Tiptoeing Back into the House of the Lord

Purple lights at worship service.

Our view of a perfectly wasted opportunity for someone to improv a Christian pop song called “Purple Reign”.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: pandemic pandemic bo-bandemic, banana-rama-fo-fandemic, fee fi mo mandemic: pandemic! It’s sucked beyond all calculable orders of magnitude, has put people we know in the hospital or the grave, and currently rated a negative-ten-million percent on the Tomatometer.

Then amid Worst Year Ever, a ray of hope: the vaccines arrived. Then amid our ray of hope, penetrating lasers of inky darkness: a media and populace that simultaneously embrace vaccines and distrust them at the same time. And I’m not talking about the deniers shrieking at us from their log-cabin schoolhouses with tinfoil roofs, boasting how they’re more interested in preserving their reckless impunity than achieving herd immunity. No, I’m talking about the ostensible “good guys”:

The core announcement in 36-point boldface across the saner channels is generally “Get vaccinated if you want to live!” We’re absolutely on board with that, but that encouragement keeps getting drowned out by skittish commentators who trust science and yet don’t trust science. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm when we’re also being told, “Stay in hiding in case the vaccines are useless against…all-new all-different SUPER-COVIDS!” and “Keep on keeping away from other humans in case the entire point of vaccines halting transmissibility turns out to be a worldwide lie!” and “Don’t forget, it’s only 96% effective, so pretend you’re not actually vaccinated in case you’re secretly in the 4%!” And so on. Anchorpeople nationwide won’t stop assuring us with straight faces, “Failure is totally an option.”

If we’re really, truly meant to trust science, and if we’ve every reason to believe — based on the side effects so far and our own medical histories — that our immune system responses will be average and successful, then sooner or later these tiny new residents squatting in our bloodstreams will need some field testing. Sooner or later someone will need to demonstrate the vaccines were worth it and encourage the skeptics from their hidey-holes.

Nuanced, civil conversations about this are tough to hold online as everyone has their comfort zones, and that same everyone has also declared unholy war on anyone foolish enough to stand outside their comfort zones. One stranger put it best the other day, to the effect of: “There are two kinds of people I hate most — those who take fewer precautions than I do, and those who take more precautions than I do.”

If you’ve been following MCC this past year and putting up with my mood swings, you already know we’ve been careful. I shouldn’t have to recap that part. We have plenty of masks. We were fastidiously careful on our limited vacation. I created entire sets of rules for dining out and attending movies without getting us or others killed. We’ve played by the rules even as CDC messaging has kept lurching and tilting beneath our feet while they’ve been strung up between the dueling impulses to follow the test results and to placate their anti-science overlords. (The Hulu documentary Totally Under Control did a commendable job touching on the messaging issue, among others. Not everyone’s watched or learned from it.)

My wife Anne and I have had both our shots. Anne’s worst side effect were a headache after shot #1 and the predictable arm pain after each one. For me it was when I came home from shot #2, ate breakfast, and then took a three-hour nap. I hate napping. We realize the blessings at play here and that It Could’ve Been Worse. As of April 24th we were both past the fourteen-day milestone after shot #2. We are at full efficacy. For purposes of surviving the coronavirus menace and reviving the Before Times, our bloodstreams are about as good as they’re gonna get.

It was our understanding this is the part when we’re supposed to be kind of okay to live again. Shadowy specters loom online nonetheless, such as that time in Seattle when out of 1.2 million vaccinated people, about 102 drew the black queen and caught COVID despite the vaccine, a lamentable yet exceedingly small percentage within the stated margin of error. Which really, truly, deeply sucks for the 102, don’t get me wrong. Of those, eight were hospitalized and of those, two died, both of them over 80.

It sucks that there’s no such thing as a 100% effective vaccine with zero side effects. Many things we consume or put into our bodies don’t come with a 100% safety guarantee. Just ask anyone who’s ever developed a soy allergy at 35. But the odds are way, way way, way WAY way way down there.

Same thing with the issue of transmissibility: can the vaccinated pass along the virus to the unvaccinated? As it stands today, signs are largely pointing to “nope”. A new study is underway on this very question as we speak, but the last few months have seen increasingly encouraging testimonies from the likes of Johns Hopkins and other establishments. Everyone refuses to utter anything remotely resembling a guarantee on the matter. But if there’s a single study out there from a reputable source that’s found any unvaccinated subjects catching COVID-19 specifically from vaccinated acquaintances — like, at all, whether in numbers great or small — I haven’t seen it. And I’ve been looking.

Or there’s the terrifying march of the COVID Variants. If the vaccines are good against Plain COVID Mark I, citizens can now worry about such all-new all-different spinoffs as British COVID, Brazilian COVID, Bride of Son of COVID, Maximum Strength COVID Plus with Retsin, and Malibu COVID with New Hat. All of them are COVID. Studies continue but, again, the evidence has been looking good for the vaccinated.

Anyway, with that long preamble in mind to retrace our steps up to this point, last Sunday we returned to church.

