Of all the technological advances in the past couple of decades the one that I love the most is probably the GPS, whether in my car or on my phone. As the men in my family will tell you, I have a notoriously bad sense of direction.. So I take great joy in typing in the address of my destination, and then being guided turn by turn to where I need to go.
Even if I miss a turn, I don’t need to worry. The system merely recalculates and gives me new directions without reproach, exasperation, or rolling of eyes.
Part of the popularity of these systems is that they give us a sense of control. Most of us, if we admit it, often begin to feel slightly uneasy when we don’t know where we are.
If it’s late at night, or in a deserted area, or a neighborhood where people don’t look like us, that slight unease can rapidly escalate into full-fledged panic as we suddenly realize just how vulnerable we are.
But now I can set off for an unfamiliar destination secure in the knowledge that I will not get lost.
But maybe we have lost something by technology that keeps us from being lost. There may be spiritual benefits from being lost, from not being in control.
In An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we get into the habit of getting lost in benign ways, by taking roads that we haven’t taken before instead of sticking to the paths we know so well that we don’t have to pay attention to what is around us.
Even this benign way of being lost can force us to cultivate the skills that will help us when we are truly lost in life – to manage our panic, marshal our resources, take a good look around to see where we are and what this unexpected development might have to offer us.
And, she reminds us, God does some of God’s best work with people who are seriously, truly lost – like Abraham and Sarah, and the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.
Being lost forces us to pay attention, to admit that we are not in control, and opens us to new possibilities, to things we may never have seen if we remained on the beaten paths and well-worn ruts of our lives.
Another practice Taylor suggests may be as difficult as the practice of being lost – that is encountering others. I think about how many people I come into contact with in a day, and to how many of them I truly pay attention.
Taylor asserts that even something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store can be a time when we practice the disciple of engaging the other.
Now I have to admit that on most days, as I dash into Kroger’s on the way home from work I am often in no mood to encounter anyone.
At my most uncharitable, I secretly resent having to be polite to the nice woman who is paid to smile and greet me when I enter the store. I don’t want to hear about the checkout clerk’s plans for the weekend. I just want to get my things as quickly as possible and go home.
But when I find myself in that kind of mood, I remember the line from scripture that says those who show hospitality to strangers are welcoming God; that God often shows up in the face of the other, the stranger.
And if that’s true, it’s entirely likely that God is hanging out at the grocery store, waiting for me to notice the divine in the stranger I ignore or rush by.
Of course, we don’t meet the other only in strangers; every person we encounter, even those we know best and love the most, are “other” to us. And even in those people, maybe especially in them, it can be difficult to truly see the other, and not just impose ourselves on them.
Sometimes encountering the other requires what writer David James Duncan calls a “strategic withdrawal,” which he defines as “any act you can devise, any psychological spiritual act at all, that embodies a willingness to wait for the other to disclose his or her self to you, rather than to disclose yourself, your altruism, your creativity, skills, energy, ideas, and let’s face it, your agenda, myopia, delusions, and preconceptions.”
Truly encountering the other means being willing to at least temporarily lose one’s self.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, we see Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, practicing both of these spiritual disciplines.
First, Philip is willing to be lost, to go a way he has not gone before. The story says that an angel tells Philip to “go toward the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
We assume that there were more direct routes from Jerusalem to Gaza because scripture tells us that the road the angel tells Philip to take is “a wilderness road.”
It is on this wilderness road, far off the beaten path, that Philip encounters the other, an Ethiopian, a court official for the queen of Ethiopia.
Nudged again by the Spirit, Philip doesn’t rush by or ignore this stranger, but joins him. The Ethiopian is in his chariot, reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah. Philip approaches and asks the man if he understands what he is reading.
The Ethiopian invites Philip to get in and explain it to him. The passage is a prophesy about the messiah, and Philip explains how his teacher Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, then tells him more about the good news of the risen Christ.
Philip must have been compelling because when the chariot passes water, the Ethiopian demands that they stop and that Philip baptize him. And after he is baptized he goes on his way rejoicing.
Most of the commentaries on this story focus on the Ethiopian, on the significance of his conversion and what it says about the expansiveness of God’s love and the inclusivity of Christianity.
But what strikes me as equally remarkable in this exchange is Philip.
First, he is willing to be lost, to go on a road he has not traveled before, to follow the nudging of the Spirit even when he is not sure where it will lead.
Second, Philip encounters the other, the Ethiopian, with respect. He asks questions and truly listens to what the man says. Philip allows himself to be guided by the Ethiopian’s questions and responses, taking his lead from the stranger.
When the Ethiopian asks for Philip’s interpretation of scripture, he is happy to give it. When he asks to be baptized, Philip joyfully responds.
Notice that Philip does not tell the man what to do, or assume he knows what is best for this stranger. He just shares as he is asked.
What Philip does in this story is described in our baptismal covenant as “respecting the dignity of every human being,” one of the primary duties of every baptized Christian.
Another way of saying it is that he truly encountered the other without placing his own agenda or needs on him.
The practice of getting lost, the practice of encountering the other – spiritual practices that don’t require years of study, specialized talents, or travel to exotic places; practices that might show us that God is right in front of us all the time.
Duncan gives us this prayer to aid in our practice:
“When I’m lost, God help me to get more lost. Help me to lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this blood, tear, and love-worthy world that is never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me.”