God at the CenterPosted: October 5, 2015
United Church, Huntsville October 12, 2015 Psalm 25: 4-12; Matthew 6:5-7
GOD AT THE CENTER by the Rev. June Boutwell – Conference Minister
Will you pray with me? Holy and Loving God, may we be attentive to your word in this hour and listen with ears wide open. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, our Path and our Redeemer. Amen. In looking at my calendar, I realize that I was with you in the pulpit in October of 2014 to talk about United Church of Christ identity. Some of you will remember my standard greeting paragraphs but it is important to remember that not all those present this morning were present with us last year. So it is with great delight and pleasure that I join you this morning for the privilege of bringing the Word to you in worship and to greet you in the name of the Southeast Conference United Church of Christ and on behalf of this fellowship of 52 churches and 3 new church starts located in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. The UCC is a Christian denomination within the United States with just over 5,000 congregations and about 1 million members and organized into 35 regional ministry groups called Conferences. I am essentially the executive minister and pastor to the churches and pastors of the Southeast Conference. I also want to thank you for being a Five for Five congregation and partners in Our Churches Wider Mission giving and supporting many other ministries of the Southeast Conference.
I have been so excited to know about and see the progress of the labyrinth. I have had a contemplative practice in my own prayer life for over 30 years. Practices, sometimes known as spiritual disciplines, are not a strong part of most Protestant churches. But I have found that these kind of mindful practices can be very meaningful for youth and adults. I have guided people through the practice of walking the labyrinth for many years. Both camps that I was associated with in the UCC had labyrinths onsite. Interestingly enough, both of those camp labyrinths were composed of stones from the site—one in Maine from the foundation stones of the original cabins when they were torn down to build newer, more comfortable space and the other in California where the stones cleared away when installing the challenge course were used by young adults who laid out and built the labyrinth as a way to honor the foundation of that camp and to provide a different kind of experience than being on the high ropes course. I know you have been doing a lot of education about labyrinths over the course of the last months. And at the risk of repeating information, I do want to talk a little bit about the labyrinth as an aid to our life journey. The oldest known labyrinth is the Mogor Labyrinth in Galicia, Spain. It is dated about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus.
Labyrinths have long been used within the Christian tradition to symbolize a journey – a quest for spiritual enlightenment, a search for grace, even a surrogate for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the Labyrinth is more than a pattern in the floor. It is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions, even in cultures that long predate Christianity. It is interesting that the earliest labyrinths are found in Europe, North Africa, India, and the North American Southwest. Anthropologists have no good theory about why this particular form of art and ritual emerged in so many cultures at about the same time but I would guess that there is something encoded in our understanding of the order of life that draws us to this form. The first examples of this form are a seven circuit path. As one who has experienced other religious teachings, it is interesting to me that in Hindu belief, there are seven chakras or nexus points where the life force flows within the non-physical self (what we might understand as the soul or cosmic connection). But often the labyrinths we use today follow an eleven circuit path. The most famous of these larger labyrinths is found in the Chartes Cathedral in France.
The eleven circuit path came about as scribes in the middle ages used the labyrinth design in borders. As they tried to make the design element proportional, they added more circuits which allowed the easier division of the labyrinth into quadrants and made the cross at the inherent to the design more evident. This pattern actually mirrors natural patterns in nature giving a sense of order and proportion. The proliferation of these kind of labyrinths in European cathedrals were designed with that order and proportion in mind on the belief that if that order and proportion were replicated in a sacred space, God would feel at home and come to dwell in that space. The labyrinth became a ritual space for initiation and enacting the journey from death and damnation in the world to dying to the world and finding God at the center and being redeemed and given new life as one returned to a sinful world. In fact, the major European cathedrals often used their labyrinths as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as mentioned before.
Another ritual was its use as a rite of redemption when one had sinned. Often during Lent, people would travel the path on their knees as a sign of their contrition. Initiates to the Christian faith would be instructed to walk the path with a tripedium step as a sign of one’s sinful nature. The tripedium consists of two steps forward and one step back. It was a mirror of how humans fail to stay on a consistently faithful path to the Divine. I have often used this as a form of practice during Lent. The motion and notion that this entails can have a profound effect on one’s understanding of how one’s life is lived out and a keen awareness of how we often fall short. There are no rules to the labyrinth. It has only one path, so you have no decisions to make. You don’t have to think about where you’re going, so the left brain – that part of your mind that likes to worry about the future and decide where you’re going next – can go off and take a nap. And in fact, other than sleep, our world doesn’t offer many such opportunities. Which may be why many health centers, retirement communities, and hospitals have begun to install labyrinths on their campuses. Medical professionals know that positive patient feelings and attitudes contribute to better health and faster recovery rates. Because labyrinth walking promotes relaxation, deeper breathing, and a release of stress, the Medical Center of Central Georgia uses theirs in cardiac rehab.
In giving the dedication speech on October 9, 200, Dr. Dan Johnston said: The labyrinth’s path has a beginning and an end that are one and the same. In the walking, exploration of a labyrinth we always end up where we started, but as acknowledged by the English poet T.S. Eliot, “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Walking a labyrinth offers us the opportunity for reflection and meditation and the chance to become more aware of where we are in life, perhaps, an opportunity to come to “know” ourselves for the first time. At California Pacific Medical Center, surgeons sometimes walk the labyrinth to calm themselves before an operation. And Mid-Columbia Medical Center in Oregon uses its labyrinth to complement the use of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatment. In fact, research conducted at Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute found that focused walking meditations are highly efficient at reducing anxiety, lowering breathing and heart rates, moderating incidents of chronic pain and insomnia, and lowering elevated blood pressure even more effectively than drugs. Some doctors find that cancer patients benefit from meditative labyrinth walking to center themselves before treatment, and to relax after receiving treatment. And even in cases where outer healing fails, inner healing can still take place. Hospices are beginning to use labyrinths for stress reduction, relaxation and stillness, in programs dealing with AIDS and cancer, in relieving grief or loss. A labyrinth has no walls, so nothing will stop you from walking straight to the center; but the deepest magic of the labyrinth really comes from exploring the whole path, allowing it to take you where it wants, when it wants. It’s not a maze – there are no false endings or wrong turns – but the path has its own Alice-in-Wonderland-logic: when it seems like you’re closest to the center, you’re the farthest away, and when it seems like you’re farthest away, you’re almost there.
Every walk is a different experience. No matter where you go, there you are. The people you meet in life you will meet in the labyrinth–the ones who slow you down, the children who are annoying in their exuberance, those who stay too long and take up space in the center. Walking at dawn, walking at night, walking alone or with several other people. Or walking with just one other person. You get a sense of connection and yet not connection – like the proverbial ships passing in the night. You are close to the other person, then you are far apart. You are on your own path; you are on the same path. Walking in tandem with someone on an adjacent path and then turning in different directions; meeting another going the opposite direction–what a great gift that we have in that time with another no matter how brief. And there are those who will tell you that the presence of the spirit of each of those who walk the labyrinth will linger in that space akin to being within the great cloud of witnesses. For anyone who tends to think metaphorically, the experience is rife with possibility. Maybe you’ll walk faster than the people in front of you; feel free to pass around them. Or maybe you’ll take their presence as a reminder to slow down in life, to pace yourself. But one of the most powerful concepts of the labyrinth is that it is not a maze with entrapping intersections and dead ends and the need to retrace one’s steps to get back on the right path. Instead a labyrinth is what is known as a unicursal path. There is only one path to the center and one cannot stray from the path nor fail to complete the journey.
I used the portion of Psalm 25 this morning because it encapsulates our understanding of the path that leads to God. We ask God to be merciful and to forget our transgressions. We ask God to show us the path and ask that we be given the grace to stay that path. We can cut across the lines and run straight to the center but that is not the full path to God. And we can leave the path or give up out of boredom or anxiety before we complete that symbolic journey, but God never abandons us not matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. The labyrinth becomes a place where the divine and the human heart can meet. It will take patience and perseverance to make the whole journey but we are assured that we will succeed because the labyrinth does not mislead. It is true to the path even as God is true. God know the design of your life and knows your journey. The labyrinth reminds us that life is continually unfolding and that we can never walk the same path twice. Life changes and so does our experience even if the path is a familiar one. We are continually meeting God on the journey and we are continually encountering God no matter how hard we try to get away. Does it bring Jonah to mind? The labyrinth is a way to connect with God, with the Christ Spirit in each of us. It is how God meets us even when we have no words. Like life sometimes we are closer to God and sometimes farther away. But the labyrinth, like our own prayer life, is about private experience. It is a time of immersing ourselves in sacred space and listening rather than talking. It is a time to hear that still small voice of the Still Speaking God speaking directly to us and to our heart of hearts. Often we approach prayer as a time to share our news with God—our hurts, our griefs, our concerns, our anger, our sadness, our despair. Or it is a time to ask God for divine security. Many of us learned to ask for that in our bedtime prayers as children. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” And the eventual purpose of that prayer is to assure us that even in death we are in relationship with God. Or we parade all that God has done for us as we say grace over the abundance before us and perhaps spare a thought for those not so richly blessed. But how often do we surrender our lives to God in silent obedience. How often do we listen for the word God may have for us. It is only in the silence and the making of intentional space for that listening that we can find God’s purpose and blessing for our lives. So the labyrinth can be that room where we go to say only what is needful and then to listen for the response, even when we have no words. Rev. Lee Stokes Hilton, previously on the pastoral staff of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey which is dually affiliated with the UCC and the American Baptists, shared a wonderful story in a sermon. Then last fall, I was at Kiawah, one of the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina. It was early Sunday morning, and a beautiful day, so I decided to take a walk on the beach. I turned to head north along the shoreline, and I noticed a woman some 50 feet ahead of me, standing absolutely still, facing the ocean. As I drew nearer to her, I saw that she was standing in the middle of a design she had drawn in the sand. It was a labyrinth. I knew I shouldn’t interrupt her, but the opportunity was too good, so I stopped and asked her how she drew it. “Oh, it’s easy,” she said as she moved over to a clear place on the beach next to her web.ukonline.co.uk/conker/artscentre/artroom-labyrinth.htm.
She picked up a stick and began to draw as she talked. “You start with a cross and four points,” she said. “You connect the top of the cross to the first point, then the right arm of the cross loops back over to the second point. The left arm of the cross loops clockwise around to the third point, and finally, the bottom of the cross connects all the way around to the fourth point. “It’s a small labyrinth,” she added, “but a good one for the beach.” I moved on and let her finish her meditation; but when I approached that spot on my return, I realized no one had walked that labyrinth she drew for me. So I walked it, and when I got to the center, I faced the ocean and inhaled deeply of the warm sea air. As I walked out and back to my condo, I felt lighter and more
refreshed than I had in days. So the real message of the labyrinth is this: make of it what you wish. Become a part of human history…people all over the world have been walking these patterns for more than 3000 years. Like life, the labyrinth has its twists and turns, but it’s a great way to straighten out those tangled thoughts. Just have the experience. Go through the turns – slowly or quickly – and allow it to relax, inspire, or frustrate you in whatever way seems appropriate. As likely as not, you’ll find both relaxation and clarity.