Labyrinths and Mazes

I recently read a fascinating editorial by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away. In it she manages to combine the usual post-holiday lament about Christmas shopping madness with an excursion into meditation, and the role of labyrinths in the search for inner peace. She begins with “Christmas is a kind of test . . . just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement.” She then wanders through the pain of “fighting and struggling for more choice in our lives” and finally arrives at the relaxing properties of labyrinths, comparing them to mazes. “A maze is a series of decision points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion . . . A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.” I think Ferrelly is on to something, comparing modern life and the struggle with complexity to a maze — and the way toward peace as a labyrinth of constraint yet freedom.

How does a labyrinth work?

Laryrinths are ancient, first appearing almost 5,000 years ago in the Bronze Age in ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho and elsewhere. In the 12th to 14th centuries in Christian Europe they became associated with religious practice. They became mediative tools. Ferrelly describes how they work. “A walk has three stages: the walk-in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).” She described her own labyrinth walk as a ‘card-carrying skeptic” as “experiencing a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.” Are you skeptical? Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I have, once in a garden. I experienced a similar delight as Ferrelly did,  from giving myself over to finding the way to the center, then back out again. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy solving problems, or maybe there is a deeper significance. But the maze versus labyrinth metaphor is a powerful one about life and prayer.

Choosing to leave the maze of everyday life by entering the labyrinth of prayer

Why do we need to pray? Or better yet, do we need to find a way out of the maze of everyday life? I think that most of us can relate to Ferrelly’s description of information and choice overload becoming oppressive, especially at Christmas. We also sense that that the “rat-race” isn’t healthy. We look for ways to “wind down” or “go off-line.” But many people are reluctant to commit themselves to daily prayer. Either we’re too busy fighting our way through the maze or we fail to make time for prayer because we, like Ferrelly, are skeptical that praying regularly has any value. In any case, most us don’t know how to pray so we never actually give the “labyrinth of prayer” a chance. But, what if praying is as simple as following the path to the center of a labyrinth, enjoying some time at the center, then finding our way back out, feeling refreshed? As Christians, we believe that God is at the center of everything. What if this simple practice can lead us into a heightened experience of God, and bring “delicious, lingering well-being” into our life?

This question about praying as laryrinth can lead to a choice, or it can remain only speculation. Like any labyrinth, we have to take the first step into the puzzle. I’m an amateur at prayer but, encouraged by grace, I am going to enter the labyrinth, and encounter whatever waits for me at the center.

 

 

“Making sense of it all” Part 3

In her book, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today — a task I completely support — Avril Henry uses a quote to set the stage. “Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on.” (Thurman Arnold) I think that describes the underlying theme of life in the 21st Century. We are struggling to find ways to describe and understand the world we have created up to now — and all our ideas, programs and solutions seem to fall short. The sheer complexity and interrelatedness of everything makes past formulas for living a “good life,” even the Christian ideals, now seem somehow inadequate. The enormous difference in scale between what confronts us and what we can understand and control,  is what we need to make sense of in this era.

Hints of the way forward

I like to look for an author’s way forward in transforming the world’s situation. Their summary generally comes near the end of the book. I have selected a few brief passages from books written by authors I admire, because I think they provide hints about the task we face in the 21st century in making sense of the world.

  • Avril Henry’s final word in her book is about acceptance: “I invite you to join me on a journey of awareness, understanding, tolerance and ultimately acceptance of difference, which will enable each of us to create a better future and world for many generations to come.”
  • Margot Cairnes, in Approaching the Corporate Heart, sees the way forward in individuals accepting an invitation to make the hero’s quest: “May you rise to the call next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid, self-effacing, dry self-limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light.”
  • Elizabeth Dreyer, in Manifestations of Grace, sees the way forward as being, ultimately, dependent on community: “Grace is above all a community affair. In grace we see ourselves as peers, not only with all peoples, but with the earth itself.”
  • Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, sees the power and love we need as already emerging: “As we enter the Twenty-first Century we are experiencing a moment of grace. . . A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.”

Metaphors to guide us

We can only see what we don’t know in terms of what we already know, so these hints use metaphors to point toward something new emerging in the Twenty-first  Century. By unpacking them, we can begin to make sense of what is going on.

  • “Journey of awareness” [Avril Henry]
  • “Hero’s Quest” [Margot Cairnes]
  • “Community of grace” [Elizabeth Dreyer]
  • “Vision and energy coming into being.” [Thomas Berry]

You can use your own intuition to make sense of these hints. You may want to find others too; there are plenty around today.

