Lest We Forget

         This week our grandson’s Little League practice was at the neighborhood school.  Besides 5-year-old boys playing baseball, girls’ basketball and boys’ soccer teams were practicing.  Kids, parents, and grandparents were meandering around, chatting, and watching. Toddlers were on the playground equipment.  It felt normal.

And then it came to me: not too long ago, this scene would not have been possible. 

I remember I’d posted a piece about the playground and checked when I got home.  I found this from March 14, 2021:

This past Monday, I was driving past our neighborhood school at lunchtime and saw something I had not seen in a year: children playing.  Outdoors. On the school property. Lots of them.  On their own. They were chasing balls and chasing each other. Some were sitting in pairs on the grass, some were walking around on their own, and some were involved with games on the blacktop. In the 27 years we have lived in this neighborhood, I’ve gone by the school almost every day, but it’s been a year since I’ve seen children playing at recess

COVID had shut down schools, playgrounds, and parks all over the world for a year.  When I saw that scene last year and realized we were getting back to “normal” I vowed to never take such “normal” scenes for granted again.

COVID is still out there, but almost no one is dying from it.  A few places still recommend masks.  Much of our life is “back to normal.” I have often forgotten what we went through.  But perhaps we should not forget too quickly how different our lives were.

         Just now, I opened my wallet and took out my battered vaccination card. In early February, 2021, a friend and I were able to get online appointments for some of the first vaccines being offered. On our scheduled Saturday, we drove two hours to Dodger Stadium.  We then spent four hours inching along in a long line of cars into the vast parking lot where the shots were being administered. Finally, we arrived at the place where a masked and gloved nurse approached us.  I rolled down my window and offered her my left arm. She gave me the injection and said, “Sir, you have been vaccinated.” I’ll never forget those words or what it felt like. I guess I don’t need to carry the card with me anymore, but I’m going to keep it as a reminder.

I remember reading David Brooks’ comment in the New York Times as COVID was ending in New York. He pledged he would never again let himself be impatient at a crowded bar while waiting to order a drink.  He is scheduled to speak in Santa Barbara this spring, and if I get a chance, I want to ask him if he’s been able to honor that commitment.

         I remember a column from the conservative commentator Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal during the most desperate days of COVID.  At that point, we were all dependent on the “front-line workers” in fields, stores, delivery trucks, and hospitals who were keeping us alive at serious risk to themselves.  She said when the pandemic was over, any undocumented worker who had been on those front lines should be given a guaranteed path to citizenship.  I have not seen her or anyone mention that issue since.  If I ever bump into her – maybe at a crowded bar in New York? — I will ask her if she still favors that position. 

In many ways, life is back to normal. But I don’t want to forget what we went through. I don’t want to forget how grateful we can be for where we are now.  I don’t want to forget those who risked their lives to keep us safe, nor ever lose our gratitude for those who developed the vaccine. 

It’s a beautiful thing to see kids playing baseball outdoors.

They Survived a Pandemic and Built a Cathedral –How Will We Remember COVID?

A great plague struck Vienna in the early 1700s.  Rulers often left the cities during such times, but Charles VI remained, joining the inhabitants to pray for deliverance. They particularly prayed to St. Charles Borromeo, who had been canonized out of admiration for the way he cared for victims of a plague in the 1570s.  When in 1712 the plague finally subsided, the Emperor, filled with gratitude, pledged to build a great cathedral. Construction began in 1716 and was completed in 1737. It was called Karlskirche, or St. Charles Church.  It became an architectural landmark in Vienna; people married in the chapel include Mozart, Mahler and Hedy Lamar.  It continues to be a popular sight.

            When I arrived in Vienna in January 2020, Karlskirche was not on my list of places to see. But it was close to my hotel and became one of the first places I visited.  Initially I was put off by the overly ornate architecture – way too frilly and overdone for my tastes. And the paintings of the saint caring for plague victims seemed to portray events of a distant past. But something kept drawing me back.  On a cold Saturday night – you were given a wool blanket when you entered — I attended a performance of the Mozart Requiem there.  I visited again two days later.  And on my last night in the city, I was on my way to a concert. It was foggy as I passed Karlskirche and its bells were ringing; I realized I had become enamored.

