boy wanted to trade one small beam of light for the sun he had stolen from the Sky People.  Would he have made the trade?  We will never know.  He was considered a trickster so perhaps not.  By refusing the simply give up a fish which gave them both artificial light and sustenance, the Kungalas gained sunlight.  Many might say they made the better trade.

 

We should not forget the name-calling aspect of this story, though.  None of the tribe’s people seem to have tried explaining their refusal.  Instead they laughed at such a suggestion.  All too often in today’s world we are very quick to judge and yes, some engage in name-calling.  When we offer an option perhaps not thought of by the masses, we are considered to be instantly wrong.  When someone doesn’t go along with the proposed scheme, they are called stupid or a spoil=sport.

 

Not every scheme is a winner and there are certainly enough unscrupulous people out there that it makes good sense to be leery.  Good communication is also vital whether we are agreeing or refusing.  Can grief return a loved one to life?  Science would tell us no but maybe we need to look at how we are defining “life”.  The chief’s son, if he had not died, would have become the leader and it was the duty of every leader to lead the tribe into a better future than before and to provide for the living.  Certainly having the sun in their lives helped…until it got too hot as in yesterday’s story.

 

Most of us have lost a beloved family member.  We have a variety of ways to keep that person’s memory alive.  Some make scrapbooks while others dedicate memorials or establish scholarship funds.  The simplest thing is to live a life that would have made that loved one proud.  When we lose a loved one it seems as if the sun of our own personal lives has gone dark.  Finding our own way back into the light can be difficult.

 

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day for Americans and, while many will celebrate with friends and family, some will be alone, left to grieve as the tribe did in loss of a loved one.  I fervently hope that if you are one of those who will be sitting in the dark, that you find a glimmer of light.  Volunteer at a homeless shelter or assist at a soup kitchen.  Being alone is not a crime nor is it shameful.  Being alive, though, should be celebrated and we all have things for which to give thanks.  And even if you are staying home tomorrow, give thanks that you have a home.  You will get to have your celebratory holiday meal in your comfortable clothes or maybe even in your pajamas!

 

The raven has had something of a misnomer for hundreds of years.  A member of the Corvus genus, ravens, along with crows which are a close cousin, are actually some of the most intelligent birds on earth and ravens live an amazing thirty years.  In the colonial period of the U.S.A. ravens and crows were an integral part of both agriculture and urbanization.

 

The light is not just about being bright in the company of others but walking in goodness and peace.  If you are reading this, you are a blessing to me.  We may not all seem to give light to others like the candle fish could, but you sustain me and are a bright light to me.  Daily I give thanks for you.  It is one of my prayers that you are blessed and walk in peace.

The Love of a Mother

The Love of a Mother

Pentecost #186

 

The Cherokee tribe lived in the southeastern section of the United States, in lands now known as North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee with some in the northern part of Alabama.  Many know of the Trail of Tears, a tragic event some believe to be only a myth but regrettably was all too real.  The Trail of Tears speaks of a relocation process conducted by the federal government in which Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were forcibly marched from northern Alabama to Oklahoma under the watchful eye of unsympathetic and caring military personnel.  The Indians were given no proper attire for the journey nor adequate food and over two-thirds perished along the way.

 

Long before the tribe was decimated by the deaths of those along the trail of tears, they had a mythology about death.  The climate of their homeland is hot and very humid.  The sun shines quite a great deal in this part of the world and, in the Cherokee story about the origin of death, the Sun deity plays a major role.  Her heat became too much for the Cherokee to bear so a plan was devised to kill the Sun. Unfortunately, as plans sometime do, something went wrong and instead of killing the Sun, they killed her daughter.

 

The Cherokee legend tells of how as a young deity, the Sun had a lover who would visit her at night so that his face remained hidden.  One night, tiring of the mystery, the Sun rubbed ashes on her lover’s face to try to identify him.  The next night, as her brother the Moon rose high in the sky, the Sun saw spots on his face and realized he was her lover.  The Moon was ashamed and vowed to always stay away from the Sun.  The Cherokee liked the Moon and often smiled at it which angered the Sun.  They only squinted at her and complained of her heat.  The more angry she became, the hotter her heat on the people and so, they decided to kill her.

 

The plan was for two men to turn into snakes and when the Sun stopped to eat lunch at her daughter’s house, they would strike.  Unfortunately, the sun shone so brightly they could not see.  The adder spit at the Sun but the copperhead snake just crawled out of the house.  Two more men were turned into snakes, this time being a Ukrena snake and a rattlesnake.  When the door of the daughter’s house opened they struck but killed the daughter of the Sun instead of her mother.

 

The grief-stricken Sun loved herself away and the world became dark, losing all heat with crops dying in the field.    The people needed to retrieve the Sun’s daughter from the Darkening Land where she was dancing with ghosts.  The people captured the daughter and placed her in a box.  They knew not to open the box but the Sun’s daughter pleaded and begged and finally, thinking she needed food and air to breathe, they relented.  The box opened and the Sun’s daughter flew out, having been transformed into a redbird.

 

The men returned without her daughter and Sun’s grief was so over-whelming she flooded the world with her tears.  Finally, a drummer began to play a rhythm that brought comfort to the Sun.  First she smiled and then she laughed as light once again filled the world.  The Sun still shines brightly on us all but we still cannot fully gaze upon her without shielding our eyes.

 

For the Cherokees, the lessons from the story are not so much about death but about living.  First, life sometimes requires things that are not comfortable but they are necessary.  Mankind had no real need to look at the sun and we still are unable to do so, although we do experience and reap the rewards of its presence in our lives.  There is also a lesson to do what one is told, in this case not to open the box.  Sometimes, though, the best intentions do not result in positive actions.  When that happens, we need to turn to our faith.  The Cherokee used drums to connect with the rhythms of the earth and the spirits.  The drummer used his skills and instrument to help the Sun find balance, just as we should do with our beliefs.