Charlie (continued)

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[If you’re just starting this story, go here: Charlie]

They’ve told me his surgery will take six hours. Six hours in the waiting room. Six hours if it goes well. They didn’t say this explicitly, but if it goes less than six hours that would mean it didn’t work. Such a benign way to describe something I can’t even let myself think. Doctors here talk about “outcomes.” If Charlie has a “less than optimal outcome…” 

I know it sounds like I’m in denial, refusing to name it. You think you would?

I’m stupidly hopeful that Sheri will appear, running in breathless, apologizing for— explaining—some ludicrous thing that happened, asking rhetorically “Is he already in surgery?” But I’m not hopeful enough to come up with scenarios. They’re just too unlikely. What was that principle we learned in philosophy? Bottom line, it meant go with the simplest explanation. Did a pack of charging rhinos cut her off from the hospital? Did one of them slam her to the pavement and now she has amnesia, or a broken leg, or amnesia and a broken leg?

She left me. She left us

Oh, my God, my wife left me and our son while he’s undergoing brain surgery.

That, I can name.

I don’t know if I can handle this, she kept saying. She was freaking out. I wasn’t listening. I mean, I was, but I heard only What if our son isn’t okay? What if Charlie doesn’t come through it? I took her to mean, I’m scared! I’m overwhelmed! One of the nights she was saying that, I held her in bed for hours, smoothing her hair, listening but not listening. Not hearing. We ended up having sex, almost by habit. You touch that long in bed, not asleep, it starts to feel like foreplay, it turns into foreplay. But maybe that wasn’t listening, either. 

A door opens in my mind. Or a draw bridge. I get to second-guess every word, look, conversation, argument, action. Everything.

Or I can sit here thinking about if Charlie…if the doctors can’t remove this tumor…if he…

She left because she thinks he’s going to die.

She meant “I can’t handle it if he dies.”

I couldn’t hear that because I couldn’t say he might. I knew he might. They told us, Dr. Kisack looked me in the eye and told me “Charlie has a forty-five percent chance of surviving this surgery.” She couldn’t say “about fifty” or “just a little less than fifty.” Forty-five. No more, no less. But that’s a percentage, based on other “outcomes,” based on other people’s children, parents who were sitting in waiting rooms like this—waiting together—and they’d already said goodbye. 

I didn’t say “goodbye” to him. I didn’t say “goodbye” to her, either.

She said, “You go in with him. He wants you. I’ll park the car.” She was driving. It made sense.

I squeezed her arm and said, “Thanks.”

The waiting room is about two-thirds full. I’ve barely registered anyone else, but I notice now because a doctor just came out to talk with a family. I’m guessing mom, dad, and their two-year-old who was quietly coloring/scribbling. A quiet two-year-old. Maybe he’s a pro, too.

They nod and the doctor talks more and they nod. I’m staring but they don’t notice. I’m not even in their world. The dad’s brow furrows. He’s a handsome man, Ralph Lauren oxford, the first hint of gray in his black hair. He has his arm around his wife’s shoulder. The child keeps scribbling, paying no attention. Their other child will live. Their marriage will live.

I can’t sit here. I walk out quickly into the vast lobby. I’m resisting the urge to go search the parking lot again. It’s not that I’m saving my dignity; searching would encourage me to hope.

But she’s gone. I have one thing to hope for today.

I walk. I walk through Whale Level, where the happy sea mammals on the walls bound in the frothy waves and smile their dolphin and sea lion smiles at the children walking by. I go up a flight of stairs and walk through Giraffe. Giraffe feels heavier than whale, but that’s because I know this hospital well; Giraffe is long-term care. If you consider that everyone coming to Children’s Hospital has a major health concern, maybe minor in the biggest picture but major enough that they were referred here, that means after oncology, long-term care pulls the hardest on me.

Charlie spent time in Giraffe a few years ago, before his remission, in our early, frantic days here, what I think of as our rookie year going through all this. We came because our pediatrician had referred us to get more testing. We had no idea why. She would tell us nothing concrete, only that she had “concerns.” But when we got here, when we went to Otter for Charlie’s blood draw and other labs (I always argued they should name that area “Shark”) and got those results back and were given papers and stickers and name tags in lanyards, we were sent to oncology. I swear to you, that is how we had the news broken to us. And I love Children’s Hospital, I don’t believe Charlie would have survived these last three years without Children’s, but I think I would have preferred a friendly lab tech or even the Otter receptionist to say, “I’m so sorry, but Charlie’s test results came back and he now has an oncologist.” We were merely told to report to the receptionist at Antelope. Antelope isn’t exclusively cancer, of course; it’s the floor on which they have the oncology department, but Antelope has come to mean “where the kids with cancer go” for parents like us. Children’s Hospital parents.

Parents like me, I guess.

Giraffe, though. Giraffe has a greater variety of diseases and conditions they treat. Giraffe has the kids whose diseases and conditions they can’t identify or the orphan diseases they recognize but still don’t know how to treat, much less cure. Giraffe has the little boy whose mother told me he had an allergic reaction to his medication that caused his skin to bubble and blister. When she talked to us, he was recovering from third-degree burns over eighty percent of his body. No one knew why. The doctors kept trying to find drugs that they could use to treat his original condition—which, shamefully, I no longer remember. But I prayed for that boy every day for longer than a year. I don’t know when I stopped; I didn’t decide to, I just got distracted one day and then the next and sometime later realized I wasn’t praying for him anymore. I saw his mom for a few visits after first meeting her, which for us meant six weeks or two months, and we would stop and chat like old friends who know each others’ secrets. Then I never saw her again. Giraffe means them.

Most of these levels have endless hallways, staggered by reception areas for specialties within each department. Every one has happy art, the encouraging posters and signs and slogans. I’ve never seen a waiting area in Children’s that didn’t have toys. Some have game consoles and fifty-inch monitors. Others have puzzles and simple board games. Most also have art supplies: paper, crayons, and stickers, and you can ask the receptionist to check out scissors. Of course, some have dire allergy warnings and forbid certain things. No, I take that back—they all have these warnings.

I’m passing one specialty after another, not quite power-walking but striding hard, circling each floor before ascending to the next. Here on the fifth floor, you find the parents’ lounge and even sleeping rooms. Designated showers for long-termers. A refrigerator with clear instructions on how to label your food—full name, patient’s ID, date stored. A few computers, a printer. I walk past my favorite spot in the hospital, a nearly-hidden door that leads to a little sitting area, almost a balcony, where you can quasi-relax in closer-to-comfortable chairs and see the ocean. Where you can imagine what you could be doing with your child, had you drawn different cards. But I loved that sitting area because it was the place where I felt like Sheri and I could go and experience a tiny bit of privacy. A hint of privacy.

But I’m not going to sit out there alone. I keep walking.

The sixth floor is all administrative offices. We spent some time there, early on, to work out some financial assistance. Next to Superhero Saint Nurses, I appreciate the people who work in that office most. I think they must take hours and hours of training on how not to shame parents who are suffering both their children’s health crises and now fiscal crises…often caused by those health crises. I remember Jan and Cinequa, Helga and Amber (short for “Ambrosia”—do not make fun of her!), every one of them, because of how well they treated us, offering us unwavering kindness and guarding our dignity when our insurance kept trying to drop us. 

Conversely, there’s a special place in hell for insurance companies who, when they realize that they cover kids with brain cancer—or any cancer—try their damnedest to disqualify them. Us. I’m not making this up: we had an agent call our home every single week for a year, fifty-two calls, asking questions like “Has Charlie’s condition resolved itself?” Seemingly a parent’s ignorance, or even an exhausted slip of the tongue, could be enough for them to fire up the machinery that would toss a child fighting cancer out into the cold. I will not digress about these people, but in my cosmology, the accounts office was made up of souls who would be going the opposite direction in the afterlife for having played the opposite role in our lives.

An urge pulls at me to step in and visit Helga and Cinequa. Both spoke like they were Charlie’s grandmothers. But they would ask, “How is Charlie?” and “How is Sheri?” If they could just know so I wouldn’t have to explain and they would say, “Oh, you sit down, you’re our Hall of Fame Dad, we wish every child had a dad like you!” Because they said that to me on days much easier, it turns out, than today, on days when I thought the sky was falling merely because we couldn’t pay for the medical care Charlie needed. They found ways to work that out. They accessed funds and found assistance and created payment plans. God, I wish they were equally omnipotent in other areas. 

The end of this hall past their offices gets weird. Some strange art got hung here, different than in any other part of the hospital. I mean different. If you could put performance art on a wall, it would look like this. Some is Barbie-related. Another section relates to anorexia and bulimia. They’re all mixed medium, with spiked heels and shards of glass and jagged Diet Coke can shrapnel sticking out. If you ran up this hallway without noticing them, you could slash yourself. One of the works depicts self-cutting. 

I’ve wondered so often who bought these and how it went.

“Hey, I got some great pieces for the hospital!”

“You know we’re Children’sHospital, right? Happy hippos?” 

“Yeah, but these address serious issues the kids face.”

“We have three-year-olds who’ve already suffered trauma.” 

“Okay, fine. HR? No? The legal department, then?”

They have an exit at the end of this hallway where parents don’t come and go. It leads to a parking lot parents don’t use. I’m tempted to go out there now. Standing in that lot, you could pretend to be outside any nondescript business in the world. Brick wall, no signs other than “Finance and Accounting” and “Human Resources.” But this door requires a key code to enter from the outside and there’s no access to any other part of the hospital through that lot. “Staff Parking only.” It’s no accident. The time I exited here, I practically had to walk through downtown to find my way back to the hospital campus. The people who work in these last few offices don’t have to see any of us—or our kids—unless they choose to. I’m pretty sure they also keep the hospital running, on a macro level, so I try to keep that in mind.

I rest my head against the door and look at my watch.

It’s been maybe an hour and a half since I left Charlie in surgery. Surgery time is a separate existence, different than any other passage of time. It’s harder to kill time without her. Sheri. It’s hard not to think about Sheri while thinking that it’s hard to kill time without Sheri. I am not going to spend these hours trying to figure out why my wife left.

My wife left. Am I a single dad now?

Damn it, damn it, go to hell damn it! That’s not even the question. 

Am I a dad now?

By the end of the day? Will I still be?

The door opens outward. I almost fall through the doorway. A man sticks out his arm, a blue suit-coated arm, and breaks my fall, then steadies me with the other. He fills the doorway.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaims.

I push against the door frame to right myself. His grey eyebrows furrow and his head tilts forward, worried. His coat has subtle pinstripes. His purple tie matches the square in his chest pocket. I see these up close because I’m in his personal space. I step back inside as quickly as I can.

“No, I’m sorry. I fell on you. Thanks for not letting me hit the pavement.”

He chuckles. “Seems the least I could do. Were you going out?” he asks, still holding the door open.

“Oh, uh, no. I was just…waiting.”

