Into the Labyrinth: The Road to Emmaus

Traditionally, the labyrinth is an uncluttered opportunity for centering prayer. It usually consists of a single path that leads into the center and back out. There are twists and turns, switchbacks, and apparent setbacks that actually take you further along the path to your goal, but feel like moving in the wrong direction. Unlike in a maze – the labyrinth’s choose-your-own-adventure cousin – if you simply walk the path in front of you, you will get where you’re going. Labyrinths are often found outdoors or in relatively bare chapels with an altar and candles that welcome people to come and unburden themselves of whatever they’re carrying, yoke themselves to Christ, and practice walking in the spirit. It is a lovely form of sacred space: simple yet suggestive. The idea presented below is not intended as an improvement over a traditional labyrinth. We borrowed the labyrinth motif because it brought to life the sense of realization while in movement, the walking epiphanies of the story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. As such, it would be appropriate to set up during Epiphany or during Lent – when we wander the desert not to lose ourselves, but to find our center – as well as when we did it: during the season of Easter, before Ascension, when this story originally took place.

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A labyrinth of the everyday – trompe l’oeil outside Chartres Cathedral

Road to Emmaus Labyrinth

Luke 24:13-35

Our[1] labyrinth consisted of a huge drop cloth on the floor marked in a variation on a classic labyrinth pattern.[2] With staggered starts, the labyrinth could accommodate four or five people at a time. We set up eight compact, numbered stations along the path – five going in, one at the center, and two going out.[3] Two readers (one reading the script, the other the scripture passages throughout) recorded an audio tour with music as follows. People were given headphones and a cheap, one-button mp3 player and invited to pause and play and go at their own pace. In this script the numbers correspond to the track number.

  1. “Welcome”

Welcome to the Emmaus Road Labyrinth. Here we enter the story of two disciples meeting the resurrected Jesus as they walked along the road to a town called Emmaus. In a sense, we’ll be walking along with them as we progress into and back out from the heart of the labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is a puzzle to be solved. A labyrinth is a path to be followed. Walking a labyrinth is a completely different exercise than running a maze. Here there is no fear of being lost. The labyrinth externally enacts the internal experience of centering. Spiritually, it represents space set apart, or sacred space, in which we are drawn into the center, to the recognition of the presence of God, then return to the world blessed and changed by the experience, and better equipped to be an agent of blessing and change.


Each station in the labyrinth has one track on this audio guide. Go at your own pace. This is a time to walk in the Spirit, swap stories with Jesus and listen for the voice of God in your life. If the words or music become a distraction, feel free to pause, skip ahead or ignore the recording entirely. Enter the labyrinth and continue walking until you reach station one.


  1. “Station One (going in): They were kept from recognizing him” Luke 24:13-16

Jesus’ followers then and now have different perceptions of who he is and what he came to do. The disciples’ false perceptions of Jesus kept them from knowing and loving him for who he is. They thought he was a teacher, a revolutionary, a ruler; they thought he was dead.

It is difficult to recognize the presence of God when God doesn’t act according to our assumptions. St. John of the Cross called this the dark night of the soul. He saw it as a time in which, despite all appearances and perceptions, even though it feels like stumbling around in the dark, the soul grows in faith and intimacy with Christ Himself, rather than with illusions of Him.


Open the flaps to see images of the Jesus we think we know. Ask him to reveal himself so that we may love him as he truly is.[4]

Music: “The Dark Night of the Soul” by Loreena McKennitt


  1. “Station Two (going in): Downcast” Luke 24:17

The Seder is the traditional meal and central celebration of Passover. To read about the origins of Passover, please pause this recording and read Exodus 11 & 12 marked in the bibles here. The entire extended family is to come together. Throughout the meal, they retell the Exodus story in the first person as if they had been one of the slaves freed from Pharaoh’s bondage. The bitter herbs, horseradish here, are eaten to remind the participants of the bitterness of slavery.  Are you downcast? Where are you experiencing bitterness? Taste the herbs and let the words of Psalm 22 be your cry to heaven.


