as told to Koinonia of Grand Junction Colorado 9-9-2018
© August 2018 by Dan Ford all rights reserved
Although today is September 9, I kinda wish this were the Sunday before Halloween, or better yet, the Sunday before the mid-term elections because the story of D.J. the Skeleton “speaks” to all saints, all “sinners” ... and to all voters.
My younger sister Cindy Ford Meyer is also speaking in church today at the First Congregational Church of Boulder, Colorado. Mom must be proud! Both of her kids speaking at church! On the same day! Cindy will be speaking of the relationship between her church’s stained-glass windows and the great cathedrals of Europe in which the new gothic architecture made it possible for God’s light to enter churches as never before. How inspiring! Mom will be proud!
And you guys get to hear me talk about a dead skeleton. How inspiring. Mom will be SO proud. Sadly, my story & Cindy’s story, raise a question. Does light still enter our world through our nation’s churches? Or have our nation’s churches become the Dry Bones of Ezekiel 37?
I’d like to thank all of you for being here because your presence helps me conclude my 47-year year quest to return a Native American Skeleton to his home with some sense of dignity. I hope that someday, MY bones will be dug up by a stranger from an unknown culture of the future and used to speak against oppression and tyranny. And I hope we all find peace like a river in the “Arms of God” - “Los Brazos de Dios” (preliminary remarks to Koinonia, essay begins below)
Today I will be speaking about a Native American skeleton known as “D.J.”, a skeleton that I dug up from an archaeological dig site in 1970 when I was a teenager. The “D” in D.J. is the first initial of my first name, Dan, and the “J” is the first initial of my childhood friend and digging partner, John, hence the name, D.J. John became a successful lawyer and advocate for women’s health issues. But I doubt you’ll find digging up D.J. on his legal resume.
I was D.J. the Skeleton’s caretaker for 47 years until September of 2017 when I arranged for D.J. to be returned to his home in Texas, placing him in the care of Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum. Many of us have a few skeletons in our closets. I only had one. But mine was real.
When John and I dug up D.J. in the spring of 1970, times were different. Back then we tended to view a Native American skeleton as just another artifact like an arrowhead or a corn grinding stone ... something that could be dug up and displayed, or just stored in the closet like an old shirt. Or worse. I confess that I did what any teenaged Texas Boy would do; I placed D.J.’s skull on top of my bedroom dresser and then placed the folded dollar bills I had earned mowing lawns between D.J.’s clenched teeth, daring my friends to steal them away and be forever cursed.
But during my 47 years as D.J.’s caretaker, my life was blessed, not cursed. D.J. repaid my indignities to him by helping me win first place in the regional science fair. And this insensitive Texas Boy grew up and realized that D.J. was not just an artifact; he was a fellow human being with the same dust-to-dust destiny we all share. Yet we each have a unique story to tell. So, I began wondering, what would D.J. say to me, to us, if he were able? Could D.J. speak again?
Perhaps D.J. would begin speaking by telling me I did not have his permission to remove his bones from his “final” resting place where he had been so carefully laid by loving friends and family. They buried him under a protective slab of limestone in a knees-to-chin pre-natal position which may have signified hope for a second birth ... a second life ... a second chance to speak.
It would be presumptuous of me to pretend knowing what D.J. might say to us if only he could. And the days when D.J. could speak for himself are forever buried in the past. But wouldn’t it also be presumptuous to dig up D.J. and then claim he has nothing to say, that there is nothing we can learn from him?
John and I discovered D.J. under a limestone shelter bluff on the west bank of the Brazos River a few miles upstream of Waco, Texas, the home of Baylor University and more importantly the birthplace of Dr. Pepper, Texas’ finest beverage. D.J.’s shelter bluff was only a short distance downstream of a much more significant site known as the Horn Shelter which you can visit online.
