S2E12 Pentecost

This final episode of Season 2 is a two-parter: Joe ponders the Pentecost Plague as an American Plague and then comments on two stories of moral authority.

Transcript (“Pentecost” essay):

I am, as anyone listening or reading knows, a Christian. That word can mean many things, and increasingly few of them are doctrinal. It may say something about my adherence to the Trinity, resurrection, bishops, or scripture. But not necessarily. The word, especially in a term like “Evangelical,” has become about affiliation. Who I am likely to vote for, my opinion on gender identity, and whether I will or won’t cooperate with social distancing guidelines. “Christian,” like so many other terms, has devolved into a demographic, a stance, a voting block.

I don’t have time here to list my theology or my background. It is a wide-ranging and circuitous one. I will say only that I have, at various times, been in many camps within Christianity. I have been a single-issue voter, a seminarian, and a sacramentalist. I have drifted on my views on the Bible, my understanding of hermeneutics, my consideration of church history, and my perspective on ethics. In all of these shifts, I have, for better or worse, remained a Christian—at least in the sense of what the word has historically meant.

What I’ve found though is that many tests of my faithfulness, almost always from other Christians, are based on whether my politics are the right ones. I no longer am asked about theology, about what I think of scripture, of whether Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Word of God resurrected from the dead, whether I adhere to any or all of the assertions of the Nicene Creed. Instead, my acceptance and rejection—whether I’ve backslidden or apostatized—has more to do with memes and who I vote for.

In the early 2000s, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church, and at a barbecue, the youth pastor mentioned he had voted for Bill Clinton. The other people in leadership flocked to him. Joked—but not joked. Were in disbelief that a Christian could do that. And the only way to deflect them was for my then-wife to note, “Joe voted for Clinton, too.” She knew I was prepared to defend that stance. I was better equipped to take on the accusations. Besides, I wasn’t a pastor. I had less to lose.

Or, around that time, I was part of a closed-door breakfast with Richard Land, then president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He seemed to assume that everyone in the room, perhaps 30 men, were Republicans. Maybe all of them were. He seemed to think that having George W. Bush in office was what a proper Christian wanted. Then he told a story about visiting the Bush White House with Jerry Falwell. Falwell, in the Oval Office, went to the desk. He pointed. He smiled. He asked the President of the United States, “Is this the spot where Monica Lewinsky…?” Something about a cigar.

One of my favorite movies is Robert Hamer’s 1954 Father Brown, sometimes called The Detective. The titular character, based on the detective stories of G.K. Chesterton, is a priest played by Alec Guinness. In his autobiography, Guinness notes how this role helped lead to his conversion. One night, still in costume as the priest, a small boy on the streets of Paris came up to him, took his hand, and accompanied the man he thought was a priest. Guinness wrote, “Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

Of course, there is irony in Guinness’s story. I doubt an actor today would have the same encounter or interpretation. Most of us now keep children away from lone priests on park benches. I suspect that not many priests are comfortable walking along the Seine, holding hands with a boy.

This last weekend was Pentecost, and the Lenten Plague moved from Lent to Easter to Pentecost, the festival of fire. I could not help but notice that on the eve of Pentecost, the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland was on fire. That makes me think of how fire spreads, for good or for ill, based on its fuel. That on the first Pentecost, the tongues of fire spread good news, increased the church, and brought salvation to many people. That on this year’s Pentecost, the fires destroyed businesses, that fire was a sign of loss of faith—or, in some cases, utter nihilism. The Lenten Plague, in places such as Iceland and New Zealand, is all but gone. But here, in America, in the great Christian nation, or whatever we were or are, it spreads. This is now our Plague. An American Plague.

The last few years have been hard ones. Not only because the divisions in our nation have shown to be deeper and more persistent than they need to be. But because moral authority has been so thoroughly wasted. Part of my departure from Evangelicalism was certainly theological. But it was accelerated by events like the closed-door breakfast or the way in which so many of the people who had taught me right from wrong seemed to no longer recognize those differences. They squandered their moral authority. They took their moral authority, like betters in a casino, and placed it all on one color, one number, certain that it would make them wealthy and powerful. And in the process, whatever temporary political victories they may have gained have culminated in the loss of trust.

