On September 12, 2010, I went back to church for the first time in nearly 8 years. I decided to go check out the United Church of Christ in a three-fold effort to a) piss off the missionaries, b) appease a missionary, and c) maybe consider that I might be looking for something outside of me. I found the most liberal feminist church I could possibly get my hands on and I hoped so hard it would be … actually, I didn’t know what I hoped it would be, but I really hoped I’d find something.
I called up my best friend, S, and asked her in nearly a whisper if she’d go to church with me. I told her I knew it was weird, but I didn’t want to go alone. She made my day when she said that she’d been looking for a church and that she’d love to go with me. It was really the only relief I found in my decision to go to church.
I remember that day so clearly. I met S in our parking lot and I did some pre-entering-the-building mental gymnastics. I remember spending a lot of time and emotional space trying to remind (or convince) myself that I was going to church to find answers to my questions and not because of a missionary.
When we walked in the building, I felt every cell in my body shaking. I kept saying over and over, “I don’t know why I’m here.” I felt nauseous. S and I found seats as far away from the pastor as we could and as tucked away as we could possibly get. I wanted to be invisible, maybe because I thought if I was invisible, God wouldn’t see me there. What?
The service began and the first words out of the minister’s mouth were: Have you ever been lost?
After this question and for the next half hour, I felt like I had been punched in the lungs. I felt so lost and so confused and so abandoned. I couldn’t believe that this was the first thing I heard after a decade of thinking that God left me.
I stood when others stood and sat when others sat. I refused to sing and I refused to pray, although the entire time I was focusing on being able to “hear God speak” to me. I didn’t know what to listen for or how to listen for it, but while the outside was prickly and telling the world to back off, I was screaming for answers and a hug on the inside.
The best way I can explain this experience is to include the text of the sermon. My commentary is sprinkled throughout.
“Have you ever been lost? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Perhaps you remember it as a child. You were there at the stadium at the football game, or perhaps at the fairgrounds, or maybe it was at an airport like O’Hare Airport and for a moment somebody let go of your hand. You looked around and —poof ! they are gone! Where did they go? Every parent’s nightmare is having a two-year old child skedaddle out of sight in seconds. We had one of those.
Perhaps you remember a time when you were lost but you thought you were just momentarily befuddled. You were, shall we say, “geographically challenged.” Let’s just say that you yourself knew that you were not lost; it’s just that nobody else knew where you were. Have you ever had a time when you thought you were lost? Yes, right now.
In the, “I know where I am but nobody else seems to” category I remember one expedition of our family. My brothers and I were on a backpacking trip in the wilderness north of Yellowstone in Montana, and we were coming down a stream. We thought we were headed toward familiar terrain, but we noticed that suddenly the trail was gone and we were bushwhacking through the woods. I was the navigator in the family and thought for sure I’d see something that would look familiar any minute now; it would come and we would find the trail again. We kept walking and walking and still nothing looked familiar at all. I thought, well, if you go down any stream far enough you will run into civilization.
Little did I know that though we were trying to head north to find where we were suppose to go, in fact, we were moving farther and farther away from all the land marks because we were heading south. Confused, I was sure that we were going in the right direction. I was positive that we were going north and soon we would see our landmarks. Yes, we did have a compass and we pulled it out and looked at it and the compass said we were headed south. I said to my brothers, “The compass is wrong.” My brother said to me, “No, you are wrong.”
We all have times in our lives when we are momentarily befuddled. When we are, shall we say, “geographically challenged.”
Now when we get older and are no longer children, we try or feel, at least, that we should try to project the appearance that we know the world like the back of our hand. We know where we are and we know where we are going. We are confident about where we are and what our place is. Yet, even as adults, our dreams belie our confidence. In the middle of the night we still recognize that we are still, in some deep way, like a lost child. How is this man reaching into the dark hiding places of my heart and pulling these feelings out and telling me he knows what I’m going through? I wanted to vomit, but I also found comfort in his words. I thought, ugh, yes, this is how I’m feeling. But it also felt good to admit to myself that this was how I was feeling.
What preacher has not awakened in the middle of the night with a cold sweat after a dream where you are suppose to preach the sermon at a certain church but the church is locked or the church has been swallowed up by an earth quake. Or you show up at the church and there are people in the pews, but you forgot to put your clothes on.
We all have times when we feel disoriented or dislocated. We feel lost. Sometime, it is not just in a dream, but it is in real life that we feel lost. Lost not just geographically. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a GPS system inside of us nowadays? Our family now has an I-phone, and that’s a powerful instrument whenever you are lost. The I-phone tells you what your latitude and longitude is, but there are ways you can be lost and an I-phone cannot help you find your way. Not just lost geographically, but lost spiritually and lost emotionally. I wanted him so ferociously to tell me how to change this. I wasn’t ready to say out loud or to another human being that I was lost spiritually and emotionally, but I needed so badly for him to keep speaking.
