In the introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “An Altar in the World,” she tells about a time when she was invited by a “wise old priest” to come and talk with his congregation. When she asked him, “What do you want me to talk about,” he replied, “Come tell us what is saving your life now.” She then talks about how she felt when he said that.
It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.
Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Taylor’s story. She is an outstanding, Episcopal priest, a wonderful writer and speaker. She was a local church pastor for a number of years. And then, she basically fried her circuits. She became so overwhelmed by her ministry, that she stopped being a pastor and became a seminary professor instead. She wrote a rather famous book about her journey out of active ministry, which she called “Leaving Church.” It is a beautiful telling of the trials and tribulations of ministry. Nearly all of my clergy colleagues have a deep connection to that book. We can relate. Ministry, as wonderful and meaningful as it can be, is not an easy life.
After leaving church, Taylor’s next book was the one I mentioned before, “An Altar in the World.” In it, she tells a number of great stories about her attempts to find the sacred in everyday life; how different it was from the experience of trying to confine sacredness to the rituals and creeds of her church life. All she had to do was figure out what her life depended on and stay as close to that reality as she could.
I found this book compelling. Taylor has a way of looking theologically and spiritually at some of the frequently overlooked, ordinary experiences of our lives, and turning them into spiritual disciplines. One of those disciplines is what she calls, “The Practice of Getting Lost.” I’d like to share some it with you.
“When I first moved to the land where I live,” she wrote, “I shared it with a herd of cows. The first thing I noticed about them was that they were pure white. The second thing I noticed was how predictable they were. With a hundred acres at their disposal, they had worn narrow paths across those acres to their favorite watering holes, shady spots, and clover patches. When they wanted to get from one of those places to another, they lined up single file and followed the tracks they had made across vast expanses of pasture. Some of these tracks were no more than eight inches wide, which is about one-fourth the width of a cow. Yet the cows knew exactly where to put their feet, even without looking.
Watching the cows made her think about how people act much of the time. We tend to follow familiar, well traveled paths. We tend to line up with the crowd and go where they go. We tend to choose the predictable and comfortable over the unpredictable and uncomfortable, when we have a choice. And most of the time, we do it all without even looking.
Last week I was talking about Beginner’s Mind. Well, this is the opposite of beginner’s mind. It is a going about our lives in sort of a semi-conscious way, not really paying much attention to the ordinary things that make up most of our days. And it’s perfectly understandable that we would do this. Staying in places that are predictable and familiar has a very definite upside. We can relax. We can let down our guard. We can be confident that we are safe, for the most part, and we can go about our normal routines without having to work too hard at paying attention.
However, there is a pretty significant downside too. If we spend all of our time in places that don’t require much attention, it’s incredibly easy to fall into the habit of simply not noticing much of anything that’s new or different. When we don’t have to be in a state of heightened awareness, we usually don’t bother. We see what we expect to see. We tune in to the things we know we need to focus on, but not much of anything else. The downside of spending all our time in places that are comfortable and familiar, is that we easily become blind to the mystery, the wonder and the beauty of life’s little grace notes.
There’s an old children’s book that we used to love to read to our kids at bedtime. It was called, “Nothing ever happens on my block,” by Ellen Raskin. It’s the story of Chester Filbert, who lives at 5264 W. 107th street. Chester spends the whole story sitting on the curb in front of his house, lamenting that nothing ever happens on his block. But the whole time he is talking, in the background, there is a wonderful collection of things happening that he never notices. A thief breaks into a house and is caught by the police. Two girls are jump roping together. One falls and breaks her leg and is carried off by EMT’s. A man in a parachute floats down right behind him and gets caught in a tree. But Chester is so caught up in believing that nothing ever happens on his block, that he doesn’t notice any of it. He only sees what he expects to see.
Now, getting back to Taylor, personally, I’m not sure I like being compared to a cow, but it is true that most of my life is about as safe and predictable as, well, most of your lives are. In an average week, I rarely encounter anything like a truly novel situation. Life does settle into patterns doesn’t it. Maybe you remember that Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song by that name: Patterns. “My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled.” No kidding. And though patterns can very well be familiar and comfortable, I think Taylor is right to warn us against allowing our routines to take over our lives.
