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Belong. Believe. Become.


Image result for tattoos on the heart
Image from Catholic Reporter
Gregory Boyle and some friends from Homeboy Industries
This past weekend, I went to a chalet for the weekend. Together with 17 other people. It was our semi-regular church retreat during which we cooked meals together, washed dishes together, sang songs together, participated in morning and evening prayer together, played outside together, went on a hike together, and just hung out. We also spent some time talking and thinking about what we are trying to build as a faith community and what that looks like.

Basically, it comes down to three ideas found at the heart of one of the models of church found in scripture. The model is the family, and the three ideas are belong, believe, and become. Children are born into a family and they immediately belong. Whether they are grumpy babies or happy babies or sick babies, they belong. Before they do anything to contribute to the family, they belong. As they grow up, they learn what it means to be part of a family, and through experience, example, and instruction, they develop trust and faith in people who are faithful and become faithful themselves. Eventually, the children become productive members of society who are able to contribute in a meaningful way to their own family and, in some way, to the world. Ideally, children are transformed from self-absorbed, crying babies into mature adults who are knowledgeable, skilled, responsible, generous people with a desire to help others. Put another way, we could say the pattern is this: family, faith, formation.

The order is important here. The first requirement cannot be maturity or good character or a certain level of faithfulness and skilled, good work. This is backwards. And it fosters an expectation that is sure to end in disappointment and failure. Insisting that a baby be a responsible member of the family makes no sense. Unfortunately, the church has often required a certain demonstration of faith or godly character before allowing people to belong to the church family. Jesus sets this unrealistic standard on its head. He was always hanging out with outsiders and those on the fringes of society, deliberately going against the notion that people had to exhibit some form of godliness before they were worthy of his attention. So let's take a brief look at each of the three words.

BELONG: Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, writes about his work with gang members in Los Angeles in his book Tattoos on the Heart. His is a slow labour of love and service, trying to convince outcasts that they belong, that they are worth something. He writes: "If you read Scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of 'sinner,' it'll say, 'see outcast.' This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame ... was brought inside and given a home in the outcast. Jesus' strategy is a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, 'I will eat with you.' He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he 'gets his grub on.' Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable. ... Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God's own truth for us - waiting to be discovered." [1]

We read about Jesus generously and recklessly associating with the outcasts of society, letting them know that they belonged, even before they believed, even before they gave up their bad behaviour. "Levi [the tax collector] gave a large dinner at his home for Jesus. Everybody was there, tax men and other disreputable characters as guests at the dinner. The Pharisees and their religion scholars came to his disciples greatly offended. 'What is he doing eating and drinking with crooks and sinners?' Jesus heard about it and spoke up, 'Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting outsiders, not insiders - an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out." (Luke 5:29-32, The Message)

Gregory Boyle tells the story of his parish, Dolores Mission Church, declaring itself a sanctuary for undocumented people from Mexico and Central America. Soon, men were sleeping in the church and women and children in the convent. Some people in the neighbourhood did not appreciate the church's decision and the ramifications it had for the area. One morning, they discovered that someone had spray-painted WETBACK CHURCH across the steps. Father Boyle was about to ask someone to remove the words when a woman in the church spoke up: "You will not clean this up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks) ... then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church." [2] Boyle notes that Jesus was not a man for others, but one who was with others.

BELIEVE: We belong because God turns toward us and accepts us. Then and only then are we able to turn toward God and trust him, believe him, have faith in him. We often associate the concept of believing with giving assent to right doctrine, but the idea of belief in the New Testament means to cling to, to rely on, to depend on. In other words, to believe means to put our well-being and our life in the hands of another, no back-up plan. Believing in someone means that we know they are faithful and trustworthy because they have shown themselves to be so. At a time when people were abandoning Jesus because his teachings were difficult to accept, Simon Peter affirmed his belief in Jesus: "You [alone] have the words of eternal life [you are our only hope]. We have believed and confidently trusted, and [even more] we have come to know [by personal observation and experience] that You are the Holy One of God [the Christ, the Son of the living God]." (John 6:68-69, Amplified Bible)

We come to believe and trust someone by walking with them, by working side by side with them, by getting to know them. Father Boyle tells a story of two rival gang members, sworn enemies, grudgingly working together at one of the businesses run by Homeboy Industries. At first the two men would not even look at each other. Six months later, when one of them was shot and seriously wounded, the other, a former enemy, offered to give his blood for someone he now called his friend. What changed hatred into trust? Belonging to the same community of workers, working side by side in order to improve their lives and the lives of others in their neighbourhood, and learning that they belonged to each other.

BECOME: In the context of a family, we belong first. We are accepted just as we are before our parents even know what kind of people we will become. As we grow and develop, we learn to trust and believe and have faith in our family and in others. Experience teaches us the value of faithfulness. Over time, we are transformed, no longer crying, needy children, but strong, helpful, generous, compassionate, skilled adults who contribute significantly to our family and to the world. We are no longer needy, but needed as caregivers and builders and artists and companions. We have been transformed. Being born of the Spirit means that we become new creations. What is old is gone. All things are new. However, it takes time for the character of Jesus to be formed in us, for old habits and ways of thinking to be changed. We are created in the image of God, but having our minds and hearts and wills and actions transformed to look like Jesus is a life-long process.

Paul writes that we have all been on the outs with God. We have all experienced what it means to be outside, but God personally opens the door and welcomes us back in. In light of this, he says: "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out.... God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

The story of Thomas serves as an example of belonging, believing, and becoming. Thomas belonged to Jesus's close circle of friends for three years. It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples. Thomas was skeptical when he heard others say that Jesus had risen from the dead. He said he had to see and touch Jesus's scars before he would believe it. For this reason, he is often referred to as doubting Thomas. This is unfortunate, because once Thomas encountered the risen Christ, he declared, "My Lord and my God." Tradition has it that following this life-altering experience, Thomas sailed to India to bring the Gospel to the people there. He started churches in at least seven locations there and was eventually killed for his faith. The Thomas Christian Churches are still present and active in India today. First Thomas belonged, then Thomas learned to believe, and then Thomas became an evangelist and a church planter.

Sometimes we in the church can focus so much on the need for people to be transformed that we forget that they need to belong first, and that they need to be in a relationship with faithful people before they can believe and trust. Transformation is the fruit that results from being in a loving, committed family or community. It is not a prerequisite for inclusion. If that were the case, none of us would ever belong. But because of the overflowing, merciful love of our heavenly Father, we are invited to be part of the family of God, yes, even when we are wailing, puking, needy, selfish, fearful, confused babies. Thank God for that.

Here are some questions to ponder and pray about:
What does it mean to belong? (see my previous post on belong here)
How does God invite us to belong?
How do we invite others to belong?
How do we come to believe and trust someone?
How do we learn to trust God?
Where do we find it hard to trust God?
How are we transformed from selfish, proud, fearful people into loving, compassionate, generous followers of Jesus?

Let Jesus show us the way to belong, to believe, and to become more like him.

---------------------------------
[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2011), 70.
[2] Boyle, 72.

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