Surprising Investment

Surprising Investment



Poor Jeremiah!  God called upon him to prophesy to the people of Judah, that because they had been unfaithful to God, the Babylonians were going to conquer them and carry them away into slavery and exile.  Jeremiah’s message was not popular, and when the Babylonians swept down on Judah destroying town after town and besieging Jerusalem, proving Jeremiah correct, it just made him even more unpopular.  Poor Jeremiah! People hated him.  Remember all the epithets hurled at Martin Luther King by the White Citizen’s Councils?  Well this was even worse.  One of the false prophets who was popular with the King aroused a crowd who beat up Jeremiah and put him in the stocks.

When Jeremiah got out of the stocks, he told everybody that resistance to the Babylonians was futile.  So they beat him up again and this time threw him into an unused cistern, where he sank up to his neck in stinky muck.  He was left down there to starve to death so the King could claim to be innocent of the prophet’s “blood,” but fortunately a Cushite an African servant pulled him out of the cistern.  So Jeremiah was brought before the King who asked him, “Why are you always the bringer of bad news?  Why can’t you prophecy good news for a change?”



And Jeremiah answered, “I only repeat what God tells me!”

So the King ordered him to be locked in the court of the guard.  And while he was a prisoner of the King, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel came to him and asked him to buy a piece of the family property in Anathoth.  Now the town of Anathoth, about 2 and half miles north of Jerusalem, had been destroyed and occupied by the Babylonians already.  This was like asking Jeremiah to buy a piece of underwater real estate in the Everglades.  But Jeremiah agreed.  Why? Was he stupid?  Was he like so many “spiritual” people dumb when it came to money and real estate?



Jeremiah wasn’t dumb. He was making a prophetically symbolic act offering hope to the people of Israel.  Yes, Judah was going to be conquered.  Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Yes, most of the people would be led away into exile and slavery.  But, someday in the future vineyards would be bought and sold in the land.  Someday their descendants would return and rebuild Jerusalem.  And the faith of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would continue and thrive, because faith does not depend on what the eye sees or the ear hears.  Faith is intangible and can be renewed and made stronger in adversity.  In buying a worthless piece of property Jeremiah was purchasing hope for the future of the people of Israel.



Three weeks ago we were reading about the word that came to Jeremiah as he was watching a potter unmake a flawed lump of clay and then reform the container to make a new and more perfect vessel that would withstand the test of firing in the kiln.  Maybe some of us are in one of those difficult times in life when we are in the process of being unmade.  It’s no fun.  And maybe some of us are in need of a word of hope that someday vineyards will be bought and sold again in our land.  Someday good times will return.  We have certainly seen hard times recently in our land.  And if there are further budget cuts or a government shut-down Huntsville is likely to see even harder times to come.



God never promises us that we will be happy, happy all the time.  God does promise to be with us always, and “vineyards will be bought and sold again in our land.”  God promises us hope.  But how do we maintain hope, in the face of common realities of life like unemployment, illness, poverty, grief, death?



Doctors who treat children with cancer have documented the importance of the element of hope in children who achieve remission or cure of the disease.  They have noted five important pathways that appear to help children maintain hope.



The first pathway is maintaining identity.  The more children are able to participate in activities and relationships that maintain a sense of self beyond their disease the greater their sense of hope.  Of course one of the great challenges for unemployed adults is the extent that our identity is often tied to our work.  Another challenge for adults, when a spouse or partner dies, or a long term relationship ends is the way part of our identity is tied to the relationship.  So, maintaining or sometimes rediscovering identity is important for hope.



A second important pathway in feeding hope in children is realizing community, the web of relationships that help the child know they are not alone in facing their disease.  Often traveling a distance for treatment, or long hospitalization creates a sense of isolation.  Feeling loved and supported is essential to the care and feeding of hope.  And again when we think about how unemployment, death of loved ones, or divorce can all take away parts of an individual’s support community, staying in touch with community is vital to the survival of hope, and that is why I believe participating in a faith community can be so important.  When we covenant with a community of people to pray with and for one another we form bonds that do not break or dissolve easily.  And when we engage in communal prayer we can experience sacred empowerment that leads to our third pathway.



A third pathway for maintaining hope in children with cancer is claiming power by taking some active role in their own treatment.  Certainly children have limited options in choosing treatment, but every opportunity for them to feel empowered increases their feeling of hope in treating the disease.  Helping adults to feel empowered is an important part of hope.  There is a profound difference between hoping and wishing.  Wishing encourages passivity, while hope is an active participation in meeting challenges head on.  Wishing is the fantasy that everything is going to turn out OK. Hoping is actually showing up for the hard work.  Chronic long term unemployment or under employment contributes to feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness that can also lead to hopelessness.  Similarly the depression that can result from grief can spiral into a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.  Self-empowerment in small things like setting up an exercise routine, a schedule for interviews, or a small volunteer commitment can be the beginning of finding hope.


I think part of the popularity of the Occupy Movement was the way it made use of these first three pathways to hope:  maintaining identity, realizing community and claiming power.  I don’t know where the Occupy Movement will go, but I think it was a cry for help and an aspiration for hope.



A fourth pathway to hope for children with cancer was attending to spirituality activated by religious, spiritual or other contemplative practices.  Faith is intangible, but when we consistently engage in spiritual practices over time, we change our brains and one of the results of those brain changes is the enhancement of hope.  In one study twelve minutes a day of meditation for eight weeks was enough to increase memory and cognition in older patients.  Regular spiritual practices and belief in a loving, joyful and optimistic divine presence enhances the centers of our brain that are most closely associated with hope.



The fifth pathway to hope for children undergoing cancer treatment was developing wisdom as defined by gaining pragmatic medical knowledge about their disease from their own experience and finding ways “to give back,” by sharing from the own experience. Finding some way we can give to others is also an empowering experience that is affirming of our self-worth.  Giving back to help others sometimes even paying it forward engenders hope.  Giving back to others is another important reason for participating in a faith community.  For when we learn to join with and support others in mission and ministry we give back in ways that empower us and help us connect with a source of energy and hope that is beyond ourselves.



Part of giving back is courage — the courage to give up something of ourselves for others.

I am struck by the story of a little girl who was dying of cancer and her younger brother had a match for the bone marrow she needed.  The doctors told the boy it was a matter of life and death.  After the procedure to remove his bone marrow to transplant into his sister the little boy asked the doctors how long he had to live.  He thought if he gave his bone marrow for his sister to live he would die — and he did it anyway.



And sometimes the poorest of the poor are the most generous in giving back.  My daughter Jennifer used to have to walk through a fairly destitute neighborhood to get to work in Chicago, where she often encountered panhandlers.  She didn’t want to give them money, so she started carrying an extra sandwich and an apple, so if anyone said they were hungry and asked her for money, she could give them the sandwich and the apple instead.

One day she was approached by a homeless person who asked her if she had any change.  She had forgotten to bring the extra sandwich and apple.  So since the man had asked for change, she dug down into her pocket and found two dimes.  So, she gave the two dimes to him and watched him walk away.  The homeless man only walked about ten feet when he put the two dimes in the expired parking meter of a stranger’s car.



Hope appears in the most unlikely places.  Hope is fragile, but it’s hard to kill.  Hope keeps us alive, and makes the future possible.  Hope makes surprising investments, like giving to a stewardship drive, or investing our time in intangible relationships, teaching Sunday School, or serving others through a Care Giving Committee, teaching a NAMI class, or becoming a faith mentor for people who don’t even quite know what they are seeking.  Making a surprising investment like giving up a piece of land to say, healing might happen here.  Like Jeremiah who bought a worthless piece of property to offer the people of Israel the hope that vineyards might thrive again in the land one day.X POOR JEREMIAH X SUPRISING INVESTMENT X PURCHASING HOPE X HOPE IN CANCER TREATMENT X PROMISES OF HOPE X MAINTAINING IDENTITY X REALIZING COMMUNITY X CLAIMING OUR POWER X OCCUPY MOVEMENT X GIVING BACK RPY_REUBEN_GRAINGER_MEAD_COL01.jpg X GENEROSITY IN GIVING BACK X SURPRISING INVESTMENTS





The parables of Jesus were not always well understood by his followers.  The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is an excellent example.  The original story starts in verse one and ends in verse 7.  This was Jesus’ rejoinder to his critics who castigated him for his whole sale announcement of the forgiveness of sins.  Your sins are forgiven go in peace.  The Priests in particular were critical of Jesus’ generosity in forgiveness, because they claimed that while Jesus was free to forgive anyone who had wronged him, he was not free to announce forgiveness of people’s transgressions against God. The only way someone could gain forgiveness for sins against God’s law was to make the trip to Jerusalem and make a sin offering in the Temple.  After all, the Priests needed to protect their monopoly over the sin offerings in the Temple.



