Love is one of those words that has become devalued over time. Today we tend to use it mainly to describe the feelings between a man and a woman. We are almost embarrassed to talk about love between friends, especially when they are of the same gender. Yet some of the most powerful love I have ever come across has been between those on the front line in war; soldier, for example and colleague soldier, who would literally give up their life for their friend; who when they are fighting are doing so more for the person to the right and left of them then for any family member back at home. Shared experience brings people together and the more powerful the experience the more strongly the ties are often felt.
Long before I was ever old enough to be attracted to a boy, I knew what it was to experience love. I was loved by my parents and siblings and I loved them back. I didn’t think about it. It was just there. I knew I cared about my friends in a way that I didn’t care about the other children. I loved the community I lived in, thinking it was special because it was special to me. I loved people and places because they gave me a sense of belonging.
Love is about belonging. When two people fall in love they experience a sense of belonging to each other, of being at home with each other, in, what I describe, as their “right” skin. They also belong to themselves, are at home with themselves in a way that they may not have experienced before. If their love leads to a permanent relationship they set up a home together where they can root and grow their sense of belonging. But this belonging is not simply about two people falling in love. It is the family; growing up I belonged to my family and they belonged to me. My family gave me a sense of trust and security but also I realised as I grew older an obligation to care to them. It was at this point that I realised that love is as much about will if you are a Christian, as it is about feeling. This is why Jesus could commanded us to love one another.
Belonging means attachment to the wider community, my friends, my workplace and those I work with, my home town, my culture, my football team. But seen like this it can lead the wrong way, into exclusivity. You don’t belong to me if you don’t support my football team or if you weren’t born in this country. This exclusive belonging is not love.
We know love to be most truly love when it is inclusive, not exclusive. When I think that love is about what I receive, what belongs to me as of right, I am in danger of becoming exclusive. When I feel that belonging to this group is what sets me apart from others; when I know myself as over and against others because I belong to a certain crowd, this is not love. There is so much of this wrong-headed sort of belonging amongst us – even in basically decent people, and it is the opposite of love.
When I realise that I belong to the other, just as much as they belong to me, and when I begin to consider the wider and wider circles to which I belong I find that there is no end to them. All of nature belongs to me. Every time I take a walk and enjoy the autumn trees, birdsong, the breeze in my face and the sheer enjoyment of walking, all I see belongs to me. At the same time it belongs wonderfully to everyone else. But I also belong to nature in my responsibility to it and in my love of it.
Right at the centre of all this belonging is that I belong to God and he belongs to me. I can say, “My God,” and not feel embarrassed about it because I am not claiming exclusive rights to his love and attention. Rather, I am taking up the place in his worldwide family he has given me and realising that I belong to him and to others. He has made a place for me to abide in and he invites me to dwell there with him and all that he has made and loves. It is where I most truly belong.