Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday in a Sad Time

I've been thinking about how it's a season without festivals. Religious festivals remain on the calendar but we strain to make them festive. Arts festivals are canceled outright. Conferences and symposia are not always festive, but some can take on the air of celebration---but not this year.

I'm writing on Good Friday. It's nearly impossible to feel it. There is already so much grief and fear, reliving the Passion of Christ seems redundant at best or sadness porn at worst. Golgotha seems too far away or else too near and might even be seen as a mockery of what we're experiencing. We know what happens on the first day of the week, a recovery that we Christians hope for but know won't come so soon.

Some politicians, like my senior senator, want to emphasize the numbers of recovery, the percentage who do not die, which is a nice attempt at keeping positive. He's not exactly wrong, this virus isn't a death sentence, but for those who die, being in that minority isn't much of a comfort. But politicians don't often seem to be in the business of comfort these days.

Last weekend, I walked to the neighborhood CVS. On the way, I saw a woman looking up and down the street then looking at her phone. She saw me coming and stepped off the sidewalk to let me pass and I smiled and nodded as I made an arc around her. I few steps past her, I saw a car in a driveway with a woman waving from it. I looked back to the woman I'd passed and we immediately switched roles. I stepped off the sidewalk and she made an arc around me. I followed several steps behind until she stopped and talked/yelled to the car. "Let me go get my mask and gloves and I'll be right back!" The other woman said/yelled, "Okay, I'll be right here!" I decided to cross the street there (no traffic at that moment). Uber or Lyft, I decided was the story. I pondered my lack of mask or gloves.

At the CVS, I gathered up a few things and went to the cash register. The cashier was a friendly guy, jovial even. He made small talk easily, and even when chatting about the pandemic, it sounded like casual small talk. He ended each transaction, including mine, with "Stay sane and safe."

Mask and gloves. Sane and safe. It was the last day I left my apartment without a mask, makeshift as it is. I don't have any gloves, though. Those are harder to do makeshift. I need to make a run tomorrow, maybe I'll look for something then.

I feel ridiculous in my mask. Or absurdly dangerous. I look like a bandit from the old west. They say I'm protecting others, more than I'm protecting myself. Fair enough. How would one know if one is asymptomatic or not? I don't have symptoms, but it seems "asymptomatic" only really fits if you should have symptoms.

I end up playing word games. Is it surreal or absurd? Either/or/both/neither.

Jesus was crucified "today." Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of people crucified by the Romans, The overwhelming majority stayed dead (so far). By my conservative estimate (I could find little data on numbers crucified, though one site says "thousands upon thousands," seems like internet hyperbole), somewhere between .1 to .02 percent of people crucified by the Romans resurrected.

Other causes of death have an even lower percentage.

The odds, it seems, are against us. But what is hope without impossible odds?

So far, my association with confirmed cases of covid-19 is no closer than 2 degrees of separation. That's confirmed cases. There is also the supposed case that is recovered, but never got bad enough to warrant testing--that one would be one degree. What are the odds that I'll get through this (first wave) without a confirmed case of someone I know personally? They have a 90-something percent chance of survival. If 100 people I know become confirmed cases, how will the 2, 3, 4 (depending on the news story) get chosen for not surviving? The odd thing about odds is that for or against you, if you die, you die. That the odds were for you doesn't really help at that point.

These are odd Good Friday thoughts. I'm sure there's no inspiration or edification in them. There was a time that I spend hours in a church on Friday afternoon. I wish I could have done that today.

I live in hope to be able to do it another year. I live in hope that there will be festivals again.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Life Apart

"When things get back to normal . . . "

I admire the optimism of people who foresee a return to what was before Covid-19. I don't share it. It's not that I lack optimism so much as I lack the certainty that one day we'll all return to work in our offices and it'll be like before. My optimism is in what the new thing might be. I don't have any particular vision for that, but I have hopes for it. Where my optimism fails is in the fear for any troubles between now and that new normal.

But meanwhile . . .

I'm surprised by some things. Numbly amused by others. Quite possibly oblivious to much. I'm surprised by the ways I miss moving freely in the world. I've less surprisingly slipped into this solitude with some ease---I've known for decades I have the potential for hermit status---but I'm surprised by how casually I once took going to a grocery store, how securely and confidently I picked up different items, reading labels until I found something I wanted to buy. How casually I brushed by someone in an aisle. How easily I waited in line, not bothered by the person in front or behind bumping into me, not worrying about the cashier and all their interactions.

