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.”

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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.”

My Father, Survivor of the Vietnam War


My father Jung Hwan Park in the Vietnam War, c. 1964.

He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army.  He taught hand-to-hand combat to both Korean and American soldiers, including the U.S. Navy Seals.

In 1968, he was captured during the Tet Offensive and forced to walk barefoot, blindfolded, and hands tied to a prison, where he was a POW.  My dad was forced to eat rats and fight other prisoners to survive, and he went blind several times due to poor nutrition.  After a failed escape attempt, he was tortured with bamboo shoots underneath his fingernails and a few of his fingers were broken.  Before execution, he escaped alone (by killing a few guards with his bare hands) and was the only known soldier who escaped his encampment.  He was then captured in Cambodia and declared a Korean spy, and for two years the Korean Embassy worked for his release.  He’s authored an autobiography in Korea, translated Through the Jungle of Death.  A few Korean history textbooks talk about his successful escape.  He’s established a martial arts franchise in America called J. Park Martial Arts, and at 70 he still teaches.

— J.S.

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.”

My Testimony and Calling: Where I Came From, Where I’m Going

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I was seven years old when I got in my first street fight in the only tenements that my parents — struggling poor Koreans they were — could afford. I had fought a much older single mother and lost. To my credit, she started it. At twelve years old, I decided I was an atheist. At fourteen, my parents divorced, as if to confirm that God couldn’t exist. At sixteen, I had my first drop of an ensuing ocean of alcohol. That same year, I went to what they called a “Gentleman’s Club” and stumbled upon a terrible addiction. By nineteen, I had lost my college scholarship and dropped out with a 0.9 GPA. By twenty-two, I had swallowed a bottle of pills over the girl I was living with, who had cheated on me twice. I spent time in what they call a “mental institution,” which was perhaps an improvement over the Gentleman’s Club.

I understand these problems do not compare to those of the world over: but the contrast was that I hardly felt anything. I was following the latest, loudest emotion, just the exit ramps to the bigger neon sign. And soon I was staring into the mouth of a senseless life with little purpose and no meaning — and it was all rather hilarious.

In my apprehension towards all-things-God, I would stay up until three in the morning watching the ceiling fan, knowing there was more to life than the empty vacuum of sweaty drunk faces and the smear of red-and-blue cop car lights. At some point in college I was certain that God was at least a real being, if only because I had looked into the face of nothingness and knew that no one could possibly sustain a life in that direction. But I didn’t want there to be a God, not with a capital G. It was horrifying to think so. It was crazy to think I couldn’t call my own shots and that I was somehow not the main character of my own existence.

I went to church anyway. Quite faithfully, too. I got caught up in the music, the messages, the social fervor, that moment after the sermon in the lobby when no one talks about the sermon. I started bringing my friends by the dozens because I was good at that sort of thing. And somewhere along the line, almost imperceptibly by degrees, I started hearing the messages. I really started listening. I heard about a God who loves us and became one of us and died for us and defeated death and invited us into the best relationship there is. Not a God who gives us everything we want, because that would be no better than Santa Claus with a pager. But a glorious, grand, dynamic, pulsating God, who was writing this incredible drama with His Son at the apex of history and letting us all in. Even letting me in. Almost by accident, to my growing disdain, I was feeling alive for the first time.

Continue reading “My Testimony and Calling: Where I Came From, Where I’m Going”

Waiting To Die, I Survived — A Testimony

MAG cover pose


The doctors were sure if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up. 

It was too late to pump my stomach. Half a bottle of Excedrin. They were about to insert the tube down my throat. Instead they fed me liquid charcoal to neutralize the acid. My vomit was the color of midnight, of tar.

I waited. I fell asleep. 

You can feel death, you know.  It’s like someone is unraveling a thread at the back of your skull, like sinking into yourself.  My legs felt like they were dangling in water. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. It would’ve been so easy to keep falling, to sink, to follow the thread to the bottom.

But in that moment, hanging over the abyss — there it was.  Not some neon sign or some grand eloquent entrance, not a voice from the rafters, but a simple expression of something beyond this world. 

“You’re not done yet.  You have more. You have Me.”

I woke up.  I was Baker Act’ed into a mental hospital. I wore someone else’s clothes. A man with a clipboard asked me questions about my father. A patient in the next room pulled the fire alarm and tried to jump out the window. Another patient tried to fight me. I was let out after regaining “social acceptability.” I lost thirteen pounds in three days and had roomed with others who had far worse problems than I. 

Back into the sunlight, I suddenly didn’t want to waste my life anymore.  I couldn’t stand the thought of having died in that hospital bed.

I wanted to believe it all had meaning,

that a purpose awaited me,

that I was made to save a corner of this universe,

that I am much more than what I feel. 

