Off The Beaten Path
(or The Spiritual Practice of Getting Lost)
Chilmark Community Church
June 2, 2019
Genesis 12:1 Numbers 10:11-12 Luke 4: 1-14
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Armen and I recently spent a week visiting the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
We traveled in unfamiliar territory on roads we had never seen before, slept in strange places and ate in untried cafes and restaurants – on at least two occasions experiencing some pretty dicey results. Traveling “off season” sometimes had me wondering when we would find the next gas station, or the next place to eat. Most of the businesses were still closed. From time to time, in the misty remoteness I really felt like a stranger in a strange land.
As we drove through dense forests of Jack Pine and birch rising steeply on either side of the road, covering miles and miles without seeing another car or human being , Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflections on the idea of getting lost as a spiritual practice were very much with me.
Taylor writes about how we humans get into stable patterns that help us to move through our daily lives in an orderly way – patterns that become automatic and almost unconscious. She compares this to the way cows follow well trod paths day in and day out without having to think about where they are going or what they are doing. She writes “I am convinced that this is normal human behavior, which means that something extra is needed to override it. Why override it? Because once you leave the cow path, the unpredictable territory is full of life. True, you cannot always see where you are putting your feet. This means you can no longer stay unconscious. You can no longer count on the beaten down red dirt path making all of your choices for you. Leaving it, you agree to make your own choices for a spell. You agree to become aware of each step you take, tuning all of your senses to exactly where you are and exactly what you are doing.
This was my experience, traveling along hairpin turns high above the ocean, not being able to see whether other vehicles were approaching on the road ahead, keeping conscious watch for obstacles in the road where the signs indicate the danger of falling rocks. The play of light on the ocean; the softness of the mist shrouding the trees; ribbons of water falling from hidden places in the rocky cliffs all stood out with greater clarity. On those occasions when the GPS device occasionally couldn’t “find us” we did get to have the experience of being lost. All of a sudden, it is just us in the car in the wilderness, unable to even sense direction because of the fog and the lack of an appearance by the sun.
Being of a theological mindset, I found myself connected in a new way to Abram and Sarai being called out to “a land I will show you” – not really knowing where they were going, but answering the call with a willingness to get lost; then Jacob running to escape his brother’s murderous rage and getting lost in holy space; Moses and his band of wanderers finding their way through wilderness to a place of promise; Jesus spending time in the wilderness – – all willing to be “lost” – – all on their way to finding new ways of being conscious of God, all on the way to discovering who they were to be in the Divine unfolding of God’s people.
In the off season wilderness , we spent a number of mealtimes sitting at the dinner table in small out of the way restaurants and diners enjoying the company of wait staff and local people as well as others who were traveling the off the beaten path. Places with unlikely names like “The Yello Cello” and “The Farmer’s Daughter”, the “Foggy Skipper” – even visited a place called “Proud To be Hookers” (It turned out to be a rug hooking co-op). We encountered gentleness, kindness, generosity, trust, interest, hospitality, grace and delightful humor in strangers wherever we landed.
Last week we heard the guest preacher at the Congregational Church in West Tisbury name and confirm the emotional and spiritual stress that is in our country today – that we are all, regardless of our politics, having the experience of being in the wilderness – “off the beaten path” – lost. We are traveling in a wilderness where the familiar patterns of civility and the traditional values of honor and respect, honesty and integrity, trust and truth telling are barely holding on like battered prayer flags in a strong wind. Whether we have chosen it or not, we are enduring an experience of the spiritual practice of being lost.
In a climate of fear and name – calling and distrust, we are reluctant to talk to one another about what is important to us – afraid to be with one another in our differing opinions about what we understand to be right or wrong. Many of the trail markers of civility and honesty that have guided us have rotted and faded by the trailside. Alongside all the other crises we are in – humanitarian, constitutional, environmental – we are also in a spiritual crisis. The holy impulse of God desires holiness – – wholeness and unity in our immense diversity of belief and understanding and political orientation. But we live in a time of being fractured and divided – and therefore vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by powers beyond our control.
I’d like suggest that, as uncomfortable as this is for many of us, it may be an invitation from the Author of All Life to engage in the spiritual practice of being lost – to confess that this is where we are -to trust that in the wildness in which we may find ourselves, that there is, indeed, a guiding principle – the same One who guided Abraham and Sarah and Jacob and Moses and Jesus through their wild and lost times. Wherever a sense of being lost has happened in our ancestral stories, it has resulted in a new and heightened consciousness of the movement of the holy One – – guiding the narrative if you will.
Life in this country and, indeed, in this world, today literally calls us to take the risk of getting off our beaten paths – to join our faith ancestors in the discomfort of the journey into wilderness territory – to find and encounter one another -to encounter the stranger – to have the difficult conversations, to have the experience of entering unfamiliar terrain, of being lost, as we try to reach out to each other in our differences. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we all may carry the “wilderness gene” – – that we have a propensity as God’s people to be wanderers, sometimes lost in strange and unfamiliar places. She also affirms that the practice of getting lost is a way of awakening to God.
The very act of sharing together today in communion at the table Jesus has prepared for us is, indeed, an invitation into that place of being lost – – being in the wilderness – – being in the wild and unruly presence of God’s dynamic and ongoing creating as we travel in this strange and stressful time together. May it be so.