Becoming Agents of Belonging: Three Practices Every Mom (and Minister) Can Model

It felt rude to invite you to a party I didn’t intend to join. Last month on this blog, I featured guest posts from Talking Taboo contributors on one good thing they learned in church. Frankly, after some lackluster feelings about my own church, I needed the reminder. I also needed a break from writing. But as it often goes when I give myself permission to leave the shoulds of weekly blogging behind – the shoulds of anything really from morning quiet time (what’s so spiritually mature about being a morning person?) to answering my phone on the first ring – desire for the real thing returns. So, in celebration of Mother’s Day, I give you one good thing I learned from my mom (about the church): how to become an agent of belonging.

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When it comes to belonging to the church, my generation and younger can be a skittish bunch. We’re good at pointing out the church’s faults, the clumsy ones and the callous ones, too. But instead of just criticizing the church and its leaders, I want to see young people become agents of our own belonging. (This is sort of my stump speech; have you noticed?)

Let me explain.

When I was five years old, I learned that it didn’t take much to belong to the body of Christ. You just had to want it real bad. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Winthrop Harbor, and by all accounts was a serious and sensitive child.

On the day of my older brother’s First Holy Communion ceremony, I watched with envy as he got a taste of Jesus’s body and blood a full two years before I would. I wanted a taste for myself. “Why do I have to wait?” I asked my mother, a small charismatic woman we nicknamed Perky Patty.

Now she could have told me “patience is a virtue” and gone back to defrosting dinner. Instead, she did something that looking back I think was quite radical. She told me what I wanted was valid and that she would call the church on Monday to see what could be done about it.

Belonging begins with desire. Some say desire was the first something out of nothing and that it was the insatiability of the desiring that put in motion the world. I like to think it was God’s own longing to belong to us that catalyzed the wind over the waters and called the ground into being.

I don’t know how the desire to belong to God or God’s people begins in a five year old or a fifteen year old but I do know we can create space for it to grow or we can snuff it out. I want to give you a taste of three practices we can model for our youth that are key for its survival. (Want more? Click here to explore where these practices come from.)

The first practice is, “Attend to your inner teacher.” We call the inner teacher by different names in different traditions: the voice of true self, the divine spark within, the Holy Spirit. To attend to our inner teachers is essentially to take notes on what God is speaking to us with the same vigor we would, say, a conference speaker.

One of my favorite stories about the inner teacher has to do with a six year who never paid attention in class until one day a drawing lesson was offered. The teacher, impressed by the girl’s newfound focus, asked, “What are you drawing?” The girl answered, “I’m drawing a picture of God,” and the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like,” and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

While it’s true we learn from others, it’s also true that when we rely solely on experts for the answers we teach our children to become audience members of religion rather than co-creators of it. We need to carve out dedicated spaces in our ministries where our only agenda is waking each other up to how God’s moving within.

The second practice is to “Ask others open and honest questions.” That is, we need to regularly ask questions of our youth that we don’t know the answer to, the kinds of questions that evoke their imagination and ours. My mother was masterful at these questions.

Often we’d be sitting in the back of the minivan listening to music and my mother would say, “How do you imagine God moving in this song?” We’d close our eyes for a moment and then my older brother might say ‘Oh, I see God in a boat’ or I would say ‘Now God’s pushing me in a swing.’

Educators call this kind of thinking divergent thinking – it’s the ability to explore many possibilities to a single question – and kids are brilliant at it. In one study the % of kindergartners who scored at genius levels in it was 98%. Five years later that number dropped to 50%.

In classrooms and congregations, our fill-in-the-blank, one-size-fits all ages and stages and gender curricula are boring our youth (and me) to death. We’re educating out human imagination when it’s the very thing that invites agency in our youth and transformation in our institutions.

Finally, the last practice we can model is “Offer your presence as fully as possible.” When I began researching belonging, I was surprised there was no one word for it in the New Testament. For instance when we read in 1 Corinthians 3:23 “You belong to Christ” the more wooden translation is “You are of Christ.”

In this way we might think of parents standing side by side at their kids’ soccer game, elbowing one another and asking, “Which one is yours?” We belong to God not because of anything we do but because of whose we are. We’re pre-approved, as writer Anne Lamott likes to say.

But in the Old Testament – God Bless the Old Testament – there’s a word for belonging that’s much more concrete. The Hebrew noun for belonging refers to the part or portion of the congregation’s sacrificial offering that’s assigned to us. Belonging to God compels us to offer our true selves, the self only we can give, in a community of practice.

This was a revelation to me. I had always operated in the world as if belonging depended on whether a church and its leaders accepted me and my Quak-olic (that’s a hybrid of Quaker and Catholic) feminist habits rather than whether I chose to offer myself to them.

You see, to be an agent of belonging starts with leaders, ministers, and parents naming our own desire for community and then offering ourselves to one as best we can. Only then will we create the conditions for our young people to exercise courage in doing the same.

So, do you even want to belong? I love Jesus’s question to those who sought healing. What do you want? It’s a question befitting for the ultimate agent of belonging. No agenda. No easy answers. No forced exchange.

As for me, I had my very own First Holy Communion ceremony on Mother’s Day. It was a day my own mother acted as an agent of belonging for me and invited me to take ownership for my participation in church. On that day she allowed me to witness not only my own strength, but also the strength of the church to endure me.

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*This post was adapted from my PechaKucha presentation at this year’s Faith Forward gathering for children and youth ministers.

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