I gave my sister-in-law a scarf this Christmas—a beautiful silk scarf I had bought for her at Grace Cathedral: a print of the Rose Window, in deep blues and reds.
After she thanked me for it, she said, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was living near Sacramento and agreed to meet my sister at Grace Cathedral, so we could spend the day together? I got up very early in the morning, before sunrise, and went to the station to get the bus to San Francisco. I rode along sleepily in the dark for a while, but eventually the sun came up—and I realized that I had forgotten my glasses!”
“Oh, how awful!” I exclaimed. She is very near-sighted, as I used to be before LASIK surgery, and I knew very well what a disaster this was. To arrive in a big city and not be able to see anything! As it happens, Grace Cathedral is an extremely large building, and she found it—but she couldn’t find her sister in the crowds. All she could do was wander around, hoping her sister would find her.
Was she lost? She knew where she was, but she couldn’t see anything clearly. In fact, she was in the right place, but it didn’t do any good to know she was in the right place if she couldn’t see the faces of those around her. Like many of us, she was lost in place. We know where we are, but our vision is weak and we can’t seem to focus on the really important stuff right under our noses. I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it” (xvii).
This week’s lesson is entitled, “Escape from the World’s Ways.” It uses a travel metaphor—escape—to think about the spiritual life. I have decided to tweak the metaphor and instead examine getting lost as a way to consider how to have a meaningful relationship with God in today’s world.
Being lost can be good exercise. Taylor suggests that we “stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.” She suggests that Abraham and Sarah were chosen by God because of their willingness to “set off on a divinely inspired trip without a map, equipped with nothing but God’s promise to be with them” (73). Some of our most interesting and instructive experiences happen because we get lost. Perhaps that’s what faith is: walking with God, but not knowing exactly where the two of you are heading. A kind of lostness, but the good kind. The kind where you are never alone.
I would not wish to suggest that Jesus ever got lost, but he did take a lot of side trips, responding to someone who touched his robe in desperation or called out from beside the road, going home with someone he saw looking down at him from a sycamore tree. Was he lost? He may not have been where he had originally set out for, but he certainly could see clearly the faces of those around him.
Following the Spirit, walking by faith like Enoch: perhaps this includes doing what Jesus did, and allowing a little extra time and flexibility to lose our predictable way and instead steer by the faces we see, paying more attention to the people around us.
“It is a great art to saunter,” wrote Henry Thoreau in his journal. He knew as well as anyone how to wander, focusing on the tiniest details, taking in what was happening that day, in that place. Sauntering seems like a pretty good way to think of this habit of slowing down a little so that you can see a little more clearly, pay a little better attention: And what does the Lord require of you? To do justly and to love mercy and to saunter humbly with your God.
Let’s face it, though. There is another kind of being lost. The bad kind. The kind where it’s not just you who are lost, but indeed ALL seems lost. Where the worst has happened, and you feel completely alone. This is the kind where someone has cancer, or a child has died, or you are facing a life in bed because your muscles no longer do what you tell them to.
Perhaps the first thing to say about this kind of lostness is that no one can tell anyone else how they should feel about it. Advising people to accept that it’s God’s will, or that they should just get over it and be cheerful is not okay. All I know to do for others who are lost like this is to be there. To listen. To pay attention to them, and their own particular feeling of being lost.
And for oneself? Taylor calls this the “advanced practice of getting lost.” Now that I think about it, it seems Jesus did experience this kind of lostness, first in the wilderness, and then on the cross. We can, I believe, take some comfort in the fact that Jesus, too, felt abandoned. That Jesus needed the comfort of angels. Taylor writes that her own experience suggests that the best one can do is “consent to be lost, since you have no other choice. The consenting itself becomes your choice, as you explore the possibility that life is for you and not against you, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary” (80).
Many of us grew up in a culture where being “lost” meant eternal damnation. Parents would do almost anything to ensure that their children were not lost forever, including nagging them about Sabbath-keeping, or forcing them to memorize long memory verses, or punishing them harshly for eating or drinking the wrong thing. You probably know what I mean here.
Maybe it is useful to take back the word “lost,” to reclaim it to mean an opportunity to grow, to pay attention, to experience something new, and to hold God’s hand tightly all along the way. If we think of it this way, then the verses brought out in this week’s lesson offer some pretty good advice about sauntering with God: “Stay alert” (Eph. 6:18), “let the Spirit control your mind” (Rom. 8:6), and “I will… give you a tender, responsive heart” (Ez. 36: 26).
I find I must end with Thoreau, from his essay, “Walking”:
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn. (632)
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. New York: Random House, 1937.
Nancy Lecourt is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Administration at Pacific Union College.
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