Selecting wandering as the topic of the first message I deliver to my home congregation after a summer’s break in sermon writing proved to be, perhaps, a little dangerous and a lot foolish.
Not that getting started on any sermon is very easy, I must confess. It involves the same stomach-churning fear of spiritless failure, the same degree of procrastination, night walking, and floor walking. But certainly getting charged up after a respite, especially the one I have just had, is just that much more terrifying. And humbling.
What if I just get to drifting and spinning? What if I get off course thrashing around in my own disconnected thoughts and piles of possible anecdotes and quotes?
Go so far off point that the whole exercise is pointless?
What if? What if I let myself, allowed myself, to get lost and to show you that my own life, especially my own spiritual life, is not so disciplined, not organized, not so together, not so on track?
When I first thought of doing this particular sermon, I was in the middle of our week-long vacation. The first part we spent on Mackinac Island, Michigan. This nine-mile-around resort and state park on Lake Huron is NOT a place where one could very easily get lost these days, or even, truth be told, do much actual wandering. It has been used as a getaway for almost 200 years now, first discovered by French and American trappers, and then the well-to-do who bought and sold the furs. It is, after all these years, highly developed and manicured and marked and patrolled. Picture perfect looking, if not completely safe — given the article we read in the island weekly describing the recent purchase of bullet-proof vests for the local police.
Since there are no cars allowed, the traffic jams — which they do have — look different than on the mainland, but there is a lot of congestion nonetheless, and you have to get up and out awfully early to avoid the back-up of bikes on the roads and trails, or the weaving and passing of horse buggies on the main streets.
Still, there was something in the shift from our regular routine, the usual routes we traveled and work we did, that allowed for the beginnings of a kind of delicious mind-drifting. Bits of memories surfacing — remembering suddenly when I caught my first little fish, a rainbow trout in another mountain lake on the West Coast — the way it smelled in the frying pan when we cooked it for breakfast — or the times I sorted semi-purposefully through the millions of pebbles on an ocean beach, hoping to find what I thought might be precious jade or jasper.
Or just lost in thoughts, as the cliché goes. unhurriedly biking along a safe, circular road. Thoughts begun and easily abandoned, glimpses of the future.
Of the time after my full-time working years are over, when the when-and-where possibilities will be expanded. Allowing myself to wander into the potential vastness of life alternatives that the open vista of one the world’s Great Lakes inspires.
Which was just fine and not at all dangerous, given that all we were responsible for those few days was exactly nothing — no house, yard, children, or pets to care for, no assignments to complete, nowhere we had to be at a given time or place. Just which fudge factory we would taste samples in, or which restaurant we would select for the same broiled or fried white fish dinner.
Oh yes, and to remember to scoop up some of that amazingly clear, blue-green water and keep it in a plastic bottle to bring to a Unitarian Universalist water service gathering in September.
And while we could choose freely to roam some, and rest a lot, it was not so for many young and foreign workers on this island, who pedaled or walked faster and more intentionally to their summer jobs, wearing the work shirts and uniforms of the businesses that serve the tourist industry; the horse buggy taxi drivers, the hotel busboys, the waitresses and gardeners and the shirt shop clerks. Their wandering time, it seemed, was brief at the best, a few moments on the lawn of the town green, stealing kisses and sips of beer, or as a new high-school graduate we met found, in one of the rockers on the back porch of the Mackinac City Library. Not reading, but just catching a later afternoon nap or a glimpse of the gently rolling waves.
So, it isn’t a particular place that makes for wandering — as isolated and lovely as it may be — I was reminded, but the freedom — or at least the time and intention to do so. As we also saw when we went on to Toronto, Canada, which did not seem to be a particular tourist destination in July, but a place where people were living and working or visiting on business. A city of four million or more people, most of them concentrating on getting somewhere, though not so frantically as some of the American cities I have been in.
We could afford to get turned around, even lost, in a way that most of them could not.
Richard and I stayed in a downtown hotel, advertised over the Internet as family friendly, but truth be told, on the edge of what in other times might be called the red-light district with strip clubs and sex toy shops (and, refreshingly, several condom stores).
