Hidden with Christ #5 / Labyrinth #3

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

…and…

This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.

There was a labyrinth at the monastery, and of course I had to walk it. It was an interesting labyrinth…I saw no mention of it at the monastery or on the website. I honestly can’t remember how I stumbled upon to its existence. It’s near the visitor parking lot, so it would be quite easy for locals to drive there and walk it without worrying about registering for a retreat, or even seeing anyone. That may have been deliberate…I don’t know. It’s a pretty standard 7-circuit classical design, with walls made from rocks. The paths are rather rutted. All in all, it feels like an old, well-worn labyrinth. In the center sits a large rock, and on that rock was a lot of “stuff.” I have seen this in some other labyrinths. Some people seem to see the importance of leaving something there…as a thank you, perhaps? To me, it just looks junky. But to each his own.

Photo Mar 05, 8 11 24 AM

Either way, I walked the labyrinth twice while I was there. The first time was early Saturday morning, and the retreat had just begun. I was so overwhelmed by everything at that point that I really didn’t get much out of it. But the second time was different. It was Sunday morning, and I had just packed up my car to go home in a few hours. I went to the labyrinth straight from the car, and asked my question: “What do I do with what I’ve learned here? Not at church, but today and this week?”

As I walked in, I got the sense that I could have built this labyrinth…rocks and a bumpy, rutted path. Nothing beautiful, but just fine.

In the center, I had a strong feeling that Christ is with me. I had no further words for that feeling. Perhaps a great deal of it was below the surface.

On the walk out, I perceived Christ walking with me. Not next to me, not beside or in front of or behind me, not even inside me, but with me, as though we were one. I thought, “he is walking with my legs,” but that wasn’t quite right; yet it was. I think “with” is the most accurate English preposition for it, but it’s a deep “with.” I got the feeling (intimation?) that the way I go home with this is to keep walking, keep seeking, keep on, aware that I bear the light of Christ within me, in a subtle deep way. Know that we are together, unified, mystically united. I heard a call to continue with mindfulness and awareness, and to also be aware that there is so much more beneath the surface, so much more beyond my thoughts and feelings, so much more that I can only ever glimpse. I may have heard a promise that I will continue to receive these things, these intimations, if only I continue being aware, keeping awake.

What Kind of Test is Life?

So I’ve been thinking about taking tests, particularly the difference between multiple-choice and essay tests. I’ve been thinking about how they’re an interesting metaphor for two ways of looking at my life.

I think I have to give some background here. First off, I am an excellent test-taker. I was a straight-A student in school, and could easily ace both of these kinds of tests. I intuitively knew what my teachers wanted, and gave it to them. (That is, until I met one particular physics professor at college, but that’s a completely different story.)

Secondly, you probably need to know that I’ve recently been considering my relationships with authority figures throughout my life. I’ve discerned that I generally try to give them what they want. If I have a boss, or a mentor, or a yoga instructor, I try to discover what it is they’re looking for, and then provide that for them. Yoga, in fact, is driving me crazy lately, because both of the instructors of the classes I’ve attended have been saying things like “You are your own guru” and “You know best whether your body is able to do this.” No I don’t! That’s not why I’m here! And more to the point, how can I figure out how to impress you if there’s no clear goal? You don’t have to explain to me the point of yoga…I know that thoughts like this are missing the boat. But it’s where my mind goes. I want to impress authority figures. I want to do what they want. And I used to be so good at it, back when my authority figures were mostly teachers. Because I knew how to take the test. I knew how to ace it. And I always received their affirmation, in the form of a beautiful red A.

Third, I want to explain where the distinction between multiple-choice and essay questions comes from. I remember that when I was first hired as a Christian Education Director, and again when I was ordained a pastor, I asked several people for some advice. “How do I best do this job?” That kind of question. The answer I got both times from several people was this: “Be yourself.” Be myself?!? I never understood that advice at the time. It annoyed me. For one thing, who the hell am I? But for another, I have usually found that I get uncomfortable and anxious in new situations. That anxiety is not a good recipe for being myself. The last thing a congregation needs in a new pastor is a pile of anxiety. But I’ve discovered that over time I do follow that advice. Let me give an example. Funerals were one thing that provided me with a lot of anxiety when I was first ordained. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, whom I needed to contact, how to get everything done. So I set up checklists. I figured out a list of tasks that needed to be done for each funeral, and I followed these lists to a T. Over time, though, I found that I didn’t need those checklists anymore. I still have them, just as a quick check on the back end to make sure I didn’t forget to contact anybody. But I don’t need them to do it anymore. I just know how to do a funeral now. And I’ve gotten better at it. I can be myself in that ministry, and I’m pretty good at it. That’s something that’s come with time, experience, and some affirmation from others. And here’s the thing:

Planning and officiating a funeral service has moved from a multiple-choice test to an essay test. Where I used to do it by checking off every box, moving step by step through the tasks, now I can be myself. Now I can do it in my own order, trusting that I know what I’m doing, trusting that I know intuitively what’s important and what’s not.

I tend to do this: I treat new and unfamiliar things like multiple-choice tests. I try to figure out exactly what needs to be done, figure out how to break it into tasks, and get the right answer on everything. This leads to more anxiety, though, because new and unfamiliar things are exactly the things for which I don’t even know all the questions! I am so anxious in new circumstances, in new places, because I don’t know what’s expected of me. I don’t know the parameters. I don’t know how I’m going to be graded. But as I get more comfortable with something, it converts to an essay test. I am able to be myself, express myself in my own way, and find much more fulfillment in it.

There are (at least) two downfalls to this system I’ve developed:

First, the level of anxiety I have with new things is a discouragement from trying new things. I don’t like that feeling at all. I’d prefer to stick with things I know, because they are more comfortable. It takes a lot of force to get me to overcome that starting friction, and I tend to avoid new things.

Second, when something goes wrong, I tend to forget the kind of test it is. Let me explain. When I’m doing something I’m familiar with, and it goes wrong (the best example of this is when somebody at church is angry with me, something that always upsets me a lot), I immediately look back to see where I went wrong. What did I do? Where did I fail? What answer did I get wrong? Even though it was an essay test as I did it, something that is open-ended and flexible, which I figured out as I went along, trusting my instincts…even though all that is true, once my brain registers this as a FAILURE, I act as though it had been a multiple choice test. Instead of looking over my essay answer to explore where I might improve, I look over the choices I made, and look for where I WENT WRONG. And it makes me more and more anxious, because I can’t see the multiple choice questions. I can’t see where I went wrong, because I didn’t follow a script. I didn’t follow a pattern. And that adds to it all, by helping me believe that the reason it went wrong is because I just made it up as I went along, just did whatever felt good at the time, didn’t give it any thought. None of this is true, mind you! But it’s the place my mind goes.

I recently gave some advice to a friend that might be good advice for me as well through this. My friend is currently in something of an unfamiliar and new situation, and he is being pulled in different directions by different people. He is unsure whom to listen to, how to negotiate the questions, how to “play the game” of the new situation. It was making him rather anxious and distracted. I told him, “You know who you are, and who you are is more important than how things play out here. Just be who you are in every moment.” Well, I said something like that. And now I see that what I really told him was that old advice, “Be yourself.” I’m interpreting that right now as “everything’s an essay test.” There are no multiple-choice tests except the ones I invent. Everything’s an essay; everything’s a chance to be who I am, and let the chips fall where they may.

I’m not sure. What do you think? Leave a comment if you like, with your thoughts on this metaphor. Does it ring true in your life? Could you alter it to make it better?

Get up. Do not fear.

This morning, I had the opportunity to preach at St. Andrew’s Ev. Lutheran Church in Perkasie, where I was Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant from 2000-2005. St. Andrew’s is celebrating 150 years of ministry this year, and I am one of several former pastors and other staff members they are inviting to return this year. Here is the sermon I preached. Today was the festival called The Transfiguration of Our Lord. The gospel reading I preached on was Matthew 17:1-9.

Oh, and one more thing. While I was at St. Andrew’s, I developed this habit of preaching in verse sometimes. I couldn’t resist doing it again on this special day.

The last time I spoke from this pulpit
My hair was long, gorgeous and flowing
And sitting down here on my chin
A red beard, not a grey one, was growing
It’s been a few years, just about a dozen
Since I needed to use all that mousse
But as you can see, not all things have changed
I still preach like a bad Dr. Seuss

It’s great to be back, to hear Brian play
And that window is like a gift from above
But it’s you in the pews, though a lot of you are new
Who make me feel welcomed and loved
This church holds a place that’s so dear to my heart
Cause you trained me, you honed me, you know
And within all my bluster, my hair, and my youth
You helped my potential to grow

And it did. Now I’m the pastor of church up in Bangor
We call ourselves Prince of Peace
They’re a wonderful people, they remind me of you!
And today they’ve allowed me release
But the truth is, today’s not a vacation for me
I haven’t pastored at all for eight weeks
I’m right now in the midst of a medical leave
For it’s healing right now that I seek

And I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to discuss
The disease that brought me to my knees
It’s something many of us hide in the dark places inside
And I’d like to shine some light, if you please

I live with depression, and sometimes it gets bad
Medication and therapy help
But something went wrong this past summer and fall
And I could no longer do it myself

I couldn’t find joy; everything felt bleak
Hard to work, and I lost track of friends
And the more I tried to snap myself out
The more I floundered and twisted again
Depression is not just a feeling of sadness
It’s like being beaten by someone inside
And it took me so long to finally stop
Trying to be strong, trying to hide

I hope it’s okay to tell this to you
But I’ve learned slowly over the years
That being open and honest about what we face
Is better than living in fear

I am grateful my church has given me this gift
This chance to find new ways to cope
And this morning I’ll tell you just a bit
About the vision I’m finding of hope

I’ve spent my time reading, meditating, and praying
Several therapists, and a few support groups
I’ve walked a few labyrinths, and even tried yoga
I’ll be honest, that threw me for a loop

I’m learning to quiet the voices inside me
The voices that tell me I’m bad
The voices that tell me I should have known better
That help me feel worthless and sad

I’m quieting those voices, and do know what I hear?
I’m hearing a message come through
A message that I am God’s beloved child
That God is holding me, saying “I love you”
It’s a message of clarity, of seeing myself
The way that God sees me, I guess
It’s not always easy to trust this message
To trust that God always says “Yes”

But I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m looking, I’m here
And every so often I see
A sign that I know must be from God
A sign that God really loves me

It’s not every day. It’s not every minute.
It still feels like I’m running a race
But once in a while, when I don’t even expect it
I receive a sign of God’s grace
And I’m also learning right now that it’s okay to trust
That in all those times God seems to hide
Though I do not quite see it, and cannot quite feel it
God promises to walk right beside

Now you might be wondering why I’m talking so much
About my sickness and journey to health
A sermon’s supposed to talk about God
And I’m up here blabbering about myself
But I believe this connects to our gospel narration
On this Festival Sunday we call Transfiguration

On a beautiful morning four men climbed a peak
Jesus led his friends up the mountain
When suddenly prophets and thunder and clouds
Poured down upon them like a fountain
And there stood Jesus, glowing and bright
Speaking with Elijah and Moses
A voice came from heaven: “Behold, it’s my Son!”
They were scared from their hair to their toeses

But through their great fright, and through that great cloud
The disciples saw everything clearly
This vision of Jesus, in glory and power
The dawn of a new life, the king of the hour
The colors as deep as a new budding flower
The light shining strong as the mightiest tower
The disciples saw everything clearly
This vision of Jesus, in power and glory
Which was nothing shy of revelatory
It didn’t quite fit in a neat category
Yet fulfilled all the writings, completed God’s story
The disciples saw everything clearly
That Jesus was God quite sincerely
That God was made flesh, loving them dearly

But the vision then faded, it didn’t last long
And Jesus looked normal again
He touched them and said, “Get up. Do not fear.
And follow me into the glen.”

So where did he take them, and where did they go?
Well, you’ll hear about that journey in Lent
But I think that those details are not today’s point
The point is accompaniment
For Jesus went with them, through bad days and good
This Jesus from whom God’s light had shone
He wiped all their tears, and he held all their fears
And they were never, ever, alone

And I think that’s the joy we can take from this mountain
The good news that we can embrace
As we walk along through the valleys of our lives
We can remember we’ll never lose grace

