COVID-19: In Search of A Balanced Perspective

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There are basically two kinds of posts filling up my Facebook feed right now. I’m sure it’s the same for you.

On the one hand, there are the conspiracy theories and memes filled with outrage over having to mask or social distance or really, having to endure limits and inconvenience of any kind. The we-should-just-open-up-and-get-herd-immunity posts. The the-numbers-are-always-changing-and-that’s-a-sign-that-it’s-all-baloney posts. Yesterday I saw a meme that bemoaned ruining our economy for a disease with a death rate of only .1%. (FYI: I went to the CDC and did the math, because I’ve been wrong before. The death rate is 6%.)

On the other hand, there are strident posts that imply that it’s universally too soon to open up, that everyone should stay in lockdown, that no church anywhere under any circumstances should sing, because it’s dangerous. Posts that pass judgment on others’ choices, without knowing the circumstances and in some cases, exaggerating the level of the violations.

Those who share the first type of post are almost exclusively from rural areas where the case load has been low. Those who share the second are almost exclusively urban dwellers living with ongoing trauma caused by the exploding body counts in their vicinities.

The thing is, both these points of view contain nuggets of truth. Where I live, it makes no sense to deny assembly singing; we’ve only had one death and a hundred cases since the whole thing began. That would be a precaution that causes unnecessary damage to communities without any benefit.

On the other hand, there *is* real mental health suffering going on because of the shutdowns; I’ve thought since day one that we could have a whole generation in need of counseling after this is over. I have four children. I did counseling myself for the first time in my life during this pandemic. Parenting during this is a nightmare for a person who suffers scrupulousness and, by extension, anxiety. What if I’m the one who ends up passing the disease to dozens of others and causes the deaths of hundreds because I’m too cavalier? What if the hospitals get overrun and my developmentally disabled daughter is the one who has to be denied a ventilator?

But because I’m so sensitized to my children’s mental health, to my own anxieties, and to the high stakes for my own family, I’m really cognizant of the need for balance.

In some places (like where I am), the damage being done by shutdown might, in fact, be worse than the damage avoided.

But maybe not. Because maybe shutting down prevented us from becoming a hot spot. Prevented us from the unbelievable anguish of burying our loved ones without being able to say goodbye or gather to remember them and send them off to Heaven.

The trouble is, we don’t know. We won’t know until it’s over and all the data is in—and maybe not even then. In real time, the situation is always in motion; the numbers change because new information comes to light, not because of some great conspiracy.

There *are* places where the fears are totally justified. As we, out here in the low-caseload areas, start reopening, it’s tempting to assume that what is true here is true everywhere. And then, to judge others for being more cautious. And our lack of sympathy causes people in areas where the danger is real to react more strongly—which makes us lash out more strongly still—which makes them angry…

It’s American tribalism on full display, in all its ugly, unchristian glory.

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The beautiful thing about being human is that we are capable—if we will choose to exercise the ability—of adapting our understanding based on new information. But when the stakes are so high, our Christian responsibility to be cautious about what information we choose to partake of is more crucial than ever.

I propose that as Christians, our responsibility—our DUTY, in fact—is to check the bias of EVERY source BEFORE we click through, and to refuse to click through to any source that leans strongly right or left. Moderately left, moderately right, these sources are balanced enough that we can properly form our consciences. Clicking through to extreme sources only encourages greater extremism. If we want our media to behave with integrity, we have to quit rewarding them for misbehaving. If we want integrity in our news reporting, we have to demand it by not supporting those who violate our trust.

Frankly, on this Memorial Day, committing to greater integrity in our information consumption seems like a good way to honor those who gave their lives to protect this country. Don’t you think?

Right vs. “right”

The past two weeks have been really intense for me as it is crunch time/deadline days for preparing presentations for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) convention, which went online this year because of COVID-19. At the same time, where I live we are opening up. From this point forward, the discernments get harder. Now we have to weigh our responsibility to uphold the life and dignity of our fellow human beings against the danger of being so overprotective of physical health that we cause lasting damage to the emotional and mental health of ourselves and those we love. To say nothing of causing unnecessary suffering from deepening poverty, as more economic damage happens.

