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Saturday, November 4, 2017

When Someone You Love Leaves the Church


When Someone You Love Leaves the Church

            I was recently somewhat surprised when a dear longtime friend and associate of mine contacted me with a question.  This was someone whom I had, in the past, had many long and inspiring gospel discussions with both in person and via email or electronic messaging.  This person grew up in the Church, had served a successful full time mission, and had faithfully served in many varied callings throughout their life.  But through the years this person had also had some periods of spiritual wanderings and questions, like many (and in fact, probably most) of us do, but for the most part would be considered a faithful member of the Church.

            Now living far away, this person suddenly contacted me one day with the following question, “How can you tell when a prophet is speaking as a prophet or if he is just speaking as a man?”

            In itself, this a very profound question… and one which I will not answer in this blog post, but will give my personal thoughts about in a subsequent, Part 2, posting sometime in the future.

            What at first seemed to be a simple, but deep question, led into a discussion which lasted for several days and eventually became a way for this dear friend to inform me that they were leaving the Church.

            I won’t go into all the length of the discussion or their personal reasons for leaving the faith; people likely have a myriad of different reasons for making such a decision, and my friend’s reasons may be different than those of others.  But what I want to focus on is what I experienced personally from this exchange, as well as to share some profound thoughts and enlightening truths from this still-very-dear-friend which I think will be beneficial for all of us.

            My first reaction to the news was probably like many of yours would be.  I was trying to answer their questions with gospel related answers and my own personal testimony, as if in attempt to cut through the fog I assumed they must be experiencing to make this decision.  But as I pondered, prayed and sought guidance over their situation and tried to honestly consider what they might be experiencing, my thoughts began to take a very different direction.  I began to consider how I could help them rather than trying to preach to or convince them of “the error of their ways” according to my beliefs and opinions.

            What I felt guided towards instead, was to open my heart to the realization, “It is not your responsibility to judge, but to love.”  So instead of trying to answer questions, I tried to shift my focus to that of listening.  Not in attempt to support their direction or condone their reasons why, but instead to offer support to THEM, the person who I loved and cared about and wanted to have an ongoing relationship with.  I tried to offer respect, understanding and love.

            But first, let me share a few profound thoughts they shared with me, which will help lead in the remainder of the things we should all probably consider.  Here are just a few of the things they shared,
            “What's difficult for me as well is that there's no graceful way to leave the church. If I talk to my bishop or stake president, if the church was really in the similitude of Christ, you'd think that they would just say ‘Brother __________, we appreciate your honesty. Most of all we want to thank you for the incredible many years of service that you've given to our church. We thank you for the full two years you spent in _________as a missionary serving the people there. We appreciate all the many callings that you've accepted and how hard you've worked at every one of them. We will always be here for you if you need us, you are still our brother, let us know if you need anything.’  Unfortunately that's not always what happens. Instead everybody jumps to conclusions about sinning, worthiness, apostasy, deception, ignorance, or some other problem that must have caused it. If you leave the church it's because you've been sifted out, you're not worthy, you're too weak to pass the tests or endure to the end, Satan has deceived you, or some other negative assumption. It's also treated as though eternal families are being shattered and ripped apart, which is worse than an actual divorce, and so on. I don't want to be treated or thought of as a threat, unworthy, dangerous, someone not to talk to about religion, somebody to be careful of and stay away from. All of that makes me sad and doesn't need to happen. I'm not diseased because I have different opinions. I'm not dangerous to anybody. I don't want everyone to avoid me or avoid talking about the gospel around me. I'm just the same guy I always have been. I have done a lot of service for the church and within the church for my entire life, I hope everyone just appreciates everything I've done and can see it that way instead.”
            He went on to add, “I'm still the happy fun loving good person that will do anything for you if you need me. I'm still doing a lot of good for a lot of people. I still have a hope in God and am learning to really deeply trust in Jesus Christ.”

            For those of us within the Church, consider the profound impact and personal nature of what this person shared!

            Far too often, and far too quickly, we tend to pass judgement that is NOT ours to render.  Now DON’T get me wrong, I am NOT saying we should accept or condone others beliefs or behaviors which are different than our own or which may be contrary to that which God has given.   I am also not saying that we can’t share our own thoughts or opinions.  Our personal views, beliefs and opinions deserve as much respect as those of others.  But what I am cautioning us about is to not pass any form of judgement in which we try to elevate ourselves above others who choose differently than we do.  The simple truth is that we are ALL sinners and fall short of the glory of God, whether in the Church or outside of it!  Each and every one of us is dependent for salvation upon the merits, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ if we have any hope of returning to our heavenly home.

            Please Note – that by saying this I am NOT suggesting that the only reason people leave the church is because of sin!  I am simply saying that we are all imperfect and fall short of seeing the BIG PICTURE in its entirety.  Each and every one of us suffer from various spiritual maladies and, like wounded soldiers on the battlefield, should be more focused on putting our arms around each other and helping us get to places of safety.


            Let’s take a deeper look at that analogy of soldiers on a battlefield for a moment.  In an actual army, you will find among its troops those who are Atheists, Catholics, Mormons, Jewish, Baptist… and the list goes on.  During the midst of battling a common enemy, their differences of belief aren’t the issue of concern.  They are united against a common enemy.  The enemy of those troops will try his best to cause division among the ranks, separate them from each other, and perhaps injure and destroy each other through friendly fire and deception.  In similar manner, all of us who have different personal religious beliefs are on a common battle field, fighting a common adversary – the devil.  He works his hardest to divide us, deceive us, and cause us to fight amongst each other, rather than having us united in our struggle against him.

            During battle, soldiers all experience something different.  Everyone suffers different kinds of wounds.  Some may be shell shocked and hiding in a foxhole in fear.  Others may be hit by flying bullets.  Some may be maimed by unseen landmines.  Others may be questioning the orders of their Generals as to why they are there and what they are fighting for, not understanding the reasons their leaders are employing the strategies and maneuvers they are asking them to perform as they look at the bigger picture of the war.  And the list goes on.  The truth is none of us comes through unscathed.


            But in the midst of all this fighting, those of different beliefs look at each other as Brothers in Arms.  They put their differences aside, and often risk their own safety and ignore their own injuries in attempt to help those also injured around them.  They are focused on helping each other and defeating the enemy, rather than turning their weapons on each other.

            We might also note that just because one soldier may have lost a limb, while another suffers from PTSD from what he has seen, and another struggles with the grief of friends he has lost, they don’t have to experience the same things as the others to still have a common bond.  They rally in support of each other’s various experiences with understanding and compassion, not expecting the others to have the same types of experiences and vantage point they have in order to fully understand.  As they share their personal experiences, they have respect for what each other has been through and rally in support for one another.


            In similar manner, we all have our agency and life’s battles inflict different kinds of experiences and spiritual wounds upon us, which shape us and change us over time into who we become and how we see and comprehend things around us.  Each of our experiences is personal and different from others.  But rather than letting those differences divide us, we should try harder to view each other with kindness, brotherly compassion and support.

            Now getting back to our original discussion.  Personally, I do firmly believe that the best way to access that grace and mercy is through the authorized priesthood covenants provided through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  But those covenants are hollow and carry no spiritual power towards salvation if we are in violation of the Two Great Commandments to “Love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  And, “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

            And, that God we profess to love and serve, and who commands us to love our neighbor also commands us not to judge or condemn others who sin or live differently than we do, but instead, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)

            Do we truly understand what He is saying here?  He is saying, not that we have to go with those who are different than us, or believe the same way they believe, but that we should love them and treat them with kindness and dignity.  I would assume the majority of those who choose to leave the Church for various reasons (like my friend) are NOT our enemies. They are simply people trying to find their own way in a very difficult world.  And they need our help and love, not judgement.  Especially when we really don’t understand what they are going through.

            In the end, each of us is imperfect and reaching out towards the Lord in our own personal way, crying, “Lord, I believe” confident that our path is the right one.  But being imperfect as every single one of us are, we need to truthfully add, “Please help thou mine unbelief!”

            What the gospel is NOT is a pedestal of pride, upon which we can stand and look down upon others who we think are somewhere spiritually beneath us.  Rather, what the gospel IS, is a means to access the love and grace of Jesus Christ and help others to do the same in respect and kindness.

            If we truly believe in our Lord, then we need to consider that those He despised were the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees.  Instead, although He NEVER condoned unrighteous behavior or justified sin of any kind, He spent His life among the sinners, the physically and spiritually sick and afflicted, and those in need of His love and help.  He put His arms around them, and invited them with kindness to come and experience instead what His love could offer in regards to healing and hope.  Should those of us who profess to follow Him do any differently?  After all, we all fall into the category of sick and afflicted and need His grace.

            So from my very limited and imperfect personal perspective, may I offer a few thoughts and suggestions as we encounter those who have left or are considering leaving the church for whatever reasons:
  1.      Don’t judge or be so quick to preach.  Take time to truly listen to their concerns (without having to compromise your own standards and beliefs) and offer genuine support and let them know you care and they are important to you.
  2.      Don’t assume the reasons why they are leaving the Church. (Very rarely will we ever have the full picture or a complete understanding of what they have been and are currently going through and why they are making the decision they are at this time.)
  3.      Don’t shun or quit talking to them.  (These are the moments and times they likely need your friendship, love and support more than ever)
  4.      Don’t avoid the topics of religion or the Church completely.  (The gospel of Jesus Christ is and should still be a very large part and the center of your life, but it shouldn’t dominate every conversation.  Simply let the light of truth shine through your life and example.)
  5.      You don’t need to blame yourself, especially if it is someone very close to you.  (People each make their own decisions in life regardless of their circumstances.)
  6.      Offer support through expressions like, “I am sure you didn’t make this decision on a whim, and I am sure you have legitimate concerns and I trust you are doing what you feel is best for you.  You will always have a place here and in my life.  Although we may see things differently I still love and respect you.” Etc….  (Note – you should genuinely feel what you are saying in these comments. If not, spend time on your knees pleading with Father until He softens your heart with Charity so you can truly have love and compassion for that individual who He still loves and cares about!)
  7.      Be careful with the words we use to refer to others who have chosen through their own agency to leave the church.  Although the Savior Himself shared the parables of the “lost sheep” and the “prodigal son”, we need to have caution with the terms we use which might be seen as condescending or offensive to those who are choosing differently than we are.  In talking to my friend, he mentioned that church members often refer to those who have left the church with terms like: stray, apostate, fallen, falling away, struggling, confused, deceived, and so on.  In his own words he said, “Nobody wants to ‘go astray, be confused, or fall off the deep’ end of anything.  Who wants to be seen like that in their community, family and friends?  Nobody!”  Instead, perhaps we just need to both view and refer to others as simply “Brother” and “Sister” and speak in terms of “loving and serving” them, which is far more inclusive and supportive.  After all, we, as fallen, wandering and imperfect individuals ourselves have no power to save or redeem anyone, including ourselves.  Instead, as we offer kindness and Christ-like support, then both parties get to feel and experience the power of His redeeming love and life-changing grace.
  8.      Trust in the Lord and His perfect, redeeming and infinite power to save all of us!  Far too often we worry and stress about ourselves and others around us.  We want to put things on our own timetables and have things happen in the way we think they should go.   And while we do need to have compassion and a desire to change and better ourselves and help others, we need to trust in the Lord’s ability to help each of us through our own mortal journey and back to His presence according to His perfect knowledge and timing.  He knows, loves and is aware of all of us, including those who have chosen to leave the church.