He notices the buzzer in my hand, then looks up at my face. How can I describe the change in his expression? I’m dressed for my-kid-is-in-the-hospital-take-me-seriously: tie, oxford, slacks, loafers. I think that threw him for a second. But I’m not his peer, not a professional in one of these offices, nor on business with any of them. I’m not that kind of “pro.” I’m on the other side of the bridge.

Ha. “Bridge.” Make that “chasm.” There is no bridge. Pity, but no bridge.

“How much longer?” he asks.

I choke back something between a laugh and a moan.

“Four hours or so, they estimated.”

“Oncology?”

“How could you know that?”

He raises his large shoulders, a nearly-apologetic shrug.

“I’ve been here a while,” he says.

I nod.

“I’ll leave you in peace. I hope…” he nods back at me, “I hope it goes well.”

“Thank you.”

He offers me his huge hand, so I shake it.

I’m walking back up the nouveau art hallway when he calls out.

“Wait.”

I turn around and he catches up to me in two long strides.

“I’m John. Here’s my card. In case you need anything. And what’s your child’s name?”

“Thank you.” I take the card. “I’m Mike. He’s Charlie.”

He gives my shoulder a pat, which causes me to picture him playing college football twenty years ago. I’ll have to look him up to check my hunch.

He enters the second-to-last office on the hall. I glance at his card. “John D. Freeman: Vice-President, Corporate Development.”

I wonder what need might qualify for me to call John D. Freedman? I know he meant it, but I can’t conjure the situation. My needs are either too big or too small.

I study the paintings again. Does he pass them on his way to the cafeteria? Does he like them? Does he—

The buzzer vibrates in my hand. I jerk back and it falls to the carpet.

Oh, my God. 

I’m running, one motion to scoop it up and sprint.

I should have prayed more!

God, have mercy on my little boy. 

Sheri, he’s–

No. No thoughts. Just hurrying—dodging—not colliding with children—fast as I can, not hurting anyone—because I have to get there—even if…

Just go.

I swing around the last corner to the waiting area, take in that the nurse and surgeon are talking to—Sheri. She has her back to me.

–OhmyGod, did I make all that up? 

–She’s shaking. I’m going to vomit.

“What—what happened?” I blurt into their conversation, then suck for air.

“He’s okay. He’s okay, Mr. O’Brien.” Dr. Kisack’s mask is pulled down around her neck. Her face looks sweaty.

“But how—you said—” gasp, “six hours—” gasp, “and it’s—”

“We’re not always right,” she answers and smiles a little. That shuts me up. “I was just telling your wife, I don’t call things ‘miracles.’ I’ve never used that word for surgery, I believe literally never. I just don’t think that helps us explain or understand anything. But your boy had a medulloblastoma growing rapidly in his cerebellum, so rapidly that we halted other treatment and moved directly to surgery. Now he doesn’t. I still had to operate, but the tumor was half the size we expected and all the places we thought it would be most difficult to cut out, it almost looked as if it had withdrawn. I can’t explain that. There are many things I can’t explain within my field of expertise, though I hate to admit to any of them.” She glances up at the ceiling then back at us, a whole different conversation spoken only in her head. “This is one. But I’m happy to give you the news.”

“So he’s going to be…?”

“He’s going to leave here with no more cancer in his body. It was a simple procedure to remove the tumor, contrary to all expectations. I can’t promise you anything after today. As you know too well, this type of cancer has a significant rate of recurrence. We will run all the tests we can to make certain we haven’t missed anything. But at this moment, to the absolute best of my knowledge, Charlie is cancer free.”

My knees wobble. The floor and walls spin. Doctor Kisack reaches out to steady me before I discover whether the ceiling is spinning, too.

“I’m sorry. Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…” I can’t figure out how to finish the sentence.

“This is a very normal response,” she reassures me. “I truly am glad I could give you good news, even if I don’t fully understand it. Nurse Jackson will take you to see Charlie when he’s ready to move from Recovery I to Recovery II. He’ll be asleep for some time still and very groggy after that, but he’ll want to see you both. I told your wife Charlie was asking for her even after we thought he was under. I’d never seen that before. Patients talk in their sleep sometimes, but he just willed himself awake for one more moment, right after you left. He’s a determined child. That will serve him well.”

“We can’t thank you enough, Doctor Kisack,” Sheri says, grasping both her hands.

“Take care. Take care of Charlie,” the doctor tells us, patting my shoulder once more before she turns to hurry off.

Charlotte steps in.

“It will be about half an hour before we can move him to Recovery II. I’ll leave you to celebrate a little. Or just breathe again. Hold onto that and I’ll buzz you again when it’s time to come see Charlie. You’re doing great. The hardest part is over.”

I can’t keep myself from glancing at Sheri, but she has her eyes closed. Maybe breathing.

“Charlie, you’ve been wonderful,” I tell her. “Thanks for taking such good care of our son.”

She beams at us.

“That’s why I do this. It doesn’t always turn out so well, but I pray every time that it will. He’s a great guy. To still have such a sense of humor after everything he’s been through? I’m so glad he’s going to be okay. I’ll see you soon.”

She leaves me with my wife. Children’s Hospital revolves around us, the nurses and doctors striding past to get to their next patients, the moms and dads walking slower with their babies, some pushing IV poles or wheelchairs. Some aren’t going home today. Some aren’t going home again. Our Charlie is coming home with us.

Time to man up.

“I’m sorry. I thought you had…left—I know, God, that sounds horrible. I jumped to a terrible conclusion when you didn’t get back before he went in. Just all the stress and fear going in there, they actually let me go in with him—not that I’m excusing it, my thinking that–I just couldn’t figure out what could’ve… Are you okay? What happened?”

“I did.” She glances at me, then looks away. “I was halfway to Bellingham.”

“Oh.”

I have nothing left. I need to sit down now. I land hard in the nearest open chair. 

She doesn’t follow right away. My chair is against the wall, so I let my head drop back and close my eyes. Will she be here when I open them? She came back, so I think she’ll wait until Charlie wakes up. I think.

But what do I know?

I hear someone settle next to me. A moment later, I can smell Sheri, the conditioner she loves and her perfume she wears only for formal occasions, her version of “take-me-seriously.” I bought her a bottle one Christmas and concluded I’m glad it’s for formal occasions.

“Do you want to talk to me?” she asks, a serious question, not to start a fight.

“I don’t know.”

We sit here. I feel minutes drifting by. Is Charlie really okay? Is this our last time sitting together waiting to find out? Is this our last time sitting together? I don’t have the energy to start this conversation. I don’t have it in me to find out. 

Charlie is okay. That’s enough for now.

That’s all for now.

Charlie

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We’re walking in the sunshine. It’s deceiving. I can’t believe what a beautiful day God made for this. I call that cruel. If you decorated my house with balloons and streamers today… So this morning we’ve got seventy degrees with sunshine, three puffball clouds, and the lightest breeze. What do you call that? 

Indifference, maybe.

Sheri parked the car. She told me to walk in with him. I get it. Nobody says it. Nobody has to.

“What time do the Yankees play tonight?”

I look at my son. Really look at him, as hard as I can. The sun is glowing through his brown, whispy hair. It still feels recent that he has hair again. We took him for a haircut two days ago. I tried not to think “last haircut.” You know what happens when you try not to think about something. Everything could be the last. And “could be” is optimistic.

“7:05, I think. Wanna go?”

He looks at me, all hope and faith. Shit. He gets sarcasm, he uses it too much, but oh, my God, I’m stupid sometimes. 

“Sorry, Buddy, I’m hoping we can watch some of it when you wake up. There should be a TV in the recovery room.”

“I didn’t mean tonight,” he says, ducking his head apologetically. “I just want to go sometime this year.”

There aren’t words for this, but I can’t be silent, either. I’m stuck. Unbelievably stupid. 

“I will get us tickets for any game you want to see, as soon as we get out of here. You kick this thing’s butt, and we are there. Front row, first base line.”

Empty promises. Those are useful. They’ll make me feel a lot better, later, when I remember all the things I didn’t do while I had time. It’s hard to choose, but pre-emptive guilt may be my favorite thing about parenting

Yes, that was sarcasm.

We’re through the door. Children’s Hospitals always smell antiseptic like hospitals, but a little better. I can’t say it smells cheerful, but close. They’re lighter than other hospitals. People care a little more, or maybe we just pay better attention to who’s around us, because there’s always a child right next to us who has it worse than we do.

Except maybe that’s not true today.

We check in at the reception desk and the woman looks at us with the hugest, most sympathetic smile.

“Hi, Guys! I think we can get you straight back. Just let me have one minute to make sure we’re ready for you.” I stand waiting for the buzzer thing that tells us it’s our turn. It always reminds me of the old Simon game. That’s when I know I’m old.

“I don’t think you’ll need one today,” the receptionist says, reading my mind. “Like I say, one minute. Or less.”

She reaches for her phone. We go to sit down.

“Charlie? We’re all ready for you now,” the woman calls. I had just turned my head to look at the magazine selection. Do people still read them, or do they just sit on their devices? I glance around the room to see three adults reading Good Housekeeping, Sports Illustrated, and Business Day. Answers that. 

“My wife will be here in a second,” I say as Charlie and I pass the desk to enter the catacombs. I always think that one way you can divide humanity is between the people who have walked into the oncology department of a Children’s Hospital and everyone else. Of course, you can take that two ways. The positive is the people who have the privilege of a Children’s Hospital oncology department when they need it and everyone else.

That wasn’t sarcasm.

Charlie perches up on the table without being asked. Routine. A nurse walks in right after us. This is the quickest we’ve ever gotten back here. That doesn’t reassure me.

“Hi, Charlie. My name is ‘Charlotte.’ I go by ‘Charlie,’ too! Isn’t that funny? Charlie and Charlie. But I think let’s call me ‘Charlotte’ today, just to avoid confusing each other. Unless you’d prefer to be ‘Charles’ today?”

“I’m not ‘Charles,’ I’m Charlie,” my son responds. I nod. Not really the time to start being Charles.

“Does anyone call you Charles?” she asks, reaching for his elbow. He doesn’t glance down. I look at his Calvin-thin arm, the four hundred marks where they’ve pushed needles in, then up to his eyes to see if he wants me to explain.

“My given name is ‘Charlie,’” he tells her. “’Charlie Chaplin McCarthy O’Brien.’”  

That stops her. She looks up from the blood pressure cuff she’d expertly secured around his tricep.

“Wow. Really?” she asks.

“No,” he grins. She laughs hard and real, not the required polite chuckle.

He loves doing that with nurses. They’re trained to be kind and gentle with the children who enter their care. Charlie looks like a cherub with a hint of bangs. We need to update his joke, as I’m sure there are some nurses too young to get it. But Charlie is ten and he gets it. He made it up. It’s become his standard greeting/test for his nurses. When he doesn’t feel well enough, he expects me to deliver it, though it comes across differently when I try. I started to explain that to him, but then changed my mind: who cares if a nurse thinks I’m strange, compared with cheering my son by pulling his favorite gag? When he feels that bad, everything else becomes a distant second. I mean “distant” as in beyond the horizon, out of sight.

“You had me,” she tells him, removing the blood pressure cuff and taking his temperature. I love how much easier taking temperatures is now. I wish they could make a comparable advance with blood samples.

“Okay, I know you know the right answers, but I have to ask: when was the last time you ate anything solid?”

“Eight PM,” Charlie responds automatically.

“Liquids?”

“Ten.”

“Clear liquids?”

“This morning at, I think, like…six?” He looks at me to verify. I nod.

“Good job! I knew you’d have that down. You’re a pro.”

He grins again, pleased at the affirmation. I’m glad he isn’t cynical yet. Yeah, he’s a pro…

Nurses save lives and we’ve had only good experiences with our nurses at Children’s. I’d say with one or two exceptions, I’d call them anomalies, we’ve had all good experiences with Charlies’ nurses. That’s pretty impressive. I’ve probably had my life saved by them once or twice. So if one’s cheeriness offends my cynicism, that’s my problem, not theirs. 

Not that I always remember this.

“Charlie, the anesthesiologist will be here in a few minutes. Do you need anything?”

Charlie shakes his head.

“Good. I’m going to need you to change into your gown now. You ready to do that?”

“Sure,” he tells her, grabbing it and hopping down in the same motion.

Would a sick kid do that? I learned to stop asking myself this about a million years ago, although obviously I haven’t really learned. I’ve stopped letting the answer carry any weight. 

“He’s feeling better lately?” Charlotte asks me as the bathroom door clicks, semi-reading my mind in her nursely way.

“I mean, he hasn’t done a treatment for five—almost six weeks now. He’s got his energy back. It’s normal, right?”

She nods and gives me the sad eyes.

“Of course.”

I consider it a kindness that she doesn’t explain. She’s read through his chart. We’re all pros here.

Charlie comes out again, blessedly too young to feel self-conscious in his hospital gown. I’m not a glass half full of silver linings guy, but I do think this would be tougher if he were two years older.

Then again, if he were we would for sure have had those two years.

“I’ll be back soon, Charlie, and then we’ll head in together. Do either of you have any questions right now?”

Ha.

“No, not really. Do you, Buddy?”

Charlie shakes his head, then asks an obvious one.

“Where’s Mom?”

“She was parking the car.”

“I’m sure she’ll be here in a minute,” Charlotte reassures him. “If you do think of a question, be sure to ask me when I return. Sometimes it can help to get any concerns out before we go in.” 

Charlie nods, but now he’s staring at me. He really wants an answer to the one he’s already asked.

I pull my phone out and call Sheri. Straight to voicemail. Her battery might be dead. I text, just in case it isn’t.

You close?

Charlotte finishes her preparations, then pats my shoulder once as she walks past me. I lift the sides of my mouth at her while clenching my teeth. The black hole is much closer to the surface than I realized.

“Daddy, where’s Mom? Why isn’t she back yet?”

“I don’t know, Son. You want me to go check?” I need to be here when the anesthesiologist comes in. Have to. Plus, I’m not losing any of these minutes. I could be very angry at her in two tenths of a second for costing me even one moment. But where is she? Did someone blindside her in the parking lot? There’s no reasonable explanation. There’s no way she’d be losing these minutes, either. 

Except she is.

The door opens. I whip my head around. 

“Sher–”

But it’s the anesthesiologist. Now I really can’t go. 

“Hi, Charlie. I’m Doctor Brennan. I’ll be administering your anesthesia today. Looks like you’ve gone through a few of these already, so I’m sure you remember. I need to tell you about it, anyway, because that’s my job, but don’t think that means I’m treating you like a little kid. You’re not. I’d have to explain it all to your dad, too.” Doctor Brennan winks at both of us.

“Dad?”

Charlie has one concern right now, and it isn’t what gas they’ll use to make him sleep.

“Hon, we need to hear this, because as Dr. Brennan said, it’s his job to make sure we understand. I’ll go as soon as we’re done.” My ten-year-old’s eyes relax exactly none.

Dr. Brennan looks from me to Charlie and back. Anesthesiologists are not nurses, in my experience. They don’t accommodate.

“We’re going into a longer surgery today. Dr. Kisack anticipates we’ll need about six hours to complete this one. That means we’ll need a lot of anesthesia to keep you comfortable. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink, right?”

Charlie shakes his head, once, hard.

“No,” he adds, to prevent being misunderstood.

“Good. Not even water for the last two hours, correct?”

“Correct,” I affirm. 

“Three,” Charlie says. He has put his hand on my wrist. He’s squeezing. We taught him this because he used to interrupt doctors all the time. Not your fault, I told him, sometimes they talk too much, but let’s just have you give one of us a squeeze, instead. If my boy were bigger, I’d have a broken wrist now. 

“Excellent. Then remember, when you get in there, I’ll be waiting, and when the other doctors are all ready, I’ll hold the mask and have you start counting back from one hundred. Do you know what flavor you want?”

“Root beer,” Charlie says, letting his eyes dart to the doctor’s face for a split-second before burning into mine again.

“Fine choice. I think that’s all. Do you have any questions for me, Mr….O’Brien?” Very brief pause. Hardly any points off at all, if I still kept score. I don’t. It doesn’t matter. None of it may matter after this. And where the hell is my wife? I text again.

SHERI? Trouble?!?

“No, thank you, I think we’re set. Set as we can be.” With fingernails digging into my wrist bone, that is.

“Good. We’re going to do our very best for you, Charlie. I’ll see you in there. I’ll have a mask on, but just look at my eyes. It’ll still be me.”

Charlie has yet to look at this man’s eyes, but he takes a full moment to glance at him. That’s a smart line, there. Charlie could tell me what color they are, now.

“Dad, where’s Mom?” he asks, before Dr. Brennan can get halfway to the door.

“I don’t know, Hon. You want me to—you okay to wait alone while I go look?”

I know the answer to the first—he couldn’t make that more obvious—but I hate asking him the second. I hate that I’m making him make that choice; I hate and I mean hate that I’m about to go sprinting out to the parking lot and leave him here by himself. Of all times to do this. What if they’ve taken him when I get back? 

And where is she? 

Charlie pulls me by the wrist he hasn’t let go of and gives me a big hug.  

“Yes, please,” he says. I lay my other hand on his shaved head and kiss him just just above his left ear.

“Okay. I’ll be back as fast as I can.”

I used to be an athlete, loosely speaking, before trips to the gym and running on courts were devoured by trips to the hospital and running to pharmacies. I always take the stairs when we’re in the hospital because it’s my only form of exercise other than clenching my stomach.

I’m running now. Hospital people stare. I guess if I had a lab coat I’d look normal, but we civilians aren’t supposed to run.

I slam through the door under the “exit” sign and hit the staircase without breaking stride. God, I hope no one is coming up. I grasp the railing to keep from falling, a controlled plunge more than a measured descent. I’m out the door and have to pull up hard to keep from plowing over two middle-aged women—okay, my age, but not looking like they’ve sprinted through a hospital in some time. I more imagine than see their expressions of affront, shading to pity. After all, why would a parent run through Children’s? Maybe to celebrate good news…but probably not.

I’m stutter-stepping to keep from hitting the automatic exit doors. They swing grudgingly, maddeningly. Open! Get out of my way!

I shove them the last bit to get through.

The parking lot is huge. This is Children’s Hospital. What was I thinking, that I could race out here and find our car in six seconds? Where the bloody hell is she? 

They have six levels for parking. They carved the hospital into a hill and cut and blacktopped all the way up. Like raised flowerbeds, my brain offers. I’m freaking out. 

Okay, think: either she’s already with Charlie right now or something went wrong. Really wrong. There aren’t any other options. Possibilities, I mean.

Are there?  

I’m still running but trying to calm down enough to focus. How long do I have? Normally, I’d say forty-five minutes from anesthesiologist to wheeling him back, but they got us in faster than I’ve ever seen before. Judging by that, I have ten. If that. And that’s just to get back to say—no, notto say “Goodbye,” to see him off, to say something before he goes, to lay my hand on his head and pray, pray something. As if I haven’t been begging God this whole time and here we are. But maybe for Charlie to hear the prayer. I don’t know. It’s a ludicrous question, an evil question: What are the last words you say to your child before…in case…you don’t get more?

Screw this.

My side aches like I’m a teenager back at basketball practice, sucking wind during sprints—“suicides,” we called them. My God. I’ve run a long way out here but I’m also in crappy shape and I have to get back. Now

Sheri? Sheri!” 

Then I stop. Because I know. I’ve never had a premonition in my life, or a word from God, or whatever this is. Until now.

She’s not in his room. She’s not in this parking structure. She didn’t get hit or have a crisis.

She’s gone.

I don’t waste a moment puzzling how I know, how she could do that, how anyone could do that. None of it matters. Less than the trash in the parking lot. It’s done. It is and it’s done. 

At least now I’m running a straight line, the shortest route back to pre-op.

Oh, Lord, don’t let him be gone yet. It can’t go that way. You can’t let it. 

Yeah, now you’re praying.

We’ve had sixty-one hospital trips and sixteen surgeries with Charlie. It’s stupid that I count, but I can’t help myself. Those numbers ricochet around my head as I pound back up the stairs. I’m in the surgery hall now, making wide eyes and pointing as I blow past the receptionist. She nods vigorously. Thanks

Oh, please…

Charlie jerks his head up. He’s been crying.

“I’m sorry, Buddy, I—”

“Aw, Dad, thanks for going. Is she coming?”

My son—our son—looks at me. I see a tiny patch I missed the last time I shaved his head for him, now longer than the rest. He likes it all or nothing. He doesn’t want his hair growing in a little bit. If it’s gone, he’s going to choose that it’s all gone. 

But I still lie to him.

“Oh, Hon, I don’t think she’s going to make it before you have to go in. Something really…really difficult came up, you know she’d be here otherwise, but she’ll be waiting when you come out.”

He nods. I put my arms around him. He looks tiny, swallowed up in his blue gown, his brown eyes so huge as he tries not to cry again. Ten is hard. At eight, he could just cry freely. At ten, I can see him telling himself not to.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat, and try to hold him tighter without hurting him. “Charlie, I love you so much, Buddy. You’re gonna roll in there, inhale some root beer, count down, and then you’ll wake up to my ugly mug again. Just like every other time. I couldn’t be more proud of you, Brave Boy. I love you.”

“Love you, Daddy.” He pushes his head into my jaw. “You’re not ugly.”

Charlotte comes back in.

“Okay, Fellas, it’s time for us to take Charlie back now.” She hands me the black disc that will buzz and vibrate and flash when they want me. I made it by about four minutes.

She can tell Charlie’s been crying, but that’s got to be normal and expected here.

I want to tell her that Charlie has never cried going into surgery before. He really is the bravest kid God ever made, not just because he’s mine. But I’m guessing this isn’t the time to explain to Charlotte what’s different about today. And I—we—tried to help Charlie understand this surgery without terrifying him. Try that balancing act sometime.

No, I take that back. I hope you don’t have to.

They’ve got Charlie’s bed ready to roll out. Another nurse guides his IV poll. I take his hand and walk alongside until we reach the surgery doors. Our seventeenth separation at doors like these. I lean over to kiss him.

“You can walk in with him. Here, just put a mask on.” Charlotte reaches out her hand. I grab the blue mask, attempt a smile but manage a grateful grimace, then pull the strap behind my ears. She just nods.

They’ve never let me do this before.

But Charlie smiles at me. He looks tiny, already lying on the operating table, surrounded by gowned, masked grown-ups and tables of silver devices I hope he can’t see. But his eyes are on me. Thank you, God, for this small mercy. 

Dr. Brennan steps in next to me and looks around at the doctors and nurses standing by. Dr. Kisack nods. They’re ready.

“Hi, Charlie. Remember what we talked about. I’m glad your dad can be here to help us get started.”

“You ready, Buddy?” I ask. My voice sounds weird through the mask.

Charlie grips my hand harder but turns his head to look up at Doctor Brennan.

“I’m ready.”

“That’s marvelous. You’re a very courageous young man. One hundred, remember?”  

“One hundred…”

Dr. Brennan places the gas mask over Charlie’s nose and mouth.

“Ninety-nine…” Charlie’s voice comes through, muffled but strong. He’s locked on my eyes again.

Charlie breathes in.

“Nine–”

Then Charlie’s eyes roll back in his head. He’s out. His hand goes limp in mine. I set it down softly by his side.

Charlotte appears at my elbow, gently removing me from the circle, one hand on my back, the other on my forearm. Almost as if she expects resistance. I wonder if some dad sometime got hit by too much clarity and lost it, right here. Thought maybe he could protect his child by staying close. Or didn’t think at all. Just reacted.

“I didn’t say ‘I love you’ one more time.” It hit me too fast to hold in. I didn’t mean to say it to her. We’re alone in the hall.

“You said it. I heard you say it when I walked in. And you let him know when you had his hand.”

“He’d never cried before a surgery,” I told her.

“This one is different,” she answered, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I need to get back now. I promise we’re going to–”

“Of course you will,” I cut her off. “Thank you, Charlotte. I’ll see you afterward. I’ll stay close.”

She smiles a little.

“You’re a pro,” she nods, then trots back toward Charlie.

Oh, Jesus. 

*

To be continued…

Non-Partisan Encouragement

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First, I’m not claiming to be non-partisan. I’m writing an encouragement that will be.

We’re living in a very difficult and strange time. We’re having public debates I never imagined and, as one who has seen more than my share of post-apocalyptic movies, this is not what I pictured. At all. My training to fend off zombies feels a little wasted at the moment.

Now here is my encouragement:

It is not your job to convince people that they’re wrong. If you take that as your job, you are signing up for frustration and a lot of alienation. I suspect all of us slip up and find ourselves wearing that name tag occasionally,

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Here to Correct You!”

I do sometimes. Then I get discouraged.

The sooner I remember “Wait! I’m doing it again!” the better off I am. The longer I let myself try to succeed at this job that I neither have nor want, the worse I will feel.

Not everyone is like me. (Go ahead, rejoice.) Some people really believe this is their job and go around correcting everyone and telling them how wrong they are. We call these people “trolls.” Trolls, sad to say for them, don’t get to decide whether or not they are trolls. Trolling is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m assuming, for this discussion, that you and I aren’t consciously trying to troll anyone.

I might be someone’s troll. I sincerely hope not. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone sees me that way, however, because I do express my opinions often–and am doing so herein, as you read this.

This is my non-partisan encouragement: We are here to love one another, as best we can manage. Yes, if I see someone whom I think is dead wrong, let’s say driving the wrong way on a busy one-way street and about to hit traffic, meaning about to hit someone, I would really like to convince that person to turn around and I’m pretty clear I’m right and they’re wrong and, if only they could see I’m right, they would both correct course and thank me. Or, I mean they might flip me off because they’re angry and embarrassed, but sparing them and the faultless driver going the correct direction from collision, injury, and possible death would make that little getting flipped off worthwhile.

Here’s the thing: when we argue these days, we’re all convinced that our debate opponents are driving headlong into traffic–and wildly over the speed limit, to boot. These conditions tempt me to jettison my typical guidelines for discussion: The cost is too high for me just to stand by while you crash, right? Lives are at stake, and not just yours!

Oh, look. I’m wearing the badge again.

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Here to Correct you!”

But I’m not. I’m not here to correct you. I’m here to love you.

Here’s where this gets tricky…if we let it.

I have to ask two questions: 1)What constitutes an emergency? and 2)What are the chances you or I will agree that one of us is wrong?

I want to say that almost all of us who have strong opinions right now consider this an emergency. Pandemic. Sounds like an emergency, doesn’t it?

In response to question number two, after extensive personal research, I will propose this estimate: approximately zero.

That might strike you as a bummer. I could delve deeply into the psychology involved here, but I suspect that would either sidetrack us, edge us toward partisanship, or both.

But this helps me understand better what is happening and why we’re (mostly) all behaving this way:

All of us seem to think that the people with whom we disagree are racing toward an imminent, life-threatening head-on.

And we might be right.

But my experience, hard-earned from working with people trapped in addiction, is that even if it’s true, they might not change.

“You’re hurting yourself.” True.

“You’re hurting me and others.” True.

Still no change.

I know that seems discouraging. Believe me, when watching someone you love self-destruct, it’s gut-wrenching.

But I think it applies to our current situation and I think it can be oddly freeing.

If I can accept that nothing I do can change your thinking, then I can get on with the work of loving you, as best I can. I remember that even when I’m being my most self-destructive, I’m never, ever helped by my “friend” screaming at and belittling me. It also clicks in the cobwebby corners of my brain what has gotten through to me before, when I’ve hit bottom.

Grace.

Grace gets through to me. Kindness. Unwavering, patient, accepting friendship.

Weird, right? Being loved by my friends the way Jesus did and taught has cracked through my shell of self-damaging wrong thinking* when nothing else could.

Here, then, is my non-partisan encouragement for you today:

If you think a bunch of people in your life are wrong, don’t scream at them. They won’t believe they’re driving the wrong way. It’s not your job to correct them and get them to think right, the way you do. It is your job to love them, with grace, with encouragement, with forgiveness and gentleness and humor.

That might, it just might, help them see things differently. It might not. But love is never wasted. Love always changes us and those around us; Jesus is always present when we love one another, even when we can’t see it.

Practically speaking, I’m saying quit screaming. It’s not helping. Express what you need to, pray with all your might, speak your truth. Expressing our opinion is not the same as forcing someone to change their mind. Vent to your friends who agree with you but do not attack your friends–or, for heaven’s sake, strangers–who don’t. Say what you think will help. But take off that work badge and leave it off. I’m putting this one on.

“Hi, My Name Is Mike! I’m Not Here to Correct You! I’m Here to Love You.”

PS You might find that you stop screaming at them and they keep screaming at you. Jesus says something about that, too. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is different than “Do to others as they do to you.” In fact, it’s often opposite. I’d add that loving people does not require allowing them to scream at you.

PPS When, not if, I fail at this and fall back into trying to correct people’s thinking, God will have grace for that, too. No soy Dios, Dios es Dios, gracias a Dios.

*And all my students know the synonym for “self-damaging wrong thinking” is…

Believing the Best, Optimism, and Wishful Thinking

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[My brilliant artist nieces strike again! Unicorn Credit: Annika and Aislyn]

Come, let us reason together.

Believing the best of someone is perceiving them as accurately as you can while choosing to focus on their positive qualities, affirming their character, and trying to encourage and draw forth the good you can see. You can believe the best of someone who appears horrible, who has done genuinely despicable things. That’s how prison ministry works. In fact, that’s how grace works. If God won’t see the potential in people inclined to self-destructive, sinful behavior, we’re all doomed.

But we’re not all doomed. God sees us as we are and knows we have more capacity for good than we realize. That’s the Gospel*. That’s the Prodigal Son. God knows that we have warped the image of Jesus and God still sees how beautiful and loving we can be. When we believe the best of one another, we affirm what God sees, that the drug addict stuck in his habit can recover and Johnny Cash can play a concert at Folsom Prison because he understands the darkness they live in. He lived there, too. But he knows they could be redeemed because he was. Believing the best in you means that your darkness is not the last word. God’s love is.

Optimism is a different animal. Believing the best is central to the Gospel, not denial nor superficial acceptance but clear-eyed hope for choosing good over evil. Optimism is a cousin of hope but can also dwell in the land of make believe. I’m an optimist. I choose to be a hopeful person, often directly in the face of my depression and a constant barrage of negative thoughts. But optimism is not identical to biblical hope. Biblical hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness and the certainty that all shall be well, even if nothing appears well in my limited range of vision. Biblical hope declares that we’ll be okay, not because God will prevent bad things from happening but because in Jesus, we can endure bad things, including death. Biblical hope is perhaps the most powerful force on earth, stronger even than greed.

Optimism is simply hoping for the best, but optimism is not always rooted in the hope that Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and overcome every enemy, including death. Sometimes we’re optimistic just “cuz we hope good things will happen.” In general, I’d rather choose to be an optimist than a pessimist, even though pessimists have sound logic for their position: “Never get your hopes up and you’ll never be disappointed.” I’ve decided there are worse things in the world than disappointment. Cynicism, for example.

But we had a baby die in our arms. Optimism says that bad things won’t happen to us, because…they won’t. Because it’s us. Then bad things happen and optimism looks a lot like believing in unicorns. Fun, but an illusion. That was never real. If it’s joined to our theology, the backlash will hurt. “But I thought God loved me!”

We went to a funeral with one of our dear friends in Nicaragua, Carlos, who was burying his little girl. We’d suffered the same with Isaac, so I could talk with him about it, share our experience, and let him know what I have seen of God’s faithfulness in tragedy. But here’s the truth: most people in developing countries (and everyone living in poverty) much more often suffer these life-rending tragedies. Their children die young more often. Their mothers die in childbirth more often. Optimism says that won’t happen to us, but optimism is also the luxury of people who can afford to make things go our way most of the time. Again, hope in Jesus Christ is that God loves me and Isaac’s death does not change or disprove that. I reached that point, but it took me years. You can see how different that is than optimism, the denial that bad things would ever happen to me. Or you.

