The Five Good Things Challenge

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been surviving a very difficult year by clinging to the good things amid a lot of bad things. I also regularly (daily or hourly) remind myself that this hardship (whatever it may be at the time) will end. Since this has been a rather helpful practice for me, I’d like to encourage you to give it a try. Better yet, make it a practice.

To get you started, I’ve made a few lists below of the “Five Good Things” about five things I really don’t like.

Five Good Things about Wearing a Face Mask

  1. I don’t have to worry about any food that might be stuck in my teeth after a meal.
  2. I don’t have to worry about bad breath, especially after coffee or lunch at work.
  3. I’ve learned to notice and “read” people’s eyes in conversation. Eyes are so expressive and fun to watch.
  4. I haven’t had a common cold or any other virus in almost two years.
  5. Masking has lessened my risk of getting the corona virus and possibly passing it to others.

Five Good Things about Social Distancing

  1. It’s okay if I forget to put on deodorant before leaving the house.
  2. As someone who is uncomfortable with close-talkers and hugs with acquaintances, this pandemic precaution has been a nice reprieve. AND it means that I don’t have to feel guilty when I need or want more personal space.
  3. The six feet of space is so refreshing in usually-crowded places like the grocery store check-out line, elevators, and popular stores at the mall.
  4. Missing hugs from my friends and family, I make my husband give me extra-long hugs every day. He’s a good hugger. It does the trick.
  5. Distancing has lessened my risk of getting the corona virus and possibly passing it to others.

Five Good Things that came out of the Pandemic

  1. I got married in late February of 2020, shortly before the world shut down. Our newlywed year was more like a hibernation. This forced togetherness accelerated a lot of learning in our relationship. We’ve learned how to communicate our needs in stressful circumstances, how to create fun with so many unexpected hours stuck at home, and how to practically support and encourage one another when we are struggling to cope.
  2. The pandemic forced a lot of people to reevaluate their lives and make positive changes they may otherwise not have made. For example, my cousin and her husband decided they wanted 1) a lot less work stress, 2) to live near the water, and 3) to live near family. So, in faith, they resigned from their jobs, moved across the country, and much to my delight, now live 15 miles from me! My cousin is more like a sister I never fight with, so I’m overjoyed they are so close.
  3. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with technology and social media for years, resisting many forms of both because they seemed more of a bother than they were worth. But since I’ve been stuck in Florida for over a year and almost all my family and friends live out of state, technology and social media are the tools that have kept me well-connected to the people I love.
  4. The pandemic lifestyle has exposed so many things that I took for granted and I will likely never take them for granted again: safe hugs and handshakes; casual, spontaneous hang-outs with friends; the freedom to travel when I want to; the ability to have family with you in the hospital and at critical doctor’s appointments; making appointments with mental and logistical ease; the simple enjoyment of eating in a restaurant with good ambiance, good music, good service, and good food that I did not have to make myself!
  5. The constraints of the pandemic have exposed strengths and weakness that probably would have remained hidden expect for these extreme circumstances. For example, I’ve discovered I’m very flexible and adaptable to change, even in on-going uncertainty. In terms of weaknesses, I’ve discovered the extent to which my emotional stability relies on my connection to others. Now, everyone needs relationships to be well, and it’s true that I’m a strong extrovert and there’s nothing wrong with that–but I’ve realized that my emotional health is far too reliant on others. Instead of feeling discouraged and ashamed of this exposed weakness, I’m choosing to see it as a new opportunity to grow in health.

That’s it for now, but you get the picture. I hope the Five Good Things challenge might be helpful for you, even if you can only fill in your list to number three for now. Leave spots four and five empty, be patient and expectant, and keep reflecting. More will come to you and your list may even begin to overflow.

Disclaimer: Please don’t think that I believe in ignoring real and big problems and putting on a fake smile, as though simply focusing on the positive can make the negative disappear. I absolutely believe in the power and practice of lament. I believe it is a sign of health to name our challenges and not minimize their impact. But I also know that those practices can easily slip and slide into wallowing and defeatism–at least they can for me. So I lament and I name the things that distress and burden me, but I also try to find hope and cope in the midst of them.

An Open Letter to Governor Ron DeSantis Regarding Public School Bonuses

Dear Governor DeSantis,

I read that you have proposed to the state legislature that they designate $1000 bonuses from the ESSER to be given to public school principals and full-time classroom teachers. I admire the desire to honor the very hard work of these dedicated public servants. However, as you honor these employees, it seems you’ve forgotten or overlooked thousands of other public school employees who have been essential in keeping our schools running during the pandemic. 

Consider the custodians whose work has multiplied as they have installed plexiglass, rearranged rooms and furniture, and who must now follow stringent disinfecting protocols to mitigate the risk of germs spreading on things like desks and door knobs.

Picture classroom para-professionals, especially those who serve our special needs students like my sister-in-law Jennifer. Our paras are invaluable to their teacher partners and to their students. They are paid so little when you consider how greatly they benefit our schools. 

Think of the cafeteria workers who reported to work even as students were sent home. Since so many of our families receive free meals through school, they continued preparing and distributing meals to the public last spring when we knew very little about how the virus spreads.

Remember the secretaries and registrars who continually worked at the schools and interacted with the public on behalf of their schools. With the expectation that students return to the classroom as soon as possible — which you called for — but with many district superintendents offering hybrid options online, these employees have had to be invariably flexible as parents have fluctuated (in some cases several times) between having their student(s) in the classroom and pulling them home for virtual learning.

As a final example, please consider the IT professionals serving our public schools. As the pandemic shifted the means of our teaching and learning models entirely to online platforms, these staff members have worked tirelessly to: prepare and distribute laptops; manage a vast, complex and ever-changing inventory; put in work orders and/or fix broken equipment themselves; help teachers and students resolve internet connection issues; help teachers install new software or learn new platforms; and to field calls from students (or their caregivers) who are learning from home, helping them troubleshoot technology issues.  

My husband Dennis is a full-time computer micro-technician for Broward County Public Schools. He has worked countless hours of overtime, for which he will not get paid, all to support his staff and students. With his education, skills and experience, he could make much more in the private sector. For almost 10 years, he has happily chosen to make a financial sacrifice so he can “give back” and serve his community. This year, with all the uncertainty, the extreme requirements of flexibility, the mountainous workload, and the often unreasonable or out-of-touch expectations from district administrators, I’ve seen his stress level rise and his passion to serve diminish. He still wants to help, but he feels like he is always behind, will never catch up, does not have the tools and support to succeed, and that he is not doing enough. 

With all these stories in mind, can you imagine how it might feel to such dedicated public servants (and their loved ones) when we hear that you hope and plan to honor only principals and teachers with bonuses? 

No matter the position, all our public school employees are heroes of this pandemic era. Principals and teachers are absolutely admirable and essential to our schools, but no more so than any of the staff members I have mentioned. No role should be ranked more important than others. No set of employees should be praised and rewarded more than any others who have consistently shown up and worked to keep our schools running. 

On behalf of our many wonderful and unsung public school employees, I ask you to reconsider your recommendation regarding the ESSER funds to be used for bonuses. I ask you to consider a more inclusive bonus. If the relief fund does not have the means to honor all of our public school employees, please consider a different act that would be both equitable and generous.

Sincerely, 

Rev. Corrie Montoya
Plantation, Florida

Make Way

A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!”

Isaiah 40:3
Painting by Marilyn Froggatt

(This post is adapted from a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent. It is based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8. All scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, 2011.)

There are plenty of voices crying out in our world today. These voices are crying: Lord, help me. I lost my job and I can’t afford rent! Close the restaurants! Open the restaurants! Wear a mask! Wearing a mask infringes on my personal rights! The election was rigged! These votes are fraudulent! The results are clear. Let’s move forward! We need a vaccine! Vaccines are harmful to my children! My business is suffering! I’m tired of staying home! I’m afraid to go out!

Right now, the cries in our culture are cacophonous. The world’s woes are so loud, they may seem deafening. You even may feel the need to tune out the cries as a way to protect your souls. You may have stopped watching the news because it is frustrating or depressing. You may have stopped reading the papers too.

While those are not harmful practices — and may even be considered good self-care in the middle of a pandemic — listening to all these cries is an opportunity too. If you can keep your emotions from becoming entangled as you listen to all the noise, you can hear the heart of the world. You can feel its pulse. No matter your political allegiances, your personal opinions and practices, it’s true that all these cries expose a large amount of angst and anxiety, weariness and vulnerability.

