One of the rites of passage in my church growing up was when you were old enough not to sit with your parents. Sitting with the other teens, I can remember hearing my mom clear her throat, not in an “um, watch it there Pastor” but in a “something is in my throat” kind of way. I’d glance down the pew and lock eyes with one of my sisters. In that instant, we belonged to each other.
I’m sure our mom wished it was some other sound than her throat clearing that united us; but you know what, sometimes belonging comes in the side window, not the front door. What was like white noise to others, was an inside connection to us. When we heard the throat clear many pews behind us, we didn’t even have to look. We knew. We knew that was our mom. We knew we would recognize that sound anywhere. And we knew that we would look at each other and have a moment in the midst of the service.
Belonging can be as simple as a throat clear. But it can also be more complex. I will never forget the embarrassment I felt visiting a Chinese friend and her family. After chit chatting in the living room, we prepared to move to the table and they asked me if I was hungry. In honor of all their hard work and to show my appreciation, I enthusiastically said I was.
And they laughed.
I think that’s why I remember this scene so vividly. Chinese don’t normally laugh at guests. No surprise, being laughed at when you thought you were being polite is the opposite feeling of belonging. In part to not look like a complete Neanderthal, I explained that regardless of whether I was hungry or not, my home culture said that I should say I was to show respect to my host. Thankfully, the horrible sense of not belonging passed and the evening was delightful.
(I also learned how to respond more appropriately!)
Sometimes going from not belonging to belonging is simple. You talk about it, you name it, and belonging comes. But sometimes, belonging is elusive.
My third year in China I had a new teammate. It was just the two of us, so belonging was important or it was going to be a l-o-n-g term (we ended up teaming together for three years). I knew it would be an adjustment to have a new teammate. Who am I kidding, it was an adjustment for both of us, not just me! Belonging can take time. We set about doing the things that build a team. We shared about our families and lives. We wrote a team covenant. We prayed together daily. We ate most of our meals together.
On the surface all was fine. It really was. We got along, we enjoyed being together . . . enough. We were faithful in praying together, serving on our college campus together, sharing our care packages. But sometimes, belonging is elusive.
The months went on. And then a year had passed. As our second year began, I knew I had to say something. I could not put my finger on it, but something was missing.
We talked. Since there wasn’t anything specific to address—she didn’t cut me off, I didn’t make fun of her family, she didn’t burn my toast in an act of passive aggression, I didn’t undermine her in front of the school officials—it was a hard conversation. How do you address a feeling? Or a lack of feeling?
Here is what I learned from my three years with my dear teammate. Sometimes you have to fight for belonging because belonging doesn’t come quickly or easily, but it does come. If you find yourself not belonging and you want to, the struggle is worth it.
Thank you for such a rich discussion this week on belonging! Sarah reminded us how comparing can rob us of belonging. Renee caught our attention when she took her clothes off, but put our hearts at ease with the assurance that God is always beckoning us and we belong to him. Kelly helped us recall how many are kind to us in this belonging process. And I forgot until I read the blurb in HYS when Sarah used the Maya Angelou quote which I used in a sermon I preached this summer called The Paradox of Belonging. You can listen to it here.
Where have you found belonging to be elusive? This week, what has God shown you about belonging?
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