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Circle of the Musk Ox

Message by Nathan Rieger
as interpreted by Debbie Haughland Chan

It was at an elders’ meeting several years ago that someone received a picture of the musk ox circle. When danger approaches, the musk oxen form a circle, enclosing the weak and vulnerable and face outwards as a solid wall of protection. Nothing but a mouse can get past the power of their horns.

Society today gathers around the beautiful and successful, paying homage to those who’ve had the lucky breaks. But what would it be like if, instead of the “best” in the centre and the weaker, less successful crowding around them, the weak and vulnerable were in the centre with the strong and confident encircling them—not in obeisance but as a strong wall, facing away from the centre in solidarity against those on the outside who would destroy?

Loneliness. Abandonment. These are places of terror for those living on the fringes of society but what if, as a church, we lived as the musk ox?

Not long after the elders’ meeting, the church held a conference. When one of the speakers said he was going to change the topic he had been given, church leadership held their breath. How could he? He had been specifically invited to speak on the topic given. Changing the topic was not part of the plan. To their amazement, however, he began to speak on the very picture given at the elders’ meeting—the circle of the musk ox. It was confirmation of what God wanted for our church.

Nathan Rieger said that to make such a circle work, we have to search for those who are alone; we have to get out of our “bubbles” and search.

He told the story of his first visit to The Northern, a hotel on the seedy strip of Main Street that rents rooms by the month [to tenants] and by the hour [to the hookers and johns]. Its unspoken motto is, “A Fight a Night.” He was new to the city and, having made friends with a man who, though trying to give up alcohol had gone to the Northern to get a drink, he was determined to track the man down and take the drink away from him.

“This is no place for a white man,” he was told as he went from table to table looking for his friend.

“Come with us,” several women offered. “We’ll be your friend.”

“You’re a cop!” others accused.

“I’m not a cop. I’m a pastor!”

Yeah. Right. Since when do white pastors come into The Northern bar?

“But I am!” he insisted and, when they continued to disbelieve him, he spoke out the only sentence he knew in Ojibway, not knowing what it meant: “Shut up and drink your coffee!”

Everyone burst into laughter and conceded that perhaps he was a pastor after all. Several asked him to pray for them.

Nathan had successfully crossed the line, the barrier between “them” and “us.” Jesus crossed these lines everywhere he went and he was killed for it.

When we cross such lines, what if, instead of trying to fix the other’s problems, we came together in worship? It’s not good enough to make occasional forays into someone’s life. By way of illustration, Nathan told another story.

He was walking through the park when an evangelist came up to him and a few others nearby. Using a booklet, the evangelist began to preach at them and “give them the gospel.” He didn’t bother to learn anything about them, or whether they might already be believers, and had no interest in participating in their lives. He gave his spiel, left instructions about the sinner’s prayer and went on his way. What he was failing to realize was that people aren’t ready to trust us until we’ve invested in them and shown that we too have scars. Thankfully, Nathan was there and able to invite conversation once the evangelist had gone.

It’s not good enough to give charity and leave. We need to create a safe place for people to grow and, in that place, love finds them and strengthens them so they begin to know God for themselves.

The beauty of the musk ox circle is that those in the centre grow and become strong enough to take their own place in the outer circle. They’re not kept in a weakened position. Instead, the outer circle grows, searching for more who need protection and justice, surrounding them, strengthening them and enabling them, in time, to stand in the outer circle.

God, through Amos, said:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings [which he had commanded them to do through Moses], I will not accept them.... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Amos 5:21-24 NIV

The fragrance of worship is justice. It is time that we look at our shape and our worship. Is our circle open or closed? Does it protect all in the centre or are there gaps for the enemy to enter? Do we include justice with our worship or is our worship repugnant to God because there is no justice?


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