There are times in our lives when we are lost from friends, lost from love. There are times when we are lost to our families and lost in ourselves. Times in our lives when we are lost in worry or lost in grief, or lost in anger or hatred. Or lost in doubt. At this point, I was in tears. This is how I was feeling and he was saying out loud, with words, to people, outside of my body, exactly how I was feeling.
Yes, there are times in our lives when we are so confident about where we are going and where we are headed and then a curve ball comes at us and we didn’t see it coming. It may be a job termination; it may be sickness; it may be loss of a loved one; it may be a separation; it may be a divorce. Suddenly we feel dislocated. We feel aimless and wondering. We feel lost.
The question at those times is how can we find our way? How can we get unlost? I didn’t know where I was, even if I told everyone I knew exactly where I was. I didn’t know where I was going, or where I was supposed to be going. It’s hard to reconcile your thoughts and feelings if you don’t know where you are or where you’re going and you feel like you’re standing in the middle of nowhere with no destination or map. I felt lost.
The world gives us lots of advice. Stay positive. Eat the right foods. Get plenty of rest. Get good exercise. Work hard. But you and I know there are times in our lives when curve balls come at us and all these good bromides from the world cannot help us find our way.
We all know people that have been lost so deeply that it seems as if there is no way to help them find their way back home to safety, to wholeness, and find their way back to peace. So, so lost!
I have been reading a book entitled, Faith Interrupted by Erik Lacks. It’s an incredible book. It’s really a faith journey about two men and their friendship. They were roommates at college, years and years ago, and the book tells about the faith of each and the trajectory that their faith has been on.
One of the men in the book is George Packard, known by “Skip” to his best friend. They were friends since college days and they stayed in touch for 30 or 40 years. Skip served in Vietnam. He was trained in the art of ambush in Special Forces. Skip went to Vietnam and yes, Skip was in the thick of a lot of combat and yes, Skip saw people die at the end of his own gun. Human beings killed by him.
Skip came back from Vietnam and decided to go into the ministry. He became a priest in the Episcopal church and now he is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, his name is George Packard.
George Packard was there at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 as a chaplain ministering to the bereaved and grieved who lost loved ones on 9/11, just nine years ago yesterday. He said being at the World Trade Center site brought back echoes of Vietnam.
Here’s the thing about George Packard. Through all his ministry life as a Bishop, deep in his conscience he is deeply conflicted by the commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Still he wrestles inside himself with the prohibition, Thou Shalt Not Kill, knowing and remembering his experience in Vietnam. He says in this book that what he wants written on the epitaph at his gravestone is, “Jesus, friend of sinners, plead for me.”
He says in the book, “I realized that I cannot live up to all the promises that I have made.” Then he says, “You have to believe that the universe can overcome the gap between you and God.” You have to believe that in the universe there is some power that can overcome that gap. I felt that gap! I knew there was a gap but I didn’t know if I wanted the universe to overcome it. I thought that I could do this on my own. I didn’t think I needed Him. I thought that just recognizing the gap would be healing enough.
We think about the parables and on the surface they don’t make much sense. There is the parable about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind—leaves them vulnerable so they can be killed so they can be stolen, so they can be preyed upon by wolves—and goes out and searches for one lost sheep. It doesn’t make good economic sense.
Or how about the woman who scours her house for that one coin and when she finds it, she has a party and invites all her friends and then spends all that she has celebrating this coin that was lost. It doesn’t make good sense.
How about the father to whom the son said, “You are dead to me.” The son leaves and abandons his father. But when he comes back home, the father throws a party and kills the fatted calf. It doesn’t make good sense—unless you are the one who is lost. Unless you are the one in need of God to come find you, like George Packard after Vietnam.
At the end of the day, all of us will face the time when everything will be lost to us. Our friends, our family, our possessions, our status, our recognition, all of it will be gone. At that time, we indeed hope there is a God who comes and finds us, who risks everything for us out of love.
If we recognize in ourselves how much we need and hope that there is a love out there that can rescue us when we are so terribly lost, how incumbent is it upon us to be that risky love for one another? How incumbent upon us to be the good shepherd, who risks everything to go out and find the one lost sheep? My heart, at this point, was lodged tightly in my throat. I believe so strongly in being the person who shows that risky love for one another, to rescue each other. I didn’t believe, though, that I needed that risky love to rescue me. I sometimes wonder if I thought that I didn’t deserve to be rescued.
Surely there is some such person now in your life, my life, all of our lives and we may not know it. People may put up a good front but somebody is lost and somebody needs you and needs me to reach out and bring them back home to safety.
Garrison Keillor once said, “Love has brought a good many people to safety when competence was all but exhausted!” Friends, can we trust there is a love that will pull us to safety when competence is all but exhausted? A love that reaches out with a hand that brings us home? Amen!”
I stopped going to church when I was 16 years old. Here I sat, eight years older, the first time back in a church, and listening to these words. I got me thinking.
With so much love,
The Lady Mo