Trauma does crazy things to your brain: cognitive gaps, inexplicable phobias, silence and shut down. But the soul is so resilient and capable. It has a way of healing around good people, safe communities, and the chance to be heard. Given the opportunity, we get up again.
I believe that people can change. Not everyone will, no. There are the few who refuse, and we must decide wisely how to move. But holding someone accountable, in the end, is not just to punish them. It’s to see the best of them. It’s to believe in the possibility that they are more than they seem.
Whenever we dismiss someone as incapable of change, we instantly suckerpunch the sovereign grace of God. We are downsizing Him to “those” people and not “these.” Then we’re no longer talking about God or grace or accountability. We’re just exposing our laziness.
No, I do not believe that love enables. It does not pamper or coddle or let off the hook. It’s a chisel that sculpts towards better. And it must contain boundaries, wisdom, and proper distance. But we cannot use accountability as a sledgehammer. It’s not for revenge or holding someone back. Too often we use it as a weapon instead of an aid, as an ends instead of a means.
You know what I mean. I see a person on their first lap of faith and I make assumptions; I see 0.5 percent of a person’s life and somehow predict their future; I see half a story and presume the whole story. But this is a sort of evil that holds back potential, that undermines growth, that destroys a child’s dreams. It’s an ugliness that I’ve experienced from others, who wouldn’t give me a shot, who wouldn’t see past their negative filters and accusations and condemnations, who saw me as a deadbeat nobody with no hope of a turnaround.
But occasionally, love would cut in and open a door. It grew my heart. It embraced me in. Love sees a greatness in someone who cannot see it in themselves. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It hopes in all things, it does not rejoice in evil. It perseveres.
If you’ve grown up in the same town long enough, most people assume you’re the same person you always were. They can’t see past the past version of you.
I wonder a lot: Are we doomed to our former selves, time-stamped to who we used to be? Will the things we’ve done and used to do always drag at at our heels, a permanent anchor?
There are days I keep imagining what other people are saying about me. I imagine a room full of them shaking their heads. “A chaplain? Who’s he kidding? I know who he really is. He’s not the guy he pretends to be. Nobody like him could change.” It keeps me up at night. I mentally argue with them until I’ve finally proven I’m not that same guy. I’ll spend hours inside my own head explaining my side of the story and why you need to know I’m not a bad person and that I’m sorry for the person I was before.
But you know, no one may get to hear your side of the story. No one might believe you’ve changed. Even when you do the right thing, you’ll be accused of wrong motives. And you are still accountable to the wrong you’ve done, as much as others are accountable for how they’ve wronged you.
But there is a grace that says you are different now, and the old you is dead. Buried. No longer you. Maybe no one will know you’ve encountered the kind of grace that has not just changed you, but made you completely new. Your trauma, your guilt, your past, your labels: they’re taken in by grace, by a love that sees in whole and stays. Imagine that. The world may call you something, but you are more. You are new. You are always more.
Being angry doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It points to something real, something hurt. Rage is often unspeakable grief, the body in defiance of a heinous and hostile intrusion.
We want justice, but many demand it within a narrow definition of coolheaded, reasonable, level-voiced, forgiving, ever patient, neutral “peacefulness” completely without error or passion or volume, within strict suburban parameters meant to feel as safe as the safety that was plundered from us. This is asking me to protect everyone from the pain I suffer by packaging it in a palatable, appealing, articulate platform that informs but never offends, convinces but never convicts, straddles but never stings.
Some anger is wrong. Sometimes it is vengeance. Sometimes pain gets offloaded to hurt others. But other times, we must listen. Sometimes anger and pain are passion and courage. And my guess is that many of us have forgotten the sound of standing up: it sounds messy, loud, boisterous. It’s never clean.
Your voice is important. Don’t halfway your opinion. Don’t back-pedal and soften it up and cater to everyone else. You’ll catch hate anyway. I don’t mean you never say you’re wrong; we’re all wrong, a lot. I mean: be fabulously passionate about what’s right. You’re a drop in this ocean and then you’re gone. Make it count. Stand for something.
I joined a panel discussion about race with several leaders at Crossover Church. We talked about some hard things, including political division, the murder of Botham Jean, and the church’s role in addressing racism.
My parts are around minute 10, 35, and 57. It’s worth watching the whole thing. Whether we agree or disagree, I’m grateful for a church where these discussions are given space to happen.
(You may have never heard my voice before, so I apologize in advance for any expectations blown up.)
God bless friends, and grace be with you.
It‘ll happen. You’ll give bad advice. I have given plenty. And it seems every season, I end up disagreeing with a lot of things I’ve said the season before. So is advice ever really any good?
