Archives For testimony

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number ten. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I worry a lot about getting jaded in the hospital.

Sometimes it looks like no one cares in there.

This trauma alert came in, a married couple who had been assaulted. The husband was hit by a two-by-four and the wife had a black eye — but the doctors and nurses were upset that the incident wasn’t more serious. The usual frantic pace of the trauma team was replaced by eye-rolling. One of the nurses yelled, “Boring.” Someone yawned really loud. Two doctors ripped off their gloves and stormed out. The couple was downgraded to another part of the hospital. I visited the couple, and they couldn’t speak English, and part of me was grateful for that.

There was an even worse situation, when a man’s heart had stopped and his chest was cut open and a doctor reached in through his ribcage to pump his heart back to life. The man didn’t make it. Someone said, “The floor’s ruined, what a lot of blood.” Two nurses high-fived over the dead body: “That was fricking awesome!” A doctor raised the roof. The body was wheeled out quickly.

All this sounds awful, and these occurrences are a rare thing, and I work with excellent people. And of course, medical abuse is never okay. I can’t ever make light of that. But I really do get why we get jaded. I was amidst professionals who had been doing this a long time, and they had created this safe, hovering, compensating distance in order to be effective. It’s why medical staff can’t work on their own family members — there’s too much at stake, and that desperation can fog up somebody’s thinking. Clinical work is clinical. It’s the only way you can reach inside a man’s chest and grab his organs in your fist.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number nine. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I’m learning that death and dying don’t always lead to a “wake-up call.” What I mean is: the hospital isn’t some grand place that brings every loved one together. There’s not always a renewed appreciation for life. I’ve had to let go of the Hollywood idea that sickness leads to maturity. Families stay mad. Fathers die alone. Mothers won’t take the phone call. Children refuse to visit. Everyone handles grief differently and we make the mistake of rushing towards closure, when there’s a tempo and a pacing, and sometimes it’s a lifelong battle. That whole idea of “This will make you stronger” is an intentional thing you have to chase, and not everyone wants to when they’re stuffed full of tubes.

Usually the hospital brings out the worst in people because real life is way more complicated, and pain and illness are really terrible things.

I can’t judge them. Actually, the opposite. If they want to flip a table, I’m right there with them. It’s what I’m there for, to meet them at their lowest in that exhausting ocean of pain.

Lectures and lessons don’t work in that place.
Right there, in the pit, they can only shout against the dark.
I’m in the deep, shouting too, enough to shout ourselves out.

Not everyone makes room for this, and I can understand why grief pulls us into destructive patterns: because we didn’t have a place to vent, to process, to see it through to the end. This isn’t an automatic flip of a switch. It requires getting through the messy part if we want any chance to see above the water again, and it’s a raw, slobbery, ugly, fist-shaking journey that has to happen, without coercion, alongside each other without condescending, but descending.

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I got an incredibly humbling email from a wonderful therapist who read my book on persevering through pain and used it for a book club with other therapists. She also shared her journey through some very hard times. I wept reading her email, both tears of sorrow and joy. With her permission, I now share her testimony with you.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number eight. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I had four trauma alerts in a row. They happened in the same hour; the first two happened within five minutes of each other.

As strange as this sounds, one of the things I like about traumas is the teamwork. Of course, the situation is awful: it’s frantic, fast, sweaty, often bloody and crowded, and there’s a human being hanging in limbo. I don’t want to lose sight of that. But given where we are, I would trust this trauma team if I was the guy on that bed. The medical staff in the room knows their part, like the pins in a lock that fit the contours of a key, and they weave in and out and create this quilt of knowledge around the patient, with hand-in-hand humility, each bringing their expertise to the table. I have nowhere near the proficiency of a doctor or nurse, but I’m still a tiny part of that room somehow. It feels like I belong, like purpose is stirring there.

Though the individual visits are wonderful, like slow dancing, and the conversations can be life-changing — the trauma bay is this electrified organism trying to bring back the dead, a highly choreographed ballet. I think people have to be a little crazy to enter the medical field and to work the emergency department. It’s the one place where you have to be completely, fully engaged with undivided allegiance to the moment. It’s probably why I like it: the work of healing requires me to be fully alive.

