Monday, September 12, 2016

The Art of Being Lost

Olivia Hamilton
Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
September 11, 2016

When is the last time you were lost? Like, actually, physically, lost? If you’re like me, it’s probably been a while. With the advent of GPS technology and the rise of smart phones, we can easily determine our precise geolocation in the blink of an eye. And of course, whether we like it or not, other people and even corporations can track our whereabouts, too, often using that information to try to sell us things in stores nearby.

With all technologies, and this is no exception, there are benefits and also burdens. As we gain the capacity to easily navigate from point A to point B, our own “cognitive maps,” according to some researchers, are withering away. We are increasingly relying on technology, rather than memory or reasoning or even intuition, as we voyage through unknown cityscapes or make our way to the closest Starbucks or Bank of America. The natural question that this all begs, for me, is this: does being so precisely located make us feel more at ease in the world we inhabit, or on the other hand, does it contribute to a sort of gauzy, pervasive sense of dislocation?

I think the last time I was lost, in that disorienting, nearly panic-inducing way, was about six or seven years ago. I was in rural Kentucky with a friend and we were traveling to visit another friend at her grandparent’s farm, tucked away down a dirt road in a part of the county called Pumpkin Hollow. After hitting the road later than planned, and encountering some traffic on the way, we found ourselves behind schedule, snaking deeper and deeper into what felt like no-man’s-land as the sun quickly disappeared behind the hills. At this time, neither myself nor my friend had smartphones, and because we had left town in haste, we hadn’t called our friend to give us directions. Naturally, our GPS unit kept leading us down dead-end dirt roads and we eventually powered it down in frustration. And of course, we had no cell phone service and could not send out an S.O.S. to our friend, either. What was really frustrating was that we knew we were close, within a few miles of our destination, we thought, but we just couldn’t close the gap.

Finally, after about an hour of searching, we did something unthinkable: we stopped and asked for directions. I kid, but in fact it did feel like a risky decision, as there were no gas stations or fast food places nearby, and so the option we were left with was to knock on the door at a stranger’s home, in the dark of night. We pulled up to a small brick ranch house with cars in the driveway and a swing set in the yard, where we could see the red and blue lights of a television flickering in the living room. Even though this seemed like a relatively safe situation, my heart was beating fast as we approached the porch. Being lost made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

To our great relief, the young woman and little boy who opened the door couldn’t have been more friendly, or more helpful. The mother scurried to the kitchen and scribbled down directions, reassuring us that we’d have no trouble finding it. She reiterated each turn and made us repeat the directions back to her so she could be sure that we had absorbed them. She even made a joke about how often people get lost down these roads, helping to lessen the sense of shame we were feeling about our nagivational failure. And after we pulled away from her house, we had reached our destination in five minutes flat.

This of course is a simple, somewhat cliché anecdote. I was lost, and then I asked for help, and then I found my way. End of story.

Our gospel today tells the familiar story of things that were lost being found. These stories, of the lost sheep and the lost coin, offer us a wonderful opportunity to rejoice at the goodness of God’s mercy, made known to us in God’s unfailing ability to redeem what was once considered gone for good.

As with all of Jesus’ parables, the message, I think, is simultaneously simple and complex. And with that being said, these parables, peppered throughout the gospel, are anything but cliché: they are stories that are profoundly disorienting to those who hear them, in this case the Pharisees and scribes – and I want to think for a minute about why that is.

If you think back to the imagery of the GPS, it’s as though the Pharisees and the scribes know exactly where they are in the social order – but such a precise social location has made them completely incapable of being able to rely on their own “cognitive map” to navigate human relationships in any sort of charitable, generous way. They are the ‘haves’ in the world of the ‘have-nots’ and the stable and secure in a world of weary, itinerant workers and women working to the bone, saving every coin, to make ends meet. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them, they jeer.

As the saying goes, wherever we humans draw a line in the sand between “us” and “them,” Jesus is always on the other side of that line. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the scribes subverts the idea that there are the sinners and then the rest of us righteous, upstanding folk, the lost and the found. The parable is effective inasmuch as it reminds us that the only sin to be found in this scene is the false pretense that the world is made up of different types of people, only some of whom are worthy to sit God’s table, literally, to break bread with Jesus. We are not composed of the righteous and the rest…we are people, all alike in our capacity to seek favor and praise, and to believe ourselves better than, or more worthy, than others.

To close, I want to share an excerpt from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop that came to mind as I was reading over the gospel text earlier in the week. The poem is called “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

I love this phrase that she uses: the art of losing. Like the concentric circles of loss that Elizabeth Bishop draws…first keys, then afternoons, then places we loved and cannot return, Jesus’ parables ask us to relate to losing a hard-earned coin, then a creature in our care, and then, finally in the third which we do not hear today, the parable of the Prodigal Son, we are really faced with the reality that what Jesus is talking about is not stuff, it is us. If the poem encourages us to live more fully into the experience, or the art of losing, perhaps Jesus’ parables are teaching us to cultivate the art of being lost.

What would the art of being lost look like for you? I have a few ideas, but of course I invite you to ponder this on your own terms, as well.

Maybe cultivating the art of being lost could involve spending some time, each day or each week, without a roadmap or a plan. In prayer, on a walk, or in meditation. Practicing having no agenda other than to be with God. Another way to embrace being lost might involve reaching out to a friend or mentor or counselor when you are in a time of need, especially at those times when everyone else seems to think you’ve got it all figured out but you yourself are doubting the way forward.

Perhaps fully inhabiting being lost means striving to be aware of judgments made about others…you know, the kind of judgments we all tend to make about who’s in, and who’s out. On this day when we remember the attacks of September 11th, and lament the subsequent grief, war, and division that have followed, we are reminded just how high the stakes are in shaping a world where we’re a little slower to cast side-eyes at one another, and when we’re a little quicker to suspend suspicions and to develop curiosity about our neighbors rather than fear.

And perhaps above all, practicing the art of being lost means embracing the reality that you object of someone else’s searching – in this case God’s. As we read over and over in the gospels, Jesus’ commitment is always to the lost and the least. And just a hint…that means all of us. Instead of fretting alone, let yourself think of being lost as the perfect opportunity for God to meet you right where you are.

If you heard nothing else tonight, I hope you hear this: Being lost doesn’t have to be a disaster. The God who made you loves you without fail, no matter how far you wander or stray. Like the woman who searches every inch of her house by lamplight for the missing coin, God will not rest until all that God has made, and loves, is reconciled with its maker. Amen.

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