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

 

Pandemic, Postpartum, Post-Urban

more than everMy life as I knew it ended on Thursday, March 12, 2020, though I didn’t know it or expect it.  I took the subway to work for the last time, a nearly two-hour journey from my home in Brooklyn to the Evander Childs campus in the Bronx for a walkthrough of their AP and pre-AP English classes with Shoshana from the superintendent’s office and the school’s principal and assistant principal.  I grabbed a mediocre second breakfast for the last time at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gun Hill Road, and ate lunch with Shoshana for the last time at the Cherry Valley Marketplace across the street from the school.  It was an utterly ordinary day that started like many others in the past four years of my career, but the signs were already there: Shoshana and I had offered, earlier in the week, to cancel or reschedule the visit as schools began to tremble with rumors of COVID-19 infection; she drove me home, insistent that I shouldn’t be on the subway anymore considering that I was thirty weeks pregnant.  Rush hour in midtown Manhattan looked like an early Sunday morning, nearly devoid of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

I view my calendar for mid-March and I can see life ground to a halt: the book club meeting scheduled for Friday, March 13 was cancelled, as was the West Village Chorale’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on Sunday, March 15.  After that, the calendar just empties out, dotted only with doctors’ appointments and reminders to water my plants.  I can look back and see my friend Daniel’s daughter Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah the previous weekend, and laugh, quietly and bitterly, at the memory of bumping elbows and ostentatiously availing myself of hand sanitizer while we sat cheek by jowl with two hundred or so folks at Beth Elohim (indoors!  a house of worship!  how naive we were!).  A little further sees a reminder of our babymoon in Mexico at the end of February (airports!  restaurants!  vague reports of some virus out of China on CNN out of the corners of our eyes while we waited for our flights!  it boggles the imagination); a little further than that and there’s the last show we saw on Broadway, To Kill a Mockingbird starring Ed Harris as Atticus; a little further than that and there is the ultimate forbidden treat, a professional haircut.  It is who I was: urbane, cultured, sociable.  It is hard to believe that I was any of those things, harder still to believe that I still am any of those things after three-plus months of YouTube-ing and Zoom-ing into church and book club and cutting my own bangs with too-large scissors and gritted teeth before my bathroom mirror and, now, nursing a baby according to her weeks-old whims.  Any day I manage to put pants on is a classy one.

Continue reading “Pandemic, Postpartum, Post-Urban”

(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 4/5/20: 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”