I share three true hospital stories which are “deleted scenes” from my upcoming book, The Voices We Carry.
[Stories have details changed to maintain privacy.]
I share three true hospital stories which are “deleted scenes” from my upcoming book, The Voices We Carry.
[Stories have details changed to maintain privacy.]
I messed up. I hugged someone. We’re supposed to practice social distancing, but my friend badly needed a hug. I know I shouldn’t have. I couldn’t help it.
For those who have been severely hurt by COVID-19, whether you lost your job, freedom, have tested positive, or know someone who has:
When you become ill or lose something valuable, it’s easy to tie up your hurt with your worth. When you can’t work or lose your once vibrant health, it can feel like it’s your fault. Physical illness still has a deep social stigma and it can seem you‘re less of a person when you’re sick. Unfortunately, our health is measured like wealth.
I read an interview with a man who tested positive for COVID-19 who said, “I felt kind of dirty. Psychologically, it’s weird, hard to accept. It was hard to tell my family.”
I’ve seen this in the hospital. Patients not only feel physical pain, but an embarrassment about their situation. It’s an almost humiliating dread and shame, like their body has betrayed them. To be stripped of health can send a brutal and confusing message: “This pain I feel is who I am.” And so often they blame themselves, because we’ve been trained to believe that when we’re sick, we’re somehow morally wrong inside.
The thing is, you can do everything right and still get sick. Yes, it’s absolutely crucial we stay at home, wash our hands, and keep distance. Please hear me: these rules are necessary and they mean life or death. But there’s a side effect of any rule: a built-in legalism and judgment. Even when it’s not your fault, the false message we preach is that to fail the rule means you’ve failed at life.
If you end up testing positive for COVID-19, you might be seen as bad or reckless or lesser, as if “you didn’t try hard enough.” Even if you recover, you might get strange looks at the office or from your family. You may feel cursed, stained, unclean.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how you got ill. What matters is that you’re made in the image of God still. Your body and health and job are not a currency for your worth. By grace you are more than the things you lose and the things that happen to you. The grace of God is so that nothing can separate you from His love, that He has no social or spiritual distance from you, that He sees you far more loved than you see yourself.
While you may be cut off or abandoned and it‘s crushing to the soul, the one who made that soul will never leave, never forsake, never stop drawing near to you. This may not fix anything now: but please know, in the midst of an unfixable situation, He is with you. He is always with you, and by grace you are always more.
If you know someone directly affected by COVID-19, my hope is you will see this person from the eyes of grace, that they’re not their illness, that their hurt does not determine their worth. Love them. Humanize them. Affirm their dignity and their imago dei. To see a person is to heal them. See by grace.
Not everyone can stay home to wait it out.
Some have to keep working.
Some have lost their jobs.
Some have never had a home.
Some will never go back.
Maybe things are “not that bad” for you. Maybe “this too shall pass”—in your world. But someone you know doesn’t have that luxury. Someone you know is permanently affected. They’re grieving a loss, whether it’s loss of their autonomy or a whole person. Our advice doesn’t apply to them, because it can’t.
Stats and facts gloss over real loss. Two in one-hundred doesn’t sound like a lot, but if any two people I knew had died this week, it would be absolutely devastating.
To downplay any grief and loss doesn’t help, and if you keep quoting statistics to show “it’s not that bad,” you’d be the last person I would go to for help.
No, we shouldn’t panic.
But please don’t tell people it’s fine
when they’re not.
The storm doesn’t always pass. Not for everyone. Pain can last for a lifetime. We can only hope to adjust to the new normal. By the grace of God, I will crawl down there with you.
When somebody tells me, “Don’t worry, God is in control,” too often that’s an excuse to be passive.
When I hear “God will provide,” that sounds like, “I don’t want to help.”
When I hear, “That’s God’s Will,” it seems to mean, “Better that guy than me.”
While these statements can be helpful truths, they can be said too quickly, and then they’re no better than empty “thoughts and prayers.” At best they’re a callous cop-out, and at worst they become abuse fueled by false theology.
This may be harsh, but if you just “leave it up to God” and take no action, then your god is laziness and your god might be you.
