Belonging

‘I think we were made free to live like we belong to the household of God.’

[Lessons in Belonging – Erin S. Lane]

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There’s this episode of The Good Wife when Alisha is running for State’s Attorney and in an effort to damage control a previous admission that she’s an atheist, she is advised to describe herself as “struggling” in a TV interview.

“Struggling” – the word she could use.  The word we can all use.  I certainly do.

I say I struggle with faith. I say I struggle with church.

I can say those words, and people can hear them.  They thank me for my honesty.

But these words have been annoying me lately.  They feel a little like the “TV interview” version of my soul story.

I can be hyperaware of expectation, presumption and reaction when I give a version of my story in a blog post or at the pub, over coffee or to my minister.  Even though they are all kind audiences, I default to the lines that I think people can hear.

One of the things I am doing about this is to start to meet with a therapist for Spiritual Direction.  It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I feel like I need to actually explore “my struggles”, explore my wilderness and my rebellion.  I need to talk out the long version without fear.

Another thing that is helping me is the book Lessons in Belonging by Erin S. Lane.  It was one of those well-judged “saw this and thought of you” recommendations.

For a long time now I have cringed about my association with ‘the household of God’.  What does it even mean?!  So much room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation!  What if people misjudge my views, and my heart?  Every time I heard a “Christian” view that was not my own it seemed that my only choice was to distance myself further and further away.

But I have found myself, over the past year and a half, in church – welcomed, noticed, blessed – and I have experienced what, for me, is the push and pull of Christian Belonging.  I want to belong here.  I want to run for the hills.

I laugh out loud when Erin Lane describes the panic she felt with the sneaking realisation that she was on ‘a path’.  I know this feeling.  “I don’t want to be on a path”, she says, “I want to zigzag”.

This is me.  I want to zigzag – between my books and my podcasts and some small pockets of people.  I want to be in my own house or in the forest or on the other side of the world.  So I panic a little to find myself, week after week, in the same pew of a country Presbyterian church.

Lane says that by showing up at church like this my body begs a witness greater than its own two eyes can see. It says, “I cannot do this alone, even though I try.”

Doing it alone, for me, has not so much been a declaration of independence, as a protection mechanism against the messiness of belonging. Maybe I haven’t so much ‘struggled’ with church, as tried to avoid the struggle.

Avoidance often seems like wisdom to me – the wisdom of limiting who I listen to, what I read and who I spend time with; the wisdom of choosing stillness and quiet.  As an introvert this seems so important to me.  I safe guard my time, I seek out podcasts, books and articles that resonate with me, I spend time with soul chums.  I seek a rhythm that is healthy for me, and my family. I write about this kind of thing.

And yet, what I could end up with is a very narrow, crafted life, that indulges just one way of being.

Parker Palmer says: ‘As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world.’

My privacy can run deep.  It makes me want to close my front door and retreat from the struggles of faith and church, or at least from the struggle of articulating them.  It is a sure sign that I have lost my sense of comfort and at-homeness if I don’t trust you with more than the “TV interview” version of my life, if I presuppose that we won’t connect, or that you’ll tire of the real me.

My life, in recent years, has been concerned with how to spend time wisely.  And spiritually – I have been looking for comfort and rest.  I have been looking to feel known.  So THESE are the words from Lane’s book that I have underlined, written out, read and re-read:

‘This is the paradoxical mission of the church, to comfort and disrupt, to give rest and rile up, to make us feel known and make us feel small in the wake of what we cannot know.

Sabbath freedom is not the freedom to spend our time wisely.  Instead sabbath freedom is the freedom to live large. To live large on the sabbath day means choosing to live larger than our own rhythm. When so much of modern life is spent crafting our home, filling it with belongings and guarding it from interruption, going to church is a countercultural practice. Going to church teaches us how to craft a home in the world.’

This is what I am trying to be open to these days, instead of using the “I’m struggling” line as a door that I shut, or using the “introvert” line as permission to stay home. I turn up with my thin skin and my relentless thoughts, I turn up with the fear that I might not be able to be or do what people want. I let my guard down, a little. And like Erin Lane, I am learning to linger and I am learning to approach life’s unknowns (and the person beside me) with humility and curiosity.

This is how belonging happens. Not by waiting for permission or holding out for perfect conditions. Not by cherry-picking people just like us or nitpicking people who don’t get us. Belonging happens when we choose to give ourselves away, saying, “Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.”

[Erin S. Lane]

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