Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.
This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.
Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.
Last year at this time, we were in Rochester, NY visiting my husband’s family, something that is no longer advisable. See For the Hometown Heroes on Memorial Day, May 31, 2019.
What I missed most, this Easter during Covid-19 isolation, was singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” among my fellow worshipers at my home church. I missed looking around during the joyful song, exchanging smiles with friends who have become family over the past twenty years. I missed seeing our modest, pleasant sanctuary nearly full for a change. (As in most mid-sized churches in our area, attendance declines yearly.) Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn, the words written in 1739, remains the quintessential anthem of Easter triumph. Our talented organist knows how to do it justice. I can hear the music resounding beyond the church walls. I can imagine that those walking by outside wonder, momentarily at least, if they’re missing something worthwhile. My favorite verses are the second and third:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
This Easter Sunday, during Covid-19 isolation, our family didn’t go to church, of course. Instead, church came to us. My husband, our daughter, my mother and I gathered in front of the TV for our local church’s online worship service. After that, we joined former neighbors remotely for the service from the Atlanta church I grew up in. We got a special treat when the pastor made a tour of our old Morningside neighborhood, the familiar parks and streets of my childhood quiet and uncrowded during this unprecedented time. We felt a renewed connection to dear friends, and to a place we called home, which we haven’t seen since my mother’s relocation to Virginia nearly three years ago. We heard two pastors speak movingly of the renewing, life-giving power of God’s love.
Across the country, ministers, church staff and dedicated volunteers have been scrambling to “do church” in a social distancing world, and it’s a challenging work in progress. But by its very nature, online worship, extending any local church’s reach far beyond the boundaries of any brick-and-mortar sanctuary, should send this emphatic message: If God’s love can’t reach across the miles and over the ages to warm cold hearts, change attitudes and offer hope, then what can? In the words of the classic children’s song: The church is not a building. It’s certainly not supposed to be a cushy clubhouse for an exclusive clique of like-minded, self-congratulatory, dogmatic ideologues. Yet that is the impression that some of the loudest voices identifying as Christian are spreading, if perhaps sometimes unwittingly. What church-goer has not heard the criticism of Christians as judgmental hypocrites? What church-goer can wholeheartedly profess that such a criticism is unwarranted? Can we seize the moment and actively work to chip away at this image? Could it be that the new reality of Covid-19 is the prompt, the burr under the saddle, that will get us moving to change this perception?
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an uncomfortable truth that most of us would prefer to ignore: health and long life are not guaranteed, not even to the youthful and hearty. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US have exceeded one million. Nearly 62,000 Americans have died from the virus. While some people may feel a sense of security because their community, far from Covid hot spots, has remained relatively untouched, this could change. The safety net, if not illusory, is fragile and easily torn. Death is no longer the rare visitor, as we like to pretend. Instead, it lurks nearby, sometimes brushing elbows with us when we least expect it. Many people are alone, and lonely. Some struggle with despair and depression. Others are sharing uncomfortably close quarters, and nerves are fraying. Some may be justifiably fearful, as domestic violence is on the rise. Many are plagued by financial insecurity made extreme by sudden job loss. Thirty million people filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. Others, still employed, risk their own health daily as they perform their “essential” but poorly paid tasks. The mood of anxiety is not likely to lessen as states open or prepare to do so. It will not be “business as usual” for a long time.
If only the sad and the hurting could receive a message of love, of assurance, of hope. If only there were some group of unique individuals who might send out such a message, to help transmit rays of much-needed light and comforting warmth when they are so badly needed.
If only churches and those who used to find themselves regularly in church on Sunday mornings could rise to the challenge.
Let’s give it a try.
Let’s emulate the example of Jesus in our words and actions. Like the friend, brother, teacher and savior we honor in our name as Christians, let’s live by the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let’s embody kindness, empathy and compassion. Let’s leave aside our tendencies to debate the fine points of theology, and maybe even our determination to prove that the Bible (and therefore “we” as opposed to “them”) are “right.” Let’s refrain from referring to people with whom we disagree as “Godless.” Let’s try, even when it makes us squirm as we abandon our customary high ground, to leave the judgement to God. And let’s ensure that our church’s online presence is in sync with our actions. That it emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, and transformative love.
May we “church folks” be a light in the darkness as we share the hope that springs from the certainty of God’s abiding love and saving grace for us, his flawed, often flailing, and all too human children. Who knows how many worried and sorrowful hearts we might touch?
Our Covid-19 world really needs us now.