No, we should never be controlled by fear or worry. We do need courage, resilience, and wisdom. But to rush to “We’ll be okay” or “It’s not that bad” is to dismiss those who are at ground zero, to overlook loss, to ignore the especially vulnerable. It’s to forget our part: to navigate responsibly, to hold ourselves accountable for us and for each other.
I doubt constantly. I have trouble trusting Him. I worry. And I remember the story of the Red Sea crossing, and I imagine two groups of people. Some of the Israelites stood tall and walked with chins high. But some were on their tippy toes, screaming the whole way. That’s me. I’m a tippy toed screamer. I find it hard to trust, to have faith. Yet grace makes room for us all. Grace carries both the fearless and the frail. Grace empowers us to make a step, even we are we most afraid.
If God is really in control, that means I have to answer to Him. That raises my responsibility to the highest level. And if He’s in control, He has given us real resources to help. That should be motivation to do more, not less. And if I’m not in control, then I can’t do it in my strength, but His. That’s good news. That compels me to move.
Let’s talk about loneliness.
I’m not a therapist or doctor, but as a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen the terrible and awful effects of loneliness on mental health. The problem is that it’s tough to admit, almost embarrassing to say, “I’m hurting from loneliness.”
Loneliness is a double-bind in that in order to find comfort, it requires reaching out to people or for people to be near. But some of us have been alone so long, it’s unthinkable that we can connect with another human without risking rejection—which fuels more loneliness.
The unhelpful reply I hear to “I’m lonely” is “Why don’t you just make friends?” But that’s like saying, “Why don’t you just get rich?” or “Why can’t you just go to the gym?” We’re already in deficit, a lap behind, because we fear connection in proportion to how alone we feel.
It’s difficult to make friends and keep them. It’s hard to have real friendships that are not just functional transactions. Even when someone is surrounded by crowds or well connected, they may be the loneliest people on earth, because all their “friends” are transactional.
I don’t know the answer to loneliness. But I know what the answer is not: We can’t just snap out of it. We can’t just cure it with a party, a bar, a church, a dating app. It requires intentional investment and yes, the risk of rejection. The opposite of loneliness is courage. It takes courage to reach out, to enter each other’s orbit, to risk trust, and to be alone in our thoughts and fears.
Friends, this week may be lonely. This season can be brutal. They can remind you of all that’s missing. As trite as it sounds: You may feel lonely, but you are not alone. May you find the courage to reach out, to enter the possibilities of love in all its heaven and heartache.
I’m always saddened by how little it can take to break someone, because they have already suffered so much. And I’m always surprised by how much a person can endure and keep fighting.
Lisa and Aletha, twin babies, had a ton of complications. One had survived. The other had died. The mother had just lost her own mother. The father had fled.
I had been called up for a baptism, my very first one. I entered the room with a bottle of saline water, feet shuffling. The mother called me in.
“Chaplain,” she said, smiling. “Weird to see a guy walk in instead of walk out.” She chuckled, and burst into tears. Then laughed some more.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “How are you?” “Besides wanting to punch my boyfriend in the neck?” She cackled, loud enough for a nurse to walk by. “It is what it is. I’m so tired of crying. I just found out I have to put my dog to sleep. What a week it’s been. I’ve never had to be so strong.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “Maybe you don’t have to be so strong. Weak and strong are both okay.”
She replied, “I’m surprised I’m still alive.” She grew a fierce look. “You know, chaplain, I’m not religious. I don’t know why I want this. It just feels right. Bless my baby into heaven, and bless the other one to live her best.”
Both the cribs were next to her bed. I looked at Aletha, perfectly still, future interrupted, a snapshot of dreams in a box. My stomach swirled with a very different grief, a pain over all that could’ve been. I sprinkled some water over Aletha and I held her and I prayed.
I thought about how resilient and fragile we are, little creatures born into blinding stimuli, fighting for breath, fighting to the very end. I saw that flat-lines can become summits and a pulse can crash mid-flight, and what crushes one person may sculpt another, and healing is just as hard as hurting. I grieved over all that Aletha would miss, and I was scared for all that Lisa would endure.
After I prayed, the mother said, “That was a weird prayer. So weird. It was perfect.” Through tears, she laughed hard.
[Details altered for privacy.]
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.
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.