            Although these suggestions are in no way even close to exhaustive, or intended to be so, I hope they will at least begin to get us thinking about how we approach our association with each other, both within and without of the Church and faith.

            The gospel is a gospel of love, learning, growth, change and compassion.  And it doesn’t have to be compromised to still extend the loving and constant invitation (not from any flawed individual on earth), but from the Lord Himself, to, “Come unto Me.”


            He stands with open arms inviting each of us into His divine embrace, no matter where we are currently in our lives.  How foolish it would be of us to think we should or could close that embrace to others who don’t currently share the same way of thinking that we do.

            Personally, I am grateful to my friend for sharing his personal thoughts and feelings with me, and that he trusted me enough to do so.  His viewpoints and comments have broadened my perspective and helped to open my heart to new levels of understanding about the gospel, my membership in the church and what it should mean in my life.  And although we have different viewpoints on many things, we still love and respect each other.  And because of these new found views and perspectives, I feel myself to be a better and more Christ-like member of the church because of it!

Part Two, upcoming, will address some of my own simple thoughts about the question of how and why we can still follow the counsel of called and chosen church leaders who are flawed and imperfect, just like we are.  STAY TUNED!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Needed Repairs and Maintenance

Needed Repairs and Maintenance

            I drove by a place I have passed almost daily for many years now, but which I have often failed to pay attention to.  But this morning as I drove by, it caught my eye, and some simple yet profound thoughts came to me, so I stopped to take some pictures and share them for what they are worth.

            Some beautiful apartments were under construction during the building boom of 2008, when while only partially completed, the bottom fell out of the financial world and resources apparently came to a crashing end, leaving this once potentially attractive and financially productive venture incomplete.  Unable to sustain the project through to completion, the structures have now sat incomplete for the past nine years, with nothing but the wearing forces of weather, migrating birds, and scavenging varmints paying them much attention.  What has happened is rather sad to behold.

            The once sturdy frames and walls now provide only sagging support.

            The once dreamed of furnished interiors sit hollow and filled with debris.




            The views which once may have looked upon manicured lawns and flower beds now behold wanting scenes of overgrown weeds which choke the grounds of color and vitality.


            As sad as the apparent loss of financial investment and property values, what struck me was how these grounds mirror the souls of many individuals who walk among us and with whom we rub shoulders with in our daily lives.  They may be hollow, incomplete and suffering in silence.


           Often, as I do driving by these buildings each day, we hardly tend to cast a glance in their direction or notice their needs.  Instead we often look away to avoid what may otherwise be uncomfortable encounters outside of our structured lives and activities.


            What also dawns upon me is the realization that each and every one of us likely have places in our souls which we have neglected or ignored and which, without the needed attention, have fallen into disrepair and states of decay.  We may want to ignore those darker recesses within ourselves, or in society around us, but the simple fact is this – Unless we put effort into regular maintenance and repair, all things decay and degrade as a natural result.


            We cannot ignore the problems and degrading forces at work in our own lives or in society around us and expect them to somehow get better on their own.  The forces of nature, both physically and spiritually don’t work that way.  Things uncared for will ALWAYS progress from a state of organization into a state of chaos and decline.


            You can have a beautifully painted house, but if the interior walls are infested with mice and it doesn’t have functional plumbing or electricity, then it is pretty hard to live in with any measure of comfort or safety.  Instead, we must perform regular cleaning, maintenance, replace worn out parts with things that are newer and better.  We must dig out the weeds and plant flowers in their place, apply new paint where needed, vacuum and sweep out unwanted accumulations.  In essence, we must pay attention to things.  Especially those things of most importance.


            We often tend to ignore or neglect the “weightier matters” in our lives or the deeper spiritual areas of decay we suffer from.  Perhaps addressing those areas of need pulls us too far out of our comfort zone and will require significant effort to repair and upgrade and we just don’t feel we have the spiritual energy or resources to do it after the daily battles we fight.

