This is the second entry in my hospital chaplain series. In it, I’m revisiting some of the experiences I had while fulfilling my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit at Overlook Hospital (Summit, NJ). To orient yourself as to the purpose, the context and tone of the series, it’ll be helpful to read the first entry “A Story about Holding Hands.” The following entry is a truncated account, and only touches on some of the events and the surrounding issues. I hope, though, that this short piece draws out some of the reader’s own struggles and that it helps point the reader toward some possible ways of processing them and finding hope.
I could never get used to visiting the Intensive Care Unit. The lighting in the area was dimmer than in the rest of the hospital, everyone spoke in hushed tones, and there was heaviness about the room that was so palpable it felt like I was wading through a thick emotional humidity when doing my rounds in the unit. I didn’t necessarily dread visiting the ICU; I just had to prepare myself for it. In fact, in a way, I looked forward to doing my rounds there. The unit offered an experiential landscape that I’d never previously explored—one that was not replicated anywhere else in the hospital or in my life.
From Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman):
A disturbing demonstration of depletion effects in judgment was recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel. They spend entire days reviewing applications for parole. The cases are presented in random order, and the judges spend little time on each one, an average of 6 minutes. (The default decision is denial of parole; only 35% of requests are approved. The exact time of each decision is recorded, and the times of the judges’ three food breaks – morning break, lunch, and afternoon break – during the day are recorded as well.) The authors of the study plotted the proportion of approved requests against the time since the last food break. The proportion spikes after each meal, when about 65% of request are granted. During the two hours or so until the judges’ next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal. As you might expect, this is an unwelcome result and the authors carefully checked many alternative explanations. The best possible account of the data provides bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole. Both fatigue and hunger probably play a role.
Disturbing, no? Sheesh. I can think of a gazillion other situations where this effect could lead to horrible outcomes.
Kahneman adds, “the nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose.” Basically, when we engage in tasks that require significant concentration and self-control, we need energy to do it well. If we don’t have that energy, we either fall back to a less taxing mode of operation (e.g. thinking less, saying “no” to acquittals, etc.) or our cognitive performance deteriorates. Multiple studies have confirmed this effect (though, frankly, it should be common sense). I guess all those commercials about making sure we eat breakfast before school were right.
What’s disturbing about this is that most folks, groups or companies do not account for this effect in their daily lives or day-to-day operation. Yes, we know we’re tired and hungry when we don’t eat, and we get cranky and sleepy. We don’t want to do our work or we go at it half-steam. Performance drops. But I don’t think it crosses our minds too often that our judgment is actually “impaired,” and that in this state, we can make significant mistakes in life-altering decisions (for ourselves and others).
Ultimately, most of the time, glucose-depletion probably won’t lead to major catastrophes in your life. For me, it can cause me to be short with people, including my wife. (She’s learned to feed me when I’m cranky, which usually solves the problem.) But sometimes, the consequences can be significant. So I’d advise against making important decisions in a glucose-depleted state. And I hope companies and structures (like parole boards!) are somehow incorporating these findings in their planning and operations. I’d hate to see a reformed person get turned down because a judge didn’t eat. (Yes, the recidivism rate is high, but that’s all the more reason the judge needs to be mentally alert so she can factor that variable in.)
What’s the moral of the story. Well, there’s a few (and probably more, but I’m mentally depleted at the moment):
Students: Eat breakfast & drink something sugary before an exam. (Artificial sweetener doesn’t work.) Don’t eat anything too heavy because that might have the opposite effect.
Be aware of your mental and bodily state (i.e. before doing something that’s mentally taxing, did you replenish yourself?). This is easier said than done.
Eat healthy snacks at regular intervals, especially when you feel your performance dropping.
Christians: Not everything is “spiritual.” When the prophet Elijah was running away from Jezebel’s cronies, he got to a point where he was so depressed that he asked God to kill him. You know what God said to him? Pray harder? Repent? No. He said, “Get up and eat.” If you’re in a bad mood or depressed or can’t perform well, don’t jump to thinking it’s a demon or you’re in a sinful mode. Maybe you just need to eat?!
Of course, there is a caveat to all of this. Sometimes overthinking can lead to errors in judgment (e.g. making a football pass during a game, etc.), but that’s a topic for another day. For now, it’s a safe bet that being aware of our mental & bodily state, eating well & eating regular light snacks can help give us the resources to fuel our cognitive apparatus and improve our performance. That is, hopefully. For example, if you don’t study and you just have some fruit before an exam, you might be more alert and have the necessary glucose to power your brain, but you’ll still stink up the test. ;p
Besides almost dying from cholera when I was one and getting my hand crushed by a large, steel door when I was three, the rest of my early childhood in Korea was mostly a time of innocence and fun. I do have that one memory where my mom is pumping breast milk for my sister into what seemed to me at the time a large basin, but I’m still not really sure what to make of that image, whether it traumatized me or simply surprised me. But other than that, it’s hard to recall anything remotely negative. All I see is a skinny, Korean boy playing in the stream trying to catch frogs and tadpoles; hiking and exploring the hillsides and woods (we visited the shigol [countryside] often); waiting around the corner, listening for the man with the pull cart to ring his bell so that I could buy and devour a newspaper cone full of bundaegi (roasted silk worm pupae), which, at the time, was by far the most delicious thing on the planet (today, I can’t go near the stuff); feeding cute, fluffy, yellow chicks with rice grains; throwing a hammer at my grandfather’s head; and running away from my three uncles after pouring a bucketful of soapy water into the well, our main source of drinking water (they had to empty the entire well and wait for the next rain to replenish the supply). Of course, I only remember bits and pieces, but from those fragments and the stories my folks share with me, it seems that I really was a rambunctious, happy, little kid who, unlike the current me, actually loved to dance.
When I turned four, my dad’s employer asked him to help expand the U.S. branch of the company. Seeing a great opportunity for their children, my folks decided to relocate permanently. But even after moving to America, things pretty much remained the same for me. I made a bunch of friends in our little apartment complex in Clifton, NJ. I remember several kids teaching me how to speak English, an older girl who let me feed and hold her teddy bear hamsters, and digging tunnels through piles of snow several feet high. My first year and a half in school (kindergarten and the beginning of first grade) only served to continue the fun. I had great teachers who always gushed about me to my parents, I got lots of stickers on my writing and spelling tests (which hung on the classroom walls with everyone else’s), and I liked all the kids in my classes.
All of this, however, came to an abrupt end when we moved to West Paterson, NJ in March of my first grade year. (The town is now called Woodland Park.) At the time, I didn’t expect anything to be different. I vaguely remember thinking that I’d miss my friends, but I was also really excited about the move. The apartment was a little bigger, we lived next to a large public swimming pool, and there were some awesome hills on which I could sled during the winter snows. There was also a large parking lot where I could ride my bike, an onsite playground, and a massive water tower which ended up being perfect for target practice as it made a satisfying, metallic gong when I would pelt it with rocks. Making new friends didn’t really cross my mind as a concern, and it didn’t end up being one. Little did I know that it would be an elderly, white woman who turned my world upside-down.
Mrs. Smith*, my first grade teacher at Charles Olbon Elementary School, didn’t look too different from my first grade teacher at Clifton’s elementary school. She was slightly plump, but not fat. She always wore her grey hair in a bun and often draped large, wool scarves over her shoulders. When addressing a student, she would tilt her head forward and peer over her reading glasses to make eye contact. Also, while Mrs. Smith looked elderly and refined, she seemed to have the energy of a rabid Rottweiler.** In my mind, this is an appropriate image as I came to believe she had a ruthless heart of stone.
