“What is the work we are asked to do in the night world?…By keeping our vulnerability and mortality close, we learn to meet each moment with presence, even as we know it is passing away. We are invited into a … Continue reading
One of the most sobering things I witness in the hospital is the sudden onset paralysis of the American Christian faith.
I’m visiting a patient with disheveled hair and two devices strapped to her aged face. Her eyes have started departing from one another, adding to the assessment of her waning orientation and increasing fatigue. Her arms are strapped down in soft, blue foamed wrist restraints because Covid-19 and the toll of inpatient isolation have progressed to the degree that she is not able to participate or comply with her own treatment. The lying on the stomach, the acceptance of the high flow oxygen forced up her nose and non-rebreather mask pulling across her face, the decision-tree of what to do next–they all are outside of her grasp.
Her lifelong devotion to God and service though is intact, as much a part of the fabric of her spirit as her fingerprints to her body. She mumbles words of self-denial, praise to Jesus and the afterlife. She is visibly comforted by affirmation of her work and legacy, echo of her rejection of “this world” and recitation of scripture. It is in this setting that I, my own face covered by three layers, connect a patient to their family with gloved hand and Zoom login and seek to connect with her, a human and suffering friend.
When the patient starts crying, and states she has “no more” when the faces pop up one by one on the tiled screen, I hold her hand and observe aloud that she is crying, to ask about her sadness. I’m rebuked like only a church-kid can be by a two-dimensional virtual visitor. I broke the rule about the gag-order on “negative” emotions–it might crack the portrait of good health and thriving I’m not seeing.
Later, in a phone conversation, and weeks before that, and years before that, and tomorrow, we speak with family, so many families, about the course of Covid-19, the devastating effects on the unvaccinated lungs and, when indicated, the knowledge that it has progressed too far. In church-speak, doors are closing. Just because we can do things to the body, if the body cannot process it, should we? What is the role of the hospital and violent interventions known to be futile in this particular set of conditions? What is the role of the patient and family’s beliefs about death, life, and God in this set of conditions? Though the flesh is weak, how might the spirit become stronger?
It is painful to watch and listen when people of faith, usually hailing from specific streams of Christianity, feel forced to divorce their heart, mind and bodies from reality in order to keep their doctrine intact. When the doctrine is not a friend or companion to the bad news, in the mess, but rather rigidly adversarial and promoting of dissociative behavior. When people have sat under years and years of teaching and been discipled out of any theology of suffering, tolerance of doubt and ambiguity, and curiosity about emotions and grief, they arrive at the hospital with toothpicks when they need a steel beam. Rare patients and families with these backgrounds find themselves on a libertive journey where their lived human experience and their relationship with the Divine work in tandem to pull them to a new dimension of their faith tradition. This is done with not insignificant stress, caution, and loneliness as new information is clunky and old faith containers stretch.
And some follow the automatic and worn neurological path of denying what is seen for what is unseen, to the degree that they resort to lying, rudeness, and hostility in the gymnastic effort to maintain a narrative that is itself on life-support. “We have faith so it doesn’t matter what you say: they’re going to walk out of here.” To the degree that updates about their loved one in the ICU may actually be an offensive affront to the triumphant theology to which they are now so desperately loyal. “He’ll be fine. I prayed all day.” To the degree that an 80-year-old woman’s sadness would be denied in exchange for a one-dimensional interpretation of hope. “Don’t speak negativity over her. God’s ways are not our ways.”
In a study done by the Pew Research Center in September 2021, 55% of Christian respondents share that their church and religious organizations have not made a difference in the handling of the pandemic. While most religiously-identified people would trust their clergy to speak about vaccines and public health, most leaders have not. (Others have happily filled the void.) Protestants are less likely to be vaccinated than their Catholic, other-faith or non-affiliated counterparts. Which means I’m more likely to see them in a serious illness conversation towards the end of life. In the face of one of, if not the most universal and pervasive event of our lifetime, across age, culture, class and livelihood, the Christian leader in America has abstained from the conversation, habitually maintained mute on suffering and loss, and too often failed to recalculate and recommunicate what hope and wisdom could be. The invitation inherent to the passing moment goes unanswered.
It’s not the text. It’s not the God. It’s not the ancient ways. It’s not the intellectual and emotional capacity of humankind, Christian or otherwise. It’s a disabling interpretation and incomplete programming contingent on a cocktail of escapes, privilege, and, when challenged, denial.
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Human hope is rooted in our capacity to both remember and change our mind.
In the hospital, I accompany some Christian people when they enter into what feels to them like a new frontier of holding their grief and their God together. I celebrate when they connect their most human moments with their deepest experiences of the sacred. In the context of Covid-19, the irony of finding a deep breath of theological air as though underwater for too long within the experience of losing their bodily capacity for oxygen and movement is piercing.
