Putting a face on the reason masking is our Christian call

We had two altercations with people over masks last weekend.

First of all, let me say that I try very hard not to go out at high traffic times. But when one’s husband works full time and you have things you need to do together, sometimes there are only high traffic times.

I’ll just describe one of our interactions. I asked one man who had his gaiter hanging around his neck to please put on his mask. He responded by rolling his eyes. Let me tell you, it’s quite something, seeing a 60-something white man roll his eyes like a teenager. He muttered something about not living in a communist country, or something equally (pardon my bluntness) idiotic and totally at odds with both Christianity and reality.

It’s mind boggling, how wearing a mask to protect the health of others got twisted into a political wedge. A few months ago a fellow Catholic on Facebook posted that it really bothered her that the Church had “bought into” the narrative that brotherly love required us to mask and distance.

I was dumbfounded.

So I’m here today to put a face on “brotherly love.”

This is my daughter. She is charming. She loves to sing. She loves to dance. She loves babies and ice cream and pasta. Since she was a toddler, she has had an uncanny ability to enter a room and instantly zero in on the one person who most needs the love of God. She goes to them and loves them.

Wherever she goes, she brings joy and love. She brings God, in other words, without ever speaking a word about it.

She also has Down syndrome.

When she was six weeks old, she contracted RSV. She had floppy airways and a heart defect that caused her blood to spin instead of properly oxygenating. She spent more than a week on a ventilator. For children that age, 93% oxygen saturation is the threshold for hospitalization. Hers dipped to the 40s every time she had a coughing fit. The doctors told my husband to “prepare himself.”

At 6.5 months, she had heart surgery to repair her heart. They stopped her heart. Put her on a heart-lung bypass. And she was on a ventilator again.

We thought that would be the end of respiratory issues, but it wasn’t. At 2.25 years, she developed pneumonia and was in the ICU, on a ventilator, yet again.

Since then, she’s been very healthy. My rational mind tells me she’d probably be fine if she got COVID, but the fact is that her airways are naturally floppy, and now they’re scarred from multiple trips down ventilator lane.

My daughter puts a face on the reason for masking. We make this sacrifice in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Nobody likes masking. Nobody likes being forced to hold loved ones at a physical distance. Nobody likes any of this. But if that’s what it takes to protect the life and health of others, then that is the Christian call.

Right Here… Even Now

I am praying Advent this year with Cameron Bellm’s “Advent with St. Oscar Romero,” and the reality of my life is that my first day, I was looking at last year’s edition instead of this year’s. The takeaway of the day was:: if God was present in all the upheaval and injustice taking place in El Salvador in 1977, when Romero wrote the homily I was praying with, then that applies today, too. God is present. Even in this. The good, yes, but also the bad.

Given the reality of pandemic, persistent injustice, fake news, and the constant apocalyptic thinking that characterizes both sides of the political spectrum these days, this seems like a particularly beautiful thought for this Advent.

In Which I Begin To Understand Anger

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.

And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.

I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.

I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.

I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.

I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?

Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.

To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.

Where is Jesus in that world view?

But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.

And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.

I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.

The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.

I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.

If only…

This entire document is full of parental tough love!

I think we would all agree with the sentiments. The question is how we put them into practice. That’s where division lies. But to me, this document is a reminder that problems that affect us all–at a society level (whether that’s local, national, or global) can’t be left to individuals. We have to act as a society.

More #seethegood in virtual learning

I have four kids, and each of them is in a different school this year. (Long story.) Two of them are in seat (one because parochial school, one because special ed), the other two are all online so far.

Today is the first day I have to have one of my in-seat kids at home for learning, and since I’m groaning internally about it, I want to stop to acknowledge the great blessing that my two highest-maintenance kids have, in fact, been able to have relatively normal schooling all the way to October 21st. I have been on fire in my writing–laser focused and accomplishing a lot.

At the same time, some really beautiful things have come out of having two kids at home for school. I’ve gone running with my 6th grader a few times. Taken afternoon walks with him at other times. Eaten lunch with my high schooler, who, in an ordinary year, we’d barely see because he’d transition between school and marching band and be gone for ten hours and do homework the rest.

Also, I have a lot better picture of what my kids are doing at school this year. I’m puttering around the kitchen during middle school zooms and for that reason I know all the teachers by voice and name and I know that one teacher has a chirping smoke detector in her house, and I can hear the banter in the class. I can ask intelligent questions about the things the kids are studying, because I have some clue what they are.

It’s a give and take. There are plenty of things that feel constraining about this mode of education, and keeping spirits high… or, well, in the neutral range or better… requires constant vigilance. I feel much more guilty for going to take my hike/bike/sit/pray times when there are kids at home. But there are things to love about it, too.

