[Listen to the Audio] Gunshots have been greeting us in the early morning hours of our weekends. The thump, thump and the crack, crack, crack penetrate our shutters before the sunlight can.
We’re not hearing gang turf battles or drug deals gone wrong. Duck hunters and deer hunters are opening fire at first light. From experience I also know that boats equipped with high-powered motors and sonar gear—along with a variety of smaller, humbler craft—are making their way more silently to fishing holes.
For us, this is business as usual. Our home sits by a lake in the midst of a massive pine forest. It’s hunting season. And if you’re the fishing sort, only work and foul weather keep you off the water.
But you know, I am a bishop in the Episcopal Church. And on Sunday mornings in the predawn light I am usually sliding into my car to make a visitation at one of my congregations across much of Louisiana. I can’t help but notice that there are a lot more people dressed in camo and casting lures than will be joining me at the altar rail.
At this juncture you might be expecting me to rant about godless people or to scold church members for skipping Sunday services or to whine about the continuing decline in commitment to religious institutions.
Not to worry, I find this an enormous waste of energy. Instead, I prefer to spend time with a question that might just deepen our own understanding of what God is up to: Where is God finding people these days?
I know what you’re thinking. I misspoke. Surely I meant to say, “Where are people finding God these days?”
Nope. I asked the question that’s gotten my attention. Where is God finding people these days. Pondering this question might help us find a fruitful perspective on the American spiritual scene.
My friend Diana Butler Bass got me thinking about the spiritual lessons to be learned by those who opt out of Christian worship on Sunday mornings. Check out Christianity after Religion and Grounded, for instance.
But what persuaded me to pose the question I want us to ask was Matthew’s account of the call of the first disciples.
Rabbis in Jesus’ day did not recruit students. If you wanted to learn the ways of God, you went looking for a rabbi to follow. That rabbi would either accept you as a disciple or not.
By contrast, Matthew shows us Jesus walking along the seashore. He comes across brothers Peter and Andrew. “Follow me,” he says. Farther down the beach Jesus meets another pair of brothers: James and John. He issues the same invitation to them.
In Jesus, we see that God wants relationship and takes the initiative. God does not wait around for us to haul ourselves to the celestial throne—or Mount Zion or synagogue or church—to make a connection with us. God always reaches out to where we are.
This is not to say that there are no places especially evocative of the holy or saturated with the divine. The Celts talked about thin places, our own Camp Hardtner resonates with God’s presence for many of our young and formally young campers, and the interior spaces of Gothic architecture stir my heart and my imagination.
But many of us Christians have harbored the misconception that our spiritual practice centers on going to a designated place to meet the holy. When I was a parish priest, plenty of my parishioners who hunted or fished or golfed on Sunday morning said the same thing to me. “I find God in the woods, at the lake, on the links.”
To be honest, I was outwardly supportive and inwardly dismissive. It sounded to me like a flimsy excuse or a dodge. And while we’re being honest, I have to say that sometimes that’s all it was.
But now I see that they were making the same mistake I was. I was assuming that we had to go to a place to find God. They were simply suggesting that they had found an alternative place. We were both looking for the answer to the wrong question: Where do you find God?
Jesus’ call to the first disciples teaches us that God reaches out to us wherever we are. So here’s the telling follow-up question. Do we let God connect with us wherever we are?
When God connects with us, God transforms us. Jesus put it this way to those first disciples. “I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19b) In other words, “When you follow me, your life will no longer be centered on yourself. You will seek the well-being of others.”
Episcopalians believe that sacramental worship is transformational. In the humble elements of bread and wine we receive Christ and we are made into the Body of Christ. God reaches out to us and makes us one with each other. And our worship shows us what God is up to everywhere God finds us: connecting us to the divine and to each other.
My friend Steve Bonsey talks about finding where church is trying to happen. In my own words, wherever people show up, God shows up, seeks to make a connection, and draws us together with each other.
Sure, it can happen in church buildings. But it can also happen on mountain trails, in fish camps, at AA meetings. God is trying to make it happen in homeless communities, risky neighborhoods, and cramped offices. God finds us wherever we are.
So, our challenge isn’t to find God. It’s to embrace the people God happens to find us with.