As I walked the outdoor labyrinth, alone except for the trees and random squirrels, a women floated in and joined the circumnavigation of the elusive center. I had finally put my analytical mind aside and was simply receiving the path, walking it, finding what it gave. As far as my fellow walker was concerned, she didn’t play much a part in my experience, until later that is. I slowly became aware of her walking as I walked. We walked the same path but differently, with different timing. Observing labyrinth manners, we did not speak.

As I left the labyrinth and bowed myself out into the world again, I thought of the person who was still walking. I had shared a micro-moment in a sacred space with a stranger. It is unlikely that I will ever see her again, but who knows? And isn’t that the way it is in this fleeting life? Most every intersection takes us to and away from some encounter, some relationship. Sometimes we just linger longer.

In the larger scheme of life, the universal labyrinth we walk and everyone walks, aren’t the walking partners we know dramatically less in number than the strangers we don’t? We keep walking, spinning around, finding, veering off course, fainting on the journey, but it’s the same course in a thousand forms.

We walk with the unknown ancestors of a million years. And those who come after us will look at the remnants we leave behind and ask about the ones who walked before them. We did and they will. And then the labyrinth will hold more than two dimensions. It becomes a spiral galaxy spinning is course toward infinity. And we all belong, somehow, whether we know it or not, all those we know and those we don’t, just because we’re all here.

If you are so inclined to pursue a solitary spiritual retreat as opposed to an experience within community or continuing education or a vacation or something else, the place should be determined by the purpose. For me the right context for contemplation, reflection, silence, reading, writing, and praying is one that provides space for solitude, quiet and the environs that foster growth in the inner life. If you desire alternating times of the day alone and the day among others, choose a location that affords that opportunity. If you desire the experience of a hermitage then find that. Don’t spend unnecessary energy on anything that will take you from your purpose.

If you choose the simple remote locale filled with natural beauty then you will have the experience of many who interface with the powers and witness of nature and her renewing energy. Traveling even a short distance to get there will create the dimension of pilgrimage. If you choose a set-aside location that has been designated for the spiritual purposes that will provide a different experience and you may find yourself haunted by the presence of the souls who sought much the same thing before you. You will indirectly commune with them as well as with your Creator in the depths of your spirit.

Rule number 1: Go simple in everything.
Rule number 2: Unplug. Only check electronic devises once or twice a day. No TV.
Rule number 3: Allow yourself to detox. It will take a good twentyfour hours for the static electricity to drain off.
Rule number 4: Bring a few devotional books or resources that feed the spirit and cause you to stretch.
Rule number 5: Sleep and nap more than usual. Rest and sleep are good. Follow the natural cycle of light and darkness for rising and going to sleep.
Rule number 6: Use physical activity to unite body and soul. It could be as simple as daily walks.
Rule number 7: Don’t run from silence. It is tempting to flee from the vacuous space. Just wait on it.
Rule number 8: The world will get on just fine without you for a while. Let go of feeling indispensable.
Rule number 9: Expect some momentous things to be revealed to you. Listen.
Rule number 10: Eat slowly and thankfully. You never break bread alone, not even if you’re the only one there.

The best work in the world

Posted: July 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

So I took a breath and thought back on the past few days. What could I ever do that would provide a greater sense of purpose and variety and interest than this? So, a little inventory of the past few days:

Worked on the community wide homelessness project
Prepared and presented program on the invisible soul wounds of war
Listened to the life story of a sage older adult
Heard a mom pour out her agony about her child
Listened to the teen tell of her rising anxiety attacks
Lunched with a man convicted of a terrible felony
Corresponded with residents of the jail and provided devotional materials
Wrote a sermon
Led worship and preached a sermon
Read several books
Interviewed a potential staff person
Designed a fall worship series
Wrote a Newsletter Column and Blogpost
Helped a woman in a domestic abuse case
Danced in a hula skirt for children at Vacation Bible School
Met with committee to plan wounded warriors workshop
Made finishing touches with guest for October Stalcup lecture on Forgiveness
Met with a father agonizing over son
Led person through EFT in dealing with anger and anxiety
Called on church member in home dealing with declining health

And then … everything else.

Who else is so blessed to walk through such a rich topography of life? What undeserved grace to receive such blessing?

Three Tales in One Gathering

Posted: July 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

It was not a tale of three cities but rather three tales in one city. They took place at the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ, the once every two years family reunion. In addition to everything else like forums, worship and business, there is lots of catching up. Here are three catch up stories.

Story one: I’m sitting in a worship service and a hand taps me on the shoulder. I stand and greet a young man who obviously knows me though I don’t know him. After some small talk I read between the lines and it suddenly occurs to me who he is. The tall and bearded young man is the same lad I saw on the first day after he was born, who sat through children’s sermons and plunged under the water when I baptized him. I can see the boy in the man’s face now. And he tells me that he is doing a summer internship with Disciples Peace Fellowship. He’s dancing around the idea of going to seminary. The wheel turns and us with it. Baby to man. A good man.

Story two: She walks up to me and we swap stories of what has passed since that last Assembly. We were ministers in another part of the country at the same time. Since that time she left what become a terrible church situation. It seemed so promising. New people came into the church and exciting ministry began to emerge. But simultaneous with that change a pocket of malcontents feared they were losing control. They undermined the direction of the church and sabotaged the pastoral leadership. It’s an old, well-worn tactic. It only takes a few to poison the water, especially if other lay leadership isn’t strong. She not only left the church but the ministry for a while. She is reentering now, a wounded warrior. The old congregation now realizes what happened and her sacrifice and truth-telling may keep it from happening again. But just because it’s a common story it doesn’t make it any easier to endure. I pray for her as I walk away.