Being Catholic in a Messy World

This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”

I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!

(Thanks to GIA Publications, my music publisher, for making this available.)

#seethegood in virtual learning

(Background image by Free-Photos, via Pixabay

My kids’ school district finally decided last night to go online. We knew it had to be coming, but the uncertainty has been punishing. It’s a tough thing, living with delay and uncertainty. And as long as it wasn’t certain, it was hard not to keep hoping. Hoping for a couple days’ normalcy a week.

2020’s been a punishing year. For all of us. For the most part, we’re not handling it well. I firmly believe the ugliness and rush to the extremes that we’re seeing has been exacerbated by stress. When you feel like you can’t handle one thing more, that one political nugget just sends you over the edge. Certainly it’s been happening to me. I’m at the point where I don’t trust my discernment of when to speak and when not to.

Contemplating an all-online school year, or at least a significant start to it (because the carrot is always dangling there: if the cases go down…) has so many really obvious negatives, it’s a real spiritual exercise to #seethegood. I’m going to have to give up so much. My kids are so sick of this house. Of each other. My soul feels suffocated from togetherness, from lack of time to go out in the expansiveness of the universe. I lost the spring for my weekly hikes and bikes, but I clung to the fall, and now the fall is gone too.

But there is this: going back to school was always going to increase the exposure exponentially. As long as we’re virtual, we can still rest secure that our kids’ friends, who are also virtual, are low-exposure, and that’s one good thing, because it means we can continue to carve out time for them to be together with less worry (not “no” worry, but “less”).

And all virtual means, paradoxically, more instruction. The hybrid schedule involved two days of in-seat and three days of independent study, which has been a struggle for my kids. In the virtual model the kids can all be “in class” together.

I suppose there’s also the potential for slightly more flexibility of family schedule, although I won’t know that for sure for a while.

And I suppose there’s another #seethegood so obvious, we’re not really clued into it right now: that all this suffering and upheaval is sensitizing us to the goodness of our ordinary lives. We have taken so many things for granted. If we approach this time exercising our thankfulness muscles, we could be different people when we come out the other side.

#seethegood – my breakfast cafe

It’s been beautifully cool this week, and I left the house on Tuesday before the kids were up to do my favorite bike ride, 12 miles roundtrip, with an hour and a half to sit quietly beside the Missouri River at the turnaround point. This point was my breakfast cafe.

There’s divine magic in the way a drop of dew clings to the tip of a piece of grass.

And there’s something that reveals the mystery of holiness in the play of light and shadow.

It’s been 157 days since this pandemic shut down schools. 157 days of intense parenting and constantly shifting reality and discernments. This is the time of year when I try to get out to be still with God in nature at least once a week. I’ve only managed it about four times. It’s been rough. But I’m so grateful for the times when it’s been possible.

Think well, speak well, do well.

Camillus is a new saint to me. I had to go look him up. He was a gambler with a bad leg and, it seems, a bad temper, because the hospital where he went for treatment kicked him out for being quarrelsome–all this according to Franciscan Media. But once he was converted, he managed to change, and in the end he took care of plague victims. How’s that for a turnaround?

But his “think well” and “speak well,” in particular, really stuck out at me today. We’re living in a time when we’re under stresses we recognize (hello, COVID), but whose impacts upon us we don’t necessarily recognize.

I really believe a lot of the toxicity of social media right now is a sign of people driven right to the edge of what they can handle and then having one more feather put on top of them. Us, I mean. It’s me, too.

We aren’t able to tolerate some things, and other things we might be able to think critically and rationally about, we swallow wholeheartedly, because we’re just that overwhelmed. We simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be everything we’re called to be and everything we’re capable of being. So we see things that are wrong, and we totally lose it. We go wild with outrage instead of stopping to think, “Wait… is this clickbait, designed to manipulate my emotions by using loaded words and ignoring context that really matters in understanding the situation?”

I’m talking of social media, but of course it’s in our homes too. I’m so over my kids telling each other to shut up. The count is now 138 days that we’ve spent with way more togetherness and way less structure than we’re built for. What little tolerance they ever had for each other has long been exhausted. It’s a constant battle, trying to call them back to their best selves. Too often the same criticism applies to me.

None of the externals are changing any time soon, but maybe just being aware of it can help us be less reactive, to stop and think instead of knee-jerk reacting to things we think are totally intolerable. Because as the old adage says, what we think and say becomes what we do and who we are.

Justice = Kindness

Background Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.

The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.

I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.

It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear.
They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”

Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”

But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”

In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.

People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.

None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.

For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.

But the way we say them matters.

Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?

What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?