The journey to the Temple could be long, hard and dangerous.  Someone who was sick like many of the people Jesus healed in Galilee could not have undertaken such an arduous passage.  In addition many of the people were being pushed off the land, and they were destitute.  They could not afford to observe the minutia of the law nor could they afford a sin offering in the Temple.  The majority of the poor landless peasants of Galilee had been priced out of forgiveness.   So Jesus was offering forgiveness free!  What a concept, free forgiveness!



If we stop and think about it Jesus’ approach to forgiveness is still pretty radical.  Where guilt and hurt are involved, most of us still have a primitive response that someone has to pay.  Someone has to be accountable.   We can’t just let people get off scot free.



But what do we accomplish in trying to extract pain from someone who has hurt us?  It’s like the boy who was sitting on a park bench in obvious agony.   A man walking by asked him what was wrong.  The boy answered, “I’m sitting on a bumble bee.”

“Then why don’t you get up?” the man asked.

The boy replied, “Because I figure that I am hurting him more than he is hurting me!”



God can only heal our wounds when we stop trying to inflict pain on the people who hurt us.   When we obsess on the wrongs that have been done to us it is like giving those people free rent in our head.   Or as the old Chinese proverb proclaims, “he who seeks revenge should dig two graves.”

Like the woman who was bitten by a rabid dog, and it looked like she might die from rabies.  The doctor told her to put her final affairs in order.  So the woman took pen and paper, and began writing furiously.  She wrote and wrote and wrote some more.  Finally the doctor said, “That sure is a long will you’re making.”

She snorted, “Will, nothing!  I’m making a list of all the people I’m going to bite!”



So much better that we should practice a generous forgiveness, for when we forgive we open up the possibility that we also might be forgiven.  Who among us is so perfect that we have not hurt other people?  Who among us is so perfect that God has no complaint against us?  Who among us is so perfect?  Better we should practice a generous forgiveness like Jesus.  When the early church retold the story of Jesus’ passion and death, the center of the narrative were his words from the cross, “forgive them father for they know not what they do.”  But how can mere mortals aspire to such a lofty form of forgiveness?



There is the story told of a miracle that took place on the River Kwai in Western Burma during World War II.  Scottish soldiers, forced by their Japanese captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated into barbarous behavior, but one afternoon something happened.   A shovel was missing.  The Japanese officer in charge became enraged.  He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else.  When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer pulled out his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot.  It was obvious the officer meant what he had said.  Then, finally, one man stepped forward.  The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death.  When it was over, the survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to the second tool check.  This time, no shovel was missing.  Indeed, there had been a miscount at the first check point.



The word spread like wildfire through the whole camp.  An innocent man had been willing to die to save the others!  The incident had a profound effect.  The men began to treat each other like brothers.  When the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors (and instead of attacking their captors) insisted:  “No more hatred.  No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”  Sacrificial love has transforming power.



Those prisoners of war practiced extravagant forgiveness.  Can we also forgive our enemies who have done far, far less to us?  Can we make allowances for the bad habits, the faults, the short comings, the foibles of people in our lives and in the church who irritate us so much?   Paul pastored some very naughty churches.  Listen to his admonition to the Christians in Colossae:  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 

But how do we practice extravagant forgiveness, when someone is actively hurting us or others?  Ken Samuel the pastor of Victory United Church of Christ in Stone Mountain wrote a Still Speaking Devotion about vengeance this week.



People of faith are quite varied in our responses as to how the United States should respond to the atrocities of chemical weapons unleashed on the people of Syria, allegedly under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad.
Some feel strongly that the mass murder in Syria warrants some type of military retaliation, on the part of the U.S. and her allies, that would at least weaken the capacity for any future use of chemical weaponry against citizens.  Others believe that anything short of a full commitment to a regime change in Syria will not make much of a difference.  Still others contend that as horrendous as the tragedy in Syria is, the United States cannot afford to entangle itself in another foreign conflict, given the urgent problems we face at home with our staggering economy, unsustainable energy, educational dysfunctions and health care confrontations.


Whether the issue at hand is atrocity in Syria or genocide in Rwanda or slaughter in the Sudan, (or what your neighbor has done to you) there is one moral principle that should guide all of our moral responses.  It is the conviction that vengeance does not belong within the purview of human action.  Vengeance is a designated function that God reserves exclusively for God’s self.


This certainly does not mean that people of faith are to take no responsibility for the execution of justice in the world. It does mean that whatever actions we take to combat and correct socio-political evil must always be tempered with a profound sense of humility and prayer – recognizing that we too are flawed agents operating in a much broader providential process to deliver freedom and justice for all.


We must certainly win some victories on the way to God’s ultimate vengeance.  But let us not use any moral victory or moral cause as a license to assume ultimate vindication.  The vengeance of God is what keeps people of faith engaged but not arrogant – both in America and in Syria and all around the globe.



I’m not sure God is all that interested in vengeance.  I believe that in the end love wins.  As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.  And I also believe with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  Justice will come of its own, and does not require me, or I think even God to participate in any kind of vengeance.   Most of the time people who have malevolent intent are undone by their own misdeeds.  Stupidity and meanness end up being their own reward.



So be like Jesus and practice an extravagant forgiveness.  Amazing grace, forgiveness is free!  Free for the asking!  Love wins!  Like the dishonest steward, if we extend mercy on behalf of God, mercy will come back to us.




Jesus preached his gospel to everyone:  Pharisees, Sadducees, liberals, conservatives, rich and poor, saints and sinners.  In a world that maintained rigid rules of social stratification Jesus’ ministry was just plain wrong.   “Look at him,” whispered the scribes, “he’ll eat with anyone!  He accepts anybody!”

In response Jesus told a series of stories.  A small shepherd goes and looks for a lost sheep.  A woman loses one of the coins from her dowry, and she lights a lamp and sweeps the house until she finds it.  A prodigal son comes home and the father opens his heart to the boy.  In the end all that is lost is found.  An extravagant welcome brings people back home to God.   Welcoming everyone is our most important message here at United Church, this morning, however, I want to take Jesus’ parables to a deeper level.  I want to help us focus upon the lost parts of ourselves.  Jim Norris in his internal family systems approach talks about the parts of ourselves we have sent into exile.



So how do parts of ourselves get lost?  Let’s look at four reasons parts of ourselves become lost:  shame, guilt, trauma and our difficulty in accepting the dark side of our personalities.



First, let’s talk about shame.  No one survives childhood without  shame experiences.  Potty training, wetting the bed, first discovery of sexuality, punishment for inappropriate behavior all can provide opportunities for shame experiences.  Teasing from family members or peers is another potential reservoir of shame:  braces, big feet, height, weight, skin color, ethnic origin, parentage, odd habits can all provide a plethora of opportunities for shaming.  Often our families will develop a narrative for us as children that becomes embedded in our psyches – for me it was being clumsy and lazy.  Shame over being considered lazy has dogged me throughout my adult life.



My response has been to live my life as a workaholic.  And boy did I choose the wrong profession to go into.  People love the joke about the minister who works one day a week and it takes two people to bring his salary up to him.  And since congregations are never satisfied, the workaholic minister can work all the time, and some people will rate him or her as average or below.  It’s a vicious cycle with which I have to struggle.  For me finding my “lost part” is re-discovering that I am adequate just as I am, and I am a person of worth no matter whether other people recognize my value or not.



Trauma can create more pain than we can handle in the moment. When we are overwhelmed by pain, fear, grief our psyches will take some of those powerful emotions and bury them for a while until we can bring feelings out and examine them and resolve them.  The price we often pay for suppressed emotion is depression.   The body will literally become depressed over the amount of energy consumed to keep the suppressed feelings buried.  And of course if something is buried long enough it becomes lost.  It isn’t gone.  It’s still there, just lost, leaving a generalized depression in its wake.



Zara Renander in her book Labyrinths:  Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace, recounts the story of an old man who rediscovered and reconciled a part of himself that had been sent into exile during World War II:

A chill rain dampened that dark, cold November afternoon, and after the students left, I thought about closing the labyrinth and going home.  That’s when he arrived, an old man bent over and walking in some pain, shuffling and dragging his feet.  I’d never seen him before.  He’d come in response to one of our advertisements.  He asked for a few directions on how to walk a labyrinth and started out.  As his feet followed the circular path, his body began to shake – it became obviously difficult for him to continue.  I went to him to help him and said, “This is very hard for you, isn’t it?”  He nodded by way of acknowledgement then opened his hand.  In his palm he held a crumpled, tear stained piece of paper with the names of his World War II comrades.  “All dead,” he murmured, “all dead.”  Together we lit a candle for each of his friends and placed their names on a prayer list.  Afterwards, he said, “I didn’t understand why I had come here this afternoon.  Thank you, now I know.”



