Navigating Unknown Territory
Earlier this fall my husband and I met in Paris for a mini-vacation--our first experience of international travel together in our 15+ years of marriage. It was delightful and infuriating and hilarious to witness the radically divergent ways in which Donnel and I responded in the face of the challenges of the unknown.
Upon our arrival in an unfamiliar place, uncertain which direction to go, Donnel's approach was characterized by extraordinary patience and unhurried curiosity. Left to his own devices, he would study the map for 10 minutes. Then he would rotate the map 1/4 turn clockwise and study it for another 10 minutes from that vantage point. And so forth. Until shadows lengthened. And night fell. And we missed dinner. And we missed our plane. And we grew old together on the subway platform in a foreign land.
My approach, on the other hand, was characterized by bold action and impatient curiosity. "I think we should go this direction," I would announce with an air of completely unfounded authority, and begin briskly and purposefully walking in some direction. I figured, "If we're going to be lost, I'd rather be lost seeing the city than lost looking at the map." Plus I think my mother must have impressed upon me at an early age (when I was a young girl studying ballet in the big city) that, in order to avoid being mugged or kidnapped, it was important to always carry yourself with confidence and look like you knew where you were going.
For anyone who has known Donnel or me for more than 10 minutes, none of this will come as a surprise. What DID surprise (and humble) me was the chance to notice my own sense of panic and immediate resistance in the face of every new challenge and unfamiliar situation.
I would descend into the subway station and immediately think "Oh my God! Oh no! I can't do this! I don't know where to go!"
A saner version of me would say "Of course you don't know where to go. You've never been here before. You're not expected to know how to do something BEFORE you do it. You'll figure it out by doing it. That's how we learn. Besides which, that's what all the signs and maps posted all over the place are for. To help you figure out where you are and how to get where you want to go. "
Like I have said, in my head if not out loud (and somewhat impatiently, I must admit) to anxious church members in the face of new or unknown challenges about a zillion times.
In ministry contexts I've chosen and learned to embrace and cherish the necessity of venturing into unknown territory as an exhilarating opportunity to be surprised anew by God's astounding faithfulness and by unknown reserves of giftedness, resiliency, and creativity in myself and others.
It took a trip down into the Paris subway system to remind me that I can be just as anxious and grouchy in the face of the unknown as the most anxious and grouchy parishioner. (There's almost a pun in there....Paris....Parish...)
Luckily God loves all of us enough to accept us just as we are AND God loves all of us too much to enable us to remain that way.
Later this month I'll travel to Costa Rica for a Spanish Immersion course, then we'll travel as a family to the Philippines to visit Donnel's family over Christmas. And I'll get to experience (and choose to resist or embrace) the anxiety of the unknown all over again.
And so I'll get another chance. And so will the church. And so will you.
Leave a Reply.
My name is Sylvia Miller-Mutia, and I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. I have recently accepted an exciting call to serve as assisting clergy at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, NM with a focus on outreach, evangelism, and family ministry. I continue serving as "priest at large" for the larger church and wider world, assisting the people of God in whatever ways I can, and developing new resources for spiritual formation to share. Prior to my current call, I served as Rector (aka Pastor) of St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, NM (2015-2018), Assistant Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA (2010-2015) and Pastoral Associate for Youth & Families at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belvedere, CA (2002-2009). I am married to Donnel (grief counselor, couples coach, artist, best dad ever), and we have three awesome kids, ranging in age from 8-14.