God Goes Belonging

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you. I personally can’t speak experientially about motherhood (I’m somewhat limited in that category), but watching Maddy take care of Auden, our baby boy, for the past five months has been eye-opening as to the job requirements and I think that it’s nothing short of a miracle that any of us are alive, and that we made it outside the house today, and to church no less! Here we are! Amazing.

This prayer of Jesus that we just heard in the gospel of John, which seems impenetrably cryptic, reminds me a little bit of the prayers that Maddy and I have prayed for Auden. Especially in the early days, our prayers would be frantic. We would pray for protection – from illness, from fear, from death – terrified that something would happen to him overnight. A lot of times we would ramble, particularly when we hadn’t been sleeping. All the while, our baby boy would be completely ignorant of all the dangers that surrounded him.

Jesus’ prayer is more than a bit rambling. It’s hard to keep track of what he’s saying. He seems to be aware of powers beyond our field of vision with talk about “the evil one.” A sense of drama is building. In the very next chapter, Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death. But, at the moment, his disciples are oblivious of his concerns. He is praying for their protection on their behalf, knowing that after his ascension, they will be left behind in the same world that had Jesus crucified. When Jesus says he doesn’t belong to the world, it’s not that he’s giving the world the cold shoulder – the world would very much agree with him. That was made clear on Good Friday. Jesus does not belong to the world and neither do his disciples.

In a recent interview on Krista Tippett’s show called On Being, the author Brene Brown discussed how we all crave belonging. Think about how much we celebrate connectivity these days. That’s partially why social media is so appealing because it feels like we’re a part of something that’s greater than ourselves. Brene Brown says, “We are neuro-biologically hardwired for belonging and connection. We’re hardwired to want it, and need it so much, that that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.” Think about it. Think about The Onion’s recent headline, “Picture Most Closely Resembling Actual Self Immediately Deleted.” We think we will belong when people see that we are worthy of their time and affection. And, in order to be found worthy, we must present ourselves as worthy.

This way of living has a way of seeping into every part of life, even the good parts. Maddy and I bought a house a couple of years ago and we’ve enjoyed making minor fixes and turning it into our home, but every once in a while I’ll be thrown into a fit of insecurity. Some friends recently got a new front door installed – custom built, beautifully crafted. All of a sudden, I hated our door (which I had never actually noticed until then) and before long, I hated our house and our whole life seemed terrible (you can imagine, I was a real joy to be around). But I’m not alone.

A couple of months ago, the design website Curbed published an article by Kate Wagner about home renovations, reporting that Americans spent $326 billion on renovating in 2015. She talks about how home design TV shows describe any houses in need of renovation with self-loathing words like “dated,” immature,” or “wrong” (as if it’s a moral issue!). Wagner says, “Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to freshen up one’s home…but our constant remodeling is an effort to make ourselves more acceptable to others. Like the beauty industry, the home-improvement industry plays on insecurity – the fear that we are unattractive or inadequate.” Wagner goes on to consider this simple idea: there is nothing wrong with your house. I agree. And I’ll take it one step further and say that there is something wrong with you and me! Otherwise, we wouldn’t be trying so hard.

Home renovation might not be your particular vulnerable spot, but you’ve got one – something in your life that justifies your existence. Your reputation, your friends, your good taste. These are all good things, but they can easily turn into feeble attempts to be found worthy; to fulfill the law of God, which tells us that, however hard we try, we will fall short of the righteousness demanded of us. If the goal of life is to be morally renovated, the system quickly begins to break down. Live by this system and my guess is that you will break down with it.

Except we have hope from this gospel passage. You are not speaking for yourself. Jesus is speaking on your behalf, pleading for you, whether you know it or not. He does more than pray on your behalf. His death on the cross is on your behalf. And because of that, and through his resurrection, everything God gives to Jesus is given to you. He has claimed you as His own and you belong to Him. He says it twice: “They do not belong to the world…. They are yours.”

Franz Kafka, the 20th century novelist, once said, “In German the word sein signifies both things: to be and to belong to Him.” Of course, this is a grammatical rule, but Kafka chose to capitalize the “H” of “Him.” You exist and you belong to God. In other words, the purpose of your life is to be loved by God. Maddy and I are seeing this firsthand with Auden. His whole existence is inseparable from his belonging to us. He exists for us to love him, albeit imperfectly. The parent analogy can be complicated, but a loving parent or parent-figure – someone who says “you belong to me” – is a small glimpse into how God sees you.

There’s a book called To the End of June by Cris Beam. It’s about the American foster care system and a lot of it focuses on a man named Bruce Green and his wife Allyson. They live in Brooklyn with 10 children; most of them are foster kids. Cris spends a lot of time with Bruce and he tells this story:

One afternoon, when I was sitting in the car with Bruce and his son Jaleel, I witnessed a particularly heartbreaking scene. We were parked in the shade of a leafy tree, waiting for his son Dominique to come out of some appointment or another, when a chubby, shy-looking kid ambled up to the front passenger window. Bruce rolled it down.

Hi Dad, the boy said. He looked about fifteen…. Hey, Clarence,” Bruce chirped, a huge smile on his face. How are you?” Clarence muttered one-word answers to all of Bruce’s questions: school was bad”; the new foster home was fine”; but when Bruce asked if he missed the family, Clarence’s eyes filled. He looked down at the van’s open window and picked at the glass in the frame. Clarence was with us for three and a half months,” Bruce said to me. But he was a runner. He took his bike on the subway and ran away. Right, Clarence?”

 No. Four,” Clarence answered.

 What?” Bruce asked.

I was with you for four months. From November seventeenth to March sixteenth.”

Well. And you’ll always be my son,” Bruce said, shaking his head. And I love you.”

Clarence, openly crying and half punching at his eyes, walked around the driver’s side to hug Bruce. “We’ll see you Sunday?” Bruce asked. Clarence still showed up at the Greens’ for the free bi-weekly haircuts, donated by a barber friend of theirs.

Yeah, Dad, I love you,” Clarence mumbled, into Bruce’s shoulder. And he opened up the back door to sock Jaleel in the stomach. Jaleel laughed as Clarence loped away.

Cris Beam goes on: Clarence was more than a runner. He had been in five foster homes before the Greens’, as well as a psychiatric hospital. When he ran away, he left a note threatening to kill the family, so by law Bruce had to act. Because Clarence threatened violence, he had to be placed with a different agency. Still, Bruce said, You don’t stop being a dad just because the kid’s not in your house,” and he welcomed Clarence back for visits anytime.

Jesus prayed to his father, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…They are yours.” Your worth, your justification, is not based on your track-record or your behavior. It’s not based on your successes or your failures or your life. It’s based on Jesus Christ, who speaks on your behalf, who lives and dies on your behalf and who tells his Father that you belong to Him.

I’ll end with an excerpt of the perhaps over-quoted, but timeless poem “Who Am I” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the renowned German pastor who wrote this in the cell of a concentration camp at Flossenburg.

Who am I?

Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!