Our didactic was about dealing with compassion fatigue and secondhand grief. A chaplain’s regular day is full of exposure to pain and death with almost zero closure, and while it takes an obvious toll: most people don’t realize that until it’s too late. Some of the signs are snapping at others in a rage, random bouts of crying, and feeling like you’re bothering people if you talk about it.

I’m understanding more and more that simply helping people is extremely draining and unromantic, and not many of us count the cost of pouring out for others. There’s no Hollywood montage full of high fives and confetti. It’s usually dirty unappreciated work, sleeves rolled up, waist high with people who are rightfully scared, angry, lonely, and sometimes slipping. There might be some people who have iron skin for this sort of thing, but I’m not one of them.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number seven. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

The nurse told me that Larry wasn’t going to get the heart transplant. He had failed the criteria. The first thing he did was to page the nurse for a chaplain, and I was the first one available. I got to his room just thirty minutes after he found out, and he was weeping. I’m sure I would be, too.

I walked in and Larry sat up. He still looked strong, a full head of hair, very gentle eyes. Like a lion, or a bear cub. “Chaplain,” he said. He smiled really big through tears. “You’re the guy I need here right now. Have a seat, please.”

Something clicked in me, fell into place out of nowhere, when he said, You’re the guy I need here right now. I was needed here, right now, for a reason. It’s not something I feel often, to be needed, to be greeted with purpose. It was a strange feeling, and a good one.

“They gave me two weeks,” he said. “Two months at most.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I know it’s crazy to ask, but how are you?”

He laughed. Genuinely. And cried. “I’ve accepted it, chaplain. You see the news on the TV? I think it’s a good time to go. I’m ready to see God. I’m ready to see my parents and my grandma. I’ve accepted my death.”

I thought maybe this is what he wanted me to hear. I said, “It’s okay to be upset, too.”

He laughed again. It was a wonderful sound. “I really am upset, yeah. Leaving behind my wife, my kids. Just two months.”

“How do you plan to spend it?”

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number six. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

Maybe this is a selfish thought: but I wonder all the time if I’m even making a difference with anything. In church ministry, I’ve invested hours and weeks and months into people, only to see them go off the deep end or disappear off the face of the earth. I know I can’t see people as results and rewards, but I can’t help but get my spirit sucker-punched when someone simply walks away.

A couple weeks ago, there was a young patient who was a drug addict, going through withdrawal and waiting for surgery. I had the most incredible conversation with her. She opened up about her past of abuse, her children, her family, her drive to get better. I encouraged her like crazy; I shared my own past of addictions. Really, I was worried I had crossed a line about that, because counseling is supposed to be a bit one-sided with the asking-and-exploring, but I felt she needed much more than the open-ended stuff. She wept and we prayed and I scheduled a follow-up.

I later found out she was having her friends drop off drugs in her hospital room. It had messed up her recovery and she had to be changed into an anonymous patient so that no one could get to her. Our talk seemed to be just that: talk.

I don’t consider myself too naive about this. I’ve had multiple friends and family members who have gone to rehab, for the second and third and tenth time, making promises and crying those pity-tears and begging for a place to stay. I’ve been there. Sometimes we really mean it, but addiction is an ugly thing. I know the deal. But you know, this one just hurt. It’s completely unprofessional of me to even get that mad about that. It’s just — I really believed her. I was mad that addiction had stolen yet another wonderful heart. And I had to remember that people are way more complicated than the moment, and that addiction is a terrible monster, and that no one can get better unless they want it for themselves more than anyone else. I had to unfurl from this savior-complex. Probably no thirty minute conversation was ever going to change her; maybe years of therapy wouldn’t, either, and I had to let go of that self-imposed responsibility.

It reminds me of that story where a prisoner got a million-dollar heart transplant, but he died a month later because he didn’t take care of himself. There’s probably more to it than that, but I’m sure it really bummed out the surgeon and the family of that organ donor.

