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.

Holding Hands on an Ash Covered Path

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 … Continue reading

A Grieving Woman Preacher

A woman, at sunrise, at first misunderstood, but was the first witness. She went for help. She was taking care and grieving at the same time. Bravely, she returned to the scene of the confusion, and the pain. And exactly there, she found Hope. She became the first New Testament preacher–announcer, commissioned by Christ Himself: Go, eye witness of the Gospel, carrier of the Good News! Go tell the brothers. 

She was the first sunrise service; her actions set in motion the breaking of Saturday into Sunday. This is the pivot. Of waiting and death and eerie stillness and denial to the rush of the new story, the unfathomable, the prophesied and the Way.

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Today, women are worried about their dresses, shoe color, matching outfits for their children, and healthy/organic/fair-trade/wonder-filled Easter baskets for the kids. The stress of the ham, the potatoes, the schedule, and the photos find prominent place in most every Church but no home in the Easter story. And yet somehow, we have been saddled and distracted, pulled and reduced, to style and stress.

We are living in the Saturday space of the Not Yet. We believe, but it takes faith. We have seen, but there’s still confusion and grief. We are called, commissioned, confirmed by the Love of God, but we women are also scorned in many ways still–scorned like the one who washed His feet with tears, crashing the men’s party…but remembered and honored by Jesus. He told the men at the last supper, wash each other’s feet, as I have done yours; I speculate the women already knew that was part of this world, this worship. It is part of the Saturday waiting, and punctuates our insistence on Sunday coming.

Ladies, you are beautiful in your sweats and your yoga pants, god forbid, and your old dresses and your new dresses, your medical equipment and your nursing bras and your jeans and your self. You are enough if the food is reheated, non-festive, burnt, bought or otherwise lacking. You are worthy in your grief and your mundane; you are seen, called by name, by a Resurrected Lord, in the moment you’ve felt the worst. Oh, to remember when it was just you and Hope, to hear your name called by One who esteems and created you, who included you in the first moment of Sunday.

In so many servant-hearted, resilient ways, women fashion the resurrection after people have gone through a crucifixion. In so many godly, loving ways, women prepare a feast before people who need a taste of the nourishment of Sunday in the midst of their upset Saturday, still aching from Friday. So many women have done these things for me as I try to live Saturday faithful, hand in hand with both yesterday and tomorrow. Heart and mind, weighted and lifted. Here.

May the courage of a woman at the grave, crying, and the confirmation of a Savior at dawn, calling, settle and sustain you this weekend.

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A Suffering Community

I am grateful to learn through experience and study about suffering, privilege, and the ways in which I miss out when my life is situated to buffer against pain. A 2nd article is up on The Table today, just scratching the surface and sharing some names that have been so helpful to me on this continuing journey. I continue to open up to the suffering of others and the vulnerability of this Kingdom walk, reliant upon the community and the Christ found in these margins.

God, Grief and Group Projects

There are times when it seems inconceivable to believe in a God and those are the same times I’ve found it impossible to breathe without faith. Each breath requires a prayer. Each prayer a resistance to turning stone cold.

The air tight apologetics I was raised in, that tried to make story irrelevant, emotions sap credibility, and choice an insult, are a vapor. It is only the story, only the feelings, only the choice to believe in these moments when we cannot get warm. And what good is faith if not for these moments? Where proofs and data were intended to bulwark (bully?) faith into being, the test of life, of exposure to suffering, of engagement with my internal world and the true external world–those pulled me into immersion in this faith river. Those were in fact the currents that keep me and hold me, when all else has failed, and me right along with.

I’ve been asking God, Parent and Creator, I Am that I Am, “Isn’t it too much?” The attacks, the weaponry, the assault, the epidemic of lies, on the airwaves and on my street–it just. never. stops. More so, isn’t it too much, what my friend has had to bear? And that friend, and this friend, and that family member, and that country, and that people? How, God–how are people supposed to pray, to give, when they are rampaged by suffering, betrayal or disappointment–by inconsolable grief to every cell of their being? How can you expect us to believe in You under the weight of this breaking?

