From Jailbird to Freebird: The Prison of Predictability

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien… (Exodus 22:21-27)
Jesus … was led by the spirit into the wilderness… (Luke 4:1-13)

Our first song this morning comes from the singer-songwriter and peace activist Joan Baez. She got her start in Boston coffee shops and rose to prominence in the early 1960s when her first three albums went gold. She has released more than 30 albums over her 53 year career. This song comes from her 2008 album Day After Tomorrow. The song is called “I Am a Wanderer.”

I am a wanderer, feet on the ground,
Heart on my sleeve and my head in the clouds
. I own the star above some distant shore,
Wandering ever more.

I am a refugee torn from my land,
Cast off to travel this world to its end.
Never to see my proud mountains again
But I still remember them.

I have to admit right up front that I am a huge, gushing fan of the prison of predictability. I absolutely love the four walls of this prison and could stay here for the rest of my life. I like it when life happens as I plan it, when nothing unexpected happens, when my days unfold just like I want them to. It’s comforting. It makes me feel like I have a little bit of control over this crazy world.

But, it’s a false sense of security. By secluding ourselves in the prison of predictability, we cut ourselves off from encountering the Holy in any real or meaningful way.

When we refuse to leave the beaten path to explore the wilderness of this life we’re living, we are denying ourselves amazing opportunities to live into the richness and fullness of life that the Holy offers us.

Have you ever wondered where that little colloquialism “the beaten path” comes from? It comes from cows. Cows like a predictable environment and so – even if they have 100 acres to roam – they will not wander around those 100 acres. Instead, they will wear narrow paths across the land to their favorite spots like the watering hole, shady places and clover patches. When they want to go there – they line up, single file, and follow the beaten path.

This path is safe – they don’t have to look at where they’re putting their feet because there are no dangers on the path. The paths are often the shortest distance between two points. The cows are moving for exercise – but for expediency. Because of this the paths will avoid anything strenuous like steep climbs or tricky descents, instead the paths will lead through long stretches of shade wherever possible.

It’s not so much that the cows are lazy – but the cows really are quite smart about how they create their beaten paths. They live in an environment that is unpredictable, full of rattle snakes, yellow jackets, groundhogs and other wild life that could hurt them. The path is laid out to keep them as safe as possible.

Isn’t that how we order our own lives – laying safe paths through this unpredictable world? We try to create the fastest and most predictable path to work – to the store – to our favorite restaurant or perhaps even to church. But, we create other predictable paths as well – the safest paths to relationships, the safest paths to careers, and the safest path we can find to God. We want these paths to be predictable – so sure that we don’t even have to think about walking them – we just know if we start here, we’ll end up there, with no rattlers along the way to surprise us.

We love the safety of our prison of predictability and the feeling of control it gives us in our lives – but the Holy calls us to transform from jailbirds of predictability to the free bird of being a true wanderer. If we look at the history of our ancient Hebrew cousins – and even that guy we know as Jesus – we’ll find that being a free bird wanderer – not a prisoner of predictability – is the true calling of anyone who seeks a deep relationship with the Holy.

I am a laborer, sign round my neck:
“Will work for dignity, trust and respect”
Stand on this corner so you don’t forget
I haven’t had mine yet.

I am a prisoner pacing my cell,
Three steps and back, my corner of hell.
Lock me away and you swallow the key,
But some day I shall be free.

Author, pastor and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor says getting off the beaten path and breaking out of that prison of predictability requires something we’re pretty loathe to do in our day to day lives – become truly aware. When we leave the path – and that prison of predictability – we must become acutely aware of each step we’re taking.

“When I do this,” Taylor writes, “I hear the buzzing of the yellow jackets in time to take a detour around their front door. I see the gap in the grass around the groundhog hole in time to step around it. I sing old Baptist hymns to warn the snakes that I am coming. They do not want to see me any more than I want to see them, after all. What I see instead is the tiny wild blue iris that grows close to the ground. I see the round bed in the tall grass where the doe sleeps with her twin fawns at night, and the hornet’s nest no bigger than a fist, hanging from the underside of the thistle leaf.”

When we leave the beaten path, we begin to see the true beauty of the world around us. Even amid the dangers, we begin to notice the wonder of all creation – the bees, the birds, the flowers, even the dangers like snakes – become just another part of the scenery – the creation that blesses us as we bless it.