            The first reality of the situation is, that in order to improve and progress, we must focus the needed energy and resources into those areas of decay to bring them into repair.  The other reality is, is that it is very difficult to help fill others needs if we are hollow and lacking in our own interior design.  The good news is we don’t have to do it alone, and it is totally worth the effort and investment!

            If we are willing to call upon other experts with the knowledge and skills to help us make those repairs properly, or at least teach us how to make those adjustments and repairs more efficiently, then the process can be much easier.  Family, friends, spiritual advisors and leaders can all help provide needed encouragement and suggestions to begin to overhaul, de-junk and commence the renovations we need.

            And if we really want to get serious about making complete interior and exterior designs to bring us up to our full potential and value, then we need to call in the Master Repairman, the Lord Himself.  He is truly the only one that can help us make more than just cosmetic improvements.  He has the skills, love, understanding and complete devotion and willingness to not just make a few repairs, but tear down the dilapidated parts of our souls and completely reconstruct them into something far grander and of greater worth than we can imagine.


C.S. Lewis put it very well when he said,



            If we can but open ourselves to Him, He will not only surgically cut out and remove those infected and infested parts of our souls, but will replace the worn out parts with major upgrades far beyond our expectations.  And a remarkable thing happens.  Along with those improvements He makes within ourselves, we begin to see how to help others and aspects of society around us with more clarity.



            So let us not ignore the aspects of our lives which need the closest attention, but instead open and embrace the necessary upgrades and all the comforts and benefits they have to offer.  It will perhaps be the greatest investment of time and energy that we can make.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Are you a Builder or a Demolition worker?

Are you a Builder or a Demolition worker?

          This past week, there were a couple of instances which caused me to think about my use of social media.  The first came when a fellow employee of mine, who I am friends with on Facebook, posted about how she was shocked how a simple rather benign post she had made, very quickly evoked several very personal, vitriolic attacks.

          The second was when I noticed some comments on a post from some friends and former co-workers, who were demeaning and joking about the place where I am still employed.  It did shock me a bit.  Now I don’t know all the personal reasons why they might have left employment there, but I was surprised that they talked about the place in a demeaning way.  Certainly no place of employment will ever be perfect – it’s not a vacation – that’s why they call it “Work”.  And I personally have left several previous jobs and moved on to other things for personal reasons, but I don’t remember feeling any animosity to the place I was leaving as it had provided me a means for support and interaction with so many other good people.  And the place where I currently work is a beautiful facility which has blessed the lives of countless people in the area who have benefited from being able to come there and is filled with many employees who are all caring and kind to the clients we are servicing.

          Then in my church meetings today, one of the topics of discussion was about our use of social media for purposes which are either good or bad, time wasting or of usefulness and so forth.  As I sat listening and pondering, several questions and spiritual impressions came to my mind which were not part of the actual sermon.

“Are you a builder or a demolition worker?”

“Are you trying to raise yourself higher by tearing others down around you?  Or are you building stairs upon which you and others can ascend together?”

“Are you tearing down walls and removing roofs to try and expose something you think is hidden inside?  Or are you constructing places of shelter and safety for others to come into from the storms of life?”

Are you a wrecking ball, which in a moment can destroy something or someone, perhaps irreparably, affecting far more than those to whom your comment was aimed?

Or are you a supporting bolster to those who are wavering and need a firm foundation upon which they can regain their footing?”

          These impressions and questions from the Spirit made me pause to think more deeply about my use of social media, which although it feels distant through the technology, is actually far more connected to the lives of others than we might realize.

          I will now offer a sincere apology to anyone and everyone who I may have offended over the years in any attempt to be humorous or funny!  If I have ever said or done anything to hurt you than I am sorry and in need of and striving for repentance in these things!  And certainly, I am sure there is far more work I need to do in my life to improve.

