Formation

My Spiritual Formation in the Wake of COVID

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March 2021 was a difficult month for our family. After a full year of carefully wearing masks and distancing, our youngest son contracted COVID-19. Then, a day later, our oldest son was sick. A week later my wife tested positive, and then it was my turn. The boys experienced the virus as a bad cold—sore throat, running nose, two more weeks of virtual school. My wife experienced it like a bad case of the flu and recovered in a handful of days. I experienced the virus most severely, with just about every symptom, including a loss of my sense of taste and smell.

After a week, I still hadn’t kicked the virus. A deep, frequent, and annoying cough just wouldn’t leave. Additionally, I began to experience shortness of breath, like wearing a life jacket two sizes too small, the straps cinched down a bit too tight. After a video call with a doctor, she advised me to go to the emergency room. I assumed I’d go through a series of tests and be home in a few hours with a prescription in hand. But the tests revealed COVID pneumonia and, most concerning, a pulmonary embolism on my left lung. Due to the severity of a blood clot on the lung, they admitted me to the COVID ICU, an experience I sincerely hope no one else has to endure. It was scarier than I have yet to fully process at this point.

Due to the severity of a blood clot on the lung, they admitted me to the COVID ICU, an experience I sincerely hope no one else has to endure. It was scarier than I have yet to fully process at this point. Click To Tweet

After 24 hours, I was discharged and sent home, but I was shaken. I had little energy and a lot of brain fog. Clear and direct instructions from the pulmonologist included refraining from all strenuous physical activity for six weeks, along with three months of blood thinner medication. I slept 13 hours a night for the next week. My strength came back slowly, as did my energy and personality. After almost three weeks, I finally felt myself again.

***

An alarm on my phone rings twice daily, reminding me to take my blood thinners. The packaging of my medication is not the plastic burnt-orange bottle with a white child-proof cap. Instead, my pills are intricately tucked into a white, rectangular, glossy, cardboard box, with blister packaging, which opens like a book. Nicely organized in rows and columns, it indicates each week and day, and mornings and evenings. It feels like a children’s Advent calendar, but without chocolate; just minuscule maroon pills.

Each time an alarm rings, each time I locate the day on the chart, each time I punch out the pill from the blister packaging, I immediately think of that powerful little line from Moses in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” This verse is often read by pastors at funerals. I’ve preached that verse at funerals, too, but I’ve not pondered it much outside of that context.

In the midst of the pandemic, I’d grown to pray the Psalms more frequently and earnestly. The Psalms articulate clearly the emotional landscape of the uncertainty and stress I was feeling in my head, my heart, and my body. They provided training wheels for my prayer life and calming guidance on all the colors and contours of my inner state. I kept the Psalms close to me in my ICU bed, in the midst of all the tubes, wires, and beeps. Now I’ve embodied this collection of prayers, making them my own.

Each time I grab a glass of water and swallow my pill, I’m forced to number my days. How could I not? Today was Day 21 according to the chart. Twenty-one days since I had an intense experience in the ICU, 21 days since I learned that a tiny blood clot could have killed me.

I’m grateful to be learning to number my days before my own funeral.

I find that each time I swallow my pill, I have a clearer perspective. Many things that felt significant in the past now feel strangely trivial. I am less stressed and impatient about situations—running late to a meeting, being on hold with customer service, Amazon shipping me the wrong product—than I was before. Numbering my days through blood thinner blister packaging has offered me a clearer outlook on my life and the world, and I hope this means my heart is growing wiser in the process. I believe it is. I hope it stays with me long after I complete my medical Advent calendar.

***

As you’ve heard (or maybe have experienced firsthand), one of the unique side effects of contracting the virus is that some people have lost their sense of taste and smell. Over the past year, I’ve wondered what that experience might be like, where there is no difference between ice cream sandwiches and green beans and a barbacoa burrito at Chipotle. But now I know. It is strange, indeed. Everything I put in my mouth tasted like cardboard. Food became a low priority for me; eating felt like a chore, like I was eating in black and white. I even had to write EAT FOOD on my Google calendar many days, as both a reminder and as motivation.

My stomach would growl in its desperate attempt to grab my attention and remind me that it was 4 p.m., and I still hadn’t eaten anything yet. I’d sigh and think that I probably should put something in my stomach for my own good, but I had no desire to do it. I wished it could take the bypass and just drive around my mouth and go straight to my stomach. If there was ever a time to start eating kale salads at every meal, this was it.

While my sense of smell is still AWOL, I’m grateful my sense of taste returned. Last week, my wife and I went out to lunch at a taco joint. I just about jumped up and down when I experienced for the first time again the wonderful explosion of taste at the first bite of fish tacos and queso blanco with my chips. My taste buds woke up! I wanted to yell to the table next to us. I’m eating in color and hi-def again!

In my loss of these senses, I realized that our physical senses are amazing gifts from God. We learn, of course, to appreciate things when they are taken away from us. I’ve never purposefully thanked God for my senses more than I have over the past month. Our senses are gifts; they are also wonderful tools and vehicles for our own spiritual formation. They are avenues in order for us to experience God and his world. I’m grateful there is a God who wants to be enjoyed by His creation in much the same way I enjoy sushi and Thai massaman curry.

I’m grateful there is a God who wants to be enjoyed by His creation in much the same way I enjoy sushi and Thai massaman curry. Click To Tweet

***

But meant for more than merely experiencing God and his world, our senses are meant to help us to delight and savor.  When my sense of taste was absent, eating was a purely functional experience. As I’d sit down for another meal, scooping food into my mouth, it was entirely transactional. Sadly, I realized there have been times where this would adequately describe my own relationship with God.

God,

Please fill me.

Give me what I need to make it through today.

Amen.

Those times I’ve engaged with God in a transactional posture were purely functional. But the times in my life when I have felt the closeness of God and the vitality of relationship with him have felt like enjoying a wonderful meal—delighting, relishing, savoring. That simple yet profound line from Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” has stuck with me. I want a rich experience, not an impersonal transaction.

That simple yet profound line from Psalm 34:8, 'Taste and see that the Lord is good,' has stuck with me. I want a rich experience, not an impersonal transaction. Click To Tweet

God wants me to delight in him like I delight in fish tacos and queso blanco.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in The Message also come to mind: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth” (Mt 5:13). Our role as followers of Jesus, as people belonging to the Way, is to help bring out the God-flavors of the world. God’s world is to be savored, enjoyed, delighted in. And that’s a crucial part of our mission: helping people to also experience—to savor and delight in—the goodness of God and His world. Our Christian existence is embedded in the commission to help people taste the flavors of God’s goodness and grace.

I long for the day when my sense of smell will return. Hopefully soon. I want to smell flowers and freshly ground coffee and a sizzling steak on the grill again. Hopefully, I will in due time; meanwhile, I’ll try to be patient. Though it might be strange to say, I am grateful for the experience I’ve had with COVID, despite my scary time in the ICU. It’s taught me to number my days in ways I haven’t before. It’s helped me savor fully (maybe truly for the first time) tasteful food, and to reflect on a vibrant, flavor-rich relationship with the God of the universe that is available to me and everyone else.

All of this has helped me to be present, to delight, and to not take a single day—or breath—for granted.

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