I never saw the old man again, but I have often thought about him and his story.  I thought about how he held all his friends in his heart over the long years, perhaps wondering why he was alive and they were not.  A labyrinth is a place of connection, a place where the boundaries between realities are permeable:  The living and the dead are close.  In this walk the old man was not alone; he walked with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and in the communion of the saints.  He must have attended countless Veterans Day parades and ceremonies in his long life yet it took the quiet intimacy, the heart space and prayer on the labyrinth for his tears to flow allowing him to lay down his grief.



Zara’s story reminds me of my father’s story that involved a piece of guilt that became lost during the trauma of World War II.  Dad was the commander of the heavy weapons company, big machine guns, mortars, bazookas, flame throwers.  His regiment was holding positions in a place called Campholtz Woods.  Suddenly elements of a German Panzer Division came over the ridge and began blowing men out of their fox holes with the 88’s mounted on the tanks.  American Prisoners of War were tied to the front of the German tanks, and they were screaming “don’t shoot, don’t shoot!”  My father had to give the order for the heavy weapons to open up to stop the German advance.  It was a traumatic decision, not his fault, but the ghost of responsibility lingered for almost 50 years.



Later Dad had to detail some of his men to take the German soldiers taken captive in the battle to go back to the Prisoner of War detainment area.  The men detailed to take the prisoners behind the lines returned a short time later claiming that all of the prisoners had been shot trying to escape.  They were moving forward, no time to investigate, they were in the middle of a war.  But still there was the ghost of responsibility.



Dad didn’t talk much about the war, when I was younger, and I had always attributed that to the horrific stomach wounds he had received a short time after the action in Campholtz Woods.  Some of you may remember how his Clemson Ring saved his life.  But at the very end of his life, he shared with me the stories of giving orders to open fire on the tanks with the American prisoners tied to them, and the German prisoners who were “shot trying to escape.”   I think in that special time of reviewing his life as he was dying, Dad recovered and in the sharing reconciled that piece of guilt from his service in World War II.  Eventually all that is lost is found.



So far we have covered shame, trauma, and guilt, but there is a fourth source of feelings that can be sent into exile, the shadow side of our personalities.   Jesus wrestled with his shadow during his 40 days in the wilderness.   Each one of us has thoughts, feelings, appetites with which we struggle:  greed, lust, anger, prejudice, desire for power or attention.  Sometimes we are so afraid of our shadows or we become so tired of the effort to contain those dark urges, we exile our unwanted feelings into our unconscious, where they trouble our dreams and haunt our lives as addictions, broken relationships, depression, frustrated energy, psychosomatic illness, and neurosis.



Allow me to illustrate reclaiming part of our shadow with a story from Labyrinths:  Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace:

Monica was a well-to-do middle-aged woman. . .  But when her third husband, who had taken good care of her, unexpectedly died, her spirits plummeted and she grieved deeply for him and for herself.  During this period of mourning she also became critically ill and found out that she needed to have radical heart surgery.  She was terrified.  How could she face surgery on her own without the support and strength of her husband? I wasn’t a lack of confidence in her doctors or the hospital staff. . . it was the powerful sense of being completely alone for the first time in  many years and having to undergo this life-or-death ordeal by herself without a man beside her.



. . .She was looking for spiritual strength and courage to go through her upcoming ordeal.  I suggested a labyrinth walk and explained what would be involved and why she might want to do this.  She agreed, but asked if she could bring something with her that belonged to her late husband, because she still could not imagine doing anything without him.  She chose an old T-shirt that faintly smelled of him and clutched it close to her face as she entered the labyrinth.  As Monica went deeper inside, slowly without her noticing she started to relax her grip.  She carried the T-shirt gently in her hands, and as she reached the center, placed it on the ground.  She emerged from the labyrinth with a rather bewildered look on her face, and said, “I left it in the middle.” Then the awareness of what she had done hit her.  She realized that, along with the T-shirt, she’d left her dependency in the middle of the labyrinth and claimed her own life, identity, courage and strength!  She said to me, “Oh I see, I can do this by myself now.”  And she did.



Monica’s story is powerful for many reasons.  It demonstrates so strongly the body/spirit connection.  Monica needed to ritually lay down her grief and dependency in a physical manner in order to recover her independence and accept a new identity. . .



Jesus promises us that all that is lost can be found, if we have the courage and faith to look into our shadows and embrace the parts of ourselves we have exiled to the unconscious.   Jesus says to all of us, “Come home.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, come home to the love of the creator.”  As fragmented as we are the power of God can make us whole.

Study Guide for Labyrinths: Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace

A Study Guide for Labyrinths:  Journeys of Healing Stories of Grace


Page 11:  Curiously, like many people today, my father never saw these myths as anything other than thundering good stories.  He dismissed them as neither factual nor literally true, and therefore irrelevant, and missed their spiritual or psychological overtones, which point to inner odysseys that require every bit as much courage as any concrete exterior journey. 

What were your favorite stories growing up?  What myths or stories have been informative for your life?

Chapter 1:

Page 17:  The labyrinths that remained intact were but a quaint remind of a time when the power of the transcendent and numinous seemed more imminent and immediate than the power of scientific fact and rational thought.

We became enamored of reason and intellectual accomplishment, as we treated the world as a laboratory using science and technology to find the answers to our profound questions.  We began unlocking the secrets of the universe.  Technology itself seemed a golden path, a unicursal way, that led to the “center of meaning and understanding.”  Miracles were brought into being with which to bless the world, but in our infatuation with the world of the scientific laboratory, we forgot that there are other kinds of knowledge.  We were stepping on very holy ground, but forgot to honor it. In our dizzy exploration of the worlds of science, we become too familiar with head knowledge and became separated from the knowledge of the heart.  We experienced a psychic/spiritual split which has caused us to experience alienation and separation from each other, from the earth, and from the whole created order.

And so, our deep souls are seeking reconciliation, even though we may not yet know what that means.  I don’t think it is an accident that knowledge of the labyrinth is surfacing now in our times as one of the ways we are trying to find our way back into balance and wholeness.

What do you think has happened in our culture that has prompted the return of the labyrinth?  In what ways do you think our science has failed to lead us to the “center of meaning and understanding?”  Where do you find “holy ground?”

(Dr. Robert Moore, a Jungian psychotherapist and theologian at the Chicago Theological Seminary wrote about the development of a “flattened universe” devoid of meaning in his book entitled Facing the Dragon.  Consider this excerpt from page 64:

Mircea Eliade made a major contribution to understanding these issues.  Most people have overlooked his more important point – that space and time are heterogeneous for homo religious, that is for pre-modern human beings.  There is not just one kind of space and time, not just one world, but two worlds, two kinds of space and time:  (a) the world of the profane and (b) the world of the sacred, the world of myth.

This world of homo religious was not just Christian, however, but existed for eons prior to modernity, including most of human history.  In fact, this radical distinction between ordinary space and time and sacred space and time prevailed throughout human history prior to modernization.  Pre-modern people regularly felt the need to make contact with the divine realm.  The liturgical year is a vestige of insights from that time.  The Mass also served as a refuge from the ordinary world in which it was important to return often to the sacred center, the axis mundi.  This world down here is imperfect and human, but the other world is full of numinosity and sacredness and power and grace.

In my view, our survival requires that we get back to the axis mundi, the center of the world.  We must do this differently, of course, from how pre-modern people did it, but we must get back to the center in order to survive.

Can you see how Zara Renander and Robert Moore are both addressing the problem that modern culture has lost contact with the sacred?  Robert Moore speaks of  the “axis mundi” the center of the world that our culture must get back to in order to survive. Do you think the center of the labyrinth might be a path to the “axis mundi?”

Page 18:  Jill Geoffrion, one of the most respected labyrinth guides, asks the question, in workshops, “What good is a labyrinth?”  People answer that question in various ways, but usually it has to do with acknowledging a blessing.  Walking the labyrinth is a way and path of blessing.  The meaning of the word “blessing” is much more than the bestowing of a special favor, mercy or benefit on someone, or the experience of feelings and hopes of good fortune or well-being. . . . The deep significance of the world “blessing” has to do with conveying and participating in the active energy, power and vitality of the eternal One:  The Creator. . .

For you what is a blessing?  Have you ever experienced participating in the active energy, power and vitality of the eternal One?  While this book is dedicated to offering the labyrinth as one way to participate in the active energy of the eternal One, what other kinds of experiences have brought you blessing?

Page 20:  “Everything sacred moves in a circle.”

The open circle reflects reality as an open system, allowing space for revelation and movement that comes from deep within.  The one who “dreamed the universe” into being is like a mother and we, her children following that pattern, must also give birth.  As we partake of blessing, so we must also give birth to blessing around us.

