on the true nature of what binds us together
My Dear One,
Thursday morning I witnessed something truly profound. I found myself in an auditorium of a government building in Bryan, Texas. The woman who cleans the building where I work had invited a few of us to be there. Her husband, after 10 years of working and waiting, was finally getting the day he’d hoped for. Among them all he stood, over 90 of them, coming from 27 different countries - Belarus - Cuba - Morocco - Nigeria - Pakistan - Russia - Serbia - Vietnam - Iran - Mexico - more … Together, they raised their right hand and gave us a tremendous gift, enriching us in ways we hadn’t been mere minutes before, as they became citizens of the United States of America.
It was the first time I’ve ever witnessed a naturalization ceremony, although it was not the most significant one to my own story. I was born in the American heartland. My dad grew up on a farm the son of a farmer, who was the son of a farmer, who was the son of a farmer, as far back as we can trace. The Nelsons immigrated to Virginia in the 1600s and fought in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. My American roots on that side run deep. To top it all off, the doctor who delivered me was the brother of a famous country music singer. So my American bonafides are pretty solid.
But my mom has a very different story. At the time I was born, she was a resident alien, having immigrated to the U.S. as a child. I was born in the American midwest but to a British citizen. And it wasn’t until years later, pregnant again with my little sister, that her desire to vote in an upcoming presidential election prompted her (and her mother at the same time) to seek U.S. citizenship. We still have family in the U.K. we try to keep in touch with. And I am grateful that it looks like I will be able to visit the U.K. twice in 2020, leading pilgrimages to Iona in Scotland. These places, Scotland and England, form and inform me every bit as much as Missouri and Virginia.
But the circumstance of my birth still seem peculiar to me. How is it that a child can be born to a mother but the two not belong to the things that are the same, a land, a people? Was there something that really separated me from my mother in that moment? Does anything have that kind of power? What defines who we are, where we are born or who we are born to?
In ancient times you belonged to your ethnic group. Even if you were born in a foreign land, you still belonged to your own people, wherever they came from. Though the same is still true, we have added layers of meaning to citizenship and membership that requires a re-thinking of our very concept of belonging. In today’s world, and especially in America, we say that if you are born here you belong here. Your parents can be from anywhere in the world. They can be here in documented or undocumented ways. But if you are born in this land, you belong to us, you are instantly one of us. This deeply informs our concept of what it means to be a nation, defined not by race, ethnicity, or longevity in this place, but rather by the land, by an ideal that posits our collective, concurrent presence in this place is all that is required to bind us to one another.
In reality, this has always been a challenge for us to fully live into. And over the last few years it has been tested in new and heartbreaking ways. And likely will be further.
Citizenship, however, is a religious concept as well as a civic one and perhaps there is something important to be learned through this lens. Take these two scripture passages for instance:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20
Another word for citizenship is commonwealth, that is a collection of people that, when taken together, constitute the common good. As Paul put it so well:
“So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Romans 12:5
The early Christian community chose to define itself in ways that were a radical departure from the past. No longer did we proclaim that the God of Israel was the god of only Israel. No longer did we require adherents to the faith to also be descendants of the tribes of Israel and Judah. No longer did we require circumcision as visible proof of membership. All that was required was a belief in Jesus as the Christ and the ritual of baptism. As Paul’s letter to the Galatians so poetically puts it:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
From the very beginning of the Christian faith, we re-conceived the concept of membership, of citizenship, in a way that the United States and other democratic countries have long sought to emulate, at least in principle if not practice. What binds us together goes deeper than place or people for what binds us together is nothing less that Christ himself.
“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another …” Colossians 3:11-13a
The bible writers, both Old Testament and New, Hebrew and Christian, wrote passionately about God’s call to treat all, especially the foreigner, as members of our own family. In modern times, we have been blessed with many great prophets who have continued to help us articulate the meaning of membership. In Wendell Berry’s Port William stories he wrestles with the question of what it means to belong in a society increasingly disconnected from the land and from one another. He writes:
“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”
But the sad truth is that most of the time, we don’t. We don’t know it. We don’t take time to re-member ourselves, to recall our mutual interdependence. We imagine ourselves as somehow separate entities, as individuals who merely interact in transactional, often financial ways with one another rather than as we truly are, belonging to each other.
