S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.

Transcript:

I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.

The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.

This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”

Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.

To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.

Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.

At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.

Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.

That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.

This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.

In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S2E04 Mailman

Season 2 continues with Joe lamenting online church and considering the mailman’s war with porch pirates.

Transcript:

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

S2E03 Apocalypse

In this episode, an actual third episode of Season 2, Joe writes about how he misses thinking that the world might end today.

Transcript:

American Christianity has always been eschatological. It has always viewed life with an expectation of an imminent end, where we are moments away from our personal finality or a step from the Day of Judgment. Consider Jonathan Edwards or Michael Wigglesworth’s poem, “The Day of Doom: Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment.” We are always a moment away from the return of Jesus.

Depending on the particular strain of theology, this return can come slowly, after a thousand years of peace. Or it can come instantly, before I finish this sentence. It’s this latter form—the “thief in the night,” the “twinkling of an eye“—that I have lived longest with. It is this ongoing sense that we are living in a unique age, that when things get bad enough—or too organized, such as a peaceable and efficient union of nations—Jesus will come for us. He will call us home.

My mom believes in this—the Rapture—and for several years, I did. I think her life is more religiously rich for believing still, as I, having read too much theology and history and recognizing that the hopeful whisking away of us Christians into the clouds is a recent idea. It is, best I can tell, not at all likely. Though, to borrow from one of my favorite preachers, if I’m wrong about that, please grab me on the way up.

The Rapture, when I believed in it, game me hope that I have lost along the way. For one thing, it served as a bond with other evangelicals. We read the news differently, saw every moment differently. And a war, a rumor of war, was followed by a wordless knowing, a quiet and aware glance, a speechless recognition that this could be it. This could be the fulfillment of a prophecy that makes the clock—the Doomsday wristwatch that only God the Father wears—click one more minute to midnight.

Living in the world with the expectation of the imminent end gave life a steady dose of adrenaline. Rather than being frightened by the news, we could find comfort in it. We had, of course, no concept of history, no way of reconciling the many signs that have already come and gone—the ways that people, including Christians, had already lived through—or were violently killed by—plagues, wars, pestilence, ecological disasters. The Rapture eschatology knew only those histories that include Israel or advanced the world toward a unified global government. It did not have a way of fully comprehending how ravaging life had already been for most of humanity. Or how the churches named or existing when the Book of Revelation was penned may have experienced all—and worse—of what the book seemed to depict. Or, as Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who described the Nazi occupation of Holland and her imprisonment in a concentration camp, noted, that much of the church, at the time Christians in America were talking of Rapture and escape from persecution, were experiencing horrors that made Revelation read like a nursery rhyme.

These flaws aside, the Rapture gave me an expectancy that was both absurd and envigorating—like a feverish crush that, in hindsight, leads to both a “what was I thinking?” feeling of foolishness and a tinge of sadness that he or she “wasn’t the one.” It is a little like that adage (which I have grown more suspicious of): “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” It was, I think, better to have believed in a life that was always self-consciously expectant than to live always rationally and mundanely—a life that was almost certain to conclude in a hospital bed.

1970, the year before my birth, produce Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 28 million copies in its first twenty years and led to a movie narrated by Orson Welles. That book encapsulated—or triggered—all that was right and wrong about the form of evangelicalism I grew connected to. The book and its adherents scoured the news for government movements, connecting existing nations to Old Testament prophecies. The description of Gog and Magog in the book of Ezekiel became a twentieth-century code for a war with the Soviet Union. The Bible was, page by page, a revealing message, like lemon juice scribbles on paper held over a heat lamp. It talked incessantly of 1948—or 1967—the establishment and expansion of the nation of Israel, the undeniably divine coincidences that birthed a country, the unseen hand that defended and expanded it. From that book and the movement it spoke to, the Bible was alive and constantly calling Christians to think and prepare, like restless horses in the moments before an earthquake.

I am, now, saddened that all of this fell apart — that 1988 (marking the forty years after the establishment of Israel) came and went with nothing except the election of another Republic president. No rise of an anti-Christ, no trumpet or shofar from heaven. (I was, during the first Gulf War, convinced I, a soldier, was living in the book of Isaiah, chapter 13, where Iraq equaled Babylon and the coalition of nations under President George H.W. Bush was the coalition in scripture. Instead, the war came and went and, in consolation, gave way to the eventual release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I remain disappointed that the calendar’s turn from 1999 to 2000 was as uneventful, cosmically, as every turn of year before it. The world went on as regularly scheduled. No earthquake or series of earthquakes were enough to bring about the end Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24. No matter how much I turned my eyes to see or my ears to hear, I was blind, I was deaf, the world stopped speaking.

The loss of this expectancy cannot be overstated. Though I can point to the problems of a Rapture theology, I have no deep need or interest in taking it away from people who still hold it. As arrogant as it sounds — and as arrogant as it surely is —when I hear a Christian talk about a new American policy toward Israel—naming Jerusalem as the capital, for example—and watch the excitement of the Rapture people, I am tempted to dispel it all. Like how I told my, then-five-year-old daughter, while she went on about the dress she would wear for a middle-school boy at the baptist church we attended, “Elaina, you’re not going to marry James.” And my girl—daddy’s favorite—refused to speak to me for 36 hours after. I had thrown a cold and hopeless form of reality over her expectancy and possibility. And, to be honest, knowing what I know about James, I would have been quite pleased if a world existed in which my daughter wanted and was with a person of his qualities. I can, fourteen years later, transport back to the Safeway parking lot in Yakima and slap the younger, orthodox, reasonable me and whisper to him, “Shut up, you know-it-all, and just ask her what she and James will name their children.”

There is, in the creeds, an expectancy that aligns nicely to a theology of a sudden and definitive end. The rational, informed, sophisticated Sadducee in me has come to accept the language as so abstract and distant that it might as well be poetry: “I believe he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” It is the creed recited by Christians throughout the centuries, generation after generation—expectant and attending to the world with a belief—at least the possibility—that today could be the day. And the delay of that day has, among many of us, reduced that element of the creed to a formality and a tradition. Do we—except in the acknowledgment that any one of us is mortal and could die and could therefore on this day come face to face with God—really believe that this day might be unlike every other day in human history since some blessed moment in the first century?

I have long given up on the idea, even as I defend the virgin birth, the death and resurrection. But those historical statements are no different than the eschatological: they are as sure to happen as those things that have already happened. The creed—and the Christian conviction—sees the end as concrete and settled as the beginning. The world is part of a story both written and unfolding, both planned and spontaneous. That in every moment, there is room and reason for fear and assurance. We are letters and commas and periods waiting in the ink of a pen.

This morning, I’m bored of the world. As I’ve been bored of it for more years than I can count. It is, for me, stuck in the aimless cycle of Ecclesiastes. And as I grow older and more disappointed, I have come to think like that writer. I have even come to celebrate his or her wisdom, the way that living each day under the sun has shown the pleasure and meaninglessness— or “vanity” and “smoke”—of life: that we are all, at once, pathetic and fortunate. That every day always mundane and miraculous.

Ecclesiastes is a respectable book, one that even English profs can introduce into a lit course without apology, teaching its poetry, its wisdom, its insight into life under the sun. And we can expect a philosophy major to gravitate toward it, relate it back to the great Greek movements, revolving between Stoicism and Epicureanism. A perspective holding in tension the extremes of despair and expectation, all in a form and brevity that merits re-reading and meditation.

How different this is than showing the end of Matthew’s gospel as Jesus responds to the question of when will the end come and what will be the sign of its coming. Or of Revelation, its obscurity and scale—a long-winded and archaic vision of beasts and dragons and scrolls and an abyss—cryptic and superstitious, the fodder for horror movies. And we, I, am quick to note that Jesus is speaking of a moment that has come and gone: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (careful to say “C.E.” and not “A.D.”). Or that Revelation is part of a literary tradition that encodes political messages—that for a reader in the late first century, these images would all be evident. Think of how in a thousand years people will read Harry Potter and assume the world believes in Hogwarts and wizards, or they’ll find our endless archives of Star Wars references and make strange interpretations of our belief in “The Force” and Jedi. All of this—the scrolls, the silence in heaven—has already come and gone.

Yet that leaves me sad and bored. We, living in this moment, have been left out of the story. The book has been assembled and canonized with no part for us to play but to continue on unto our individual immanent deaths, each of us witnesses to a private apocalypse—some by stroke, some by cancer, some by accident. Each little apocalypse, both unique and generic, small and immense. But no great cosmic event, no coming in the clouds, no trumpet blast reverberating through every human ear. Only the sequence established, barring accident or untreatable disease: my grandparents will die (as their parents did) in hospice or hospital. Then my parents. Then in some sequence, me and my siblings. Then it will be my children’s job to be accepting and wise, to read Ecclesiastes and see the machine running on schedule: days pass, lives pass, better is a living dog than a dead lion. Elaina will not marry James. Israel will not renew the temple sacrifice. I will work until I can afford to retire. I will read through the latter pages of the gospel of Matthew, and my pulse will stay steady.

As I write this, the news is all redundant. The virus has entered the world—as viruses always have—and every story or post includes a set of numbers. Every story judges how leaders moved faster or more decisively—those numbers could be lower—as if those numbers weren’t going to be counted sooner or later, as if we are actually stopping something that can be stopped. I wonder if they have even read Ecclesiastes. Don’t they know that there is nothing new under the sun. They have, already, stopped calling the virus “novel”—the “novel coronavirus,” the new coronavirus. It no longer feels new. It feels as old as Gog and Magog. It’s always been here. It will always be here. World without end.

We are, I think, stuck here. Israel is in the news again. It is always in the news. The nation is quarantining, testing, treating the Palestinians the way King David treated the Philistines. But, so far, it has not announced plans to demolish the Dome of the Rock so it can rebuild the temple and re-instate ritual sacrifice, as the Rapture news and the Late Great Planet Earth people told us would happen. That is the news I’m waiting for: that the world, today—or even tomorrow—will do something new.

But, still, I have this vestigial hope, a strange sense of expectancy. Not that this plague is the plague of Revelation, destroying countless lives. But that the world is capable of newness, of remembering to be in wonder. And, this word echoes in me, like an old prayer or a TV theme song: from the very end of the book of Revelation, maranatha.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S202 Third Sunday of Lenten-Plague

In this episode, a surprise continuation of Season 2, Joe writes more about the wrongness of presence in the time of plague.

Transcript:

It is the first full Sunday of the Lenten-Plague. The churches, one by one, resolve to do their part in the collective self-quarantine, and with each notice of closures, I think two contradictory thoughts: I am, at once, torn between pride that Christians—as have those of other faiths—joined in solidarity with all humanity, and I am disappointed that the gathering is something suddenly optional.

As far as this first thought, I know that the closures are signs of leadership. Whatever else Christians may be backwards or forwards on, they are aligned with culture on quarantine. They are showing moral leadership. And some of my Pagan friends have made sure to say how they are both surprised and delighted that the Christians aren’t causing some silly squabble. They are showing ascent to science. Even the baptists. Even the churches with the word “Bible” in their names.

It is, as far as I know, the greatest ecumenical action of my lifetime. Bishop after bishop announces that their diocese will not meet. The United Methodists voted to spit their church this summer, but they can agree on this: it is part of Christian charity—a sign of love for neighbor—to close doors until Holy Week. A Lutheran church I was planning on attending noted that this was a fortuitous alignment, a true sense of Lent. The Episcopalian church, whose vicar I adore, sent out a touching letter on how this is the right and good Christian step.

Perhaps they are right. The last strongholds—an Anglican church that interests me and another Lutheran church I wanted to check out—announced on Saturday that they would not be meeting. They would continue in prayer, in communication. But there would be no Sunday morning worship, no gathering of the community to mark the resurrection of Jesus.

I am sure that there have been other periods in time when the universal Christian church agreed on something. I don’t remember them. For some reason, this is the thing that the church of the twenty-first century aligned on. In that, I should accept that wisdom and delight in the approval among my non-religious friends that, for once, Christians have not made things worse.

But it is the contrarian in me. Something pushes back. It may be the news article I read this morning about musicians who refuse to cancel their tours. The Reverend Horton Heat (not that kind of reverend) continues to tour, noting, “They can’t stop rock and roll!” He, of course, was met with outrage, even some of his fans contending that he was irresponsible and dumb. Yet, I admired it. The punk ethos. The sense that rock and roll means something that, yes, is irresponsible and dumb. Wattie Buchanan, the frontman for Exploited, using words I am not rock and roll enough to include in an essay, says, “I have had five heart attacks a quad heart bypass and a heart pacemaker fitted. Cancel gigs for a virus?” I’ve never turned to Exploited or the Reverend for wisdom before. And I’m not doing that now. Still….

The Archdiocese of Portland announced that it would be curtailing many services, cutting down on unnecessary exposure and risk. It, however, parting ways from several other dioceses, did not cancel masses or confession. Yes, the archbishop gave a dispensation for the faithful who would not attend mass, and he deterred many populations. He suggested other solutions for keeping within Oregon’s Governor’s restrictions on assemblies of 250 or more people.

So, this morning, I was in mass at St. Michael the Archangel’s, the parish I visit often, though I can’t take the Eucharist. I would if it were offered me. But I am not Catholic, and, second, if I were, I would be forbidden from the Eucharist because I am remarried and considered to be in a constant state of adultery, according to the Church’s teaching. About 50 people were there. I heard one person sneeze.

I won’t attempt to defend the Archbishop, St. Michael’s, my participation, or the participation of those parishioners who were sprinkled out in mass this morning. Nor will I bother describing the beauty of it all, what changes were made to the liturgy, or how closely people sat to one another. That knowledge—and the impression of it—was for those of us who gathered. It is something that cannot be passed on or photographed or recorded. The assembly of the faithful, as ludicrous and irresponsible and dumb as it may be in time of plague—or in any other time—is not a thing served well by narrative or rhetoric. It is, instead, an experience in the ongoing gathering that has taken place in time of famine and feast, in time of plague and health, and in time of war and peace. Someone, I’m sure, is thinking of historical precedent as I say this, noting how in some place and some time the church did the wise and responsible thing and postponed its meetings. I’m sure this has happened and will happen again.

Portland was oddly beautiful and empty, the way cities are beautiful and empty on Christmas morning. On Saturday, we had snow. Most of it, though, has burned away in the sun. And I am reminded of the indifference of nature: how viruses have no morality and how the sun is constant when we are turned toward it: blocked only by those exceptional moments in which the moon passes between it and the earth or when enough clouds accumulate. The sun is never really gone. This morning, in some way, it was wasted. Today should have been an overcast, drizzly day, and then the sunshine could have held out until a more fitting time, when people are free to congregate and move about and touch one another. But that is not how the sun operates.

Next week, I may not go to church. For all I know, the Archdiocese may change its direction. Or I may simply decide, as an individual, that I am wiser than this, that it is truly more loving for me to give up my rights to assemble so that others can have lower risk of infection. Or, perhaps, I just don’t have enough rock and roll in me.

On the way home, I stopped for donuts. My wife has a favorite, an apple fritter from Coco’s Donuts, and with parking being uniquely easy—and for her being uniquely understanding of my own need to be in mass this morning—it seemed an obvious idea. Pick one up for her. It brings her, a simple pleasure. Besides, if we stop buying donuts during the plague, there may not be donut shops when the plague ends—assuming that another plague doesn’t simply follow in its place. There is, perhaps, subconsciously, this other reason for getting donuts, something I didn’t consider until I arrived home. That, maybe, I was protecting the church: that if I did get sick, and brought sickness to my loved ones, there was no way of knowing, with certainty, whether the virus came from mass or from the donut shop.

One of my best friends runs a college. She has been scrambling, madly, working with teacher unions, staff, student services, and all the special interests who are generally not responsive to college administrations. Somehow she managed to enter the weekend with a sophisticated plan that moved all operations into the plague-ending practice of self-quarantine. Added to this, she also has a chronic respiratory illness, and I am deeply frightened about what might happen if the virus got to her. I can’t, to her or to others, justify the need to be in church this morning. I am, as I think about her, probably wrong.

And yet, I feel aligned with Reverend Horton Heat or with the couple sitting on the sidewalk on Broadway, eating glazed originals, or the sun, or the three people—each in a separate car—riding in the Metro as it passed before me on the way. We all had reasons, indefensible or understandable, perhaps, that made us go out into the world and be among other people. We, being the minorities, are certainly wrong—or mostly wrong. And yet, I cannot forget how penetrating and focusing and transcendently vital was the moment when the priest raised the bread and the bell rang three times and, if you believe things the way I do, Christ was present among us. In that rock and roll church. In the time of plague. In a reckless and irresponsible act of presence.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

S201 The End of the World

In this episode, perhaps the only of Season 2, Joe ponders viruses, snow, aging, and the end of the world.

Transcript:

This morning, Friday, March 13, snow has come to Portland. This is how the world ends. Or begins. I’m not sure.

This recording is not, really, a Weekly Reading. I’ve debated how to continue with those. On one hand, I have been incredibly productive: Since my last recording, I’ve finished the draft of a novel, completed a book of poems responding to Genesis, and am nearly 200-hand written pages into what could emerge as a theological memoir. If nothing else, my voice and my interest are shifting further from fiction and into ideas, theology, and wisdom. The idea of contracting myself to weekly readings may slow the progress I’m making elsewhere. This recording, this brief informal essay, then, may be a blip, an outlier, an anomaly—like a stray radio signal momentarily appearing from somewhere east of Mars.

But, today, I feel like writing something. I feel like reading something I wrote.

In this last year, I have grown strangely comfortable with becoming more boring. I am aging. And there is nothing that aging writers seem more fascinated with than writing about aging. If, as writers and humans, we’re paying attention, that writing contains wisdom. If we’re not, it reveals how shallow we’ve been and will, probably, remain. If I haven’t been paying attention to the strangeness, wonder, and lessons of life by now, I’m not likely to start. Or, if I do, my revelations will sound more like the pop psychology of reality television than the hard-worn sagacity of Ecclesiastes or Elie Wiesel.

Aging truly is fascinating. Having completed 48 years, and working on my 49th, I now have data. Life has started to show patterns. And when patterns repeat, we can see meaning—or, at least, seasons. Life is repeating.

More than this, I am growing strangely comfortable with being boring. I watch my children—and my wife’s children—with an understanding that it is they, not us, who are interesting now. The good movies and TV shows, the ones with real drama and excitement, are about the lost and seeking, not about the found and complacent. The young and vibrant, not the middle-aged. A year ago, a stranger in a new city, single and traumatized, I was more interesting, though much less stable. And now, as the world enters a new type of anxiety, people talking about the end of the world or society or capitalism as we know it, I feel oddly at peace. Like I’ve seen this before. Like, if I live long enough, I will see it again.

This morning my wife and I had the conversation being had in every home, school, and workplace. What it all means. What we should do. Where it all leads. And the only thing I could think of was a story about St. Francis. How St. Francis, when asked about the Apocalypse and the end of the world, said, “”Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Though, as I fact-checked, it wasn’t St. Francis at all. I should’ve seen that coming. According to the Internet, my primary source for how to face the virus and the world’s end, the quote is from Martin Luther. Though, likely, neither Luther nor St. Francis said it. The best guess is that the story showed up in 1944, when the world was the closest it has been to ending until the Cuban Missle Crisis. Apparently, someone in the Confessing Church within Germany said that Martin Luther said this bit about how to carry on in the face of the end. Do what you would normally do. Go to work, help the needy, plant a tree.

There is, whoever said it, some wisdom in that. I’m not sure if it is uniquely Christian wisdom, but it certainly corresponds to a Christian perspective, when Christian perspectives align with wisdom. Today, my wife may plant some seeds. She meant to last year, but she was a little flustered. She was starting to spend her planting time with a man she met. The world was starting for her. For me. But today the world is ending, again. And she may plant seeds.

The snowflakes are thick now, like ash. On a clear day—not today—when I drive I-5 heading north, I can see Mount St. Helens. 40 years ago, the mountain blasted 1,313 feet of stone from its summit, atom-bomb billows of ash and rivers of mud. Parts of Mt. St. Helens are probably in the snow and in the virus. It was a Sunday morning in May 1980 when Mount St Helens erupted. It was black as night at 10:am. We looked out the windows at the blackness. And the four of us kids asked my parents what was happening. It looked like the world was ending.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

Loss (memoir): Ep46

“It is a Sunday night, and I, with my cat, am in my mother’s basement: a forty-seven-year-old man, who earlier that day delivered a sermon on Ecclesiastes to a congregation of Lutherans, surrounded by that tan masonite paneling, corresponding with a woman in Oregon on an online dating app, and thinking he ought to exercise, while his children were likely watching a movie at their mother’s house an hour away.”

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com