Do you experience reality as an open system?  Zara here uses distinctly feminine imagery to speak of the Creator Mother, and our tasks as giving birth to blessing?  How do you feel about these feminine images?  What are some of the ways you give birth to blessing?

Page 21:  Paul Tillich, the theologian, imaged our spiritual longing for the Holy, the Divine, in the same way that our physical being thirsts for and needs water.  He did not believe that we would possess this thirst and longing for connection if it were not possible to achieve it and if the pathways to reach it were not present.  In religious terms, that way of communication is prayer in its many forms and expressions.

Do you believe we have a natural thirst for connection with the Holy?  How do you experience that thirst?  What wells have you tried in your search for the Holy?  What forms of prayer or spiritual exercise are most effective for you?  Have you tried any forms of tactile prayer:  prayer beads, rosary, knotted rope, finger labyrinth, walking a labyrinth?  Do you think using a tactile form of prayer might enhance your prayer life?

Chapter 2:

Page 26:  One traditional approach to labyrinth walking is to see the journey in three parts – the three Rs:

1. The Way of Release leading into the center is also known as the Way of Purgation (in medieval terms).  It is the journey of letting go and allowing ourselves to experience the walk.

2. The Place of Receiving is the center itself, also known as the place of Illumination.

3. The Way of Return or Way of Integration refers to the journey home as we come back to our ordinary life.

As you think about the possibility of walking a labyrinth, do you have anything you would like to lay aside when you are on the Way of Release?  We can never predict what we will find in the Center of the labyrinth, but what do you imagine you would like to receive in the place of Illumination?  What in your spiritual life would you most like to integrate into the rest of your life?

Page 29:  One walker in South Africa remarked that if all the people of his village weren’t there, he couldn’t enter the labyrinth.  He was expressing the classic Bantu idea of Ubuntu:  I am what I am because of who we all are.  All or nothing!

In contrast, I’ve heard many Americans comment that they initially get bothered and irritated by having other people on the path who become obstructions slowing them down – they don’t realize that the others are part of the journey too.

Do you see your spiritual journey primarily as your own individual quest, or as something you accomplish primarily within the context of community?

Chapter 3:

Page 35:  Characteristics of shame are the desire to hide and to surround the reprehensible act with silence. . .

So let’s ask ourselves, both communally and individually, of what are we ashamed?  What are the things we dare not speak of?  What are our unspoken family secrets? What is eating our own future, as a world, as a nation, as a community and individually, and holding us hostage because we dare not mention it or confront it?  What about addictive behaviors?  Drug and child abuse?  Deep deprivation that leads to depression and eating disorders?  All the ills that affect our modern society which we prefer to ignore, hoping that they will go away.

In order to free the community and restore the well-being of Athens, Theseus has to name the problem publicly and have the willingness and courage to confront the symbol of shame, the Minotaur, directly.

Do you have anything of which you are ashamed?  What difference would it make if you could speak to your shame publicly?  Are you part of any communities that suffer from shame issues?  What might be the consequences of naming the shame of the community publicly?  As a nation what is eating our future?  As a faith community what is eating our future?

Page 36:  As we confront the challenges of our lives, this story provides an important model.  When we engage our Minotaurs and monsters, we must recognize and name the destructive forces that lay waste our potential and our future.  To succeed, we will need the support and blessing of others.  We will have to use both the sacred masculine and feminine energies and call on our own courage and determination.  And if we remember to hold on to the golden thread of love, we will never sink so far into the pit of despair that we cannot return from profound darkness.  When we do dare to make this journey and confront our deepest fears, which hold the future hostage, the blessing we gain is not just an individual experience.  It is for everyone.  The whole community benefits.

In order to engage with your monsters, from whom do you need blessing?  For you what are the sacred masculine and feminine energies?  For you what is the golden thread of love?  What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?

Chapter 4:

Page 39:  Stories can reveal to us who we are and who we are not.  Whether they are frivolous or sad, fact or fiction, myth or mystery, stories are powerful means of creating meaning.  We human beings have a great need to make sense of our existence and time on this earth – it is a core necessity for us.  Stories are vehicles that allow us to create significance and identity for ourselves and our environment.  Their luminal characteristics can help us cross psychic thresholds and impart understanding of who we were, who we are and who we might become.

What story or stories have been most informative for your life?  Are there any stories from your early life that point to who you are today?  What story best expresses the meaning of your life?

Page 40:  We limit our potential by telling ourselves stories of disempowerment, and we gain courage when we remember that we are not defined by one particular tale.  We act in accordance with the dictates of our self-told narratives and often allow ourselves and our lives to become trapped like flies in amber.  However, one of  our most power human attributes is that we are able to turn the page, alter the narrative – change the direction and outcome of stories – and in so doing change our lives.

What stories or narratives from your past are most disempowering for you?  Do you have any narratives in your life you would like to change?  Have you observed people alter stories about their lives?  Is there a story in your life, you would like to change?

Page 44:  In Selma, Alabama, some 40 years after the Civil Rights struggle, Kerry and I were invited to help the vestry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church face involvement in the dark story of racial segregation.  Of course, most of the original parishioners of that era were either dead or no longer living in the area.  We were dealing with an inherited story, which can be every bit as powerful as an individual’s narrative.  When we asked people to tell the story of their family’s participation in the history of segregation, we were initially met with polite stonewalling.  After we managed to build a bit of trust, the stories came tumbling out.  One man brought his White Citizen pin, a badge of his coming into manhood, saying, “I don’t know why I brought it today, but I did.”  He put it down on the circles of the labyrinth, saying he would never pick it up again.  He was ritualizing his rejection of that part of his story. . .

During the meeting, as tears began to fall, we heard an important and interesting moment, “This is the first time anyone asked us tell our stories.  We’ve heard the stories of the Black community, but no one asked for ours.  Thank you!”

Do you belong to any communities or families of people whose stories need to be told?  Are you part of any communities whose stories need to be healed?  What does a community need to do to change its narrative?  Are there any creative forms of ritual that can help communities change their stories?

Chapter 5:

Page 49-50:  To enter a labyrinth is to cross a threshold.  Our spirit knows this, even if our logical mind doesn’t always comprehend it.  The ancients well understood the power – and danger – of crossing a sacred threshold.  They placed great stone lions, gargoyles, monsters and dragons at the entrances to their temples to symbolically alert our spirits it was time to wake up and pay attention.  These fierce guardians were also meant to repel negative energy and discourage outsiders from entering. . .  the threshold – in this case a labyrinth – functions as a place of demarcation and discrimination for engaging the sacred.

In our modern world how do we separate the sacred from the profane?  Do we have any rituals for establishing sacred space, or sacred time?  Do you have any time in your week you set aside as special?  Do you have any places you set aside as special?  Is there any place in your world where you feel closer to the divine?

Page 50-51:  Not only individuals, but whole cultures can cross thresholds to arrive at new ways of explaining the world and giving life meaning.  When the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes proclaimed his famous cognito ergo sum, he ushered in an explosion of factual, scientific knowledge and discoveries.  But while the results led to tremendous technological accomplishments (we could not imagine our present-day world without them), they also occurred, I believe at the expense of other important ways of knowing our surroundings. The Age of Enlightenment separated us from mystery and a direct relationship with Mother Earth, and many of our feelings of alienation, isolation and aloneness can be attributed to that division.

Given that we live in a world of science reason, can you see anyway of reclaiming a sense of wonder and the sacred?  How might we change in order to become more fully integrated between intellect and spirit?

Page 51-52:  What’s the alternative?  Goethe, the German poet, observing that beginnings have an energy and power to them, wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  By crossing thresholds and entering “margin” countries, where the worlds of the sacred and profane intersect, we who dwell mostly in the world of the profane can touch the deep mysteries and realties not normally accessible to us.  To walk a labyrinth is to cross such a threshold and go on a transformative journey.  Even though this mini pilgrimage may be only brief physically, it may travel many leagues spiritually.  In going on such a journey, we risk confronting our deepest fears and engaging in soul care, thus reconciling and resacralizing our lives.  Is there a more important task for our age?

“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  That statement from Goethe speaks of leadership rather than management.  How have our profane approach to reality stripped life of its “cross the threshold of your place of work?  Are there any places of entrance in your life, when you feel a sense of awe or wonder?  What are your thresholds of relationship?

Chapter 6:

Page 53: Journeys bring power and love back into you.  If you can’t go somewhere, move into the passageways of the self.  They are like shafts of light, always changing, and you change when you explore them.  Rumi

Have you ever been on a journey of self discovery?  What are the most important insights you have discovered about yourself moving through the passageways of self?

