Giving to church has changed in some ways since I was confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997. Judson accepts gifts in the time-honored forms of cash and checks, of course, but plenty of people donate via Venmo, and we break up our yearly pledge into monthly credit card payments. So I rarely find myself digging in my wallet for cash to stuff an envelope the way I did when I was a teenager. But I gave, obviously in paltry amounts, from a young age, as the daughter of a church treasurer who reminded me that churches were not exempt from the demands of Pennsylvania Power and Light or the elevator repair service. Unsexy though that may sound, it’s still a stewardship narrative, and as the year leans towards an end, there’s no shortage of them around our church and many others.
Autumn isn’t typically the time of year to be thinking about planting seeds. It’s the time of harvest, the time of storing up and shoring up. But in the wake of the Climate March and Strike, we found ourselves today wondering what seeds we can plant, among ourselves and others, to inspire change and movement around the coming chaos, disaster, and mass death that unchecked climate change will surely bring.
And so I found myself wondering if things might have been different if the environmental movement had had a different message all along. When I was growing up, and maybe even as recently as a few years ago, I received the message of the environmental movement as a message about the Earth: protect the Earth, keep it clean. I dutifully recycled and took public transit and ate no, or at least less, meat. But Greta Thunberg and her young allies in climate activism put it bluntly: The future for young people looks fragile, even bleak, indeed, and even more fragile and bleak for the young people of the developing world. The Earth will survive us if necessary. But we will not survive an Earth that is rapidly warming, flooding, storming, and burning, much of it aggravated (even if all of not directly caused) by human activity. Climate change deniers may scoff at the idea of protecting the spotted owl from extinction until they realize, likely too late, how the spotted owl (or any other vulnerable species) is also a canary in a coal mine.
Even if you’re not personally going “back to school,” as it were, September nevertheless feels like a return to schooling after summer, in which stasis and idleness is forgiven, even rewarded, as one tries to conserve energy and juiciness under the hot suns of the bright months. I’m not sure how much I evolved spiritually this past summer. I read over a thousand pages of Anne Brontë in the long heat of July, which, given their almost relentless and irredeemable bleakness, I do not recommend; I delayed completing my already-long-delayed draft of a novel I’ve been trying to write for the better part of five years; and, of course, if you’ve been keeping up with this blog (which of course you have), you’ve noticed I’ve been a little quiet here as I try to figure out how to keep sharing my creative offerings but also look into sharing my work with larger audiences. So I returned to church this morning after (another) two-week absence for what many churches call “Rally Day”: the return of Sunday School for children, and, for the adult spiritual truants, a return to the Psalms and the prayers and the quiet anxiety of sitting with our own hearts in the space of the Meeting Room, under the new lights we haven’t gotten used to yet, wondering what might be revealed.
If I sound tired before the “new school year,” so to speak, is even a week old, I don’t think I’m alone. “What most of us want,” Donna said in her sermon, “is to just not lose anything else.” It’s no way to receive the great gift of salvation, we all know, but that doesn’t make it any easier, not in the face of so much disaster. As I try to write this, Bahamians trying to come to the United States to take refuge with family and friends from the wreckage of Hurricane Dorian are being turned away without the visas they’ve never been required to have before. Is everything going to be all right? Can it be? Who knows?
August is a month for losing your place: in all the books you’ve been meaning to read all summer, in your inbox or your Twitter feed, in the TV series you’ve been binging. (Don’t sleep on Derry Girls!) But God goes looking for us, and in her great love discerns, from moment to moment, if we need to stay hidden or if we need to come out.
Come out about what’s important to you, come out from your hiding place. Find yourself. Find the place from which it is safe to come out, find the place into which it is safe to enter. Donna spoke of the ways in which church can be this place, even and maybe especially for the unbelievers and the maybe-believers: without an explicit or even implicit mission to persuade or convert, we nevertheless stand for what church can be and what the love of God is when we create a place for people in which to take sanctuary and from which to emerge. The cleft in the Rock of Ages is both a hiding place and a point of egress.
It probably says more about me than about the relative memorability of Sunday’s service that I wanted to run right home and watch Season 3, Episode 23 of The West Wing, “Posse Comitatus.” I’d forgotten how great, and momentous, this particular episode is. Exit Mark Harmon as Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan, the only man worthy of C.J. Cregg (sorry, C.J./Danny shippers); enter Lily Tomlin as eventual Secretary to the President Deborah Fiderer. There are about six plots going on—a night at the theatre, an assassination, the search for a new Secretary, the tension between C.J. and Simon, a major domestic bill in consideration and wreaking havoc with Josh’s love life, a pissing match between President Bartlet and his Republican rival Governor Ritchie involving a Yankees game and a traffic jam on the Major Deegan (reminiscent, now, of the traffic problems in Fort Lee)—and a recurring motif of the white and red roses of the houses of Lancaster and York, respectively. Throw in some Gilbert and Sullivan and it would really have been Peak Sorkin.
I digress. The episode was alluded to in our Modern Testimony, an excerpt from Megan Garber’s Atlantic essay, “How Trump Obscures Mass Shootings with Doublespeak.” The essay alluded to Governor Ritchie’s flaccid response to Agent Donovan’s death in an armed robbery: “Crime…boy, I don’t know.” It’s not so different from the responses of too many of our elected officials to mass shootings, not so distant from thoughts and prayers.