I’ve been trying to write about the altered state of my family’s life during these strange days of coronavirus isolation, but the right words are hard to find. To say that we’re living through unusual circumstances is an understatement. What makes this time even more extraordinary is the marked dichotomy of human experience. While some of our brothers and sisters are battling the visceral reality of this virus, for most of us, real suffering, and the fight against it, is occurring at a distance.
I’ve been wanting to write about the humorous aspects of the modifications in our daily circumstances. Every day we find some new absurdity that prompts a smile or a laugh. For those of us, like my family, who have the luxury of staying together in our home, it’s far more pleasant not to dwell on the source of all this change. We are doing our part, after all, as we keep vigilant in our isolation, carry on with our respective tasks (which have not disappeared), and find some cheer in the beauty of springtime that surrounds us.
But even if we remain among the fortunate who are spared the pain of confronting this grim reality face-to-face, we should still be aware it.
A powerful picture of trench warfare against Covid-19 is offered by Simone Hannah-Clark, an intensive care nurse in a New York city hospital. Her op-ed in the New York Times on April 3 should be required reading for everyone: An I.C.U. Nurse’s Coronvirus Diary.
According to Ms. Hannah-Clark:
“I’ve started to refer to the time before this as peace time. Because this feels like a war. I grudgingly respect our enemy’s tenacity. Unseen, ruthless, random.”
Each workday for her begins well before dawn and ends well after dark. During the short time she spends at home, she takes care to isolate herself from her family, fearing for their safety. Even her commute to the hospital, which may be the least stressful part of her day, involves risk, in a choice between the Subway and Lyft. Once she begins her shift, the logistics alone–of managing the necessary medical equipment within confined and crowded spaces–while trying to protect herself adequately with perhaps less than adequate P.P.E.–sound overwhelming. And that’s before the intimate, meticulous procedures of patient care even begin. She documents these in moving detail.
Death is a frequent visitor. The only visitor, one might say, since the risk of transmission prevents family members and friends from keeping bedside vigil. Ms. Hannah-Clark writes:
“My first task is to help with post-mortem care on a Covid patient we just lost. We had watched her slowly die over the past few days. We did everything we could. It’s just me and a nursing colleague in the room.
It’s a grim affair. We wrap the patient’s body securely, stroking her brow and wishing her well on her next journey. My colleague removes her jewelry carefully; we know her daughter will want it. I have to collect her belongings because security isn’t allowed to come into the room. It moves me to see her wallet, her planner, her toiletries. Only a week ago she was a person with a future, with plans, with cherry-flavored lip balm.”
I will write about the funny side to coronavirus quarantine. But not yet. Maybe after Easter.
For now, I feel pressed to remember, and to acknowledge, why we’re staying home. May we be grateful for dedicated nurses like Ms. Hannah-Clark, who, bound by duty, refuse, at great personal risk, to stay home. May we remember that, even if we don’t know anyone sick with this disease, or anyone who has lost a loved one from it, there are, indeed, many real victims. And they are people much like us, who, until very recently, had plans and hopes for the future.
This day in the Christian calendar is Maundy Thursday, when we contemplate Jesus’s final night with his disciples. It was on that evening, before he was betrayed, that Jesus washed the feet of his friends. He told them to follow his example, to care for one another, to love one another. Medical workers like Simone Hannah-Clark, no matter their religious affiliation or complete lack thereof, are living out the reality of Jesus’s advice.
Let all of us, as fellow humans, especially during these anxious coronavirus days, try to love one another, not just with words, but with deeds as well.
For more on Jesus’s final earthly night, see last year’s post: Before his Death, Advice from a Brother, April 18, 2019.
The official Coronavirus Pandemic is now in its third week, and the US has become the center of the storm. This “foreign” virus has had no trouble making itself at home. If we persist in thinking of it as an immigrant, it’s one who quickly adapts to our all-American ideals, eagerly jumping into the melting pot, waving the flag and speaking in a familiar local dialect. Our country now leads the world in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19. As of this morning, over 140,000 Americans have tested positive for the disease, and nearly 2,500 have died from it.
Many of those now sick with Covid-19 are simply uncomfortable. Their symptoms are mild, like those of the flu or even an annoying spring cold during allergy season. For some, the worry over transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members in close proximity may be worse than any physical pain they feel. Others may endure greater suffering with more dramatic symptoms. Yet most, still, will recover. Approximately 137,500 Americans so far have survived Covid-19. Why not simply celebrate this figure? Why be negative? Why be such a Debbie-Downer?
