catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 18 :: 2011.10.14 — 2011.10.27


Sacredness in the margins

All these people were still living by faith…They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.

Hebrews 11:13-14

When I was growing up, I spent much of my time feeling on the margins of social situations. See, I was shy, and we moved quite a bit. Each time we moved it took me some time to really get to know good friends, so I learned to hang around on the edges. Eventually I would make friends, but I became fearful of having to move again, so I often resisted getting too close to new people too soon.

This was ironic in some ways, because I was a huge reader, and there, in books, I spent little time in the margins. I plowed my way into the heart of the text in the center of the page, paying little heed to the blank areas on the edge that facilitated my reading and allowed me to focus on the central text.

In those page centers I experienced the lives of other would-be outcasts and outsiders and followed the ways they dealt with their troubles.

Charlie, who was poor and starving, gained a chocolate factory and a crazy but kindly mentor in the deal.

Anne, an orphan, gained love and acceptance and a home along with a bosom friend when she moved to Green Gables. (Hilarity ensued.)

And who can forget all the romantic heroines who were saved from marginal spinsterhood by handsome and often wealthy men?

Of course, not all of my outsider tales included outsiders who felt like insiders by the end of the book.  Another group of stories illustrated another set of truths.

Meg Murry of the Wrinkle in Time series still felt plain and ordinary at the end of the first book, even if she did ultimately gain a husband she loved in the later books.

The Pevensie children may have been kings and queens in Narnia, but they still had to deal with World War II and growing up back home in England, and by her third trip to Narnia, queen Lucy still felt inferior to her sister Susan.

Frodo Baggins felt so damaged by his experiences that he ultimately left his home because he didn’t feel he belonged there anymore.

All of these and other stories began to give me a glimpse of what it means to truly be an outsider. There’s the dream of the condition simply going away at some point in our lives. Happily-ever-after tales reflect this desire, and the first set of stories fit fairly well into that group, despite their unpleasant beginnings and middle parts.

This second group of stories reflects a less pleasant truth: that until this earth is ultimately renewed, struggles continue. The feeling of being an outsider doesn’t go away so easily. Family, friends, marriage, social acceptance, achievement that gains fame: all of these things are well and good, but they don’t fix everything, nor do they erase that fundamental loneliness in all of us that lies at the heart of our outsider feelings.

The tension between these two truths has followed me throughout my life, and eventually I have become more accepting of my ongoing discomfort at being occasionally thrown to the margins. It helps that I’ve found companionship in the Outsider role over time, not only in the books mentioned above but also in the Bible.

After all, in the Bible, God regularly requests his people to not only take care of those on the margins, he also asks them to be outsiders, aliens and pilgrims. Abraham had to move. Joseph was sold to Egypt. Even Jonah had to pack up and preach to people who didn’t share his beliefs. And Jesus gave up his comfortable throne to don this uncomfortable human flesh for us in order to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Considering these stories reminds me, when I feel profoundly Other than the norm — whether it’s in a new social situation, in a new culture, or simply in my own skin — that I ought not chase that feeling away immediately. Instead, I should consider my desires for acceptance, for happily ever after, and recognize that such desires will only be fulfilled in those days when tears will be wiped away.

In the meantime, I cling to God who gives me strength to avoid treating his other blessings, including social acceptance, with too much weight. And I remember that even while I seek to accept and love others in the margins, I ought to remind them as well that their Otherness is a sacred space, a space that God himself chose to occupy for a short time so that his people could have companionship in their otherness on this earth and no longer be Other to God.

No wonder Jesus spoke in paradoxes and parables. It’s ironic and somewhat counter-intuitive to think about, this large band of Others (some have called it a great cloud of witnesses) who shuffle along on this earth, reminding each other when we forget (much too often) that we shouldn’t feel at home here until God makes it into the new heavens and the new earth. Even if we seem to function at the very center of the bell curve, we should recognize that we are statistical outliers all the same.

We are, in the end, marginalia that point to our great Text in the center of the page, the message that gives our lives function and meaning. Unless we remember that relationship — if we fall into assuming that we ourselves are the text at the center of the page — we’re in trouble, out of proportion. Ultimately, after all, even in the new heavens and the new earth, it’s not about us.

In the meantime, hanging out in the margins with my fellow travelers remains a sacred space, and so I’m glad that God gave me the experience of feeling marginal while growing up, and continues to gift me the experience of feeling on the outside on a regular basis. I will seek to occupy this sacred space with grace and dignity, to use it to better understand others who feel it more keenly than I do, and never to forget that my job as one in the margins is to draw attention to the Word made flesh at the center of the world’s page. 

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