Do You Belong?

I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a particular place (or places) that everyone of us feels like we don’t quite fit, and the places where we think we do we still have a nagging sense that we don’t.  Just the word belonging feels like a nice warm blanket to me … and one I have to be cautious of lest I find my belonging in places of earth rather than places of ultimate rest.  The New Testament writers under the inspiration of the Spirit wrote plenty about not having our hearts fixed here, being citizens of heaven, living as strangers here, and the language of being aliens.  So there’s the theological foundation – God’s children don’t belong here.  But there’s more, isn’t there? He created us for relationship and whether it be marriage, family, or friendship, He wants us to taste of the richness of real community. But why is that so hard?

A Distorted Culture of Belonging 

Simply put, when being a “member” of something is so casual, a true sense of belonging is hard to find.  Reflecting on this last night, my wife insightfully commented about how easy it is for people to be members of just about everything, and as a result it doesn’t mean all that much.  You can join Sam’s Club or Costco, be a rewards member of just about every retail store out there, be a card-carrying Starbucks gold customer, and even your favorite credit card is eager to call you a platinum cardholder.  When we are part of so much, how can that not reduce actually belonging to something?  I mean just because you have your favorite rewards card to one store doesn’t mean you don’t shop at another store, so really what’s the big deal about a covenant commitment anyway? My armchair-quarterback purview of our culture is that we gorge on being “joiners” (in an effort to belong), but run from being “committers” (to avoid being truly known).  Those two provide a tumultuous conflict of interest in our own souls … and for those around us who may truly want to love us, accept us, and make us feel like we really belong.

Our Sabotaging Efforts in Belonging

But the cards are stacked against us to an even greater degree.  For as much as we want to belong, we fear the intimacy, vulnerability, and exposure we know it brings. Some of us are controllers, and every situation that starts to get a little “sketchy” we quickly try to manage so as to not feel on the “outside”.  We control our environments, managing what we attend, who we talk to, and sometimes even where we sit, so as to not allow the slightest hint of hurt or isolation to effect us.  I mean who wants to feel that stuff? Unfortunately, such controlling behavior to secure belonging only creates more isolation.  Some of us are connectors, and we think belonging is up to us and we have to “work the room” to make it happen.  If I can be outgoing enough, friendly enough, and engaging enough then how could I possibly not feel a part of something?  We are the social butterflies who never are lacking for someone to talk to, but still wrestle with that nagging feeling of never really feeling known.  We love the crowd, but later wonder if they loved me as much as I tried to love them.  Still others of us are complainers, and for as much as we want to belong and feel accepted, the prospect of rejection carries an even greater weight and motivation to stay away.  So we criticize the shallowness or superficiality of others.  We complain about what others are doing (or aren’t doing) in order to feel better about our own fears of “putting ourselves out there”.  We reason that belonging is an illusion, people will always hurt you, and the church will never get it right, so why try?  It’s no surprise then that we bounce around from “community”, to “social setting”, to “worship service” looking for something that both our culture has distorted, and our own hearts have sabotaged, in search for what our soul truly desires.

A Two-Sided Approach to Belonging  

There is a better way in the Gospel.  True belonging has the vocabulary of commitment, forbearance, steadfastness, and covenanting together for mutual care.  In other words, you cannot truly receive what you are unwilling to freely give.  God came near to us (we call that the incarnation) giving freely and drawing us to Himself without respect to our “worthiness”.  He committed Himself to His children, depositing His Spirit within, and making eternal promises to never leave us.  In response, we fasten ourselves to Him, binding our hearts to His promises, and choosing to make Him our only place of rest.  See how that goes both ways? His commitment to us, our commitment to Him.  His calling us out, our calling Him in … His preparing a home, our making Him home … His acceptance of us, our delight in Him.  At least this is how our Gospel-covenant ought to look.  It’s a good model for human belonging.  If we want to create belonging it must involve a mutual binding of ourselves together.  Two parties saying, “I’m in, I’m here, I trust”.  Yes, that’s hard for sinful people to do, but the best chance of it comes within the covenant context of a local church.  The marriage of Christ to His Bride, as expressed and practiced in our little local assemblies until the great consummation of our marriage in glory.  I know this much – my belonging will never come through the membership cards I carry in my wallet, never be untainted by my fallen heart, and never be fully realized until my Groom returns, but I refuse to stop trying … because I was created to belong, and so were you.