Page 55:  To walk the labyrinth is to go on a pilgrimage – the journey of a three-fold path – albeit a short one.  It is both an exterior and interior journey, and though people express multiple reasons for taking it, at the heart is the need for reconnection and reconciliation (putting things right again).  At the deepest level, though almost ever consciously expressed, it is about the resacralization of the world.  People sense that “the time is out of joint and this feeling of dis-ease urges us to get off our couches and embark on a journey.  The grail quest of our time is nothing less that reconciliation of the worlds of the profane and the sacred which we have lost, engendering a meaningful future and offering hope for a warring world.  This is the work of heroes and soul warriors.

Robert Moore in his book Facing the Dragon on page 48 speaks of the urgent need for a reconciliation between the sacred and the profane in our time:

It seems to me that the contemporary world faces a decisive human crisis.  Contrary to what arrogant secularism would have us believe, secularism has not brought great progress in a long-term prognosis for humanity.  All you have to do is get serious about the ecological problems of this planet, and look closely, not at some speculation, but at the hard data we already have, about what our species is doing to other species, and what the voracious, insatiable appetites of human narcissism are doing to this planet.  We have enough information now, if the denial level were not so high, to make it clear to anyone with any interest in it that this cannot be just another academic topic, something to do if you are bored and want something new to cope with boredom.  This is a survival business, a radically serious survival business.

The general failure to understand this problem is a mark of the pall of enchantment that hangs over our planet.  The metaphors you need to understand what is happening in the human consciousness today are available more in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien than in many other places.  Our planet lives under an enormous cloud of enchantment of consciousness, a massive denial that Ernest Becker describes in his work, The Denial of Death (1975).  It is a lot more serious, however, than Becker points out, because it is not just a denial of death, but a denial of all sorts of serious and worsening problems.  Our denial of the ecological situation is a central issue, yet many well meaning social critics refuse to look at the psychological nature of such problems.  .

Can you begin to see a relationship between spiritual pilgrimage and efforts to save the world?  How does changing our spiritual consciousness impact the ecological destruction of our planet?  Can spiritual reconciliation of the sacred and profane contribute to world peace?

Page 57:  This need for what will address our depth of emotion and feeling cannot be satisfied by talking and intellectual activity – it requires a body-based form: Walking a labyrinth, going on a pilgrimage, visiting and circumambulating sacred wells of healing can all fill that need.  Cloisters were constructed in churches, temples and monasteries not because of some architect’s whimsical fancy, but because people from different religious traditions across the globe have found that the act of walking in a circular fashion while meditating and praying allows for the synthesis of ideas and creativity.  As we move in the rhythm of the circle, the kinetic energy of the body is released, stilling the tyranny of the controlling mind and allowing our creative juices to flow.

The human need to go on pilgrimages to visit sacred places wells up from within.

How does prayer and meditation change, when we combine it with movement?  Have you ever intentionally embarked on a journey in search of spiritual enlightenment?  Where did you go?  How did it work out?  Are there places you have visited in the world, when you knew you were in the presence of the divine?  Where would you like to go on a pilgrimage?

Page 58 – 60  The author enumerates six classic reasons for pilgrimage.

Justice.  Pilgrimage often has a call for justice at his heart.  So were the great Civil Rights marches in the American South.

Obligation.  . . . the stations of the cross are the pilgrimage that is taken every Holy Week as people virtually enact the sacred circle of birth, life, suffer and death of Jesus followed by the resurrection and new life.

Healing.  Restoration of health and healing has been a major focus of pilgrimage from time immemorial.  As modern hospitals recognize the importance of spiritual health as well as physical well-being, they have begun in increasing numbers to incorporate labyrinths into their wellness offerings for patients and their families.

Restoration and Integration. In brokenness we desire the healing balm of reconciliation.

Forgiveness. Many people use the labyrinth as a place to ritually express contrition for what they have done and to claim forgiveness and sacred acceptance of their lives.

Seasons and anniversaries.  People maybe stirred by the season, because it’s the summer solstice, or by as simple a reason as that winter is over.  Labyrinth walks in preparation for life-changing events, such as chemotherapy treatments, retirement, impending death or birth are common ways of addressing these physical and spiritual transitions.

Have you ever found yourself undertaking a pilgrimage or a journey for one of these six reasons?  How does movement help in making a transition?  Have you ever needed a ritual for any of the six purposes?  What ritual did you find?

Chapter 7:

Pages 64 – 65:  “A chill rain dampened that dark, cold November afternoon, and after the students left, I thought about closing the labyrinth and going home.  That’s when he arrived, an old man bent over and walking in some pain, shuffling and dragging his feet.  I’d never seen him before.  He’d come in response to one of our advertisements.  He asked for a few directions on how to walk a labyrinth and started out.  As his feet followed the circular path, his body began to shake – it became obviously difficult for him to continue.  I went to him to help him and said, “This is very hard for you, isn’t it?”  He nodded by way of acknowledgement then opened his hand.  I his palm he held a crumpled, tear stained piece of paper with the names of his World War II comrades.  “All dead,” he murmured, “all dead.”  Together we lit a candle for each of his friends and placed their names on a prayer list.  Afterwards, he said, “I didn’t understand why I had come here this afternoon.  Thank you, now I know.” 

I never saw the old man again, but I have often thought about him and his story.  I thought about how he held all his friends in his heart over the long years, perhaps wondering why he was alive and they were not.  A labyrinth is a place of connection, a place where the boundaries between realities are permeable:  The living and the dead are close.  In this walk the old man was not along; he walked with the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and in the communion of the saints.  He must have attended countless Veterans Day parades and ceremonies in his long life yet it took the quiet intimacy, the heart space and prayer on the labyrinth for this tears to flow allowing him to lay down his grief.

Can you think of other places where you have experienced the boundaries between realities to be permeable?  Have you been in places where past and present seem to run together?  Are there any rituals available to us for reconciling feelings of the past?

Chapter 8:

Pages 67-68:  When we go on pilgrimage or walk a labyrinth, we engage in a complex ritual act that impacts us on physical, emotional and even historical levels.  Ritual changes lives in profound ways, but it has gotten a bad rap in today’s secular world.  Cynics sarcastically dismiss religious practice as “just empty ritual.”  Indeed, “empty” and “meaningless” are the two adjectives I frequently hear associated with the word “ritual” by those who have no understanding of the profound nature of its discipline and practice. . .

Many people also reject ritual as too conservative and repetitious in our multi-media, high-speed entertainment and communication-driven age.  But when these same people are introduced to ritual in the context of their own life story and the seemingly dead symbolic synapses fire up, their consciousness reawakens and they have a transformative experience no digital electronic medium can provide.  So we are back to the importance of story and narrative and the design of ritual.

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and writer on comparative religion, observed that people usually cannot move from one life state of being to another without ritual.

The author is talking about the importance of creative ritualization, a topic Robert Moore addresses in his book facing the Dragon on page 151:

We need creative ritualization.  We really blew it when we depreciated the importance of ritual in the Enlightenment.  We need ritualized containment with human beings in relationships to help people manage unregulated grandiosity.  You have studied the history of ritual and human communities.  Ritual is a technology of dealing with this problem.  We create ritual forms that help us be less destructive.  The history of human ritualization is the history of people struggling to find ways to be less destructive.

Again on page 186 Robert Moore talks about the role of physical exercise in ritualization:

Another way to create a personal ritual to contain and channel grandiose energies is a regular exercise program three to five times a week.  It is amazing how much craziness in a human personality can be controlled by the ritual of an exercise program.

Think of regular exercise as part of your ritual practice, a conscious ritualization in your ongoing spiritual discipline.  It is striking how easy it is to tell if you missed part of your healing ritualization, because your grandiosity will kick up on you.  When you miss your exercise program, you become more compulsive in other ways.  This is a rule you can follow.  Take it to the bank.  You will act out more destructively to the extent that you do not tend to your physical discipline.

What creative methods of ritualization have made a part of your spiritual life?  Have you experienced ways of making ritual seem less “empty” or “meaningless?”  How do you think spiritual communities can approach worship in ways that use ritual to help people connect with the divine?

When people enter into rituals that lead to change, they can be referred to as having entered “luminal space.”  What does “luminal” mean”


In anthropology,liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.

In the Liminal, Divine Paradox

Our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone that does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise.

Page 68-69:  In the North American culture, where “talk therapy” is frequently the preferred medium for personal transformation, we have forgotten that experience must precede reflection and that we “think” with our bodies.  As ritual allows the physical body to enact the new state of being or consciousness, it opens the door to new possibilities and realities. . .

Can you imagine a more creative approach to personal therapy than sitting down and talking for 50 minutes?  Can you imagine a more meaningful way of connecting people with the divine than sitting down, standing up and sitting down for an hour?

Page 70:  Whether we like it or not, there’s no way to avoid rituals.  In To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has this to say about the importance of the role of ritual: “Far too little attention has been paid to the role of ritual in the moral life. . . All I can say is that ritual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health.  Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy.  That requires daily discipline, a ritual – and religion is the matrix of ritual.

