A lady I know, who is in her 40’s, had taken her husband back several times after he had been unfaithful in their marriage. One day she came home from work to discover that he was leaving her to be with the other woman. Oh, and by the way, he’d stopped making mortgage payments months ago, so their house was in foreclosure and about to be reclaimed by the bank. She was now suddenly single, and unexpectedly homeless.
Another woman and her husband had adopted a child from an orphanage overseas. It had been a long drawn-out process, with lots of screening, many trips abroad, and much red tape. When they brought their new daughter home she settled really well into American life and thrived.
A year ago, the husband took a new job in another state, so they sold their house and moved leaving their extended family behind. A few months after the move, the husband informed his wife that he was leaving her for another woman. My friend, with no family or support in their new location, eventually moved back to their old neighborhood and started over. The ex-husband is only in sporadic contact with his daughter and the mother's heart breaks as she sees her daughter experiencing yet another abandonment in her short life.
(I have changed some of the details in their stories to retain confidentiality.)
As a facilitator for three years of a support group for separated and divorced people, I have heard many heart-wrenching stories like these.How can people going through difficult times find God in all things, how can they even feel the love of Christ?
Often when we talk about finding God in all things a lot of us think about beautiful experiences we’ve had where we feel close to Jesus – seeing a newborn baby, taking Holy Communion on Christmas Eve, finding God in an art work or an aria. I trained as a geologist and am an avid gardener so I find God very easily in nature and all aspects of creation. The expanses of the Sonoran Desert, and the dark and heat of a coal-mine are places where I have sensed God with me. Even weeding and trimming bushes are activities where I experience His presence in a meaningful way.
William Barry calls these our “thin places”, those moments where we find God, and Barry encourages us to name them.
Some people, like the writer Kathleen Norris, find God in the mundane tasks of life that we repeat every day. One of her thin places was hanging out the laundry in her back yard on the windy plains of South Dakota. She writes,
“During the unspeakably brutal winter of 1996-1997, with nearly thirty inches of snow on the ground by Thanksgiving, I had had enough by the time the spring blizzards came – another three feet of snow and high winds on the eighth of April – that I set out one morning, ablaze with the warmth of an angry determination, to shovel a path to the clothesline in order to hang something colorful there. As I began to handle the wet clothes, my hands quickly reddened, stung with cold, but it seemed worth doing nonetheless, simply to break the hold of winter on my spirit – and to disrupt the monotony of the white moonscape that our backyard had become. And even though the clothes freeze-dried stiffly, and had to be thawed in the house, they had the sky-scent of summer on them.”
Norris was eager to be doing something that brought her into a spiritual place. Hanging laundry took on the form of liturgy for her – the repetition of a mundane act being a means of communing with God. Even Saint Therese of Lisieux admitted that Christ was more present to her not “during my hours of prayer... but rather in the midst of daily occupations.”
When I became a Christian at age 14, the only people I knew that went to church were the people in my best friend’s youth group. Their church wason the opposite side of Sheffield from where I lived, an hour’s bus ride away. All the teens went to the Evensong service, and the Youth Group was on Monday nights.
My parents were not really convinced about my newfound faith. But they allowed me to go to church and youth group with my friends on condition that I was on the 9:30 bus each night, which got me home at 10:30pm. The driving age in England is 17, and it would be a few years before I could drive myself there.
So for two hours on Sunday nights, and two hours on Monday nights I rode the bus. Often I was the only passenger on the ride home, so I made sure that I sat downstairs where the driver could see me. Half of the journey was through the industrial part of the city, where the steel factories were. It had few street lamps and there was not much traffic. Traveling through this dark and gloomy area at night, especially in winter, I felt like I was in a ship, the only light voyaging through the dark and dangerous unknown.
The wonderful thing about those bus rides was the time it gave me to think and ponder. As well as all the usual teenage stuff – who liked who, what so-and-so said - I would muse on the sermon, or what we’d read in the youth group’s Bible study. The prayers of Evensong would ring in my mind.
One especially, gave me great comfort on the bus:
“Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
And in your great mercy
Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
For the love of your only Son,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
I prayed for God to be with me on the bus, and I think that those long, solitary journeys in the dark were my first “thin places.”
So, all of us have had experience of finding God in beautiful things. Some of us find God in doing the mundane, repetitious activities of daily life, the events of the every-day, the tasks that are necessary to civilized living.
Back to the ladies I mentioned at the beginning. How do they find God in all things? How do we find God in turbulent times, when our life is in crisis, when the unspeakable happens?
In the divorce support group people come to the first meeting, hesitant, hurting deeply, wounded emotionally and spiritually, and not taking care of themselves physically. As they share their stories with each other, their load lightens slightly with the realization that other people are also going through this trauma - they are not on their own. They meet people who have just gone through a similar situation, and are now doing better – they gain hope. The counselors on the DVDs inform them that what they are feeling is normal, and gradually things will change and improve. Most importantly, they are reminded of God’s promises that He is with them, and they are precious to Him. We pray for their situations, and ask God to be with them.
In the following weeks, invariably one of them has an experience of light shining in their dark situation. They sensed God with them, even thoughpreviously they had doubted it. Perhaps a friend, who hasn’t been in contact for years, suddenly calls and reestablishes a connection, providing a listening ear just when it was needed. An offer is made out of the blue for garage space for someone who was worried about digging her car out of the snow to go to work. Little things to you and me, but very important things to these folks.
When I was in a terribly difficult period of my life with a family member’s health problems, I couldn’t even open my Bible to read it, prayers would die unspoken on my lips, and each day loomed large and despairing. It was my friends who made sure they kept pointing me to Jesus, and lifting the curtain so I could see Him. They were willing to say the same words of encouragement to me repeatedly, until I was able to grasp them instead of letting them slip away. Eventually, I got to the point where I spiritually turned around and was able to see Jesus, who had been at my side the whole time. I found God in my friends. I found God in offers of practical help. I found God in the worship at church going on around me, even when I couldn’t worship.
Sometimes when we don't feel that God is with us, we have to look back. Then we see that He was there, He was there with us in those wondrous moments; He was with us while we were doing the ironing, and He definitely was close while we were in pain.