Well, here I am after a nice quiet month. I kept thinking I would blog while it was going on, but then I figured—as the news kept getting worse and worse—that I just wouldn’t. If ever there was a time not to weigh in about anything, this seemed as good as any. Instead, as a special treat, in spiritual preparation for enduring the dreaded yearly remembrance of my birth, I listened to a book called The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly. It isn’t my usual preferred genre, and I was a little bit anxious about whether or not I could, as it were, stomach it, but it was so luridly riveting I made it through.
So basically, in case you live under a rock, there was once a horrible disease called, by some, The Black Death, or, as it swept across Europe in the Middle Ages, The Great Mortality. It came, you might have heard, by means of fleas on rats traveling all over the earth through the technologically transformative innovation of the day—boats. It infected people so swiftly that whole villages lay silent in a matter of weeks. Kelly, more than once, resorts to nuclear holocaust as an emotional touchstone.
How could this have happened? Well, writes Kelly, there were climate fluctuations that impacted (sorry, couldn’t resist) the rat population and made the disease more virulent. Then, it turned out that nobody liked to bathe much. That was a major factor. Everyone also was lazy and preferred to empty their chamber pots into the street. Warfare was modernizing and involving greater numbers of soldiers than before. And, of course, there was the usual amount of human hubris and arrogance that ramped up the possibility of mass death several notches higher than required. When you add in the fact that no one knew what caused it, and terrible famines sweeping across Europe before the plague even dawned, well, it wasn’t, to put it as mildly as possible, a Good Time.
One of my favorite bits was Kelly’s occasional mention of the theological worldview of those at the time, both Muslim and Christians, as people tried to make sense of what was happening. As the plague crept up, each and every community knew that God was judging the wicked. ‘I myself,’ each and every person thought, ‘will not succumb to the plague because I am good and it is just and right that my enemies should suffer and die in Ebola-esque horror.’ Eventually, though, everyone was exposed. It swept away the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the man and the woman, the believer and the infidel alike. Some astute observers at the time wondered if God was exercising his divine wrath even at home. Have we sinned, some wondered. Probably not. One thing was clear, however. God, or at least “God,” had something to do with it. Oh, and also the Jews. Persecuting them seemed as good a way of appeasing God, or rather “God,” as any. Thus was added another layer of foul corruption to the already sickening horror of daily pandemic life.
I recommend the book wholeheartedly if you are feeling that your own life is too terrible to bear, or if you have nostalgic feelings about the past, or if you can’t face the news of today. The news of yesterday is just as awful and your own helplessness to stop the tide of human wickedness is just as great whether you’re scrolling through Facebook or wondering about the fate of a nameless French peasant from a thousand years ago.
And, more wonderfully, it might put you in the proper frame of mind to ponder today’s lections. As usual, I am impressed with the lectionary architect’s pairing of Old Testament and New Testament texts. In the Old, Joshua is about to knock off this mortal coil after the anxious and oft pathetic work of ushering God’s people into the Promised Land (not that God’s work was pathetic, but that the people started out with a lot of enthusiasm but then petered out pretty quickly in the usual way). ‘Put away your foreign gods,’ admonishes Joshua, and you, the reader, might wonder, ‘Wait, didn’t they just move in? Why do they already have other gods?’ The congregation gapes at Joshua and solemnly swears that they wouldn’t think of serving other gods. “Far be it from us,” they begin, in the way that we all do, declaring our virtuous and good intentions to always do the right thing.
It’s like how the US invaded Afghanistan all those years ago, because it was a hotbed of barbaric and practically medieval terrorism, but then only like thirty seconds later thought that the best thing to do would be to force gender studies on all the inhabitants. Well, maybe it’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty grotesque regardless.
Joshua, being the sensible person he is, explains to the congregation that they won’t actually be able to do what they are that moment insisting they will do, and that God will judge them for their failures. ‘No no,’ they insist, ‘we will!’ ‘Ok then,’ he says, ‘PUT AWAY YOUR FOREIGN GODS.’ And so the Long Old Testament wears on. Much later, Jesus looks out over the “grumbling” group of his followers and invites them also to make a choice. If you want to have life, you’re going to have to be with me. I’m going to have to be the only one. They furrow their brows and, in a moment of unusual honesty, all go away, except the twelve. It’s one of the most disappointing moments in the entire Bible. Imagine, feeding a crowd of 5000 men plus women and children, being on the edge of starting something great, and then forcing such a binary choice—Me alone—that everyone leaves except for twelve.
And yet, what choice do we have, really? Most in the West, in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary, persist in the foolish magical idea that human ingenuity and righteousness will really make all the ends of the earth more comfortable and nicer. Having mucked everything up to a horrible degree, yet, as dawn follows night, we think ‘Well, today we won’t. We Promise.’
The other option is to stop saying that and to fling yourself down before the Lord of Life, the one who makes the bread, who is the Bread, who is the Healer, who is, as the Psalmist proclaims, “my chosen portion and my cup,” the only source of good in a foul and stinking and putrid world. Whether or not your current boundaries strike you as pleasant or terrible, the Lord can put you on the path of life, in his presence you can taste a full and complete joy. No matter what happens today, for eternity there are pleasures forevermore—If you choose Him.