Redefining where and when church happens


Mieke VandersallEmptying out
The un-mastered art of letting go of expectations

by Mieke Vandersall

I know that for some this may border on heresy, but I have to be honest: I’m not a big fan of the labyrinth.

For those who aren’t familiar, a prayer labyrinth is a single, purposeful path that winds circuitously (and often confusingly) from the edge to the center. It’s supposed to helps us learn how to be led by God through the indirect paths of our lives.

I know many people who have had powerful experiences walking labyrinths, but I just haven’t. I have thought perhaps that I am not spiritual enough, or present enough, or prayerful enough. I can’t help but look at it, knowing that it is an ancient tool for prayer, and think it looks like just a circle of rocks. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried to engage it. I have been in groups that have walked together; I have been alone and walked it by myself. I have approached it wanting aha-moments, seeking them out as if the labyrinth were some sort of giant Magic 8 Ball. That isn’t how prayer works, I know, but I thought maybe that is how the labyrinth works.

Recently, I spent several days in quiet and silence on a retreat. For me, that meant trying to stay off Facebook, having some space and time alone, and being able to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it.

Living in such a crowded city, and thus such a small apartment and office space, everything in my life is shared. Street space. Space beneath trees in the park. Subway space. Sidewalk space. Office space. Space at home. Sometimes I think all that shared space distracts me, and sometimes I think my challenge in life is to learn how to cultivate solitude in the crowdedness all around me. For a city girl like me, there is nothing like going to the country, all by myself, to be quiet.

My favorite time of the day is what photographers wait for, the magic hour. That dusk time is gold, as day turns into evening, when the deer come out to graze and romp, when the sun isn’t so strong, and I am finally able to relax into the sacred quiet of the night.

There was a labyrinth just feet from my cabin, and so I decided to walk it. I looked around the little valley and couldn’t quite take in the beauty of the tall, fragile-looking, old trees, which finally had sprouted bright green leaves after a dreadful winter. There was a cardinal, and a robin, and a bluebird, all being birds together. The wild daffodils were scattered about, and in the middle of the circle of rocks I could see offerings that people had left. I am sure there is a story to each object, including the cigarette butts abandoned not as trash but as a sign of new beginnings.

‘Is our ecclesiastical body breaking down as well, begging for us to stop, just stop busying ourselves, and let go of all the things we have held dear, and true, and safe, and cozy?’

I come empty handed. The instructions outside the labyrinth suggest I let go of what no longer serves me—whatever just isn’t working and needs to change—as I walk into the middle. In the middle, I am told, I can leave an object to represent this journey. As so much of my work life, calling, and role as pastor is shifting, I chose vocation as the thing I needed to turn over to God. I walked as slowly as I could into the middle and tried to empty, to let go per the instructions.

As I walked, I spoke to God. I told Her how much I loved my job, my vocation, as a church planter, as a freelance fundraiser, as a writer. But things weren’t working out as I had planned. I am not a full-time pastor with a lovely little parish. I am not even working exclusively in the denomination that I thought I would forever serve. And so, I said, I think it’s time to empty myself—to let go of the expectations of what I thought my life would be in the church, of how and where I would serve. All of these expectations are turning out to be nothing more than self-deceptions designed to keep me comfortable and safe. They have been my companions for many years, and they have become, I confess, dear to me. But they don’t seem to fit my true calling anymore.

I have to empty. And wow, is that difficult. I never got the hang of emptying my mind like they tell you to do in meditation. And yet, if I am to become whoever God wants me to be, I have to gut my soul of these old friends.

I am no longer able to depend upon them, and I grieve their passing. But I choose to believe in—and am already seeing the fruits of—a more mature calling on the other side. That calling, however, does not express itself behind the walls of a church building, and I never knew how lost I would feel without those walls.

As I walked I thought about the denomination I call home, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And I wondered if we are in a similar place of needing to let go. Have we been scrambling to hold onto our expectations of how church should look?

These incongruities have a way of making themselves known even when we try to ignore them. I spent much of last year sick due to so many changes and so much stress, as my body seemed to literally revolt, telling me that my call was shifting and that I had to get on board, had to address what was no longer working.

Is our church body, likewise, now telling us that our expectations no longer serve us? Is our ecclesiastical body breaking down as well, begging for us to stop, just stop busying ourselves, and let go of all the things we have held dear, and true, and safe, and cozy. Does the particular iteration of the body of Christ that we inhabit need to walk the labyrinth and spend time emptying itself and preparing to take in newness, to be filled and reform yet again?

After walking the labyrinth that night—which for the record did not provide a special aha-moment—I didn’t feel it was right to retrace my steps out. I am just not finished emptying out. I have too many years to empty, and I can’t do it in a quick walk to the center. I am sure this goes against all labyrinth-walking codes, but I just stepped right out of that labyrinth, crossing over only three rocks that made the circle.

It was that easy. One day in the future I will have spent enough time emptying in order to retrace my steps to the beginning. But not yet; it simply isn’t time.

Mieke Vandersall is the founding pastor of Not So Churchy and a fundraising consultant with Wingo, Inc. She lives with her wife and their dog in New York City.