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God & Christianity

Finding God Inside or Outside the Church

Finding God Inside or Outside the Church

Once upon a time (to be candid, it feels like another lifetime), I worked as a parish minister. My experience included leading a small congregation in the city and serving as an associate on a large staff in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

In both positions, I would visit men and women in nursing homes as well as others who couldn’t get out to church. I’d also try to call and connect with people who had just stopped showing up on Sunday, for whatever reason.

Sometimes I hear stories from people who had been badly wounded by others in the church.  Sometimes, they told me, the person who had inflicted harm on them was a clergyman (there weren’t as many women leading congregations then as there are today) who had worked in the church before I arrived. You may know this already from personal experience, but there’s something profoundly difficult about a bad experience in a church setting, like being part of a dysfunctional family.

Sometimes people leave a congregation, and never find another one where they feel at home.  Even if they move on, healing can take a long time.

I heard tales that were truly distressing. I sympathized and prayed. I supported. I listened. Sin, repentance, forgiveness, healing – it was my job to be a companion on the journey back to community or to bid them a peaceful farewell.

Then, in the wake of a messy parting with my church and my boss, it was my own turn to experience what it was like to be a wounded Christian. While there was nothing at all spectacular about it, we struggled to communicate with one another, and to end on a positive note.

As you can imagine, all the advice I’d given parishioners became a lot more than pastoral when I was the one who faced a painful church experience.

No miraculous reconciliation between me and my then-boss. No immediate healing. Some broken relationships.

So where was God in that experience?

Sometimes finding God takes hindsight.

As I look back, I can see God’s hand in the men and women who stood by me, and didn’t allow all the ups and downs I went through in the weeks (and candidly, years) after that to compromise our friendship. I can see God’s footprints in the fact that our family was welcomed into another congregation in which we could find a home.

I can see God at work in the fact that years later my son and I returned to the church as parishioners, welcomed by the new head pastor and members of the congregation. To them, this was ancient history—to me, a part of my journey towards greater insight, understanding and (hopefully) tolerance for the brokenness of others, and my own frailty.

Here are a few things I learned. You may know them already!

Anyone who has been part of a church family (or any kind of a social group) knows that we don’t leave our flawed personalities behind when we become members.

We’d like to think that churches are different.  But they aren’t and really, they never have been. Those of you who have read the New Testament letters of Paul to the Christians in Corinth know what a handful they were—and I’m sure we didn’t know the half of it.

Nor can God be confined to a sanctuary, a worship service, a beautiful hymn or a rousing worship song, though God may be found there.

We often can discover God in the small moments of our lives – a glimpse of the stars on a clear night, a conversation with a friend over a quick cup of tea in the office, a solitary walk as winter turns to spring.

Sometimes, God’s footprints are easy to miss. Often, our sense of gratitude can become a little dulled by routines, or by racing around so quickly that we don’t have time to stop and look at the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Other times, we almost must trip over the divine to realize that it’s been there all along.   Sometimes it is in looking back that we see God clearly.

I’m horribly near-sighted. Without my contact lenses and glasses, the world around me would seem blurred and dull. Wearing the corrective lenses adds depth and crispness and subtlety to my perspective on life.

Try putting on your “God glasses” as spring goes on and the world around us bursts into flower, fruit and song. See if your different perspective illumines anything for you, shining a light on something you may have missed or showing you the road ahead. Don’t feel as though you must see something new or different, but try to stay open to whatever comes along.

Perhaps you will find, as I did, that you never know where God may show up—or when. And, as I found, the journey isn’t always fun. Whatever you find, I hope, and trust, that it’s what you really need.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and mother of two young adults. Her work has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Religion News Service, LNP Media Inc., the National Catholic Reporter/Global Sisters Report and many other media outlets.

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