Thanksgiving from a Hebrew Perspective

[Read the story of Jesus Restoring the 10 Men with Leprosy (Luke 17:11-19)]

Only with more recent readings of the text have I seen — and begun to understand — an important distinction in the text.  In verse 14, we are told that all 10 lepers were “cleansed.”  But only one of these perceives himself as “healed” (rooted in the word for “whole” and “saved”) and returns to give thanks. (vs. 15)

To our ears and eyes and common sentiments, the relationship (between healing/salvation/wholeness and thanksgiving) may seem casual, loose, linear.  The one leper sees that he’s been healed and simply returns to say thanks.

Considerations, though, of cultural norms and etiquette in the Middle East (today… and in Jesus day) helps us to see the real link between the thanksgiving and a faith that heals.  Here, I draw upon the works of Bruce Malina, a cultural anthropologist versed in the social habits of Jesus’ day.  In his Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea, Malina makes two distinct points about the ways that the Samaritan’s thanks would register in Jesus’s day (and ours) for a Middle Eastern audience:

    Saying “thank you” was and is not practiced among friends and equals in the Middle East…  Thank you is reserved for high ranking social superiors from whom an undeserved favor has been received… Thanksgiving redounds to the honor and glory of the high-ranking social superior…
    [In specific regards to Luke 17,] the fact that the nine did not express gratitude might indicate that Jesus was not considered a high-ranking, social superior by those were heal from the house of Israel. (p. 13-14)

     Judeans refrain from saying “Thank you” because the phrase is actually used to mean “Enough, thank you”…  To thank someone for his or her help means “I will not be needing you anymore in the future”…
    Given attitudes toward gratitude, one might empathize with the nine who did not come to say “Thank you,” since they might require Jesus and his healing power once more in the future. Why thank him and break off the interaction?… 
    On the other hand, the Samaritan’s “Thank you” indicates that this person saw no more need for any further recourse to Jesus [at least in regards to his leprosy].  His healing was once-for-all.  This person fits Luke’s understanding of Jesus and his ministry as a new Jubilee in which God would refashion everything, making the sick whole once-for-all.(p. 14)

Put them together and you arrive at the following affirmations about thanksgiving in Jesus’ day – and the deeper and fuller meaning of the Samaritan’s thanks in the text before us: 1) it acknowledges the  clear superiority of the One thanked, and 2) it acknowledges the completeness and fullness of that Other’s gift, power, and provision.

In a flash, in the twinkle of an eye, the Samaritan sees below the surface of his outward cleansing.  More deeply, he perceives the King of Kings whose activity goes beyond all we could ever ask think or imagine.  (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14, Ephesians 3:20)  And as much as it is a thought-out response (i.e., returning and giving thanks), there’s an impulse of the soul to run back and kneel and bow and confess that Jesus is the anointed one of God! (Philippians 2:10-11)

Here, the text can take off into so many different quarters of our lives and living…

  • Of how Jesus’ plan of restoration is holistic – embracing the fullness of what we are… and not just the surface! (An important message, I might add [outside the church and in] where too many limit their focus to presenting a clean outer shell – neglecting the deeper life and living that surrounds wholeness and healing and salvation!)
  • Of how an outsider (one considered to be on the outs with the surrounding culture) has much more of an inside with Jesus than those born in the proper house! Yes, good Samaritans abound in Jesus day – much to the embarrassment of cradle and cradled believers!

Preaching this message to two country churches this last weekend, I left them with a benediction along the following lines that “hearing these lines…

does not diminish our need to be thankful
to waitresses and waiters and civil servants
(because they are paid to serve us)
or doctors and nurses
(because we know we’ll need them again).

No, a Hebrew perspective on giving thanks…
should have us affirming the worth of all others
and the value of all that others do for us.

And, it should have us acknowledging that,
when it comes to thanking God,
we are on a entirely different plain of gratitude.

Maybe that’s what distinguishes
what Christians call “Praise” from regular thanksgiving:
embracing the unique supremacy of God and God’s ways…
and appreciating the ways that these truths embraced
can bring greater healing and wholeness
(and not just a surface cleaning).

The Christmas I Never Knew

A few weeks ago (in a post on authors and books that have been most instrumental in my spiritual formation, cf. “Read Any Good Books Lately?),           I gave some background to the high regard I have for for Philip Yancey:

Yancey addresses some of the age-old questions against the Faith—questions about pain and suffering in a world supposedly loved by God, about the incongruity between the Jesus of the Gospels and too many Christians and Churches across time.