This is why. Some of those who contract the virus, not only the elderly and infirm, but also the young and evidently healthy, will appear to be on firm footing, well on the road to recovery, when they take a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. Breathing will become a herculean task. Those who have experienced these symptoms describe a terrifying sensation akin to slow suffocation, like drowning on dry land. Some may not survive without a ventilator, an apparatus that forces air in and out of the lungs. Hospitals have a limited number of these costly breathing machines. A quickly soaring number of Covid-19 patients therefore poses a real hurdle. Some New York hospitals have begun experimenting with a single ventilator for two patients, a solution that has been described as “not ideal.” As cases spike, especially in rural areas, local hospitals will quickly become overwhelmed.
This is why we keep hearing the mantra: stay home to flatten the curve. If we can lower the number of people who get sick and require hospitalization, we’ll all have a better chance of survival.
Another point worth noting is that some people who contract Coronavirus may experience no symptoms at all. At first, this might sound like a good thing. See: it’s no big deal! Maybe it’s even less of a worry than the common cold! But no. Think of what this means: if we continue to carry on as usual, we risk crossing paths with those who look and feel healthy, yet may be actively “shedding the virus.” We can pick it up from such a carrier and be totally unaware of having been infected. Our every action poses a very real risk to those around us. We have no way of knowing who may be hit hardest by the virus. Some “underlying conditions” may become apparent only in the face of an acute illness.
Let’s think of those battling the Coronavirus on the front lines, for whom even small routine tasks now involve difficult challenges, physical, mental and spiritual. For those in our medical communities, their faces bruised from the constant pressure of masks they may be re-using out of necessity, the threat must be all-pervasive. Let’s do the right thing for all those whose jobs put them in the cross-hairs of this pathogen, whether they’re treating the sick, cleaning hospital rooms, working as first responders, as police and firefighters, or in pharmacies and grocery stores.
Let’s do the right thing, for our community.
Let’s do the right thing, for those we love.
Let’s do the right thing, for our country.
What is this that our community, our loved ones, and our country require of us?
Simply this: when at all possible, stay home.
*About a half hour ago, Governor Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for Virginia.
Spring has been given the green light here in Northern Virginia. As I had hoped, we got a pass on winter. There were no significant accumulations of ice or snow to complicate travel or shut down the schools. The miniature daffodils in our yard, the first to appear, are bobbing their bright sturdy heads in the chilly breeze. The sun is shining. The Bradford pears are blossoming, and the cherry trees not far behind. Typically, the onset of spring brings with it a sense of hope, the promise of rebirth, the deeply calming assurance that life goes on. But this spring has been saddled with an unwelcome companion, a cloud of anxiety referred to as “the novel coronavirus,” (since the term coronavirus refers to an entire family of viruses, including some causing the common cold) and more specifically known as COVID-19. Yesterday the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a pandemic, due to its worldwide spread. Only Antarctica has yet to be affected by this new virus.
At first, the outbreak was presented as a far-off concern for those of us in America. Easy to believe it was a problem for the Chinese only, where the virus initially appeared. Then it popped up elsewhere in Asia. Still comfortingly distant. But then a man in Washington state became infected, after returning from Wuhan, the city in China where the outbreak first began. Oh, snap! We forgot that our planet is actually quite small. And that as Americans we tend to have the freedom and the means to zip around wherever we like. After that, the virus began spreading quickly in Europe. Then on cruise ships. In Iran and Brazil. Then came the first American death, near Seattle, at the end of February.
At that point, the information we received became increasingly conflicting. The US had everything “under control.” The virus was being contained. Our response had been “pretty close to airtight.” Yet people continued to become infected, some who hadn’t traveled overseas. Others who had symptoms hadn’t been tested. There have been more American deaths. The stock market was looking good. The virus is no more dangerous than a typical flu. It is ten times more dangerous than a typical flu. Healthy, youngish people may test positive for the virus yet have no symptoms. They should continue to report to work. The virus will miraculously disappear once the weather warms up. Thirteen residents of a single nursing home in Seattle have died. There are plenty of tests for the virus. Anyone who wants a test can get one. The tests are beautiful. There are problems with the tests. They cannot be “validated.” The tests simply are not available. In Italy, the healthcare system is completely overwhelmed, and doctors flip coins to decide which patients live or die. Our US government’s response could not have been better. Our government’s response has been a hugely botched effort. The entire outbreak is a hoax. It’s a product of crazed media hype. Infections continue to mount. People continue to die.
