This summer I have been reading Finding God in Unexpected Places by Philip Yancey after coming across it in a Goodwill store—the last place I expected to buy such a book. As a pastor, I have many conversations with people about their encounters with God and their faith journeys. And many think that God lives primarily within the walls of a church. But God’s footprints are everywhere and in places we never thought to look.
“Jesus himself looked for God not among the pious at the synagogue, but in a widow who had two pennies left to her name and in a tax collector who knew no formal prayers; he found his spiritual lessons in sparrows sold at a market, and in the wheat fields and wedding banquets, and yes, even in the observation of a mixed-race foreigner who had five failed marriages. Jesus was a mastermind at finding God in unexpected places.”
This prompted me to think about my personal experience of finding God in unexpected places and people. Once as a zealous young street preacher, I was stopped by a homeless man asking for money. I decided to preach a long sermon before giving him the only coins I had. While I thought my message was what he needed, it was me who needed to see God in him. When I finally stopped talking and gave him the coins, his eyes locked with mine. He said, “Keep your money.” In other words, that was a lot of preaching for so little.
His look, words, broken body and spirit from living on the streets pierced my soul. At that moment, I saw God in the homeless and realized my method was not the way of the Gospel, best preached with love and actions—and words if needed.
Another experience that has stayed with me took place four days after the 9/11 attacks in New York City in 2001. Along with other pastors, I went to Ground Zero where the World Trade Center had once stood to offer spiritual support to first responders.
In the midst of the smoke and smells, the twisted metal and mountain of debris were signs of God’s presence. Along with the fear, anger and sadness of that day, I remember first responder teams working together in hopes of finding someone alive or even a body. Religious leaders from different faiths united there in one spirit and faith as we prayed together. God was in that soaring wreckage with the living and the dead.
Yes, God can be found in the great cathedrals of Europe with its magnificent art and architecture, or in a modest church building. But His footprints are also elsewhere, waiting to be discovered. Where have you unexpectedly found God?