Her prescription, for all this, is to get lost. Intentionally introduce a little unfamiliarity into our lives. Intentionally seek out the new and different. Put ourselves into situations where we don’t automatically know what the ground rules or boundaries are. Throw a party for someone you don’t know well enough. Visit a Hindu temple. Eat some tofu. Heck, sit in a different pew once in a while. I don’t know. It doesn’t have to be anything earth shaking or life threatening, so long as it forces us to actually experience what we’re experiencing. Getting lost can become a spiritual discipline when it enables us to be alive to our own lives for a change.
Taylor has an interesting take on what getting lost is all about; far different than the negative associations we usually have. I think most people would say getting lost is serious business. Wandering around in unfamiliar territory is a sure way to raise our anxiety level. What if we get hurt, or run out of food and water, or never find our way back? What if we go off somewhere where even Siri can’t find us? No doubt about it, most of us have an underlying fear of not knowing where we are.
Or, if you think about being lost the way church people often do, the danger isn’t so much physical as it is spiritual. There’s an old sermon illustration I found along these lines. It tells of three brothers in Scotland out on a lake when a storm comes up unexpectedly. They’re all thrown overboard, and one brother drowns immediately. The other two begin swimming toward a small rocky island a couple of hundred yards away. The older brother makes it, the younger brother doesn’t, and the illustration ends with the older brother sobbing, “Oh! lads, little brother was nearly saved! Little brother was nearly saved! … Nearly saved, nearly saved!”
Now, I’m sure you can imagine the typical sermon in which that story would have been used over the years. “Oh people, this tragedy, as horrible as it was, is nothing compared to the tragedy of the souls who come within sight of the very gates of heaven, only to be lost for all time as the angels cry out: “Nearly saved! Nearly saved!”
This is actually one of the earliest arguments I had with traditional Christian theology. Even as a confirmand, way back in eighth grade, it never made any sense to me that a loving God would permit any of us to be lost for all time. But even more to the point, this kind of preaching is about trying to motivate people through fear. To me, that has always felt out of keeping with the fundamentally loving and forgiving messages of Jesus. God goes out in search of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, and the point of these stories always seems to be that God will not rest until the lost are found.
Being lost, getting lost, can have all kinds of dimensions for us. It tends to be something we fear, but if we follow Taylor’s argument, there can also be benefits. She talks about “Getting slightly lost, so that [we] can gradually build the muscles necessary for radical trust.” I like that, and my own experience bears her out. My most profound experience of being lost happened at the end of my ministry in Westport. We’d been there for about five years when everything started to fall apart at once. I began having serious conflict with my Associate minister, my family went into crisis, and my mother died, all within the space of about a month. My whole life and ministry were up for grabs. I have never felt so lost. Certainly not the kind of experience I would ever go looking for intentionally. At the same time, God has never seemed more real to me than when I was right in the middle of it all. There is no doubt in my mind that this experience “strengthened the muscles of my radical trust,” as Taylor put it. When I came out of it, I found that my ministry had been greatly strengthened as well.
Being lost, getting lost, can have all kinds of dimensions. And rather than fear it, it seems to make good sense to seek it out in small ways so that we can practice being lost without losing ourselves. We can practice being lost in ways that tune into to the presence of God. We can practice learning new things and heightening the awareness of our lives, confidently and radically trusting that the Spirit of God is with us and always will be.
Taylor said it this way:
Once you leave the cow path, the unpredictable territory is full of life. True, you cannot always see where you are putting your feet. This means you can no longer afford to stay unconscious. You can no longer count on the beat-down red dirt path making all of your choices for you. Leaving it, you agree to make your own choices for a spell. You agree to become aware of each step you take, tuning all of your senses to exactly where you are and exactly what you are doing.
And, I would add, tuning your heart to the presence of God’s gracious Spirit. I don’t know what ways you might find these words and this wisdom applicable to your own life. But I hope you’ll keep them in mind as we go about the business of looking at where our church might be headed. The easiest thing for us to do, is always the thing we have always done. The most challenging thing for us to do, is to allow ourselves to become at least slightly, a little creatively lost. And so, as we leave worship this morning, though it’s not something I would normally say to you, I hope you will all get lost. And I will too.
Quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.