In seventh grade I tried out for the middle school basketball team. I had never played organized basketball, nor was I any good. Seriously. I was bad. I missed layups, didn’t know the fundamentals, air-balled easy shots, I was just bad. So I missed the cut.
I was hurt, like anyone who has even been cut from a team or play or anything can relate to. They weren’t wrong to cut me, but I was new to the public school system that year and was struggling to find my place. This didn’t help. I didn’t know where I would fit in this strange new land. I struggled to find friends, struggled to enjoy classes, struggled to want to be in that building at all.
I know my story about seventh grade basketball is not unique. I would guess that many of us have been in a situation where we didn’t feel like we were accepted or wanted in any way. We felt alone. Isolated. Intimidated by those who seemed to navigate the troubled waters of middle school social life with ease.
The good news is that I found tennis instead. I made that team (barely!) and found a group of people who were wonderful and strange just like me. People who talked to themselves on the court too. People who got angry at the smallest miss. People who loved and hated the game within seconds. I found my people. I belonged.
While my middle school experience wasn’t as traumatic as some, it was instructive in ways I am only recently realizing. I grew up comfortably. My parents made a good income, we never struggled for meals or a home. My family wasn’t perfect, but my parents loved me and that was always clear. They provided and cared for me in ways I didn’t always appreciate then, but I am so grateful for now.
Getting cut from that middle school team was hard for me. Even if it wasn’t as hard as some others’ experiences, it was the place that represented for me what I think is a universal feeling: not belonging.
Yesterday I preached on “belonging.” I thought it was an awesome sermon, but maybe that’s because it’s what I needed to hear more than anyone else (check it out here and decide for yourself). I used the passage from Acts 2 where the “first church” is described. Here is part of the passage that really stuck with me:
The believers devoted themselves… Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.
-Acts 2: 42, 46-47 (CEB)
That word, “devoted” is rare in Biblical Greek, only found 10 times in the New Testament. But in Acts 2 it’s used twice. The word there, proskartereo, can also mean to “give unrelenting care to something or someone.”¹ Can you imagine? Can you imagine giving unrelenting care to something or someone? Truly, think about that!
I usually feel most devoted to something when it benefits me. I give my full attention to sports (playing and watching), to family (when I’m with them, at least), to meals (I’m very food-motivated). But I find it more rare that I give unrelenting care to something or someone with no selfish ambition, no personal gain, no hope for something for me in return. But that is what characterized the first church, devotion to each other. Devotion to everyone.
I am heart broken when I learn of stories where people feel excluded. Not just excluded from a middle school basketball team, but excluded from a faith. Excluded from a community that draws its origins from Acts 2 where a key characteristic was “unrelenting care from someone or something.” It is heartbreaking when I am out somewhere and someone learns that I am a pastor. More and more the reactions go one of two ways: they either begin to tell me how “holy” and “Christian” they are, or they stop talking to me altogether. The second reaction is what really hurts.
I love The Church (global, not just my local congregation — although I love them too!). I love what it can represent and the good it can do. I love the way many, many people have been invited into something bigger than themselves and they find meaning and purpose in life. I love that real lives are really changed because of church. I don’t love that this church I am committed to has drawn boundary lines that are so rigid, there seems to be a sign at the door that says “you must be this good to get on the ride.” A measure none of us can meet.
A few years ago, an old phrase became popular again: “Generous Orthodoxy.” Malcom Gladwell talks about this in his podcast “Revisionist History.” It’s worth listening to if you haven’t heard it already (click here). The idea comes from a theologian named Hans Frei in the twentieth century. He describes that we ought to be “orthodox” in that we have a faith and belief system. It is good to know what you believe (at least for now) and to want to practice that faith to live a fuller, more meaningful life. It is also good to be “generous” in that you are soft enough to have open-ended conversations where you really hear a differing point of view. Where your position isn’t so entrenched that you cut off all new information or perspectives (these usually come in the form of people, by the way).
Although it may feel like it, I’m not trying to convince anyone to believe anything in this post. I am asking that you join me in trying on a more “generous orthodoxy.” I have specific beliefs that mean so much to me. However, I hope that I am open enough to the changing world, the movement of God’s presence, the unfolding nature of all creation that I am truly open when someone walks into a room.
The more we draw restrictive lines that define the parameters of faith, the less we belong. Belonging happens together. I wonder if belonging to something (i.e. a faith) means belonging to someone. I am convinced more and more that the further we separate from one another, the further we are separating ourselves from God.
So… this long and rambling post is all to say that I want to belong to you. I want to be with you in the good and bad times. I want you to feel the love and joy and presence of God in real ways that matter to your life. I want you to know that there is someone in your weird and wonderful corner. I want you to never doubt that there is someone always just a call away who cares for you, who believes in you.
You may have been cut from your middle school team too. You may never have found your “tennis team,” as it were, but there is a community of loving people who are waiting to say “yes” to you. Who are waiting for your unique flavor of being to arrive. People who will care for you not “in spite” of any part of you, but exactly because of who you are.
So come be. Come share how amazing and strange you are. Come devote yourself to a life that is generous and orthodox. Come belong.
Grace & Peace, Pastor Cole
** I mean it when I say “come.” If you are in Charlotte, come try out Providence UMC where you can find me (and many cooler people) at 11am in The Net (our contemporary service).**
1. Blue Letter Bible definition from Strong’s Bible Dictionary, accessed 5 October, 2019, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4342&t=KJV.