An acquaintance of mine told me recently of an experience he and his wife once had when on holiday in Spain.
They decided to visit a nearby town to do some shopping. Friends of theirs had described how easy it was to catch the bus from outside the flat where they were staying into the town, some ten miles or so away. All they had to do was to get on the bus at the bottom of the hill, and get off at the bus station terminus in the town. They could then see where they were, and would be able to return to the same place and catch a bus back after a pleasant few hours looking at the shops. There was an hourly service. Nothing could be simpler.
They caught the bus and some twenty five minutes later it stopped. Most of the passengers dismounted. John and his wife assumed that they must be at the bus station and got off too. After the bus had set off again they realised they were not at the terminus, but in a residential area a little way out of the town centre.
They were lost in a foreign country, unable to speak or read Spanish. They spent, what they claim, was several hours walking miles, until by chance they eventually came across the bus terminus. Exhausted in body, mentally worn out with the stress of fearing they were doomed to wander like homeless refugees for ever, they climbed on the waiting bus and, thankfully abandoning all thoughts of shopping or expeditions, returned to their holiday flat.
Anyone who has ever been lost, and that must be most of us at one time or another, can easily understand the terror of being separated from all that gives the comfort of familiarity and security. I may have told you on a previous occasion of an experience my wife and I had when we parked the car in a strange town, failed to note the name of the car park, and despaired of ever seeing the car again. Our daughter, then fifteen and averse to shopping with parents stayed in the car reading a book. In fact she had read the whole of the book, and was resigning herself to the fact, or possibly rejoicing in the knowledge, that she was now free of her parents for ever.
The recollection of being lost, the experience of being lost, the fear that one might become lost, are among the most powerful of emotional occurrences in one’s life. Though perhaps stronger in childhood than in adult life, the reactions never entirely leave us. And it is not only about loss of contact with other people, or a failure to find directions, it extends to loss of material goods.
My age in years can only have been in single figures, but the memory remains of dropping a shilling whilst running an errand and seeing it bounce on to waste ground and disappear for ever. The anguish of that time has hardly diminished as the years have gone by. Spending money is acceptable; losing money is traumatic. Perhaps I still hope it will turn up some day.
But the reverse side of the experience of losing and being lost lies with the joy of finding and of being found. Wander round a shopping centre or on a seaside beach and the tearful face of a lost child will sooner, rather than later, be observed. Then see the relief which lights up that same face as the familiar figure of Mum or Dad appears, and see the joy of re-union. “For that which was lost is found again.”
And the same applies to losing possessions. Even misplacing quite trivial objects and then finding them brings its own feeling of satisfaction – almost peace. Which of us has not put down a half-eaten sandwich, and then felt unease when we cannot immediately find it. It is not hunger, but a feeling of being separated from that which is rightfully ours which upsets us.
No wonder that amongst the most well remembered and oft quoted parables are those of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. They are stories with which we can identify, and more importantly, understand the feelings of the characters.
We do use the description of losing or of being lost about intangible or abstract objects within our life. We talk of losing hope, or losing faith, that life is without direction or purposeless. This sort of loss is as equally charged with emotional stress as is the loss of friends or companions, protectors and guardians, material goods and treasured possessions.
Here too we may need others to help us search or to give signs about the direction we might take. And no less as aims and meanings become clearer, or hope is renewed, is the sense of relief and joy. The metaphors commonly used are those that associated with finding, re-discovery or now seeing the way.
One of the commonest of metaphors applied to life is to liken it to a journey. All journeys, even though they be modest and local, carry with them the risk of losing one’s way or mislaying one’s possessions. But the risks are minimised if we go prepared upon the pilgrimage. If we can read the sign-posts, carry a map, take a companion, avoid the trackless wastes and so on, the dangers are, not eliminated – that can never be – but are minimised. If others know our approximate route, when we are lost we may be found again.
The equipment we take, and the knowledge we possess, comes from many sources. But family, neighbours, church people, teachers, men and women of goodwill all have much to provide. They are our sign-posts, our compasses and inform us of land-marks on the way.
But getting lost is not only a negative occurrence: there are positive aspects to being lost. Wandering in places we have not visited before is a journey of exploration, and can be full of delights. Putting on one side old beliefs and familiar ideas whilst new ones are examined is to walk through new territory not knowing where one will eventually emerge. Always to be with the familiar and known is to miss the unexpected vista, or the opportunity to tread repeatedly the well-worn paths of custom.
But this is a self-made decision to deliberate forego the familiar to explore the unknown, or to discard, perhaps temporarily perhaps not, the possessions we have accumulated. The terror of being lost is when we feel out of control and in the hand of malignant forces.
Among the idioms in our language is one – “Get lost!” It is usually used in a dismissive, exasperated sense when we want to get rid of some-one, or of their ideas. But for child or adult it is good, indeed it is essential to full development, that it is told from time to time, “Get lost!” For being lost is to explore, not only new territories, but to explore our inner selves.
All of us have a responsibility to seek those who are lost involuntarily, so they may be re-united and experience the joy of being found again. But all of us, and for parents this can be particularly difficult, need to be able to say occasionally, “Get lost, wander through the new, strange and unfamiliar”. But of course that is within the knowledge and assurance that the search party is at hand if required, and that the joy of reunion will be the rewarding culmination.
This is a house of God. I am not absolutely sure what I mean by that, for I too am still wandering, not a hundred per cent sure where I am. But of this much I do feel sure. As we wander on life’s journey, sometimes knowing where we are, often uncertain, we are never completely lost, we have God ready to rescue when we cry out for help.
It occurs to me that to be welcomed into a Unitarian Church is to enlist in the company of lost souls. Not lost souls in the usual interpretation of that phrase, but of deliberate adventurers who rejoice in being told to “Get lost”. Explorers we are, maybe not discovering new lands or continents, but finding for ourselves paths that others have trod, and viewing vistas fresh to our eyes. The excitement of exploring is as much a part of true living as is the joy finding, or being found.
May we all become adventurers and explorers, sometimes lost, but guarded and cherished in the arms of God and may we all experience the exquisite happiness when that which is lost is found.
Fulwood 30 June 1991
Chesterfield 18 August 1991
Mexborough 21 March 1993
Hucklow 16 October 1994