When I ask if God is good
I see a cross, an empty tomb.
What He writ large in the stars
is writ small for our wounds.
From the sky to my sin
He is re-making us again.
When nothing else is good,
He is the only one who is.
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.
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.
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.
I have to admit I often weep reading the news. It’s exhausting. Infuriating. Heartrending. I always want to do something, but I’m not sure where to start, how to help, who to ask. There are so many ways to help, but it never seems enough. The needs are overwhelming.
One look at the news and it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to give in to pessimism. It’s understandable, given our daily trauma, the terrible headlines, and our disappointing leaders. It’s tiring. But often the world is the way it is because too many of us have accepted the way it is. Pessimism has always been a sport for sidelines. I’m afraid that the detachment of pessimism, as fun as it is, is often just laziness.
No, simply “thinking positive” doesn’t make things better. And it takes momentous effort, decades of sweat and tears and rallies and voices, to move the needle towards real change. That has to start with you. With me. With believing that change is possible. With our little corners and small platforms and unseen podiums. With believing that even ancient institutions like politics and the church and social attitudes can be completely transformed.
Optimism doesn’t only see how we are, but who we could be. I want eyes that see that far. The way ahead was lit by others who dared to hope. Change happened by those who first believed it was possible. So we must carry the light for those coming next. We are the next. We are not yet fully arrived, not yet fully home, but we bring a glimpse of home to a world so tired and torn.
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.
When I preach love in a time like this, my words aren’t credible because the church is not. I can’t help but feel the church is always part of the problem. We contributed to this mess.
The church is called to be the safest, most gracious place on the face of the earth. Not perfect, but passionate, with arms open as wide as the cross. I know I’ve fallen short. God help us. God start with me.
If your faith is making you a jerk, throw it out and start over. If your faith makes you want to fight “worldly people” all the time and you‘re always shaking your head at “this generation,” then your god is too small and your god is probably you.
One of the reasons I was an atheist for so long is because I often wondered if religion makes people worse. Objectively worse. Religion seems to set up a battle position in which “I must guard the truth” and “If you disagree, you’re the enemy, the infidel, the heathen, and evidence of the apocalypse.”
Instead of serving the poor and welcoming foreigners and loving the rejected—you know, the stuff that the Bible cares about—money is spent basically enforcing a kid’s fort with passwords and Don’t Enter signs and alarmist war strategies against a phantom caricature that’s only made up to feel like something important is being fought for.
My guess is that some religious folks do not see their faith as a gift that has saved them, but rather as a weapon by which they must “save” everyone else. So then, the kingdom-military-triumphalist language in the Bible is lifted to boost the ego and separate from “worldliness” and to claim that any criticism against the church is “an attack against the family.” It makes Christians look really weird. I don’t mean that in a good way, like “Wow she’s so weird for giving away money to fight human trafficking.” I mean weird as in “He just hurled that venti Starbucks coffee at the barista because it didn’t say Christmas on it.”
Yes, persecution exists. Which is all the more reason that saying persecution can never, ever be used in a comfortable context. God stop me if I ever think I’m being persecuted when I’m really being called out and held accountable. God help me if I ever use my faith to divide, out of superiority, as a lens of cynicism, instead of giving me hope that we are all within God’s grasp, His grace, His peace.
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.
The Jesus that I want would only serve me and my own interests and align with my theological leanings and plans and dreams.
The Jesus that I need would serve the people that I forgot existed, who lived outside my best-laid plans and doctrinal camps, and he would just as quickly subvert my interests to care about others’ interests above my own.
The Jesus that I want would probably listen to my music, look like my race, match my Myers Briggs, and fight for my ideology.
The Jesus that I need would knock me over with songs I never knew I craved, enter my culture without condescending or conforming, would accept and challenge who I am, and transcend my time-locked ideas of ideologies.
The Jesus that I want would probably die for people who liked me or were like me or were most likely.
The Jesus that I need died for the people who were nothing like him and he loved them, and even liked them, and he rose to find them. He even rose to find you and me: the least likely, because he’s the love we want, and need.
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.]
I believe that people can change. Not everyone will, no. There are the few who refuse, and we must decide wisely how to move. But holding someone accountable, in the end, is not just to punish them. It’s to see the best of them. It’s to believe in the possibility that they are more than they seem.
Whenever we dismiss someone as incapable of change, we instantly suckerpunch the sovereign grace of God. We are downsizing Him to “those” people and not “these.” Then we’re no longer talking about God or grace or accountability. We’re just exposing our laziness.
No, I do not believe that love enables. It does not pamper or coddle or let off the hook. It’s a chisel that sculpts towards better. And it must contain boundaries, wisdom, and proper distance. But we cannot use accountability as a sledgehammer. It’s not for revenge or holding someone back. Too often we use it as a weapon instead of an aid, as an ends instead of a means.