In terms of my childhood, my parents share that watching me battle cholera was probably the hardest thing they’ve had to endure; the second was having to watch me go through the last quarter of first grade. (Tellingly, I was unable to find any pictures from that time of my life.) They say that I was always stressed out and that my personality and demeanor transformed dramatically. Instead of the lively, playful son they knew so well, they found in his stead a suddenly introverted, moody and depressed shell of a child. After the first week of having Mrs. Smith as a teacher, my mom tells me that I constantly complained about headaches and stomachaches, and that I never wanted to go to school. This was a disconcerting change because I loved going to school when we lived in Clifton.
Concerned, my parents met with the principal of the school to see what was going on. They say he was a really nice man, but he wasn’t acquainted enough with the details of my situation to know what was causing the precipitous drop in my performance at school as well as the drastic change in my behavior. He advised the best route would be to meet with the first grade teacher directly. And so they did.
During this parent teacher meeting, Mrs. Smith told my parents that I was definitely a child with special needs (not sure if they used that terminology back then), and that I probably had a major learning disability.*** Alarmed at this news and lost as to what they should do, they asked the principal if he could connect them to someone who could help. He recommended that they take me to an after school program that could more rigorously evaluate Mrs. Smith’s assessment. To their relief, this center found that not only did I not have a learning disability, but they could not find a single reason why the teacher would even come to that conclusion. Nevertheless, my mood persisted, and my fear of going to school only got worse. At this point, the principal recommended that they take me to see a child therapist to get to the bottom of all of this.
I actually have no recollection of going to the after school program or seeing this counselor. But my parents, who have impeccable memories, say that I revealed much to this therapist. I shared that I was scared of Mrs. Smith and that I was afraid that my mom was going to die because she was sick all the time. My mom said she was confused that I would say something like this about her, but I believe I know what happened.
One of the things my mom remembers clearly about the initial parent teacher meeting is that Mrs. Smith was extremely condescending when speaking to them (probably because of their broken English); she didn’t even try to hide her disdain. My mom shares that it was very evident that the teacher did not have a high view of “orientals.” And through other encounters with this woman, my mom says that Mrs. Smith most certainly was a racist.
Up to that point in my life, I had not experienced overt racism in any form. If I had, I wasn’t aware of it. So I didn’t have the experiential grid to process Mrs. Smith’s actions toward me. Of course, I had been disciplined before. I had been spanked. I even had my mom chase me around the apartment complex with a sizable wooden pole. But never had I experienced someone look at me with such utter contempt and heartless disgust as Mrs. Smith. I simply didn’t understand why she hated me so much, why she constantly put me on the spot, and why she treated me harshly all the time. When I look back at that period in my life, all I see is this large, gaping black hole of perpetual fear. Fortunately, I seem to have blocked out most of the specifics concerning the innumerable negative experiences; however, the residue from those three months remains in my long term memory and looms like a dark cloud over my childhood. But I do have two distinct memories from that time. In fact, they are so clear and so emotionally potent, I believe they have been enormously formative in my personal and spiritual development. Even to this day, I still find my mind wandering back to these memories. It’s as if my memory was attacked by some fanged predator, and what remains are these two puncture wounds that have scarred over; when I feel them periodically, the trauma of that far off time comes immediately into focus, and I’m back in first grade reliving the nightmare again.
The first memory I have is of Mrs. Smith scolding me over two tests that I was supposed to get signed by my parents. I did not do very well on these tests. I think I failed them, actually, which is why she told me to get them signed. (I wonder if teachers still make kids do this? What about getting parents to sign the good ones, too?) Anyway, I didn’t get them signed. I was so stressed already because it seemed like Mrs. Smith was always on my case – I didn’t need to add my parents’ worry or anger to the pressure I was already feeling. Also, I really was scared for my mom. I thought if she found out that I was doing so poorly, she would get sick and die. I believe this is why I connected the two thoughts (fear of school and my sickly mom) when I was talking to the counselor – I believed if my mom knew the details of how badly I was doing, it might make her worse.
So I tried to copy my mom’s signature. Of course, a first grader doesn’t have the penmanship to pull off a convincing forgery. But I honestly thought I had done it successfully as the signatures looked fine to me. However, when Mrs. Smith called me up to her desk to show her the signed papers, she knew immediately. I remember her looking at the papers, then slowly lifting her head and gazing at me over her glasses.
She asked, “Who signed these papers?”
I replied, “My mom did.”
“No she didn’t. Tell me the truth. Who signed these papers?”
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t prepare for this scenario. The only thing that came to mind was what I was feeling at the time.
I stammered, “I signed them.”
“Because my mom was too tired to sign them.”
“Too tired? How could she be too tired to sign a couple papers?!”
I didn’t know what else to say. It was clear to me she wasn’t in a listening mood. It was also abundantly clear by this point in my relationship with her that she did not have a very high opinion of me. So I just stayed silent. Seeing my silence as stupidity or insolence, she got up from her desk, grabbed my arm, and dragged me down the stairs to one of the kindergarten rooms. She then forced me to sit in the corner until the end of the day.
I had already been crying from the moment she pulled me out of her room. But it wasn’t until she stormed out of the kindergarten room that I started sobbing. The tears made everything blurry and difficult to see; however, when I lifted my head, I could make out that there was a class going on in the room and that they were all looking at me. I felt embarrassed, but I couldn’t stop sobbing.
None of this made any sense to me. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. As I cried, I kept thinking, Why does Mrs. Smith hate me? Why doesn’t she believe me that my mom is tired and sick? Why is the world so different now? I want to go back to Clifton to my other teacher. The memory ends abruptly at this point.
The only other detailed memory I have of the first grade is walking home from school on the last day with a desk-full of papers. We were told to clean out our desks and to bring the contents home. I never once brought any of my papers home from school those three months because I had not done well on a single test, so I had a significant pile to carry up the road to our apartment. I considered throwing them out at school or somewhere on the way home, but I didn’t because I thought Mrs. Smith might find them somehow and show them to my parents. That’s how much I had come to fear her and how paranoid those months had made me. At that age, I truly believed Mrs. Smith could find me out almost anywhere – her stranglehold on me was complete. So I carried the papers up the mountain hoping I could hide them near home.
As I climbed up the road to the apartment, my mind felt fractured, and my spirit broken. That final walk home at the close of my first grade year was the culmination of my three-month racist encounter with Mrs. Smith. Every few steps, I’d think back to moments during the previous weeks, and I’d wonder what I did to make this person detest me so much. In fact, the papers weighing down my hands felt like a massive pile of hate. The more I thought about them, the more they kept screaming at me, You’re worthless. You’re stupid. I hate you. And the voice was that of Mrs. Smith. And the more I heard her unrelenting voice, the more I began to feel nothing. Numbness began washing over me, and by the time I reached my apartment, my heart had so completely shut down that I simply didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t even begin to conjure up the energy to devise a plan to hide the papers. I just wanted to stop thinking altogether because this new world that was thrust upon me didn’t make sense. I hated it. So, in protest, I threw the papers in some bushes next to the apartment.
When I opened the door, I saw my mom. She asked me how school was. I grunted a reply, walked into my room, and closed the door. A few minutes later, she came into my room holding the papers in her hands. She looked at me with concern, and I didn’t feel a hint of judgment or condemnation from her. After a few moments, she calmly asked me what they were. I told her.
Now, in any other context, being told to get tests signed, sit in a corner, or bring my papers home wouldn’t have been a big deal; however, under the constant terror of Mrs. Smith’s racial agenda, they were incredibly traumatic.
I’m not sure what happened the summer after first grade. But when I went back to Charles Olbon for second grade, I remember being petrified. However, when my parents introduced me to my second grade teacher, all my anxieties melted away. She was young, tall and had jet black hair; most importantly, she exuded the care and warmness I remembered from the teachers back in Clifton. I went on to get straight A’s and B’s the rest of elementary school.
