Be-longing ~ our Lenten Theme

What does belonging – and our human longing to belong – have to do with Lent and a spiritually disciplined life?

We began Lent with a dark smudge of sticky ashes that took some scrubbing to remove…ashes that come with the story of God – “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is not a threat. This is a profound statement of our belonging at the most elemental level. We belong to this planet, to the soil, to the creatures, and to people (most of whom we will never meet)  – but whom God holds – all – in the same regard. “Dust and ashes” is the great equalizer. We are made of the same stuff and so we belong – all of us, each one of us. And between the dust of our creation and the ashes of our death we find a life, we create love, we celebrate, we cry, and we discover ourselves to be instruments of God’s incarnational love that can change lives – maybe beginning with our own. We belong to a communion of saints.  We belong within the story of God.

But on a more typical day…. we might feel isolated from others or from what we might hold to be the benefits of faith. We might feel alienated … have longings. We have relationships that go bust, people we count on die, love hurts (and so we might try not to.) We have to give up homes and land at some point when we can’t afford them, or can’t care for them, or plans change. We think we know ourselves too well to believe that God’s love works through us, or that grace can fit in the small, broken containers of our spirits. Or we’re just too busy.  The story began before us and continues on past us and our chapter seems pretty skimpy, insignificant. We want to belong, it’s in our nature, but so is exclusion and rejection and dismissal.

Brené Brown, is a sociolgist and author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

“Owning our story can be hard,” she writes, “ but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. And because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. (love others as you love yourself) Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Tonight’s Scripture is from Isaiah, chapter 41: What imagery comes to mind as you hear these words?

 “…You whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;  do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we tend to turn in on ourselves. A sense of belonging creates a natural balance in our lives. And most often, we don’t think much about it. When we belong, we take it for granted. But there is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is deeply hurt when we feel excluded. Belonging suggests warmth, understanding, and embrace. When we become isolated or excluded, the dark side often rules; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity; we look for comfort or courage in all the wrong places.

A sense of trust and belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’; do not fear, for I am with you, I am your God, I will strengthen you…” These words speak to our longing and fear in those immensities, in the uncertainty of life and death.  John O’Donohue, in Eternal Echoes, writes:

“Ancient and eternal values of human life—truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of true belonging. Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy. Every one longs for intimacy and dreams of a nest of belonging in which one is embraced, seen, known, and loved. Something within each of us cries out for belonging. We can have all the world has to offer in terms of status, achievement, and possessions. Yet without that sense of belonging it all seems empty and pointless.”

A sentiment echoed by the Apostle Paul – from 1 Corinthians: (13)

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, … if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, …. if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body … but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Consider again the words Isaiah spoke of God – can you identify times when you have felt yourself out at the ends of the earth, at its farthest corners? Have you felt cast off – by society, by a loved one, by God? Have you been “out of love”?

 “…You whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;  do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

I was at a conference this week about church and leadership, but I had belonging on my mind and that became a filter for what I heard.  One illustration seemed particularly pertinent. It’s a diagram of social relations and is a series of concentric rings.

The inner circle consists of you and those who are closest to you – family or friends who know you as you truly are. People that you trust with you. Some of us might have a really small inner group – and some share that vulnerability with a few more people – but our brains actually limit it to 9 to 11 people. We are wired for safety. We entrust our innermost thoughts and being with only a chosen few (Jesus and the 12).

The next ring consists of the people we see all the time. We know stuff about them, they are our co-workers, parents of our kid’s friends. They’re the ones we might sit next to at basketball games, those who we chat with at fellowship time or if we meet in the grocery store. But we don’t really tell them how we are when they say, “So, how are you?”- and they don’t really want to know. It’s a polite relationship. They are friendly acquaintances.

The next circle, the third circle,  consists of people we see around town. In a small town we recognize them, but don’t know their names. In a city, we don’t really even see them – we don’t have connections to them – they are the background wash of our social community. We wouldn’t necessarily notice if someone among them dies or moves to another town. They are just kind of there.

And the last circle, the outer ring, is our historic social circle – the people of our past – high school friends, cousins or extended family, friends from other towns that we’ve lost track of… people who are in your address book. Back in the day when we were all better about this – these are the ones who would get Christmas letters because they don’t know what you’ve been up to this year and like hearing from you once a year.

Another bit of brain research says that our amygdala (a part of our brains that deals with relationships and emotion) can only keep track of 150 relationships. I don’t know who does this research, I don’t know how accurate it is, but that’s what we were told at the conference, and it’s interesting.

150 people – which has significance for churches and leadership, of course, but it’s being studied by sociologists, because we’re becoming more and more invested (as a society) in social media relationships.  What they’ve seen is that the last ring, the outer circle that used to be a thin line has become a thick line – there are many more connections and interactions with that outer ring now because of Facebook and Skype, Instagram  ……. and in many cases we become more intimate with them than with the second circle of friendly acquaintances.

Sociologists have found that the two middle circles of social connections are actually depopulating – disappearing – because we can only keep track of 150 relationships. So, as we reconnect with that historic, outer circle – with out-of-the-area-friends – we are losing track of our neighbors. Town events become less important than they once were because we can stay home in a comfy chair and connect in meaningful ways with folks that once populated our lives and are maybe doing really interesting things – people who live somewhere else…

So, what do you imagine this does to our sense of belonging?

If we belong to a place, a geography and land and plot of earth, if we belong to a home and a nest, and if we have our social intimacy needs met within a small core group of insiders, and our social-friendly needs met in a large ring of distant friends that we don’t have to actually deal with in person … then where is there room in our hearts, or in our schedules, or in our amygdalas and imaginations for those just outside our doors, for the neighbors down the road, for the needs of the town that we aren’t really connected to anymore? Where is there room for a spiritual relationship with God and the communion of saints – the witnesses and carriers of the stories of our faith?

At the same time, sociologists find that depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, poverty are all increasing. Correlation is not causation (Sociology 101), but still it’s happening at the same time that we loose track of the relationships that once glued our lives together into communities that belonged in an area, a place, a township, a neighborhood.

Where do we find belonging? Who belongs to us?

How might you hear these words differently now? What difference might belonging to a God of infinite, compassionate, “all-in” love make in your life this week… in your approach to the people who populate your circles of belonging?

 “…You whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;  do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Pastor Linda, Lent mid-week worship