I'm amused, occasionally annoyed, by people who complain of being bored. I don's have this problem. I experience boredom when I have tasks that don't engage me and yet have to get done, but I'm not one to feel like there's nothing to do. If anything, I'm more likely to be paralyzed by too many choices for what to do next. And perhaps this its own kind of pathology.

I've wondered that, this far into the age of mass media, that I don't, that we the church doesn't, have a stronger theology of broadcast worship. I don't belong to a tradition that enthusiastically embraced "TV ministries." There have been exceptions, the radio program here and there, the morality plays in stop-motion animation of Davey and Goliath, but not a great deal of energy for worship over the airwaves. How does one worship electronically?

Now that we've been forced into a situation where that is the required means, I find I have feelings about it.

No conclusions but definitely feelings.

And those feelings might be unpacked at some point. What I'm reminded of, these days, is of the slim book, Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Written while he was teaching at an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, he opens with the premise that gathering as a body of believers, as a congregation, in the physical presence of other Christians, is never a given and better understood as a privilege. He notes the Christian in prison, or separated by illness (relatable), or by work in a foreign land where there are no other Christians. In those situations, and others imaginable, the Christian must find comfort, strength, and life in Scripture, prayer, and in faith itself.

In our hyper-connected and yet hyper-separated contemporary world, I'm not sure we're equipped for this. I feel I am not. Hence my surprise at not having a better theology of broadcast worship.

The first two weeks of Facebook live worship, my church tried doing the Eucharist  over the internet. Not meaning to limit how God may choose to work, I found issues with the notion. It felt too much like the TV preacher holding his hands out to the camera, "healing" those in his TV audience.

Bonhoeffer also notes that we are given physical bodies, flesh for gathering. The body is where we experience everything. It is the site of our pains and pleasures and while our physical eyes see the physical TV screen, there is a qualitative difference in the presence. Some would argue that the "magic" of the Eucharist is in the words spoken over the elements---even if the elements are in front of my computer screen, not in front of the physical presider of the sacrament. And it is fair to ask, if the Holy Spirit cannot work in that way, does the Holy Spirit work at all?

But I begin to feel the "magic" of the Eucharist is in warm flesh and blood, in the same room, breathing together the same air (a dangerous thing, we've learned, but we've always known breathing together--"con spirare"--conspiracy--had danger in it). Whether in a group of thousands---a privilege indeed---or in a private sharing of bread and wine with the homebound--a different type of privilege, no less sacred--we become one body by bodies' presence.

Which is not to say that connections maintained over the world via electronic means are irrelevant. Absolutely not. It is a privilege to live in this modern age and have these means. And as definitions of "community" have shifted with the advent of social media, so may our definitions of "epiclesis." As I say, I don't wish to limit how God may choose to work. And this is why I've not entered into the arguments online about this. I have stated my misgivings and left it at that, but I have no strong, solid, final conviction about it.

Only that when "things get back to normal," whatever the new normal will be, there will be changed things, a lot of things. Or so I predict.

I expect the church, communities, my own self, to be among them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Everywhere

Tonight, a small group from my church gathered via Zoom to discuss more of the book, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. To start, our priest asked everyone to offer one word for how we felt. I wasn't ready and she asked me to go first. The only word that came to mind was "everywhere."

I feel everywhere today. All over the place.

Maybe that suggests something more panicky or anxious. I'm not really there, but I find myself cycling through a few emotions daily. Angry. Amused. Hopeful. Sad. Puzzled. And maybe a little anxious, though I don't think I ever quite rise to the level of panic.

I do wipe down groceries with a disinfectant wipe when I bring them into my apartment. Tonight I went on a walk and I carried one those wipes with me. I have to go out a gate to leave my complex and I used the wipe to turn the doorknob on the gate. Then I used it to come back in. I used it to touch the crosswalk button at an intersection.

I never thought I'd see the day that I'd be the type of person to not touch things. In fact, I'm realizing how tactile I am. I do like to touch objects, to feel textures. I also have a tendency to shoulder my way through doors, almost full body contact to get into a room. I think I knew that, but I feel it much more urgently now. I'm not doing those things. It feels a little bit like it's not me moving through the world.