I’ve always been uncomfortable speaking. I have a bad case of stage fright and I’ve been introverted long before it was internet points. It might be hard to see but I’m shaking and sweating up there. The very thought of speaking makes my guts go funny. Plus, I’ve been told my actual voice sounds like one of those surfer turtles in Finding Nemo.
I spoke on Sunday just hours before John’s funeral. At one point during the message, I paused for a a very long five seconds. It wasn’t because of the stage fright. Of course, I thought about John. Every Wednesday where I work, we have a chapel service, and John was always there. Every single Wednesday. It makes me crazy thinking he won’t be at chapel anymore. He was always the first to enter the the doors, the first to share a prayer request, to enter the discussion, and the last to leave after talking about the sermon for ten minutes. Sometimes weeks later he’d tell me, “Hey I tried that thing you preached about three weeks ago.” I hardly remember what I ate yesterday. But he was that kind of guy.
I’d like to think in some way that John will be there. Cheering us on. Making the church exactly what it should be. Here’s to you brother.
(And thank you to my brother Pastor DL of Harvest KPCO for extending the honor to preach. Love you man. Your church is just as generous and wonderful as you.)
John, I can’t believe I have to bury you this week.
You were one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, fun-loving people I have ever met. You were the best. Easily top five of the human race. You loved to talk. Sometimes you would talk for forty minutes straight without taking a single breath. Then you’d get this sheepish look in your face, a little embarrassed, and you’d say, “I’m talking way too much.” But it was never too much. Ever. I’d give anything for you to talk and talk and talk again, as long as you wanted.
The first time after you heard me preach, you walked up to me and asked, “Why aren’t you famous?” I laughed really hard. But you weren’t laughing. You were serious. You had that silly, goofy, wide-eyed grin on your face. The one that everyone loved. You were that earnest. That sincere. You were always texting me some new insight you had, or a podcast, a song, a quote you heard, a picture of your baby girl, a video of you working out with bricks. You were exactly who you were, all the time. That’s rare. You were that rare sort of guy who was always yourself. You let people be comfortable with themselves, too.
I got to say goodbye to you at the hospital where I work. You were on my assigned floor, even. They say that people can still hear in a coma. I tried to say everything. But I never got to say sorry. I’m sorry that we didn’t have more time. We were supposed to eat Korean BBQ together. We were supposed to hit the gym together. I never told you that I liked to write or had a blog. I had so much more to say. And I’m sorry.
I miss you man. I’ll miss the funny way you turned your head sideways when you laughed. I’ll miss that effusive, embarrassed grin. It’s those little things that make a person which we miss the most. If your baby daughter turns out anything like you, she will be spectacular. A bright shining star.
I love you, man. I’ll see you again one day. I promise. Until then, I will make the most of it. It’s goodbye for now, for only a little while.
Anonymous asked a question:
Do you have any idea as to how I can combat my death anxiety related to a generalised anxiety disorder? Despite having been a Christian for the entirety of my life, I’m really struggling with the fear of losing loved ones and eventually, dying myself. My greatest fear is just becoming nothing.
Dear friend: I have the same fear.
The other day I was on the couch watching a show with my wife and my dog, and I had the crazy (if unoriginal) thought that a hundred years from now, we’ll be gone. The people in the show: gone. Our pictures and trinkets and trophies and stacks of collected papers will soon mean nothing to no one. What will become of our stories? Who will remember us?
I can’t say that I know how to deal with this all the time. The terror of death is a real anxiety. Some theories have said that we work and play and create and pray to ease the fear of annihilation. It could be true. All our living could be a futile dance towards the grave.
As a Christian too, sometimes the Christian story gives me great comfort. Other times it can feel so abstract and unreal. I want to believe so badly that we are headed towards a better eternity. But my doubts run rampant. I doubt, a lot.
Anonymous asked a question:
How to heal from a broken heart? Going through my first break up and even though we weren’t officially dating, I’ve never felt so much pain in my life. Every time I think I’m over it, I end up on the floor having a mental breakdown. When does it end?
Hey dear friend, I’m very sorry. Break-ups are incredibly difficult. I wrote about it once before here.
I think break-ups are similar to grieving over a death. While I don’t want to equate the two entirely, the two journeys look similar. I say that to say: No one is allowed to diminish the pain you’re going through here. It hurts. Break-ups are awful. You’re allowed to grieve.
Like any kind of grief, it will feel like you’re going crazy. Some days it will feel like you’re getting better, and then you’ll remember that one joke or the one movie or the one meal, and it will hit you all over again. I wish I had better news, but it will be terrible for a while. I say that to say: You’re not crazy. This is what it’s like.
I suggest at least a few things:
I’ve seen bloodthirsty demands that “public voices” must speak on every social issue.
There’s a harsh condemnation on the silence of celebrities, clergy, artists, authors, and your average blogger—as if that silence was the same as the injustice itself.
I absolutely agree we must speak up. Silence perpetuates the status quo. I believe in the the gritty necessity of protest and picket signs. We cannot sit idly by in the isolated concerns of our own four walls. Silence is the accomplice to injustice, and I expect better from those who have the golden reach of influence. Our platforms have a responsibility.
I also wonder about the hasty speed we comment on issues which are still unfolding. I wonder how many half-informed people are writing too quickly to get clicks and views and attention and to catch the viral heat of the moment. I wonder if we can both raise our voices while listening across the widening divide. I wonder how we can slow down in crisis to engage with the hurting rather than brew up a think-piece for yet another grand, eloquent, self-promoting manifesto. (I know, I’m guilty of doing the same thing here.)
And I wonder why we demand so much from public voices, as if we are waiting to be told what to think. Or worse, to validate a preprogrammed opinion. Maybe those voices indeed have the power to change things—but we do too, starting with ourselves and the people in the room. We don’t need to know everything first. We can start with the stories across from us.
It‘s physically impossible to care about everything all the time. We can choose to be passionate for just a few crucial things in our very short time on earth. It can’t be done with a flashy, trashy headline that’ll be forgotten in a week, but by the accumulative power of listening to other voices as we find our own. I cannot speak for you, but with you. And if you and I are to be a voice for the voiceless, maybe that means stepping off the stage and passing the microphone to the unheard. I want to hear you.
Here are my Top Twelve Posts of 2018, including topics like the benefit of grief, dealing with depression in marriage, misogyny in the Bible, people-pleasing, and my brush with suicide this year.
I’m all for love and patience and understanding and compassion —
But there’s also a time to say enough is enough. There’s a time to vent, weep, scream, shake a fist, and to simply be mad. There’s a space when things aren’t okay and the injustice is still a fresh wound and no one is supposed to tell you how to feel. We need to grieve before jumping to commentary and those extra little points of debate and platforms and policy. We need to grasp the magnitude of what happened without rushing to a better place, so we can do the hard work of healing deeply, and to ensure that justice is not forfeited for the sake of politeness. Sometimes love has to be outraged, because it won’t sit down and take anymore of this. Sometimes love has to get up and fight.
“Are you Angela, the wife of Tyrone Simmons?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she said, voice rising, searing the phone in my ear. “Yes, chaplain, why?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but your husband Tyrone is here at the hospital.”
I hate this part. I’ve made this call so many times. “Are you able to be here? Will you be with anyone? I’m not sure yet, the doctor can tell you. The doctor can answer that. The doctor will update you. Please drive safely. The doctor will know.”
Angela’s husband Tyrone had been driving to work and he was hit by a truck. Most likely died instantly. He probably never knew.
Anonymous asked a question:
What if I am angry at God. How do you cope with the frustration and anger towards Him?
Hey dear friend, I’m really sorry. There must be many things happening internally and externally, and I’m with you and for you. So is everyone here.
I have to tell you up front: I’d much rather be mad with God than mad without Him.
That’s not some cute little statement that only works abstractly on Instagram. I’m dead serious. If you’re angry with God, at the very least, you’re talking with Him. He’d rather you be mad at Him than displacing that anywhere else. God isn’t put off by our barest, most raw emotions: because He made them, and He made you, and He’s going to work with that.
Condemning hate isn’t enough. That’s the bare minimum. We also need solidarity. Compassion. Calling out. Standing with. Fighting for. Ground level work. Sleeves up. In the dirt. There’s the difficult brutal unpopular risk of getting on the right side of history. In the home. Out there. Over fences, across oceans. Side by side when it isn’t pretty, when no one’s looking, when everyone is, when the wounded lean heavily on our shoulders, when no one cares. That’s the stuff that changes where we’re going.