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.]
Anonymous asked a question:
Is anxiety a sin? God says to be anxious for nothing. I googled it and apparently lots of Christians say anxiety is a sin. Means you don’t fully trust God
Hey dear friend: No, I don’t believe that anxiety is a sin.
Anxiety results from a broken brain, originating from a world that is flawed, fractured, and has fallen short. At most, anxiety is the result of a sin-torn world. But no, it is not a sin that you’re premeditating, as if you’re somehow planning on having an anxiety attack.
When Scripture says “Be anxious for nothing,” well—that word anxious also means distracted or divided or pulled in every direction. Later Paul says he is content with being hungry or well fed, living in plenty or in want. In other words, he does not have a consuming preoccupation with a perfect situation. He is not basing his happiness on a full stomach or material pleasures. He is writing from prison, after all, and has chosen not to to base his value on his surroundings.
I think there’s a kind of anxiety not related to mental health, which is more of a restlessness for “better,” and it can never be content. This is not about mental health, but rather a moral choice of internal character. Paul says that by praying we’ll have “the peace of God that transcends all understanding,” which in context appears to mean that we’re not always consumed with upgrading our circumstances. It means trusting God even when we don’t have everything that we want. That sort of peace is not easy to find, but it’s possible.
But let’s assume Paul was talking about anxiety the way we understand it.
In my book launch group, I performed a spoken word poem I wrote on finding peace. Hope it blesses you. (Sorry for all the sweat.)
My book drops May 5th. You can preorder here:
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.
Hey friends, I did a video with my publisher Moody Publishers to talk about COVID-19.
I go through five points: How to approach the pandemic from a chaplain’s perspective—dealing with our fear, with each other, and with ourselves—and I directly address those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have lost someone to it.
I hope even a single sentence will help you through this time.
(Also, this might be the first time you’ve heard my voice or seen me in video, I apologize in advance.)
God bless and much love to each of you, friends.
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.
I’d like to think I’m not a fearful person. But I am. I never look like I worry, but I do. A lot.
This week I made the mistake of very publicly bringing up my fears about coronavirus in the workplace. I don’t mind catching the flu, but my wife is pregnant and the flu can adversely affect our baby in utero. I said some uncomfortable things in front of coworkers, when I’m supposed to be the calm voice of a chaplain.
I was not helpful. I probably incited panic and anxiety. I apologized for my behavior. Maybe the fear of being a dad in our current world really got to me. It was still not a good look.
I’m trying to balance the fear we‘re experiencing versus being calm, safe, and rational. I want to validate our anxiety without letting it consume us. I want to be vigilant, but not so on edge that I’m scaring everyone else. I want to say “God is in control,” but also run screaming and lock every window. It’s a tough, strange balance.
We’ve seen where the fear can take us: there’s been multiple racist assaults against Asians, blaming them for the pandemic. We’ve seen misinformation about drinking water and eating garlic and avoiding packages from China. We’ve seen the ugly finger-pointing of political leaders using the panic for vote-bait, promoting xenophobia and catering to the worst leanings of their base. And everyone—including me here—has some take about what to do, how to be, what to say.
I’m trying to stay cool. To be both cautious and optimistic. It’s hard. It’s scary right now. I keep thinking of raising a daughter in this world and how I’m so incapable, unsure, uncertain, lacking the wisdom to say the right thing, to be a pillar when she needs me. I hope I can be strength for her even when I have so little of it in myself.
I’m trying to validate fear without giving into it, to let fear ask questions and seek wisdom and move towards compassionate curiosity, rather than hate or rash decisions. God be with us, who navigates our fears, who hears our worries, who gives us wisdom amidst division, who offers us a peace like no other.
Anonymous asked a question:
My father is an abuser and maybe it’s stupid, but how can people can not be afraid of the words “our father in heaven”?
Hey my friend, thank you for sharing so honestly and I’m sorry you experienced such abuse. I hope and pray you are at a safe distance today and that you are recovering.
Your concern is not “stupid” at all. It’s absolutely valid. I work as a chaplain at two places, the hospital and a homeless shelter, and when I address God, at both places I am very careful when I say “God our father.” Especially at the homeless shelter. Many of the low income families I encounter have not had good experiences with any sort of male figure. To say “father” is okay for some, but also devastating for others.
In the end, you can’t force someone to do anything, even if it’s for their good.
You can’t force someone to respect your feelings or care about your passions or believe your dreams.
You can’t force someone to believe your side of the story, even when you’re right.
You can’t force an apology.
You can’t force someone to engage in justice or fight for the poor or to become nuanced in culture and history.
You can’t force growth.
You can’t force someone to show up on time, or even show up at all.
In the end, I’ve learned that people will do whatever they want, even if that means stepping on you or neglecting you or abandoning you or belittling you or choosing others over you. I’ve probably done this to others as much as it’s been done to me. It’s a terrible cycle that can leave us bitter, suspicious, paranoid, and completely jaded.
I’ve also learned that I don’t care if others don’t care. I have to love anyway. I have to be patient anyway. I have to be cynical to cynicism. Because I don’t want to perpetuate one more cycle of apathy and neglect. I don’t want to be one more rung in the ladder of indifference. I don’t want to react to someone’s reaction all the time. And I must believe the best of others, because change does not happen by standing over, but standing with, in trust.
No, I cannot force change on you, and I won’t. I can only pour out what I have. Even if you don’t care. Especially if you don’t care. I’ll pour out anyway. In the end, our lives will have been given over to dust. I’d rather mine will have been given over to you.
Here are my Top Ten Posts of 2019, from leaving church to codependency to suicide awareness to my favorite female influences.
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 was telling my story to somebody the other day and I got to the various injustices of racism I’ve endured, and he told me, “That doesn’t happen. Not anymore.” I insisted it did, and he counter-insisted, “That’s just something everybody goes through, you’re just injecting race into it.” I tried to tell him about the times someone had physically assaulted me while yelling “ch_nk” or “go_k” or “yellow kid” or “your dad killed my dad in the war,” but he kept telling me, “That’s not that bad.”
So I excused myself from the conversation. I felt a bit humiliated, honestly. This was a guy I really trusted, who I was sure would understand. He was absolutely adamant he was right.
I’ve seen this sort of thing with mental health, sexual abuse, family upbringing, classism, gender, religion—you try to tell your story, and a wall comes up. You get the reply, “It’s never happened to me, therefore it never happens.” And you start to wonder: Am I the crazy one? Is it just in my head? Am I overreacting and too sensitive, like they’re saying?
But then I’ve found those who heard me. Who listened. Who weren’t just treating me like a sad pity project or asking out of voyeuristic curiosity. I’ve found safe people who may not have gone through the same thing, but they can literally become the other. They pause to believe.
I’ve also found those who have walked in the same shoes and skin. Sometimes they thought they were walking alone, against insurmountable forces with no community and zero support—until they heard someone say a similar story and they knew they weren’t crazy. That gives me enough courage to keep speaking, to keep sharing. It’s in the telling of our stories we find healing, and each other. You may be lonely for a while, but you are not alone.
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.
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.
Photo from Unsplash
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.
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.
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.