Making Sense of the Twenty-first Century

My own sense is that these metaphors tell us something about ourselves indiividually, about our local communities and about the human race as a whole. I find the following “both/and” statements helpful in making sense of both the great uncertainty in which I find myself and the great traditions and wisdom of the past that have shaped me thus far, which are both relevant and yet inadequate.

  • Dynamic and unchanging: A journey is about movement, from something toward something. In my life I have been, and still am on a journey, and the entire human race has been and always will be on a journey. That is what it means to be human. We are becoming more conscious of our ever-changing yet unchanging journey in this Century, so we are becoming more responsible for guiding ourselves and the world in its movements.
  • Individual and together: My life is in my hands yet my life cannot be lived alone. Who I am becoming is inextricably connected to who my family, my church, my company, my country and the entire human race is becoming. In this Century the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ is disappearing, to be replaced by some new, commonly held view of what it means to be human in community. I am responsible for being part of conversations that are shaping that view.
  • Inner meaning and external actions: What I will become is being shaped in my core (my soul) and by my actions shaping the world around me. In the Twenty-first century, things can only make sense if we understand ther meaning in a much larger context then we did in the Twentieth Century. The future will no longer be measured by how well we as individuals, companies or countries competed,  found security, and achieved near-term outcomes. That just isn’t adequate. I am responsible for conversations and actions that help this new model for “success” emerge.

As an example of how to begin to think, act and make sense of it all  in a Twenty-first century way as a Christian, read my post entitled Christians and Muslims; A way forward. Also read my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation.

At the beginning of the First Century, Jesus established the unchanging yet ever-changing way forward for Christians. I could quote many verses but these seem to me to state His way:

  • “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In the Twenty-first century Christians must learn to include non-Christians in Jesus’ way, in a loving concern and respect for them as brothers and sisters.
  • “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:4] Creating unity among scattered Christians is our unchanging challenge, dealing with ever-changing forces of diversity.
  • “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2] The ultimate measure of our growth toward maturity is how well we imitate Christ and carry out our purpose as ‘dearly loved children of God.’ Love is the only way we can deal with the centripetal forces of hatred and greed threatening to divide humankind in the Twenty-first Century.

 

Cocoon to Butterfly; The Church’s Journey

Human beings first understand things metaphorically. When we encounter something new, we understand it by comparing it with something that we already know.

Many of us have never encountered the idea that the Christian church, like all living things, is on a journey. If we want to understand its ongoing life journey then the transformation of a butterfly, from egg to larvae to cocoon to butterfly helps us understand this.

After Jesus died, the church was in its primitive egg stage, tiny but with tremendous potential. Then it began to grow, becoming an organization among other organizations in the world, and entered the larvae stage. It was in this stage of its life for many centuries. This was the ugly, squirming stage, almost painful to consider in retrospect, with schisms and crusades and reformations and many excruciating learning experiences as it tried to survive as an organization as well as apply itself to Jesus’ vision. At some point it started to become more self-reflective about what it had become and entered the cocoon stage. That is where it is now. In the mysterious dark place where it finds itself there is change and growth but this isn’t visible. But now, finally, it is struggling to emerge from this cocoon and ‘reinvent’ itself as a butterfly, to better live as Jesus intends, and ‘fly’ so the world can see God’s kingdom as it is actually present today. The world is already filled with grace, and all human beings can access it to transform the world.

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C. How Do We Get There? — Understanding the ‘Journey’ of Transformation

The best way to begin to understand what transforming a local church means is to use the metaphor of a ‘journey.’ There are a number of  journeys in the Bible but I will use the exodus from Egypt to illustrate the major features of a ‘journey of transformation.’ [1]

There are three major parts to the Exodus story: preparation and the decision to make the journey, the actual journey, and arrival in the Promised Land. I will briefly summarize some of the main features of each of these and relate them to transforming a local church.

Preparation and the decision to make the journey

From our perspective, looking back thousands of years with the eyes of faith, Moses is one of God’s heroes, so when we use the exodus journey as a metaphor for transforming a local church, we may become confused. Should we wait for a ‘hero’ to arrive, to lead us? Are we inflating the role of Change Agent, which we must fulfill, so that it requires heroic qualities beyond the reach of ordinary people? I suggest putting ourselves in Moses’ shoes, and seeing him as a reluctant leader and unlikely hero. That is precisely who we are, as we consider being Change Agents in our local church. [2]

The journey of transformation in Exodus begins with Moses’ personal change. He became aware of how badly the Hebrews were treated by the Egyptians, and killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Israelites. To escape Pharaoh’s vengeance, Moses fled to escape being killed himself. “I can’t stay in this situation anymore” is generally the experience that starts an individual down a path toward finding ways to change the status quo.

