Cheap Faith


It happened again this week, more than once. Single patients told me about their strong commitments to their faith and then followed their professions with requests for Viagra prescriptions. As is almost always the case their requests were made unaware of the contradictions they represented. I am always tempted to ask, “How is it that a devout single man such as yourself finds himself in need of Viagra?”

I see such inconsistencies almost every week. I see “Christians” who abuse alcohol, cohabitate, work under the table to avoid taxes, or get divorced for no other reason than “I’m unhapp!”. It seems that our culture has embraced a new kind of Christianity, a kind that does not cost a person anything.

I was discussing this phenomenon this week with some friends and one of my favorite Bible stories came to mind. It can be found in 2 Samuel 24. In the passage King David is following God’s instruction to raise an altar and offer a sacrifice at a specific location, the place were a man named Araunah threshed his wheat. One can only imagine the surprise when Araunah looked up from his labors to see King David and his entourage approaching!

Upon hearing of David’s mission, Araunah responded as a faithful servant should. Araunah offered to give David his own oxen for the sacrifice, as well as their yokes for the firewood. David’s response is priceless, “No! I insist on paying you for it. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” David understood there was no such thing as a free sacrifice.

It seems that too many nowadays are into offering things to the Lord that do not cost anything. It is as if some are saying, “Faithfulness? Fidelity? Moral Purity? No way, God! Those things are costly. How about I give you a few Sunday mornings a month and put a few bucks in the plate every once in a while?”

The truth is that God does not negotiate the terms of our obedience. As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Self-denial is not optional in following Christ. It is mandatory. It is essential.

While many professed Christians do not seem to understand this truth, I think most non-Christians do. They understand that the genuineness of our faith is measured by the consistency our actions, not by the passion of our words. When they see people living lives that are the same as everyone else, they appropriately conclude that for many church is little more than a religious social club.

I want to be better. I want to follow God with my whole heart, whatever the cost. After over 40 years of pursuing my faith I have learned that this is indeed an expensive proposition. Hardly a day goes by that I am not saying “No” to something I initially want to do. I am constantly challenging myself to be patient and kind, to bite my tongue, or dismiss a malicious thought. It can be exasperating. I have such a long way to go and so much work to do.

There is a tremendous amount of energy I need to invest in denying myself and following God. True faith is indeed costly.

It is costly, but I have also come to understand that in the long-term, the return on investment is AMAZING.


Late to a Funeral


Fifteen minutes late, I quietly slid into the back pew. The service was well under way and the pastor was over halfway through his reading of my deceased patient’s biography. “Oh well”, I thought, “at least I made it!”

I almost didn’t. The funeral was at 2:30 and I had spent the first part of the day at Disneyland with my family. Lisa and I had been invited to share the Saturday with my son and his family. There was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to be with my grandson. As Charlie is only 2, I figured he wouldn’t last that long and that the 2:30 funeral start time would not be a problem. I took my suit along in the car thinking that we would be done in plenty of time for me to make it.

I was mistaken. Charlie had greater than expected endurance and he did not run out of gas until after 2. When we exited the bus in the parking lot and headed for our car, it was 2:28. I wondered if I should skip the service, thinking that it would be disrespectful to be so late. I also wondered if it would matter to the family whether or not I was there at all.

Something inside made me feel like I needed to go. I checked google maps and saw that it was only an eleven-minute drive from the Toy Story lot to the funeral home. “I’ll drive so you can change in the car,” Lisa offered, and my decision was made. I slipped into the passenger seat, grabbed my clothes from the back seat and transformed into a quick-change artist. My clothes were on and my tie was tied by the time we arrived at the funeral chapel. I found the entrance, stopped to sign my name at the bottom of the guest book, and found my seat.

As is so often the case, I learned many new things about my patient from the service. I had only known him as a debilitated man with heart failure and diabetes. He was so much more. Listening to his life story and watching the slideshow I learned of a muscular man who loved to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors. He had built a business and a family, and he loved his grandchildren.

When the service concluded, we were excused by rows, starting from the back. The family waited up front as we all lined up to express our condolences. I was fourth in line and watched as the wife, also my patient, greeted the other mourners. The hugs exchanged were brief, as were the words shared. Until she saw me.

He eyes widened as I approached, then filled with tears. “You came!”

Her composure broke as she reached out her arms and embraced me. She held me tight, her head on my shoulder, and began to cry. Up until seeing me, she had been in total control. I returned her embrace, all the while wondering why it was me that had brought such a response.

After a moment, she gathered herself and relaxed her embrace. She took me by the hand and said, “You have to meet my kids.”

Her adult children were standing behind her. She pulled me to them saying, “This is Dr. Barrett.” Their faces softened in recognition of my name. It was clear that they had heard of me and knew who I was. I wondered what they had heard, and why I was the subject of conversation at all. I shook their hands, first the son’s and then the daughter’s. His handshake was brief, hers was not. She firmly held my hand in both of hers and with tear-filled eyes thanked me for taking good care of her dad.

