I was feeling particularly proud of myself today because I had the marvelous idea to take my spiritual direction client to a beautiful outdoor labyrinth at a church nearby. Assuming that she, a stay at home mom living in a religiously conservative area of west Michigan, had never been to a labyrinth before I was anticipating her to be blown away by the spiritual magnitude of our outing. Yeah, me!
Maybe you’ve already discerned that I struggle with the sin of pride and occasionally lack the gift of humility. These are character flaws I have struggled with most of my life. Being the youngest of five children, I found myself constantly competing with my siblings for my parents’ attention. Their affection was most liberally dealt to the child who excelled, so naturally I developed my skills in ‘excellence’. Everything I attempted was in effort to be the best; if I couldn’t be the best then I would realign my efforts to an area that came more naturally.
Although this approach allowed me to attain some helpful skills (such as being driven and receiving high marks) I struggle on a daily basis with pride. Sometimes, I am ashamed to admit, I have silent celebrations in my head – such as the one I had this morning about the brilliant idea to walk the labyrinth with my spiritual direction client.
I tell you this for a few different reasons: First, because it provides a nice baseline for the rest of the story. Second, because it offers a place for me to be confessional. Lastly, because I am guessing that I am not the only one who has a high opinion of her self. Maybe some of you can relate.
Having given my client appropriate space ahead of me on the path, I started walking the labyrinth. Paying close attention to staying on the path, I carefully put one foot in front of the other all the while praying that I would be prepared to receive God well. I made a conscientious effort to pay close attention to the little details of my journey to the center, spiritualizing every little thing.
That’s when I noticed two rocks and a twig in my path. They weren’t big and could easily be skirted, but instead I was compelled to clear the path. Self-inflated, I pondered, “Maybe I am called to clear the obstacles from the path toward Christ. I wonder if that is part of who I am; one who suffers to make the path easier for the next person.” I picked up the stones and twig and threw them back into the landscaping and took on my new self-appointed role of Obstacle Clearer. Ah! I had yet another way to bless others. Well done! “It’s certainly not a glamorous ministry, but it must be done.” For the remainder of the journey to the center, I stopped to move the stones and twigs, even the stones and twigs along the side of the path that weren’t bothering anyone. As you would expect, I approached my new role with that familiar level of excellence I mentioned earlier.
When I got to the center, and quieted my spirit to be in God’s presence, I sensed a degree of ugliness in my role as Obstacle Clearer that I hadn’t noticed before. The stones and twigs I cleared off the path did nothing to effect the quality or the effectiveness of the path itself. The path remained, regardless of their presence. But my experience of walking the path was disjointed and tainted. I was offended by their presence and distracted by my efforts to remove them. Even the way I described the stones and twigs tainted them in a negative light. Instead of being tiny expressions of nature’s existence, they were labeled ‘obstacles’. They became a burden and blight on my journey. Because of the way I interpreted them, my experience to the center became cumbersome and preoccupied.
This got me thinking about the church. We, the church, also have a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture of participation into the mission of God by becoming hyper-focused on the inconsequential distractions along the way. Like me, the church forgets to exist for God and gets lost in making a name for her self or by flaunting her wounds of spiritual burden. Let’s face it: the Christian church also struggles with the sin of pride and lacks a necessary level of humility. We aren’t that different from each other, are we?
One way Christian communities lose sight of the bigger picture is by making mountains out of molehills; getting distracted by the little things. For example, we preoccupy ourselves with the way things are done rather than the act of doing. Instead of focusing on the act of worship, we have gotten discombobulated by defining the right and wrong ways to worship. In our effort to steep ourselves in scripture, we become too focused on interpretation debates, rather than on the Spirit’s invitation to transformational relationships even among the messy uncertainties. If you belong to a North American church, chances are you are familiar with these scenarios.
I don’t intend to offend anyone with these statements. My point isn’t to bash the Christian church. What I am hoping to do is invite us to ponder the stones and twigs on our own paths that keep us from participating in the greater invitation of journeying closer to Christ. Here are a couple ways we can live more faithfully on the path to Christ among the stones and twigs.
First, people are NEVER stones and twigs. If on our journey we find ourselves walking around, over, or on others, we aren’t really walking with God. Let’s be honest: there have been people in our lives we have treated like stones and twigs on our path. But Christ sums up God’s commandments by elevating ‘relationships’ as the highest form of obedience to God.
In the church I attend there is a little old man who has a well-earned reputation for being crotchety. For years and years, he has frustrated many ministers with his incessant complaints about the absence of teaching from the Heidelberg Catechism, both from the pulpit and in the classroom. Many have been inclined to toss the complaints aside, like mere twigs and stones, thereby avoiding the man himself. However, by engaging with him we learned that being knowledgeable about the Heidelberg Catechism gave him a deep sense of purpose and meaning. As a child, he was severely unattended to by his family and often felt he had no value. However, when he was a youth, he participated in a class at church about the Heidelberg Catechism and excelled. It was the one place he felt significant. By creating a space for him to express this, we were able to honor HIM. He wasn’t a burden. He was an encounter with the mission of God.
Who have you encountered on the path? What is their story? What keeps you from engaging with them? What would it take to honor them? The other articles on this website help us to name a few. They open our eyes to marginalized and overlooked among us, and challenge us to approach people not as burdens or obstacles, but as an encounter with God.
Next, we can see the stones and twigs in relation to the greater picture. Like I said before, the twigs and stones were little and did nothing to interfere with my journey on the labyrinth. But, for some reason, I allowed myself to be distracted by them to the degree that I forgot I was praying. What little things do we allow to distract us from drawing closer to God? Does the clothing of the neighbor in the pew distract us? During our worship services, are we preoccupied by the noise pollution of a crying baby? When we give to a person in need, are we distracted by how they might spend our financial gifts? When we hear about the prevalence social injustices, such as sex trafficking, bigotry, poverty, sexuality, or spousal abuse, are we sidetracked by our discomfort, prejudices, and ignorance? These little things are nothing but distractions from the greater picture, which is to participate in the kingdom of God on earth. The kingdom of God is not a call to questioning each others financial responsibility, dictating appropriate attire for worship attendance, managing the noise pollution of our youngest members, or sterilizing ourselves from the dirtiness of sin around us. “The calling to seek first the reign of God and God’s justice means orienting our public deeds away from imposing our moral will onto the social fabric and toward giving tangible experience of the reign of God that intrudes as an alternative to the public principles and loyalties (Barrett, Missional Church).” The bigger picture of God’s reign should look shockingly different than our own moral fingerprint. It should look like a journey toward becoming less like ‘us’ and more like Christ.
In spite of my inclination to celebrate my own brilliance or propensity to misinterpret my call to faithfulness, God met me on the labyrinth and opened my heart to greater purpose. I wasn’t expecting God to act, but act God did. Maybe, just maybe, if we as the church took a little more time to seek God’s direction in our lives the world might be better for it.
So what do you say? Want to go take a walk?
Marla Rotman is certified Spiritual Director and MDiv graduate from Western Theological Seminary. More importantly, three boys call her ‘mom’ and one man calls her ‘beloved’. She specializes in learning things the hard way, taking the longest path to get where she wants to be, sewing things she didn’t sew correctly the first time, and imagining all the things she wants to do and be when she grows up (and many of the things she hopes to avoid, too.)
 Don’t know what spiritual direction is? Check out this website for a comprehensive description of the practice of Spiritual Direction, as well as a database for finding a director in your area. www.sdiworld.org
 In case you are wondering, a labyrinth is a prayer practice that involves physical movement. Christians practice this form of prayer by following the path of a labyrinth, either by walking an actual labyrinth, following a finger-tip labyrinth in sand, or using a writing implement to draw the path of a labyrinth on paper. The most popular labyrinth patterns are called “The Chartres” and “The Classic (also known as the Celtic Labyrinth)”. In both patterns, a winding path leads to the center, a space for pause is in the center, and the same winding path leads away from the center. Check out this website for more information on the practice of walking the labyrinth in prayer: http://hopetalks.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/walking-the-labyrinth-walking-prayers/
 Matthew 22:36-40