I meant to note two emails in my last blog entry. On Friday afternoon, within 2 hours of each other, I first got an email from the apartment complex stating that someone in the complex has tested positive for covid-19. Then I got an email from the president of the university where I work, stating someone in the university community had contracted it. I had never assumed it was far away, but it did feel extra close to get both of those emails so close together.

The tree pollen is terrible in Houston right now. My eyes have been watering and itching all week. I'm about out of eye drops. I'm a wee bit phlegmy from the pollen, and I remind myself all day that the symptom to watch for is a dry cough. Phlegmy is the opposite of a dry cough.

I think too much about the pandemic, but it's hard not to think about it when you haven't been to your office in over a week but you're still working. It's hard not to think about it when you go for a walk but are vigilant to not let anyone get too close to you. It's hard not to think about it when everything  about the current moment is a little bit off due to it. It. It is everywhere.

Like my emotions.

It's not terrible. I'm good alone for long periods of time. I'm okay working unsupervised But as I've sometimes said, I'm an introvert, not a misanthrope. I actually enjoy sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant, alone at my table, surrounded by people. I don't need to interact with them, but I enjoy them.

My Facebook feed is also everywhere. I have my atheist friends who occasionally ridicule religion of the sort that claims the power of God over the caronavirus. This, followed by someone posting a call to prayer. I'm always surround by God and reminders of God. I spend all day surrounded by my library, filled with God-books. I see challenges to trust God in this crisis. I see someone post about Psalm 91 as reason to not be afraid and keep living life as normal. I responded to one, "you mean the same Psalm that the devil uses to temp Jesus to do something foolish?" Trust in God, trust that God is present, a comfort and  hope, but also doing my best not to put God to the test.

That's where I am in the "God and coronavirus" conversation. I'm willing to stay indoors or carry a disinfectant wipe when I go out, because I'm not interested in putting God to the test.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Pandemic Dispatch from a One-Bedroom Apartment

There are moments you remember all your life. Or so sang Yentl.

This past week is one to remember. Some of us will. I think this is the week that a lot of us really caught on how long this Covid-19 pandemic might last, how long it will disrupt our lives. I worry that not enough people have caught on. Right now, I hear neighbors having a party. I don't know how many people, but more than could possibly keep 6 feet distance from each other. I hope they're sure of their status.

They closed the play I was performing in. We only got in 2 of our scheduled 9 performances. It was a blow to all of us, even if we knew it to be the right decision. I knew it to be the right decision. Still, I shed a few tears over it. It was a fun show with a great cast and age appropriate for some young friends who don't often get to see me perform. I was looking forward to them seeing it. I wanted a lot more people to see it. If I'd come to believe that we were in for a long haul with this virus, this made it concrete for me.

I went into work on Monday, but they sent us home in the afternoon. We would be working at home for the next two weeks. I think that's now expanded, but I can't remember right now if they've given an estimated end date for this. I don't particularly like working at home. I like to keep a separation between that life and my home life, but it's actually been okay so far. Some big events with work have been postponed, which will make some things easier at this moment. Other things remain hard. A lot of my work can be done from here, not all of it can. Some just won't be done for now.

Wednesday night, I had a Zoom meeting with a book group that my church is conducting for lent. How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibrim X. Kendi. We're having good discussion around the book, but I was also surprisingly relieved to see faces on my screen. We didn't have Sunday worship last week and we won't again tomorrow morning and so on for the foreseeable future. There is a group of us that usually goes out to lunch after church on Sunday and based on my reaction to the book group I asked some of that group if they wanted to try having a Zoom liunch meeting tomorrow. We're giving it a go.

I've been thinking a lot about community the last few months, how I'm often on the edge of my communities and yes indisputably a part of them. My introvert ways doesn't make me antsy during this time of voluntary sequestering, but I also know I care about a number of people in my own aloof way. I've noticed a number of people on Facebook that I haven't noticed recently. It's being a place for people to interact. I'm always active on Facebook---its the perfect social interaction for an introvert---but I see more outgoing people seeking the interaction there now. How is this shaping my communities, the edges, the centers? We'll see.

