The longing to belong has been my ever present companion the past 6 years since I got married and left the Dominican Republic, my home country, for good.
For 28 years I had taken for granted what it was like to belong. Being together with our church people was a way of life in the DR. We vacationed with other families from church almost every time we went on holiday. Birthdays, graduations, holidays, Friday nights, Wednesday night ice cream after prayer meeting, pizza after church on Sunday nights, long weekends at the beach – always, always, always meant being with multiple friends from church. My family (from a strong Arabic background) was not the only one that lived that way but many families around me. Grieving, just as joy, was a community affair. So any given month there were many reasons to gather with family and friends. Together was just the way to be. A lot of my grounding and identity came from being well known and deeply loved.
On my wedding day -in a two hour long greeting line- I tearfully hugged my family and church goodbye. I moved to a new city in the United States. I was eager to discover who would be “our people.” We loved hospitality and opened our home consistently to our church family. But the first 3 years I couldn’t quite tell who wanted us to be their people (mostly because I misread cultural cues.) I yearned to do life together – not just to invite others into our life but to have others invite us into their life – especially the way I had been used to in the DR.
I compared our family with other families who seemed to have what I longed for. At times I was jealous and dissatisfied. I had friends. We had our small group from church. But something was missing from my life that had been a big part of my life. I looked for home in people and developed sinful habits of seeking refuge and safety in what they thought of me.
Over time, the Lord kindly used my new church– especially our women – to give more of that sense of belonging. Towards the end of my 5 years there I was very grateful for all the relationships the Lord had grown over the years and was so sad to leave them. Just as I felt like I was starting to understand my American friends more fully and their way of doing life, we gave up life with them to move to the other side of the world.
I didn’t realize, though, that I was still grieving that belonging didn’t feel exactly like it had in the DR. So with unresolved grief and with patterns of seeking refuge & safety in people as a way of coping with that loss – we moved to a very international city in the Middle East.
Our time in that new city was relatively short due (10 months) to my husband’s work. I jumped into trying to do life with God’s people there, because I knew it would be for a very limited time. I think I expected to belong in an expat community – where everyone far from home is aware of how hard it is and would embrace us into doing life together. But metropolitan life, ministry, distance, extreme busyness, no car, children who get sick – all made doing life in community very challenging, not just for me but for every woman. We tried to join a small group at different times and were not able. I asked questions, served others often, invited people into our home. Most of the friends I pursued the first 6-7 months were very helpful and kind but were not able to give themselves in consistent relationship as they focused in loving unbelieving friends around them, cared for the many needs in our church and they themselves adjusted to living far from home. I am thankful for the way they blessed our family and how Jesus provided through them. But my longing to belong was not met in those relationships the way I hoped. This exposed my heart to me as much sin was revealed during those months.
Thankfully, in God’s mercy and grace in spite of my sin, the last few months there, I definitely tasted the sweetness of community life in multiple ways. God provided friends through discipleship relationships and God’s people served us lovingly. I am very thankful especially for the way God bound our hearts together with two families and our last two months there we had very sweet times of fellowship.
We were beginning to feel a little bit at home when we had to pack up our apartment and say goodbye – again. As I thought of moving to another city in that same country and start all over again, my heart shrank and many tears flowed. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But the Lord used losing that sense of earthly belonging a third (or fourth time?) to show me something about Him that I desperately needed to understand.
“You Are My People”
One day, late in May, reading Isaiah 51: 12-16, the Lord broke into my soul. His Word – alive and piercing – brought clarity to my heart:
“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass,
and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name,
establishing the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”
When I read the phrase, “You are my people” I burst out crying. I had been longing for 6 years to hear other people say clearly (in a way that made sense to me in my culture and personality): “You guys are our people.” But that day I heard God himself telling me that. I’d feared man and ran for refuge in others – I’d forgotten my Maker and Redeemer. Yet, the eternal God, the one who comforts me and gave Himself for me, was saying, “Aylin, you are mine!”
God’s Spirit through Isaiah opened my heart to understand the longing to belong is good and right. God gave it so we long for Him! Yet I had been ruled by the functional beliefs that:
· the longing to belong would ultimately be met by people.
· I am entitled to have this longing met completely in this earthly life.
The Lord reminded me of the precious promise woven through all of Scripture: “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” From the beginning, home was always meant to be where God was. Sin entered in and ruined that. We could no longer be at home with God because of our sin. But our homemaking God had a plan. Jesus Christ left His home so he could come and make his home with us. Through His death and resurrection he opened the way to bring us home to God.
When the Lord says, “I will make my dwelling among you” He is giving us the gift of doing life with us. In Christ I have been welcomed into the life of the Trinity – and I now have the same relationship with the Father that the Son has. Through the indwelling of His Spirit, Christ does life with us and through us. In Christ my longing to belong was met!
A Gift (Not A Right)
When God made us His, He also welcomed us into His family. But sometimes we don’t experience that sense of belonging among them as we would like. Experiencing belonging is a gift, not a right. Yet ever since I left the DR I had been functionally living as if it was a right. And when I didn’t experience it – either because of my own cultural definitions or due to the Fall (my own or the brokenness of others around me) – I would at times experience jealousy, anger, fear or deep sadness. He has led me to repentance from idolatry and unbelief by comforting me with the promise of who He is: He is my home.
Onward and Upward
As I move to a new city, He has emboldened my heart by making me realize I have been looking for home, but Home has found me and will never let me go! At the same time, there is also a very real sense in which I will be homesick all my life until I reach my lasting Home. God’s promise in Revelations 21: 3,
“Behold, the home of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God”
has not yet been fully realized. There is deep suffering and grief that comes from not being Home with our Father. Jesus Himself tasted both while he lived on this earth. I am learning to recognize the grief and restlessness of my heart as signs of homesickness for God Himself. I am also learning to actually grieve instead of stuffing my emotions down.
Thankfully, the grief of the heart far from its Home is filled with hope. The Spirit in us guarantees we will receive the city we have been seeking and longing for (Hebrews 11: 14). We can embrace our “exile” status with joy, become friends with grief, and like Jesus, set our face to fulfill our purpose on this earth to worship God and make disciples. We no longer set our face to satisfy a longing that can’t ever be completely and ultimately satisfied on this earth.
There is a day coming when God Himself will comfort each one of us as a nursing mother comforts her child (Isaiah 66: 11). What a tender, intimate picture! We will be deeply satisfied with the glorious sense of belonging found in God alone as soon as we see Jesus face to face. Then, we will be finally Home.