  1. “Station Three (going in): Storytelling, Part 1” Luke 24:18-24

The disciples on the road were consoling each other by telling stories and remembering Christ. On index cards, write about a time in your life when you met with God. Pin them to the storyboard. Read others’ stories and allow others to read your story.


  1. “Station Four (going in): Storytelling, Part 2” Luke 24:25-27

Now Jesus tells his story, explaining his work throughout the ages, establishing and re-establishing relationships with his people. Flip through a bible and take some time to hear God’s story of constant provision and love. The lectionary bookmarks and bibles are free for you to take with you.

Music: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Jars of Clay (light) or Gavin Bryars (strong)


  1. “Station Five (going in): Welcoming the Stranger” Luke 24:28-29

The disciples welcomed Jesus though they did not yet recognize him. Who is the stranger walking along the road with you now? Have you ever encountered Christ in or through a stranger? Have you ever been that stranger? Consider these questions as you watch the video.[5] Pause this program and use the headphones attached to the monitor.


  1. “Station Six (center): Breaking Bread” Luke 24:30-31

Here in the center of the labyrinth, Jesus meets us and offers sustenance for the journey outward. Break bread with Christ. Join in this prayer from “Six Recognitions of the Lord” by Mary Oliver as you take and eat.


Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with

the fragrance of the fields and the

freshness of the oceans which you have

made, and help me to hear and to hold

in all dearness those exacting and wonderful

words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying:

Follow me.


[minute pause]

When you are ready to begin your journey back out into the world, take a card and exit out the corner opposite from the one you entered. Practice walking prayerfully.


  1. “Station Seven (going out): Burning Hearts” Luke 24:32

What is Christ saying to you on the road? What does scripture say about Jesus? What does it say about you? Have you looked recently to see? Light a candle and pray for the scriptures to be opened to you, for the words to burn within your heart.


What words from the scripture cards or from your bible reading do you want burned deeper into your heart? Write them onto a paper heart, tack it to a candle and take it with you. Light it at home, while it burns pray that the scriptures will be opened to you and your heart opened to them.

Music: “Listen” by Michelle Tumes


  1. “Station Eight (going out): Returning to Jerusalem” Luke 24:33-35

Where is your “Jerusalem?” Where will you now return and share what you have experienced? Who can you talk to about what you are learning about Jesus?

Christ is risen! Take a cross to give to a friend as a reminder of Christ the Lord, alive and walking with us.



[1] You know you have a successful collaboration going when no one can remember whose ideas were whose and they’ve become too interwoven to attribute them separately anyway. I got to write the script, but the experience as a whole was thought through and produced by everyone in our alt worship planning group: Cristie Kearny, Deb Hedeen, Judy Naegeli, Trisha Gilmore, Cathy Stevens, Heidi Estey, Kirk Heynen, James Kearny and Anika Smith.

[2] Ours happened to have one path leading in to the center and a different path leading back out, but generally I would recommend the Half-Chartres (basically the inside half of the design at Chartres Cathedral). You can find instructions for making a 12’ x 12’ version at “Karen’s Small Labyrinths” The size shown there would be sufficient for people to use one or two at a time with a single station in the middle, but wouldn’t accommodate what I’m describing here. Ours was about 4 times that size, maybe 25’ x 25’.

[3] The stations should be clearly numbered with the station number and the track number and labeled “going in” or “going out” so as not to confuse anyone. Remember they are all actually set up on and around a flat, open surface, so they will not be laid down linearly. If you use a single path labyrinth, people will be walking by stations 7 and 8 on the way in, but should only stop at them on the way out. We set up stations on small, low tables and music stands so they wouldn’t pose as obstacles by taking up too much space. Café tables would work nicely for the stations you can place around the outside of the circuit. Ideally, if someone’s standing at a station, another person should be able to pass them without stepping completely off the path.

[4] Our artists made this interactive piece. You can create your own by making a collage poster of images of Jesus or roles people think of Jesus playing: the miracle worker, the rustic shepherd, the white-suited televangelist, the revolutionary in a beret, the pacifist at a sit-in, etc. Then overlay the poster with another piece of poster board and cut flaps in it that open onto the various images.

[5] We commissioned a videographer and a high school student in our congregation to collaborate on a video of different kinds of people. You could make your own using stills of people in your church and neighborhood or footage from mission trips. Or you could download something along the lines of The Work of the People’s “Stranger” ( or LifesongMD’s “World Faces” (


A Fasting Florilegium

“Consumerism, instead of satisfying needs, constantly creates new ones, often generating excessive activism. Everything seems necessary and urgent and one risks not even finding the time to be alone with oneself for a while. St Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever. “Enter again into yourself.” Yes, we must enter again into ourselves if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake but indeed our personal, family and social equilibrium itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. The effort of moderation in food also extends to other things that are not necessary, and this is a great help to the spiritual life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand.” – Pope John Paul II

 “…go back through history and inquire into the ancient origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention; it is an heirloom handed down by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Have respect for the antiquity of fasting. It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise…. Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes.” – Basil “Homily on Fasting”

“Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments… not an instrument designed to get desired results. The focus in the Christian tradition is not ‘if you fast you will get,’ but ‘when this happens, God’s people fast.” – Scot McKnight, Fasting p. ix, xvii

“Each time we feel hunger or resist the temptation to eat and drink we are reminded of why we are not eating or drinking, namely because we want to become people whose entire heart, mind, soul, and strength are devoted to loving God. We can also give our surplus to others who are in need and learn to use the things of this world properly. Should we be attracted to fasting for less worthwhile reasons, such as losing weight for cosmetic reasons, these very thoughts help us recognize the mixed nature of our motives.” – Diogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology p. 83

“We must be careful not to make a formal fasting, or one that in truth “satisfies” us because it makes us feel as though we have all in order. Fasting makes sense if it really affects our security, and also if a benefit to others comes from it, if it helps us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him. Fasting involves choosing a sober life, which does not waste, which does not “discard”. Fasting helps us to train the heart to essentiality and sharing. It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustices, abuses, especially towards the poor and the little ones, and is a sign of our trust in God and His providence.” – Pope Francis

“It is not the uncleanness of meat that I fear, but the uncleanness of an incontinent appetite. I know that permission was granted Noah to eat every kind of flesh that was good for food; that Elijah was fed with flesh; that John, blessed with a wonderful abstinence, was not polluted by the living creatures (that is, the locusts) on which he fed. But I also know that Esau was deceived by his hungering after lentils and that David blamed himself for desiring water, and that our King was tempted not by flesh but by bread. And, thus, the people in the wilderness truly deserved their reproof, not because they desired meat, but because in their desire for food they murmured against the Lord. Set down, then, in the midst of these temptations, I strive daily against my appetite for food and drink. For it is not the kind of appetite I am able to deal with by cutting it off once for all, and thereafter not touching it, as I was able to do with fornication. The bridle of the throat, therefore, must be held in the mean between slackness and tightness.” Augustine, Confessions, XXXI

“…fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person. Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten liturgy exhorts: ‘Utamur ergo parcius, / verbis cibis et potibus, / somno, iocis et arctius / perstemus in custodia – Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.’” – Pope Benedict XVI

“Fasting loves not many words, deems wealth superfluous, scorns pride, commends humility, helps man to perceive what is frail and paltry.” – Augustine, Sermon LXXII

This last quote is not like the others, but I’m fascinated by the physical correlation to our spiritual practices. How does letting go of what is superfluous renew our grasp on what is essential? Fasting actually prompts our bodies to seek energy from other sources than bread alone, trains them to seek the good and release the bad, and triggers healing processes on a cellular level. “Free radicals can be generated by poorly functioning mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell). The switch between eating normally and fasting causes cells to temporarily experience lower-than-usual levels of glucose (blood sugar), and they are forced to begin using other sources of less readily available energy, like fatty acids. This can cause the cells to turn on survival processes to remove the unhealthy mitochondria and replace them with healthy ones over time, thus reducing the production of free radicals in the long-term.” – Douglas Bennion, Martin Wegman, and Michael Guo

Last Words | Reformed Worship

Last Words | Reformed Worship.

A Good Friday service comprised of seven movements, each of which focuses on one of Jesus’ seven last words and consists of a gospel reading, a meditation, and a congregational response. It combines elements traditional to the Stations of the Cross, Tre Ore, and Tenebrae services, a few dramatic devices of the Passion Play, suggestions for art and music, and some of my own writing.

Dead Can Dance: A Meditation and Playlist for Holy Saturday

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel

“[Jesus] was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner…. [Jesus] was as dead as a door-nail…. There is no doubt that [Jesus] was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” adapted from Dickens’ _A Christmas Carol_

Christians are sorely tempted to gloss over or spiritualize the death of Christ. After all, how dead can we imagine the Source of all life? At what point do our imaginations fail to allow for his return to life? If we find Jesus’ resurrection easy to believe, might it be at the expense of our belief in Jesus’ death? Our scriptures and our creeds stress that Jesus did not just die, he was buried. He was counted and fully identified with the dead. He took kenosis, humanity, and mortality to their furthest limits and poured himself out even to death. Christ’s earliest followers wanted to impress upon all who would listen that he did not faint, lose consciousness, or swoon. He was not “mostly dead.” He was as dead as dead gets, deader than we’ll ever be, as ultimate in death as in life, not only the firstborn of all creation, but also the jigging and grinning leader and Lord of the danse macabre that ultimately unites us all regardless of who we were and what we believed. Wherever we go when we die, he went there, and conquered it in his own name. Harrowing of Hell - from a 15th century French Book of Hours at the Huntington Library

Death couldn’t hold him any more than heaven or earth could. Holy Saturday makes room in our theology for the death of God, and a God beyond Being, and all the contributions of William Blake and John of the Cross, Hegel and Nietchze, Caputo and Zizek. We are given a time to mourn him and celebrate his life, time for a proper wake, granted an interval to contemplate the horror of life without him, an opportunity to come together and make sense of and respond to what he was on about in life.

It’s a time to allow our perspectives to shift, like Robert DeLong sings about in “Global Concepts.”

After I die, I’ll re-awake,
redefine what was at stake
from the hindsight of a god.

Whether or not you believe Jesus completely grasped the entirety of who he was and what he came to do before he died, it’s quite obvious that his disciples did not. Only in losing him and in his return did they begin to understand the magnitude of what was at stake. Even those who believed he was the Messiah had a limited notion of what that meant before Christ’s death and resurrection. To John’s disciples who wondered if he was the One, he replied “that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Luke 7:22), and to the crowds he wondered aloud, if John’s preaching and my healing can’t do it, what’s it going to take to get you people mourning and dancing? What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed in the wind? A man in soft clothes? A prophet? What will you make of me coming to eat and drink with you?

Did I make money? Was I proud?
Did I play my songs too loud?
Did I leave my life to chance
or did I make you f***ing dance?

Holy Saturday redefines death, life, and power. The dance of the dead is not a sign of futility or defeat, but of completion, hope in more than this life, and victory.

Should I close my eyes and prophesize
Hoping maybe someday come?
Should I wet the ground with my own tears
Crying over what’s been done?

Should I lift the dirt and plant the seed
Even though I’ve never grown?
Should I wet the ground with the sweat from my brow
And believe in my good work?

Hey there, I’m flying up above
Looking down on the tired earth
I can see, I can see potential
Speaking through you, speaking to you
From all of heaven’s possibility

Power, hey, do know how it work?
Hey, do you know that the meek
They shall inherit the earth?
You should work, you should work
Yeah, for the self and the family

Should I hit the water or stay on dry land
Even though I’ve never swam?
Take machete, take them into the brush
Though at first there is no path

Taste the war paint on my tongue
As it’s dripping with my sweat
Place my gaze in the future’s path
Seeing things that ain’t come yet

Hope to watch the victory dance
After the day’s work is done
Hope to watch the victory dance
In the evening’s setting sun

Need more for your playlist? Try Elbow’s “The Night Will Always Win” (imagine Peter and Judas singing that for their various reasons), Dave Matthews’ “The Space Between” and The Waterboys’ “Song for the Life” along with, of course the Dead Can Dance’s eponymous album from way back when for atmosphere. Interestingly enough they put out an album called Anastasis (=resurrection) last year that I’ll be listening to tomorrow.