I exchanged emails with my spiritual director today. He and his husband were on a cross-country trip that is getting cut short. He detailed their trip back home, how they had reservations at bed and breakfast stops, where they have arrangements so they never have to meet the owners. I hope they make the journey back home safely and virus-free. I'm impressed with their plan.

Strange days. Of course, I think about God. Pray in my own undisciplined way. I'm reminded of the prayer from Abba Macarius of the desert, the one that got me through my pancreas health scare 7 years ago: O Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me. Help me." I pray it in the plural now. It works for me when I don't know what to pray for. Realistically, I mean. I can pray for all kinds of miracles, but that's not the sort of faith I have. I can pray for the virus to disappear, but I know that won't happen in some biblical story way. Praying for mercy? I can do that.

 This afternoon, spurred by a grad school classmate who mentioned a song that I found online and danced to in my kitchen, I turned on my camera and went live on Facebook for a one-song dance party. That felt good. I don't know for sure if anyone danced along. I had encouraging comments and it seemed to be fun for the viewers so maybe I'll do it again. So many in the dance community right now are offering online classes. I'm just offering a party. I think it might be 4 minutes spent well.

This is not the blogging I expected to do during lent. Nothing is as I expected this lent. I'm looking at weeks ahead without the Eucharist. I'm looking toward an Easter celebration that will be celebrated at a safe distance. For now, I'm good in my one-bedroom apartment with my one cat. Solitude of this sort doesn't worry me, and yet I feel the grief of cancelled plays, of missed Eucharists, of interrupted trips, of postponed celebrations, of news stories, of so much anxiety. There is this grief and there will be more grief before this is over.

It's going to be a lot. We may as well dance some, too. That's all I've got.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Loving You's the Right Thing to Do

But how? Right now? How do you love in the time of social distancing?

Coronavirus is on everyone's mind this moment. I try to stop thinking about it but it sneaks back in. What am I doing? Is it the right thing to do?

Thursday evening, I stopped at a grocery store on my way home from work. Of course, it was packed. I have my annoyances with any crowds, but that was all I thought of it until i got into the checkout line. "What are we doing?" I thought to myself. We've cancelled so many events, but here we are, brushing by each other down crowded aisles. Did we all really need something right then? I was low on a few things, but I could have gone home without absolutely needing anything that evening. And it was a grocery store in the affluent Galleria area of Houston---were any of these people back from recent trips anywhere "hot"?

This very morning, we opened a show, a play. The theater, one of the few who haven't cancelled performances, listed all the predictions they are taking and then left it up to the audience members if they wanted to come see us. I don't know if anyone in the cast had misgivings---we have been having a great deal of fun with the production, and we were ready to share it with an audience. Furthermore, it is nothing but fun, nothing but loud, boisterous silliness that in a way, I'm sure, was a respite to the small audience we had. (And they all responsibly sat with distance between them.) I felt good about offering that respite.

And ever since, I've wondered if we did the right thing. There are moments in the show when we, the cast, are all in very close proximity to one another. At one moment, the thought sneaked in---should we be doing this? 

Where have my cast mates been? Where have I been? Am I incubating anything from my grocery run that I've now passed on to the cast?

How can we know? I suppose if any of us come down with fever and a dry cough. That's when we'll know.

I despise how I'm thinking about this. I'm generally not a germophobe. I wash my hands regularly and otherwise try to practice good hygiene, but I'm usually not this conscious of the possibility of a germ. I'll eat a dropped M&M off the floor but should I be touching this table in a public place?

My church has cancelled services for two weeks. Tomorrow morning, I'll get up pray virtually, online, at a safe social distance with whoever else logs into my church's live stream. It will not be the same. I will miss singing in a congregation, the singing that I always call "breathing together."

Should we be breathing together?

Some of my atheist friends are mocking the notion of prayer and I will admit to not knowing how to pray right now. Other than not in close proximity. I don't belong to a brand of Christianity that wants to say we're protected from a virus "in Jesus' name." I know we're not. The rain falls on the just and unjust. But how then should we pray?

Love is the answer, it's the how of it that is getting to me. It's a question I used to ask in church committee meetings. "How do we love our community right now?"

Lord have mercy, but it is the farthest thing from clear to me right now.

Monday, March 9, 2020

What I'm Talking About When I Talk About Losing My Voice

Racism. I'm talking about Racism.