            I returned from Europe in early February.  A short time later, COVID-19 began shutting down Europe and the world. So far, 3.8 million people have died —  614,000 in America alone – and it is still threatening many people in the world.  It is finally subsiding in America, and California is scheduled to lift most restrictions on June 15.

            As life begins to return to normal, I’ve been wondering: Will we do what the Austrians did? Will we take time to be grateful for those who helped us survive the COVID plague?  Will we find a way to remember what lessons we have learned?  We have memorials for many painful experiences, including the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan.  The art and themes of Karlskirche focus on the spiritual figures and beliefs that were prominent in 18th century Vienna.  What themes might we include for our COVID experience?

            If I was on the design committee, here are some themes I would suggest:

  • Healthcare workers We need to honor the healthcare workers who lived every day on the edges of this invisible and deadly biological disaster, and who, like St. Charles, cared for the sick and dying at mortal risk to themselves.  How about a simulated balcony where, below you, images of nurses, doctors, and hospital workers pass by hour after hour?  Your job is to pick up kitchen pans and create a cacophony of gratitude.
  • Frontline workers We need to honor the countless people who could not cocoon at home with Zoom, but worked on farms and in grocery stores keeping us fed. And for post office, FedEx and UPS workers who became human lifelines.  Peggy Noonan, longtime conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal, was in the middle of the COVID apocalypse in New York.  She wrote: “We know who kept America going during the pandemic—the stackers, counter clerks and others, some of whom were here illegally. When this is over, give them full U.S. citizenship, no questions or penalties.”[i]
  • Scientists We need to honor the scientists who created the vaccine that saved our lives and our world.  Maybe create a life-size model of the labs where Moderna, Pfizer and J&J employees worked around the clock to develop the vaccine?  And testimonies about what it was like to do this critical work?
  • Nursing homes We need to remember the unique human toll COVID took in nursing homes. This suffering was largely invisible.  Millions of elderly and medically vulnerable people had to live as if they were under house arrest, unable to see or hug loved ones. Low-income caregivers kept showing up, often returning to cramped housing to care for their own families. We should not let this be forgotten.
  • Volunteer networks.  Around the country, countless individuals stepped up to organize help for neighbors and people in need.  In the parish I was serving, members created a food distribution network that fed thousands of people over several months.  Similar efforts blossomed everywhere.  We need to remember this display of what it looks like to love your neighbor, no matter who that neighbor is.
  • Our political failures.  When I’ve heard stories of hard times in American history, such as the depression and World War 2, there has often been a common perspective: “It was hard.  But we came together. We shared the burdens.  We united as a nation to face a common threat.”  I don’t think we will hear that about COVID.  Politics often took precedence over the clear and present danger.  It was a mess.  We need to find a way to remind future generations of the cost of personal and political pettiness.

            If COVID had never happened, my memory of visiting Karlskirche would be simply one more positive experience in a trip that had many.  But it’s become more than that. It’s an example of how one culture expressed gratitude for surviving a plague. We need to create memorials that insure the profound lessons learned during COVID will not be forgotten.

[i] https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-look-back-at-the-pandemic-year-11608847540?mod=article_inline

(Photo: High Altar Apotheosis of Saint Charles Borromeo, by Alberto Camesina.jpg)

Disciple Dog and the Scary Storm

            Today I want to introduce you to one of my long-time and trusted spiritual guides – Disciple Dog.  We’ve been buddies for years.  

If I was working on sermons and feeling stuck, I would visit him. He always helped me see things more clearly.  

He was much loved by the congregations I served –people often said they got more from him in three minutes than listening to me for twenty.  He knew that, but didn’t rub it in.

            I’ve been thinking about sharing some of our conversations from our archive on my blog. I asked him how he’d feel about it.  He said, “Sure, why not?”

            We start this week with a conversation from last April.

            At that time, we were all entering a lockdown in response to the COVID pandemic.  It was a scary time.  It felt like we were in a storm.  

            One morning, Disciple Dog told me that the night before he’d had a dream about being in a scary storm.  He described the dream to me.  Here it is: 

           Pause for personal reflection. When he got past his initial fear, he began reaching out to others.  Looking back over your experience over the last year, did any of your relationships become stronger?  Did you develop any new relationships in the storm?

            DD is napping right now, but he asked me to share with him any comments you may have.