I didn’t keep a journal during this pandemic. I wish I had. I find myself scrolling back through my iPhone calendar trying to figure out how many days we’ve been like this. Arizona “reopened” on May 15th. We’re eight days into gyms, restaurants and many retail stores being open for business. But life is by no means business as usual.
For me, as a nurse working in a hospital during this crisis, I have not experienced the shelter-in-place like so many have. The big changes in my family’s life has been having our two high school boys doing school at home via online learning and my husband being mandated to work from home until May 1st. The 2019-2020 school year officially ended yesterday. Not being able to hug my friends, pick up their kids, sit on the floor with elementary students and talk about Jesus and sing loud with them all on Sundays is by far the biggest area I’ve felt the impact of Covid-19.
I’ve been doing my shopping weekly for groceries and feed for my animals. People are shopping, some with mask, others without. To me it seems about a 50/50 split. I can now find toilet paper at Walmart and the pasta isle at Fry’s is almost back to being fully stocked. No one has harassed me for wearing my homemade mask. People have been polite and I’ve been thankful for the efforts of grocery clerks and cart runners who continue to serve me with a smile I can’t see. I may not see the smile, but the way their eyes sparkle as they nod makes me think the smile is there.
We aren’t big out-to-eat-ers so we haven’t tested the reopening of restaurants.
All in all, life feels fairly normal for my family. The strangeness is in the buzz on social media and news stations. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are tattered with anger, accusations, suspicion, conspiracy theory, blame and divisive politicizing. All those people I miss from church, see at the store, work with in the hospital, drive by running errands… they all have feelings and thoughts about all that has happened in the pandemic. A handful of them I’ve spoken to personally. And of those there’s a handful of differing opinions about what went wrong, who’s to blame, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and where we go from here.
I’ve been listening to the audio version of the ESV translation of Ecclesiastes lately. I’m drawn to this long meditation on, “What’s the point of life?” This global pandemic has brought me face to face with my utter lack of control over life. As a Christian, I believe my God is good. Jesus showed me that. And if he’s God, and he’s good, I can just ride the wave of this pandemic and trust he’ll make everything right in the end. But it’s not that simple.
I can’t just ride the wave. People all around me are getting knocked out by the wave. Ecclesiastes reminds me that death comes to us all. Whether by Covid-19 or a car accident, cancer or coronary artery disease. Pick your reaper, either way, he’s coming. And you don’t even get to pick your reaper. So what am I to do with this life? It sometimes feels like all my concern for my neighbor, my desire to share Jesus with my friends, my heart-work to become more emotionally intelligent and aware of the logs in my eye, the work of loving a husband and raising men is for nothing.
Listening to Ecclesiastes I’m reminded that life is painful and sometimes seems fruitless. The point of it all is found in the God who made it and rules over it. Even there I find Ecclesiastes telling me to stop trying to figure out what God is doing, and do my work, be a good friend, be thankful, love my neighbor, enjoy my glass of wine, go outside, take in a sunset and laugh when the dog chases his tail.
Tonight I’m sitting on my back porch listening to a bird sing in one of our sissoo trees. The sky is a faint peach and grey, the aftermath of a blazing fiery orange sunset that was a few minutes ago. Tonight one of my friends is sick with Covid-19. His wife is scared. Tomorrow the sun will rise, and I pray my friend gets up feeling much better. Life with Covid-19 will go on. At least until the One who makes the sun rise says it’s all over.
First I want to confess, I’m a coward by nature. I, like Pilate, avoid conflict, washing my hands of decisions that might cost me peace. Without the reigns of the Spirit of Jesus in my life, I would trot off down the path of keeping peace, shutting my mouth. I would disguise my passivity, hoping it would come off as piety- seeing both sides of an issue- yet never taking a stand. That said, I am my mother’s daughter, and when I smell injustice I want to hunt down the predator and rescue the prey from his mouth. But most of the time this fierceness gets stamped out by the part of me that doesn’t want to deal with the damage my truth-telling might cause- mostly I don’t want to be cut off, or cast out. This putrid, passive stance would be me without Jesus every day. But I’m not without him. He exposed me with his words, rescued me with his line in the sand, calling me daughter. He’s been making me brave ever since, trading my peace-keeping comfort-lust for peace-making confrontation-in-love.
Taking up your cross and following Jesus is not a self-flagellating quality that proves your worth. Taking up your cross and following Jesus is what the Bible Project call, “the way of the exile.” It’s a practice of what they call subversive hope, where by both speaking boldly and serving self-sacrificially, a Christian exposes evil and suffers the pain of another’s sin and judgement.
So I need to take up a cross and say something: Deliberately destroying the life of an unborn human being is evil. Saying that, I hear my friends and my passionately-left, now-with-Jesus grandma’s argument that the evil done to women is too great and that if someone has to die, it shouldn’t be the woman or girl. I see both sides. I can’t help it. The self-preserving nature in me would see both perspectives and say nothing. But Jesus, who said to the woman at the well, “You’re right. You’ve had 5 husbands and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband,” and then offered her his life, won’t let me be silent about the evil destroying women and their children.
The argument that Pro-Life anti-abortionists are hypocrites because they don’t do anything but protest abortion and make women in vulnerable positions feel condemned is an attempt at diversion. In a tweet thread I read today (can’t remember who wrote it) the writer pointed out that just because a person stands openly against abortion and for the life of the unborn doesn’t mean they are not doing their part to support women and girls in crisis with unwanted pregnancies. It doesn’t mean they aren’t for life-preserving sacrifices for the elderly, the disabled, the immigrant, the poor and the marginalized.
The argument that women in crisis shouldn’t have to go through the torment of pregnancy and child-rearing or the torture of giving their child up for adoption comes down to a belief about suffering and human worth. If you believe that the woman’s life or quality of life is more valuable than the unborn child’s life or quality of life then you believe the child should suffer the death required to keep the mother alive and well. But if you believe that someone is going to have to die in this sin-bearing relationship of mother to child, and you believe it should be the strong who lays down their life for the weak, then the mother should be the one to suffer the daily death and maybe even the ultimate death to give a child life.
Giving life to another always involves some dying to self. It’s just the way life works. Even seeds have to die for plants to be born.
“…I wonder, had I been a German Christian, living under the rule of the Third Reich, would I have possessed the unyielding conviction to resist the pressure to conform, to see the Jews as less than human? Would I have had the courage to step forward and affirm in my actions the dignity of those being sent off to their deaths, even at a high cost to my own privilege?” (Chapter 2)
It’s easy to look back on the Holocaust and be aghast at the atrocities, condemning those who were explicit, implicit and passive in the evil done to Jews. It’s so obvious. How could they have thought it justifiable? The same way we do.
One day, just as Karen Swallow Prior wrote at Vox, posterity will look back on me, on us, and be appalled at the evil we perpetuated, justified or did nothing to speak against or stop. As I live in the presence of the One who laid down his life for me, I cannot be silent.
Today, I saw a clip from a PBS documentary on elective abortion. In the short clip, a woman early in her pregnancy with twins took the first of the two medications that would kill her unborn babies. And she knew it. And at the end of the clip she said, “What I hope I feel, is a sense of peace, not only with myself and the decision that I’ve made, but also a sense of peace with these two beings that I’ve chosen not to bring into the world. Thank you for choosing me. And I’m honored to be given this gift of life. And also I can’t do it right now. I can’t accept that mantle in terms of the other lives that I’m taking care of and I’m responsible for.”
Life is always born out of someone else’s sacrifice, someone else’s sort of death. Confusion breeds evil. This woman’s confusion about where life comes from, and who should die has her believing the evil that says, “Life. You can take it or leave it. It doesn’t have to cost you anything.” But the truth is all life is born at the tearing, the bleeding, the breaking, the dying of one for another.
I hear the critics of my convictions about abortion crying foul and I am listening. I’m examining myself. I’m asking what I can do to apply my belief about suffering and sacrifice and life and human worth to all human beings, no matter their sexual orientation, color of skin, immigration status, age, religion, income or addictions. I believe I should die. I should lay down my life. I should be willing to suffer so that others might live. I believe husbands should do this for their wives, and leaders should do this for their followers and mothers should do this for their children, and Christians should do this for their neighbors. All of them.
with diabetes and heart disease
amputations and hemiparesis
are random collisions of worn out atoms
draining our society of valuable resources…
the cost of rehabilitating the Grey Tsunami,
aphasic from stroke,
requiring a hoyer lift
to move their paralyzed frames
from bed to a rolling shower chair
so nurses’ aides can wash silver strands
and run, warm soapy water under breasts
and cleanse away the urine and waste they cannot control
is debilitating our healthcare system…
nurse them with care and aide?
Why not kiss them on the cheek
and hand them over to death
and use the thirty or more pieces of silver to give to the poor
and make our lives a little easier?
In every crooked grin
In every slobbered chin
On the face of every one of us
And don’t quite die
But slowly break down
In a body of death
Still coursing with blood
Bone and flesh
Breasts and chest
Bowel and bladder
Tongue and breath
in the least of these
who have yet to peak beyond the womb,
whose contracted legs
curl up in an aged, fetal form
tremble and shudder
We give dignity
and pour expensive resources
on the broken body
What will you do
when your face frowns
deep creases grow
and you’ve lost your youthful glow?