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What Might Star Wars and Your Church Have In Common?

This morning I heard a movie critic on the news describing the blockbuster-opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie. At one point he was celebrating the communal event of everyone in the theater together. I’ll admit I gasped! Communal event? Then I thought, yeah that’s probably right … that is the definition of a communal event in our culture – A lot of people in the same place united by a common pleasure who don’t know each other and leave feeling just as alone as when then arrived. I wonder how many people have that same communal event experience at their local church? They hear the words community, fellowship, and relationships, but have neither given nor received anything close to what those rich Biblical terms promise. Just what is the communal event that the Bible offers and what is being asked of me to participate in that event?

It requires inner attitudes other than those of consumers

 A consumer heads to the theater expecting to be entertained. He purchases a ticket in anticipation of being “wow-ed”. Once he enters his particular hallway he searches for a seat that gives him just the view he wants and situates himself in a way designed to repel others from sitting next to him. He’s quickly annoyed if someone forgot to silence their cell phone or a child becomes disruptive. And he leaves having formed his review to post online long before even opening his car door to head home. I’ll just say, as a pastor, that scenario is one of the most important things we combat in the local church. There is nothing in that movie-going description that should mirror that of a child of God entering the doors of his local church. He should head into his local assembly eager to worship the King of Kings in spirit and in truth. He has purposed in his heart what he will give to the work of the Kingdom. He looks for brothers and sisters to interact with, sit next to, and encourage through his engagement in the service. When the inevitable disruptions come he is patient with people in process, and those children being taught how to sit through a worship service. He isn’t quick to rush out, and hasn’t formed his lunchtime complaints. Rather, led by the Spirit, he looks for new people to introduce himself to, faithful friends with whom he can share the weeks heartaches, and people in need of a genuine embrace.

 It requires outer actions other than those of superficiality

 Now some people “get into” Star Wars and the new movie. They come dressed as movie characters, equipped with light-sabers and their childhood action figures. They may interact with one another, exchanging memories of days gone by, favorite scenes, or the buzz they read online about the direction this movie takes. But none of that touches the soul, nor lasts past the final credits … it just doesn’t have the staying power of relational depth. As the body of Christ we are to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the movie we just saw, it just means that we won’t only talk about the movie we just saw. Maturing followers of Christ push for spiritual transactions not merely superficial interactions. Here’s a few descriptions of what those look like:

  • Selfless Questions – You don’t ask the question that you can’t wait to answer, you ask the question that invites someone to share life knowing they’ll be listened to. Selfless questions come from a heart that is ready to have self forgotten should nothing be asked in return. They are motivated simply out of a desire to serve another and the healthy human need to speak of their experiences and feelings.
  • Thoughtful Input – Do you ever prepare for a conversation you intend to have with someone on a Sunday morning? Yes, I mean you actually come with a plan to pursue seeking a particular someone out to share something you have been thinking through – a word of specific spiritual encouragement, insight God gave you as you prayed for them this week, an observation about their life that has taught you, etc. Input doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t always be) spontaneous … you can plan to give input.
  • Vulnerable Sharing – You get to let people into your life, even when they don’t ask. It’s called asking for help. Go to a friend (old or brand new) and ask them to pray for you. You do have needs don’t you? Why not think through what is weighing heavy on you, what is causing tension in your soul, or what is approaching fast that makes you fearful. My guess is that your step of faith in being vulnerable will be met with at least one question in return. Sure, some will feel caught off guard, but most will feel honored that you trusted them.
  • Godward Praying – When in doubt, pray. No really, if you don’t know what to ask, don’t have any Biblical insight to offer, and aren’t ready to share something about you … just ask if you can pray together. It might be awkward (at first), but imagine a truly communal event where people are actually being the community of God’s people. They don’t just chat, hang out, or rub shoulders … they turn to the Lord together with grateful hearts for the work of Almighty God who always cares for His children.