You know what I mean. I see a person on their first lap of faith and I make assumptions; I see 0.5 percent of a person’s life and somehow predict their future; I see half a story and presume the whole story. But this is a sort of evil that holds back potential, that undermines growth, that destroys a child’s dreams. It’s an ugliness that I’ve experienced from others, who wouldn’t give me a shot, who wouldn’t see past their negative filters and accusations and condemnations, who saw me as a deadbeat nobody with no hope of a turnaround.
But occasionally, love would cut in and open a door. It grew my heart. It embraced me in. Love sees a greatness in someone who cannot see it in themselves. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It hopes in all things, it does not rejoice in evil. It perseveres.
If you’ve grown up in the same town long enough, most people assume you’re the same person you always were. They can’t see past the past version of you.
I wonder a lot: Are we doomed to our former selves, time-stamped to who we used to be? Will the things we’ve done and used to do always drag at at our heels, a permanent anchor?
There are days I keep imagining what other people are saying about me. I imagine a room full of them shaking their heads. “A chaplain? Who’s he kidding? I know who he really is. He’s not the guy he pretends to be. Nobody like him could change.” It keeps me up at night. I mentally argue with them until I’ve finally proven I’m not that same guy. I’ll spend hours inside my own head explaining my side of the story and why you need to know I’m not a bad person and that I’m sorry for the person I was before.
But you know, no one may get to hear your side of the story. No one might believe you’ve changed. Even when you do the right thing, you’ll be accused of wrong motives. And you are still accountable to the wrong you’ve done, as much as others are accountable for how they’ve wronged you.
But there is a grace that says you are different now, and the old you is dead. Buried. No longer you. Maybe no one will know you’ve encountered the kind of grace that has not just changed you, but made you completely new. Your trauma, your guilt, your past, your labels: they’re taken in by grace, by a love that sees in whole and stays. Imagine that. The world may call you something, but you are more. You are new. You are always more.
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.
It‘ll happen. You’ll give bad advice. I have given plenty. And it seems every season, I end up disagreeing with a lot of things I’ve said the season before. So is advice ever really any good?
I’ve met people who will say things like, “A long time ago you told me ___ and it really changed me.” And sometimes I panic. Do I even agree with what I said before? Wasn’t I a different person then? Wasn’t I just saying flowery poetic idealistic stuff that wasn’t field tested? That I wasn’t even living out myself?
Here’s where we need to be cautious. The advice we hear, whether from a friend or blogger or leader or pastor or celebrity or book or podcast, is probably good advice. But it might not be for you in your current walk of life. It might just be for that person, in that season, and they grew past it already. Or their advice was something they just made up, and it was never time tested or proven. It sounded pretty, but would never work in the dirt, in the hustle, in the hurt.
It’s amazing how a string of eloquent and witty combination of buzzwords can truly change a life. But I also worry that those same words can take us down a path not meant for us. Or it worked at the time, but can’t now. Or those words came from a version of myself that was a moron, and has learned much better. So the advice you’re hearing from somebody is just a temporal snapshot. It’s a set of clothes, and you can outgrow those.
Don’t trust me. Don’t trust this. Don’t trust an articulate, punchy, hyped up blog post or TED Talk just because of a few flashy graphics and catchphrases. Discern. Think through it. Investigate. Hear many opinions, not just one. Search yourself. Trust your own tears; they’re speaking. Seek new ideas. Seek God. Seek what is timeless. And don’t be too ashamed of your older self: that person believed some weird things, but those were growing pains. You’ll always feel weird about your old self, but that means renovation has happened.
So my wife and I have been trying to have a child for eight months now. No news yet. I know that eight months is not a long time. I’ve heard it can take years. But—it’s been a little discouraging. Sometimes painful.
I was watching a couple of those cute Disney World videos the other day: a dad plays piano at a Disney hotel while his daughter cheers him on, or a mom takes his daughter dressed up as BB-8 to see BB-8. I love watching that kind of stuff these days. And I didn’t expect to feel a strange, almost fiery ache in my chest. It’s a bit embarrassing. Like vicarious joy and hope and jealousy and wistful delight all mixed up and rolling around inside.
Is that weird? Small? Over the top? I don’t know. It feels crappy, truthfully.
I’m really waiting and wanting to be a dad. I didn’t expect it to hurt this much.
I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of literature for guys who are waiting. I know this is a much harder role for women, and I don’t mean to compare. But it’s hard to know where to go or who to talk to about it. It’s a compound loneliness, when it feels like no one really cares that you’re lonely.
One thing I’m learning in the process is that I don’t control a thing. Very little, really. Miracles are God’s business. I can’t make that happen. It’s frustrating. Humbling. Exhausting. It’s enough to make me pray and do a little light cursing. That’s the language of waiting.
The one thing I’m holding on to is the old cliché: the waiting isn’t wasted. I’d like to think so, anyway. I’d like to think the waiting means something. That it’s redeemed somehow. Is it? I really hope so.