Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Plastic Shaman


Prior to 1978, it was illegal to practice “ceremonial and traditional rites” in the United States, a country that had made the freedom of religion a major tenet of their existence.  Many practices were driven under ground and to this day, there are still some that are hesitant to share their knowledge with others-especially outsiders.

I think this is compounded even more by those in the majority culture who co-opt  Native American teachings and take them as their own.  It has gotten so bad that some leading elders have banned non-Native Americans from attending ceremonies.

I don’t blame them for taking this approach.  For 500 years we were told that it was illegal to practice our traditional ways.  If that wasn’t bad enough, once it was legal, new agers stole and sold our traditions.  Instead of seeking out their own teachings, they try and find something mystical in ours. 

Worse yet, armed with a little knowledge, they appoint themselves as authorities on everything Indian.  Some set up sweat lodges and refer to themselves as shamans.  Sadly I have seen people offer to do ceremonies for a fee while advertising their services.

Most traditional people I know do not refer to themselves as shamans or medicine men, do not charge for ceremonies and will not advertise their services.  Most our humble and downplay what they do.  In addition, they do not push people to the extreme.

I have never been in a sweat lodge in which the facilitator wouldn’t let someone leave.  In fact they often are watching out for those who are in there for the first time.  They check on participants and ask how everyone is holding up.  These ceremonies are not about endurance nor are they meant to invoke some esoteric experience in the participant.  Instead, it is a place where you go pray for others.

Yes it can be renewing for the participant but the focus should be on the needs of others, not what you can get or gain from it.  When I was deathly ill, my friend Skip and a group of friends gathered in the middle of winter at the lodge.  They put aside their own comfort to pray for me, not unlike the Christian principle of fasting in which you neglect the physical needs of the body in order seek God.  It wasn’t about them or what they could get from the experience.

I have often joked that we could put out a shingle and make a lot of money pedaling ceremonies to new agers willing to pay big money to participate in a “traditional Native American ceremony”.  We could issue membership cards and sell plastic rattles, beads and other paraphernalia.  But I could never do that because it is simply wrong. 

In 2009, the eyes of the world were turned to Sedona, AZ as word spread that three people had died and many more injured in a sweat lodge ceremony gone bad.  James Arthur Ray, a new age guru and self help author had charged participants $10,000 to push themselves to the limit.  The capstone was this “sweat lodge” ceremony in which he ignored the pleas of help from those concerned about the erratic breathing of several participants.  Others were dragged out vomiting and continued his two hour ceremony even while others tended to the sick.

After looking at the pictures of the sweat lodge and watching the video accounts, there was so much wrong with what took place-from charging participants to the type of covering used on this “lodge”.  Mr. Ray had no authority to conduct these ceremonies nor does it appear the training to do so.

Last week, justice was served when Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide.  Unfortunately there will still be plastic shaman out there who will continue to pedal their wares to unsuspecting and gullible people seeking a real experience but instead finding themselves led down the road to perdition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More Musings....

1. My daughter graduated on Sunday June 5th. I had to sit on the bleachers for 3 hours. I asked my son if I could pay him not to attend graduation next year. He asked, “How much?” I said name your price….

2. I spent $89 at the gas station and $70 at the grocery store. Neither clerk said “thank you” but instead gave me a “have a good one.” For that much money I should at least get a thank you….

3. Somebody suggested I tell my wife I am going to take her somewhere “expensive” and then drive her to the gas station where $100 gets you a tank of gas and a slurpee….

4. Hats off or should I say caps off to all the recent graduates. My daughter couldn’t wait to graduate. I told her I am proud of her, room and board is due on the 1st of the month-welcome to adulthood…

5. Last week saw a couple of days that were unbearably hot. When it gets this hot, people take risks they shouldn’t. Word of advice, don’t swim in Lake Michigan if there are no lifeguards present. And to the bicyclist I almost hit because you ran a red light, if you are on a bike, you still need to follow the rules of the road. You almost ended up as my hood ornament-next time you might not be so lucky…

6. Wisconsin Emergency Management observed “Heat Awareness” day last Thursday. On Wednesday it was 95 degrees, Thursday it was 50 degrees. Somehow I think we should have observed it the day before…

7. Speaking of “Heat Awareness” day, my buddy said his dogs were celebrating it also (I’m not gonna go there)…

8. Speaking of “heat”, Rep. Wiener is sure living up to his name. I was surprised that liberal talk show host Ed Schulz was calling for Wiener’s resignation based on his lack of character. Nice to see someone from the left stand up for integrity and character.  Ed Schulz called it like it is-no matter how "good" you may be at defending your cause-it's all about character and Wiener has a serious deficit in that department.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Tribute to a Friend...

This past week was “bittersweet”.

Last Sunday afternoon (June 5th) we watched our daughter walk across the stage at Horlick High School as she received her diploma. We saw many of these “kids” grow into adults over the past four years and that afternoon they spoke of the opportunities that awaited them. They were ready to take the world by storm and follow their dreams, where ever they may lead.

We were the same way. To na├»ve to know any better, we were willing to take risks. You couldn’t tell us no because we knew we could do whatever we set out to do. And as we plotted our life course, it was going to be smooth sailing all the way. Go to college, start a career making $100,000, get married, raise a family, retire, travel and then die peacefully in our sleep.

The funny thing is-life has a way of taking us down that bumpy, curvy road instead of the straight, smooth one we intended to travel.

