Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wilderness: Practices of Getting Lost and of Finding Yourself

In the 1980's I joined a women's business networking group as I was bumping into the glass ceiling in corporate America. Many of the other women were in similar positions. It meant that we were juggling what it meant to be a woman in the business world, to be talented, to be successful, and for many of us, to be other things that we couldn't talk about at work. Over the course of a year's worth of monthly meetings I developed relationships where some wonderfully deep conversations occurred, often in the parking lot after dinner, where we talked about those things that we couldn't talk about at work. One courageous woman told me she had been hospitalized for mental illness and was still being treated for bipolar disorder.

Having been lost in mental illness, she was trying to make her way back. As I recall, she was networking to try to find a job, but in the process she was becoming an advocate for people with mental illness. In talking with her, I realized how we, in our society then (and still now), put shame and blame on people with a mental illness that we would not on people with most physical illnesses. I think that she was perhaps the first person I had met who came out as having a mental illness, and her courage and passion for justice stays with me still.

I'm savoring the reading of An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. Chapter 5 is "The Practice of Getting Lost," subtitled "Wilderness." Wilderness is an important Biblical metaphor and Taylor makes the case for getting lost as a spiritual practice—a way to practice for the inevitable wilderness experiences that life will throw at you. The left turn away from your regular route home that adds ten minutes to your ride has the potential of opening your eyes in important and necessary ways.
The road leads me into the ghost town of an old mill on the river, where the hulks of deserted buildings perch at the edge of the river like a herd of petrified mastodons. Turning away from them, I follow the wind road past an old softball diamond, complete with ramshackle bleachers, where the mill workers must have played at one time. Before I know it, I am lost in the lives of those people as well—living in mill houses, going to the mill church, working for mill owners who paid them in chits they could use at the mill store—which, like the softball diamond, has fallen into ruin." (p. 71)
How do we truly love our neighbors if we have no idea of who they are or where they live? As long as we stay on safe and well-known paths, we don't risk seeing places where injustice and greed cry out for us to do justice instead. But even closer to home, as a spiritual practice, Taylor suggests that taking the small risk of getting lost prepares us for the wilderness.
These are benign forms of getting lost, I know, but you have to start somewhere. If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life's big winds knocks you clean off your course? I am not speaking literally here, although literal lostness is a good place to begin since the skills are the same: managing your panic, marshalling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you. (p. 72)
Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times. (p. 78)
In the book Gifted by Otherness, the authors make the analogy between patterns of spiritual growth and coming out. The journey toward spiritual maturity has three iterative phases: an awakening or conversion, crossing the wilderness or facing the shadows, and then returning to the world. (p. 111) I say iterative because this process doesn't happen just once on the way to spiritual maturity. Author M.R. Ritley puts it this way:
Coming out is the common heart of our particular journeys as gay men and women. For lesbian and gay Christians it is an inextricable element of our spiritual pilgrimage. For some it is the fulcrum of a spiritual conflict that estranges us from God or from the church, for others, the precipitating crisis that forces us into a deeper search for God. Almost never can the process be described as neutral. … Coming out is not peripheral to who we are as people or as Christians, rather it is the very form our spiritual journey takes, the means whereby God calls us out to be a people. (p. 110)
The example and experience of crossing the wilderness is a gift and a model that lesbians and gays can bring to the church and to spiritual communities. Coming out of the wilderness is as important as getting lost or going into the wilderness.

This week, my friends Ralph and Leslie were on the front page of their local newspaper. Ralph had been the Director of Human Services and a pastor in that city, and on the front page of the paper he courageously came out as having early onset Alzheimer's disease. Ralph has always been an advocate for human rights, and continues to be as he faces how he and Leslie and their family and friends will deal with this journey. Our faith community is very involved with them as they journey, and we are all growing spiritually.
"People think if you have Alzheimer’s, you are crazy or feeble," Leslie said. "But it’s not true. That’s one message we want to get across."
Ralph is neither. Bright-eyed and active, he does chores, cooks, fixes broken items around the house and is an avid reader. "People think of Alzheimer’s as the worst thing that can happen to them, but it’s not," he said. "I like to think that life, any life, is a gift."
Of course there are problems. And it’s not easy, but Ralph and Leslie believe that with the right kind of support, one can still lead a fulfilling life.
I know from my own pastoral experience that people with memory disorders and those who love them are entering a wilderness. In many ways, Alzheimer's is a process of continuing to get lost, sometimes literally. But it is also an opportunity to seize and pay attention to this moment, just as Taylor describes.
"The thing that’s most important, Alzheimer’s or not, is that you are a person," Ralph said.
Leslie added, "For people who fear it, it’s not the end of the world or the end of life. I’ve learned from Ralph to appreciate things more — like the moments we have."
What we fear is that we too may get lost. What we need to learn is how to live our way through the wilderness, and notice what and who is around us in our journey in this moment.

I also happened upon another courageous coming out this week by black pastor and gospel singer Tonex. Speaking about coming out in a TV interview and the reaction he got, he said:
You know, it's not easy growing up in a Pentecostal/Evangelical church, where everyone is pretty much anti-gay, although it's common knowledge that some of the most anointed musicians and singer-songwriters have, or have dealt with, same-sex attraction at some point. For me, it was particularly taboo because of my upbringing and the ministerial call on my life. I then had to think about the repercussions of this revelation. But I knew I had to get free. That interview was cathartic for me.
Take the time to watch the TV interviews available in three segments online, or at least segments two and three. In my research on the status of welcoming and affirming churches, I found no historically black churches/denominations that were even having conversations about this, so this is a big hurdle, a dangerous wilderness, for our black brothers and sisters. Listen as well to his musical response: "This is All of Me."

Wilderness is freeing, and scary. I don't know if a practice of getting lost intentionally, as Taylor suggests, will help us deal with our own wilderness times, but perhaps I'll take a left turn on the way home tomorrow and see what I notice, and live in that wilderness moment.

No comments:

Post a Comment