Before (virtual) church began yesterday, we caught the tail end of the Mayor’s briefing on the state of COVID-19 in the city, which gave way to CBS Sunday Morning. Sunday Morning is always an odd collection of stories, and we’re usually not home to watch it owing to the timing of choir rehearsal and church (if the NPR Weekend Edition puzzle segment with Puzzlemaster Will Shortz!!! is on, it’s time to leave the house), but we’ve been catching it a lot more often as we shelter in place. It was unnerving, to say the least, to go from the Mayor’s briefing to a report on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field; i.e. graveyard of last resort. New York City’s prisoners are no longer doing the burying on Hart Island, as they have for decades, but the site remains active, even more so as the unclaimed bodies of COVID-19 victims are being interred there.
It wasn’t the remedy one might expect for these times, watching Donna gently twist the wilted blooms from her Easter lily. Gathered in front of our screens for the (***checks calendar, because what is time anymore***) sixth Sunday in a row, even in this season of resurrection, we spent a moment or two with death—another moment or two, really, in this season of resurrection that is also a season of death. New York experienced something of a second peak in COVID-19 deaths after our initial Holy Week high, and while we knew the death toll would continue to mount, it feels especially Sisyphean to note that the worst was not, in fact, over.
On the second Sunday of Easter, we remembered St. Thomas, and it’s worth noting that, even in traditions less free with the “Saint” title than ours, he’s remembered as a saint. As Valerie pointed out in her meditation, Thomas’s doubt does not exclude him from the communion of saints; it doesn’t exclude him from the band of disciples a mere week after Jesus’s resurrection; and it certainly doesn’t exclude him from the love and regard of Jesus. Thomas remains in the circle despite—because of?—his doubt. His doubt brings him into a new phase of his relationship with Jesus and his fellow disciples, one we don’t see in the Gospels, one in which he will contemplate what it might mean for him to believe without seeing, or discern when to demand proof and when to trust that things will reveal themselves in due time.
It’s easy for the world to feel stagnant as so many of us “shelter in place.” Only if we venture outside, in our makeshift masks, do we notice that our favorite magnolia trees have already bloomed and begun to shed their white and pink petals. We wonder what became of the fifth cat of a family of five around the corner; we haven’t seen them all together in a long time. We observe that traffic is light, and sidewalks are quiet with neighbors who don’t want to stop and chat. And when we return to our homes, we notice the small, curled green shoot on the pothos plant, unfolding over a series of days. Even at home, the world spins on, continuous in its change.
Still, stillness is the best for which many of us can hope. We hope that a deadly virus is not multiplying by the millions in our bodies or those of our loved ones; for those of us who love someone who is already sick, or someone working through pain and exhaustion on their behalf, we hope for a slowdown and a stop. We hope for an end to the sirens careering through the air night and day. We hope for the slope of the graph to stop its precipitous rise.
In my wet hair, leggings, and circa 2018 Beto Por Texas t-shirt, I went to church, in a manner of speaking—not because my personal presentation standards are slipping, late in my pregnancy, but because I only had to walk across my living room and press Play on the YouTube link. For we are practicing love in the time of COVID-19, and church was available on a strictly virtual basis.
Micah preached and Matt sang and Donna prayed as Zac’s camera panned across empty seats, seats that must have been set up when we were still hoping against hope that we could gather in person. A shot of the headsets we offer folks who would otherwise struggle to hear sitting on two empty chairs took me aback. I was reminded that we are doing this in large measure to protect the vulnerable among us, especially our elders—the same reason we encourage folks to fill out their census forms (a promotional poster for the census appeared in another shot), the same reason we fight detentions and deportations (the New Sanctuary logo on a bulletin board in another shot). What else would we do? When Dakota and I hosted coffee hour last week, we were reminded that the food we offer after church might be the only thing tiding some folks over until their next meal, that the cheese and clementines serve as tangible reminders that spiritual food can’t be the only thing on offer when we open our doors. But today the doors were closed, and I took my material food (Cream of Wheat, lightly sugared) from my Williamsburg Prep High School coffee mug while the service streamed on my television and I fought my urge to thumb through Twitter yet again.
Sometimes—only sometimes—I can see the flood coming.
The warming of our planet and the consequences of a great melt are obvious. I can see the manifold deluges of climate change approaching; I (should) know its first victims will likely be those among us who are already uniquely vulnerable. I step back from the shore and up from the sand. If nothing else, I build my own house on stilts, so I can stay safe and dry, so I can lift up others.
Anxiety wants to keep me at the edge of every flood. Anxiety believes I can hold it back, somehow, even if the waves are lapping at my chin. If I hold on a little longer, whispers a snarled configuration of genes and neurons and memories, I can stop it from coming. I can’t possibly get out of the water. All those people on the shore are depending on me. I don’t imagine for a moment that I could drown. I don’t recognize that all those people on the shore have already seen their individual powerlessness, that they are joining hands and raising up their houses.
Empire benefits from this feeling. When I can’t step back from any particular flood, whether climatological or emotional, I am primed to consume, to blame, to isolate—all responses ripe for exploitation by rapacious corporations, by amoral politicians.