We just might see Jesus, we might glimpse his glory
But that’s not a promise he made
Sometimes we’ll see him, and sometimes we won’t
For my part, I’ve learned that in spades
But wherever we go, and whatever we suffer
The king of all glory walks with us
That’s the promise he made, the promise we trust
It’s the greatest gift that he gives us
For when Jesus is with us, our fears can calm down
Our worries and struggles can lessen
And that is the hope that I’m clinging to now
The hope that there is hope from heaven

So that’s where I am, and here’s where you are
All of us trusting together
That whether we see him, he’s here every day
Jesus walks with us forever

Labyrinth of the Week #1: Allamuchy Elementary School

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I enjoy walking labyrinths. If you’re not familiar with labyrinths, they are a sort of curved path to follow, usually in concentric circles. At first, they look kind of like a maze, but if you look closer, you see that there are no intersections, no decisions to make. It’s a single path that weaves from the outside in, and then usually back out again on the same path. They have been used for centuries as a spiritual tool. Christians have often used them as a way to connect with the Holy Spirit in a unique way. There is something about walking this path that brings things into focus. There is something about this path that gives discernment and insight. For more information about labyrinths, you can check out The Labyrinth Society.

I have been walking them for years, and I thought that perhaps I would try to find a labyrinth once a week, at least for the remainder of my medical leave. I’m not sure I will continue at the same pace once I’m back to work, but hopefully I will be able to still go regularly.

When I walk a labyrinth, I like to enter it with a particular question or topic in mind. I walk hopeful that I will receive some insight into that question. The question I walked with today was, “What do I do with my past?” This was on my mind because so much of what I’ve been doing the past few weeks involves my past…revisiting old thoughts and feelings and wounds, reconnecting with old friends, delving into thousands of old emails. I wanted to explore what it is I can do with my past, what I should do with what I’m learning (or re-learning) right now.

Today’s labyrinth is located on the grounds of Allamuchy Elementary School in Allamuchy Township, New Jersey. It was created in memory of a young girl named Claudia.

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One thing that struck me immediately about this labyrinth is that the walls were not clearly marked. The “walls” of the labyrinth are like the borders of the maze, so to speak. You always walk within the walls, and they help you know where you’re going. Outdoor labyrinths like this often have walls made of stones or bricks…they’re often just markers on the ground, not any sort of actual barrier. This labyrinth was planted…the walls are boxwood plants. These small shrubs do a good job of marking the circles in the labyrinth, but because they were “dots” rather than solid “lines,” I found it very unclear where the path actually turned.

7-circuit_cretan-labyrinth
Here’s how a 7-circuit classical labyrinth looks. You walk in the white path. The black is the walls.
7-circuit_cretan-labyrinth-dots
Here’s that same labyrinth pattern with only “dots” for walls, instead of “lines.” (Or a really quick and shabby imitation of that, anyway.) You can still see the pattern, but it’s harder to see the details like where to turn.

I don’t know if they designed it to be different like this, or if it’s just turned into this in the years since it was planted. But either way, I found myself asking questions as I looked out over the labyrinth. Am I supposed to turn here between these two bushes, or continue straight? That kind of thing. I asked those kind of questions as I looked out at the labyrinth. So I used my experience of walking labyrinths as an asset. I figured, “I’ve walked these enough times, I’ll know where to turn.” Well, it turns out I didn’t. I got “lost” in the labyrinth. My past experience was not enough to set me straight on the path.

Now, here’s the thing…I was still walking it. I was walking it the way I always do, slowly and meditatively. And I was walking in the concentric circles like you do. I just wasn’t always heading where I thought I was. And I basically made it to the center not at the preordained time, but when I decided I’d walked enough, and just put myself there. My past experience partially prepared me for this journey, but it wasn’t enough. It was a different sort of journey. Whether by design or by accident, this labyrinth took me on a different journey. My past was a tool, an asset, but I could not expect the future to repeat the past. It was different, and I had to keep my eyes and my options open.

So this indeed gave me insights into my question: What do I do with my past? I honor it. I recognize it as a helpful and educational tool. Without it, I’m blind. But I also keep it in perspective. It is not the future. The future will bear some resemblance to the past, but some things will be different, and I can’t predict beforehand what those differences will be. But with a sense of humor and a sense of curiosity, my past and I can go exploring the future together…and make an even richer past for next time.

Or something like that.

Why Meditate?

So I’m learning about mindfulness and meditation. The book I’m reading, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, just suggested that I figure out why I want to meditate. What the purpose of it is. Otherwise, it likely won’t go anywhere. So I would like to explore that here.

