Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
As kids growing up in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, my friend and I were shaped and formed by a goodly variety of people and activities, not least among them was the churches our families attended.
There were two choices in our town: Christ Episcopal Church or the ‘Congo’, the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. Our Catholic friends went to Sacred Heart, down the road in neighboring Bloomfield.
In those days, we spoke of our relationship to those churches in a peculiar way. We belonged to them. I can’t recall using that particular word to describe any other relationship with any other institution. I certainly didn’t ‘belong’ to our schools.
We played baseball or basketball. We ran track. We sang in the choir and performed in the marching band. But we didn’t belong to any of them.
To say that we belong to something, to a community or a church, suggests that it holds some claim on us.
I believe that’s true. For our family, our church, the ‘Congo’ had a claim on us; and our time and resources that other parts of our life simply did not. We went to church every Sunday, as did almost everyone else who belonged to our church. My father was a Trustee and my mother was the Director of Christian Education. The church was central to our lives.
The idea of belonging to something, of giving our lives over to something larger than ourselves was oddly reassuring in those days. In many ways, the Glen Ridge Congregational Church was the center of gravity in our small town. It was a beautiful granite pile right in the middle of town; and walking in on Sunday mornings, its dark wood paneling and stained glass exuded a sense of warmth and welcome.
We belonged to that church; but because of who we are as Congregationalists, the church belonged to us as well. It was the community, the people, and the God we worshipped and served there who held a claim on us.
But it always worked the other way as well.
When I was in middle school, my father was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, which in those days was a pretty fearsome illness. My father survived; but what I remember most about that time was the presence of that church, of all the ways in which her members sheltered and supported us.
For centuries, Congregational churches have been formed and sustained around the idea of covenant. We belong to the church, but the church also belongs to us, to support and sustain us, to be the people who exult in joy, hope and faith and who sustain one another in grief and loss.
It is the community of people who lay claim to a part of our lives, who invite our in-vestment of time, energy, faith and love. It is the place that reminds us that we are valued for who we are, welcome for who we are, and blessed for who we are.
The First Congregational Church of Madison has been that community for so many of us over the years. We have had our children baptized in the company of friends and family gathered in worship. We have watched our children grow into adulthood and be married within its walls. We have said farewell to dear friends and shared the grief of their passing.
We have built a community that has provided shelter during periods of loss and offered a place of peace and rest during times of anxiety and confusion. We have sought the presence of God together, and together we have sought to shape a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. We have given our time, our energy and our faith to frame a moral sensitivity for our children, that allows them to make wise and independent choices in an often challenging world.
To sustain this church – our church – as this place of community and fellowship re-quires investment. We have been fortunate for all the ways in which our members and friends have blessed our church over the years. We are grateful for the generous gift of time, talent, knowledge and, of course, the gift of financial resources that are required for us to sustain our common life.
This year, our Stewardship season opens with a new sense of promise – a sense that the time is ripe for those of us who belong together here at First Congregational Church to imagine how God invites us to envision together how our future might look. So I en-courage you to join me in reflecting deeply on what it means to belong here; and how our own gifts given with faithfulness and trust might continue to build a community of love and welcome, witness and service.
My thanks for your gracious and generous support of our church.
Yours in Christ,