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.

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We Need to Talk About (Dis)empowerment

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Backsliding with Jesus and an Important New Book

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Start Small

It has been a summer, and it is barely even summer.

I cannot talk about all that has happened here, but I have felt the wrongful use of power from within the ekklesia–the adopted family of faith, the light-holders, the called. This is a special grief.

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When I was young, my family experienced a profound betrayal. At the heart-wrenching news of a sibling’s diagnosis, the inherited virus that struck fear in the hearts of the most educated and powerful at the time, a church responded as though they were not heirs to a different Kingdom, as though their inheritance did not set them apart to love and courage.

New to the mission field and missionary kid identity, a hemisphere away from the congregation, my heart was still in those stateside walls. I had grown up there. I had stenciled its bathrooms. I had flipped those worship song overheads. And my faith and discipleship had flourished within that loving community. I didn’t have many friends in Kenya yet. We were sent but had not completely left perhaps. On the ground, but maybe a little in the air.

When as a family we were in the throws of the grief of the surprise diagnosis, I was incredibly unsuspecting that loved ones could respond in any way except empathy, sadness, and love. I didn’t know the word stigma yet, and I wasn’t versed in the rationale behind HIPAA. So when that home church board, which had shown Jesus to me in so many ways, rejected my sibling, and questioned our new livelihood and partnership, I grappled. The silence of others was an injurious as the words blasted out. (My parents tried to shield me from much of this, but they also taught me how to use e-mail and read, so…) Grief upon grief. One parent eventually flew back to the States in an effort to find reconciliation, with the help of a mediator. I remember the other parent crying in their bedroom, when the water tank decided to leak through the roof, alone in a foreign country with 5 kids, spotty electricity and that hovering sense of abandonment. Water pouring down the walls, and my own sense of belonging and home pouring out with it. It was disorienting, and though we did not speak of it much or share about it then, it was defining.

That experience forced my faith to differentiate from a place, or an outcome. And it showed me that the most mature, the most devoted, by word, may be the youngest in deed. Everyone has work to do. And fear is a convincing hurricane pulling up the tallest trees.

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A few months ago, I was working with some colleagues to address some sensitive and serious matters. I heard the words “stay small,” during one time of prayer. As an advocate, a first-born, a leader, and achiever, we can all be confident that these words did not come from my head. The words helped me with patience, and to work within the given system, to wait behind leaders, and watch. And the words help me today as I am forced to continue waiting and watching from this place of betrayal and grief, as I see false narratives and am left alone to check my own attitude and actions in this Church.

I find comfort in the smallness, the humility, of the passion of Christ. The disorder he endured and the abandonment central to our Good News disarms my expectations while hosting my pain. I compare alluring human success, the touting of statistics, name recognition and acquisition of comfort, with his rhythm of ministry, his walk of suffering, and I don’t see much connection. I know from his life that collecting successes and platforms was not the aim; the power and the transformation he preached was in the visit to the prisoner, quiet and inconvenient, the feeding of the individual, unknown and undocumented. His stories are small, like the vulnerability of confronting and empowering a woman, in the heat of the day, at a pivotal moment. His record was one of investment into real relationships. Proximity to the pain was central. His acquisition of status did not overlap a hair with this world’s. His smallness and humility was our very victory and salvation.

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I can no sooner slow the growth of my children as I can solve my current problem or convince people to do the right, small thing. So I am left to start small, to stay small, with my self. Am I one that employs language of reconciliation and love but do not meet at the table with the complicated friend? Do I outwardly suggest all means of generosity and inclusion, but side step relationships when they smack of sacrifice? Do I stay at his feet, do I quiet the demons, enough to be draw near to the God of the margins, the Lord of kings? Do I build equity and justice in the small ways, in the daily steps?

There is enough work to do in me to keep me thinking small and to extend far beyond the puffing chest or the raised fist. Giving helps the grief, and blessing out of brokenness is the only way to heal. So far Life keeps reminding me that it is in the pouring out and the breaking, the kneeling and washing that we meet, we share in, and enjoy, the holy. We echo him, and we find him, and that is all we ever could hope to do.