I just wonder all the time:
Am I even making a difference? Is this going to work? Am I wasting myself? 

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Photo by Graham, CC BY 2.0

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number five and a half. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

The hospital keeps giving me hope and doubt, all at once, in a giant, confusing, clenched ball of steel yarn in my chest. Every corner I turn, I know there’s a wave coming, good or bad, and I have to go along for the ride. One moment I’ll sit with a couple who wants their baby baptized, and another moment I’m with a husband whose wife isn’t going to make it through the night. In and out of the tide, I’m entering these real lives, sharing their biggest hopes and darkest fears. Every room, I’m jumping into the middle of a play, catching up on the plot and the past, playing my part the best I can.

I want to be one of those guys who “doesn’t take my work home with me,” but as much as I try, I don’t know how. The curtains close but I’m still back there, with those families, the tears, the relief. I’m permanently a part of them now, and they’re a part of me. We might not remember each other, but something in us does, you know — that unnamable, inconsolable thread that makes us who we are.

Every patient steers me by imperceptible degrees. I see something hard, and it turns me one way. I see something hopeful, and it turns me another. I wish I could resist the wave, but it’s part of my job: to enter the boat, and to face the hell and high water, to get a glimpse of heaven in the heartache.

I was with a chaplain on his last day at the hospital, and near the end of our shift, we got a call to be with a child. He was in fourth grade and had been in a terrible car accident. His mother had made it; his father and his four year old sister had died. A week had passed and the boy still didn’t know about his father and sister; the boy had suffered a brain injury and couldn’t talk. He could only write his needs on a whiteboard.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number four. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I kept hearing stories in snippets, and I wondered about the whole thing.

There was a man who had survived stomach cancer, car accidents, a gasoline fire, a broken skull, and a direct hit by lightning.

A woman who suffered a heart attack because her mother and brother had died within weeks of each other.

Two different women, one young and one old, who were once very successful but kept burning themselves with flammable fluids because of the demons in their head. “I can’t help it,” one said. “I don’t know why I do this,” said the other.

A woman who was obviously abused by her husband, who wanted to stay longer in the hospital because she was afraid of the monster at home: but she wouldn’t admit what was happening.

I sat with a mother who was holding her baby in her hand. We had been called to NICU to offer a final blessing and a baptism, but we were too late. The baby had coded. Her lungs had become like melted wax and she couldn’t breathe on her own. She barely fit her mother’s palm. I wondered about the story she would never get to live. I wondered about God and why and “His Will” and the meaning and a reason and a crushed future and how life could keep going after this. I wanted to talk with the mother but the mother didn’t want to talk and I thought that was okay. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes the stories are told in silence.

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Photo by faungg, CC BY 2.0

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number five. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I’m always trying to shake this feeling that I’m not fitting in my own skin. That ickiness is always there.

Even when I’m good at something, I constantly wonder if I’m getting it right. It’s like that strange phantom when you go on a trip: Did I grab everything? Do I have my wallet? Where’s my charger? Is the stove off? Am I wearing pants right now?

The moment I visit a patient, the finger-pointing phantom jumps right in my guts and starts twisting batter in my belly. It’s this nauseous churning of self-doubt and second-guessing and burning insecurity. This gleeful little rat-goblin chips away at me as words spill from my mouth.

Oh come on, you shouldn’t have said that.
Oh look, you’ve upset the patient.
Oh dude, your tone was really weird and nasally there.
Oh yeah, you’re doing that loud nose-breathing thing.
Okay, but no one will take you seriously with that hair.

I have a lot of trouble just announcing, “I’m a chaplain.” It’s a powerful thing to say who-you-are with confidence. I’m a doctor. I’m a nurse. I’m a chaplain. I’m a trained professional. I’m a big boy. What really gives me the right to say anything like this? I want to immediately apologize for my lack of knowledge and to explain I’ve only been here for five weeks and that maybe if they want someone more experienced, I’ll barrel roll to the nearest exit and grab a chaplain with normal human hair.

