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July 2013

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Culture of Believing

By Heather Simkins

Two years ago I read an article by Patrick Fagan who is a research fellow in family and cultural issues. In his article he discusses how America has evolved from being a culture of belonging to a culture of rejection–and names the breakdown in marriage over the past 50 years as one of the main causes of this cultural switch. The statistics he cited were alarming: for every 100 children born in 1950, 12 became part of a broken family. By 2000, there was a fivefold increase: for every 100 children born, 60 became part a broken family. Mr. Fagan then went on to suggest that we need to set about restoring the conditions that will again grow a culture of belonging. (Changing a "Culture of Rejection", Patrick F. Fagan)

Beyond the culture of rejection within marriages, we can see rejection taking place in homes and in society in many other forms: abortion, neglect, abuse, promiscuity, isolation, exploitation, self-righteousness, indifference. In each of these situations there is a rejection of a person, or more grievously, there is a rejection of a soul. It seems to me that at the root of this rejection is fear, and ironically, it is usually a fear of rejection. Thus, one of our greatest fears has become one of our greatest motivators

When Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity began their work in the United States in 1971, they noticed the results of this rejection. The streets of America were not filled with the same material poverty that permeated the streets of Calcutta. Rather, it was the spiritual poverty in America that touched them the most. Broken souls were more prevalent than diseased and broken bodies. In one of the houses in New York City where the Sisters visited, a woman living alone was dead many days before she was found. The people around her did not know her name. After that incident, Mother Teresa said, “We know now that being unwanted is the greatest disease of all.” (Mother Teresa, 87)

Over thirty-five years later, I think society would indicate that the disease of being unwanted is still one of the greatest illnesses of our time. Lives are senselessly taken because life is not valued, communities are disconnected because families are disconnected, and individuals are lonely in a world full of people. The battle for the life of men’s souls is raging between loneliness and rejection or healing and belonging–and the question is not which side of the battle should win, but rather, how do we assist in the battle? Christ, who was himself, “despised and rejected of men” taught that we should be one. Our culture must now reflect it. As the author of the article I mentioned suggested, we need to set about restoring the conditions that will again grow a culture of belonging.

So how does that happen? The answer is quite simple. It happens in the hearts and homes and congregations and communities of people who invite others to belong. It happens when one soul realizes that life really is all about others and then loses his life for that sake. The invitation to belong requires that we love each person as a child of God because every soul belongs to His family, regardless of where that soul has been.

This culture of belonging is not difficult to accept in theory - the difficulty always comes in the doing. To love our neighbors as ourselves sounds simple enough, yet there is often hesitation. Perhaps part of the hesitation lies with a misunderstanding of whose responsibility it is to care for the unwanted. The age of Modernism has taught us that we should rely on “expert” groups or at least wait for a formal invitation from one of them in order to begin to reach out. However giving does not require bureaucracy. The responsibility to reach out is ours.   

There must however be something to motivate us at the heart, beyond just an increasing tally of guilty “should haves” (I should have stopped and talked to my neighbor, I should have shown more kindness, I should have...). I believe that at the root of our hesitation is fear—so what is it that needs to be at the root of belonging? I suggest that the answer is found in one word: Belief. In order to restore a culture of belonging, we must first restore a culture of believing. 

The root of the word belief means to love as if you were that thing. Within this definition, belief and belonging cannot be separated. We belong to whatever or whomever we choose to believe in. This tells us something about the origin of fear and its resulting rejection, which is that belief is too often misplaced. This also tells us about the remedy: we must first believe God–so much that we belong to Him. When we truly believe God and belong to Him, His work becomes our work and that work will always invite others to belong

True motivation, then, is not so much about considering our duty as it is about considering our belief. Thus, the fundamental question boils down to this: Do we really believe God? If the answer does not move us to waste and wear out our lives in His work, then the next question is this: What version of God don’t we believe? Is it the one who said “he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it?” Perhaps we want to believe in a God who is a little less requiring. Or perhaps it is difficult to comprehend that the life we are promised to find is infinitely more precious and thrilling than the life we keep to ourselves. Regardless, our purpose in mortality is to become like Heavenly Father, and if our lives are not reflective of His work, who then, are we becoming like? It is doubtful that any of us want to stand before Him as a watered down version of the servant we could have been. What God has said is real. There is no hidden meaning when He commands us to lay down our lives for our friends...and no pretended blessing when He promises that we will find great love by doing so (John 15:13). God asks us to lose our lives because He knows that we can...and that we must. This is our task. The only way to reject rejection is by placing our belief in the eternal source of belonging.

In the battle for the life of the soul, danger lies in restoring belonging in a way that dismisses a belief in God. Real happiness and wholeness can only be found through Him, who is the healer of all unwanted hearts. This understanding places a profound responsibility on all of those who believe. There is no new philosophy or legislation or neighborhood program that will change lives like the love of God. We must spread His love among the hearts of the children of men so that each heart belongs solely to Him. This is the only safe path to belonging.

Perhaps it is overwhelming to consider all the souls who need to be cared for – and we wonder how to proceed. But this task should never seem daunting or insignificant when we consider that Christ left the ninety and nine to find just one. God’s work focuses on each needy, naked soul. He saves us one by one because hearts can only feel wanted if they are sought out individually. C. S. Lewis put it this way: "[God] has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created.” (Mere Christianity, 131)   Because God’s work is individual, our work should be the same. We can begin by searching out the unwanted in our own families...and then our neighborhoods and congregations and communities. And then we lose ourselves in the doing.

The loving of souls heals rejection on both ends, which is the balm and beauty of this work. In one of my favorite books, Les Miserables, when the rejected Jean Val Jean rescues the lonely child Cosette, they experience this wondrous healing. To quote: “When their two souls saw each other, they recognized that they were mutually needed...He protected her, and she gave strength to him. Thanks to him, she could walk upright in life; thanks to her, he could persist in virtuous deeds.” Would not our lives be of greatest worth if in the end, even just one soul could say, “Thanks to you, I was able to walk upright in life?” Every individual heart should experience this saving work.

We must restore a culture of believing. As we believe God and give our all to Him, He gives His all in return–which is more than we ever imagined and better than we ever expected. Believing God will provide the defining moments that revive the life of the soul, because it is only the Creator of souls who can offer thorough healing and wholeness and belonging. This is the only culture worth making our own.

Heather Simkins is an undergraduate student at George Wythe University.