SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
WILDERNESS: The Practice of Getting Lost Click here for audio
I Kings 19:1-18, Luke 15:1-10
Pastor Marty Raths
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
WILDERNESS: The Practice of Getting Lost
It is one of life’s universal experiences. At some time in our lives we have all been through it: the experience of being lost. And there are many stories told about being lost, and this is one of my favorites.
There was a man who had gotten lost on some back roads in a part of the country that was unfamiliar to him. And after driving around for awhile, he finally came upon a run-down old gas station in a worn out looking little town. And as he pulled into the station, a young man came out and asked him, “Can I help you, sir?” (This was in the days when there were still service stations).
“Yes,” the man said. “I’m wondering if you could tell me how to get to Livingston?”
“No, sir,” the young man said. “I’ve never heard of that town.”
“Do you know someone who might be able to tell me how to get there?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
Now by this time it was getting rather late, so the man asked, ‘Well, would you know of a motel where I could stay, and then I can figure out where I need to go in the morning?”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” the young man answered, “I don’t know of any motels around here.”
And with some exasperation the man said, “You don’t know much of anything, do you?”
And the young man replied, “No, sir, I don’t. But at least I ain’t lost.”
I love this story for many reasons, among them it reminds us that there are many different ways of being lost. Of course there is the physical experience of being lost, and then there are the psychological and spiritual experiences of being lost that can come from sorrow, fear, pettiness, greed, or like the man in the story arrogance. He was far more lost than he thought.
So like all of life’s universal experiences, the experience of being lost is a rich and varied one. And it is not all negative, though the tradition of our faith has tended to see the experience of being lost that way, as having little or no redeeming value. Now there is some truth to this, since there are some experiences of being lost from which we never really return. If we have ever had a loved one who has struggled with a life-long addiction, then we know all about that.
And there are experiences of being lost that can be really disruptive of our lives, where we really need to be found again if we are ever going to get back on track with our lives. These were the kind of experiences Jesus had in mind as he was telling his parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The experience of being lost can lead us away from family and friends, from our deepest held values, from our hopes and dreams for life, from our truer self, from our relationship with God.
But in these parables of being lost and found Jesus assures of two things: that God does not leave us for lost, that God is always trying to find us; and that our experiences of being lost are redeemable. Jesus follows the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin with the parable of the prodigal son, and it is not hard to imagine that afterwards the younger son was a far better person for all the time that he had spent lost. And many of us have had a similar sort of experience of being lost, one that we would have never chosen beforehand, but afterwards, one we would never choose to give back either, not wanting to part with where we have been, and what we have learned, and who we have become.
It was hard earned no doubt for the younger son. But I imagine that in the end he became a more understanding person, and more empathetic, and wiser. And once he had earned that, there was no way he would give it back. Who would? Such experiences of being lost are redeemable, meaning that good can, and does, come from them, by the grace of God. Though it was a long time in coming, in the end the younger son was the better for what he had gone through while he was away from home.
Now as for the older son, that is a different story. He was one of those set-in-his-ways types, so sure, so rigid, so judgmental, so unpleasant to be around. He had become one of those people in life who really needs to get lost for awhile.
And this is the kind of experience of being lost that Barbara Brown Taylor focuses on in her book An Altar in the World, the kind of positive experience of being lost that actually enriches life, develops character, and deepens faith.
And like every other chapter in her book, this one comes with the same stress upon practice. Now this may seem a little odd, the practice of getting lost, of intentionally losing our way once in awhile. Why would we ever want to do that? But I hardly need to remind us that some of our ways in life can get a little too well traveled, a little too familiar, too comfortable, too routine. Or they are actually taking us some place that we do not need to go, and it would actually be good for us to lose our way, that we might find a better way, which brings us to the prophet Elijah.
Early on in his ministry things had gone really well for Elijah. It had been smooth sailing, and along the way he had had a series of successes. And given his reaction to Jezebel’s threat, it is safe to say that he had grown much too accustomed to success, and he had become overly secure in himself and in his own prophetic powers.