Oh hi, I have no clue what I’m doing and I got lost six times on the way to your room.

I have to act like my own skin really fits me, if not for my own sanity, then at least for the patient not to crawl away from me. I’m still pretending to be a big kid with a jacket that’s eight sizes too large, or I’m just eight sizes too small. That feeling: it’s always there.

Maybe God or fate or the universe knew about it, because I was forced into announcing myself all the time.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number three. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

When they wheeled him in, the doctors said it was already too late. They put him on an iron lung, and the only thing left to do was let his mother decide on his organs.

He was almost twenty years old, good-looking, tall and strapping, face beat up from meth. His mother had given him countless chances and a free bed, but he relapsed every time, back to the muse and to back alley corners and then crawling home again — and his mom finally kicked him out. Shortly after, he was hit by a car. He probably didn’t see it coming. The driver probably didn’t see him, either.

Someone called for an ambulance and left him there.

The only thing the hospital could do was stuff him full of tubes to keep him breathing. There was no brain activity. His head was held by a neck brace the size of an oven; his bed was a mess of angry plastic tentacles, sprouting and twisting in veiny stubborn circles. I could still tell that underneath all that life support, he was a handsome kid.

In the waiting room, his mom kept blaming herself. “Just one more time, I could’ve let him stay. He wasn’t getting better, I mean what could I do? I couldn’t do it anymore, his eyes were just gone, he was already gone. But I could’ve one more time.”

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number two. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I watched someone die.

The trauma team did everything they could for him. That’s what the doctors told his wife, too. Her husband had stepped outside and suddenly fell over, his heart a fist in his chest. He was, as they say, in good health. The paramedics burst into the trauma bay with him on a stretcher, already in action, doing chest compressions and administering epinephrine. The nurses took turns. I was amazed at their clockwork efficiency. It wasn’t like the TV shows where everyone is frantic and yelling heavy-handed stuff at each other. No one yelled, We’re losing him. It was calm, the methodical pace of carving a pear with a pocketknife.  The team had a kind of choreographed trust that you only find in good acapella groups, or a school of fish. But the man was probably dead before they got him through the door. They had to try.

The doctors were very clear with the news. He died. The wife and her children were cut to pieces. There was a lot of screaming and hugging and anger in that suffocating space. I felt intrusive. There were three doctors and three chaplains standing around, and it was too many of us. Or maybe that was okay; maybe some people need more company so they don’t go crazy. I would want that for my family. I tried not to stare; I looked at the floor when the family wept and I wanted to jump in the wall. Someone asked me to grab a box of tissues and I dashed out, hoping to be respectful, and useful. I could hear them crying from the end of the hallway.

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Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number one. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I had a very romanticized expectation of chaplaincy, as if I should have a divine epiphany complete with a vision of singing cherubim and filtered lights through the slits of the curtain. I could say something like, This is what I was made for. Sometimes I pretend to be a pessimist because it’s much more vogue and relevant, the whole cynical stoic thing, but I’m always hoping for those Hollywood moments when I have the meaningful conversation with some desperate guy on the last lap of his faith. 

I really had little idea what to expect in my first week of chaplaincy training. Certainly I had spoken with other chaplains about their experience — “You’ll love it, really” or “You’ll regret it, really”— but no one can really know about a thing until they’re on the other side of the door, like marriage, or like changing a flat tire. I’ve only just seen the door open. 

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I was seven years old when I got in my first street fight in the only tenements that my parents — struggling poor Koreans they were — could afford. I had fought a much older single mother and lost. To my credit, she started it. At twelve years old, I decided I was an atheist. At fourteen, my parents divorced, as if to confirm that God couldn’t exist. At sixteen, I had my first drop of an ensuing ocean of alcohol. That same year, I went to what they called a “Gentleman’s Club” and stumbled upon a terrible addiction. By nineteen, I had lost my college scholarship and dropped out with a 0.9 GPA. By twenty-two, I had swallowed a bottle of pills over the girl I was living with, who had cheated on me twice. I spent time in what they call a “mental institution,” which was perhaps an improvement over the Gentleman’s Club.