In his The Jesus I Never Knew, Yancey addresses the incongruities between the Gospels as we’ve received them and “know” them… and the Gospel as the revolutionary message they were (and still can be).   Take, for example, Christmas – as we have it framed it and understood it… versus the potential for our “reading it again, for the first time” (as one author has put it):

Sorting through a stack of Christmas cards, I notice that all kinds of symbols and sentiments have edged their way into the Christmas celebration. But when I compare today’s Christmas cards to the Gospel accounts of the first Christmas, I hear a very different tone. In the Gospels, I sense mainly disruption at work. Mary was a pregnant teenager and a virgin! The news an angel brought couldn’t have been entirely welcome to Mary or Joseph, considering the closely knit Jewish community in which they lived. In contrast to what the cards would have us believe, Christmas did not sentimentally simplify life on planet earth…

The facts of Christmas, rhymed in carols, recited by children in church plays, illustrated on cards, have become so familiar that it is easy to miss the message behind the facts. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out at Calvary. After reading the birth stories once more, I ask myself, If Jesus came to reveal God to us, then what do I learn about God from that first Christmas?  (Jesus I Never Knew, pp. 29, 35f.)

What Yancey is pointing to here is very much at the heart of our most recent issue of Ruminations, focused on “Rescuing Christmas from ‘the Obscurity of the Familiar.’”  For those who do not know or haven’t experienced it yet, Ruminations is the name we’ve given to a quarterly/seasonal resource — especially designed as a guide for personal or small group retreats-devotions.  And here, in this issue, we take time to share some Christmas-related teachings and preachings from my ministry through the years – messages very much informed by and grounded in my work with Dr. Jim Fleming in the Holy Lands.

Of course, the dynamic upon which we focus here (I.e., how the ways we think we know can blind us to what we could and should know) has a life well beyond the story of Christ’s Nativity.  Across the years, spiritual directors and masters have affirmed that there is no real progress in the spiritual formation journey until we abandon our control – including the notion that we know it all already.

“Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt?”

What the Bleep Do We Know? is the name of a popular and award-winning documentary that came out in 2004. (In 2010, it was released in a book form by Health Communications Inc.) It sought to explore the spirituality embedded in and emanating from quantum physics and mechanics. (So much for those who say that science and faith are incompatible!) Admittedly, most of it went right over head!

Still, it forced (and still forces) a necessary and worthwhile dialogue—testing and expanding my notion of spirituality.

Take, for example, the film’s reference to the research of Dr. Masuru Emoto of Japan. Emoto, a graduate of the Yokohama Municipal University and the Open International University as a Doctor of Alternative Medicine is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Hidden Messages in Water — first published in Japan, with over 400,000 copies sold internationally.

What has put Dr. Emoto at the forefront of the study of water is his proof that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality… [Developing a technique using a very powerful microscope in a very cold room along with high-speed photography], Dr. Emoto discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed toward them. He found that water from clear springs and water that has been exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colorful snowflake patterns. In contrast, polluted water, or water exposed to negative thoughts, forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors. The implications of this research create a new awareness… of how our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions as humans deeply impact the environment.

—from the website,
(see also Dr. Emoto’s website at

Of course, there was (and there remains) a healthy dose of skepticism about it all. It’s a skepticism shared and expressed by various scientific voices out there—voices who discredit Emoto and his methodology as “pseudoscience.” Yes, there are good reasons to be cautious—very cautious—here.

But, then, I take pause. I remember all those times positive words have built me up and established peace in me… and all those times when negative words have torn me down, created anxiety, and left me disordered.

No, I don’t know what to do with Emoto and a lot of “Bleep,” but I do believe in the power of our words… and the power (both for good and bad) of the images and words we daily give ourselves to and we daily give others.

It’s one of the reasons that the spiritual disciplines –  “Means of Grace,” “Means of Intimacy with God” – are so important: they are means by which we surround ourselves and fill ourselves with the positive, loving nature of Christ, the “Word of God”—“filling our cups” to the end that we can be a blessing (and not a curse) to those around us!

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Through the years, as I have been stuck in finding the next good read, I’ve resorted to googling “top 10 lists” for a given year or genre.  In a related vein, in various settings, I (Jim) have posed the question of favorite books: “If stuck on a desert isle,” the question might go, “what 10 books (besides the Bible) would you want to have with you… or recommend to another?”

