This morning I was startled awake. It was still dark. All I could hear was chanting. Disoriented, I could not tell how far it was away. The eerie sound stopped, then started again. Was it just the wind? I peeked out the tiny window of the camper I’m sleeping in. Dim light was emerging from the horizon. Slowly coming to my senses, I saw it was just before dawn. I could make out trees in the distance. They were still. It wasn’t the wind after all.
If it wasn’t the wind, what was it?
The chanting started again. It was more of a moan, low and desperate. The sound was ripe with emotion. Was it grieving? It sounded like sorrow. But it wasn’t a statement. It echoed hollow, more like a question. It came and went. I found it curious. I almost got up. I knew enough at this point to know it was people. I could not make out how many, and I could not tell how far they were away. I wasn’t scared any more, I was just puzzled. What was this strange sound?
Then, two blasts of a horn pierced the darkness. This sound seemed much closer. It wasn’t a sharp, metallic blare. Rather, it matched the chant in desperation and tone. I was befuddled. I wasn’t sure if the property was about to be attacked or if some group miles away was singing to the arriving sun. The chanting continued intermittently, and there was another blast of the horn. I resisted the temptation to get up, partly out of worry concerning what I would find and partly out of laziness. It was 5:12, according to my phone. I needed more sleep. Then all the noise stopped, and I drifted slowly back to sleep.
I took my mystery to breakfast with me. Only one of the two men in my camper had heard the horns. Neither of the others had noticed the chanting. Rod Vaughn, the Executive Director or Diamond Willow Ministries, informed me that it was very likely noise from a sun dance. Though miles away, I could hear it clear as a bell.
I did some reading on Native American sun dances. While I was comforted that we were never close to being ambushed, there was in fact a battle being waged this morning.
A sun dance is a religious ceremony done by native peoples. From what I can gather, it originated with the Lakota tribes, who are indigenous to the area where we are serving this week. It is complex ritual, and if you like that sort of thing, you can read more about one here. But here are the basics:
- The point is to offer sacrifice for the good of one’s family and the whole community
- This is done by dancing, chanting, and piercing one’s own flesh around a central tree (usually a cottonwood)
- Inserted into the flesh is an object to which a string is attached. This line runs to a tree in the center of the sun dance. Multiple people can be tethered to the tree, where their dancing continues.
- Eventually, though precise customs vary, the idea is for the line to be ripped out of the flesh, blood spilled, and sacrifice given.
- The recipients of this sacrifice are various native deities. Obviously, the sun plays a huge role in this.
- One source indicated that community chanting occurs on day 3 or 4 just before dawn. This is very likely the sound I heard this morning.
While it may sound noble that folks would go through all this to seek good for their families and for their community, I could not help but think of 1 Kings 18, when the prophets of Baal dance around the altar meaninglessly, calling on false gods and slashing themselves when there was no response. What a fuss they made, expecting to see results. They never did.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” (1 Kings 18:27-29)
It is ironic to me that the same folks who were chanting and carrying on this morning live among a tribe where unemployment, neglect, starvation, emotional issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, premature death, rape, and other atrocities plague their community. They dance and pierce and sacrifice for the good of the community. But there has been no response. No one is answering. No one is paying attention.
The only piercing for a people that is required has already been done. It was not on a cottonwood tree, but on the cross of Golgotha. From the breaking of the dawn to the middle of the afternoon, Jesus did all of the suffering on our behalf. Two dawns later, he rose from death, sealing our destiny with him.
We are invited to celebrate Jesus sacrifice with singing and dancing, but this does not win us his favor. Rather, it is a way of expressing gratitude. Too many people are singing to a deity that is not paying attention. We all have our trees we dance around. We all have our foolish rituals which we think will make things better. We’re better off knocking off all the racket and letting God do his good work.
Our every problem in this life may not be solved, but our every hope will be secured, for now and forevermore.