          As these impressions came through my mind and I grabbed a piece of paper to write them down, some scriptures also came to my mind.
          “…Succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” – D&C 81:5.

          The thought then came to me that as we demean or belittle others or attempt to pass judgement upon them, that we are really only exposing our own flawed character traits.  This thought then brought to mind another verse of scripture, in which in vision the prophet saw a great a spacious building, which stood up in the air and had no foundation, which represented “the vain imaginations and pride of the children of men,” and “it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female… and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards…” others who were simply trying the best they could to do what was right.  (see 1 Nephi 8:27).

          As I pondered these impressions, I asked myself, “If finding fault in others only exposes the imperfections, gaps and flaws in my own life, then how can I fill those gaps to become better?”

          The quick but gentle reply which came in the reminder of some other verses of scripture found in Moroni 7: 45-48, “And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail— But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.  Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.”

          I felt prompted to share these thoughts today, as both a possible means to ask forgiveness if there are any I have ever offended, and perhaps to help all of us consider what role we are playing through social media.  And to think about how we can improve and fill the judgmental gaps and holes in our own lives, not by making others faults bigger, but through filling them with His love and helping others to do the same.

          I am sure we all have a bit of work to do in this department from time to time.

Godspeed everyone!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A CONNECTION TO THE PAST – AND A REBIRTH (My Unexpected Native Sweat Lodge Experience)

A CONNECTION TO THE PAST – AND A REBIRTH
(My Unexpected Native Sweat Lodge Experience)

            It happened rather unexpectedly, and only through what I would refer as a miraculous set of events.  But there I was, along with my wife, on the night of 9-12-17, helping 7 other people construct a Native American sweat lodge under the direction of a Cheyenne Medicine Man, who is also an active member and priesthood holder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which I myself am a member.

            What started as some simple social media contact and a few text messages with a relatively new Facebook friend, I suddenly found myself with an invitation to come help and participate in this ancient traditional spiritual ritual which was taking place for the first time (as far as I know) in this local area.


            I actually have some literal Native American blood flowing through my veins.  Through my mother I have ties into the Creek Indian Nation out of Oklahoma.  I have long been proud and interested in this connection, but had never been involved in any such native practice throughout my life.  So the prospect was very intriguing and inviting to me.

            Without wanting to divulge the names of others who may wish to remain anonymous, I will simply say that some very gracious people had offered up their land to conduct the ceremony.  They were friends with this Medicine Man, named Shawn Littlebear, who is from Oklahoma and who was up visiting in this area for some other business.  He is a wonderfully kind and humble man, with deep spiritual roots both in the modern Latter Day Saint religion as well as his native Cheyenne heritage.


            To give a little background, a Sweat Lodge is a hand constructed short domed hut, made from natural materials (usually saplings stripped of their bark), which is traditionally covered with animal hides or heavy blankets to both trap out any sunlight as well as to contain the steam and heat within for the purification rituals which take place inside, which are often referred to as “sweats”.  The sweat is intended as a religious ceremony – it is for prayer and healing, and the ceremony is only to be led by elders who know the language, songs, traditions and safety protocols. Otherwise, the ceremony can be dangerous if done improperly – both physically and spiritually.   As quoted from a Native American website, “With the help of Medicine Men and Women, they could repair the damage done to their spirits, their minds and their bodies. The Sweat Lodge is a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, a place to get answers and guidance by asking ancestral spiritual entities, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power.”

            By the time my wife and I arrived after work, some of the basic construction and preparations were already well underway by the others, but we were recruited to help finish some of the frame construction of the hut and some other preparations.


            Within the center of the hut is a dug out hole, which the Medicine Man had carefully prepared beforehand, with stones carefully arranged in a Medicine Wheel pattern with a cross formed in the middle (which can be seen in the center of the photograph below).  The dirt floor of the lodge was also carefully swept clean and leveled as best as possible.


