I’ll Find You

I had just left a patient’s room when I heard the code. At the hospital I work at, every chaplain who hears the code and is able to respond does so immediately. I made a snap decision to pause my plans and I moved quickly toward the emergency.

The patient was an elderly man and I noticed three women at the end of the hall. They were huddled together and they looked very distraught. I asked a doctor if they were the family and she said they were.

“Hello. My name is Michael and I am with Spiritual Care. I’m going to stay with you if that’s alright.”

“Yes, that would be wonderful. We are so scared right now…”

We waited together as the ICU doctor rushed out of the room to update the family and always rushed back into the room as soon as their questions were answered. Eventually, it became clear to the family that their beloved husband and father was not going to survive. Finally, the doctor explained that the situation had taken a turn for the worse and it was time to decide whether or not they should continue CPR. They unanimously agreed it was time to stop.

My mind began to play out what was to happen next. I knew the nurses would get all of the equipment out of the room so that the family would walk into a peaceful environment. I knew the family might need some guidance through the process of the next few minutes and some families need help getting started with what to say – all families are different when it comes to goodbyes.

A nurse came by and gave the family water while they prepared a bereavement tray. The attending doctor spoke with the family about the patient’s care up to that point and I watched all of them intently. I watched how quickly and quietly the nurses worked to prepare the patient and the room. I saw the way the doctor shifted his weight and hung his head to communicate his disappointment with how things went. I watched the family huddle together and lightly rub one another’s shoulders and hands. When the doctor stepped away and it was quiet, I began to discuss how the family would like the next few minutes to go.

“As a chaplain, what can I offer you in this moment?”

“I think a blessing and a prayer would be wonderful.” The wife replied.

“Was your husband religious?” I asked as my mind started sifting through available prayers that might be meaningful.

“He wasn’t. The three of us are, but he was very intellectual – very analytical…” The youngest daughter responded.

“He wasn’t a fan of organized religion.” The wife said frankly.

“It is one of the reasons I’m so scared right now.” The youngest daughter added as she clutched her chest and wept.

For a fraction of a second, the whole room froze. A nurse moved in slow motion with all manner of plastic wrapping for medical equipment that had been used to try to save their father; her husband. The family stood motionless with their eyes downcast as my mind lept into hyperspeed and I weighed the hypothetical consequences of the single question that raptured my mind: Do I speak on this theology? Do I dare?

“Are you afraid of the state of your father’s soul? Are you worried about his eternal situation?” I asked directly.

“Yes.” She spoke as she nodded affirmitavely.

“Ma’am, are you Christian?”

“Yes. We three are Christian. But Dad wasn’t. Are you a Christian Chaplain?”

“Yes. I am ordained in the Christian Church.”

“Oh, okay, that’s wonderful then. I just want to see him again someday.” She pleaded.

I dare.

“Certainly, only God knows all things,” I began, “but my entire belief in God hinges on God being more loving than I.”

“Yes, I believe that too. God loves us more than we could ever love.” She affirmed.

“And Love is kind. Love is merciful. Love is gracious.” I continued, “Now I’ve never met your father, but I love him already just by meeting the three of you. If it is up to me, your father will be in Heaven the moment he dies. But it is not up to me, it is up to God who loves your father more than I could ever love anyone. God is more merciful than you would be for your father. God is Love. So please, don’t be afraid. You don’t need to be afraid.”

“Thank you.” She whispered.

We walked into the room and they all ran to him. They stroked his face and hair and all took turns holding his hands. His youngest daughter held his right hand with both of hers and leaned in close because he couldn’t hear very well.

“Dad, I will see you again someday. I’ll find you.”

John the Baptizer Part II

The Seventh Day

Wednesday
A few days after her Baptism, I came to check on her to see how she was recovering from her heart surgery. I was disappointed to find that she was going to need another surgery. She sat up in her bed, and brushed the sides of her very short hair as she filled me in on what the surgeon had said to her. There was a tear in her aorta and she was processing the fact that she was going back into surgery so soon. 

“How are you doing with all of this? How is your spirit?” I began.

“My spirit is great – but my body hurts.” She replied. Her eyes locked onto me as she shuffled in her bed. She could never quite get comfortable in the hospital bed.
“How do you feel about going back into surgery?” I pressed.
“I’m scared.” She said flatly. At this she pressed the button on her bed to call the nurse.
“What makes this so scary?” I asked out of genuine concern and some curiosity. I didn’t know if this surgery was more dangerous than the last.
“Well see.. Years ago, my mother had heart surgery…” She began.

“Do you need something?” The nurse’s assistant interrupted. I smiled at her underneath my mask.

“Yeah, more coffee.” She replied as-a-matter-of-factly.
“Oh, okay. I’ll get you some right now!” The NA replied. 

“It’s hard for me to be nice to them when I’m in pain. I don’t want to be nasty, but I’m hurting and it makes me impatient. Coffee helps.” She explained. “Anyway, my mother had heart surgery and came out a vegetable. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that’s going to happen to me.”

“What am I gonna do about this fear

We sat in the heaviness of that information as she seemed to pour over old, painful memories.

The NA returned emptied handed, “Umm… I’m really sorry but…” she began.
“Let me guess, Jillian (RN) said, “no coffee?”” She interjected.
“Yeah… Jillian thinks you should maybe space it out since you can only have two cups today and you’ve already had one this morning.” The NA was visibly nervous.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, “No problem. Thanks for trying.” She finally said.

As the door closed She looked at me with a wry grin on her face, “Let me tell you what I know – Jillian wasn’t coming off that coffee. It was never gonna happen.” We both laughed.
“What am I gonna do about this fear though, dude?” She loved calling me “dude.” I loved it too. It was affectionate – like she was assuring me that she knew I was on her side.

“Have you ever seen After Earth?” I asked
“No – should I?” She answered
“Well – that depends on how you feel about Will Smith. But in the movie he talks about fear. He says that it can only exist in our thoughts about the future. It changed my life when I heard that because I’ve never been afraid of something that happened only of things I am afraid will happen.
“Dude. I have never thought about it like that!”
“Me neither – not until I heard Will Smith say it. So, in the movie, he tells his son to rewrite the future. If your mind is telling you a scary story, take control of the narrative!” 

“So right now I’m afraid that what happened to my mother will happen to me,” she began. “But, I could come out just fine. Wow, Dude. Wow.”

“What happened to your mother was horrible. I want you to know that I heard you when you shared what happened to her and I am so sorry that it happened.”
“Yeah. It was bad.” She let herself revisit that grief. I tried to stay right there with her.

She was a veteran, so I knew she’d understand what I said next: “I’ll keep watch, my friend. I promise.”

Thursday
She was feeling much more optimistic. She spoke with the surgeon after I left the day before and said that he took her confidence level from 60% to 95%. Her surgery would begin the next morning. 

