The Health of Belonging (10/3/21)

Rev. Jessica Palys



So in the beginning, God hovered over the waters of chaos, creating heaven and earth, and pronounced it good. God created things to fly in the sky and swim in the sea, and then living creatures of all kinds on the earth, and called that good. God then made humankind in their image, commanded they be fruitful and multiply, and called that good. And then God said it was not good for man to be alone, and so God created ‘woman’ from Adam’s rib and called that good. Then God created the snake, who spoke to Eve in the garden, and called that good. And…wait. That’s not exactly right…

I remember the day that I learned there were 2 full and distinct creation stories in Genesis that, in the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Woman’s Bible,

“The first account dignifies woman as an important factor in the creation, equal in power and glory with the man. The second makes her a mere afterthought. The world in good running order without her. The only reason for her advent being the solitude of man.” […] “It is fair to infer that the second version, which is found in some form in the different religions of all nations, is a mere allegory, symbolizing some mysterious conception of a highly imaginative editor.”

I remember how tempting it was to resolve to ignore that second one, the one that’s been used over the centuries to craft the doctrine of original sin, to paint all women as ultimate temptresses, and to clobber the LGBT community with obnoxious proof-texting about the first family being a man and a woman, no exceptions - when in fact in just one chapter back is full of contradictions and a God who is plural and genderless.

And yet, I find I can’t just resolve to ignore the second creation story, because there is redeeming beauty to be found in this passage, a passage that has parallels in just about every ancient aboriginal society, when we look closely at the language and translations. First of all, what we colloquially refer to as Adam refers to the word adamah; the deity sculpted ha-adam, “the human” out of ha-adamah, “the earth.” The original wording tells us adam was not a man, but an earthling, and sex was not determined until there was a partner created.

And that brings up the second important translation; “I will create him a helper as his partner.” The word ‘partner’, so often inferred to be subordinate or subservient or simply second to the first created earthling, is no such thing. The Hebrew word used here for partner, Ezer Kenegno, is a word used elsewhere in the bible for God. And in the original language, God did not pull a rib but rather took a tsela, a ‘side’ of the earthling and built a second earthing from one half of ha adam. God made a partner not subordinate, or less than, but someone in God’s image who would be an equal partner for the earthling, someone who can help the way God helps the earthling - with company and support.

I’m sure this isn’t news to most of you here at Kansas City United Church of Christ. As an early adopter of the Open and Affirming Designation in the UCC and one that shows welcome and inclusivity at every turn, I imagine this congregation has been debunking limiting and marginalizing theology for the last 20 years at least. It is clear on our website, in our signage, even here in our bulletin just how much we value that everyone feel welcome here to be their authentic self. So as we continue on our theme for this week, one question I have for you to ponder is, we are wonderful at welcome - but Is welcome the same thing as belonging? Where does it fit in belonging? What else is needed to get to belonging?

Our scripture this morning shows that God recognizes our alone-ness, and says we need a ‘helper’. Over and over again in Genesis, God pronouncies things ‘good’. It is only here when God says it is not good. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a fitting helper.” And then God goes through the efforts to find just that, a fitting partner. God patiently fashions from dust each living thing on earth, allowing his human creation to name each new creature, but none were a sufficient companion…and so God tried once more, and created another in his likeness. And then saw that it was good.

God created us as social creatures, perfectly adapted to connect with one another. We were designed not as lone hunters but as pack animals, dependent on each other to survive. We delight in each other’s company. As humans, we have long memories, perfect for remembering years of complex social interactions with others. And because of our design - those emotional connections and long memories - scientists have found that the human brain can pull a face of someone it has met from a crowd of thousands in less than a quarter of a second. We earthlings were created to be social beings. Scripture tells us it is not good to be alone.

And now, two millennia later, medical science is actually backing up our ancient scriptures. About 10 years ago when I was working as an organizer in public health, we frequently used a film series produced by California Newsreel called Unnatural Causes; Is Inequality Making Us Sick? The series is fascinating in a number of ways, as it offers analysis on how non-physical things, like wealth or racism, have determining impact on physical health outcomes. The observations made in the series actually go a long way in explaining why COVID has been twice as deadly for people of color than caucasians.

And yet, COVID has not just damaged those infected, but weakened the immune systems of all of us by increasing the physical effects of human isolation. One episode of Unnatural Causes digs into this surprising concept. Centering on research that isolation increases susceptibility to any number of diseases, both emotional and physical, this episode called “Becoming American” presents the idea of the Latino Paradox.

