He was lifted — his tiny, weak, purple body — and laid procedurally against my chest. A chest that somehow rose and fell with ease on top of my broken heart. My eyes were filled with the aching tension required to hold back the kind of tears that don’t stop when they start. His face was covered with wired tentacles that tangled in chaotic fashion back to machines. Machines that beeped and flickered and alarmed soullessly when tiny lungs couldn’t do what they were made to do.
The havoc my first pregnancy wreaked on my body was enough to threaten the likelihood of another. And yet, here he was, in all his profound and perfect unlikeliness. The boy-that-almost-wasn’t, was. Minutes felt like hours that bled into days. Days that sometimes felt like his last when morning rounds revealed episodes of respiratory arrest so severe his body turned navy blue. Or nights when his heart rate was nearly undetectable. Or weight loss too dramatic to be sent home.
The hours spent holding my son, hoping the sound of my voice and the warmth of my skin were enough to keep him earth-side, I watched. And I listened. We were surrounded by warfare. By life fighting so hard to live, so hard to just be. Babies no bigger than the palm of my hand, with entire teams of personnel huddled around them in sports-like fashion, just watching. Just waiting. Anticipating the call to arms when tiny hearts get tired, when tiny lungs give out. Each one of these little humans were clinging to life like that one blade of grass that breaks, unceremoniously, through concrete. So strong in their resolve. But so vulnerable to the complete destruction of a careless heel.
Each night we would leave this world of ethereal fragility and enter another in utter turmoil. The fear of unwittingly bringing COVID-19 into the NICU was crippling. We wore masks, we isolated. We washed our hands then washed them again and again and again. We scrubbed and sanitized until our skin burned and fell off. Something as simple as the common cold — a runny nose you hoped was seasonal allergies, a sore throat you ascribed to the changing seasons, a cough you assumed was just the hoarseness of the morning — are all careless heels trampling the blades of grass you can see, and so many more that you can’t. The common cold is enough to put these children on trial for their lives. COVID would certainly be a death sentence.
My news feed that previously projected images of joy, reels of jokes and updates from the people we know, love and trust were suddenly filled with conspiracy theories and propaganda. There were calls for anti-mask protests and action against corrupt “big governments.” I scrolled through angry rants and fearful sermons warning about the threats to personal liberty and religious freedom. And the most hurtful of all? The angry rantings of my fellow Christians proclaiming that a “virus that only affects the elderly and the vulnerable” was being leveraged to strip them of their Christian, God-given rights. “Welcome to communist China,” touted my cousin, “why are we in lockdown over a virus with a 97% survival rate?”
My heart broke and the pieces fell all around me like shrapnel. Because what she actually said was that my child, the 3%, was an acceptable sacrifice to be made so that she could host Thanksgiving Dinner with all the pomp and fanfare of years passed. So that she could put on her Sunday best and stroll the aisles of a full church congregation. 3% was the acceptable markup to maintain her comfort, and ultimately, her privilege. I cried. Then I prayed. Then I remembered…
There is another term for vulnerable. Jesus called them the least of these. And he commanded that we search for them, take care of them and protect them. Even if it comes at great personal cost. We are instructed to care for and serve them with the same unconditional and sacrificial love Christ demonstrated on the cross. But here is the catch: vulnerability isn’t always easy to see.
Beyond the obvious fragilities that come with advanced age, there are also significant vulnerabilities in able looking bodies. Poverty, homelessness, disenfranchisement are all barriers to healthcare, nutrition, shelter and overall health and wellness. Anyone with diabetes, asthma, COPD, autoimmune disorders and too many other afflictions to be named here. People recovering in ICUs from major traumas, surgeries and severe critical illnesses. Those with chronic health conditions who are working, going to school, raising families and active in their communities. People like my parents who live and breathe caring for others, who are idolized by their grandchildren and cherished by my sister and I. People like my best friend’s husband who is still working, raising three children and fostering a fourth — all with a critical heart condition. And tiny babies in incubators. Human life washed into this world by a tsunami of painful obstacles. They are vulnerable too. And their lives are no more or less valuable than the elderly who are also vulnerable to this virus. No one life is more or less precious than another.
For Christians, this isn’t our first date with a pandemic. Author Brian Stiller, in his article for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, references harrowing historical scenes of Christians setting aside personal comforts and taking on extraordinary risk to care for the afflicted and vulnerable. In an interview with Christianity Today, world renowned biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, discusses how Martin Luther set the standard for the Christian response to major public health crises, “I begin with the point that Luther made that we must not spread infection. That’s irresponsible. It’s playing around with other people’s lives. And if we love our church buildings more than we love our neighbors, then woe betide us.”
This subsequent date we are on, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Somewhere between then and now we have grown so accustomed to our culture of comfort that we have forgotten what real emergency looks like. A century of unprecedented health and wealth has obscured what real suffering looks like. In this time of prosperity, our privilege has so far removed us from the “least of these” that we no longer recognize what real oppression looks like. And in North America, where Judeo-Christian political ideologies shape the greater part of our Western culture, true religious persecution is almost never inflicted upon Christians here. Therefore, if your identity as a follower of Christ is more heavily invested in your religious traditions and routines than it is in Christ himself, it can be easy to mistake inconvenience for Communism.
Free will — personal liberty — is among one of the greatest of God’s gifts. But it can also be argued that the very first act of personal liberty led to the fall of humanity. Individual behavior has the potential to inflict catastrophic harm to others. One of the greatest struggles of the Christian experience is the call to lay down your own privileges and take up that of a servant’s heart; “in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).”
Your human nature is ever at odds with the scriptural call to be Christlike. In fact, there is no greater love than he who would lay down his life for a friend (John 15:13). It would be naïve, ignorant even, to assume this passage as only literal.
Christ hung on a cross. He forfeited his own free will, his own personal liberty. He made the greatest sacrifice of all. He literally gave his life. All you’re being asked to do is slightly modify yours. I can think of a lot of things a hell of a lot easier than hanging from a cross, dying of asphyxiation and multiple stab wounds; four, to be exact.
Wash your hands.
Wear a mask.
Stay six feet apart.
It’s really not that hard. So don’t be an asshole. You can do better.