And I watch and hold the hands of more Christian people who cannot break the surface, whose entire devout discipleship has not equipped them for the most human and inevitable times of illness and death. I hold the angry gaze of family insistent upon a god of wins, avoidance of suffering and the subsequent rejection of a virus, vaccine and the body. And I grieve with them, for what might have been.
(Reposted from 3.6.19 BC)
When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, there lays the possibility for shalom wholeness.
I can see no way forward without looking at our pain; I can realize no greater integrity and fullness by denying the truth.
Ash Wednesday’s kick off of Lent is a great collective recommitment to making room for death and dying. Instead of passing time, we mark time, in a way that opens and reveals. It requires individual work and reflection, but it is not a solitary endeavor. It is an ancient rhythm, a group pilgrimage. We together face calvary before the empty tomb, a wide and long caravan, spanning over the ages, linked by the gravity of human suffering and depravity.
It is not too hard to detect this.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
It is very easy to take ourselves too seriously, which is to say, we start denying ourselves of self-awareness and spiritual integrity. In our piety, we reject our feelings. On our pedestal, we let our fears drive us. Amongst our people, we sustain an image that wedges dynamite between the appearance and the person; a small situation, an innocuous question, and explosions occur.
It is also easy to take ourselves too lightly, particularly when we are accustomed to being dismissed. Our sadness is illegitimate, and so is our happiness. Our dreams are selfish; self help is a curse word. The abuse we have sustained is no big deal. Our gut is gagged. Our bodies are unknown and unloved.
Both of these are not the death and dying of Lent. Lent is shape and those are chaos. Lent is a trajectory, and those are a spiral. Lent is going to become liberation; those are isolation.
Which is a meandering way to get at the importance of the observance of lent as a part of a group, oriented in a faith tradition or family, stuck in a stream that is larger that one’s own vices and virtuous flat affect. Some of us are new in learning the church calendar; we only knew about 4th of July and Easter and Christmas Eve. We didn’t walk this lenten lowly walk as children, and so we are children today. Lucky for us, the Good News has always been for the least and littlest. The ones lacking inhibitions and who give thought and pause to lots of silly things and curiously consider their big toe. The least, who haven’t started collecting all the shoulds and trophies and filters.
If we follow in the footsteps of the suffering Christ, the weeping mother, the ancient way, we may just become reacquainted with our own brokenness. We can only hope. For on this path, initiated with ash, we find there is room to look at the somber truth of ourselves and the brokenness of our hearts. We find there is room to confess the dirtiest of sins and grieve the most hushed of abuses. We find there is room, in a faith featuring a long suffering Savior, to be our self–not too big, not to small–with others. Here we are reminded, the invitation is not to not be sad or tired, but to not be lonely and stuck.
On this joint pilgrimage of Lent, our broken pieces melt a little into one another and the whispered laments gain a little strength. The ash on my forehead seems similar to yours, and yours doesn’t make me love you less but more. Sorrow and grief turn out to not be the monsters we so long avoided, but the markers of a beloved humanity bursting with attachments and vulnerabilities…like a crying Jesus or collapsing Mary. Praise be.
Oh, here in the dust and dirt! Here in the honesty with one’s mess, here linked relentlessly to one another! Here grow the Easter lilies. Oh, here, here we must be again, because we forget this is where it begins.
Recommended hands to hold during your lenten journey:
Rachel Held Evans – Lent for Lamenting – a late biblical scholar and author of major lifelines for me (Inspired and Searching for Sunday), Evans posted throughout Lent her resources for guiding this time of lament, particularly for those of us who feel “on the outs” with our church history, our church, our extended family, our faith, or God Themselves. This is especially poignant since Rachel has died, and left behind a legacy of inclusion and justice.
Christena Cleveland – 7 Last Words of Christ our Black Mother – public theologian, social psychologist, and justice-oriented believer, she is de-centering the perceived male whiteness of the crucified Christ in her project. Focusing on the 7 last words of Christ, in black church tradition, she imaginatively reinvigorates our beliefs and perceptions of calvary and Easter. Introduction linked but full series available by becoming a patron of this change-maker (as little as $2/month).
Dominique Gilliard and Erina Kim-Eubanks – Lenten Lamentations – an incredible resource meant to help guide those of us wanting to remember rightly and allow for disruption along their lenten journey. If truth is the only actual way forward, and we know Easter is ahead, perhaps we will have the courage to be truthful about our past. This series brings to light pieces of our country’s broken racial history that require deep, collective lament; looking at them to remember rightly will only further attach us to our need for the Divine and our connection to one another—sounds holy. There is also a congregational liturgy to use in conjunction with this sobering, truthful guide.
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