But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others. –Henri Nouwen
Cresting the hill overlooking the community where our campus sits, I hear the chatter of my daughters in the seats behind me. My mind, however, is miles (or kilometers, shall we say) away. I had just run into a few friends, whom we have known for many years now, and chatted briefly.
As I herded my children into my car, I reflected on the experience. Though it was good to run into them (was it, though?), it was also painful – a reminder, again, that we are the outsiders. These friends have a seemingly vibrant, interdependent community – one for which my husband and I have longed. For a wide array of reasons, we have succeeded in knowing a lot of people from a variety of communities, but we have not leaned in to just one. We’re “on the fringe,” we like to say, of a lot of communities.
There are definite perks to this; but tonight, I am just lonely.
This past summer, we had a three and a half-month home assignment in the U.S. It was hectic, as they are. And I was keenly aware that my daughters seemed to have more friends in the U.S., where we have not lived for almost eight years, than they do in our ministry area, where they have essentially grown up.
I pondered this for some time. Was it true? Would they/we have these friends if we lived in the U.S.? There was of course the reality that we visited many different states and churches, nearly all the people we know stateside. In the end, I wondered, is it that friendships feel easier in their “home” culture, even though they haven’t grown up in the U.S.? Do they sense that we are “on the fringe” here too?
I have a feeling that you can relate. As cross-cultural workers, we can work alongside people all day, we can attend a vibrant church or co-op, we can be part of groups and workplaces, and still feel unknown. We can spend countless hours pursuing others, opening the doors of our home, building relationships, and have maybe one or two that takes off and goes deep – but otherwise feel like outsiders the rest of the time.
Seven years into international ministry, I am no longer surprised by this reality. It used to be a sharp reminder of our otherness; these days, it is more of a dull ache, a sense of loneliness. God has been gracious in the midst of this struggle for belonging. These are a few truths God has used to comfort me:
The longing to belong is a good, God-given one. This desire to know and be known is part of our human, image-bearing experience. This longing reflects our spiritual, emotional, and mental capacities for relationship and meaning. Any feelings of being ‘unknown’ are part of our experience in this broken world; alternatively, the joy of feeling “known” reflects the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s kingdom coming.
I am known, deeply. The truth is that each one of us is deeply known by God himself, more deeply than we know ourselves. While this may sound trite at times, I have found profound comfort in embracing the reality that the God of the universe knows me, on every level, through and through, and cares deeply for me. Nothing in my life is hidden from him; he knows the best and worst of me and loves me still. What a joy!
He knows what it is to be “on the fringe.” Christ himself came from the Father, to an earth which was not his home, in order to minister and serve and give the ultimate sacrifice for others. Though his “otherness” was different than ours, he is familiar with the struggle to belong. In his life, I find a model of living “on the fringe” which gives me a path forward in my overseas life.
I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where he shares a simple mission statement for his coming to earth: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).
Jesus is our ultimate example of coming to a place, fully knowing he would not belong, and giving of himself anyway. When I put aside my own feelings of “otherness” and seek to offer my life for others, I am imitating Christ. When I accept the reality that I will not fit as I would ideally love to and continue to serve anyway, I am imaging Jesus.
So I continue to lean in and pursue others, but less for what they can mean to me, and more for how I can faithfully serve both them and Christ. I am working toward setting aside my own needs for belonging and living joyfully anyway. This is only possible because of the confidence we have in Christ. He knows me, he knows the ache, and he served in love still. Jesus, help me to do the same.