Story three: I am in a forum on the congregational ministry of receiving and nurturing those veterans who have returned from deployments. Many of the stories are heartbreaking. The suggestions are right on and reflect an understanding of the cultural role of the military and crisis we now face with returning warriors. In the middle of the session a woman chaplain speaks up in the back. She was deployed in some of the hot spots, the places you don’t want to think about. Now she is being assigned to a stateside base. After the session she finds me and tells me that she is the daughter of a member in one of my former churches. I am shocked. Her mother often prayed for this young woman and had us pray for her but I had never set eyes on her myself. Now she is standing in front of me, the one prayed for, the one whose mother lifted her up constantly, the one carried in all our hearts.

Three stories, one Assembly, one city, one world, one web of the Spirit. The connections, suffering, grace and hope are thick, like breathing pure oxygen. And I’m just an observer, receiver, connector, connected. Say mystery. Say it twice, and thank you.

It Does Set You Free

Posted: July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Let me tell you a story,” my friend said. He was a seasoned attorney and had lots of them.

His story came at a time in my life that was not especially happy. In addition to all the normal balls in the air I had been disillusioned by the deplorable behavior of some people who dared to call themselves Christian  What to do when the virus of dark impulse is at work?

“In one of my most gut-wrenching cases I represented a person who had clearly been harmed by the neglect of a professional he trusted. But the offending man had a fleet of insurance company attorneys on his team, an army of legal resource and financial capacity. At every turn I was outmaneuvered and outgunned. Because I was part of a well-respected but fairly small firm we had limits. We were approaching them fast. I began to despair for my client, a person whose case I believed in deeply.

Just when things looked darkest an old mentor of mine dropped by my office. He knew what was going on, at least from a distance. We sat and talked. He mostly listened while I poured out my heart to him. And then, just before he stood to take his leave, he reached into his pocket, pulled out an object and placed it in my hand. ‘This is for you,’ he said. ‘This is all you need.’ I looked down and there was an inscription on the brass fitting that simply read, The truth shall set you free. He smiled, gave me a hug and walked out the door.

When it came down to it the message of that key chain was the only thing I carried into court with me. Don’t ask me how, but the truth prevailed. Justice was served. I have been through many a case when it has not. But that day, for that man, it was. The truth had set us free.”

Before my friend left he dug down into his pocket and fished out a set of keys. He thumbed through them until he came to the brass tab with the inscription on it. As he held it up to the light I read it out loud: The truth shall set you free. And it does. Not always as quickly as we would like. Not always the way we would like. But in the end the truth prevails.

In the most recent issue of Sojourners Magazine Stephen Mattson penned an article that connects cultural consumerism with its shadow in the church. Of course, people in churches are part and parcel of their culture like everyone else. Though we hope that Christian convictions will rise above the prevailing mores of the herd that is often not the case.

If we are not careful we church people start to act like the consumers we’ve been shaped to be; everything is about me, the customer is always right, I demand my products, my preferences, my happiness. When that attitude takes over then I feel entitled to demand that my every need be met. I’m a consumer and the church is the provider. My mantras are “I want” and “I deserve.”

As Mattson puts it:

“Throughout our lives we’ve been told as consumers that we’re the center of attention, that we’re the most important, and that we should look after ourselves first and foremost.

Contrarily, Jesus instructs us to do the exact opposite: to prioritize others first.

Instead, try giving. Try sacrificing, serving, helping, protecting, helping, creating, and loving. Although these character traits are increasingly rare and devalued, they are what Christ-followers are meant to do.

Be a contributor.”

What he does not say in the article is that consumerism manifests itself most in the church through a certain attitude of possessiveness toward the church itself: It is mine. When I understand myself as a religious consumer I not only want the church to deliver my religious product the way I want it, I view the church as my possession. I believe that I own the church. As such I believe I have the right to control it to get what I want. It is a possession rather than a living community. It is mine and not God’s.

The way of discipleship is narrow, hard and requires much. The way of the Christian consumerism is wide and leads not to God but back to a self that is never satisfied. And blessed is the one who knows the difference between the two.

Going Through the Motions

Posted: July 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

Last night I joined two hundred of my best friends at a chamber music concert hosted by our congregation. The crowd trended rather strongly to older; they have the classic interest, time and discretionary money to attend. It was a varied program that included Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bartok and more. The musicians were highly skilled, playing well with one another and clearly enjoying their craft.

Of course, following each piece we dutifully, sometimes enthusiastically clapped. Applause is one way our culture expresses appreciation and happiness with what has been offered. The most obvious result of clapping is the collective sound it generates, a kind of rainstorm of sound. But that is not always true; if you attend a meeting of the hearing impaired and it comes time to show appreciation, they raise their hands and wiggle their fingers in a silent visual demonstration.

Following one of the best performances of the evening the crowd clapped raucously as an expression of its delight. Out of the corner of my peripheral vision I noticed a man in a wheel chair. His hands were held high above his head, moving them just as quickly and forcefully as those around him. But they were not ordinary hands that were moving in rhythm. No, these hands were twisted and atrophied with palsy. In fact, his hands were so disabled that they could not possibly clap in any ordinary sense of the word; surface could not slap against surface. Rather, one fist of clay could only move in the direction of the other fist of clay.

None of that disability detracted from his sense of rapture and his need to join with his tribe in thanking the composer, the musicians, yes even God for this moment of supreme beauty. He could not make the sound or the same kind of contact that others did but he clapped none the less. His applause of the heart rose up above his head, fanned by what instruments he had to do the fanning. His smile beamed out from behind the his motions and the motions of every other person in a kind of wordless peon of praise. And when he did and when I beheld him my own hands began to clap more than they had been and slowly, surely the smile that was waiting to happen crept to my face until it lit me up almost as much as he had.