I recently posted about the Hineni Prayer Garden at Oakwood Church in Hartland, WI. And as promised, I wanted to share a few of my personal stories about these types of prayer gardens. It has been a journey through our marriage that we encountered prayer walks (Labyrinths).
Our first experience with a prayer walk was during our honey moon. We decided to travel along the Blue Ridge Tail and stay at various cabins, bed and breakfasts and retreat centers. It was a wonderful honeymoon filled with many firsts for both of us. It was the fist time navigating mountainous terrain in a tiny little car, which if Laina didn't buckle in time would flash "#2...#2." That became a marriage long mantra to "buckle up", when Laina got in the car and was slow in buckling I'd say #2, #2! and we both laughed. It was also our first time on the Blue Ridge trail. We came to one part of the trail and we ascended up the mountain it began to snow and there were considerably less trees. We were a little afraid and wondered what elevation we had ascended to. Should we have oxygen at this height? But we quickly descended to what seemed more like typical Smokey Mountain skylines and felt much better as we approached our destination. We also attended the Wooly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C. I mean, who else has attended such a festival. They had clodders, wooly worm races and even a man dressed as a wooly worm! We visited a mining town... Ummm awkward! Everyone was staring at us probably thinking, "Who vacations in a mining town?" Unique is what we were going for and we loved the adventure!
When we arrived at the retreat center, we unpacked and settled in. Then we headed out to explore! That is when we discovered a beautiful garden with a prayer path (labyrinth). It was beautiful and fun to walk, but I also approached it with suspicion. Though I didn't know much about these paths, I remembered how it was used in Celtic traditions that did not have a Christian belief system. So I cautioned Laina and we moved on to other parts of the gardens.
Fast forward a few years as Laina and I walked at a local park, we discovered a prayer path out in a grassy field in Ann Arbor, MI. It was much simpler in materials but had the same type of design. Laina was always a woman of curiosity and fun. And so we chased each other through the paths until we reached the middle. As we walked back out of the paths, I noticed how they winded back and forth, in and out and I began to consider how this type of internal /external winding about was like life. It seemed like a time of internal introspection. I talked to God about these feelings and also regarding my questions about if this type of path was honoring Him. We visited this path a couple times over the years, but didn't put much thought into it.
Moving forward another few years, much had happened in our lives. I had resigned from architecture and moved into youth ministry. Two years later, due to the finances of the church I was let go. Then was led to be a staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The next year we had our fist child. A few years later we had our second child. Three months later we received the shocking diagnosis that Laina had breast cancer in 2014. We had planned to move to Wisconsin that year, but decided to wait for her treatment to end - and it ended with "all clear" no sign of cancer. We moved to Wisconsin in 2015 and established a new home and continued working with the same organizations.
In October 2016 we were noticing Laina having more headaches and showing signs of depression. It was getting difficult to manage our marriage and household, with the new demands of my ministry and her job. I requested time off during mid October for us to celebrate our 10 year anniversary, hoping it would give us time to reconnect and get things on track again. With some hesitation, yet allowing me to take time off during a school year and before a major conference - my supervisor agreed. Even now I am so grateful for this time I had with Laina! Little did we know how significant it would be.
Our destination - one of our honeymoon sites from Gatlinburg, TN. It was a great opportunity to get away and remember our journey over the last 10 years. We saw some of the same sites, but also some new ones, since the Smokey Mountains were closed due to a storm during our first honeymoon there. We enjoyed the trees, mountains and artist's shops. We hiked and spent time sitting on large rocks by a river reading the word and praying together and alone. It was refreshing! Exactly what we needed!
One new site that we wanted to experience was one of the largest prayer labyrinth's in the United States that was located at Buck Thorn in Tennessee. We made plans to visit there on October 15, 2016. When we arrived and approached the labyrinth. I sat on a bench outside of the path and let Laina enter first. As she began, I turned my attention to writing a prayer in my journal.
"My Father in Heaven, Holy is Your Name. Your will be done on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. Help me Lord, to regain passion and intimacy with my wife, with my family and in my calling and vocation. Search my heart and know me; try my anxious thoughts and renew a right spirit within me. Holy Spirit come and speak to me and Laina! Speak Lord, Your servant is listening."
Then I stepped toward the entry of the path. I stood there and began to be aware of what my senses were taking in. Along the path was a single yellow flower on a clover. Then I saw one ant crawling across the stones. Laina came over and had me smell an herb. Then a single dry yellow leaf gently fell to the ground in front of me. I also noticed a single yellow butterfly fluttering around the gardens. All around me I saw beauty. A gentle breeze. Bright sunlight. Colorful leaves of autumn were all around. All the while I'm taking this in, my thoughts keep turning to Laina, rather than myself. The words kept coming to mind, "Enjoy this moment." Then I met Laina on the path next to me and we kissed, the song "Kiss me" by Six Pence None the richer played in my mind. My thoughts again turn to Laina, "She is ahead of me, walking in circles it seems like she is lost. Then I think, "Stop worrying about Laina and focus on my own walk. Hineni - Be fully present with the Lord."
Then I heard Laina singing, "Holy Ground." "...Standing on Holy Ground..."
I picked up my Bible and read Psalm 43...
"Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God."
I arrived at the center of the path. "So why do I feel anxious?" I thought.
I reply, "Enough about me, let's talk about you God."
Yet these words came to my thoughts, "Release your fears and anxieties. Receive gifts from my Spirit."
God continued to speak in my thoughts, "I desire that you are a free friend. If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed." "You will be like a seed upon the wind."
A quote from childhood came to mind by Henry Van Dyke, "Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be silent if no birds sang accept the best."
I then told God all of my insecurities and fears about leading my family and frustrations with ministry. It was quiet for a moment. I only felt a gentle breeze. And I looked up toward Laina.
Then the song, "Good, Good Father" came into my mind, then Psalm 23.
A Psalm of David.23
The Lord is my shepherd,I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Honestly this is the first time I've reviewed my journals in the last couple years. If you have been following my blog you'll recognize that this was just two months prior to finding out about the metastasized breast cancer diagnosis for Laina. The metaphors that God brought before me as I intentionally sought him in prayer astounded me. If you reflect on the yellow and single items - it's profound. Laina was not only my wife, but the best friend I've ever had. Looking back I can see the meaning of these significant details of this experience. God knows the paths that lie ahead of us. As we seek Him, He will guide us. Whether to green pastures, still waters or through valley's of the shadow of death. He is with us. He is the good shepherd. All of His promises are true and good. And at the end of our lives whether short or long, if we remain in Him we remember:
"Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me (us) all the days of my (our) life. And I (we) shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
What more could we ask for in life? Laina was my wife, my best friend ever, she was fun, curious and helped me to choose the less traveled paths in life. Though I dreamed of a lifetime of these adventures with her, I am thankful that I was able to travel these last 13 years with her. The prayer path had become a place of meeting with God as he prepared me for the paths ahead. But there is more...
Part 3 will continue these thoughts.
Here you will find updates, thoughts, discussion and prayers for my life and ministry...