by: Rev Doug Gray
What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to not belong? When we are teenagers, it sometimes seems like our whole lives revolve around these questions, around our desire to belong. The summer before my freshman year in high school, my family moved to Wisconsin. At school, I did not fit into anyone’s boxes, and I was baffled by the new norms. Within a few days, I was nearly untouchable socially. I remember going to the First Congregational Church in Wauwatosa for worship and youth group. I walked into Junior High youth group, into a sea of unfamiliar faces, and one of the first to come towards me was Rick Stieghorst. He was easy-going and popular and did a killer Bill Murray impersonation. We struck up a friendship that lasts to this day. That first year in Wisconsin, the only bright spot in my life seemed to be this group of young people and my best friend, Rick.
Where does the courage or inspiration come from to reach out as Rick did to me? For those of us who follow Christ, we have no doubt. Paul says it so clearly: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” That kind of love is so colossal, so earth-shaking, that it reorganizes our whole life. Do you remember when you realized that love was for you, that love that took Christ to the cross? What were some of the feelings coursing through you as that realization dawned? Astonished by acceptance. Love lavished when we were the lonely, the last, the least. Made right by a gracious gift from God with no reason besides love. Overwhelmed by joy. Filled with hope, hope that leads us on.
The next fall came, and I can’t tell you how many times I said put my foot in my mouth or did the awkward thing. Somehow I had graduated not only into the Senior High Group, but into a whole new social setting. I so desperately wanted to belong, and just as clearly, I was failing. But around the campfire I heard again how Jesus loved me and I sang the songs of Christ and joy. I discovered through one of the activities, that people besides Rick liked me and I could not for the life of me understand why. More than like, they looked past my ineptiude and found warmth, past my awkwardness and found kindness. And that fall I gave my life to Christ and have never turned back. And we are all here because somehow we experienced that same kind of acceptance from a group of people, people called by God through Jesus Christ. We discovered that the heavenly sense of belonging we felt because of God’s love had an earthly expression. A church, a youth group, a Bible study, a worship experience—some group changed our lives. Change was not only something that happened to us, but with Jesus Christ leading, we became agents of change. The Savoy Declaration summarizes this nicely, “All Saints that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit and Faith, although they are not made thereby one person with him, have fellowship in his Graces, Sufferings, Death, Resurrection and Glory: and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, publique and private, as do conduct to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward Man.”* Belonging.
My senior year rolled around and I headed to Michigan for NAPF with my youth group. Rick was one of the officers and so he got there early. I hardly saw him as he was keeping the conference going, but we still had a great time. The last night came and we got dressed up for communion worship. That year they had decided to wash people’s feet as part of worship. I had never been part of that experience, and I was pretty sure it was going to be gross. Not a fan. And then the time came for it to begin, and my friend, Rick stood up. He talked about the sometimes rocky time he had in high school. How depressed he had been and how he had turned to drugs, and in a dark, weak moment even considered killing himself. “And I probably would have done it too, except for one guy who never gave up on me. And that’s my friend, Doug.” I was floored. Though I was grateful for his friendship, I had no idea that I had made that difference in his life. And then, first of all, Rick came to me and we hugged and we cried and then he washed my feet. I was so humbled and touched by that God-moment.
My friends, brothers and sisters, we have all had dark or weak moments of one kind or another, when we felt impossibly far from God. Paul describes this distance using words like, “separate,” “excluded,” “alienated,” “without hope and without God in the world.” Across that vast distance comes the love and sacrifice of Jesus. Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” And that blood has touched us and brought peace. The walls that came tumbling down in our lives opened us to real love, real belonging.
We are the touched ones, the loved ones of Christ. Just as we have received, so we are called to give. We are called to lives of knocking down the walls that keep people from God’s love. The walls have many names—rules, prudence, coolness, discrimination, selfishness. On these walls are written words that block: “Not good enough.” “Hasn’t earned it.” “Too small.” “Too different.” “Beyond the pale.” “Not my theology.” “They hurt me.” “I’m right.” We break these barriers because Christ broke them for us—with grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, love. And these will be our tools as well, as we step out in this living way of welcome. We belong because of Christ, and one of the greatest of the good works prepared for us is simply to accept the courage and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to find that through us, Jesus crosses the distance to the people who feel the farthest away from God. By our actions and our words they will know if we build walls or take them down. We need every person and every church—all of each of us…and all of us for God. Paul writes, “…and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are the touched ones, the loved ones of Christ. Just as we have received, so we are called and empowered to give. All for God.
*Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), pp. 396–7.