I asked her if she wanted me to contact anyone in her family to support them while she was in surgery and she said, “No – you’re my angel and I’m not sharing.” I assured her that I am no angel and she replied that if I was blameless then I wouldn’t be the right angel for her. We had a good laugh. I asked if she needed anything from me before her surgery and she said, “Just stay with me, okay, Dude? Just knowing you are in the loop makes me feel better.” She was a veteran, so I knew she’d understand what I said next:

“I’ll keep watch, my friend. I promise.” It was a promise I could keep.

Friday
I paid attention to when she went into surgery and I paid attention to when she got out. I held her in my heart in the silence of my commute home. After my children went to bed I wondered if she had woken up yet. “I’m here, I’m watching,” I spoke to the air.

Saturday Day 1
I was on call. I was called-in for another grieving family and when I left their room I checked my friend’s chart to see if she had started to recover so that I might visit her. Still asleep. I prayed for her on my way back home – in the quiet that cities fall into when everyone is asleep. “Too quiet,” I thought, “like a house that is still because someone is oversleeping.” 


Sunday Day 2
My mind drifted in and out of worry so my heart drifted in and out of prayer.


Monday Day 3
She was still sleeping when I visited her room. I stood by her bed and spoke to her from time to time. There was a nurse training a student nurse in the room and they talked about procedures and the student asked questions. I kept watch. I could feel her in the room with us. Her body did not respond to any verbal or physical cues, but my spirit felt the same as when we spoke on Thursday. I talked to her like she could hear me because I knew she could. 

The student had to give her a shot: “I’m sorry if this pinches!” she said. I was grateful for her compassionate, attentive care.

I talked to her like she could hear me because I knew she could. 

Tuesday Day 4
I couldn’t go see her. I checked to see if she was awake – she was still sleeping.
In another room, an 81 year old psychologist was struggling to speak to me. He had something important to say. I was on the edge of my seat. Just as he found the words, 3 nurses walked in apologizing for interrupting but insisting the interruption was necessary.

“Just one moment please.” I pleaded with my hand raised toward them. They halted and waited with me.
“There is more… communication between people… than verbal… and non-verbal… communication.” His eyes were squinted shut as he focused all of his energy on these words. He took deep breaths. My mind started recording him. “Your spirit… touches other spirits… and we do not yet know how.” He relaxed and looked content.
“Thank you – I won’t forget that.” I promised. It’s a promise I can keep.

Wednesday Day 5
I brought her a pick for her hair. She was connected to an EEG machine that was measuring something in her brain. I spoke at length with her. At times I felt she was near me, other times she seemed far. I just kept on talking. I asked what it is like wherever she is. I wondered aloud if my voice seemed to be a whisper in the rustling brush outside of a bank, or if it boomed from heaven in a wasteland, or if we were sitting around a fire talking. I told her about my coworkers and my friends back home. I gossipped a little about the neighborhood. I felt she liked that best.

At one point the nurse popped her head in, “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, we’re just talking.” I replied.
“Oh well you seemed – bothered.”
“Oh I was just telling her about something that bothered me.” I said as she smiled and left.

As I left, her nurse stopped me and put her hand on my arm. Her West Indies accent sounded like music as her eyes searched mine. “I promise,” she offered, “I will make sure her hair is perfect when we take off the wires.” My eyes filled with tears and I put my hand to my chest, I nodded, and left.  

Your spirit… touches other spirits… and we do not yet know how.

Thursday Day 6
Still sleeping. This time she was far from me. I told her I was there and then sat in a chair facing her. I closed my eyes and meditated. I imagined we were sitting around a fire somewhere old and cold where the sky was big and the fire was enough warmth for a lengthy conversation. “Dude…” I could hear her say, “this is crazy right?” We talked and talked and once in a while I would break my meditation to say, “I’m still here with you – sitting next to your bed.” Across the fire she looked at me like I was silly, “I know that!” We laughed.

As I left the nurse informed me that the following day her family was coming to the hospital and her physical supports would be removed.
“Please make sure to page me. I need to be here for that.” I told the nurse.
“I promise.” She said. It was a promise she would keep.

Friday Day 7
I woke up early and ironed my favorite shirt. I put on my best suit and wore my nicest necktie. I made sure my mohawk was perfect. Once I was paged, I met her family and told her I was with her. I told her I was keeping watch – that I had kept watch all along. I offered what Peace and Presence I could to her family and I let my spirit travel to the fire where she sat throwing sticks and cockleburs into the flames. She was close. Then far. Then close again. I touched her hand as I left. “I’m still watching,” I promised. 

Her sister told me that the night before her surgery she left instructions. I wrote them down word for word:

If I don’t wake up after the surgery, give me seven days and then take me off life support. The seventh day is the seventh day.  


I drove Kazuhiro home that afternoon and told him everything.
“Michael, do you think she was referencing the Sabbath?” he asked. I sobbed.
“I don’t know, Kaz. But thank you.”

Saturday
She rested.

John the Baptizer: Part I

The Apophthegmata PatrumThe Sayings of the Desert Fathers, is a compilation of sayings from the most influential 3rd Century Ascetics who lived out their faith in the harsh conditions of the deserts of Egypt. Their spirituality and wisdom was matched only by their discipline, humility, and complete disregard for societal hierarchies. 

From the moment I encountered this text, the words of the Desert Mothers and Fathers set my heart on fire. Over the course of my graduate studies, I carefully examined their lives and mined their wisdom for guidance in my life. To this day, I read a few of the Sayings every morning and return to them throughout the day in hopes that the words of these Elders might be etched upon my heart. I enjoy the company of their wisdom and subversity as I endeavor to live into the silence, solitude, and stillness of spirit they embodied and espoused. For a number of reasons, I have come to regard these monks as my spiritual Ancestors.

It should come as no surprise that I reserve a special regard for John the baptizer of the New Testament. He too sought God in the harsh conditions of the desert. He frustrated hierarchies and systems of power, rejected societal norms, and subverted the authorities of his day through his radical spirituality and reckless prophetic voice. John the Baptist’s message was so dangerous that it ultimately led to his execution at the hands of an evil, violent ruler; a story for another day.

This is the Season of Advent. Advent is a Christian holiday season that leads up to the celebration of Christmas. Traditionally, Christians are called to lament, to observe the suffering and evil of the world, to prepare, and to keep watching in faith that the Messiah will come. On the Second Sunday of Advent, all throughout the world, Christians read the Gospel According to Mark 1:1-8:

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

______________________________________

Friday, just two days before the Second Sunday of Advent, I responded to a consult for a patient who was recovering from a major surgery. As I was walking into her room, she commented on my hair. As a hospital Chaplain, I wear a dress shirt and I often wear a suit. I also wear my hair in a mohawk. This patient couldn’t believe that I was a chaplain because she had never met one who looks like me. She is a Black woman in her fifties and she was warm and engaging. Her voice carries a certain authority that reminded me of the Non-Commissioned Officers I followed into war a lifetime ago.  After we exchanged pleasantries, I reached for the reason I had been called to her room.

