Trust in the Wilderness

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on a previous post – Scripture and Change – in part because the delay of General Conference means even more uncertainty and anxiety regarding potentially radical changes in the UMC. But the broader theme of ‘comfort with’ vs ‘rejection of’ anxiety and change seems to animate so much of what’s happening both in the broader Christian church and the world beyond. I get especially frustrated with the prevalence of Christian voices advocating for a return to [insert whatever golden age or specific practice was most meaningful and comforting to that person or persons], when faithfulness to God has always required an openness to the uncomfortable new things the Spirit of God will do next.

In times of anxiety, we can seek out control or rely on trust. Control implies ‘we’ have the answers and if ‘they’ would just go back to x, y, or z then everything would be fine. Trust requires that we stand first on the foundation of God’s love for us, which then makes it possible to love each other more fully no matter what love requires – no matter how new, uncomfortable, different, or challenging it may be to do so. The Christian calling is and has always been to learn how to proclaim the unchanging gospel in a way that a rapidly changing world can continue to hear it. I grieve the extent to which so much of public Christianity seems more intent on getting back to a more comfortable and familiar place than on moving toward a more radical and transformative way to love as God first loved us.

Between war, technological shifts, the tragedies and general malaise of covid, the brokenness of politics in the US, the uncertainty of where the UMC goes from here, and any number of other challenges and trends, I don’t know how anyone could look at the world and not feel some level of anxiety about where all this goes in the next 5 to 50 years. I am the kind of person who is somewhat hard wired to prefer routine, habit, and tradition over uncertainty or change. A big part of me loves the idea of getting back to a simpler time and a less anxious world. But I don’t really know what that means or who gets to decide what point in the past represents the “ideal world” since different people in different times and places have always had very different experiences of that “ideal.” And just as importantly, I don’t know how to read the Bible or take the Christian faith seriously without seeing that the most basic and consistent expectation of God’s people in times of anxiety and change is to get ready for the new thing God will do next. The love and mission of God never change – what it looks like to be faithful to the love and mission of God changes all the time.

I don’t know how to take the Bible seriously – to see Abram and Sarai leave everything they knew, Rahab betray her people, Joseph forgive his brothers, Moses go to Egypt, the law on Sinai redefine God’s people, kingship established, the temple built and rebuilt, Jonah swallowed by a fish, exile predicted and then experienced, Paul struck blind, James and John leave everything, the women flee the tomb, pentecost give birth to the church, galatians redefine tradition, Peter encounter Cornelius, Jesus lift up Naaman, eat with Zacchaeus, heal and glean on the Sabbath, reject violence, repeat the phrase “but I say unto you,” lift up a samaritan, and finally go to the cross to conquer death itself (and on and on and on) – and to then expect that the solution to the problems of the church and world is to go back to the simple and straightforward way things used to be. In other words, I don’t know how taking the Bible seriously could ever entail embracing a handful of arguments, truisms, or rules while rejecting almost every theme, assumption, event, and trajectory that the Bible itself contains.

My prayer for today, for the Lenten season ahead, and for whatever uncertain future awaits is that no matter what changes take place in the church or the world beyond, I will never let my comfort be more important than the call to faithfully follow a God who is always making new ways in the wilderness. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t like that there is so little certainty. But I know that my calling is not to control the future – my call is to trust in the one who will be faithful to the very end.

Sin and Sexuality

Perhaps the least discussed but most incoherent aspect of the United Methodist Church’s divide over human sexuality is the fact that we don’t have a robust and common definition of sin. The statement at the center of our brokenness – “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – surely rests on the conviction that sexual acts with someone of the same gender are sinful in some intrinsic way, but very little is ever said about what sin is such that certain actions could be considered sin or not. 

There are, to be sure, some traditional notions of sin that are presumed to be operative. Sin is something like “missing the mark,” “breaking fellowship with others,” “causing harm,” “disobedience to God,” “outside of God’s design,” or a variety of other sometimes nuanced and varied ways of talking about sin from Christian history and the Bible. What they share is at least a generic notion that something about a given action is wrong, unfaithful, divisive, broken, problematic, or otherwise bad. 

As a theoretical exercise, there is obvious value in attempting to determine if an action or category of action can be appropriately labeled “sin” or not. Something as clear and near universal as “thou shalt not steal” points away from the harm we might do others by taking what isn’t ours; it points toward our need to find sufficiency in the gifts of God; and it points toward the necessity of trust in community. 

As anyone who has ever taken a course in ethics knows, the moment we start to evaluate actual, specific, real world actions, things get far more complicated. Perhaps the “sin” was stealing a loaf of bread. But what if stealing was the only way a parent could imagine feeding their child? Surely allowing a child to starve would have been just as sinful as taking bread. And what if the desperate parent was only in that position because the bread maker had cheated the parent out of the paycheck they’d been anticipating to feed their child? And what if paying for the bread would be funding a business that runs on the exploitation of workers through labor trafficking?

Ethical debates can complicate a seemingly simple action almost infinitely. No complication makes theft an intrinsically good thing, but each nuance and circumstance challenges us to more closely consider what might be properly labeled sin and to consider whether any conceivable action could be sinless. In every case, an action’s sinfulness or lack thereof is determined to a significant extent by an arbitrary designation of the context we are willing to consider in evaluating that action. 

Lest this exercise seem too academic to be relevant, the same exact dynamic plays out in scripture – most clearly in Matthew 12. Jesus and the disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, which was an explicitly sinful action. When called on it, Jesus didn’t deny that work on the Sabbath was sinful nor that plucking grain counts as work. Instead, Jesus complicated the Pharisees portrait of what mattered in evaluating their actions by quoting scripture and pointing to the hunger of the disciples. Again, doing so does not make plucking grain on the Sabbath intrinsically good – but it certainly challenges us to consider the meaning and implications of labeling an action “sin.”