After Mrs. Smith, I learned quickly that there are many people like her in the world. And, unfortunately, one of those people is me. I don’t blame her as the person who placed the seed of racism in my heart. At one point or another, I would have encountered it and it would have grown in me as it does everybody. In fact, knowing the racism that dwells within has been pivotal for me in finding the power to forgive her. One person I trust believes Mrs. Smith was a part of the generation that experienced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And while the reasoning would be quite ignorant as Koreans and Chinese were severely oppressed by the Japanese Empire, it could explain why Mrs. Smith hated me so much—I embodied the enemy that killed people she loved. Another possibility is that she hated me because so many American lives were lost in the Korean War, and so I embodied what should not have been. Or, she could simply have been a person who gave in to the tribalistic instinct that plagues us all. But regardless of the reason, treating a six year old the way she did is inexcusable. Forgivable, but inexcusable. As adults, we may think children don’t understand and that they forget, but they don’t. I hope and pray society progresses to a point where children do not have to be thrown into the world of racism by the ones who are entrusted for their care. I am not holding my breath, but this is not nearly as ambitious a wish as asking for a color blind world.
Personal memories have this peculiar, almost atemporal trait that allows them to be examined by a growing person at any point along the trajectory of their lives. I believe this is one of the reasons processing those memories is so important. They certainly will affect us and form us. The question is, will we do the hard, but necessary work to forgive or will we harden ourselves and perpetuate the cycle of hate? The fact that this question sounds like a rhetorical platitude is what scares me the most.
*Name has been changed.
**Of course, Rottweilers are great dogs, but I’m using the negative stereotype as a means of helping the reader imagine how I perceived Mrs. Smith at the young age of six. I tried to use other animals, but, for some reason, this one fit the bill perfectly on a visceral level. My apologies to owners of this typically excellent breed.
***I do not mean to cast children with special needs in a negative light. Many children have learning disabilities and require help, and I have the utmost respect for them. I have friends with children with special needs. Mrs. Smith, unfortunately, used them pejoratively.
On my personal blog, I’m currently doing a series of posts titled “Memories of Racism, Memories of Grace.” As a Korean-American, I have faced much racism. I want to use this series to relay some of those experiences. But rather than rant about the injustice of racism, I hope to take a memoir-like approach where I describe the experiences and how they shaped my life.
You will find that while the racist encounters I describe in each post caused me significant pain and scarring, they were also the “source” of much grace. This was something that I could not have anticipated when I was young, but over the years, as I grappled with the many bitter memories, I found that they forced me to plumb the depths of not only my own heart, but also the heart of humanity in general. This wrestling helped me to better understand myself as well as those around me. And when I combined this knowledge with my faith, I discovered that there is a way to weave those racist encounters into the narrative of my life so that they produced understanding instead of tribalism, empathy rather than bitterness and wisdom over blind retribution. In other words, experience and faith helped me to find ways to redeem the evil within and without to produce grace and hope. I have not always succeeded, of course. But I have found that it is indeed possible. In fact, as a Christian, this type of redemption should be the dynamic thread running through all of life’s moments.
I relay these personal encounters because I find that seeing how one person processes an experience can help give others the vocabulary and structure to work through their own stories whether it be to reject the method, to embrace it or to modify it.
I also pray that both victims and perpetrators will benefit from these posts. Personally, I have been on both sides, as I assume is true for many. I do know, however, some who have not been outright victims of racist comments or attacks (though they may have been marginalized in a different form). Regardless, I believe “seeing” the memories of a victim can have a sobering and humanizing effect for the thoughtful perpetrator. In general, I have found that for each person, the human experience is vast enough that though she may not have tasted the particulars of a victim’s pain, she can piece together a reasonable approximation of that pain by extrapolating from the fragments of her own life. (This is why novels are so successful.) But, of course, this only applies to those willing to front the cost that true empathy requires; not empathy’s evil twin that rears its ugly head because of guilt, but true empathy that shines when we’re able to see in ourselves what we see in others.
The first experience I’d like to share happened some time in elementary school. At the time, we lived in a town called West Paterson found in North Jersey. (They recently changed the name to Woodland Park probably because they don’t want to be associated with Paterson, which has a “particular” reputation, if you get my drift. I have a feeling racist motivations were mixed into that decision.) The apartment that we called home was located in a complex at the top of Overmount Avenue. The name’s appropriate because the road literally went up the side of a hilly mountain. I can’t remember how many times I peddled up that road on my Mongoose bike, which, by the way, I won at a police event where they were raffling off confiscated items only to have it stolen a few years later.
Anyway, in our section of the apartment complex was a closed-off parking lot of about 50 spaces, and in this lot was parked our family car—a used Oldsmobile Delta 88. My parents purchased it soon after they immigrated to the US. It looked very much like this picture, but ours had a maroon vinyl top and a white body. I considered it my personal tank. I always felt invincible while riding that car because it was bigger than everybody else’s. Unfortunately, that feeling evaporated the morning after one particular mischief night (the night prior to Halloween where kids do “mischievous” things).
As my mom and I walked out into the parking lot on Halloween morning to go to school, we noticed that our car had been vandalized. It had curse words written on it and exaggerated penises and testicles drawn on the windows. I’m not sure, but I believe racial slurs like “chink” were also scribbled on the doors. And it wasn’t even artfully done. The whole car just looked like a mess.
My first thought was a panicked one. I can’t go to school in that car! I’ll die of embarrassment! I screamed in my head. The second feeling I had was that of extreme loneliness and deep injustice because when I looked around the parking lot, no one else’s car was vandalized. I say “feeling” because it didn’t occur to me as a semantic thought. I just felt viscerally violated.
I looked over to my mom, and she didn’t flinch. She just opened her door, got in, and told me to get in. Even though the front windshield was covered, she still drove halfway down the mountain to Charles Olbon Elementary School. The whole time I was hunched over thinking, I hope no one sees me. I can’t believe we didn’t clean the car. When we pulled up to the front, I was relieved because we got to school late, and no one was around. So I just ran in to school as if nothing happened. The thought that my mom would have to drive home in the vandalized car and that she would have to clean it alone didn’t occur to me. But now that I think about it, it must have been humiliating. I believe my dad was in Korea at the time, so she must have washed it alone. Even today, just the image of my mom having to scrub off those words and those pictures is too much.
Over the years, I learned why my mom was able to face something like that stone-faced. My mom was the first born of many children. She had to care for her younger siblings most of her life. She knew responsibility, and she had already experienced much adversity living in post-war South Korea. On top of this, she had to face the daunting pressure of surviving in a foreign country whose language she barely knew. (I have much more on this for a future post.) By the time I was well into elementary school, racist encounters were a daily routine for her. (So much for the friendly American she read about in her basic English books.) But one thing she knew was that by being Korean, she had “done” nothing of which she had to be ashamed. That morning, she wanted me to know that. “These things are not a reflection of you. Don’t you dare let them dictate to you who you are.” And so she drove refusing to let the scribbles of small-minded racists make her flinch.
My mama’s a tough mama. She shared with me once that when I was barely 4 years-old, a drunken Korean man had once come to our apartment wielding a knife threatening to kill everyone. (He had had a prior argument with my dad.) My mom shared with me that she came out with a kitchen knife and started screaming at him in Korean. The rough translation: “Come on, you son of a bitch! I dare you to try. I’ll kill you first.” (My dad corroborates this story.)
Scary. But there is something else I’ve learned over the years. Probably the only thing that brings my mom to tears is when she thinks of me and my sister. She’s actually very emotional. And I’m sure coming from a hard life in Korea to a hard life in America wasn’t what she had imagined for her children. So when she drove me to school with her dignity intact, I know she did it for my good. But when she went home to clean the car by herself, her heart probably broke and her tears probably flowed because this is not what she wanted for me.
As a teenager, I remember teachers always saying that racism is wrong. So when I would come home to hear my parents talk about white people and black people negatively, I’d chastise them. “Racism begets racism,” I told them. But as I’ve grown as an adult, I understand why they were they way they were—they were trying to survive and to hold their heads up while doing so. I don’t condone racism in any form; past hurts don’t justify becoming perpetrators. But I’ve come to learn that helping my parents heal from the past comes not from teaching them anti-racism platitudes coming from a culture that both has barely experienced it and teaches it from a place of guilt. Healing starts from my understanding the history of their pain literally in their terms.
This post will probably be of particular interest to pastors; however, over the years, I have found that some congregants are also quite curious as to how pastors go about preparing their sermons. I am writing this entry in hopes to give folks a somewhat voyeuristic peek into the sermon writing process. Of course, my method is only one of many, but I think this entry should help folks get a rough idea as to what sermon prep can be like. I also hope to dispel the common misconceptions that writing a sermon is easy and that pastors are able to “just get up and preach” (behind which the assumption is that little preparation is necessary.)* By the way, I think the question I’ve been asked the most by far as a pastor is, “What do you pastors do during the week?” I remember someone saying to me, “You guys have it easy. Just chilling all week and hanging out with people and reading. That’s gotta be the life.” Don’t I wish. My friend addresses this question and myth on his blog. I’ll probably write about it one day as well. ;p
*I do know some pastors who can just get up and preach, and I’ve personally done it twice. But for these pastors, there’s usually a history of life preparation and experience involved. The times I’ve preached on the spot, I simply recalled a sermon I memorized in the past.
I’ve been preaching for about fourteen years. Without any hint of false humility, I would say only about six months out of those fourteen years are worth hearing. It took me about seven years even to come to realize the importance of the task and art of preaching. It then took me another seven years of horrible sermons and painstaking work to develop my own style and to get to a place where I felt even moderately comfortable with the state of my preaching. I say “moderately comfortable” because when I listen to sermons even a year back from today, I still wince. Clearly, there is still much room for improvement.
Actually, comfortable is probably the wrong word as I feel a pastor should never feel comfortable preaching. Frankly, I believe it should be done with much “fear and trembling.” This is why before I deliver any sermon, I always pray—actually, it’s more like plead—that God would empower me and that it would be his words and truth that are proclaimed. And I mean it, seriously. When I look at my brokenness and sin, my own feeble “strength,” and my finitude (in every sense of the word), I know with conviction that if I relied solely on myself (e.g. my knowledge, reasoning, logic, wit, experience, etc.), not only would the sermon be a completely ineffective witness but that it would probably lead people astray. On top of all this, you have verses like James 3:1, which says, Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. I won’t even bother quoting what Jesus has to say about teachers who stumble others. Every time I read that passage, I shudder. Why did I willingly decide to become a pastor, again? (A mentor of mine once said that any person who willingly answers God’s call to become a pastor must at some level be a masochist or insane. Nice.) Thank God for grace, and thank God for prayer.
By the way, I’m not writing this post because I think I’m an exemplar when it comes to preaching. (I hope the reader was able to ascertain as much above.) I’m just giving folks a glimpse of how I do it at this juncture in my life. At the end of this post, I will have links to the preparation methods and styles of other far more capable preachers.
Now for the actual process. The more technical points are separated by bullets.
Starting the Process
The sermon writing process begins with prayer, of course.
Next comes reading the passage. I select the text depending on the type of series I’m doing. If it’s topical, I’ll find a passage that I feel is relevant. If the series is a book of the Bible, I just go with whatever passage comes next in the book. After I have the passage chosen, I’ll read it (and the bracketing text) through several times and jot down any ideas, impressions or insights. This step usually takes place one or two weeks prior to delivery Sunday. Sometimes it happens the Tuesday before D-day. Those are hard weeks.
My default translations are the NIV 2011 and the ESV. I also look at the NASB and the NRSV. I don’t typically do word studies in Greek or Hebrew as the commentaries always deal sufficiently with this task.
I usually read between five to twelve commentaries concerning the passage. I make sure to select commentaries that span the liberal, moderate and conservative spectrum. This is key. I know some pastors who will only read commentaries that fall within their theological camp, but I find this to be disadvantageous. Reading the spectrum, I have found, helps expose faulty assumptions I may have held concerning the text and challenges me to wrestle with the text at a deeper level. It also helps me to see where commentators agree and disagree, which, in turn, gives me a better handle on what is accepted across the board and what is not. Where there is disagreement, I try to find what the various camps say, and I weigh the arguments to decide which interpretation makes the most sense. I also look to see which interpretation has the greatest consensus and support, though that does not always guarantee accuracy. This comparison process also helps me to hone arguments and counterarguments for certain points as I find myself dialoguing the commentators against each other. While I’m doing all this, I’m also jotting down ideas, points, illustrations and quotes. By the way, I have often found my best insights come from commentaries that lean outside my theological “camp.”
Usually, a commentary’s quality depends on the scholar writing it. I recommend the website Best Commentaries if you want to research which commentaries are worth getting. They have a comprehensive listing along with helpful reviews. If you have the budget, for each book of the Bible, try purchasing a highly rated technical commentary and a similarly highly rated pastoral commentary. Also, try having immediately accessible in your library go-to sets of liberal, moderate and conservative commentaries. My go-to sets are the New Interpreter’s Bible (moderate/liberal), New International Commentary OT & NT (conservative), and William Barclay’s Daily Bible Study Series (interesting with weird, esoteric facts ;p). I start with these, and then go to the highly rated commentaries I purchased for the specific biblical books. (Note: The NIB has a section after each passage that usually gives solid and unique insights as to how you could apply the text.)
In addition to the commentaries, I will try to find books and articles dealing with the issues the passage raises. For example, if the text is on forgiveness, I’ll scan through books like Philip Yancey’s What So Amazing About Grace? or Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. (By the way, Philip Yancey’s books are chock-full of great illustrations and stories.) I’ll also read current, secular treatments of the topic to give me a sense of how the culture at large views the issue. It might also be helpful to get a syllabus from a current university or seminary course that deals with the topic you’re considering—they usually have great, up-to-date bibliographies. For articles, Google usually suffices.
On top of this, I always listen to other pastors’ sermons related to the passage or topic. This is also very helpful for ideas and illustrations. Additionally, most of the better preachers have already scoured the commentators, so they can help you navigate the spectrum. Actually, in many ways, I use preachers as commentaries. Oftentimes, they have insights not found in the commentaries.
My two main preachers are John Ortberg and Tim Keller. I also like Alistair Begg and Francis Chan. I sometimes skim manuscripts of John Piper’s sermons as well. On top of these guys, I try to find pertinent sermons at The Gospel Coalition. They have a whole slew of sermons from many pastors which can be easily searched by text, topic, speaker, etc. Some other excellent preachers to consider are my buddies David Larry Kim (Harvest), David Choi (Praise Presbyterian Church), and Abe Cho (search his name at Redeemer’s site).
When I’m doing a major topical series, I’ll do significant research a couple months prior to and in addition to my standard procedure above. For example, for the infamous relationship series, I read the following books (or portions of them) prior to and during the series:
Marriage, A History (Stephanie Coontz), Committed (Elizabeth Gilbert), Real Sex (Lauren Winner), Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, Friendship (Diogenes Allen), The Four Loves (by C. S. Lewis), Boy Meets Girls (Joshua Harris), Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage (John Gottman), Every Man’s Battle (Stephen Arterburn), Every Woman’s Battle (Shannon Ethridge), Wild at Heart (John Eldridge), The Five Love Languages (Gary Chapman), Why I Stayed (Gale Haggard), Pornified (Pamela Paul), Why Sex is Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Jared Diamond), Modern Loves: The Anthropology of Romantic Courtship and Companionate Marriage (Jennifer Hirsch), Let Me be a Woman (Elisabeth Elliot), The Game (Neil Strauss), The Day I Shot Cupid (Jennifer Love Hewitt), and relevant segments of many other books.
I highly recommend Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex. Committed and The Game give a glimpse into how many women and men approach the issue in our culture. More than 50% of the men I talked with have read The Game. (I’d caution reading it if you’re stumbled by graphic imagery.) Committed is a best-seller by an influential author; she’s an excellent barometer for measuring how many view relationships in the modern West. Also, Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage and The Five Love Languages give helpful secular treatments, though most of the principles affirm Christian values. The evolutionary, scientific and psychological books are important to read as many of the ideas taught in them trickle down into society. And, yes, I really did read Jennifer Love Hewitt’s book! I also read a couple dozen current scholarly articles and studies on relationships, sex, marriage, homosexuality, sexual dysfunction, sexual evolution, friendship, anthropology and bonding. (It think some might find this one interesting: “The shift from dating to hooking up in college: What scholars have missed.“) Finally, I listened to a good number of sermons and talks on this topic. At the end of this research, I had over 200+ pages of notes.
Now, while this was all very interesting, I do admit it was fairly painful to work through all the material. The research is never usually this extensive, but it can get quite close once in a while. Typically, I save this level of research only for major series. Nowadays, to avoid research binges like this, I am always reading something that I feel will be helpful sometime in the future. Reading, as all preachers testify, is also the best way to come across stuff that will grow your preaching and your person.
Some reading to consider are the most current books on psychology and neuroscience, even if you don’t agree with them. I’ve garnered a large number of insights through reading—they have a ton of excellent studies and helpful information/insights—and conversing/arguing with these books. A few I’d recommend are Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, and Drive by Daniel Pink.
Once I’ve done all my research, I begin the writing. Only rarely do I jot down an outline to guide the writing process. I usually have one, main, overall point I’m trying to argue. My method is to start with a general introduction as to what I’m going to do, and then walk people to the final point by a series of arguments and illustrations.
Typically, I’ll start writing on Wednesday. I’ll get through the introduction, which is always difficult. But by the end of the intro, I’ll have a solid sense of where I’m headed. On Thursday, I’ll reread the introduction. I will edit or rewrite it completely, depending on how it hits me that day. Then I’ll spend the rest of the time writing about one third of the sermon. I can usually only write for about four to six hours per sitting. After that, my brain is typically fried. (The only time I write longer is when I haven’t started writing the sermon and it’s Saturday. Ugh. Thankfully, that almost never happens nowadays. I admit, though, that it happened quite frequently during my early years as a youth pastor.) On Friday, I’ll read through the first third making changes or rewriting it. Then I’ll proceed writing the second third. On Saturday, I usually wake up late because I loathe having to work on the sermon. Even if I’m not asleep, I’ll just stay in bed in denial. Why this dread? Well, it’s not because I don’t like preaching. Preaching is actually a passion of mine. The reason I don’t look forward to working on Saturday because Saturday is by far the most painstaking day. It’s when I have to finish and I have to nail the details. Being a perfectionist makes these things very unpleasant. (That’s an understatement.) Anyway, after I’ve pulled myself out of bed and repented, I’ll read through the first two thirds, again making changes. Then, I’ll write the last third of the sermon. After I finish writing, I’ll walk away and do something else for a few hours to relax and to refresh my mind. Later that afternoon or early evening, I’ll come back to the manuscript and read through it to make sure that all the transitions are tight, the sections fit together, and that the subpoints all flow into and support the overall argument. While doing all this, I make the necessary changes, deletions, and sectional shifts. Once I feel the manuscript is in final form, I’ll read it through before going to bed. I find when I do this, my brain processes the sermon while I sleep and the delivery is usually much smoother the next day. Studies in psychology and neuroscience show this to be true. So make sure you complete the sermon prior to sleeping and you read it through before retiring for the night. Finally, I’ll wake up early Sunday morning to read over carefully the sermon one last time. I’ll usually make some last minutes edits and additions with a blue pen. After that, I drive to church. I typically don’t touch the sermon at this point so that I can relax and worship and do anything else that needs to be done at church.
By the way, the whole time I’m writing the sermon, I also read portions out loud to see how they sound. If a segment doesn’t sound natural or if it sounds off or stilted, I’ll change the phrasing so it sounds conversational. One of the biggest mistakes young preachers make is that they write not for the ear but for the eye. Those are completely different species. When you read aloud what you write for the eye, it comes across stiff and robotic and unnatural. I always advise “younger” preachers to read out loud what they write, and if it doesn’t sound natural, change it so that it does. I even write in transitions and umms and colloquialisms like you guys (or, you fools…haha. I kid.).
Another couple important points. First, though I bring sermons to final form prior to delivery, they are never completely final. There is only so much you can accomplish in a couple weeks—a pastor’s job involves far more than preaching, important as it may be. Often, I find that when I reuse a sermon at another church or a retreat, I have to make many changes—sometimes significant ones—as not everything fits together as perfectly as it could. So, though I am a perfectionist, I’ve come to accept a good amount of imperfection when I deliver my weekly Sunday sermons—I just try my best to get the key points down. Second, good stories are important. People will tend to remember these long after they’ve forgotten your sermon. Also, make sure you research all your stories, even if you get them from trustworthy pastors. I have found that even they can perpetuate stories that end up being utterly false or distortions of the original.
The actual writing takes me about 12 to 20 hours a week. Total prep (including all the research and thinking) takes between 25-40 hours a week depending on how major the series is.
I always use a very detailed manuscript. But it’s a manuscript that’s laid out in outline form so it’s easier to follow the argument and flow as well as find my place if I get lost. (You can see an actual manuscript of mine by clicking the image to the right or the link at the end of this post.) I simply cannot memorize my sermons. I wish I could, but by the time I’m done with the writing process, I’m both fried and amped, and I just need to get the sermon out. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I want to preach it as best I can because I’m convicted about it, but the above process is so painful, that I just need some closure. Also, my memory sucks. Some of the phrasing is too carefully planned for me to leave it up to chance; I don’t like wide fluctuations and differences between deliveries of the same sermon. And having a detailed manuscript actually helps me improvise more comfortably when I’m convicted to do so. But despite my not committing the manuscript to memory, I find if I’ve prepared adequately, I still make a lot of eye contact with the people (which is very important) because all I need to see are a couple trigger words to get the rest out. The only portions I try to memorize are the stories, but even then, I’ll have written down a version I’ve rehearsed as my template. But before settling on a template, I make sure to explore different ways of telling the story so that I find the method that communicates it best.
Nowadays, I don’t get nervous preaching a sermon. I was nervous for the first sermon I ever delivered. But from that point forward, for years, I never got nervous. But this was mostly because I was clueless. They say, ignorance is bliss. And, indeed, it was. Listening to sermons several years back or reading through the manuscripts makes me feel sorry for the people who listened and for myself. Charles Spurgeon once said, If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons, it would be a righteous judgment upon them; but they would soon cry out with Cain, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” I know all too well what he means. Thankfully, one day it hit me how bad I was and how important preaching is. But because I finally grasped the weight of the task, it is then that I started to get nervous. Ironically, I started getting nervous years into my preaching career. Today, I don’t get nervous because I think I’m just too exhausted by the end of the writing process, and I’ve learned that what will happen, will happen and that nightmare scenarios usually don’t come to pass. I’m also learning to trust God more.
My sermons usually last between 30 to 55 minutes. I average about 45 minutes. My manuscripts range from 6 to 10 pages.
Some people ask me why I preach so long. My honest answer is that while I try my best to distill the sermon down to its essential components, I find that if I cut away any more than I already do, I would be doing a disservice to the congregants. My approach to preaching is to reason with people. When I find the reasoning insufficient, not thorough enough, or not supported well because I didn’t include certain segments, I find myself unable to leave those out. I grant that I may lose some folks with length, but I have also found that far more people actually appreciate the thoroughness (most of them being the more skeptically-minded). In essence, I long to give people and God the best I can give, and this really is the best I’ve got at the moment. I also try to preach what I would like to hear if I were listening to a sermon. I am now unapologetic about this. And 45 minutes is not very long. (It actually took several congregants approaching me to tell me to stop apologizing about the length for me to finally wrestle the above reasoning through my thick skull.)
I use a lot of quotes, audio clips and videos. Part of the reason I do this is because I find that at my age (35), people still have a hard time trusting me. What does a thirty-five-year-old know? they think. So I use these things as authorities to which I can appeal to support my assertions. I also find people like hearing different voices to get various perspectives and so they know I’m not speaking out of my butt. These things help to keep people engaged.
Also, all throughout this sermon writing process, insights, and illustrations hit me during the week and during all parts of the day—while I’m driving, right before I sleep, while I’m on the toilet, when I’m showering, and so on. I always record or write down those tidbits. Sometimes whole sermons have come out of a single insight I’ve had while showering.
Lastly, in general, I try to use illustrations from my life or the lives of those close to me, especially my wife and kids. I’ve thrown RaLa under the bus plenty of times for the sake of the gospel! (Sorry, honey.) I think by late elementary school, I’ll have to purge the church sermon database so my kids don’t hate me.
I don’t like to preach down to people. I almost never do. In fact, my main audience for my sermons is me—I preach things that I know I need to hear. And often, I find this to be an accurate measure of what others need to hear as well.
If you want to see what the end product looks like, here’s a sample manuscript of mine from the sermon “Jesus and the Outsiders.” (Not the best sermon, but a representative one.) Here is the recording. This one doesn’t have any pen markings, unfortunately, as I don’t have a scanner on me.
So, that’s it. Basically, a research paper a week. (Though, of course, it’s more than that! ;p)
…the impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained that His Word delivered in the holy Scriptures should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching. And therefore it does not answer the aim which God had in this institution, merely for men to have good commentaries and expositions on the Scripture, and other good books of divinity; because although these may tend as well as be preaching to give men a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections. God hath appointed a particular and lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of the things of religion, and their own misery and necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; and to stir up the pure minds of the saints and quicken their affections, by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance and setting them before them in their proper colours, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already… - Jonathan Edwards
Over the summer in 2003, I served as one of the chaplains at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, NJ. I actually didn’t choose to do this voluntarily—one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is required for pastoral candidates to get ordained in my denomination. But despite it being forced upon me, I was looking forward to it. Among my friends, every pastor who completed the CPE requirement told me it would be life-changing. And, indeed, it was.
I was part of a small team of new chaplains (about five or six). Our job, basically, was to roam certain wards or units to see if patients required any chaplain services like counseling, prayer, communion, etc. Sometimes people just wanted company, so we would oblige – we learned very quickly that battling a sickness in the hospital can be a devastatingly lonely experience. Of course, if they were sleeping or didn’t want to be bothered, we would simply leave our chaplain card with information about what number to dial if they wanted our services. We also provided a daily worship service in the small, hospital chapel. Chaplains rotated running these. Typically, nobody actually attended these services, but because they were televised throughout the hospital, patients could watch it if they wanted. The two services I ran were surreal because I literally preached to empty pews. It was quite depressing, actually. I reassured myself that a patient was probably watching via television, but that only made a subtle dent in the impression that I was speaking to nobody. Chaplains were also required to be on-call, which we also rotated. On my first overnight watch, I was paged around 2am. I was told I had to counsel a family whose father had died of a sudden and massive heart attack. Talk about a deer in headlights. Thankfully, I did have sense enough to dim the lights, hide the wires and make the father’s body and room presentable before the family saw him, all of which I learned in training. My prayer, on the other hand, did not go over so well. They weren’t offended, but they were Catholic; therefore, they were expecting something a bit different from a heartfelt prayer riddled with ums. Anyway, there’s actually many other aspects to hospital chaplaincy, but you get the idea.
Over the course of that summer, I visited patients in every section of the hospital from the ER, to the psych ward, to oncology, to ICU, and so on. I think the only unit I didn’t visit was neonatal. Not sure why. Well, actually, I do know why. Back then, whenever I thought of that particular ward, all I imagined were slimy newborns and engorged mommy breasts and afterbirths lying around. Not my idea of a good time. I really had no idea, of course, being a bachelor and all.
But despite some of these minor fears, I had always found hospitals oddly compelling, even comforting. I think part of it had to do with the fact that I was surrounded by doctors. You see, before answering my call to become a pastor, I was studying to become a doctor (I actually finished all my premed requirements). I loved the methodology, the science and the art behind it, and this CPE unit provided a perfect opportunity to see what could’ve been. Frankly, it was fascinating and quite exciting. (Also, it’s great having doctors around in case you yourself have an emergency!)
However, there’s another reason I find hospitals strangely attractive. Within the walls of the hospital building is a rather extensive community, and this community is utterly unique. On one extreme, you have people who are trained to have a professional distance while maintaining a good bedside manner. (I found most doctors fell somewhere in between.) On the other hand, you have a population of people who literally span the entire spectrum of need and vulnerability. Add to this the families and visitors; all the other components that make a hospital work; the imperfections of the system; the sprawling labyrinth of hallways and rooms; the sounds of machines and the laughter, the weeping, the moans and the piercing silence of patients; the conversations over lunch in the cafeteria; the gossip shared between folks manning the nursing stations; the solitude of eating alone in the cafe when you’re on call; the range of subtle and powerful emotions shared openly by patients or hidden in their eyes; the unrelenting pace and concentration in juxtaposition with long, mind-numbing, heart-wrenching waits; the conferences; the unanswered questions; the ride on the elevator that is impending for some and routine for others; and so on, and you’ve got a place unlike anywhere else on the planet. This often jumbled, messy web of activity, thoughts and emotions pulsates with an ideal that aches to be met – a struggle not only to fight for life or improve its quality, but to realize everyone’s humanity within the drama that is the hospital. For me, I can literally feel and smell this dynamic when I walk into a hospital. It’s disorienting, enlivening, sobering, tragic, and beautiful.
So as you can imagine, in this incredibly dynamic community, I certainly had my share of experiences. In fact, I had so many that I could probably fill a rather large book (or a blog ;p). I met innumerable people, had some incredible conversations, and witnessed suffering and deaths that shook me to my core. To close this post, I’d like to share with you one experience that still occupies my thoughts on a weekly basis even to this day.
I forgot which ward the patient was in, but I can still picture his room. It was to the left of the nursing unit, and it was unique in that there was a rather large window on the wall facing the nursing unit. The room itself always seemed rather dimly lit, though it was quite spacious for a single bed room.
The patient was a thin, elderly man (probably in his seventies). I don’t remember his name, but I recall that he was recovering from having had a colostomy done. Basically, his large intestine was sutured to an opening in his abdomen which was then connected to a bag to collect his waste. I’m not really sure what other medical problems he had as I didn’t get a chance to look at his chart, but he didn’t seem like a happy camper. When I first walked in to offer my chaplaincy services, he didn’t even let me finish my introduction before he went off on a tirade about the nurses. He had a really gruff, elderly man’s voice, which, unfortunately, was not very clear, so I had a hard time deciphering what he was saying. I’m not even sure he was speaking English. But he more than made up for it with gestures and facial expressions. I remember him pointing to his colostomy bag (which was full) and saying something like, “Can you believe this service?” I understood as much since he was pointing to the nursing unit and making angry faces while pointing to the bag and grumbling. He then pointed to his sheets, his gown, and his wires, and he made the same pointing motion to the nursing unit while making the same angry faces. I told him I understood, and that I’d let the nurses know. So I went out to the nurses and told them that the patient was upset about something. I believe a nurse brushed me off with something like, “Mr. So-and-So is always complaining about something. I’ll take a look in a bit.” I had a feeling this elderly man had already built quite a reputation for himself.
