I have been reflecting a good bit recently on one of my favorite stories, Little Walker’s night at the boardwalk.
Little Walker’s favorite place on earth is the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. If you have ever been to this boardwalk in the summer you know the extent of the crowds of people – it can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. For five-year-old Little Walker, with amusement rides and treats and so many people, a night spent on the boardwalk was his most favorite thing to do. All-day long he told everyone he encountered “I am going to the boardwalk tonight!”
So when dinner was done and the dishes were all washed and dried, he headed up to the boards with his parents and little sister, his aunt, and uncle. Little Walker could barely contain himself as he entered the scene: Ferris wheels and boogie boards and flashing billboards, skateboards and strollers, Steel’s fudge and Mack & Manco’s pizza and Shriver’s salt water taffy, the sounds of the ocean in the background, and wave upon wave upon wave of people. Absolutely wonderful!
But when he spotted the Johnson Caramel Popcorn shop (his dad’s favorite place on the boardwalk) and excitedly looked back for his dad and could not find him, the whole scene turned on Little Walker. The lights, the noises, the smells, and the faces all began to press in upon him, and terrify him. The excitement was gone. Little Walker was lost. He began to quietly cry as he searched the crowd for his family. Face after face, big and small, young and old, missed him and his desperate situation. Not one of them focused any sort of sustained attention on him.
Everything and everyone raced by the boy in a collective overlooking, until out of the crowd, one familiar face stood out. The moment for Little Walker was not when he saw his uncle’s face but when his uncle’s face rested on him. What a wonderful face looking at and moving toward him through the hurried mob of people. His uncle ran over and hoisted him up into his arms. Little Walker began to cry harder and harder as his uncle carried him back to the rest of the family. His uncle had found him! The panic was over.
It has been a disorienting year. For many of us, the events of the last 13 months have triggered “a sudden turn” of sorts in our stories, and we have begun to look around and realize how alone and unsure we actually feel about a lot of things. We can relate to this five-year-old’s boardwalk experience.
Our communities desperately need people who in simple and unspectacular ways play the role of the uncle for the many Little Walker’s in our midst. Men and women who pay attention and really listen and patiently give space for others’ questions, confusions, frustrations, and wonderings provide a powerful presence in our communities. They see the lostness that so many others walk by.
Reflecting upon this story, I have found myself thinking and praying, in particular, about those of you who have been these uncles and aunts in your communities for years, who this year have been feeling a lot more like Little Walker, a bit lost and missed in the crowd. For those who are used to the good work of finding, feeling lost can be profoundly confusing.
A few questions have come to mind for those of us who are acquainted with this kind of lostness:
- How are you engaging with God and others amidst this disorienting time?
- Who is providing a presence that helps you sort out your current set of thoughts and feelings?
- Are you open to seeking and receiving the friendship you need? Or are you pulling back, isolating yourself, trying to survive on your own, convinced no one would really understand your particular lostness in this season?
No matter who we are or what stage of life we are in or what degree of maturity others expect of us, we never outgrow our need for spiritual companionship. Even Jesus understood this need firsthand. Consider his invitation to his close friends Peter, James, and John in Gethsemane on the eve of his death, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26: 38). If Jesus needed such friendship, how much more do we?
Henri Nouwen reflected upon this need at a difficult transition in his mid-fifties,
You might already have discovered for yourself how radically different traveling alone is from traveling together. I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone. I need my brothers and sisters to pray with me, to speak with me about the spiritual task at hand, and to challenge me to stay pure in mind, heart, and body.
In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, p. 41.
How hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone. Wisdom and maturity in Christ will never mean we grow beyond our need for spiritual companionship.
It is a peculiar season through which we are all walking. At so many levels, I am finding it impossible to envision even a rough sketch of what is going to happen next personally, locally, nationally, or globally. Yet, if I know anything about seasons of disorientation, I know they can be heightened times of learning and growth. We serve a profoundly creative and developmental God. May we be alert to his patient leading and tutoring.
And whether you are identifying today more with Little Walker’s lostness or with his uncle’s work of finding the lost, may we all discover more deeply that we must not travel alone on this journey. The journey must be shared or it will not be endured honestly and faithfully.
Spirit of God, be generous among us, with us, and through us, in Jesus’ name.