Saturday, May 13, 2017

Separation Anxiety

My mother cuddling me and kittens when I was six or seven.

The gospel for this homily is John 14:1-14. I chickened out and ignored the other readings; I'm sure someone's pulled off the task of squaring Mother's Day with the stoning of St. Stephen, but I wasn't up to it. *

Good morning, and happy Mother’s Day. If you’re someone who likes Mother’s Day, I wish you every joy of the occasion. But I want to begin by acknowledging that for many people, today is difficult. If you miss your mother, miss your kids, are estranged from your mother or your kids, never had the mother or kids you wanted, or are under pressure to be somebody else’s idea of a perfect mother or kid, the holiday can feel more like torture than celebration. Today’s Gospel offers good news to anyone in that position -- and to anyone else feeling alienated or grief-stricken -- but before we get there, I need to talk a little bit about my own mother.

I was one of the lucky kids; my mother and I were very close. But as many of you know, because I’ve told the story here before, she was alcoholic, and her illness shaped my early life. When I was a baby, she spent a lot of time in hospitals. By the time she got sober in AA, when I was three and a half, my father had decided to divorce her. Dad, in consultation with Mom’s doctors, very wisely decided that in order to be awarded custody of me and my older sister, she had to meet three conditions. She had to stay sober for eighteen months; she had to have her own place to live, and she had to have a job. She had to prepare a place for us. In the meantime, we would live with him.

It was a kind and responsible decision, the best thing for all of us. Dad loved us and took good care of us, but I was too young to understand why the separation was necessary. The only thing I wanted in the world was my mother. We visited her on weekends in her new apartment, and I always demanded, “Can I stay with you now?” Every Sunday evening when she drove us back to Dad’s house, I cried the whole way there. Many years later she told me that she cried the whole way back. When the eighteen months were up and my sister and I finally went to live with her again, I wouldn’t let her out of my sight. If I couldn’t see her, I panicked. I was terrified that she’d die, or go away, and leave me.

In this morning’s Gospel, the disciples remind me a little of myself back then. Jesus, whom the disciples love, has to leave them. The Ascension is coming.  He tells them that he is preparing a place for them, but they panic. They don’t want to let him out of their sight. “What do you mean we know the way?” they demand. “How can we, when we’ve never been there? How can we follow you if we don’t know where we’re going?”

Jesus responds with some of the most famous words in Scripture. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  

The disciples don’t understand this, either.  “What?  What are you talking about, Jesus?  When have we seen the Father?  Show us!”

I sympathize with them. The Gospel of John is my least favorite of the four, because it so often features Jesus making cryptic, long-winded pronouncements instead of telling stories or healing people. If I’d been with the disciples, I probably wouldn’t have known what Jesus was talking about, either.

With the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight, more repetitions of the baptismal covenant than I can count, and a number of church classes, I think maybe I do. I think Jesus is telling us that when we’re in his presence, we are in the presence of God the father. Meanwhile, our baptismal covenant charges us to “seek and serve Christ in all people,” which means that when we’re with anyone else, we’re also with Jesus, which means -- according to Jesus -- that we’re also with God. QED. If we’re with Jesus, we’re on the right path. The philosopher Jean-Paul Satre famously said that hell is other people, but the Gospels remind us that heaven is other people, too. The Kingdom of God is other people. Whether we’re in the here-and-now or the hereafter, we find the divine in our neighbors’ eyes.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” Jesus says. Most of us are more familiar with the older translation, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I think each of us is a mansion for God, just as our mothers -- good or bad, loving or neglectful, near or distant -- were mansions for us during the nine months before we were born. Each of us has a place in God’s kingdom, both here and in the hereafter, because each of our hearts is one of the dwelling places of God.  

The problem is that while this makes logical sense, it’s too much like a geometry proof, and the beauty of the math sometimes breaks down in practice. The people around us can be irritating, difficult, smelly, needy, and sometimes even dangerous. So can each of us, for that matter. Searching for Christ in our neighbors, or in our own hearts, can feel like looking for a mustard seed in a wheatfield. And the task is often most daunting when we’re gripped by separation anxeity, terrified of abandonment. As a five year old tenaciously glued to my mother’s side, it wasn’t enough for me to hear her patiently telling me, again and again, that she wasn’t going anywhere, that I really did live with her now. Words weren’t enough. I needed to feel her physical presence.  

Gradually, though, I relaxed. I learned to trust the signs that she was with me even when I couldn’t see her: the clothes she laid out every day for me to wear to school; the lunches she packed, often with homebaked cookies; the letters and care packages she sent me when I was in college, and in graduate school, and when I moved across the country to Reno to take a job at UNR.  

I always believed that I would be devastated by her death, and when she died in 2010, I was indeed terribly, deeply sad. That pain, though, was gradually replaced by the recognition that she’s always with me:  in the tangible gifts she gave me, jewelry and furniture and dishes; in my memories of her; in the things I see every day -- cats, birds, cloud formations -- that she would have loved. I can still hear her voice in my head. When I have a problem, I can usually imagine how she’d respond. And as I get older, I have growing faith that I’ll see her again.

This process isn’t that different from what the disciples experienced. Jesus indeed ascended, and they must have grieved, but at Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit. God was still with them. They learned to trust in the signs that announced God’s presence even when they couldn’t see him. Bread. Wine.  Rushing wind. Each other. We still have those signs now. We celebrate them every Sunday at church, in the sacraments, and less formally every other day of the week. God dwells in all of creation, loving and cherishing each of us.

And so, I think, does motherhood, which is one of the faces of God. I was one of the lucky kids. I had my mother for a long time, and I knew she loved me. While I never had children myself, I also never wanted them; I have been content to let others do the difficult work of parenting. I’ve met countless people, though, who are deeply wounded by the death or desertion or cruelty of their mothers or their children, or by inability to conceive children they desperately wanted. None of these issues is simple.  Those pains run deep. But many of my friends who carry such scars have found alternative forms of mothering. They have been nurtured by loving friends, teachers, and chosen family. They have nurtured children they did not bear. They have discovered their own, deeply satisfying ways to embody, and to receive, the love of God, to whom each of us is a cherished child.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus promises us many mansions, if only we can recognize them. I think all of us, if we look, can also find many mothers, both those we’ve had and those we’ve been. On Mother’s Day, I wish all of you the joy of loving and being loved; of cherishing, and being cherished.


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