April 29, 2012
A Forever Friend
“I know my own and my own know me.” This powerful line spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel reassures us that Jesus knew our most basic human need: to belong to someone who knows us and loves us. We cannot make meaning out of life if we do not belong somewhere. Belongingness gives us our roots and roots give us the ability to branch out from our origins and embrace life. And yet we can only belong to someone who really knows us. Yet to risk exposing ourselves to being known, is to risk rejection.
However, if you don’t belong somewhere, to somebody, you are already alone. The dictionary definition of belonging is “to have a proper and suitable place.” My mother always used to quote a line that she attributed to the fictional character Heidi, the little orphan in the Swiss Alps, “All I ever wanted was my place at the table.” I have no idea if that quote was in the book, or movie, or neither…but I sure understand the sentiment.
As a pastoral caregiver I can assure you that lacking a healthy sense of belonging is a root cause of most dysfunctional behavior. Couples fall apart because they no longer belong to each other, and have come to belong to something or someone else. Teens act out because they feel as though nobody really knows who they are, and nobody cares. It used to be that most youthful bad behavior was tempered by what one’s family would think of the behavior. It was sufficient for me to hear, ‘You would not want your grandmothers to know about this.” I belonged to them and they belonged to me. But as our families and communities fracture under stress, that sort of glue just doesn’t hold as well, anymore.
And there is something essential underlying that sense of belonging…the sure and certain knowledge that one is worthy of belonging. That one is worthy of being known, really known. And here we come to the crux of the modern dilemma: who and what we allow to determine our worthiness. Who gets to hold up the mirror and who judges the reflection? If it’s the world around us we’re in big trouble. We will never be what the prevailing culture determines is enough. But if it’s the Good Shepherd who judges us, our worthiness is never in question. He knows exactly who we are and loves us anyway!
The educator and writer Parker Palmer says, “Here is the insight most central to spiritual experience: we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us…This love knows our limits as well as our potential, our capacity for evil as well as good…Yet…it offers us the…acceptance that can liberate us to live a larger love.” One might say that the first task of being Christian is to accept that we are accepted. Then we can live a larger love.
Connection and relationship is what life is all about. It’s why we’re here on earth and it’s what makes everything tick. We’re taking in new members next week. Why do we join churches? Because we want to increase our connectedness, find a path to the sacred with other seekers. We want to belong to something greater than ourselves.
This week our book group met to discuss Same of Kind of Different As Me, by authors Ron Hall and Denver Moore. This is a true account of the unlikely friendship between Denver, a black, homeless drifter and Ron, a wealthy Texas art dealer. Their lives intertwine because Ron’s wife Debbie drags him into a ministry with the local homeless shelter. Debbie, who eventually died from cancer, was an extraordinarily faithful woman who lived her religion and had the most amazing love for the least and the lost. This scary, rather dangerous black man who had never had a place to belong all his life, became someone entirely different as she pursued him with the gospel. She brought this hostile, smelly, dirty drifter into the sheepfold. The sheepfold is a proper and suitable place, and a place where all of us find belonging.
It occurred to me after our discussion, which by the way was the longest discussion we’ve ever had in book group, that fundamentally the book was about belonging. “Knowing as we are known.” A relationship developed between the three of them that is best read in the book, not described, but it was powerful and changed all of them forever. A community formed where it was no longer possible for any of them to avoid being vulnerable with each other. The fences were down and the only way in was through the living gate: the Good Shepherd. When we go in through that gate, it is safe to be vulnerable, and safe to be exactly who we are. One of our favorite lines in the book is when Debbie says, “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.”
Belonging. A sense of Worthiness. Connection. These are the essential ingredients for our individual lives, and they are the essential ingredients for community. And it is very hard work. And it takes something that we are very reluctant to give…vulnerability. We have to let God and others see us as we really are. Not dressed up in our Sunday best, but as we really are. Our fear of that is what keeps us settling for something other than the authentic, abundant life offered to us by the Good Shepherd. Deep down I believe that most of us fear that if we really put our honest, whole self out there… it would not be acceptable. Again I say, the first task of Christianity is accepting that we are accepted.
Denver felt that the stain in his soul, the layers that had hardened in his years in prison and on the road, was such that Ron and Debbie could not be possibly genuine in their interest in him. In a pivotal scene Denver finally comes clean to Ron about his fears about trusting in the relationship. He explains it to Ron in his typical down home fashion. This is Ron’s account of the conversation.
“I heard that when white folks go fishin they do somethin called ‘catch and release.’ “
Ron, “Catch and release?” I nodded solemnly, suddenly nervous and curious at the same time.
“That really bothers me”, Denver went on. “I just can’t figure it out. ‘Cause when colored folks go fishin, we really proud of what we catch, and we take it and show it off to everybody that’ll look. Then we eat what we catch…in other words, we use it to SUSTAIN us. So it really bothers me that white folks would go to all the trouble to catch a fish, and when they done caught it, just throw it back in the water.”
He paused again, and the silence between us stretched a full minute.
Then: “Did you hear what I said?”
Ron: I nodded, afraid to speak, afraid to offend.
Denver looked away, searching the blue autumn sky, then locked onto me again with that drill-bit start. “So, Mr. Ron, it occurred to me: If you is fishin for a friend you just gon’ catch and release, then I ain’t got no desire to be your friend.”
I returned Denver’s gaze with what I hoped was a receptive expression and hung on. Suddenly his eyes gentled and he spoke more softly than before: “But if you is lookin for a REAL friend, then I’ll be one. Forever.”
That passage was haunting in its intimacy. This text from John really speaks of intimacy…the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd and he loves them so well he would lay his life down for them. No sacrifice is too great for the shepherd. And no effort in bringing the lost sheep home is too great. It reminds of the great effort put forth by Debbie to bring Denver to a place of love and acceptance.
The phrase from Psalm 23 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” sounds much gentler and tamer than it really is. The Hebrew verb really means to pursue or hunt down. God relentlessly follows us because that’s how much God wants to give us the good things of life. This is no catch and release kind of thing. A forever friend, a forever home.
It’s a love that will not let us go. What is my only comfort in love and death? That I belong, body and soul, to my Savior Jesus Christ.