The Island of Rapa Nui


In this posting, I would like to share a story of a small island about 2000 miles west of mainland Chile, called Rapa Nui.  I learned of this story in a movie that I stumbled upon this past week (180 Degrees South) The island was once a bustling place, and its inhabitants flourished.   Today, it is a nearly empty, treeless place that bears no resemblance to its once former glory.   

As a matter of fact, it would probably go completely unnoticed if it wasn’t for the Moais that one could find all over the countryside.    For those of you unfamiliar with the Ahu I have a picture:

Obviously, the island that I am talking about is Easter Island, and I am sure the majority of us have seen these heads before.   These statues are just one piece of the mystery behind that once great culture that over time has, for all practical purposes, has simply disappeared.  These moais are all that remains.
Today, no one knows precisely what happened to the Easter Island Society.   There is one archaeologist /anthropologist who does have a pretty neat theory.   He believes that “Easter Island is a tragedy of epic dimension, and as such, a lesson for all societies.”   According to this scientist, Easter Island wasn’t always barren and without people.   Easter Island was once covered with a dense forest.   In its woods and by its shore, lived vibrant communities of fishermen and farmers.

They are believed to have arrived on Easter Island, 700 years before the birth of Jesus.   Most believe they came from the islands of Hawaii, thousands of miles away, in hollowed out canoes built by hand.     As soon as they settled, they took up fishing, which provided them with the food their growing community needed.   Eventually, they started to grow a crop or two to supplement the fishing.     Overtime the numbers of people grew to about 10,000 people.

Right along with the population growth, was a development of their religion.   As part of their faith, the people of Rapa Nui developed this rather strange perspective of the afterlife.    When someone they loved died, they decided to put their bodies in stone carved statues that resembled their loved one.    That’s where the moais come into play.  They believed that if they built them, they could channel the spirits of their spirits and change destiny, protect the island, or bring good luck.
These stone figures weigh upwards of 90 tons, and they were carved out of solid volcanic rock from the other side of the mountain, over the course of a whole year.   As you came imagine by the size of the statues only those that could afford to hire a carver, could afford one of these great statues.    Because of the cost, only the richest and most powerful of the community, such as former kings and great warriors, would be honored.

All in all life wasn’t that spectacular for the Rapa Nuis.    Their community grew.  They fished.   They farmed.   They were friends with everyone.

Sadly, though something changed.    Soon those moai’s became symbols of status.    Soon tribes started to compete over who had the bigger or more beautifully carved statue.   When one member of the community made one, another had to make one bigger.     When one member of the community made one, the other ther had to make two.   It wasn’t long before the people of Rapa Nui not only fished and farmed, but where in the business of statue making.

There are 800 heads, some buried up to their necks due to the winds shifting sand over time.    Those 800 represent less than a quarter  of the 3000-4000 that are in various stages of construction at that quarry on the other side of the mountain.   Some researchers believe that there were probably another 800 that have yet to be found, or have been washed out to sea.    That’s almost 6000 of these heads.

Sadly, those heads presented another problem.  Because they weighed 80 to 90 tons, getting them from one side of the island to the another was no easy job.    By understanding how they did just that, provides one key to understanding how they lost their community.

One theory has it that to move those statues they made ropes from the bark of the “hau-hau” tree.  They would strip the bark, weave into a rope, and yank this statute the full 16 miles from one side of the island to the other.    Their rope was strong, but would lose its strength a quarter way into the trip.     Soon rope making became big business too.

Sadly, with more rope, came the need for more bark.    As more and more rope was stripped off the trees, more and more trees died.    Eventually the whole clumps of forest died out.   In just a few years, all the hau-hau’s were gone.   With the trees gone, the boats were gone.     That meant that the fish dinners were gone.     With the trees gone, the winds came with even greater intensity.   With the winds, the crops refused to grow. 

Somewhere for the inhabitants of that island, faith became mixed up.   Once they believed those items were a tool to bridge the gap between the here and now and eternity.    It wasn’t long before their faith became about one upping their neighbor.   It wasn’t long before various groups aligned and communities developed within communities.    It wasn’t long before they had their own sects, their own like minded neighborhoods, and perhaps their own denominations.

It was only inevitable that all was soon lost and their community collapsed.  Even their precious Moais were gone.

I tend to view that this is a lesson for all societies and communities, yet I cant help but believe it’s a message for you and me, and the church.     Today, for many, religion has become about who is right and who is wrong.    Religion is about one upping the other guy.   Religion has become about building bigger statues, bigger temples, and bigger churches.   

Over the last few generations church has taken an awkward and scary shift.   On one side, you have people who say its okay to believe anything and everything.  In the process they believe in nothing that they cannot put their hands on, or purchase with a store credit card.    The latest get rich quick or self help book becomes their Gospel.

On the other, are those who refuse to have their beliefs changed, challenged, or evolve.    They build walls around their churches to keep the rest of the world out.   We are comfortable, happy, and content with the way things have always been.    Don’t threaten us with your mosque, your crazy politics, or your unhealthy lifestyle  becomes their scripture.
Thankfully, there are those smack dab in the middle.   There are those that believe just because we come here doesn’t mean we have all the answers.    The people in the middle realize that being a pew doesn’t mean you are saved.      The people in the middle have their hearts broken by those who refuse to listen, hear and see…just as easily as they are heartbroken by those whose voices are too loud, too hateful, and too shortsighted.

I am proud to say that I am trying to be a person in the middle.    I am trying to lead my church in the realization that we are people who realize that when we enter through the doors of the church, when we join together in worship or song, and even when we pick up our Bibles, we don’t always walk away with the answers. 

 Sometimes we are just as confused as ever.    We are people in the middle, when we remember that all of this is about the journey.   It’s about finding our way back, both as individuals and as a community to the feet of God.    Being in the middle means coming to grips with the truth that the journey we take is not one that can be made alone.

We all know the old saying; that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…  For those in the middle, we need to embrace a different saying…   We need to be people that see that the journey of a thousand miles begins, not with a single step,…but with an invitation.; an invitation to join us on the trip.

In the end, that is what I hope my church and my job as pastor it focuses on.  

Its about saying;  I need you, and you need me.   Let’s take this trip with together.   

It is my hope, because in two thousand years there are two  potential outcomes; 

  1. The archeologist will find great churches that have stood the test of time,…or
  2. They will find steeples sticking out of the sand, like the Moais of Easter Island.    


How we decide today, determines which is found.

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