For weeks before opening, we’d had virtually no new cases where I live, so the calculation looks quite different here than it does in many other places. In some ways, it makes it more difficult. How long can we remain isolated from those we love? Yet if we loosen up in some areas and loved ones loosen in others, then we’ve both just multiplied our exposures. My state has been open 2 1/2 weeks now, and naturally we are seeing cases again. Not a lot, but to see regular cases after weeks of almost none makes it clear that we can’t be cavalier.

Which brings us, among other things, to the “do we mask?” question that has become yet another a lightning rod, another opportunity for political division in our country. The reaction of certain quarters of our population (“I’m not wearing a mask! When I woke up this morning I was in a free country!”) is what, specifically, made this Chesterton quote jump out at me this morning. This is one of those moments in which we are challenged to recognize where a worldly value has come to be more important than Godly ones. Has become an idol.

I don’t wear a mask at all times, and in masking, in opening up, every moment requires a discernment for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach. Or at least, to try. I don’t like it, but it is the spiritual exercise of life right now–for all of us.

Small Sacrifices

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It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.

That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.

I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.

I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??

Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.

That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.

And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.

For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”

Those are totally just criticisms.

But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)

This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.

And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.

Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.

But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?

It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.

But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.

When your weakness isn’t sin

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I am slowly exploring the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius via the book “The Ignatian Adventure.” This week’s focus is spiritual freedom: the knowledge and acceptance of one’s gifts and weaknesses and, through that knowledge, the freedom from the tethers that bind you to the world.

It’s a very appropriate thing to do during Advent, really. But what I’m realizing is that I automatically associate “weakness” with “sin,” when sometimes it’s not actually sin, it’s just weakness. Sometimes you are trying to process too many things at once and trying to balance too many people’s needs and hurts, and you mess up and hurt someone’s feelings. You didn’t do it on purpose. You lie awake half the night worrying about it. You want like crazy to fix it. But the reality is, it was your weakness that caused it.

Weakness, but not sin.

I actually think those screwups are harder to deal with than outright sins. There’s a remedy in the Catholic tradition for sin. But those weaknesses that aren’t sins, just ordinary human messups–how do you make reparations for those? More importantly, how do you keep them from happening again?

It’s a good reflection to undertake during Advent: the knowledge that we are never actually going to get it all right. A wakeup call, a recognition of how deeply we need the grace that was given to us through the Incarnation.

If you can accept your own weakness instead of railing against it–if you could give yourself the grace to know that you are loved despite your weaknesses–now that would be spiritual freedom, indeed.

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Nothing New Under The Sun

You know how everybody always thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket? And then someone always brings up that quote from some guy in ancient Greece (Rome?) about how the younger generation is without moral strength and the world is guaranteed to fall apart in our lifetime?

That’s what comes to mind when I read Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). In 2019, we are pretty much all appalled at the state of the world, even if we can’t agree on which factors are most appalling and what has to happen to fix it. We think we’re experiencing something unprecedented. But as I read Gaudium et Spes I see that we’re still facing the same issues they were facing fifty years ago.

This is one of the Vatican II documents–the actual documents put forth by the council. That’s why I picked it to explore next–because it’s part of the foundation of what we experience as Catholics in the 21st century. Plus, it was promulgated by St. Paul VI, who was canonized just a year ago, so it’s seems appropriate.

Religious Freedom

Here’s an interesting one. There’s a section in Evangelii Gaudium focused on the need to offer to others the same religious freedoms we expect for ourselves–particularly in regards to Islam. But the pope puts this cautionary stamp on it, too. This will resonate with many who lean right politically. It’s worth some real soul-searching on both sides of the question of religious freedom as to what that really means, and what the cost is, and to whom. Because religious freedom has to include both sides of the coin: freedom *from* religion and freedom *to* practice one’s beliefs. It’s inevitable that those two freedoms will come into conflict at various points. So we have to take great care in discerning how to respect one side without suppressing the other.

