I’ve been rereading the Harry Potter series in order to keep my son company as he reads them for the first time. To my surprise, I’m finding myself enjoying the books almost as much as I did the first time around. I’ve been struck at how the theme of belonging winds its way through this saga. Dumbledore, Voldemort, Snape and Harry all first experience belonging at Hogwarts. In the case of Harry, it’s almost as if he doesn’t even know himself until he begins to understand how he belongs in relation to others like him. His world goes from shabby gray to vibrant technicolor after meeting Hagrid and discovering himself to be a wizard.
Of course the idea of belonging is the centerpiece of most young adult fiction. We seem to think adolescence is the time in life this struggle is most acute. Instead, maybe it’s the time in life we’re most honest about the struggle because we haven’t yet learned all the clever ways in which to disguise our angst. I feel and see this struggle to belong, every time we go to a high school football game, for example. We’ve been to two games this fall. At the first one, we didn’t find the niche where we belonged, so Todd and I sat in a crowd of people by ourselves. I was ready to leave well before halftime. The second game was completely different. My brother and sister-in-law were watching for us and as we made our way to their bench we saw neighbors and friends all over the place. I exchanged several greetings before even sitting down. I felt so secure and comfortable, I almost even made it to the fourth quarter. I belonged. Since football has a hard time holding my attention, at both games I sat and watched other adults struggle to find their place of belonging. If you’re looking for it, it’s always there, on display. You could see people standing, looking nervously around for someone to talk to or sit with. Couples sat off by themselves and you could hear the gratitude in their voices when someone came and joined them.
Jonathan and I were talking the other day about our favorite month of the year. For both of us it’s December because the entire month is framed around our anticipation for Christmas. Christmas season begins in our house each year on November 15th. I make hot chocolate and the evening of the 15th the four of us spend just a little bit of time sitting in the living room, listening to Christmas music for the first time that season and enjoying one another’s company. Traditions are another way to nurture a sense of belonging. The four of us feel so secure and cherished in the warm contours of our Christmas traditions. It’s a holy place of belonging for the month of December…beginning November 15th.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need for the church to return to its original order of priorities - belonging first, then behavior and finally belief. So why is belonging so crucial? Once again, I am indebted to the author, Diana Butler Bass for the insights she provides in her book, Christianity After Religion.
As my church prepares to close its doors next summer, I think part of our congregational turmoil stems from not knowing if we will be able to find people who believe and act as we do - people who order their lives, their values in similar ways. At core, this is simply another way of saying, we don’t know if we’ll be able to find another faith community where we belong. Bass points out, “to belong is to be.” So when our place of belonging is under threat it prompts us towards self-evaluation. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where am I at on my journey? Who am I in relation to others? Where do I belong?
Let’s look at scripture. When we approach the gospels we do so most often with our lens trained upon Jesus. This is good, but maybe only gets at half the story. Bass suggests it may be fruitful to expand our focus to include careful observation of all the other people in these narratives, particularly those who encounter Jesus. How are peoples’ lives changed as a result of Jesus’ mere presence? You think of the disciples, the woman at the well, the people who are healed. All of them learn to know themselves in a new way. They discover a new way of belonging. But interestingly, it isn’t belonging in the comfortable and secure sense I outlined in my introduction. Knowing ourselves, finding our place in relation to Jesus, in God, is disorienting, wonderful and kind of scary all wrapped up together. Coming to know ourselves in the company of God sets us on a journey away from old and careworn places of security. Think about the lives of the Biblical characters we hold dear, both Old and New Testament. Most of them live their lives on the road, with no physical home to lay claim to. This is an outward expression of an inward reality. hese fathers and mothers of our faith are engaged in a spiritual pilgrimage as well.
One of the most dramatic examples is Saul/Paul. Saul thought he had his life together, thought he had everything figured out. He knew where he belonged and was secure in that faith. And then one day on the Damascus Road he meets Jesus and everything changes. All that he has taken for granted, all secure places of belonging, all of it is gone. Maybe it’s not so much that he was blinded as there was nothing left in his life to see. He’d been exiled. And so he begins a new journey and it starts with a single relationship within which Paul can begin to make sense again of who he is and where he is. The relationship with Ananias provides the solitary place of belonging he needs to begin again. Most of the remainder of the New Testament then chronicles Paul’s physical and spiritual journey from ground zero and beyond.
So belonging includes that warm sense of comfort we all long for, but that’s only part of the story. Finding where we belong is also a dynamic journey of self-discovery. Because we are always re-discovering, learning anew who we are in relationship to others, but even more importantly, who we are in relationship to God. Most often we encounter God through the actions, the words of others. God exists in community. So the question becomes who are we in God?
I’m going to let Bass do some speaking through four of her quotes pieced together. Back to Paul and his journey of discovery. Bass writes, “In ancient times, the temple was not simply a building one went into to worship God; no, it was believed that the temple was the actual location of God, where one went to see God. When Paul reminds his friends at Corinth that they are temples of God, he is not saying, ‘Repair your building, and you will be a pleasant place for God to visit.’ Rather, he is insisting, ‘You are sacred space; you are where the Divine One dwells. Others see God in you! Be aware that you are holy geography.’ Paul wants the Corinthians to hold the vision that God is in them at the forefront of their lives. Echoing Jesus’ words to Philip, he is saying that if they act as Jesus, others will see God in them. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation ends with a single, breathtaking statement: ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (189).”
“Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgment, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather, it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation (182-183).”
“Thus, the biblical query ‘Who am I in God?’ is a starting point of Christian spirituality. Why do Christians pray? Christians do not pray to have wishes granted; rather, Christians pray to find themselves in God and that they might be more aware of their motives and actions. Why do Christians worship? Christians do not worship to be entertained; rather, Christians listen to sermons, sing, and partake of bread and wine in community to be in Jesus’ presence and come to know themselves better. Why do Christians serve others? Christians do not act charitably to earn heavenly credit; rather, Christians find Jesus in their neighbors and such proximity enables greater insight to live fully in the world. Christians practice seeking Jesus in their lives because when they find themselves in God, pretense slips away to reveal the truest dimensions of selfhood and gives individuals the power to act in transforming ways (187).”
“The spiritual search for God and the self wends its way toward others and the world, for without others it is impossible to find God or know who we are. We must belong in order to be and become….This sort of belonging insists that the community must be a dynamic, ongoing love, a passionate romance between the divine and the mundane that seduces us into an intimate relationship with God, our neighbors, and our own deepest self (195-196).”
Helping one another discover who we are in God is the most important work of the community of faith. And most often that quest for belonging forces us out of our comfort zone and onto a lonely path of self-discovery. I’m guessing all of us have walked that road a time or two in our lives and perhaps we’re getting ready to set out again. I hope so.
I’ll close now with one more word from Bass. “Belonging is the risk to move beyond the world we know, to venture out on pilgrimage, to accept exile. And it is the risk of being with companions on that journey, God, a spouse, friends, children, mentors, teachers, people who came from the same place we did, people who came from entirely different places, saints and sinners of all sorts, those known to us and those unknown, our secret longings, questions, and fears. Whose am I? O God, I am [yours]!