So for the past sixteen months or so, I’ve been serving as the interim worship director for a church plant just west of Portland, called Kaleo Covenant Church. How I ended up there is sort of a long story for another time, but it will suffice to say that it’s more than just a gig for me. The pastor there is Troy Hoppenrath, a man whom I enjoy serving alongside immensely, in no small measure because of his crazy stories, the manic energy that only a former youth pastor can bring to the pulpit, and what I perceive as a fearless willingness to take ministry risks (case in point: me).
At Kaleo, we’re going through a preaching series in Ephesians known as “High Points,” and so at the outset, I did my best to find songs that represented some of the major themes found throughout. As I was reading through the various texts, I was struck by how much unity and belonging are resonant themes, and so I began trying to think of songs with those key themes. And then, I had one of those moments.
And as I’ve matured in my musical ability, I’ve began to recognize moments when I’m sensing an inability to find a particular song with the lyrics and the vibe that I want. Several times, those moments were the prelude to an invitation from the Holy Spirit to capture what I was thinking and feeling — and before long, I had written the song I was looking for.
This time, I’d written a tune called “We Belong.” It speaks about coming together in Christ, and it affirms a basic truth that often gets lost in the machinations of regular church life — that as Christians, all of us belong to God, and each other. That’s the basic nut of the song. Once I had that, I proceeded to delve into the arrangement, fine tuning the beat, auditioning the instruments, tinkering with the arpeggios, all the things that I love doing for Motif Worship.
After I’d basically written most of it, I started second-guessing myself. Is that it? Shouldn’t there be a deeper philosophical or theological meaning in this song? After awhile, I did what I usually do when I find myself a little troubled with a song I’m working on — I set it aside, planning to pick it up later.
Weeks passed, and I’d decided it was worth sharing, so I made plans to include it in a worship set, all the while feeling more insecure than usual. I’m not the most accomplished musician in my area, but I’ve written several songs and done them in church before, especially during my time at Kaleo, so I wasn’t sure why I felt so hesitant about this one. I really liked the groove and the melody, but after I’d sat with it awhile, I realized that I was half ashamed of what I’d written because, on the face of it, it seemed kind of… hokey. Corny, even. I wondered if I was dressing it up with a funky reggaeton rhythm just to disguise its resemblance to that hideous Barney song. I was afraid that without hearing the whole thing, some conservative church members might think of it as another “Free To Be You and Me.”
* * *
Earlier this month, I’d had my workday sidetracked by the mother of all tangents — a political issue that was important to me. And against my better judgement, I’d left comments on a national news story about the controversy in my neighborhood. And because I don’t normally do that, I had forgotten just now rude and nasty people can be over the internet. Given that there was a racial angle to the story, most of the comments were laced with a toxic combination of cultural and institutional ignorance — and a few of them were of the outright vitriolic racist variety, with one person actually telling me to move to Africa.
I’ve long made peace with the fact that sometimes racists lose their minds when Black people speak with such candor, but it had been a long time since any of those kinds of barbed words had been actually aimed at me. They were at first amusing, then irritating, then, after awhile, truly saddening. None of them hurt particularly badly, yet the sheer volume of ridiculous, ignorant comments began to wear me down. Initially I had taken the time to forcefully and articulately respond to each one, but eventually I felt myself slowly giving up — not just because I had other, more important things to do, but because the whole exercise seemed pointless. They weren’t going to understand, and they weren’t going to stop. I began to wonder — is this what it feels like to be bullied?
* * *
I’m convinced that one of the great lies of this age, perpetrated by the father of lies himself, is at the core of what I felt when I read each one of those hurtful internet comments. The underlying message that I got, whether it was intentional or not, was simple: you don’t belong here.
The enemy of our souls can easily tempt us with all manner of destructive messages and behaviors if he first convinces us that nobody cares, that nobody wants us, that we do not belong. As a Christian, I try to maintain an awareness that my true home is heaven, and that no place on earth can fully satisfy the longing that I have to be fully, completely and eternally known and loved. But that can so easily turn into a toxic, introspective message — this life sucks, and I don’t belong in it.
The irony of this message is that it’s so universal — just about everyone in every group receives this message on some level. Ethnic minorities who endure stereotypes and microaggressions, athletes and college students who endure hazing, everyday people who feel body-shamed through advertising imagery, public servants in industries that are popularly misunderstood — all of us, sometime, somewhere end up feeling like we don’t belong.
And for Christians, the feeling is even more acutely painful when you feel as though you’re being cast out by the one group of people who ought to be more loving and accepting.
I’m convinced this is why Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus were so revolutionary:
So never forget how you used to be. Those of you born as outsiders to Israel were outcasts, branded “the uncircumcised” by those who bore the sign of the covenant in their flesh, a sign made with human hands. You had absolutely no connection to the Anointed; you were strangers, separated from God’s people. You were aliens to the covenant they had with God; you were hopelessly stranded without God in a fractured world. But now, because of Jesus the Anointed and His sacrifice, all of that has changed. God gathered you who were so far away and brought you near to Him by the royal blood of the Anointed, our Liberating King.
He is the embodiment of our peace, sent once and for all to take down the great barrier of hatred and hostility that has divided us so that we can be one. He offered His body on the sacrificial altar to bring an end to the law’s ordinances and dictations that separated Jews from the outside nations. His desire was to create in His body one new humanity from the two opposing groups, thus creating peace. Effectively the cross becomes God’s means to kill off the hostility once and for all so that He is able to reconcile them both to God in this one new body.
Essentially what Paul is saying here is that, because of Jesus, we get to belong.
All of us.
This is like that moment in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams has to tell Matt Damon that it’s not his fault, over and over. If you’re a Christian, and like me, you have a hard time holding onto that basic principle, then repeat it to yourself a few times until it begins to sink in — we belong, we belong, we belong.
But if that’s not working out for you, then groove out to this tune — it’s repetitive, and it basically says the same thing.
I know the cynical among us are more than willing to point out the racism in the church and say, “but we don’t all come together in Christ!” Making the rounds today is a link to a particularly racist-sounding southern pastor that I will neither link to nor describe. And to the people who see this, I say … well, yeah., of course. Racism exists in the church.
But I’m tired of just highlighting the bad examples and the things I stand against. I want to spend more time highlighting and promoting what I stand FOR.
So if this fight for inclusion and diversity means anything to you, then share positive examples of it. If you’re being intentional about it in your church, talk about it. Share my song, if you want (honestly, I could certainly use the spins). These are the opportunities we have to test Malcolm X’s clean glass theory — I don’t have to tell you that one is dirty, all I have to do is hold up this clean one, and you can see for yourself.