As We Re-emerge

   Out jogging early one day last week, the fancy came over me to go by the old stop. They had been closed for some time, and occasionally I had gone past, looked in the window, glad to see the cups and the counters still there. I had been missing the coffee of course, but even more I missed seeing the folks there. How were they getting along? The actor, the pianist, the student, the manager: were they well? Were they making it through?
    And on this morning: the lights were on. I looked closer: there were people inside. A sign indicated one could use the app to place an order. Then one of them unlocked the door and said, “Victor, good to see you.” Distance was kept and masks were in place, and in two minutes I had become, as it happened, the first customer post-shut-down.
    We chatted, caught up a bit, talked about how the re-opening might proceed in the weeks and months to come.
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    Each of us needs to pay attention to what we feel while our world—our neighborhood, our city—starts to loosen the restrictions that we have been living with for the past couple of months. It’s like emerging from a fast. You don’t want to eat too quickly; in fact, you want to savor every little bit. I think of cold water after a long walk on which I forgot to bring a water bottle: the way it hits the top of my mouth, back there above my tongue; the way it can be felt going down the throat.
    What will you feel—what are you feeling—as this slow but palpable transition begins?
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    I wrote earlier about having life interrupted by this Blasted Virus; we need to notice the interruption not merely as the bad thing it is (with such silver linings as it has) but also as a foretaste of the Great Interruption, namely, the end of our life. The fundamental Christian affirmation is that death is “only” an interruption, that on the other side of it there is another kind of life, a life that is this life purified and strengthened. Saint Paul’s analogy is that this present life goes through fire, and out comes, please God, the new life.
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    So, Austin, what did you feel that morning? It was joy, to be sure; it made my day that they were open. But (I noticed) the joy was far in excess of the coffee, almost as if the coffee didn’t matter. The joy was in seeing people and being seen. We aren’t friends, but we are friendly, and we can often remember each other’s names, and we know a bit about each other’s lives. And that feels good, it gives joy.
    What does the joy mean? My words, I feel, are always inadequate. But it means something like this: We human beings are meant to be with one another—not just with a particular friend, or a family, but all of us. And we are psychosomatic unities, body-and-soul unities. We are not images on a screen, or voices on a telephone, or words written on a page.
    When this is all over, I do not want to forget the joy that I feel in these simple meetings as we re-emerge.
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    One final thought, about God. Once God had created the world, he wanted to be more than the world’s creator. He wanted to be in the world, right alongside his creatures. That’s hard for us to imagine, although one can perhaps imagine being the author of a story and finding you want to be in the story yourself. Whatever we think of it, it is just the case: God wanted to be with his creatures. So what did he do?
    Did he write them a letter?
    Did he send them a DVD?
    Did he organize a Zoom meeting?

    Of course not. But why? Why would a letter not have been enough? Why would a video from God not have been satisfactory? Why would it not be enough for God to show himself to us on our computer screens?
    I think we all have a better feeling, now, for the answer to those questions.

 

Safety is Not First

 Safety should never be first. Miss Jean Brodie (she of her prime, in Muriel Spark’s brilliant novel) had some bad ideas that truly harmed her students, but she was dead on when she inveighed against the motto “Safety First.” The human being has a high calling; we might call it Beauty, or Truth, or Love. As we might well say, God comes first.
    My fellow pilgrims in Corona-tide, we must not learn the wrong lessons at this time. We must not start thinking that Safety is the important thing above all.
    Goodness, if safety were preeminently important, we might as well pull the plug on the human race and stop having children. Nothing is so vulnerable—so downright risky—as becoming a parent to a child!
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    I was a young adult during the Aids crisis. There was a novel virus amongst us; there was fear and, initially, much confusion about the different ways it might be transmitted. People became afraid of hospitals (could we catch it in blood?), of the communion cup (in saliva?), not to mention . . . you know, the S-word.
    Sex, which was promising liberation and fun, turned out to be a potential transmitter of death.
    Out of that period arose a new ideal for intimate human behavior. People starting saying—guardians and social influencers started teaching—that everyone should practice “safe sex.”
    Note the adjective; note the appeal to safety. Despite the good intentions behind this advice (the intention to minimize harm, even deadly harm), the motto advances a false human ideal. It’s our old friend, “Safety first.” But sex is never safe; intimacy and vulnerability are always risky.
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    This feature of the world we live in is even stronger now than it was with Muriel Spark’s Miss Brodie or in the Eighties. Powerful elements in our culture tell us to be careful, that the most important thing is safety. These elements are like the air we breathe: they are everywhere, and they are all but invisible. But it seems to me a Christian needs to register a dissenting view. To elevate safety to the highest of human values will crush our humanity.
    We need to be careful what lessons we take away from a crisis. As the bishop of Dallas (among many others) has recently said, Christians have an understanding of the human being that is a precious gift for the world.
    If the Word of God had put safety first, he would never have become a baby.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."