Sermon, Lost and Found
It was early 1996, and Kate Braestrup and her husband Drew had a good life, and a plan in the works for an even better one. See, Drew was going to retire from the Maine State Police force in the next fifteen years, and then start a second career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while Kate would continue her work as a writer. The kids would be grown by then. As she says, “it would have been a fine life.”
That life, however, was not meant to be. One afternoon in April that year, Drew was killed in a car accident, and Kate found herself a widow raising four children.
Many of us have heard, and I’ve even taught about the so-called “stages of grief,” which sound orderly, and civilized. There’s some comfort in this idea – that there could be orderly steps, and if you just go through them, one by one then at the end of them, you’ll be done – although mostly I think it’s comforting for people who are watching others grieve. Those who are grieving already know that grief is anything but orderly.
I’ve decided grief is more like having a bully hang out with you, all the time, just waiting there, threatening to take over and cloud whatever else might be going on, demanding your attention, reminding you by its obnoxious presence of what is starkly absent.
The writer William Bridges writes about the experience of transitions – which is another way of talking about grief and loss – as a transition. He says that there are five aspects of any ending – again, “aspects” sounds too tidy, but stay with me, I find this a little more on point than the “stages” idea.
Bridges’ five aspects are dis-engagement, dis-mantling, dis-identification, dis-enchantment, and dis-orientation. I appreciate that all of these start with “dis” because it reminds us that endings are about taking-away. They are about what isn’t, about lack. Dis-engagement, Dis-mantling, Dis-identification, Dis-enchantment, and Dis-orientation. Especially dis-orientation, especially about the future, as it had been imagined, and will no longer be.
This is how Kate Braestrup was feeling when her husband and father of her four children was just suddenly – gone. Dis-oriented, confused, lost – in the vast landscape of grief, and heartbreak. The imagined future, dissolved.And in its place….nothing, yet.
All of us will come to this moment, at one point, likely many points in our lives. To be alive is to be at risk for heart break, if it’s not already a done deal – it’s in the works. The question is not if our hearts will break – but more, how they will break, and how we will live in the midst of that brokenness. Will our hearts break, as Parker Palmer says “into a thousand shards that become an unresolved wound that we carry with us for a long time, or, will they be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity for empathy and tending to the suffering of others.”
We can stay lost in all sorts of ways – or the experience of being lost can lead us to discovering in a new way what it means to be found. Discovering – even more of who we are, and what our life is calling us to be, and do.
A year after her husband died, her husband who had, remember, hoped to retire from policing to be a minister – a year later, Kate Braestrup enrolled in a nearby seminary with the intent of becoming herself a Unitarian Universalist minister. She’d tell people when they’d ask about why she’d enrolled: I’m here because Drew isn’t.
As she describes it, “Mine is a sweet little story, one that has what my journalist-father used to call a ‘great hook.’ When local newspapers run human-interest pieces about me, they inevitably tell the tale of a plucky widow taking up her husband’s standard and bravely soldiering on.”
It was a sweet story, but it was not entirely true. More than just picking up Drew’s calling, she was following her own. Drew’s death stirred up something in her, a sort of brokenness and disorientation that created in her a new longing. So that when she said she was “there because Drew isn’t,” it wasn’t actually just a note about his absence – not just dis-orientation any more, instead, it was cause and effect. Because Drew had died, a new calling had been born in her. Because she had been so lost, she was also newly found.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned how my son Josef is named for the youngest brother in a story in Genesis where Joseph becomes the ruler in Egypt – you might know this story, even if you aren’t familiar with the stories in Genesis. It’s the basis of the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. It’s kind of like that, except a few less songs.
So, Joseph becomes a ruler, after his brothers try to kill him and sell him into slavery. At the end of the story, his brothers come to see him, and Joseph forgives them, and he tells them, “what you meant for evil, God used for good.” Which, let me translate if these words don’t work for you – he’s saying even if something starts out as terrible, or with a very bad intent, it can actually end up being a great gift, something you are grateful for.
Which, I need us to promise, we will never, ever say to anyone when they are in the middle of feeling lost. We’re going to promise together, right here, that we are never, ever going to say to each other, or to our friends, or even to people we don’t like that much,when they are in the depths of despair: “maybe you’ll be grateful for this someday.” Promise?
Because – like William Bridges says, “disorientation is meaningful, but it’s not enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness, when things that used to be important don’t seem to matter. We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great dark non-world.” In the midst of this lost feeling, it’s never helpful to say anything resembling “I’m sure this all has a purpose,” or, “It’ll all turn out to be for the good.” It might have a purpose, it might turn out for the good. But also, it might not. And all we do when we try to push for it to be already and inevitably good is discount the lost-ness, which is all there can be, until there’s something else.
And also, let’s agree, that just because pain and loss can be redeemed into goodness, does not mean that pain and loss are in and of themselves good. I call that bad theology – which in my book, by the way, bad theology, is not a matter of truth, it’s just a matter of what kind of life does it allow us to live.
So, the fact that pain and loss can be redeemed into good does not make them good – it only means that humans are amazing, resilient alchemists – capable of taking bitterness, and destruction – and creating something beautiful, and unexpected, and life-giving. Or at least, we are a lot of the time, when grace shows up, and some mysterious magic meets us there in the midst of it all, and when courageous love does its work on our bruised and embattled hearts– then that “something else” can begin to take shape. Then, we can start to learn the street names and the mountain ranges that will orient us and give us a new sense of direction in this new land.
