President Newton Meet Abby, Outside the Labyrinth, by Pr. Rossow

In a post earlier this week Todd Wilken, host of the Issues, Etc. radio program, alerted BJS readers to a troubling conference promoted by the California/Nevada/Hawaii district of the LCMS.

Our BJS readers have proven their mettle once again by dropping some insightful critiques. One of the most interesting and helpful is from our reader named Abby. I would like to highlight her comment but first here’s a little more about the conference.

It is a troubling conference for many reasons. Two of those reasons are the speakers and the theme.

The theme is meeting the needs of the SBNR. SBNR means “spiritual but not religious.” Properly handled that could be a good theme. For instance, if it referred to a Lutheran spirituality of the cross and the means of grace opposed to a false religiosity of Pharisaism, then it might be quite helpful. Instead, the conference is promoting a false pagan spirituality based on such practices as walking and praying the labyrinth. (For a description of the labyrinth click here.) You can also check out Pastor Clint Poppe’s BJS post where we first addressed this matter.

In short, the labyrinth is used to promote prayer and meditation. These are good things but historically the labyrinth is associated with pagan meditation upon things spiritual and is making a come back in this day to promote this same false spirituality. I suppose a labyrinth could be used properly if participants were given a litany of Scripture to meditate upon, but its historical and current uses for pagan, free-floating meditation, at the very least, make it an inadvisable practice. More troubling is the way it is promoted by the church hosting this conference. Their two labyrinths (yes, I said “two”) are promoted as tools for any spiritual people to use for their own end without the guidance of the means of grace and the congregation presents them not as tools dependent on the means of grace but as a sort of fourth sacrament, based on meditation as an end in itself.

The second reason the conference is troubling is because of the speakers. They include a woman pastor who is “a force in the worldwide labyrinth movement,” the pastor of the sponsoring church who is certified in labyrinth spirituality, and the President of the district, Robert Newton. Why is the president of the district promoting this false spirituality? Why is the pastor of the church certified in the spirituality of labyrinths? Is it not enough to be certified in the office of the administration of word and sacrament? If these first two objections are some how met with clever qualifying excuses, what is to be made of inviting a “force in the worldwide labyrinth movement” into a confessional church. I guarantee you that the worldwide movement is of Satan and is intended to steal people away from the means of grace and not lead them to the inerrant Word of Christ and his sacraments properly administered. (I fear that with that last comment the Reverend President might accuse me of being religious at the expense of being spiritual.)

All of this leads me to Abby’s excellent comment. (Click here to read it in the context of Wilken’s original post. It is comment #46.) Thanks Abby for putting yourself out there for the sake of helping us better understand the shortcomings of labyrinth spirituality. May your testimony lead President Newton to rebuke this false spirituality and be satisfied with what God gives us in Word and Sacrament. Read, enjoy and join in the discussion.

This all brought back to my mind that a few years ago I was seeing a psychologist/therapist. He was a Christian of another denomination. (I have a long history of depression and have been in therapy — mostly talk, some medication — for 20+ years. I have also been an active lifelong member in my Lutheran church — no correlation to the depression.)

My counselor said that a “labyrinth” was being held at a local University and would I go? Because he asked me to I said ‘yes’ because I was seeking anything that would help me and I figured he knew that this would be something therapeutic that would help me. Something prohibited me from going, I don’t remember what. (But seeing here what it is like I am glad I did not go to it.)

About 2 years ago I met a pastor who was willing to meet with me. I was still desperately seeking so out came my ‘story.’ He worked with me through several passages of Scripture. The first one being on justification. So, since he was giving me the time I decided to read all the Gospels straight through. After that I continued with the rest of the whole New Testament except Revelation. The light truly turned on. I have never read the whole New Testament before and understood it as I did now through these new “eyes.” I understand now all the ‘big’ words — atonement, imputation, justification, propitiation, grace — especially grace. I understood Christ’s work before but not this deeply and clearly. I could never get this from all my years in secular counseling. So much depression lifted from me that I don’t believe it will ever come back again the way it was before. I could never now NOT understand grace. (I know that is a bad sentence.)

A ‘labyrinth’ without Christ is nothing. I also noticed that one of the presenters’ best friend is his dog. I had a dog exactly like that and she was my best friend also. I preferred her to people. She was my excuse to avoid people. But a dog or ‘labyrinth’ without people is nothing. We need to be with people — with all their faults just like mine — to love them as Christ has commanded that we do. This ‘labyrinth spirituality’ without Christ is absolutely nothing. And I am not kidding about this.

I am so glad that ‘something’ prohibited me from going to a labyrinth. Because it would have done nothing but confuse me more and give me more guilt — it would not have helped me to be ‘better’. A labyrinth did not die for me. A labyrinth cannot forgive and love me. A labyrinth will not keep me safe from the devil for all eternity. A labyrinth gives nothing. Because it does not give Christ. Only He frees me from the wrath of God.

I know everyone is different and everyone is at a different time and place. But I thank God and the pastor that he gave me this time. And for his prayers. He is a very wise young man. I thank God that He directed me away from a labyrinth.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


President Newton Meet Abby, Outside the Labyrinth, by Pr. Rossow — 27 Comments

  1. I find it an odd happenstance that as I was flipping through the channels a moment ago, the 80s movie Labyrinth, starring David Bowie, is on the movie channel Dish Network put up to replace AMC in their channel lineup. No greater theological meaning – just thought it was ironic after reading all of this that the day of this conference that movie was reappearing.

  2. Maybe it is like some variation of idolatry. Some people have nervous or melancholy dispositions and things like exercise or hobbies are very relaxing and comforting. These kinds of activities can help us feel better, but they are not spiritual. When we attribute some kind of spiritual meaning to relaxing activities, it is probably just our imagination. God knows we need to relax regularly. He gave us a day to rest. If going for a walk gives a healthy break, then that is what it is, a healthy break. Some people watch football or have a beer or crochet or take a nap. None of those things are spiritual. If someone needs to relax and needs some time to focus on spiritual things, he cannot necessarily combine these in a two-for-one. It reminds me of the Bull Durham character who believes in the church of baseball because real church made her feel guilty. I mean, does the labyrinth make the person feel convicted and repentant or more comfortable with himself? If you just feel more comfortable, it is probably on the level of having a beer. In other words, it isn’t spiritual, just part of this world. If you need the peace of knowing you are forgiven, literally walking around in circles is not going to get you there.

  3. @David Hartung #5
    No beer until *after* church Pastor!

    Now someone will tell you that you are being a pietist,
    because Luther had beer with his breakfast! ;(
    [Actually, I suppose, he may not have had breakfast till after church.] 🙂

  4. If people feel the need to physically move from one spot to another while praying and meditating, that’s fine. But why the need to look outside the historic church. Just pray the stations of the cross. You get it all physical movement you might want and you get Christ!

  5. @Joe Olson #8: “But why the need to look outside the historic church. Just pray the stations of the cross.”

    Because when you wander around in the labyrinth, it’s all about YOU!

  6. I am reminded of the quote from “The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis: “If once we can produce our perfect work – the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’ – then the end of the war will be in sight.” How many of these people promoting labyrinths actually believe in God (or Satan) and have any real concept of what they are doing?

  7. “Troubling conferences” shouldn’t be our worry. I might suggest these are exactly the place we want our elected leaders. Truth and real growth – in faith, business, life ,etc – doesn’t happen if those speaking the truth ignore the arenas where it needs to be heard. I think we need to encourage participation from our leaders in this kind of venue – and hold them accountable to speak the truth in love.

  8. @Paul #11
    I think we need to encourage participation from our leaders in this kind of venue – and hold them accountable to speak the truth in love.

    I look forward to DP Newton’s paper being posted here, to justify Paul’s optimism. 🙁

  9. @Paul #13
    Hahaha!!! You poor, naive boy. Whenever our influential leaders participate in these spaces, they sound just about as spacey as the other illustrious speakers. Witness Atlantic District President Benke’s “Christian” witness at Oprah’s joint worship service.

    But I do agree with you that we should be speaking in the public square. They have mastered the part about holding hands, singing Kumbaya and speaking with love. Now if we can just get them to speak the Truth. Good luck holding them accountable for that!

  10. Regarding prayer and meditation — it is easier for me to be in a quiet place where I can read, write, and pray. What is the point of walking around in circles? I would wonder, ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘Am I doing enough?’ ‘Am I failing at this too (if I don’t ‘feel’ better or get ‘results’).’

    The secular counseling I had for so many years did just that too. For so long I just paraded my feelings around and around in circles by talking about them. Then when I could get no more relief doing that then medication was proposed and tried. This going around in “circles” with my emotions was a failure without resolution, in my opinion. There are still many “effects” that I struggle with, but I don’t focus inwardly as much anymore. Feelings can be a trap. Yes, God created them and they have a purpose. But to combat these disordered feelings I need to stay anchored in the truth. Which is outside of me. That is what has given me relief and freedom and joy which is present under all of my circumstances.

    Jesus is my Rock. Matthew 7:24-29

  11. @Paul #13

    The LCMS needs to be in this space – but in the interest of being wise as serpents yet innocent as doves. This has been displayed much more so by the posts of Pastor Poppe, Wilken, and Rossow. Educate people as to the content of this new fad so they won’t be surprised and sucked in out of ignorance. The LCMS shouldn’t be paying to encourage this nonsense.

    Abby is absolutely right – this whole thing is absolutely nothing – it does nothing and brings nothing. People who walk around in circles and talk to themselves ought to be checked out by a doctor – not promoted as some type of clergyman – especially a Lutheran!

    This labyrinth garbage and the whole SBNR concept is nothing but post-modernism in action. “Truth is whatever a person decides it is, and who are you to say it is wrong?” I guess if the Word of Almighty God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe isn’t enough to convince them, nothing would be.

    This seems to me to be more of a ploy to try and get some “Spriritual but not religious” customers to buy whatever “religious but not spiritual” junk Robert Newton is selling. He’s doomed to fail though – because if truth is whatever I decide, why in the world should I pay my hard earned money to someone who tries to tell me what is true? If post-modernism is right, then I’ve got my own truth – and it didn’t cost me one thin dime. “Spiritual but not religous” pastors add no value.

    In “The Man from LaMancha,” they surround Don Quixote with mirrors to bring him back to reality after he marches off pointlessly in a delusion of grandeur. Seems like Robert Newton is doing the exact opposite by intentionally setting up prescribed pointless marches specifically to bring about delusions of grandeur! What good is spirituality like that? It is a waste of time and benefits no one but the person hawking labyrinths.

  12. Paul :
    “Troubling conferences” shouldn’t be our worry. I might suggest these are exactly the place we want our elected leaders. Truth and real growth – in faith, business, life ,etc – doesn’t happen if those speaking the truth ignore the arenas where it needs to be heard. I think we need to encourage participation from our leaders in this kind of venue – and hold them accountable to speak the truth in love.

    There are plenty of pastors from our synod who could do that admirably, but would those pastors be welcome there? That is my question. Maybe they would. I don’t know. I do know I was listening to the Pirate Christian radio and some crazy lady preacher set up shop in a giant tent across from a Calvary Chapel somewhere and some of the Calvary Chapel folks and their preacher went to check it out. Finally the Calvary Chapel preacher asked if he could address the crowd. When he got up he told that crowd that this crazy lady preacher was not a prophet and she was wrong on a whole bunch of stuff and he said it loud and clear right there standing next to her. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Calvary Chapel folks are right on everything, but that guy was right on the points he made criticizing the way out stuff she had been claiming and falsely teaching over there and he was bold going over there to warn the crowd that had gathered there to listen to the false teacher.

  13. The problem I see as it relates to confessionals speaking at these kinds of events is the hope/expectation/need to hit the home run. Too many believe that by coming at the issue with guns Ablaze (sorry, couldn’t resist), that more people will hear their message.

    I happen to think that these types of things take a long time to sink in. We need to be invested for years in this type of discussion. We have to be in a conversation with people if we can ever hope they will listen. We don’t know what will happen if we are engaged with people – will they listen? will they hear? will they follow? Don’t know. But not talking to them, not engaging with them will bring a result of which I am certain.

  14. “But not talking to them, not engaging with them will bring a result of which I am certain.”

    What does that mean?

    Anyway, we are just supposed to stand up and say what is right. We are not required to manipulate people to get them to agree with us, nor are we guaranteed that doing what we are supposed to do is going to make us look good and be appreciated and lauded by this world.

  15. @Paul #18
    We have to be in a conversation with people if we can ever hope they will listen. We don’t know what will happen if we are engaged with people – will they listen? will they hear? will they follow? Don’t know. But not talking to them, not engaging with them will bring a result of which I am certain.

    Just be careful to hang on to Scriptures so that the people you talk to don’t convince you of their “truth”! And when you have explained what you believe, if you and your faith are mocked, maybe it’s time to look out for your own soul and get out of there.