When our modern age rejects ritual associated with the sacred, it does so without understanding its intrinsic healing power or its profound influence on our ethical, moral life.

Do you have any rituals you associate with morals or ethics?  Do you have any daily spiritual disciplines that might be rituals?

Page 71 – 72:  Teilhard de Chardin comments that we are spiritual beings on a human journey and gives credence to both: What happens to the spirit affects the body, and what happens to the body affects the spirit.  That is why physical prayer and ritual are so important.  Pilgrimage, journey, labyrinth walks are concrete and dynamic processes for developing sacred imagination and engaging the non-rational part of our psyche.

The word “psyche” is rich in meaning, referring not only to the human soul or spirit, but also to the mental or psychological structure of a person, especially as it operates as a motive force.  The psyche appreciates mystery, relationship and connectedness. . .

The body-based language of ceremony and ritual that feeds the spirit is associated with non-directed, primary thinking; it is intuitive, with no separation between assumption and fact. . . past, present and future hold hands; the world of dreams and creativity is rich; and language is expressive and affective instead of intellectual and rational.  It is s way of thinking and being that we disregard at our peril, because what is not acknowledged goes into deep unconscious.  But while it is no longer accessible to us, it will not be denied its power and existence.  Its energy will flare up in distorted ways and strange places.

“All healthy societies have a rich ceremonial life.  Less healthy ones rely on unconscious expressions:  War, violence, psychosomatic illness, neurotic suffering, and accidents are very low-grade ways of living out the shadow.  Ceremony and ritual are a far more intelligent means of accomplishing the same thing.

Do you begin to see a potentially creative role for spirituality in developing a more healthy communal consciousness?  In a society that is dedicated to pluralism are there any rituals or spiritual practices that can be embraced by the community as a whole?  In an increasingly secular culture, can we begin to reclaim the spiritual psyche?

Chapter 9:

Pages 76:  I have heard an explanation that the quadrants of the labyrinth mirror the quadrants in the brain, and that crossing them on the way to the center, or the hippocampus of the brain, evens out the energy flow causing a sense of renewed balance and a greater ability to concentrate.  Is it true?  I don’t know, but for whatever reasons, walking the labyrinth does have physiological effects that involve reduction of anxiety and frenetic activity, while at the same time generating more focused energy.

Try walking a labyrinth and see if this is true for you?

Page 76-77:  Sometimes people use finger labyrinths that are mirror images of each other and trace the paths in order to achieve emotional balance.  Trying to draw labyrinths as mirror images, using the left and right hand simultaneously is yet another way to restore spiritual/emotional balance.  This requires quite a bit of practice, as the dominant had an corresponding side of the brain try to take over without allowing the other to catch up, but it’s an exercise that is very revealing and worth attempting.

On the next two pages you will find mirror image finger labyrinths.  Try tracing the two labyrinths simultaneously and report your results to the group.

Page 77-78:  The labyrinth has a way sometimes of focusing the spirit/body connection and helping us to see what it is we’re dealing with. . .

The she came to me a said, “I don’t know how to do this, but could I walk the labyrinth too?”  I gave her a few basic instructions and she took off her shoes and began to walk.  Soon she was beginning to have trouble.  She started limping and seemed to be in considerable pain.  I wondered whether she would continue her walk, but she persevered.  It was a large labyrinth and it probably took her about 40 minutes to get to the center and back out again.  Throughout the walk, she clearly had problems with her left foot, although she had shown no evidence of pain when she first entered the room.

When she finished her walk, she came towards me and a young woman who was on our team.  I asked her, “What happened in the labyrinth?  You seemed to be in pain.”

She answered, “It was so strange, as soon as I started walking, my foot cramped up, but I felt I needed to continue.”

Louisa, my young friend, asked, “What spiritual pain did you carry into the labyrinth with you?”

The woman looked at us with astonishment, and said, “Oh! My son has just had his foot amputated, and he’s having a very hard time accepting this limitation.  The family is very upset about it.”  Then she realized what she had said, and that her body was expressing the pain she carried in her heart and spirit around her son’s surgery.  She was deeply moved and left quietly.

In the labyrinth, her body made explicit the anxiety that she and her family were carrying about her son and physically expressed her emotional pain.

Have you ever experienced emotional or spiritual issues in the form of physical symptoms?  How did you discern that your physical symptoms were related to an emotional or physical issue?  Have you known other people who have suffered psychosomatic symptoms as the result of emotional or spiritual issues?

Chapter 10:

Page 82-83:  Monica was a well-to-do middle-aged woman. . .  But when her third husband, who had taken good care of her, unexpectedly died, her spirits plummeted and she grieved deeply for him and for herself.  During this period of mourning she also became critically ill and found out that she needed to have radical heart surgery.  She was terrified.  How could she face surgery on her own without the support and strength of her husband? I wasn’t a lack of confidence in her doctors or the hospital staff. . . it was the powerful sense of being completely alone for the first time in  many years and having to undergo this life-or-death ordeal by herself without a man beside her. . . .

. . .She was looking for spiritual strength and courage to go through her upcoming ordeal.  I suggested a labyrinth walk and explained what would be involved and why she might want to do this.  She agreed, but asked if she could bring something with her that belonged to her late husband, because she still could not imagine doing anything without him.  She chose an old T-shirt that faintly smelled of him and clutched it close to her face as she entered the labyrinth.  As Monica went deeper inside, slowly without her noticing she started to relax her grip.  She carried the T-shirt gently in her hands, and as she reached the center, placed it on the ground.  She emerged from the labyrinth with a rather bewildered look on her face, and said, “I left it in the middle.” Then the awareness of what she had done hit her.  She realized that, along with the T-shirt, she’d left her dependency in the middle of the labyrinth and claimed her own life, identity, courage and strength!  She said to me, “Oh I see, I can do this by myself now.”  And she did.

Monica’s story is powerful for many reasons.  It demonstrates so strongly the body/spirit connection.  Monica needed to ritually lay down her grief and dependency in a physical manner in order to recover her independence and accept a new identity. . .

Do you believe in the mind/body connection?  Have you ever experienced the mind/body connection?  Are there any issues in your life, where you might like to try to symbolically address them?  What symbols in your life are most powerful?

Page 87″  What is so striking about people who have allowed a sacred ritual to help them cross a new threshold is that they feel themselves to be a different person, literally.  The past is past for them; it no longer has a grip on them.  Of course, it will always be a part of their history and experience, but it is just a chapter now, not the whole book.  When people can get to the point of owning their suffering and letting it go, they become a powerful force for the blessing of others on the road.  . .

Have you ever had an experience, where you felt like a different person afterward?  What kinds of sacred rituals have that kind of power?  What kinds of thresholds allow people to cross into new places in their lives?  Have you ever experienced your suffering as a powerful blessing for others?

Page 87:  Because some labyrinth journey stories are so powerful, many people are concerned when they don’t experience similar lightning bolts of revelation.  They think that the walk didn’t work.  This is to misunderstand the nature of the labyrinth and its gentle, subtle ways.  For most walks and pilgrimages, just the act of embarking on a journey resets our direction.  Sometimes the intention of setting out and just being on the path is enough.  It doesn’t require any great life-changing experience.  How we walk the path can quietly reveal pieces of our spiritual journey to us if we are curious and attentive.

Have you ever experienced making an appointment to “get help” and in the time leading up to the appointment, the help arrived?  Have you ever walked a labyrinth and “it didn’t do anything for you?”  Have you ever tried other spiritual disciplines and they didn’t do anything for you?”  What spiritual disciplines have done something for you?

Page 91:  Some of my own “Aha” moments have occurred when I introduced the labyrinth to children. . .

. . . a group of children on the Gulf Coast created a labyrinth in their school yard prior my arrival for a workshop I was going to do for them after Hurricane Katrina.  The adults had told me earlier they wanted to move past Katrina and all the sadness she had brought them.  They were sick of her, didn’t want to speak of her, and intended the labyrinth experience to be a purposeful step forward into a better future.  The children, however, knew better.  When I looked at the labyrinth they had made, I saw that it consisted of the debris from Katrina—broken shells, pieces of rock, and bricks from the remains of their houses.  The children knew in their hearts that past, present and future must coexist and be held in tension, and that their tragedy and sadness must be incorporated into the walk in order to move forward.  They knew it deeply and intuitively, so they brought their pain as well as their hope to the building of their labyrinth.

The children “knew better.”  Have you ever learned something important from children?  Jesus said, “You must become like children to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Can you think of any times in the recent past, when you have let your own “child” come out and play?  Can image ways in which you can bring together your pain as well as your hope to build for the future?  Children are good at rituals.  How do you think you can recover the power of ritual in your own life?

