Gifts From The Dark Wood, III: Lost
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray,
turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone,
they have forgotten their fold. —Jeremiah 50:6
On Sundays and Tuesdays during Lent this year, Katie and Jo and I are going to be talking about Gifts of the Dark Wood. That’s the title of a book written by a friend of mine named Eric Elnes. Eric is the Senior Minister at the Countryside United Church of Christ in Omaha.
I think that title is fairly provocative. Eric is referring to gifts that don’t look like gifts when we first experience them. When we’re going through them we experience them as curses, or at least as confusions or frustrations. They happen when our lives are dark. They happen when we find ourselves in a dense and untracked forest and can’t find our way home. Today, the experience of Lostness.
That verb ‘to lose’ is actually one of the more fecund and versatile verbs in the English language, isn’t it? It’s amazing the number of things you can lose. You can lose your car keys. You can lose your wallet. You can lose your life savings. You can lose the war. You can lose the game. You can lose a bet. You can lose an argument. You can lose the election. You can lose the weight. You can lose your cool. You can lose your temper. You can lose your virginity. You can lose your innocence. You can lose your mind. You can lose your husband. You can lose your life. You will lose your life. You can lose your way.
The verb ‘to lose’ is a fecund and versatile verb because Loss is a universal experience, in small, annoying ways, and in large, ruinous ways. Sometimes we will be the subject of the verb ‘to lose,’ and sometimes we will be the object. Sometimes we will be the losER, and sometimes we will be the lost.
One insurance company calculated that the average person misplaces as many as nine objects a day, which means that in my lifetime I have misplaced 200,000 things. Granted, I got most of them back, but not the time I spent looking for lost things; in my case, six months of my life. Americans spend $30 billion a year replacing lost cellphones, which is one of the reasons Apple is sitting on almost $250 billion in cash.
The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is one long, sad catalogue of catastrophe: loss after loss after loss. Jeremiah began his prophetic career about 600 years before the birth of Jesus, which gives him a box seat for the collapse and destruction of his nation. It’s 587 BC and the Kingdom of Babylon, the world’s only superpower at the time, is on a rampage, eating smaller nations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
And Jeremiah is watching this whole thing the whole time. First he loses his freedom; he’s in jail; Jeremiah is so pessimistic and negative about his country that his compatriots think of him as treasonous and subversive.
Then he loses his Temple; the Babylonians pull it down stone by stone and set the whole pile on fire.
Then he loses his King, Zedekiah, who is taken away in chains to Babylon, but before they enslave him, they put out his eyes, and before they put out his eyes, they kill his two sons in front of him so that that will be the last thing he sees on this earth.
Then Jeremiah loses his whole homeland; his kinfolk are chained together wrist and ankle and collar and marched to Babylon where they will end up cleaning toilets and picking cotton for their Babylonian slave masters.
Having lost so much, it’s not surprising that the metaphor that leaps instantly to Jeremiah’s mind is sheep without a shepherd. Or, to put it more accurately, sheep with some very bad shepherds. “My people have been lost sheep,” says Jeremiah, “their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill, they have gone; they have forgotten their fold.”
But of course Jeremiah has no monopoly on the pastoral metaphor; from Genesis to Revelation it’s one of the most pervasive images in scripture. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” says Shepherd Boy David, “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus. “I know my flock, and my flock knows me.”
“Which of you,” asks Jesus, “Which of you, having 100 sheep and losing one, doesn’t leave the 99 in the desert to go find the single lost lamb?”
“My people have been lost sheep,” says Jeremiah, “their shepherds have led them astray.” Jeremiah has lost so much. He’s lost his freedom and his home and his king and his princes and his nation. The only thing he has not lost is his hope.
“These lost folk,” says Jeremiah, “these lost folk shall ask the way to Zion with faces turned toward the City of David, and they shall join themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that God will never abandon.”
The way Luke tells the story, Jesus picks up the same theme. “When the Good Shepherd finds the lost lamb,” he says, “he throws it over his shoulders and dances home smiling the whole way. For I tell you,” he says, “there is more joy in heaven over a single sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous who need no repentance.”
If you feel lost just now, do you know that there is somebody looking for you? When my daughter was about seven, she was part of this tight girl gang that loved to play Hide-and-Seek, and one of those girls was so good at playing Hide-and-Seek that nobody could ever find her. Her name was Rachael, as I recall, and indoors or out, she would find and slip into clandestine closets and crevices that nobody would ever think to look in. After all the other girls had been sought and found and hopped on their bikes to get a Slurpee at 7-11, Rachael would come wandering back to home base from wherever she’d disappeared to, wondering where all the others had gone.