Which is also to say, sometimes the mess doesn’t transform, sometimes the magic doesn’t happen – and I wish I could tell you there was a formula to make sure it works. But, the stages aren’t a formula, remember, and the aspects aren’t either, and there is a piece of being found, and then lost, and then found again that is out of our hands. Anyone who has ever loved, or been, an alcoholic or an addict who keeps returning and returning and returning to their addiction knows what I’m talking about. And as theologian and addictions specialist Gerald May says, we are all in our own ways, addicted.
Rebecca Solnit’s was obsessed with a question from the ancient greek philosopher, Meno, or at least attributed to him: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
Her obsession with this question with this question that led her to write her book, A Field Guide for Getting Lost. She realized that if we are to become what we are not yet (which is what she believes that question is trying to get at – and a quest which she describes as the heart of life) we need to travel to places where we have never been, places that we may not even yet know exist. There is no map that we can follow for the most important journeys of life because if we knew how to get there, we wouldn’t need to go. “How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
With cell phones and GPS today, it’s harder than it used to be to get lost, but at least it’s easier now to concede when it happens. For better or worse, my children will likely never know how it feels to sit in the back of the car, with your parents arguing in the front about whether or not they are lost, and whether or not it’s time to pull into the nearest gas station and ask for help.
I’ll let you guess which parent in my family wouldn’t pull over (ok it was my dad). But I’ll confess my sisters and I did not always help the situation – we’d yell out from the back – YES, We’re lost! We’ve been driving in circles. We’re totally lost!
We were a family that spent a lot of time being lost, or at least arguing about being maybe-lost.
I used to think that my parents didn’t have a great sense of direction, but I’ve come to realize that this was likely because they didn’t have a lot of practice.
My dad spent most of his growing up years in the small town where he met my mom when they both attended the local junior college. My mom was raised in the even smaller town an hour away, which, at least in that direction, was the next nearest town.
After a couple of years at the University across the state, they returned to that small town where they met, and lived for the next 25 years.
Having a “good sense of direction” requires the opposite of my parent’s proclivity for the familiar. It requires becoming comfortable with the mysterious, and learning how to make new markers when the old ones have disappeared.
Solnit points out that even though “getting lost” describes where you are in space, it is fundamentally related to time – because when you’re on a tight schedule – what might otherwise feel like you’re “figuring it out,” instead can become a crisis of dis-orientation. She says that, for example, being off course for a few days or a week wasn’t a disaster to the travelers of the nineteenth century – even though they did not have maps, let alone cell phones. But the pace of their life imagined this as regular and expected. In order to find your way, you knew you would at one point or another lose your way. Being lost was part of being found.
This is a good reminder for anyone experiencing being lost, literally or emotionally – that finding your way in space requires taking more time, slowing down so that we can really see the new scenery, feel the new possibilities, allow this new world we’ve discovered to become a part of us, and us a part of it.
Although it’s true what I said earlier – that it’s often a mystery how anyone moves from a state of dis-orientation into clarity, and creativity – there are a few things that can make the way-finding more likely – a few ways that the heart might more likely break open instead shattering. Things like I said – taking time, and slowing down, doing things that might stir up joy, or, faking it til you make (that’s a real thing).
But all of these start with the most important thing…which is to be a lot more like my sisters and I in the back of the car screaming “we’re lost!” than the parent in the front confident that we are JUST FINE.
Rebecca Solnit says that even though we worry most about children becoming lost, they actually better at it than most adults, because they accept earlier that they are lost, and so “they don’t stray far, they curl up in some sheltered place at night, [and] they know they need help.”
My dad is not dumb, for the record, and he’s not even the most stubborn person I know. But he does believe that he is the sort of person that figures stuff out – he’s an architect afterall – and he believes he’s good at directions, and like most of us, he doesn’t like being wrong, or having his self-image challenged. And so acknowledging that he doesn’t in fact have it all under control, that he might indeed, be lost, especially in front of his wife, and his children was not an easy thing.
Only once things got really, really bad – sometimes to the point of having driven an hour or more in the wrong direction (sorry Dad) would he finally give in. As Gerald May says “surrender does not come easily. It has long been treated as a noxious concept in our society. We are taught to never give up, never to allow ourselves to be determined by anyone or anything other than our own self-will.” We are taught that when things are going wrong, we should try harder, do more – even if you’re going in the wrong direction, at least you’re going.
But what we knew on those family drives, and what is true in life today – is that just because you refuse to BELIEVE you are lost does not alter the fact that you ARE LOST. It just delays your capacity to receive the universe’s grace in the form of a magical gas station attendant or some other form, which also means delaying the getting back on your way, onto that journey that is already new because you are making it, the calling that is already being created even in the midst of everything you knew falling away.
Which brings me to the state of the world. I’d never tell you that the chaos and dis-orientation we are experiencing is all for the good, that we should be grateful. Because, we promised. But I do believe that somewhere in the rubble, there are already the seeds of who we are called to become. And if we can acknowledge with clear eyes and full hearts, that so much of the time, we feel dis-engaged, dis-mantled, dis-identified, dis-enchanted and dis-oriented.
If we can accept together that we are lost, instead of numbing or burying these feelings, we can move as Parker Palmer says, “directly into the heart of it,” then we might able to “learn what [this moment] has to teach us, and come out the other side.” Only then might we discover the new calling that is already emerging, the new life that is uniquely possible only because of what has been lost, and only then might we and our world be found, already changed and made glorious by the journey.
These are either in the sermon, or were influential: