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Risk, masks, and an unveiling of our hearts

When Micah was seven days old, the resident at UK Children’s Hospital told us she was transferring him to Cincinnati Children’s. In UK’s PICU (pediatric intensive care), they operated in-house. They shut down the entire unit to visitors, including parents, and performed surgeries right in the child’s room. When they were prepping Micah for transfer, we were told that they were breaking the rules to sneak us in the back to see him before transport despite an operation being in progress. You might be tempted to think that was considerate of them, but really they were concerned that he might die during the trip. Tears trickled down my face as I looked at my infant covered with tubes and wires, but the resident in the corner sobbed as she watched.

Later that same evening at CCHMC, a team of specialists wanted to put Micah on dialysis. His ammonia levels were so high that nothing else would clean his blood. The problem was that he was technically too small for their smallest dialysis machine. It would remove too much blood from his body. They had a plan to add extra blood to minimize the risk, but the risk was great. We signed the papers anyway. The other option was to watch him die without trying anything.

Risk is something that has gone hand-in-hand with Micah’s life. I’ve watched him with bated breath for eleven years. His runny nose affects his behavior. A low fever starts a sick day protocol and murmured prayers as I stress clean. A simple stomach bug lands him in the ER for fluids. Risk is inherent in him being alive. Not just him, but all of us, though often to a lesser degree.

We live in an age of modern medicine. We can perform heart transplants, diagnose and treat diseases that were unknown sixty years ago, cure some types of cancer. But life is still risky. We accept risk as we ride in cars and jump on trampolines and bear children. To be alive is to be able to die. With a new virus raging and mutating around the globe, that risk stares us in the face. Some of us respond to risk by trying to over-control the risk. We overreact and cease to truly live. We refuse to love because to love is to be vulnerable. Others of us respond by ignoring all risk. We pretend we are invincible and other people’s cautions are absurd. Maturity insists on holding the tension. Living is risky; some risk is unnecessary.

We moved over the summer. News about the pandemic was better than it had been. We were hopefully waiting on a vaccine for Micah’s age group and starting to go places again masked as vaccination rates were rising. In a matter of weeks, hope diminished. The delta variant swept across the largely unvaccinated South and risk seems everywhere again.

We sent the boys back to school this year. The school system has had a mask mandate since last fall and decided to uphold it again this year. But I’ve listened to argument after argument against mask mandates and read more than one social media post from people who claim to be believers and they have left me horrified. Not at governmental overreach, although, of course, in any free country that is always a concern, but at our metrics for decision-making. A man stood within camera range at a local school board meeting holding a sign that said simply, but with great connotation, “My Body, My Choice.” A man tweeted that his bodily autonomy was worth more than the lives of others. Believers who uphold a pro-life ethic have historically opposed these arguments; suddenly we are overlooking or even supporting them.

I’m not without bias here, of course. Micah cannot be vaccinated yet. He is at more risk than my other children but they are also not without risk. I acknowledge this. Actually, it is the forefront of my argument. When I hear and see people claim that they get to decide if they want to wear a mask, that they cannot be inconvenienced for the health of others, that they don’t believe the pandemic is a big deal, it feels as though I’ve been slapped in the face. I want to hide Micah from people who are so callous toward his life. I’ve spent his entire life fighting for him to live, to be reasonably safe, to have space to thrive in his own way, and even people who would claim to care about him spout these views in front of my eyes.

I’m taking a systematic theology class this summer and my professor insisted that the Old Testament story is one of liberation, not liberty. She said that the Israelites weren’t freed from Egypt to do whatever they wanted; that would only land them back in bondage, this time to sin. They were freed in order to live in covenant with God. It was “freedom for,” not just “freedom from.” It is concerning to me to watch so many people claiming to know Jesus insist that they have freedom to do whatever they want regardless of how it affects others. It’s not a freedom to “serve one another through love” but a callous disregard for their neighbors (Galatians 5:13).

Kaitlyn Schiess tweeted “I wish we would think of masks like a spiritual discipline: I am wearing my mask as a way to physically love my neighbor in a specific way, but also as a small act that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, might form me into someone who sacrifices much more for the sake of others.” (Friends, I recognize there is a small portion of the population who are unable to wear a mask or be vaccinated. They are not who I am talking about; they too deserve our consideration.) Wearing a mask is a small sacrifice until we are so individualized that we no longer care for our neighbors. When we cease to care for the vulnerable, the immunocompromised, the one physically unable to be vaccinated, the young, suddenly wearing a mask is a restriction of the freedom that we insist is ours. But that freedom is bondage.

Instead of insisting that we are free to do what we like or prefer, that the government is not in charge of us or our children (as we buckle our toddlers into car seats), that we live by “faith, not fear,” what if we asked what we could do to reflect the heart of the Father?

What is God’s heart to the vulnerable? What is God’s heart to our neighbors? Perhaps we do not reflect it because we do not know it. We have memorized bullet points of doctrine and disregarded His story. Jesus is simply a rescue from hell instead of a new way to be human. A callous disregard of others did not characterize the life of a God who became human and gave up everything so that humanity could be restored. Perhaps it is time to evaluate whether we are even attempting to “walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6). I visited a local church’s women’s event on a Monday night and an unmasked woman commented that she had just taken her mask off. She said a woman in a mask came and sat beside her and she slipped on her mask as well. She continued as if her action was nothing, but I was struck by her consideration for someone she did not even know. May we follow in her footsteps.

We cannot remove risk. I have learned this in raising Micah. I remind myself that I am not in control and I never have been when anxiety claws at the back of my throat. I live in the hope that one day God will recreate the world and the sad things will come untrue. But this life and our witness in it still matter. We can be wise. We can use caution and learn from experts who serve us with their vocations. We can be considerate of the people who live around us. We can sacrifice for others instead of asking them to sacrifice for us.

Perhaps this is a good time to be off social media. I can skip the hot takes about masks and vaccines and also comments that might have come in response to this post calling me a socialist or a “sheeple” or questioning my faith in God. But I can’t help wondering, even if to myself, how the church recovers from this apparent drought of knowing who God is and the blatant disregard of our neighbors.







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