Moses created a new life for himself as a shepherd in Midian, but he wasn’t yet a Change Agent. That was God’s work. God chose Moses, to transform the situation of his Chosen People. “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” [Exodus 2:22] The sequence of events leading to Moses acceptance and performance of his role as Change Agent shows us our own personal path toward becoming ready to transform our local church. There are three steps in this preparation stage:

Encountering God

One day, while he was tending his father-in-laws’ sheep, Moses had an encounter with God. The burning bush got his attention, and he heard God’s voice calling him, “Moses! Moses! And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” [Exodus 3:4b] God’s call collided with Moses own awareness of the Hebrews situation. Our personal struggles as Christians are the preparation for God’s call to us. Our willingness to listen is how we play our part in His plan to use us to fulfill His purposes. That may include becoming a Change Agent in our local church, if we open ourselves to that possibility.

Overcoming doubts

“So, now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” [Exodus 3:10] God’s call is very clear and explicit in the Biblical retelling of the Exodus story. But you can also see how difficult it was for Moses to respond to God. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh   and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3: 11] In the verses that follow, Moses throws up one question and doubt after another, which God answers patiently, “How do I prove that God actually is behind this? What is your name?” “Why should the Israelites listen to me? What if they don’t believe me?” We can easily identify with these questions. Discerning a call from God is difficult, especially when we can so easily be misled by our own ego or give in to our fears. God’s reassurance to Moses was to provide other like-minded people to support him in the journey. God sent Aaron, Moses’ brother with him as a companion on the journey. “I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” [Exodus 4: 15b] In transforming a local church, a small group of like-minded Change Agents is crucial in discerning the mind of Jesus and having the courage and resilience needed to undertake the difficult journey of transformation.

Decision to make the journey

The final step in preparation is taking the first irrevocable step on the journey, which involves a firm decision to leave the status quo. In Moses case, he first asked Jethro his father-in-law for permission to leave Midian. “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” [Exodus 4:18] He met Aaron and then all the elders of the people of Israel and, with Aaron’s help, convinced them that God wanted them to leave Egypt. In the case of a local church, this decision step involves convincing and aligning the Pastor and important people in the local church about God’s desire that the whole church begin the journey of transformation. This can be a difficult and discouraging process. “The Israelites did not listen (to Moses) because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6: 9] But God was insistent, even though Moses was discouraged. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?’” [Exodus 6:12] And God kept on saying to Moses, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” [Exodus 6:29] That is the choice that Change Agents must make: to focus on their own internal self-doubts or to focus on God’s insistent urgings to make the journey of transformation that God desires.

The actual journey

The actual Exodus journey seems to begin after the Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go. Before that happened however, there were the plagues, culminating in the ‘Passover’ when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian but spared the Hebrews who had showed their faithfulness in smearing blood from a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts. Were the plagues and Passover part of the journey? Yes, because every significant change journey can only begin with an ‘ending’ stage. The Hebrews had to experience something that would make them leave their usual surroundings behind and end their familiar life, even slavery, to set off into a barren desert toward an unknown destination. That didn’t just depend on Moses and Aaron’s persuasion but on God’s clearly demonstrated support for their journey. The plagues and Passover were unmistakable evidence of this and bound the Israelite community together in a common purpose: to make a dangerous journey to find the Promised Land.

How can we relate the plagues and Passover to what we can expect from God in transforming a local church? God doesn’t always signal his support so dramatically. Elijah experienced God’s support for his mission and journey as a ‘gentle whisper.’ [1 Kings 19: 12b] The question is, should Change Agents expect some sign of God’s support for their mission of transforming a local church? Or should they depend on their own powers of enrollment and persuasion to unify their community at the beginning of the journey of transformation? As I ponder this, I believe that Change Agents should not depend on their own talents and resources. God will send signs of His support but they may be surprisingly ordinary ‘whispers’ not dramatic plagues. This highlights the strong need for prayer and discernment at the beginning of the change journey, when ‘endings’ and leaving the familiar behind will be required. Combine this with the requirement that the whole church community must make the journey, not just a few ‘early adopters,’ and the ending and setting off stage may be quite protracted, as the community waits and discerns God’s support for the journey.

