"An Altar in the World" by Barbara Brown TaylorThroughout this year, I’ve been reflecting on how I experience the practices Barbara Brown Taylor outlines in her book, An Altar in the World. Since my family moved to Laurelville in May, this has felt very natural to me. It’s easy to forget that I chose the book for my family’s book club before our new life at Laurelville was even on the radar screen.

In chapter five, Taylor describes the practice of being disoriented or getting lost… or (if one takes the idea to the extreme) failing. She asserts…

Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.

There were a quite a few points of connection for me in this chapter. I immediately recalled how my father and I enjoy hopping in his truck and trying to get lost. We grab a Gazetteer and set off to explore new roads…

Somewhere in Garrett County

We still tell the story of the wrong turn – the downhill gravel road, that turned to a dirt road, that gradually became too washed out and narrow to continue on. We didn’t have room to turn around, so we had to back up. But in the process, we managed to poke a stick into the side of one of the tires. Luckily, we had a spare. Too bad one of the bolts was rusted tight. Luckily, we were able to shear it off. Too bad we were out of gas. Luckily we could make it to the nearest station on fumes. Too bad the owner only accepted cash. Luckily Dad had $2. We eventually made it home.

Taylor also relates how a medical emergency can be a type of “getting lost” – a time when you have to rely on someone else to provide your care. In that regard, I recall my two DVT hospitalizations. Like Taylor, I always felt safe and loved. Maybe it was divine; maybe it was youthful delusions of invulnerability. Whatever it was, it continues to shape me.

Perhaps the most tangible example of “lost” in my mind now is our move to Laurelville. It is not entirely clear to me: Was I lost in Chicago suburbs, trying to fit into a life that didn’t quite work out for me? Or is this new life in the Laurel Highlands an attempt to get lost, to break out of an area of comfort? I don’t know the answer to this, but I value the sense of being “vulnerable to this moment”, as the book describes it.


Sometimes I get so wrapped up in Taylor’s stories that I have trouble explaining the bigger picture. While I might agree that a certain practice is valuable, I’ll have trouble saying why. So I’ve been reflecting a bit on “getting lost”…

I’ve already mentioned the idea of being “vulnerable to [the] moment”. While it isn’t quite the same as valuing the moment, it is a step in that direction. Learning to value time and place is an (the?) underlying theme of the entire book.

“Getting lost” also reminds us that we aren’t in charge here. We aren’t God. A healthy dose of humility is a good thing.

And “getting lost” helps orient us throughout life. Hebrews 11 talks about lost people in this way…

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

We can (and will) debate what a “heavenly country” might look like, but it is clear that there is searching to be done. The practice of getting lost reminds us of this.

One final thought: “lost” may be a matter of perspective. A recent post by Trevor Scott Barton in the God’s Politics blog touched on this:

Human eccentrics move in a seemingly aimless way… Their movements make them seem like wanderers to other human beings with finite views. They don’t wander aimlessly, though. They revolve around a different center.

And in the Beatitudes, Jesus demonstrates that things in the Kingdom of Heaven are not judged in the usual way:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Go get yourself lost.

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