Many of us who are religious view our own concerns higher than the concerns of those without faith. But if we want to convert the “nones,” we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to force something down their throat that pushes them away. We need to live in such a way that others say, “Hey, what do you have that I don’t? I want some of that. How do I get it?” We witness by implicit invitation, in other words–but we also have to recognize that others are not obligated to respond to that invitation. That’s how God approaches all of us, and if we want to image Him in the world, we have to do the same.

So–that being the case, how *do* we ensure that the rights of religious people are respected, without trampling the rights of those who choose not to espouse faith?

I have no answers, only–as always–underscoring that hot-button questions like prayer at public events and services for weddings are less straightforward than we, the faithful, would like them to be.

Sex Always Has Consequences

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My husband and I taught natural family planning for sixteen years. So often, during that time, people would say, “What’s natural about resisting the body’s impulses?”

I thought a lot about that, and I realized what I was hearing was frustration: a desire to have the best of sex while avoiding the related hassles.

The first time I encountered the Thomas Merton quote I shared last week, it seemed made to tackle the connections among desire, freedom, and consequence. In spinning out the implications, a blog post was born. Most of that post follows today:

******

I’ve come to a realization lately that I think all women, and frankly all men too, need to come to terms with. For me, it was a long time in coming, considering how obvious it is.

There is no such thing as sex without consequences.

Proponents of natural family planning and proponents of artificial means of birth control both seem unable to grasp this simple truth. The NFP community likes to harp on the side effects of birth control and its potential to damage human relationships. Those who use birth control deride NFP as ineffective and contrary to human nature because it requires people to fight their instincts to come together at women’s most fertile time.

We would all like to think there’s some magic bullet that takes away the sacrifice and, dare I say it, suffering that is part and parcel of reproductive life. We want to be able to enjoy the coming together without the side effects/consequences. There are basically three courses you can take: you can impose artificial controls on nature (contraception); you can work with nature (NFP); or you can do whatever you want and let the chips fall where they may.

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But every one of those paths has consequences.

If you use natural family planning, you have to deal with occasional (and for some people, frequent) ambiguity in the signs and the need to abstain when the woman is most interested in sex. There’s no question that requires sacrifice and, sometimes, suffering.

If you use chemical contraception, though–assuming it does what it’s supposed to do, and fools your body into thinking it’s pregnant already–you’re giving up that increased sex drive altogether. Which is why I find it puzzling when proponents of birth control criticize NFP for the abstaining when the sex drive is highest. I mean, it’s not like contraception solves that issue. And besides, there’s that whole thing about side effects, and environmental impact, and blood clots. Again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

Your third option is to let the chips fall where they may. You get the best of both worlds: sex whenever you feel like it, without side effects, without increased risk of blood clots. But there’s a natural consequence to that, too, and it involves bigger cars and bigger houses and a humongous grocery bill, to say nothing of college costs. And a lot of time pregnant and breastfeeding and exhausted. So again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

The reality is that sex does have consequences, no matter what you do. You can gnash your teeth all you like, but that’s the reality. Our job is to make the most responsible choice we can, based on as much information as we can. And the longer I’m involved with natural family planning, the more thoroughly convinced I become that NFP, while not without consequences, is the best option. It’s not the easiest, but it is the best–for women, for couples, for the world.

Public Prayer and Religious Freedom

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Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.

The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.

We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.

As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.

Our job is to do as God does: invite.

Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”

Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.

Like the fact that if we were truly a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to avoid helping our neighbors in desperate need. (“Who is my neighbor?”) Like the fact that a truly Christian nation would prioritize making sure all its citizens have health care and equal opportunity in education. Would prioritize support for the poor, recognizing that poverty, lack of opportunity and inequality are factors that undercut our ability to build a holistic culture of life.

When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.

Falling Down or Tripping Up?

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I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, but I can’t seem to come up with a hooky opening. (Or title.) Maybe that means there isn’t one. Maybe I just have to write it and hope you’ll all read it, even without a hook.

During a discussion of Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved” a year or two ago, I had this moment in which God pried my brain open and I understood something so liberating, it was almost dizzying.

My whole life, I’ve looked at sin as falling down in a pit of muck.

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But in that moment, I had a vision of sin as tripping over rocks while hiking up a steep mountain with a glorious view at the end.