“I understand you have been through quite an ordeal. I am wondering how you are holding up and what you might be needing right now,” I began. 

“I shouldn’t be here,” she responded flatly. Her eyes widened as if to make sure I was hearing her words with the same intensity she was speaking them. 

“What do you mean?” I prompted.

“I mean I should be dead. People don’t survive the kind of physical emergency that brought me here. I almost died. As I was laying on the kitchen floor in my home, I almost fell asleep and if I had, I would have died. Luckily a bell went off in my head and I regained enough wherewithal to know I needed to call 911. Had I arrived any later, I would not have lived.” 

I listened as she recounted the details of what had happened to her just two nights earlier. She was still feeling the gravity of how close she came to death and that was forcing her to reckon with her own finitude. Physically, she had suffered. Spiritually, she was suffering still. 

“So now I’m realizing that my body is in bad shape and that means that I need to make sure my soul is right. I need to know that my soul is in good shape with God,” she proclaimed. 

“What would give you the assurance you need?” I wondered aloud. 

“I need to be baptized.” The intensity of her gaze was palpable. 

This answer surprised me. Most people who grow up in a Christian tradition that teaches Baptism as a necessary condition for the “salvation” of their souls (or their admission into Heaven after they die), are baptized as infants or as children. Younger Christian traditions that teach baptism as secondary, with an attestation of faith in Jesus being the condition for “salvation” often baptize adult converts but since Baptism is deemphasized, this kind of request would not be common. I needed clarification. 

“Will you please tell me more about your need to be baptized?” I implored. 

“When I was younger and all my sisters and brothers got baptized I didn’t do it. I knew it wasn’t right for me to.”

“Well what about now? You seem to feel that it is right for you now…” I could feel that we were starting to get to the issue she seemed to be circling. Her eyes scanned the room as she gathered her words and then returned to me just before she spoke.

“I want to be baptized. But I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be gay.” At this she stared intently into my eyes – searching. 

“I don’t either,” I replied immediately.

“Well, now the way I see it… wait. What did you just say, Reverend?” She was baffled.

“I said I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be gay.” My spirit began reaching out to the Divine. I could see that this woman needed healing and I knew we required the presence of the Holy. 

“What I mean, Reverend, is that I don’t believe it is a sin for a person to be in a gay relationship.” She seemed certain that we were going to disagree.

“I agree completely.” I assured her.

All at once I understood. Noone had to tell her that she was disqualified from Baptism all those years ago – they’d been telling her for her entire life. In their sermons, their jokes, their prayer services, their talks around the dinner tables, the endless rhetoric about the “death of the American family unit,” and WORSE, she had been told a thousand times that she had been disinherited without them ever saying her name. That theology had pushed her outside of the Community to which her entire family and, likely her entire social circle, belonged. She was forced outside of the Church because of her Love; who she loved and how she loved deemed her unworthy to them.

“What church did you say you are credentialed through?” She was getting suspicious and she was almost ready to trust me.

“I’m from the Disciples of Christ. We are the oldest American denomination.” I said.

“And they know you are out here just…” she waved her hand around erratically, “just doing this!?” She seemed exasperated. 

“She wants to make sure this counts – that her Baptism will be legitimate,” I thought to myself.

I laughed. “Yes ma’am. My church knows where I am and they know what I am up to. We believe that God is Love. We believe that where we encounter God, we encounter Love. Likewise we believe that every person has the very image of God. So where I encounter a person, any person, I have encountered God. Furthermore, where there is Love, there is God. So where there is Love between two people, God is there. We make no distinction between heterosexual or homosexual Love – how could we?”

She leaned forward which caused her to wince in pain. She stayed in that posture anyway. 

“So if I can be any more clear, allow me to say this. God made you just exactly the way you are. God’s Image is imprinted on you. So when I encounter you, I encounter the Divine as a Lesbian, Black, Woman.” 

Tears welled up in her eyes and then retreated back as she swallowed hard. 

“Would you baptize me today, Reverend?” She finally spoke. 

“I would be honored.” I replied. I couldn’t reply fast enough.

We set a time for me to return that would allow for me to get some things in order. I walked to the other side of the hospital and wrote a Liturgy for her Baptism and Communion. I put two portions for Communion in my pocket along with a small bowl that would hold her Baptismal Water. I had taken my time writing the Liturgy to make sure it was my best and now I needed to get to her before another doctor, specialist, or nurse made demands on her time. 

I walked outside even though it was cold. 

My thoughts turned to my patient as a young teen. Her respect for the Sacrament of Baptism caused her to recuse herself because she had been told she was not worthy. She sat in the pew while her siblings were welcomed into the Church, holding Sacred things Sacred in the way she had been taught. On that day that meant abstaining from this Sacrament as though she would diminish the purity of Baptism because of who she is

The cold air hurt my face and stung the sides of my head. I thought of her young mind trying to make sense of a God who made her to Love and the Church that told her she was condemned for the Love God gave her. I thrust my hands in my pockets as I crossed the courtyard to stop the burning cold. My mind turned to my Ancestors – the first monks. I thought of how they found God in the harsh conditions of the desert because they couldn’t find God in the impossible conditions of the cathedral. I could see them walking with me in their rags and loincloths, thousands of them, unbothered by the cold after a lifetime spent outside. I breathed in the cold air through my nose and my heart swelled as I felt the company of those radicals walking alongside me; all around me.

When I walked into the hospital I saw my fellow Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Kazuhiro. I asked him to pray for me that I would be the minister my patient needed and that I would be filled with the Holy Ghost. He laid his hand on my shoulder and we all bowed our heads as Kaz joined my Church and my Ancestors and commissioned me for this moment.    

As I walked into her room I opened my phone to put it on Do Not Disturb so we wouldn’t be interrupted. I saw a text message from a colleague and mentor of mine who is a Queer Minister. They had a sibling who had just been born and they shared a picture of this new life with me. My heart soared that they were in the room with me now – they joined this great cloud of witnesses, the patient and I in a sterilized room with a view of Minneapolis. I prepared all of the elements for Baptism and Communion and asked the patient if she was ready to be Baptized. 

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” she said confidently.
“Me too.” I replied. 

As I spoke ancient words, she held her palms toward the ceiling and I watched the Sacred Water run off my fingers and into her hair. I spoke the Words of Consecration and we shared Communion as I slipped the Host underneath my mask and into my mouth. We were both in tears as I enjoyed the distinct honor of welcoming her in – into the Blessed Assurance of her Salvation that she had lived too long without; that had belonged to her all along. 

Multiple times in the Gospels, Jesus is recorded as conflating himself with marginalized people in society. He makes it clear that those who are disinherited by human standards are the first in line in the Kingdom of God saying, “whatever you do to them, you do to me.” These statements go further than saying, “treat them the way you would treat me as though they are me.” The claim made in the Gospels is much stronger: 

I am the one you threw away, I am the one imprisoned by your legal system, I am sick, I am disinherited, I am unhoused, I am oppressed because of the color of my skin, I am the least among you – with the least privileges and fewest comforts. I am. 