It took inches before death to find the beginning of trusting Him. Maybe part of trusting God was trusting that He might actually like me — not because of what I could do, but simply because I was breathing the air He had whispered into my lungs.

I thought of the verse: It does not profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul. If this is true, it means your soul and mine has infinitely more value to God than the whole world.  For every person who is tired of living, God says,

You’re not done yet. 

You have more. 

You have Me.

– J.S. | Mad About God

My Most Horrifying Church Experience Ever

Disclaimer: To protect my family and myself, I am not using names and I’m purposefully obscuring certain details. I cannot confirm them privately, either. These are well-known people in Christian circles who I still believe are doing helpful things, despite the terror behind closed doors.  I must be careful here, because 1) they would absolutely crucify me if they saw this post, and 2) they could also deny having ever met me, despite email correspondences and recorded conversations.  But I have to speak up.

I want to tell you about my most horrifying church experience ever, because it began so ordinary and subtle, and I want to protect you from the nightmare I eventually woke up to.

I know there must be so many more terrible experiences at church and mine is not nearly the worst, yet I hope you’ll know that not every horror story about church happens in a cult of backwood druids sacrificing goats to chanting.  It can happen in the most mundane sort of atmosphere with a slowly tightening chokehold, until it’s too late.

Years ago, I befriended the lead pastor of a church ministry that was doing amazing things in the community and we first became friends over the phone. The pastor explained that every church in America was doing it wrong.  This really appealed to my discontent about the church culture, and our phone calls were filled with tons of encouragement and positive affirmation over my “gifts, talent, treasures, insights, and abilities given by God.”  Whenever I spoke bad about my own church, the lead pastor agreed as loudly as possible.

In the first few months, he offered me a position at his ministry, but I was obligated to my current church.  However, I was still able to visit.  I was completely seduced by the way he and his team did ministry.  Their preaching was fun, their services were boisterous, their praise team was incredible, and they knew every single family by name.  They were well-respected by the community and they were funded completely by other churches and individuals from all over the world.  All the while, they were saying, “We do it better than the other guys” and their website sold tons of church curriculum.  I even bought some.

Continue reading “My Most Horrifying Church Experience Ever”

Thanks For Goodbye

Some of you know that in 2004 I attempted suicide. It was over a girl.
Here’s the story. I wrote it two months after I was released from the hospital. It’s slightly graphic.
Remember: in the darkness there is always, always, always hope.

After I get out of the hospital in three days from swallowing forty pills of Excedrin, I lose thirteen pounds. I’m one of those before and after pictures, you know, the ones where they use two different people to convey a new diet pill. Before: a wad of dough. After, he’s a smiling skeleton.

My shirts hangs on me like baggage-burned eyes. I still want to be with her. When you try to kill yourself over someone, that’s the only thing you really think about.

Outside in the rain under the blue sign that says “Sears,” she tells me she wants to spend the rest of her life with me. I smile against my teeth and my face turns green. My liver makes me want to puke and so does her face. It’s supposed to be one of those great moments that I should tell my grandkids. The memory we gather is composed of those emotional peaks that make up the blueprint journey of our life; at times we soar, at times we drown.

Continue reading “Thanks For Goodbye”

Happy There

I meet with my counselor. He’s the pastor of a four-hundred-plus college ministry and one of the most Spirit-led men I know. For him to even make time for me is ridiculous.

I walk in and he’s on hold with an airline over the office speaker phone. He’s on his cell phone too, an urgent call. There’s a roll of one-hundred dollar bills on his desk. I don’t ask. He’s looking through his drawers for something. He tells me he’s so sorry to be distracted. As a pastor who just suffered a breakdown from anxiety, I totally understand.

I needed his counsel because soon I’d be in a meeting to re-negotiate how I do the ministry. But I was nervous: I wanted to be humble with them while authoritative, demanding yet firm. I was also afraid that I’d be rejected, shot down, or fired.

While my counselor rummaged through his drawers, I shared my fears. The airline music was playing in the background. I must have said “What if” a dozen times. Suddenly he stopped, slammed the drawer shut, smiled, and looked right at me.

“You know, Joon, do me a favor. Will you stop being such a sh_tless wonder? I’ve been dealing with death all morning in and out of hospitals and funerals and I can’t find my wallet which has everything in it and you’re scared to be yourself. If you can’t say what you want to them, maybe that’s not the right place for you. Shouldn’t you just be happy there?”

He apologized for being so short with me. The airline person came on. He took the call and went right back to looking for his wallet.

We talked some more. He walked me out and hugged me and told me he loved me. He asked me to pray about his wallet. I got in my car and prayed.

“I’ve been dealing with death all morning . . . Shouldn’t you just be happy there?”

Of course, he was right.