The Practice of Getting Lost

I don’t like being lost. I get agitated when my GPS malfunctions and end up miles from where I hoped to be. Most of us like life when it is predictable and safe. We like to be in control. We don’t look for opportunities to get lost.

But sometimes that is precisely what happens. Due to circumstances beyond our control we find ourselves lost and vulnerable: A suspicious lump needs to be biopsied, our job is downsized, our marriage goes south, a trust is broken.

Just when we think we are in control we are confronted by the reality that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what is around the next bend literally or metaphorically. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’, suggests that such uncomfortable, unsettled moments can hold gifts. She writes: “I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the familiar path”.

This is not to minimize or romanticize how frightening it can be when lost. Yet the author reminds us that some lessons can only be found when lost.

Several years ago my physician informed me I had prostate cancer. I remember the fear that welled up in me at the sound of that one word, cancer. I felt lost as I struggled to navigate the medical wilderness. What was the right treatment plan? Anyone who has had a difficult diagnosis knows what I’m talking about.

Being lost

It has been eight years since cancer became part of my story and fortunately annual tests show me to be cancer free. Yet I resonate with the story of Jacob in the Bible who wrestled with a stranger throughout the night. In the end Jacob survived and was blessed with a new name ‘Israel’ which means ‘he who perseveres’. Jacob, now Israel, received a new name and was also left with a limp, a reminder of how fragile life is.

I have been lost many times. So have you. My time in the wilderness called cancer has taken some things from me and also given me gifts I otherwise would not have. One gift is the memory of being held, comforted by a presence that I call God. I can’t measure or quantify this but I know this to be true. Another is the reminder that life is a gift to be savored, relished, lived as fully and joyfully as possible. Another is gratitude for friends, loved ones and strangers who graced my life in life-giving and often surprising ways.

I’m not sure I would have found or fully understood the depth of such gifts if I hadn’t gotten lost. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we each add ‘getting lost’ to our list of ‘spiritual practices’. She isn’t trying to minimize the discomfort that comes in being lost. Yet paradoxically she knows that some gifts are found precisely when we are lost.

Mary Oliver and the Gift of Red Bird

Yesterday, the great American poet, Mary Oliver died, at age 83.  Her poetry grew out of a love for nature, that served as a refuge during a turbulent childhood.  In the woods and ponds around her rural Ohio home, she found beauty, healing and hope. Throughout her adult life she would find wisdom and renewal in the her daily walks along the beaches and forests of Provincetown, Cape Cod.

Her poem Red Bird, invites the reader to look for the gift of color that breaks into the often grey and cold days of a New England winter.

Red Bird reminds us that beauty however fleeting, comes into even the darkest of times. May Red Bird speak to you.

 

Red Bird

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.

Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.

Still, for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky so black-blue,

Or perhaps because the heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful

That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape

As nothing else can do.

Paddling in the Rain

Several years ago I climbed into a rickety 1946 de Havilland Float Plane for a two-hour flight from Petersburg, Alaska for Tebenkoff Bay in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska. I was dropped off at an island with ten other people I’d never met. The rain was falling in sheets. We would be kayaking from island to island and camping.

Our guide brought us together on the beach as the rain fell. He said: “You are dressed for the rain. This rain will be your constant companion for most of the next week. It is up to each of you how you view this reality. You can complain or you can embrace it. The choice is yours.”

We chose to embrace the rain. For the next week we would kayak from island to island with rain as our constant companion. We had a great time.

I was thinking of that experience yesterday as I kayaked with my wife Tricia and friends on Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts. It was October and the colors were in their New England glory if muted somewhat by a steady rain.

photo (4)

Having been on that lake in the summer with water ski boats racing past us, this day it was just our little group. Apparently most people prefer the sun. The gift of rain brought us quiet.

Slowly we paddled the circumference of that lake. Our only companions were ducks, ravens, hawks, occasionally a rising fish and of course the sound of rain.

In our busy lives where our schedules guide us and our minds race, it was a healthy antidote to be on the water. Our group’s age range was mid 30’s to mid 70’s. Gliding on the water any age difference fell away and we were simply fellow paddlers embracing the rain and the sounds that come with silence.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah said: “Listen and your soul will live.” All we need do is slow down and listen. There is no better place to listen than being on the water in the rain.

Contemplative Paddling

We live in a culture that celebrates our ability to spin many plates, both professional and personal. We also remain highly connected through multi-media, not the least being the ubiquitous ‘Smart Phone’.

I’m not writing to bemoan the state of our culture. There is a lot to be said for the ability to multi-task and staying connected to our immediate and wider community.

Yet there are times when our brain, heart and spirit ask that we let our plates drop (for a while) and tune out from technology (for a while). The reason is that physiologically, emotionally and spiritually we need time to rest, reflect and restore.

A wonderful way to do this is through contemplative paddling. Recently I paddled with a group from the church I serve. We met early in the morning on the banks of a local lake. Our instruction was to limit our talking and to paddle slowly. We were given a meditation mantra from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in I calm my spirit….Breathing out I smile….(inhale) Living in the moment….(exhale) This is the only moment…”

Kayak lone paddler photo

As we paddled on the lake, we were invited to practice this mantra when we found our thoughts pulling us away from being present to where we were. Half the time we simply floated and allowed the wind to take us where it would.

As we slowly paddled or simply floated we found that our minds, hearts and imaginations slowly began to be filled with the simple and profound beauty that was under and around us. Those busy spinning plates or glued to their computer, were missing the beauty that we floated upon.

3000 years ago a Jewish prophet named Isaiah offered this: “Listen and your soul will live”. From the waters of the lake we listened deeply, to the call of a mallard duck, to the soft wind, to the hopes and dreams that slowly emerged as we paddled or floated.

There’s a reason Jesus often removed himself from the demands and busyness of life, to go to a quiet place to pray, to listen. In the late 19th century a mystic and theologian named Soren Kierkegaard said: “The Sacred is always present, simply waiting to be found.”

Sometimes all it takes is time on the water to rest, renew and restore one’s soul. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down to find that a blessing is simply waiting to be found.

Paddle well.