I’ve met people who will say things like, “A long time ago you told me ___ and it really changed me.” And sometimes I panic. Do I even agree with what I said before? Wasn’t I a different person then? Wasn’t I just saying flowery poetic idealistic stuff that wasn’t field tested? That I wasn’t even living out myself?
Here’s where we need to be cautious. The advice we hear, whether from a friend or blogger or leader or pastor or celebrity or book or podcast, is probably good advice. But it might not be for you in your current walk of life. It might just be for that person, in that season, and they grew past it already. Or their advice was something they just made up, and it was never time tested or proven. It sounded pretty, but would never work in the dirt, in the hustle, in the hurt.
It’s amazing how a string of eloquent and witty combination of buzzwords can truly change a life. But I also worry that those same words can take us down a path not meant for us. Or it worked at the time, but can’t now. Or those words came from a version of myself that was a moron, and has learned much better. So the advice you’re hearing from somebody is just a temporal snapshot. It’s a set of clothes, and you can outgrow those.
Don’t trust me. Don’t trust this. Don’t trust an articulate, punchy, hyped up blog post or TED Talk just because of a few flashy graphics and catchphrases. Discern. Think through it. Investigate. Hear many opinions, not just one. Search yourself. Trust your own tears; they’re speaking. Seek new ideas. Seek God. Seek what is timeless. And don’t be too ashamed of your older self: that person believed some weird things, but those were growing pains. You’ll always feel weird about your old self, but that means renovation has happened.
Anonymous asked a question:
Hi Pastor Park! Over the years of following your blog, i’ve heard you mention that people are not “projects” and I recently saw the same phrase. I was wondering if you could explain more of what you mean by that, or some practical things to look out for so we could recognize if we’re falling into that mindset? A part of me worries i’m thinking of other people that way, so if you have more insight, i’d love to know. Thanks, and have a blessed week with your wife and dog!
Hey dear friend, thank you.
You may be referring to one of these posts:
While this is not a new thought, many of us are at risk of falling into a “Hero-Savior-Martyr Syndrome.” This was most classically demonstrated by the Karpman Triangle, in which interactions tend to fall into a triangle of Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor.
Since I truly believe that many of us are good people who care about others, we want to help as many as we can. This is a good thing; it’s a good motive. But left unchecked, we fall into a Rescuer mode in which all people and situations become a “Heroic Drama” in which we are the Protagonist, rescuing someone from their poverty or trauma or sadness or villain. Then it no longer becomes about actually helping the person, but rather boosting our own ego and getting high off dopamine and adrenaline.
Of course, you can feel good about helping people. It’s okay to get the little dopamine surge when you encourage someone or alleviate someone’s suffering. The problem is that when you commodify people into subhuman secondary props for your catharsis, you end up doing the very thing you least wanted: dehumanizing them as mere objects who are only vehicles for your hero-story.
Here are some ways you know you’ve fallen into this:
Anonymous asked a question:
What do you do if you’re asking a non-Christian friend what they’re up to and they respond with telling you they’re doing some activity you know is sinful? Let’s say they could tell you they’re smoking or doing something dishonest or they’re practicing wicca. What’s the proper response to something like that?
Hey dear friend, just a few thoughts on this.
– I would first determine what is “sinful.” Why is it sinful to you? What makes it sin? Is it based on your preference or discomfort? Is there real harm being done? What is the sin against?
– If you lead with, “You’re a sinning sinner and you’re sinful,” I wouldn’t expect that person to hear you out. It has to start with dialogue first.
– If you find that your friend is truly being destructive towards their neighbors and themselves, then I would ask questions. I once knew a person who eventually trusted me enough to say, “I’m going to kill someone today.” My first instinct was to slowly back away and climb out the window. But I asked, “How do you think that would work out for you?” After a few minutes, that person finally said, “Yeah, I guess it wouldn’t work out at all.”
Anonymous asked a question:
My friends and I were taking about suicide and Christians. They all came to the unanimous conclusion that you must be able to ask for forgiveness for the sin of suicide in order to be forgiven for that, otherwise you can go to Hell. As someone that struggles with depression, I was deeply hurt and argued otherwise, that there is grace for them too.What do you think?
Hey dear friend, I strongly disagree with their take. I’ve written on this once before here:
The idea that “someone who commits suicide will go to hell” was invented as a religious deterrent. There’s no biblical basis for it. There’s no religion that really believes this. And if there was, as a human I’d emphatically disagree.
When someone goes through depression, their brain isn’t working like it should. In that fog, when I’m depressed, I’m literally out of my mind. I am not myself.
