In one of his latest posts, Bishop Charleston says: “In God’s house, there are no orphans.” He goes on, and then says again, “No orphans!” In writing to the Philippians, Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” Why is this so important? What is it about citizenship, a national type of “parent” and parents, that raises such emotion?
For Paul, citizenship was a huge issue. He was a Roman citizen, which carried a lot of privileges. The only time we hear about these privileges is when he claims Roman citizenship, and as a result, the local Jewish judge says: “oh no! I am not going to have anything to do with judging a Roman citizen,” and he sends Paul off to Rome, where eventually, Paul is executed. Knowing Paul, even if he had known that this was going to be the result, he would have gone, because it allowed him to evangelize even further. His incredible piece of theology which we know as the Epistle or Letter to the Romans, that is, the Roman church, was written in prison. That letter is critical in the history of the church, because it is the basis for St Augustine’s theology, which influenced hundreds of years of Catholic theology, and also Luther and Barth, major theologians for the Protestant churches.
But what about being an orphan? What is so important about not having clear “citizenship!” I have friends here who do not have US citizenship, but they know they are loved by God and their church community. They know how important it is to be a citizen, but until that happens, they know that they are citizens of heaven.
It is bad enough in our society to have lost parents, but in societies where one’s entire well-being depended on being connected, this issue of being an orphan was huge. We can relate to this. There are levels of belonging, aren’t there, and some of them are more important than others. One can feel a sense of belonging at home, at school, in clubs, even at church! I say the last with a smile, but there are so many people in our society who do not feel a sense of belonging, so that offering them a place to belong is not a trivial gift at all. It can be life-saving, literally.
Once upon a time, we were much clearer about who we were and where we belonged. The downside of that was when one didn’t fit, or when one was on the lower end of society. I recently got an email that was reminiscing about the “good old days” that showed a cute little old fashioned gas station, and people sitting in rockers on their front porches, and went on about when we used to be able to drink water right from the hose, when we could ride in the back of a pickup truck, and it went on and on, and the pictures were ones from the early 50’s. Now the man who forwarded this little number to me was a black man, and a good friend, and so I wrote him back, and said, as much as I liked some of the things we lost from back then, I surely didn’t like that he would not have been allowed to use the bathroom in that cute little gas station, would not have been allowed to drink from the same water fountain as I did, and I would not have been allowed to do many of the things that did open up for me as a woman. Did he really want to go back to those “good old days”? Remember those good old days, when children died of diptheria and got polio? Reminiscing is a tricky business.
However, I also believe that it is possible to save the baby when throwing out the dirty bathwater – but we have to be very conscious. I was just talking to a long-time member of SKK who lives in another town now, and he was explaining that their church, also very small and with an elderly congregation, had tried one thing and another to attract young people, and had finally decided that their mission was to be the best at ministering to the seniors they had.
I have been reading the history of SKK, and while it is amazing to think about this church having had 150 members and a big youth group, I also noticed that one of the reasons that the youth group was so big was that the Episcopalians were the only church that allowed dances, and of course, the young people thought that was just great!
Digging beneath that, this church provided a place for “orphans.” That is, it provided an extended family to those who had left family behind, or perhaps had come because there simply was no family left. In an inhospitable environment, which the general society surely was at that time on the west coast, this church and other religious institutions in Japantown gave people a sense of belonging, a home. If we think about it, that is still important.
Of course, we come here to worship God. However, as many people have told me, and they are correct, they can worship God just fine without coming to church. I agree with them, which is rather astonishing to most of them, but I also say that what they do not get when they go worship God in nature, for instance, is the community. We need community.
There were horrible experiments done which would not be allowed today which have proved conclusively that physical nourishment will not keep a baby alive. If a baby does not get held, does not have a sense that there is a larger presence that will take care of it somehow, the baby will die, no matter how good the food is. For a baby, the parent is God. When we grow up, we still need to know that there is that larger presence that cares about us, that is there for us, and that is represented by the community.
I was just reading an important article on addiction by an interesting doctor who claims that addictive behavior comes from our sense of loss, and the earlier and more devastating the loss, the higher the potential for acting out addictive behaviors. He claims we all have addictive behaviors. Most of us manage to control them within societal bounds, but as far as he is concerned, it is all on a continuum. I tend to agree.
We may not do crack or heroin, but we may engage in “retail therapy,” we may eat too much, or even just drink a little more than normal when something has hit us. We see that as “normal” behavior, and indeed it is. When we get hit, we need to soothe. It is recognizing what is going on that is the issue, realizing that one’s behavior is in fact self-soothing, which then can be chosen or not.
During WWII in Europe, this doctor’s Jewish mother gave him away to a Christian stranger at the age of 1, which is what saved his life – and set him up for a never-ending sense of loss. He deeply understands his clients’ sense of loss and need, the instinctive urge to self-soothe. And don’t we all reach for something when we are feeling loss and upset? The question is what we reach for, and what is out there to reach for.
I think the church can be one thing we reach for, and of course, by “the church,” I mean the people. This is why I consider the coffee hour to be as important as the eucharist. We need the eucharist to remind us that it is not just us alone, that God is our parent, and in God’s house there are no orphans. And then we look around, and God says, “here are your brothers and sisters, oh, and those folks out there? They are your cousins, you should invite them to the feast too.”