The Red Road To Christ, Part One

The Red Road To Christ


My name is Ken Downey. I have been blind all my life, and, perhaps due to that blindness, have desperately, avidly and tirelessly searched for God, spiritual truth, and experience. At nine years of age I became a Christian, and attended Bible college at the age of eighteen. Though I believe whole-heartedly in God and His word, I felt like much was missing in my life; I felt disconnected and discontented. I was different; I did not fit in and everybody knew it, especially me.

One of my Bible school teachers said to keep one eye on God’s presence and the other on a beautiful woman. Following his advice, I left Bible college, finding little peace there, and married the woman of my dreams. We have been married for over sixteen years and have two phenomenal children.

We have been through much in life, some of which, if it were told, would be beyond belief, but my desire and love for God and His truth still continues to live in me unabated, despite the desire I sometimes have to completely cut myself off from all things spiritual.

Having had strong attraction to the Native American way of life, I decided, in the beginning of 2005, to go to a Lakota sweat lodge. I struggled for many days and went through many ceremonies before I began to grasp the truths that the Lord was showing me, and I hope to convey them in a way that can be easily understood or at least pondered.

I do not claim to be a spiritual master, for there is but one Master, and I am simply a man who seeks truth and knowledge, and most of all to serve my God in all things. Though I have learned much, I feel I have yet to begin, and so the quest continues.

Drawn By the Drums

My journey down the red road began when I was but two years old. I was playing in the living room while my mother watched an old western. It did not interest me a bit until I heard the song. First, there were the drums, then the singing began, and something within me became connected right then; and I knew–those were my people who were singing and drumming.

Over the next thirty years I sought to know more about them, to find them, and learned as much about the different tribes as a white man can without actually meeting them, which really isn’t a whole lot. Whenever I heard the drumming and the songs, I felt at home. At other times I felt like a wandering pilgrim in search of something or someone I could not define. But of all the tribes of which I had learned, it was the Lakota that kept getting my attention, even though my great grandmother was Cherokee, not Lakota. I can’t explain what it was about this people that enthralled and captivated me more than any other, but there it was. Perhaps it is just that more was taught in school about them than other tribes, but they are the ones about whom I learned anything of value.

As I grew older, I learned many of the stories of the different peoples, but it is the stories of the Lakota that I remember most, stories about Crazy Horse and Sitting bull, about heyokas and tricksters, stories about the great sun dances, of vision quests and sweat lodges.

Inipi: the sacred sweat lodge

When I was thirty-two, I entered my first sweat lodge. I had quested to find any tribe, anywhere, and now here were some people practicing the Lakota way not thirty miles from where I currently live.
It began one day in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting–or rather outside it. There I met Dave, who would later become not only my sponsor, but a dear friend as well.

One day he asked me if I ever sweat. I knew–or was pretty sure, that he didn’t mean the act of perspiring, but that he meant the lodge. I told him that no, but that I had been questing for the opportunity all my life. It came to me–x found me, at a time I was not looking since I didn’t imagine anyone in the area would know anything about it. It had become a dream like many others–dormant, waiting. I thought about a time in California when I asked everyone I could think of about tribes and ceremonies and where to find such people, but no one could tell me anything about it.

I still remember going into that first lodge. It seemed like idolatry to me at first, people praying to Wakan Tanka, to Tunkashila, to the spirits, but I knew to whom I was praying so I kept on going.

Now before each Lakota ceremony begins in earnest, many things happen in preparation. The first and most important of these is the building and lighting of the sacred fire, which begins and ends every ceremony.

After the fire is built, stones are placed on the wood that they may become heated. Tobacco is offered to the four winds, the sky, the earth and within which are the seven sacred directions, and it is then sprinkled over the fire which is then lit. If at any time the fire goes out, the ceremony–even if it is the sun dance itself, is finished. The chanunpa, the sacred pipe, is filled with chinshasha, the toasted inner bark of the red willow. Then the altar is open, and people place gifts of tobacco on it for the fire keepers, those that build and tend the fire, and the pourwater who pours water on the stones to create the sacred steam. People place their chanunpas on top of the lodge also, to receive the prayers of the people.

During this time, the Lakota make prayer ties of tobacco-filled cloth that contain not only the tobacco, but a person’s prayers as well. They use six colors of cloth, each color representing one of the directions. It is said that once, they used a seventh color, purple, to represent God in them, but now they do not.

Some give flesh offerings, for as we leave the world naked as when we came in, the only gift we have is our bodies themselves, or pieces of them. Christ Jesus gave the greatest flesh offer+ on a tree two thousand years ago, and that is the true gift that keeps on giving.