But let’s say that I was 100% conscious of my decision right then. One bad action does not erase the goodness and love of God, nor does it erase the faith we had in our lifetime, no matter how small that faith had been.
Here’s my guess. Your friends just didn’t know any better. They really do believe in the “deterrent” view of hell and suicide. Or, they don’t have the capacity yet to understand suicide and depression, so they’ve simplified it to, “Don’t do that or else.” Or, their view of God is punishing and merciless, which says more about them than God. Or, their view of God is so inflexible and forceful that they’re afraid to say, “God can forgive that one too,” as if this will offend God or offend their church. Some Christians are so worried about going against tradition that they have to regurgitate the traditional view, or else they would be frowned upon. So while I strongly disagree with them, I have a bit of empathy for why they’re so hard on this issue. But I will never, ever agree with that point of view. The God that I know is the God who loves the hurting, too.
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Sometimes words or encouragement or sitting with someone is not enough. Depression is that insidious. It doesn’t play fair; it has no rules, rhyme, or reason. It doesn’t respond to life even at its best.
“Reach out to someone because you never know” is not bad advice. But simply being kind to someone is not enough to stop an avalanche. It’s a drop of water in a desert. It’s not as if enough words will suddenly activate a lever that stops depression in its tracks. It shouldn’t be on family or friends to find a magical threshold, as if the right amount or combination of words was ever going to help.
Being a presence, to be there for someone, is always enough to give—but it may not always be enough to save.
You may not feel adequate enough to help someone who struggles with depression, but that was always true: you can’t be enough all the time.
We cannot cure terminal, and some sorrows only get healed by heaven. That’s a terrible, awful, unfair truth. But God forbid if I ever go that way, I hope you will be released from the guilt of thinking that it was up to you somehow.
When I enter that fog of depression, I’m always aware this might be it. This might be the one that wins. I wish I could tell you that your prayers and messages and books and casseroles and pizza dates and medicine and therapy and holding my tears will get me to the other side. So far, it’s worked. One day, I don’t know. I hope to God it will keep working. For one more day, I hope so. To experience your love and laughter and kindness is still worth it to suffer this fog.
So my wife and I have been trying to have a child for eight months now. No news yet. I know that eight months is not a long time. I’ve heard it can take years. But—it’s been a little discouraging. Sometimes painful.
I was watching a couple of those cute Disney World videos the other day: a dad plays piano at a Disney hotel while his daughter cheers him on, or a mom takes his daughter dressed up as BB-8 to see BB-8. I love watching that kind of stuff these days. And I didn’t expect to feel a strange, almost fiery ache in my chest. It’s a bit embarrassing. Like vicarious joy and hope and jealousy and wistful delight all mixed up and rolling around inside.
Is that weird? Small? Over the top? I don’t know. It feels crappy, truthfully.
I’m really waiting and wanting to be a dad. I didn’t expect it to hurt this much.
I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of literature for guys who are waiting. I know this is a much harder role for women, and I don’t mean to compare. But it’s hard to know where to go or who to talk to about it. It’s a compound loneliness, when it feels like no one really cares that you’re lonely.
One thing I’m learning in the process is that I don’t control a thing. Very little, really. Miracles are God’s business. I can’t make that happen. It’s frustrating. Humbling. Exhausting. It’s enough to make me pray and do a little light cursing. That’s the language of waiting.
The one thing I’m holding on to is the old cliché: the waiting isn’t wasted. I’d like to think so, anyway. I’d like to think the waiting means something. That it’s redeemed somehow. Is it? I really hope so.
I cannot promise that life gets better. Life can be cruel, unfair, intolerable. People can be downright mean. Failure and rejection will happen. Risks don’t always pay off. You will miss chances and opportunities. Injuries and disease are a real danger. Our brains are often broken by depression and other lifelong illnesses. People will leave.
But none of these things—absolutely none of them—determine your worth as a person. Nothing that has happened to you gets the say on who you are. Of course, life hurts. We’re allowed to hurt. We’re allowed to be mad. We can vent and yell and shake a fist at God. All of that is being human. But all the ways in which life can be unfair do not have a single thing to say about you as a person. You are loved, regardless. You are loved simply because you were born. For me, that’s often enough for the next breath. Looking back, I’m glad I breathed again.
As it were, your life has launched into being, and it is the one song you get to sing. It is a song full of beauty and terror. It is a tree full of colors and crevices. There are wonderful and terrible things that life has to offer. But all of it is yours. I hope you lean into it as much as you can. It’s a crazy and ridiculous thing to be alive. I remember the philosopher saying when we look at “how things are” then we will go mad, but if we see “that things are,” that things even exist at all, we might find joy in the madness.