I understand these problems do not compare to those of the world over: but the contrast was that I hardly felt anything. I was following the latest, loudest emotion, just the exit ramps to the bigger neon sign. And soon I was staring into the mouth of a senseless life with little purpose and no meaning — and it was all rather hilarious.

In my apprehension towards all-things-God, I would stay up until three in the morning watching the ceiling fan, knowing there was more to life than the empty vacuum of sweaty drunk faces and the smear of red-and-blue cop car lights. At some point in college I was certain that God was at least a real being, if only because I had looked into the face of nothingness and knew that no one could possibly sustain a life in that direction. But I didn’t want there to be a God, not with a capital G. It was horrifying to think so. It was crazy to think I couldn’t call my own shots and that I was somehow not the main character of my own existence.

I went to church anyway. Quite faithfully, too. I got caught up in the music, the messages, the social fervor, that moment after the sermon in the lobby when no one talks about the sermon. I started bringing my friends by the dozens because I was good at that sort of thing. And somewhere along the line, almost imperceptibly by degrees, I started hearing the messages. I really started listening. I heard about a God who loves us and became one of us and died for us and defeated death and invited us into the best relationship there is. Not a God who gives us everything we want, because that would be no better than Santa Claus with a pager. But a glorious, grand, dynamic, pulsating God, who was writing this incredible drama with His Son at the apex of history and letting us all in. Even letting me in. Almost by accident, to my growing disdain, I was feeling alive for the first time.

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MAG cover pose

The doctors were sure if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up. 

It was too late to pump my stomach. Half a bottle of Excedrin. They were about to insert the tube down my throat. Instead they fed me liquid charcoal to neutralize the acid. My vomit was the color of midnight, of tar.

I waited. I fell asleep. 

You can feel death, you know.  It’s like someone is unraveling a thread at the back of your skull, like sinking into yourself.  My legs felt like they were dangling in water. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. It would’ve been so easy to keep falling, to sink, to follow the thread to the bottom.

But in that moment, hanging over the abyss — there it was.  Not some neon sign or some grand eloquent entrance, not a voice from the rafters, but a simple expression of something beyond this world. 

“You’re not done yet.  You have more. You have Me.”

I woke up.  I was Baker Act’ed into a mental hospital. I wore someone else’s clothes. A man with a clipboard asked me questions about my father. A patient in the next room pulled the fire alarm and tried to jump out the window. Another patient tried to fight me. I was let out after regaining “social acceptability.” I lost thirteen pounds in three days and had roomed with others who had far worse problems than I. 

Back into the sunlight, I suddenly didn’t want to waste my life anymore.  I couldn’t stand the thought of having died in that hospital bed.

I wanted to believe it all had meaning,

that a purpose awaited me,

that I was made to save a corner of this universe,

that I am much more than what I feel. 

It took inches before death to find the beginning of trusting Him. Maybe part of trusting God was trusting that He might actually like me — not because of what I could do, but simply because I was breathing the air He had whispered into my lungs.

I thought of the verse: It does not profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul. If this is true, it means your soul and mine has infinitely more value to God than the whole world.  For every person who is tired of living, God says,

You’re not done yet. 

You have more. 

You have Me.

– J.S. | Mad About God

I received an email from a couple who recently picked up my book on relationships, and it made me quite emotional to see how God was moving in their lives. It’s always overwhelming to see how grace can travel the planet to people you never met. This isn’t about a book, but what Jesus can do when he crash-lands into our lives with reckless grace. With their permission, this is their testimony.

The lady said, “I just had to tell you what a huge difference your Christianese Dating book has made in my boyfriend and me. I discovered it on Amazon as I was desperately searching for something about ‘Christian dating,’ because I am in my first relationship and felt pretty clueless. Your words of grace were so helpful for me. I am a legalist by nature and was looking for some hard and fast rules, but your message was just what I needed to remind me that I am not living in a black and white world, but serving a loving savior.”