When we set out walking in this big city, it had more of a sense of, at least somewhat, chancy adventure. We had — at least at first — a small pocket map — but we didn’t have any idea, really, of what neighborhoods we were going into. We could have found ourselves dangerously out of bounds, as unfortunate tourists in San Francisco do far too often, very quickly moving from the safety of the central shopping and theater district to what was in pre-software-company boom time the very risky area South of Market Street, near the bus terminal and other marginal blocks, even in the middle of the day.
In our case, fortunately, while we did drift considerably off the safest city path, nothing unfortunate happened, and we had, again, the time and inclination to allow ourselves to not know where we allow ourselves to know where we were going, to get turned around — a lot — when we had a map — and to find our way back through the city to our hotel when we lost the map. And had to sort of intuit which direction to go.
Going in and out of a fancy, stuffy, old hotel; variety stores; train stations; and underground shopping malls. Listening to Canadian-style gossip and reading about Canadian-style politics. Instead of lunching in a trendy restaurant, bumping into the campus of the University of Toronto, eating cheap sandwiches in the cafeteria of the medical school.
Walking until we were too tired and sore, stopping at a movie theater and paying for tickets so we could rest in a cool dark place, not caring — especially — what movie we were watching. Never quite figuring out the value of the Canadian dollar or how the streets ran, or whether we were seeing what we were supposed to see or do in a city we had not really bothered to study up on before deciding to just drop down in there via Northwest Airlines. Agenda-less, direction-less.
Wandering, wandering, but never truly lost. Truth is, I have never been literally really lost, alone on foot. When I was a child, my mother would sometimes send me straight away to look for the closest restroom in a campground, and I would, for a few very long moments, get confused about where our tent was. And one time I ran into a black bear coming into the restroom as I was going out, but I always had the sense that if I could not immediately find my parents, some other grown up would surely help me find our site and my family again.
I have, however, more often than I would prefer, gotten lost driving. Almost every day when we first moved to Atlanta, and still occasionally in these mountain foothills. I was really lost on the way to a Mid-South church conference in Birmingham last spring, me and dozens of other conference goers. I drove practically to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, before realizing I had missed the exit 22 miles back.
And in Jackson, Mississippi, the first time I drove in that “metropolitan” area, finding myself in a suburb where the names of streets and subdivisions meant nothing to me, praying that I would find a gas station with an attendant who could guide me back out to the interstate.
There’s nothing fun or spiritually uplifting about being lost behind the wheel. It is simply frustrating and dangerous, as the accident I was in two years ago showed me, momentarily lost, distracted, and then spun around across a country road in Forsyth County. A country road that has grown completely unsafe, ironically, because it is not a desolate rural place anymore.
Not a wilderness, for sure.
Our Judeo-Christian religious tradition — the one most, if not all, of us grew up in or surrounded by — depends heavily on the metaphor of wandering alone in the wilderness to describe our need to buckle down and be faithful. A story that assumes that we first get good and lost and then either find or are found by God, rescued, and saved forever, our spiritual journey completed. We once were lost and now are found, are blind but now we see.
That’s what we tend to think the powerful Hebrew Bible Exodus story is about, about wandering alone in the desert for forty years until finally finding and entering the Promised Land.
In Judaism, however, this journey was never about being alone and never about being unguided, and indeed not yet over. The forty-years expedition through the Sinai desert was not from bondage in Egypt to liberation in the land of milk and honey. There were lots of people journeying together, the whole Israelite tribe.
And while they were led by the very human and frequently indecisive Moses and his quarrelsome co-leaders, they were always under the guidance of God — who scouted the places they were to camp in fire by night and cloud by day. They didn’t have to find God and God didn’t have to meet them in the Promised Land. God was along for the whole bumpy trip.
However, despite the constant divine presence, it is also clear from the Exodus story that here were some individual Israelites who, God or no God, wanted out all along the way. Whose preferred path was either straight back across the Sea of Reeds to Egypt to physical slavery but regular meals, or staying put and going with a less demanding, less temperamental, and definitely a less restless and more directional deity, The Golden Calf of the Canaanites, for example. You could just stay put and worship this tribal God.
Despite the supply of manna and the fire and cloud and the assurance that God knew what God was doing, for some of the folks, there was just too much wandering with no sense of where things were going to end up.
