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.


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.


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