Sunday, 27 May 2018

Authentic Belonging

At the recent minister’s conference, that I attended, we were asked to take part in an exercise that invited us to explore belonging; to ask ourselves where in the world we belong? We were asked to consider where we would like to be buried or our ashes to be scattered after we died. It seems that some of my colleagues had no trouble with this question at all, while others really struggled. I was one of the ones who struggled. I initially objected internally as I thought to myself I am too young to think about such things. I soon got over myself and then began to struggle with what I would want to happen to my remains, as I felt belonged to more than one place and or one group of people. It was interesting to listen to what others shared, where and with whom they belonged. I felt relieved when I heard one or two others wanted to separate their ashes. This was because I knew that I would have to do the same. I decided that I would initially split mine in half and that one of those halves would be split in half again. I decided that one quarter would be with my dad and grandparents, in the cemetery at Bruntcliffe, Morley and the other quarter with my mum’s family grave in Batley, where both of my maternal grandparents are. I then left the second half open as I hope I have another half of life yet to live and who knows to where and with who I will belong by then. That second half of my “dash” of loving and belonging is yet to be lived.

It was a really good exercise to participate in as it made me think about who exactly I belong to; what it is that makes me who I am. No one lives completely by themselves we all belong to other people in so many ways. Yes we belong to ourselves, but we also belong to one another.

The other morning, in my meditation group, I was listening to a Jewish friend whose daughter is about to get married. It is going to be a huge wedding and the whole family are travelling to Israel for four days of celebration. My friend had recently travelled back to Leeds, where he grew up, with his other daughter. They visited the cemetery where his parents and sister are buried. They were keeping with the traditions of their religion and inviting the spirit of their dead relatives to accompany them to the wedding. It was a deeply emotional thing for my friend to do as I know that the death of his sister, at such a young age, had affective him deeply. He told me that he left a stone at the grave, which again is part of the tradition and noticed that other relatives must have been there in recent times as there were many stones at the grave. I can see clearly how important this ritual was for him as he moves forward and his family move forward. Ritual is so important in life, something that is diminishing in recent times. I see more and more how vital it is to my life and the lives of others as we move through the many transitions of our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot about belonging in recent times. The people who have made me who I am, that have influenced my life and the people whose lives I have touched too. I have entered into someone else’s life and family in recent months as my relationship with Sue has blossomed and flowered. I recently spent a day with her siblings and members of her family. I didn’t find this too much of a challenge actually. They have been very welcoming. I suspect that the reason I have been at ease is because I do belong in my own being. I can be myself in the company of others; I don’t need to try to fit into the lives of others and fall for the trap of false belonging.

Now belonging is not always easy for some of us, perhaps all of us at times. During another conversation I had with a friend I was recently reminded of the loneliest time of my life, when I felt I did not belong anywhere. In those days I tried hard to fit it, but this was not authentic and just left me with this sense of utter loneliness. Thankfully these days I feel a sense of authentic belonging to myself, to life, to the spirit of all life and thus feel I can belong pretty much anywhere. I can be myself in the company of most people.

Sadly many people, for a variety reason do not feel like they belong. Now of course some of this can be an inner sense of rejection, but not wholly, some people do feel that they cannot be themselves fully and thus do not always belong. Sadly some people and places do not always welcome all, do not always invite all to come as they are...

How do we help a person to belong? Well it begins with welcome, to say come as you are, exactly as you are. This though is not always easy. Identity and how people identify themselves can be complicated. This has become particularly apparent around gender in recent times. I know I have got it wrong on occassion myself , I have hopefully not hurt or offended anyone in my clumsiness. I am trying, but there is room for improvement in this area.

I do not want to exclude anyone from my circle of love and want everyone to feel that are accepted in my company, that they belong. Certainly as a minister I want people to feel that they can truly be who they are in the communities I serve. I truly want all to feel that they can come as they are and that no aspect of their humanity will be rejected. I do not want anyone to feel that need to fit into some ideal, and that in order to belong they have to do so falsely. Whether that be age, gender identity, sexuality, politics and belief or lack of.

To belong means that you are accepted for who you are wholly, not partially; whereas fitting in means that you have to change who you are in some way in order to be accepted. Belonging is really about being loved without condition. This is the love that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels. This is the perfect love that is spoken of in Matthew’s Gospel, from “The Sermon on the Mount”. “Therefore be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” I actually think that this is the only thing that we can do perfectly. I am striving for this every day. Perfect love is about welcoming one another exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too.

A sense of belonging is a deeply precious thing. It is belonging that helps us become who we are meant to be. It is a sense of belonging that helps us to truly be who we are. By being who we are we encourage others to truly be who they are and thus belong authentically. It is so easy to fall for the trap of false belonging and to try and fit it.

The late John O’Donohue in his wonderful book “Anam Cara”, hits the nail squarely on the head with regard to our struggles to be who we are and to find a real sense of belonging. I love the way that he relates belonging to longing and yearning. He suggests that we need to find a balance in belonging and that often our problems stem from not being truly at home with ourselves. That we should be our own longing. That the key is to be-long within ourselves. If we belong within ourselves then we will feel at ease and belong wherever we are. Therefore the sense of who we are, our identity, will not be ruled by the need to fit in, to belong, externally.

A little while ago a friend of mine posted the following quote by Brene Brown, it was during an on-line conversation on identity and belonging:

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I’ve listened to quite a bit of Brene Brown over the last few years and I have to say she speaks to the soul of me. I love what she has to say about the difference between “Belonging” and “Fitting in”, that they are not the same thing, although they are often mistaken for one another.

Brene Brown explains that “Fitting in” is really about assessing situations and becoming the person that you believe you need to be in order to be accepted and acceptable. Whereas “Belonging” does not require us to change who we are, but to be who we really are.

Belonging is an innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. This is a primal yearning, deep within the soul of us and thus we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval from others. Now not only does this not satisfy this yearning it actually becomes a barrier to it. In so doing we lose our identity and feel even more lost and lonely. True belonging you see only happens when we present our true, authentic, imperfect selves to the world, “warts and all” and beauty spots too. Unless we are at home within ourselves we will never feel that we belong anywhere.

I believe that the primary purpose of my free religious tradition, of the communities I serve, is to create an environment where people can find their true belonging. My role as a minister is to create an environment where individuals can truly become who they are and to share that with each other. Yes it is true that each individual is unique but each can only truly become who they are in community with others. No one belongs wholly to themselves. No one is an island. From the day we are born we are part of families and communities. Now of course these can be oppressive and inhibiting or they can be liberating and life enhancing and can give us the environment to truly become who we are, all that we were born to be, without apology. Where we can practice perfect love for ourselves, one another, for God and all life. This is "Beloved Community", a space where you can become all that you are, in community with others.

By coming as we are and being all that we are, without apology we belong authentically, not falsely. Therefore, I have come to believe, our task is to find the courage to come as we are, exactly as we are, warts and all and beauty spots too and to let our light shine on one another and thus invite them to do the same.

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