Week 3: The Quarantine Homily Project

go back to week two

go back to the beginning of this project

Friday, May 22

When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.

I’ve been sitting with this metaphor all day. I love it—this idea of us laboring or in labor, unable to see very far in front of us, unable to do much at all except white-knuckle our way through.

If there was a “go back and give up” option during birth, I think a lot of folks would choose it. The only reason any babies are born at all is because the only way through labor is through. I especially think about laboring parents a hundred years ago, when no ultrasound or blood test confirmed their child’s health before her birth, when death or catastrophe was a more prominent possibility. All that labor, all that effort, all that hope, with no guarantee.

Jesus today focuses our attention on the joy of a completed labor—but our labor doesn’t reach the end with a healthy, un-enwombed child. What kind of person will she be? Once labor is over, and the labor of caring for and nurturing and protecting her begins, once the pain is mixed with love so joyful that it, too, feels like pain—what then?

The truth is that we are constantly giving birth—to ourselves, or to a better world, or to God within us—trying to pull out something that already exists but hasn’t yet seen the light of day, hasn’t yet drawn a breath, is simply tethered to us. This is our task in life. I don’t know the “what then” because it won’t come on this side of the veil. I know only that I entered this space through my own consent, my own loving desire to participate in creation, and that God is there to hold my hand and remind me of the unimaginable, joyful love that will be the fruit of this labor.

I know it hurts, he says, but your grief will become joy.

Thursday, May 21

I’m going to cheat again: I’ve got a lot of other things going on today, but this Ascension reflection from Cristina Traina was amazing. Go read it.

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the psychological experience of the Ascension:  when the mentor and guide in whom I have utter confidence issues the last instruction and disappears, and I don’t know if I’ll have the insight and skill and inspiration to fulfill the task.  My dad, jogging alongside my bike, letting go of the handle at the back of the banana seat with a reassuring “Just keep peddling!”  The nurse, wheeling me to the hospital exit door with my first newborn.  All my graduate school professors, when I stood up alone in front of my first class.  At all these and many other moments I’ve felt like protesting “Wait!  I’m not ready!” […]

The space between Ascension abandonment and Pentecost confidence is uncomfortable. Anthropologists call the ritual gap between one state of being and another a liminal state.  It’s a place where the normal rules don’t apply and aren’t even useful.  Because most of us queer Catholics don’t always feel fully held anywhere, our oases—mentors, friends, ministry groups, and even jobs in Catholic institutions—are especially precious.  Losing one, like losing Jesus, can be devastating.  How can we possibly navigate afterward without our guide, our outrigger, our community, our vocation? Much like the disciples, we feel abandoned and even incapacitated in this liminal moment.

Right now, I’m preparing to move to another city. So, I’m leaving the small LGBTQ Catholic group who welcomed me when I came out (when the group was just LG), and the larger parish that eventually embraced all of us.  It feels like taking off the training wheels and riding on my own.  How can I possibly be a queer person, and a queer Catholic, in a new space, without my companions in the faith?

Wednesday, May 20

He made from one the whole human race
to dwell on the entire surface of the earth,
and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions,
so that people might seek God,
even perhaps grope for him and find him,
though indeed he is not far from any one of us.

You know those lines that come out of nowhere and just knock you on your ass? “Even perhaps grope for him” is one of those for me.

In all the phases of my life, I have always envisioned my journey with the Lord less as a walk and more like me crawling along on my knees, blindly grasping for something. Maybe it would be healthier if I had more of a footprints-in-the-sand kind of vision, but I don’t. I see myself groping. I’m a groper.

The thing that’s interesting to me about the description here of people groping after God is the context in which Paul situates us. In order that all people—even these pagan Greeks—might seek and find God, God created the seasons and boundaries between peoples.

Huh?

First of all, seasons, both literal and metaphorical, are hard for me.

After the mildest possible New England winter, I have been amazed at the way the spring sun literally melted away my depression. I am thawing out. And when Windy and I watched the virtual eighth-grade graduation at our old school Monday night, I cried. There were a lot of reasons under those tears, but I was mostly remembering the version of me that was their teacher and asking myself when or if I would be that happy again.

But life can’t be about some upward climb to satisfaction—or warmth. It is entirely possible that I’ll never again be the kind of happy and the kind of satisfied that I was in those two years. They were a gift. And nothing I could have said or done could have frozen them in ember and made them last forever. Love cannot be possessed in that way.

Our lives are a process of formation for a role we won’t even fill in this life. And it can be toxic to try and lay that on top of our cultural understanding: that one will have a youth full of wild experiences, education, and friendships that will then coalesce in The Final Point Of It AllTM when you have your dream job, spouse, and children simultaneously. (And then it all goes downhill from there, and lots of books get written about that part.)

I know that’s not true. And I’m trying to live that knowledge. I’m trying to learn to live with open hands. To take the seasons as they are ordered. To grope always after God, recognizing that even as my life shifts and surprises me, so must God.

And I’m trusting, in that process, in Jesus’s promise that the Spirit brings growth and guidance on the path, not truths we cannot bear or yet understand:

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.

And what about regional borders, these things that I don’t usually imagine producing any good in the world at all?

When God ordered the boundaries of the regions, he put me into a country and a family. And I have spent today with my teeth on edge, with my stomach in knots, and my soul seething with anger at both. (For the record, COVID-19 is worse than the flu, the CDC is not out to get you, and you do not “win” anything by going back into public.)

While one of the great joys in life is finding your community and tribe, there are also communities that we are given. We choose how to engage them, but they will always be ours. I came to the realization a long time ago that I have to decide how to use my citizenship. But it’s taking me longer to figure out family. I haven’t been a particularly active member of the extended family clan in a good long time—these are not people I could call in an emergency or even who will celebrate most of the accomplishments of which I am proud. Yet when I find myself secretly hoping that one of them will get sick already so that the others will stop posting anti-vaxxer conspiracy literature on Facebook, that’s probably a sign that I’m not seeking, groping, finding God in the boundaries set up to contain my life.

(Lemme tell you, it’s really, really a problem that confession is unavailable at the moment.)

I’m trying to figure out how this particular corner of the world—the Beeler family in Payson, Arizona—might have been ordained “so that [I] might seek God.” But that’s as far as I’ve made it in my wondering.

I don’t have a neat bow to wrap this all up in. It’s time for me to merely trail off—because it’s late, and because I’m merely groping. I’m still in formation. I’m just trying to breathe and make space for the Spirit of truth to come, in its own time, when I can finally bear it.

Tuesday, May 19

Windy and I spent the day on the Farmington Canal Trail. Sorry ’bout it.

Monday, May 18

I think we’re all far, far too quick to claim today’s Gospel for ourselves—both the white Christians who think they experience more discrimination than Black Americans (??!!) and, frankly, my own beloved queer people of faith.

Two things stick out to me about Jesus’s warning that his followers will be expelled from the synagogues. First, the reason he wants them to expect it: “so that [they] may not fall away.” And second, the motivation of the expellers: “[they] will think [they] are offering worship to God.”

We can easily mistake the condemnation and disrespect of our neighbors as a sign—after all, “the Way” is supposed to bring some harmony to our lives. We can be too quick to assume that the hard way is not the Way. But Jesus wants us to rely a little less on instinct and a little more on his Spirit and Word. There’s no other method for parsing the criticism that we earned from the criticism that isn’t about us at all.

But even then, once we think we’ve discerned that our expulsion from the synagogue isn’t a black mark on our soul, that God loves us anyway, that our expellers ought to do some hard looking at themselves—even then, Jesus reminds us to assume good faith. People do what they do, often, because they think they’re doing right by God. Nobody is the villain in their own story.

That doesn’t make it okay. Certainly Jesus, with his strong language that those who will persecute the disciples “have not known either the Father or me,” isn’t excusing evil or downplaying harm. Martyrs will be made by their hard-heartedness. They will have to answer the Lord.

But so will I.

They are trying to follow God, which is also the best I can ever say for myself. And if we have any humility at all, that should give us pause. Because who is who in this story?

Jesus knows who is doing right by God and who isn’t, but I do not. And roles shift. Our life isn’t one story; it’s a series of stories. A lot of dangerous thinking comes from reading ourselves, no matter what, into the good guys in the Gospel.

So lest I expel anyone from the synagogue, I should take a big, big step back when reading today’s Gospel and ask myself: whom have I expelled recently? Whose faith have I assumed to be inadequate? Whose spirit have I killed in the name of worshipping God? And who made me His gatekeeper?

Sunday, May 17

My instinct with readings like these is to skip to the poetic parts: “I will not leave you orphans” and “you are in me and I in you.”

But there’s definitely a theme in these readings, even if it’s not one I want to talk about:

Keep your conscience clear,” Peter writes.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus exhorts.

Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.

Ah, the paradox of faith and works.

Without faith, you can do no good! cries one imaginary strawman. Any good we do is always a gift of the Spirit!

But if you do not do good, you have no faith! replies his imaginary adversary. Faith without works is dead!

Chicken, meet your egg.

I struggle with straightforward quid-pro-quo-seeming statements like the ones from Jesus in today’s Gospel—I give you Love, you give me obedience to the commandments—for so many reasons.

For one thing, I continue to carry baggage about ”commandments” language in the Bible. I’m not sure how much time it takes for a queer person to stop thinking verses like this are targeted at her, but the answer must be “more.”

For another, I know that God knows that I will never love perfectly, or obey perfectly, or have faith perfectly. So I bet God doesn’t particularly want my shame spirals, where I realize that I failed to do XYZ thing, and extrapolate that I must not love God enough, and extrapolate further that I must not be abiding in him, which must mean he’s not abiding in me….

I do love you, Lord. And yet. And yet.

At the core of our faith is a great irony: Love is a commandment. But love can’t be a commandment. Never yet has anybody loved something or somebody because they were “supposed” to. That’s not love.

So when Jesus starts talking to me about commandments today, I don’t think he means for me to hear him listing rules and standards against which to measure my perpetual inadequacy. I think he means what he’s literally saying: I love you. Do you love me?

And love is an action verb.

Shame might spiral, but love moves cyclically and reciprocally. And at either end of the circle are “faith” and “works,” or “God” and “neighbor.” We spend our whole Christian lives boomeranging around in the creative tension between them.

There are ways we can be in the world, ways we can speak to and act towards others that help us cloak ourselves in love and, maybe, hopefully, eventually, some of the time, soften our hearts enough to feel love. And there are ways of being in our hearts, ways of filling ourselves with the knowledge of how completely we love and are loved, that maybe, hopefully, eventually, some of the time, move us with the courage to act with love.

This is the whirlpool into which the Advocate has dragged us.

We struggle with this teaching because it’s a bit of a tautology. The commandment is Love, Jesus says. If you Love, you will obey the commandment. When God is giving us direction, pointing out the way, where else can God point but to godself? And when God is love. And Love is complete in itself.

Go love.

On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.

Saturday, May 16

This morning, we got up late. I enjoyed a glorious cup of coffee made from beans we had shipped to us from Stumptown, and Windy made spinach omelettes and bacon. I read the New York Times cover-to-cover, a joy in which I rarely get to indulge. And then I went outside, where it was a perfect 72 degrees, and spent hours toodling around the yard—mowing, weeding, trimming.

All of this is to say: today’s psalm is really on point.

Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
serve the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.

Know that the Lord is God.
he made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the flock he tends.

And now, with all this joy and freedom and lightness, with the first year of law school behind me, feeling like I can breathe again, I am back at this project.

As Paul and Timothy wander around the Eastern Mediterranean in today’s first reading, criss-crossing modern-day Greece and Turkey, the Holy Spirit and Spirit of Jesus keep intervening, preventing them from accessing certain places and directing them to others.

My impression? That they were on their way to Bithynia, and the bridge was collapsed, or the river too swollen, or a storm raging. A fire broke out, or bandits made the road unsafe. And Paul said to himself, “God is telling me that this is not my path.”

What a generous view of the world.

What if we all approached obstacles in life with open hands and questioning hearts, asking, “What now?” What if we acted more like my nephew when he used to run his little baby walker into the wall and wait to be re-directed. (He’s walking now without the walker, thank you very much, and he doesn’t react as well to re-direction.)

None of this is to make a virtue of giving up. Some walls are meant as bumpers, and some are meant to be scaled. If Paul finds his way to Macedonia foiled by a collapsed bridge, you can bet that he won’t be deterred. But perhaps even that recalculation, that minor detour, is a gift of the Spirit of Jesus.

It’s hard for me to think this way in the current moment. Coronavirus is not a gift from God, and people who start talking about the “hidden blessings” annoy the everliving hell out of me. So please don’t mistake my point: the maze isn’t the gift. But leaning into God’s hand, trusting him to recalculate our route, can be.

In the Gospel today, Jesus applies this same basic principle—when God gives you obstacles, thank him for the gift and keep moving on—to our human interactions.

If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.

It’s basically the Gospel version of “the people who matter won’t care, and the people who care don’t matter.”

The people who don’t get you don’t get me, God says, because what is good and holy in you is a gift from me. And if you nurture those gifts, if you are prophetic and live justly, you will piss off a whole lot of people. Those people are mere bumpers, redirecting you. Don’t let them be obstacles in your path.

But too often I think we read this passage and allow ourselves to be comforted. “They hate me because I’m holy.” No, Bob, maybe they hate you because you’re an asshole.

I don’t always trust myself to know the difference, so I prefer to turn this passage the other way around. If I hate or persecute people whom God has chosen out of the world—meaning, anyone—then I do not know God.

If this seems like a trite place to end up, a message too basic to even call it a homily—well, you’re right. But it’s also the whole of the Law and the Prophets, so I don’t know where else I could ever end up.

If God’s hand is going to guide me anywhere in this damn maze, I can be sure it will always guide me back here: to loving my neighbor.

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