This is the key, Jubilants, to breaking out of our prison of predictability – the courage to step off the beaten path – become aware of our surroundings – and be willing to get lost.

It is when we get lost that we truly find the fingerprints of the Holy all around us in this world. It is when we get lost that we find the truest connection to nature and to each other. Because when we are lost – we must be able to rely on other people – on all of creation – to help us find our way again. We must come in contact with strangers and trust that they will have our best interest at heart and not point us in the wrong direction when ask for help.

This is the lesson that the Hebrew people learned after wandering those long 40 years in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. This lesson is so important it is enshrined in their laws:

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Other translations use “stranger” for “resident alien,” so the Hebrews are commanded to never wrong a stranger because they were once strangers in the land of Egypt, so they know how it feels to be alienated – to be cast out – to be marginalized. Because they know what it’s like, the Holy tells them, don’t treat others that way – instead, be kind to the strangers you meet – guide them, take care of them, and help them find their way when they dare to get lost.

Taylor tells the story of one of her students who had a group of Muslim men show up at their farm one day. They wanted to buy a cow, but the student’s father did not know anything about Islam. He did not know that Muslims keep kosher – or hallal – and that a cow must be slaughtered in a particular way for it to be acceptable to eat – so the best way to accomplish that is to do it yourself. Because he didn’t know that – all that old farmer saw was a bunch of dark-skinned men in a pickup truck sitting on his property. So, he told the man to wait a minute, and the farmer came back with his shotgun and told them to get off his property and not come back.

The farmer didn’t understand how to treat a stranger, because he had never been a stranger himself – keeping to the familiar paths of his own farm and community. But, when we break free of our prison of predictability and consent to get lost from time to time, we understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that shotgun – faced with someone who hasn’t taken the time to get lost – and to learn compassion.

That’s what getting lost really teaches you – compassion – a true affinity for the suffering of others.

Because they had once been lost, those desert dwelling Hebrews knew the value of compassion for the stranger – for the widow, for the orphan, for the poor, for those who may have been knocked off the beaten path through no choice of their own and are now wandering, helpless, in the wilderness.

Getting lost brings us not just in closer relationship with the Holy – but with each other. Getting lost helps us to recognize just how helpless we all are – and how much we really need each other to make the world a place where we can all live in peace and harmony, without ever feeling the need to get out our shotguns.

Breathe deeply.

And I’ll be a wanderer, feet on the ground,
Heart on my sleeve and my head in the clouds.
I own the star above some distant shore,
Wandering ever more.

Getting lost can happen at any time – in any place. You can get lost in a story, or lost in a book. You can get lost in the eyes of your lover or lost in the aisles of a bookstore. You can get lost going home or lost going to the store. You can get lost looking for a parking place or you can even get lost in space. You can get lost in thought, or lost in time. You can get lost looking for love or lost while looking to get away. You can get lost between jobs or lost between beers. You can even get lost looking for God – but have no fear – because in this wilderness, there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people, too. You are not alone in this wilderness of life – which should remind you to be kind to every other lost stranger you meet on this path. We’re all searching for that Holy place to call home – all searching to be set free from this prison of predictability.

Breathe deeply.

Our next song comes from a Charlottesville, Virginia band led by Dave Matthews. The Dave Matthews Band has sold more than 40 million records since they began in 1991. This song, Where Are You Going, was the second single released from Dave’s 2002 album Busted Stuff.

[Verse] Where are you going? With your long face
Pulling down,
Don’t hide away
Like an ocean
That you can’t see but you can smell
And the sound of the waves crash down

[Chorus] I am no Superman
I have no reasons for you
I am no hero, Oh, that’s for sure
But I do know one thing
Is where you are is where I belong
I do know where you go
Is where I want to be
Where are you going?
Where do you go?

In our Jesus story, we find our guy following a long biblical tradition of getting lost. Just as the Hebrews before him wandered in the wilderness and Elijah before him got lost in the desert while hiding from Queen Jezebel who wanted to kill him, so Jesus consents to becoming lost in the Judean desert for forty days to face the danger of a scripture quoting demon and the very real danger of starving to death.

Here in this wilderness, Jesus tempted to flee to that prison of predictability where our bread is provided, where safety is provided, where the world’s adoration is provided – but getting lost means sometimes going hungry, putting ourselves in danger and inviting the world’s criticism. Wanderers rarely win accolades.

