I was listening to Radio 4 this morning, and to programme about compass points and directions, how we see the world, and particularly today what it means to be Northern, along with the discussions about culture, wealth , economic and political issues, there was also a discussion about identity. Jerry Brotton explores what it is to be a Northerner, and considers his pride in that. He speaks to author Irna Qureshi about her identity as a fellow northerner, as a Muslim she explores her own identity, and what it means to live out Eastern values in a Western world, she speaks of Bradford as home, and how the feeling of seeing the signs on the M1 and the A1 that simply show the North makes her feel. Belonging is so important.
My devotions today were taken from Acts 4: 32-37, in many senses it too is about identity and belonging:
The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.
And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.
Joseph, called by the apostles “Barnabas” (which means “Son of Comfort”), a Levite born in Cyprus, sold a field that he owned, brought the money, and made an offering of it to the apostles.
The believers were together as one, caring for one another and looking after one another, I must admit it got me wondering, was it really that good? Later on Acts begins to show us all sorts of fallings out and schisms among the believers, so maybe not, or maybe it didn’t last long, or maybe they were just human beings trying to live out what it meant to be followers of Jesus, a bit like I am, able to be extremely kind and extremely selfish in almost the same moment!
I began to ponder what it is to belong, and how important roots are to us, and where we find them, my stick answer to people when they ask me where I am from is usually “how long have you got?”, and with good reason, I have lived in many places, from being born in Singapore and brought up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to living on the fens outside Peterborough, to Nottinghamshire, Essex ( several moves there), Houston, Texas, back to Essex, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Blackpool and now Sheffield, but I am moving this summer. My parents were both born in and around Peterborough, and while I still have some family there others have moved away, and I certainly wouldn’t see it as home, nor claim to have roots there, but then again I don’t feel that I have roots anywhere, ex-pat society is not particularly rooted, though as a child of course I thought it was normal. My teenage years can best be described as grim, I didn’t fit in, or at least felt like I didn’t fit in. It was this desire to fit in that sent me in search of God, of the spiritual, and the mystical.
I didn’t really find God in church as a teenager, but I did find a place of welcome as I struggled with my own sometimes very dubious attempts to fit. This continued into young adulthood, but was quite often about social conformity and being nice, or at least seeming to be good, all of which led to numerous attempts to conform that were spectacular failures, at least they seemed that way to me. I did learn to pray when my middle son was born with a heart condition, and there began the embryo of a personal faith, which struggles along to this day.
Life brought many ups and downs, and all the time I was struggling to fit in, a few years in Texas (Bible Belt land) brought more confusion than anything, the place of women in the church was hotly debated, the general consensus ( 1990’s) was that women were there to serve and be subservient, needless to say that did not sit well with me. Subsequent moves and decisions to begin working for the church in a salaried capacity brought more challenges, as did the divorce that only showed up some of the real inconsistencies of life but also freed me to be real about my sexuality for the first time at the age of 57! Needless to say, this revelation brought its own sting in the tail along with it.
So, here I am at the age of 60, a queer Christian, a divorcee, a mum of 5, and grandmother of 4, a Methodist Minister. I love reading and walking, swimming, photography and painting. I find writing therapeutic, and sometimes discover what I think as I write. I also find myself rooted in God’s overarching story, the one that holds the end from the beginning and declares that although life may be tough all will be well. Like the early believers I try to follow the way of Jesus, try to give my worries and concerns over to the divine hands, and try to find a way through church to live in harmony not only with other Christians but with the whole of creation. I am passionate about social justice, and equality, I pray for peace and long for the not quite yet, that will bring an end to all of the sickness, mourning and pain of this world. I am inconsistent about the ways I live into this, but long to do better, to live better and to love better.
My greatest challenge has always been loving myself, the awkward child who was too tall and too big for her ballet class is still here, wanting to stand out and blend in at the same time, the terrified teenager who didn’t want to ask for a hoover part in a shop for a friend, fearing looking stupid, is still here, the adult who turns down invitations because of social anxiety is still here. Most people don’t see or experience any of them because I can and have spoken confidently in front of 100’s of people, my writing and painting is well received and I am often thought to be an extrovert- I am a deep introvert. If you meet me on a walk I will smile and chat, often beginning the conversation, if you are homeless I will stop and talk and ask you your name, and how I can help. This mixed up muddle is me, I fit in and don’t fit in, and I need to remind myself as I so often remind others that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, that I am known and loved and that there is a place for me in the divine plan, I am part of the story, and the story lives in me.
Yesterday watching Countdown ( I love a quiz), one of the contestants told the audience that she had been an extra in an episode of Morse, she played a cleaner, walking back and forth across the room, her presence helped to set the scene and create the story, without it the scene would have been flatter, her seemingly inconsequential part added colour and flavour, so none of us are bit players and we all fit in. Some days we just need to be reminded of this!