 

Her Missing Voice

“…the insight of women whose hearts are attuned to the heart of God are silenced because so much of our ministry endeavors arise from a culturally derived false sense of masculinity…We are forcing a theological famine upon ourselves by ignoring the voices of women.” ~Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament, p. 64

I see hunger everywhere. And I find the malnourishment especially painful to understand, early in this adult life, as it thrives in this Church, this love of mine. To accept that conferences and services and studies led by men are for men and women, and those led by women are for women (usually ones with a ring on and a mortgage). To hear excuses made for men that would endanger the jobs and influence of women. It’s hard to know that a woman in leadership is still a living, breathing debate, and to constantly live where men and misinformed masculinity are the decision-makers.

Half of God is neglected when half His people are not at the table.

Adopting the roles of wife and mother has both sharpened my appreciation for being a woman and my sensitivity to the ways in which women are ignored and discriminated against, especially if they don’t fall into the privileged hats and stereotypes I happen to possess. I hurt with those who don’t desire to ever have these titles, or do but have not found or pursued them yet; I can see how living in the pressure cooker of churchy society often make both women feel out of place.

In my humble daily, I strive with others to set a different table and divest from such mean, narrow, Bad News culture. I long for the day we don’t have to apologize for being women. I’m encouraged and taught by so many doing similarly, mindful of God’s femininity and motherhood, of the voice and might of women in Scripture. As much as I hold men responsible for perpetuating or breaking down the confines around my gender, I also feel the burden and calling of putting forth a more cohesive and comprehensive image of woman.

We are uniquely qualified to speak as God’s children when we work from the truth of our experience on the sidelines. From the time we are labeled bossy when he is named leader, to the first time we are called a bitch for having a thought threatening to a man, to the observation that men are asked to pray and women to babysit, while the sermons rattling around in our heads have no venue. We remember the debut of our physical figures and the ensuing comments, hollers, and assault. We are aware of brokenness because we have been subject to it, with greater frequency and less recompense than the other gender. Women can be present and affected by another person’s pain because we have faced our own, and brought it before others and Abba God, again and again. The complexity of our bodies and our sexuality, our nuanced intellect and our God-given emotions, are qualifications and indications, not apologies and caveats.

The voice of women implores the Church, the Bride, to greater honesty and empathy. She calls the family to remember, to lament, and to a patient and inglorious resolve that introduces Jesus where we need Him most.

Women, you –we– are necessary to the task of love, the Shalom that calls. We still have the hard work of pushing, gripping one another’s hands, and screaming through the pain of bringing forth a more whole picture of Jesus to the world and one another. Because we have found God as Parent, and Good News in our own experiences, we can offer non-judgmental space for others who are hurting, who have made big mistakes, who are slow and disappointing or just completely different. We are great about embracing the cause. We are half of Christ’s body left here on earth and imperative to the Already and Not Yet.

The women I know have been the bravest and the quietest, the most overlooked and underpaid, the best qualified and the least promoted. Men, I ask you to share the pulpit and agenda, invite women to the team, and defer to their advice. Making space may mean moving aside. Listen. Copy their rhythms, ask God to make you sensitive to language and theology that excludes us. Repent of the assumptions made about us. Women, let’s share the mic. Bring a friend to the opportunity that’s been given you. Maintain vulnerability. Invest in each other’s stuff. Name bravely what is happening. Keep unlearning and repenting of the stereotypes and prejudices we have absorbed against ourselves and each other.

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From the dinner table to the conference table, from the pews to the platforms, your womanhood and way of seeing and being, is impactful; do not relent. You are commissioned and seen, encouraged to not neglect the gifts in you, named chosen, royal, holy, beloved.

I take heart in your sisterhood.

Deliverance from Adultery: A Message for the American Church

Every day I need deliverance. I just forget it, which is the scary thing.