“Episode 3, Becoming American, discusses recent Mexican immigrants, who although poorer, tend to be healthier than the average American. They have lower rates of death, heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses, despite being less educated, earning less and having the stress of adapting to a new country and a new language. But it’s a paradox, because as they are here longer, their health advantage erodes. After five years or more in the U.S., they are 1.5 times more likely to have high blood pressure – and be obese – than when they arrived. Within one generation, their health is as poor as other Americans of similar income status.

“While immigrants who come to the U.S. may be healthier by default, i.e. the health needed to make the journey, many researchers believe another factor is also at work. "Immigrants bring to this country aspects of culture, of tradition, of tight family social networks and community social networks that essentially form a shield around them and allow them to withstand the deleterious, negative impacts of American culture," it quotes a public health official.

In their first few years here, immigrants often live with extended family or other families, banding together for assistance, assimilation lessons, and to gain what is needed for independence. That closeness actually protects their health, but

“that shield has an expiration date. Low wages, working conditions and increased social exclusion tend to break down those protective shields. Isolation is on the rise in the U.S., where one in four of us say they have no one they can talk to about their problems. And isolation kills.”

Close relationships and being caught in a web of social connections actually acts as a kind of buffer or barrier shield to chronic disease and infection. It actually strengthens our immune system. This probably sounds familiar in terms of child development, but what may surprise us is this need continues to be as crucial at every point in our lives. The lack of a caring ear to listen to our concerns, to hear our pain, or with whom we can discuss a big decision, is actually detrimental to our health. God created us to live in community, with helpers and partners, and to draw strength from one another.

In fact, many of us might say that’s why we come to church; to re-connect. And we wouldn’t be wrong; the root of the word ‘religion’ means ‘to bind back’ and reconnect. So it’s nice to reconnect with you this morning. Gary Gunderson, a pioneer in the field of faith and health who I mentioned last week, has suggested that congregations, by their existence, operate as healing webs of social interaction. In a world where we are less likely to know our neighbor on the street or the person behind the cash register, the added social web of a congregation can be the medicine we need in our lives. Gunderson identifies Five Leading Causes of Life in his book of the same name; these are Connection, Coherence, Agency, Blessing, and Hope. Connection is the primary element- the web of life that gives us strength and comfort. Coherence is when we feel life makes sense through enjoying our connections and belonging and finding meaning in our web of relationships. Agency is our capacity to act - our sense that we have the ability to self-determine our fate.

For three Sundays now, over 2 chapters in Mark, we hear Jesus admonish the disciples to welcome the children, the little ones, the least of these into the folds of God’s Kingdom. And welcome is important - welcome is the first step, perhaps the second and the third too, if done well.

When I moved to Nebraska, I was definitely welcomed. Everywhere I went, people were welcoming. ‘Welcome to Nebraska! Welcome to Hastings! Welcome to the Heartland, the home of the good life.” But the thing I learned about small towns is that, while people were perfectly kind and welcoming, few invited me into belonging. Outside of my congregation - who themselves were wonderful - most people living in that small town already had the groups to which they belonged. They already had their social circles, and it didn’t occur to them to invite others into those circles. So while I found kindness and welcome, I wasn’t able to find the belonging I needed to feel seen. I offer that not for sympathy, but as a potential learning.

Welcome is anonymous. Welcome is a blanket statement to all. Belonging, on the other hand, is very personal. Belonging is about feeling known and being seen. Belonging is acceptance after and in spite of your quirks. I imaging belonging is closer to what was described in the Unnatural Causes series - having a network around you, a social web in which you are caught, in which you are able to discuss daily dilemmas, larger problems and big decisions. Belonging happens with and within and through relationships, because it is not good for us to be alone. And we must have both. Here at KCUCC, we must be welcomed, and that welcome must continue to a deeper, authentic relationship that creates belonging and connection. We must move past welcome to relationships that help us feel seen and connected. Connection is critical to human life. We are wired for connection.

Connection, Coherence, Agency, Blessing, and Hope are 5 things help us lead life in abundance. Blessing, according to Gunderson, is something received from another and something inspiring gratitude. As congregants here today, we are a blessing to each other. Blessing comes in connection with others, and belonging helps us maximize that blessing. And, according to Gunderson, the last thing element critical to good health and longevity is the presence of hope. Blessing each other leads to hope – whether that be hope for ourselves, our loved ones, or hope for the future in general. Hope arises from that mysterious place that is, like belonging, hard to describe, but we know it when we feel it. And we often feel it in being in connection with other humans. God created us earthlings to be social creatures, and it is not good for us to be alone.

As we join together at Christ’s table this morning to partake in Communion, we know that we belong to God. And in this universal symbol of the body and the bread, we belong to the fellowship of Christians around the globe. Let us strive together to make that belonging felt even more. Let it be, No matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey, KCUCC is a place where you may find belonging. Let it be so. Amen.


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