Last week the sermon focused on the “spirit of adoption” Paul talks about in Romans 8:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:14-17

It made me think of our daughter, of course.

And that made me think that something happens to the family, too, when we adopt someone into it. The family changes, becomes something it wasn’t before, as we make space for that other person. The sense of belonging the adopted child – ideally – comes to have is one each member of the family has to regain, as the new family dynamics play out.

Though that must be true of all families, right? Every child brings something new. All families change, in ways, when new people come in. All families have to make space for the newcomers, accommodate new influences, learn to listen and respond to new accents, whether those new members arrive by birth or adoption or marriage. If a family can’t make space for the newcomer, the new member, if the influence can only go one way, is only ever allowed to go one way, if the oldsters force the newbies to fall in with “my way or the highway” on everything, all the time – that’s a failure in a family.

[Not talking about setting some limits, having some non-negotiables. But there’s a difference between reasonable stability and authoritarian rigidity, or abuse. Not too many people disagree on that, even those who would disagree about what, specifically, in this case, falls on one side or the other of that difference.]
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So this got me thinking about how complex this sense of belonging is. That feeling of belonging comes from a mixture of acceptance, trust or security, enjoyment, the perception that people “get you,” which is partly about communication but is also about understanding or insight, and shared joys and interests and moments of hilarity that become “in jokes,” and shared moments of tragedy as well, that become touchstones, so, experiences, and the memories of those experiences and the lessons learned together from those experiences. At least all of that. Belonging may feel instantaneous, and if we’re fortunate we will have an instantaneous sense of belonging with some people, but belonging also grows over time.

Or – we hope it grows over time. Because belonging isn’t automatic, by any means. It’s what we want our children to feel, but some children never feel they belong in their families, always feel like the ugly duckling of the bunch, have to leave home and move away and find different people, different families, to finally feel they belong. That’s the work of that spirit of adoption, too, maybe.

And I was thinking that “belonging” is one of those things that happens at church. Except that some people don’t feel they belong at church. Sometimes, they feel they don’t quite belong here, in this particular congregation. Sometimes, they feel they don’t quite belong here, in this religion.

It’s hard for those of us who do feel that sense of belonging to relate to that sense of estrangement. “But everyone is so great here!” “But everyone’s so open, friendly, sympatico!!” “God is great!!” [What’s wrong with you?] We don’t get it.

Which is, I imagine, exactly why those people who feel they don’t belong feel they don’t belong.

Not being able to relate is one of the symptoms. Whatever the issue, whether it’s the acceptance, or the trust, or the enjoyment (not), or the incomprehensible weirdness (on one side or the other), or some unshared concerns and perceptions that move in “the deep heart’s core,” or whatever it is, something essential for that person’s belonging isn’t in the mix, and either we [whoever “we” are] haven’t noticed, or haven’t figured out how to add it, or have bumped into one of those non-negotiables that really does make it impossible for them and everyone else to all belong together …

[I hesitate to name an example. Empirically it’s not obvious that much in the history of the church has been completely non-negotiable, both for better and for worse. Most Christians, I think, see that “for worse” category as a call to do better – though there again, we clearly don’t all always agree about what specifically fits that category. Some of us think we are doing better, just when others think we’re doing worse. Which is part of the point here.]

In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a recipe for belonging. Whatever the mixture is, it doesn’t seem to have one and only one set of ingredients. It’s definitely not mechanical. It’s … spiritual.
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In fact, though this may sound heretical, I suspect that everyone cannot belong everywhere.

This may be a necessary, though possibly unwelcome, conclusion for those of us who suspect that people are not simply tabula rasa, but come hardwired with some inner truth that needs to be nurtured and cultivated and brought to full expression. Some of us suspect people have something of the plant in them, such that we cannot expect the human analogs of hydrangeas to produce hibiscus flowers, or redbuds to grow oak leaves, no matter how much socialization we impose on them. Nasturtiums will not bloom in “rich soil,” no matter how much you want them to, and when all you have in the back yard is shade, you need to learn to love hosta. So insofar as congregations – or perhaps even religions – can be thought of as gardens, featuring particular growing conditions, then there may not be a spot for every plant in every garden.

And that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Some plants can grow almost anywhere. Some grow only in a narrow band of precise temperature, soil, moisture conditions. It would be sad if the human orchids, or cacti, never bloomed. The human world would be poorer for that … I think, even if most of us would rather live somewhere closer to average well-drained soil ourselves. Everyone needs to belong somewhere.

From what we know of Jesus, it seems most everyone did feel they belonged when he was around. [Those who didn’t feel that way seem to have thought their non-belonging was Jesus’s problem, not theirs – he was so “not with the program.”] This makes me think that whatever church really is the body of Christ – Calvin’s “church of all the elect of every time and place,” maybe, if we get to use that language – must be big enough, with enough micro-climates, that everyone can find somewhere to belong there – to be “rooted and grounded in love,” to stick with the plant metaphor.
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The gardening books define a weed as a plant that doesn’t belong – a plant that’s out of place. But context is everything. That baby box elder that is definitely arbor non grata next to the marigolds blends right in on the edge of the woods. I drove past a stand of Queen Anne’s Lace this morning on the way to some appointment [indeed – we’re having those now]. It’s basically a weed, but it made the junk car lot on the way into town look almost picturesque.

If I’m honest, our church is probably not the congregational equivalent of average well-drained soil. More than a few of us would probably look like plants out of place in a lot of congregations.

To mix metaphors, one of the members calls our place “the island of misfit Christians.” Because most of us have questions, doubts, reservations about this or that doctrine, toes out of party alignment, and so on. Most of us have had that experience of trying to fit in somewhere we felt we didn’t belong – have had “a bad experience at church,” as people say. Many of us have spent some time floating around placeless, until as providence would have it, we washed up on the shore of this particular congregational island.

Thank God for islands.

And transplants.

And “the spirit of adoption.”
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Images: “Clipperton Island,” Shannon Rankin, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC)/ Public domain; “Coconut germinating,” Wmpearl / Public domain.