Pandemic Diaries 30
Today was a better day than most for me. I wrote earlier today about my wife and daughter going out to pick up a haul of pre-ordered vegetables curbside at the Baton Rouge Farmers Market. The best thing about the run was that they came home with three brown paper bags full of mushrooms, which, hobbit that I am, I adore. Look, these mushrooms are so powerful that they can even subdue a mad dog!
The afternoon was not so hot — another mono spell, with fitful sleep (I lose three or four hours almost every afternoon with this stuff). That, and bad dreams. It’s so weird how the Epstein-Barr Virus affects my dreams, both in the afternoon and at night. It also causes night sweats. Awful stuff. But it could always be worse. It could be coronavirus.
Still, it’s amazing to me how something as small as getting in fresh vegetables, especially mushrooms, and packets of seeds for the garden my wife is about to put in, brought me such a lift. This time of trial really does make one grateful for small things, doesn’t it?
What’s going on with y’all? Let’s see what you’ve had to say since last I checked.
As you know, Ohio is perhaps the state best managing the coronavirus epidemic. Governor DeWine started social distancing early, so while there are still sicknesses and deaths here, the curve seems to be flattening and the numbers are low. (Plus, we are supposed to start reopening in a couple of weeks!) While the loneliness, uncertainty and fear of the unknown are very real, since I’m lucky enough to work in an “essential” industry at a job I can easily perform remotely means that my life overall isn’t impacted that much. My government stimulus money arrived today, and while I have mixed feeling about it considering I haven’t actually lost much income, I guess it’s nice to have it.One thing the crisis has done is crystallized a sense of alienation from the religion I grew up in and am still, ostensibly, a member of. I grew up in a conservative Catholic household–six kids, homeschooled, dad is mentioned briefly as one of the victims in Michael Rose’s “Goodbye, Good Men,” the works. I go to church every Sunday, pray every day, my wife is a convert, etc. I’m friends with a lot of conservative Catholics.The coronavirus has made me realize that, in order to be a “conservative Catholic” is good standing, you really have to deny a lot of things that are actually true. My conservative friends’ Facebook feeds are full of conspiracy theories positing that the general idea is that the whole thing is overblown, this is just the flu, and the shutdowns are just a power grab. Needless to say, this is all based on clearly flawed or nonexistent evidence. The idea seems to be that everyone has the right to their opinion, and that it’s possible to find facts supporting almost any opinion, so it’s up to you to pick which opinion you like best.I know not all conservative Christians are like this, but a very high percentage are, and those tend to be the most vocal. Realistically, if you’re joining a group of conservative Catholics, you’ll either have to be (or pretend to be) a fervent Trump supporter, deny global warming and most likely evolution as well, and view anything coming from the “mainstream media” (defined as any source that isn’t explicitly conservative) with extreme skepticism.This isn’t just conservative Christians, and I’ve definitely seen most of our political groups get more extreme over the last decade or so, but I would argue that conservatives might be among the worst. Last night, I literally saw someone (intelligent and educated) arguing that she wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine because it’s HER CHOICE. That’s not even the craziest thing I saw yesterday; someone else was saying that coronavirus was easily treatable with essential oils.It might sound like I’m “ashamed” of my coreligionists, and I sort of am. But the larger problem is that I feel profoundly alienated from them; it’s hard to feel allied with people who deny reality, and more than that, make their invented reality the cornerstone of their lives. I’m also inclined to think that a movement based on conspiracies and pseudoscience isn’t likely to last too long.