Last week it might have sounded overly dramatic to say that the coronavirus outbreak is upending much of life as we know it, right here in the US. But not this week. Not now that many universities are making the switch to online instruction and advising students not to return from spring break. Not now that elementary and high schools are closing their doors, at least temporarily, across the nation. Not now that churches are increasingly encouraging their congregants to stay home. Not now that all NBA and NHL games have been suspended. Not now that late night comics and daytime talk shows have no live studio audiences. Not now that all travel from Europe to the US has been suspended. Or perhaps just some travel from Europe. Maybe it’s only Europeans who won’t be allowed to fly in, but OK for American citizens to come and go? Travel from the UK is fine and encouraged. And there will be no trade with Europe. There will be ongoing trade with Europe. Depends upon whom you ask. There is much fuzziness with regard to these finer points. Disneyland is closing. All is well. There will be no NCAA games. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have been diagnosed with coronavirus. This is all nothing but a “Panicdemic.” A fever dream conceived by a bunch of sissies. Broadway has gone dark. Your 401K will recover. The confusion continues.
Yes, all is well. Perfectly fine. Nevertheless, wash your hands. Wash them really well. Especially when you go to see your grandma.
On second thought, don’t go to see your grandma just yet.
It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.
The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.
Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.
There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.
Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.
With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.
The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14
God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:
Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35
The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.
He has created us to do so:
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5
So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?
That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.
Let us love one another. We were made for this.
*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
On this Veterans Day, on the Main Streets of small towns across our country, banners honoring currently serving military men and women continue to fly from flag-decked lamp posts. Typically, these hometown hero banners wave from May to November. In the charming Eerie Canal village of Spencerport, New York, they had been newly installed when we visited family over Memorial Day. As the leaves fell, the weather cooled and the time changed, I wondered if the banners were still in place. My sister-in-law Julie told me that they were indeed there along Union Street, and she sent some pictures.
Spring and summer have come and gone. Fall has all but made its exit. In upstate New York, as Thanksgiving approaches, a gray icy chill descends. Snow, and lots of it, is likely on the way. And still the soldiers gaze down on the streets of the towns they call home. They’re mostly young. They wear their dress uniforms. What’s in their expressions? Hope, apprehension, dread, determination, courage, trepidation, resolve, regret?
Here in Northern Virginia, Kiko and I spent some time in a small cemetery near our home on this unseasonably warm Veterans’ Day. The customary sounds of a suburban autumn–the leaf-blowing, tree-trimming, power-washing, and traffic–they’d fallen silent for a while. Kiko surprised me by not insisting on trying to venture out into the street beyond. Instead, he settled on a hill. Beside him, flags decorated several graves, as did one little pumpkin. Except for the occasional rustling of a falling leaf, the stillness around us was deep and comforting, like a blanket.
Veterans Day here in America evolved from Britain’s Armistice Day, first observed on November 11, 1919, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in World War I, which had occurred a year to the day before. It has come to be known as Remembrance Day in Britain. President Eisenhower changed the name of the US holiday to Veterans Day in 1954, designating it as a time to honor all our military men and women, including those who fought in World War II and Korea.
Veterans Day serves as a reminder of the very human cost of war. May we be resolute in our honor of those who have served and now serve in every branch of our military. May we remember that, as the seasons change, our soldiers yet remain far from home, in remote and inhospitable locales, often perceived as the enemy even when their mission is dubbed a peacekeeping one. Many hometown heroes banners are likely to be removed soon to make way for Christmas and holiday decorations. Let us not forget the ongoing sacrifice when those bright young faces no longer look down on us from Main Street flagpoles. And may we use the power of our vote to demand that we reflect on the past and learn from mistakes. May we elect representatives who seek to comprehend, and when possible, avoid, the truly inestimable cost of war.
For my Memorial Day post from Spencerport, see here.
Last year, Slim and the pack managed to fit in a quick road trip to Charlottesville on Halloween afternoon to mix with the University of Virginia community during Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn. This year, due to the threat of severe thunderstorms, the event was postponed until November 1. While the Skeleton Crew wasn’t in attendance, our daughter was, and she sent some photos.
The evening was clear, chilly and gorgeous in the wake of the previous night’s heavy rain. It attracted a big crowd from the university and the town.
Since the 1980s, the University has invited Charlottesville families to bring their children to trick or treat at each of the rooms on the Lawn and the West Range. These are the historic student accommodations dating from Jefferson’s original plan for his University’s Academical Village. Candy is donated by many student organizations.
The Rotunda, glowing like a lantern in the dusk.
Our daughter and a friend.
The moon rises. Twilight deepens. Time for little ghouls and goblins to head home. If my college experience counts for anything, I’ll assume that, for the students, Halloweekend festivities were only beginning.
For last year’s post on Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn, see here.