When human sexuality is debated in the UMC, whether or not homosexuality falls on the “sin” side of the line is often central to the conversation. Conservatives say yes. Liberals say no or ignore the question altogether. Rarely do we pay enough attention to what is meant by sin such that both sides could even be engaging with the same underlying questions. 

To meaningfully engage would require us to start with a prior conviction in Methodist thought – that we are uniquely insistent upon Grace as the foundation for all that follows. At the risk of oversimplifying, starting with Grace means at least starting with the conviction that we are first given the unearned love of God and everything about faith and a faithful life is a reflection of and response to the love and relationship God offers. 

1st John 4:10 begins, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” In the words of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

To start with the love and relationship God offers and embrace the assumption that any law or faithful Christian action is grounded in love of God and neighbor is to necessarily define sin in relation to that love and relationship. In other words, sin is necessarily a secondary concept that only takes on life and meaning in so far as it names an action that falls short of, breaks, harms, or otherwise distorts the love and grace of God. The distortion sin may cause is never a generic flaw; it is specifically a distortion of God’s relationship with us.

When we instead act as though there is a “sin” box and a “not sin” box into which any action must be placed, we treat sin as though the concept has inherent meaning. We might go about labeling theoretical actions as sin or not. And then, as above, start complicating our analysis by bringing in all sorts of considerations that render an action more or less palatable. Perhaps we arrive at some sort of score card for complicated cases: +2 for feeding your child, -1 for stealing bread, -(-1) for having been harmed by the baker first. As long as it’s not a negative score we might at least give it a pass. Or if we want to be hard liners we might say any negative points involved at any point means it’s a sin and a sin is a sin no matter how big or small. 

Such analysis fails to account for at least two problems.

First, every action can be found to be sinful on some level if we simply define the context differently. Buying cheap vegetables in the US from the wrong store might facilitate child labor exploitation in Central America. Staying at the wrong hotel might make you complicit in labor trafficking. Whether or not it is fair to blame anyone for third or fourth order consequences is irrelevant to the fact that a choice of what counts must be made and that choice is significantly determinative of the resulting “score.” 

Second, failing to make explicit the disconnect between a given action and the love and relationship of God treats sin as a primary concept. Instead of scoring/losing points for action, intent, result, utility, and whatever other aspect of a given situation we deem relevant at whatever level of analysis we choose, sin should be measured relative to the components of Godly love and relationship – such as consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, truthfulness, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect. 

The extent to which any action breaks relationship by subverting (or simply failing to build up) these relational components is the extent to which that action may be appropriately viewed as sinful. To be sure, such analysis guarantees that every action will fall short in at least some way and the fact that there is no way to require the level at which analysis of a given action must take place ensures that there will be no objectively “correct” way to “score” anything. In other words, God is God, we are not. The best we can do is strive to relate to one another with the love and relationship presumed in 1st John 4:10.

To the extent that sin is falling short of the love and relationship of God rather than some objectively defined list of particular actions, we must be extremely wary of holding fast to theoretical definitions of actions traditionally understood to be sinful unless we can articulate the particular ways in which that action inherently and even now falls short. Sexuality presents us with a fairly unique case. (Considering whether or not there is a conversation worth having about the possibility of Godly sex outside of marriage may be a conversation worth having, but it is a question outside the scope of what follows. I am here taking for granted that sex and sexuality are only appropriately expressed and acted upon within marriage.)

A traditional understanding of sex as appropriate only in the context of monogamous marriage between a man and woman is surely informed partly by the positive concepts of relationship building above. For instance, the role monogamy can play in building trust is obvious even if one doesn’t believe monogamy is necessary for trust and even though it certainly isn’t sufficient. Conversely, lying to a spouse will undoubtedly harm trust in many, though perhaps not all, cases. 

Marriage, then, is a particular, covenantal expression of the love God is. Our hope is certainly to be as if not more intimate, vulnerable, committed, accountable, sacrificial, etc in marriage than any other relationship. No human relationship can perfectly embody the love of God. But marriage is at least the commitment through which what is different is not allowed to take precedence over what binds those two people together. As in the body of Christ, our unity in diversity makes us greater together because we then have eyes for sight, ears to hear, and a nose to smell; so in marriage, our unity in difference makes us greater than the sum of our parts.

On these terms, the strongest case I can discern against marriage between two persons of the same gender is that a stronger marriage bond is one that overcomes a greater amount of difference. Because gender would be definitionally the same, that marriage could not overcome as much difference as a heterosexual marriage. That claim, however, is remarkably tenuous given that there is no functional, hierarchical, or complementarian difference believed to exist between male and female in the UMC. No definition or difference of gender is ever offered or argued other than the simple statement that God created us male and female. 

How could a difference without distinction be the sufficient cause to prohibit same gender persons from entering a marriage covenant? How, especially, could the lack of one specific difference be sufficient to prohibit marriage given the pervasive assumption and reality that we already view marriage as a union between two people who are more alike than not? And if nothing else, how could this specific lack of difference be sufficient to render same gender marriage impossible, while no other difference (or lack thereof) is ever even relevant to any argument about any marriage? The only exception might be the encouragement for Christians to marry other Christians so as not to be “unequally yoked,” but here again it is our expectation that married people be more alike, not less, that drives the argument.

What, then, would be the constructive case against same gender marriage or sexuality? In other words, what constructive embodiment of the love and relationship God has for us is impossible within a monogamous, covenantally committed same gender couple? If there is something, I have no idea what it would be. If not, I can’t see any way to view same gender marriage as sinful that does not finally rest on an arbitrary choice or score card to determine which traditional or scriptural prohibitions and ethical exhortations to hold onto (perhaps don’t murder or steal) and which must be open to change or reinterpretation over time (such as divorce or women in leadership).