I’m perpetually optimistic that I will arrive on time and I rarely do. A friend dubbed this “temporal optimism” and I thought that a brilliant term. I somehow can believe, in the face of how many years of evidence, that this time I’m gonna walk right out of the house when I need to, hop on my bike or in my car, and arrive 5 minutes early. It took Kim years (and years) to convince me that travel time took actual time. Doesn’t seem like a complicated mathematical reality, but I resisted, due to my temporal optimism. I’m a little better now–and I mean if you have a very fine-tuned instrument you can detect my improvement. Like a clock that counts milliseconds.

But you can see how this kind of optimism doesn’t reside in faith in Jesus Christ or hope in God’s grace. It’s just “I want things to go well so I’m going to believe they will.” Sometimes that serves us really well. Norman Vincent Peale made a fortune selling books about “the Power of Positive Thinking.” “If you believe it, you can achieve it,” that sort of thing. I’m not against that on principle, and certainly if you believe you can’t, you have proven yourself right without ever trying.

But what is the term for a woman’s thought pattern who convinces herself that her abusive boyfriend won’t hit her again? Is that “optimism?” Or is that wishful thinking? To be clear, it’s often a much more complex tangle of thoughts that involves negative self-image, believing she somehow deserves her abuse, and the ongoing manipulation that he’s the only one who could care for her/provide for her/keep her safe (ironically). But in the core of this mental issue we see a repeated insistence that, against all evidence, “he’s sorry and he’ll never do it again.” I consider that wishful thinking. Wanting to see what isn’t there and convincing myself I do.

Wishful thinking, in my view, is the opposite of clear-eyed believing the best. Believing the best, as I described it, means I will take every necessary step to keep you from abusing me again. If you can demonstrate that you are changing, I may take the chance to trust you again, or I may encourage you and pray for you but not enter back in (I can believe in someone’s redemption without having to put myself at risk to do so). Wishful thinking and biblical hope can look very similar. But wishful thinking is rooted in “this is the reality I want to see, so I’m going to pretend this is the reality I actually see.” As such, it’s wildly dangerous. Instead of clear-eyed recognition of another’s sins and faults, it chooses to overlook or ignore them. Wishful thinking and denial are first cousins. In fact, “wishful thinking” is the nice term for an addict’s thought pattern.


We’re living in a world suffering a virus for which none of us yet have antiviral medicine (clinical trials are happening as I type). It’s a pandemic, crossing all borders and boundaries. As always, it’s hitting and will hurt and kill people in poverty more. It’s also more likely to kill people with other physical vulnerabilities. “Underlying conditions,” we keep hearing. But I like that term about as much as I like “casaulties” when we’re talking about young men and women dying. If you’ve spent your life coping with and navigating a congenital heart condition, how unfair is it that now the pandemic we all face is more likely to kill you? Pretty bleeping unfair, I’d say.

This is not a time for wishful thinking. There might be a different term for nationwide wishful thinking. But if ever there were a time to get over the illusion “It can’t happen to me,” That Time. Is. Now. The novel coronavirus isn’t picky. It can happen to any of us. We might survive it. We might not. But nationally, we’re working together to prevent a much, much worse tragedy.

Denying medical science and the suffering and death other countries have already experienced is wishful thinking. Deciding it will be okay because we want that to be true is wishful thinking. Yesterday, I read an estimate of how many people would die if we reopened everything and sent our children back to school now. Stop and hear that. Estimating how many of our children will die.

Listen to me. I’ve had a child die. I barely survived. I feel fortunate our marriage survived (most don’t). Two percent of our total population includes more children than you want to see die, and some of them will be your children. Not only can it happen to you, it will happen to you if we pretend that we’ll be fine when all evidence tells us we won’t. This is not the time for wishful thinking.** Wanting it to be different doesn’t actually change our situation, any more than it changes the situation for the woman still living with her abuser. What happens still happens, he still does what he does, no matter how hard she tells herself he won’t anymore. If she doesn’t leave, statistically speaking, he will kill her.

We don’t know enough about this virus yet. That’s a big part of our problem. We don’t (yet) have the capacity to test everyone. We’re still learning how immunity works with this virus. We know that people can carry it for weeks asymptomatically.

Come, let us reason together. People, many, many people, are suffering in many ways right now because we have chosen to shelter in place. I’m not saying it’s all fine. I don’t have wishful thinking about our shelter in place decision. I’m certainly not saying “This is fine and who cares about people’s jobs?” I know, I really know that domestic abuse–another crappy euphemism, if you ask me, when we’re talking about (mostly) women getting battered by men–is increasing horribly. Likewise child abuse. I know, better and more personally than some, that depression is hitting us harder because many of our support systems we’ve worked hard to build have been removed. Likewise for people recovering from addiction. Our choice to shelter in place comes at a terrible cost. There is also a nightmarish underlying message here that home is so unsafe for so many people What do we do about that? Who’s developing that vaccine?

I don’t claim to have any medical expertise whatsoever and I don’t have all the information. But I’m representative because, like you, I have available to me the information from epidemiological experts. Like you, I also have available to me the information from people who are not medical experts who want to believe something conflicting with what the epidemiologists are telling us right now. I get that they have motives for what they tell us. But I fear, I truly fear, that decisions upon which the health, the very lives of millions of people (including our children) depend, are being made based on wishful thinking. I pray I’m wrong.

I have heard no one claim “this is all just fine.” Those saying we need to continue sheltering in place are not pitting people’s lives against our economy, as if these were two opposing options. If we let the pandemic rage uncontrolled, we will see millions of people–no, millions of us, our families–die horribly, and we will see our economy crash under the weight of it. It’s not one or the other.

I keep thinking people get this:

Our only choices are between

Containing this pandemic as best we can and then recovering from the economic damage

OR

Refusing to do what’s necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, watching COVID-19 rage out of control and kill people we love, and suffering the collapse of our medical establishment and all the accompanying, calamitous consequences to our economy.

I don’t know how to weigh increased abuse of women by men in their homes and loss of income versus another one hundred thousand people dying. Yes, we can hope those people wouldn’t die if we all go back to how we interacted before the virus spread. That is wishful thinking.

I know this is all scary, even terrifying, and overwhelming. We have to choose not to let our fear drive us to anger against anyone giving us news we don’t want to hear. Right now, the fathers of two different young women I’ve mentored are fighting for their lives, trying to recover from COVID-19. It’s getting more personal for us each day. It’s easier to indulge in wishful thinking as long as this isn’t personal. This is very personal.

I’m tempted to excoriate those who have stated that “acceptable losses” of those with “underlying conditions” would be a reasonable tradeoff for us to “get back to business.” But I will settle for pointing out that they mean “those people” who will die. Faith in Jesus Christ means we trust that God loves us even beyond the grasp of death while following Jesus Christ means we value the lives of those devalued by our society, by our culture, and by those who count their own lives–and comfort–as more valuable. When I’m serious about following Jesus, I remember there are no “Those people.” Who is my neighbor?

Our people, our families, will die. We’re helping save their lives right now. Please, right now, pray for Luis and Scott, these two men who are part of my extended family in Jesus. [##While writing this, Connie, Luis’s wife, wrote me to ask for prayer for the rest of her household, as they are all showing symptoms and unable to get tested.##] Then consider how many more we can protect by following our medical experts’ recommendations. We need a plan, such as Germany just introduced, to restart everything cautiously, step by step. Support these plans, not the ones that suggest we could have packed our churches on Easter. We were told that the underestimates we received in January, February, and March when we should have been preparing for the pandemic were due to “optimism.” I believe that it was optimism, as I’ve defined it here.

Followers of Jesus are called to live by faith. We seek to believe the best of people. This is faithfulness. We should not mistake believing the best for optimism, nor for wishful thinking. Having faith is not wishful thinking; wishful thinking is not having faith. We choose to believe in people’s redemption, no matter what they’ve chosen up until now. We do not make up our own preferred reality and attribute that to obeying God. As people of the truth, we confront people living in unreality, as Jesus did, as an act of love. When we’ve seen how people behave, making excuses for–or denying–their poor choices is not “believing the best” of them. When we talk about decisions that put lives at risk, this becomes the wishful thinking that gets people killed.

In general, following Jesus does not mean always valuing caution over taking risks to be obedient. We’re not to protect our own comfort over our neighbors’ lives. However, in our current circumstances, erring on the side of caution does fit with following Jesus because by erring on the side of caution we protect our neighbors’ lives. All our neighbors. If we end the shelter in place too soon, there will be no way to undo this mistake of wishful thinking.

*Some people would be quick to say, “No, the Gospel is that we are totally depraved and have no good in us but God saves us anyway.” In my view, we are created in God’s image and God never stopped loving us or seeing that image in us, even when we warp and twist it. God made us in love and made us to be like Jesus. God still sees that capacity in each of us and God’s spirit works in us to bring that out. That’s how we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

**Yes, there is a time for wishful thinking: Opening Day of the season, when you can still believe your team will win.

When I’ve got nothing

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There are times I have to write while in the midst of the struggle to describe it accurately. You can write a novel about walking on Mars, though you haven’t. You can tell about the dark times when you were depressed years after the fact, when now it’s all sunshine and rainbows. If you’re a good enough writer, you’ll capture the essence of the experience. Yet I’ve learned that writing about hopelessness when I’m hopeful isn’t the same. I’m sure writing about the novel coronavirus pandemic will come across differently when we’re looking back at it in our rearview mirror (God willing).

I’m not writing about the virus tonight, at least not directly. I’m not severely depressed today, but I am flat. I have been for two days now. When I’m depressed, everything requires massive effort, including breathing. Remaining here becomes voluntary and not involuntary behavior.

Flat feels different and can be even harder to explain. I’m not summoning the will to live. But I have nothing. I’ll think about all the things I have to do…and do none of them. Forty-five minutes will pass and I’ll try to figure out why I didn’t just get up when I had the original thought–and then forty-five more minutes will pass.

If you’re thinking, “You just described my entire Shelter in Place experience,” uh-huh. That’s why I’m writing this now. Me, too. I have this right now. But it isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way.

I don’t know why this comes on me. Lack of sleep plays a part, but I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and suffered insomnia most of that time and didn’t hit this flat zone that often. When full depression hits, I don’t have any illusion I could just brush it off and get on with things. But in this experience of flatness I always thing I should be able to will it away. It’s harder to explain, harder to make sense of, harder to allow for, because it doesn’t seem that bad.

But I’ve got nothing.

It took a monumental will and all my daytime hours to start writing this and I like writing my blog.

Some of it, to be honest, I can attribute to taking in a constant stream of depressing-as-hell COVID-19 and this administration news. I wish this administration were handling it better, instead of recurrently acting as if they can wish it away. Reading about increasing death tolls should depress us. We might be soul-dead if it doesn’t. I’m praying for people’s lives, which leaves me drained and sharing in their grief. As it should. I’m also, speaking honestly, pissed off at “protestors” who would block ambulances from getting to hospitals. I think that’s a horrific, criminal act and “disrespect” for our overworked, exhausted medical workers doesn’t even begin to capture it. So yeah, that drains me, too.