The Horn Shelter contained some of the oldest human remains ever discovered in North America, a double burial of a man and a child dated to about 11,200 years ago. A Texas archaeologist named Al Redder discovered these very old Paleoamerican remains just 3 or 4 months after John and I discovered D.J. just a mile or so downstream of Al Redder’s Horn Shelter. In a phone conversation with Al Redder, he suggested that D.J. was probably a more recent skeleton not uncommon to the area. And Bob Coleman, our supervising archaeologist, described D.J. as pre-Columbian and perhaps as old as 1500 years. Doug Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, examined my photos of D.J. and said D.J. did not have the same Paleoamerican skull shape as the older Horn Shelter remains. But D.J. has never been carbon dated so he remains a Man of Mystery. At least we think he was a man because at 5’10” tall, he was probably too tall to have been a woman of that era. For you math geeks out there, the formula for finding the height of a skeleton is to measure the femur in centimeters, multiply that number by 2.4, and then add 61. There will be a test.
I was D.J.’s caretaker from age 14 until age 61. He has been at my side, through high school and college and then my marriage to Nancy ... and yes Nancy did know she was marrying a man with a skeleton in his closet. In 1991, D.J. inspired my first piece of creative writing in an essay also entitled “D.J. Speaks.” Let me read you a few lines from that earlier essay:
D.J. speaks silently of his peaceful life there by the river. His worn and flattened molars speak of a rough diet of cornmeal made gritty by the grinding stone. His broken and healed rib speaks of a close brush with death and perhaps a renewed appreciation of life. His prenatal burial position speaks of a family who loved him, and lost him, and hoped that his silence would not last forever. They did not hope in vain. After 1,500 years of silence, D.J. speaks again. He reminds us that our lives are not unlike the water running beside our Brazos River home. This water seems so temporal, unlike the rock in the sheltering ledge above, or in the riverbed below. But in reality, it is the rock that is temporal, continually eroded and carried away to the sea, while it is the water that still flows today, unchanged, just as it did 1500 years ago. The water exposes the mortality of the supposedly eternal rock, peeling away strata, revealing times long forgotten. The rock fails to endure. But we are not rocks. We are water. Living Water. And we are carried by The Arms of God … Los Brazos de Dios.
Although D.J. lived and died and was buried in “The Arms of God” ... “Los Brazos de Dios,” I had removed him from his Brazos River home to spend the next five decades in various closets and attics stuffed inside a cardboard box. Finally, he came to rest on the top shelf of the upstairs guest bedroom closet of my childhood home in Ft. Worth, Texas, where my parents had returned to live when dad could no longer breathe the thin air of their retirement home in Ridgway, Colorado.
Storing D.J. in my parents’ upstairs guest bedroom closet created a small moral dilemma. Should they tell their overnight guests, “By-the-way, there is a human skeleton on the top shelf of your closet. Sweet Dreams!, Sleep Tight!, Don’t Let the Boogie Man Bite!”? Or should they bury the truth among the coat hangers where D.J. kept silent vigil over unsuspecting roommates?
On Halloween Day of 2014, Nancy and I moved D.J. from mom’s house in Texas to our retirement home in Fruita, Colorado. My latest attempt to transfer responsibility for D.J. to a member of the Texas Archeological Society had fallen through so I would be transporting a human skeleton across four state lines in possible violation of state and federal laws. Happy Halloween!
For the next three years D.J. joined Nancy and me and the many Texans who have found retirement bliss in Colorado. One evening, while “waxing philosophical” a.k.a. “thinking too much,” I took D.J.’s skull out of his box in the garage closet to our backyard patio to view the last rays of a spectacular Colorado sunset. Holding D.J. in my palm, I slowly turned his gaze toward the Black Ridge Wilderness and then south to the blazing orange canyons of the Colorado National Monument. And then, D.J. and I together pronounced a blessing on this Grand Valley of the Colorado from his Peaceful Valley of the Brazos ... a blessing from his valley to ours.
Heaven knows we need it. Long after D.J.’s tribe flourished and vanished into the Arms of God, our own American tribe stands at the brink of eternity ... an eternity in which the cherished blessings of democracy are not an inevitable birthright, but a fragile, dust-to-dust flower.