On the way back to my office it occurred to me that she was the first person I had ever baptized. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. I felt like John the Baptist must have felt – having just baptized his better. I felt at home with him and the Desert Mothers and Fathers who found God outside.

I had gone outside and there I encountered Christ; right where the Church left her.

Ward, Benedicta. 1975. The wisdom of the Desert Fathers: the Apophthegmata Patrum (the anonymous series). Oxford: SLG Press.
I’m paraphrasing and interpreting Matt 25:40 (among other NT scriptures) here but I’ll die on this hill.

DNR

Do Not Resuscitate

Last week I watched a woman die. I am a hospital chaplain, so it is not uncommon for me to witness people transition from this life to the next. What made this experience stand out was that she had signed a “do not resuscitate” order, or a DNR. When someone signs a DNR, hospital staff are prohibited from taking life-saving measures such as administering CPR. 

I was nearby when the patient unexpectedly declined. I heard the nurse yell out and I followed the doctor into the room. As all of the surrounding nurses rushed into the room like a river, ready to swiftly carry this patient to safety and keep her in the land of the living, they hit a concrete wall, a dam; the DNR. So they stood by. They shouted her name and nudged her. One nurse asked if there were any interventions they could use without violating the DNR. “No,” the doctor responded, “we will obey her wishes.” And that is what we did. Nothing.

The frenetic energy from the medical staff made the room feel pregnant. It felt as if this dam would burst at any moment and they would all spring into action. That moment never came. The dam held. One nurse clutched the Automated External Defibrillator (AED) she carried into the room. Her knuckles were white and tears streamed down her face. Another nurse held the hand of the patient as he continued to say her name as though she might finally hear him and respond. Three times he held her mouth closed with his other hand, straightened her hair, and let his tears fall. The doctor listened to her heart and checked the clock over and over. I looked at every single one of them and pulled them into my heart – where God is – where they could find comfort and the patient could find rest.

There is much to mourn these days. Our society is bending and we hear the snapping like that of a sapling and it feels like it may break at any moment. “I hate this damn virus,” was the words of one of those nurses, “her children and grandchildren should have been in there. Not us.” She is right. Our safety precautions do not allow for visitors because the spread of COVID has reached unimaginable levels and that means our patients are without their families. The loneliness, the fear, the absolute horror of this moment is palpable and wretched. 

There is so much to mourn. 

On this, the First Sunday of Advent, I invite you to take note of the injustice in our world. Look right at it. Today, as best you can manage, let yourself hold the horror of this moment. Don’t give in to the temptation to numb yourself with platitudes or ease the truth by diminishing the suffering we are collectively feeling. Don’t chase away your own grief by telling yourself how much worse it could be. Instead, look this devil in the eyes. We are facing a world where 1.45 million people have died of COVID since it began this year. 266k of those people have died in this country alone, and this nightmare is far from over. 

Systemic racism has made it the case that Black and Brown people are disproportionately affected by this disease. The unchecked violence of our country’s law enforcement against Black people has reached a boiling point and still, police officers are inciting riots all over the country as they murder Black people while 70 million Trump followers wave their “back the blue” flags and chant “all lives matter” as if they understand the words coming out of their mouths. Most of these people call themselves Christians. That fact keeps me up at night. 

So take it in; as much as you can. Then, when you feel the crushing weight of the reality we are living through, look to the Heavens. 

This moment is fraught with death and despair. But as Followers of the Way we know that when suffering abounds and the light diminishes until we are in utter darkness – that is the moment our Redemption breaks through. Just when we find ourselves at the point of death, we must remember that we are a people of Resurrection.  Today’s Gospel reading from Mark 13:24-37 reads: 

13:24 But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 

So take it in; as much as you can. Feel the suffering of those who are alone in hospital rooms all over the world battling a disease our species has never before encountered. Try to comprehend the individual and collective grief of those most oppressed in this society that is bursting with oppression. Then look to the Heavens! 

Right now, in the darkness of this moment we must not forget who we are. We are followers of the Christ, the Son of Man. Our situation is hopeless – AND – soon our Savior will be born! This pain is endless and it will end! First, we have to hold on to the fact that we have no reason to hope. We must force our minds and hearts to realize that we cannot resuscitate the world that was. We must accept that our AED’s and CPR will not work. We must, like nurses paralyzed by a DNR, hold the weight of this present horror. When we finally rid ourselves of all shibboleths and embrace the crushing truth of our hopeless situation – then we may finally be able to embrace the spirit of Advent! We have no hope for deliverance and our Deliverer is coming! 

Maranatha! 

Keep Watch!

Capstone Bank: A Love Story

When I was 18 years old, I was living on my own in a shitty 1 bedroom basement apartment in Bradley, Illinois and I was working 3 jobs. One of those jobs was a full time position as a bank teller. I was the only guy working at this bank full time and it was clear my presence was unwelcome from the start.

Lisa, one of the other tellers, ignored me completely. Jenny was downright mean to me. But Kelly was always cool. I still find myself repeating her quips:

Kim the Asst Branch Manager: “Hey Kelly, can you get the drive thru?”
Kelly: (while filing her nails) “I’m busy. What? No. I can’t I’m busy.”

I say those exact words to my kids all the time now and it still makes me laugh.

One morning, before I could even sit down and count my drawer, Kim asked me to meet her in Susan’s office. Susan was the Branch Manager. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong but I knew I was in trouble. As I walked into Susan’s office I looked over my shoulder at Kelly expecting her to give me a goofy face or something. She looked like she was going to cry.

Kim: “Michael, how do you think it’s going here?”
18 year old Me: “Ummm… good? I haven’t been short in my drawer at all and I’ve been on time. How do YOU think I’m doing here?”
Susan: “Michael, how do you think you are getting along with your coworkers?”
Me: “I do my best to be friends with everybody. It’s been easier with some than with others. Kelly is awesome though.”

I was starting to feel relaxed. Just talking about Kelly made me feel better. She was really a good friend when I needed one.

Kim: “Michael we have had complaints from the tellers. They say that you aren’t matching up with the group very well.”
Me: “What am I doing wrong? Did I say something wrong?”
Susan: “No – nothing like that. No one thinks you have been unprofessional at all they just don’t think you are adjusting to the group is all.”
Me: (starting to feel really isolated) “Well, what do they want me to do differently?”
Kim: “They just feel like you are always trying to talk to them or be part of their conversations. They just…”

Kim and Susan looked at each other and Susan nodded – giving Kim the permission to disclose the rest.

Kim: “They just don’t really like you. They don’t think you are a good fit for the office. It’s not that you are doing anything wrong – it’s just that they don’t want to be friends with you.”

Hot tears rolled down my face. The thought, “I’m crying at work” made more tears follow the first. I tried to respond. I wanted to say anything. But when I opened my mouth to speak all I heard come out of me was a sob.

Susan looked ashamed.
Kim looked giddy.