For when Jezebel threatens to kill him, Elijah flees for his life, and his flight is a study in overreaction, which is one sure sign that we need to get lost for awhile because we are not reacting to what is in life, but to mistaken assumptions and attitudes and beliefs that we have about life. If we are wondering where in our life we might try out the practice of getting lost for awhile, this is as good a place as any to start. Where do we overreact in life? what people provoke it? or what sort of people? or what kind of circumstance?
And I want to suggest a couple of ways that we can put this getting lost into practice. The first one is to follow the questions. When questions about life come, and these questions will come for all of us, acknowledge them, honor them, wrestle with them.
As Christians we could really learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters here. Far more so than in the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition has preserved a reverence for questions. We see it in Jesus himself, good and faithful Jew that he was. People asked Jesus a lot of questions, but he rarely gave them a straightforward, end of conversation, answer. Instead, when asked a question, Jesus would tell a story, or follow up with another question.
The Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, was once asked by an interviewer, “I have noticed that you Jews often answer questions by asking another question. Why do you do that?”
To which Wiesel answered, “Why not?”
As a survivor of the Holocaust, no one knew better the value of questions than Elie Wiesel. The final solution was tried once, he has written, the final answer given, and look what that got us. Questions keep the conversation going, they keep the dialogue open, between us and others, and between us and God. They keep things from being resolved prematurely, which is one of the most foolish things that we can do in life. When it comes to the deepest questions about life, it is better for us to wrestle with them without settling them than to settle them without wrestling with them. It is okay to leave some questions in life only partially answered because some questions only can be partially answered. And what Jesus and our Jewish brothers and sisters teach us is that that is okay with God too.
You see our questions can save us. I know that has been my experience in life because questions can take us to a deeper place in life. They can get us lost for awhile, but in a good way, that we might find ourselves at a deeper place of meaning, a deeper place of commitment, a deeper place of faith, which is precisely what happened to Elijah.
As he flees into the wilderness, he leaves behind him a trail of questions, but in the end they help him to get where he needs to go, to the mountain of the Lord, and to a deeper sense of his call as a prophet, one that relies not only upon himself, but upon others, and most importantly upon God.
So following the questions is one way that we can practice getting lost, and this is another way: we can risk failure. Elijah’s failure in relation to Jezebel upsets his secure little world for awhile. Out there in the wilderness he is lost, wondering who he is without all his success as a prophet. It is a hard soul searching time for Elijah, but in the end it helps him to learn to trust in the grace of God.
Now risking failure is a hard sell in our society. In so many ways ours is a graceless society when it comes to failure. “Second place is just first loser” is the operative principle in many segments of our society. So why even try unless we know we can win. And in a graceless society there can be so much shame in failing. Our society can be merciless in its shaming. No wonder why we as parents have become so overprotective of our children, trying to keep them from having any experience of failure.
It is understandable, but it is also unwise in the long run because there is value just in the trying, even if it means failing sometimes because there should be no shame in that, not in a world of grace. So we do our children a real disservice when we keep them from experiencing even small failures. What is going to happen to them when a big one comes along, as it does for most all of us at some time in life? Will they end up out in some sort of wilderness like Elijah, questioning why they should even go on with life? And what about all the lessons we can learn from failure. It is one of life’s best teachers after all. Taylor captures this in a wonderful phrase. She calls these lessons “the spiritual fruits of failure.”
Let me read her entire paragraph on this. “Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success,” Taylor writes, “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.”
The spiritual fruits of failure. How different might our lives be if we were to really let ourselves live fully enough that we risked failure sometimes, listening less to all the shaming voices of our society and trusting more in the grace of God? Imagine that. Better yet. Practice it. Start small if we must. And go slow. But practice it.
The whole time that I was writing this sermon, I had a childhood experience in mind. I had not thought about this in years. But as I was writing, I kept remembering all the times in my childhood when I would want to tag along with my older brother and his friends, and how many of those times he would turn to me and say, “Would you get lost!”
Now there was no grace in his voice when he would say that, and until now I could never hear those words as anything but negative. Get lost. But after pondering Barbara Brown Taylor’s chapter on this, and after working on this sermon, I have finally come to a different place. Getting lost can be a good thing to do in life sometimes. It can even be the voice of God, and the workings of grace, saying to us, “Get lost.” Imagine that. Better yet. Practice it.