Take Me to Church (Kind Of) 7/11/20: At Once the Spirit Sent Him out into the Wilderness

sunyu-JhqBxsORuXA-unsplash
Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash

It sounds so naïve now, but in the spring, many of us thought that (waves hands vaguely) all this would be over by midsummer.  July sounded so far away!  Surely the twice-cancelled baby shower could be repurposed as a baptism celebration!  Yes, a baptism celebration.  We all nodded thoughtfully, decisively.  All theological doubts about infant baptism were laid aside.  Our daughter would be baptized at the church in which I was confirmed back in Pennsylvania, the church my eighty-nine-year-old grandparents still attend.  And then we would be able to be together, to celebrate properly, with a bona fide religious ritual to gather us on the banks of the River Susquehanna.

Well.  July found us still staying home, still masking, and still anxious, only now with a baby I can see and hold to consider.  Our pediatrician signed off on visits with the baby with some sensible precautions (masks, handwashing, gloves, no face contact), but that wasn’t much help for the now great-grandparents, who, understandably, don’t travel much at this stage of life.  The date on which my family in Pennsylvania had agreed inched closer, and we had to decide: Would waiting a month or two make a difference?  Could we gather safely enough?  Was it even possible to know?

We packed up the baby and an entire car’s worth of stuff for a single night away.  (Laugh if you must, but the baby bathtub may have bought us a decent night of sleep away from home.) One bag was entirely filled with disposable masks and three different sizes of gloves.  We reserved a hotel room.  I fed and changed the baby on a picnic table outside a rest stop and in the back seat of the car in the Wegmans parking lot to avoid taking her into any extra indoor spaces.  We summoned absent family members (Dakota’s parents in Texas were quarantined out of New York and Pennsylvania due to the outbreaks there; one of my sisters had been exposed to COVID at work and was waiting out test results) and the little one’s godmothers on Zoom.

Surely it was madness.  If we have a coronavirus budget, this felt like blowing a good eighty percent of it for the summer in one shot.  Then again, on what else would we spend it, if not to wash our daughter in the waters of baptism and introduce her to her great-grandparents?  I don’t even relish popping in to the neighborhood Walgreens or post office with the baby in tow, and outdoor dining doesn’t lend itself to an enjoyable time for a breastfed infant who needs to stay out of the July sun, or therefore to her parents.

So there we were, sixteen or so of us, seated in household groups in every other pew.  The love in the room was nevertheless shot through with awkwardness, with fear, warm smiles hidden behind our masks.  The amiable pastor stressed the necessary safety precautions for the space as much as the spiritual significance of the event.  Still: my daughter wore the gown and bonnet that has been in the family for (now) four generations.  A rose on the altar, a church tradition, represented her and her new life in baptism.  We brought her to the tiny baptismal font, a simple silver bowl, and watched as the pastor poured the water over her tiny head and made the tiny Sign of the Cross there.  Her baptismal candle was lit.  And as we agreed to the promises of baptism, my daughter was formally welcomed into the family of God, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, the family and friends in the space and beyond it.

I don’t know what kind of life we can promise her right now beyond the renunciation of the forces of evil, the belief in the triune God and the life of the world to come.  The world is breaking; whether or not we can reshape it into something better, nobler, kinder, or if we continue to build on the backs of the poor and ignore the hard-fought lessons of the last few months, remains to be seen.  The only promise God could make to Jesus, and to us, was that, in his suffering, he would not be alone.

In Mark’s Gospel, immediately after Jesus’s baptism, there is no cake, no pile of cheerful board books and preciously printed bibs to unwrap; he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days and nights.  The respite for us was longer and certainly more comfortable than that, but still, the world as it currently is was waiting for us when we left the church.  I kept my mask on as much as was possible (between bites of cake) as a gentle reminder to everyone else to do the same, and we stayed outside as much as the weather permitted.  I could feel my coronavirus budget cascading out of me like coins from a torn pocket.

But was it worth it?  Eleven days later, as I finish writing this reflection, we’re coming to the end of the fourteen-day incubation period for COVID, and everyone here seems in robust good health.  My grandparents got to meet and hold their great-granddaughter.  The sigh of relief is almost ready to be released.  But we are still in the wilderness of 2020: the pandemic, the hazy postpartum days, the nail-biting countdown to Election Day.

So I reluctantly let go of memories of past summers: hot nights on the Wildwood Boardwalk, frosty afternoons in dark movie theatres, early evenings sprawled on blankets in Prospect Park casually passing sushi and wine between friends.  The coronavirus budget is spent and we are in the desert.  But there is goodness behind us and beyond us and between us.  Our daughter now has tangible reminders, in the form of her My First Bible and the candle we’ll light again next July 11, of being included in that circle of goodness.  It is, in the end, the only promise we can make, the only promise that even the omnipotent God makes to Their beloved son.  We go forward into the wilderness.

baptism edited

 

(Don’t) Take Me to Church 4/26/20: Potter’s Field, Potter’s Wheel

roman-hinex-3s-D6FZKxAc-unsplash
Photo by Roman Hinex on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading “(Don’t) Take Me to Church 4/26/20: Potter’s Field, Potter’s Wheel”

(Don’t) Take Me to Church 4/19/20: Dormant and Doubtful

deleece-cook-TOi_oMU4-n0-unsplash
Photo: Deleece Cook on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading “(Don’t) Take Me to Church 4/19/20: Dormant and Doubtful”

(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.

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

(Don’t) Take Me to Church 3/15/20: Remain in a Circle

dan-smedley-hbD2-Db0zLs-unsplash
Photo by Dan Smedley on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading “(Don’t) Take Me to Church 3/15/20: Remain in a Circle”

Take Me to Church 1/26/20: On Stilts

seth-kane-XOEAHbE_vO8-unsplash
Photo by Seth kane on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading “Take Me to Church 1/26/20: On Stilts”

Take Me to Church 1/19/20: In the Image of God

256px-Martin_Luther_King_memorial_Westminster_Abbey
MLK Jr. at Westminster Abbey.  Photo by Nadiastrid on Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Continue reading “Take Me to Church 1/19/20: In the Image of God”

Take Me to Church 1/12/20: New Things

Screenshot 2020-01-13 at 6.00.57 PM
Cartoon from theawkwardyeti.com (via Facebook)

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).  

Continue reading “Take Me to Church 1/12/20: New Things”

Take Me to Church 1/5/20: Home by Another Way

matt-seymour-fwRqzRkH0Qw-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash.

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?

Continue reading “Take Me to Church 1/5/20: Home by Another Way”

Take Me to Church 11/3/19: Can You Sell Your Canoe?

muradi-qcZbas2swPg-unsplash
Photo by Muradi on Unsplash.

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?

Continue reading “Take Me to Church 11/3/19: Can You Sell Your Canoe?”