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Our journey climbing the spiral staircase

Spiral staircase

Retired pastor Sondra Willobee has written a Lenten meditation for spiritual refugees, anyone needing guidance on their journey seeking a new spiritual home.

Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

This time of transition in The United Methodist Church has many of us feeling like spiritual refugees. We’re not sure of our place. We wonder what will happen in our congregation or to our denomination. Some of us are grieving the loss of old ways. Some of us are looking for a new spiritual home.

Transitions in our individual spiritual lives may also make us feel like we’re living in a strange land (see my previous blog post here). Maybe we’ve moved to a new community. Perhaps illness has altered our daily routine. Or, losing a loved one has made a once-familiar emotional landscape seem strange. We may be experiencing a “dark night of the soul” that comes upon the most faithful, and we walk our hallways in darkness, brushing our fingers against walls or banisters, trying to find our way.

Dislocation is nothing new to people of faith. The Israelites experienced it many times in their history: the Exodus, when they fled slavery in Egypt; the Exile, when many were taken as captives to Babylon; the Diaspora after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Early Christians, too, experienced dislocation when Roman persecution scattered them around the Mediterranean world.

During times of dislocation, spiritual questions seem more urgent: Where is God? Why has this happened to us? What am I supposed to do now? These questions are common to the process of grieving, but if we’ve also lost our place of worship, it may be even harder for us to move on. What do you do when the place you went to for strength or comfort or guidance is gone?

Some counselors compare grief to climbing a spiral staircase. You seem to be going around in circles, yet you are actually making progress. Here I am, crying in the kitchen again. Here I am, breathing hard, reliving the painful moments again. Here I am blindsided by anger or longing or guilt or regret or fear or whatever again. It’s dizzying and disorienting. Here I am, again.

Over time, however, the intensity of grief usually eases. Acceptance or new insight may emerge, making it possible to climb once again.

I would say that our spiritual journey as a whole is more like a spiral than a straight ladder up. We keep returning to the same places over and over, revisiting themes that are important to our particular spiritual journeys. For one person, that revisited theme may be anxiety about abandonment after losing a parent in childhood. For another, that key theme may be difficulty with trust after having been abused. Throughout our lives, we return to the same vicinity on the spiral, albeit at different levels, because we’ve learned more about ourselves or received help along the way. The second verse of the old spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” suggests this spiral shape: “Every round goes higher, higher.” Even the basic building blocks of human life look like a spiral—the shape of our spiritual journey is in our DNA.

What principles might guide us in times of spiritual dislocation, particularly when seeking a new spiritual home?

Abandon the Critical Attitude

When I retired from active ministry in 2017, my husband and I got to choose where to worship each Sunday. So, I thought it would be fun to find a new church home. But, boy, was I wrong. I didn’t realize how difficult the decision would be, complicated by grief, nostalgia, and something else I’m ashamed to admit: a highly critical attitude. As I sat in the pews of different churches, I evaluated the liturgy, rated the music, critiqued the sermon, and assessed the warmth of our welcome. Rather than being grateful for the faithful efforts of this particular community of faith, I was filling out a scorecard.

I don’t think I’m the only church visitor to do this.

Indeed, we need to make judgments about many of these things when we search for a church home. But here’s the problem: My focus had shifted from worshiping God to deciding whether my needs and standards were being met. Even after we’d made our choice, my critical attitude persisted, which made it difficult for me to claim the new place as home. I needed to repent of my critical attitude.

In his book Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God, Gary Thomas outlines nine different spiritual paths or temperaments through which people come to God: naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, and intellectuals. Knowing our spiritual temperament can help us find a congregation that shares our pathway. But understanding the diversity of paths can also help us be more tolerant as we visit various churches. A pastor who read an early draft of Thomas’ book commented: “I think you’ve told me why pastors hear so much criticism of worship services and so little praise: a particular variety of service will only please one-ninth of Christians.”[i]

Abandon the critical attitude. Or, as the Ash Wednesday liturgy phrases it, “Repent and believe in the gospel.”

Be Persistent

Finding a new church home is a delicate and complex process in which we try to imagine if we “fit” in a particular place. However, as Lillian Daniel points out in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, no fit will be perfect. In fact, it shouldn’t be, she says. “It is hard to find that community that resonates; where a person can sense that they could feel at home, but not too much at home. A good religious community is like that: both comforting and discomforting.”[ii]

So, Daniel says, we should be persistent, in the same way that we look for a new residence for ourselves or a college for our children. Daniel imagines these scenarios: “What if we gave up after seeing just a few options, saying, ‘I went to see a couple of open apartments, and I just didn’t get much out of the experience’? Or, ‘We visited five colleges and after that, we stopped looking. That was ten years ago with our eldest. Based on those five visits ten years ago, we decided not to show any of our other children any colleges either because, as you know, there aren’t any good ones.’”[iii] Keep trying, Daniel admonishes.