None of that stuff happens at movie openings … but all of that should happen at local church gatherings. So, practice community … then go see a movie together!

Comfort, Conflict, and the Church

“Those of us in the American church must ask ourselves, ‘Am I following Christ, or am I just following the crowd that’s following Christ.’ In the persecuted church, they follow Christ. The personal cost to follow the crowd is too expensive. But there is something we must always keep in mind, whether we are in America or in one of the most persecuted regions on the planet; Jesus Christ is the head of His church. Everywhere. And despite our differences, in most ways we are all in the same business and the same family, pursuing the same mission under the same head. So even if the American church is somewhat crippled in certain areas, it’s still His church. Not ours. And He has every right to remind us of those things that we need to improve. His church has never been perfect throughout history, and yet He still chooses to work through it, and through us. It’s the number one vehicle through which the kingdom mission is being forwarded today.” (The Privilege of Persecution – Moeller & Hegg)

It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to learn about walking with God from my brothers and sisters around the globe. It can be really easy in my heart to be negative about the American church and champion the church-outside-the-West. In many ways I feel more drawn and engaged to the Ethiopian church than the church in the West. But, this is my mission field, my place to love, serve, and reach. And for that I am thankful, because I am a part of The Church. The Church that God promises to build! The funny thing is how we often measure that “building”, growth, and success. Paul, while in Ephesus, writes in 1 Corinthians 16:9 that “a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” The persecuted church gets this, we in the West, not so much. We equate conflict and trouble in the church as bad and we must be missing something. They understand that as part of the battle. We see ease and comfort as blessing and clear vision. They ask what they are missing and who are they appeasing to keep the peace? We need to learn how to think about comfort with some measure of suspicion: What are we not speaking out against? What sin is going undealt with? Who are we seeking the approval of? And we need to learn how to think about conflict with more faith: What do we keep at even if it stirs people up? Where do we get stronger and bolder? How do we make an even better call to courageous, prayerful living? God builds His Church in different ways. And in many ways focus on the glory of God in times of ease can be much harder than in times of trouble. Conflict can be good … (It delayed Paul’s trip to Corinth because he wanted to stay in Ephesus amidst the trouble for the open door to good ministry) … And comfort can be trouble (It orients the heart toward peace when there is no peace).

We need our “success/approval” scale re-oriented away from comfort and on to the right guidelines of 1 Corinthians 16:9 and the way the persecuted church thinks about what God has called them to do. Give us open doors Lord, and don’t let us run from the adversaries that brings!

Press on & Pray more!
Pastor Mark

The Church Was Built For Diversity

John Calvin brings a great word commenting on Romans 12:4-6 and the members of the body of Christ, not as a nice “aren’t we different”, but a necessary – “God designed the Church that way”!  Read slowly and carefully …

“Paul speaks now not simply of cherishing among ourselves brotherly love, but he commends humility, which is the best moderator of our whole life.  Everyone desires to have so much himself, so as not to need any help from others; but the bond of mutual communication is this; that no one has sufficient for himself, but is constrained to borrow from others.  I admit then that the society of the godly cannot exist except when each one is content with his own measure, and imparts to others the gifts that he has received, and allows himself by turns to be assisted by the gifts of others. But Paul especially intended to beat down the pride that he knew to be innate in men, and that no one might be dissatisfied that all things have not been bestowed on him, he reminds us that according to the wise counsel of God everyone has his own portion given to him.  For it is necessary to the common benefit of the body that no one should be furnished with the fullness of gifts, lest he should heedlessly despise his brethren. Here then we have the main design that the apostle had in view: that all things do not meet in all, but that the gifts of God are so distributed that each has a limited portion, and that each ought to be so attentive in imparting his own gifts to the edification of the church, that no one, by leaving his own function, may trespass on that of another.  By this most beautiful order and, as it were, symmetry, is the safety of the church indeed preserved.”

Seems Calvin believed and longed for a Safe Church too.  This is a beautiful thing indeed, and one we ought strive toward and pray down the Spirit on until that Day when the Church is forever perfected!

In Need of You,

Pastor Mark