First, I really want to get good at being mindful. Mindfulness is, I believe, about being awake and aware of my environment, both external and internal. And it seems to me that meditation is kind of like a more intense version of mindfulness. Focusing on my breathing and nothing more, or focusing on one particular concern or thought, is a deep way of practicing concentration and awareness.

Second, I want to get in touch with my own mind in a deeper way. Just a few days ago, I was trying to meditate on a question: “Why do I always feel like I have to please people?” I have no idea if I was truly meditating or not, but what I know is that a memory from my childhood came into my mind, a memory that seems to have some connection to the question. I’m working on that with my therapist, but the point here is that I think meditation can help me connect some dots in my mind…why does this happen? Where did this come from? That sort of thing.

Third, I want to learn to better manage and accept my time. This morning in therapy, one thing we talked about is the difference between how I manage my money and my time. I am very trusting and hopeful regarding money. I have learned that God always provides, and I don’t get worked up over money issues. However, I am the opposite with time. I never feel like there’s enough; I am never comfortable with how I spend it; I am so often worried about it and obsess over it. But I think that a meditative practice could help me accept the twenty-four hours I’m given each day, and help me to see the gift there, and trust that there will always be enough for what I am called to do. That there will always be enough for what I need.

So those, I think, are the three reasons I want to work on meditating:

  • to cultivate mindfulness,
  • to explore my mind, and
  • to come to terms with time.

That feels right to me. Now, to make it a part of my daily life…

Nerd Nite or Church

This has been a weird weekend. I did not go to church this morning, which for me is not normal. Now, for the past five weeks I of course haven’t been to my own church, but I always go to church, even when I’m on vacation or medical leave. But today, because of various reasons involving my wife’s schedule and my two-year-old son, I stayed home. On the other hand, I went out late last evening, which is also unusual for me on a Saturday night. My most excellent friend (and Pinewood-Men co-creator) Pete and I attended the first Nerd Nite Bethlehem. It was a fun evening at SteelStacks, described kind of like a low-key “nerdy” Ted Talk. We heard three speakers talk in a very enthusiastic and entertaining way about their nerdy loves, like television piracy and AI comedy robots. I’m glad I went, and from a depression standpoint, it was good to get out and do something. I have been more social lately than I’d been in months, and it’s probably a good thing.

But I can’t shake this feeling of guilt. I gathered with a hundred or so people this weekend, but not for the reason I usually do. I listened to people up front singing praises, and I felt a great level of affinity with them, but the praises they sang were not directed to the place my praises usually are on the weekend. It just feels wrong, like I didn’t do enough. I could have worked out going to church. I could have found a church with a Saturday service last evening. I could have taken my son with me to church somewhere this morning. But I didn’t. I took the path of least resistance. I was out late last night, and I even slept in. It just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t feel right.

Part of me knows that it’s okay. That it’s okay to miss church once in a while. That it’s okay especially when the reason has to do with making life a little easier on my family. Part of me knows it’s okay to do something fun, and to spend some time with a good friend. And I don’t believe that God is condemning me for this. But I’m disappointed in myself right now. I don’t like this feeling. And honestly, it feels bigger than this weekend. I feel like I’m not doing the right thing left and right right now. Like I’m just being self-absorbed and lazy. Like I’m just taking the path of least resistance and coasting. Like I’m not accomplishing anything.

I don’t like this feeling. But I think it’s the voice in my head, the voice who has told me for years and years, “You should have known better.” The voice who has told me for years and years, “You are a failure.” Hello, voice. Welcome back. “I never left,” he says. Yes, I know. But I have my daughter’s birthday party this afternoon, voice. So how about you shut up for a while, and let me be a good father.

Sigh. This is my life. It will be a good afternoon. My job is to wrangle the toddler while my daughter and her friends have fun. It will be good. And I’ll deal more with that stupid voice later. But for now, I will forgive myself for any mistakes I’ve made this weekend, and I will just do my best the rest of the day. That’s all I’ve got, when it comes down to it, isn’t it?

I’m Published!

I recently wrote an essay called “When Being a Pastor with Depression is a Complicated Combination,” and it’s been published on TheMighty.com.

You can read it here.