But this is also the level of “I can’t quite do what I know I need to do to make this better.” I’ve got nothing and I know that means I need a long walk or a talk with a good friend or a long walk while talking with a good friend. Instead, I’m not doing anything from my personal “this will revitalize you” list. I know I should be. I know it…I know it…and I still don’t.

Prayer feels flat. I don’t believe the most important part of prayer is how I feel before, during, or after prayer. I believe the most important part of prayer is God. Fortunately for me (understatement here), God does not change with my moods. Prayer still counts because God is faithful, even if I struggle to say the words–to say any words–or even to groan beyond words.

But sometimes that wondrous thing, when you grit your teeth and push through a prayer time and somehow God lifts you up on the other end, sometimes that doesn’t happen and on the other end, you’re just as blah as when you went in.

Now I want to be super-duper clear here: I am not feeling sorry for myself. That is what people who do not experience depression often label depression: “You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself.” I’m not. I know how self-pity feels, too, and this ain’t it. I see the people who are struggling for real right now and I am doing fine in comparison. Truly. I’m not starving. I don’t have COVID-19. My wife loves me. I know people I love whose lives have become hell. Mine hasn’t. I’m not imagining that I have it hard right now and if you respond by telling me, “Buck up, Mike, it’ll be okay,” then you’ve missed the point of this post and probably it wasn’t for you, anyway.

Have you ever wondered why the starter in your car won’t turn over? I’m about that automotive, so that’s the extent of my car analogies, but when it goes “rurr–rurr-rrurr…” and won’t roar to life? No spark? It’s that. If you’ve had that, I’m certain you know exactly what I mean.

I’ve got nothing right now. Which means, when you stop to consider it, that I’m pulling off some fancy existential footwork, because I’m writing this right now, when I am flat and my starter won’t start. Again, if your takeaway (or giveaway, to me) is “See! You could do it if you just put your mind to it!” then the Positive Thinkers Overcoming Things with Positive Thoughts Group (PTOTPTG) meets down the street about three blocks. I’m not looking to be cheered up. If you don’t experience what I’m describing, then please hear this< Chirpy, cheery words when I’ve got nothing are like nails on a chalkboard, maybe combined with drinking slightly curdled milk. If you’re looking to help, that is not the way; conversely, if you’re looking to get revenge, this is certainly the way.

Okay, this is the part where I’m supposed to give some wisdom for all of us who deal with having nothing and trying to function on any kind of regular basis. I don’t have a lot to bestow. It passes. Sometimes I snap out of it when something wonderful happens and I’m just awed by the joy of life. Most of the time, I simply outlast it. My pep returns. It doesn’t tell me why it vacated but usually I’m just glad it’s back. But I guess that is a first point: I always outlast it. So do you.

Next, when I’m down I care less and when I care less I make worse decisions. But even though I care less about the consequences when I’m down, I still have to pay full price for those consequences and I don’t enjoy them when the bill comes due. If I do lots of self-destructive stuff while i’m not feeling much of anything, I still pay for all that damage I do myself and I still have to recover and heal and walk back out of it. So, when you’re flat, as much as you can, resist the turn toward “who gives a shit?” Because Future You will give a shit. Future You will have to pay this debt (figurative or literal, depending on if overspending is your preferred method to self-destruct) in full and life will be hard enough on Future You. Have a little compassion on your future self. I’m not saying, “C’mon! It’ll all be fine!” I’m saying you know what a stroll through the landmine field feels like from experience, so don’t walk through there again, just because at the moment you dot’t care whether you get ripped in two. You will care. It’s hard, but try to believe that.

Third and lastly, give yourself a break. You may need medication. You may need sunshine. You may need more chocolate (or, shockingly, less chocolate). But don’t, do not beat yourself up when you’ve got nothing. It only brings you down, which translates to longer that you’ll stay at this state of having nothing. Even if you can whip yourself into a frenzy of guilt, your body or your spirit is trying to tell you something in this flatness. Don’t whip yourself in response. If you can, listen to whatever that is in you. If you can’t, treat yourself as you would a friend who told you, “I just can’t. I’m staring at my screen for the past two hours and I’m stuck here.”

Grace. The word here is grace. Tomorrow may be a better day. Tomorrow may be flat like today and God will love us, anyway. This isn’t fun. Neither is it lazy nor some character flaw. I promise. If you can trust me about anything, trust me about this. Don’t listen to your critics, including–especially–the one in your head. If you’re feeling this Got Nothing for the first time with all this Shelter in Place combo of inaction and helpless anxiety, I’m sorry. It can really feel lousy and disconcerting. Have some grace for yourself. Try to do the minimum damage to yourself. Keep praying, even if it’s just “Jesus help me” or “God have mercy” or “Do something!”

The best news I’ve got for you is that God doesn’t feel about you as you do about yourself right now, not flat nor indifferent nor critical. God still delights in you.

And you’ll care again. In time.

I Was Just Looking for Soap

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[Stephen was the first real friend I made in college. We renewed our friendship in the last few years, for which I’m very grateful. I asked him to share his experience here. Please listen.]

For the first year of my life my family lived in Monterey Park, the Los Angeles suburb that was the heart of the Chinese American community. We didn’t live there for long, as we soon moved about 20 miles east to a newer suburb called Rowland Heights. It was quite literally the end of the 60 Freeway back in those days. It was semi-rural, with cattle drives heading down the dirt road behind our house.  My parents told me that we moved there because they didn’t want me to grow up only having Chinese friends. “We wanted you to be able to interact with anyone you wanted to” is what they said. “We didn’t want you to limit yourself.” 

When I was in elementary school, my father told me a cautionary tale of my life as a baby. My parents went to the supermarket with me in the cart and an older white woman looked at me with eyes of hate and disgust. “You were just a baby,” my father explained. “Who would look at a baby like that?”  Even at that age I understood the point: be wary, be vigilant. 

As children, my parents’ families were active members of the Chinese community of Los Angeles. My dad grew up going to weekly meetings of the benevolent association, a group that represented the social and legal interests of people from our ancestral region in China. They grew up in a world that used Cantonese in addition to English. My father used it in the home when he spoke with his mother, my only close relative who was not born in the United States. I, on the other hand, was given the choice whether I wanted to go to Chinese school or not.  I chose not to because Chinese school was on Saturday, and I wanted to watch cartoons instead. My cousins all made the same choice as me. We were proud of being ABCs — American Born Chinese. We made fun of FOB kids — Fresh Off the Boat. We thought we were better than them — they had accents, didn’t speak English well, and they weren’t American like we were. 

 “We’re gold rush people,” I would explain to friends to proclaim how long my family had been here. What I didn’t realize then was that it didn’t really matter how long my family had been in California, in other people’s eyes we were no different than the immigrant families my cousins and I looked down on. Groups of kids used to throw rocks at me when I walked to the library while calling me racist names. A kid in gym class nicknamed me “Chinkle” and “Nipper.” One day two neighborhood kids stopped me on my bike, blocking me from riding away. “Our mom said you’re a Chinaman,” one of them said. This was a woman I helped out at back to school night, someone I had always treated with respect. Why would she encourage her kids to call me a racist slur? I said nothing in return. Be wary, be vigilant. 

College was an escape from my home and these people. I felt that I could be who I wanted, study what I wanted. I worked as an admissions tour guide. One day I was assigned to a Chinese American woman and her daughter who were looking at the school. We were walking down the central hall of the science building when we stopped at a doorway and looked in a classroom. “What are you doing here?” called a hostile voice. I explained that we were on a tour and continued. When we exited the building, the mother turned to me and said, “That was racist.” I tried to voice an explanation for the man’s behavior and she stopped me. “You know that was racist.” The truth was, I knew she was right. I reported the incident to the Dean of the College. The explanation came back that I was wrong — the man was a valued departmental employee. He did community service. He worked with underprivileged kids. He was concerned for my safety. He couldn’t be racist. I was told that I was wrong. I don’t think the girl ever attended my college. 

I graduated with a degree in African history, a field I entered because I realized I knew nothing about it. I loved learning about history, particularly lessons of identity and access that are applicable in the contemporary world. After graduate school I began a career in teaching at a secondary school in Los Angeles. During my hiring process I kept being called back for multiple interview days. I came to campus at least three times — it was only a year later when I realized that didn’t normally happen. “We were afraid that seventh graders would eat you alive,” said one colleague.  “We thought you would be too meek,” said another. Meek? It was then I realized what they were saying. “Meek” was code. “Oh, you did that because I’m Asian,” I said. They looked shocked. They were shocked because they knew I was right. Be wary, be vigilant. 

Several years later I was asked to interview a man the school was interested in hiring to teach Latin. They were concerned that he might not be suitable to teach middle school. It turned out that he was half-Thai and half-Japanese and was an alumnus of my college. “We think he might be too meek,” said the colleague who had used the same word on me. “Could you go and talk to him?” I met with the guy for 15 minutes and came back — “he’ll be fine,” I said. He’s still teaching Latin there today. 

My parents’ goal was always that I interact with whomever I wanted to and not feel limited — they’re proud that I’ve achieved that objective. I taught history in independent schools for over 20 years. I am now the Head of Middle School at a large K-12 Los Angeles area preparatory school. I lead 60 teachers who are currently teaching our 300 middle schoolers remotely because of COVID-19. 

There are few Asian Americans in upper administrative jobs in independent schools, so I have achieved something that is relatively uncommon — I’ve gone beyond the bamboo ceiling. 

I’ve been working from home since mid-March, abiding by our stay-at-home regulations and watching too much news. Two weeks ago I made a rare outing to Target. I was in the soap aisle when I glanced up and realized that someone was staring at me. At the end of the aisle stood an older white woman, unmistakable hostility burning in her eyes. That same afternoon I was walking my dog around the corner from my house. Again, I had the feeling that someone was staring. A woman stood next to her car watching me while I turned the corner, even crossing the road to see where I was going. In both cases, I was not doing anything unusual. Be wary, be vigilant.

This is the insidious nature of racism. It can appear when you least expect it. Lately the reports of violence and harassment against Asian Americans due to Covid-19 caused me to think about how being an ABC with a couple of graduate degrees is no shield from bigotry and xenophobia. Over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed that my tendency to be wary and vigilant has kicked in. It’s 2020 and I no longer feel safe walking out in the open on city streets.  I have never felt this in my life before, but I just feel too exposed — what if someone hurled racial slurs at me? Or confronted me? Or worse? My parents’ admonitions still resonate, now more than ever. 


Drawn for Stephen by one of his students. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but having yourself cartoonized is right up there.

Stephen Chan

Head of Middle School

Middle School Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion

Viewpoint School

Simple Paradox on Easter

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We got up and gathered around the laptop for Easter. A couple of us dressed up, a couple of us didn’t comb our hair. We attended our church’s online service with cats quarreling, dogs wrestling, and siblings…living in perfect harmony. Obviously.

Since we have functioned as one household with Kim’s sister and her three daughters, we had a full living room. Coffee. Spilled cereal. Spilled cereal again, leading to a change of clothes.

You know, normal Sunday church.

Afterward, we sang a hymn together, “Christ the Lord has Risen Today,” that we recorded so we could send the video to my mom.

Now we’ve moved to coloring eggs, doing “bubble socks,” and spraying sparkle in one another’s hair. Soon we’ll have an egg hunt–tweeners, teens, maybe a twenty-year-old searching–and then go to Kim’s other sister’s house, the one who has a new baby and a four-year-old, where we’ll sit on their porch while they stay in their living room and have dessert “together”… with a pane of glass between us.

I didn’t preach. That used to be a normal thing for me on Easter, but not this year. Maybe next year.

I’m guessing that those of you who do church on Easter did it differently than you have before. People always joke about how “normal” is just a setting on the dryer and there is no “normal” life, but there are customs and habits, accustomed traditions and even liturgy…and most of us are either adapting and adjusting or else shrugging our shoulders and letting it go this year. “Wait ’til next year.” We all sound like Cubs fans, pre-2016.

Dear Ones, this is a bizarre year. Very few of us have experienced anything like this before. It’s a chance to feel empathy for people who live their lives immunocompromised. An ultimate player friend who is also a cancer survivor shared about how she felt going through the world in a mask, how uncomfortable and awkward it was for her, how people reacted to her so much differently. Since many of us are wearing them now, we don’t have as much a feeling of being the odd and outcast one. But this is an opportunity to recognize that these inconveniences and difficulties we’re suffering now–including not being able to work–have been some people’s experience all along.

In a life suddenly constrained, we have so many choices. Many of them are internal choices. Whether you are climbing the walls or embracing uninterrupted introversion (finally!), this is a chance to breathe deeply and consider others. In fact, to think about how this affects others and not only ourselves is one of our biggest choices.

“Mike, this is nice talk but how is this Easter talk? Where’s the stone rolled away and the empty tomb? Where is Resurrection?”

The center of Easter is Jesus’ choosing to think of us instead of himself.

As a mentor of mine always stressed, we can’t get to Resurrection without going through crucifixion. We can’t skip Friday and go straight to Sunday. We know Resurrection because Jesus accepted suffering that didn’t have to be his. Jesus thought of us instead of only himself.

I think everything I’ve learned about following Jesus turns out to be a dynamic tension, a paradox I’m learning to embrace and live into rather than needing to solve. Take Grace, for example.

Grace means that though I deserve none of it, God cares about us, individually. You matter to God. I matter to God. Following Jesus means that my life isn’t just about me–or even primarily about me. God loves me special because I’m a precious child of the most high; Jesus teaches me to love other people at the same level that I love myself, to love my enemies and to give of myself. The core of the Gospel teaches that I know love when I am loving, that I experience grace when I show grace, and that selfishness is suicide. Do you see how counter-intuitive that is? Seeking to do everything for self destroys self. What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our souls? Nothing.

Right now, most of us have fewer opportunities to serve others than we normally can. If we’re practicing shelter in place, we have fewer options.* But I think it’s more important right now than almost ever that we refuse to let our world become about us (or else to repent of having already made our world only about us). I mean we do that for the sake of others and for our own sake.

The power of Jesus’ resurrection is that we are set free from the selfishness that would destroy us and set free to love others–which, I’ve experienced, is the only way I can learn to love myself. Love others as you love yourself, but also, until you love others, you can’t really love yourself. Yet until you love yourself, you won’t be able to love others.

“But which is it, Mike? Which one comes first?”

It’s a paradox. I’m following Jesus, and Jesus is teaching me to love myself, and Jesus is calling me to love you so that I can love myself. They’re inseparable. If I try to do only one or the other, I damage myself.

We have choices, right now. Turn inward or look outward. Feel sorry for ourselves or grow through newfound empathy. Become fearful and self-protective or extend ourselves for others in their isolation. Hoard or share. The non-profits and ministries and missions and churches that exist through people’s generosity are in danger of dying, right now, and therefore all the people suffering poverty of losing the love-in-action those organizations provide. It’s maybe more important now than ever to be generous. When we fear that we don’t have enough for ourselves, we’re tempted to grasp more tightly. But Jesus calls us to something different: “Seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Happy Easter. It’s different, yes, but the Gospel is the same. We have choices to follow Jesus. They might look different this year, but they’re the same paradox they’ve always been: give to receive, empty to be filled, love God and others to love ourselves.

*Yet staying home is serving others.

I Did Better Last Pandemic

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[Art by commission from my brilliant nieces.]

[NOTE: This first half is a work of satire. If you like this kind of humor and it helps you let yourself off the hook, keep reading. If you receive grace better through gentle reasoning, read this. Or just skip to the end.]


The last time a novel virus swept through the world, I was on top of it.

I’m not doing as well this time.

The last time I saw these graphs with lines arching upwards, indicating more people dying, I didn’t feel all this anxiety. When I got messages from friends telling me they couldn’t work and wondering how they would pay rent, I absorbed it. When people with depression and addictions told me they’d lost their good structure and support systems, I took it all in.

Last time around, I learned French and Russian. I thought those would help most, because I also learned ballet. I picked up the cello, but then thought better of it and started playing the harp, instead. More soothing. I did better last time.

I ate so healthily last time. I didn’t consume ice cream. I didn’t have seconds on ice cream. I didn’t start spiking my ice cream. I ate broccoli. I learned to like celery. I started pressing my own acai juice. I grew my own acai palm trees, which isn’t easy since palm trees generally don’t grow here. I don’t want to exaggerate, but last time, when it was over, I had to throw away all our chips and chocolate, unopened, because they had expired.

My inner peace went off the charts last time. When I got news of extremely vulnerable populations who might suffer catastrophically, I simply found my center, breathed deeply, and sent out good thoughts. It really wasn’t a problem.

If memory serves, last time around our kids were younger and required more attention and I provided perfect homeschooling lessons, two hours of brain-stimulating physical activity every day, and taught them to sing in four-part harmony. “Harmony” was really our theme last time. I remember thinking, after the first month, “Wow, I can’t remember the last time they squabbled. Or even disagreed. Or even spoke impolitely.” I’m telling you, the last time the world shut down, we really took it in stride. And we did a lot of striding–around and around our 1400 square feet–and barely looked at screens at all. If at all. Maybe we never did? Perhaps just for homeschooling.

Here’s a difference I really remember from last time: when the predictions and guidelines and restrictions and timelines kept changing, we rolled with it (Baby). All that change and uncertainty didn’t really ruffle us, for some reason.

One last thing I just know we handled better last time was all our plans. Sure, we had a beautiful vacation all booked plus several beloved friends had plane tickets to come see us, but I think we just randomly guessed something was coming and cancelled right in time to get a full refund on everything, plus our friends all set to work writing great novels or textbooks or painting masterpieces–one of them wrote a symphony, if memory serves–and we actually congratulated ourselves for having them contribute to humankind rather than merely visiting us.

I can’t quite put my finger on why the last worldwide pandemic didn’t get to me the way this one has. Perhaps I just need higher expectations.

I’m going to go work on teaching the cats Russian now.



Satire isn’t really my native language (though sarcasm is). I do enjoy The Onion but sometimes it’s too painful for me.

The purpose of satire, of course, is to make us see through something false or ridiculous by taking it to a logical extreme.

We’re living through a freaking pandemic. It’s stressful and overwhelming and no one planned for our society to come to a screeching halt. We’re going to be okay, in the big picture. I say that by faith. I’m not afraid, I’m not freaking out, but I do feel anxiety and dread pooling in my chest and I have to find ways to vent them again. And again. Reading the news does the opposite.

So I’m trying to find the balance of staying informed without driving myself crazy, offering support without getting swamped myself, staying busy and productive without condemning myself for not doing more.

No one is a perfect parent and sure as shooting no one is a perfect parent during a pandemic. (Say that three times fast.) If you have some good moments with your kids, you’re doing fine. Even if you have some bad moments with your kids–as we all do–you’re doing fine. Repentance doesn’t require beating yourself up. The Father of the Prodigal Son doesn’t rub it in. He embraces. You are loved and you are doing fine and if--okay, let’s say even though–you’ve screwed up, you are not condemned.

You. Are. Loved.

As I told a friend recently, I’ve been learning to give myself grace for over thirty years and have made it my central focus the last six or so. Living in Nicaragua, trying to love people suffering poverty when I felt so unqualified and incompetent, razed my belief in how I earned my worth with God.* That process hurt, a lot, but freed me to know God’s unconditional love much more. It was worth the pain.

Ready for this? Even giving ourselves grace, accepting ourselves as imperfect (and sinful) and believing God loves us anyway, takes time. It takes patience and gentleness with ourselves because we keep trying to revert back to “but I should have,” “but I could have,” “why didn’t I?” Giving ourselves grace takes grace. We aren’t perfect at accepting ourselves as imperfect, at believing that God can love us in our imperfect state. But God does. Jesus showed us. God tells us all the time. That’s what Easter means. Resurrection is God’s love for imperfect us. God loves us and gives us life.

In one way, this might appear the hardest time to learn grace. “Let me try it when everything isn’t so stressful and looks like it’s falling apart, when I don’t feel so helpless.” But my lesson was, exactly when I feel helpless is when I can best learn grace. Because I know I need it right now.

Beating yourself up will not make you handle this pandemic better. It won’t make you parent better or learn great hobbies. Living by grace can help you handle this crisis, and everything else in your life, by freeing you to do what you can and accepting your limitations.

God is pleased with you and loves you right now. In fact, God delights in you. As you are.

Whether or not you learn ballet in Russian.

PS If you are learning new things, starting projects, and getting creative, wonderful! I’m not making fun of you, I promise. We all must find our own best ways to cope.

*I would not have said I was earning anything with God before that. I knew how to sound like I believed in grace. I did believe in it, to a degree. But I also believed in my own ability to earn my oxygen.

I’m NOT Freaking Out

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[Kelsey, chillin’ on a wall.]

Yesterday, someone misinterpreted a jest I made and scolded me for “freaking out.”

I’m not.

Being me, I spent the day scrutinizing this criticism. The person might have been projecting. She might–suspend disbelief for a moment, if you will–simply not have not appreciated my sense of humor. Or it’s entirely possible she, putting it delicately, wasn’t being nice. I don’t have to fix that.

But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me I need to say this:

I’m not freaking out.

I’m not panicking over our current crisis. I am employing dark humor sometimes, absolutely. I’m always willing to identify and examine our absurdities. I’m critiquing our leaders’ handling of this crisis, particularly when they put lives at risk and/or devalue our most vulnerable neighbors.

