My Restless Spirit And Peripatetic Church

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I wondered was it a sign from God. I wasn’t studying the Bible, nor listening to a sermon or even one of those evangelical podcasts, I occasionally get myself sucked into which make me feel guilty, ashamed and about to fall off the end of the failure continuum. I wasn’t praying, fasting, lamenting, or singing the Psalms. I wasn’t doing anything remotely holy. I was simply being an average, unsuccessful human. I wasn’t expecting a message from God to pop up, but I guess the more open we are, the more evidence we will find of Him communicating with us. He will speak, not always through our religious rituals, but also through art, literature, poetry, music. It was Tuesday. I hadn’t had an email since the previous Friday other than a reminder from the dentist, an automated out-of-office, Marks and Spencer telling me my order was ready to collect, and a reply from someone who was politely responding to an email from me.

I could easily have fallen into that abyss that keeps opening up beneath me since I left my job almost sixteen months ago. It is a cruel abyss that questions my value and tells me I am purpose-less, status-less, title-less and becoming increasingly invisible. It was definitely a slow week. I’d had a rejection, so I needed to recalibrate. Work had stalled. I had no idea what to write about, who cared about what I had to say or whether I should even say it. It was best to sit with my messy thoughts for a while longer and so, in an act of rebellion against the perpetual, societal obligation to be busy on a weekday, I was curled into a corner of the sofa, and I was reading an actual book, a novel about a great American road trip, along the Lincoln Highway¹ that runs coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York, through thirteen states, to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The sign from God appeared on p462. There imprinted on the page was the word that has been whirling round my head for months now, the one I feel drawn to yet strongly discouraged from being obedient to. And it was in the same sentence as Jesus.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ was what they call a peripatetic - someone who’s always going from place to place - whether on foot, on the back of a donkey, or on the wings of angels,” it said.

When I mention how much I enjoy ‘Peripatetic Church’ these days, it doesn’t go down very well in certain circles. And so, I’ve started to carry how I prefer to ‘do church’ round like a dirty little secret. “Do you mean church-hopping?” the concerned will ask. There are anxieties about consumerist Christianity, my issues with commitment. “No, I don’t,” I reply. I just mean not always ‘doing church’ in the same building so that you become comfortable and complacent and insular, in a bubble, signed up to do reception and on twenty different rotas. I mean going where you are filled up, where your gifts can be best utilised, where you feel awake, alive, excited, where your faith gets the chance to breath.

The Lincoln Highway was full of atonement, retribution, salvation and it was possibly one long allegory about the Christian life. It was about being lost and then found, where everyone keeps going off track and then depending on where they place their hope, finding their way back. As it concludes, the main characters are still trying to get to Times Square to start all over again. It was about being on a pilgrimage through the journey called life and believing there was something worth searching for.

God speaking through a fictionalised account of a pilgrimage across the United States reminded me of the in-between spaces U2 say they inhabit, the places where faith gets to thrive beyond the church building. Bono had been asked why his songs weren’t Christian songs. “But, they are,” he said, “they’re all coming from a place”. “Look at the trees, look at the sky, look at these kinds of verdant hills. They don’t have a sign up that says ‘Praise the Lord’ or ‘I belong to Jesus’. They just give glory to Jesus”². He had described I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For as “a gospel song with a restless spirit”. It’s about searching for meaning but in the end, realising that it’s the search itself not the destination that matters most. Pete Greig had said something similar when he talked about being a ‘born again human’. “When I prize the process more than the prize, the process itself eventually becomes the prize”³.

I have been struggling with a restless spirit, an urge to be in perpetual motion, a desire to be fully engaged in the journey of life, a fear of standing still. I don’t know if it’s because it’s November, or it’s mid-life, or it’s because the daughter who held my hand up until last summer, now rolls up her skirt, applies her mascara and recoils in horror if I approach, or if it’s because I never want to feel as stuck and stifled as I did before. I am ok if I am travelling somewhere, if I’m up above the clouds, or in a new place, surrounded by new things. It’s not practical to be permanently on holiday, yet I find myself wistfully looking up at EasyJet flights crossing the lough, the contrails forming behind them. I have this niggling anxiety of time running out and needing to move faster to control it. If I didn’t have the responsibility of four children and a Toddler Group every other Wednesday, I’d be walking the Camino, paragliding or Melanie Griffith arriving on the Staten Island Ferry, looking for the New Jerusalem⁴.

My restless spirit first appeared sometime between lockdown two and lockdown three. Alongside leaving my job, I also left the church I had belonged to since I was a baby, the one my diary revolved around⁵. There was no fall-out, no major crisis, just an overwhelming sense that it was time to hit the road. I was tired, in a bit of a rut, attending church had become routine and formulaic. I sat in the same pew, saw the same people from the same angles, I knew all the verses on the stained-glass windows, the scratches in the woodwork, the dried flower arrangements, the outfits kept for Sunday best. It was painful to leave. As Shauna Niequist says, “If anyone tries to tell you that walking away from a church you’ve loved or a tradition you’ve loved or a community of faith you’ve loved is an easy thing to do, they’re lying to you”⁶. It would have been so much easier to stay. I’m sure I hurt feelings. I was forewarned that if I didn’t lay down roots elsewhere quickly, I’d be in the wilderness. But the wilderness is no accident, it is here too that God speaks - to Abraham, to Moses, to Elijah, to us, and sometimes I think I should have stayed there a bit longer.

For a while, there was a peace, of sorts. But, what hasn’t come yet is a settling. Where I find myself now is not ‘home’ and I’m not sure I want just one home. I rue any system that criticises my peripatetic longings, that tells me I have to express my faith in one place, go through one set of doors, be a member of one ‘physical church’, and commit myself to one ‘church family’, as if somehow I should cast off all those who came before. Some Sundays, I absolutely need the welcoming hug and the solitary pianist in the small church, the one without charge, threatened with closure. Other Sundays, I prefer the more formal hello, the anonymity and the merry band of musicians in the large church, the one that is vibrant, well-staffed and well-resourced. Some weeks I want to chat, connect. Other weeks, I want to slip in and out un-noticed. And occasionally, I don’t want to be anywhere on a Sunday other than by the sea or tramping through leaves in the fresh air. The worship experience is still the same. It is less about turning up and more about tuning in. As my internal spiritual journey weaves its winding course, my external journey rises up like a path to greet it through different outlets, different settings, different communities.

Bono predicts a revival. In a recent interview promoting his memoir Surrender, he talks about a filling up, rather than an emptying out of the church across all denominations. But, it hinges on personal revival, living faith. “We have to hope that people will live their faith, rather than just preach it. If you’re a preacher, preach it. But if you can’t live it, stop”. He identifies himself as a pilgrim, not a sage. Although he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, there is value in being someone still on the search, someone on a mission and on the move.

In The Lincoln Highway, the author writes of the mission the ‘good Lord’ has for each one of us.

“But maybe He doesn’t come knocking on a door and present it to us all frosted like a cake. Maybe, just maybe what He requires of us, what he expects of us, what He hopes for us is that - like His only begotten Son - we will go out into the world and find it ourselves”.

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter