Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 9th of Sixth Month, 2019
Speaker: Welling Hall
Scripture: Psalm 34:4, NRSV
I sought out Our God and God heard me.
God rescued me from my fears.
Once upon a time, a few years ago, in an Arboretum far, far away, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I got lost. Seriously lost. Dangerously lost. Here is my story.
I was at a conference that had just ended. For reasons I can no longer recall, I had driven separately from my colleagues who departed earlier together in a different car. I had some hours to spare before returning home and made a last minute decision to visit the university’s Arboretum. It was a hot, hot day in June, and, because it was so hot, my intention was to spend only a few minutes communing with nature.
A sign posted directions to a labyrinth close to the Nature Center, and so I decided to walk the Labyrinth. It was a simple maze, and, in the heat, I walked quickly. Then I made a crucial (crucial, which here means “decisive or critical, especially in the success or failure of something”) decision. I made what I did not know at the time was a crucial decision. I decided to take a different path back to the Nature Center. It had been a very short walk. Maybe a minute, 2 minutes at most. Another path would take me around a different clump of trees, and I would be back at the Nature Center in a matter of moments.
I was not back at the Nature Center in a matter of moments. My chosen path veered off in a wildly different direction. When I realized that I was not on track, I started to look for signs to point me back the right way. There were no signs.
So I wandered, one foot in front of me, confident that the path I was on would take me where I needed to go. And then it did not. I don’t know how long it took for me to realize the predicament (predicament, which here means “a difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing situation”) I was in.
I was, indeed, in a pickle, although I wasn’t sweating. For some reason, I do not sweat. Maybe you recall the old saying: horses sweat, men perspire, ladies only glow. I barely even glow. This is a problem when I am out in the sun for a long stretch of time. Lost in the Arboretum that day, I had a number of problems all at once:
1) I was not wearing sunscreen. Big deal, you think. To me, it was a big deal. When my mother’s brother died of melanoma when I was 3 years old, my mother had an emotional and unwavering response. I was not allowed to play outdoors on sunny days. When commercially viable, effective sunscreen became readily available, I started applying it regularly whenever I was planning to be out in the sun at mid-day. I had not been planning to spend more than a few minutes in the Arboretum. It was high noon on a hot June day under a cloudless sky. I was lotion-less, and I was concerned.
2) I was not wearing a hat or sunglasses. My eyes weren’t burning from sunscreen because I wasn’t wearing any, but it seemed that the Arboretum had a sizable section of prairie in the middle of it. As I walked in the high grass, the sun was giving me a mean headache and I had nothing to ward off those relentless rays.
3) I had no water. There was water in my car, on the other side of the Nature Center, wherever the Nature Center was. Meanwhile I was meandering along unfamiliar paths, very probably walking around in a circle by now, I was growing parched.
At one point I saw a group of people in the distance. I thought about calling out, “Hey! I’m lost!” but that felt too ridiculous. No one could actually be lost in a university Arboretum. This was not the wilderness. No, I would not tell anyone I was lost. Instead I would follow at a safe distance, and eventually they would leave the Arboretum — and I would follow discreetly after them. Perhaps the group did leave the Arboretum. I assume they left the Arboretum. I did not follow discreetly after them because I soon lost both sight and sound of the group.
Somewhere in there, I was more than hot and uncomfortable. This was no longer fun or funny. I was feeling sick to my stomach and wondered how I could escape my predicament. I was concerned that I was not wearing sunscreen, hat or sunglasses, and I had no water. I thought it was ridiculous that I *did* have a cell phone, but what good could that possibly do? I remember thinking, “So, I do what? Take a picture of these trees, and send a photo of some random bark to friends who are on the road between here and Richmond? What the H.E. Double Hockey Sticks good could that possibly do? Call a friend and tell them I am lost in a park of all things?”
Obviously I could not do any of these things, for at least two reasons. First of all, I’m proud of my sense of direction. I have easily navigated around Moscow, Tokyo, Washington, DC, and the Pisgah National Forest by myself. There was no way that I was actually, seriously lost. Objectively, it was like being lost in a bathtub. Second, I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that my friends could not possibly help me when they were traveling at 60 miles an hour, further away from where I stood with every passing second. Still, I was frightened and was embarrassed that I was frightened, and there was absolutely no one and nothing that could help me.
Did I pray? I expect I probably did because that’s who I am, although I have no memory of what the prayer was and whether it was in earnest or of the more OMG(!) variety.
Well, you may be able to imagine the broad outlines of the end of the story. Eventually, I stumbled out of the Arboretum. I do not recall how; I do not remember what I said. I do remember that the staff member working the Gift Shop took one look at me, sat me on a chair, had me put my head between my knees, brought me two bottles of water, and stayed close by until I got up enough gumption to leave. I had wandered without direction in the Arboretum prairie without sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, or water for several hours under the blazing June mid-day sun.
Shortly thereafter, when I told a redacted version of this amusing anecdote to friends, the part about having nothing I actually needed for survival at the time, only a stupid cellphone, they spoke as one: Welling, you could have called the Nature Center. Welling, you could have called us, and WE would have called the Nature Center. Welling, there was a compass in your cellphone. Welling, there was probably a GPS MAP of the Arboretum in your cellphone!
I don’t know how close I actually came to collapsing dehydrated and disoriented off the beaten path just a few yards away from succor, which here means “assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.” I was seconds away from succor and refreshment. And now I know that I was connected, the entire time, to all the help I needed: a powerful network of love and friendship as well as a hi-tech source of liberating knowledge. Everything and everyone I desperately needed to refresh and rescue me from my ordeal was literally within my grasp, but I was too proud, too panicked, and too addlepated to see it and use it. In spiritual terms, I was actively denying the grace that Living Water could provide.
And what if I had recognized the Living Water that was immediately accessible to me and that I refused to use? Yes, I would have one less story to tell at meeting for worship. The lesson, a lesson that I am sure I will never forget, is that in times of duress we humans (or at least THIS human) can be too cocksure to ask for help. Those of you who read Louise Penny's murder mysteries will recall that one of Inspector Gamache’s four key phrases to success in life is “I need help.” This is surely a message of the Psalmists as well. Asking for help and receiving help can be a spiritual exercise as well as a practical necessity.
It is surely not the case that help only arrives for those who ask for it - or even that help necessarily arrives for those who do. Our senses are daily battered by the news that sometimes help never arrives for those who are begging for it. This is Gun Violence Awareness Weekend, and I was nearly led to change my message topic to fit that theme. Mass shootings certainly seem to be the cataclysmic epitome of an unconscionable absence of help. Where could the Love of God possibly be?
I do not know … My heart is breaking, and, yet, my experience tells me even so it is also true the Love that is God often uses human hands to extend succor to those in crucial predicaments. Indeed, the Bible — as well as other holy texts — teaches that it is our sacred responsibility as Believers to BE the Love of God when we encounter those who are suffering from fear and despair. As Friends in Beloved Community, we are called to be helpers just as we are called to ask for help. There are times when asking for help — for yourself or for others — might just save a life.
Let us enter open worship by recollecting the Bible verse we memorized earlier:
I sought out Our God and God heard me.
God rescued me from my fears.
What is YOUR story? How has the God of Love with human hands rescued you when you needed help? Have you ever denied God’s help when it was walking beside you? How do you aspire to make God’s Love come true for those in need?
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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