Yes, I am aware of G.K. Chesterton’s response to the question. “If I were stranded on a desert island with only one book,” he is reported as saying, “I would choose Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”  In that vein, I can think of other very practical entries – as, e.g., SEAL Survival Guide : A Navy SEAL’s Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster.

Maybe we need to make provision for such books and move on.

Or, perhaps we should re-frame the scenario
-– something along the lines of…

suppose you were thrust into a situation of isolation and social distancing and the regular media was getting too stressful or boring to provide any real support…

what meaningful reads would you recommend to your friends and family?

Over time, a stack of responses has grown–many yielding some fruitful and enjoyable engagements!

I’ve even taken a stab or two of my own through the years.  (Problem [or perhaps the joy] is that the list is ever being amended in the wake of new experience.) 

Even so, I offer the following list of books that have served me well through the course of my ministry and living—with some indication of ‘why.”  At one point, I wanted to confine it to a “top ten” (as that seems popular).  But, that notion was and is just too exhausting.  So, I’ll leave it at “Twenty Most Instrumental Authors (and Reads) in My Life… At Least for Now.”  Incomplete and evolving as it is, I offer it here—in the hopes that it might  stimulate your own ponderings of the question… and, maybe, your [covid + winter-time] reading pleasure and/or edification.

P.S. I sure do welcome your own lists and additions –
        via the comment section, below!

Twenty Most Instrumental Authors
(and Reads) in My Life…
[At Least for Now]
(in alpha order per section)

There are a couple focused on the Bible and its Interpretation…

Bailey, Ken
I was introduced to Ken Bailey by my mentor in Holy Land studies, Dr. Jim Fleming.  Bailey, a Middle Eastern scholar, provides the best example of Biblical scholarship that I have encountered—engaging Biblical texts from both the standpoint of linguistics (especially with an eye to Semitic languages) and historical-cultural considerations.  For all that ways that that might sound dry and boring, it is all brought alive and down to earth by his sensitivities and gifts as a Presbyterian pastor.  His treatments of the Parable of the Prodigal Son are renown.  I’d recommend them highly.  I have chosen, though, to highlight his broader treatment of the teachings and acts of Jesus in what might be his magnum opus (written near the end of this life), Jesus Through Middle Easter Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospel.

Sanford, John
If Bailey has been a key to my entering the first-century culture and context of Jesus and the Gospels, then Sanford (an Anglican priest and Jungian analyst) has been instrumental in helping me bridge that Gospel with the insights of contemporary psychology.  (His other works on dreams and relationships are worthwhile reads.) In regards to his engagement of the Scriptures, I’d recommend The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings.  But, here I’d spotlight Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John for the ways he brings that Gospel to light for me… and in me.

There are a few engaging Christianity (in a general manner)…

Etheridge, John and Brent Curtis
Perhaps the most influential book in the first half of my life and ministry, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God continues to fuel my appreciation of how all “loves” and “love stories” in this world are, at best, shadows of the ultimate Lover which is Christ and the ultimate Love story which is the Gospel!  Among other things, here was and is a portal into cinema and literature – and the ways they provide a contemplative approach to the Scriptures.

Lewis, C.S.
Mom introduced me to “Jack” (we’re on a first name basis… at least in my head)…  Mom introduced me to Jack in the early days of my Christian walk – gifting me a slip case of his books for Christmas.  (As Mom passed away when I was only 28, the gift became even more cherished as Lewis has never lost his ability to challenge and stimulate. Here is such a creative and gifted communicator and apologist for the Faith–transposing ancient themes and doctrines of the Christianity for our “modern” minds and world.  Tough to make a real definitive call here: take your pick from Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, The Space Trilogy, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,…  (Given this dilemma in choosing, I decided to spotlight an updated version of the slipcase gift Mom gave me years ago.)

McLaren, Brian
If Lewis was the great transposer of the Faith to generations of the last Century, McLaren (and Yancey, below) are filling that role (at least for me) here in the 21st Century.  A pioneer in the “Emergent Movement,” McLaren heralds and defends an “ancient-future” Faith – one which is true and faithful to its ancient roots but also relevant to our contemporary situation.  (Here’s how he defines himself in the subtitle of his book, A Generous Orthodoxy: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”   For some reason, I am drawn to a series of “novels” he’s written.  (He calls them “philosophical dialogues”: A New Kind of Christian, The Story We Find Oursleves In, and The Last Word and The Word After That.)  They aren’t that noteworthy from a stylistic standpoint but they did have a way of speaking to my mind and heart – especially as a pastor trying to find my own feet to stand on.  For the ways that I could recommend these books and Orthdoxy, I’ve chosen to spotlight A New Kind of Christianity for the ways that it represents one of his first, comprehensive attempts to pull his position and aruguments together.

Yancey, Phillip
As McLaren seeks a revitalized faith for a new day and age, Yancey addresses some of the age-old questions against the Faith—questions about pain and suffering in a world supposedly loved by God, about the incongruity between the Jesus of the Gospels and too many Christians and Churches across time.  (Here, Yancey seems to spin a saying of Gandhi on its head: “I am a Christian in spite of the Christians I have seen!”)  In many ways, Yancey is what Henri Nouwen would call a “wounded healer” – taking his real questions about God and his real abuse at the hands of the Church… and turning them into entry points for us to engage our beliefs, to lament our fallenness, and to celebrate Amazing Grace.  As with others, it is hard for me to single in on one title.   Where is God When it Hurts?, Soul Survivor, The Jesus I Never Knew: these are others have been most meaningful reads for me.  I’ll admit, though, that his Church: Why Bother? had a most profound impact on my mind and mostly my heart.  Among his earliest works, he humbly invites us into the “Deep South Fundamentalism” of his youth [so ensconced in segregation and the persecution of Blacks] and gives us hope that the Gospel can still convict and convert and consecrate broken souls and communities.

There are a couple that have provided important handles in pastoring…

Covey, Stephen
In some ways, I have outgrown Covey – and his “first half of life” call to make our lives more effective and productive.  There is no doubting, though, the impact it had on me in that first half of life – driving a whole of my personal and pastoral work in visioning and management and “sharpening the saw.” Come to think of it, it can still be a powerful and meaningful read for this second half of life.  Here, though, we will probably need to admit that the “end in sight” for this second half of life is radically different than it was in the first half!

Scazzero, Peter
Writing is not Peter Scazzero’s big gift.  He is “saved” to some degree by his co-author, Warren Bird.  His story, though, was and is compelling [to this Pastor].  And his message was and is meaningful: that congregations need to get beyond just baptizing the surface of individual’s lives – promoting a deeper life of spiritual and emotional maturity.  Here was and is a detailing of so many essential concepts –clearly explained and affirmed: acknowledging our brokenness, admitting wounds from our family of origins, acknowledging limits and the need for boundaries.  And every bit as important was Scazzero’s emphasis on the contemplative life, the stages of faith (including our encountering “Walls”), and the importance of our having “rules” for faithful living.  I had explored and have since explored each of these things more deeply in other books, but the attraction and power here was having them all gathering in a user friendly way in one place – prefect for taking it to the congregation!

There are a few focused on spiritual formation…

Hurnard, Hannah
The importance of allegory in my life is the ways it bridges head and heart.  This highly left-brained soul needs a good dose of right-brain imagery and poetry every now and then!  Yes, there’s Pilgrim’s Progress and, more dear to me, Dante’s Divine Comedy.   But, for it’s simplicity and ease (and the fact that it was the first allegory of the Christian life which I engaged), I spotlight Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places.  Yes, I am “Much Afraid”– ever questioning the detours into the wilderness!  But, hold on, it’s all a part of the Shepherd preparing me for and leading me to the heights and a new identity!

May, Gerald
Read the fuller list here and you will note the ways that the integration of psychology and faith is important to me.  Dimensions of this integration include addiction and wholeness/healing and “dark nights.”  With one foot in medicine and one foot in the Faith and a writing style that is friendly, May is a perfect integrator and bridge-builder.  All of his books are worthy reads.  I have spotlighted Dark Night of the Soul here for the ways he summarizes and simplifies the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but also for the ways he defines the “Dark Night(s)” and their role in fostering contemplation [as direct communion with God] in our lives.

Mulholland, Robert
There are plenty of writers on spiritual formation these days.  And there are a lot of voices I’d commend on the important notion within spiritual formation which is the “true self.” (In regard to this “true self” and it’s restoration, I’d emphasize the writings of Buecnher [Telling Secrets], Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Albert Haase.)  Mulholland stands out for his clarity and depth and simplicity on the subjects – leaving little doubt in my mind to why so many will point to him as the first “go to” in spiritual formation studies.  I’d highly recommend The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self.  I spotlight Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, though, for that it has been most instrumental in shaping my understanding and discussions about this essential but easily displaced work of (and in) the Church.

