We all need to belong, don’t we? We all need to be connected, somehow, somewhere? The success of shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ and the immense popularity of climbing one’s family tree: we have a need to know who we are and where we belong.
Sandie Toksvig, she of Great British Bake-off and QI fame, tells the story of coming to school and college in this country. And of feeling completely alien. Having been expelled from three schools in the United States, she is sent to school in Surrey, in the hope that she will ‘settle down and be good.’ She doesn’t. She is shunned by the other girls, in a school that her parents had not even seen before sending her there. She is almost sent down from college because of her sexuality, and only allowed to remain because she is really bright. Sandie speaks about what it is like to feel that you don’t belong, anywhere. ‘A feeling of desolation I can hardly bear’, she says, ‘even after nearly fifty years’. At school, ‘we were emotionally abused, and everyone seemed to think that was fine… From the day I arrived at my boarding school, an ache of loneliness established itself inside me that has never truly left.’
This is what it is like not to belong. Not knowing the ropes. Not speaking the language. Not picking up the cultural clues. Finding that everyone else dresses differently. Wrong-footed, when everyone else clearly knows the steps, or which fork to use, or when not to applaud. An ache of loneliness. Have you seen the recent Paddington Bear film? Poor Paddington leaves darkest Peru with high hopes of a warm welcome in London, and fetches up in a certain railway terminus. But instead of welcome, he is ignored by everyone he politely tries to greet. Eventually we see him sitting forlorn on an abandoned platform; a picture of misery: Paddington doesn’t belong. It’s a fiction, I know. But the fiction rings true, and your heart melts to see him so alone.
Paul is talking about what it means to belong. He is writing to people who once did not belong. Some of the new Christians in Ephesus are established members of society, for sure. But some are slaves. Some are foreigners. Some scratch a living when and however they can. And all have become in some way disconnected, alienated from the life and beliefs of the citizens around them. Now, finding faith in Jesus, they do belong. And Paul glories in the all benefits of this new identity, this new belonging: the inheritance of the saints, the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, the pledge of our redemption as God’s own people.
To belong is what? To be part of a group of people who share something of value. History, or purpose, or interest, or belief. Did you see the beginning of the England – New Zealand match last weekend? The England team were aware of the privilege they enjoyed in wearing an England shirt. Confronted with the intimidation of the New Zealand hakka, they stood in respectful, yet defiant formation. They clearly belonged to a team with a purpose and a self-belief that counted, and proved itself as the game unfolded.
The members of our political parties will all now be into overdrive as the election approaches. Thrashing out what promises and policies will be written in manifestos and mail-shots. Organising hustings, knocking on doors, sending out emails. Local party workers must share a unity of purpose and a sense of belonging if they are to survive the campaign and win our votes on December 12th.
Like the Ephesian Christians, and the church down the ages, we belong. What do we do with our belonging? There are certain university clubs that try to keep their membership details secret. But when they show themselves, they do so in antisocial and unpleasant ways, which demonstrate how wealthy the members are compared with ordinary mortals. Dressing at ludicrous expense. Trashing the venue in which they have enjoyed a meal, because they are rich enough to pay cash to the unfortunate proprietor to make good his property and to ensure his discretion. The members of such secret societies belong, but not in a good way.
However, there are other groups to which people belong. You have to raise money to pay for what you do, and the equipment you use. You have to be ready to respond whenever the pager summons. You will likely be up half the night. You will likely get wet, and cold, and tired; but you will still have to go to work tomorrow. Yet you know you have worked hard, along with the rest of the team, and trained well in order to be professional about what you do.
And you will be a god-send to someone, as you haul them from the waves, or stretcher them from the fells, or guide them to the surface and the light. And members of the RNLI and the cave and mountain rescue teams across the country belong in order to benefit others: people who are lost, or frightened, injured or in danger.
What do we do with our belonging, a belonging which makes Paul so joyful? Sometimes, the church has behaved like Sandie Toksvig’s school, and the Bullingdon Club in the way we have treated people. We have affected a superior attitude because of the benefits that Paul lists. We have known what to do, forgetting what it’s like when you are new and you don’t know what to do. We have not welcomed. We have been unloving and ungenerous to people who seem different, I’m sorry to say.
But this isn’t the whole story. There are so many stories, down the ages and in our own time too, when belonging to the church has been more like belonging to a rescue service. Dedicated to the service of others, to the glory of God. Welcoming, encouraging others to sense what it is to belong. Going many extra miles, taking risks, enduring discomfort, poverty, persecution, even martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. We celebrate them again on this ‘All Saints Sunday’.
This week I received an email from someone. ‘I’m not a regular churchgoer’, says this person. ‘But I recall so many special times – funerals, weddings, baptisms, services that the children took part in. The church has been a special place for our family, at the heart of the community’. I was heartened to hear our church thus described as a place of belonging. Our belonging does reach out and speak to others of the kingdom of God.
We know what it is to belong. Remembering what it is like not to belong, we need to muster the energy and sense of purpose of political activists and rescue service members and rugby players and St Paul himself, if we are to continue to live up to the inheritance he proclaims.
© Jon Russell 2019