Pluralistic World / Safe Place

Questions for Lost People

I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.
[Mitch Hedberg]

Being lost is something I understand, having spent my life in that state. We live in a relatively small city (population 100,000) arranged neatly in a grid (we’re in the Midwest after all) with numbered avenues running north/south and numbered streets running east/west. We’ve lived in the same house since 1981. Yet, more frequently than I care to mention a variation on this conversation occurs as I back out of our driveway.
She: Why are you headed this way?
He: Because we are going out to eat.
She: Do you know where you are going?
He: No.
She: We’re going to Pescara’s.
He: Where’s that?
She: Remember the grilled asparagus we ate with Ron
the evening before the L’Abri Conference?
He: Oh, that was amazing, lightly grilled, slightly crisp.
She: That’s where.
He: Where’s that?
She: Oh for…

Last year my family bought me a GPS for the car, one of those little screens showing a map and a woman’s voice that tells me where to go in an English accent. Her name is Serena.

There is, of course, a far deeper way of being lost. A common enough irritation in daily life, when being lost becomes a metaphor for the state of one’s soul the stakes are raised exponentially. Isn’t that the dark reality behind the television series Lost (2004-2010) and the funny yet sad confusion that fogs Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation (2003)? Walker Percy, one of the more perceptive novelists of the twentieth century, was so convinced that we are Lost in the Cosmos that he published a book with that title (1983). Ironically subtitling his book The last self-help book, Percy was unimpressed by claims that humankind’s progress in technology, medicine, and knowledge had solved the really important questions of life. How is it possible, he asked, “for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of three years, to be one of the most screwed-up creatures in California-or the Cosmos?”

It is not just the mobility of our age that causes so many of us to feel somehow cut off from roots, afflicted with a vague sense of homesickness in a universe that is too silent to be caring and too large to be comforting. We are obviously at home here, being actually made of the stuff of the planet on which we live out our days. How could it be otherwise? And yet, there is also no denying, when we are fully honest, the unsettling pang that causes us to wonder why, if we are at home we feel a bit lost.

Often, Walker Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos, the sense of our predicament arrives in pangs of disappointment that stretch across our entire existence. That is, if we stop being distracted long enough to notice.

Work is disappointing. In spite of all the talk about making work more creative and self-fulfilling, most people hate their jobs, and with good reason. Most work in modern technological societies is intolerably dull and repetitive.

Marriage and family life are disappointing. Even among defenders of traditional family values, e.g., Christians and Jews, a certain dreariness must be inferred, if only from the average time of TV viewing. Dreary as TV is, it is evidently not as dreary as Mom talking to Dad or the kids talking to either.

School is disappointing. If science is exciting and art is exhilarating, the schools and universities have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of rendering both dull. As every scientist and poet knows, one discovers both vocations in spite of, not because of, school. It takes years to recover from the stupor of being taught Shakespeare in English Lit and Wheatstone’s bridge in Physics.

Politics is disappointing. Most young people turn their backs on politics, not because of the lack of excitement of politics as it is practiced, but because of the shallowness, venality, and image-making as these are perceived through the media–one of the technology’s greatest achievements.

The churches are disappointing, even for most believers. If Christ brings us new life, it is all the more remarkable that the church, the bearer of this good news, should be among the most dispirited institutions of the age. The alternatives to the institutional churches are even more grossly disappointing, from TV evangelists with their blown-dry hairdos to California cults led by prosperous gurus ignored in India but embraced in La Jolla.

Social life is disappointing. The very franticness of attempts to reestablish community and festival, by partying, by groups, by club, by touristy Mardi Gras, is the best evidence of the loss of true community and festival and of the loneliness of self, stranded as it is as an unspeakable consciousness in a world from which it perceives itself as somehow estranged, stranded even within its own body, with which it sees no clear connection.

Two millennia ago Jesus wove together three stories on the subject. He told of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, bringing an echo of Trinitarian reality in the trilogy. The first two tales are so brief that they are barely more than a couple of sentences. A shepherd/a woman loses a sheep/a coin, searches valiantly for it, finds what is lost and is overjoyed. The story of the lost son is more involved, displaying in vivid detail the prodigal proficiency that characterizes divine grace. Being found by God turns out to be transformative, when from being lost I find myself welcomed into a family with God as Father, Jesus as elder brother, with neither ashamed to name me as their own.

