Updated: Feb 27
The first book that’s both inspiring and challenging me is “The Wisdom of the Native Americans” Kent Nerburn has compiled a variety of writings, saying, and speeches from the vast Native American tapestry of tribes. Reading this book could lead to a sense of anger or guilt because it’s clear that the immigrants made countless promises to natives, which they then failed to fulfill. There’s certainly blood on our hands for these generational sins, and I’m convinced our collective failure to honestly face our history of slavery and colonialism that are foundational values of our history is one reason we’re reaping the fruits of fear, greed, isolation, mental illness, anxiety, and depression in this 21st century, in spite of the vast collective wealth and creature comforts we enjoy.
Guilt and anger, though, aren’t the point at all, so I’d encourage you to allow humility and the posture of a learner to be the governing lens as you read. Through that lens, the book inspires and enlightens. Through that lens we come to discover that the Native American cultures, though differing from tribe to tribe, shared some key beliefs:
that “the Great Mystery” (their common name for God) was the animating force behind all life.
that all life therefore was worthy of respect and honor – every stream, every tree, every mountain, every buffalo, wren, and salmon. This contrasts profoundly with the common Christian misunderstanding of God’s call to dominion in Genesis.
that listening is more important than talking (see James 1:19), contentment is more important than acquisition of wealth (I Timothy 6:6), and that what you actually do is more important than what you say you’ll do, but then fail to carry out (see Matthew 21:28-31)
Ah! It’s now easy to see why our imposition of a Christianity committed to stealing land, killing wildlife, destroying soil, and making promises that we failed to keep might not interest the natives.
Still, the closing speech in the book, by Chief Seattle, offers a poignant challenge as we look for a path forward. He suggested, back in the middle of the 19th century, that the path forward was already determined; that the Europeans would take the land and impose their ways. He wrote:
“A few more moons, a few more winters – not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature and regret is useless…. (only) let him be just and deal kindly with my people. For the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds.”
As we face the avalanche of cultural pathologies threatening to drown our culture, I’m convinced that a return to the “good old days” isn’t the answer – because patriarchy, infinite consumption, racism, sexism, and consumerism, are the ingredients that have created this current post truth cocktail. We do need to go back… we just need to go further back – to the ancient paths, where simplicity, and a living relationship with the land, the elders, and the infants, created places of safety which, while not perfect, allowed for a vibrancy of life where addiction, loneliness, fear, greed, and isolation weren’t even common enough to be words in their language.
Far from depressing, the book has inspired me to learn the values of the Snoqualmie and Yakima tribes that inhabited the land I now call home in the mountains, even as the church I lead deepens its partnership with the Duwamish tribe, whose land is now called Seattle.
Every time I travel to Europe to teach I find a book of European history to read. “And there was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II” by Jacques Lusseyran was my recent read while there and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys inspiring stories of overcoming challenges and living through dark times as a person of hope and courage.
Jacques was blinded in an accident at the age of seven. By the time he entered his late teens, he’d come to see his blindness as much an asset as liability, perhaps more so. This only happens to people who have a mindset that refuses to play the victim card or make excuses. Such people are increasingly rare, it seems to me, and reads like this one inspire me to seek courage, resilience, joy in the midst of hardship, and more.
Beyond the drama of WWII, Lusseyran offers profound insights into the spirituality of light and darkness. His blindness created an awareness of a different, internal light, no less real than the outer world of shapes and colors most of us navigate unconsciously everyday. He writes:
“Inside me there was everything I had believed was outside. There was, in particular, the sun, light, and all colors. There were even the shapes of objects and the distance between objects. Everything was there and movement as well… Light is an element that we carry inside us and which can grow there with as much abundance, variety, and intensity as it can outside of us…I could light myself…that is, I could create a light inside of me so alive, so large, and so near that my eyes, my physical eyes, or what remained of them, vibrated, almost to the point of hurting… God is there under a form that has the good luck to be neither religious, not intellectual, nor sentimental, but quite simply alive.”
This light, though, required a spirit and soul free from the dark elements resident in every human, for such elements inevitably plunged him into darkness:
“I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because, as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes, and I was bound hand and foot and cast aside. All at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it. But when I was happy and serene, approached people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light.”
And there was Light is a tapestry of spirituality, history, philosophy, held together by the story of darkness encroaching over Europe because the darkness of fear and hatred were crushing the forces of charity and reason, and all the other things that make for peace. That story is, itself, as timely as today’s news – but is mostly merely the backdrop against which his personal drama of turning loss to gain, death to life, and darkness to light occurs.
I’m happy to add Jacques Lusseyran to the names Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as luminaries from whom we can draw inspiration and courage to embrace our callings as “light of the world” and let our light shine in the midst of the encroaching darkness as we begin our next decade!