The 43rd Day of Coronatide*
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ezekiel 37, one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Bible. It’s the most famous prophecy in a book burgeoning with wild, wonderful visions and strange conversations with God that make me feel as if my conversations with God, halting as they might be, aren’t that weird after all.
In 37, God takes Ezekiel out to a valley full of human remains—a mass, open grave. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord’,” God instructs Ezekiel. Ezekiel does as God says. (I wonder: Did he have to stifle a giggle? Did he harbor any doubt?) “There was a sound as I prophesied, and look, a clatter,” Ezekiel says, “and the bones came together, one bone to another. And I saw, and, look, upon them were sinews, and flesh came up, and skin stretched out over them from above, but there was no breath in them.” So God directs Ezekiel to summon the four winds, which come whooshing along, right into those lifeless bodies. “And they lived, and they stood up on their feet, a very very great legion.”**
Detail from “Vision of Ezekiel of the Valley of Dry Bones,” a 1579 engraving by Johann Sadeler in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. I love the dancing skeleton on the right-hand side
This could be a scene out of The Lord of the Rings, a postmortem army raised to march somewhere or other. It’s so dramatic, so laughably ridiculous, so beyond fantastic...that I want it to be true. Most scholars read the prophecy as metaphor, a restoration promise for the people of Israel, who, during Ezekiel’s day, were mostly exiled and scattered far from home. I confess I want to read it in other ways too, especially during a time like ours that is so marked by death.
Whether you read it figuratively or literally, this much is true for those of us who can’t—or don’t want to—shake the conviction that God is still working in the world: God doesn’t need Ezekiel to help with resurrection, yet God invites him to do it. God can heal and restore without us, yet God invites us to participate—to listen and to proclaim hope.
The invitations of Ezekiel 37 came to mind as I talked the other day with my friend Donna Field. An ordained minister and a registered nurse, she works as a clinical ethics consultant for a hospital system in New York—which means that she’s serving in the midst of the COVID-19 storm. In my view, Donna’s important work answers the invitation to listen and to proclaim hope in beautiful ways.
COVID-19 dominates Donna’s days and nights; she’s on call 24/7. Her job is to listen—to patients, to patients’ families, to doctors and nurses and other hospital staff—and to mediate. Amidst the heightened emotion and tremendous stress of severe illness and possible death, she and her team act as a steadying force for everyone navigating the turbulence. “We want to bring mutual understanding of the desires of the decision makers and the reality of what the doctors are trying to tell them,” she says. “We listen to all sides.”
Many of us like to say we listen, but we’re actually not that good at it. One of the things I appreciate most about Donna—and one of the things I want to learn from her—is how she listens. “I say, ‘I want to hear your story.’ That’s the first thing,” she says. She’s working on a doctorate in spiritual resilience. As part of her research, she’s interrogating things most of us might miss, things that might give her clues about aspects of a person’s story that aren’t immediately apparent. For instance, “I’m focusing on the words ‘Oh my God.’ Why do you say that? Nine times out of 10, it’s reactionary,” she says. “So I’m like, ‘Great. Tell me about your relationship with God.’ Hopefully I can piece together what their journey is, what their relationship is with whatever god they believe in.”
Donna draws an intriguing distinction between silence and largely unspoken presence. “Silence to me can describe uncaring,” she explains. “So can I be not silent but a presence, listening to their stories? To me, loving my neighbor as myself is listening.” At the right moments, she gently nudges her conversation partner. “You explore. And sometimes exploration is simply, ‘Tell me more.’ Because I don’t think you’re done with your story.”
Stories are both precious gifts and navigational aids. In a world that loves clarity and certainty, blacks and whites, Donna has no such luxury. Her task is to walk with people through the grays. Understanding their stories helps her formulate answers to tough questions: How do you know when it’s time to tell a family that there isn’t anything else to be done except comfort care? What do you say to loved ones who insist there must be more the doctors can do? How do you help people understand that, though patient autonomy is near-paramount in normal times, these aren’t normal times? “We struggle with that in medicine, because we’re so in tune with the autonomy of the patient,” she says. “During a disaster, autonomy does go to the bottom of the list sometimes, and social justice rises to the top: What is for the greater good?”
One aspect of COVID-19 that has been under-covered is the non-physical toll it’s taking on front-line workers. “The moral injury is going to be acute. There are people who are not going to recover from this,” Field says. That includes not just doctors, nurses, and therapists but also cleaners and other staff who keep hospitals running. “They are being hammered emotionally. So many of them were exposed a few weeks ago, have been out for a couple of weeks, and then they’re coming back, still with the effects of the disease. They’re tired.”
