Claudia, Anna, and Amy made a date to share a pizza. It was the Thanksgiving holiday.
As Brené Brown tells us in Rising Strong, Claudia was visiting her family in Madison, Wisconsin. Amy—the youngest of these three sisters—had texted Claudia with the pizza invitation. Her idea was to get together without the parents for a little sister-time.
As it happened, Amy did not attend Thanksgiving dinner or any holiday event at her parents home that year. In her late twenties, Amy had struggled with depression and alcoholism since high school. She got sober briefly when she was eighteen, spending the next decade in a declining spiral of sobriety and relapse.
Over the years, Amy would show up for some holiday gatherings. When she was drunk, predictable chaos and heartache ensued. On sober visits, her parents lavished attention on her. Their parents’ focus on Amy served only to remind Claudia and Anna how Amy’s disease had dominated the family dynamic and robbed them of their youth.
This year, Amy’s absence infused the family with an aching heaviness. Nobody talked about it. They all just felt the slowly moving train wreck that was Amy. And because they were family, they were all going off the rails with her in haunted silence.
Claudia and Anna took leave of their parents to meet Amy for dinner. Claudia later told Brené Brown, “I just thought we could have one meal together… Three sisters sharing a pizza and catching up. Like a normal family.” (Rising Strong, Kindle Locations 2035-2036)
Amy had texted her address, but as Claudia and Anna got close, they grew increasingly uneasy. Their parents had offered to set Amy up in her own apartment, but Amy had declined. She didn’t want their meddling and their control.
The surrounding neighborhood was sketchy. Their hearts sank when they rolled up to the actual address. It was a long abandoned store. Plywood covered broken windows. The door was broken.
The reunion did not go well. Anna lit into Amy, and Amy told her to go away. Anna took a cab home. Claudia stayed and listened to Amy talk about how misunderstood she was. Amy pleaded with Claudia to take her back with her to Chicago. Amy could live with her, and Claudia could take care of her little sister.
Guilt-stricken, Claudia refused to go along with Amy’s plan. After an hour, she got in her car and left.
Brené Brown goes on to recount Claudia’s hard, honest work to rumble with her own false narratives and to step toward a healthier place for herself and the ones she loves. It’s a great read and I commend it to you.
And yet as I read Claudia’s story, I found myself filtering it through the story of Jesus’ Ascension. As a result, the story of Claudia and her sisters became a parable about belonging.
This contemporary parable about three very real sisters reminds us that belonging is more than a feeling that individuals experience. Belonging is a complex interaction between people.
We all want to belong. To be more precise, we yearn to belong. Our lives are diminished by isolation and loneliness. Belonging is a need, not a mere lifestyle preference.
We need others to recognize our worth, to acknowledge our dignity, and to accept us as one of their own. Especially in the case of acceptance, we face a spiritual challenge.
Whether we like it our not, we long to be accepted for who we really are. And who we really are is always an imperfect mess. Getting real with someone else runs the risk of rejection. Our own fear of being voted off the island can lead us to hide ourselves. Hiding cuts us off from the very acceptance we crave. Belonging takes courage.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that we can be so focused on being accepted that we miss what should be an obvious point. Genuinely belonging to others means accepting someone else as part of yourself. That we humans struggle to accept difference, much less to embrace it, is old news.
Well, actually, that old news keeps making new headlines with some frequency. We threaten to build nation-dividing walls, we argue about who we can refuse service at our bakeries, and apparently we are committed to tangling about who goes to what bathroom.
No wonder we end up drawing relatively small circles of genuine belonging. Circles that encompass people whose differences with us don’t touch any painfully crucial spots. People essentially like us who will be relatively easy to accept as one of our own.
You know. Like family. Like, sisters.
Even in our smallest circles, our dysfunctions and fears and limitations and hopes and compulsions and needs and regrets and resentments will make belonging an uneven, painful, beautiful, tangled, poignant mess.
At our very best, we will get it right sometimes with some people sort of.
And then Jesus lays the Ascension on us.
Jesus the risen human being ascends to God’s right hand. To heaven. This is all a metaphorical way of relating a mind-bending theological truth.
Jesus is fully divine and fully human. The risen Jesus is still fully divine and fully human.
When Jesus ascends, he doesn’t hit the up button in some elevator. We can talk about the Second Person of the Trinity some other time. But right now get this clear. The risen human Jesus is in perfect union with God.
It’s not that just one human being cozied up with God. In Jesus, all humanity is in perfect union with God. Okay, so this is still a work in progress. But that’s the message and the promise of the Ascension.
All of humanity belongs to God in Jesus. And all of humanity belongs to each other in Jesus.
Well that’s going to be a stretch. We really can’t get there from here: everybody belonging to everybody. But Jesus can. Jesus did. Jesus will.
He told us that he goes ahead of us to prepare a place for us. Not just this person or that person or that other person. For humanity. Together. In union with God. In union with each other. Right where we belong.