It reminds me of this old story about St. Dominic, though I’ve heard it ascribed to St. Francis, too. The legend is set somewhere around the year 1210, when the Catholic church had grown wealthy beyond any dreams, perhaps in the years when the church, as a political institution, was as powerful and unchallenged as it would ever be. G.K. Chesterton tells it this way: “It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us [Catholics] if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, ‘Peter can no longer say, “Silver and gold have I none”’; and the Spanish friar answered, ‘No, and neither can he now say, “Rise and walk.”’”

I know why I am still a Christian. But I’m not sure why anyone would become one if the Christianity they see is the one that I see most pronounced, most vocal, most aligned with power: that says all things are negotiable except abortion and guns rights. Perhaps I am being unfair. But this is the loudest and most emphatic face of Christianity, one that has taken many Christian words from me—and from others. It is the view that has corroded Christianity’s moral authority. Just as the priest abuse—and the institutional coverup—has taken away much of the Catholic church’s moral authority. It is, to use the old Greek word, a scandal. A thing that makes people stumble.

In the fires and the protests, I see new moral authority. I don’t love all that it stands for or agree with all it wants. But it is true moral authority. Driven by justice. Driven by a clear sense of right and wrong. And it is filling the vacuum created by the old moral authority, the one that says, “Yes, but, at least we’re getting the Supreme Court we want.”

The abdication is allowing some Christian groups to emerge more defined—to say, “That isn’t us. That never was us.” But it’s confusing. And if in the years ahead, the gap between religious and non-religious grows, it won’t be because of some humanist conspiracy at the universities, the encroachment of socialism, or the pollution of Hollywood. It will be because those who were supposed to be salt and light lost their saltiness, hid their light under a bushel. It will be because we have not only cast our pearls before pigs, we have threaded them into necklaces and worshipfully adorned swine.

This new plague, the Pentecost Plague, is the realization of our early fears of the Lenten Plague: that it would mutate, that it would become more vicious, that it would spread beyond control. Despite conspiracy theories, the Pentecost Plague did not originate in some lab in China. It was shaped by our history, by our persistent and willful negligence. The Pentecost Plague is our creation. It is fueled by hypocrisy: some people arm themselves at state capitols, outraged over the loss of haircuts. They go unbothered by police and celebrated by a king coronated by those who ought to know better. Other people march in outrage over murder, racism, institutional injustice, and the utter moral bankruptcies of a nation that continues to betray its ideals. These people are met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and the condemnation of a king tweeting from the safety of his bunker.

The first Pentecost was a fire for the world. It spread good news. It included those who had been cast out, it reached those of different languages and across class lines. It elevated the poor and needy. It said that all were equal. But the Pentecost Plague is an American Plague. It is fueled by venom and injustice, by moral bankruptcy and unkept promises. Unlike the Lenten Plague, which spread through contact and breath, the Pentecost Plague feeds on desiccated moral authority, like so many dead leaves and dry twigs, and spreads through fire.

Transcript (Commentary):

This is not part of the essay. But I think this is what moral authority looks like:

First, Monday morning, I read a story about Safia Munye, a Somalian immigrant who, in 2018, used her life’s savings to open a restaurant in Minneapolis. Mama Safia’s. During the shutdown, she had to choose between keeping her business insurance or paying her employees. She chose her employees. And then, this weekend, her restaurant—and the relics and irreplaceable items that shaped the restaurant—were consumed by fire during the riots and protests. No insurance. It’s all gone. She is completely innocent. This wasn’t her fault. She did everything right.

Moral authority is Safia Munye saying “Al-hamdu lilah”—all praise is due to God alone. And then this: “My heart is broken. My mind is broken. I know I can’t come back from this. But this can be replaced. George’s life cannot. George’s life was more important. That man that got killed in the most inhuman way. I hope he gets justice.”

That is moral authority.

