The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

No—it doesn’t always work out.

The storm doesn’t always pass.

There isn’t always closure.

Not everything will be all right.

I won’t know why.

There’s a moment in the hospital when our illusion of safety is shattered and the stark reality sets in:

Things won’t change,
they won’t get better,
there won’t be a miracle,
and there won’t be a happily ever after.

It looks like God has exited the building, and that maybe He’s not coming back, and that we will never, ever know why this awful tragedy had to happen.

Babies die. Spouses drop dead at thirty. Diseases take and they take and they take. Prayers go unanswered. Drunk drivers walk free and their victims die slowly in a fire. People die alone. Some people don’t know who they are when they die; some people don’t have a single number they can call. They’re cremated by the county without a trace.

I soon found that I was having a series of tiny panic attacks over faith, more and more disorienting, these little underground bombs that threw me into crisis and left me scrambling for answers.

After a particularly hard case where a young woman’s dad shot her mom and then himself, I came home and tried to pick up some random inspirational book from my bookcase. What I found inside was so unimaginably distant and disgusting that I nearly threw it at the wall. I went through a few more books, and words that had once comforted me were crass and trivial. I couldn’t possibly believe that any of these authors had really suffered or seen suffering. I’m sure they had—and that’s what I wanted to see. Their raw edges. Not these luxurious, over-privileged travels and extra tips on mental re-arrangement, completely removed from the wounded. I saw these first-world tales as they really were: shallow, out-of-touch, and bereft of consequence.

I was lost in the whirlwind of malheur, the pain underneath our pain. I was struck by intrapsychic grief, from the loss of what “could be” and would never come to pass. I was a wax thread in a hot oven, my old beliefs dripping and frayed.

I suddenly understood the intensity of the Psalms, all the anger and violence and whiplashes of doubt, encapsulating the moments when we can no longer un-see this garish void of the nether, the unreturned.

I wondered if maybe it was easier not to believe, because believing was so dangerously painful.

Continue reading “The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.”

I’m Not Okay. Is That Okay?


It’s a crazy, incredible thing to be in a place where people slow down and listen, where they hear your whole story and let you paint your full heart in the air.

I was telling one of my fellow hospital chaplains about life lately, about my health problems and secret panics and suddenly about a billion other things, every humiliating and painful and neurotic moment that had been twitching my eye for the longest time, and I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up in my neatly wrapped fortress. I was embarrassed, but my chaplain friend only nodded, never flinched, stayed engaged. She then prayed for me, a really beautiful prayer, like cool water for bruised purple hands, one of those prayers where it sounded like God was her best friend down the street. And I wept. A lot. Quietly, but inside, loudly. Something then shifted and settled and became still for a moment, like the leaves of a tree coming together after a strong wind, a momentary painting. I left lighter.

Later I visited a patient who had nearly died from a brain bleed, and when I offered prayer, the nurse grabbed me and said, “Me, too.” I took her to the side, and she whispered, “Cancer. I might have breast cancer, and I’m afraid, chaplain. I’m so damn afraid.” She clenched her teeth and tried not to weep, but I put a quick hand on her shoulder and she wept anyway. She talked. I listened. There was nothing for me to say but to be there. And maybe nothing had changed—except we were made light somehow, and together drew something bigger than us. We drew colors into the gray.

There are still places, I believe, even in a busy and unhearing time, where we can draw free. I hope to meet you there, where we are not okay, but less gray than yesterday. I hope to pray for you, that we become bigger.

J.S.


Photo by Image Catalog, CC BY PDM

Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I have a difficult time moving on after each hospital visit. And really, shouldn’t I? You know, like when you see a two minute video on Facebook about a national tragedy a thousand miles away, and then you scroll down to your friend’s vacation pictures of the Eiffel Tower or something; I can’t flip the page that fast. I’m not a channel-changer. I can’t quickly transition from videos of a war-torn Syria to a breakfast bagel. That doesn’t make me “morally sensitive” or anything, but I really, physically can’t do it.

I think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the mementos that each soldier carried with them in the Vietnam War, things like a girlfriend’s pantyhose or dental floss, but really “the things they carried” were each other’s burdens, and maybe their nap-sacks got lighter as the war went on, but inside they were sinking without a life-vest. Their mementos eventually became each other, until the person next to them was the thing they carried.

