"Beauty in Unexpected Places"
- a flowering desert cactus -
Every day I drive by at least one or two of the many “gated communities ” scattered throughout the desert region where we live. Many of these nearby neighborhoods are built on lavish golf courses, populated by mansion-like homes where the “elite” live, surrounded by high protective walls and a guard at a security gate. A few times I have tried to drive though one of those guarded estates but, as expected, I was turned away at the gate because I didn’t belong there.
AI drove by one of those elite communities yesterday, I had this sudden flashback to my childhood days. When I was about 10 years old we moved - the kids on my new street all knew each other pretty well; in fact they all belonged to a neighborhood club they had formed and I was almost immediately informed that I would not be welcome to participate in the club until I had lived there for a while so they could determine if I met their membership standards.
Those months of being on the “outside looking in” were perhaps some of the loneliest times of my life and they still hold a clear place in my memory.
Eventually I must have “passed the test” because I was invited to join the club, and oddly enough, I then became one of the most rigidly unaccepting members of my newfound fraternity. I was the first person to shun any new kids who moved on the street, barring their entrance to our club. If I had to meet all those standards for belonging, so should everyone else.
When I look back to those days I think that perhaps it was during those years when I was so rigidly opposed to welcoming those new kids that I learned how to grow a very big ego—a part of me that I have spent a lifetime trying to prune away.
As I drove by the “members only” estates yesterday reflecting on my own “members only” childhood experiences, I was also struck with the realization that “belonging” is probably at the very core of any sort of spiritual quest. In fact “belonging” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a fully alive human being – it’s “all about belonging.”
It seems to me that for every one of us, there is no greater pain in our human experience than to feel that somehow we don’t belong. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend our whole lives doing what we can in order to be accepted by others.
From a very early age children learn to “perform” according to parents' expectations. Kids in school act according to expected standards in order to be accepted and promoted. We learn how to perform for a boss to be the best employee, we perform for colleagues, neighbors, friends and acquaintances so that they might recognize our competence and applaud our excellence- the best hostess, the most beautiful house in the neighborhood.
And then, underlying all of this, many people also find themselves working at performing in order to be accepted by God – following the rules and obeying all the laws to get into God’s good graces, welcomed into God’s inner circle of belonging.
And this is exactly the place where “grace” enters the picture of the spiritual journey and the human experience. When you realize that no matter what you do or say or how well you perform you are always “accepted and you belong, ” it is then that you have experienced what grace is all about.
You don’t have to be a Christian to experience grace, you don’t even have to be a believer of any sort. Whenever any one of us comes to the realization that there are no elite, no inner circles and outer circles of people, that we all belong to the universe, we belong to a world of nature, we belong to one another, and that this is innate in our human condition, we experience “grace.”
I remember something Paul Tillich once wrote about the nature of “grace” in our human condition. He said that “grace” is an awareness of acceptance often “striking us” when we most feel most that we don’t belong:
Do you know what it means to be struck by grace?
It strikes us when year after year, that need for perfection of life does not appear,
Sometimes at that moment it is as if a light breaks into our darkness
and it is as if a voice were saying:
you are accepted, you are accepted.
Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.
As I drove past that gated community yesterday it was as if a light broke through and a voice was telling me: you are accepted simply accept the fact that you are accepted. The power of Abiding Love that flows throughout the universe was calling, “God” was talking, a wave of grace embracing me.
This is what it means to be fully human, this is what any spiritual journey is all about – it’s all about belonging, it’s all about grace.