We’ve all been in the wilderness. That wilderness may look like a hospital waiting room when you don’t knowing the status of a loved one – or sitting with family after a loved one has passed and we’re not sure where we are or where to go from here. That wilderness may look like a homeless shelter or a hotel room after you’ve lost your home. That wilderness may look like your dwindling savings account after you’ve lost your job. That wilderness may look like an acute pain in your body that will not go away and leads you into darker and darker thoughts and feelings as it persists.

No one wants to be in any of those wildernesses. Whether voluntary or involuntary, the wilderness is a scary place – one we want to leave quickly and get back to the safety of that beaten path. But, I invite you to begin to see the wilderness in a different light.

Instead of being fraught win yellow jackets, ankle-twisting groundhog holes or poisonous rattlers, the wilderness offers an incredible spiritual journey that can change your life in amazing and fulfilling ways.

When Jesus goes into the wilderness he does so because the Spirit leads him there. He had nothing to eat or drink – just the Holy to guide him and lead him. He was beset by temptation, by thoughts and feelings that must have been torturous for him to endure for all those days. But what about afterward – what about when he emerged from that wilderness?

Barbara Brown Taylor notes that while Jesus may have gone into the wilderness as a prisoner in the jail of predictability – he came out a free bird.

“What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to him?” Taylor writes. “It freed him–from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him. After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.”

This, Jubilants, is how Jesus is able to help those who are lost because he knows what it’s like to wander – to be off the beaten path – to come upon strangers who you can heal and who can heal you. If you remember the Syro-Phonecian woman he called a dog, then you realize that she taught him just as surely as he healed her. That’s because they both knew what it was like to wander – to be lost – and they treated one another with respect as strangers with a common goal – just looking to be back on the path, richer for the experience of wandering and meeting one another along the way.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Are you looking for answers
To questions under the stars?
Well, if along the way
You are grown weary
You can rest with me until
A brighter day and you’re okay

[Chorus] I am no Superman I have no answers for you
I am no hero, Oh, that’s for sure
But I do know one thing
Is where you are is where I belong
I do know where you go
Is where I want to be
Where are you going? Where do you go?

How would it change the way you lived if you started choosing to get lost in your life? Go right instead of left, drive down a road you’ve never been on before, visit a Mexican grocery story or an Asian grocery store and start asking questions about the food on the shelves, and the culture behind it. How would it change your life if you were willing to be the stranger from time to time – seeking out the help and kindness of other strangers?

Such low-risk situations can help you build the spiritual muscles you need when life jars you off the path unexpectedly – landing you out in the pasture with the bees and the snakes. You learn how to manage your panic, marshal your resources, and get the perspective you need to see where you are and what opportunities this new vast wilderness may have to offer you.

You are never alone in your wilderness however – the Holy is always with you – because where you are is where the Holy belongs – whether we are aware of the Holy are not – she is always there in the midst of our wilderness, working in, through and around us. We’re also beset by devils who know that we long for the prison of predictability – where our bread and water are supplied, where the four walls keep out the biting snakes of the world and protect us from the rain of despair.

But, when we come face to face with those demons that would keep us in this prison of predictability – we begin to lose our appetite for those false safety nets that can never truly save us.

When we spring ourselves from the prison of predictability and allow life to knock us off the path from time to time, we begin to understand what is truly valuable in this world – the compassion of strangers – which grows in us the ability to offer compassion to the strangers we meet. In our wilderness we learn what is important in this world has nothing to do with material possessions or careers or worldly status. What matters is whether or not we can be both the stranger – and the one who welcomes the stranger. What matters is that our wilderness exposes not just our vulnerability – but the vulnerability of all of us – and our duty to show compassion not just for ourselves – but for everyone.

It is in this wilderness that Jesus invites us to live fully into our true purpose – to embody the love and compassion that this world hungers for – and to give it without condition to every friend and stranger we meet. We may not be Superman – we may not have all the answers – but we do know one thing – no matter where the Holy dwells that’s where we want to be – because that’s truly where we belong.

[Chorus] I am no Superman I have no answers for you
I am no hero, Oh, that’s for sure
But I do know one thing
Is where you are is where I belong
I do know where you go
Is where I want to be
Where are you going? Where do you go?
Where? Well, let’s go

Oh, Yeah!