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God is not Found in the Church

God is not Found in the Church

written by David R. Anderson

How Covid-19 Can Remake our Spiritual Lives

“God is not found in church.” That statement, coming from a pastor I know, writing to her people, arrested me.

Now, I thought, finally it can be said, must be said.

Many times I have wanted to say that, but didn’t because I worried that it would be heard as anti-church. But now that churches have mostly closed their physical doors, it sounds different. It sounds hopeful.

Covid-19 is a full-stop moment. Now it is actually helpful to tell people that God is not located on the altar or communion table or pulpit, not in the soaring arches and stunning windows, not in the swell of a mighty organ or choir. Because there is none of that now. 

The best analogue I can think of is the destruction of the temple in 586 BC. The ancient Jews believed their temple to be the dwelling place of God—literally. In fact, ancient scriptures declared the temple in Zion inviolable: it could not be destroyed precisely because it was the dwelling place of God. After Solomon’s fabulous sanctuary lay in smoking ruins, the Jews had two options. They could declare their religion dead, or they could re-imagine what the presence of God might look like in their lives. Thanks to the great prophets, like Ezekiel and his striking vision of the valley of dry bones, Israel chose the latter. They came to understand that the shekinah glory of God, which they used to believe rested only between the cherubim above the mercy seat, now radiated within each human heart.

Something like that is now possible for us all. Necessity opens possibility. We can radically re-direct our spiritual and religious attention—away from church and into the holy of holies, our hearts. We don’t “find God in church;” God seeks and finds us. All we can do is stop chasing the illusion of a findable, graspable, containable god. If God ever steals upon us we will simply be aware of a Presence within. That inner light will teach us to see God everywhere and in everyone, but the vision starts within.

This is not to minimize the importance and deep beauty of the church. Post-temple Jews continued to gather in synagogues, but I have always been fascinated by the way the primary altar of Judaism shifted to each and every home. Think of it, Christians: the high holy day of Passover is celebrated in the home! I often joked with clergy colleagues, “What if we told our people that there would be no Christmas or Easter services at church? What if we told them to celebrate at an altar in their own homes? They would run us out on a rail.” 

Churches will re-open and people will again congregate for public worship. Lord, speed the day. But if we are faithful, if we have prophets who will not let this crisis go to waste, we will never “go to church” in the old, thoughtless way. We will know the church to be a sign, a pointer to the reality of God’s presence within and therefore everywhere. 

 

Image:By Anupam at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43972435

 

The Rev. David R. Anderson is the Chaplain of Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, and the former Rector of Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut. Anderson is the author of Breakfast Epiphanies: Finding Wonder in the Everyday (Beacon Press), and Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul: The Passage to New Life When Old Beliefs Die (Convergent Books).

 

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(The Rev) Henry Galganowicz

Joseph Campbell used to remind people that the holy land is wherever we are, not some special far-off place.

The Rev. David R. Anderson

That’s great–I hadn’t heard that one from Campbell.

Michael Anderson

David, thanks for this! I never knew the Jews regarded the temple as inviolate. But of course they did. How did I miss that? The destruction of the temple altered their worship forever. I wonder if the same thing might happen now and in the days ahead? I find myself both worried and hopeful. I think when I return to the nave and watch the choir process down the aisle, and join in the opening hymn–all that I’ve taken for granted will seem a great gift.

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