Season 2 continues with Joe lamenting online church and considering the mailman’s war with porch pirates.
Yesterday, my wife said, “You are the only man I’ve seen in weeks. Other than the mailman.” We talked about how strange the mailman is—how he rings the bell and waits for one of us wave or shout—acknowledge when he drops a package. He says, “Gotta watch for porch pirates.”
He lives in a larger world than I do. He goes out and about, an emissary to shut-ins, battling buccaneers. Maybe I should stop him and say, “Tell me of the world. Tell me about what you see.” By which I mean, what fetishes people hide in seclusion, what addictions people satisfy through mail order.
I can’t get my wife’s words out of my head. The scenario is set. If something happens to me, if I get the Plague, the last male standing is the mailman. My wife says she wouldn’t—even if he were the last man on earth. Still, isolation affects our judgment. Needs creep in we didn’t anticipate.
It is now Sunday, and the mailman will not come. Sunday, not so long ago, was the day—if on no other day—I would go out into the world. I would join other Christians, sing songs, repeat words and prayers, make signs of the cross, stand or sit for scripture reading, hear a sermon, and take the Eucharist. We took offerings for the church and for those in need. We coordinated our outreach and service to the broader world. We prayed for one another and, afterward, whispered, in church corners, the secrets we didn’t trust to anyone else.
Apart from a year or two during community college, this, or some similar form, has been my practice. For most of my life, Sundays included the presence of other people, no matter if I lived alone, no matter if I wanted to be alone.
Last Sunday, in an attempt to regain normalcy, I joined, via a Facebook stream, a Lenten-Plague church service. It was a baptist church, so it was an already-condensed form. For the twenty-five years I was a baptist, I accepted the lack of liturgy: worship distilled into a few core parts: a sermon, an offering, brief prayer, brief scripture reading, announcements, and lots of music. Songs opened and closed. Songs marked transitions. They acted as both entree and dessert. Songs took the place of the Creed, the confession. Then the sermon consumed the Lord’s Prayer, the reading of the Psalms, the words of institution.
The online baptist service had time for songs, a sermon, and a call for offering. It had everything essential to an in-person baptist service. Yet even with lowered expectations, it was unsatisfying. It felt like being part of a clinical study for a potentially life-saving drug; then looking at the bottle to read, “Placebo. We wish you the best.”
I’m between churches now. I’m in the homelessness that comes when separated from community. I’ve been looking for a home church since moving to Portland a year and a half ago. I spent two months at a semi-liturgical non-denominational church, seven months at a Lutheran church, a month or so haunting a Catholic church, and, until recently, a progressive non-denominational church—a place my wife, who is not a Christian, and I were comfortable together. It had a liturgical structure and enough ambiguity that each of us could get something of what we needed. In the end, I found the ambiguity, initially the thing that allowed me to take communion, to be unnourishing. Then the teaching, when it was unambiguous, was indigestible.
The Plague has interrupted my search. But I’m following several churches online. In mid-February, I visited the websites of nearly 200 Portland churches. I downloaded at least 70 sermons. I’ve worked through nearly 40 of those sermons. Most have been disappointing—the sternness of a Catholic sermon called, “Marriage, Our Taste of Heaven,” the sentimentalism of a United Church of Christ inspirational talk, “Creating: Imagine That!” [exclamation mark], or the cringe-inducing silliness of a non-denominational pastor’s “Bringing Sexy Back.” Some sermons were pleasantly orthodox—strangely comforting in their Evangelical-ness, their verse-by-verse teaching and application style: the non-denominational “The Heart: Resolve to Walk in Christ,” the Presbyterian, “The Prayer of Daniel.” Some were challenging and fresh: a Covenant Church’s “I Am Not the Problem,” which reimagined the story of John the Baptist as a modern-day confrontation of the pastor’s attitudes. I appreciated the homily from Father Ignacio, my favorite Catholic priest in Portland. I needed the steadiness, wisdom, artfulness, and brevity of an Anglican sermon called “A Light for Revelation.” I gushed over the literary structure and vulnerability of the homily from the rector of Saint David of Wales, an Episcopalian church that was the first I visited in Portland. To her alone, of all pastors living or dead, have I complained: “Your sermons are too short.”