I’ll close with a poem that leads a great post on the subject of Holy Saturday by Christine Valters Paintner

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you as few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God
Absolutely clear

~ Hafiz

First World Fasting

Or, Can I Keep My Fast with a Dilettante Grasshopper Martini?

I have been fasting on Wednesdays during Lent – my own mongrel, modified fast designed entirely to suit my own purposes. Admittedly, many of those purposes are spiritual, but it still feels more like self-care than self-denial. I just wasn’t feeling the denial this year. My flesh frankly hasn’t done much that would respond to punishment lately. I needed an especially affirming fast this year – to grow in gratitude for and proper relation to the good things in my life.

“Asceticism has a basic role in any spirituality, but ascetic practices, in my opinion, can be healthy or unhealthy. Suppose for example, I am considering fasting from food or from television. I use two criteria for deciding on the wholesomeness of my fast. First, does the discipline of saying no still affirm the goodness of creation? Is my motivation to gain more freedom for better service, to give up something good for something better? Second, am I expressing God’s love for me or seeking to achieve it? Is my human effort replacing the grace of God? Is this an effort made in order to earn the love of God? Or is this discipline a response to God’s forgiving grace in Christ? Does the practice lead to the freedom of the athlete who runs in the knowledge of God’s love or to the bondage of a desperate attempt to earn what cannot be earned?”

– Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God p. 55-56

As with many Protestant Christians of a certain age, my first forays into fasting were guided by Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline which lauds fasting as, among other things, a tool of self-knowledge

“Fasting reveals the things that control us. We tend to cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface…. At first we will rationalize that our anger, for example, is due to our hunger. We will then discover that we are angry not because of hunger, but because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ…. Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them….”

This year I already felt keenly aware of the things controlling me. I was looking for a way to work my way free of them – not just for a season, but sustainably. My first fasts seem to have primed me toward greater gentleness with my self and others when I fast. I lower my expectations, or rather: I expect the weakness that is within all of us, and the temptation to lash out at it diminishes. Nowadays fasting seems to mellow me, so I’m experimenting with forms I can work reasonably into ordinary time. I’m a short-burst person seeking moderation and consistency – in my appetites and compulsions, in my attitudes and energy and focus. That artistic-Irish temperament serves my productivity, but not my long-haul relationships, of which I now have several and desire more. I’ve intentionally crafted this year’s fast to center on experiencing generosity, provision, and celebration rather than deprivation.

“When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry…. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery…. Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting…. When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”

– St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 43: PL 52, 320, 322

On this year’s fast I am hungry, but I’m not going hungry. I am not eating one day a week, but I’m not giving up protein or caffeine or vitamins or anything that leads to true debilitation or day-long headaches. It’s a series of small steps away from being an overfed, overstuffed, overinsulated Christian toward being a well-fed, nourished and grateful Christian, willing to give what I’ve been given and to feel the relatively small indignities and hurts of my first-world problems. If I can’t occasionally suffer through my own loneliness and stress without numbing the pain with an obscene number of mint fudge creme Oreos, what empathy can I offer another? Do I want to watch the news a la Marie Antoinette, thinking, “These people obviously need to eat more chocolate?” Or can I sympathize with others who are not making the best decisions because they are hungry or run down or off-balance as I myself get to be so, so easily?

It’s been a small, practical fast, and I’m learning small, practical lessons. My fast is not total enough to really be detoxifying, but it’s gotten me thinking about the connections between thinking and digesting, taking things in, and working things out, chewing and ruminating. I’m recognizing that I have resources and reserves that are meant to be called on, drawn on, and expended regularly. It is good to occasionally test their limits. It’s enough of a fast that I rely more on God, acknowledging what I’ve been given and practicing trust and patience where I lack. Fasting is a natural companion to other disciplines: fasting and silence, fasting and service, fasting and study. The fasts will take on distinct flavors, and they’re strangely filling. And even though I have been thinking of this as the year of the fast I have chosen, to the degree it has corresponded to the fast God has chosen, I have felt God’s promises of help and guidance made good….

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousnesswill go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry  and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

– Isaiah 58:6-12

Is there anything else to desire, really? It’s about finding satisfaction with what is truly satisfying, and not selling out my birthright or justice for my brothers and sisters by settling for a package of Oreos.

To the Tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant:” A Psalm 80 Haibun

To the Tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant:” A Haibun

by Jenn Cavanaugh

(Yesterday I posted about the haibun form. I wrote this one for our church’s Lenten Devotional to accompany Psalm 80.)

Restore us, O God

make your face shine on us

that we may be saved

– Psalm 80:3

Scripture often compares us to grass, to flowers, to trees. We are plants of the field, of the garden, of the wilds – rambling, bristling roses; burning, flowering bushes; a host of succulents storing water in the driest deserts; swaying oasis palms flagging hidden sources of water; tumbleweeds that mark the sand and frame the next generation of climbing plants. We sprawl through the wilderness toward a land of streams, a land cleared of everything that doesn’t yield fruit.

Consider the vine

without fangs or teeth or arms

it survives nations

The strength of a vine is its tenacity in springing back, in adapting to the place it is planted. The terms of its survival are unconditioned – a mark of the people of the God who preserves and glories in faithful remnants. The vine’s response to being trampled is to renew its grip on the good earth, anchor itself with the buried tendrils, and keep growing. When cut back mercilessly, the broken bits form new shoots. The vine’s long stems are designed to break new ground and cover it, not to stand on their own. One lonely strand epitomizes the frail, but as a whole it establishes itself in heaps, disregards artificial limits, surmounts impediments, drapes itself lightly over inhospitable terrain, and clambers toward the sun at every opportunity.

Photo by CameliaTWU/ Creative Commons











Rooted in motion

Runners commit to earth and sky

Morning glory

Culling, Cultural Consumption, and the Myth of Eternal Boredom

I just happened upon “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything”  by Linda Holmes. It struck me as Lenten in tone, in the sense of learning to choose one good thing over another and learning to live in the balance of healthy grief and letting go.

It also fits with what I try to articulate in my book about approaching cultural goods and literacy as a Christian. I’ll pull in some significant quotes, but it’s worth reading here in its entirety.

there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read…. It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

I carry around with me distinct memories of conversations with wonderfully engaged people who decided Christianity was not for them because they deemed heaven boring. If it literally consists of throwing down a single crown then standing around forever in a white robe, I’d have to agree. I think we’ll be free to come and go from the throneroom. I think the new heaven and the new earth will include all the best of the current heaven and earth – anything made with lasting value. The nations will bring their treasures, and we’ll wander the stacks in the Library at Alexandria and the galleries of the Hermitage, hit homers at Wrigley Field, do a little restoration work then catch some improv at the Globe Theatre, kick back at a Chinese movie palace, have falafel with Tolstoy, and meditate in the stone garden of Ryoanji.

I could see Ryoanji becoming one of Augustine’s favorite thinking spots.

Best of all we’ll have the freedom and time to enjoy these places and artifacts in perfect relationship with others and to make more wonders together. And when they inspire us to the classic prayer “Wow,” we’ll know we’re heard and by Whom. Any time someone applauds our efforts, we’ll head back to the throneroom with that spiffy new crown, pausing to play pick-up games of frisbee with it along the way to give others credit where due, toss it in the pile, and sing a spell. The ancient Greeks envisioned a placid eternity without novelty. Jesus comes to make all things new.

What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.

It’s an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful.

This sort of aggressive culling heightens culture war tensions in the unspoken name of self-protection; we cannot categorically dismiss hip hop or sci-fi or romantic comedy without communicating categorical dismissal of those who identify culturally with the genre. Pretty much anything you can’t be bothered with has changed another person’s life, and the larger that mental category, the truer that statement becomes. This is why I believe that Christians need to learn this balance of being discriminating without being discriminatory. We follow a Savior who came to break down the dividing walls of Jew and Greek, male and female, and so on. Adopting this vocabulary of culling and surrender would be preferable to us slamming entire swaths of culture because we heard somewhere they fail to edify. We could claim our preferences for Pixar over Saw franchises as personal choice rather than holy writ and ascribe our inabilities to enter and understand the worlds of Persian poetry, Japanese anime, and Grey’s Anatomy to our limited human resources of time and attention rather than defensively portraying them as unworthy of them. We can make choices and lament our limitations without making the world artificially small and manageable.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

We’re human. We are always missing relatively everything. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We can celebrate that there is so much to miss, enjoy what we’ve been given, and look forward to more.

A Protestant at Lent

Stretching Out in Faith

Lent is the season of the Church calendar before Easter. The word itself comes from the Old English meaning “lengthen,” in reference to the lengthening of the days in Spring. The practice of setting aside a time of spiritual preparation before Easter began very early in Church history as most people were baptized and officially joined the Church on Easter. Together they would spend the weeks prior praying, fasting, learning the tenets of the faith, and getting their habits and affairs in line with their new lives in Christ. As the Church grew and became culturally acceptable its leaders began encouraging members to join the acolytes in this process annually, as a way of shaking off the trappings of a merely cultural Christianity (we’re talking 4th century here; this is not a new phenomenon) and rededicating themselves to following Christ together body, soul, mind, and spirit.

Protestants have a hard time figuring out how to handle Lent, because we actually have to figure it out for ourselves. Orthodox and Catholic Christians have more established parameters informing them when to pray and fast and a more coherent structure of spiritual authorities clarifying these parameters as needed. Historically, Protestants have rejected many of these parameters and structures as adding requirements, conditions, and intermediaries to our walk with God where scripture, faith, and Christ Himself should suffice. As a Protestant I appreciate the inclination to unfetter our freedom in Christ and yet I can see how my Christian heritage has cut me off from Christian traditions that are useful, faithful, and ultimately freeing. Statistically fewer of us have grown up on the spectrum between confusion and mortal fear about doing certain things certain days and not others, but we’ve also lost that sense of collective spiritual rhythm and practice. Recently, many Protestants have been trying to reclaim the benefits of a common Church calendar and traditional spiritual practices without the sense of obligation or tying our works too tightly to our hope of salvation. We have lost some of the comfort of community, but gained the advantage of being able to enter these seasons mindfully, intentionally and without a sense of imposition.

Letting God Choose Your Fast

Spiritual disciplines help us learn to control ourselves, but we’re not to be cruel masters. One indicator of whether we control a habit or it controls us is how moderate the habit is. If you watch a couple shows a week as a way to unwind with roommates or family, giving up TV for Lent won’t make you a “better Christian.” But if you feel your prime time drained daily by the tube or there’s a particular show you know is coloring your outlook and language in decidedly un-Christlike ways, give it up and take up a more prayerful habit during the time it frees.  Maybe you sleep too much, maybe not enough. Eating chocolate or drinking wine to celebrate special occasions doesn’t indicate unhealthy use. If you discern that you are using them on a regular basis to stifle your negative thoughts, use this time to break that pattern and take your worries, moods, memories, and pain to God instead.

Write down 3 things that seem like good ideas to you, then draw a couple of blank lines to designate space in which to receive ideas other than your own and pray over the page. Maybe this year Lent will be about cultivating gratitude for what you have and committing to celebrate it daily instead of denying it to yourself. Maybe it will be about living more simply with less stuff or maintaining or organizing what you have to make it functional or useful again. Maybe it will be more about giving generously than giving up. In scripture 40 days is a long, yet finite time. Things shift over the course of 40 days or years in the biblical stories. 40 days is a credible and creditable amount of time to commit to trying on a new habit or changing an old one without it feeling onerously indefinite. What is God nudging you toward? How can you work it deeper into your life in this season?