Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.
When the safety net has split, when the resources are gone, when the way ahead is not clear, the sudden exposure can be both frightening and revealing. We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail. To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place. This is as low as you can go. You told yourself you would die if it ever came to this, but here you are. You cannot help yourself and yet you live.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
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Barbara Brown Taylor suggests it can be an important spiritual practice. Come to think of it, there is some precedent in the Bible for this.
Abram, leave your home, your country, and your extended family. Come with me.
“Where are we going, Lord?”
Never mind. I’ll show you.
* * *
Moses, you really blew it when you attacked that soldier, but I forgive you. Tell you what, I have a plan — go live in the desert of Midian for, oh let’s say forty years. Things should blow over by then.
“Wow. With all due respect, that seems a little extreme, Lord. What’s a city boy from the palace like me going to do out there?”
I’m sure you’ll find something. You could learn a trade, you know, like shepherding a flock.
[Eighty years later, as the Exodus was about to occur...]
Nice job, Moses. Now, once you leave Egypt, I want you to guide all these people to Mt. Sinai.
“But Lord, we’ll have to go through the wilderness, won’t we? How am I going to find food and water for all these people out there?”
It’s OK. Let’s just make the journey and see what happens.
* * *
Naomi, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you and Elimelech and the boys pick up and move to Moab?
“Leave Bethlehem? Are you sure that’s a good idea? I’d feel lost among all those foreigners.”
Oh, you never know. It might just turn out to be an adventure. And when you least expect it, you might find a friend.
Elijah, I want you to go hide by the brook Cherith. By the way, you’ll be there for some time and then the brook’s going to dry up.
“Uh, sure Lord, but I was a Boy Scout. What do I need to do to get prepared for that?”
No preparations needed. Just get lost for awhile, OK?
* * *
David, you’re going to be king someday. But first, I have an idea. Why don’t you spend a few years wandering the hills, living in caves, and learning to deal with your enemies?
“Sounds tough, but if you say so, Lord.”
Good. By the way, maybe you could write a few songs along the way. You know, songs for the road.
* * *
Jesus, you are my beloved Son! Congratulations on your baptism. Now it’s time to get started with this Kingdom business. Tell you what, first thing — go spend forty days out in the wilderness. No, you won’t need food. Just go and see what happens out there, OK? Forty days and nights now, don’t forget.
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I understand why people use them, but I have not graduated to the GPS generation yet. Once in awhile I use my iPhone maps app to assist me in finding an address, but I’m afraid that if I get a GPS and use it all the time, I will lose my directional skills and senses. My approach has always been (and no, this is not a “guy” thing) to get directions first, and then try to find my destination by being aware of my surroundings, landmarks, what streets and houses look like, etc. I’ve received some pretty bad sets of directions, and many times I’ve misread the good ones folks have written for me. Needless to say, I’ve found myself lost on a number of occasions. But I figure that getting lost is part of the learning process, and if I eventually find my way (I always have and I’m here to write about it) I won’t be as prone to forget the next time I go that way.
I don’t mind getting lost. I don’t mind rambling around. It’s never a problem if we end up taking “the scenic route.” Given a choice, I’d rather drive the “blue” highways than the interstates and meander through the countryside and small towns a bit. I’d love to take a trip out west or to Europe or India sometime and just wander.
On the other hand, getting “lost” in the personal sense scares the spit out of me. Feeling insecure and being out of control are not experiences I savor. I pretty much count on waking up each morning with a job, a family and a house in which to put them, a little money in the bank, food on the table, a number of friends, and my health. Life has been good to me in those ways.
I’m not naive. I work as a hospice chaplain, for heaven’s sake. It could all change tomorrow. God could say to me, “Hey Mike, get lost.” And before you know it, I’d be tramping some trackless waste looking for a puddle from which to quench my thirst.
I know there are “lonesome valleys” that I will have to walk “all by myself.” No one makes it through life without getting lost a few times. Some, unfortunately, have to learn to make a more or less permanent home in the wilderness, where resources are scarce and there’s danger all around. Maybe that’s been life for some of you.
Perhaps we can find a bit of encouragement from Barbara Brown Taylor, as she reflects on the long tradition of people lost and found, and says,
However it happens [getting lost], take heart. Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them. However it happens, you could do worse than to kneel down and ask a blessing, remembering how many knees have touched this altar before you.