The Universal Theme

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face. Come September,
she’ll begin to lay the blue-green eggs I love poached.
God dooms the snake to taste nothing but the dust
and the hen to 4,000 or so ovulations. Poor Lazarus—
last spring an intruder murdered her sisters and left her
garroted in the coop. There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

~Henri Cole “Hens”

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Boy and Egg”

I’ve bonded with chickens since my birth, living in a farm house adjacent to a large chicken coop. I was taught to gather eggs at a very young age, learning to approach the hens respectfully and steathily, ignoring their scolding clucks as I reached under their feathered bellies to find a smooth warm treasure. Carrying eggs to the house was a great privilege, knowing what a delicious meal they would become. I became a grateful friend to those hens.

I also learned that chickens were tragic figures, either sacrificed young as meat birds so large they could barely walk or after a few decent years of declining egg production for the hens. Participating in their butchering made me respect them even more for their unwitting willingness to suffer the indignity of the process to give their all for the survival of our family.

They are an ideal farm animal; the coyotes, weasels and raccoons think so too, digging into the chicken yard at night to steal unsuspecting hens from their nighttime roosts. Our compost pile has absorbed too many chickens murdered by varmints and left partially eaten in a pile of feathers.

Suffering is universal in this sad weary world. Somehow it is offset by an amazing ability to produce a perfect egg day after day after day.

Thank God for the muttering hens.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Through Our Tears

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

What I envy in the open eyes
of the dead deer hanging down
from the rafters, its eyes
still wet and glassy, but locked now
into a vision of another life,
is the way it seems to be
staring at the moment when
it died. The blue light
falling through the window
into this smoke-filled room
is the same color as the mist
coming down off the mountain
that morning: the deer sees
men with guns
but also sees, beyond them,
the endless mountains.
~Richard Jones “Life After Death”

Emmett Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes —

the face that badly beaten, disfigured —
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face
to the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says, no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.
~John Donne in the opening words of his Christmas Day sermon 1626

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

May we remember today – Good Friday – , of all days,
the worst that can happen became the best that can happen.

We tussle and haggle over the price of what this cost us, but realizing He paid all for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors. 

From now on, we recognize His face even when He is beaten unrecognizable: the worst became the best because He loves us over all else.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: We Are Not Overcome

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into the dust
The Lord will make a place for us
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

~Robert Heiskell/Rachel Briggs

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
~John Stott from “Cross”

With all that happens daily in this disordered world, in order to even walk out the door in the morning, we fall back on what we are told, each and every day, in 365 different verses in God’s Word itself:

Fear not.

Do not be overwhelmed with evil but overcome evil with good.

And so – we must overcome — despite evil and our fear of each other.

As demonstrated by the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany on Wednesday of Holy Week, we must do what we can to sacrifice for others, to live in such a way that death cannot erase the meaning and significance of a life.  We are called to give up our selfish agendas in order to consider the dignity of others and their greater good.

It is crystal clear from Christ’s example as we observe His journey to the cross this week: we are to cherish life, all lives, born and unborn, even unto death. If Christ Himself forgave those who hated and murdered Him, He will forgive us as well.

Our only defense against the evil we witness is God’s offense through His Love. Only God can lead us to Tolkien’s “where everything sad will come untrue”, where we shall live in peace, walk hand in hand, no longer alone, no longer afraid, no longer shedding tears of grief and sorrow, but tears of relief and joy.

No longer overcome by evil but overcome with goodness, all to God’s glory.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

The Lord our God is good
The Lord our God is good
Full of kindness and compassion
Merciful and just
The Lord our God is good

Who else knows our deepest pain
Bears it as his own
Finds us in our naked shame,
Clothes and brings us home
Who takes his inheritance
And gives it all away
Welcomes guests to feast with him
Who never can repay

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into the dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Offer up your shoes and shirt
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

We shall overcome

We shall live in peace

We’ll walk hand in hand

We shall all be free

We are not afraid

We are not alone

God will see us through

We shall overcome

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: I’ll Not Stumble or Fall

For you have delivered me from death
    and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.
Psalm 56:13

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.
~Susan Boersma from
“Father of Light

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
 from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States increased well over 30% since 2009. Their voices echo loudly:

“It would be easier if I were dead”
“No one cares if I live or die”
“The world would be better off without me”
“It’s too painful to continue”
“I’m not worthy to be here”
“It is my right and no one can stop me”

Let us protect our holiness as created in the image of God
even though weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness. We will be restored. In His Light, He will not let us stumble and fall.

Dear ones,
please wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early – your bud will soon bloom in His Light.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

From the comments on this video:
Written by Susan Boersma and based loosely on Psalm 56, this piece was commissioned by the Sanctuary Choir of Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, in memory of Jonathan Richard White, the son of its music director John Stone White. Jonathan was a teenager who struggled with long-term depression and who, despite his persistent faith in God, in the end took his own life. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Jonathan’s family came to more deeply appreciate the magnitude of his struggle, as witnessed by what he wrote in his journal and Bible, and they noted that he returned frequently to the Psalms to find comfort in his distress. In contrast to the sadness surrounding this young man’s death, Craig Courtney’s writing in this piece is uniformly strong and triumphant. “Father of Light” opens with a vocal solo—indicative perhaps of a personal statement of faith—expressing confidence in God’s leading and protection. This solo is followed by unison singing in the lower voices which echoes the sentiments of the soloist. As the piece progresses, more parts are added and the harmonies become richer, until at last the music moves into a higher key, the piano drops out, and all the voices reiterate the words of the opening solo at a loud dynamic. A final entry of the soloist brings this work to its close and reminds the listener that God is sovereign in all things—even great suffering.

