~“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”~
““It is God who sits above the circle of the earth...who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.”
Dear Members and Friends,
At the close of Nina Helbling’s funeral, we all stood in a circle, held hands, and sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”? It was maybe the most inspiring ending I have ever seen for a funeral—and perhaps for a life! It was upbeat and hopeful, and it spoke to something deep in the human spirit: the circularity of life. Life runs in circles, doesn’t it? The earth is a circle. The sun is a circle. Moons, and stars, and planets, too. The great journey that the earth makes around the sun—at 67,000 miles per hour!—is a nearly perfect circle. We can't feel the spinning motion, but we observe it in seasons of warmth and cold, as days grow shorter or longer. Light yields to darkness; darkness yields to light. At the dawn of 2023, we’re completing yet another one of those great spherical journeys known as a year. It's strange to think that “time” is nothing more than our circle (the earth) making a circle (its orbit) around another circle (the sun). It can be dizzying, all this spinning in circles. The New Year makes me think about the circles we travel.
Have you ever walked a prayer labyrinth? It’s a circle. In my doctoral program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, one of the professors took our class outside and made us walk a labyrinth. I had always resisted labyrinths up to that point because I saw them as a spiritual fad—and I’m allergic to fads. The class was huge, about thirty pastors of many denominations, but mainly black Baptists. Most were uncertain about the labyrinth, myself included. For me, the labyrinth was just a little too public, too. It sat close to a busy street. Surely we’d be a spectacle to passersby—thirty middle-aged oddballs just inside the walls of the seminary, walking in a circle and staring at their toes.
But it was June in upstate New York. The stately campus was abloom with lilacs. We started walking the labyrinth uncertainly, just wanting to get it over with. But blame it on the lilacs, or the birdsong, or the open air, or the constant circular motion of walking the labyrinth. By the time we finished, every last one of us was deeply moved. A tough, sarcastic pastor, who led a large urban congregation, became unexpectedly emotional. He said, “The labyrinth showed me how to forgive someone I've needed to forgive for a long time.” Isn't forgiveness a kind of circle, too?
Wedding bands, prayer beads, mandalas, labyrinths. There’s something sacred about a circle. Resurrection, too, is the old eternal circle of life, death, and new life—repeated forever in every individual in every age. Our lives tend to run in circles. We keep re-encountering the same lessons, experiences, ideas, and truths. But somehow the repetition is not rote; it’s familiar and yet fresh each time. We keep returning to certain people, and places, and events. What are some of circles in your life? (Cameroon keeps coming back to me, though I’ve tried to let it go.) If our individual lives run in circles, it makes sense that our shared life does, too. I grieve the decreased participation at church since the pandemic. And yet, I trust those ever-moving circles to bring us back around to a new day. Those circles revive music and hairstyles that the world forgot. They send fresh-but-familiar blessings into our personal lives. The darkest day, like the brightest, does not last forever. Things can come full circle. In this New Year, God give us the wisdom to entrust it all to the One who makes and moves in all these many circles.
In Christ’s Peace,