Most of us have an experience or two of being lost.
Childhood: We may have been separated from our parents in a large entertainment venue or department store. Those are moments of heart-pounding panic when we feel abandoned and unsure which way to go, afraid that we may never find our family again. Those memories may be the root of nightmares for the rest of our lives.
As adults: Even as adults we sometimes find ourselves lost. Perhaps in an area where we have never been before – and before smart phones with apps and GPS systems, it wasn’t always easy to find our way back to where we got off track. Or downtown, so surrounded by tall buildings that there is no cell signal. OR maybe in a wood or wilderness where we have gotten off the path far enough that we cannot find it again. The trees don’t talk, and sometimes a compass seems only mildly helpful – unless we knew which direction we were walking before we got turned around – and if the path stays straight enough to find by compass point.
It can be frightening to be lost, and most of us can remember how that felt.
I. The experience of being lost from God
If getting lost were only a special experience, we could offer a class on maps, directions and survival skills and be done. But it isn’t. It is also a spiritual problem. Most of us experience times when we feel completely thrown off center spiritually, perhaps that God has picked up and moved on, leaving us behind. We feel as abandoned as a child separated from family in a large department store – wondering if we will ever find God again, wondering if God will even notice or care that we are no longer together.
In the biblical story of Jacob, he has one of these moments. He is running away from home and his angry brother Esau. Jacob had tricked Esau and his father Isaac and stolen both the birthright and the blessing that Esau would have expected as the first-born son. Esau wants to kill Jacob – he has had more than enough of his little brother getting the best of him, and their mother Rebecca intervenes and sends Jacob off to her family in Haran. But it is a long way to go. Jacob stops in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow, probably feeling sorry for himself and more than a bit abandoned by God and his family. And then he has a dream. This is in Genesis, chapter 28.
In his dream, there is a stairway of angels going up and down from earth to heaven and heaven to earth. He is astonished – and awakens to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” We have an advantage as we read his story – we know the rest of the story. God did not abandon Jacob. Jacob just felt that way. Jacob just wasn’t getting things all his own way.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce has fouled up an opportunity with a jealous rant and gotten fired and literally thrown out of the office building. Then he goes too far in chasing off a group of miscreants who are hassling a blind homeless man, and ends up beaten up and his car vandalized. He feels like there is an “Anti-Bruce” theme running and God is responsible! He tells his girlfriend that God is a mean kid sitting on a rock with a magnifying glass and he is the ant. He is good and lost at this point. He drives off in his car and starts talking to God.
“Ok, God. You want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what is going on. What should I do? Give me a signal.”
IMMEDIATELY flashing neon sign at the side of the road flashes, “Caution Ahead.” And a truck full of warning signs: stop, caution, wrong way, dead end pulls in front of him. He tries to drive around it and ends up running into a pole. His pager flashes a number – which is unfamiliar to him, and is actually a message from God. Poor Bruce. He is so lost that he is missing all the signs.
It’s not just Jacob and Bruce. Most of us experience moments when we feel a bit lost or estranged or abandoned by God. We have an experience of being lost in darkness, or fear, or estranged from God and we wonder how we will find the way back to a place that we know, that’s familiar, that’s safe.
II. God does speak to us in our lostness.
I don’t think that we need flashing neon signs to give us messages, pagers that continue to work after being run over by a car, or spooky voicemails from God. God tries to guide us, give us hints and suggestions in natural ways and through those around us. We can’t expect miraculous moments as the ways God speaks to us. God is usually a bit more subtle than that – and respectful of human free will.
Samuel. In the story of Samuel as a boy serving in the Temple, we have a different kind of message from God. Samuel is sleeping in the dark, and he hears a voice calling him. The voice sounds to him like that of Eli, the priest under whom he is serving. So he runs to Eli – who at first thinks he is just dreaming. But by the third time, Eli figures out what is going on and tells Samuel that the Lord is calling him, and how to respond. In the quiet of the night, in the darkness and in our dreams, God speaks. It may be that this is when our “monkey minds” are quiet enough for the whispers of God to be heard. It may be that we need mental and spiritual distance from our everyday worries and activities in order to hear the voice of God. Perhaps we need to be “so far out of the loop that we forget where the loop is” – or even that there is one in order to be open to the subtle messages of God.
This might be referred to as “losing ourselves,” this time when we get ourselves lost on purpose so as to be able to hear the voice of God….