Me: (still sobbing) “Kelly?”
Susan: “NO. Kelly loves you. She really is your confidant.”
Me: (no more tears) “Is that all?”
Susan: “Yes. That’s all, Michael. We didn’t mean to upset you.”
Me: “I’m going home for the rest of the day.”

I walked out of Susan’s office and looked behind the counter at the 3 tellers who were staring at me dumbly. Kelly saw my puffy eyes and she contorted her face again like she was about to cry. I now know that her face was communicating unadulterated rage.

Kelly stood up and leaned forward with both of her hands on her desk. She was a big woman and she filled the space she worked in as she squared her shoulders.

Kelly: “It wasn’t me, Michael! I love working with you!!”

In that moment she turned and pointed her finger directly at Jenny’s face. Her finger was inches from Jenny’s nose.

Kelly:THIS BITCH. Jenny is the only one talking shit and if she does it again I’ll BEAT HER ASS.”

Her voice boomed through the bank. Jenny cowered. Kim and Susan came rushing out of the office to see what the commotion was. I walked toward the exit silently, afraid I would start sobbing again.

Kelly: (grabbing her coat) “Where are we going?”
Kim: “Michael has the rest of the day off.”
Kelly: “SHIT me too then. I’m with him.”

As we walked into the parking lot she hugged me. I cried some more and she put her hand on the back of my head.

Kelly: “So where are we going?”
Me: “I’m just going home.”
Kelly: “And tomorrow? Do we quit?”
Me: “I can’t. I need this job or I can’t pay rent.”
Kelly: “Fine. Then we work. But we do it together and we never take an ounce of shit from any of them.”
Me: “Deal.”

_______________________________________

Kelly, my love,
I don’t know where you are anymore. I bet your son is so big now. Wherever you are, I’m sure you are busy. I hope you know I’m still making it – and I’m not taking an ounce of shit from any of them.

~M

White Evangelical Idolatry

We’ve been abandoned by our teachers. Our guides have left us without fathers. The men and women we looked up to have gone against everything they told us to believe in. We wonder if they ever really believed it themselves.”

Jared C. Wilson: “This Theologically Orphaned Generation”,
November 14, 2017.

To anyone outside of white America, white Evangelicals have never had the best reputation. But 5 short years ago, a lot of people still regarded them as well-meaning, decent folks who wanted desperately to save our souls. Do you remember? Do you remember when white Evangelicals cared most about saving souls?

Do you remember when white Evangelicals cared most about saving souls?

That’s not what they are known for these days. Nowadays, when someone openly admits to belonging to a white Evangelical church, what most of my friends hear is that this is a person who is upholding white supremacist policies and ideas, hates our LGBTQ+ siblings, is a supporter of the most openly immoral POTUS in our lifetimes (or ever?), and that they belong to a power hungry political sect. There is nothing Christlike about the white Evangelical “witness.”

This didn’t start with Trump. White Evangelicalism has been on this trajectory for a couple of generations at least. But the breakneck speed at which they completely abandoned their stated principles and values has been dizzying. Never in a thousand years would I have expected the Elders, Deacons, Pastors, and Bishops of the denomination to which I used to belong, to gleefully support a POTUS incumbent who hired a lawyer to pay off the porn star he had extramarital sex with while his wife was pregnant. Never.

I believed that conservative politics reflected the values of the white Evangelical religion. In the past few years, we have learned that conservative politics is the religion of the white Evangelical movement.


That’s not my chief complaint about this President, by the way. Not by half. Given how Evangelicals railed against the White House “immorality” in the Clinton years, this reversal makes clear their real motivation. They weren’t and aren’t interested in upholding the values and ethics espoused by the life of Jesus (or even how they understand Jesus). If they were, then they would have been consistent; either gracious toward Clinton and Trump or critical of both.

Instead, they condemned Clinton and make excuses for Trump. Why? I believe it is because what they were after in the Clinton years is the same as what they are after now: power. I was too young to understand it as a child. I really believed that they were grieved by the immoral actions of President Clinton. Now I see that it was all political posturing. I believed that conservative politics reflected the values of the white Evangelical religion. In the past few years, we have learned that conservative politics is the religion of the white Evangelical movement.

I am not claiming that the white Evangelical church was deliberately hypocritical. On the contrary, I believe they were being just as genuine in their condemnation of Clinton as they have been accepting of Trump. What I am claiming is that then and now, their religion has always been about accumulating power. (See “Christianity Will Have Power” by Elizabeth Dias, New York Times, August 9, 2020) It makes perfect sense to demonize Clinton – who was a barrier to their power, and continually absolve an unrepentant Trump – who is their access to power.

I am not claiming that the white Evangelical church was deliberately hypocritical. On the contrary, I believe they were being just as genuine in their condemnation of Clinton as they have been accepting of Trump.

That theirs is a religion of power is made more clear by the very fact that so many of them believe the laws of the United States should violently enforce their religious principles. How quick are they to defend their support for Trump (who famously said he has never repented) by touting the judges that Trump has seated these last four years? Their claim is that the end justifies the means but what is the end-game here? How do right-wing judges help white Evangelicals spread the message of Atonement, Redemption, or Salvation?

They don’t.

Conservative judges do not help white Evangelicals spread their message or interpretation of the Gospels. That, as it happens, isn’t what they care about. They use the appointments of judges to defend their support for Trump because it speaks to the true agenda of this movement: accumulating and maintaining power and influence at all costs. Put another way:

Because the pursuit of relevancy is the pursuit of influence, of power. And when power becomes your god, you’ll do as much biblical gymnastics as it takes to get it or keep it.

Jared C. Wilson: “This Theologically Orphaned Generation”,
November 14, 2017.

Power. That idol has plagued Christianity since before it was Christianity – back when it was just Jesus walking around being weird. Who was always trying to trap Jesus? It was the religious elite who were siphoning power off of Caesar, those invested in maintaining the status quo; the conservatives, if you will.

Constantine was the real devil. He was smart enough to envelop this subversive, relatively new religion by calling himself Christian and then shaping Christianity to reinforce his power and authority. Despots all over the world and all throughout the history who followed have exploited this weakness in Christianity and there is always a “Christian” faction that is primed and ready to bow down to this idol. They are the ones who were never truly following Jesus – they were seeking power.

Often times, they are the quickest to “worship” Jesus. Not unlike the religious elites in Jesus’ day, they flaunt their power by flaunting their religiosity. But when put to the test, they always bend the knee, their values, and their scriptures, to the idolatry of power. Worshiping Jesus seems to elevate his example so far out of reach that they can tell themselves they are exempt from having to follow Jesus. But Jesus repeatedly commands of his disciples: “Follow me.”

Throughout history, there have been true followers of Jesus who cared more about living the truths of the Sermon on the Mount than winning some fabricated culture war.


Throughout history, there have been true followers of Jesus who cared more about living the truths of the Sermon on the Mount than winning some fabricated culture war. They are the ones whose faith in Jesus extends well beyond political expediency. They have always cared more about living like Jesus lived than worshiping the fact that he died.