No, I do not feel loved all the time. It comes and goes, often based on my performance or my mood or from some bad pizza the night before. We are weird temperamental creatures. We are capable of having complete blissful giddy euphoria in one second, then chest-crushing deflated saddening numbness the next. Again, none of these things determine your worth. You are loved through and through. You were loved before you got here. You are loved, outside of your age or achievements or acclaim or applause. You are loved. I mean it.
You are loved.
You might have heard that a million times, but it’s no less true.
You do have a Creator. He is with you. He is bigger than your situation and closer than your deepest hurt. He’s not mad. He is cheering for you and rooting for you this very second. He’s okay about all the things before. He sent His Son for that very reason.
You can put down the blade. You can throw away the pills. You can quit replaying those regrets in your head. You can quit the inner-loop of self-condemnation. You can forget your ex. You can walk away from the things and people that destroy you. You can resolve your conflicts right now. You can sign up to volunteer at that shelter. You can have the courage to stand up for justice in the street, in your office, in your home. You can forgive your parents. You can forgive your children. You can draw boundaries and say no. You can go back to church. You don’t have to sit in the back. You don’t have to prove your worth to the people you’ve let down. You don’t have to live up to everyone else’s vision for your life. You’re finally, finally free.
You are loved. I am loved.
As much as I love you, dear friend, He loves you infinitely more.
Believe it. Walk in it. Walk with Him.
God is in the business of breathing life into hurting places.
This is what He does, even for the least likely like you and me.
A year ago, I left my evangelical church. I’m still glad I left. But I made a lot of mistakes along the way and I learned some important lessons.
Hey friends! I’m excited to announce that a few months ago, I signed a book deal with Moody Publishers. I’ll be under their imprint Northfield Publishing, which also publishes the bestseller The Five Love Languages.
My book will be called The Voices We Carry: Finding Your One True Voice in a World of Clamor and Noise. I talk about wrestling with different voices including self-doubt, people-pleasing, trauma, grief, and family dynamics, and finding your voice amidst mixed messages. The book is also memoir-ish and goes through my journey as a hospital chaplain, my strange Asian-American upbringing, and constantly questioning if I’m wearing pants right now.
Along with my wife, parents, and brother, I’ve dedicated the book to my dear friend John Edgerton, who passed away a couple months ago.
I recently met the Moody Team in Chicago and they’re a fantastic, spectacular, and absolutely dedicated group of people. (I also got them to do the wow face.) I felt truly loved and heard. While they work with hundreds, even thousands of people, they spoke with me as if I was their one and only client. It’s not something you can fake. I really appreciate their push towards diversity and that they’ve given me the freedom to write with my whole self, no holding back, with the ugliest parts of my story. They championed and advocated for authenticity the whole way. I’m glad to be partnering with Moody and I can’t wait for you to read the book.
The release date is May of 2020, just nine months away. Be on the lookout for a launch campaign, for podcast and radio interviews, and for free content.
God bless, friends, and much love to each of you. Thank you for being a part of the journey here.
Dear friend: I know you might have had a picture of how you wanted your life to be, but some terrible tragedy swept it away. We all have a certain picture of how we want our lives to be, and sometimes it gets ripped from our grip and smashed to pieces. Our dreams can get crushed in an instant, no matter how much you’ve planned, with irreversible results.
You might be living in a life right now that doesn’t feel like it’s yours. You might be in a different place than you had hoped for, than you had imagined a year ago, a month ago, a minute ago. Your heart will pull for another chance, another door, another world.
The three hardest words to live with are often: In the meantime.
Yet — in the meantime is the whole thing.
If you’re waiting for your “real life” to start after the heartache, or even after good things like graduation or a wedding or when you get to the big city, you’ll stay in a holding pattern. The time will pass anyway. The tide doesn’t wait.
So I hope you’ll consider starting in the meanwhile.
When a dream dies, it dies. We can mourn. We can pound our chest. We can bleed. And at some point, you can open your hands to another dream. I hope you find it. It might even look a lot like your old one: but you won’t. It’s you that will be new.
You can overcome what’s over, because you’re not over yet.
When the ten count is over: you can count to eleven.
What comes next will not be what you had envisioned. I hope you’ll keep dreaming anyway. I hope you‘ll consider God can do a new thing.
You are free to pursue something new.
In sixth grade, I had this friend who was six foot two. He was twelve years old, with wrists the size of my torso. Imagine that: my own personal giant.
He became my voice.
His name was Tripp. I was bullied a lot in sixth grade, but when Tripp was around, nobody tried to clown me. One time, Tripp wrapped his hand around a kid’s head like it was an apple, and no kidding, just like a crane out of heaven, he gently placed the kid on the other side of the hall from me. For weeks, that apple-headed kid had been telling me to go back to China. After the crane incident, Apple-Head never bothered me again.