Indeed, with all the complaining and sulking in tents that went on along the way, God eventually allowed only one of the whole first generation of wanderers to live to see the Promised Land, let alone enter it at all. You’ve whined and bolted enough, God decided. You’re not getting in.
Wandering was, you see, tedious, hot, anxiety-producing, ever frightening. Even when they were never alone and not really ever really lost at all.
In this story, God (or what one of my colleagues has called the Good, Orderly, Direction of Life) demanded that his people be willing to wander, to be willing to give themselves over to the discomfort of not knowing when and where they were going, to let go of their old maps and ways and turn themselves over to a less predictable and counter-intuitive way of traveling.
Not on a single straight path for a fixed period of time, but meandering, seemingly suspended, and not in complete control.
Whatever we Unitarian Universalists believe as individuals about the existence or nature of a God, or supernatural power in the world, we do seem willing to believe that we are called to be engaged in a search for truth and meaning. And, therefore, to be the supposition that we do not know from the beginning exactly where and when we will find that ultimate, cosmic “ah-ha” we are looking for.
Therefore, a commitment to being on some sort of journey, with all its possible twists and turns and sense of powerlessness.
The wandering around.
For me, this summer has been a reminder that the willingness to wander is something I can’t assume is innate, or be taken for granted. And that while being a wandering tourist can be a source of temporary adventure and amusement, being a wandering permanent member of this religious community and the larger human tribe can be more than a little uncomfortable sometimes. It is hard to allow myself to not know — to not know where I am going or when I will find any more truth or meaning than I have been led to before.
So, despite a respite and rest, I came back from my vacation to the work I do with poor and homeless people with no greater sense of peace or insight than I had before I left. I returned to the same feelings of being turned around and tired, direction-challenged, even lost and alone in a world where my liberal theological assumptions that individuals will achieve some sort of happy and fulfilled and productive potential if only given the opportunity and the tools — and that I can and must respond to the people I meet with and work with a sort of unwavering, condition-less love and compassion, are being challenged almost daily.
And then, kind of miraculously, or at least serendipitously, in the midst of my own spiritual wandering, came a fellow traveler, a 19-year-old Mennonite volunteer from a small town in Canada. I have been asked to be the academic and spiritual guide for her remaining internship time in the United States, where she has worked in a homeless adult soup kitchen and now in a family shelter.
The first time we met, I asked her where she was in her own personal and religious journey — and she responded that she was feeling lost.
Lost, I ask her, because you are far from home in a new city, in a new country?
No she responded. Lost because of the things she was experiencing. Lost when one of the men who she met and got to know just disappeared, without even saying goodbye, lost when she trusted people who then lied or stole or hurt each other. Lost when the older adults she worked with seemed to act in ways that were racist or homophobic. Or expected more from her than she could give.
Lost, especially lost, when she found herself tired and grayed and weepy and on edge, and when God — the Good Orderly Direction — that she had believed would be with her and the people she worked with, to show the way, to protect them from harm, seemed to be largely missing in action.
I don’t know where I am with God these days, she told me, the Christian God and the Christian tradition she has been raised in, which calls for devotion and good works and peacemaking, even when the other party is not at all interested in waging peace. Love is hard work, she says. I don’t know how Jesus did it.
I presumed to tell her that I thought she was right where she needs to be on her spiritual journey. As a young and maturing adult, she is assuming for the first time her own authority for making explicit the choices of ideology and lifestyle and madly questioning everything she previously had faith in. I reassured her that this is, indeed, where she belongs, as hard as the wandering is, however painful, however “crappy” as she has written, it makes her feel at times.
And that she is not alone. There will be for her, if she allows them, other seekers to talk with, to whine with and want to escape with, to laugh with, to journey with.
To help point the way, to help her to see. People who need her as much as she needs them to help make sense out of senselessness, find meaning in the meaningless.
And that, I told her, is the amazing grace. I am discovering in all of this getting lost and the finding ourselves again.
That after the complaining and the crying, the foot dragging and the wanting to go back on the straightest possible path, what we are found by and we find is the hope and company we give each other, the love and compassion we show ourselves. Over and over and over in this lifetime.
So be it.