Forget what J.D. Vance and the Post would have you believe: it’s still perfectly safe to picnic with your little ones in Washington Square Park. I know, because I tested this theory with my tender thirteen-and-a-half-month old just this past Sunday, and she danced to “Johnny B. Goode” in front of the fountain and even tipped the piano player (with my money, of course, but it’s the practice that matters at this point; if you enjoy the busker, pay the man!). I didn’t doubt it, not exactly, but the rumors do reach one even all the way out here in the sticks of Suffolk County, and I wanted to believe I’d find the park more or less the same when I got there this past Sunday. And there they were: chalk artists, chess hustlers, dog walkers, vendors selling pins and balloons…all in their places, all right with the world.
We were there to celebrate our return to in-person worship, of a sort, after sixteen long months away. The prerecorded service, interspersed with Mumford and Sons and Earth, Wind, and Fire videos, played on the wall below the rose window while a group of us watched and prayed, or didn’t pray, beneath. And one of us took the opportunity to run some laps, and two more of us took the opportunity to chase her. You will be able to figure out who.
It was Junia’s baptism anniversary, which we commemorated late in the day by lighting her baptismal candle and saying a prayer, but more to the point, we finally fulfilled our baptismal promise to bring her into the house of the Lord. I mean, let the record show that we tried before this. We went to Orient Point to hear Donna preach at Easter, attending service on their lawn. And we brought the house of the Lord into our living room often enough, but Junia tends to nap through a good chunk of church time, and only vaguely understands television as the occasional medium for her favorite theme songs or the single YouTube video she has ever cared about. So between the pandemic and naptime, we’ve woefully underdelivered. But I remember Micah quoting Rumi: “Come, come, even if you have broken your vow one thousand times, come, yet again, come.”
So we made the trip to be there when the meeting room reopened to hear the testimony from 1 Kings. In the passage, Elijah has fled into a cave in fear of the Israelites who have turned from God and God’s prophets. What are you doing here, Elijah? God asks, like God doesn’t know. God, I have tried, Elijah says, but they have killed all your prophets and now they’re going to kill me too. God leads Elijah out of the cave with an earthquake, a great wind, and a fire before God whispers to him, again: What are you doing here, Elijah?
What are any of us doing? We are re-emerging from our caves into a world utterly changed (except for those of us who never had the luxury to retreat, of course). We’re losing the weight of jobs and carrying the weight of all those dark chocolate covered almonds that got us through the winter. We look at our governments, our fellow humans, and we think, My God, did we learn absolutely nothing? We know that the pandemic cut down better and stronger people than ourselves. I’m still haunted by one of the first deaths in the city, a beloved high school principal a year younger than me. And with every step I take back into the world, I do it with a child in my arms or holding my hand or, more and more often these days, trying to get a few steps in front of me. She’s fast, and strong, and she’s going to go far, sooner than I think.
God lets Elijah off the hook, but with quite a to-do list, and with the one last giant checkbox left empty: return before the great and terrible day of the Lord. All right, fair enough, this cave business, God seems to sigh, and I’ll get someone else to pick up where you’re leaving off, but there’s still work to be done. This is an easier story for me to digest than the Parable of the Talents, one of the parts of the Bible that really does keep me up at night, but there’s still a common theme: burying yourself, metaphorically or literally, is not a long-term option. At some point, you have to come out, even if it’s just to throw your mantle over the next poor sucker to prophesy to Israel.
So: out of our caves and into the city, into the meeting room and back out into Washington Square Park. We heard from Jason, rejoicing over their time acquainting family with queer history. We got travel tips from Ted, we ran into Matt on the street, we bought falafel and kati rolls and tiny, overpriced cups of coffee with Christine and Brian and Diane. In the meeting room, Junia looked up at the small round window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, pausing in her path of destruction before resuming her tear; in the park, she dribbled fruit puree down the front of her stiff new dress and had to be gently dissuaded from tumbling down the astroturfed hillocks, with mud puddles ringing their bases, in the play area in the southwest area of the park.
We have left our caves, or, at least, our caves have left us. The house of the Lord is waiting, and so is Washington Square Park, and everything beyond it. What will we do with it now?