Faith at work
By J. Douglas Holladay
Occasionally, when speaking to business students, I ask an unsettling question about their parents in the workplace. Has the light gone out?
I purposely keep the question vague and direct, yet they know exactly what I am seeking to understand. Not surprising, a majority of these young people register concern that their parents are drifting, sad, and frankly, lost. As a recovering New York investment banker, I’ve interacted with both incredibly fine high-minded grounded professionals as well as the other sort….selfish, mean-spirited and striving types. Both exist in the same universe with identical pressures and temptations. The former needs others while the latter uses them, eventually reaping the result of such behavior, isolation.
Tolstoy’s poignant essay Two Old Men turns the notion of arriving at some valued spiritual destination on its head. In this Russian tale, two elderly gentleman, Elisha and Efim, embark on a pilgrimage with a clear sense of both their geographical and spiritual destination and purpose in mind. Over the course of the journey, the companions become separated, and Elisha never realizes his life-long goal of making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, represented by Jerusalem. His companion, Efim, believing Elisha to be ‘lost,’ soldiers on to the much-anticipated end. Only on his return does Efim realize that his fellow pilgrim, rather than being lost, had merely redefined his spiritual objective as service rather than ritual. Elisha had stumbled upon a starving and destitute family that required his urgent help. This reality trumped the pilgrimage. So, who was lost? The man who made it to Jerusalem or the one who gave himself for others?
Sitting in church one Sunday, the tall British vicar reminded us that the coming Sunday’s sermon would be special, targeted toward the ‘lost’. He exhorted us to bring our ‘lost’ friends and neighbors. He was gushing with enthusiasm for the coming service.
I had two problems with the vicar’s challenge. First, what if a ‘lost’ soul stumbled into today’s service by mistake? Would we bar him from entry and urge him to return the following week? But second and more serious is the definition of the word ‘lost’. In Luke 15, Jesus describes three instances of lostness,: the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son (the prodigal). The biblical rendering of the term ‘lost’ simply means to be out of place. For instance, the coin was to be in the purse, yet was elsewhere, lost. The one sheep was separated from the 99, lost. Returning to the vicar’s challenge and considering who exactly is lost, according to the biblical idea of that term, then I guess…I am. Despite my desire to know and love God, I find myself continually double-minded and disconnected from the God I claim to serve: out of place, indeed lost, much of the time. So perhaps our view of lostness needs revisiting to include all of us who find ourselves disengaged from God for periods of time, both brief and extended. The conventional view of the lost is of countless, out of control individuals hooked on drugs or exhibiting other crazy behavior. But as the British writer J.B. Philips observed: “The real danger for professing believers lies not in the more glaring and grosser temptations and sins, but in a slow deterioration of vision, a slow death to daring, courage and a willingness to adventure.”
Since all have this inclination to get lost, what’s a guy to do? Perhaps the Greeks might lend a hand. In Greek mythology, the Menotaur was a mythical creature, half man, half bull, seeking to devour, residing in the depths of a dark cave. The Athenian hero Theseus was to enter this elaborately structured labyrinth to search out and eventually kill this horrid beast. This opponent would be formidable, yet not the most challenging aspect of the ordeal.
The labyrinth itself posed the biggest challenge with its twists and turns, seductive sights and scents, all intended to cause one to lose one’s bearings, to lose one’s way. Yet the clever King’s daughter Ariadne offered a solution to Theseus’ dilemma. Simply tie a ribbon to the entrance of the cave, hold it tightly as you navigate the complex maze in search of the dreaded Menotaur, then retrace your steps using the ribbon as guide for the return. Brilliant!
Life can be a dangerous labyrinth, full of challenges, loss, heartache, betrayal, fear, complexity and contradictions. All manner of things are waiting to pick us off and cause us to despair. How do we guard against becoming lost?
I would suggest that it is essential to secure our ribbon to an unchanging point of stability, so that we might continually refer to it for surety and guidance. Such an anchor enables us to face what life deals us with the courage and assurance that, while we might ‘feel lost’ at times, we know where we are secured, and there remains a way back.
So what anchors you?