People are tired of being flexible and having to change their patterns of daily living to accommodate an unwanted virus. We want to be finished with the feeling that our foundations — our economy, our democracy, our toilet paper — are unsure. Even though we may be somewhat used to the disruptions 2020 has brought us, we don’t like them. We chafe against them. We want the freedom and carefree living back that we used to know. We want an end to this mess. We want a smooth and clear path forward.

So now I have to say — what a special connection we have to the ancient Israelites! They cried out when they were conquered by foreigners and exiled into strange lands and cultures. Everything was unstable and foreign to them for a long time. 

And what angsty waiting we now share in common with first century Jews! They were desperate to have their Messiah come and overthrow the corruptions they saw destroying their people and their beloved Promised Land — corruptions done by Roman rule, crooked tax collectors, and even their own religious leaders. Everything likely felt unstable and uncertain and frustrating to common first century Jews. 

When I listen and reflect, it seems to me that the 2020 world has uniquely prepared our hearts to hear the opening words from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people!” These were not written for us, but how fitting for our circumstances and our hearts!

We want our world righted, don’t we? We want our lives back. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a prophet come across your TV screen and speak compassionately, saying, “I hear your voices crying out. God hears you. So make way for God! He’s coming to rescue you in your desperation!”

Like our Israelite ancestors, we want a clear and safe path forward. Our hoped-for path is a safe one through the pandemic and other disturbing events in our day. But we know that there are things that only God can right. And we know from the pages of the Bible, that relief and rescue are not always immediate, nor will they be on our desired timeline. 

In calm and reflective moments, we know that there is much we could learn in the angsty waiting of 2020, don’t we? We know there are even things to be gained as we wade through the messiness of the pandemic, the faltering economy, and civil unrest. In this chaos, haven’t we realized how precious it is to spend time with our loved ones? Haven’t we reevaluated and boosted the value of a handshake or a hug in greeting? 

As much as I would love for there to be a modern-day prophet like Isaiah to come bring us words of comfort from God, we have a greater need than to receive comfort. In these days, we people of God have a call to be the prophets in our world. As much as the world of 2020 may feel like a kind of exile, or oppression, or an unstable mass of negativity, we are not the victims. 

Hear me say this. Chew on this truth today, as difficult as it may be to believe… You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets. You are not in exile. You are in advent. 

We are God’s people on earth, and in times of fear, instability, uncertainty, and even plague, we can be prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. We can be the faithful followers of God who stand up to a culture and to people overwhelmed by fearful circumstances. To them we can speak words of peace. 

We can be the prophets who remind those around us that the world is yes, certainly wrestling against evils right now, but also that something greater is coming. We can remind them that we have the God of angel armies on our side; and no evil forces can stand against him. 

We are the prophets who remind people that the God who created the heavens and the earth can make these towering, treacherous mountains before us fall flat — these mountains called Covid, and Economic Collapse, and Shortage of Medical Staff. God can smooth them by his powerful hand and make a clear path ahead. 

We are the prophets of the desert wandering period we call 2020. We are the ones who can remind our fellow humans that even if this season of unrest lasts 40 years, we will never be abandoned by the God who loves us. Because ours is the God who lights up the darkness. Who leads people through deserts. Who frees the enslaved. Who rescues the exiled. And who leads them to a place of abundance. 

You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets. 
You are not in exile. You are in advent. 

We are advent people. Our main work in Advent is to wait well. But don’t just sit there waiting. Waiting is not passive. Become an advent prophet. Through scripture we see advent prophets making way for the coming of Jesus. The two tasks of waiting well and making way are intertwined. We wait for the culmination of God’s interventions in the brokenness around us…until the pandemic is over and there is more peace in our world and our hearts. And while we wait, we make way for Jesus.

We wait well and make way by emulating Moses, and Isaiah, and John the baptist. They all lived in difficult and unsettled times. They didn’t rail against their circumstances like helpless victims. They didn’t shrivel up and succumb to fear. Instead, they spoke to the broken world around them. They told the truth of God’s character and actions to others. They announced that God was coming to right all the wrong around them. 

We can do this too. We can make way for the coming of the goodness of Jesus in 2020, just like Moses and Isaiah and John did in their time. To be a successful advent prophet is to be a calm, and faithful messenger of the arrival of Jesus. 

I see at least four habits of advent prophets in scripture. First, advent prophets keep calm when the world around them is not. Moses went up against the most powerful man in his world. We remember that Moses felt insecure to act as God’s spokesman — something about a stutter or a fear of public speaking — but he did what God asked. Moses witnessed the plagues God used to release the Hebrews from Pharoah’s grip. Moses led the Hebrews on the 40-year winding trek through the desert. In all the uncertainty he stayed the course. He served God faithfully. He spoke for God, even when the people were angry, afraid, or discontent. 

Second, advent prophets trust in things they cannot see. Isaiah is a great example of this. Isaiah himself never saw the Israelites freed from exile. He never saw them return to the Promised Land. He never met Jesus. But he spoke out tirelessly about God’s coming rescue. He foretold the coming of a king in the line of David who would bring peace to the world. You’ll remember his famous prophecies, “A shoot from the stump of Jesse” and “For unto us a child is born…and the government will be on his shoulders…a Prince of Peace.” Isaiah never lived to see these things happen, but he believed they would because God told him so. Isaiah shared these extraordinary hopes with the people around him. 

Third, advent prophets speak up. Often they had to raise their voices to be heard amid the noise of the world around them. This is what Isaiah said:

Go up on a high mountain,
messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” 

Isaiah 40:9

Mark 1:4 says that the prophet John (the Baptist) was in the wilderness “calling for people.” 

To be an advent prophet for Jesus is to speak up. No good advent prophet keeps silent. Silence is antithetical to being a messenger. Think of the angels. When they show up in Bible stories, they speak. They announce. They are heralds of the good news of God. Prophets are the same. They speak up and speak out. And their message is our fourth point. For advent prophets, their message always points to God.

Moses never used his speech to focus on himself and announce his own importance. Moses announced the coming of God’s plagues to Pharaoh. Once the Hewbrews were free, he announced God’s law to them. When they misbehaved in the desert season, he announced God’s judgement and mercy.

Isaiah was also outspoken. His message gave hope to a weary and frightened people. 

The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” (40:5)

“Here is your God!
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength,
with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him
and his payment before him.” (40:9b-10)

As a prophet, Isaiah faced a lot of opposition from disbelieving Jews and misbehaving Israelite kings. But he stayed focused on pointing people toward righteousness and hope in their just God.

John the Baptist was a humble, unconventional guy. He lived in the desert. He had few resources. His clothes were rustic. He ate locusts and wild honey. He had gained notoriety and people traveled to hear him because they were curious about his message, but John didn’t bask in his growing popularity. When people came to him, even when they greatly admired him, he pointed them on toward Jesus. In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.”

The advent prophets of scripture were focused not on the chaos around them, nor on their own presitigue. They were singularly focused on announcing the coming of God’s goodness. We can follow in their footsteps. Remember, no matter what you are feeling inside, no matter what the chaos and uncertainty of the world predicts, there is bedrock truth that overcomes all of it…

Jesus is the good news of God that breaks into the noise of the world. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the one who can release people from their fear of Covid. Their worries of financial crisis. Their pessimistic doubts about the future. 

Jesus is coming to the broken world and the broken people of 2020. He will restore us and our world as God has done in every difficult season throughout human history. Even though we can’t see it, even if we have trouble believing it, God is on the move around our globe. God is calming fears, inspiring scientists toward a vaccine, propping up weary health care workers, and helping people come up with creative and innovative ways to do business and school and family gatherings that mitigate the risks of passing the virus. 

We are adapting and surviving and learning how to live (and maybe even thrive) while times are hard. God is producing all this in us. Remember, we are not in exile. We are in advent. And as we wait and endure, we are not victims. We are prophets. 

So today my task as an advent prophet is to say — You are doing well. You are doing a good job riding the waves of the tumultuous tide of 2020. You may feel like you are failing, but that’s just because you are evaluating yourself with the same scale you used before the pandemic…and the election season…and the racial unrest and the looting…and the recession. You are not failing when you feel discouraged. You are enduring. Though it doesn’t feel good, you are waiting well. 

Struggling and feeling discouraged are good signs, really. Feelings like these show that your spirit has some fight left. It means your heart and soul know that there is more to life than all this struggle. You are battling back against the messages that say that the future is gloom and doom. Your heart is crying out for something more, something better, something whole and abundant. And my job today is to remind you that something is coming. 

