I remember vividly the first time I was lost. The feeling of fear, of being alone in an unfamiliar world. That first experience leaves an impression that lingers. The fear burns into your memory like a hot iron on soft flesh.
I must have been three or four years old. I was with my mother in a department store. We had made our way down the toy aisle, and I was busy entertaining myself when my mother told me to come along. My mother, who managed three young boys, didn’t have hours when she went shopping. It wasn’t a leisurely activity when she had to bring us along — a fact I can appreciate so much more now that I’m the parent trying to shop with two young girls in tow.
My mother kept walking, and I kept playing with the toy I was holding. At some point, probably only a few seconds later, I looked up and realized she was no longer there. I dropped the toy and ran toward the end of the aisle, but I didn’t see her. I went to the next row and didn’t see her there either. Meanwhile, she had worked her way back on the opposite end of the aisle to find me, but I was gone, having already bolted in frantic search. With every step a rising sense of panic seized my chest and shortened my breathe. Tears began to flow quickly, as I shouted repeatedly the universal cry for help, “Mom!”
Now, in truth, I was probably only separated from her for a matter of seconds, but truth is a matter of perspective, so for me the moment stretched into a space within an eternity. Being lost is less about location than it is a state of self-awareness. Typically, you are in the exact same location moments before you realize that you are lost, and then your entire sense of perspective to your surroundings changes.
Everything is up-side-down, inside-out. Everything is new and different. Your senses are amplified, and every nuance that blended into the background before now juts out in stark relief. You desperately search for any familiar detail that you might grasp to guide you back to something known.
I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, or most of the times since, but there are benefits to getting lost. I’m talking more about the sense of self-awareness than specific locations. Taking a wrong turn in a city I’ve never been in before isn’t so swell, but finding myself lost in a completely foreign experience can often lead to transformation. In fact, most of my truly transformative experiences in life have all come during periods of being lost. Consider experiences like going to college, starting a new job or career, becoming a parent, going through a break-up or divorce, or the death of someone close to you. These are all times when we get lost and everything is new and unfamiliar. And these are often times of reflection, struggle, prayer and transformation.
I’m sure there is a fair amount of research behind the benefits of getting lost. If not, there should be. There are the physiological changes — increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and an increased sensitivity to hearing or smell. The body becomes a more effective receptor for all stimuli, and the brain records everything in case something turns out to be useful later. But, unfortunately, the biological purpose of our hardwiring tends to look for the familiar, rather than the nuance. Once we find a road sign that points us back, we’re quick to hop back on the highway of familiarity and leave behind a potentially wonderful opportunity to learn or experience something new, different and unique.
Because the brain records all of this information, if we take the time to reflect and dive into the data, we can still benefit from it. But how often do we? There is security in finding our way back home, either metaphorically or in GPS terms. And there is fear in the unknown, and probably an evolutionary predisposition to avoid going back to it. When we do engage the unknown, be it an idea or an experience, we tend to search for ways in which the idea is familiar to something we already know. We attempt to co-opt it by assimilating it into our conceptual framework rather than assess it on its own terms.
Walking into the unknown requires courage and patience. Invariably, when we look back on our most influential experiences in life, they are times representing major shifts or disruptions in our normal patterns of thinking. But we must first suffer through the discombobulation and anxiety that comes with these experiences. And that’s easier said than done.
I must confess that I am prone to my comfortable routines, my well worn paths, the known. I’m much more likely to sit on the sofa and watch Robin Williams do the Carpe Diem thing, than to do it myself. When I am thrown off my routine, I forget things … like leaving my laptop at home and driving off to work or leaving my wallet on the shelf.
But on occasion, I go against my nature and jump into something new. This requires an intentional effort on my part. Mostly I’m a big introvert who just wants to be left alone. But when I do forget myself and agree to do something outside my little box, I am pushed to learn, grow, explore myself and the world around me. And the experience always shapes me in large or small ways.
We get into routines in our spiritual lives, too. The routine helps preserve this illusory precept of control we have. Diving in over our heads quickly dispels such notions and brings us back to the realization that we are not in control and we need help. One of the aspects of Jesus’ story I find so compelling is that he sought out the people who were lost and in way over their heads. The adulteress, the divorcee, the tax collector, the conflicted soldier, the prostitute, the Samaritan, the grieving mother, the angry father, and the leper. These are more than characters in a story. They are part of our collective consciousness, the archetypes that live inside us and are born through our experiences. In these places and through these experiences, we are more likely to look around for help, to look for some sort of savior. That is when we open ourselves to welcome him. Their stories are our stories, our promise, and our hope.
Jesus constantly challenged the religious leaders who felt they had everything figured out. He answered with questions and parables instead of absolutes. He invited people to seek and explore new ways of looking at old laws.
Jesus also challenged people to walk away from the familiar and embrace the opportunity for transformation. When he told those fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to “follow me,” they dropped their nets, walked away from their boats, their livelihoods, their family and into an unknown. That’s really radical. Can you imagine just dropping everything in your hectic life and walking away with someone who said, “Follow me.” I”m guessing that if Jesus walked up to most of us in our everyday life — shopping in the grocery store, washing dishes, or coming out of a meeting at work — and said, “Follow me,” most of us would be like, “Right on, Jesus. Thanks for asking me of all people. I’m so honored that you would choose me. Just let me do a couple or 3,001 things that I simply must finish before I can go with you. And how long do you think we’ll be? We’re planning to visit some friends this weekend.”
Sometimes, for the love of all that is holy, we need to embrace our inner Van Halen and “Jump!” Of course, preceding that plunge into the deep end should be some prayerful consideration. Risk taking just for the sake of risk taking doesn’t honor the sacredness of entering the wilderness either. Listening to that inner voice, the indwelling of God in all of us, should help in the discernment process, as well as fostering the sense of peace, confidence and courage that are typically required.
I entered a new wilderness recently. I took a sabbatical from my church after having completed a couple of arduous leadership positions during a period of transition for our congregation. First, I served as the congregational president after our senior pastor was dismissed for sexual misconduct. Then, I served as the chair of the committee to identify our next pastor. I lived in the center of major church activities. During that period, I also helped teach a discussion-based adult Sunday school class, played bass guitar in the contemporary worship service, maintained the church website and Facebook page, taught the newcomers class, and coached the men’s softball team. I was church with a capital “C.” And so much of my identity was wrapped up in those activities.
Separating myself from my church identity was hard. I felt lost, untethered and waving in the currents of my own making. The first couple months of the sabbatical felt very uncomfortable. I wanted to return to my normal routines and responsibilities. Of course, my ego was served through my church identity. People relied on me. They needed me. But most of the discomfort was the anxiety of the unfamiliar, the what now, what next. At one point, these church activities were my wilderness. I had intentionally thrust myself into the unknown of these roles, and I grew immensely in my faith by doing so. But now I felt the strain of Newton’s law of thermodynamics regarding an object in motion. The force was pulling me back to what I already knew, more out of inertia than a true sense of purpose or calling. Being still and waiting while these activities went on without me was disquieting, like sitting in a waiting room without your smart phone to distract you. What to do now? Sit, look, think. Or pick up a magazine and find out what Kim Kardashian is up to now.
The longer I am away, the more confident I grow that God may be calling me to other purposes, and I should shed my anxiety about my former identity and seek to learn what is needed of me in this new season. The trick now is to be patient and listen. And to quote Tom Petty and the Heatbreakers, “The waiting is the hardest part.”