            As mentioned previously, the entire structure must be carefully covered to block out any light with only a small doorway, through which the participants must kneel and crawl to gain access, which is also then covered with a thick blanket door once all are inside.  The door should also be constructed to face Eastward.

            A short distance away from the entrance a special fire is constructed which is lined with specific types of rocks, which are then heated under an intense burning pile of wood to heat them to red-hot temperatures.  Between the fire and the entrance a special mound of earth was formed by the Medicine Man, which he referred to as “the Altar”.  A bag of medicinal herbs consisting of Cedar and Sweet grass was then placed upon the altar and a line drawn in the dirt from there to the opening of the lodge.


            It was very clearly indicated that one should not cross over the line between the altar and the doorway, but that you had to go around the altar and should only enter the doorway and around the inside of the lodge in a clockwise manner.  (I did not take any further photographs as I did not want to interrupt with the ceremony or have any distractions from what the experience would offer).

            After completion, he gave us some instructions about how the ceremony would be performed along with some of the history behind it and what it represented.  I will probably not do it justice with how I try to describe it from my limited memory, but essentially the lodge and all the outer components combined serve to join together all of the basic elements of life: Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Rocks within the lodge as a symbol of the womb in which life is created, or in this case, spiritually recreated.  We were also allowed to bring in small towels and water to drink, but were instructed to leave outside anything that is not natural, such as: watches, ear rings, gold, silver, eye glasses. Etc.…  (I will refrain from going into further details and explanations, but would encourage those interested to seek out the history behind such events or go find a tribal site where you might be invited to participate in a traditional ceremony and education).

            Following the Medicine Man, we each entered and crawled to our respective places inside of the lodge, with one designated member remaining outside as the door keeper and person who would help bring in the heated stones from the fire.  We sat upon small mats upon the dirt away from the pit in the center and there received some further instructions and teachings.  We were told that there would be 4 sessions completed that night, and that if desired participants could leave the lodge between each sessions to stretch, get fresh air, etc…  If we got too hot, we could kneel or crouch down closer to Mother Earth where the temperature would be cooler and ask the earth to heal and provide strength to us.

            After the instruction, 10 rocks were brought to the entrance by the keeper outside and rolled into the central pit.  The door was then closed and sealed, and in the dark, the Medicine Man offered prayer, as described above, while cedar and sweet grass were successively sprinkled upon the heated stones, providing a sweet aroma in the air.  As the prayer and ceremony continued (which details I will not discuss here as to not divulge anything considered sacred or by doing it a significant disservice through my poor, inexperienced explanation), but as it continued he intermittently scooped clean water from a bucket with a ladle and poured it over the hot rocks, steaming the air and inducing the sweat.  I am sure that the traditional methods were modified or added upon somewhat by his Christian and Latter Day Saint religious influences, but I do not feel they detracted at all from the traditional methods, but rather enhanced them… at least for me and my background, as all of us present were members of the Church ourselves.

            4 progressive sessions of this ensued with breaks and further discussion and lessons taught between each one, with each subsequent session including more hot rocks and gradually increased heat and sweating.  During this process, I noticed and experienced several profound things, which is what I would like to discuss.

            Physically, especially for a bigger man like myself, it was somewhat uncomfortable sitting on the ground in the confined space, which when combined with the profound heat made it difficult to relax initially, but I had determined before entering to embrace the entire experience with an open mind and heart, willing to endure any discomforts as a form of “sacrifice” if you want to call it that, in order to reap whatever benefit might be available through the practice.  What I found was that as the heat and sweat began to pour through me, my muscles relaxed and the posture became much more tolerable.  This allowed me to open my mind and heart in silent prayer and meditation as I listened and learned.