I leave each room carrying that patient with me for a while, and I’m reminded of this time I almost drowned in the ocean when I was a kid. My friend’s dad took us out on a boat into the middle of vast nothingness, and my friend and I decided to swim, but a current carried us off and we were inhaling huge gulps of sea water. My friend is a better swimmer, so he grabbed me up and swam us both back to the boat.

Sometimes, chaplaincy is like that. Here’s a patient trying to find themselves amidst doctors and diagnoses and complicated medical terms, a thirty-ish patient just learning the name of his ten new medicines, a forty-ish patient who came in for chest pain learning that she needs new lungs, a kid with an amputated foot learning about prosthetics and phantom pain—and for a second, I try to help that patient swim a little, and their arm pushes me down momentarily, but we need to stay afloat to find the boat, and occasionally we don’t find it, but I just swim with them in that turbulent roaring ocean for half an hour, and that was enough for another gulp of air.

Continue reading “Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.”

Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I’m in a room where a father keeps telling his high school daughter, “It’s all in God’s hands now, it’s all in His hands.” The girl has lost both her feet in a car accident and her eyes are blank; she’s looking past her dad, somewhere else, into another universe where the other driver had one less shot at the bar.

I want to tell the father, You’re not helping. Can’t you be more sensitive? Don’t you know it’s a process? Can’t you see it doesn’t work?

Every room, one after another, is filled with friends and family members who try to help with the same kinds of shrink-wrapped platitudes. I’ve heard them all.

“Everything will be okay.” But what if it’s not?

“This is God’s plan.” To suffer this much? Why?

“It could’ve been worse.” But isn’t it already bad enough?

I get bitter about this stuff. You’re not helping, I keep thinking at them. And more selfishly, Let me do my job.

I guess it’s easy to see the dad as the bad guy. And sometimes, the guy who brushes off your pain really is the bad guy. But — I’ve also been learning about why we say this stuff so much.

I’m learning that we’ve all learned a way to cope, whether good or bad, and we default into the only way we know how to get through.

I thought about that father and his daughter, and how much his daughter needed to process what was happening. But maybe for the dad, the platitudes were his initial way of processing. Maybe that was all he knew about coping, and it’s what he needed right then.

Of course, the daughter needed it more. She needed the honest room to talk, to be mad, to felt what she felt. But the dad was short-cutting all the honesty because he never had the room to feel how he felt, either. He never had that chance in the first place.

I’ve seen that there’s no school for this sort of thing; there’s no open venue for vulnerability in an increasingly polarized world; no one is rewarded for saying the harder things out loud. We use religious language and pep talk and positive thinking because it’s all we’ve been trained to do. Westernized prosperity and self-help and self-talk are big businesses. We’re constantly taught that if we “dream big” and “try your best,” that we can “achieve anything” and “like attracts like” and all this other brainwashed, first-world, upper-class tripe that only works in suburbia. We’re conditioned to affirm and encourage and cheer each other on, even and especially by forced, coerced, plastic smiles. Anything else is seen as a “Debbie Downer” or “Negative Nancy” or “toxic triggers” or something. No one is taught how to talk about illness, death, or dying with dignity.

So I get it. I get why we try to fix it so fast. I get the denial. We’re all indoctrinated to be scared of the dark, so we keep it light. It’s easier to spout off a motivational one-liner that looks good in typography. No one tells you how to paint without a brush and to jump in the bloody mess.

So I hear, “God has an amazing plan for your life!” one more time, and before I get too bitter, I have to pause. I have to remember where all this comes from. This is what he knows. That’s the size of his spiritual muscle. It doesn’t make me better than him. It only means I have to be better for him.

I’m trying to have grace for this.

Continue reading “Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.”

15 Things I’ve Learned Not to Say at the Hospital


Things I’ve learned not to say in the hospital at the very moment of pain and tragedy:

“Everything will be okay.”

“You’re so strong!”

“Pain is what forces you to grow.”

“God has an amazing plan for your life!”

“God is using this for your good.”

“God just wanted another angel in heaven.”

“It could’ve been worse.”

“At least you’re still alive. At least—”

“Cheer up and stay positive!”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“I understand what you’re going through.”

“Time to pray really hard and read more Bible.”

“God is using this as a wake-up call.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

— and other motivational poster clichés.


Things I’ve learned to say in the hospital at the very moment of pain and tragedy (and even then, not every time):

“I’m sorry.”
“How are you right now?”
“I don’t think it’s wrong to be mad.” (Or scared, or hurt, or sad, or weeping, or uncertain.)
“How can I pray for you?”
“I’m always here.”
Or the best thing: listen.

J.S.


Photo by N Medd, CC BY 2.0

Five Husbands.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

The doctor tells him in one long breath, “Your wife didn’t make it, she’s dead.”

Just like that. Irrevocable, irreversible change. I’ve seen this so many times now, the air suddenly pulled out of the room, a drawstring closed shut around the stomach, doubling over, the floor opened up and the house caving in.

“Can I … can I see her?” he asks the doctor.

The doctor points at me and tells Michael that I can take him back. The doctor leaves, and Michael says, “I can’t yet. Can you wait, chaplain?” I nod, and after some silence, I ask him, “What was your wife like?” and Michael talks for forty-five minutes, starting from their first date, down to the very second that his wife’s eyes went blank and she began seizing and ended up here.

I’m in another room, with a father of two, Felipe, whose wife Melinda is dying of cancer. She’s in her thirties. She fought for three months but that was all the fight in her; she might have a few more days. Felipe is asking if his wife can travel, so she can die with her family in Guatemala. The kids are too young to fully comprehend, but they know something is wrong, and they blink slowly at their mother, who is all lines across greenish skin, clutching a rosary and begging God to see her parents one more time.

“Can I see them?” she asks the doctor.

Another room, with a man named Sam who has just lost his wife and kids in a car accident. Drunk driver, at a stop sign, in the middle of the day. Sam was at home cooking; his wife was picking up their two daughters from school; the car had flipped over twice. The drunk driver is dead; Sam doesn’t even have the option to be angry. Sam was hospitalized because when he heard the news, he instantly had a heart attack. He keeps weeping, panicked breaths, asking to hold my hand because he doesn’t know how he can live through this. He hasn’t seen the bodies of his wife and daughters yet.

“Can I see them?” he asks me.

Continue reading “Five Husbands.”

Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I did my first baptism ever, at the hospital, for twins who were just born.

Lisa and Aletha had a ton of complications. One had survived. The other had died. The mother had dropped out of college and had just been evicted. The mother’s grandmother had passed away the very same day from cancer. The twins’ father had fled; he couldn’t deal with seeing his cold baby daughter, much less ponder how he was going to raise the surviving one, who he had expected (maybe hoped) would die.

I entered the room and stood at a curtain, reading the label of the sterilized bottle of saline water, feet shuffling. The mother called me in.

Continue reading “Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell”

My Newest Book: Grace Be With You, a Compendium of Stories, Thoughts, & Poems

Grace Be With You paperback


Hey dear friends! This is my newest book, Grace Be With You: Stirring Truth and Abundant Joy for Fellow Travelers. It’s a collection of stories, quotes, and poems, most of which have gone “viral” on this blog, with all new content. The Foreword is also by my wonderful friend T.B. LaBerge.

The book has four chapters, each a unique theme: to encourage, convict, engage, and transcend. Contained are quick quotes, humbling plot twists, and everyday encounters on the road, at the hospital, at cafes and gas stations and funerals and churches.

The paperback is only 8.99 here and the ebook is only 3.99 here and it works on every device. If you’re blessed by the book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.

Be immensely rocked by His grace!
J.S.


Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Be-With-You-paperback/dp/069269031X

Ebook: http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Be-With-You-ebook/dp/B01E4XXCVM

The Songs We Long to Sing: A Pearl Forms in the Deep of This Stirring Sea.

Photo by Aidan, 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 fourteen. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

Sometimes a patient just talks for an hour, and I say two sentences, and that’s the whole visit. The patient usually says, “Thank you so much for your wisdom and advice” — and I hardly said a word.

Maybe that’s a good thing. If I had said too much, I might have messed it up.

But more than that: some patients just want an ear to listen.