The Israelites’ journey also started with great drama. Pharaoh let them go, then changed his mind and descended on the helpless Hebrews with his entire army. They wailed in fear, “What have you done to us? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” [Exodus 14: 11-12] We all know the story of what happened next, and probably have an image of Charlton Heston stretching out his hands and parting the waters for the Hebrews, and then stretching out his hands again and bringing the waters on top of Pharaoh’s army to drown them all. What can this mean for our journey?

This is a story of learning to trust, in God’s promises and in our own decision to set off on a journey of transformation. If we unpack the story in Exodus, Pharaoh’s change of heart can be seen as a loss of comfortable assumptions about transforming church and a collision with the harsh realities of opposition and discouragement. In the exodus story God told Moses what was going to happen, in advance, and Moses reassured the people.  I heard another story years ago that helped me understand this same situation.

I was leading a Change Team in a large Insurance company a number of years ago, and one of the executives described the ‘change journey’ like this.

“I was flying across America a few years ago on a brilliantly clear day. We were at 39.000 feet as we approached the Rocky Mountains, and I happened to notice some small towns in eastern Colorado. If you have ever been there, you know that the eastern third of Colorado is all barren, dry plains, with few trees and very little water. As I looked at these small towns I wondered why anybody would ever settle in a place like that. Then a reason occurred to me.

“I imagined that some poor farmers in Missouri, a thousand miles to the east, had heard about California and decided that the farm that they struggled to make successful wasn’t worth the effort. So they talked to some of their neighbors, who basically felt the same way and they all decided to go to California. They sold their farms, bought covered wagons and set off for the ‘promised land’ in California.  After traveling without any particular difficulty for a month or so, suddenly they saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance, on the horizon. Every day the mountains grew in size until, one day they seemed to fill the horizon with an impenetrable barrier.

“The farmers had a map someone had given them, and it showed a trail through the Rockies but it also showed that the journey to California would be all mountains and desert from now on, as soon as they entered the mountains. It all seemed too hard, almost impossible, so they just gave up their dream about a new life in California and settled right where they were, in those desolate plains of eastern Colorado.”

That business executive told his story to illustrate the importance of understanding the barriers and risks of the change journey – and the vital need of having guides on the journey who understand what will happen, who can help the community get past these barriers. That is the vital role that Change Agents must fulfill in transforming local churches. That is what Moses did for the Israelites, reassuring them that God had promised to be with them and was actively working on their behalf. “But Moses said, ‘Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” [Exodus 14: 13-14]

Arrival in the Promised Land

When does the journey of transformation end? Do we really ever arrive at a new church? Indeed, perhaps we never fully arrive until the final coming of Jesus. We always remain a ‘pilgrim church.’ So, how can we understand ‘arriving’ as a result of transforming church? The Israelites journeyed in the desert forty years before they entered Canaan. Arrival was a process that happened to them both before and after they reached the political border of the physical land that was given to them. This process can be seen as a ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ in God’s time, according to his plan. We can expect the same ‘continuous arrival at new church’ on our own journey of transformation. How does this process of ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ work?

As the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses looked back over their forty years in the desert. [3] He reminded them of everything the Lord had done for them, in spite of their continued grumbling and losses of faith. He reminded them that they hadn’t trusted God before they fought the Amorites. “You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” [Deuteronomy 1:27] And, indeed, because they were hardhearted and did not trust in God, the Amorites “chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah.” [Deuteronomy 1:44] Moses told them this story before he retold their encounter with the Law, which established how they were to live in the Promised Land. “Walk in all the ways that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” [Deuteronomy 5:33] What do these two stories say about ‘continuous arrival’ in a journey of transformation?

God promised to give a homeland to the Hebrews, and led them through transformational experiences to prepare them to live in this land as he wishes them to live. He fed them with Manna when they were starving and provided water from the rock. He clearly showed them that when they trusted him, he did great works in their behalf – but when they didn’t trust him, they were like any other people and could be defeated. He gave Moses very explicit instructions in the Law, which described life in his kingdom. “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.” [Deuteronomy 7:12] Seen from this perspective ‘continuous arrival’ means gradual growth of a community into God’s people. In the journey that a local church makes, we should expect the same type of gradual growth, as well as times of forgetting and backsliding. The Change Agents must create the desire in the community to continue the journey no matter what happens in the short term.

