Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

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“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be…mistreated four hundred years. But…afterwards they will come out with great possessions.”  Genesis 15:13-14

Have you ever been lost? If not, you may want to try it sometime.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, recommends it as a helpful spiritual practice- as one of those “ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”  An “altar in the world,” in other words.

I remember standing in the dark on a curb in a run-down section of Queens, New York.  I was twenty-one years old and preparing to start my very first job the next morning. And there I was.  Stranded, lost and feeling awfully vulnerable.

I hadn’t intended to be there, of course.  I had hailed a taxi cab with every expectation of making it to my destination.  The only problem was that my driver was lost, too.  He had started driving only a few days before.  Before that he had been driving somewhere in Africa where English is not the primary language, because he didn’t speak a lick.

When we had driven around for about an hour looking for the address scribbled in my datebook, I had finally in exasperation ordered him to stop the car and let me out.  So he had.  Right there and then.

Ten years later the same thing happened again.  With only a few variations.  This time we were in Beijing, China.  This time when my driver couldn’t find the hotel, he pretended the hotel didn’t exist, jabbered away on the phone with a friend of a cousin whose mother he had met while playing Mahjong, and then dropped me on the doorstep of that friend’s rinky-dink hotel.  Which proved to be a bit of a comedown from the elusive, four-star “Emperor’s Palace.”  I spent the night tossing and turning in a claustrophobic, smoke-stained room above a noisy street.

Experiences like these are good preparation for the times when we find ourselves really lost, Taylor writes.  And this can happen “anywhere, in all kinds of ways.    You can get lost on your way home.  You can get lost looking for love.  You can get lost between jobs.  You can get lost looking for God.”

Taylor is refreshingly honest about the times when she has been lost: “I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick.  I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. ..While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back.  I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path…I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.”

The Bible is replete with examples of how “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”  Abraham and Sarah are an obvious one.  They set off on a journey that twists and turns.  Along the way, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, twice; Sarah passes off Hagar to Abraham so he can use her as his mistress; and Abraham passes up the prospect of seeing his son, Isaac, grow up (only to be told at the last minute that he won’t have to).  Later, Abraham’s descendants wander forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus forty days.  The take-home?  That we need to be willing to set off on a journey with nothing but God’s promises to us.  We need to “consent” to be lost, “since you have no other choice.”  This “consenting” or surrender is the practice that helps us develop a kind of “rock-bottom trust.”  Which is really a groundedness in the faithfulness of God to hold and steady us when we cannot do this for ourselves.

Here is Taylor again:

“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.”

Last year I found myself there: lying flat on my face with the breath knocked out of me.  My safety net had split.  My resources were gone.  My friends had begun to fall away- or, I began to discover who my real friends were.  The way ahead was not clear, and I felt totally exposed. Which really was both frightening and liberating all at once.

In that time and since, God has met me more than in all my years of “success” put together.  Raw trust, dependency on God, humility, groundedness, gratitude, self-awareness, prayerfulness, vulnerability, honesty.  These are the “great possessions” that can emerge when we find ourselves in the wilderness without our bearings.  They can make saints and sinners alike rich in the things of God.


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