We were once the most respected warrior tribe to ever walk the earth. If you doubt our warrior heritage consider that just eighty miles north of D.J.’s home, in my childhood home of Ft. Worth, we built the B-36 “Peacemaker,” the first weapon in history capable of delivering nuclear annihilation to any point on the globe, non-stop. Later, Ft. Worth developed the F-16 fighter jet, exporting it around the world to make “peace” possible in such havens of “peace” as Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Venezuela. Indeed, there are no less than twenty-one foreign armament sales programs for our F-16, each program’s code name beginning with the same word, “Peace.” And all of this “peace” just an hour’s drive north of D.J.’s home on the Brazos where he lived so peacefully in “The Arms of God - Los Brazos de Dios.”
So much power. But to what purpose? Power is infinitely worse than nothing if placed in the wrong hands. The two most powerful nations on earth have created enormous power only to place it in the hands of two men who cultivate extreme tribalism on a national scale not seen since before World War II. And we know how that turned out.
As tyrants, these men silence truth, especially the truth that exposes them as tyrants. The word “tyrant” is derived from the Latin tyrannus meaning “illegitimate ruler,” an absolute ruler unrestrained by law who defends his position by oppressive means, especially by silencing all opposition. Silence Reigns.
Our tyrant works to silence truth in many ways: Silencing the press with ridicule, tariffs on newsprint, and threats to revoke broadcasting licenses. Silencing voters by appointing judges who allow gerrymandering or weaken the Voting Rights Act. Silencing opposition in his own party. Silencing veterans with mockery. Silencing with the white noise of constant tweets. Silencing the special counsel with slander when he reveals the successful Russian effort to tip our election to a demagogue loyal to Putin but not his own countrymen. Silencing meaningful dialogue between conservatives and liberals by casting them as mortal enemies rather than mutually dependent partners in balancing our government. Silencing justice when white supremacists commit murder. Silencing children separated from their parents. Silencing Black Lives Matter protestors by exploiting our National Anthem to drown out their voices and terminate their jobs.
In 1963, Paul Simon wrote another anthem, “The Sound of Silence,” with timelessly prophetic lyrics which I’ve modified just a bit for our own times:
And the people bowed and prayed, to the “Facebook God” they made
People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share, No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
In 2018, 55 years after Paul Simon wrote those words, our nation, which once spoke the truth about equality and justice, has been silenced, a ghost of its former self. We are a nation of dry bones, unable to resist, unable to speak.
In the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of a valley in which the silent dry bones of vanquished Israel are resurrected by the winds of God’s spirit. They too had been conquered by an evil man, the tyrant king Nebuchadnezzar, infamous for mandating a national anthem event in which anyone protesting his oppression would not only lose their job, but lose their life, in a fiery furnace*. Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego bravely protested the forced idolatry of tribal nationalism and were thrown into that fiery furnace, but were spared when God’s presence joined them in the flames.
We now live in a nation whose would-be-king also punishes anyone who refuses to join in the idolatry of divisive tribal nationalism. We need someone who will speak about another way of living in which we live peacefully beside our river in a mutually supportive tribal village. We need a prophet, but we hear the sound of silence. Speak to us D.J.!
And it came to pass that D.J. spoke. But How? Listen Up! ...
In the fall of 2017, Baylor University sent their representative, Trey Crumpton, to our home in Fruita, Colorado. We took Trey to the local FedEx store so he could buy boxes to ship D.J. to Baylor’s Mayborn Museum. When the FedEx clerk asked what we were shipping, Trey replied, “a human skeleton” as if D.J. was a box of candy. “And by the way, I’ll need a separate box for his skull,” said Trey. The dutiful clerk left and reappeared wearing a skull sized box over his own head, a walking jack-in-the-box. I felt like I was shipping my kid off to college because I was shipping my kid off to college. Then we drove to my house in Fruita where I introduced Trey to D.J. and set up a table in the garage where Trey could inventory, bag, and pack D.J. into the 3x3x3 cardboard shipping box.
Later that evening, I went into the garage to check on Trey. I told Trey about my original “D.J. Speaks” essay I’d written 26 years ago and that perhaps it was time for D.J. to speak one last time, his parting words to me after our 47 years together. But what would those words be? I also told Trey I never felt as if I “owned” D.J. but instead I was his caretaker. And then it hit me. THOSE would be D.J.’s final words: “Human Beings Should Not Own Other Human Beings.” Instead, we are to be caretakers ... our brother’s keepers.
