While staying at a retreat center recently, I took a morning hike to search for birds with my binoculars in hand. Along the path, I came to an outdoor worship area and a large outdoor rock-lined labyrinth. I’ve seen labyrinths before at conference gatherings, clergy retreats, and spiritual formation events, and I must confess that I’ve never felt attracted to the idea of walking a prescribed pathway, stopping to meditate at key places according to printed guidelines, etc. I’ve had friends try to push me into trying labyrinths, generating greater resistance from me rather than provoking greater interest.
So here I was outdoors, alone under the hot sun on a beautiful Texas hillside, far from anyone trying to talk me into anything, and I found myself looking at the pathways through the labyrinth and wondering why people find this helpful in their faith journeys. I looked around to see if anyone could see me, and like someone sneaking some kind of guilty, hidden pleasure, I stepped toward the opening path at the forward portion of the stone-lined labyrinth. And I started to walk the dirt pathway.
I had not taken ten steps when a green-and-black-striped lizard darted down the pathway ahead of me and into the rocks. I stopped, and a flood of memories poured over me. I grew up in West Texas chasing these kinds of lizards. We called them “racers,” and we saw them everywhereÖalong the streets as we walked to school each day, down the draw in back of our house when we would build forts of mesquite and rock, and along the dirt roads as we rode our bikes. I thought of childhood friends I hadn’t seen for more than forty years and hadn’t thought of for decades, and wondered where they are now, and what pathways they’d taken through the years. Where are Jimmy and Mickey and Debbie and Eric and the people with the chickens next door and the woman who’d stand barefoot in her house robe and shoot rabbits invading her garden out her backdoor? I thought of all the horny toads we caught, and the turtles we raised, and the snakes we saw, and all those “racers” that eluded us by their speed. Wow. It was a moment of simple refreshment.
I took a few more steps and came to a big turn, and followed the path around. For some reason, this got me thinking about “big turns” in my early lifeÖwhen our family moved from one town to another when I was in the third grade, when my brother went off to college, when I decided to leave behind my interest in math and science to pursue a liberal arts education. Some turns I made by choice; some where shaped by circumstances bigger than me. Some were good turns, and some I remember with a tinge of regret.
As I walked a few more steps, I came to a pile of rocks, neatly and carefully stacked high – a marker, a memorial, an Ebenezer (to use an ancient biblical term.) These usually mark sacred places to memorialize sacred moments, moments of transcendence and help and calling, and I wondered what experience stood behind the gathering of these stones before me. My own mind turned to the notion of calling, and I began to think about my own call, and all the places that were the “holy ground” of my own faith journey. I thought of the sounds, smells, colors, and textures of First United Methodist Church in Del Rio where I knelt so many times at the communion rail in prayer about God’s call, and of the cross atop Mt. Wesley where I prayed for some sign of assurance about my call one late, cold, rainy night over 30 years ago, and about the worksite where I joined with other teens to joke and banter and sweat and labor to serve a family in special need during a mission project. Campfires, rooftops, sanctuaries, youth rooms – all of them became “holy ground” to me.
As self-conscious as I feel even to talk about this now, I felt the need to take off my shoes at this point on the pathwayÖsomething biblical there, about standing in the presence of the holy. Again, I looked to see that no one was around, and slipped out of my running shoes, and carried them further down the path.
The thoughts about my own call to ministry and the special places also set my soul awash in memories of the special people – the pastors, such as John Wesley Platt, Jordan Mann, Rick Bates, Kent Kepler, Walter Parr, Duane Wilterdink, Will Mathis-Dunn and the laity, such as Bill DeViney, Dan Lloyd, Earnest Worley, John Prude, and the youth ministers, such a Grady Roe, Mimi Raper, John McMullen, and so many others. And all the youth sponsors, too many to name. And all the Sunday school teachers, many I barely recall. Each moved me along a path that had many and infinite choices going forward, but in retrospect each experience stands absolutely essential in forming who I am today and how I think and feel and act. How could any of us get from there to here without the help of a thousand friends and strangers? God calls us through people, teaches us through people, leads us and sustains us through people.
By now I was beginning to think maybe the hot Texas sun was boiling my brain to madness. How had this simple dirt and rock path in concentric loops elicited such unexpected memories and thoughts? I continued until I came to the center of the labyrinth. At the center there was a larger gathering of rocks and sticks into a pile, and I conjectured that many people who had walked the labyrinth had done so carrying stones and then set them here, offering them up and relieving their burdens with the symbolic opening of their fists and letting go. Also on the center pile there were pieces of jewelry and coins and other little personal items. There was a necklace with a medallion with the Alcoholics Anonymous motto, and there were at least half dozen wine bottle corks and liquor bottle tops. I then remembered that a recovery group had been listed as sharing the retreat center for the weekend, and I supposed that they had walked the labyrinth the night before. As I thought of what they had offered, let go of, cast off, or sacrificed at this site, I became all the more moved to prayer. I was now sitting on the ground, cross legged, shoeless, in blue jeans and baseball cap in the hot Texas sun, praying and letting go, letting go, letting goÖ
After a while I put on my shoes, stood up, gathered my binoculars and prepared to leave. For the darnedest reason, I couldn’t just walk straight out, although nothing barred my way. Instead, I retraced my steps through the entire labyrinth and left by the way I entered, but somehow refreshed, renewed, refocused. I looked around once again to make sure no one had seen me. And please, don’t tell anyone about this!
Sometimes God uses the most ordinary means to take us to the most extraordinary of places. The simple rock pathways of a Texas Hill Country labyrinth became a reminder to me of the extraordinary journey of faith I have been privileged to take, and of all the unique pathways by which people come to the one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Grace and peace,