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God lives outside obvious circles

Paul Graves

For some time, I’ve participated in a Benedictine spirituality group in Coeur d’Alene. Almost a year ago, I mentioned to the group a book project I was contemplating, based on all of the margin notes I seem to write in many of the books I read.

My working title: “Finding God in the Margins.” The book may never be written, but my fascination with finding God on the margins of life is never-ending. Everywhere I look, including within my own spiritual journey, I see God’s presence in people and experiences outside religious circles.

Oh, I do find God inside those circles. But I also know how easy it is for people inside those circles to see God only there – and miss the outrageous presence of God among “non-believers.” Ugh! I find that kind of language both an arrogant and very incomplete view of God.

Let’s use a biblical image to illustrate the real temptation to miss God in the pursuit of controlling God: The ancient Temple of Jerusalem. It is a classic example of how theology can deeply impact religious architecture. This theology was based on worthiness, merit, a variety of purity codes.

At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could enter, only one day a year, to meet God. (Where was God the rest of the year? I have my suspicions!) This space was surrounded by the court of the priests and the Levites, a place only they could enter.

Around that court was the court of Jewish women, who could only enter when they weren’t menstruating, since there were strict codes about blood and ritual purity. Beyond that court was a sign warning non-Jews who might enter that death awaited them. Get the picture?

What if God was actually found most often on the margins – of the temple area, or the religious “pure” – out where the majority of people lived? If I read the Gospels accurately, those margins are where Jesus lived and loved – and tweaked religious noses.

In a helpful section of his book “Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality,” Richard Rohr also identifies the seven distinct groups that existed outside the temple – as described in Leviticus 11-24:

People with skin diseases, disabled people, gentiles (non-Jews), Jewish women during and after menstruation, Jewish men after “any nonproductive seminal discharge,” those in occupations that made men unclean (e.g., shepherds, tax collectors, leatherworkers, etc.), and lastly, the “bastard sons and daughters of priests.” The last one’s ironic, isn’t it.

Here’s another irony. The Bible was filled with stories from these marginal people – outsiders, losers, victims. Remember, “the Bible” was the Jewish scriptures in Jesus’ day. So his ministry to the outsiders, the marginalized, was a God-inspired response to those biblical stories.

Oh, but that was then, and this is now. So? Why do we think our mission field should be any different than Jesus’? Most outsiders are still “outside” too many of our “churches” (plug in your own tradition’s building).

But also remember this: Jesus didn’t love the marginalized person to bring him or her into the synagogue. He loved the person because the person needed to be loved – no strings attached. Too often, there is a big difference between our efforts and those of Jesus.

With every good intention, perhaps, we forget that ministry is meant to simply serve persons and encourage wholeness in them. We aren’t called to make people religious. We are called to let them see how being more deeply human than even we understand is what life is really about.

We meet God when we live on the margins.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at
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