Friday, March 27, 2009

Sometimes, Ever So Rarely, a Good Idea

Wednesday night the high school youth took their turn on the labyrinth. I'll have to admit, I was reticent. They are, after all, teenagers whose very job description is to be unpredictable -- emotionally mercurial, intermittently mature, fiercely compassionate while simultaneously cloyingly narcissistic. We can be having the deepest, most insightful conversations one minute, and then effortlessly slip sideways into petty trivialities and gossip the next without so much as a comma, let alone a period and a new paragraph. They are, I suppose when I put it that way, only louder, slightly more hormonal versions of the rest of us.

So, I had some questions about how the labyrinth would go. It is a silent walk, and our group isn't known for being quiet. It requires personal space, and our group is incessantly sitting on, picking at, playing with and throwing things at each other. It demands persistence, and we don't stick very long with very much -- except, I'll have to say, with each other, and that last fact gave me some hope. The labyrinth was either going to be just intriguing enough to hold our attention, or a total bust.

I began with a little history, then transitioned to a few instructions -- primarily involving leaving each other alone -- asked everyone to remove their shoes and then to mentally, spiritually prepare. I suggested they simply sit quietly before beginning the walk, and when finished, to consider sitting back down to reflect for a moment before leaving, since this was to be the last activity of our time together this week. I invited them to have no preconceptions or expectations of the experience, but to simply take the walk and allow it to be whatever it might be. It isn't magic, I said. Some people, I told them, find it a waste of time; others find it to be a very powerful, enlightening, even emotional experience of insight, clarity and holy presence. It is, I suggested, not for everyone, and while I hoped they would try it, it was not a requirement. Do it if you want, or don't. And then I stopped.

It was quiet as I walked to the back of the room where another adult was trying to get my attention. After conferring there and clarifying a few logistical questions, I turned to rejoin the group. I was aware that the gentle music was the only sound I could hear, and the labyrinth was alive with footsteps. It really was something beautiful and awe-filling. Slipping off my own shoes, I joined the group among the circuits, and when later I finally reached the center, I found the space quite crowded. All of the kids were there, still utterly silent; none yet ready or willing to begin the path back out. Everyone graciously made room for the next to arrive, and as I had suggested, gradually stood in a different place in the center to take in its unique view. After several minutes, one simply sat down at the edge of the center and bowed his head.

Eventually the circuits were animated by exiting steps, slowly, patiently, reverently working their way back out. From there, each moved to the chairs and sat quietly. Still, the one remained seated at the center, head down, unmoving. No one spoke; no one moved -- even the one who had opted to sit this one out remained silent and still. A moment later, the last walker rose and made his way back out and into a chair. A palpable spirit held us in suspension. It was time to leave, but no one was really willing to break the moment. Finally I asked if anyone wanted to comment about the experience.

"I told someone at school what we were going to be doing tonight, and how dumb it sounded, and how I was going to just laugh my way through it. But I loved it. I have never felt that peaceful. You are wrong -- there is something magic about it."

And the one who had lingered so long in the center said, in a voice calmer than I have ever heard from him, said, "for the first time in my life I felt at peace with myself. And it's strange; I was aware of walking in to the center, but I don't remember walking back out. I never knew when I left. This was an amazing experience -- the closest I think we can come to Nirvana."

A few other comments were shared, underscores of the others, and then gently, almost reluctantly, we filed out the aisles to go home. Just before exiting the door, one turned back for one last look... last breath... last savor...

...of the peace.

And locking the door and driving home, I somehow felt it, too. Every once in awhile -- ever so rarely -- you have a good idea.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Feet's Circuitous Worship

After worship, the chancel was cleared -- pulpit and lectern pushed to the side; communion table and piano rolled to the corner; chairs stacked away. No words would be read or proclaimed in this space for a time; no rituals enacted or songs sun aloud. For the next several days our worship expressions would be footsteps -- silently contributed, one in front of the other, following the circuits of the canvas labyrinth unrolled across the hardwood expanse.