All day I have a scrolling list of shoulds and T-charts and timers. I have the domestic burden and blessing of trying to decide if organic zucchini is worth the price if they won’t eat it anyway and how much screen time is a good reward and how big of a deal is picking up dirty socks and the word “fart.” I have the Enneagram type 1 hat of problem-solving and advocacy and general discontent (my prescribed growing direction is Ryan’s type 7, which carries the motto “I want to have fun!”). Oh YEA!

This time in history is like a warm, moist environment to this bacteria of constant reform and conviction within me. When my breath catches in my throat under the wave of an injustice or a worry, when I see the feeds that starve, and the posts that dismantle, when I feel the weight of responsibility and disappointment over what the margins have to say and what the powerful keep missing, I wring my hands with the rest of them. And I labor…I dream of fixes, simplicity, solutions and revolution.

But well-meaning thoroughness, and honest engagement, are no substitute for deliverance. I do not muster deliverance; I take hold of it. I receive it. I let go because of it.

And it is a time, more than anything else, for deliverance. 

Yes, there is advocacy and sacrifice. Yes, there is becoming informed and listening. Yes, there is civil discourse.

But first, and last, I want to pause before the throne, before calvary, and say, “Yes, Lord – please deliver me. Please deliver us. Through all this chaos, all the violence and false narratives, all the fear and greed, and cloudy future…You’re here. You’ve done the work, as irrelevant as it may seem some days. In You I place my hope and I see You in these shambles.”

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. Daniel 12:1-4

History tells us this isn’t actually the worst of times. I’ve seen people call this election, this anti-everything, binary mode the worst–for Christians, cops, voters, the like. I don’t need that to be convinced things are bad. No, but it is raw, and there is no lapse of evil to take a breath.

But in this very moment is our deliverance, Christian Americans. In this very hour, we might be saved.

Awake, souls. No longer is there an autopilot, and that myth of a Christian nation must be a little tipsy by now. Let it fall. No longer can faith pretend to sleep with a political party in wedded bliss, all the while committing adultery. No longer can righteousness be molded into a political system and a national story that was never capable of holding eternity and never had an edge in God’s economy. No longer can the sleeping American Christian avoid shining awkwardly or owning its shame and contempt. It is a day of reckoning, and in case it hasn’t dawned on us yet, the alarm will undoubtedly keep rising.

Receive your deliverance. Take hold. Let go. Step out.

We have the opportunity to be delivered from mistaking a government’s promises for God’s, and a government’s best interests for our own as His children. We have the opportunity, like Israel so many times in the Old Testament, to be delivered from a sinful apathy and assimilation. To be liberated from a facade of Christianity to our true status as foreigners in this land, meant to engage vigorously but not to enmesh seamlessly. We have the opportunity to re-find ourselves and be delivered from a lack of critical-thinking that has too long forced the Good News into an either-or tug-of-war that cuts the knees off of our Christ and took all our energy and resources. I love and respect this country but I will keep her an important acquaintance. We are not to confuse our way of life what the one–whichever one–she purports.

I am pained by who has fallen and by who we’ve elevated, and all the in-between plaguing our nation right now. But I am comforted by this deliverance. I am hopeful that my children will walk with God and the Church and not have to argue about the connection between abortion and healthcare and racism. I am hoping that they will not find it difficult or unique to attend a local congregation that sings in different languages and has no one ethnicity or gender or class in power, that doesn’t mind talking about a political candidate because everyone is a Christian before they’re an American and the bullying vehicle of political argumentation finds no fuel in the Church. I am hopeful that today’s deliverance means that tomorrow’s Christianity is brave and loving–and incongruous with any one nation’s fears or worldview.

This election, and the constant pitting of souls against souls in the rest of the headlines, could be enough to break up this sham of a marriage between the Christian faith and a great country. Oh, would it! Too long have we looked for Him under a flag and anthem rather than around the eucharist, kneeling beside the footwashing basin. Perhaps His Bride may return–beleaguered, but delivered. Perhaps, in the midst of this cracking we will find missing pieces and our voice again. Shining like stars, delivered.

See you at the table.

Confessions from the Backyard

Our backyard is not something I’m proud of. The carefully laid sod we bought and planted our first year here died long ago under the drought and our incompetency–the neglect of both the sky and human attention. The still-loved trampoline has a bad case of sagging-net and has bright yellow duck tape on pieces, betraying its years in the sun. Our mandarin orange tree is so confused, with 3 stages of oranges on it and a slew of ants. The tortoise has some pigeon poo on her shell.

It is a great space but what was once nicely cleaned up and orderly and growing is pretty dusty and rustic and lackluster.

I know the feeling.

14 months since leaving vocational ministry. 17 months since losing a baby and, eventually, a battle. 14 seizures in our youngest son since she was taken. Over 3 1/2 years since we started becoming foster-to-adopt parents. 4 inches of paperwork from our time with her and fighting on her behalf. 2 inches of paperwork from medical bills. A lot of goodbyes. A lot of misunderstandings.

Nearly all the things have been unconventional and unplanned. By God’s grace and love, good friends, the propeller of children to care for every.moment.of.the.day, and the tyranny of time, we have bid some farewells, and had times of healing and moving forward.

6 months pregnant. 4 months seizure-free. 2 months into a new career for Ryan; 3 middle school grades representing a bounty of love, promise, investment, heartache, and heart. 10 months into a new job for me; 4 grants awarded. 1 new Christ-centered, socially-active, egalitarian, small-budget, multi-ethnic church body. 2 beautiful sons growing in character and becoming friends, teammates and co-rascals. There is still so much goodness in our little space.

Still, it has not left us unscathed. All of “It” so near and yet so far back. There are days when we have been ungrateful–where we have not felt like we had enough, could keep going, had things to give, and had received our fair share. Yes, there have been days we have felt downright bratty and mad–“Why won’t anything work out?” “Would it be too much to ask for a break?” And these attitudes, and the survival mode of many months, have left us dry. Left us acknowledging our need for a rekindled devotion to God and service–in our heart of hearts.

Because while the pace keeps going, the extroverts keep showing up, the kids keep growing– things can become hollow, less grounded, more default, more rote, quite smoothly.

“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” Rev. 3:1b-3b

The hollowing is not all wrapped up in grief and injustice. It is not all excused by stress and weariness. It is not all because of inadequacies in our personalities or maturity or marriage or parenting or planning (though all those things possibly exist). Things have really sucked at times despite the best of these things and while God has been near, and we have been helped and supported by Him, our devotion has suffered. Our discipline has lagged. There is discouragement in our prayers. Our faith is still recalibrating. What is left may be true and good; it is solid to grow from, attach to, and offer back. But there is wreckage. The many hard realities of life the last couple of years have not always driven us to Him, but within, or our coping devices, or our hard work, chatter and human autopilots.

“I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” 1 Cor. 7:35

As the former missionaries, the church goers, the natural leaders, the open house, the whatevers and whoevers we’re tempted to allow others to think of us as, we are fallen, and though stronger in small ways, weaker in many others. We do not know how to wait patiently on the Lord for adoption and how to conduct ourselves in this system and this brokenness. We do not know how long to wait for MediCal back payments on bills after months of fighting and resubmitting. We do not know how cautious to be about epilepsy and we’re not good at being gracious with our local pharmacy. We do not know what it’s going to be like to have a newborn again, in the middle of the school year, with a teacher/administrator and 1st grader in the mix this time.

We do know we need to spend more time in ancient Truth and stillness. In rereading scripture, in rekindling devotion, and investing in the deeper conversations and friendships. We do know that we are not alone, and all is not lost–far from it. We are part of a Kingdom that cannot be shaken–i.e. purposes and a love that both demand and return much despite any of the “It” we face. We know that good is lasting, that love is final, and there is grace enough for us and our mess.

The rains are coming; the land is waiting in all its non-glory. The grass might grow back…and perhaps we with it.