Martin Luther King reminded us of the same in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail where he writes:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
And though we might think of our citizenship, our commonwealth, in earthly terms, today, on this “Christ the King” Sunday, it is fitting for us to consider the primacy of our spiritual citizenship among the saints. We are, first and foremost, citizens not of any earthly kingdom but rather of the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which all are united under the common throne of the Creator. What binds us together, even in a place like America, is not that we were born in this place or later took a common oath to protect and defend it “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” as the group said on Thursday, but rather in God’s kingdom we are sisters and brothers, citizens with the saints, of a kingdom that exists across place, across time, across race, across anything else that might seek to define us in ways against or apart.
In this kingdom I am bound to the third century desert wander who follows The Way of Christ. I am bound to the fifteenth century reformers who follow The Way of Christ. I am bound to the Latin American immigrant to this nation’s borders who follows The Way of Christ. I am bound to the Hong Kong protester who follows The Way of Christ. And ultimately, as God’s kingship of all God’s creation is made manifest, I find I am bound across boundaries of religion as well. For the Vietnamese Buddhist who seeks after the divine, the Indian Hindu who seeks after the divine, the Jordanian Muslim who seeks after the divine, the Russian Jew who seeks after the divine, are all made by the same Creator as me, a creator who loves them and claims them as God’s beloved children too. Whatever name we might choose to give God or whatever worldview might shape our concept of God, it is but a mere half of the equation, our half. God’s half outweighs ours, however, and in that half of the equation we are not known as American, Jordanian, Christian or Muslim but rather and simply … Child. And if I believe that God is the God of all and claims the right to kingship of all, then I must live out that truth regardless of whatever other way there may be to conceive of it.
This changes everything. For if our primary membership is in heaven and not just a particular piece of this earth, and if our primary citizenship and allegiance is to God and not any earthly ruler, president, king or queen, then whatever divides us in temporal and temporary ways is nothing compared to what unites us in ethereal and eternal ways. One nation may well turn to another and call it evil. One people may well turn to another and say “We have no need of you.” But this cannot be so in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom I do not have enemies, only sisters and brothers I am called to love, respect, and learn to understand in spite of our differences or the pain we may have caused one another.
Again, we can turn to the words of Paul as our guide, as he writes in Colossians:
“for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16-17
Whoever you are I cannot say I have no need of you, that you do not belong. Whoever you are, you cannot say anything of the sort to me. We are bound together in God in a way that cannot be broken despite all our brokenness. This is our collective oath of citizenship, spoken or unspoken. This is the reality of our common humanity held within the kingdom of God, acknowledged or not. We are powerless to change this reality, only to choose to be among those who know it or those who don’t.
May God’s reign come ever more into being, in and through us, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
following The Way,
Soul Practice: Prayerful Music Meditation
This week the band Coldplay released a new album, Everyday Life, and to mark the occasion they traveled to Jordan where on Friday they live-streamed two separate performances, the first half of their album titled Sunrise played at dawn and the second half titled Sunset played hours later at dusk. They played atop the Citadel in the capital city of Amman, Jordan, a site that has been inhabited by various peoples, religions and empires as far back as 1600 B.C. Throughout the performances, there is breathtaking videography of the current city as the day begins and later as it draws to an end. It was, I believe, a religious event as much as a musical one.
And it was a beautiful gift by an incredible group of artists, especially since they won’t be performing these songs much. Though known for and enriched by their massive world tours, Coldplay have decided to forego touring this album until they can figure out a way to tour that doesn’t damage the world through a concurrent massive carbon footprint.
I encourage you to set aside a sabbath hour and watch these two videos, doing so in a reflective and meditative way. If you listen carefully to songs such as “Church,” “Arabesque” and “Everyday Life,” you will hear them weaving together prayers for peace and unity with laments over violence and separation. You will hear their intention and hope these songs serve in some small way to draw us deeper into commonwealth, into our citizenship of the world, our belonging to one another. The interweaving of the sounds and voices of the West and the Middle East is both healing and heart-rending all at once, as all great art should be.
These performances moved me to tears, especially the ending of the Sunset performance as the final song ends with a series of Alleluias that give way to a brief silence making space for something I’d hoped all along they would include and did in truly moving fashion. I won’t give away the ending, though you may suspect it as I did. It was a moment that gave me hope for humanity and made me long in that moment to be in a place that I’ve never been but where, for an instant, I felt I belonged.