The sweat lodge ceremony, called the Inipi, (the Lakota word for purification,) is divided into four rounds–a spirit invitation round, a prayer round, a pipe round, and a spirit sending round. During the first round, we rub sage on our bodies to purify them and make them smell better–and because it helps the spirits to know us and not be repulsed by our rank humanity. Then, while someone drums, three or four songs are sung to invite the spirits. The water is poured on the glowing stones bit by bit throughout the ceremony. These stones are called nitunkashila, the grandfathers, because they are ancient and witnessed much, and are honored because they take off their robes and give up their lives for the ceremony.

During the prayer round, songs are sung and everyone prays. At the end of a prayer, we each say “mitakuye oyasin,” which means all my relations, for we recognize that we are all related and connected. Three or four more songs are sung, and the sacred pipe is brought in and smoked, and our prayers ascend with that smoke. Every time we smoke the canunpa, the prayers go up because the stone from which the bowl is made lives and remembers. Then the pipe is taken out, a few more songs are sung in the final round thanking the spirits for coming, and we leave the lodge to do the activity which is the favorite of most of the participants–we eat.

To Be Continued

-Ken Downey

Sanders Comes Out for the Disabled

I’ve been a long-time advocate for people with disabilities.  I have a disability myself, as I suffer from depression (which is under control, thankfully).  My best friend and longtime musical collaborator, and associate editor of this site, Ken Downey, is blind.  I’ve developed the first system to transcribe a form of music theory called Schenkerian analysis into braille, and presented it at the national Society of Music Theory conference in 2013. Together we released a disability-themed album called Blasted Light, which raises awareness of the plight of the blind, along with a little-known disability called Meniere’s disease.  I designed a study that investigates the effects of music in rehabilitating Meniere’s disease, which I hope to undertake within the next year.  I’ve written academic articles about disability studies and music, including an analysis of Curtis Mayfield’s music after he became paralyzed with quadriplegia.  So I’ve been around the block on the disability studies front.

I have never in my life recalled a presidential candidate acknowledging people with disabilities having needs, and the unacceptability of their employment rate.  That is, until today.

I was not aware that in July, Senator Bernie Sanders came out to support people with disabilities.  The full transcript of his remarks can be read at the link.

One of the single most loathesome aspects of the Republican budgetary priorities is that they want to cut services for the disabled.  These are the people most vulnerable in our society who, through no fault of their own, require assistance.  Even the most hard-hearted libertarian cannot make an argument that people who were born blind or deaf should not have some form of public assistance.  A fetus cannot “lazy” its way into being blind.

Chances are, you will someday have a disability.  Everybody ages.  Our bodies deteriorate.  It is therefore incumbent on us all to treat people with disabilities with compassion and respect— not just in our daily lives, but as a matter of public policy.

Republicans will counter, but, alas, we cannot afford these extravagant services for the disabled.  We wish we could.  No, really.

Sure you can.  Tax the rich.  Make them pay their fair share.  And remember, you cannot argue that the disabled are undeserving, lazy moochers who simply refuse to work.  The disabled want to work, desperately.  But they face profound amounts of discrimination.  So we need to tax those corporations that are using our publicly funded roads, bridges, infrastructure, who rely upon we the people to coin the money they so desperately want to make, who rely upon public schools for an educated workforce, to give back a little.  Give back so that people who are born with devastating disadvantages can lead a life of simple dignity.

But the Republicans don’t want that.  They want to make sure that billionaires and trillionaires have all the yachts and houses they could possibly need.

Class warfare?  Damn straight.  Because there is no one more vulnerable in society than the disabled.  I refuse to live in a society where blind people have to panhandle on street corners.

Nevertheless, deep down, one suspects that the libertarian streak in the Republicans is that hard-hearted.  That while their reluctance to help able-bodied people through public assistance is marginally arguable, I cannot fathom an argument as to why society should not assist the disabled.  But the answer could be that the Republicans simply don’t care.  I got mine and screw the rest of you— deafblinds included.  Burn them for fuel.

I’ve come to understand libertarian orthodoxy in all its ugly, brutal glory over these years, but I’ve never understood an argument that would maintain that people who face profound physical and/or mental challenges should not be given help systematically by society.  Libertarian orthodoxy has always struck me as heartless and cruel, but cutting programs for the disabled in my view is especially odious.

Thankfully, we have Bernie Sanders fighting the good fight.  And I don’t see anyone else out there fighting it, either.  Even Jeb Bush, whose father signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law, has had nothing to say about the disabled.  My governor, Greg Abbott, who is in a wheelchair, has said or done precious little to help the disabled (indeed, our experience helping my blind best friend find aid in the state of Texas has been nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare).

I knew I was backing the right candidate.

-Robert Gross