What when bladders can no longer contain
what for years
you emptied in a private latrine?
Now your hands are crippled
Now your muscular thighs
give out from your stroke.
Now you look up from your
squinting to find
an image you did not expect.
Time and death have take their toll.
Cell by cell you’re broken and old.
Now what of those fancy clothes?
What of those cars and trips?
What of years spent on prominence?
Where can you go when you can’t go
What will you do when you can no longer
get up and move?
Years have been given to love God and others
and now that your body is breaking down
how will you cash in all your stock dividends?
Come now, you who cannot speak without slur
or walk without dragging your foot.
Come you grey heads and broken minds.
Come you laying down to die.
Come buy without money or health
the broken body of Christ
has bought for you life.
Night number two with Grandma. She’s more lucid this evening.
Every time I’ve ever walked into her home I’ve always heard the same sugary-sweet Arkansas accented greeting, “Well hello there sweet heart!” Her eyes light up and she smiles like she knows everything that’s going on in my life before I say a word.
She told me tonight she feels better than she did yesterday. She has one thing on her mind: the clear plastic tub full of dvd’s she’s made over the years.
Her pretty cursive handwritten notes are all over the outside of each disk. “Lifetime memories 2. Bobby, Vernie and the kids. Gary, Greg and Terry Lynn. Tommy and Bill. Grandma Stout. Mom and Dad. Velma and Thelma. Sandra. A.J. and Darryl.” I grab the top disc and put it in her combo VHS/DVD player. Her favorite songs play in the background- The Lord’s Prayer, blue grass music, Pavarrati, Celine Dion. She looks at the images of her brothers and sisters, mom and dad from Arkansas 60 years ago and starts to cry, “I feel so bad for your grandpa. He never knew such love. We were so loved...” Tears flow from her dimming eyes. Her skin is pale and a little jaundiced. Her lips are thin and dry. Her eyes squint as a few tears fall from her dehydrated body. Memories of her tender, loving watching her with broken hearts as she left home at 15 to move to California with my grandfather bring up an almost 70 year old ache.
We watch as the memories play, bluegrass and gospel songs fill our ears. Pictures of my dad as a child and teenager play while The Little Drummer Boy’s, “I have no gift to bring,” pa rum pum pum pum’s in our ears.. My grandma was a child when she had my dad, just 16. My toddler dad smiles in the lap of a beautiful, dark-haired teenage girl. He looks just like my youngest son.
I see happy-looking people, but I know the pain many of them have lived through. It’s easy to look back at life through triumphant songs and compiled images of smiling faces and candid shots of playfulness and wonder why there had to have been so much pain and trouble in those lives. My grandma wonders. “Why couldn’t we just have loved each other better?” she questions with the worried look of a woman who’s lived through several divorces, and watched her oldest son move away with his dad while he was just a boy. “I didn’t want him to go Sheila. I thought I was doing what was best by letting him do what he wanted.” Stinging tears redden her tired eyes.
I reach to hug her frail body. “Grandma we’re all a mess. That’s why we need Jesus. Our hope is in him, not each other.”
“I know. I know.” Her face relaxes. The gospel once again puts her mind at ease. Memories of so much damage from our sinfulness broke through the smiling images and transcendent songs and she wished it never had been that way. But just the mention of the hope of the gospel of Christ, that one day he will make all things new, put her worries away.
“One day He’s gonna wipe all that pain away Grandma. One day he’s going to hold you and you’ll have no doubts. You’ll know how good he is and you’ll be at total peace.”
Death is lurking, threatening, stinging my grandma’s broken memory with reminders of the years sin has damaged. But Jesus. “But Jesus,” was all I had to say. I just had to remind her of her hope that was not shifting like her cancer-laden brain, and death shifted back into the shadows, trying to hide from the defeat it knows is coming. Resurrection is about to swallow up death’s work in my grandma. Never again will death be able to attempt to sting her into hopelessness.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:55-57
I’m sitting here on this lazyboy in my grandma’s apartment watching her breath while she sleeps on the couch. The television is playing dvd’s she’s created over the years with pictures of all that’s important to her- her family. Hymns and songs of worship that help her feel God’s pleasure fill the room. They’re songs she selected for the family memories she had put together.
A deep gasp. A long pause. I watch. No chest rise. I keep watching. She gasps again for precious air to fill the alveoli that will exchange toxic gases with the perfect combination of air her cells need to keep her heart pumping. I don’t know how long she has left. Maybe Jesus will take her home tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next month. But I watch because I know she’s dying. I know she doesn’t have many more breaths to take into her 83 year old lungs. The cancer cells are fulfilling the curse against her body. I watch because I don’t want her to be alone while she walks through this dark valley.
The death of the body is a soul-shaking thing. We avoid it, fight against it, try to ignore it. Eventually we come face to face with death’s power and we cannot win. We fight and we strive to live as alive as we can live for as long as we can because we weren’t meant to die. We were meant to live.
In this life, death and beauty, death and song, death and laughter, death and affection, death and healing dwell together. Like enemies that agree to a truce for a time, death and all the evidences that we were meant to live and flourish, co-exsist.
In the same body where cells are invading the place where precious memories of smiles and birth and hugs and laughter and song were, there are lung cells doing their job to bring one more breath of life to the blood coursing through her veins. In the same room where her body lays weakened by cancer two dozen red roses bring joy to the dimming eyes. Life seems to be loosing the fight, but song and flower whisper the longing, “There must be more.”
One day there will be life for my grandma that’s not mixed with death. From here death seems to be winning. But once it thinks it’s done it’s deed a breath of life never to die will fill her glorified lungs and death will have died forever for her.
There are lots of good and beautiful things in this life. But mixed in between is the rotten stench of death. One day it will not be.
One Man faced death for my grandma and because her hope is in him, when she exhales her last toxic breath of death’s work here, she’ll inhale a breath of life where her Redeemer stands ready to welcome her into everlasting life.
‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” ‘ John 11:25-26
On a night (or maybe it was day), in Roman occupied ancient Israel, a young, Jewish woman writhed, and cried as the excruciating pains of labor gripped her body and tore her flesh. And there, where animals in the ancient world feed, a vernix and blood covered baby boy, swaddled in clothes to keep him from dying of exposure, lay while young Mary’s uterus bled.
There, the comfort of God came to Israel.
There, light came to the people’s of the nations. The coastlands.
There, in one small square of the world, while people in Israel lay in beds complaining about having to submit to a Roman census, the King of kings lay in a feeding trough, utterly dependent upon the zeal of God to accomplish, against all odds, the salvation of his people.
There, Mary completed the last stage of labor and expelled the placenta which fed the One who knits the human form together in the womb. All the while native tribes in the coastlands of the Americas, Africa, China and the islands prayed to the gods they made. There the God of gods began to make himself known to humanity as like no other.
This God, who would be pleased to work on behalf of those who wait for him, came as a poor infant born in a place for animals.
Today is Christmas Eve. While my friends gathered at church to hear the real message of Christmas and others shopped for last minute presents I was helping a 100 year old patient get off a bedpan. Not the least bit glamorous. “It’s not good to live this long,” my patient moaned, writhing from the pain of a fractured hip as I slipped out the urine-filled pan.
We long for something glorious, something bright and beautiful like lights shining in December darkness. But our lives are full of perverted glory, broken by sin and death. We ruin the beauty of life with our evils. And when we live as long as my patient has, we know we weren’t made to live like this.
Earlier this year my sister said something that caught my attention, “We weren’t made to die! We were made to live!” It’s the truth. My patient was expressing what we all feel, sooner or later, death is in our days. And to live long here means tasting more and more of what we weren’t made for. We rehabilitate 100 year old people with broken hips instead of putting them down like horses as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in this life, pushing back what we know we weren’t made for. And that is why the real story of Christmas is so much better than artistic renderings.
The God of the Bible who comes to dwell among us and save us from death’s sting, comes not as a pretty, noble, rich child of royalty. No he comes poor, rejected, despised, hunted and hated from his humble birth. He comes in our mess. He comes to walk through the dark shadow of this living death’s valley. He comes to absorb death and God’s condemnation of sin in his flesh so that we can have real hope while we sojourn here.
So, while we rip open pretty packages tomorrow, somewhere in the world, maybe in your own life, death is raising it’s stench- babies starve, women are abused, men are enslaved, the poor are oppressed, the rich grow more proud, bitterness destroys marriages, selfishness destroys children, and the old suffer alone.
Jesus came for these. He came like these. There is no god like Him!
Listen to me, O coastlands,and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb,from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword;in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow;in his quiver he hid me away.
And now the Lord says,he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has become my strength he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel;I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;yet we esteemed him stricken,smitten by God, and afflicted.But he was pierced for our transgressions;he was crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,and with his wounds we are healed.All we like sheep have gone astray;we have turned—every one—to his own way;and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,so he opened not his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;his soul makes an offering for guilt,he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,make many to be accounted righteous,and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many,and makes intercession for the transgressors.