I welcome The Very Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail, Connection Messenger* and today’s guest blogger. This piece appeared in a recent parish newsletter, and I share it with his permission. It speaks beautifully about three of the essential types of connections that we focus on here at Heartspoken: connection with self, connection with others, and connection with God. I hope you find it as profound and uplifting as I did.
The premise of Family Systems theory is that how we functioned in our families growing up sets a pattern for how we function in the other places of our lives. For instance, if you grew up getting approval for being funny, helpful, thoughtful, then you likely seek to be funny, helpful, thoughtful everywhere else. The patterns become traits that give you a sense of identity, and with that identity you discover your place, your belonging, elsewhere.
I have become convinced that the issue of belonging is the real issue of life. It’s the elephant in every room. We are always wondering if we belong, everywhere we go. Part of our psyche believes that we do belong, but a measure of us, even if that measure is very small, always doubts.
Everything relates to belonging. Who is allowed to belong, and who is not? In the secular context, we see the extremes. The person who commits acts of violence is arrested: they do not belong. The person who has power and/or money, attractive, makes us feel good, happy: they belong. Sometimes what makes us doubt our belonging is believing that we’re the only ones who feel that way.
Jesus preached a very different message. In his words and deeds, he said “We all belong!” And the reaction that took him to the Cross was our inability to accept this good news. So we said, “You don’t belong.”
This is a tricky issue because our own sense of belonging is something we have to manage on our own. At a certain point, you have to decide whether or not you belong in your own skin, whether or not you really love yourself unconditionally. Can you sit with yourself for more than just a few moments, without any distractions, and just be comfortable in your own company? How you relate to yourself in solitude may indicate the ways you relate to others.
Jesus had a pattern of life that moved from solitude to company, private to public. We see this pattern most clearly in Mark’s Gospel. I think Christ was giving us a model for how to deepen our own personal sense of belonging so that we can be more hospitable with others, and therefore better able to bring about the life that God intends us to live.
In the broader Church culture, there is so much hand-wringing about the future, and I can understand why. I think belonging is the key. Everyone wants and needs to belong. No matter how much people communicate online or over the phone, people have to come together. We are social beings. We need to be face to face at some point in our lives. You and I know that. A lot of people do not. And our message is that this very desire [need] you and I have is met in Jesus Christ—and in our shared life as a church.
We can do so much to make people feel they belong, but as I just wrote, a lot of it comes down to the individual’s own personal struggle to accept and belong to themselves. That’s why, it seems, you can fall over yourself trying to welcome someone, and they just don’t want to. They’ve got their own stuff they’re dealing with. It likely has nothing to do with you or the church, or anything. They may just not be in a place to be “at home” with us.
The most effective combination is when someone loves and accepts themselves and the people they pray beside on Sunday. There may be other reasons people want to be a part of a church, of course. There may be musical preferences, program desires, aesthetics of the building…you name it. But all those factors ultimately come down to the feeling of belonging.
Belonging is gift of God. Nurture it, treasure it, and recklessly give it to others. The Episcopal Church is a place of belonging; and I would love nothing more than for others to feel that they belong with us.
Editor’s note: Another author who writes beautifully about love and belonging is Henri Nouwen. I’ve selected some of his books in the carousel below in case you want to explore these themes further.
The Very Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail is parish priest for Beckford Parish in Shenandoah County Virginia (Emmanuel and St. Andrew’s Episcopal churches). He is also Dean of Region XIV in the Diocese of Virginia. As my family’s parish priest, he has been both a spiritual leader and dear friend.
“I’m that priest you hear about who is half monk, half scholar, and half regular feller. At least two halves are always present.” Alexander’s post called “The Mystery of Surrender” speaks to the human need for connection: “Your life has dignity and meaning and value. Choose to love and to be kind. Surrender to that. Trust in God for everything else.”