For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students and graduates from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry. Today’s post is from Angie Hollar, who received her M.Div. from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in 2015 and is currently a high school theology teacher.
Today’s readings are Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-15; Hebrews 5: 7-9; John 12: 20-33. You can find the readings by clicking here.
In my mind’s eye, I regularly attend the most fascinating brunches, where the mimosas are bottomless, and both laughter and tears surface in equal measure. These feasts are something of a cross between an episode of The Golden Girls and an episode of HBO’s Girls, where those in attendance wear caftans appropriate to Floridian humidity while speaking the raw, bawdy truth of our humanity in the manner that Lena Dunham has turned into an art form.
My mind spontaneously constructs and invites me to these brunches when I’m feeling some amalgamation of lonely and confused, and I’m desperate for authentic relationships. I brunch in my sleep; I brunch as I drive to work; I brunch in the shower. These brunches feed my soul. They console me, challenge me, guide me. I understand these brunches as a version of imaginative prayer.
I’ve been mulling over today’s Scripture readings for quite a while, and the tablemates who were provided for me are an interesting pair: Brené Brown, social work professor and author, and Jocelyn Morffi, a lesbian Catholic school faculty member who was beloved by her community but was fired for marrying her partner. The presence of these particular women at my table frames my understanding of today’s passages.
The Scripture passages speak to me of the profound and primitive human desire for belonging. The prophet Jeremiah sets the stage for the day when he dares to preach a scandalous truth. Whereas once it was believed that rituals, laws and the religious elite were needed to mediate intimacy with the divine, God now makes it clear that each human is fashioned with the capacity to know God in the depths of our being. “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Belonging to God is revealed as a constitutive element of being human. Mercifully, our hearts know this truth even when our egos, our intellects, and our internal megaphones of shame tell us otherwise.
How similar this message is to the work of Dr. Brené Brown, whose scholarly research focuses on vulnerability, shame, courage, belonging, and community. Dr. Brown expands upon the work of evolutionary biologists, who posit that as a social species humans are hardwired for connection and a need to belong because—taking the long view of human history—exclusion from the tribe or clan ultimately amounted to death.
The fruits of her social science research have taken this position a step further: at the very heart of what she calls “true belonging” is spirituality–the deep and unwavering conviction that we are inextricably connected to every other created thing by something greater than ourselves, which the Christian calls God. Secular science is connecting the dots between the human need to be enveloped and desired by the group and the human need to acknowledge that something greater than us holds all of creation together in a mysterious matrix of cosmic connection.
Like the psalmist in today’s liturgy, we beg God to power wash every nook and cranny of our hearts, so that nothing insidious can preclude us from belonging. With a posture of utter humility we ask God to open our hearts and shine a light on all that is in need of tenderness and healing. We voice our desire for the joy that comes from knowing, deep within our bones, that despite our failings and foibles, we are unconditionally accepted and desired.
Perhaps the path of vulnerability the psalmist describes is a necessary step toward discerning how our authentic selves can best show up in the world. In an interview, Dr. Brown states, “[True belonging] is the spiritual practice of believing in ourselves and belonging to ourselves so fully that we find what’s sacred in not only being a part of something, like our DNA calls us to be, but also, we find sacred the need, on occasion, to stand alone in our values, in our beliefs, when we’re called to do that, as well.”
It is something of a paradox that our experience of “true belonging” can sometimes lead to fractured relationships. When we act from this place of rootedness, we take risks in the name of righteousness. I imagine that Jocelyn Morffi, and all those who have been fired for making lifelong commitments to their partners, know this reality more intimately than many. But as prophets of every age also know, the arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is not without suffering and strife—even within the Church.
I must say that, unlike the majority of my brunch-prayers, this one was filled with more tears of lamentation than belly laughs. The pain of exclusion and rejection—whether by family, friends, colleagues, or faith community—is real and cuts to the core of one’s being. However, today’s readings remind us that God’s mercy is limitless and God’s desire for each of us is inextinguishable.
And so I just can’t shake this question: How different would the world be if each of us allowed our call to “true belonging” to shape our lives and guide our choices? I look forward to pondering this question at my next brunch; I wonder who will join me…
—Angie Hollar, March 18. 2018