I’ve seen the same thing at the homeless ministry. I ask someone, “How are you?” — and the answer is a breathless forty-five minute life-story of financial collapse and arrests and rehab and failed job interviews, and at the end, “You’re so wise, now I’m so pumped up for life.”

From the homeless to the hospital, I see the same craving:

People want to be heard. Because we want significance. Meaning. Dignity. A voice.

Nobody wants to live in a vacuum of silent solitude. If we can tell even one stranger about what we’ve gone through: it brings value to everything we’ve gone through.

Continue reading “The Songs We Long to Sing: A Pearl Forms in the Deep of This Stirring Sea.”

We Hold On.


I’ve been thinking about how much has changed over the last few years.

I’ve been grieving over the reactionary microcosm of social media. The fiery rhetoric. The click-baiting. The “experts.” Beirut, Paris, Syria, the two earthquakes in Nepal, the ISIL threat, the US shootings, the protests in South Korea, racial tension, the political circus, the same celebrity drama.

I’ve been expecting the same predictable cycles at every headline: the outrage, the outrage against the outrage, the ever-loving trolls, the escalating comment sections, and the sudden silence when the bandwagon has moved on. I’ve been thinking how easy it is to lose sight of the real outrage, when we truly have the right to be offended amidst the “crying wolf,” and how unfortunate it is that true pain gets drowned in the viral-seeking echo chambers that never reach across the divide, but choir-preach with buzzwords and snarky flashy lines.

I’ve been wondering if we’re really this crazy.
If we’re really this hateful.
If we’re finally in the burning wreckage of a dying age.
If we’re really this angry about the wrong things and silent about the right things.
If we’re really this lost.

I’ve been thinking about how we can get better, or if we’re beyond recovery. That maybe I should give up, and give in to the cynicism, because it’s easier.

I was with a patient in the hospital who had a blood condition. “Derrick” suffered debilitating physical pain his entire life. His knees were twisted in circles, his fingers into claws, his body turned sideways, his eyes burned with baggage. He didn’t have much longer to live. It hurt him to talk, but he wanted to talk so badly. We were face to face, and he spoke about his illness, his dreams, his hopes, his insecurities, his faith, his fears, his family. We didn’t break eye contact for over an hour.

The news was on TV and there was another awful headline. The ticker-tape was scrolling at the bottom, one thing after another. The TV caught Derrick’s eye.

He said, “I don’t understand. I don’t get how we’re still fighting. I don’t understand how we’re still so mad. I’m hurting every second, and I see the news, and people still want to hurt each other. When is it enough? I can’t even play with my kids; I can’t hold them long; I can’t work or run or laugh too loud. If I just … if I could just walk without falling into a heap, the things I would do. The things we could do, you know, and we choose this instead.”

He tried to point to the television but he barely got his arm up.

“I’ll never get better. Physically, I mean. I’m at the end of my time here. But we can get better, you know, in the way that matters. I think if we knew … if we knew we’re all hurting somehow, we might be better. We might reach for each other.”

I looked over at Derrick and he was weeping. For the world. For himself. For me. For you. For us to get better.

And I wept, too. I knew that sort of pain, that desperate burden for healing and connection. To reach across the divide.

Derrick looked at me and said, “This is what matters. Right here. You and me, this is it. Can you stay with me? Can you pray with me? Can you pray for me and the hurting people?”

Through tears, we prayed. At the end, all I could really think to say was, “God—give us hope.”

I prayed for hope against the cynicism. Hope to make the best of it. Hope to hold on in the burning wreckage. Hope that there’s still good in us. Hope that we’ll make it. Hope that we’d find each other with our tiny little time on earth.

We held hands tightly. We held onto hope.

J.S.


Electric Ballet, Ashes in Glass Jars, and Memories Made of Stone.

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.

Continue reading “Electric Ballet, Ashes in Glass Jars, and Memories Made of Stone.”

At the Intersection of Hip To Shoulder, Side by Side.

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.

Continue reading “At the Intersection of Hip To Shoulder, Side by Side.”

Fitting Our Own Skin and Finding Ourselves Again.

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.

Continue reading “Fitting Our Own Skin and Finding Ourselves Again.”

Starting at the End of the Door.

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. 

Continue reading “Starting at the End of the Door.”