I’m writing to you from Rochester, NY. Although we’re only a few hours away from New York City, we’ve been fortunate to avoid being hit as hard with the disease. I know many people who live there, and it’s been so hard to hear about what they’re going through. I’m often praying for the medical workers there fighting this disease, and the families affected so tragically by it all over the country.The losses, uncertainties and disorientation in my own life have been hard to pin down, because I’m not struggling like many people are right now, and my challenges have been accompanied by many blessings as well.On one hand, I’m immensely fortunate with my work and living situation. I have a technician job at the University of Rochester that I’m able to continue from home with full pay, and amazing friends that I live with in an awesome house. We’re watching films together, and we read “The Importance of Being Earnest” together a few weeks back, each person picking a few characters to be. One housemate even managed somehow to procure a full keg setup, so we now have a running beer tap in the house. So, that’s pretty nice.On my own, I’ve been voraciously reading Les Miserables, still writing and editing for my websites, and I just took up learning an incredible and free 3-D modeling software called Blender; I needed some sort of visual, 3-D form of creativity to balance the written word. I’ve taken to walking and running around the beautiful part of the city I live in a lot more as well. I often pass the Frederick Douglass statue and memorial that’s been moved to look out over South Avenue recently, right next to the farm property he used to live on in his last years in this city. I’ve been listening to David Blight’s recently written and marvelous biography of his life, while walking the very same streets he used to walk and live on. Mount Hope Cemetery, just a mile from my house, is one of the most beautiful places in the city (in my opinion), and I visited his and Susan B. Anthony’s grave there on Easter. There are indeed many blessings that I have; to be surrounded by the legacies of those who shaped history so much is something I don’t take lightly. It makes me wonder about my own mark on history.There’s also a lot of uncertainty for me during this time as well. A few months ago, I applied to study English Literature as a mature student at the University of Cambridge. It was quite the long shot: I had only visited as a tourist in June of last year, and decided that, with no prior serious English studies under my belt, I’d try and study there. In mid-January I got accepted, and received an offer to start this fall, which was absolutely thrilling. I’ve been preparing for that these past few months, but now I have no idea what will happen with my studies. So far, I’ve heard nothing that would indicate any changes to my offer, but who knows what these few months may bring? To be on the brink of something that monumental, achieved against some pretty large odds, and now to undergo this kind of limbo is quite disorienting. Everything with my work, education and living situation is up in the air right now. Needless to say, I’ve been learning new ways of entrusting my future to God.Prior to the outbreak, the office of Compline was sung at Christ Church downtown every Sunday evening during the school year. Rochester is home to the Eastman School of Music, one of the best in the country, and brilliant students and professors from Eastman, other local music programs and Christ Church sing and pray the liturgy. The church is a beautiful and old building, and when you enter the sanctuary there is complete silence, anticipating the singers who eventually file out into the room – the only sound is the organ music that starts ten minutes prior to the service. All the lights are off, replaced instead with candles throughout the room. It’s perhaps the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life, every week without fail, and serves as the central point for my week.It’s made my heart ache not to be able to go and experience this beauty these past few weeks, especially because, if I do leave for Europe when I had previously planned, I won’t have the opportunity of attending again for perhaps a few years. It’s a dear piece of Rochester that I cherish, and will miss greatly. I was hoping to be able to say goodbye to it in a more gradual way.A few Sunday nights ago, I suddenly recalled that many of the songs for the service have been recorded and uploaded to a Youtube channel. When everyone else had gone to sleep, I turned off most of the lights in the house, put in my headphones, and attended the service once more. I could close my eyes and feel the darkness of the sanctuary envelop me, smell the old church, see the candlelit singers in my mind once more and hear their piercingly beautiful voices. I’ve been attending the service for years, and it moved me how much of it has settled into my heart and my memory, ready for me when I come searching for it in my time of need.The last song I listened to was a moving arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer. Every week since, and for the coming months, I will continue to pray with them that God would deliver us from all evil.May He bless you and all those who are suffering in these difficult times.