Our Jesus is coming. Our rescuing God is on the move to restore our world and our hearts. We don’t know what that will look like and how soon it will happen, but take heart: It. Will. Happen. 

We are advent prophets, and we trust in things we cannot see. We rely on and hope in a God who has proven himself faithful to generation upon generation. He will not fail us.

So friends, it’s time to get up. It’s time to take up your call to be advent prophets. It’s time to speak up and speak out about the truths you know from God’s word. It’s time to comfort our discouraged and fearful neighbors with words of assurance. It’s time to get up and live in a way that says, “Here is your God! Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm to bring restoration and peace to our bleak world.” 

Raise your voice against the noise of the world. Raise it and speak words of hope to those who are lost. And while you do, hold on to this truth:

The grass dries up;
the flower withers,
but our God’s word will exist forever. 

Isaiah 40:8

In Our Weakness

I had an emergency appendectomy two weeks ago. The surgeon said that my appendix had begun to leak and looked ready to burst when he removed it. The surgery was easy and I spent just one night in the hospital for observation. I looked and felt good the day I got home. I kept saying to my husband, “I can’t believe that I had an organ removed!” 

But then, two days later, the fatigue hit. I was suddenly very weak and constantly uncomfortable. It was hard to sleep and rest well. About a week after my surgery, I looked at my husband again and said, “I can’t believe that taking out this small, unnecessary organ can cause so much discomfort!” I got a little emotional and I said to Dennis, “Can 2020 be over? I want to quit this year.” 

Have any of you felt like this recently: physically weak, emotionally taxed, or overwhelmed by life? Maybe for you, it’s general anxiety or malaise after enduring six months of pandemic living. I’ve taken to calling life in this time “Pandemia.” When I say Pandemia, I hear a combination of the words pandemonium and pandemic. The pandemic has brought life like we’ve never seen or experienced before. It has upset or upended our lives in so many ways. 

Our individual lives and needs continue in Pandemia. We still have bills to pay. Doctors’ appointments to keep. Grocery shopping to do. Errands to run. Personal matters to attend to. But all of this activity must be tweaked in Pandemia. Masks are a must. We keep our physical distance as best we can. Some of us have learned how to have groceries delivered to our homes. 

Pandemia forces us to adjust things we don’t want to adjust, like gatherings with friends and family. It requires sacrifices that we did not sign up for. It has brought new discomfort and discontent to our lives. It calls for flexibility and creativity so that we can engage in something close to the activities we were used to before. Unfortunately, some of us are not very flexible or creative; we are tired and strapped. Other than extreme introverts, I don’t know anyone who loves living in Pandemia.

For some of us, Pandemia is a place of hardship and fear and grief because it has brought us unemployment, financial strain or insecurity. Some of our loved ones have been directly affected by the virus. For some of us, Pandemia means physical isolation, illness, and it may have even brought death to our lives.

The grief over all these changes and losses is real and warranted.

Pandemia is not what we want. It’s not an easy way of living. We don’t know when it will get better or when it will end. It seems we are stuck in Pandemia for the time being. How do you feel about that? Have you hit the wall like I did a few days after my surgery? Did you, in a short time span go from, “This is not so bad; I can handle this” to “I’m done with 2020; can I please quit?” 

When you think of all the ways you’ve had to adjust your life in Pandemia, all the changes and restrictions, all the feelings you have surrounding them — how are you doing? Where do you feel on a sliding scale between physically weak and strong? How about the sliding scale between emotionally fatigued and emotionally resilient? Between pessimism or hopefulness about the near-future? How are you enduring this? Do you feel like you need a little help?

One of my favorite quotes from our friend and master, Jesus, comes from the Gospel of John 16:33 (NIV). Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he said that, Jesus was specifically preparing his disciples for the persecutions they would suffer as his followers. But it’s safe to say that Jesus knew that this life brings with it all kinds of trouble, not just persecution for faith. Jesus knew about the troubles caused by famine and war and divorce and abuse and illness and disability and sin. 

Paul knew about these too. In his letter to the Roman believers, he addressed all kinds of hardships that they were facing, and all the new things they had to navigate now that their identity and allegiances had changed. You see, the Romans believers had gone from being people of the world, consumed with worldly things, to being people of God whose lives should be transformed by God’s Spirit. They’d gone from being Roman citizens, Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people, to citizens of the Kingdom of God, a united, free, beloved people. Their primary allegiance was now to a triune God — loving Father, self-sacrificing Son, and indwelling Spirit.

The people of God wanted the freedom from slavery to sin that their identity brought. They needed it. But with their new identity also came necessary and uncomfortable lifestyle changes. Becoming a disciple means life-transformation. When we live under the banner of a loving Father, it means we must love and accept the people that God loves. That means everyone. It means finding a way to love and serve those who would not otherwise receive your regard. And that can be uncomfortable and can cause strain, but ultimately, it is good for our souls.

Being disciples of Jesus means we must learn to sacrifice our selfish desires or needs to put the needs of others first. It means joining Jesus’ mission and actively working toward the healing of those who are ill in body or mind. It means doing our part to tear down roadblocks for disabled and marginalized people.

Life lived, “in the Spirit,” as Paul calls it in his letter, is one that lets go of sin and selfish pleasures, and instead pursues things that lead to abundant, wholesome life and peace for ourselves and others. 

The first Christians in Rome faced not just the difficult changes that come with discipleship, they also faced the hardship of persecution for their faith. Their new identity and new ways of living caused friction within their own community, but also stirred up quite a bit of trouble between the believers and their unbelieving family, friends, masters, civil leaders, and even the government. At best, they were met with curiosity by the outside world. But I imagine their general reception was mostly wary, skeptical, and even downright hostile. Just like Jesus encouraged his disciples with some no-nonsense talk, Paul wrote to encourage the Roman believers in their own troubles. 

In Romans 8:18-25, Paul wrote this:

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.

Common English Bible, 2011.

The discomfort a believer experiences as their identity shifts and they live increasingly “in the Spirit’ causes friction with the world around them. This is like labor pains. It is real pain and discomfort, but it is pain that will end. It is pain that leads somewhere good. It is pain that gives new life.

Believers endure difficulty knowing that it will pass. Beyond it, there is freedom from decay and pain and suffering and death. We are all leaning toward a life and future that is gloriously free from sin, is typified by harmonious fellowship, sees the restoration of our bodies, and is chock full of wonderful intimacy with God. We experience these good things now on a certain level, but they are not complete. Not at their fullest. We are not completely free because we are still waiting for God to bring his full restoration plans to completion. 

So, in this already-not-yet time, we wait. We groan. We are stretched in uncomfortable ways. Here’s the good news: good fruit grows in us in times of trouble. Here’s the not so good news: it is not always the fruit we want. 

We might want our lives and circumstances to produce ease, fun, unencumbered fellowship, and personal convenience. Instead, our lives and circumstances are painfully producing greater endurance, patience, and flexibility through discomfort, sacrifice, and inconvenience. This doesn’t feel like anticipating glory, but it is. These are labor pains that lead to new life. A life that will be ours.

Our lives and circumstances are different from the first century disciples. As Christians in present-day America, we do not face the threat of interrogation, imprisonment, or crucifixion because we live or preach the gospel. We are not facing the persecutions that Jesus, Paul, and the disciples were. 

But we are living in a unique time and circumstance — this Pandemia. We know friction, discomfort, pain, suffering, and grief because of this new and ever-changing world. I imagine the encouragements written in the letter to the Romans apply to us. I imagine they can encourage us, calm us, lift our hearts, and motivate us. 

So please hear Romans 8:26-39 again, in a slightly new way. I’ve taken Paul’s original text from the Common English Bible and adapted for our context. (My changes are in italics.) Receive these words as a letter written to you, here and now.

“In the same way God aided the believers that came before us, the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. In these unprecedented, uncertain, uncomfortable times, we don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. 

We know that God works all things — even pandemics — together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew about the pandemic in advance, and he decided in advance that through this trouble, we would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way — a way that walks through storms, anticipates hardship, and endures suffering — his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters born and developed through suffering. We are those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son through a pandemic. He also called us to this time and place. Those whom he calls, he also makes righteous. Those whom he makes righteous, he will also glorify.

So what are we going to say about these things? What are we to do in these times? How are we to live in Pandemia? This should be our motto: If God is for us, who or what can be against us? 

Remember, God didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Sacrifice leads to life. And so, if we trust and follow that pattern, won’t God also freely give us all the things we need, just as he did with Jesus?… It is Christ Jesus who died, even better, who was raised, and who is now, living and reigning at God’s right side! It is Christ Jesus who shows the way for us: meeting the needs of others, working for healing, making a way for the marginalized, enduring pain and hardship and choosing self-sacrifice for the good of others.