Palmer, Parker
He’s certainly worth listening to – with that deep bass voice.  Palmer brings the contemplative posture of his Quaker background to discussions of true self, listening, the promise of paradox, and the power and process of group discernment.  His Hidden Wholeness could be a primer in group spiritual direction.  I spotlight his Let Your Life Speak for the ways it was one of my first introductions to the notion of finding and recovering my true self.

Rohr, Richard
When it comes to a variety of spiritual discussions, Rohr has a Midas touch – to the end that whatever he touches, turns to Gold.  Whether it’s the Enneagram or the journey of males to their wholeness in Christ or reflections on the mystics or 12-Step Spirituality, his reach is broad and deep. I spotlight his Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life for the meaningful ways it weaves together meaningful insights from the “Hero’s Journey,” the wisdom of Christianity and a variety of Faiths, and the quest unto human fullness and maturity.

Tvedten, Benet
View from the Monastery came as a refreshing and delightful commentary about life in Christian community–with a view to its challenges, its humorous sides, and its joys.  In the process, if was one of the first affirmations in my life of the relevance and value of the Rule of St. Benedict — spurring me into deeper explorations and encounters of that way of ordering life and living.

And maybe a few spiritual biographies…

Taylor, Barbara Brown
Taylor’s Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith was both a goad and a salve when I, too, was struggling with my role as a pastor and my place in the Church.  As much as it provided any answers, it gave me a companion and permission to hold the questions that were strirring within.  Since then, other works (like Altar in the Woods) have furthered my appreciation for the art of contemplation… and taking the risk (find the courage) to give voice to one’s soul.

Ten Boom, Corrie
From the beginning of my Christian journey, biographies have been important.  Early copies of Joni, Man in Black (about Johnny Cash), and Home Where I Belong (B.J Thomas), among others, formed a contemporary “Book of Martyrs [or at least Believers]” —  to encourage and inspire my soul.  But none of these compares with the heroic witness of Corrie Ten Boom conveyed in The Hiding Place.  Here’s a story of boldly resisting the evils that best us in this world, of risking one’s life to love others, of miracles, of forgiveness and persevering in faith – emanating from a pure and simple heart and soul.  Corrie enjoys an intimacy with God that I find most remarkable and compelling.

Van Auken, Sheldon
An interesting conversion from atheism to belief and the navigation of real grief and pain are two prominent features of A Severe Mercy – features of life which Van Auken would share with his real-life mentor, C.S. Lewis.  Here is a more personal apologetic for the Faith – including an engagement of the sensitive topic of pain and suffering.  A follow-up volume, entitled Under the Mercy, tracks an equally compelling notion (for me, at least): Van Auken’s ultimate migration from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholisicm.

There’s one who dances between spiritual formation and spiritual biography…

Nouwen, Henri
He is definitely in the “top five” of authors/mentors—he who forsook Yale and Harvard to pursue a ministry of love and caring to the handicapped of L’Arche.  Deep reflections and a vulnerability/transparency has this “wounded hearler” coming to life — ministering to me in very deep ways.  As with some others in this list, it so hard to define one work.  There are any one of his very poignant journals, The Way of the Heart, Adam: God’s Beloved, The Inner Voice of Love, Letters to Marc,…  I’ve spotlighted The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, though, for the ways it brings together so much of what Henri offers: a regard for the Scriptures, a love of art (here, with a most profound engagement of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal), a contemplative flair, a capacity to drop his guard and allow others passage into his heart.

And why not a few selections from the fiction section…

Cron, Ian
Chasing Francis met me in my love of the saints – and especially Francis.  But, like Taylor’s Leaving Church (above), it met me at a point of vocational crisis – wondering where I fit in a Church that seemed to have a case of megachurch-itis.  Cron (an Anglican priest) is probably better known for his work with Suzanne Stabile on the Enneagram.  But, for me, Chasing Francis is a powerful engagement of the inherent tension between the ideal of the Church as a movement of God vs the reality of the Church as a human institution.  Along the way, it breathes hope – strongly suggesting that God has always had the final and ultimate Word over that Church.

Hugo, Victor
Next to the Gospel itself, Les Miserables may be one of the most powerful stories of redemption ever penned.  It overflows with Gospel themes of forgiveness, fundamental legalism (vs Grace and mercy), the power of sacrifice,…  It’s only drawback?  It’s excruciating length.  (Best to listen to it on audible… on a very long drive!)


