S2E10 Funerals

Joe sees the world in the time after the apocalypse, in a world without funerals.

Transcript:

For at least two decades, I’ve had this end-of-the-world fantasy. I base it on Night of the Comet, a 1984 movie about two Valley Girl sisters who survive the annihilation of humanity. After the comet, they have free reign of the streets and stores of Los Angeles. They even, despite zombie scientists, manage to find love. By the end, it’s their responsibility to rebuild civilization. I envy their freedom—no debts, no work hours, no possessions. And, too, I envy their ability to determine what is worth saving. They get to start over and hold onto only those things that matter. It’s a variation of one of my favorite childhood movies, 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson. After the catastrophe comes the freedom of paradise.

Those are the optimistic apocalypses. Nearly every other apocalypse movie I’ve seen describes—in Mad Max style—a world that devolves into a new feudalism or something much worse. These apocalypse moves—whether Escape from New York, Waterworld, or Cyborg—are new westerns: clans of predatory men who ravage people and resources, who exploit the weak, and who can only be defeated by some powerful hero with a vendetta or an innate sense of righteousness.

I’ve tried to write an apocalypse story. It always fails. But I find that each attempt leads me to an entirely different question. An existential question I can’t seem to shake. Is it better to be taken by the apocalypse or to live on only to die alone in the after-mess? By which I mean, would I rather die peacefully in my sleep or on a falling jetliner surrounded by other people? Would I rather die of some private cancer or sit on a park bench with others to watch the world end? Like in that other 1980s apocalypse movie, The Day After. The mushroom clouds, the nuclear blast, the fire that consumes.

Apocalypse movies begin with the bulk of humanity, countless billions, coming to a collective end. Skylab sends out the terminators. An alien invasion incinerates nations. The big ending is the beginning of the apocalypse movie. The apocalypse movie is really about what comes next—the post-world and the protagonist navigating it. The way people no longer suffer as a whole. Every person has a separate fate, a separate destiny, a separate experience of survival. Some are fabulously wealthy and powerful. Most are fodder and food.

This weekend, Portland feels like summer. It’s warm and lovely and green. The birds are choirs. Bumblebees pop from flower to flower. The rabbits are back—multiple incarnations of the same brown bunny in the bushes across the street, in the park, by our driveway tree. There is, too, the buzz, the sense that the world is moving into some new phase.

Yes, all the news is the same news, but it is not the same news for everyone. If you live in Germany, you have different news than Alabama or Italy. If you live in South Dakota, you have different news than Sweden or South Africa. If you are wealthy, you have different news than the poor. If your skin is dark, you have different news than those who have light skin—the people for whom a neighborhood jog is not lethal. The collective story of the Plague is becoming the separate stories of the movie hero. Every one of us our own franchise.

For a few weeks, humanity had a shared story. And now, as movie theaters and hair salons open in some states, as bars and restaurants open in others, we are back to doing our own things. We risk some people and protect others. We have grown bored of one another. We have tired of cooperation. There is, perhaps, only so much solidarity we can have. The apocalypse moves from the end of the world to the world after the end. And maybe it reveals that the cooperation, unity, shared purpose, and common resolve were all illusions. Maybe we were never really in this together.

Today, I am thinking of funerals. My Great Uncle Jerry died this week in a nursing home, a new kind of lonely—a denied dignity. Jerry did not get, as he deserved, anything so normal and humane as family at the end of 82 years. He isn’t getting a funeral. At least not anytime soon.

Which makes me think of the funeral I last went to—a year ago for my uncle Paul. Uncle Paul’s funeral afforded something that only funerals offer: that point when people connected to one another realize, for a moment, how disconnected they have become. A funeral, more than any wedding, is about connection. It’s the place where we try to plan out ways to, this time, stay in better touch. I laugh and talk much more at funerals—or, at least, after them—than I ever do at weddings.

The Plague has taken many gatherings. Students lament graduation ceremonies. Two people I know have already altered their weddings. And then, birthdays. My niece and stepdaughter both turned 21 in quarantine. On Saturday, I did an eight-hour round trip for my son’s 14th birthday. I stood outside. I felt uncomfortable being within six feet of him.

These are true losses, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But all of these things, as unfortunate as they are, do not compare to the loss of funerals. They do not compare to the isolation in hospitals and nursing homes. In all of my fantasies about surviving the apocalypse or being collectively lost to it, I did not imagine this other scenario: for people to die alone and together, the worst of both experiences.

There is a special cruelty to it. And it reminds me of Sylvia Plath, how her mother, in order to protect the young girl when her father died, did not allow any of the Plath children to the funeral. Rather than sparing the girl, the choice seems to have damned her. She grows obsessed with death. She lives her short life feeling betrayed. She has no sense of acceptance. Her father becomes a ghost. He abandons her. He leaves her alone. Maybe he is still alive and just doesn’t want her anymore. Plath never got to see her father one last time. She never saw him lowered into the ground. Plath’s career is famously tormented by obsessions with her father and with death. In a poem written two weeks before her own death, Plath cannot shake this loss. She describes a heaven that is “fatherless.”

I am not romanticizing funerals. Rather, I am recognizing this moment in which the Plague has taken on a new character or—rather—exposed our character. As groups gather to wave flags and rifles to declare their personal sovereignties, I cannot help but think of how fragile solidarity truly is and how rare shared moments of concern are. Plagues, like wars, reveal us: they show us opportunities to join our resources for a common good, though like westerns and apocalypse movies, it takes little time for clans to form, leaving us longing for some Hollywood ending: the saving hero to come in. But that—the hero—is the real fantasy. There is no Jean Claude Van Damme Cyborg coming to save us. There are no Avengers. There is only us, creatures capable of saving worlds or destroying them. Creatures equipped with the ability to recognize the dignity of the individual or to collapse into rants and lawsuits about our rights to assembly. Perhaps I would be more sympathetic to the protests if their concern was human dignity, if their outrage was about people like Uncle Jerry who had to die alone—no child or priest permitted bedside.

The apocalypse has already happened. We are the people left behind. And already, the first chance we get, we run our separate directions, chasing our private storylines, abandoning the sense of humanity or shared responsibility or collective sacrifice. Each of us to our own path, each to our own story.

Like after a funeral, on the car ride home, and the conversation about how nice it was to see Aunt Sylvia again and we really should get to Boise to visit. Then the glance at the calendar. The look at the bank account. The question of what to get for dinner. And then, the unspoken understanding that only another funeral will bring the family back together.

S2E09 Quarantine

Joe reads a new bit of fiction: a story about quarantine and a cat that doesn’t have anywhere better to go.

Transcript:

Stephen always hated cats. Always. This hatred had even ended relationships—women who were wonderful in all ways except their loyalties and adoration of cats. Cats. Vile creatures that resent and sulk and destroy. The fat ones that lounge, entitled. The thin ones that shred, mischievous. All of them, unaffectionate and arbitrary, as fickle and arrogant as middle school girls.

Cats were even topics of therapy. Stephen’s counselor theorized about the why of it all: childhood trauma. That maybe Stephen was scarred—literally and psychically—from the family cat. How, as a five-year-old, Stephen tried to pet it, but Misty scratched across his face. The scratch got infected. Or how the next cat, Shadow, left a teeth-wounded mouse on his bedroom floor, bleeding from the eyes and squealing and the boy Stephen, in terror, was too paralyzed to step over it or to scream for his parents. And the mouse, in its agony and erratic death-breathing, moved toward him. Or how, when he was eight, a friend from school, who lived on a farm, took a sack and filled it with unwanted kittens, and tied the mouth of the sack with a shoelace and threw the sack in the river. How Stephen stood by as this happened. And maybe, the therapist said, that if Stephen acknowledged the value of cats he would have to acknowledge his complicity in their execution. The therapist suggested that Stephen wasn’t mad at cats. He was mad at himself.

Whatever the reason, Stephen considered cats lecherous and parasitic, cruel and savage. He wanted no part of them and could feign no tolerance. He loathed the creatures. He would sooner say, “nice cancer” than “nice cat.”

He liked dogs. But his apartment did not permit dogs. Cats, yes. But not dogs.

Stephen had been alone in his apartment for eight weeks, now. Most days without any interaction except email or following links real-world friends posted in the virtual world.

The grocery store trip became the highlight of his life—the going out into the world, leaving shelter, as permitted by state law, only for emergencies, essential work, and groceries. He—at least his work—was not essential.

His family worried about him, alone. Friends called him. Even an old girlfriend, more lonely than he was, perhaps. The spark was long over on that one.

Stephen was tired of faces on screens. At first, it was good: re-connecting, talking to people he intended to visit. But, a month in, it felt as hollow as reruns of baseball games.

Into this, of course, a cat enters. A non-descript cat—a gray tabby, no collar. Scrawny. White toes and a white chest. Young—maybe two years old—and quiet. It sits outside on Stephen’s deck. Stephen does not know why. Stephen shoos it away, stepping toward it and saying, “Shoo.” It leaves.

The next day, it’s there again. Quiet, sitting on Stephen’s deck, looking into the sliding glass door. Stephen fills a glass, opens the door, and tosses water. Cats hate water, he knows.

The third day, Stephen throws his work shoes.

The fourth, he tosses couch pillows.

The fifth, he finds a hose.

And each day, the cat walks away and then returns in the morning. No sound. Just a tabby on the patio staring into the apartment. Even after Stephen closes the curtain, as he turns off the lights so he can’t be seen.

The sixth day is Stephen’s store day. The cat is there when he leaves and when he comes home. Stephen asks a clerk if they have anything to keep cats away. The clerk says, “A dog?”

Day seven, Stephen jumps toward the cat, making sure to land flat-footed in his sneakers to create the biggest clap. “Git.” The cat walks off.

On day eight, Stephen ignores it. But at night, he pulls the curtain, and the cat is there.

The morning of the ninth day, he calls his therapist.

“Maybe,” Dr. Williams says, “it’s a gift. Maybe this is a chance for healing.”

“But you think it’s real?” says Stephen. “It’s not a hallucination.”

“I guess it could be. Hadn’t thought of that.”

On the tenth day, Stephen kicks it.

On day eleven, he whips a leather belt on the ground. Loud, percussive slaps.

On the twelfth day, Stephen calls the city. The secretary answers and says Animal Control is understaffed. Emergencies only. The secretary tells Stephen, “You might as well feed it.”

That day, Stephen understands that only one action remains. He will catch the cat. He will get rid of it once and for all. Out in the country. And that will be the end of it. He doesn’t need to kill it, but he’s willing. If he has to.

So he has his plan. He’ll wait until dark. He doesn’t want any neighbors seeing. Too many cat-lovers in the complex. They would think him—not the lurking animal—the villain.

He will catch it in the dark, drive it in the dark, abandon it in the dark. Ten miles away, no less.

At nine, Stephen pulls the curtains back. The cat is on the patio. Stephen opens the hall closet and takes out a pillow case. He unfolds it, waves it so it billows and opens. He turns off his patio light, slides open the door, and walks to the cat. The cat does not move. It only watches him.

Even as Stephen wraps the pillowcase around it, the cat neither squirms nor squeals.

To be safe, Stephen ties off the case with his belt and sets the bundle in his car trunk. He gets in the front seat. Looks around the complex. Seeing no one, he starts the car and pulls out. He puts on music. Something loud, first. But then something soft. Switching. No song forming the right soundtrack. Then, after five minutes, no music at all. Only the engine.

The streets are bare. Stephen drives a half mile before coming across another car. The headlights are harsh, a cool but abrasive blue-white beam. He doesn’t remember car headlights being this harsh. Perhaps he’s been locked inside too long. When this is over—when he is free to get out—he will go to the eye doctor. He’s getting older. He’ll be thirty-two in October. Maybe he’s aging. Maybe it is all happening, and what has he done with his life anyway?

He still follows traffic laws. He comes to full stops. He looks before entering an intersection. Then, at one light, a police car waits in the opposing lane. Just Stephen and a police car. No other traffic. Nothing to distract the officer. Stephen worries about how the bored cop, needing something to do, might check him, check the car. How he will explain the cat. He can’t. Or maybe he can. The police will understand. It’s a stray. The city isn’t taking care of strays. He isn’t hurting it. He’s just taking it to the woods to set it free. Besides, there is that article about the virus and how cats can carry it. Maybe this cat is contagious. Stephen is not wearing his mask. He’s not wearing gloves.

The light turns. Stephen pauses one second before releasing the brake. The police car is already halfway through the intersection. The officer is a black woman. Stephen notices this then feels guilty for noticing. She continues. Even as Stephen drives straight, watching in his rearview mirror, the cop continues on. Steady red lights. No break lights. No in-street U-turn. Maybe if it was a black male cop, he thinks. Then, again, shame. He is not a racist. These are not the kind of thoughts he should have. And should he talk to his therapist about this?

Stephen reaches the edge of town, past the suburbs, and the speed limit increases to 50. Whenever he stops, he listens for the cat. It’s quiet. Or maybe the car is too loud. Or maybe there is, in the trunk, an exhaust leak. Maybe the fumes have gotten to it. He hadn’t meant to kill it, but, really, wouldn’t that be a merciful way to go. Not drowning. Nothing as cruel as drowning. Just a quiet sleepiness. Like all other sleepiness. Only this one doesn’t stop.

Stephen turns right, onto a streetlight-less road off the main highway, and, after a mile, looks for a place to pull over. There are trees here. Tall trees. It’s dark, except for his headlights. And the houses are far apart. Maybe one of these houses will want a cat. Maybe this cat will wander to those houses and find a home. Some old woman who needs companionship. Someone who has no one else.

He pulls onto a wide shoulder, onto gravel. He turns off the headlights. Turns off the engine. This looks suspicious, he knows. If anyone drives by, they won’t understand. He can explain, but still, it doesn’t look great. But this is the right thing to do. This is better than the cat—any cat he’s known—deserves.

He opens the door, which squeaks. He hadn’t noticed a squeak before. When the quarantine is over, he will get grease and fix the door. Until then, it’s just a squeak. He pats his front pockets, nervous that he will somehow lock himself out. The key is in his hand. The gravel marks each step like movie gravel—a blend of crunch and the whisking of a broom. The woods themselves are quiet. Almost peaceful. But, also, too dark to be comfortable. A little unnerving in their darkness and their quiet. What of the birds? There are no birds. And no sound from the highway.

Stephen thinks of horror stories. In a horror movie, the cat will find its way back to him, torment him. But those are just stories. Cats, abandoned ten miles in the country, don’t come back to houses that were never their homes. They find new homes. Or coyotes find them.

For reasons he does not fully fathom, Stephen is pleased, opening the trunk, that the cat is still moving. He doesn’t actually wish it dead by his hand. He just hates it. Nothing personal. A natural hatred, like a mongoose’s hatred for cobras. It’s a feeling he has toward all cats. For someone else, this might be the world’s greatest cat. But the world’s greatest cat is no less a menace than the world’s greatest hornet or world’s greatest mosquito. Nothing personal.

The cat makes no sound, even as Stephen lifts the pillowcase from the trunk. It does not resist or scratch. Instead, it allows itself into the temporary cradle Stephen forms, resting fully in the man’s arms. Unanxious. No defense. Stephen feels the weight and the warmth. He feels the pillow case’s insides nestle into his chest. All the pillows this case has ever covered have not done this. They are inert. They are room temperature. They are utterly indifferent.

Stephen lowers the case to the ground. He is gentle. He loosens the belt.

The cat, cautious at first, pushes out of the pillowcase. It walks four steps and then settles, as it had for nearly two weeks, on its haunches—its front arms straight—sitting up, staring at Stephen, eye to eye.

“Nothing personal,” says Stephen. “I told you to get.”

Stephen walks around the car and says, behind him, but not looking back, “You’ll be fine.”

He gets in. Turns the key. Turns on the lights. He pulls out slowly. Doesn’t even spin out on the gravel. He makes a wide U-turn, and the cat watches him. It doesn’t budge. Stephen rolls down his window. “You git, now,” he says.

The cat does not “git.” It stays. It watches Stephen.

Stephen can make it out in his mirror. Just sitting there. Watching. Glowing red for a moment. And then it is too dark. The cat is part of the shadows now. It’s free among the woods. And all this is finally over now. Stephen can go home now. In peace. He can finally be all alone.

 

S2E07 Memory

Joe is losing his mind, one memory at a time. Plus, he talks Augustine, Moby Dick, twenty-first birthdays, and Heaven.

Transcript:

For most of the Plague, I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. It remains one of the glaring omissions in my study. For the first chapters, it was fascinating. I thought I would blaze through. Expecting a quick finish, I even ordered a few other books, which are now in stacks, waiting their turns. But I’ve been buried, for a month now, in a repetitive and meandering part. It’s the dull and apparently aimless rambling that makes me think of Moby Dick—how it took me years of false starts until finally, in an act of willpower that may have been better applied to training for a marathon, I finished.

My poor wife thinks it’s her obligation to read Melville now. She has my copy on her bedside, bookmarked in the early chapters just as Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg leave Nantucket. She’s stranded. Just as I, now past the juicy parts about Augustine’s youth, feel like the Pequod stalled in windless waters.

My stepdaughter turns 21 in three weeks. She’s not excited about it. My wife and I talked with her about twenty-first birthdays. This, for some reason, is an American right of passage. And my stepdaughter is, rightly, saddened that she will miss out on hers. She will mark the day with her mom, her sister, and her mother’s new-ish husband. In our house. No friends, no bouncers, no illicit regrets. Perhaps she will, by nature of the disappointment, remember the birthday. Twenty years from now, she will talk about the quarantine birthday. It will be memorable for its context, even if its actual events are forgettable. Though, perhaps, she won’t really remember it. Because that Monday night will seem so much like the Sunday before it or the Wednesday after it—the same texture, the same Netflix browsing, the same furniture. She will—as is the nature of adult birthdays—not even be excused from her online classes.

My dad never had a twentieth birthday, though it’s the only of his birthdays he’s ever talked about. He boarded a plane for Vietnam on June 15 and arrived in Thailand on the 17th.

I am thinking these days about memory. Since January, I’ve risen early most days and scribbled into notebooks, attempting to form something of a theological memoir. I know I have no chance, without exhaustive research, of building a typical autobiography. I can’t get facts straight. I have few direct quotes. But by attaching my recollection to developments in my religious life, I seem to find some narrative—how I got here—how I drifted from a Catholic through Evangelicalism through other stops until my current homelessness—a Lutheran in most doctrine, but not quite sure what to do with that. This attempt to remember—to create a memoir—was why I finally got around to reading Augustine’s memoir.

The hard part of trying to remember a life is that most of life in unmemorable. Most of it blends into other parts. People enter out of order. I mix up where I lived, when I lived there, and who my friends were. I can’t seem to pinpoint the moment when my family stopped being Catholic and switched to baptist, or why I went along with it. My best resources are corroding memories of conversations with my mom. My grandparents are gone. My aunts and uncles are dwindling or distant. So, I write what I can recall. But the memoir that emerges plays loosely with its historical framework, like how Moby Dick blurs Melville’s time as a sailor with the historical case of the Essex, a ship attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. Or like movies based on historical events—how I watched the 2003 Luther movie with my wife and had to keep pausing to say, “Well, actually.”

I have no hope of being truly historical because memory is a terrible tool for recording history. When my daughter, now 19, was a child, I deferred my memory to hers. If she said, “No, dad. Grandma wore a pink dress,” then whatever memory I had that her grandma had not been there, let alone never wore pink dresses, would adjust to her account. My daughter was my pure camera. She recorded events without processing them. Though, around her twelfth birthday, this changed. Her memories, like mine, became interpretations. She had a harder time accessing an objective raw feed and tended to recall events based on how they affected her.

This brings me back to something I’ve been plodding through with Augustine. He’s been concerned, for the last week or so, with the nature of time, the essence of God’s relationship to time in contrast to how all of creation experiences—exists in—time. For me, I’m usually bored with theologies that focus too much on God’s perfections—how he is perfectly perfect in his perfectness: eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging. This theology, as orthodox as it may be, makes God abstract, a philosophical ideal. And it tends to contrast with the God who barters with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and rages at Moses.

Augustine, in explaining God’s eternalness, points out why, as an aspect of this, God must be unchanging. He writes, “[God] doesn’t will different things at different times, but instead wills everything that he does will only once, but at the same time and for all time—not over and over, and not differently now and then.” For Augustine, change is an element of time. Only created things—people, pencils, trees, universes—change because they are bound to time. He writes, “periods of time can be perceived and counted off, because periods of time arise from changes in things, given that their types… diverge and diversify.” To Augustine, time is that principle by which we detect and measure change. Change is imperfection. Perfection is unchanging. Perfection is beyond time.

I have two responses to Augustine. The first is more of a question: I can say that God, as I’ve gotten older, appears to have changed. So, how can I be certain that I am changing but God isn’t? My children change, my wife changes, people in relationships change. How do I know that God isn’t changed by entering time and experiencing it with me? Of course, Augustine and St. Thomas and the good Reformed thinkers have answers for that, so I won’t press the point. I try to choose my heresies wisely.

The second is about this present moment and how utterly forgettable it is. This, I think, is one of the illusions of the Lenten-Plague and one of the reasons I keep writing about it. I don’t want to write about this. I want to write about movies, love, cats, and the city. But I’m trapped here. I’m stuck. Or maybe I know that just as I’ve already forgotten what I ate two days ago, I will forget the individual days of this period unless I chronicle them. The further this presses on, the more I’ll mash all its parts into one, just as I blend second through fifth grade into something called “childhood.” We all think we’ll never forget something this big, something this historic. But the featureless and uneventful present moment feels like living the process of forgetting.

I remember parts of my twenty-first birthday. I remember it because it was my twenty-first and that’s something you’re supposed to take note of. So I have a spot for it. My wife’s daughter will likely remember hers because there’s a spot for it—like a picture frame waiting for its photo. And because, over time, she will rehearse and replay her memory—“My twenty-first was the worst because….” She will tell that story until the story replaces a memory, the interpretation replaces the raw footage. For the record, I’m starting to wonder if Naser Al-Hajeri really gave me a Pearl Jam CD on my twenty-first birthday. Maybe that was a different day.

This, perhaps, is what I am understanding about the Plague. I will remember the Plague itself, but not the days within it. The longer it extends, the more inseparable the days are. Had all of this run its course by Easter, then, probably, I could think of the parts. But this is not ending soon, and the gap between memorable moments is increasing. This is the dull and slow part of Moby Dick, the meandering pages of The Confessions. I understand, of course, that not everyone is having the same experience—healthcare workers and essential personnel are going through intense hours. But even this intensity is, in itself, a way of confusing memory. It is a type of hypnosis. It’s like this morning, as I tried, again, to find something in a newsfeed that didn’t ultimately come back to the Plague. But all of it does. The blurring of time, the repetitiveness of story, the meandering uncertainty, the loss of calendar and interaction. It makes us as drowsy as a husband and a wife, on separate sides of the bed at 11:00, attempting to read Augustine and Melville.

Which leaves me with another question about God and eternity: a slow horror that emerges when people mention Heaven—another orthodox idea that I admit leaves me cold. Heaven, in my mind, no matter how much pastors smile when they say it, no matter how much I’m told to imagine it as better than anything I can imagine, is Narnia’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas, or this year’s always-Lent-and-never-Easter. The best description of Heaven I know is not in Augustine, though it seems to have come from reading Augustine. It is, instead, David Byrne, in lyrics from the band, Talking Heads:

“When this kiss is over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same
It’s hard to imagine
That nothing at all
Could be so exciting
Could be this much fun
Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens.”

I don’t know if there’s something on the other side of Heaven. Honestly, I hope there is. But I still believe something waits on the other side of the Plague. And when that other side comes, perhaps we will long for this, the season without seasons, the days without days. Because, often, the things we remember most are the things we wish we could forget. Maybe that’s what Heaven is: the process of forgetting.

In the meantime, I will finish Augustine. Maybe I will miss it when it’s done, just as, at some level, I felt more sadness than triumph when closing Moby Dick. A few days ago, my wife said she might miss the Plague when it’s over. Yesterday, she changed her mind. She wants it gone. Her daughter won’t miss it. It’s taken a day that was supposed to be memorable. Though, if it’s anything like most twenty-first birthdays, it would have been disappointing anyway. So rarely do our expectations match reality. And so few things are really remembered.

S2E06 Constancy

Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.

Transcript:

Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.

In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.

For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.

The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.

These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.

This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.

This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.

During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.

There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.

I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.

The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy….

Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.

Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.

I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.

But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.

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

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