Their faith drove them to remain steadfast when they were martyred. It drove them to rise up against their religious leaders as they defended the Civil Rights Movement, stood against Hitler, opposed war, protested nuclear weapons, and fought for Women’s Rights. Their faith in Jesus is driving them into the streets now, demanding that Black Lives Matter and our LGBTQ+ siblings should be treated as sacred – because life is sacred. They aren’t seeking power, they are seeking Justice.

It has been hard to reckon with the fact that our parents’ generation has not been faithful the values they told us they had. It has been terribly disorienting to see them wink at all of this violence, defend white supremacy and call it “Christian.” My generation has been theologically orphaned.

But we have Ancestors – theological Ancestors. And our Ancestors’ example shines brightly enough to illuminate the path in front of us. We are the grown ups now. We mustn’t falter.

Where My Mama Lives

I was supposed to buy a house 

In Illinois

Where my mama lives

Had big plans

A closed in porch

And steady promises

But the job fell through

In Illinois

And there my credit went

Like when I came home 

From the war

Back in 2007 

Fell on HARD times 

And ended up

On unemployment

And 6 months later 

Kicked me off

Like they enjoyed it

They said I was done

With living off 

Handouts of the government

They said that I 

Owed Illinois

THAT I OWED ILLINOIS 

For what I’d taken

Me with my broken brain

And shattered life

Hangovers and hands shaking

With a Purple Heart

Beating in my chest

And on the pavement

Saying I can’t be on the government tit

I’m the MILK,

Baby

There’s no honor 

Bein first in line 

To catch a beating

While you’re up next

Cheering me on 

Saying “This we believe in”

All that pride 

In Illinois

For me getting eaten

Well that builder took 

Five Thousand Dollars

For all his expenses

One last fuck me

From the Fuck You State

That Land of Lincoln

Just please Lord

Keep me out of Illinois

Where my mama lives

I just can’t afford it 

Anymore

Where my mama lives

This is My Body

I attended church alone.

We had been told beforehand that this was to be our last in-person service for a long time. Those of us in attendance sat far away from each other and refrained from shaking hands, hugging, or touching. My children were not the only ones missing from our gathering; there were no children present. The absence of the children only added to the somber anxiety that fills the air of every room these days.

Lent is always serious and sober, but this year it felt like Peine Forte et dure and we are all Giles Corey; each day adding painful weight to our chests. Though it is almost September, I feel like I’m still waiting for Easter. Perhaps I have always been waiting for Easter but now I am more fully aware. Either way, this is a long night we are all living through.

Our church celebrates Communion every week. This is at the core of our theology and, given the egalitarian nature of our tradition, it is sometimes the only consistent belief and practice between our various congregations. As is our custom, I got in line and walked toward the front of our church where our pastors and laypersons alike stood with the bread and juice. We all stood far apart from one another in line – further proof that things had changed.

My theology is quite different from my fellow parishioners. I spent a decade in the Roman Catholic Church and when I left I brought Transubstantiation with me. For me, the bread and juice are the body and the blood of Christ. When I eat, when I drink, I consume Christ and bring Christ into my body.

Next in line for the bread, I bowed deeply at the waist like I have every Sunday for years and years. I mouthed the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

I wasn’t raised Catholic. I became Catholic when I left the religion of my youth – the religion of my family. I was raised Pentecostal. When I left the Pentecostal church I brought mysticism with me. My rote prayer became unintelligible as my thoughts became ineffable. My whispers were of a language that has never been used to colonize, never been used to do harm.

I stood up straight and stepped forward six feet.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” Allison said as she lifted the plate and I bowed my head.

“Amen,” I replied as I took Christ into my hands.

I stepped six feet to the right where Kalie held the chalice. Kalie, like Allison, was part of our pastoral team. Both of these people have ministered to me so much and it gripped my heart that they were the ones to present the body and blood of Christ to me on such a significant Sunday.

“The blood of Christ, poured out for you,” she said as she lifted the chalice and I bowed my head.

“Amen,” I whispered as I dipped the bread and moved it to my mouth; careful not to drop a single drop or crumb. As I walked down the aisle toward my seat I crossed myself, as always. I could feel hot tears streaming down my face and wetting the collar of my shirt.

I remembered the first time I received Christ as a Catholic. The countless times I received the Eucharist in a war zone as a soldier – how my hands shook so badly in those days. As I chewed I recalled living and working in D.C. as my life fell apart around me. I recalled attending Mass daily for years in D.C. – how my hands trembled worse in those days than when I was at war.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, while working toward my Master’s of Divinity, I learned that a Sacrament is something physical (substance or act) which is made Holy through human works (i.e. the Words of Consecration). My theology requires that those human works be done in community. Specifically, the Words of Consecration have always been said either by a Priest or alongside a Clergy person. The Bread has always been presented to me. The Chalice has always been held before me.

Vine Street Christian Church, Nashville, TN.

By the time I reached my pew I realized that I would not be able to receive Communion for the foreseeable future. Through war, desperation, tragedy, and catastrophe, Communion had always been my solace. After this day, I would not be able to partake of the Sacrament until the threat of the pandemic passes.

There were times in my life when uttering my responsorial obligation took every ounce of will left in my soul. There were times my heart could not authentically agree with the Words. There were times in D.C. when I was so hungover, or still a bit drunk from the night before, that my head would throb with every step I took toward the Host. No matter, the Eucharist was always there for me.

As we received the blessing in the Benediction, I gripped the pew in front of me. Allison and Kalie made their way to me immediately, and we stood six feet apart. They asked if I was okay. I opened my mouth to reply, but was unable to speak and just began to sob. I couldn’t put to words the deep feelings of loss and grief that pressed against my chest. I couldn’t express in words how alone I felt knowing that I would not experience Communion for some untold amount of time. So I wept. I wept bitterly as they attended to me with their loving, compassionate presence.

I finally said enough for them to understand my grief. Thankfully, I did not have to say much. I have been in Community with them both long enough that they know my theology and my relationship with this Sacrament. Kalie reminded me of the Priesthood of all believers. Allison bore witness to the truth that this sacred meal is timeless. They both promised to pray the Words of Consecration via telephone or video messenger any time, day or night. They told me that they loved me. They told me how sorry they were for my loss. They told me that they would continue to journey with me moving forward.

_______________________________

The next Sunday, I logged onto our church’s livestream. As Micah played piano to an empty church and a camera, I started mixing flour, oil, water, and salt. I kneaded the dough and cooked it in a skillet as I prayed the Lord’s Prayer in concert with our pastors, Thomas and Allison who were at the church, and with all of the other congregants who worshiped safely at home.

I donned my stole in my living room.
I bowed low and prayed, rote words at first and then in unintelligible words, as is my practice.

I held the Chalice, a juice glass from my cupboard.
I held the bread, broke it, and spoke the Words.

“This is my body…”

And for the first time, maybe ever in my life, I understood.