I'm talking about how I could read James Baldwin and appreciate, accept, believe his point of view and not see my own place in it.

I'm talking about reading Liberation Theology and thinking I was in some way on "their" side while very much ensconced in and benefiting from the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. (I nearly wrote "the colonial past"--as if it were over. Telling.)

I'm talking about hearing Black friends and colleagues talk about their lived experience and believing that they had some how moved on from it. How admirable to see your father stopped and abused by police to rise and to where you are now.

I was concerned, sympathetic, even empathetic to a degree. And I hadn't a clue.

To the extent one can wake up from that place of privileged sympathy, I have started to wake up. I can't say I'm "woke." I can't say I've earned that. But I've started to see, at least a little bit.

I was treating current and ongoing inequities like one might read about a far off land. A tourist's view of India, perhaps--the riches and the poverty--and see it as an interesting place to visit. Except I am living among the riches and poverty of my own nation and seeing myself somehow detached from it all.

It's been paralyzing. What do I have to say about any of this? Maybe I don't. Do I tell my white stories, not too different from other white stories, as if my particular brand of gay (I get to claim one oppressed label!) experience was of any interest among the many gay white stories already in circulation?

I write because I'm a writer. I've continued writing. I don't think I can stop. But I read back on it and it is hollow. Unnecessary. Familiar and without revelation.


That's what I'm talking about when I talk about losing my voice.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Certainty/Not

In my 20s, I was certain about so much, particularly God-stuff. I had many declarative sentences about what God wanted and such things. It was the 80s and brand of certainty was "in" thanks to the Reagan era.

Even in my 20s, though, I couldn't commit to that more evangelical/fundamentalist way of thinking. I always held back a little bit, mostly around tactics. I have an example.

I was definitely "pro-life" at the time (a term I dislike now, since I still like to think I'm pro-life, I just don't believe abortion is murder anymore). I had been to a meeting of some sort, some Christian group (that wasn't Lutheran Campus Ministry, where I was very active, even though they seemed a little soft on some issues), and abortion had been the topic. Someone from an organization that presented itself as offering help to women with unwanted pregnancies told us of the tactics used to lure these women into their "clinic" where they then did their best to convince them to carry the pregnancy to term. It was either a "Crisis Pregnancy Center" or something very like it. The advertising for these centers made them sound like they might offer abortions, or at least have information about them. It struck me as very deceptive. I recall writing in my journal something like, "how do you lead someone to the Way, Truth, and Life with lies?"

So that's where my certainty ended. At deceptive tactics. It's happened with more liberal or progressive organizations since. There are talking points to make the argument, and then there are aspects that are true but not mentioned because they aren't helpful to the agenda.

Whichever organizations, left or right politically, I cannot stand deception to sell a point. I'm not keen on bait and switch.

And that makes me a terrible activist. Activists require no little certainty in the cause. It's why I'm terrible at a political campaign. Campaigners have to have certainty that their candidate is the best option.

Twitter is full of certain people, some of them valued friends. The space allowed requires direct speech, blunt words. To get to the point, you need to be pointed. I admit, even when I agree with what's being said. I want to argue because the bluntness invites argument.

I also envy the certainty. I miss that feeling of being sure. I admire and am even thankful for activists, and still that assured posture is not one I can pull off.

This is confession. I'm not sure (there it is again!) if I need to change my ways or let my failures be signs to step away. I'm definitely not offering myself as a role model.

There are things that I feel strongly about, of course. Racism is sin. Billionaires shouldn't exist. Donald Trump is a terrible president. I don't see a reason to back away from any of these statements.


I'm the guy who finds most truth in ambiguity, even when I have strong feelings about some things. I believe that if racism is bad, then what I want to do is help convert racists to antiracists. Shouting at them doesn't seem a great tactic. If I believe billionaires shouldn't exist, I want a system that requires businesses to pay workers what they earn for the corporations, not pay some figurehead for managing a company of low wage earners. I don't see shaming them for their wealth to be a great agent for change. (Not that shame can't be or has never been an agent for change---but see, there I go again.) These are not easy slogans for the activist signs. They don't make great chants at the rallies.

On my best days, I accept that I am who I am and try to live my life in peace and love with all people. On my worst days, I want that certainty, that assured feeling back. I'm uncertain what to do about any of this.