Given how often and how radically the Bible, Jesus included, pushes us to reimagine tradition in light of the particular shape of the love of God and never the other way around (in short – the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath), “tradition says” is hardly a sufficient battle cry for labeling a specific action to be sinful in all times and places. I cannot help but place the burden of proof on those who would wish to maintain a traditional definition of marriage to offer any hint as to where same gender marriage or sexuality falls substantively shorter from God’s love and relationship than the marriage and sex between husband and wife. And I cannot help but see a faulty understanding of sin playing the pivotal role in justifying the status quo.

Theology as Relationship – Take 3

There’s a thread in my previous writing that is hard to adequately name in words. That thread is present in at least the variety of posts below. I’ll offer a link and brief comment on how that thread presents itself in each post.

  • Scripture and dishwashers – consistent fights in a relationship are about intimacy and trust even if they present themselves in the same concrete ways, like how to load a dishwasher. Likewise, words in scripture are about relationship with God no matter what arguments or commands are made.
  • Is it a sin is like is it offensive – what people find offensive is almost entirely subjective. What matters in a relationship is not what an outsider sees but whether those inside are hurt. Likewise, sin is that which harms, not that which looks like something on a prior list.
  • Fundamentalism is like hanger – Christian advice, no matter if it’s technically true, does no good when it is not offered in a way or at a time it can be received or used.
  • Racism rules and rethinking theology – with a complex problem, we often want simple rules. Rules might help but are never sufficient for relationships in the same way doctrines and arguments may be needed in but aren’t synonymous to a relationship with God.
  • Toward a constructive engagement with sin and righteousness – instead of avoiding a list of things we shouldn’t do, righteousness is about building on the aspiration toward loving as God loved us.
  • Sin and trust – trust is built on emotional intimacy, not on doing enough to be worthy of trust. Likewise, sin is secondary because it can only ever be that which breaks intimacy with God or others.
  • Law is like parenting – we can no more rely on a finite set of rules for all people for all time than we can parent a toddler the same as a teenager.
  • Prayer like marriage – getting married doesn’t make a relationship last, just like saying the right words in prayer doesn’t make us trust in God
  • John 3:14 Christianity – the core of faith is not knowing a fact but looking into the heart of what terrifies us most and trusting God rather than try to control the outcome.
  • Intercessory Pony – when a kid asks a parent for something huge, whether or not the request is fulfilled is the least important part of the interaction. Prayer functions the same way.
  • First loved, then love – the entirety of Christian faith and life is a response to and reflection of the way God first loved us.
  • Feeling vs Fixing – God’s clear choice almost every time is to feel with us more than fix it first. 
  • 4 Stories – what we see someone do and how we interpret their actions depends at least as much on our perspective and past as on anything they could actually do.

The common thread of these posts is the way in which relationship dynamics constitute the raw materials for any claims to truth in words or arguments. Words can express a reality already present; words can facilitate the creation of a world; but words do not create anything apart from the lives and relationships of the people speaking and hearing those words. 

To the extent that theology is a specific discipline born in the articulation of words that point to or express truth about God, those words are an essential rather than accidental aspect of theology. To the extent that theology is relationship, words can only ever mean what they mean in the context of a particular set of relationships or communities; words can only ever point to what they point or do what they do in and from a particular point in space and time; words can only ever express truth within the story in which they are told. 

It is the relationship in which words are formed that give life and meaning to those words. The extent to which words can be true is the extent to which they present and convey reality within and around that relationship. Theology, to the extent that it represents an endeavor capable of truth, is inseparable from relationship with the speaker and object of its words. 

In short, theology is relationship.

(This post continues a series of occasional posts trying to zero in on what I believe to be the most significant thing I think I think. This is probably the most concrete and practical way of phrasing what it means to say that theology is relationship. The other two posts can be found here and here.)

A Modest Proposal to Fix the US

The following is a modest proposal to fix many of the most insidious problems with the US by envisioning the future of our capitalist economy reshaped by one simple conviction – our people are our economy’s primary and only unique asset.

Core Values:

1) Americans First

2) Unburdening Business

3) Investing in our Children’s Future

4) Liberty, Responsibility, and Freedom

Core Policies: 

  • Eliminate:
    1. federal minimum wage and social security. 
    2. income tax and any other federal tax on individual income.
    3. private health insurance and any requirements that businesses offer such benefits. 
  • Invest: 
    1. in every US citizen living within the borders of the US with a monthly check from the federal government in an amount representing ½ of a livable minimum wage per adult and ¼ of that amount per dependent. Current focus on $15/hr as a livable minimum wage would imply monthly checks of $1200 per adult and $600 per dependent. Alternatively, the amount could be indexed on an annually updated federal definition of poverty. That amount would currently be about $1000 per adult and $400 per dependent.
    2. in the health of US citizens by replacing fee for service health care with a subscription model of health care that packages preventive, wellness, regular, mental, surgical, prescription, labwork, emergency, and other health care costs. That subscription cost would be paid on behalf of every citizen by the federal government directly to a hospital or network of physicians who would be responsible for covering or contracting out for the full cost of any necessary medical treatments, visits, or procedures; subsidizing any recommended treatments, visits, or procedures; and providing options for self funded elective care at the discretion of the patient.
  • Protect:
    1. the liberty and freedom of every citizen to work and contribute their full potential to the economy by ensuring a) equitable access to K-12 education and associated resources (such school funding would be decoupled from location to the maximum extent allowable under state laws and public education funds would be restricted to publicly accessible school systems); and b) affordable access to technical or undergraduate college degree/certificate programs (individual out of pocket expenses per degree/certificate capped at an amount equivalent to no more than one year of the federal poverty income level for all public universities, with no interest federal loan options available for all who qualify for admission)
    2. American job opportunities by setting a high minimum wage for non citizen workers (anyone engaged in work on US soil that is not a US citizen) equal to or greater than the livable wage equivalent above (or alternatively twice the hourly wage equivalent of the annual poverty definition). 
    3. The health and potential of non citizens by ensuring the availability of subscription health care as described above at all hospital systems or provider networks that offer federally funded subscription care, with cost capped at no more than the per person average cost paid by the federal government on behalf of US citizens. 
  • Tax:
    1. businesses on the dispersal of wages or other money and assets from the business to any US citizen or another worker living on US soil at a progressive annual rate (the more an individual receives each year through wages, stock options, and the like, the higher the rate at which the business is taxed on that transfer of wealth) that remains at 0% at least until the second half of an annual livable minimum wage is provided for that individual (or alternatively, twice the poverty wage).
    2. individuals on the profits made through the sale of stocks or similar business assets (including bonds, loan forgiveness, ownership share, etc) at an equal progressive rate to that in a).
    3. individuals on the transfer of their wealth to another individual, again at a progressive rate equal to that in a).
    4. non citizens’ income at a progressive rate equal to that charged to a business in a). (To maximize tax revenue, the system for documenting immigration status and work potential (work visa, green card, etc.) must be revamped through higher caps on immigration and a radical shift in emphasis from deportation to documentation for anyone without a criminal record.)

