Radio stations often come up with gimmicks for contests and giveaways, and the one in West Lafayette, Indiana was no exception. It was the early 1990‘s when the Seattle grunge bands topped the charts and the station had coveted Pearl Jam concert tickets to offer.
My youngest brother Jon was a big fan, even at the tender age of twelve, and persuaded our parents to take him to the station’s booth at Purdue University to fish for a pearl in a jar of jam. (Yes, you read that right).
Jon didn’t win the tickets, for his was not the lucky jar of jam containing a pearl, but his love of the band flourished nonetheless. I was amused by his enthusiasm, if not mildly annoyed by the constant drone of loud music seeping through the wall that separated our bedrooms. I became a fan myself and continue to follow the band to this day.
Admittedly my interest in Pearl Jam has a lot to do with the fact that Jon died in 2007, and the memory of him fishing for a pearl is dear to me. Over the years, I’ve listened intently to the lyrics of the band’s repertoire because I know they were meaningful to my brother. Imagining what they stirred in him keeps him alive in my mind and heart.
A few years after Jon’s death, the band’s lead singer, Eddie Vedder, released a solo album of ukulele songs and I was taken with one song in particular. Longing to Belong is a love song to be sure, but not necessarily in the romantic sense. “I’m falling fast while hoping I’ll fall in your arms,” Vedder croons. “My heart’s an open wound that only you’d replace…” he confesses. Belonging to someone–possibly a lover, or a friend, or a community, or even to God–means we are safe even when we’re vulnerable, and whole even when we’re broken. At least that’s what I hear in the lyrics.
Although Jon never heard this song, it reminds me of him. He loved fiercely and I think he longed to belong to something bigger; to feel loved and valued and safe and whole. I caught a glimpse of it at his funeral when a steady stream of his friends paused to pay their respects. Among them were the broken and unloved, and those like Jon who lived on the margins.
Because it’s meaningful to me, I imagine the kingdom of God is what my brother longed for. It’s a safe place to fall, and a place where our wounds are healed. Although he may not have described in religious terms, I think Jon searched for this kind of place in the short years of his life because in the kingdom of God, dignity, mutual respect, equality, and unconditional love reign.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the kingdom of God like “a merchant in search of fine pearls; in finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45-46, NRSV).” I don’t imagine this kingdom to be one of fairy tale proportions with frills and flourishes. Instead I think it’s a place where everything is perfectly proportioned. Where the those excluded from the table find their places. Longing is fulfilled and wounds are healed.
My brother Jon’s search for the lucky pearl in a jar of jam proved unfruitful so many years ago, but in his life and even in his death, he found one pearl of much greater value: a community where he belongs.
I see people searching for this precious pearl everyday when they take to the streets to protest injustice. When they care for the sick and dying and protect the most vulnerable creatures. I recognize it in the work of environmental stewards and peacemakers. I feel it in the outstretched hand of a stranger, welcoming me to take hold.
What does your search for belonging look like?