            Although it was completely dark within the lodge, I became aware through my other senses how each participant was having their own unique experience and their reactions to it were all different.  Some were very emotional and could be heard softly weeping.  Others were felt to be gently rocking back and forth in rhythmic patterns.  Still others were heard deeply breathing in controlled manner, while others quietly mumbled their own prayers or mantras. I simply tried to hold still and quietly control my breathing and let the experience happen physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I have to admit that it deeply moved me.

            During the initial session or two, I was concentrating more on myself, my own reactions to it all, and caught up in prayer about and thought about myself and what I would experience as I personally tried to open to the physical and spiritual aspect of it all.  I prayed for my own loved ones and family members, including my wife next to me. But as the sessions progressed, my thoughts and prayers also began to extend out to those in the circle around me.  I found myself concerned about their well-being and trials, and praying that they might receive what they had come seeking for in faith.

            Here we were, with others who were practically strangers to my wife and I, yet at the same time, in very different ways, we were joined together as ONE.  Each of us had our own reactions and different levels of spiritual connectedness to the Divine, yet we were all joined together in a common purpose in reaching out for healing, cleansing, renewal and wisdom as to how we could better help others to do the same.  It was very primal and visceral, but also deeply spiritual – and it affected me.

            There were NO tobacco pipes or peyote or any such sensation inducing elements involved whatsoever.  It was simply a stripping away of everything worldly and literally get back down to the basics of existence in a way I had not experienced before.  The sweating involved was not anything like the type of sweat you experience during a workout at the gym or by doing hard yardwork.  I am very familiar with such sensations, and this was something totally different.  It literally felt like a purging from the inside out rather than a force induced reaction from exertion.  It was also different from a normal sauna experience, perhaps because of the very basic connection to the earth and elements around us as well as the spiritual components involved in the experience.  It felt cleansing and lightening in a way I have difficulty describing, and it was very intense and profuse.

            These bouts of physical and spiritual connectedness, interspersed with breaks when the door was opened and the fresh renewing air poured in deeply rejuvenated me.  And after nearly two hours I did emerged a changed man.  I felt lighter and refreshed.  The stars were brighter in the heavens above as if my vision had been cleared.  I felt a bond with others to whom just hours before had been strangers, as well as more connected with both the earth below my bare feet and the Heavens above me and the cool night air swirling around me.  We had all passed through an experience together and woven and unseen thread of commonality among us in some small way because of it.

            Would this experience be something I would recommend to everyone I knew?… I don’t know.  I think it would be something you would have to determine for yourself, and I can imagine that it may be performed differently depending on where you went to experience it and who was offering it.  I would offer some caution and recommend doing your research and talking to others to ensure it was done safely and in a manner appropriate for your religious beliefs.

            Did it have the effect I expected?… No, it actually surpassed that in every way.  I had been expecting something like sitting quietly in the dark and meditating without much interaction, but instead it was a very connecting experience with interaction with those around me as well as I believe others from beyond the veil that I could feel although not see.  And despite the physical darkness of the environment, there was nothing spiritually dark about it at all… it was completely full of spiritual Light.

            After it was all over, we gathered in our hosts home and partook of a very simple and refreshing meal as we conversed about our different experiences and shared our new bonds of friendship.

            Another thing the experience reminded me of, is that although each of us is at very different levels on our own journey, with different ways of reaction and being connected to the divine, we are all on the journey together.  We each have a lot to offer to those around us, and when we are all heading in the same direction, with the same underlying purpose, and are asking for the heavenly help available to us… then there is a profound power that can be tapped into which can enrich us and help us be “Reborn” each day into a new life full of purpose and meaning.

            I know that this form of re-commitment, connection, change and rebirth can occur through many different manners, and is not limited to only a properly guided sweat lodge practice.  I have found very similar and even more powerful experiences in many other circumstances, especially within the temple ordinances of my religion.  But I am grateful for the unique opportunity I had to experience this ancient practice, become more connected with the ways of my Native American ancestors, and feel to be a better man because of it.

“AHO!” – (which is a Cheyenne word for “Amen” which is uttered at the end of a prayer)