What I didn’t expect was how hopeful Donna seemed. Where does she find hope? “The talents and absolute drive of these people who will not give up. I can see that they are truly servants,” she says of her colleagues. “Doesn’t matter if they’re Christian, Muslim, pagan, atheist. Even those who have been affected by this disease, they come back ready and willing. They’re tired, but they’re not shirking their responsibilities.”
Then there’s her faith. “Resurrection Sunday is not just one day a year. We live in the hope of Christ every day,” she says. “It may seem there is no end in sight, but every day can be an Easter Day. By delving into each other’s stories and talking and connecting and being aware there are people who are isolated and reaching out and loving your neighbor.”
These have been difficult days for so many of us, in so many ways, and we don’t need to rank our various griefs. They all suck. Though most of us aren’t in Donna’s position, we can all be hopemongers in the ways she suggests. We can share stories. We can connect, even if not in the ways we most want to. We can love our neighbors well. And whether you pray or prefer good vibes, I hope you’ll join me in praying for and sending all the good vibes you can to Donna, the people she works with, and those to whom she and her team are providing care.
What I’m Growing: I should have planted spinach a while back, but I still need to get mesh as protection from the bunnies that live under our back deck. I did start tomatoes and peppers last week. To my surprise, the tomatoes germinated within just four days.
Back: Sun Gold tomato plants, which produce fruity little orange orbs. In front are Black Krim
The main thing I’ve been growing, though, is hair. Ugh. My last haircut was exactly 50 days ago. Send help—there isn’t enough product.
What I’m Cooking: Honestly, I’m more excited about what you’re cooking. I’ve loved seeing photos of all your different versions of fried rice. Michael, a reader in Illinois, told me he made a breakfast version with sausage, onions, and peppers the other day. “Is that weird and unacceptable?” he asked. Absolutely not. I love fried rice for breakfast.
Fried rice from the kitchens of Kyle (Michigan), Annalise (New Jersey), and Jabe (New York)
I wrote an essay about the Farminary’s chicks that I might share with you soon. But I wanted to honor the squeamish and not talk about the chicks and roast chicken in the same letter. (Wait, did I just...? Oh well.) We love a simple roast chicken. I usually put carrots and potatoes on the bottom of the pan, to roast in the drippings. This time I tried something new: While I always put butter under the skin, especially on the breast side, because the happy birds we get from our local butcher are pretty lean, this time I added minced garlic. Highly recommend.
The bird’s carcass goes into a pot to make stock, along with chicken feet, if I have any in the freezer. The stock is great for ramen or maybe barley soup. And since we can never finish a whole bird, we have plenty of meat left to make chicken salad. Mine is a variation on a recipe from my friend Sharon: chicken, onion, celery, walnuts, halved green grapes, mayo, mustard, salt, pepper. (What? Is that not a recipe? As with last week’s fried rice, I trust your taste buds.)
What I’m Reading: One of my favorite Instagram accounts is @prayersfromterry. My seminary classmate Terry Stokes writes heartfelt, often hilarious collects every day or two. One recent star is a collect called “For the haters”: “O Christ who looked on the haters with love, but also stunted on them, we commend to thee all who drink haterade. Make us receptive to the real ones who bring genuine constructive criticism, but when folks come out of the woodwork to keep us from doing our thing, prepare a force field and a three-course meal for us in the presence of our enemies, and keep our minds on that which is lovely and praiseworthy. Haters will say it’s photoshop, but make us bear the image of the One who got ‘em with the resurrection and ascension, whose thug life is also a hug life, who reigns with our Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” Amen indeed.
What I’m Listening To: I struggle with fear. A lot. Fear of rejection. Fear of abandonment. Fear of insufficiency. Fear of betrayal. Fear of heights. Fear of roaches. Fear of this sentence—and this newsletter—being a failure. I don’t write that to elicit sympathy, truly. It’s just the reality I live and wrestle with. Sometimes music calms the nerves in a way little else can. Lately, I’ve been listening to “Do Not Be Afraid,” a setting of part of Isaiah 43 by Philip Stopford and Gerard Markland. It’s especially moving to know that it was commissioned by a British couple for their daughter’s baptism, a sung blessing and a word of hope for their child. “When the fear of loneliness is looming, then remember I am at your side,” it goes. “When you dwell in the exile of a stranger, remember you are precious in my eyes.”
I’ve written three of these newsletters now. I’d love feedback. Are they a good use of your time? Are they too long? What questions do you have? As ever, feel free to email me: email@example.com.
I’m so glad we can stumble through this together. I’ll try to write more soon.
*I’m counting my days from March 10th, when my governor, Gretchen Whitmer—also known as That Woman in Michigan, First of Her Name, the Stalwart—declared a state of emergency. May she continue to speak out in servant leadership. And for the love of God and the sake of our neighbors, may we continue to #StayHome.
**The translations of the Hebrew Bible here come from Robert Alter’s majestic version, which was published last year by W.W. Norton. I highly recommend it.