S2E08 Talents

Joe considers neighbors, aspirations, and fear. He attempts to be inspirational.

Transcript:

On Saturday, my neighbor stopped me in the street. I was dumping compost from dinner, and he was wandering, a little stir crazy. My first feeling was that newly-gained dread: the terror of people: all of them are like zombies, carrying the plague and walking, standing, or running too close. There was, too, the introvert’s terror of having to engage. I knew he expected me to turn on, which is to say, my neighbor needed me to be neighborly.

Fortunately, he didn’t need me to talk much. The wind shifted, and I caught the scent. He was buzzed. He just wanted to ramble. And if it wasn’t me, it would’ve been a dog or a tree.

He had an idea for a book. For ten minutes, he described it, though it morphed and took on new forms as he talked. He asked questions, but never waited for the answers. By the end, I had no idea what his book was about. Only that an idea had occurred to him. He could write a book. It would be interactive. It would be a best seller. He wanted to print locally, not in China. He thought about Portland. “Does Powell’s publish books or just sell books?” he said. I said I didn’t know. I started to say I knew of a Powell’s employee who was a publisher. But my neighbor didn’t hear this. His idea was so great that Powell’s would begin publishing and make his their first book.

The book’s title was a secret. It was a hilarious title, he said. It made his kids and his wife laugh, he said. He couldn’t tell me. He didn’t want to give it away. He had that paranoia people have when they get book ideas. It’s like having a map to gold in the Yukon. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. If someone gets the idea, they’ll steal it. The step from great idea to New York Times bestseller is a simple matter of typing the thing out.

I’ve been writing, and getting rejected, for nearly twenty-five years. At this point, I don’t even feel rejections. I barely feel acceptances. So, I envied the neighbor’s enthusiasm. But like the middle-aged man that I am, I also thought it naive. He still believed that the most important part of a book was the concept. And it did me no good to tell him that concept doesn’t matter. An idea is the easy part. It’s the discipline to sit and write that matters. I was pretty sure, given how squirrel-like he was, bouncing from concept to concept, he wouldn’t be able to do that part.

Long ago, I stopped caring about the ideas people had. I only cared about their follow-through. My neighbor would need to learn how to move from enthusiasm to tedium. Writing is tedious. From what I know of people who build businesses, that work is tedious, too.

At dinner, my wife’s daughter asked why I get up early to write. I said fear—this fear that if I don’t, I will die having wasted some gift I had.

I’m not proud of that answer. It goes back to a bad understanding of gifts, nurtured by a bad understanding of a parable Jesus told. I learned this parable in the King James translation, which uses an old word—“talents”—that some translations render as “bag of gold”—an old Roman and Greek unit of measure. But to me, the word is “talents,” and the idea of the parable is talents—our aptitudes and skills.

The gist of the parable is that a master allots each of three servants talents. It’s not even. One gets ten, one gets five, one gets one. Each servant’s responsibility is to do something with those talents. Then the master leaves.

The servant given one talent buries his, afraid he will lose the little he has. He fears the master and figures that it’s better to not use a talent rather than to risk losing it and falling into the master’s wrath. The other servants use their talents. Each doubles the original amount.

The twist in the parable is that the master, once returning, is outraged by cowardice, not by risk. He takes the one talent the man has, gives it to the person who now has twenty. Then he casts out the talent-less servant.

I am afraid of being the servant who buried his talent. I’m afraid that the master will return and look at a life that squandered its talents.

Of course, writing from a place of fear may not be the best way to write—or to do anything. I’ve tried switching my motivations to something else: love, enthusiasm, joy, affection, envy, money. But all of these ideas—except envy—pass. Instead, I work because I’m afraid of failure, of coming up empty. Though here I am, twenty-five years later, mostly anonymous.

Sometimes my view of success—publishing, money, notoriety—is hardly healthy. It can make me miss all I do have—which is more than anyone has a right to have, in terms of possessions and relationships. Perhaps a good therapist might be able to fix this.

But I think, though, of the trade-off: how if this motivation goes away, I might simply stop working or caring. Maybe, in some way, this kind of fear is a talent.

Had my neighbor asked me or cared, I could have told him anything he wanted to know about writing, self-publishing, editing, rejection, and persistence. I know the venues, the technologies, the techniques. But he didn’t need that. He was excited, and whether that was the concept of writing or the bliss of marijuana isn’t really the point. He had an excitement that does not come from fear or from obligation or discipline. Perhaps it was naive. And next time he sees me, he will likely tell me about some new idea: a face mask business or a laser system that filters air particles.

But my envy for my neighbor and his freshness about writing turned toward pity—that as quickly as his idea came, it will fade. That once the actual work of realizing his dream begins, the dream will seem less compelling. It won’t be enough. Soon, he will lose both the enthusiasm and the possibility. Because the work to realize a dream is tedious. Though, in fairness, perhaps he has some other area in which he knows the difference between idea and execution. He likely has something that is tedious and that he continues.

I don’t really know why I write, or why I do anything that requires discipline. I know that enthusiasm is a great beginner, but discipline is the finisher. I am thankful for discipline, even though it is often tedious.

But I know that if I don’t do the thing, it never comes into being. And maybe this is part of the gift of the parable: not that the master is a tyrant, but that in the compulsion to use our talents, we multiply them and find that they always return something. They never really are at risk of being lost.

Sometimes, after the fear and the sense of duty—after the relentlessness of being worried that my opportunity will come and I will be unprepared for it—there are moments of joy. I forget the fear. Sometimes I write a sentence that reveals the world to me in a new way. Maybe the sentence helps someone else. And then, sometimes, I find a project that pulls me through a difficult period of life—a book or question that I need to see through, and in the seeing through, sustains me, makes me more engaged with the people around me. I only find these joys, these moments of revelations, if I show up and put in the time. On those occasions, when it all comes together, the fear and the discipline seem like talents in themselves, little gifts that multiply whatever wealth I started out with.

Perhaps, when it comes to talent or dreams or ideas, the only risk is burying them. Only in the use of them—exposing them to ridicule, rejection, inadequacy, loss—do we multiply them. It is not wrath or anger that we have to fear. It is, instead, the loss of opportunity, the missed chance at the simple pleasures of discipline itself—and the work that the discipline produces. Maybe the master in the parable knows that we will find reward as we risk what little we have.

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.

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