These past two months have surely been a fulfillment of the curse, “may you live in interesting times”!I live at home with my semi-retired parents and a college-age brother. Our house is paid for and we have enough and to spare, but we’ve always lived frugally, following our church’s suggestion to keep a minimum of three months’ food and cash reserve.The timing of the stay-at-home order was fortuitous for me; just as it became impossible to do my usual work (I’m a cleaning lady for several elderly people), the weather is nice enough that one of the widows I work for has given me continued employment cleaning up her yard and planting her a vegetable garden. I am so grateful for her kindness, and I thank the Lord for the small miracles that caused me to meet her.My father is a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as such we get a ground-level view of suffering in our neighborhood. We live in a college town, and in the last two weeks alone, we’ve gotten far too many calls from young husbands who have just lost their jobs. He is doing what he can to help them figure out their options.One of our family jokes is that we pay our tithing, and the Lord opens up the windows of heaven – all of them (see Malachi 3:10). Usually this happens in the form of food – we get so much that we literally cannot use it all . . . so we share with those in need. My dad has long gotten ‘chicken bread’ from one of the local bakeries – day-olds that they can’t sell – and since there are so many people struggling right now, Dad’s been giving the freshest loaves away to neighbors who can’t leave the house, or who have lost jobs. Since we have chickens, we’ve also been giving away our extra eggs. To help out our favorite restaurants, though we used to eat out less than once a month, we have started ordering take-out once a week, though we have enough food stored that we don’t really need to.We have a quarter-acre garden and a quarter-acre orchard. This year, it may be that we need to give away more of our produce than usual, so I’ve been reclaiming a few extra row feet from the bindweed. I planted too many tomato seeds back in January, and it seems that may have been prescient.Suddenly, all the skills that I joked I was acquiring for what happens after the zombie apocalypse are about to be in high demand – my mom’s sewing masks as our church has requested us to do at this very moment, and I will be helping her. All of those old-fashioned pioneer skills that my parents taught me are about to become very useful again, and I’m grateful indeed that I acquired them – and got my learning curve in – before the crisis.The seasons roll on, and the dark winter of this pandemic will eventually give way to a promise of spring, and again to the flourishing swelter of summer. So it has always been. We are promised that in the world we will have tribulation – that is a promise – but also that Christ has overcome the world. His infinite atonement was to take away not only the sting of death, but also to comfort us through our sorrows and afflictions. He is our Great Physician, and he is might to save; his hands are stretched out still.
I’ve appreciated your writing for a long time, but please accept my particular thanks for the effort you’ve put into addressing this pandemic.
Not long ago, a lonely young man sat at the kitchen table in a rural Pennsylvania cabin, watching the livestream of a church worship service two hundred miles away. The church sanctuary was a lonely place, too – his pastor stood in an empty sanctuary preaching through a camera to a scattered congregation. It was Palm Sunday.
He tried to block out the noise from the next room, where his friends and relations sat by the coal stove playing cards and enjoying Christian fellowship or something. But try as he might, the sounds of lively conversation would intrude. He knew that far away, his parents and siblings were gathered in their own living room watching the same live stream, prevented by the coronavirus outbreak from joining their brothers and sisters in Christ, out of concern for loved ones and at-risk fellow congregants. Dozens of his friends and hundreds more of his acquaintance were doing likewise all over the Philadelphia region, all of them longing to be gathered together again in the presence of God and each other to worship Him as one. But knowing they were watching with him just wasn’t the same as being together.
He wished the merry crowd in the sitting room would join him, or invite him to bring the livestream in so that they could all listen. But they were unchurched believers – or perhaps organically churched, he wasn’t exactly sure – anyway, they disapproved of man-made labels, denominations, and divisions within the church. To them, his membership in, and accountability to, a local church was a kind of oppression. The church, they said, was made up of all believers, and organized Christianity was a human innovation designed to control people. The Christian Sabbath wasn’t a thing, in their opinion; every day was God’s day and wherever two or three are gathered in His name, that’s the church. So, while this young man tried to focus on the hymns, the prayers and the Word proclaimed, they played cards and discussed how badly the organized church was failing in its duties during the ongoing crisis.
After all, they said, hadn’t followers of Jesus in times past been willing to run towards the danger? Hadn’t believers in the early church, and even during the plagues of the medieval period, been on the front lines caring for the sick and needy, no matter how contagious? What a shame it is, they said, to see Christians hunkered down at home, afraid to go out and live life to the fullest, just because of a contagion. Death isn’t supposed to be scary for the Christian anyway, is it? So sad, so sad.
With an effort the young man called his attention back to the screen. The pastor was praying. He prayed for the grace to look upwards from this groaning and suffering creation and the vision to see something of the beauty and goodness of the Redeemer for whom she waits. He prayed for comfort for the sick, the grieving, and the anxious. He prayed especially for the many members of the congregation who were (and still are) on the front lines of the crisis – doctors, nurses, janitors, medics – some of whom were even at that very moment tending to the sick. And he prayed that all of us might find, in our exile from each other, a renewed appreciation for the Lord’s Day and the immense privilege that is ours when we gather as living stones, being built up together into a temple for the Triune God in whose presence we meet.
A week later, my wife and I gathered our children again around the computer screen to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, the foundational basis of all our hope as Christians. Later, we joined around twenty of our neighbors for a small service in the field across the street, led by a neighbor who is a medical doctor and an officer in a small IFB Baptist church. As we stood in scattered family groups and sang hymns together, my mind went back to that young man and his lonely time of worship. The irony of it all was inescapable. Here we were, committed Presbyterians, worshipping the God who is there, affirming the truth of our Lord’s bodily resurrection, and looking forward to His return with Baptists and Roman Catholics. We could do this without leaving false impressions in part because we knew where each other stood. We didn’t need to agree about all the important doctrines before we could praise God together. We could – and we do – see grave error in each other’s theology, while still coming together in thankfulness for the One who has redeemed us. Yet the same people who reject doctrinal distinctions as divisive and unnecessary could not see the value in joining with that young man on the Lord’s Day to worship and hear the Word, choosing instead to sit aloof and congratulate themselves on having chosen the better part.
As Dr. Carl Trueman likes to say, all churches have liturgies, and all Christians have creeds and confessions. The only question is whether they will take the trouble to write them down so others can look at them and talk about them. In that moment it seemed clear to me that the core value of the so-called organic church movement is the avoidance of accountability. Never mind church discipline; by claiming to just believe the Bible and rejecting creeds, confessions and statements of faith, they eschew even intellectual accountability.
And where was this lonely young man while his church celebrated the resurrection via livestream and our neighbors gathered in the meadow? The loneliness had won. He was joining in the games with his unchurched friends. Maybe later he would catch the sermon on YouTube.
I doubt if those good people have any idea of what they miss by rejecting the visible church. But dear God! I wish that they could anticipate the harm their example may do. How can one love Christ but hold His bride in contempt? How can one be joined to Christ but not His body? This all feels especially raw because so many of us desperately want to gather right now but can’t. It’s frankly gut wrenching to think of our brothers and sisters throughout history, from the early church to the Covenanters of Scotland and right on down to many today in other parts of the world, risking their liberty and even their lives to meet together on the first day of the week, while coddled American Christians pontificate about legalism or debate the pros and cons of organized worship. If corporate worship on the Lord’s Day really is adiaphora (a matter of indifference), shouldn’t these enlightened moderns be taking that message to underground churches in China where it is desperately needed?
Like many others, I grieve over the multiplied schisms in the visible church. Among many joys we may look forward to when Christ returns, the removal of these divisions and the reconciliation of God’s people is surely one of the greatest. But in the meantime – to borrow a beautiful metaphor from C.S. Lewis – let us not live in the hall, but in the rooms, because it is there that we find fires, and chairs, and meals. We live the Christian life alone at immense peril.
From Littleton, Colorado:
I’m writing to you from Littleton, Colorado. I have been a reader of your blog for years and have rooted you on when it comes to the Benedict Option and your correct diagnosis of the impact of the woke left on Christian Institutions. However the last month or so I have bristled at you and your writings covering the virus. I consider myself rational, my college major was biology, my wife is a physician assistant and my brother a doctor, yet I’ve found myself rebelling at everything that is standing in the way of things returning to normal.
My faith, which should be sustaining me is in tatters. I’ve lived a very comfortable suburban life and have become accustomed to making plans and having a pretty good idea of how things would go. I’ve always thought Christ would be sufficient, and if push came to shove I’d be able to persevere. This interruption and the possibility of economic ruin, has made me realize how weak my faith is. I crave comfort and certainty. I’m being asked to consider the possibility that I may have to sacrifice everything and trust Christ fully. Like the rich young ruler, this virus is making me consider if I could leave everything and only follow Christ. I’m failing and rather than repentance, my heart is hard and my neck is stiff. I’m finding myself unconcerned with the human toll as long as we can return to normal. I’m not doing well.
I grieve to read that, but as I told that reader, he is being more honest with himself, spiritually, than a lot of us are.
I’m going to write one more post before I go to bed tonight, and I’ll set it to publish automatically on Friday. It’s Orthodox Good Friday, so I’m going to stay offline. I am so thankful for all of you who have written these diaries, and who have read them. Please, if you pray, pray for each other. There is not a soul in this country, or in this world, who is not fighting a great battle of some sort, because of this plague.
I am eager to keep hearing from you all. Please write to me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and put PANDEMIC DIARIES in the subject line. Don’t forget to say where you’re from. Please keep in mind that I will not be checking e-mail on Friday, because of the day of mourning. Next Pandemic Diaries will be on Saturday.