For me it had been nearly fourteen months since I last showed up for service. When services resumed in July 2020 after a four-month hiatus, Anne gave it a try for three weekends, witnessed poor behaviors from several longtime members clearly not taking it seriously or doing the basic reading, and opted right back out. We’ve stuck to watching services online ever since. This despite the time that our lead pastor’s own mother caught the virus, among others. Or that time when the room formerly used for the early-bird old-timers’ service had to be shut down for deep cleansing due to a positive diagnosis. Their gathering has since been relocated to a more remote location and downgraded from an official Church Service to more of a Bible study group.

Careful readers may note this is the same church I’ve expressed concerns about in previous entries. Back in December, for example…

Ever since they reopened the doors in July, most of their communications I’ve seen have stressed that protocols are in place to obey the full letter of any applicable government edicts. Those same communications did not exactly add, “and to keep everyone safe.” So far I’ve counted one (1) musician onstage wearing a mask, and at least three services that have concluded with a pastor wishing everyone an awesome week and reminding the studio audience to put their masks back on before exiting the building. They’re planning four Christmas Eve services, all of which will be streamed and all of which allow advance seat reservations. Many seats are already taken.

…and I may have blown up a little:

Others are free to continue taking moral luck for granted in their continued survival. Others can trust that a large metaphysical moat exists around their social circles, that their gated communities and hermetic bubbles and circled wagons cannot possibly extend into the rest of America where the infections are. Others can protest how masks can be uncomfortable and make them look funny, as if we’re not all aware of this. Others can trust it will totally be within the Lord’s will to protect them from all harm, entirely forgetting about that time out in the desert when Satan tried to convince Jesus that strutting around like He owned the place was cool. Others can rattle off the tired “if it’s my time, it’s my time” suicide-cult shpiel. If they think masks won’t protect them and God will, one can only assume they also don’t own a gun.

It doesn’t help that they’re located in one of the first Indiana towns to report a positive case last year. But to my knowledge, no super-spreader events have been publicly tied to them. Chalk up some points for God’s grace and/or moral luck.

It’s been extremely frustrating, discouraging, upsetting, and at times flat-out madness. But here’s the thing: we’ve been members for ages — nearly 20 years for me, even longer for Anne. Whenever the idea of church shopping occurs to me — which, frankly, I’ve never done before in my life — it strikes me as one of those “grass is always greener” conundrums. We’re in Indiana. How likely is it that we’ll find another Christian church that matches our exact precaution level?

But now we have vaccines. And we’re stubborn. And these things need to be field-tested. And we’re still willing to wear masks. If Pfizer has sincerely accomplished their stated goals, we have nothing to fear but ostracism and looks askance at us for dressing funny. Story of my life.

Our county of residence is still under a mask order. The church’s county isn’t. We wore masks anyway. I was tempted to wear one of the “I’M VACCINATED!” stickers they gave us at the hospital, as if to announce to the olds that the absentee smart kids have returned to the building. Call us the prodigal prodigies. Ultimately we’re not that confrontational. Also, I don’t know where Anne put them.

Outside the front door a sandwich board proclaimed “MASKS RECOMMENDED”. Inside, a handful of folks were on the same page as us. We were outnumbered, but we weren’t alone.

Every other row of seats was roped off to encourage distancing. I didn’t get the impression that they were requiring disparate households to sit far apart from each other within the same rows and not side-by-side. AMC Theaters has made a point of separating parties, so it can be done.

We sat at the far edge of the auditorium, near no one else. Two or three greeters welcomed us from afar with waves and eye contact. No one approached us. So that’s masks plus distancing in our favor. To be fair, it’s possible we were de facto new visitors in their eyes and therefore held at a remove for it. Membership turnover has been quite a thing for the past several years, even pre-pandemic. Not counting anyone onstage, I recognized exactly three people in all — one masked and two elderly unmasked. Anyone who’s ever met the two of us should be able to spot us in a crowd. I’m not convinced that happened here.

We kept our masks on all service long, even while singing. We had discussed taking them off, but then I decided on the spur of the moment just to see if I could sing with it on. I made it work. I’m sure I sounded funny. I’m also sure God won’t leave me a negative Yelp review for it. Singing at the end of the service was a little more challenging as 75 minutes of my continued aspirations bogged it down, but I managed. I wear a mask forty hours a week at work. I’m no stranger to the concept, and not so full of myself that I mistake creature comforts for spiritual virtue.

Apropos of the era and of my incessant judgments, the sermon topic was anger. To illustrate one point, our pastor’s A/V team brought up a copy of psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, with emphasis on the “Angry” segments that subdivide the various modes and sub-modes.

Robert Plutchik's emotions wheel.

Bonus points for fitting some purple into it.

It’s as if God led me to this moment so I could contemplate my mood swings and my negativity flare-ups within a Scriptural context, and He handed me a tool for further self-dissection. Or a tool that You, The Viewers at Home, can now use at will for amateur psychoanalysis of your friends, family, coworkers, or even strangers like me.

When the service concluded, we exited — walking. not running — without further interaction from others. It wasn’t exactly the warm embrace of a loving community brought together by a full year of trials and tribulations. If only. But if we’re ever to find our way back to the Before Times, it’ll require taking steps beyond our comfort zones and intersecting with the comfort zones of others. God’s provision in the form of vaccines might just make that possible.

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