Country Roads and Labyrinth Paths, Take Me Home

Rita Robinson

Photo by Rita Robinson

I knew I had arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when I rolled down my windows and the pungent scent of manure smacked me in the face.

I knew I was back at my seminary when I walked through the doors and inhaled the sweet smells of coffee and books.

I knew I was back with my people as I sat through my friend’s profound capstone presentation and embraced and reminisced with old friends, remembering how loved I am and how well I have loved others.

And after the reunions took place and everyone had returned to classes and homework,  I felt the call of the prayer labyrinth.

I’ve written about my experiences with my seminary’s prayer labyrinth in the past. It was one of the few spiritual discipline with which I could authentically and regularly engage during my dark and stormy nights of the soul. One of my favorite qualities about walking the labyrinth was how I didn’t always walk away with new insight or even necessarily feeling better about the state of things when, but I always left feeling God’s presence more than I had previously.

I’m not in a dark or stormy night as of now, but the labyrinth is still a part of my seminary home, and I missed it as if it was a friend. So I walked up the steep hill to it, and when I arrived, I stood and beheld that space of grace and transformation once again.

From my first step on the first stone, a flood of memories began to wash over me.

There were early memories of the young man in college who showed me how to play a guitar while ordering a cheeseburger, and the later memories of the two of us exchanging marriage vows. I turned a corner and felt the nervous giddiness upon walking through the seminary doors for the first time and the heaviness of leaving them for the last time. I gazed out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and remembered the professors who taught me to doubt, to believe in myself, and to look critically at my whiteness. As I caught a glance of the gazebo, I recalled the conversations I had there with my now-husband over the phone, wrestling with our respective callings and vocations.

The labyrinth took me on a journey through key points in my faith journey, with the choruses of both Michael W. Smith’s “Heart of Worship” and Gibbons’ “Almighty and Everlasting God” providing an eclectic soundtrack, because they, too, were part of my journey.

When I found myself in the labyrinth’s center, I did not bow down like I normally did. Instead, I stood tall, with my shoulders back and head high, as if to look God right in the eye.

And as I gazed upon the face of God, I met Her back with a bright, thankful smile instead of my usual snide smirk.

I made the sign of the cross to mark the moment and myself as holy, held my hands out open and wide to accept the grace of the moment, embraced myself in God’s love, and gave a small bow, all to say.

And for the first time in a long time, I said these words without a trace of irony, and only pure gratitude and love:

“Thank you. I trust you.”

As I took the winding path out of the labyrinth in preparation to return to my home in Ashburn, I felt more confident in the fact that I am loved and have loved others well. I walked away knowing I was leaving this home for my other home, and it would still be here to welcome me back again.

I understood that even as I move forward, there is always a home to which I may return.

Thanks be to God.

Goodbye/Hello

Choir

On Sunday, I processed with the choir. Somehow, I found myself at the head of the procession, and I freaked out a bit. I never lead this part. I always follow. After seven months in the choir, I still didn’t feel confident leading us down the aisle, up to the front of the purple tule covered cross, and to our seats.

But on my final Sunday, I led the way.

On Sunday, I heard the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, how the Word of God brought the bones, sinews, and flesh together, and finally breathed life into them.

With the choir, I chanted Psalm 30, a plea to God to hear Israel’s cry for mercy, a thanksgiving of God’s grace, a prayer for God to continue to draw near.

I heard the story of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, a death he could have prevented but instead chose to undo, and how Lazarus walked out of the tomb when Jesus called his name, still bound in his grave clothes.

And as I sat in the choir loft, one final time, I thought about the dry bones and the garments of death.

I wondered if I reeked to the high heavens of death like Lazarus, if my bones and body were without the breath of life. I wondered if, in saying good-bye to my two jobs in the span of four days, I was surrounded by the stench of death, and I wondered if anyone else could smell it on me.

Despite the financial hardships which accompany working two part-time jobs with no benefits, ties are made. Routines are established. A sense of normalcy, including the panic which comes at the end of each month when bills need paying and the numbers aren’t adding up, brings with it an odd sense of comfort.

Now that I am entering a full-time position, with a salary and benefits (health insurance! retirement! paid time off!), I am able to move into a new life, something I always imagined but never thought would come to fruition: stability.

But at what cost?

On Thursday, I had to leave a friend who gave me a job fresh out of seminary, someone I bonded with after I gave his wife a meal before she entered an operation to remove her breast cancer, someone with whom I had weathered the early struggles of his first pastoral job out of seminary. On Sunday, it was difficult to listen to the prayers of a friend who shares my Doctor Who obsession, and to bid farewell to the teens I had mentored, .

I never realized how hard it would be to print and fold my final bulletins and turn off my office computer for the last time. I didn’t think I’d struggle not to tear up when one of my students handed me an orchid in front of my congregation as I said farewell to my congregation.

When I accepted these jobs, I knew they weren’t permanent positions. I knew they were stepping stones to other opportunities.

But I didn’t know they would become so close to my heart.

In youth group, I remember my youth pastors teaching us to set physical and emotional boundaries with romantic partners, because they told us too much physical intimacy could make unmarried people “too close” and result in more heartache when the relationship ended.

I wish they’d told me this kind of extra heartbreak isn’t limited to the physical and the romantic.

I wish they’d told me about the pain you experience when you receive the broken body of Christ from your pastor’s hand and wonder if it’s the last time it will ever happen. I wish they’d told me how much a simple touch of my hair when receiving the blood of Christ from a dear choir member would undo me. I wish they’d told me how heart-wrenching it is to have to pull up your roots from the place you’ve called home for so long and plant them elsewhere.

I wish they’d told me less about setting up boundaries and more about how to love as fiercely as God loves us, even and especially when those upheavals happen.

If we are to live as God’s children, as people who want to connect more with God, we will touch the souls of the people around us in deep and profound ways, and they will touch the depths of our hearts, too. They will leave their marks and imprints, and the scars will remind us of their presence forever.

You can’t avoid it. To avoid it is to be the dry bones in the dessert, to be bound by the grave clothes and reeking of death.

I don’t reek of death. I reek of love. Beautiful, deep, painful love. That love is why I chose to sit with the pain of these losses, to insist that they mean something to me, and their losses demand to be felt and honored.

So I sang our final hymn, “The Bread of Life,” for the last time. For the last time, I hung up my choir robe. I gave out final hugs as I ate snacks from my final coffee hour. For the first and last time, I went to the house of my choir director and her daughter, a member of my Sunday School class, and made my farewells over plates of ravioli.

I said good-bye to the congregation which housed me.

Now, I can say hello to the next home which has found me.