There is a theme that has risen to the surface for me the past several months, and I always pay attention to these themes that appear for a season, as they almost always speak to me of approaching changes or opportunities. For the past year and a half or so the theme of "letting go of ego" was incredibly valuable for me to work with, and it appeared before me in writings, in real life examples, and in song. Clearly, the Spirit was working with me to elicit much needed shifts in thinking. Letting go of my own ego's needs was highly important as I moved on to this next stage of my life, and it allowed me to let go of circumstances that were unhealthy for me.
The theme recently cropping up is about loneliness and belonging. Article after article is being written about American's loneliness and isolation, and that isn't reserved just for the elderly. Our digital world allows for more communication, but it is often shallow, lacking depth and authenticity. We are fooled by the number of Facebook friends we have, the number of "likes" we get on Instagram, or the number of page views we get on our blogs. It leads to ego feeding, as well as soul hiding...the more we reveal, the less authentic we sometimes become and we only allow our "public persona" to show. It leaves us ever more alone, contrary to what our social media statistics might say. There is nothing quite like connecting in person with someone, where body language can be read, where a hand can be touched, where a glance can say it all.
We humans have an innate desire to belong. Isolation is not our preferred state, and it actually does incredible harm. But being around others is not at all the same as belonging to others, and it is the sense of belonging that fills us up, brings us the deepest satisfaction, and nurtures our souls so we can continue on as the healthiest versions of ourselves. When we don't belong, we yearn for something we can't quite put our finger on...we ache inside, and we are very often afraid of appearing vulnerable so we never reveal our heart's longing to feel we belong.
Our family recently experienced about a year and a half long period of gradually deepening mourning and loss, and it caused us to pull inward while still searching for our new place to belong. Leaving our old church family was necessary and powerful, but sometimes doing what you have to do still leaves you lonely and feeling a little desolate. We are a fairly social bunch, even the introverts among us (That would be Matt, Olesya and I!), and we need community. The Mother Theresa quote above speaks to it well, we had no peace because we didn't belong to anyone.
Finding our new church home, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, was an incredible blessing, and though everyone was as warm and welcoming as could be, what we felt when we joined was really more the potential to really belong rather than a reality that had been lived into. Creating connections with others takes time, it takes opportunity to be together, and it takes an open heart and a willingness to be vulnerable on both sides. The distance is making it a little harder to enter into communal life because we simply can not be there for everything, and the two and a half hour round trip might make others hesitate to ask us to attend things, because they are sensitive to the amount of time it takes...so are we, and it has made us hesitant to ask others into our home as well because of the time imposition.
But what about when people truly work at trying to get to know you? What happens when effort is made, and when others actually want you to feel you belong? Magic, pure and simple, that's what happens.
Yesterday, our family was invited to brunch at the home of one couple from church who were themselves long past child raising years, and we were joined by another lovely couple from choir who has truly gone out of their way to chat with us each and every time they see us. Their excitement at having all of us was surprising, as honestly, who really wants a 15 passenger van full of teens rolling up and emptying out to fill up your home, and eat like there is no tomorrow?
So much thought and care had been put into hosting us, even to the point of a phone call earlier in the week to check on drink preferences for the kids! We walked in to a gorgeous fall tablescape, and were instantly made to feel at home. Though the food was wonderful, what really filled us up was the fact that every adult at the table spoke directly with the kids, even having given thought to questions to ask them to elicit responses. Stories were shared by everyone, as we also got to know our new friends better and gained a sense of their own history that we had not been present for. It is hard to try to get to know a large group of people whose lives have been intertwined for many years, and you don't know the backstory. We have been lucky that so many have taken the time to share or explain things, reflecting a sensitivity to our lack of institutional knowledge.
This theme of belonging emerged earlier in the day when we had a guest speaker in worship from a program called Mosaic, which serves those with developmental delays. The program director shared about how we have to move beyond the "acts of charity" in terms of being inclusive, to understanding that every single person has dreams, needs community, and has something to offer the world. Regardless of what delays a person may have or disabilities that they struggle with, everyone needs to belong in an authentic way that doesn't wreak of tokenism. I don't even need to tell you how much of an impact this made on Kenny, in particular, as he nodded and grinned throughout her time speaking with us.
Another mental picture of belonging formed as I returned to the sanctuary a little late as Bible study had already started, and there without any other LaJoy present was Matt sitting alongside a long time member who he was quietly visiting with. I don't even know why that hit me the way it did, but there was a companionable comfort level that Matt doesn't often have with others. His wife soon joined them, and there was Matt, right between the two of them as if he just belonged there. The rest of the family soon joined me in the pew behind, and we all shared our thoughts on the topic for the day, just as if we had been doing this for years.
Belonging...when one looks up the definition, one meaning of the word is "a close or intimate relationship, a sense of belonging". It doesn't just mean you have agreed to join something or are included, but in its truest sense it also can imply acceptance and attachment...an intimate knowing.
Standing in the living room after brunch, as we slowly began to make our way towards the door to leave, all eleven of us formed an unplanned circle as everyone was laughing and engaged with one another on a little deeper level. Each of the kids had been intentionally conversed with, not just as "those LaJoy kids" but as unique individuals...they were "seen" in a new way. Often folks lump them together as a gaggle of kids, and rarely take the time to get to know them each for the funny, terrific, wonderful young people they are (OK, I am their mom and this is MY blog, so sue me if I think they totally rock~!!!).
There was a warmth felt in this group that touched me deeply, and how could I not feel we belonged when both of our hosts, near tears, spoke of the blessing it was to have us as part of the congregation. Try as I may, there really is no way to express how important church is to our family, how special this community is to us, and how desperately we need God's presence in our lives through the very hearts of these people...our new church family. Our life together in this family is not an easy one, but it is one I wouldn't trade with a single soul. However, without God, we are flat out not going to make it. We have too much we are struggling against, too much lack of acceptance of our differences when we are "in the world", too much that feels so hard on a daily basis. The joy we have is something each and every one of us is convinced comes solely from God being smack dab in the middle of our lives.
I couldn't help it, and just as we were ready to leave, I said it felt like we should part in prayer. Holding hands, some familiar, some less so, but all recognizing that we are part of God's wider family and that we all desire to share God's love, we prayed together.
And in that moment, we all belonged to one another.