Is there a way to find you God, to find Love, real, not through the threshold of pain?

Is there a way to edit Gethsemane and Golgotha and keep the empty grave?

Before I knew real pain and injustice, my sturdy and safe faith was clear and confident. It’s not to say lacking in value, nor deny it a piece of the puzzle, but it was as skinny as a pre-teen with an early growth spurt–all bones and corners and a little anemic.

It’s just not that straightforward anymore. And it’s also not such a lightweight.

In the moments of highest exposure, greatest pain, and deepest grief, we are naked before God. The garden story, to me, is not only about guilt and shame but perhaps more about grief and isolation. When tragedy falls hard, there is no where to hide and we want layers and holding and concealment. Oh to have the weight of something covering, of absorbing the racking sobs, of comforting the abandoned child within.

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Impossible is the new story, and the only way we make it into the next moment is thinking, hoping–believing?–that impossible is not the end of the story. Faith is setting our eyes outside of our raw chaos–daring to think that the people who we find next to us may be of some help–that the lineage we come from, the story we’ve been ingrafted into, will repeat. The story of suffering into love. Of grieving into wholeness.

I walk with tender and vulnerable people. I am a tender and vulnerable person. Not one person whom I really know is whole. I used to see people as whole; I used to expect people to have it together. To generally be doing well. I saw them as independently successful or overall autonomous. Now, the wholeness is only done in groups. When our broken pieces, our faith, and our love for each other melt into a whole, the sum greater than the parts–the impossible becoming possible, a minute at a time. When the holes of self become seen and embraced, when the grief is given over to, and we split the bill of life, when the victory is relief lighting all pairs of eyes–this is wholeness as it was meant. This is shalom that will stay.

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And somehow, tomorrow happens in this way. Somehow the crying takes pauses. The shameful parts don’t seem so paralyzing. The death doesn’t define the life. The suffering breaks into love. And our resources are multiplied. Our generosity renews itself. Our faith is linked and sacred anew. It turns out we were made for this. It turns out everyone is doing better when we’ve all shown we’re doing a hell of a lot worse.

This will only make sense to you who have carried your stomachs in your throats for days, who also soak your steering wheel with the occasional cry fest. You’re not alone, you who audaciously prayed despite the circumstances that merit calcification of the heart. If you are searching for covering, if the cries are muffled, I hope you will ask for help. Reach and grab someone before the mask is clad, before the thoughts take over and spiral you into isolation. Include another soul into your hole-ness, and find yourself more whole than you thought. Let someone be more of who they were made to be by including them in your grief. Pray a breath prayer as a radical ellipsis into the future. Give something out of the bankruptcy and find your own anxiety and impossible a little farther away. Be undone and in turn done in by the connection and comfort of others, God incarnate.

I don’t know if God is known resiliently without deep acquaintance with suffering, but I know for us it’s been the best introduction. Regrettably, and redemptively, so.

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Maybe Happens

One thing that I have not shared much about is a very good and important thing that happened over the summer. Last summer had some real downers but those don’t subtract from our joy, and rejoicing, over a new victory.
Our second born had a rough time for a few years. A major accident at our church, febrile seizures, and getting very sick in Guatemala. When we returned home and began fostering, he embraced her fully as a toddler would, and his febrile seizures continued but thankfully he was not often running a fever. 9 months after her arrival, in the aftershocks of her sudden removal, some of his first sentences were heart wrenching. While we were fighting that battle, Asher began having many more seizures. Maybe stress and the emotional trauma of losing a baby like that did something, maybe it’s just coincidence. It was a very hard period. These were not just febrile seizures like they had thought and the medical bills started piling up.
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There are many things we don’t know about epilepsy, and that doctors and scientists don’t know. It is a scary diagnosis. Asher began treatment, and despite changing jobs and insurance twice, and becoming part of medical, was able to see the same pediatric neurologist his whole life. Because of the Affordable Care Act, we were able to have continuation of care and not be penalized for his epilepsy. I tried going to the first neurologist we were referred to on one of our new plans at the time. It was a truly terrible experience and I could not imagine working with them to sort out appointments, let alone solutions, as we found ourselves on this path.
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The first medication didn’t slow down the seizures. We gave it a good run but we saw the negative side effects and didn’t notice much relief. It was hard because he couldn’t tell us how it made him feel, and if he sensed anything different before or after his episodes. We slowly began a different medication–one which introducing too quickly to patients could end in fatality. Doctors said after more testing and overnights that they didn’t think he would outgrow epilepsy. I briefed babysitters and teachers and sunday school. I tried not to think about IEPs one day, or driving, or camp, or anything restricted on this bright eyed wonder.
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He did well on the new medication and we could breathe once we reached a therapeutic dose with no rash outbreak. We were still dealing with collections, payments, and billing reductions but we were not documenting seizures. Eventually the grip on the phone when separated loosened. The spans of playing out of eyesight lengthened. The months between UCLA neurology visits and that $14 parking garage grew. He was pro at taking his pills. We were pro at fighting, I mean working, with the local pharmacy to help them keep their inventory up and refills regular.
As Asher’s Kindergarten graduation plans were taking shape, and no ambulance was ever called, we had another checkup. It was a slow breakthrough. With epilepsy they call seizures emerging under medication “breakthrough,” which is the opposite of any headway a parent wants to make. I was shocked to hear of a real breakthrough: the dr thought we could try titrating down, off the medication, to test the epilepsy. Maybe he was outgrowing it. Maybe it was different than they had thought. It had been over a year. No delays. No jumps in dosage. Maybe the prayers, the hopes, barely spoken aloud for fear it would ruin our ability to walk the prescribed, long road ahead, were coming true.
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On my birthday, Asher took his last, now tiny dose of epilepsy medication. And there have been no breakthrough seizures during the months of transitioning off. His moods and energy seem to have panned out, from however the drugs affected his system, combined with the excited exhaustion of starting 1st grade. We don’t wonder if something is seizure, drug, or age/misbehavior/mood related now. It’s just C, a 5-year-old boy, learning. We are thrilled at his progress and health, for him, for us, and for the pharmacy on the corner. I don’t know when we can say he does not have epilepsy, when it will be far enough away that a glazed look doesn’t cause my 2nd take, but each day is closer to then.
To be sure, it has been a rough year on almost all accounts. Homes, literal and figurative, are burning down all around us. But this is quite the foil. We are so proud of this boy and his love and tenacity and incredibly excited that this is yet another new normal. This victory, this praise, deserves our tears, applause, and thanksgiving and I’m so glad to be able to share this today, in the midst of all the todayness that weighs heavy. We’ve learned so many lessons by his side. From the waiting, to the hurting, to the forgiving and the grieving, to the advocacy, to the pain of children’s hospitals, in which so many have stayed for far more time. We’ve learned to take things by the day, that anesthesiologists have their own groups, and nothing is for granted. We’ve seen how limited we are as parents, and how scary pre-existing conditions and medical bills can really, really be. And we’ve been encouraged to keep places of hope in our lives that defy reason, that may be hibernating, for an unexpected spring. Who knows, maybe your birthday is coming. Maybe the breakthrough is slow. Maybe because this maybe came true.
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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.

 

Glory

It was fitting that I was cooking with a fair amount of bacon grease when the call came. Grandpa Pruitt, Bobby, had passed on to the next life. Suffering no more, he was gone. And like that, as my dad said, the oldest generation was departed, leaving behind deep roots and so many branches in this family of faith.

I remember as a little girl, wrapping presents with Grandpa in our guest room in a split level house in Oregon. They had come for Christmas again, and we were busy downstairs, just me and him, somewhere between the DOS computer and patchwork quilt. He used the scissors with a constant up and down motion, snipping each 4 inch segment of the wrapping paper at its appointed time. I showed him what I liked to do: hold those scissors at a steady angle and ZIIPPP, that new line was slightly curled in the wake of my linear efficiency. “Well, I’ll be,” he beamed, sputtering something about the thought of ME (who he commonly referred to as “ugly”) being able to teach HIM something. He wasn’t one for pretending so I believed that I had introduced this technique.

It’s hard to explain a man who called his young granddaughter ugly without once causing her to question how much he loved her and thought otherwise. He was the Zeke Braverman of the family, with less Berkeley and more suspenders. He got away with too many things, and was my first teacher in the well-meaning, if not downright inappropriate, insult. He wasn’t too proud to tear up when noticing the significance of a moment, or laugh that high, vacuum-sounding pleasure at his own mistake.

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Proverbs 13:20 Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch you life fall to pieces.

I give thanks for this man, this legend of the river and woods, of missions and letter writing, romance and brusque ways both. For the life he and Grandma built. Thank you, God, for the son they raised in my father. For this undying legacy my siblings and I are swept up in. Thank you that he is no longer lonesome, no longer limited. Be with us, the crowds of Pruitts and beyond, grieving this loss, the passed generation of scaffolding, stability and faith, which not one of us has ever lived without. Our ankle twists in the hole left behind the removed pillar. Our eyes squint at the absent shade. Their hands, their hearts, their foibles, all so big. All such a gift.

He found mansions of glory here, on this earth—in his garden and around the fire, on the water, in the kitchen and beside his bride. His eyes twinkled with endless delight at innumerable grandbabies, the piano, a pie, a bad joke, and always, always, at the sight of any of his six children. But now, the mansions of glory, and endless delight that do not end are his—the ones needing no repair, that do not age and move away. All his senses restored, reunited with Grandma, with his youngest daughter, with so many of his friends who went before him. I don’t think that Rush Limbaugh is turned on in every room up there, but who could hear it over Grandpa’s storytelling anyway. The hymns have taken over, the berries are ripe, the river glass.

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I love you Grandpa and miss you already. Thank you for loving this life, and us, so well.

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Pancakes

Ironically, having a baby forced me into contemplation today. This almost never happens.

Lucas is sorting out his sleeping demons, which is really fun for us, and in a last ditch effort we went for a walk this morning. With each step I found myself able to pray for quiet, consecutive minutes, a luxury I used to ignore.

So many things facing us, aren’t there? Personal health. Court trials. Paperwork. Bills. Activist hearts, cluttered brains, booked calendars. Faith and fear. Life and death.

We ended up at a large cemetery, a block away. It had been years since I had been there. It’s a quiet walking area in the middle of our densely noised neighborhood. It’s also where we honored a student and friend who died unexpectedly in 2007. I found his resting place.

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I was so young and inexperienced with grief at the time. He had been my student the year before, and was in his freshman year of high school when “Pancakes” suddenly became very sick. The questions outlived the answers.

Today is his birthday. Today this young man would be 24.

My prayers turned to his family. I couldn’t believe the math, the date. This rock and this contemplative place, where so much grieving has taken place, reminded me that God has asked us to mourn. He has invited us to be a lamenting people who kept the faith, a grieving people who looked at the truth of their hearts and situations, not deny it. One of the main things God has been teaching me over the past 11 years is grief. I am still so young and inexperienced, I know. But experiences like losing Cesar and witnessing the pain in his family and the community have been formative and eye-opening.

Forced contemplation today reminded me that God is very, very big. The stretch of His reach and power are not dismissive to the list of needs I brought today; the true burden of those things inform my appreciation for His superior breadth. The grandeur of our problems and burdens, of the losses we face or carry, are enveloped in, and indeed inflate, our view of His greatness.

I felt that reassurance today, as I found myself at this grave, warmed by the sunlight, and the memories of this young man, on his birthday. I feel so lucky to learn grief with those who have become my neighbors and family, and want to give others the permission to name their own. I am encouraged by the reminder that God is larger than the scope of my concerns and inadequacies this week.