Lessons from a toddler parent

Kids don’t listen to you,
they become you.
Kids don’t appreciate what you do,
they do what you do.

The best way to pass on anxiety is to hide it from myself
and let anxiety define my parenting.
The best way to pass on joy is to find it for myself
and let joy sustain our relationship.

The more I feel compelled to sacrifice for my child,
the more necessary my child will view sacrifice for theirs.
The more I begin to trust I am enough,
the more able my child will be to trust in their worth.

To love from a place of emptiness
is to instill expectations of scarcity.
To love from a place of fullness
is to empower a life of abundance.

The more I mask and shame my brokenness,
the more I will pass it on.
The more I admit and correct my mistakes,
the more they will end with me.

A Covid Chronicle

I probably don’t have Covid-19.

Since the Saharan dust blew in, I have been having some fairly minor congestion and a cough that comes and goes. It gets worse overnight, as it always does when my allergies flare up and congestion builds. I’m still taking my allergy medications everyday and the symptoms are very minor, other than a coughing fit every once in a while. I didn’t and still don’t feel much different than I almost always do when my allergies get the best of me for a few days. 

I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

I should add that I am a pastor in a local congregation. When the pandemic first hit, we immediately went to online only worship for about 3 months. We have continued that option, but have had 3 weeks of in person worship in addition to the online offering. We have pretty strict measures in place and only about 30% of our usual attendees have been present. That allows us to be socially distant. All in all, I think we have done a really good job of upholding the value of safety and doing things remotely as much as possible. 

Personally, we’ve had a few family members over for brief visits and I go to the grocery store or drive-thru line of a restaurant on occasion. I go to work, but at most two other people are in the building at the same time with me and we’re almost never in the same room. I wear my mask when going out anywhere I might be exposed to people, including in worship (other than the moments I’m actually speaking), and I haven’t had a handshake or a hug with a non family member in months. 

I therefore (probably) don’t have Covid-19. 

I still had a moment Sunday morning where I really started to wonder if I should go to worship at all. If I was not responsible for leading the service, I would have stayed home. But I was not feeling all that bad, had not had any signs of fever, I had no reason to think I had been exposed to anyone with the virus, and we’ve barely been anywhere since March. It was just a slight tickle in my throat and a tiny bit of drainage that led to the occasional cough. Plus, I can easily avoid getting anywhere near people and just keep to myself while everyone gets ready and situated. I went in and did mostly fine until halfway through the sermon. As usually happens when my allergies get the best of me, talking for long periods didn’t go well. My throat got dry and when that happens, I often break out into coughing fits. Thankfully, I didn’t completely lose control and thankfully no one was within 10-15 feet of me. But I did have to cough (into my elbow) a handful of times as I nursed my water glass and a cough drop for the remainder of the sermon.

I don’t really know what to do with that experience except to say that it is certainly making me rethink the calculus of when to call in sick and what measures to have in place in case I have to do so. I’ve been clear with my church members that we will make a solid online experience available until something significant changes. I don’t want them to feel any pressure to come in person unless they feel safe and desire the in person interaction that so many of us are missing. I’ve also offered a few links to health resources so that they can stay informed and up to date as things change. We have a predominantly older congregation, which means that a lot of folks are taking me up on that offer of staying home and staying isolated as much as possible. All that is to say, anyone who comes is doing so knowing as much as anyone about the risks and realities of what they’re getting into and with options to do otherwise if they feel at all uncomfortable. Even still, a couple of folks told me after Sunday that they couldn’t help but notice and wonder every time I coughed. The level of strangeness we feel anytime we see someone cough is a very hard to measure, yet very significant source of the discomfort and uneasiness brought about by this pandemic.

But I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

Then Monday came around. It started out like any other day – I worked alone at the office for most of the day before picking up my son from daycare on the way home. Just before dinner we got an email from the daycare. The parent of a child in our son’s class tested positive for Covid-19. That child was immediately removed from the classroom that afternoon and the rooms underwent a thorough disinfecting that night. The school already had strict protocols such that parents aren’t allowed into the building at all and there is pretty much no way the parent could have infected anyone else at the school. The parent was asymptomatic at the time, as was the child. It was only by connection with another person’s positive test that the parent even decided to get tested. We don’t know if the child had the virus, but they won’t come back before a quarantine period and being cleared by a pediatrician. 

I’m grateful for all the work the school has done to keep us apprised and ensure a safe environment. They have moved mountains to adhere to every safety protocol that has been offered, and I have no doubt they’ve done everything anyone would know to do. I’m still baffled at how much the underlying philosophy of policy and response from the national level on down seems to be to push as many decisions as possible to the lowest possible level. None of us have dealt with anything like this before and none of us has as much public health information or power to make change as the higher levels of government. Only one level of our distributed system of government has the power and resources to effectively enough support those people and businesses that have to take extreme measures either to stay open or to close for the sake of public health. That level of government doesn’t seem interested in carrying the weight of any of the most impactful, gut wrenching, and long lasting choices that are being made every day. Those decisions seem to get pushed down to the lowest possible level as often as possible.

This is probably a rant for another time where I can devote more space to it, but I feel like everyday, everyone is having to make a million decisions that we’ve never thought about before. I wouldn’t advocate for a single federal law or dictum about every conceivable choice or policy, but I remain shocked that there is not a more cohesive strategy, message, guidebook, metric, checklist, or anything else to help us work through this pandemic together, rather than as 330 million individuals making 50 choices a day about topics we’re not trained to deal with that affect our lives at levels as deep as how to make a living or how to be in relationship with friends and family. Some cohesive, clear, consistent, high level guidance would be really helpful right about now. But I digress.

I still probably don’t have Covid-19. 

Last night I started looking into testing, just to be on the safe side. I started by looking into my insurance to see if they had recommendations or requirements for where to go. I have not seen any clear pricing information, except that some places take insurance, some places are free, some places charge something, and at least at the beginning some tests were quite expensive. I couldn’t find anything on the insurance website, and by the time I tried to call their business office, it was closed. 

My insurance has a deal with a nearby hospital, which is almost always the cheapest way to go for our healthcare needs. I decided to reach out to the hospital. I found a number to call from the Covid-19 page for the hospital system, which appeared very clearly to be the only number anyone should call for scheduling a Covid test with any hospital in the system. The appointment line attendant informed me that I needed to get a doctor’s referral in order to schedule a test. Fair enough.

 The hospital system has a virtual urgent care that offers a brief screening and can give the order for the test. I set up the appointment and within an hour or so had the recommendation that I go ahead and get tested. Between my (mild) symptoms and my son’s potential exposure, it was best to be safe and do so. I called back to see about scheduling, but the scheduling office was closed for the night.

 The next morning, I called shortly after the scheduling office opened to see about getting the test. They said they needed to have a doctor’s order, so I told them I had received one from a doctor last night through that same hospital’s urgent care system. She was very nice but ultimately didn’t have the order in the system and told me I could not send it in to them directly. They had to receive the order from the referring doctor’s office.

 I called the helpline of the urgent care arm of that hospital and they asked me where I wanted the order sent. I told them the hospital and location name and I had to look up the phone number. The person asked if I knew an email address because that was the most common way they connected with these hospitals. I did not have an email address. But I told him I was surprised that they didn’t have direct contact information since they were theoretically connected to the hospital with which I wanted to schedule the test (best I can tell now, the virtual urgent care is technically contracted out through a different provider somewhere on the back end). I found other random contact information that seemed to be the most helpful I could find online and offered that to him as well.

 After an hour or two, I called the hospital scheduling office back to see if they received any orders. They had not. It was confirmed once again that I cannot send any order that I received, they had to receive it directly from the doctor. So I asked exactly where they should send it. I was told that the hospital order receiving department has one fax line and that fax number is the only one that can receive orders for covid-19 testing. She gave me the number and we hung up.

 I called the urgent care helpline again, and gave them the updated information with the fax number. I was told I should check back with the hospital in an hour and hopefully they would have the order sent over by then.

 An hour and a half later, I called the scheduling office at the hospital again. They had still not received my order. This time I was told that a supervisor had instructed the whole team to forward patient information for anyone who had done the virtual urgent care system because they were having issues getting orders. She could not tell me anything further or when to check in again.

Two hours later, I called back. This time I was told that I had reached the central scheduling line for the Houston area. I needed to call the Sugarland specific number in order to schedule for that hospital location. So on my 5th call to the hospital scheduling office, I finally found out the number I apparently needed to call from the beginning. So I called that new number.

Surprisingly, this was the first time I was put on hold for any significant period of time. After being on hold for 25 minutes, I found out that the next available testing date at the hospital would be 13 days away. A 13 day wait just to get the test done… I was told if I wanted to try other locations within the same hospital system, I could do so, but would have to call each location individually and check their schedule. Luckily, I was at least able to confirm that the hospital had received the Dr’s order for me to get the test. Now, it was simply a matter of getting on the schedule. 

I tried calling another location. No tests available for 4 days. Better but not ideal. The second location gave me a third location’s scheduling phone number to try. That number simply went straight to voicemail. 

I decided to try and search for anything in my county. Wouldn’t you know it, the county has free testing available to all county residents. They have a screening questionnaire, but it appears anyone who wants/needs to do so can get tested for free. I submitted my information and kicked myself for not doing the obvious extra searches last night. Free and much closer. I felt like an idiot.

Then I realized on the confirmation screen from the county that I should expect a call as soon as possible, hopefully within 2-3 business days. If I miss that call, I need to resubmit the form data again in order to receive another call back to (hopefully) get on the schedule for who knows when. This was not the miracle solution that I thought I had found.

On a hunch, I tried the main phone number for that third location within the original hospital system. The main number led me to an operator who led me to the covid test scheduling line. I spoke with someone who apologized that there weren’t any tests available today. Tomorrow, however, was entirely open. So I scheduled a test first thing tomorrow morning and will hopefully know the results by…. soon????

It only took 3 intense web searches, 11ish phone calls, and (surprisingly only) one long hold time of 25 minutes, and I finally have a way to get tested soon (for free??? I guess we’ll find out someday).

I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

But I feel a lot worse about things getting better anytime soon than I did even two days ago. I know there are incredible logistical challenges to all of this and everyone is doing their best at the local and provider level. And I know everyone’s experience will be different based on where they live and what provider they are using. There are some places where it sounds like you can just drive through anytime and get a free test without an appointment or a wait at all. My experience thus far is not the experience of everyone, but that’s kind of my point.

If I were in charge of the country 4 months ago, I can’t imagine having worked toward anything other than a system in which everyone in the country can be tested free of charge under any circumstances, no questions asked. Maybe the test would be scheduled a day or two out and results probably would take a day or two no matter what, but it can’t be that hard to set up one central phone number (think 911) that anyone anywhere in the country could call and immediately be given a time and location at which to get a free test.

Simplifying testing wouldn’t solve everything, but if someone with as much time and know-how as me is having this much trouble just getting tested, then I can’t imagine how hard it is for people with multiple jobs; or those who can’t take half a day off to play phone tag; or people who can’t afford the risk of a surprise $100 doctor bill; or people with kids they can’t leave in order to actually go; or people who need a test so they can feel good about visiting family for the first time in months; or people who fear being fired if they play it safe and don’t go to work in the 5-10 day waiting period for test results; or any of the people in a thousand more difficult circumstances that we are.

This whole experience deeply reinforces how necessary a clear and consistent strategy is so that millions of people aren’t having to make thousands of decisions on very limited information regarding situations that may radically affect their livelihood, families, communities, and who knows what else. At the very, very least, we should all be able to get tested for the virus within a few days and without any complicated research. Without even that incredibly basic bit of knowledge, every other decision we make weighs a whole lot more than it has to and may affect our lives and loved ones more than we would ever want to consider. Unfortunately, it feels each day like we’ll have to think a lot harder about a lot more decisions for a long time. I don’t feel like I ever really know if I’m making the right decisions for myself, my family, my church, or my community. More than anything else, that makes me tired. 

And I still probably don’t have Covid-19. I suppose I’ll find out in a few days.

—————————–

*Quick update on the morning of the test

The experience to get a test scheduled was terrible. The actual testing process was about as perfectly executed as I can imagine. I showed up at my appointment time and saw signs all pointing me to an entrance specifically designated for Covid-19 testing. Someone opened the door, asked if I had an appointment for my test, and directed me to a seat. A woman asked my name, which got me checked in. I was the only person in a large hallway area and there were 5 or so seats available for those who came to be tested (all well over 6ft apart). 

A technician came out quickly and had me come back to a room that clearly had all sorts of extra equipment and air circulators to keep everyone safe. I went to the area I was told and the technician asked me a couple of quick questions. There was a contraption in the room that looked sort of like a big plastic box with two arm holes that led to something like full arm gloves. I assume that’s used for any patients who are highly symptomatic or probably infected. 

She then did the nasal swab to the back of the nose that you’ve probably heard about. It was a very weird feeling. Sort of like my brain was tickled, but more like when I really need to sneeze, but the feeling is deep down in my nostrils and won’t come out. Almost like the moment when I inhale something like pepper and desperately want to sneeze, but can’t quite do it for 5-10 seconds. It wasn’t exactly painful, but certainly not painless. To be clear, it was absolutely worth it and way less painful than the weight of constantly wondering whether I might be putting others in danger by leaving the house for any reason. 

All told, I was driving away 10 minutes after I parked. I should have results available through the online patient portal within 24hrs. And now we wait. 

—————–

Update 2

As promised, the results came back within 24hrs. I officially don’t have Covid-19!


Update 3

8 days later, I got the call back about scheduling a test with the county.

Racism, Rules, and Rethinking Theology

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between 1) certain unspoken and sometimes unacknowledged theological priorities of modern American Christianity and 2) the desire I’ve heard from some (mostly white) people for Black Lives Matter organizers to offer a clear set of rules for them to follow so as not to be racist. 

Listening to a podcast conversation about anti-racism work, it was suggested that white people don’t want to know the rules about what counts as racist so that they can do the work to end racism. White people instead want to know the rules so that we can protect ourselves from being accused of doing something wrong. As long as we have a set of rules that we can point to and say “what I did isn’t on that list,” then no one can tell us that we are at fault if our actions lead to problematic outcomes despite having played within the rules.

Setting aside for a moment whether this is an accurate assessment of racism and the desire for rules, the general notion that “people want to know the rules we can’t break far more than we want to make progress toward a desired outcome” is an idea that intersects with a much deeper problem I have with a great deal of Christian thought and practice. 

We very rarely work in the church toward a constructive view of the kind of life we are hoping to make possible with our theology and practice. One of the single most significant failures of at least the mainline and evangelical branches of the American church is the radical overemphasis on defining the list of rules we cannot break rather than seeking to define and create the kind of life toward which God is guiding us. Our theology of heaven and hell has created the world in which we are so overly concerned about not doing the wrong thing and about being absolved of those moments when we do the wrong thing anyway, that we cannot help but run everything through the lens of personal responsibility and guilt. If all that matters is a ticket into heaven and avoiding hell for me, no other lens really matters. 

I’d argue that personal responsibility and guilt are not irrelevant topics for Christian faith and practice, but they only take on meaning or significance within the systems and assumptions of the world as it actually is. Starting with personal responsibility and guilt is like asking if it’s wrong to turn left. The answer depends at least on where I am and where I’m trying to go. We’d be much better served trying to assess if we’ve arrived at our actual destination than critiquing every potentially wrong turn along the way. Doing so would anchor thought and action in a constructive consideration of the kind of life and relationships we’re actually called to seek after, rather than complete focus on the rules of the road. 

Reliance on rules further creates the fiction that I can be a neutral observer – not making things worse by breaking the rules, but also not going above and beyond to advocate for positive change. In reality, we are always making imperfect decisions about which way to go based on imperfect information about the world and an imperfect representation of our own situation and motivation. If we don’t even know where we’re trying to go, we’re very unlikely to arrive simply by obeying traffic laws. 

And of course, as much as we might want an exhaustive list of rules to ensure we don’t do anything wrong, any list of rules is just as likely to instill anxiety as it is to meaningfully guide us forward. 

Being more concerned about proving that I didn’t break a rule than I am about creating a better world is a perfectly logical outcome of a Christian faith more concerned about avoiding hell than about all God’s children experiencing and passing on the love of God. If the church hopes to have a role in dismantling problematic systems and generations long struggles, we have to stop worrying more about a mostly arbitrary list of dos and don’ts and begin to rediscover the heart of a faith that comes alive through the embrace of imperfection embodied in vulnerable relationship.

It rings deeply true to me that, within the above logic of a mainline or evangelical American Christian faith, most of our focus on naming rules is more easily understood as the product of a desire to not feel guilty rather than a desire to actually make the world a better place. If the goal is to do nothing that makes us feel guilty, then pretending everything is already OK is a far shorter path than publicly exposing our imperfections on the long path toward actual healing. However, perhaps the core assumption of the gospel message is that, before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Attempting to live into the fullness of who we already are allows us to operate from a far different starting point than assuming we’re just one misstep away from losing salvation. Without that assumption at the core, the guilt of knowing I did something wrong too quickly devolves into the shame of feeling like I am something wrong. 

There is no finite set of rules to follow such that we can say we have done enough to be on the good side of some arbitrary line of salvation. In everything, we are either working to receive and overflow the grace of God that does change everything; or we are sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly leaning on a form of works based righteousness through which we will continue to fall short of perfection and reinforce the scars we bear and the wounds we cause. 

Which brings us back to the original comment on racism and rules. The notion that there are a finite set of rules to follow so as not to be racist is just as problematic as assuming the church could ever define a list of sins so as to not be a sinner. The assumption that creating a list of rules is even a possible, much less helpful, goal in the elimination of racism is certainly, at least in part, influenced by the American Christian manner of and focus on defining sin.

Namely, there is no finite set of rules to follow such that we can say we are ‘not racist’ enough to be on the good side of some arbitrary line. In everything, we are either working to understand and undermine racism such that powerful and entrenched systems do change for the better; or we are sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly leaning on a history of racist policy and choice through which we will continue to fall short of equality and reinforce racial disparities in opportunity and outcome. 

I don’t have any idea what every step will be toward creating a more healthy church and/or society, but I am confident that one of the first steps is giving up the assumption that progress is made by first defining the exhaustive list of rules for what not to do.

#BLM

I have struggled to find the right words to say in support of all those who are hurting and grieving and angry. I keep coming back to a few things I’ve said before

-People behave the way they feel
-Healing never happens in silence
-Voicing pain is never as bad as causing that pain
-Effect is at least as significant as intention
-Denying feelings harms people
-If I tell you “I’m not hurting you” and your response is “yes, you are,” only one of us is correct (and it’s not me)

To that list I’ll add:

– I will never conflate a broken nose with the bruised hand that broke the nose.
-It’s never constructive or helpful to tell someone how they should grieve.

If we don’t understand the source of all the hurt and anger that has sparked protests, rebellions, and demonstrations, we have to take the time to really listen before we judge the few who go too far. If we think violent force is the right or only way to put down this expression of pain and grief, we are failing to hear and escalating harm. If we think dominance is the answer to cries of pain, we are reinforcing dynamics of abuse. If we think it’s ok to rename pain as manipulation, grief as performance, or trauma as typical politics, then we will never find healing. If we expect a show of force to calm a nation’s anger over excessive force, we have completely lost our way.

As a Christian and pastor, I follow a God who would rather give up his own life than commit a single act of violence (Matthew 26:52); a God whose power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); a God whose greatest act was born in humility (Phil 2:8) and requires us to confront our deepest failures rather than pretend we have it right already (John 3:14). These are the themes and lenses that, above any other, inform my perception of how I am called to live, to lead, and to respond in moments such as this.

I mourn the death of George Floyd and the countless other black men and women who have been killed. I mourn the stark reminder of how far we have to go before we can even create the space for grief and empathy, much less heal the wounds and systems that have given birth to this moment.

I try to imagine what it would be like to tell my dad that I don’t think my life matters to him. What would it do to me if he responded by telling me to shut up, of course all lives matter? I try to imagine what it would do to my son if I said the same to him.

We have a long way to go to create a truly fair and just world. This is a moment when the very least we can do is clearly state without equivocation that the lives of our black brothers and sisters matter. There is so much more that can and ought to be said and done. But if we cannot start by uttering three simple words, everything else we say or do will be vanity, a chasing after the wind.

Black Lives Matter.

It’s the Pain

A guest post from my amazing wife, a marriage and family therapist who happens to deal with chronic pain:

Chronic pain is a funny thing. I’ve had it for years, but not many people besides my husband know about it. In the last 6-9 months I’ve finally been working with doctors on it. That seems silly since I’ve had the pain for so long. But it’s hard to know what pain is “normal” or what pain other people do or do not have. So I guess I just went about my business trying to manage my pain on my own. My back pain started when I was sixteen, so I’ve always just assumed I’ve had a “bad back.” I’ve been to the doctor and then physical therapy when the pain has become unbearable. I’ve had three bulging discs since 2012; one cervical in 2012 after being rear-ended and two lumbar in 2018 with no inciting injury. I’ll be getting imaging this week because the doctor thinks I have another bulging cervical disc. It feels different from last time so who knows. My first rheumatologist diagnosed fibromyalgia because that also explained my ongoing intestinal issues. A second rheumatologist (after we moved) said possibly that and rheumatoid arthritis because my inflammation levels are high. My hands don’t look inflamed but my rings feel tight and they hurt when they bend. I’ve cracked my knuckles since elementary school but man does it hurt now. You’d think the pain would make the habit easier to break, so far no luck there. My feet and ankles get super angry if I’m on them too long, and my shoe collection has seriously changed from cute and dainty to as fashionable as it can be while prioritizing comfort.

None of that is particularly useful information. Chronic pain has an awkward place in our world. People know it exists but they expect it to be visible. They expect to see it or know about it. But they definitely don’t know how to actually respond to someone who has it. That’s a large part of why I don’t talk about it much. I hate the pity, which is perhaps my own pride issue. The suggestions get tiresome. Everyone knows someone who tried something that was a miracle cure. That holds true for migraines too, which I’ve also had since I was sixteen. Some people take my speaking about my pain as complaining and wanting them to fix it. Obviously I know they can’t, and I’m definitely not trying to complain. Why though? Why is not complaining so ingrained in us? Constant complaining is tiresome and doesn’t change anything, but should we not be able to voice our struggles? We tell people to be open about their depression. Reach out because people will listen. People have good hearts but also don’t know how to listen to pain and suffering without labeling it complaining. So we’re stuck not wanting to complain or get advice or be pitied. The resulting silence is far less than helpful. When I tell no one about my pain, how do I explain my absence at an event I was looking forward to? Saying “I’m not feeling well” doesn’t seem to cover “my pain is so high that I’m considering going to the ER but don’t want to clog the system when all they’re going to do is give me pain medicine I hesitate to take because of my family’s history with addiction.”

And how can I possibly complain? Given what is going on in our world? Another black man was murdered because of our refusal to deal with systemic racism. I would take on all the pain if it could make a difference for someone else. Let one of those innocent humans live. What right do I have to complain about chronic pain when black people literally live in fear? Fear that I desperately want to comfort and take away. How can I help? What more can I do? What more am I physically capable of doing? I’ve told my clients countless times that we should not compare traumas or pains. There is no cosmic ranking system. But I can’t get past the fact that what the black community in this country has to deal with is far worse than my chronic pain.

To give voice to my pain or not, it’s a trap either way. Then there’s the trap of feeling like our worth is defined by our abilities and contributions. My doctor told me to rest my shoulder by not picking up my 28+lb toddler… so now every diaper change and bath, etc fall on my husband’s plate. My husband who already does the literal heavy lifting and any task that could piss off my back, which isn’t always easy to predict. My angel of a husband reminds me regularly that my worth is not based on physical contribution. We joked many times before we adopted that he would handle the poop and vomit, and I would handle our child’s emotional well-being (the hard part as my husband called it.) Even with such a thoughtful and loving partner, I still fall into the trap. The worry of how my son perceives it. The feeling when I see people in public (well, before quarantine anyway) look on shocked that my husband is doing far more “parenting” than I am.

Then there’s the uncertainty. Why is my pain worse today? Did I do something differently? Did I just sleep wrong? How do I relieve the pain? Stretching helps most of the time, kinda. Heat, ice, CBD hot/cold topical stuff, medicines, delicately changing positions countless times with temporary minimal relief. If there is relief, what caused it? How do I make it happen again?

And yet, there is so much more to my life. Laughter and smiles and joy. It’s easier to show that to the world. I’m not afraid to show emotional pain. We shared our infertility journey on facebook and with our churches. People should never feel isolated in their suffering. <– I should listen to my own advice right? Right. I KNOW that, but doing it is harder. People don’t suspect my pain so it’s awkward when they’re shocked. “But you smile so much.” “You’d never know it to look at you.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s not their fault they’re shocked. It’s my own for not sharing. So why? Why don’t I share? HOW do I share without being bombarded with pity or suggestions or judgement for complaining? Man I wish I knew. Everyone who knows wants to help, but no one can help. I don’t like making my loved ones feel helpless either.

How do I do my job with chronic pain? Whew, I wish I could tell you. Somehow I manage to set it aside for the hour I’m with my clients and put my focus completely on them. Besides that, I space my clients carefully so I’m not setting my body up for failure. My office is seriously comfortable too. Comfortable seating is always more important than fashionable seating.

Wouldn’t the pain be less if I weren’t so overweight? Probably. I’ve been overweight since I was eighteen or nineteen. How much do you think chronic pain helps with that problem? The percentage is below zero. Chronic pain + poly-cystic ovarian syndrome + intestinal issues + migraines = a very complicated weight loss equation. Yoga is the only exercise in my adult life that made me feel strong and that my body responded to. I’ve never changed shape doing cardio, but yoga helped my body. Can I do yoga currently? No because of my shoulder/neck/upper back issue that hopefully we’ll figure out soon. (Isn’t that hope adorable?) The doctor told me I can only add one minute to my workout per week assuming I’ve been able to exercise without resulting pain for a few days. He wanted me to start at 5 minutes on the elliptical. I’m now up to 9 minutes. It’s infuriating. On the high pain days I have to push myself to move at all. On my good days, I’m desperate to exercise longer, but if I do my body will punish me tremendously. Last week I oh-so-foolishly “sprinted” for my last thirty seconds on the elliptical. The next day was excruciating, and to be clear, we are not talking sore muscles. Sore muscles make me feel accomplished, proud of every step when I feel the soreness. This is not that.

And here we are in a pandemic when so many of our coping skills have been put out of our reach. So many of our self care strategies changed abruptly. I would be foolish to assume the stress of social distancing hasn’t made my pain worse. I miss my family and friends. I miss going to restaurants and wandering the grocery store aisles looking for inspiration. We find joy where we can, and we try to cut each other some slack because pretty much everyone is struggling.

So what is the point of all this? Maybe someone will understand a little more what it’s like to live with chronic pain. My dad joked today that my husband should have married a younger woman instead of an old lady like me. We laughed (I really did find it funny and not offensive). Then I hoped elderly people don’t have this much pain. Then I feared what my pain will be like when I’m elderly. Maybe you’ll remember that just because someone seems ok when doing their job or pushing through the pain it doesn’t mean they are. Maybe you’ll remember when someone shares their pain with you to show empathy and ask how you can be supportive. Sometimes I just need to be heard. Sometimes I need a distraction and/or laughter. Sometimes I need grace when I cancel last minute or when I stop answering my calls/texts. It’s not you. It’s me. It’s the pain.

Anyway, things like this are what keep me going on the hard days…