Howatch, Susan
Howatch’s Starbridge series (6 novels in all) is a masterful tapestry of storytelling –weaving meaningful theology into equally profound psychology.  The result is an epic historical novel of sorts (focused on the Church of England through the course of the middle decades of the last century) — where highly complex and credible characters are caught between the high call of God as well as their inner “demons.”  I spotlight Glittering Images here: 1) because it was my first exposure to the series and 2) because of the ways it engaged my most biggest demon in ministry.

Michener, James
Isn’t historical fiction such a marvelous and creative gift to the literary enterprise.  Done right, we get to engage in a history lesson and character analysis all at once.  Here, I am mindful of a variety of worthwhile offerings: Follet’s Pillars of the Earth or Leon Uris’ Exodus: A Novel of Israel or The Haj.  Still, though, the granddaddy of all such novelists was James Michener.  Here, especially I commend The Source – an epic which has us engaging the history of the land which is modern day Israel and pondering the evolution of religions in that region.  I strongly recommend this read to any and all who are preparing for a Holy Land tour… or wishing they could.

The Labyrinth as Parable

I am no real veteran of the Labyrinth. Books on the phenomena dot my library.  But, they are practically untouched. “I’ll get to them one of these days.”

This is not to say that I am entirely clueless when it comes to identifying and even engaging this experience/practice.

In an article entitled Walking a Labyrinth as Spiritual Exercise, Wendy Bumgardner gives definition to such pathways: “[In spite of appearances,] a labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one path to the center and back out, which is called unicursal (one line). It has no blind alleys or dead ends as mazes have. The path twists and turns back on itself many times before reaching the center. Once at the center, there is only one way back out.”  Bumgardner as well as others will further speak of the spiritual benefits which many experience through a slow, relaxed, meditative navigation of the physical path. Some practitioners will, in fact, report a sense of spiritual awakening and intimate communion with the Divine.

Across the years, I have overheard a variety of Christian responses to the Labyrinth—covering the spectrum.  On the one side are those who do speak to its power and value as a “means of Grace” and encounter and transformation with God.  On the other side, there are those who hold it with suspicion – as just one more incursion of New Age and/or Catholic practices into the sacred precincts of orthodox Christianity.

I guess I am somewhere in between.  (Though here, I am certainly not as cynical about it as one clergy person–who teased a labyrinth “fan” in his congregation: “Hey, I made my best time yet! I got to the center and back in 26 seconds!”)  No, not so suspicious or jaded on the one hand but certainly not one who’s had some kind of mystical encounter via the labyrinth (at least so far), I can speak to the ways the labyrinth “preaches” to me –being a pretty good parable or metaphor about the Christian life to which I am awakening…

  • Here is a journey – a pulsating pilgrimage into and out from the heart of God.
  • Here is the reminder that the journey takes time – that it cannot and should not be rushed. It cannot be reduced to our schedules and agendas.
  • Here are some of the frustrations of and in that journey: one moment so close to the center… the next, so far away, going in the seeming wrong direction.
  • And, when done in the company of others, this latter principle gives rise to that fact that, at one moment, a friend is facing you or walking nearly beside you, within feet… and the next moment they are across the room, with their back to you – symbolic of a physical move, a shift in affections or devotion, or even death.

More could be added (and will be, I suspect). It’s all enough to affirm a theme we’ve sounded before and will surely sound again: of how “Christ plays in 10,000 places,” of how “earth is crammed with heaven,” of how (for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear) parables and sermons abound all around.


O God of many paths,
I stand before this labyrinth today,
metaphor of my journey to you.

In the Western world
I have been taught that
“the shortest distance
between two points
is a straight line,”
and being an impatient person,
I am uncomfortable with waiting.
I have often modeled
my journey to you
on the straight line.

But you,
God of infinite patience,
have shown me
[that] there is another path,
a curved path.
On this path,
my anticipation is heightened
as I approach the centre,
only to be led out again
to the periphery.
[And] this path
more closely resembles
life itself.
On this path,
if I just put one foot
in front of the other,
it may seem at times
as if I am not approaching my goal,
while in fact, I am drawing closer
all the time.

But you are a God
of surprises and mystery,
and I don’t control the path.
The labyrinth is a symbol
of my surrender to
not knowing for certain,
that the path which curves in and out,
again ultimately leads to the Centre,
which is You.

–Jean Sonnenberg, “Prayer for a Labyrinth Walk”
(in the Washington National Cathedral Centre for Prayer and Pilgrimage)