All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear in His light
I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall


What can mortal man do while I’m safe in His hand?
He is God on His word
I rely in the midst of my fear
I will trust in His name for I know He will hear when I cry
He knows all of my feelings,
the depths of despair all the limits my soul can endure.
I will trust in His name,
I have nothing to lose, for in Him all my hopes are secure.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Hope of Peace

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw, Jr.

Can enemies ever learn to love one another? Sometimes they live under the same roof, not always across armored yet porous political borders.

Can hatred be redeemed to grace and acceptance and peace?
What are we teaching children who are kept in barracks as unwelcome interlopers at our own border, or who sleep with their coats as pillows in basements in Ukraine as bombs rain around them?

They learn so young they are unwanted.
They learn so young to fear.
They learn so young to hate.

It is a little Child who will lead them to peace – a child sought out to be murdered by an earthly king who took thousands of innocent lives in the process. He survived in order to give His life for ours – an act He chose – rather than be slaughtered by a paranoid leader.

May this enemy lay down their swords and learn the sacrifice of love.
May the whole earth know the hope for peace through Christ our Lord.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw

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A Voice in My Ear

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
                                           I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
~Donald Hall “White Apples”

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever. She married too young to an abusive alcoholic, lost her first child to lymphoma at age 8 before treatment was possible and took her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. The marriage somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety – after his sudden death sitting in church, Grandma’s faith never wavered. Her garden soil yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, her children and grandchildren welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first overseas trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I had never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I want you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

Grandma Kittie and Grandpa Leslie in their courting days

You’re in a better place
I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times
I’ve rejoiced for you

But the reason why I’m broken
The reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me
The hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

In Christ, there are no goodbyes
And in Christ, there is no end

So I’ll hold onto Jesus
With all that I have
To see you again
To see you again

And I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow

Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now
~Millard Bart Marshall

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These Old Bones

First day of February,
and in the far corner of the yard
the Adirondack chair,
blown over by the wind at Christmas,

is still on its back,
the snow too deep for me
to traipse out and right it,
the ice too sheer
to risk slamming these old bones
to the ground.


In April
I will walk out
across the warming grass,
and right the chair
as if there had never been anything
to stop me in the first place,
listening for the buzz of hummingbirds
which reminds me of how fast
things are capable of moving.
~John Stanizzi “Ascension”

It has been a harsh and cold winter so far with more days of snow on the ground than not. For a couple weeks there was a constant challenge of finding safe footing when surfaces were snow and ice-covered; local orthopedists were busy putting together broken arms and legs and dislocated joints from too many unscheduled landings.

It seems sometimes winter will never be done with us. The saddest moment a week ago was the discovery as our iced-over fish pond was thawing that it had frozen solid during the sub-zero temperatures – and a dozen decade-old koi and goldfish frozen with it. Our sorrow at this loss is deeper than the pond proved to be; we assumed the depth of the water was sufficient to keep our fish safe from harm as it has for decades. Yet this winter stole them from us.

I know in my head that winter is not forever — February will wrap up its short stay on the calendar and once again I will traipse about with ease without worrying about iced-over walkways. But my heart is not so easily convinced about winter waning. The unexpected loss of our fish reminds me of my guilt from the past: times I have failed to help others when I could have – like the priest and Levite, seeing the dying man on the road to Jericho, cross to the other side and walk past.

So my heart and head and old bones need reminding:
Those who traipse on ice always risk being broken.
Those who have fallen will be righted and put together again.
Those who suffer regret are forgiven even when pain is not forgotten.
And time moves quickly on despite our efforts to hold on to now;
my old bones and tender heart will heal so I can be of use to others.

From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God

And I shall not want I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want

From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God
~Audrey Assad

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To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
~Mary Oliver “Lead” from New and Selected Poems

Why shouldn’t we go through heartbreaks?

…if through a broken heart
God can bring His purposes to pass in the world,
then thank Him for breaking your heart.
~Oswald Chambers from “Ye are not your own” from My Utmost for the Highest

These last two years have seen an epidemic of heart-break.

Due to hospital visitor restrictions, thousands of loved ones have died of COVID without family by their side, deprived of the solace of hearing familiar voices and being touched by familiar hands. A weary and over-worked health care team can only do so much in their efforts to comfort and console when so many patients are losing their battle with the virus at the same time. Although nurses and doctors have always been witnesses to the cries of the dying and the weeping of the grief-stricken, that is usually together at the bedside.

An iPad screen isn’t the same for those saying good-bye forever.

For all the advances of our modern society – through technology and communication and the development of medical miracles – people still die and others still grieve and weep over their loss. We’re not used to dying happening with such frequency to those who have no business dying in the first place. We assume death rates exceeding birth rates happens only in third world countries beset with drought or plague.

Not any more.

So my heart is tender – for those lost, for those left behind, for those trying their best to save lives when they are weary and ill themselves, for the irony of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths when the preventive measures available to us all are so clear-cut.

If anything, a breaking heart is an open invitation for the solace of a God who himself had no business dying in the first place, but did. He cried out in a long, sweet savoring of his life and ours, saving us in the process.

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There is No Center Any Longer

The mass gravesite at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Burial of the dead in the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee

Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said,
“I will stand in peace till my last day comes.”
He did many good and brave deeds

for the white man and the red man.
Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre)  from Black Elk Speaks

From today’s The Writer’s Almanac:

December 29 is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889 a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot, known to his own people as Spotted Elk. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot and when he found out what had happened he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history.  I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.

Nine years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.

As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center. He was not only speaking of his own tribe, but was presciently speaking of our current divisiveness – due to extremism, we lack “a center” in our current governmental discourse.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.

Lost Bird after her adoption

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