But, as I said in my very first post about COVID-19 and as remains true now, I’m not wired to spin out and I believe God is present with us through this.

I want to be clear: many things are horribly difficult right now and I’m not minimizing those. I’m having multiple conversations each day to help talk people down. I’m praying for a lot of people. Things remain uncertain and life for many of us may get much more difficult before it gets better. I’m not sugarcoating this.

I’m not rooting my refusal to freak out in denial. I get it. I get it more than I wish I got it and I get it for people who have been suffering while we’ve been comfortable, long before this pandemic started. From the first moment I grasped what was happening with this novel coronavirus, I tried my best to convince people to take it seriously and isolate to help flatten the curve.

I can’t make you stay calm. I can’t make you stay home. I’m not even going to tell you that God will keep anything bad from happening to you or to the people you love, because that has not been my experience of following Jesus. I’m not here to give you false hope.

But for whatever small influence I have in a few people’s lives, please hear this: God loves us. Right now. God remains faithful. God never promised that our political or economic system would keep running the way we hope. Jesus is with us and today, in our current circumstance, we choose to have faith, to believe in God’s love.

While panicking is not the opposite of loving our neighbors, it certainly will detract from loving our neighbor. I say this with all humility and gentleness: we may be used to having things go our way. We–and I do mean me as well as you–get frustrated when small things don’t work out as we expect them to, possibly because we assume that things should. For most of us, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) has not been a literal request. I don’t suggest that says anything bad about us; it means we’ve been very fortunate. But if we move to the idea that billions of others do pray that literally but we never should have to, we have a wrong understanding of our faith. You and I still have enough bread to share.

Kelsey with his parents at the new Denis Martinez Stadium.

Today I got a message from Kelsey, a young man from Nicaragua now living in the States. I got to mentor and coach Kelsey for years and–between you and me–he’s one of my favorite human beings. His life hasn’t gone smoothly since he moved here a few years ago. He has not “caught a break,” as our mutual friend Hery said.* But he just wrote to tell me that he again has part-time work and he also gets to drive a pregnant woman and her husband, who are Congolese, to the hospital and back because now they can’t afford Uber. They’ve been in the U.S. for four months. Kelsey said, “I’m trying to help out the community as much as I can during these times. Thankfully, I’m now in a position that I can help others out and I’m so blessed.”

We have a choice. We don’t have to consider others who have it worse right now. We can choose to focus exclusively on our own troubles and decide that everybody else will just have to take care of themselves. But I truly believe that will do us more harm than good. Jesus asks us to see beyond ourselves, to trust that God will meet our needs and to continue to offer what we can. Jesus challenges us to have faith instead of giving in to fear. Fear means hoarding and panicking, being willing to neglect or even harm our neighbors to guard what’s ours. Perfect love casts out all fear. That means when I am afraid, I have a choice. This is the very first verse I ever memorized:


“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise. In God I trust, I will not be afraid. What can a mortal do to me?”

When I am afraid, which happens now, in frightening times with a pandemic spreading and people dying in increasing numbers, I will trust, I will choose to trust in God. I get to choose.

Nothing that people do, and I’ll stretch and say nothing a pandemic can do, can shake the core of my being unless I choose to let it. It may kill me and I’ll still be okay.** I can hold onto peace within me while a whirlwind ravages all around me. I’ve prayed that verse for thirty-two years now. I’m not saying I’ve never been shaken. Ha. I’m saying I’ve learned to trust the truth of this verse. I get a choice and the choice I make changes my inner world and, through that, my external actions. These decisions change me. Jesus changes me.

I don’t have a panic-inclined personality. But much more than that, knowing Jesus keeps me from freaking out. I believe this grace stuff. I believe love is stronger than death. I believe that how we care for one another matters more than the stuff we accumulate. I believe God’s Kingdom comes, here and now, when we refuse to give in to fear and choose to love our frightened and more vulnerable neighbors. I am still figuring out how I can do that in a pandemic while sheltering at home (which I recognize is both the right thing to do and an enormous privilege I have). Thus far, I offer encouragement and a place for people to vent their fears, ask for prayer, and hear words of hope. In other words, I’m just doing what I do.

Because I’m not freaking out.

I would conclude there, but I want to add this: Someone may be saying, “That’s fine for you, Mike, but I don’t believe in that Jesus stuff.” If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I’m not forcing this on you (come to think of it, I didn’t make you read this far…but I’m glad you did). I offer you what I know and have experienced, what has changed me and saved my life. This could be a good time to try praying for the first time–or the first time in a long time. You can ask me for prayer, just in case, and not believe in any of this. I’m not insulted and I will pray for you. But most importantly, God loves you, right now, whatever you choose to believe. If no one else tells you that today, I’m glad I could.

*I’ve tried to convince Kelsey to move out here at least twice since he came to the States, but he also has faith and isn’t freaking out and keeps saying “No, Coach, God has me.” He’s right.

**That’s the core of following Jesus. It may sound ridiculous if you don’t believe it, but it makes all the difference.

Gratitude or Guilt?

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[Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend, Krista, on the subject of how we deal with guilt over all we have that others don’t.]

Krista: “I don’t know how to handle this. My family is fine (although ask me about all the weird medical drama we’ve had this month) and I just don’t know how to think when I know so many people are going through SO much worse. It almost feels wrong to be grateful in that situation. A little like the rich man with the poor man at his gate.” Luke 16:19-31

Mike “You know, Krista, I had to think carefully about which things to name that I’m grateful for, because some things sound really bad to give thanks for when I know other people don’t have them. It’s akin to naming ‘blessings’ that God has given us that other people don’t have, because it starts to sound like we believe God loves us by giving us material things and therefore doesn’t love other people as much. Very dangerous theological rabbit trail.  
But not being grateful for things means either feeling guilty for what we have–destructive, unless we’re acting on that by giving it away (when possible)–or taking what we have for granted. Also very bad for our souls.  
I’ve learned there’s a serious level of humility involved in being grateful, when we recognize that other people don’t have the things on our list. If we don’t have humility, then it’s not really gratitude; it’s a belief that we deserve what we have (and others deserve to not have what they don’t have). That’s what I was addressing in the last post, ‘Accustomed.'”

Krista: “I think I know ‘enough’ about how little others have (if we ever do). And I guess that’s the word I was missing. ‘Guilty.’ I feel guilty that we have so much even if we’re almost poor by American standards. We have zero of the struggles that your friends in Nicaragua have.”

Mike “I had the same struggle writing it. Hard to face how much others are suffering. Denial is easy. I suspect that’s why some people don’t always care for my writing. (There are probably other issues, as well.) It’s not like I enjoy those feelings, either, but I think facing them and responding is part of seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. 
Here’s my take on guilt: God has provided what we have. That both makes me responsible to share and eases the anguish that I shouldn’t have any of this when others don’t. I think everyone has to work out how to reconcile those things.  
Conviction ALWAYS means God has some way for me to respond. Guilt with NO way to respond is not from God. If I’m wallowing in my guilt, that makes me less able to walk with Jesus, not more. Facing guilt means asking ‘How do I repent?’ There may not be a direct action to take this instant, but I can pray and God will lead me how to respond. 2 Corinthians 7:8-10

I think the poles are both dangerous:

Either 1)God gave me this, so I’m content even though others are suffering and miserable, and it was God’s decision so I don’t have to do anything about it. Why should I feel bad when God did it?
Or 2)I can’t receive what I have with gratitude and feel peace because I know others are going without, but I’m not acting on that, either, just tormenting myself over my abundance.
Since we’re REALLY wading into this–this whole thing should be a blog post–I also suspect that some people pay their guilt as penance, i.e. reconcile that they have so much by perpetually feeling bad for it. I really want to challenge that position, because to me it misses both points–praising God for our daily bread AND acting on my conviction to share from my abundance.

I think I’m just going to go ahead and collect this into a post now, since it’s already written and all. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts, Friend!”

Krista: “Thanks for helping me put words to what I’m feeling. That’s not easy for me.”

Sometimes–maybe a little more often than that–time on social media can feel like a meaningless diversion or even a waste. But there are exceptions. This convo was one.

Paul, addressing the church in Corinth, writes:

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. 2 Corinthians 7:8-10

For me, this passage provides the measuring stick for my guilt. If we feel “godly grief,” meaning grief or guilt or conviction that God’s spirit evokes in us (your conscience, the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other, however you envision this), it produces repentance. That means: 1. I can see clearly that I’m doing something wrong,

2. I can act in some way to stop doing that wrong, turn around, and start in the other direction (the literal meaning of “repent” is “a change in direction”).

If we think of sin as acting against our design and thus doing something that damages us, and if we understand that God loves us and does not want us to damage ourselves, then we see godly grief as necessary to prevent much more severe self-destruction. This is why the movement to throw away all guilt, as if any guilty feelings themselves were the real problem, is a doomed experiment.

The rich man stepping over Lazarus at the gate should have felt horrible. That horrible feeling is the alarm bell that I’m doing wrong and hurting myself. Yes, I really think that in this picture, the rich man keeping all his wealth to himself, leaving Lazarus to starve and have the dogs lick his sores, that man is hurting himself in the present, not only because he will face judgment later. I just don’t believe in the “If only we could get away with it, sin would be more fun” view of the world. That rich man had to deaden the compassion within himself to ignore Lazarus, which in turn deadened a portion of his heart. When we see people capable of doing and saying heartless, evil things without remorse, with neither hesitation nor a second thought, we’re seeing the fruit of refusing to act on godly grief, refusing to repent, and paying the consequences. That person has damaged himself by warping the image of God in himself. We know it when we see it.

Coming full circle, guilt and gratitude will not be in conflict within us when we give thanks for everything we have as a gift–humility in gratitude, not pride–and see these gifts as opportunities to share. Of course, that’s the ideal and we all struggle within the everyday mess and struggle. Sometimes we feel guilty because we were taught to feel guilt and shame over things that really are fine (Quick! Name three for yourself!) and not just fine, but life-giving. Sometimes we know we are being selfish and greedy but don’t want to hear that voice telling us, so we cover that voice with anger or fear or justification (or another drink). We’re messy people and none of this is perfect.

But just because we mess up a lot does not change that God loves us and likes us and patiently leads us toward life instead of death, toward joy and compassion and sharing instead of bitterness and self-centeredness and greed. We’re in this crazy crisis right now and it’s hard to see how to give and share, even in our “normal” ways. But I’m convinced we can still become bigger, more compassionate, more loving-godly people in the midst of this. Most of us do have more time to pray. We can look around and ask God for guidance in how to love right now. We need to remember what we have to be grateful for right so that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. When we remember what we have, we also remember what others do not have. That’s not an opportunity to get out the self-flaggelation whip. It is a moment both to give thanks and to offer, “How can I help?”