The next morning, we shipped D.J. back to Texas and then took Trey to the airport for his flight home. I was feeling a bit foolish about the previous evening because once again I’d presumed to speak for this poor deceased Native American, powerless to stop me from putting MY words into HIS mouth. Guilty Again. Guilty as Charged.
But consider this: Immediately after shipping Trey and D.J. back to Texas, I received a phone call from a neighbor down the street. My neighbor had seen an advertisement I’d placed on Craigslist to sell my kayak paddle. Since he lives just a few houses down the street from us, he just walked up the street from his house to buy my paddle. Meeting me in my front yard he said, “By the way, did you hear what happened right here in our neighborhood? A bear walked right down our street, turned right here on your corner, and jumped over your fence!” “When did this happen?” I asked. When he told me, I realized this bear had mysteriously appeared in my yard immediately after D.J.’s departure as if D.J. had sent his own replacement. And this was just hours after D.J. had spoken his last words to me the night before. I could “bearly” believe my ears! (grr)
Was this some kind of sign? Was this a “spirit bear”** sent by D.J. confirming that he had indeed spoken his last words through me? I’ll leave that for you and others to judge. All I know for sure is that I was D.J.’s caretaker for 47 years and I’ve never had a bear walk across my yard until D.J.’s last day with me, and that special night before when he, or something, inspired me to listen for a silent, ineffable wisdom***. By the way, does anyone know what Baylor’s mascot is? (That’s right, the Baylor BEARS:)
A few days later I emailed Trey to tell him about the “spirit bear” that had walked right past his bedroom on D.J.’s last day with us, and also to elaborate on D.J.’s final words. Here is an excerpt from that email dated September 6, 2017: “Owning another human being is wrong. Owning others goes by many names ... slavery, Jim Crow, Indian removal, bigotry, sweatshop, apartheid, homophobia, misogyny ... but the umbrella word is “oppression.” And Christ, and MLK, and Gandhi, and others were all crucified for speaking truth about oppression. When Christ “speaks” to us to “take up our cross,” his cross, he is calling us to speak truth about oppression, even if doing so endangers our careers, our comforts, our lives. Christ Speaks. D.J. Speaks.”
Copies of “D.J. Speaks” available by emailing Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
** The Spirit Bear is a rare subspecies of the American black bear with white fur. That’s right, a white black bear. If you’re looking for a symbol of racial reconciliation look no further. The Spirit Bear shares its home with the Kitasoo tribe of British Columbia which according to their legend is a remote paradise where the bears are to live in peace forever.
*** As a “spirit bear” skeptic, I questioned whether the bear that visited my house was some kind of “spirit bear” sent by D.J. to confirm his last words to us. So D.J., unimpressed with my skepticism, arranged to send yet another “spirit bear” to my house less than 48 hours before my talk at Koinonia. House guests visiting from Texas presented us with a gift they had been inspired to purchase at the Rocky Mountain National Park gift shop. It was a jigsaw puzzle ... of a bear. Our houseguests, Steve and Shirley Eubanks, had no idea that my talk featured a “spirit bear.” “Puzzling” don’t you think?
Note: The following contains:
1) Church bulletin used at Koinonia 9-9-2018 to accompany the “D.J. Speaks” essay above.
2) Protest hymn adaptation based on “How Firm a Foundation” by Dan Ford.
3) Poem by Judah Halevi, “Tis a Fearful Thing” on the fragility of life and love.
4) Music video links to the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego bible story from Ezekiel.
5) Music video link to “The Sound of Silence” as sung by David Draiman of “Disturbed”
6) Text of the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego biblical account.