In all of this, I have, in quarantine, a voyeur’s familiarity with the Christian world of Portland. So this morning, I have a dozen potential churches to join via laptop. In some, I can participate in a breakout room. One church says to have bread and grape juice standing by. One sends a PDF of the liturgy so I can read along—or read to my cat. In some, I can sing with the other virtual parishioners, rhythm and tune shaped less by singing ability and more by quality of broadband connection. In most, I can still donate money.
Nearly all these online events call themselves “worship” or “virtual church.” All grant some kind of exception or dispensation for what it means to be church. Priests stream video of masses without congregants (the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist amid the real absence of those who can take and eat). Pastors preach sermons to a spouse holding an iPhone. If this week is anything like last week, parishioners will send post-worship emoticons—little cartoon hearts or oddly yellow praying hands—and comment on what a blessing it is to be able to meet together. They will say how we should do this more, even when the Plague ends.
Me. I feel disappointment. It’s something like the sick feeling that comes from skipping a day’s meals until, around nine at night, binging on McDonald’s. There is something hollow and crudely seasoned about this whole practice, something both seductive and unsatisfying in the convenience.
In this, I am most drawn to an Anglican church in the Woodlawn district of Portland, which, perhaps in keeping with the season of Lent or because Anglicans are already a serious and orthodox group, is more sober. The Anglican priest sends out nightly reflections, arranges for virtual prayer meetings during the week, and distributes recordings of the liturgy, his wife singing the Psalms. I appreciate these approximations for community. But in his recordings, the priest directly admits how inadequate these substitutes are. He mourns what is missing. He laments the loss of community and Eucharist. He refers to the lack of Sunday gatherings as an imposed fast.
And he is right. This is a fast. A coincidence with Lent. Though this is not Lent. Lenten fast only last for 40 days. And Lenten fasting is constantly interrupted. Anyone with a calendar can count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as 46. Those six extra days, then, make no sense, except in the understanding that the church, whatever the season—no matter how penitent—always keeps the celebration of the resurrection. Always. Since the resurrection. Every Sunday is a break from fast.
But not this year. There is no Sunday. There is no celebration. There is only the fast. A Lent of 46 days. Perhaps longer. A Lent that may have no Easter. A Lent like C.S. Lewis’s vision of Narnia under the reign of the White Witch: “It is always winter. Winter and never Christmas.” And yet we have not lamented. We have not acted with disbelief and horror as Mr. Tumnus does, epitomizing the abnormality of the season: “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” Perhaps we don’t really believe Easter will be canceled this year. Perhaps we don’t understand that every Sunday is an Easter, and already we have been canceling it.
I am not Catholic, but a mass, which places the presence of Christ centrally, is not a mass if it is only an image, only a symbol. The glory of the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ. This is true, with some modification, for us Lutherans, too. And worship without communion—the rejection of the real presence of Jesus—is the thing that most drove me from being a baptist. It is, to me, like a young Flannery O’Connor said when an adult tried to praise communion as only symbol, adding, “and a pretty good one.” To which O’Connor responded, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
But baptists, believing like the adult pacifying the child O’Connor—that the Eucharist is only a symbol—do not escape the Lenten-Plague fast in sacramental churches. I think of the words of the great Southern Baptist teacher and preacher, John Broadus, as quoted by one of my heroes, A. T. Robertson: “A sermon becomes such only in the act of delivery. Whatever mode of preparing be adopted, it is not strictly a sermon, but merely the preparation, until it is delivered. The proper design of a sermon is to produce its effect as delivered. The subsequent printing such a discourse to read, however legitimate and useful, is a matter incidental and additional.” Broadus, speaking from just after the Civil War, may not have imagined a world of podcasts and Zoom gatherings. But he, in essence, was appealing to the same idea: that a sermon is only a sermon when it shares space with a congregation. Of course most baptists would not use the word “sacrament,” but, in practice, perhaps sermons are sacramental. According to Broadus, a teaching or a lecture or a recording may be beneficial; but it is not a sermon unless it is given, like consecrated bread and wine, to the congregation.
One meme of comfort people offer is Jesus’ words, “That where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” This parameter works for most people in quarantine. It even allows for Jesus to be in Germany, where the Chancellor banned meetings of more than two people—provided he remains invisible.
But the Plague, and the retreat of churches into virtual meetings, has no comfort for people who have no second or third. I may feel this loss of gathering more profoundly, not only because I am a sacramental person or because I have long worked from home. I feel it because it emphasizes that I am the only Christian in my household. In that sense, Narnia’s winter is more severe and enduring—like that late-January grayness of deep snow that has grown gravel-blemished and crusty.
The online services, then, whatever they are and however well-meaning they may be, are Christmas movies on Netflix. They are something like hearing Mr. Tumnus’s exasperation, “Always winter and never Christmas” and responding, “Sure, we may not have Luke’s Gospel, the Nativity, the gathering of family, the aroma of roasting food, or the presence of the Word made flesh, but we can watch It’s a Wonderful Life. We can sing along with Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby.” Instead of lamenting the lost celebration, or raging against it, we have made due with tinsel and plastic trees.
The Lenten-Plague, and the retreat of churches into separate enclaves, blurs the community. We are anonymous and quarantined. We are as names on a screen. We are as faceless and redundant as computer-animated soldiers in an epic blockbuster movie. The Lenten-Plague removes the sacraments and, for some of us, the possibility of Jesus’ presence in any substantial way. Yes, in a way, we have Jesus and one another. But it is a little like holding a love note rather than holding the lover.
I am still coming to terms with priests promoting the value of “spiritual communion” in place of the Eucharist. The Pope is granting a general absolution that requires no priest for confession. He says people can go straight to God and ask for mercy directly. If nothing else, the Lenten-Plague may turn Catholics into baptists.
I have no solutions for this fast. Except, perhaps, that we acknowledge and mourn it as a fast—as the deepest and most profoundly penitent Lent the Church has ever known. Since we’ve agreed to stay home, to give up the meeting together, I wonder, if we’re missing a true opportunity. I see us having two options: that the church, in solidarity, either exposes all its members to the Plague or suffers together in separation from the community and the sacraments. In the former, we defy our governments and communities and families. In the latter approach, we face what is lost by loosening our grip on what is already taken. In the latter, we acknowledge the true depth of our need and our inability to satisfy it by our convenient technologies.
We need one another. We need presence. This period of separation from one another and from presence is tragic. It is, if we pay attention, like the presence of God departing the Temple. It hurts us. And yet it reminds us of the treasure we have in one another and in the gift God gives us in the gathering—if we acknowledge the fast. If we take this moment to mourn.
To be clear, I will probably find some church to join online today. I’ll sit on the other end of a computer. I may even put on pants and brush my teeth. I will do this because I am very hungry and very thirsty. I will do this for the same reason that a man on a lifeboat, no matter what he knows about how saltwater increases his thirst, drinks from the sea.
In the meantime, I consider my mailman. His jokes are corny and absurd enough that he could be a baptist. Though probably he’s a Presbyterian. He’s never said so, but he did comment the other day, as I received a package from Florida, reading the label, “Key Life.”It seemed to mean something to him. I wonder if the words struck him funny or if he just reads everyone’s packages or if he knew that Key Life is a radio ministry from Florida that I’ve listened to since community college. It was odd enough—and probably a big enough ethical breach—that it makes me wonder if he was signaling something to me, like those ancient Christians who would draw a parenthesis in the sand, waiting for another Christian to come along and draw the matching parenthesis, forming a fish—the Ichthus, the secret code, the discrete wink. Maybe I should stop the mailman, next time he shouts out, “Watch out for porch pirates.” Maybe I should step outside and say, “Hey, brother. We’re the last two men on earth. How should we pray for one another?”
Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com