The thing is, nobody should need a guy like Tripp. We should all get an equal distribution of voice. But that isn’t how it is right now. People get squashed. Silenced. Stuffed in a locker. Told to get on a boat.
Really, I wish everybody had a guy like Tripp who spoke up for them. I wish that nobody needed a guy like Tripp, either. Until then, I’m grateful for the people in the hallway who speak up. Not just online, but in dorms and cafes and churches and check-out lines, when it’s not easy or popular, when it costs something, when no one is looking and when everyone is. I hope to be that guy, too. A crane out of heaven.
The other week, a shooting took six lives and I thought, “That’s not too bad.” I immediately felt sick. Because this isn’t normal. It isn’t okay. And I don’t want to get numb, desensitized, detached, withdrawn. I don’t ever want to get over the anger and grief of how “normal” this has become—whether it’s thirty, six, or one.
It’s a national habit to look at the death toll, but shootings really destroy lives twice. At the hospital, we regularly receive GSW (gunshot wound) patients through the ER. Many survive. Sometimes, surviving is worse. The trauma of it. The nightmares. To witness such a thing is a lifelong wound. The death tolls are horrific, but the mental and emotional toll is just as destructive. I’ve been up close with GSW victims and families—and I can’t watch the news with neutral disinterest. I can’t watch movie violence the same way. I will never get the smell out of my nostrils. When you sit among people with bullet wounds, you see most political “dialogue” for what it really is: fear, cowardice, pomp, rationalizations, and self-aggrandizing, all which speak past the victims instead of for them. I hope I’m not doing the same thing. Please tell me if I am. Please tell me what I can do.
I don’t know if anything will change. Again. It seems hopeless. But I want to grieve angry. I don’t want to calm down. I want courage. And compassion. And champions who will make waves so that something will change. God, keep us loud. God, give us strength.
Towards the end, when my then girlfriend came home later and later and stopped picking up my calls, I’d get in my beat-down Corolla and try to find her. Windows open, stomach twisting, December air pouring in: I have to find her.
What would I do, though, if I did?
Storm in and madly declare my love? Fight the other guy? Rant and sob and flail as they stare?
How exactly does this scene end?
I drive everywhere. Hotels, theaters, restaurants, subdivisions, complexes. I ball up my fists and strike my own forehead, stay awake, stay alert, mad that I only have two eyes, mad at myself for doing this.
At a complex, I find her car. With the Columbus State sticker. I wait. The sun comes up, a wax smear. A door opens. I think it’s her. She’s with someone. They kiss, I think. I knew it. All this time. I get out of there. I end up in a hospital.
It’s embarrassing to remember this story. I learned the hard way that it’s possible to get so attached to someone that you want to die, that you can’t imagine going on. You can become sick enough in your stomach over another person that your very life is coiled with theirs. And to plant a soul in something so collapsible leads to a life that is untenable.
There’s a codependency so overwhelming that you wait for the other person’s every text, flinch at their every move, hang on their every word, cater to their every whim. It’s a panicked, mindless, gut-squeezing desperation, a constant seasick cramp that craves a look, the nod, their attention.
On the surface, it probably looked like I really loved The Girl from Columbus State. But my over-attachment made me controlling, manipulative, overbearing—and really, I drove her away. It was as much her decision as it was mine. I blame myself.
I learned that I can only love others when I enter into their lives with a surplus, and not to steal their worth for my own. That requires knowing who I am, to know what I’m really about.
I had to ask myself:
Who am I without you?
What are my non-negotiables?
What am I called to contribute?
What am I made to do? To be?
What am I about?
One look at the news and it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to give in to pessimism. It’s understandable, given our daily trauma, the terrible headlines, and our disappointing leaders. It’s tiring. But often the world is the way it is because too many of us have accepted the way it is. Pessimism has always been a sport for sidelines. I’m afraid that the detachment of pessimism, as fun as it is, is often just laziness.
No, simply “thinking positive” doesn’t make things better. And it takes momentous effort, decades of sweat and tears and rallies and voices, to move the needle towards real change. That has to start with you. With me. With believing that change is possible. With our little corners and small platforms and unseen podiums. With believing that even ancient institutions like politics and the church and social attitudes can be completely transformed.
Optimism doesn’t only see how we are, but who we could be. I want eyes that see that far. The way ahead was lit by others who dared to hope. Change happened by those who first believed it was possible. So we must carry the light for those coming next. We are the next. We can’t go down without a fight.