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’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.
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.
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.