Chapter 11:

Page 96-97: The other enormous pressure modernity exerts is the near universal emphasis on scientific thought.  If an experience is not replicable in scientific terms, it is diminished and considered irrelevant.  This, despite the fact that much of our lives cannot be expressed in scientific terms.  We cannot quantify the love we have for our families.  We cannot measure the beauty of the Mississippi River.  We cannot describe our reaction to music and drama, or the experience of joy or grief in any meaningful scientific way.  Yet, these intensely human reactions connect us with the earth and with one another.  They are signs or signals of our spiritual nature.  Such feelings and emotional responses are a profound language, too, and we dismiss it at our peril.

Perhaps this is why an interest in pilgrimage, journey and labyrinths has developed over the last 30 years and has become important again in our consciousness.  The human soul desperately desires to go on a journey to find meaning, vitality, connection and a sense of belonging.  We take up the quest to resacralize our world and to find ourselves.  And as we set out on the sacred journey, we hope to find others with whom to walk in companionship, whose prayers and energies will enhance our own.

How do you relate to that part of your experience that is non-scientific?  Have you ever felt the desire to embark on a journey or pilgrimage of discovery?  What do you think you might be looking for?  Who would you like to take along with you on your pilgrimage?

Page 97:  Sample, in addressing the issue of how information and meaning are transmitted in a technological age, notes that the metaphor of journey and spiritual journey is very rich for Baby Boomers and Generation Xers.  It is also being documented that periods of meditation, prayer and contemplation have significant effect on our brain patterns, causing us to have higher concentration and longer focus.  As I have noted already in some places, where the labyrinth is used for ADD children, such as tracing a labyrinth path with a finger at a desk before engaging in a task, it seems to help concentrate thinking and bring balance.

Experiment on yourself.  Trace one of the finger labyrinths provided with the Study Guide and then see if that increases your attention span with a task like memorizing a short quotation:

The destiny of the world is determined less

By the battles that are lost and won

Than by the stories it loves and believes in.  – Harold Goddard

Chapter 12:

Page 100:  . . .What appears to us as dense matter is in fact composed of minute whirling units of energy separated from each other, but held together in relationship.  Our working concept of what is solid, concrete and reliable, while necessary for everyday living, is limited.  The mystics have always understood this truth, now we know it scientifically. 

As a part of this incredible mystery of circling energy, we sense our vulnerability, so some of us take to walking in circles intentionally, because – whether in a formal labyrinth or not – the form of circle is engrained in our spirits and is part of our being. .


Do you experience the invisible spaces within matter as an opening for mystery?  How do you begin to integrate your own experience with mystery and your everyday awareness?

Page 101:  In some sense, it might be true to say that the labyrinth has chosen us, after centuries of forgetfulness and neglect, to rise to the surface and offer its gracious healing presence at a time when our consciousness is in need of revitalization.  But while labyrinths are being built across the world, much more attention must be given to training people in their use.  We who are interested in labyrinths must train not only individuals but groups of people on the role of the labyrinth as healing space, and design rituals for use in the context of a walker’s story.

Would you be willing to consider becoming a volunteer guide for a labyrinth?  Can you think of other uses for a labyrinth as sacred space?  Can you imagine any rituals that might be a natural fit for a labyrinth?

Page 104-105:  As you consider how to invite others to walk your labyrinth, important questions to ask are:  How much control do you demand over the use of the labyrinth?  How will you invite people into this sacred space without demanding conformity and compliance with your own particular set of beliefs?  Can you allow other people to embrace the holy and trust the labyrinth walk itself to be the medium of transformation?  And finally, how will you expand its use?

Try answering all of the above questions.

Remaking the People of God

Remaking the People of God



Every once in a while God puts visions right out there in plain sight.  Only thing is most of us can’t see them, even when they are right in front of us.  A number of years ago I saw a sign.  We were visiting the beach at the Indiana dunes.  The lake was unusually high that year, and the waves had undercut a dune that had a house on top of it.  So much of the dune had fallen away, part of the foundation of the house had fallen down the dune to the water’s edge.  There flapping in the breeze underneath what was left of the house was a curtain that had hung in the basement window, only now the rest of the window was gone having fallen into the lake.  The house was precariously perched on a cliff of sand, and the image immediately reminded me of the institutional church.  With the foundation of the church eroding out from underneath it, it was only a matter of time before the structure fell with no base to hold it up.



In our scripture this morning Jeremiah was watching a potter at work.  As the wheel turned the workman prodded the clay into the shape of a vessel.  But as the jar neared completion the potter noted a fatal flaw in the clay that would result in a crack, when the vessel was fired.  So the workman beat down the vessel, added some additional material, re-centered the clay on the wheel, added water, and then he began to refashion the container.  Watching that simple scene Jeremiah realized he was witnessing God’s message for Israel.  The potter and his wheel were a metaphor.  Israel was fatally flawed and would never withstand the test of spiritual firing.  So God was about to unmake the people of Israel.  The faulty vessel would have to be collapsed, new material added, perhaps some additional water applied and the clay centered and reshaped into a new and better vessel of the divine spirit that would withstand the test of firing in the kiln of judgment.



This was bad news for Israel.  The experience of unmaking was going to be painful –defeat, conquest, deportation and slavery were no fun.  If we concentrate too much on the pain of unmaking, however, we might miss the good news of the potter’s wheel.   For the original clay was not thrown away, thrown out and trodden underfoot.  Rather the defective vessel was reformed and remade into a thing of beauty and usefulness and a symbol of hope and wonder.



I think in the metaphor of the potter and the clay there is hope for all of us.  All of us are precious children of God.  Like Adam we are all fashioned from the dust of the earth.  We are created for beauty with purpose, because God don’t make junk.  But sometimes in the molding of our beings flaws can be found that will not withstand the firing of the kiln.  Sometimes we have to be unmade in order to be remade.



All of us resist change.  As Bill Tucker says, “change is bad.”  “Change is hard.”  The pain of unmaking of changing prompts us to shrink back from the very experiences that might address our flaws.  After all the problem cannot really be us, it must be someone or something else.  I don’t want to claim that God causes bad things to happen to good people, so we might become better – become better for having been worse.   I don’t believe God sends us misfortune.  Life has enough inherent challenges God doesn’t have to inflict pain upon us.  But when life presents us with challenges – illness, death of friends or loved ones, financial distress, loss of a job, divorce, depression – we can all ask, “What can I learn from this?”   Asking that question is likely to lead us to change, and we are more likely to recover from the life accident that has overtaken us, than if we spend our time looking for other people to blame.  As Bill Tucker says, “the first step in any successful process is identifying someone else to blame.”  Bill is full of all kinds of great wisdom on our walks.



We don’t have to blame ourselves, but we do need to learn what life can teach us from the challenges that present themselves to us.  For the definition of crazy is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting different results.  Part of assuming responsibility is acknowledging that in most circumstances, our own behavior is the only factor we can control.  In the end the pain of change is less than suffering prolonged and continued failure.   We have to be unmade in order to be remade.



And sometimes we are unmade not because of anything we’ve done wrong, but our lives present us with natural life passages like adolescence, graduation, job changes, getting married, becoming parents, retirement, aging.



Part of our problem with change is we have a built in bias to expect the worst.  Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that negative information has a greater impact on the brain than positive information.  As a quick self-test of this concept, imagine that you won a $500 gift certificate to your favorite store.  How would you feel?  Now imagine, instead of winning the gift “certificate, you lost $500. Research indicates that the intensity of our response to each of these situations will differ significantly, with the distress of losing $500 far outweighing the pleasure of gaining $500.



This outcome is so common that researchers have given it a name:  the “negativity bias.”  The negativity bias is a result of the of the fight-or-flight response that is activated only during negative experiences – Murphy’s third law, if anything can go wrong it will.  So even if we don’t have a natural tendency toward pessimism or depression, the negativity bias conditions our reaction to change – all change will be bad.  But if life is full of natural change, how can we learn to adapt?  How can we open ourselves to the process of unmaking and remaking?



First, we can approach the prospect of change by understanding that change is.  It is no one’s fault.  We don’t have to cast blame upon others.   Our anxiety and distress in the presence of change can be managed with faith.  We have to trust God rather than our fears.  God has given us the ability to survive, even thrive if we can let go of the past, that God will be with us in the future and adapt rather than resisting change.



Second, we can learn from the potter and the clay.  The first step in reforming our lives is centering.  We have to become centered in meditation and prayer.  Meditative practice feeds the part of our brains that are most adaptive, while quieting the centers in the brain that feed on anxiety and fear.  Prayer helps us to connect with the divine presence that reassures us that God is with us now and in the future.  Even when we are facing the prospect of the changes that come with death, we can have the assurance that nothing not even death can separate us from the love of God.  Become centered in meditation and prayer.