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s easy to forget that King began his public career as a preacher, given everything that came afterwards, and ironic to imagine that he preached from the same Bible that was used to justify slavery and segregation. King showed up how and why he did because of his faith, not despite it, and I think the quotation above offers a glimpse at King’s image of God, as, in the photo here, he both points towards the world beyond us and opens his hand to the world before us.
What is power, and what is love? Believing God to be limitless in both is an example of the cataphatic theology Micah mentioned in his sermon yesterday. It’s not enough, he said, to know either what God is (cataphatic theology) or what God is not (apaphatic theology); these are in conversation with each other. Maybe the same can be said of all of us, that none of us is the grand sum of what we are or the differences of what we are not.
If your New Year’s resolution involves posting more trivial updates online and you still don’t succeed, maybe you are the kind of person for whom New Year’s resolutions are just not a thing. My New Year’s resolution for the last three years has been to update my Goodreads regularly, and I’ve failed every year, even in 2018 when I attempted the 52 Week Reading Project (I ended up somewhere in the 40s, which is still pretty respectable).
So we’re 1-for-1 in church attendance in the liturgical season of Epiphany and in the calendar year 2020. Over the past few months, my attendance at formal (ha!) church services has been more scattershot than it’s been since before 2010 (my Decade in Review, had I written one, would have prominently featured my eventually successful search for a church home in New York City). Most regular readers of my church blogs will know this already, but in case you didn’t, I’m expecting the arrival of our first little one in May, and I’ve struggled mightily with the pregnancy symptoms that have helped me to get better acquainted than ever with my bed and my couch. And even when I was at church, much of the time I once spent writing was spent sleeping or dealing with brain fog or headaches that don’t make close and extended proximity to screens all that comfortable, so blogging fell to the wayside for the better part of the past few months. But I’m hoping, as the worst of the symptoms (very gradually) subside, to return to a fairly regular blogging schedule and figure out how to keep making this writing thing work in a way that will be sustainable when the little one arrives.
So. Epiphany. We remember one trio fleeing (the Holy Family) and another heading home (the Wise Men). Appropriate, since the news, in this young year, constantly asks me to choose between fleeing for another country or simply barricading myself and my small family in our apartment for approximately always. (I enjoyed, and by “enjoyed” I mean I did not enjoy, the Twitter discourse around Christmas regarding whether or not the Holy Family were “refugees.” Technically, at the moment of Jesus’s birth, maybe not, but by the time they fled into Egypt during/after the massacre of the Holy Innocents? I mean, yes, obviously. Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case of a matter of life and death to me!) It should be blindingly obvious to us, as Christians, at this time of year especially, that war, poverty, and the destruction of the natural world are great evils, and yet the election and news cycles invite us to debate these points, as if our tradition doesn’t repeatedly and explicitly condemn all of the above, as if the worship of empire didn’t bring about the death of the Holy Innocents and, eventually, of Jesus Christ himself. As James Taylor wrote in “Home By Another Way,” “A king who would slaughter the innocents/Will never cut a deal for you.” What is this other way?
What is the case for exhibiting women artists as women artists? Postwar Women, at the Art Students’ League through December 1st, unites the visions of women artists in the later twentieth century in such a way as to both pose and answer questions of how women artists see, and to make a case for collecting these visions in one space that tells a story across painting, sculpture, and mixed media.
Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold both look into the past, in some cases the very distant past. Catlett’s “Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice” both recall African mask traditions (I am not an expert, but for me they evoke the Dean gle of the Dan people of Liberia) in the stylized but steady faces…
…while Faith Ringgold recontextualizes the famous remains of “Lucy” as those of a beloved ancestor by placing a miniature skeleton in a gold coffin, surrounded by flowers and colorful fabric. The scale is intimate and familiar, the notes in block printing on plain white paper, bringing Lucy out of the museum and into a setting that feels funereal, reverent, and joyous all at once.
Catlett and Ringgold both look behind to look forward, reaching into the past to bring dignity and tenderness to depictions of people of African heritage. The explicit embrace of African history and artistic traditions reminds me of El Anatsui or Yinka Shonibare; the affection the artists radiate towards their subjects brings to mind Kehinde Wiley. But ultimately, the modest dimensions lead to a different interpretation, distinct from Shonibare’s irony or Wiley’s grandeur: Catlett and Ringgold, by way of the familial and fond, draw the viewer’s attention to the ways in which people of color have been dehumanized and embrace them with seriousness and profundity.
Empire, as a concept, is built on lies. (I’ll pause for a moment to let us all contemplate the delicious irony of the Empire State, where so many of us call home.) You can think of any number of lies that exist solely to prop up hegemony, colonialism, the rampant abuses of late-stage capitalism. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard. Conversely, Work hard enough and you, too, can become rich. Closely related: Some people don’t deserve [x] because [y], never mind the fact that a great many people who seem to be holding on to [x] just fine cannot point to anything, or at least not anything truly supererogatory, that would mark them as deserving.
But one of the most pernicious, insidious lies of empire is the lie of Never Enough. It’s one of the most foundational and therefore the most difficult to uproot. And maybe the only lie harder to uproot from our empire thinking than Never Enough Money is Never Enough Time. Because, as the thinking goes, you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.
Or can you?