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Finding Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Paula Estornell, PhD

Everyone has a story to tell. This is my story of finding home.

I got the travel bug when I was 10. It was my turn to fly with to Spain to visit our relatives. (My older siblings had already gone.) The sights, sounds and smells of Spain were strange and captivating. So were the people and the slow-paced, fun-loving way of life. It was a wonderful experience and for the last 40 years I have been thrilled to discover new people and places across much of the United States and many countries. I’ve lived in the north east, north west, mid-west and southern parts of the United States as well as Europe.

I love newness and adventure and never stayed in one place for more than a few years. Too much stagnation makes me restless. In my early years, I was searching for excitement. In my later years, I began looking for home. A place to connect with the landscape and people and rhythm of an area. A place to belong. But a sense of home has eluded me. Even after I moved back to the town where I grew up, where I had family and old friends, married, and had a child. It wasn’t until I discovered, rather unexpectedly, a deeper connection with God and then with others that I felt a true sense of home.

I had grown up without religion in my life and no real concept of God. My tough single mother had left the church disillusioned by the patriarchy and lack of women’s voices. I came upon religion rather accidentally when, soon after returning from two years abroad in the US Peace Corps, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book to see what community organizations I could join. I wanted to reconnect with Americans and make friends. Unitarian Universalist sounded intriguing and worldly so I went to a service. The exposure to the teachings of major world religions, open-mindedness, freedom of expression, and social justice appealed to me and I stayed an active member for almost 20 years. The faith fed my mind and provided a wonderful community of people to connect with.

When our daughter arrived, we needed to leave our small lovely UU Church in search of a church with a vibrant children’s program. We started attending a local Christian church and there I discovered more than a nice community of kids for our daughter. I found a church library and a deeper understanding of God.

Since I knew very little about mainstream Christianity, I wanted to read a little about the faith and about Jesus to better understand what was being said during Sunday services. Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault changed my understanding of God and Jesus and changed my life as I continued to read books she referenced and others from that church library. Until then, what little sense I had of God and Christianity was that they provided moral guidance for people and those morals were subject to cultural influences. Cynthia and other authors wrote about the indwelling of the light of God in everyone and of a mystical Jesus who launched a radical peace movement and love movement across the Middle East and beyond. Thomas Keating provided centering prayer practices from his Contemplative Outreach organization that guided people to sit quietly each day to hear the voice of God. These Christian spiritual teachings and practices fed my heart.

I’ve now read over 200 books and articles on spirituality and Christianity and am active in local Centering Prayer and Wisdom gatherings and also a student at Shalem Institute in Washington DC. The impact of this reading, community building, and prayer practice has been profound. My restlessness has disappeared, and been replaced with a great sense of peace and gratitude and awe. I no longer search for home because I found it deep inside and in all the people I encounter who carry the light of God within. I still cherish teachings of other faiths and remain active in interfaith dialogue and activities through local organizations. My sense of home is in a loving God, the Divine Spirit that I feel and know is alive in me and in all creation.


Paula Estornell is a wife, mother and travel enthusiast. Paula has worked for many years promoting sustainable community development in academia, government and private sector. She is training to be a spiritual retreat leader and travel guide.

Free to Journey Towards Home

By Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.”  “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church.  I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times.  But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work.  Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole.  For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years.  I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia.  The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today.  We are not in exile in Babylon any more.  We left years ago and didn’t notice.  And we’re unsure about how to make our way home.  Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture.  And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story.  The post World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church.  Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure.  Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom.  We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news.  Right?  Well, yes it is.  But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing.  The dominant American culture has let us go.  Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore.  The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be.  The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture.  But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home.  My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church travelling light.  Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church.  You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry.  We could go on.  Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light.  The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.


Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).