I returned to the room and told him they’d be there soon. He rolled his eyes and settled back down on his bed in resignation. I took that as an opportunity to introduce myself as a chaplain and to ask if he would like to receive prayer. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, which I took for a yes. So I pulled up a chair, laid my hands his arm, and prayed for him. I don’t remember what I prayed, but it was over fairly quickly. After that, I told him I’d be around again, and if he ever needed anything, he could call the number on the card.
Over the course of a couple weeks, I visited him several times. Sometimes he was sleeping. The times he was awake, he was the same—upset and complaining. It wasn’t really too much of a problem for me. To a certain degree, I liked the consistency of his personality. No surprises. Also, when I tried to empathize (which was also part of our training), I could see how this man would be upset with his situation. But at the same time, I knew the nurses in the unit were quite good at their jobs. So, I had a feeling he was just a guy who needed to lash out about his frustrations, and the nurses were his easiest targets.
However, as I got to know him, one of things I noticed was that he never had any visitors. The cynical part of me could see why. I extrapolated his current personality backwards in time, and I saw a man who wasn’t very pleasant to be around. But, of course, that clearly is not fair because I literally had no information about his past as our conversations typically boiled down to grunts and gestures and prayers. So I pushed the inner cynic aside. When I did so, what was left was this overwhelming feeling of sadness—I literally never saw anyone visit him. And what made it even more depressing was that he also never even seemed to be expecting anybody to visit. So with time, I came to feel compassion for him, and I actually looked forward to our visits.
I remember this one time I stopped by his room, things were different. I could tell he was awake, but he wasn’t his typical self. He was lying on his left side, and he was quiet and very still. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, so I pulled up a chair and sat down next to him on his right. Without turning his head to me, he weakly lifted his right hand and started reaching for my hand. I took his hand, and I felt him squeeze with what seemed to be all the strength he could muster. As I held his hand in mine, I felt it tremble. I didn’t really know what to do, so I said a prayer for him. After the prayer, I sat in silence for a few moments still holding his hand. Then I tried ever so slightly to pull my hand away, but he tightened his grip. He didn’t want me to leave. So, I stayed. I’m not sure how long, but I stayed as long as I could.
After what seemed like quite a while, he eventually loosened his grip. I slipped my hand out gently and placed his on his side, and I quietly left the room. I didn’t want to linger too long as I had to get home, and I knew I’d see him again next week.
I didn’t think much about the patient over the weekend, but when I returned on Monday, I made sure my rounds would take me past his room. When I finally got to his room later that day, I walked inside. To my surprise, the bed was empty. I wasn’t shocked because typically this meant the patient was discharged. I was happy for him. I thought to myself, Nice, he was released. I hope he’s feeling better. After giving myself a moment of closure by taking in the empty room and imagining the patient at home with his family (that never showed), I walked to the nursing unit to confirm what happened to him. The nurse said, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So? He died over the weekend.”
I was stunned. I literally felt the air empty from my lungs in a reverse gasp, as if the room suddenly became a vacuum. And in an instant, it dawned on me why he wanted to hold my hand so long on Friday —he didn’t want to die alone. This revelation made the room spin, and I had to grab a ledge to steady myself. He didn’t want to die alone, I thought to myself. But he did.
The nurse saw me, and she said, “Don’t worry, he’s in a better place now.” But inside, I thought, But he still died alone. No one should die alone.
To this day, thinking about what happened still brings tears to my eyes. A part of me still wishes I had been on-call that weekend or that I would have at least realized what he was communicating that Friday. But I didn’t realize, and I know that I probably couldn’t have. I don’t beat myself up about what happened, but the memory remains.
Frankly, I don’t like to reduce people’s deaths into learning opportunities because people are much more than that, but I did learn from this patient. The time I spent with him helps me to remember that there are living people whose hearts are breaking every day because of loneliness, and they’ll do anything, stupid things, even complain and irritate people, to get someone to notice that they exist; that they’re human; that they have hearts and needs and long to be known and cherished; and that sometimes, even the roughest of them like to have their hands held.
While I don’t remember the man’s name, the short time I knew him affected my life profoundly. The times I feel alone, I think of him. And the times I feel loved by family and friends, I think of him. He changed permanently the way I look at people. I can only hope that the one time I held his hand was of some comfort to him.
“Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.” – Mother Theresa
Growing up, I’ve always liked sports. As a child, I didn’t think too much about “why” I liked sports. It was just fun and the reason didn’t matter too much. Nobody had to tell me to run around the fields, swim around the pool, and jump around the house. What seems to me now as “exercise” or “workout” was just fun back in the days. But at a certain point, I, along with my childhood friends, learned that our coordinated and uncoordinated physical movements can be enjoyed in a regulated setting. We learned that in sports, there are rules to follow and strategies to implement. We learned that there are reasons why we had to think and move in a certain way, and that we needed to communicate with each other. We learned that in sports, there are winners and losers, and that smiles and awards came with winning while tears and pats on the back came with losing. Somewhere in the process of learning about sports, the innocence of running around just for the heck of was lost. However, somewhere in that process we also gained something valuable about ourselves and about life.
When I watched our “mini-mercies” (children in our church) run around the park during today’s outdoor service, they looked so carefree… so lighthearted… so bouncy. It was as if the children were imitating the trees and the clouds around them with their animated facial expressions and whimsical movements. They looked truly “one with nature” – shimmering like the leaves and bouncing around like the clouds… abundant with life and mysterious energy.
It’s an inspiring sight to notice – to watch the children simply running around and enjoying each other’s company. But it’s just as inspiring to watch them play games and sports, where there are rules and regulations. As I watched Micah back-to-back with his dad trying to pop the five water balloons in time, Kaitlyn picking out rainbow-colored garbage out of the cans, and Noah and Hannah attentively watching the action in the arms of their fathers, I got a glimpse of the joy and beauty that can come about in a friendly competition. They all listened carefully to Tim’s game rules and they quickly began to strategize with each other. Whether they were actively involved in the activity or passively spectating, everyone was lost in time. Even though there was only one winning team at the end and there were few children who cried from the tug-or-war (FYI: tug-of-war, as it sounds, is not too friendly of a game for children of certain age), all in all, everyone experienced the joys of a good competition.
Competition, in the form of sports, can have a similar effect. It can bring about certain kind of gratification and delightfulness. Within the realms of rules and regulations, we can still have fun and enjoy each other’s company. In fact, sports can foster a special kind of carefree-ness and lighthearted-ness that is unique to its competitive nature. Even though sports generally distinguish a winner from a loser, it can teach both sides something valuable about who we are and who we can become. And sometimes, it doesn’t have to be such a serious learning moment. Sometimes it’s just fun and we may not fully understand why.
What I like about competition in the form of sports is that it is fun. But what I also like is the lessons it teaches me. And if there’s something I’ve learned from playing sports, it’s that worthy competition can bring out the best in people.
Couple hours after I got to bask in the sun and watch the little ones frantically run around in a friendly competition, I was at a softball field stretching my round body to get ready for our league game. Every Sunday, we have a softball game with other neighboring churches, but today was special. Today, we experienced a worthy competition. Not that other teams we play are not “worthy”… it’s just that this particular team really challenged us today to come together and bring out the best in us (and I think the game brought the best in them as well). It was a worthy competition – “worthy” in the sense that it was a valuable and honorable game.
Good sportsmanship… encouragements… playing hard… lead changes… nervous jitters… coming up with new strategies… smiles… frustrations… homeruns… errors… responsibility… forgiveness… expecting the unexpected… hope in midst of difficulties… supportive spectators… tight race to the finish… excitement… FUN….. these are what made this particular softball game a worthy competition. I’m sure this list can go on and on. But what I really appreciate about such worthy competition is that it challenges us to be stretched, offers us an opportunity to grow, and gives us a chance to experience and hope for the best in each other. It’s such worthy competition that helps me to reflect about myself and others – our character and relationships that are praiseworthy as well as those that need some tuning. Simply put it, worthy competition gives us a great opportunity to become better people, as God intended us to be.
I’m truly thankful that I get to participate in these competitive sporting events with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. During worthy competition, I get to reflect upon the worst of me and the best of me, but I also get to be amazed by others’ athletic abilities and their character. There are too many names to mention if I were to give examples from New Mercy so I will just say this: I am so very excited for the upcoming flag football and basketball season already!
…..then again, I’m asking myself, in back of my mind, whether I would’ve written this blog about competition and sports if our softball team had lost… hmmmm….. something for me to chew on…..;)
This has been one of the MOST AMAZING weeks of my life. As Hannah and I experienced the birth of our son Benjamin, I have witnessed a beauty of life that I have never imagined before.
I’ve always loved infants and children, and I’ve done my share of babysitting. In my senior year of college, I’ve even babysat a newborn for a semester. Upon an urgent request from a mother who needed six more credits to graduate, I decided to take care of this adorable African American baby (1 month old) in my dorm room while she was in class. Numerous times, I’ve shocked my friends, walking around the campus with a stroller, a bag of diapers, and a baby. It was fun to see the reactions of certain friends, especially when they lifted up the stroller cover only to find a cute African American baby in it.
So compared to most bachelors, I thought I was “experienced” – at least “familiar” – with infants and children. I’ve always loved them and I thought I’ve seen the beauties of little ones. But this past Tuesday, I witnessed another side of beauty that I’ve never experienced before. I was expecting him for the past nine months, yet when I saw the little one for the first time, I was in awe…. speechless. As Benjamin was crying his heart out in my arms, the beauty of life just overwhelmed me. The speechless excitement…full of joyful anxiety… the incomparable ecstasy that can only be experienced that moment as you feel the warmth of your own baby tingling the palms of your hands. I just froze as I gazed into his tiny, doey eyes, blinking at me for the first time.
I guess it’s different when that baby you are holding is yours. No returns – mine forever. Beauty like none other… And in midst of all this awe, I was reminded of the helplessness I felt throughout the pregnancy… and I still do. I couldn’t hold the baby for the past nine months. I couldn’t do much when Hannah tossed and turned throughout the night, not being able to sleep due to the enlarged tummy. I couldn’t do much when she was throwing up. I couldn’t do much when she was feeling the pain from the contractions. I couldn’t do much when she had to push… and now, I still can’t do much when Benjamin cries every two hours asking for milk. As a man, is there something to learn from such helplessness? Is it a taboo to just admit that we sometimes feel helpless as a man, especially during the initial stages of life-giving process? Perhaps men need to feel and acknowledge such biologically-embedded helplessness before we hastily try to “do something.”
As I personally see the sacrifices a mother must make to bring a life into this world, I now have a new, profound respect for all mothers. Thank you mothers! Such mother-love also reminds me how thankful I should be for the Ultimate Lifegiver who created me, knows me, loves me, and saved me. Thank you Lord! Thank you for our parents, my wife, and the little one….. which reminds me, my mother’s birthday is coming up next week and so is Mother’s Day.
I saw the movie, Kung Fu Panda, for the second time on Sunday night after a great but long day of church and family. My seminary training makes me critical of almost everything including animation movies so of course I had my biblical-hermeneutic-hat on while watching this movie about a panda on the road to becoming a kung fu master. Yeah, I hear ya. Sheesh…lighten up it’s only a movie about a talking, martial arts panda and other fun loving creatures. After getting all my critical thoughts behind me about kung fu philosophy, the Chinese/Buddhist cultural impressions embedded in the movie, and the indoctrination of eastern thought into the minds of innocent children, I finally was able to find a Christian/ biblical application. “The secret ingredient to my secret noodle soup is…there is no secret ingredient.” This is the line in the movie where Po (if you have never seen the movie, Po is the panda’s name) finds the answer to the scroll. I found that line in the movie so profound. Last week’s Lenten sermon given to us NMCC folk by PH was all about going back to the basics. PH (if you haven’t caught on by now PH is no longer Pastor Hannah but it’s Pastor Hudson) was trying to take us back to the basics of faith and lead us to the pure, simple message of the cross. So there you go, just like in Kung Fu Panda, there are no riddles, secrets, tricks or gimmicks when it comes to really knowing Jesus (and according to the movie, kung fu.) “The secret ingredient to knowing Jesus is…there is no secret ingredient.”
Written by the other (original) PH
PS… I want to encourage all those who have committed to our “40-DAY” challenge. I pray and hope you come to know Jesus in a new and profound way during the Lenten season. Our Lord and Savior Jesus is after you. Don’t ignore His gentle nudging. Remember there is no secret to being a follower of Christ. (But for those who are still looking for some instruction, read the manual…hint, hint…. it’s called the Bible.)
First and foremost, we hope you like the new site! Some technical folks at New Mercy have been hard at work this past month trying to launch a site that is helpful, has continuously refreshed content and represents New Mercy well.
Now, what’s this blog all about? Of course, we know blogs are all the rage nowadays. But before launching a blog, we wanted to make sure we weren’t doing it just because it’s the trend. (I mean, why create extra work for ourselves!) Well, after some thought, we came to the conclusion that a New Mercy blog would actually serve our congregants and fans well.
Oftentimes, in churches, there is a disconnect between the congregants and the pastor(s). Sometimes this is deliberate; most of the time, it is not. The reality is that no matter how well-meaning, intimate or “nice” a pastor tries to be with his congregants, very few will get a glimpse of the pastor beyond the pulpit. And, as experience shows, the public persona is only a thin sliver of the pastor’s full person.
In fact, when the public persona is not taken in the greater context of the pastor’s life, people will get a distorted image of not only the pastor but of the gospel. The gospel is for real people who live in a broken world and in the thick of their sinful impulses and mistakes. Indeed, pastors can share about their struggles in their sermons, and that helps. But, at the end of the day, preaching has to be cast more generally and it has to be tailored for clear presentation and effective mass consumption. All of this is to say, the pulpit affords the listener only a two-dimensional image of a person that is multi-dimensional and profoundly more nuanced and complex than their visits to the pulpit can convey.
This is problematic for a church that desires to be a ministry for real and broken people. For us to embody our vision, we believe the earthy, even blemished lives of the sinful-but-redeemed pastors need to be communicated genuinely and openly.
This blog is being launched in hopes to bring more dimensions of the pastors in focus. We’ve got five paid pastors and one pastoral intern, and it’s hard to get to know them at church. Of course, we are not so naive as to think a blog will solve this problem, but we think it will help. And this is a great way to feed your inner voyeur. Not that pastors’ lives are typically the object of stalking, but we thought you’d like to get a glimpse the off-stage lives of the pastors.
Pastors will also use the blog to take the time to write about issues they are passionate about but don’t have the time to address in church (e.g. like what wine is the best!). They’ll post random thoughts (e.g. why they’re so hairy). They’ll talk about their struggles and quirks (e.g. why they want to change their name). All in all, they’ll just be themselves.
And we hope their meanderings will help all of you to get to know them more. But this is not in an effort to trumpet the “coolness” of our pastors (though we think they’re pretty cool), but more so that the pastors can show you how much you need God by showing you how much they need Him.