To My Scattered Colleagues

A lifetime ago, while stationed in Iraq, my supervisor was stranded at a base separate from us for three solid weeks. His absence created a number of obstacles for our finance team including our inability to officially close our business day. Each day that we conducted business (much like tellers at a bank), we were risking burying a mistake deeper. I was very afraid that balancing our money with our paperwork was going to prove impossible when he finally returned. Every few days, he would call and I would express my anxiety over this compounding problem.

“Don’t worry, Le Buhn,” he would say confidently, “I have an Ace up my sleeve.”
“Well I should hope you do,” I’d reply anxiously, “because I’m the only one distributing cash here and that means any screw-up will have MY name on it!”

We went on like this for three weeks. When my supervisor finally returned, I had conducted over 1,000 transactions and distributed well over 100K dollars without balancing my paperwork. I was terrified.

“So what’s this secret Ace you’ve been keeping up your sleeve?” I greeted him nervously.
“I’m looking at him,” he replied, “let’s get to work, Ace.”

A couple of hours later, my computer work, my paper work, and my cash, were perfectly balanced. In three weeks, over all of those transactions, I hadn’t made a single mistake. I was dumbfounded. My supervisor just laughed – he’d believed in me all along.

Now, dear friends, we are facing a most uncertain future. A pandemic has grabbed hold of the world and divided us into those who are petrified and those who are oblivious. Deforestation and wildfires have likewise choked the very lungs of our most sacred planet while a cruel and hateful government has worked tirelessly to support polluters and sell off precious land to a rich and powerful few. This government and the Canadian government continue to wage war on Indigenous People. People of Color are demonized, marginalized, oppressed, and erased while greed, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy seem to grow bolder, louder, and more violent. Our siblings in the LGBTQIA+ Community are targeted by hateful theology and heinous laws and our Trans siblings – especially our Trans siblings of Color – are murdered; stolen from us. ICE agents steal our neighbors and deny families safety after they’ve fled war and violence only to find their children stolen from them by the very government they hoped would save them. Our police forces continue to murder Black people with impunity and our prisons enslave our family members, neighbors, and friends. All the while, our planet grows hotter every year and our government works hard to make the problem worse.

There is so much to be afraid of and at present we can’t even meet together. We can’t enjoy the comfort of each other right now and it tears at my heart to think you may be scared or lonesome – because I’m scared and lonesome too. But I’ve got an Ace up my sleeve.

I don’t know what the future holds for this world, but I know the world is better off with you in it. And I don’t know how our respective religious institutions will respond to the coming trials but I know it will do so with you bravely speaking Truth with steel in your spine and thunder in your voice. Yes, there is much to be afraid of, but I’ve been in community with the future for the past three years and I can say boldly that tomorrow’s clerics are the bravest people I have ever met. As this world spins wildly out of control, you’ll be there – speaking Peace and Justice until the world bends to your demands. When suffering enters our world you will be there bearing witness when everyone else turns away. When our Elders tremble, you will be there to hold their hand.

You’ve taught me about Love. You’ve taught me about Grace. You’ve taught me about Justice and Equity. You’ve taught me about God. Together, our voices will cry out “Thy Kingdom Come” until the lion lies down with the lamb and the rocks say, “Amen!”

I never thought my final semester at VDS would end without me having the chance to look into your faces and thank you for your presence in my life. I never thought it would end without my thanking you in person for how you held me when my son and wife were in the hospital. I never thought it would end without me memorizing the details and contours of the Divine in your smiles but here we are – alone now, still reeling from the storm and looking anxiously toward our futures. Perhaps I’ll still get that chance, but even if I don’t, I will not succomb to my fears. I know that our future is secure because I know just how powerful you are.

You see, I have an Ace up my sleeve. This world is dark, but you are here and I could never despair of a world with you in it.

I love you, I am with you, I am forever grateful for you, and I have believed in you all along.

We Need to Talk about Abortion.

I met Pam when I was buying a car a number of years ago. I had worked for weeks with the salespeople and, after jumping through a lot of hoops, I was finally ready to sit down with the finance manager, Pam. She was a lovely person, in her early forties, with dark brown hair, olive skin, and very intense eyes. Somehow, within ten minutes of being in her office, she began to tell me about her life. I hung on her every word.

She had been part of an arrangement for marriage in her country of origin and moved to the U.S. about a year before they were to be married. He was very domineering and aggressive but she liked him – in time she began to love him. She was much more pious than he was so they had a lot of conflict over remaining sexually abstinent. He pressured her to have sex with him while they awaited the marriage ceremony. As a white, American man, it is not possible for me to understand nor capture the dynamics between men and women in her culture so I will not attempt to do so. What was clear to me as a listener is that she felt that she lost some of her agency in navigating this issue and she ultimately agreed to have sex with him prior to their marriage.

I don’t want to, but we need to talk about abortion – because I don’t want women like Pam to die.

Then she found out she was pregnant – that’s when the abuse began. He badgered her to get an abortion and she vehemently refused. So he began to threaten her. He told her that he would kill himself if she didn’t terminate the pregnancy, he would publicly ruin her in their community; a community where women are punished for having children outside of a marriage. This abuse was non-stop and he would break things and punch holes in the walls. She was afraid. And she loved him. So she terminated the pregnancy.

Then he left her.

We need to talk about abortion for a number of reasons, but mostly because there are lives at stake. For most of my life I was extremely conservative on this issue. I grew up Pentecostal which is to the right of most fundamentalist, evangelical churches. As my experiences grew more diverse, my perspective on abortion followed. This issue is the issue for so many “single issue voters” that we have to address it openly or we risk endangering more lives and building a government where catering to this one issue is all that extremist politicians have to do in order to gain power. I don’t want to, but we need to talk about abortion – because I don’t want women like Pam to die.

Before I begin, I want to put my cards on the table. I believe that the human activity of abortion is a tragedy. Every time. My belief that life should be preserved, cultivated, and endorsed is inextricably bound up with my religious identity. As a result of such a belief system, I hold that all efforts should be made to prevent the antecedent conditions that result in abortions: like rape culture, lack of sexual education, lack of access to contraceptives, toxic theology that inhibits people from using contraceptives, desperate socio-economic conditions that affect women of color at widely disproportionate rates, systemic white supremacy which (among other things) reduces the bodies of black women to objects that must be exploited and controlled, etc. Similarly, as an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere. Let me explain:

As an advocate for life, I am an undying supporter of access to safe, legal abortions everywhere.

It seems to me that most positions regarding the abortion debate in America do not proceed in a way that allows for the dissenting view to change their mind. Since before I was born, hard lines have been drawn on the issue of abortion or reproductive rights, and groups have been established on either side. Even the language we use around the topic is an identifier as to which camp we belong.