I still remember naively exchanging wedding vows with Amy. We were young and dumb. We had this perfect picture painted and we didn’t understand why this married couple chuckled at the vows we wrote. But reality sets in and there is a reason that you agree to stay together “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”

Late last year, my friend Dick Bayer found out that a tumor on his brain was cancerous. At 64, Dick was in the second half of his life. He had embarked on a second career as the Veteran Service Officer for Racine County (a job I thought was tailor made for him), his grand children were reaching adulthood and I am sure his thoughts were turning to the day that he would retire to spend the rest of his days with his wife Karen.

Instead his world was turned upside down, overnight, as this once healthy man would face months of medical challenges related to both the progression of the cancer and the treatment he would receive. Most people would be scared and I am sure there was a part of Dick that was, but Dick wasn’t “most people.”

Dick Bayer was a man of faith and going into this battle, he knew that his God could very well heal him or that his God could call him home. In so many words, Dick was comfortable with that. If he was healed, it would be a testimony and if he died, it would be his gain because he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, where he was going. Dick knew that this world was not his home but that he was just passing through. That reassurance drove everything that Dick did, including how he coped with this horrific disease.

Six years ago, I almost died from a severe case of pancreatitis. I spent 28 days in ICU and 38 days in the hospital. My recovery took nearly a year and that experience has profoundly impacted my life to this day. Dick and his wife prayed for me and when I came out of ICU and was coherent, Dick came and sat with me, offering words of encouragement.

I mention that because the first time I saw Dick after he began his treatments, we spoke about the future. In so many words, Dick implied that I knew what it was like to stand at death’s door and to be ok with either outcome. When they wheeled me into ICU, I didn’t know if I was ever going home but I was at peace with whatever happened. In the days that followed, my wife was faced with losing her husband of 14 years and though she struggled, she also found a peace that “transcends all understanding.” As we left that day, I told Dick, either way you win. He knew what I meant.

That Sunday afternoon we watched our daughter graduate but Sunday evening we said goodbye to an old friend. I don’t know why but this was the hardest funeral I have ever attended. I wasn’t as close to Dick as I could have been. Life gets in the way. But I respected Dick.

Usually I am not at a loss for words, but on Sunday night I had a hard time expressing my thoughts when asked to record a video of recollections for the family. Perhaps it was surreal waiting in line to greet the family and then seeing my friend laying there for the first time. It became real-he was gone.

But Monday was a different story as I attended the celebration of Dick’s life. Songs were sung, stories were told, family members shared and the pastor gave the most unique eulogy I think I have ever heard-he began by talking about Racine’s greatest inventors and businessmen-men who we would deem as great men. And then he put Dick in that same group as he relayed his stories about Dick.

For just a moment, we were given a glimpse inside the private life of Dick Bayer and the funny thing is-he wasn’t much different than I had pictured him to be. With Dick, what you saw was what you got-in a good way. He had a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin. He was always smiling. He was a man of integrity. He was a man of faith. He was tender hearted. He was a compassionate warrior and a servant leader. He was the real deal!

Both Dick and his wife Karen are relational. They mentored married couples. They served their church. They genuinely cared about people. Dick was a role model-the type of person you could look up to. He made you feel appreciated. He listened. He encouraged. He was supportive. He stood by his wife’s side and supported her career as the Executive Director of Leadership Racine and he supported his church through good times and bad. As I told his pastor, Dick never had roast pastor for lunch on Sunday afternoons.

He was faithful. His Christian faith encompassed everything he did. He lived it 24/7 and it shaped who he was. He saw his work with the veterans, not just as a job, but as a ministry. He didn’t need to preach because his life was a living testimony of his faith and his actions spoke louder than words. He walked the talk! He trusted his God to provide and when looking for a job, he told his support group to watch-God would provide. Though I don’t have time to go into it now, there were several twists and turns leading to his last position but it was evident God’s hand was in it.

He was a compassionate warrior, a veteran who cared about other veterans. He was a man who stood up to injustice. He marched in Washington and was a card carrying member of the NAACP. He adopted a Vietnamese family, becoming a surrogate father to the children after their own father passed away. And he was loved by his children and his grandchildren.

And he was a servant leader-whether greeting at church or serving on the church board, Dick would often be found serving others behind the scenes-shunning the limelight that so many others crave.

As we celebrated Dick’s life, we laughed and cried but in the end we knew, all was well….

That doesn’t take away the void left in our hearts - we still mourn the loss of this man we knew and respected but we are left with the hope that we will see him again.

During his illness I prayed for Dick. Like so many I prayed for a miracle, knowing that God could heal him. I begged and pleaded. But I also knew that God is sovereign and that he sees the entire picture where as we see just one small part of it. If we truly believe that we are all connected in some way, Dick’s life and his death have meaning and that one day we will see how all of our struggles and trials fit together to bring about God’s purpose in this life and beyond.

About a week before Dick left us, I was praying for him when a Chris Tomlin song – I Will Rise - came on and the words spoke to my heart:

There's a peace I've come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There's an anchor for my soul
I can say "It is well"

That was Dick, his heart and flesh were failing but he was able to say “it is well” because he could see that the finish line was in sight and that the race he was running was almost over.

But it is the refrain that gave me reassurance as Tomlin sang:

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise, I will rise

That was the promise that Dick held onto, no more sorrow, no more pain…

On Wednesday, June 1st-Dick Bayer’s name was called and he rose before his God, finishing the race that was set before him. And as he crossed that finish line, he heard these words- “Well done thy good and faithful servant! Welcome home.”

In our Ojibwa language we have no word for goodbye. Instead we say “Gigawabamin” or simply stated, “See you later.” Sunday and Monday were not goodbye in the truest sense-because I know that one day I will see my friend again. As I touched the coffin one last time, I said to Dick, see you later my friend, see you later….