We may feel weak and exhausted, anxious and uncomfortable, disconnected and lonely due to current circumstances, but is there not the greatest comfort in this question: Who will separate us from Christ’s love? 

Will we be separated from God’s love by any trouble, or distress, or harassment? Have we been separated by famine, or physical danger, or war? Will we be separated from God’s love by a virus without a vaccine? By economic instability or a potential recession, or partisan blame-games, by fake news, or by real, scary news? Can we be separated from God’s love when we wear a mask, or when the store is low on flour and meat and paper products, when we have to adapt our social gatherings for a time, or when we have to keep six feet between us and those we love?  

These things are difficult. It can feel like “we are being put to death all day long for days on end. We might feel as valuable as sheep raised only for the slaughter.” But in all these discomforts and sacrifices and griefs, we will still win the greatest prize to be had, through the one who loved us. 

I’m convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, whether we encounter it in our daily lives or in a headline. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not death or life. Not angels or demons or possible UFOs or life on Mars. Not presidents, or senators, or supreme courts, or city councils, or mayors, or school districts. Not a virus, or a pandemic, or masks, or social distances, or a lack of hugs and handshakes. Not government corruption, or abuses in policing, or protests, or the labor pains of righting systemic injustices. Not present troubles or future troubles. Not divorce, or addiction, or mental illness, or disability, or lawsuits, or bankruptcy. Not powers used well or power abused. Not canceled cruises, birthday parties, and family reunions, or adjusted weddings or receptions, or postponed travel plans. Not being pro-this or anti-that. Not being Catholic, or Evangelical, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Jewish, or other. Not being a perceived sinner or a celebrated saint. Not whether we wake up in the heights of optimism or in the depths of despair. Not anything that is created…NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.

(Adapted from the text of the Common English Bible, 2011.)

Pandemia is hard. It’s taxing. It is not what we want. It requires sacrifices we may not want to make. Times feel dark and dreary. Your soul might feel that way too. There’s a lot of fear swirling around this world. That’s why we need to remember that we straddle two worlds. 

Yes, we live in this Pandemia. But is it just for a time. We only have one foot here. We live in Pandemia, but we are also children of God. We are disciples of Jesus. People called to live “in the Spirit.” As such, we also have a foot in the kingdom of God. This kingdom is our primary citizenship. 

As heaven’s citizens, what if we flipped our perspective of Pandemia? What if we viewed this time and these fraught circumstances like labor pains? What if we could trust that God is in all this mess, working things toward good? How would we feel then?

Would fear calm down? Would we be more willing to be uncomfortable and socially distant for the good of our neighbors and our world? Would we rise from our beds each day with eyes to see God on the move in the production of vaccines, in innovations in healthcare that treat those sick with Covid, in communities willing to wear masks to protect each other? Would hope overthrow uncertainty? 

Pandemia is ugly, and scary, and contentious. I don’t want to be here. I wish it was something I could quit. I often feel emotionally drained. The headlines in Pandemia are discouraging. But the good news is — I don’t belong to Pandemia. I belong to God.

I will sometimes — maybe even daily — struggle with my attitude, but then I can choose to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That means I will remind myself that this is only for a time. This will pass. When the pandemic ends, God will still be on the throne. God will still be good, and his goodness will have bloomed all around us. I will endure Pandemia for the sake of the glories to come in the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus put it another way:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that someone hid in a field, which somebody else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.”

Matthew 13:44, CEB

I was hospitalized during the pandemic. This is what it was like inside…

Before the pandemic began, I visited our local hospital several days a week as part of my work as a chaplain at a retirement community. In February, I also accompanied my then-fiancee to the Emergency Department after he injured his back and was admitted for intractable pain. I’ve been a visitor to this hospital on countless occasions over the last two years. I’ve observed, interacted with, and in some cases, partnered with the staff. I’ve met the CEO and several nursing leaders. And I’ve listened to countless patients share about their experiences. On July 13, it was my turn to become the patient.

I woke up around 2:50 am with pain very low in my right side. Going to the bathroom brought no relief. I went into our living room to see if using the heating pad would help. Around 3:15 my husband came out to see where I was and found me kneeling on the floor, with my torso resting on the couch. I was pressing the heating pad to my abdomen. He asked what was wrong and I said, “I have this strange pain. It won’t go away. The heat isn’t helping.” After a few minutes by my side, Dennis got up and went to get dressed, insisting that we go the Emergency Department.

A hospital during a pandemic is the last place I wanted to go. We also happen to live in South Florida, which is currently a global hot spot for the coronavirus. The pain was bad, but not horrible. I wanted to wait and see if it would ease. Dennis insisted that we go. Not wanting to distress my husband, and slightly worried myself, I put on my shoes, grabbed my glasses, cell phone, and purse, and got in the car.

The lobby of the ED was empty except for a security guard. She would not let Dennis enter, so I kissed him goodbye at the door and he went to wait in the car. I was quickly called into the triage room where a masked nurse interviewed me and took my vitals. My BP was unusually high, 158/100, but I did not have a fever. Due to what I was reporting, the triage nurse quickly moved me to a room in the main ED and started an IV.

Another nurse came, introduced herself, and went about the business of assessing me. The attending physician came in shortly after that and asked me a barrage of questions, but he remained by the door, roughly six feet from my bed. The only time he approached me was to do a brief physical exam to palpate my abdomen and kidneys. He said he would order a CT scan to see what was going on, and retreated to his workspace.

My glass-walled room faced the central workspace where all the medical staff did their charting and consulting. From my bed I could see them suit up to enter patient rooms for exams and care. It seems that they housed patients around the ED based on whether or not they had any coronavirus signs or symptoms. (This was assessed as patients passed through triage.) Despite being placed on the “negative symptom side” of the ED, I was given a rapid Covid test, which came back negative within about 20 minutes.

All the staff were masked the entire time I was in the ED, though the staff seemed to have a choice about what kind of mask to wear. A standard surgical mask was the most basic covering, but most staff seemed to choose an additional layer for extra protection. There was an RN who wore a N95 mask over a surgical mask. Two of the physicians wore what looked like silicone masks with large air filtration systems built in. One mask had a plastic shield to cover the eyes, the other covered only the mouth and nose.

As far as I could see, the staff impeccably practiced hand-washing and disinfecting protocols. (Wash in, wash out.) They also maintained physical distancing between themselves at all times.

Though they seemed to be functioning on a skeleton crew, the care was prompt and thorough. I received a CT scan within the first two hours of being in the ED. When the doctor came in and said, “You are going to have to stay,” I was shocked. I assumed it was the cyst on my right ovary acting up. He told me that my appendix was inflamed and needed to be removed. They were calling in a surgeon.

I texted the news to my husband. After sitting in the parking lot for two hours, he’d gone home to wait. By 8am I was wheeled to pre-op. It’s a short ride from the ED to pre-op, but the route takes you through the main hallway on the ground floor of the hospital, past out-patient surgery, the hallway to the OR and the ICU, and the main elevators. On a normal day in a Covid-free world, you’d probably see at least 10-20 people along the way. We didn’t see one.

In pre-op I was one of two patients waiting for emergency surgery. The other patient had a broken neck and seemed pretty out of it. I was fully awake and alert and on minimal pain medication, so I overheard everything that went on during my two hours in pre-op.

Three nurses worked the unit. They talked quietly behind the staff desk, but I could easily hear them through the curtain around my bed. They talked about trying to get their hours since the hospital was doing so few surgeries during the pandemic. They talked about staff who had opted to leave their jobs out of concern for their own safety. They talked about how the Covid units were overflowing and mentioned friends who worked on those units.

Several codes were called during my time in pre-op. From listening to the staff, I pieced together that the 5th floor is the regular Covid unit. Three code blues were called on the 5th floor, two in the ICU.

The anesthesiologist came to interview me before my surgery. He asked if I had been given a Covid test. I told him, yes, it was negative. He seemed surprised and said that the last three emergency appendectomies that he’d done were all Covid-positive patients. He said there isn’t a correlation between having Covid and needing an appendectomy, those patients just each happened to have the virus as well as appendicitis. I apologized for breaking his streak.

Just before they wheeled me into surgery.

By noon I woke up in the PACU, or the post-anesthesia care unit. Generally, patients spend anywhere from one to two hours in a PACU, depending on their vitals and how quickly they wake up. Then you are transferred to a regular room. I was in the PACU for eight hours, not because I was unstable, but because (I later discovered) my nurse was protecting me like a lioness watching over her cub.

Like pre-op, the PACU is a large square room with workspace in the middle and curtained beds along the outer walls. During my eight hours there, when I was awake and alert, I saw five other patients pass through. PACU was well-staffed, so I had my nurse’s undivided attention. We spent hours talking and getting to know one another. Not wanting to be intrusive, I didn’t ask her to share stories about working during the pandemic.

After a few hours, my nurse told to me that several rooms had opened up for me, but that she opted to wait for a room in the new wing of the hospital, which is far from the Covid units. She asked if I minded waiting. She told me the wait might be long because they are short nurses in the new wing, but it would be the safest place to go. So I waited for a room until 8pm. I ate my prescribed liquid dinner of tomato soup, pudding, and ice cream in PACU. I imagine it’s very unusual to have a patient eat a meal in PACU, but I guess few things are usual during a pandemic.

I was taken upstairs by two PACU nurses since none of the transport staff were answering their calls. Again, the three minute journey revealed only empty hallways and elevators. Once in my room, I had a fitful night of sleep due to physical discomfort and the staff coming in for vitals and care. I didn’t need much from the staff as I had minimal pain, but by 6am I was desperate for a toothbrush and toothpaste. I called the desk and asked for them. The staff member who answered said they would bring them, but they were never delivered. I was discharged around 11am with haunting dragon-breath.

I’m home now, recovering. Despite having an organ removed from my body, I’m feeling pretty good and my pain is under control with only Tylenol and ice packs. While resting on my couch this week, I’ve spent some time reading the news and catching up on social media. As usual I saw reports of rising Covid numbers in the US, stories of anti-maskers, and stories of families who’ve lost loved ones and are begging people to take the virus seriously and wear masks.

On Facebook I even saw a few friends share posts that imply that Covid is exaggerated and infection numbers are inflated just so that Trump will not be re-elected. These posts turned my stomach. If you believe this, please don’t ever say this to anyone who works at a hospital. After observing just 36 hours in a hospital during the pandemic, I imagine the staff couldn’t bear the discouragement of your disbelief or minimization on top of the exhausting and weighty burden of working the Covid front lines.

Between our work places and our personal lives, My husband and I now know over 30 people who have tested positive for Covid. Two of those people have died, one of them an extended family member. All our people have told us that Covid is brutal, most saying it feels different from and much worse than the average flu. Recovering friends have said that even after they finally have a negative test, they are easily winded, have extremely low energy and minimal appetite. They aren’t sure how long it will be before they feel normal. Their doctors have said they may have long-term physical consequences due to Covid damage. “Recovery” is a long wait-and-see with little reassurance.

This post has been long and boring. It’s a bit of a personal chronicle so I can remember the experience later, but maybe you’ve found it interesting. Perhaps you don’t know how strange it is to have a hospital be full but still, with empty hallways. I do. And it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Church, Your Pastors Are Tired

Image by Andrea Piacquadio from pexels.com

We didn’t plan for this. We’ve all been suddenly forced to adapt almost everything about our lives to respond to the pandemic. Some people revel in some of the changes, like working from home. For others, the changes chafe more than comfort.

I think it’s safe to assume that all of us, to some degree, have experienced negative consequences from pandemic living: stress, anxiety, job loss or insecurity, financial strain, or tension at home in constant close-quarters. All this seems to shake out through our systems and drag us into fatigue. My friend Karen calls it “Pandemic malaise.”

We are tired. We are desperate to stop adapting, stop isolating, stop worrying. We are all ready for this period of our lives to be finished. To become history. We want better days and we want them to begin tomorrow. We want to regain our energy and our lives as we knew them before the pandemic.

And if that wasn’t enough…

If you are an American like me, you’ve had the added weight of seeing the modern lynchings of black citizens unfold on your TV screens and social media feed. You see the action and inaction of our civic leaders. You see the protests and how our law enforcement responds — some movements are peaceful and peace-seeking, and some are chaotic and violent. You see the looting and destruction of big business and family businesses. And you likely have strong feelings about some or all of these things. (That is, if you have any emotional energy left.)

We are exhausted. We are undone. We’ve unraveled. The worst of who we are is exposed.

What we are seeing and experiencing is, at the very least, unpleasant. I imagine that many of us see or experience this ever-evolving situation in America as abhorrent. Unconscionable. A tragedy. We are all desperate for something better.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors have been doing the hard work of shifting the life of the church — an organism whose very nature is to gather publicly and then be sent out into the world — to alternative platforms like Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live. Some pastors in our churches do not have a degree in Bible or theology. Very few of them have a degree or training in information technology. A fraction of them have an understanding of what it takes to broadcast a virtual worship service. That is, until a few months ago when the pandemic halted our in-person gatherings.

Most pastors have learned on-the-fly, and are now quite competent at streaming your worship services. But the hour of worship you participated in on-line this week took much more than an hour to produce. Your pastors have zoomed for hours and hours behind the scenes.

They’ve zoomed with other staff, with leaders and volunteers, working hard to plan your worship service. Plus, they’ve creatively re-purposed ministries to function virtually. They’ve asked, what can children’s ministry look like now? How do we keep our senior congregants connected and engaged if they don’t have, or are uncomfortable with, technology? They’ve brainstormed new best-practices, done some trail-and-error, and worried about what they may have missed.

Your pastors have done the hard work of scrutinizing the budget and cutting back spending so your church can stay afloat during lean times. They know their congregants have or will experience financial strain, so they are being careful and proactive with resources. (Your pastors may also be worried about their own livelihood — since the church budget is also the source of their income.)

Your pastors are trying to care for you and stay in touch with you, but it’s harder when they can’t meet with you or at least see you in person each week. How long would it take to call through your church directory and check in on every congregant or family? How do they set up a manageable system for this? They wonder, would congregants be satisfied with a short, personal email?

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors are expected to be strong leaders. To be examples. To help you navigate challenging times with wisdom gleaned from scripture. Right now, you might even hope they can be like the prophets of the Bible, boldly speaking God’s truth in the midst of unprecedented calamity.

And so here we are in a global pandemic. What truth, or hope, or prophetic encouragement do you expect from your pastor this Sunday?

And here we are in an America whose deep-seated racism has been re-exposed and the emotional outrage has erupted onto our streets. Some pastors were alive to see, experience, and learn from the civil rights movement. Some weren’t. Some pastors are awake to the systemic racial injustices in our nation. Others aren’t. Some white pastors can name their privilege and are doing the difficult work to learn and live as allies with their neighbors of color. Some can’t, some won’t, and some don’t know how to get started. And yet, despite where your pastors are as individuals, they are still expected to have a prophetic voice.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Pastors of color face these expectations exponentially, while simultaneously bearing the weight of their own pain and exhaustion.

ALL of that to say, church, your pastors are TIRED. They might be running on fumes. They might be struggling personally, but are keeping that quiet so they can keep on ministering to you. They are just about done adjusting and adapting. They are straining under the complex needs, and often conflicting desires of their congregants. And they are navigating all of this in an ever-evolving pandemic in a world that is literally and figuratively on fire.

Maybe they need you to minister to them.

Capacity

There is a global pandemic going on and I’m seeing a lot of comparison and judgment on social media. Friends are judging themselves for a lack of productivity. They are criticizing family members for not getting enough done. Or they are bemoaning the unrealistic expectations of schools and employers.

Can we pause for a moment and dig into this problem calmly and compassionately?

We have all been subjected to a mega-shift in our lives. Most of us have had to adjust all that we do — be it work, parenting, eating, and schooling — to be done 100% at home. That is a fundamental shift in our habits and routines. That is a lot of togetherness if you live with family or roommates, and a lot of alone time if you live alone. And unless you are well-suited for monastic life, you’re also grieving lost connections to a lot of the activities and the being-out-in-the-world things that nourish you.

I imagine that if this shift to our lives were measured like an earthquake, it would be a pretty solid 7 on the Richter scale. Social distancing and isolation isn’t killing us, but it is shaking up our lives in a jarring way. With the tectonic plates of our daily lives shifted so greatly, you can bet there are cracks showing on each of us.

One friend told me that she thought she was doing pretty well with all of this isolation. She and her husband and son had been “living it up” at home enjoying their favorite home-bound hobbies like video games, gardening, and movie nights. But my friend suddenly broke out in hives for no apparent reason. She now suspects that the isolation has affected her more than she noticed or was willing to accept.

On social media, friends are lamenting their lack of energy. They are mentioning all the projects they think they or their spouse should be able to tackle since they are at home all the time. But these same people don’t seem to realize that fatigue is such a potent side-effect of stay-at-home orders.

I’d like to ask that you take a few minutes to think about capacity. Before my knee surgery last fall, I was exercising 5-6 days a week and averaging 12,000 steps a day. Then I had surgery and I couldn’t bear weight on my leg for a month. Dependent on crutches, I had to change everything about my daily routine. Every task that I was used to doing without thinking about it, suddenly required me to think first. How must I do X differently in order to accomplish X and be safe?

The fundamental adjustments to my life were both physically and emotionally exhausting. I simply didn’t have the same capacity that I had before my surgery. To be well during recovery, I had to learn to let myself:

  • accomplish less (and subsequently…)
  • attempt less (and therefore…)
  • set aside unnecessary tasks
  • pause longer between tasks
  • laugh about stupid mistakes
  • not sweat the small stuff (and subsequently…)
  • put more things in the “small stuff” category
  • go to bed at times suited for a small child

Before my surgery, I was a strong, active, capable woman. After my surgery, I was still a strong, active, capable woman, but one who had to make adjustments. I had less capacity to be active the way I was used to. Instead of relying on my legs to carry me through the day, I had to schlep through my days using crutches and my upper body strength — and that’s some workout!

Some days, accepting the change in my capacity was very frustrating, even maddening. I’d have fits of temper when I dropped things (and I dropped so many things!) and it seemed nearly impossible to retrieve them with an immobilized leg. I was annoyed that I was ready for bed by 7pm. At 39-years-old, I felt silly needing a shower chair in order to take a 10 minute shower. But everything in that season came down to capacity. Was I willing to accept and work with the capacity that I had on any given day?

And that’s the question I offer you during this pandemic and period of social isolation. Almost everything about your daily routine has likely changed. The shift is affecting you, whether or not you see or accept its impact. So, what is your capacity today? What is your capacity physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually? What is your capacity at 10am? At 3pm? Or at 7pm?

To be well in times of change, we have to realize and accept that our capacity can fluctuate greatly day-to-day and hour-by-hour. To be well we also have to adjust our expectations of ourselves (and our loved ones). What looks or feels like laziness when we don’t tackle those special projects around the house could in fact be mild depression, numbness, or emotional fatigue — all situational and very understandable.

One of the opportunities of this weird isolation season is to become more emotionally flexible. And generous. Out of an abundance of love and kindness, we can offer ourselves (and others) heaping amounts of grace when we feel like we are failing or when we don’t measure up. Instead of seeing ourselves as slackers, we might consider that we are doing the best we can with the resources that we have at any given moment. Please hear that again…

You are doing the best that you can with the resources you have at any given moment.

I once interviewed a college student who was reapplying for a second year in the same job. He liked the job and was good at it, but he had concerns. The following year he would be a senior preparing to graduate and looking to launch his career. He wasn’t sure he should do the job again or even how to evaluate his readiness to return to the job in light of his different circumstances.

Randomly, I asked him if he was familiar with scuba diving. He said he was. So I asked him to imagine another year on the job like a scuba dive. And then I asked him to evaluate how much air he had left in his tanks. (Because who would go on an extended dive without full or nearly full tanks?) The student later told me that after pondering that question over the next few days, he was able to confidently turn down our job offer. He decided that saying no was the healthiest choice for him and those he would have served through the job.

This is the simple question I offer you in an uncommon time — what is your capacity right now? (Or, what is your loved one’s capacity right now given their unique circumstances?) No matter the answer, you will never regret responding to that question with an overly-generous dose of kindness.

woman-in-white-dress-shirt-1677275

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

 

 

Wave Upon Wave

Anyone else feeling fragile these days? I’m with you. If you’d like, why don’t you come into my living room and settle onto the other end of my couch. No need to change out of your comfy clothes — I’m in sweats. The soft, stretchy cotton seems like the perfect hammock for a fragile soul.

So, as you know, I’m a pastor and a spiritual leader in my community. I imagine people expect me to offer words of assurance and encouragement in a season of hardship like a pandemic. It’s not that I don’t have any of those words these days, but I also don’t want to pretend to be more than I am.

I believe it’s very important for leaders to remember they are human and to be honest in every circumstance. Being genuine and open about who we are and how we are at any given moment can be the most assuring and encouraging thing. So today I offer you my weary, droopy self.

How should we be during a global pandemic? Is there a “should” for this kind of thing? No one gave me playbook for this in seminary. I suppose there are some parallels I could draw from scripture for us, but today I’d rather offer the story of my own life, my body, and my heart. Maybe you will find solidarity and comfort there.

I’ve never experienced a compounded season of stress like this in my life. I imagine you haven’t either. Sure, I’ve been through difficult things in my life and I consider myself a fairly resilient person. I’ve matured through the grind of hardship and squalls of grief. But these days, instead of feeling mature and capable of navigating this new challenge, I feel weak and unstable.

Maybe this is what a car accident victim feels like walking for the first time after days in bed. Something as ordinary as walking — something you’ve been doing everyday without thinking about it since you were three-years-old — now feels strange and Herculean. In a bruised and weakened body, even the idea of standing and moving your legs forward and of carrying your own weight, is overwhelming and exhausting.

Everyone will have their own unique pandemic story. Someday we will tell these stories to the younger generations and they will listen, captivated and half-believing, as though the way we lived in these days was more fantasy than reality. And yet we live these strange days — with face masks and gloves, social distancing and stay-at-home orders — as our reality.

My pandemic story starts with a hospital and a wedding. On February 20th in America, news of the coronavirus was still playing in the category of world news. There was a mysterious virus wreaking havoc in a region of China I’d never heard of. I didn’t give it too much thought because my mind was focused on getting married.

Dennis and I had planned an elopement for Saturday, February 22nd. On the night of the 20th, he herniated a disc in his back while standing up from the kitchen table. He spent the next 24 hours in the hospital as the doctors tried to get his pain under control. It took six hours and lots of IV morphine, but they finally got his pain and blood pressure stabilized. (His BP was 199/100 when we arrived at the ER!) Reluctantly, the doctor discharged him Friday night so we could get married the next day. Dennis was adamant that we would have our wedding as planned. I would have married him in his hospital room and drab hospital gown.

Other than Dennis being injured, our wedding was everything we’d hoped it would be. With it being simple and tiny compared to the average wedding, there was no stress. We spent the weekend resting at a beautiful bed and breakfast at the beach. By Tuesday we were both back to work as usual.

Except nothing has been “as usual” since February 20th. Dennis continued to struggle with debilitating back pain as he waited for his surgery scheduled for April. That virus in Wuhan, China spread quickly across the globe. The retirement community where I work quickly phased into a full lock-down in early March. Wearing masks and armed with thermometers, we now daily screen every staff member, essential vendors, and resident for Covid symptoms. All of our in-person programming has been canceled and we’ve had to adapt everything for our in-house broadcast system. My job, which was once vibrantly full of human contact and pastoral care, is now reduced to ministering through live broadcasts of daily morning prayer and Sunday morning chapel.

As the virus covered the globe and grew into a pandemic, Dennis and I had to cancel our full honeymoon that was scheduled for late March. Soon after, we also canceled both our Florida and California wedding receptions planned for May and June. We have no idea if and when we will be able to reschedule those. Though that seems like such a small loss in the midst of such world-wide suffering and grief, it is still a loss for us. It feels like we haven’t had the chance to celebrate our marriage.

Around the time my workplace had a few cases of Covid-19, I started feeling unwell. Knowing my cycle and the symptoms, I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. I took three tests over the course of that week, but my husband wouldn’t believe it was true until it was confirmed by a doctor. I hadn’t found a GP since moving to Florida and no one was taking new patients with the pandemic going on. A local OB agreed to see me when I explained the situation. She confirmed the pregnancy with an ultrasound.

We were so happy to be pregnant. We’d hoped and prayed we would be able to get pregnant one day, but were cautiously optimistic because of our advanced ages. And so there we were, newlyweds, pregnant right away in the middle of a global pandemic, both essential workers (and thankful to be employed), but both exposed to the public everyday, and with Dennis still enduring vicious chronic pain. That is a unique set of stressors in an extraordinarily stressful time.

Dennis has asthma so is in “at risk” category if he were to get the coronavirus. Since it’s a novel virus, almost nothing is known about the risks to pregnant women and their babies. Though healthy and strong, I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. I love my job and the people I serve, but I didn’t want to go into work and potentially expose myself to the virus and put my husband or baby at risk. It’s been over a decade since I’ve struggled with anxiety, but it was suddenly back again on a totally new level. All I wanted to do was burrow into our safe home and spend time caring for my family.

Dennis assured me everything would be okay. A realist, I knew he couldn’t possible know what the future held, but “everything will be okay” was exactly what I needed to hear every day, several times a day. He held me close every time I felt scared and reminded me of what I already knew — God loves us, God is good, and God is in control of everything, big and small.

So, like the rest of the world, we continued living each day as best we could. We’ve battled the strange fatigue that comes with living the reduced life forced upon us by a pandemic. Thankfully, Dennis was able to transfer to working from home, which brought him some relief from back pain. His surgery was scheduled for April 13th, the day after Easter.

Easter is meant to be the high point of the year for Christians. On Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the fact that his resurrection signals our freedom from slavery to sin and freedom to live eternally in intimate relationship with God. Easter is usually full of extra light and color, flowers and song. But the pandemic made it’s mark on our celebrations too. Our chapel service was still broadcast-only. There was no choir, no lilies, no joyful hugs, and no congregation shouting, “He is risen, indeed!” Though the message of the service and sermon were as hopeful and joyful as ever, it still felt odd. Even Easter was reduced from it’s fullest, brightest expression.

Personally, Easter was full of worry and blood. I got home from our Easter chapel and discovered that I was spotting. That afternoon, as we ate a special Easter dinner, prepared Dennis’ hospital bag for his surgery the next day, and played some games, I continued bleeding. Some spotting is normal in early pregnancy, but mine increased as the day went on, going from a dull brown to a bright red. I knew that at 7 weeks, I was likely miscarrying. Dennis held me as I cried. He slept fitfully that night, as it was hard for him to find a comfortable sleeping position. I didn’t sleep at all. I was in too much pain to sleep, so I spent the night on the couch holding a heating pad to my abdomen.

On Easter Monday we got dressed and headed for the hospital. I was still bleeding. I dropped my husband off at the hospital entrance. Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t go in with him or visit him after surgery. I drove home and called to make an appointment with my OB. Just before the doctor examined me, as I lay on the table in the ultrasound room, I got the call from the hospital that Dennis was out of surgery and doing well. Moments later, the ultrasound confirmed what I already knew — I was having a miscarriage.

I went home to an empty house where I wept and cried out for my husband. Though there are many people I could have called to come be with me, Dennis was the only person I wanted. I wept with relief that he was okay, and I wept with grief knowing that when we spoke on the phone that afternoon, I would have to tell him that we’d lost our baby.

We were separated for about 32 hours. I picked Dennis up from the hospital and drove us toward the pharmacy where we would get his prescriptions. He took off his gloves and used sanitizer so he could hold my hand. I drove and wept and managed to stay on the road only because my husband was finally holding my hand and telling me how much he loved me. We got home and just held each other and cried.

The past two weeks have been difficult. Dennis’ physical recovery is slow and painful. I’m doing the best I can to care for him even as I am recovering myself. I’ve had many friends who have told me about their own miscarriages, but no one told me how physically painful and depleting a miscarriage could be. I took a few days off of work to care for Dennis and to let my own body heal. I’ve since returned to work, but have yet to regain my energy or even the desire to do the job I love.

The past two months have brought stress upon stress upon stress. And the pandemic has brought wave upon wave of loss — big and small. I never thought much about what our newlywed story would be, but never in any daydream did it contain a herniated disc, 2 hospitalizations, a major surgery, a pregnancy and a miscarriage — all in the middle of a global pandemic. So, understandably, I’m feeling fragile.

My experiences have woken me up to the reality that though we are all enduring the large-scale losses and grief of the pandemic, we are all still living our individual lives and potentially enduring personal losses and grief, big and small. We’ve lost happy plans, jobs, time with friends and family, graduations, businesses, financial security… It seems like that list could go on forever and cover such a broad range of losses, and that’s heartbreaking.

I’m sure many of you have suffered losses that have been eclipsed by the constantly grating news of the pandemic. You might be keeping your losses private and I understand your need or desire to do that. I considered keeping our miscarriage private, but ultimately, I thought I would share about it so others who are suffering right now might not feel so alone.

Whatever thoughts and feelings are plaguing you, my friend, you aren’t alone. Your suffering is real. It doesn’t matter how your loss compares to the pandemic or to someone else’s loss. Comparison is fruitless in the midst of grief. Big or small, your loss is real and it hurts you and that matters. Please, please know that what you are feeling is okay to feel, and please take care of yourself.

I hope you have someone who will hold you like my Dennis holds me. Even when I feel like I could shatter in moments of acute grief, his arms and words remind me that I will be okay.

We will be okay. That doesn’t mean that we won’t experience hardship or illness, loss or grief. It just means that we will not lose everything. We have not lost everything even when a single loss is so overwhelming that it makes us feel like we’ve lost everything.

I need to remember that there is still so much life to my life. I may not feel very good physically or emotionally. Each day feels tethered to a new, unpredictable tide. But I am still living. I am still deeply loved. I know that the frayed pieces of my life will mend, my body will heal, the pandemic will end, and I will be okay.

We will be okay.

I get up and meet each day as it is. Some days, like today, have been filled with tears and exhaustion, despite getting a full night of sleep. Other days seem normal — so normal that I forget there is a global pandemic and that I lost a baby — because the sun is shining so beautifully and my husband can always make me laugh. I’m doing my best to give myself heaping doses of grace when I feel overwhelmed emotionally, and when I feel guilty because I feel good. (That’s going to make sense to some of you.)

So if you are feeling fragile these days, you are in good company. It’s not just me sitting with you on The Couch of Pandemic Loss and Weariness. There’s probably a million sisters and brothers in this club. We are all just one story away from finding each other and from getting through one more day.

Please, if you need to, reach out to someone who loves you and share your story. I pray you will be met with wave upon wave of understanding, love, and grace.

You are not alone. You are loved.

Love,
Corrie

 

 

 

It Is Finished

John 19:30 — When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”

I’d never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Night had fallen, and I sat weeping at a campfire deep in the woods of Central Pennsylvania. This was at the end of a 10-hour day of steep hiking into and out of a valley. 

At the campfire, I was surrounded by 11 of my colleagues from the college where we worked. Our boss had decided that a 5-day, off-the-grid, backpacking trip would be a great team-bonding exercise to get us ready for the new academic year. I never would have chosen this kind of “adventure” for myself. I’m a self-proclaimed “indoorsy” person. Though I enjoy exercising outside every day, hiking and camping are among the last things I would choose to do for fun or for bonding. 

I wept at that campfire, not because I was afraid of the dark, or of spiders, or of having to go to the bathroom in the woods, but because I had been hiking all day with a 60 pound pack on my back. I’d had low-back pain for a few months, but by the time of our trip, I hadn’t yet seen a specialist for diagnosis. What I didn’t know is that I was hiking with a herniated disc. What I did know was the constant, fiery pain in my low back and my hips that often shot down my right leg like a lightning strike. 

As we hiked down, down into a deep valley that first day, all I could think about was that hours going down eventually means hours going up. And I was right. After a short break for lunch, we began a grueling 4-hour ascent out of the valley. When you ascend, you naturally shift your center of gravity forward. Unfortunately for me, that shift put even more pressure on the injured disc, and my pain intensified. 

That 4-hour ascent was the most painful experience of my life to-date. I couldn’t catch hold of any positive perspective because the pain was so intense. Tears slipped down my cheeks and soaked my shirt as I put one foot in front of the other. 

Looking up at the horizon brought no comfort because I couldn’t ignore the never-ending hill that I still had to climb. I knew I would survive the hike, of course, but that thought evaporated like a mirage when compared to the pain I knew I must endure first. So when we finally made it out of that valley, made camp, and gathered in front of the campfire, I collapsed — physically and emotionally. 

It was finished. I never had to enter, endure, and overcome that valley of pain again! I was so deeply relieved that I cried for a good hour. (It’s a wonder I had any tears left!) As I cried, I processed so many thoughts and emotions.

I was grateful for, and surprised by, the grit and physical fortitude I used to hike out. At the same time, I was keenly aware of the fragility and weariness of my body. I confess, I was resentful of my boss for forcing this adventure on us. And I was disappointed in myself for not saying “no” to this backpacking trip in the first place — when would I finally learn to speak up for legitimate personal needs, instead of sacrificing my own wellness because I don’t want to ruin things for others? 

Even as all these things filtered through my exhausted brain, the pain continued to throb and disturb my relief. The worst of the hike was finished, but residual pain would continue. I still had a few more days of walking to get out of those woods. Relief, pain, and resolve were always churning within me. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped me hang on until we were out of the woods entirely.


No human experience can ever truly compare to the excruciating weight that Jesus bore on the cross. I know hiking with a herniated disc is almost nothing compared to the physical pain of crucifixion, or the emotional strain of the task set before Jesus. My task and my pain were but a slight hint of Jesus’ task and his intense physical and emotional suffering. But even a hint can be a beginning.

To grasp the meaning in Jesus’ words, “It is finished” we must do the mental work of going back and answering the question, “What?” What was finished as Jesus hung on the cross? And, what might he have been feeling and thinking that led him to say, “It is finished”? We can only begin to understand those things when we remind ourselves of the task he was given.

We remember that the first time Jesus stood up to preach in his hometown synagogue, he read these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

All along, Jesus made his mission very clear. How many times did he say the phrase “I have come” in his public ministry?! We hear him proclaim his mission throughout the gospels using this phrase repeatedly. Here are a few examples:

  • I have come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt 5:17)
  • I have come to call sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32)
  • I have come to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
  • I have come down from heaven, in the Father’s name, to do the Father’s will (Jn 5:43, 6:38)
  • I have come to bring judgement so that the blind will see (Jn 9:39)
  • I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (Jn 12:46)

Jesus taught about a kingdom of heaven that was coming, and had come. This kingdom is a way of living that is based not on societal hierarchies and power struggles, but on a foundation of love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, and generous service to others. 

And as we read the stories of the gospels — as we see Jesus heal sick and broken bodies, as he casts out demons, as he shows love and compassion for the outcasts, the untouchables, and for the undervalued — we see him be true to his mission and exemplify the nature of his Father’s kingdom. 

Jesus came to earth on a holy, heavenly mission. He inaugurated his Father’s kingdom on earth through his teaching, his actions, and ultimately, by sacrificing his life on the cross. Only then, could Jesus say, “It is finished.”  

Jesus once said to his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34) As Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, he acknowledges that he has “brought [the Father] glory on earth by finishing” the work he was given to do. 

“It is finished.” In these words, in these moments, the awesome fortitude of Jesus is unveiled to us. 

Jesus endured the emotional pain of Judas’ betrayal; the swift abandonment by his other disciples when he was arrested; and the harsh rejection of the Jewish people he came to call back to his Father. 

He endured the pain of unjust accusations; of public ridicule from a crowd of the self-righteous calling for his death; and the humiliation of being stripped of his clothes and forced to walk the streets of the city on carrying the very tool that would kill him. 

Jesus endured the varied physical abuses done by the Roman soldiers and then the pain of gradual suffocation that comes with crucifixion. 

Jesus suffered all this pain because he was dedicated to, and focused on, the end — the ultimate goal. He knew that only his death would fully show the world how much he, and his Father, loved. Dying for the sake of others is the ultimate show of love. If the people didn’t believe after seeing Jesus bravely move toward the cross and endure it’s pain, then they never would believe.

Maybe it was a mix of relief, pain, and resolve churning in Jesus as he hung on the cross. Perhaps it’s that very mix that helped him endure such unthinkable suffering. All this, so that we too might know the freedom and joy of a life lived with him in the Kingdom of God.

“…Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

I’ve never been so relieved, so exhausted, so exhilarated, and in so much pain at the same time. Thank you, Lord, for what you finished for us. Amen.

 

My Beautiful, Wonderful, Upside-down Wedding

On February 22 of 2019, I met a man named Dennis at the birthday dinner of a mutual friend. We got to know each other over the summer and our first official date was September 22. We got engaged exactly two months later on November 22, and married on February 22, 2020, the one year anniversary of the day we met. Apparently 22 is our number.

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We said our vows on 02-22-20.

I’m sure that sounds fast to a lot of people. Sometimes it feels fast to us too. But every time my husband and I reflect on our relationship, the timeline is not nearly as important as the feelings of safety, contentment, and rightness that we have together.

When we started thinking about getting married, about the actual wedding I mean, I had a lot of well-formulated opinions to share with Dennis. After all, I’ve been a part of many weddings of friends and family in the past 20 years and I’m also a pastor who officiates weddings. Even though I didn’t think I would get married, I had built a pretty firm list of do’s and don’ts over the years.

For my own wedding, I didn’t want the stress, possible drama, expense, or delay of planning something traditional. I’ve watched even the most level-headed friends go haywire over wedding details like color schemes, party favors, invitations, and seating arrangements. Those things have no lasting meaning; they are just the trappings of an event. In our society it seems that the event of a wedding has eclipsed the purpose of the wedding — to begin and celebrate a marriage.

One of the reasons why I love Dennis is that he highly values friendship. I do too. To both of us, friends are family. So when we talked about having any sort of traditional wedding the numbers overwhelmed me. We could have easily invited 600 people to our wedding. Dennis’ people are all here in South Florida, but mine are all over North America.

Weddings with modest guests lists can come with a hefty price tag, even when you don’t serve a full meal at the reception. So it seemed that our options would be to:

  1. Blow a budget on a wedding with all our friends and family and set the date 8+ months out so my guests would have time and money to make travel plans, OR
  2. Do an inexpensive, private elopement, and later find creative ways to celebrate with all our loved ones

After doing some quick online research, I learned that the average cost for a wedding in America in 2019 was $33,900. American brides spend on average $1600 on their dress, plus an additional $250 on accessories. I’m a pretty practical woman. Those numbers are NAUSEATING to me. And as a follower of Jesus, I often question if the cost of modern weddings is morally defensible, even if you have that kind of money to spend.

Rather than spending months saving and spending money on a traditional wedding, I’d rather save money for a house, pay off school debt, travel with Dennis, and simply start our lives together sooner. So I pitched the idea of eloping to Dennis and he liked it. In fact, all of December he kept saying to me, “let’s just get married now.”

When I thought about what I wanted our wedding to be, a few things were very important to me. Overall, I wanted the ceremony to be spiritually-focused. I also wanted it to be a reflection of who we are and what we value. Authenticity is very important to both Dennis and I. So that meant not getting entangled by tradition or swayed by other people’s expectations of what we should do or what a wedding should be.

And that’s why you see me in a purple dress. Purple is one of my favorite colors, and bright colors have always felt more joyful and celebratory to me than white. I knew I wouldn’t feel like myself in any kind of white gown, so I never looked at one.

I wanted the ceremony to be thoughtful and meaningful, but not stiff or too formal since Dennis and I are very casual, fun-loving people. After working with couples who treated vows like an afterthought (with one couple even asking me to pick their vows for them!), we decided to write vows that are meaningful to us.

We read a bunch of vows. Over the course of a few weeks, we talked about the style of language we prefer, the meaning we wanted to convey, what we hope for our relationship, what we need from each other in order to thrive, etc. We wove together vows by borrowing phrases or lines from other sources, but also writing lines that are completely original. Here are our completed vows:

I, take you Dennis/Corrie, to be my husband/wife, and these things I promise you:
I will always be a safe haven for you.
I will consistently show you patience and tenderness.
I will be honest with you.
I will forgive you as we have been forgiven by God.
I will not only be a wife/husband, but a helper, friend, and guide
so that you will be able to meet life’s joys and challenges
knowing that I stand by your side for the rest of your life.

We are so pleased with how our wedding turned out. It was simple. Beautiful. Meaningful. Intimate. Relaxed. There was so little “event” stress that we were able to focus on each other, the words that were said, and the vows we made before God. While we couldn’t share those moments with everyone we love, we have video and pictures that we can share.

I’m also glad that the wedding was not a financial burden or stressor. Our wedding expenses were a fraction of the average American wedding, and our total included both of our outfits, all our accessories, our wedding dinner, and airfare for one of our witnesses. My dress was on clearance for $37. It was vibrant and made me feel beautiful.

We approached our wedding by reworking everything we’d heard and observed about weddings. We tossed out the typical wedding playbook. We refused to be steered by the demands of the wedding industry. And while we heard the opinions and navigated the expectations of others (and believe me, there were MANY opinions), we didn’t let them control us. We knew we could never please or appease everybody in our lives, so we didn’t enter the game. Instead, we turned everything upside-down and focused on pleasing God and ourselves.

By doing those things, we created a wedding experience that freed us to focus on what is meaningful and lasting. To us, this was right and good. Ultimately, our wedding ceremony was a great foundation for our marriage. It was a foreshadowing, I hope, of the unity and peace that we will share for the rest of our lives. And I think, when it comes to weddings, that’s what really matters.

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Mr. & Mrs. Montoya