Contributed, but to whom I'm not at all sure. The walking is an act of devotion, to be sure, and so God is surely recipient. But it is just as certainly an act of centering, of quieting, of more consciously "being," and so perhaps the footsteps are equally offered as a profound and encircling gift to self.

Who can say what thoughts arise along the courses and amidst the turns? Who can say what clarities emerge and what insights surface or what prayers are raised or what emotions freed? Who can say what "good" the walking finally does?

Certainly not me. I can only say that I, too, self-consciously slip off my shoes, step in through the entrance, and lose myself among the coming and the going, the stretching and the twisting in a way that is finally finding.

And I leave wishing that all the worship that occupies this floor could somehow be this good.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Welcoming those Avian Heralds of Spring

The robins are back, which in more ways than one afford something of a harbinger of spring. They come at a time when winter has stretched our last nerve and, like a guitar string, is plucking out a monotonous and abrasive tune.
The chill and snowflakes that felt quaint and appropriate and even invigorating in the run up to Christmas by now are feeling interminable and grating and demoralizing. We are, as March blusters along, literally aching for spring.

The robins always surprise me when they appear every year about this time, because any mid-western fool knows that the occasional milder days appearing randomly through the week will very likely be slapped down by yet another bitter turn. This for at least another month. Indeed, last Friday saw mercury in the 50's, while Sunday brought new snow, and Tuesday the low was again near 0. Robins are either incredibly intrepid or dangerously naive to show up this early.

But what I love the most about their appearing -- and what makes their arrival as much of a metaphor as a fact -- is their girth. Everyone of them seems to be carrying a dozen or more eggs. They are huge -- bellies swollen almost into caricatures. After somehow managing to get airborne, they clunk back down gracelessly to the earth to hunt for food or, more likely, simply to rest. And there they move lunkishly across the lawn as feathery promises -- pregnant with both the assurance and the foretaste of the spring that is -- one of these days -- to come.

Welcome back, you comical, beautiful, very pregnant avian heralds. We have been waiting.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Desperate Pursuit of Something to Complete

Thunder and lighting swept in during the night, birthing a Saturday gloomy, chilly and wet. Like a new convert drifting back into a bar, it was a difficult backslide away from the springlike days just ended. As dreary as it has been, the shivering rain made it easier to spend the morning at the church in a visioning retreat. Reaching deeply and squinting forward, the group of us did good work. Hospital visits followed -- one, where a stroke was ruled out, and the other where heart problems aren't the concern after all.

And then John finally died. "Finally" here is not toned with dismissal or impatience. This was a dear and beloved man who man whose body, in old age, simply wore out. Death, in his case, fit that pastoral but still somehow cerebral assessment of "blessing." Under hospice care for a week, John had lingered, languished, and slowly, ever-so-slowly dissolved into death. His family, constantly at his side, holding his hands, slipping ice chips between his lips, calling his name and trying to adjust their minds to the inevitable, were tired. It was, in that biblical sense of the word, "time."

Vision, illness, death. Rain. I came home and dismantled the pipes beneath the bathroom sink. Running slow -- if perceptively at all -- for quite some time, they undoubtedly needed attention. But just now I had some desperate attention I needed to pay to something I could I could take a wrench and a pipe snake to -- something that had a good reason for stinking and making a mess apart from simply "that's the way life goes." And once the pieces were miraculously back together it felt good, if only for a moment, to watch the hot water swirl in the bowl and then simply go away.

Plumbing is not my long suit, but it was nice, for a change, to see something fixed. It will clog up again, I know; but for the moment I did something I can check off. The hospitals will still be there tomorrow, filled with loved ones impaled on ambiguous symptoms. Visioning is always about planting seeds of trees in whose shade we will never likely sit. And tomorrow we will plan a memorial service for John -- only the beginning of an indefinite process of reweaving the fabric of life absent his thread. But at least I know how to remove the trap beneath the sink.

It's raining, and it's Saturday, and somewhere in the tangled intersection of grief and hope, I'm wondering if the neighbors have any sink problems I can tackle.