One time I came upon her entirely disconsolate. I said, “What’s the matter, honey? You won!.” She said, “Why isn’t there ever somebody looking for me?” I wanted to say, “There is, Rachael, there is!” but it didn’t seem right to preach a sermon to a forlorn seven-year-old.
If you feel lost just now, do you know that there is somebody looking for you? And will it help to remember that the One who is looking for you is the One who threw the whole sprawling wilderness of creation across the canvas in the first place? You may feel lost but God knows exactly where you are. This is God’s world and no forest is so dense, and no desert so barren, and no canyon so cul-de-sac’d, and no precipice so hazardous that God cannot lead you home in the end. “ Yea, though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death…”
If you feel a little lost just now, if you don’t know exactly where you are, if you don’t know how to find your way home, did you ever stop to think that this might be the time to forge a new path? Maybe it’s to explore. Maybe it’s time to blaze a new path.
In his little book Gifts from the Dark Wood, my friend Eric says that when he looks back in retrospect over the life that he has lived, he realizes that his greatest accomplishments always followed some failure, loss, or disappointment. He says, “What I experienced as loss proved, in hindsight, to be the loss of an old way of life that was in the process of giving way to something new.”
The Chair of the Search Committee, which called me to the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a guy named Buzz Larson. Buzz was something of an adventurer. Buzz was fearless. He was 78 years old when he chaired that committee. I was 32. He took a chance on me. When I showed up at that church with five years’ experience in the ministry, people would run to Buzz and say, “Buzz, would you please try to explain this eccentric decision?” Buzz would just say, “Let’s give it a whirl.”
Buzz sold lumber for a living. His territory was Western Michigan, so every year for 40 years, he’d drive 35,000 miles peddling his plywood and rafters from Niles to Petoskey. In his own family and among his colleagues, Buzz was legendary for investigating underexplored landscapes. He’d be driving up the highway to a Home Depot or something and see one of these two-track fire roads that meander through the State Forests starting in Cadillac and dead-ending at Lake Michigan, and he’d say to himself, or to whomever was with him in the car, “Huh, I wonder where that goes?” And off they’d go on an adventure.
Or, he’d be vacationing with his family in the Badlands out west, and he’d see some overgrown path along the side of the road, and he’d say to his kids, “Huh, I wonder where that goes?” And he’d stop the car and off they would go on an uncharted, two-hour hike. They were always getting lost, and always finding the most extraordinary serendipities; an elk, or a waterfall, or a cascading stream, or a red fox, once a black bear.
Buzz sold lumber for 40 years till he was 80 years old. When he was 72, he bought this used, sporty, BMW, and I said to him, “Buzz, are you having a midlife crisis?” He said, “Bill, I’m only 72. It’s way too early for a midlife crisis.”
When he was 84, they told him he had six months to live. I forget what was wrong, but it must have been cancer, that Emperor of All Maladies, right?
I went to see him when he received his terminal diagnosis, and he told me, “Bill, I’m not afraid. I am looking forward to the last great adventure in life. I want to find out what’s on the other side. I don’t mind losing something good to find something better.” There he was, cruising down the highway of life, and he looks off to the side, and he sees this rocky, thorny, overgrown path through the dark wood, and I could almost hear him say, “Huh, Death, I wonder where that goes?”
Kathryn Schulz wrote a touching piece for The New Yorker a couple of issues back. It was called “Losing Streak.” Her father died, and she was so bereft that she starts thinking back to all the smaller losses she’s suffered over the years: keys, a bike lock, the bike. Once she lost her truck, one of these monster trucks the size of Nevada. She’d forgotten where she’d parked it and spent two hours walking up and down every block before she found it in the unlikeliest spot.
And she speculates on the universality and comprehensiveness of the experience of lostness. Sometimes we are the losER, and sometimes we are the lost, but all of us will lose everything that is precious to us, including and especially our lives.
But then Ms. Schulz stops herself and says: it’s not losing that’s remarkable; it’s all we get to find, right? “You meet a stranger passing through your town and know within days you will marry her. You lose your job at 55, and then stumble into some new and exciting endeavor to finish your career with. You have a thought and find the words. You face a crisis and find the courage.”
The impermanence of the things we love makes them more, not less, precious. “Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend.” One day, all of it is lost. Therefore, we spend our days “honoring what we find noble, and denouncing what we cannot abide.”
“Why isn’t there ever anyone who’s looking for me?” asked seven-year-old Rachael. Oh, but there is someone like that. That One knows exactly where you are, and when the Good Shepherd comes for you and tosses you over the shoulder, there will be a mad party in heaven.
These figures come from Kathryn Schulz, “Losing Streak: Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss,” The New Yorker, February 13-20, 2017.
Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics and Other Wanderers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), p. 2.
Kathryn Schulz, op. cit.