Viewing the full sweep of the history of the Israelites from our current day perspective, you can easily see that they and their descendents are still ‘arriving’ in the Promised Land, and not yet fully there in the 4000 years since Abraham. And we Christians are just the same as them, ‘continuously arriving’ in God’s promised kingdom of the New Covenant but not yet there. While we may feel that we have learned a great deal from our transformational journey over 2000 years, we are still in the arrival process, with all its human foibles and need for divine forgiveness. Change Agents need to understand that whatever accomplishments may be achieved by the local church as it tries to more closely follow the mind of Jesus, the journey will continue. This awareness of the local church’s role in ‘Salvation History’ as well as learning to be mindful of its practical consequences in the life of the church is one of the important steps in the journey of transformation.

The final irony in Deuteronomy is that Moses could not enter the Promised Land. He “broke faith with (the Lord) in the presence the Israelites . . . and did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” [Deuteronomy 32: 51-52] This is a clear warning to Change Agents and leaders in local churches. There are risks in the transformational journey, and those who lead the church need to be aware of them and take them seriously. These risks should not discourage the community from undertaking the journey. In God’s Plan, churches cannot opt out of making the journey. To me, these risks once again emphasize the need for prayer. Only by trusting that God is going before the church, to prepare the way and the Promised Land, can we find the courage to be Change Agents and leaders of this journey.

Lessons from Exodus for the church’s journey of transformation

I will not cover the practical details of how to help a local church make a journey of transformation in this Blog. I am currently writing A Guide to Transforming Your Local Church which will be available on this website when it is completed. The process I will  describe in that Guide is based on the experiences of many experts in organizational change. Equally important, I have amplified that organizational change process to take into account the lessons of the holy journey of transformation that each church is being called to make, as exemplified in Exodus.

Briefly, here are a few lessons that we can learn from Exodus about each local church’s journey of transformation.

Lesson 1. The change journey of a local church is difficult.

Exodus does not describe a ‘change project,’ or finding practical everyday solutions to help the Hebrews live better and serve God in the land of Egypt. It describes an incredible adventure, of leaving, being pursued, almost starving, facing countless enemies and finally arriving after many years of wandering in a vast wasteland. Understanding this, preparation for the journey is vital, especially of the church’s leaders.

Lesson 2. The change journey needs dedicated people – Change Agents — who can see where the church must go and help the church’s leaders see the path and guide them through the steps.

The Hebrews would never have left Egypt unless God had sent Moses to them. They were trapped in slavery and surrounded by a formidable barrier, the vast desert. They didn’t know where to go or how to get there. Local churches need Change Agents who, with God’s help, can persuade the church’s leaders that the journey must be made, and then support them and the entire community as the journey progresses.

Lesson 3. The change journey needs leaders who are strongly committed to help the entire church community make this difficult journey

God led the Hebrews using a few people, the leaders and elders. They were the essential intermediaries who, with Moses help, saw what God was doing on the journey and communicated this to the Hebrews. Transforming a local church is not a ‘one person job,’ for a charismatic leader or anyone else. It requires that a number of people in the church fulfill leadership roles in the journey.

Lesson 4. The ones who actually have to change – the entire community, including leaders and Change Agents – need to be supported every step of the journey.

The Hebrews constantly struggled on the journey. If they could have gone back to Egypt, they would have. They lost trust in God and even worshipped a Golden Calf. Yet, God chose the entire community as his people, not just a few people that were ‘good enough’ to make the journey.  Helping people change their long established habits is one of the key challenges that Change Agents and leaders must deal with when transforming a local church.

Lesson 5. The leaders and Change Agents need to anticipate the risks of the change journey and put plans in place to lessen or eliminate those risks proactively.

God knew what the Hebrews faced before they did, and prepared ways to help them get past these risks. The Lord told Moses what he should do, to help the people find Manna or defeat their enemies. In the same way, Change Agents and leaders need to depend on God to help them past the difficulties they will surely face. Some of these risks are common on any change journey, such as change resistance. Some are unique to the challenge that the church faces in the 21st century. Prayerful awareness and preparation are an essential undertaking for leaders and Change Agents.


[1] I will use the terms journey of transformation and change journey interchangeably. While all changes may not be transformational, transforming a local church is generally concerned with making numerous changes, some small and some large.

[2] There is a mythic dimension to undertaking a journey of transformation, which Joseph Campbell described in his classic Hero with a Thousand Faces. He described this mythic journey as ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In this sense, the Change Agents I describe in this book are heros, because they intend to leave the everyday common world of church and, with Jesus’ help, successfully help their fellow Christians find the ‘boons’ of a new way of being church. However, I will not expand or emphacize this heroic aspect of transformation. Jesus never saw himself as a hero and neither should we. See Philippians 2: 6-11.

[3] This retrospective look is contained in the Book of Deuteronomy.