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.

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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