The guy said, “For me, having seen so many relationships go bad, I was almost of the opinion that having a girlfriend was some sort of necessary evil. A minefield that contained very little room for error and even less grace. Your book helped me look past the legalistic views constantly being pushed onto me and remember what is true: that a God-centered relationship is filled with an abundance of grace and can be an overwhelmingly positive experience!”

Love y’all and praying for each of you today.
— J.S.

Photo by Christian Holmér, CC BY 2.0

Disclaimer: To protect my family and myself, I am not using names and I’m purposefully obscuring certain details. I cannot confirm them privately, either. These are well-known people in Christian circles who I still believe are doing helpful things, despite the terror behind closed doors.  I must be careful here, because 1) they would absolutely crucify me if they saw this post, and 2) they could also deny having ever met me, despite email correspondences and recorded conversations.  But I have to speak up.

I want to tell you about my most horrifying church experience ever, because it began so ordinary and subtle, and I want to protect you from the nightmare I eventually woke up to.

I know there must be so many more terrible experiences at church and mine is not nearly the worst, yet I hope you’ll know that not every horror story about church happens in a cult of backwood druids sacrificing goats to chanting.  It can happen in the most mundane sort of atmosphere with a slowly tightening chokehold, until it’s too late.

Years ago, I befriended the lead pastor of a church ministry that was doing amazing things in the community and we first became friends over the phone. The pastor explained that every church in America was doing it wrong.  This really appealed to my discontent about the church culture, and our phone calls were filled with tons of encouragement and positive affirmation over my “gifts, talent, treasures, insights, and abilities given by God.”  Whenever I spoke bad about my own church, the lead pastor agreed as loudly as possible.

In the first few months, he offered me a position at his ministry, but I was obligated to my current church.  However, I was still able to visit.  I was completely seduced by the way he and his team did ministry.  Their preaching was fun, their services were boisterous, their praise team was incredible, and they knew every single family by name.  They were well-respected by the community and they were funded completely by other churches and individuals from all over the world.  All the while, they were saying, “We do it better than the other guys” and their website sold tons of church curriculum.  I even bought some.

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My car got another flat again, my fourth one this year, and I needed to get towed. My spare was also flat and I was on the side of the interstate with giant trucks flying by. I was pretty bummed out about the whole thing, because financially I’ve hit a rough place and I’ve been dead-sick from a cold since yesterday, the kind with green snot and evil-witch-coughing.

The lady on the phone from roadside service gave me the reference number 5377, and said, “You’re the five-thousand three-hundred seventy-seventh caller today, so you’re not the only one having a bad day.” We both laughed. It was like I totally unclenched after that and I stopped worrying. Not that I want other people to have a bad day, but there is no uncommon struggle. I put my phone away and watched the clouds for a while. I realized I hadn’t looked up at the sky for a long time.

The tow truck driver was with his mom, and his mother was living at a shelter for abused women. The son would take his mom to work on every tow, to keep his mom company. We talked about my upcoming wedding and about being a pastor. Then the son told dirty jokes and his mom and I couldn’t stop laughing; I was honestly embarrassed to laugh so hard at such vulgar jokes. I knew some of them but I didn’t stop him. We got to the car shop and I gave him all the cash I had, ten bucks, and he thanked me like crazy. The mom shouted out, “Best of luck with your wedding” and I waved as big as I could.

I guess bad days can get turned around when good people light it up. Just have to look up sometimes to notice.

— J.S.

I received an awesome testimony by email.  With her permission, I’d like to share. 

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I was addicted to pornography for 9 years. And I sometimes struggle with it, but I can rest assured it’s not an addiction anymore. And I’m a female.

Amen, sister! Thank you for sharing this. You’re proof that despite the struggle, we can beat the addiction and move on to better. Here’s to more and more victory in Him.

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Don’t ever say this.

He’s got a crazy testimony. He was doing meth and punching babies and racing cops and kicking animals but then he hid in a church from the Feds and a monk popped up from the floor and — I just grew up in church and got saved.

Yes, you got saved.

You were brought from death to life.

It’s not a competition.

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