Somehow the exit wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
Okay, it was probably my brain that wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but I’m not sure how the exit slipped by unnoticed. I had taken the route several times before, ducking off I-64 west of Charleston and taking a convenient—if slightly annoying—diagonal up to southeastern Ohio. Yet this time I missed it.
Darkness had fallen, and traffic was heavy, kicking up the remnants of road salt from a recent storm, so my eyes were likely elsewhere when the sign went by, despite my efforts to watch for it. After a while, I felt rather certain I hadn’t usually gone this far before turning off, and when I reached Huntington some miles later I was sure.
I wasn’t entirely lost, but I was most definitely misplaced, and I wasn’t quite certain how best to rectify the situation. The jarring feeling of disorientation set in. Now what? I didn’t want to backtrack, so I hastily concocted Plan B. I took an exit just before the Kentucky state line that I vaguely remembered from some previous trip and made my way up what I hoped was a good alternate route.
It was that and more. I was soon in Ohio, whose fine transportation folks had made most of the journey a four-lane road. A new bypass took me around some congested areas on what turned out to be a perfect shortcut with almost no traffic. And in between I was treated to some gorgeous views across the Ohio River on a clear night, with lights reflecting off the water.
All in all it was a delightful detour with fresh new sights that didn’t end up being much further than my planned route would have been. Sometimes getting lost is a wonderful way to find places you didn’t know you were looking for.
Over these past two years, I think the church has often felt lost. I hear it from stressed pastors who haven’t been able to do most visits or hug their parishioners even as they try to juggle new duties. I hear it from congregations who notice the absence of members and miss long-held traditions. I’ve felt it myself as I’ve missed being at Annual Conference and gathering around the table with others, plus watching a denominational schism unfold amid it all.
Like the Hebrew people millennia ago who thought they were taking a direct route to the Promised Land only to find themselves on an exasperating detour, we are wandering. We’ve found ways to maintain some sense of togetherness and to continue being “the church,” but it hasn’t been the same. And, frankly, we know it probably won’t be the same. That’s jarring.
This might be particularly felt in a church so intentionally built around community and togetherness and the intimacy of the love feast. We might cry out as the people later did to Jeremiah: “Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do” (Jeremiah 42:3, NIV).
But among the hardships and disorientation of this time, we’ve found some new perspectives and possibilities, too: We’ve learned how to better include people beyond our church walls who can’t be there physically. We’ve reassessed what’s really important as we seek to follow Jesus Christ. We’re discovering some creative models for pastoral ministry. We might better know Alexander Mack’s admonition to “count well the cost.” And we’ve been reminded not to take one another or our church communities for granted.
It brings to mind some words from Brethren musician Andy Murray’s beautiful ballad “Goodbye, Still Night”: “We might be lost in the wilderness, with things not going just like we’ve planned, and our spirits tied down flat to the ground, in a way that we might not understand. Just like Moses on Mount Sinai, forty days and forty nights, let’s go to the mountain, there you’ll see, that the word’s coming down that will give us freedom.”
It might not be on the road we intended, but we will end up where we needed to go. For as long as we must journey it, let’s keep our eyes open for reflections of grace and fresh glimpses of God along the way. We might find things we never knew our hearts were seeking all along.
Walt Wiltschek is district executive for the Illinois & Wisconsin district of the Church of the Brethren and a member of the Messenger editorial team.