Five Husbands.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities are 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.”

We Bleed, All The Way Up


The patient really believed her cancer was somehow “God’s amazing plan for my life.” She went on to say the things I always hear: “He won’t give me more than I can handle. Thank God we caught it early. God is going to use this for my good.”

I get why we say these things, because we’re such creatures of story that we rush for coherence. But even when such theology is true, I want to tell her that it’s okay to say this whole ordeal is terrible and that it really hurts and that we live in a disordered, chaotic, fractured, fallen world where the current of sin devours everything, that bad things happen to model citizens, that nothing is as it’s meant to be, and the people who don’t catch the cancer early aren’t well enough to thank God for anything, and that not every pain is meant to be a spiritualized, connect-the-dots lesson as if God is some cruel teacher waiting for us to “get it.”

Pain doesn’t always have to be dressed up as a blessing in disguise. God hears our frustration about injustice and illness: for He is just as mad at suffering as we are. He doesn’t rush our grief. He bled with us, too, in absolute solidarity, and broke what breaks us in a tomb. He is the friend who meets us in our pain, yet strong enough to lead us through. I can only hope, in some small measure, to do the same.

J.S.


We Have to Talk About It: What Hurts Worse Is When We Don’t Talk About What Hurts.

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


Frankie was in his late-twenties and just discovered he had brain cancer. The bad kind. As if there’s any other.

His wife was in the room. They were sure he could beat this: but can you really be sure?

Frankie had a smile the size of Texas; his speech was slurred from the pain meds but he was cracking jokes in that quiet room. He was genuinely funny. I couldn’t believe how funny he was even with all the tubes sticking out of him and half his head shaved from the biopsy and his tongue made of mush. He wanted to yank out those tubes and get back to work. I wanted to help him.

They kept talking about the future like it was a sure thing. “I’ll be fine,” Frankie said, and his wife: “He’s tough, he’ll be okay.” Part of my Chaplaincy Radar was sure that this was a bad idea, because cancer is an unpredictable monster, and I wanted them to confront the grief with honesty. But the other part of me wanted to feed the hope. Keep with the jokes, you know, keep it light and easy, and I’ll bring the pom-poms.

These are the harder visits, when no one wants to talk about the thing they’re going through. I know that positive energy is a good thing, and we need affirmation and good vibes for good health: but this sort of suppression is like covering a pot of boiling water with your hands, and the more you try to cover it, the more it burns you up and the more likely you’ll explode all over the kitchen.

Continue reading “We Have to Talk About It: What Hurts Worse Is When We Don’t Talk About What Hurts.”

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.


A Theology of Loss, Love, and Leaning In

For my chaplaincy, I had to answer the questions:

Where is God in the midst of suffering, loss, illness, tragedy?
Where is God for the patients?
Where is God for you?

Here’s my meager attempt to answer these very huge questions.

In the worst moments of our lives — the cancer, the car accident, the phone call that changes everything — I’m not always sure where God is. Even the most trusting and devout are spouting, “God’s got this” with quivering lips and a shaking voice, with the slight clench of a fist, with feverish bewilderment: because the words fall flat on the cold linoleum of the hospital.

No matter how much theology we know in our three lb. brains, it all goes out the window when the floor opens up and steals us into the abyss of loss, the irreversible before and after, and the world becomes a chaotic, unsafe place of random disaster.

I can’t say where God is.

I can only say with some certainty where God is not.

I don’t believe God is distant and detached from our pain. I don’t believe He’s gloating over us behind a glass cage. I don’t believe He uses pain to teach us a lesson. I don’t believe that trials are part of “God’s amazing plan for your life.”

I don’t believe that God is some stoic, abstract teacher who waits for us to “get it.” Pain is pain, and it hurts, and no amount of theology is going to glamorize a special reason that it happens.

Not every pain has a connect-the-dots theology. When a hurricane misses a city and everyone “praises God,” it’s only condemning the millions of people who are hit by the same storm. When a child dies of preventable diseases or drunk drivers or a genetic anomaly, there’s no curse or blame upon the child. We can’t force such a tragedy into easily quantifiable boxes. To make such a correlation, if anything, is worse than the pain itself.

The truth is that we live in loss every single second, just by the mere fact that our lives won’t turn out the way we want them to. We live within absolute suffering just by losing time on the clock in the inevitable march towards death. The hospital only puts a neon sign around the coffin that awaits us all.

But my Christian faith tells me that this is completely expected. We live on a fallen world where the thread of sin has woven its tendrils into every part of our being, and that something will always be missing. Rather than deny pain, the Christian faces it head-on and acknowledges the tension. From our grief in loss to our hunger for approval to our need for intimacy: we float in this strange limbo of discontent, where nothing is ever quite the way we want it.

At the same time: My faith holds onto the hope that total fulfillment really exists. Our pain is unbearably awful, but it actually points to our desire for a healing of everything that has ever fallen apart. The inverse irony of pain is that when we’re hurting, it conveys a contrast to a very real wholeness. It’s why pain hurts. Pain tells us that something is terribly wrong and we know it ought to be put right. Or as C.S. Lewis said, “Nothing is yet in its true form.” The very reality of suffering points to our need for an ultimate comfort and justice: for God Himself.

This means there is some perfect song on the other side of the door; a light at the end of the tunnel that fills the tunnel; a beauty that doesn’t explain our pain, but is stronger and louder and bigger than all that has happened to us. We know this because we know bad notes, we know the darkness of a tunnel, we know the scars of marred beauty. Christianity says that the only real beauty is the infinitely satisfying perfection of God, who is the only being in existence that fulfills every longing we’ve ever had for truth and beauty and wholeness.

But I believe that Christianity fulfills us not only by perfection, but also by descending. Christianity says that God became one of us, out of solidarity, to suffer with us, not as a mere deity in an abstract palace, but a flesh-dwelling person in a sand-swept desert, so that, though God is so above us, He knows what it’s like to be one of us. The Christian believes in a God who wept and bled and suffered, an infinite God who infinitely compensated for our hurt, thereby cosmically answering for our afflictions and fulfilling the deep need to be heard and known at our very worst.

This must mean that God is just as mad at suffering as we are. God must be grieving with us, too. And in fact, my Christian faith tells me that because God is mad at our pain and still perfect, we’re also allowed to be as mad as He is at the very same things.

Maybe there’s an intellectually satisfying answer why we’re suffering: but what I want is someone who relates instead of debates. This is why we get flustered when someone connects the dots on our tragedies. It’s better they get with me in the trenches.

This means my job is not to solve for the other person’s pain. It’s not to bring diagrams and flowcharts. It’s to sit inside the uncertainty and anxiety of suffering and to shout against the dark, until we have shouted ourselves out. This is when God can begin to show up at all, for at our rock-bottom, He is already there.

Continue reading “A Theology of Loss, Love, and Leaning In”

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.”

What Matters When Nothing Else Does.

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.

Continue reading “What Matters When Nothing Else Does.”

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.”