The first Sunday of the month so often finds me wearing disposable food safety gloves and parceling out a box of fifty Munchkins across the eight or ten tables around which we gather for our monthly Agape communion meal. Nothing changes this ritual, not even the uniquely and appallingly American ritual of mass gun violence, in which we remember the humanity of Jesus as much as his divinity: his friends and his religious practice; his eating and drinking; his fragility and fear. These were shared by the thirty-two (as of this writing) people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, who had so much in common with Jesus, so much in common with all of us gathered around those tables and wondering which Munchkins had a jelly center. In the wake of all this death, we remembered Jesus’s, and we looked for the way forward.
Or did we? If there is a way, I’m no authority on it. During the meal, I wrapped a tangy-sweet chunk of applewood smoked Cheddar around the crusty bread meant to represent the body of Christ and thought of the thirty-two people who will never enjoy bread and cheese again. Then, too, after church, we rode the train uptown and took in a Broadway musical. Then, too, it just happened to be the revival of Oklahoma!, which interrogates, and none too gently, the American lust for both violence and happy endings.
Valerie preached on the parable of the rich fool: “You fool!” God says to a rich man who, like many of us here in New York, has a little storage problem, “this very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?” It was the lectionary text, and a painful coincidence for the dead of El Paso, stocking up at a back-to-school sale. There is no way forward for those who abandoned the markers and notebooks, socks and hair ties in the aisles of the Walmart. And there is no way forward for those enjoying one last drink with their friends, just as Jesus did, in Ned Pepper’s bar in Dayton.
For the living, it has to consist, Valerie offered, in gratitude, in not losing sight of the other. The rich fool eats, drinks, and makes merry alone; God reminds her that her plenty won’t count for much when her life is demanded of her when she is alone. God gave Jesus friends with whom to share a last meal, erstwhile though they may have been.
God gave the world Jesus, and God gave the world Glendon Oakley, who saved several children during the shooting.
The rich fool is rich in examples of how to do better. The rich fool washes her hands and passes out the Munchkins.
The king caved in, and ordered Daniel brought and thrown into the lions’ den. But he said to Daniel, “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this.”
Daniel’s true crime might be described as what Community Minister André Daughtry described in his sermon today as “particularity.” Daniel worships the God of Israel, quietly but openly flouting a decree that Darius be worshipped as a God (a decree that Daniel’s enemies connive Darius into signing). Darius is reluctant to sentence Daniel to the lions’ den, urging Daniel to call on his God to save him.
The artist—like the exile, like the spiritual leader—is someone who answers the call to particularity. André shared his photographs of Rev. Jeff Mansfield, a former community minister at Judson, which included an action shot of Jeff leading a Moral Mondays protest in Albany. (“Leading,” it should be noted, is not the word Jeff himself would use. Reflecting on the picture, Jeff instead described a sense of feeling steered by the protesters, of being in front “not because [he] knew the way, but because [he] knew they needed to get there.”) Protesting systemic racism and poverty is, in these darkening days, still particular.
On the 42nd anniversary of the 1977 blackout, New York City experienced another (albeit much smaller and briefer) blackout last night. It was a strange epoch in an already-unsettling weekend that began, for me, with standing vigil at Foley Square as part of Lights for Liberty, holding up my phone along with nearly three thousand other phones, candles, and flashlights in the shadow of 26 Federal Plaza. Saturday morning found me chasing our friends’ toddler around the Elevated Acre and watched the helicopters and ferries bouncing along the East River with him and his parents; I went home and followed stories of the ICE raids, starting earlier than the projected date of today, on Twitter. That flowed into news of the blackout, and in an apophenic moment, I wondered if one had anything to do with the other.
Heaven? I’m in heaven?
—Prior Walter in Act V of Angels in America: Perestroika, Tony Kushner
We sang Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable” surrounded by dozens of panels of the AIDS Quilt, we noshed on Keen’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, we contemplated Paul’s cryptic “I heard it from a cousin who told his friend” commentary on “the third heaven,” whatever that is—that is to say, I was back at church for the first time in a month, my longest stretch without church proper in years, and it was as good and jarring of a homecoming as I could have wanted.
I had actually been in the courts of the Lord already the previous evening for Quilt: A Musical Celebration, Judsonite Mark Perry’s benefit show for the Callen-Lorde Health Center and Frontline AIDS. Mark had arranged for a sizable showing of the quilt itself, which I’d never seen in person. I texted a picture of Freddie Mercury’s panel to MaryBeth; I shuddered with a sort of bilious grief at Roy Cohn’s, emblazoned with the legend “BULLY-COWARD-VICTIM.” But the panel I won’t be able to forget is the very first one that was made, Marvin Feldman’s, by Cleve Jones, who conceived the quilt and the NAMES Project. In the panel, Johnson is slight and serious, with round glasses and a moustache; he is surrounded by a Keith Haring-esque corona of bold dashed gray lines; and he holds a small gray tabby cat.
On Wednesday nights, when Judson becomes an arts venue (always free for both artists and audience, always live, always uncensored), the Meeting Room looks different. The LaFarge windows only suggest the saints and angels within themselves; there are more shadows, the Vignette on the Instagram turned all the way up; more ways to be ambiguous, more ways to hide and then emerge.
In the dimmed room, as the Judson staff and the artists of Undiscovered Countries worked together to set the stage for the show, I was reminded of why Judson Arts Wednesdays are so important, both for us as a faith community and for the artists who come to work and perform there. There was the lighting, the sound system, the microphones carefully placed and adjusted; the infrastructure often barely visible to an audience, but so important for artists to be able to access as they grow their art and the audience for it. Before the show even started, I was grateful just for that, for the columns holding up our aging building, for the people who take such good care of both it and the people who take spiritual, artistic, and religious shelter within it.