7) Email address of Dan Ford to request copies of essay
8) “All the Earth is a Temple” by Peter Mayer is a great choral addition for future programs
9) A Dream and a Request
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s Protest from Daniel 3:1-18
King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue ninety feet high and nine feet wide and set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then he sent messages to all the princes, governors, captains, judges, treasurers, counselors, sheriffs, and rulers of all the provinces of his empire, to come to the dedication of his statue. When they had all arrived and were standing before the monument, a herald shouted out, “O people of all nations and languages, this is the king’s command: “When the band strikes up, you are to fall flat on the ground to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue. Anyone who refuses to obey will immediately be thrown into a flaming furnace.” So, when the band began to play, everyone — whatever his nation, language, or religion, fell to the ground and worshiped the statue. Then Nebuchadnezzar, in a terrible rage, ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be brought in before him. “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” he demanded, “that you are refusing to serve my gods or to worship the gold statue I set up? I’ll give you one more chance. When the music plays, if you fall down and worship the statue, all will be well. But if you refuse, you will be thrown into a flaming furnace within the hour. And what god can deliver you out of my hands then?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not worried about what will happen to us. If we are thrown into the flaming furnace, our God is able to deliver us; and he will deliver us out of your hand, Your Majesty. But if he doesn’t, please understand, sir, that even then we will never under any circumstance serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have erected.
How to Say “NO” to a King! Two Tales of Shadrach Meshack and Abednego
1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waSkv0MF2To Deep River Boys
2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bj2XLtqmCQU Michael Arcadi & Douglas Brown
Call to Gathering
“Tis a Fearful Thing” by Judah Halevi, Spanish Jewish physician,
poet and philosopher c.1075-1141 (written during D.J.’s time?)
Silent Meditation followed by Responsive Reading Groups A & B
A) ‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
B) A fearful thing to love, to hope,
to dream, to be … to be and oh, to lose.
A) A thing for fools, this, and a holy thing,
a holy thing to love.
B) For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
A) To remember this brings painful joy.
B) ‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing,
To love what death has touched.
The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon & David Draiman of Disturbed
Song: How Firm a Foundation* adaptation by Dan Ford
BOLD WORDS:(sing as two note diphthong)
* An early American hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” evokes the imagery of the fiery furnace used by the tyrant king Nebuchadnezzar to punish anyone protesting his national anthem idolatry. I’ve adapted the lyrics to fit my essay’s protest theme.
1) HOW firm a foundation for peace can be found,
WHERE truth leads to justice on love’s holy ground.
What more can we say of the place where we stand,
Tis a vision of hope for a new promised land.
2) FEAR not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I’ll stand at thy side until true peace is made.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Where by light of our protest, oppression is banned.
3) The brave souls who like prophets still speak in protest,
Are the souls who like Jesus stand with the oppressed.
Those souls, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
We shall never, no never, no never forsake.
WHEN through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
MY grace, all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
About our guest speaker: Dan Ford was a public school teacher in Texas for 33 years and has written for Grand Valley Magazine. Dan and his wife Nancy retired to Fruita in 2012. Their daughters, Sally and Becky, rescued cats and dogs as they earned their MBA and PharmD degrees. Dan has no skeletons in his closet.
The Spirit Bear
The Spirit Bear is a rare subspecies of the American black bear with white fur. That’s right, a white black bear. If you’re looking for a symbol of racial reconciliation look no further. The Spirit Bear shares its home with the Kitasoo tribe of British Columbia which according to their legend is a remote paradise where the bears are to live in peace forever.
“How Firm a Foundation”
“How Firm a Foundation,” an Early American melody, evokes the imagery of the fiery furnace used by the tyrant king Nebuchadnezzar to punish anyone protesting his national anthem idolatry:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not harm thee, I only design,
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Copies of “D.J. Speaks” available by emailing Dan at email@example.com
A Dream and a Request
My dream is that my “D.J. Speaks” essay be made into the screenplay for the much talked about movie that derails the 2020 Presidential reelection bid. (Actually, my dream is for an immediate resignation, no movie needed.)
My request is that if any of you just happen to be good buddies with Steven Spielberg, let him know of my essay-screenplay idea above. (Actually, if any of you belong to a group in search of a billion-to-one longshot project, consider brainstorming how to get my essay into the hands of a good screenwriter. And if not, I can at least tell any grandchildren, “I tried.” Hopefully my effort here will encourage you to speak out even as “D.J. Speaks.”