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Lost and found

The practice of getting lost can teach Christian leaders to be more attentive, resourceful, grateful, faithful and open to new possibilities, writes Gretchen E. Ziegenhals.

Photo by John Anderson Photo/iStock
Everglades National Park

October 27, 2009

In her book “The Everglades: River of Grass,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas describes how a person can stand in the Everglades and be as lost as someone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Everglades National Park guides -- called upon to rescue people from its alligator-infested waters -- purposely get lost amid the miles of water and sawgrass in order to practice their skills.

This is an intriguing notion -- the idea of attending to a practice of getting lost. What might it mean for Christian leaders to deliberately get lost?

Most leaders are familiar with the forces that cause them to get lost -- literally or metaphorically -- including unexpected change, dramatic budget cuts, reconfigurations and other crises. But once they accept such disorientation, they have the opportunity to see and make sense of their surroundings in deeper and fresher ways.

I discovered this for myself when we moved to the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. For the first months, I drove everywhere with a MapQuest printout clutched in one hand. I soon realized that, while I could get from my home to any point, I didn’t have a sense for the bigger picture. So I allowed myself time to get lost, to pay attention, and I found delight in how things fit together. While leaders pride themselves on a sense of control and efficiency, occasionally throwing out the rules allows a larger vision to emerge.

In her recent book “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith,” Barbara Brown Taylor, professor of religion at Piedmont College, talks about the benefits of being lost. She describes cows near her home who have worn narrow paths through the fields and who never deviate from these tracks. She compares the cows to people who stick to predictable routes through life, preferring what is efficient and safe to that which is dangerous, unknown or wild.

“And yet,” she writes, “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.” She cites the times in her life when divorce, a move, illness or a career change provided an opportunity for deep learning. Knocked off our narrow paths, we must use all of our senses to find our way. Taylor lists the skills that kick in for us when we are lost: managing our panic, marshalling our resources, attending to our surroundings, seeking help, thinking through what we might learn from this new twist.

“The Bible is a great help to me in this practice,” she continues, “since it reminds me that God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.” She describes Abraham and Sarah’s willingness to get lost, to set off on a long trip without a map. Their descendents wandered in the wilderness for 40 years while God taught them to be resourceful, courageous, grateful and faithful.

Likewise, in her book “Night on the Flint River: An Accidental Journey in Knowing God,” church historian Roberta Bondi describes an afternoon canoe trip that turns into a terrifying night in the Georgia woods. This experience gives her what she calls “God’s twin gifts of gratitude and renunciation that not only kept me alive that night, but made me supple, open to love and to be loved, ready in that present to receive with a certain kind of joy every single thing that came to me.”

And she notes, “What came to me as gifts I cultivate humbly now, however I am able, as demanding and happy disciplines of God.”

Bondi’s words remind us that we don’t have to wait to actually get lost. When leaders consistently rely on a manual or a set of rules, notes author and lecturer Matthew May, they stop paying attention and become less engaged with what lies around them. When we literally are lost, we seek out the landmarks -- the water, the trees, the slope of the land -- that might reorient us.

So, too, we can attune our awareness without a crisis. We can cultivate the gifts received when we were lost, such as the gift of vision or the bigger picture. By doing so, leaders might learn to be more attentive, resourceful, grateful, faithful and open to new possibilities.

Practicing getting lost might mean also relying more on relationships. In “In Pursuit of Elegance,” May describes the Dutch road traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman’s innovative designs emphasize “designing for negotiation,” rather than regulation. His ideas prove that “shared space” such as traffic circles require people to be attentive, to relate, as opposed to automatically following red lights or stop signs. His designs work because cars, pedestrians and cyclists don’t just adhere to an imposed order, but are together fully engaged in making sense in an emerging order. Monderman shows us that trusting one another and communicating effectively can help us improvise a new and often better way to work.

Ultimately, when we allow ourselves to engage fully in the practice of getting lost, we receive the gift of being “found.” Sometimes this happens with the help of other people. In the wilderness, Taylor writes, “there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them.”

Sometimes we find our own way home through prayer and self-examination. And sometimes, if we practice getting lost, we also learn to recognize when we are found.