(Don’t) Take Me to Church 4/5/20: In the Belly of the Whale, On the Back of a Donkey

palm sunday
Top: Max Gotts on Unsplash; bottom; Anna Kaminova on Unsplash

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.

I’ve resisted writing too much about these days, and even more strongly resisted writing publicly, since a few weeks ago.  But the cracks are beginning to show—good cracks, I think, the kind that let the light in, and out, to borrow from Leonard Cohen.  It might be the literal strain of the weight under which I stand and walk, when I venture outside: the weight of thirty-three weeks of pregnancy, my baby already nearing five pounds and pulling on my body like the moon to pump additional blood that swells my feet and drags my back towards the floor.  For the sake of this child, I don’t want to stay silent.  I want them to know that, in the middle of this chaos and death and destruction, they were life, embodied in the Glo Worm-like shape my belly takes when I shift from lying to sitting up straight and the quivering of the same when I let myself be still.

So.  Back “at church” this morning; that is, on the couch, two slices of a baguette in a shallow white dish, two servings of apple juice in glasses we received as wedding presents.  Could we have a Communion moment via Youtube and the pacing of the bulletin e-mailed as a .pdf?  We would find out.  It was sunny, and it would have been a perfect day for a walk with my friends to the precious coffee shop or the beloved bodega around the corner from Judson.  Instead we showed off our favorite ceramic mugs on Zoom.  We laughed.  We tried.

We read the Palm Sunday story, of course, but we also read Dan Albergotti’s poem “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale”; that is to say, what we—and what Jonah, and what Jesus—did, and must do, when the world keeps moving.  “Notch the long days,/” Albergotti writes, “Look up for blue sky through the spout.”  Jonah, of course, knew, even guiltily, that a mission was still waiting for him.  And in the last days of his first life in the world, Jesus’s own days must have been long, looking forward to betrayal and pain and death—and resurrection.

Donna conducted three sets of Last Rites over the phone.  One of our Community Ministers will be ordained over Zoom in a few weeks, complete with a virtual laying-on of hands.  Some of our members have left their homes; others have no choice but to stay, and face a death toll that is predicted to peak on Good Friday.  There can be no clearer reminder that the virus is only a symptom of a deeper disease.  The uneven distribution of COVID-19 cases across New York City reveals disparate impact by race and economic class—unsurprising when one considers how many “essential workers” are also some of our most overworked and underpaid.  And Jesus, a member of a religious minority, died a violent death at the hands of an empire that would stop at nothing to hold on to a broken system that worked for the few rather than the many.

But (there is a but, there must be a but, there has to be a but)—Kate Bowler said it on Twitter better than I could:

Screenshot 2020-04-05 at 9.16.35 PM

For so many of us, we kept moving, and keep moving.  We took the elements of communion from wherever we were in the world.  We looked up the GoFundMes and checked on our neighbors and hopped on the video calls.  We wrapped our faces in bandanas and old t-shirts.  And then we returned to the stillness of the four walls.  And we hoped for more: more spring, more movement, more stillness, all at the same time.

And as I write this, the baby makes my back crumple and my chest burn.  A foot wedges into my ribcage, and it aches.  It hurts, and it is life, and I can’t wish for anything less.


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