Third, we can learn from the clay to remain flexible and pliable.  We can only be remade, if we yield to the hand of the creator.  And part of the good news is that even our brains can be flexible and pliable even into old age – neuroplasticity.   Aerobic exercise, meditation, yoga, worship and other spiritual exercises help to increase cognition, memory and reinforce those areas of the brain that promote adaptability.   Intentionally exposing ourselves to new experiences and ideas through books, studies, discussion groups promotes neuroplasticity.



So why do we continue to resist change?  The authors of our book How God Changes Your Brain offer us some insight:

. . . many people resist doing these spiritual exercises, even when they feel an improvement in cognitive function and mood.  Why? . . . After spending decades building a somewhat stable personality to handle life’s tribulations, the brain is hesitant to alter its underlying beliefs. . .

It took your brain decades to form these habits, and it’s not easy to turn them off.  Old neural circuits do not disappear, especially if they are tinged with negative or stressful memories.  In fact, it takes a lot of metabolic energy to grow new dendrites and axons or rearrange synaptic connections that have been firmly established over the years.  Furthermore, any disruption in old neural patterns creates a certain degree of anxiety in the brain.  That old limbic system, which is largely responsible for maintaining synaptic stability, is not as flexible as the creative frontal lobes.  Thus, it’s easy to dream up a new idea, but exceedingly difficult to get the rest of the brain to comply.  Even if you succeed in changing different aspects of your personality, don’t be surprised if old patterns of behavior reassert themselves from time to time.

So what is the solution to this neural resistance to change?  Mark and I recommend three things:  a conscious commitment to make a small improvement every day, a good dose of social support to help you honor that commitment, and a hefty serving of optimism and faith.

Oh, and one other thing:  a willingness to practice, at the very least, for a few minutes every day.  With practice, you can build up to twenty to forty minutes a day, which may be the ideal range of time to enhance the neural functioning of your brain.




Meditate, pray, develop a community of good spiritual friends who will pray with you and for you, and share with your faith community the challenges you face.  As people of God we can be remade by the hand of the creator with prayer and a little help from our friends.

Open Table




We do not know if Jesus was the originator the Parable in our scripture this morning.  Jesus ate with people as part of his ministry, and he was often accused of eating with the wrong people – sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors – people considered unclean by the more conservative Pharisees of the First Century.   Those first Christians were disappointed that Jesus and the church’s message were rejected by the Jewish people.  By the end of the First Century most of the people who responded to the message of Jesus were gentiles, and so Luke’s Parable in its present form was an attempt to explain why the church was fast becoming a gentile institution – “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”



In the Parable of the great banquet the householder sent his servants to bring the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame, to his table, and this practice of bringing anyone and everyone to the banquet was a central focus of the ministry of Jesus called “open commensality,” or everyone eating together.   The gospels record several feedings of the multitude, where everyone who showed up was fed, and everyone ate together.



We read again and again in the gospels Jesus being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, but we may not understand just how radical Jesus’ behavior was for the First Century.  John Dominic Crossan writes about Jesus’ practice of open commensality.

Jesus broke the existing pattern of eating of his time.  When you invite someone for dinner, he said do not think of the rich, not even your family and friends, not the socially respectable, but the poor, who cannot reciprocate the invitation.  In the context where rigid rules of eating prevailed, this suggestion of Jesus was revolutionary.   He was offering a powerful critique of the social system that was built on giving and receiving favors and patronage.   Open commensality, common eating, cut the very root of the system of patronage, and projected the message of Radical Egalitarianism.   For Jesus egalitarian order comes closer to the divine order, the Kingdom of God.   All forms of inequalities, cultural, social or economic, were critiqued and rejected.   Egalitarianism was never fully achieved, but that was the standard Jesus upheld.   So the feedings of the multitude were miracles, not just the physical miracle of multiplying food, but the overcoming of social barriers that brought everyone together to eat regardless of race, sex, or class.



Embedded in the very foundations of the Lord’s Supper is the memory of Jesus’ open commensality, with all its revolutionary implications, including the way in which it calls into radical question the gender presuppositions of patriarchal society.  Men seeking to maintain ritual purity in Jesus’ culture did not break bread with women, who might be ritually tainted by their biological cycles, thus tainting men who sat at table with them.  Nor did men in Jesus’ culture take on themselves the role of both servant and woman, by serving those seated at a table, as Jesus himself did by washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, thus introducing the revolutionary symbol of servant leadership.  In the early church both men and women gathered together for the breaking of the bread.  People of high social status and low social status ate together at the common table of the Lord’s Supper.  Women also assumed leadership positions in the life of the early Christian community of faith.  The followers of Jesus were radical.  The concept of people gathering together for a meal and fellowship as well as servant leadership is still radical today.



Last week when Zig jokingly commented that the only thing people in this congregation can agree on is food.   He was closer to the mark than he knew.  Our Fellowship Board providing food for our radical hospitality is important to our mission of trying to welcome everyone.  Eating together regardless of distinctions was at the heart of the ministry of Jesus.



I want to thank Harlan Hurley for sending me this week a wonderful illustration of the importance of “open commensality,” eating together across racial, ethnic, and barriers of social class.  The story was told by Coach Bear Bryant the legendary football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Coach Bryant had just been named the new head coach at Alabama and was off in his old car driving down into South Alabama to recruit a prospect who was supposed to have been a pretty good player, but he was having trouble finding the place.  Getting hungry, he spied an old cinderblock building with a small sign out front that simply said “Restaurant.”



So he pulled up, went in, and every head in the place turned to stare at him.  Seems he was the only white fella’ in the place. But the food smelled good, so he went up and sat down at the counter.

A big ole man in a tee shirt and cap came over and asked, “What do you need?”

Coach Bryant told him, “I need lunch. What do you have today?



The owner said, “You probably won’t like it here. Today we’re having chittlin’s, collard greens and black-eyed peas with cornbread. I’ll bet you don’t even know what chittlin’s are, do you?”

Coach Bryant looked him square in the eye and said, “I’m from Arkansas, and I’ve probably eaten a mile of them. Sounds like I’m in the right place.”

Everyone in the place smiled as the owner left to serve him up a big plate. When he came back he said, “You ain’t from around here are ya?”

Coach Byrant explained he was the new football coach in Tuscaloosa at the University and he had come to find whatever the prospect’s name was.

The owner said, “Yeah I’ve heard of him, he’s supposed to be pretty good.” And he gave Bryant directions to the school so he could meet the boy and his coach.

As Coach Bryant was paying up to leave, the owner told him lunch was on him.

But Bear said for a lunch that good, he felt he should pay.

Then the owner asked Coach if he had a photograph or something he could hang up in the restaurant to show that the Crimson Tide Football Coach had eaten there.



Coach Bryant was so new at his job he didn’t have any pictures or souvenir stuff like that, but he took a napkin and wrote the owners name and address and told him he’d get him one.

When he got back to Tuscaloosa the next day he found a picture and wrote on it, “Thanks for the best lunch I’ve ever had,” and sent it to the owner of the restaurant.

Now about 20 years later, when Alabama had African America players Coach Bryant was back down in that part of Alabama scouting an offensive lineman he wanted.  This big lineman had two friends who were going to Auburn, so he told Coach Bryant that had his heart set on going to Auburn too.  Coach Bryant was disappointed, but you don’t get them all.



Two days later, however, Bear Bryant was in his office in Tuscaloosa and the phone rang and it was that big lineman who had just turned down a chance to play at Alabama.

The kid asked, “Coach, do you still want me at Alabama?”

“Yes I sure do.”  Bryant replied.  By the way son, what changed your mind?”

And the boy replied, “When my grandpa found out that I had a chance to play for you, and I said, ‘no,’ he pitched a fit and told me I wasn’t going nowhere but Alabama, and I wasn’t playing for nobody but you.  He thinks a lot of you and has ever since y’all met.”

“Who is your granddaddy,” Bryant asked?

“You probably don’t remember him, but you ate in his restaurant your first year at Alabama and you sent him a picture that he’s had hung in that place ever since.  That picture’s his pride and joy and he still tells everybody about the day that Bear Bryant came in and had chittlin’s with him.  My grandpa said that when you left there, he never expected you to remember him or to send him that picture, but you kept your word to him and to Grandpa, that’s everything. He said you could teach me more than football and I had to play for a man like you, so I guess I’m going to.”



Bear Bryant practiced open commensality sharing food across, racial, ethnic, social barriers, it was the right thing to do, the way of Jesus.  And on Thursday evenings we have been trying an experiment in open commensality.  Anyone who shows up is fed.  Everyone who gathers at the table is prayed for, and at the end we break the bread and share the cup of the communion – remembering Jesus who calls us all to become servant leaders and followers of the way.  I believe as we revision the church we need to re-emphasize the experience of communion, reclaim the call to servant leadership and practice the open table feeding everyone who comes.  Come and join us.