  16. Paul,

    This is not a labyrinth conference that Newton somehow infiltrated at which to speak the truth. This is a conference sponsored by the LCMS, endorsed by the district at which one of the primary speakers attributes her understanding of the labyrinth goofiness from a practioner of the occult. (See comment #8 on this post:

    Engage the unbeleiver? Yes! Engage in false, even dangerous spirituality? No!

  17. @Joe Olson #8
    You’re on to something there Joe. The church has its own kind of labyrinth walking in the form of pilgrimages to sacred shrines, mystical appearances of saints, saying the rosary, flopping around in speaking in tongues en masse in the spirit to name a few. As you point out, we ought to adopt some of that rather than inviting pagan spiritualism into the church.

    @Paul #13
    “I know there have been plenty of examples where this didn’t happen, but would you agree that we need to be in this space?”

    No. Not unless we are their to call it what it is and proclaim Christ crucified. We tend to be too careless in implementing these “tools of ministry” in our congregations to bring Christ to the nations. Some tools are not appropriate first article gifts where we should, could, and ought to meet SBNR or unbelievers. These things are never neutral and cannot be “christianized” no matter how hard we try.

  18. Ok, I found the exact directions that were given me for “walking a labyrinth”:

    “Think of a situation in which you need guidance. As you move into the circle, ask your Higher Power for guidance and then begin walking and clearing the mind. You may use breathing or repetitive prayer. Open yourself up to answers when you get in the center. By clearing your mind, you will be more open to hearing the answer.

    You may stay in the middle and pray or just notice the experience for as long as you wish. Then as you begin to walk out, just notice the experience. You may thank God or your Higher Power for guidance you received or will receive. You may also ‘inventory’ all you are grateful for.

    You can walk the path without any intent at all, except to just notice the experience. Walk quickly. Walk slowly. Walk deliberately and simply notice. Walk the path and focus on your breathing –ONLY your breathing.

    As you pass someone on the path, notice any tendency you have to feel restriction, judgments or impatience. When this occurs, notice if this is symbolic of what goes on in your life. Stop. Breathe. Center your mind and emotions. Say a prayer or affirmation.

    Walk in silence and just notice anything. Be still and llisten. When your mind becomes distracted, put problems and distractions ‘in the river’ and watch it flow away. You can pick up your distractions, again, when you leave.

    Walk into the labyrinth and focus on whom you need to forgive and for what. Don’t forget about forgiving yourself. Then think about making amends to those people. Next, whom do you need to thank and express gratitude to and for what?

    Next, think about the people you need to express love for. And finally, who and what do you need to say goodbye to or let go of? You may wish to write letters after the experience.

    Think about what ‘gifts’ you have to give life. What ‘gifts’ do you need from life?

    Walk and ‘write a letter,’ in your journal, to God or your Higher Power. Then LISTEN.

    Think about your life purpose. What lessons continue to come up for you in life? What are you to learn from them?”

    “To walk a sacred path is to discover our own inner sacred space. . . When our senses are shut down, when we drive on automatic pilot, we miss the opportunity to grow.” Dr. Lauren Artress

    “Labyrinths have been used for over 4000 years, in every civilization, as a tool for learning, meditation, healing and prayer. Nearly every religious tradition around the world has utilized labyrinths since c. 2500 (Before Common Era) — (what is that?!)

    The three stages of walking consist of:

    Purgation (to purge, to release, to empty, to shed)
    Illumination (insight)
    Union (with God, Self, The Universe, etc.)”

    In all of Jesus’ teachings on prayer I do not see Him ever using a ‘method’ such as this. This is how Jesus prayed:

    Matthew 14:22-23
    Luke 5:15-16
    Luke 22:39-46

  19. Dr. Thomas Manteufel (emeritus in systematic theology at the St. Louis seminary) has done some work on the matter of labyrinths and their pagan roots and may be able to add something to the discussion. In one sense, labyrinths are like many other practices that find their way into the church, driven by such motives as “Let’s try something different” or “We need to be more spiritual.”

  20. @Abby #24
    since c. 2500 (Before Common Era) — (what is that?!)

    Christians are accustomed to marking the years as B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini = “in the year of our Lord”). Non-Christians are unwilling to recognize Christ, so they say, “C.E.” (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). They are dividing time at the same place, but they don’t have to say so.

    I have most often seen this in archaeology but any topic which wants to avoid Christian references will use it… which may be reason enough to avoid the labyrinth!

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