The spell-check on my laptop doesn’t like the word, lostness, but what other word can we use in its place? To admit to lostness is sometimes attributed to weakness, so that we feel ashamed of the fact but this is a mistake. “The search,” Walker Percy wrote in The Moviegoer, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” It is one thing to be away from home, it is quite another to be away and unable or unwilling to admit it. No reason to complicate lostness with a stupidity spawned in pride.

The story of our lostness stretches back in time to the very beginning. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we have heard how our first parents were fully at home but then became lost, bequeathing the befuddlement and wandering to us. Foolishly they preferred finding their own way rather than trusting the word of God, and discovered that autonomy was itself the very definition of being lost, lost in the cosmos that was intended to be home.

Soon after their fateful decision, the God whose word they refused to trust asked them a series of four questions. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” [Genesis 3:8-13]

My friend Ellis Potter says that we should notice the questions God asks here. This is the first encounter, in all of human history, with people who find themselves lost in the cosmos. And it is God doing the asking. The questions are not rhetorical but though simple, probe into hearts and minds and lives in a way that opens us to the possibility of redemption. The four questions God asks are these:

Where are you?
Who told you that?
Have you eaten?
What difference has it made in your life?

“Where are you?” Where has your pilgrimage in life brought you? Where do you find meaning and for what do you hope? What are your fears and deepest doubts? What is the story in which you are living so far? Have you found the home for which you are longing most deeply?
“Who told you that?” In what or who are you trusting, and why? What or who do you look to as a final source of truth, morality, and authority? Is it/are they trustworthy? Why do you believe what you do? Why did you choose this particular story to live in? On what basis do you determine what is right and what is wrong? What will happen if you happen to be wrong?

“Have you eaten?” Will you share the hospitality of my life and home? Do you find your deepest heart commitments to be a source of satisfaction? Does your story help you flourish at the deepest levels as a human being?

“What difference does it make in your life?” Is your story so fulfilling that you would recommend it? How does it help you live? In what ways does it make you the sort of person you most want to become? What do you hope for and how does that hope help you in the darkest, most disappointing moments of life?

“Perhaps we should be asking these questions,” Ellis suggests, “in trying to engage and bless our neighbors.” And it should go without saying that if we are going to pose them to others we must be willing to have them asked of us.

We must also be willing to have our answers challenged. It is as easy to be nonchalant in such matters as it is to bury our yearning for home in distraction, busyness, entertainment, or some sort of addiction. Being certain I have been found isn’t the same as feeling found, and if my certainty is primarily self-confidence it may not be worth much in the long run. Jesus saved his most scathing rhetoric for the believers most certain they were God’s chosen people, that everyone else wasn’t and that they could tell the difference. They based their claims on the Scriptures but Jesus told them their souls reeked of putrefaction. Sadly, most of them apparently didn’t take him all that seriously.

John Newton, the slave ship captain who became a pastor and abolitionist, celebrated being found by God. The hymn he wrote in 1772 in the attic room of his home has become one of the most loved and best known in the world:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

“Amazing Grace” flows out of Newton’s personal pilgrimage, a witness to his confidence in the grace of God that had taken hold of his life. It is a triumphant song, but is ruined whenever the slightest hint of triumphalism sneaks in. God’s grace is real and when we are awakened to its transforming power we share Newton’s conviction that it is both amazing and sweet. And we do see, where once blindness kept us in the dark, though our seeing now is still as though through a glass darkly. Seeing fully is still in the future when our redemption is consummated and when even the groaning creation is freed. So it is with being found. No longer lost, we still trek on a narrow path, found but not yet fully home. And just as we occasionally strain to see clearly, the cold shadows of lostness can intrude.

So we ask the questions, and have them asked of us, answering as before the face of God. It is not pride to say we are found, if we have been, by grace and if pride stays out of it. If you wonder what that sounds like there is a simple test. If lost people feel safe with us, we are celebrating God’s grace without getting in the way, sharing the hope of being found with fellow travelers lost in the cosmos and yearning for home.