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Most of the time, we talk about sin as a huge, inescapable reality: a systemic failure to which we’re inevitably and forever doomed as part of our humanity. We can fight it and fight it, but we’re always going to get dragged down into that muck again, because that’s who we are.

It had never before occurred to me to look at discipleship and the Christian life as a lifelong hike up a beautiful mountain whose pinnacle is Heaven. Of course you’re going to get tired along the way. Of course you’re going to slip and trip. Mountain climbing involves rocks and uneven ground.

The difference between these two perspectives is profound. In one, we view ourselves as mud dwellers. It’s our natural state of being.

In the other, we view ourselves as good people seeking to be better. Even when we trip and fall, we get up and keep going. Notice I didn’t say “get up and try again,” as if we’re running on a treadmill sunk in the mud and will never be anywhere other than in the mud.

No. I said we get up and keep going. We acknowledge that we fell down, but we brush ourselves off and keep heading for the heights.

This is a tremendously liberating thought. It takes away the hopelessness of sin. I still recognize my need for mercy—the fact that tripping on the way up the mountain doesn’t get me kicked off the mountain is a grace I can never fully comprehend. On Earth, after all, tripping up is routinely used as grounds for getting kicked out.

But because I belong to God and God is my end point, sin doesn’t have to define me. I can see myself as beloved. As worthy of receiving mercy. I can see hope for getting farther up the mountain, closer to God.

And if I see myself this way, I can learn to see others this way, too.

If I see myself and everyone else basically as mud dwellers, then Pope Francis’ quote makes no sense.

We Christians have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing view of things. When we see what we perceive to be weeds growing in the field, we filter out any fruit those people might be bearing. If the fruit is being produced by someone who doesn’t look like we think Godliness is supposed to look, we don’t want it, thank you very much.

But “weedy” people have gifts and wisdom and worth to offer, too. Thank God, nobody has to be perfect to have a place in God’s Church. And if we go around making a big list of things you have to do to be “good enough” to belong, then we’re driving away the people we’re supposed to bring to Christ.

And who’s to say that one of these days, that “weedy” person won’t be the one offering us the hand up on that steep, difficult climb toward God?

Joy = Freedom?

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Until I started reading Evangelii Gaudium last fall, I had never thought much about the relationship between joy and faith. The very beginning of this apostolic exhortation consists of a list of very familiar Scripture quotes that I never before thought of in terms of joy.

Simple, childlike joy: if we want to evangelize, Pope Francis said, we do it by showing that our faith in Jesus Christ gives us joy.

I have to admit, “joy” is not the vibe I get off most of the people who make a big Thing out their Christian faith. Some…yes. But a precious few.

More to the point, it’s definitely not been the vibe I sensed from myself. I want to see the world as God sees it—yes, there’s beauty, but there is also so much that is not as it should be. How can I help being grieved by what grieves the heart of God?

For years, faith has reminded me of Jacob wrestling with God/the angel. What is the point of faith, after all? Isn’t it to challenge us to become better than we would be without it? If the point of faith is to pat us on the head and tell us how we’re saved and forgiven and we’re blessed in temporal terms because we’re saved—well, I would submit that what we’re actually worshiping isn’t God at all, but our own comfort.

But where does that leave “joy”?

Yesterday morning, singing James Moore’s “Taste & See,” a line leaped off the page:
“From all my troubles I was set free.”

The psalms encompass the breadth of human emotional experience. I know this. But this is Psalm 34. There are more than a hundred more psalms after this one. There is no way that David never had more troubles after writing this song.

Which means…what?

Maybe being set free from troubles just means those troubles don’t rule you. You still have to walk through the dark valleys, but you don’t have to let them define you. They don’t have to define your identity.

So maybe it’s okay to be angry with the things I see happening in the world. But I don’t have to internalize it, dwell on it, and lie awake fretting about it. (Or what people think of me for calling it out, for that matter.)

And maybe it means that I can advocate for the will of God in the world, as best I can discern it, but I don’t have to be crushed when the inevitable setbacks come. I can default to joy, even though things aren’t as they should be.

That would be freedom, indeed.

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