For instance, if someone begins a discussion by presenting the differing sides as “pro-life and pro-abortion,” I already know which side they are on; they’re on the side that actually believes there are people who are “pro-abortion.” Hint: no one is pro-abortion. Exactly zero people make their New Year’s Resolution to get as many abortions as possible. I’m not sure any of this language is useful anymore. Once the lines have been drawn, very few people are likely to switch sides and anyone who was going to switch likely has already. If we are going to get anywhere on this issue, and we really need to, then we have to examine what’s at stake for these differing positions and what can be accurately stated by each side.

The Left has made the mistake of dismissing the Right’s claims that a fetus is a living human being. I do, however, understand the reason that they’ve dismissed these claims. The Right has been notoriously hateful (especially the “christians”) and abusive toward women who have received abortions. They have, at times, been violent. The vast majority of those on the Right who have not been violent have been complicit through their silence and thinly veiled approval of the bombing of abortion clinics and the abuse of women walking into Planned Parenthood, the dehumanization of women and the assault on their agency and autonomy. But the evil committed by the Right does not necessarily negate the validity of their claim, though it may negate their moral standing. Their claim, that life begins at conception, is a theological claim that cannot be proved or disproved. This is a tension that we must hold.

Hint: no one is pro-abortion. Exactly zero people make their New Year’s Resolution to get as many abortions as possible.

In response to this tension, the Left has committed itself to changing the narrative; they choose instead to talk about “women’s rights,” and “women’s autonomy.” Now, given the historical and present dehumanization of women by men in power, I believe women’s rights, autonomy, and agency is something that we should talk about loudly and often. But it should be noted here, that to a person who genuinely believes that a fetus is the same as a baby, the mother’s body is not the topic of conversation. They believe they are talking about a separate body that is connected to, and dependent on, the mother; that is not the same thing. To them, talking about women’s rights is non-sequitur.

My suggestion is that the Left should begin its argument from the assumption that the Right is correct about life beginning at conception. I know that sounds antithetical, but hear me out. The research by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute that has spanned the globe for over 15 years has produced unmatched data on the rates of incidents of abortion that must be recognized. Key findings for the purposes of this post are:

  1. Rates of incidents of abortion are not changed by the legal status of abortion.
  2. The number of women who die during the abortion procedure is correlated with the legal status of abortion.
  3. Rates of incidents of abortion fall when access to sexual education and contraceptives rise.

For this reason, the “Pro-Life” position of working to overturn Roe v. Wade is falsely named; it would result in more death.

What that means for the issue of abortion in the United States is that overturning Roe v. Wade will not mean that abortion rates would fall. In fact, abortion rates are lower now than they were pre-Roe v. Wade. What making abortion illegal would do is increase the number of women who die as a result of receiving an abortion. Women like Pam.

If we assume that life begins at conception and every abortion is a lost human life, making abortion illegal would result in more human deaths since the number of abortions would not change but the number of mothers who die as a result of receiving abortions would rise. For this reason, the “Pro-Life” position of working to overturn Roe v. Wade is falsely named; it would result in more death. Pam’s pregnancy would have ended still, but Pam would have died too.

This is the reason the Left should disengage from the debate about the beginning of life. In fact, they should concede this point in order to win the argument. The Right says, “Life begins at conception,” to which the Left should respond, “but it does not end at birth.” A genuinely pro-life position is one that must advocate for access to safe, legal abortions.

In their attempts to stop legal abortions, the Right often targets organizations like Planned Parenthood. De-funding Planned Parenthood has become a way for GOP politicians to score quick points with their conservative bases for a generation. But this is anti-life given the facts that are spelled out in the above cited study.

This kind of hatred cannot be argued against intellectually; it must be confronted theologically.

Planned Parenthood provides safe and legal abortions which preserve lives (again: since the number of abortions is unchanged by legal status and more mothers die when abortion is illegal – resulting in a net loss of life (fetuses + mothers)). Perhaps most importantly, Planned Parenthood offers sexual education and contraceptives to women of all walks of life. Access to sexual education and contraceptives are directly correlated with reduced rates of incidents of abortion. To put it another way, the best thing a person who wants to end abortion can do to achieve that goal is protect the funding of Planned Parenthood!

While the Right has been calling themselves “Pro-Life,” the Left has been actively working to preserve life and protect life by keeping abortion legal. While the Right has been calling themselves “anti-abortion,” the Left has been actively reducing the rates of incidents of abortion by increasing access to education and contraceptives. For this reason, the Left is truly the “Pro-Life” position while the Right, if they had their way, would actual be responsible for more abortions (by decreasing access to sexual education and contraceptives provided by Planned Parenthood et al), and more dead mothers (by making abortion illegal). The Left should abandon their attempt to change the conversation and should instead turn and face the Right and beat them on their own terms.

In my experience, however, the more religious factions of the Right are not moved by this empirical data. They either dismiss it outright or they respond by saying that abortion is immoral and should therefore be illegal. This is an entirely different argument, however, as what is moral and what is legal rarely overlap. Racism is immoral though it is entirely legal. Sexism is immoral and legal. The dehumanization of the poor is evil and it is the backbone of: capitalism, prosperity gospel, red-zoning, gerrymandering, “right to work” laws, city ordinances targeting unhoused people, the war on drugs, “three strikes and you’re out,” the private prison industry, and the list goes on and on.

Ordained Evangelical ministers have argued to my face that these women’s lives should not be their concern – the concern of ministers.

The other argument the Right makes is that women who get abortions deserve to die, therefore their deaths should not be factored into the equation. Ordained Evangelical ministers have argued to my face that these women’s lives should not be their concern – the concern of ministers. When I’ve told them the stories I’ve listened to, when I’ve told them about Pam, they responded with mistrust – they didn’t believe her. They discredit her story and her in order to hold on to their ideological position, their hatred. This kind of hatred cannot be argued against intellectually; it must be confronted theologically.

Just as any position that advocates for making abortion illegal must not be called “Pro-Life,” but must instead be called “Pro-Punishment,” or “Pro-Death,” for the sake of accuracy, any person who is not advocating for the preservation of life, even the life of a teenage girl who got an abortion or for Pam who was coerced into the pregnancy and forced to have an abortion, must not call themselves a “Christian,” for the sake of accuracy. They must instead accept that theirs is a position of retribution, and is therefore the opposite of our self-sacrificing Christ.

In conclusion, I believe the Left has given too much ground to the anti-choice movement by dismissing the theological claims at hand. The facts are clear, though one must read beyond the abstract of the study. Regardless of when life begins, overturning Roe v. Wade would result in more deaths – with the same number of aborted fetuses and more dead women. To advocate for the deaths of these women by making abortion illegal, even though it would not save even one fetus, is not “Pro-Life,” it is not morally superior, and it certainly is not like Christ. If the Right is truly Pro-Life, they will end their campaign for retributive death and join those of us who are actually trying to stop abortion – by focusing their efforts on fighting the systems like rape culture that produce unwanted pregnancies, keeping abortion legal, and funding Planned Parenthood so that more women can have access to education and contraceptives. What happened to Pam is a terrible tragedy. It would have been a greater tragedy if she had died.