By Naomi Kouns
On the last leg of a flight from Ethiopia to the United States last year, the airline confused a seat assignment and 7-year-old Addison Fehl was seated not with his parents, but next to a stranger. During the boarding activities Addison read aloud from his book, while the man sitting next to him looked on, smiling.
You can imagine the man’s surprise when the plane began to taxi and Addison closed his book, clasped the man’s hand and said, “It’s time to pray.”
Addison is right, it is time to pray. Not corporately or as a church, at a Bible study, or at a gathering, but as a person reaching out to God. I fail to spend enough intentional “face time” (as Roy Lawson calls it) with my Father God.
Some time ago I visited a church in Illinois with a small prayer labyrinth set up in the fellowship hall. A sign taped to a table holding cassette players explained that the time to walk and pray the labyrinth, using the accompanying cassette tape, was 60 minutes. Intrigued, I scheduled time to take the labyrinth journey. When I returned home, I researched the concept of the labyrinth.
How They Began
The most common explanation goes like this: In medieval times people of noble and privileged birth made routine pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship and pray. As an alternative, people of less wealth but no less devotion to God created complex paths to replicate the journey. This provided an opportunity to take a focused journey, walking and meditating on God’s glory and grace, praising him and praying.
Over time the prayer labyrinth became more elaborate and detailed, with some glorious examples in the major cathedrals of Europe. A prayer labyrinth is not a maze with the intent to confuse the walker. It is a disciplined pathway with the intent to point the walker to Creator God. Churches in the United States have begun to build prayer labyrinths in courtyards and indoors.
Why We Need It
The idea appeals to me on a deeply personal level. I’m a multitasker who has trouble focusing on one thing at a time. My prayer journal helps, but I am drawn to the concept of being summoned into the presence of Jesus by the exquisite and complex beauty he created.
The sights and sounds and smells beyond my presence are part of my worship. He beckons me to spend intentional time with him. The labyrinth, with its twists and turns, represents all of life’s journey.
A prayer journey is an antidote to the arrogance of our culture. I’ve recently caught myself feeling angry when the person in front of me at the grocery suddenly is joined by his wife with a full cart just as he arrives at the checker. Or when a car cuts into my lane and leaves me waiting at the stop light while he speeds down the highway.
Why am I cross? It must be arrogance, the thought that I have more important things to do than wait in line, or on the highway, or in life.
Arrogance is contagious. There is arrogance in the newscast that assumes we should want to know only a certain perspective on the day’s happenings. Sadly, arrogance has grown in the way we view church: it’s too loud or too soft, too slow or too fast, too slick or too casual. What has happened to our understanding of the beauty of holiness? God uses the beauty of sky, a multitude of trees, a calm lake, or a brilliant sea to restore balance in us.
What I’ve Created
So I have begun to create a small prayer place in my backyard. I rejoice as I anticipate worshiping God in the stillness of his outdoor setting. At each prayer stop I’ve created the likeness of sheep.
(I identify with sheep; they do the same thoughtless things over and over. That’s me. Sometimes I learn from my mistakes and sometimes I only learn to make the same mistake again and again. It’s painful.)
The first prayer stop looks at the Lord as my shepherd. I rejoice that I can claim Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Lord of all created beings as my shepherd. I belong to him because he chose to create me.
I spend time reviewing Psalm 23. I strive to experience him with all my senses. I try to understand again that he chose to create me and wants to work through me. Maybe not in spite of my weaknesses, but through my weaknesses.
I stop mentally rehearsing my failures and give thanks that I learn over and over I’m not perfect. I thank God for the outstanding people he brings to my mind and praise him for ways their lives glorify him.
At another prayer stop, I realize sheep don’t want for clear water or green grass or restful sleep with a good shepherd. For this day, I will not want more social time with friends, more recreational time with family, more fellowship time in church activities, more fulfilling time in ministry, more clarity in words. I give up my regrets about my lack of accomplishments. I choose only to want Jesus. I decide to seek the will of God.
And then I feel the comfort of Jesus when I grow anxious about a friend very ill with cancer, and another friend ill with the stress of a disintegrating relationship. The impulse rises within me to be proactive, to do something. How can I help my friend with cancer? How can I help my friend with the sick heart? It’s hard to admit that I can’t.
And I cry out, “Help us as we go through the valley of the shadow of death.” I pray to the One who loves them with a love so much stronger than mine.
“You prepare a table before me” makes me think of the many people in this world who eat differently than I do. Sometimes that difference is interesting and sometimes it is challenging.
I enjoyed eating camel stew in Turkana but didn’t do as well with the small, perfectly shaped octopus served to me in Asia. The borders of the globe have diminished so that now everyone is my neighbor.
“God help me love and understand and get to know peoples in Iraq and Mexico and Russia and Africa—throughout the entire created world, as you love them. Make me your servant in showing them your love.”
When I come to the prayer place where I’ve scratched, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I shall live in the dwelling place of the Lord forever,” I am smiling. The dwelling place of the Lord is with those who give him glory and honor and praise.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
Lord, I worship.
Naomi Kouns is vision area director for Globalscope, Christian Missionary Fellowship’s international student ministry.