Or moral authority was this: that as my wife and I were driving through Portland on Pentecost, on our way to grab takeout, a driver in the turn lane wouldn’t let us in. Hope says, “Turn on the next block and loop around.” I take a left onto Alder. The businesses and offices on Alder are boarded up. New plywood over the windows. It’s eerie. And at the intersection of Alder and 6th, I stop to turn left. The businesses across the street—the Legal Aid office; my wife works with Legal Aid—is boarded up. And across the street is a man—perhaps in his fifties, maybe younger or older. The way people age on the streets makes years hard to estimate. He’s white, like me. He has a beard and thin gray hair. He has a plastic boot on one leg—a fractured ankle or some other injury. And he is trying to cross the street. It isn’t going well. He’s wobbly. Not because of the legboot but because he is disoriented. It could be drugs for all we know. Maybe meds—maybe he took too many. Dementia. Traumatic brain injury. Something. He looks lost and blank. He just knows he is supposed to get from one side to the other. Or maybe he doesn’t even know that.

And he takes a couple steps and then seems to fall back a little. It’s a miracle that he’s upright. And he has trouble lifting his boot above the streetcar rail. It almost fells him. I’m waiting, my left turn signal on. The light is green, but I have to wait for the man to cross.

The light changes, and the car facing him on 6th pulls forward a little, but the woman driving stops. The man is taking a step forward. He’s just past halfway across. And then, behind the woman, a service van. White and unlabeled, about the size of all the blue Amazon Prime vans that run around Portland. And the driver, white like me, in his late twenties or early thirties, honks. I don’t know it’s him at first, but it’s him. His light is green. But the car in front of him won’t go. And I think, at first, the honking is only urban impatience. The van man doesn’t see the man in the legboot.

But he does see him. He sits high above the car in front of him. The man in the van leans out his window and yells. He honks again.

And then the man in the legboot, about five feet from the corner, tumbles. The van man honks. He yells something. Then my wife opens her door. She leaves the safety of our car. The safety of our distance. She closes the door and then I put on my hazard signals. There is a car behind me. Our light is green now. The car behind does not honk. It is another woman, not so different than the woman perpendicular to me, the woman waiting as the van man behind her honks and yells.

My wife goes to the man, and, yes, I’m aware as I write this—I’m aware in the moment—that she is a better person than I am. Me, all I can think to do is put on hazard lights. But my wife gets out. She breaks lockdown.

And walking down Alder is another man. Tall, white. I can’t quite tell if he’s homeless, too. He’s a little worn looking. But he comes to help my wife. But from the other side—the van man honking now again. Yelling. His light is green. But from the other side, two teens on skateboards. They are in bandanas, red and black. They are in tracksuits. They are Black. Or maybe they’re not. I think they are but my wife doesn’t remember it that way. Maybe tan, maybe Hispanic. They don’t care. They’re not asking that question.

The teens, maybe 15 or 16 years old, maybe younger. They’re thin. They look both ways. They pick up their boards and run to the man on the ground. They pause. They ask if they can help, but they pause because they’re wearing bandanas around their mouths because of the virus. The virus is still out here. But they help. They help my wife lift him. Their skateboards roll. A Gatorade bottle rolls.

The man is incoherent. Afterward, my wife says he was completely out of it. She asked him questions and he couldn’t respond.

My wife, the man coming down Alder, and the two teens show this man compassion. They help him, even in violation of social distancing restrictions, regardless of the signal telling cars they can go. The rest of us watch and wait—the woman behind me, my hazards flashing, me, the woman perpendicular, the van man honking.

The man in the legboot is resting on the sidewalk now. The other man is with him. And the light is green for 6th Street, so the woman in the car perpendicular eases out. She waves at the two youth. Then there is the van man. Yelling. His window down. And this is something only I see. In his right hand, turned sideways like in an action movie, a black handgun. It’s the same size and shape of the 45s I remember from my Army days. But black. And the man is yelling. He’s pointing his loaded hand toward the broken man in a legboot. No one else sees this. And among all the ways I fail in that moment, I fail at noting his vehicle, catching a picture.

My wife comes back in. She puts on some hand sanitizer. And the two youth, now ready to cross, wait. Because they have a red light. They wave for me to go, for traffic to flow like normal. As if nothing happened. We’re back in the world of the van man—when traffic lights tell us the rules, when green means go and red means stop. And I know that I have no right to move on before they do—no moral right. Those teens—likely on their way to the protests— my wife, Safia Munye, the man sitting with the legbooted man—they should have to yield for no one.

S2E04 Mailman

Season 2 continues with Joe lamenting online church and considering the mailman’s war with porch pirates.


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