The Number You Have Dialed Has Been Disconnected: American Christianity and Covid-19 in the Hospital

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.

Diving: Motherhood and Chaplaincy

My oldest turned 10 a few days ago. A decade of the great experiment called parenting–the growing up ourselves, the falling down and picking up again, the long days and short years. It’s hard to believe I’m this deep into … Continue reading

Staying

It is no small and unholy thing to stay.

I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.

In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.

Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.

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We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.

As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.

Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).

We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.

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As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.

Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.

And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.