Pastor Katie Hays, who started a congregation for twenty-somethings called Galileo Church, makes a similar point in her book We Were Spiritual Refugees. “Churches deserve several chances to show you who they are,” Hays writes. “More than one visit is important. Sometimes you can find a little ‘church within a church,’” like a Bible study class or a young adult subgroup. Most importantly, she says, “Be brave. Remember how hard it was to find Galileo? If God worked in your life once, what makes it any less likely that God would work in your life again?”[iv]

We must practice the same perseverance when other life transitions have made us spiritual refugees. Sometimes the journey of faith is simply putting one foot in front of the other. Our breath may catch, our tendons tighten, and our legs may ache, but we keep going. Lent is a long season. Persevere.

Confess Our Idolatry

When the Israelites asked God why he had let them be taken into exile, the prophets answered that they were being punished for the sin of idolatry. They had built altars to Baal and Asherah; they had pursued profit instead of protecting people as God had commanded; they thought military power would save them. In other words, they had put lesser things in place of God. Idolatry—that was why they were captives in Babylon.

While I wince at the severity of that judgment, I have to admit that I, too, have committed idolatry while searching for a new church home. Maybe I idolized certain styles of worship or church architecture, letting a particular sacred space become more important to me than the God whom I worshiped in that space. Maybe I idolized certain kinds of feelings—warmth and safety and familiarity. Maybe I idolized a certain period of my life, trying to replicate it elsewhere, or yearning for an idealized memory of church “as it used to be.”

People can make idols out of almost anything: sex, money, ideology, guns, national pride. Theologian John Calvin said that “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” As Tish Harrison Warren pointed out in her recent article in The New York Times, “The Wages of Idolatry,” idol-making occurs across the political spectrum. “Part of why the practice of Lent is helpful,” she writes, “is that it offers an invitation each year to search out and seek to identify the idols of our ideological tribe, our political party, our church, our community and our own heart. It asks us to look at those things that we find our hope in, things we believe without questioning, things that promise to make us whole, safe or happy but don’t or, worse, that harm others in the process.”[v]

Lent is a good time for the discernment of our idols.

Be wary of setting up the same old idols in a new place.

Do Good Where We Are

While the Israelites were captives in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah gave them a surprising command from God: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7). He meant Babylon, the glittering pagan capital of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, the seat of the power that had destroyed their homeland. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce,” Jeremiah told them. Find spouses for your children. Get on with living.

They were to do this, not because Nebuchadnezzar deserved their allegiance and productivity but because their God, the God of Israel, still held their fate in his hands. As ruler of the universe, God could command pagan kings to do his bidding. Years later, a different pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, would send them home.

As spiritual refugees, we seek the welfare of the place where we are. We share our spiritual gifts. We look for ways to serve. One newcomer to a congregation joined a care team that sent cards to persons who needed encouragement. She had started this practice when a friend was dying of cancer, and she had mailed a card to the friend every two weeks. At the memorial service, the friend’s son told her, “I found the stack of cards on my mother’s bedside table. They meant so much to her.”

John Wesley put it this way: “Do all the good you can, by all means you can, in all ways you can, in all places you can, at all times you can, to all people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Expect God to Show Up in Unlikely Ways

We expect the unexpected because, finally, we are an Easter people. Who would have thought the entombed Jesus would rip off his shroud and rise from the grave? His resurrection embodies the promise made by the prophet Jeremiah, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

It is Jesus who takes our arm as we ascend the spiral staircase. Jesus will wait for us, eyes blazing, at the top of the stairs.

The Rev. Sondra Willobee is a retired elder, last serving as lead pastor at South Lyon: First UMC. She wrote articles for The Michigan Christian Advocate, FaithLink, and Linktionary, and is the author of The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince (2009). You can also read her blog, www.sondrawillobee.com/blog.

[i] Gary L. Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, 2010), page 239.
[ii] Lillian Daniel, Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To: Spirituality without Stereotypes, Religion without Ranting (New York: Hachette, 2016), page 131.
[iii] Ibid., page 133.
[iv] Katie Hays, We Were Spiritual Refugees: A Story to Help You Believe in Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), pages 214-215.
[v] Tish Harrison Warren, “The Wages of Idolatry,” The New York Times, nytimes.com, February 26, 2023.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference