Not Belonging

John 17:6-19

Jesus speaks to us today of our ‘not belonging’ to this world.
My guess is that most any one of us who made it to the other side of middle school has some idea of what he is talking about here. At least I know I do. Indeed, I imagine that many of us know so very well what it is to ‘not belong’ that we may just find it easier to describe and perhaps are a whole lot more familiar with it than its opposite.
Oh my. Even having said that much, I’ve found myself reliving my 7th grade experience of not belonging. I don’t know if we called it ‘bullying’ yet, but that is surely what I experienced then.
This is how it was. I had spent my grade school years at Lincoln School right up the street from my childhood home in Rochelle.  Now every classroom has a social strata, of course, but I’d never had reason to think about it much as I was so privileged as to be able to take it for granted that I was at the top of it in every measurable way.  In the sixth grade, I was even among the tallest of my peers. (I quit growing soon after that.) At the age of twelve, however, my idyllic existence came to a crashing halt.
This is how I remember it. On my first day in Junior High, I discovered I had been put in a homeroom classroom where I knew only one other person — a girl named Lori who was in my Sunday School class. Everyone else was a stranger, and it turned out the vast majority of them were from Central School and so they brought a shared history with them. During the first week of class, homerooms elected representatives to student council. Lori nominated me. The other girl nominated was a girl named Tammy. She was from Central School so the other kids knew her. Even so, surprisingly, when the votes were tallied, I came just a few votes shy of beating her. Those votes could not have been for me. Rather they must have been ‘against her.’ It quickly became evident that inadvertently, I had threatened her ‘sense of belonging.’ For from then on I had a target on my back. 
For you see, Tammy and her best friend made it their hobby for the rest of the school year to put me in my place. Day after day they would slam me into my locker, call me terrible names, and threaten to beat me up on my way home from school. Typical for a middle school student, I didn’t ‘tell.’ I just endured. I put my head down, avoided them when I could, and when I couldn’t, I simply tried not to react. At the same time, having been so targeted by Tammy and her friend, no one else in my homeroom would have anything to do with me. To do so would have been to invite her cruelty to rain down on them. 
Is there anything worse than being twelve and thirteen and to ‘not belong’ by having no friends? It passed, of course. High school mixed it all up again and I was able to find my place once more. Even so. I learned something about ‘not belonging’ early on.
Jesus speaks to us today of the truth that while we are sent into the world, we do not belong to the world. And it is so, of course. While there is a great deal to love and celebrate in this life now, it can be a dangerous place, perhaps especially for those who do not belong — and yes, dangerous in ways we do desperately need protection from. For some of us, those dangers will not be as obvious or as external as mine were when I was twelve. They won’t necessarily take the form of others who want nothing more than to make our lives miserable. At the same time, we recognize that this is still the case for far too many.  Even so, for many of us, our biggest threats may live inside our hearts and minds. In fact, perhaps the largest danger I face is the yearning inside of me ‘to belong.’ And my willingness to do whatever it takes ‘to belong’ somewhere in this life now.
For the fact of the matter is, those who follow Jesus do not belong. In a world where material wealth is of highest value, where the ‘strong’ still prevail, and where people are too often treated as objects to be used and not ‘images of God’ to be respected and honored, we do not belong. In a time and place when we still too often measure by race and class, no, you and I do not belong. And no, in a world, where children still too often find themselves unsafe in places where safety should be guaranteed, we do not belong.
It is so that I have not since felt the sting of ‘not belonging’ like I did when I was twelve. I do not know what would have become of me if I did not have other places where my sense of ‘belonging’ was more sure. At home most of all, but also at church, and among precious extended family and friends who watched over me. Those places of belonging helped me to endure the other. And while those places of ‘belonging’ were also less than perfect, perhaps we do well to seek them out as best we can so that as we are sent into the world, we can live more fully as those who ‘do not belong’ to the world. Indeed, at their best those places of belonging serve as a reflection of the certain truth that we do belong to God.
So yes, as for now, with Jesus’ words today, you and I are called to embrace our ‘not belonging.’ It is what sets us apart for something more. It can be, for instance, that very discomfort of ‘not belonging’ which gives rise to voices which speak for those who are not honored or who are simply unsafe in this world now. No, I would not go back to the 7th grade for anything in the world. At the same time, I cannot think of a better way to learn what it is to ‘not belong’ in a way that much of the world continues to know first hand. And I wouldn’t give that back for anything either.
  • When Jesus says we do not belong to the world, what do you think he is getting at? Specifically, what does it mean to ‘not belong’ as a follower of Jesus?
  • What experience do you have of ‘not belonging’ What has that taught you about belonging or not? How does it inform your voice?
  • How does one fully live in and love this world and those who inhabit it even while we do not belong to it? Is it possible that not belonging makes us better at loving?  Why or why not?

3 comments

  1. LOVE your words. Who can't relate to 'not belonging' sometime in their life? And middle school is usually top of the list! I think this idea pairs well with Psalm 1, being replanted by streams of water (Common English Translation). Can we be replanted by God into a place where we belong?

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