The art of getting lost

We just moved to a new city, and even with Google Maps and Waze I’m finding myself lost pretty regularly.

As a pastor, I realize that there are some great spiritual components to getting lost. Think about all the stories in the Bible of people who neededto lose their way: the Israelites had to get lost in the wilderness before they were able to enter the promised land, Jonah had to get lost in the belly of a fish before he could follow God’s commands and Jesus had to go get lost in the wilderness before he began his ministry (not to mention the stories about God’s tendency to pick people up and whisk them off to unknown locations — Elijah, Ezekiel, Philip and John of Patmos for example).

I’m not saying that God is miraculously sabotaging GPS satellites to stop me from getting where I’m going, but getting lost has, in fact, been a reminder to me that not everything in life is about getting from point A to point B. And in a new place, that’s good news. On a very practical level, it helps me not panic when I get turned around. Maybe I’ll be late to where I’m going, maybe I’ll waste some gas and contribute a little extra to global warming or maybe God will use the mistake to give me an extra minute to think about something, to show me something I wouldn’t have otherwise seen or just put me in the right place at the right time. With those possibilities in mind, I can stay calm and focus on finding my way again.

I’m very grateful to my parents for helping instill this ability to not panic when lost. Growing up, we’d go on vacations and, more often than not, end up losing our way at some point. What I remember is that we concentrated on how “scenic” the “scenic route” was, rather than worrying about lost time — and we probably found some extra things to enjoy as we explored unexpected destinations on our trips. As my wife and I moved to a new community, we’ve begun doing a similar sort of thing: giving ourselves the opportunity to get lost. One night we went out for ice cream at a new place and turned the GPS off before trying to go a different way home. We ended up going in the complete wrong direction and what was a 10-minute trip out became a 40-minute trip back. But it was a trip that we spent exploring new areas, talking to each other and relaxing because we had the time to spare. At the end of it, we had learned some new roads, and we had indeed gotten back home. Eventually.

My favorite thing about getting lost is the newness of what I encounter. And as we approach a new year, I think it’s helpful to remember that all of us will encounter new things in the next year and, from time to time, we will all feel lost. This is true even though we’ll be celebrating some of the same holidays, going through the same seasons and phases of the year and experiencing some of the same rhythms from years past. What I want to remember – what I would hope we all remember – is that there are opportunities in the newness, that there are ways for us to grow when we feel lost.

So, if you would, let’s get lost together for a minute. Bear with me as we travel through an extended metaphor that might help us get where we’re going.

One of the common tropes of getting lost is “walking in circles.” So let’s go on a hike, and let that hike be a metaphor for our journey through a life of growing in faith. Let’s imagine a trail that takes a wide circle through the woods, up and down a few hills and valleys, with spurs leading off every once in a while and thick undergrowth. If you’re just getting started on this trail, you might wisely get some help: a map, a GPS or compass, or even a guide who’s walked the trail before. And those first times around the trail, using those advantages, you might easily find your way around. In the same way, if you’re new to faith, or feeling uncertain, you might rely on Scripture, or prayer, or mentors like pastors, teachers and friends — and you might rely on these more fully than if you were comfortable and confident in knowing your way around.

After a few times around the trail, after a few years of following God, we tend to become complacent. It’s familiar territory, traveling in the same circle year after year. So you might be tempted to put away the map, to put away the GPS, to travel alone instead of with a guide. And you might decide to take one of those side trails and find yourself lost — maybe lost in another circular path, unable to get back to the main trail. These things happen in our walks of faith. I’ve gotten lost in circles that have seemed to me to be off of the main trail. I’ve gotten lost in questions (Why is this happening to me? Why did you allow this person to die?) and in doubts (Where’s the evidence, God?) and in confusion (Wait, why are there four different versions of the crucifixion?) and in many other ways. And after being confident in my knowledge of the path that leads from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter to church camp and Sunday school and Bible study and all those other staples of church life and back to Advent, getting lost is disconcerting. When I get lost, I find myself not just blindly celebrating Christmas, but facing the Christmas story with new doubts and questions.

Personally, when I’ve found myself in a situation like this – feeling spiritually lost – I’ve wanted to get back on the path. That’s the whole point, right? To put these questions and doubts to rest and get back to being confident in my faith and following the path I’m supposed to be on? I know that’s largely my personality, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. So walking in circles somewhere off the beaten path feels wrong.

An old proverb says, “Seek God, not where God lives.” This reminds me that God is not a destination. Wandering off the beaten path doesn’t mean God can’t find me or has abandoned me. (Psalm 139:7-8: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.) I can seek God even when I get lost in my questions, doubts, confusion or fear — and I don’t have to get back on the right path before I can find God again. I’m always struck by the original ending to the Gospel of Mark, from Mark 16:8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This isn’t what we expect from a Gospel ending — hence the additions to Mark from later Christians that flesh out what happened after the disciples learned about Jesus’ resurrection from the angel at the tomb. But I want to stay with verse 8 for a moment, because sometimes I really identify with how lost the women at the tomb felt at that moment. Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they were somehow struck with the awesomeness of what had happened and the terrifying implications for their lives: What Jesus said was true. They had indeed met and gotten to know God through their relationship with Jesus. The world would never be the same, and even though there would be great joy ahead of them, there would be great pain as well. They weren’t on the path they expected; they were in entirely new territory now. And what we know about their story (even if they didn’t) is that God was more fully with them at that moment than they could have imagined, and God’s plans for their path would lead to an unimaginable faith that we share in today.

Maybe, as you face this new year, you feel like you’re off the beaten path. Maybe the trail markers weren’t the same for you this time around. Maybe the landscape of your life seems unfamiliar. Maybe, instead of walking around the same trail that you’ve been walking around for years, you find yourself lost, walking in circles trying to find your way again. Or maybe this is just another year for you, and the trailhead at the beginning of the year is the same as it was last year. In any case, I hope you don’t feel stuck. I hope you can remember that God is with you, whether you’re running over the same old ground or feeling unmoored in new territory. I hope that you are able to find new signs of God’s presence in old places (you cannot step in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and you’re not the same person). And I hope that you become confident that God will seek you out when you are lost just as a shepherd will seek out one lost sheep out of a hundred.

You are not alone. Keep on walking.

ALEX BECKER is the associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pennsylvania. When he’s not blogging, hanging around the church or doing whatever it is pastors do, he enjoys spending time with his wife, taking long walks on the beach (or anywhere, really), reading books and blogs and backs of cereal boxes, and playing with his zoo of dogs and cats.