I don’t like being lost. I avoid being lost. I have GPS on my phone, yet I still print a map off of mapquest that guides me from home to my destination. Many weeks before a trip I figure out the train schedule, how it might connect with a flight, and where I should park, if necessary. I usually volunteer to the the navigator if someone else is driving, because I don’t like being lost.
One summer when Tim and I went to Japan we had spent the morning with our children and grandchildren visiting the Imperial Palace and then we all went to a brunch together at the New Sanyo Hotel in Tokyo. After brunch, our children and grandchildren retired to their room for naps and Tim and I decided to strike out on our own. We wanted to see Tokyo for ourselves.
We started out thinking that if we paid attention to street signs and how many right or left turns we made that we would not get lost. About an hour into our adventure we realized that we were VERY very lost. We walked and walked and walked for hours. It was about 90 degrees and about 90 percent humidity. I think that Tim and I both were trying very hard to be on our best behavior with one another so that we didn’t make our situation worse by being crabby with each other. Each time we neared what seemed to be a landmark that we could remember, when we drew closer, we realized that we had never been there before. Twice we stopped and looked at a huge map board. We could recognize what seemed like a “you are here marker” but as we could not read a lick of Japanese, the maps weren’t particularly helpful. Of COURSE I stopped and asked for directions, but I kept asking very kindly Japanese people who couldn’t speak a word of English. And, they wanted so very badly to help.
At one point I was sitting on a curb discouraged and I said to Tim: “I am willing to walk another hour if it is in the direction of the hotel.” But we really had no idea in what direction that Hotel was. When I was feeling completely desperate, I learned that Tim had the address of the hotel in his pocket during this whole misadventure, so I immediately flagged a cab! Finally, we were in the back of a cab, air conditioner running, driving toward the hotel, and I nearly cried in relief.
Some would see this as a “benign way of being lost.” We were never in danger as Japan has an extremely low crime rate and the general populace is so kind and caring. We were hot and thirsty but could easily buy a bottle of water for 100 Yen, which we had in our pockets. We also had the resources to take a cab. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark: suggests that it is important for us to practice getting lost, to get out of a known rut, to take a new road, to trek in the wilderness. If we do not choose to practice getting lost in some fairly low risk ways, then how will we manage when one of life’s big winds knocks us completely off our course? I’m not speaking of literal lostness here, like our wandering in Tokyo looking for my hotel…but literal lostness is a good place to begin since the skills are the same: managing your panic, marshalling your resources, taking a good look around to see what this unexpected development might have to offer you.
I’m sure if you just reflect for a moment, you can think of a time that you found yourself in the wilderness. My friend Bree called me this week to tell me that she had been fired from her job at a local non-profit. Bree’s job was helping women return to the work force. She has also done some really cool stuff like organize one day retreats for homeless women. She is my age and had no plans to be unemployed. She has just been cast into a wilderness. She doesn’t know what might lie ahead. She does know that her checking account can’t stand too much unemployment. She is a bit lost.
This past year, our best friends died in a snorkeling accident. It was earthshattering and I felt unmoored and completely lost. Now I can see why these words are used for condolence “I’m sorry for your loss.” Though I have been loved and supported by my extended family and friends, I am at times lost in the wilderness of grief and despair.
This congregation has gone though the wilderness of pastoral changes, death of many of our church pillars, changing governance structures and I am sure at times you may have felt lost or anxious about the future.
When I think of the wilderness’ of despair that I have found myself in at times, I have to admit that I wouldn’t give a single one of them back. I have found things when I have been lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have lived through parts of my life that no one would willingly choose, finding just enough treasure in them that eventually outweighs the pain and loss. This is just enough reason to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and embrace it as a spiritual practice instead.
The Bible is full of people who have been spectacularly lost and in the midst of this God does God’s best work.
Take Abraham and Sarah for instance, the parents of the Hebrew people. The Bible gives no explanation about why God chose Abraham and Sarah except for perhaps their willingness to get lost. They were not young. They were not spiritual giants. All they really had going for them was their willingness to set off on a divinely inspired trip without a map, equipped with nothing but God’s promise to be with them. If you follow Abraham and Sarah to Egypt and back, you get the kind of details that mark genuine wilderness time. Abraham passed Sarah off twice as his sister to avoid getting hurt by powerful men that found her attractive. Sarah got so tired of Abraham asking her if she was pregnant that she sent her slave Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child. By the time Sarah had her own baby, she was so jealous of Hagar she sent her off into the wilderness. (But that is another wilderness story.) Abraham and Sarah became parents of a great nation.
None of this would have happened if Abraham and Sarah would have just thanked God for the interesting travel suggestion and just stayed home. By saying yes, by consenting to get lost, they end up parenting a nation. You know that the people of Israel got lost again and again…wandering in the wilderness.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, is short and without much detail, just the way the author of Mark’s Gospel likes it. In Washington State we often think of the wilderness as a desirable and beautiful place to go, where we experience spectacular beauty and peaceful settings. We seek it out and celebrate it when we get there. But we are reading a story from the ancient Near East and the wilderness of this time and place was often understood not as a comforting refuge, but a place without easy orientation, often looking the same for miles, indistinguishable barrenness. In this culture and time, the wilderness represented a place of uncertainty where the life giving ordering of culture and civilization seemingly gave way to a wildness not ordered or maybe even friendly for human purposes. In short, the wilderness was a place to get lost.
It is interesting that after the peak experience of his baptism, Jesus is called by the Spirit into a wilderness place of lostness, uncertainty, and testing. He is called into the wilderness to fast and pray and to be tested by the Divine Adversary. (Satan in Hebrew means adversary and in the Hebrew Bible the satan functioned as a kind of prosecuting attorney in God’s heavenly court.) So Jesus is intentionally going out to risk being lost.
We have reviewed some Scripture stories and I can tell you that the Bible is absolutely full of stories about people getting lost. Being lost is common. But just because it’s common, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that many of us no nothing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, or lose our jobs or wreck our marriages or alienate our children most of us are alone to pick up the pieces. Some of us have brave friends that will stand with us but even when they are at our sides it is hard to shake the sense of shame we have in getting lost. And yet if someone asked us to pin point the times is our lives that changes us for the better, most of us would probably say it is the wilderness times.
Can you imagine how it might be to be lost? Can you remember a time that you were really were truly lost? What did you learn from that experience? Faith is not for the faint of heart. Trusting God, following Jesus, letting the Spirit lead us into the wilderness asks of us a lot of trust, letting go, and endurance. After accepting that getting lost will happen, and then daring to choose it, Taylor invites us to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and to engage it as a spiritual practice. In essence to see it not as a detour, but as the path, not as just a wound, but as a gift, not a place where God is absent, but as a place where God is. As Taylor says, “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.” Thank God for that!
Are we willing to believe that? Will we accept that invitation into faith?
There is a story from the First Nation peoples of the Pacific Northwest that was told to young boys and girls if they asked the question, “What do I do when I am lost in the forest?” The poet David Wagoner put the answer into the English language poem we heard.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here. And you must treat it as a powerful stranger. Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again. saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you. You are surely lost. Stand still.
If we can embrace the practice of getting lost, if we can practice placing our trust in God when we have no idea what has happened to us or what will happen next, then we will be better prepared to face the uncertainties that will assuredly come our way. In the midst of our fear, in the midst of our wanderings, in the midst of our unknowing, God is present. We are not alone.