Apr 17 2015

The Circle of Love

Clingman Dome sunset (h) crThis past week Rob Sheppard was here doing a photography workshop for John James Audubon State Park.  Once the workshop was over we had some time to run around and visit some of my favorite places in the area.  One of those places is New Harmony, Indiana.  Once the site of an utopian experiment it is now something of a living museum.  The Roofless Church is located there and a number of historic buildings.  In New Harmony you will find a memorial garden honoring Paul Tillich and a number of other impressive gardens.  New Harmony also features a couple of labyrinths.

AGPix_summers402_0387_Lg[1]Labyrinths have been used for centuries as a tool for prayer.  I took Rob to one labyrinth that is modeled after the famous one located at the cathedral at Chartres.  While we were there I noticed a sign I don’t remember seeing before.  On that sign was the following quotation attributed to Black Elk: “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.  The moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

I remember from some previous studies that circles were very important to Native Americans.  Some believed that natural arches continued underground and formed circles.  Medicine wheels also played an important role in some tribes.  Black Elk’s words remind us that there are many examples in nature where the Creator has utilized circles—the earth, stars, wind, nests, the sun and moon, and the seasons.

_CES7969I like to think that a circle also portrays the love of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures.  The Bible declares that “God is love” and I believe that God’s love encircles or encompasses everybody.  I also happen to believe that you and I are supposed to love as God has loved us.  At our recent Maundy Thursday service, where we paused to remember Jesus’ “new commandment” which tells us that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, I used a passage from a poem by Edwin Markham as part of my message: “He drew a circle that shut me out–heretic , rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!  I do, in fact, think God likes circles and that when it comes to love He expects us to draw a circle that will take everyone in, even our enemies.

When I pause to remember that the circle of God’s love included me I feel both obligated and inspired to love others too. I hope you’ll think about that when you happen to come across one of the many circles that can be found in nature. Perhaps one reason God used so many circles was He knew we would need the reminders.


(I took the top image in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle one in Middlesboro, KY, and the bottom one in Henderson, KY.)

Jul 22 2012

Black Elk Prays

A friend at church, knowing my interest in Native American history and religion, recently suggested I read Black Elk Speaks.   According to the book’s back cover, this work “is widely hailed as a religious classic, one of the best spiritual books of the modern era and the bestselling book of all time by an American Indian.”  I enjoyed reading Black Elk’s story and certainly learned a lot from it.  I’m not convinced, however, it should be called a “religious classic” nor “one of the best spiritual books of the modern era.”  Still, one can learn a good bit about Native American spirituality by reading it.  I was especially touched by two prayers offered by Black Elk.

One is found in the early pages of the book and says, “Grandfather, Great Spirit, you have been always, and before you no one has been.  There is no other one to pray to but you.  You yourself, everything that you see, everything has been made by you.  The star nation all over the universe you have finished.  The four quarters of the earth you have finished.  Grandfather, Great Spirit, lean close to the earth that you may hear the voice I send. You towards where the sun goes down, behold me; Thunder Beings, behold me!  You where the White Giant lives in power, behold me!  You where the sun shines continually, whence come the daybreak star and the day, behold me!  You where the summer lives, behold me!  You in the depths of the heavens, an eagle of power, behold!  And you, Mother Earth, the only Mother, you who have shown mercy to your children!  Hear me, four quarters of the world—a relative I am!  Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!  Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand, that I may be like you.  With your power only can I face the winds.”

The second prayer comes at the very end of the book.  In this one Black Elk prays: “Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice.  You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer.  All things belong to you—the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the wings of the air and all green things that live.  You have set the powers of the four quarters to cross each other.  The good road and the road of difficulties you have made to cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.  Day in and day out, forever, you are the life of things.  Therefore I am sending a voice, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, forgetting nothing you have made, the stars of the universe and the grasses of the earth.”

I appreciate the way that Black Elk incorporated the earth into his prayers.  I fear that this is not very common in Christian prayer.  You would think that those who acknowledge God as the “Maker of heaven and earth,” and whose Lord encouraged them to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” would be more prone to remember the earth in their prayers.  I think we might all benefit from following Black Elk’s lead by including the earth and its creatures in our prayers, by being more conscious of the spiritual nature of all of Creation. This is a vital part of Native American spirituality and should be of ours as well.


(I took the top image at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the middle image at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana, and the bottom image at the National Bison Range in Wyoming.)