God speaks also through our intuition, hunches, moments of awareness. I’m sure we miss them a lot because they are subtle. But notice that in this story with Samuel, he misses them the first couple of times and God is persistent. God doesn’t give up just because Samuel is missing his cues.
Nor does God need perfect people to help us. Eli has failed God in some ways and his sons will not be prophets of Israel. And yet, he is the teacher who tells Samuel how to respond to God’s call. It is encouraging that we don’t have to be perfect in order for God to use us. “We can be mediators of the Spirit’s voice to others even when we haven’t done such a great job at following it ourselves.”[i] Even if we are LOST ourselves, we can be gift-bearers to others who are trying to find their way in the dark.
God does speak to us. It’s often subtle. Sometimes the people God uses are not perfect messengers. But God speaks to us and doesn’t stop speaking.
III. We are never lost from God. Where the GIFT of being lost comes.
When we are lost, we are between spaces – between the intention we started out with and arrival at a destination. It is a liminal space -- “the time between the 'what was' and the 'next.' It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.”[ii] It is in this space that transformation and growth occur; where new awareness and understanding develop. Being LOST allows us to inhabit a liminal space where the unimaginable becomes possible. It is a GIFT of the Dark Wood.
Author and theologian Richard Rohr describes this space as:
“… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” - Richard Rohr[iii]
But Rohr advises us not to run. Being lost can be a gift: …where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.[iv]
The power of these in between spaces is the reason that we take our youth, and to some extent our children, outside of their comfort zones. It is when they feel a bit vulnerable that they are open to new possibilities. We could do a hunger lock-in here at church and let them divide themselves out on a floor map of the world by population and divide out popcorn according to resources. The two kids in the US would have several bushels of popcorn while Africa had three kernels among 30 kids and Asia and South America had a cupful to share among about 20. They would start to understand the problem of the distribution of world resources. And we could give them $5 to feed themselves for the day and take them to a fast food restaurant and grocery store and let them figure things out.
But if we take them away from home to Red Bird Mission in Appalachia and they meet teenagers who don’t own a pair of jeans and hear about children who can’t go to school because they have no shoes – they experience a new way of living that opens their eyes and changes their world. If we take them to Perryville, Arkansas to spend a week learning at the Heifer Ranch it reshapes how they think about all of life. The power of liminal spaces is why we take our youth downtown to encounter the homeless and away for mission experiences. They need to be a bit lost and vulnerable for the new insights to really sink in.
We all need to take advantage of being lost a bit better. Most of us, if we’re honest, don’t know who to become or how to navigate the transition in being lost. We often miss the real potential of ‘in-between’ places – we either stand paralyzed or we flee the “terrible cloud of unknown.” [v]
We CAN do this! When we aren’t feeling brave, it helps to remember that God is with us in the liminal spaces. Remember the words of Psalm 139:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, (139: 7-12) for darkness is as light with you.
Wherever we are lost, God is there.
When we have lost our bearings, a sense of control over our lives or the circumstances around us, God is there.
When we have lost our person – when grief has struck us so hard that we are on the ground gasping for the next breath and unsure whether or not we want to take it – God is there.
When we feel that we have lost who we are, and we don’t know what to do next, God is there.
Wherever we are lost, God is there. Wherever we find ourselves, God is there.
Signals. When we encounter these times where we find ourselves in-between spaces, or lost somehow – we need to may close attention to signs and signals that God may be sending. This is a time to study, pray and meditate longer and with more attention. It is a time to pay attention to our body’s needs and more attention to our hunches or intuitions. Paying attention is crucial if we want to catch the Holy Spirit’s nudges. I suspect that only in the movies would there be flashing neon lights that say, “Caution Ahead.” For us, there is another degree of attention required. But we don’t want to miss the gift of being lost. On the threshold between what has been and what will be there is great possibility. And God – when maybe we are more open to hear.
Conclusion: We all have occasional moments of being lost. They are a part of life – and God speaks to us in those moments when our ears may be more open to hear the voice of God. Liminal moments – thresholds of possibility – are gifts we don’t want to squander. They are times to pay close attention – for messages from God and clues on where to go next. The word of God for the people of God…
"Lost" [by David Wagoner]
Lost Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
-- David Wagoner (1999)
[i] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood, 100-1.
[iii] Richard Rohr, quoted in Psychology Today in an article by Carrie Barron M.D. “Creativity and the Liminal Space.” June 04, 2013,