“I know that because of you he lived long enough to see his grandchildren,” she said, “Thank you.” I did not know what too say. I couldn’t think of any particular treatment or diagnosis that justified her belief. I knew that I had loved her dad and done my best for him, but I did not feel comfortable being credited in such a way. I nevertheless mustered a feeble “thank you, it was my pleasure,” before turning away to allow others to offer comfort.

I exited the chapel stunned. I was totally unaware of how much I meant to the family, of how much my presence at the service was going to matter. My interactions with the man had always been brief, only rarely more than 15 minutes. How could I be so important?

It seems that I had underestimated the power of caring. While his conditions were not cured, his concerns were heard, his quality of life occasionally improved. He was not a heart patient to me, he was a man. Seeing him that way had made more of a difference than I could have imagined. Apparently, there are times when caring is as important as providing good care.

It is humbling to realize how close I came to missing out on the blessing given me by the family. They gave me much more than I gave them.


The Sins of our Past


The world has changed dramatically. Things that were once accepted will now ruin your life. I remember reading joke books that belonged to my dad. He had many “official” joke books, each making fun of a different group- Irish people, Italian people, black people, Jews, Mexicans and Poles. I read them all, some more than once. I laughed, blissfully unaware that the jokes would hurt anyone. (How could they? They were jokes.)

Thank God this was before the internet and social media. There is no doubt in my mind that if it had been possible, I would have posted some of the jokes online. The thought that this might later ruin my life would never have occurred to me. Even today, very few teens post with thoughts of the future.

Carson King definitely did not,

Carson King is a 24 year-old fan of the Iowa State Cyclones football team. After hearing that ESPN’s College Game Day show was going to be at the school for its weekly broadcast he decided to make a funny sign in the hope that he would be seen on TV. He chose his place behind the hosts well, and his sign, “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” with his Venmo account ID, was easily seen on the show.

To his surprise, people starting sending in money. Lots of money. When the amount reached $600 he concluded it was too much for him to keep and he decided to donate the money to the University of Iowa Children’s hospital. The money kept coming. Within days the story had gone viral, and thousands of dollars poured in. Anheiser-Busch got in on the action, offering to match every dollar donated, as well as putting Carson’s face on a line of beer cans, and giving him a year’s supply of beer. Venmo also offered to match the donations. Before long Carson had raised well over a million dollars.

Carson was soon a local hero, with many praising his kindness and generosity. He was universally hailed as a nice guy, online and on television. As his fame increased, the Des Moines register commissioned a reporter to write a story profiling Carson. As part of his “research” the reporter searched Carson’s Twitter feed, going back all the way to when he was 16 years old. Unremarkably, he found that teen Carson had made some inappropriate jokes. For some reason the paper decided these 8 year-old tweets were important enough to be included in the story about the good he had done.

The response was swift. Anheiser-Busch cut all ties. The special Carson King beer was pulled from production, and all promotions related to Carson were terminated. Carson’s humble apology was not enough to keep the beer company from running from potential controversy. They could not be “associated” with someone like him.

Fortunately, Carson’s story did not end there. A local beer company is producing an “Iowa Legend” beer, donating $1 per bottle to the hospital. Private donations have continued, totaling over $2 million dollars. Angry supporters of King delved into the reporter’s past social media posts. The reporter was fired after it was discovered that he had also posted offensive tweets when he was young.

The story is a reminder of an important truth- no one is perfect. We are all broken and sinful people; we all have done things that were ignorant and stupid. None of us wants to be defined by our past mistakes. With this in mind, we need to do everything we can to avoid defining others by their past.

It seems that many of the people in Iowa have embraced this. Carson was recently honored at a University of Iowa football game (the stadium is overlooked by the tower of the Children’s Hospital), the governor of Iowa declared a “Carson King Day”. Support for Carson has actually increased since the revelations of his past indiscretions.

I want to be that type of person, one who focuses on who a person is now more than who a person was before. I often tell people that one of the hallmarks of my faith is the truth that God is more interested in where I am and where I am going, not in where I have been. God forgave my past and redeemed my future. When I embrace this truth, I realize I cannot follow Him and focus on other people’s past failings. I must forgive.



A Dream Dies


For only the third time in 4 years, I am not on call for Ethics at Hoag Hospital. The first time was in April when I was on vacation in Tennessee. (I continued to take calls on my other vacations). The second time was after my surgery in August. This time is different. This time it is permanent.

I have been grieving over it for the last week, ever since I sent my letter of resignation to the Chief of Staff. I didn’t want to quit, but circumstances made it impossible for me to continue. I have been responding to consult requests since becoming the Ethics Chairman in 2015. While the volume of calls was only occasionally stressful, when the calls did come they usually resulted in 3-4 hours of work added to my day. Some cases were more demanding, and over the course of a week could result in over 15 hours of work. The reality that a call could come at any time brought additional stress,

I did not want to do the work alone, but my pleas for help were not answered. I labored on, hoping that eventually the quality and impact of my work would generate support. As is often the case, words of support came, but actual help did not.

What saddens me most is not that my efforts were not recognized, or that the help did not come. I grieve for the patients and families who will go without help, for the suffering that will be needlessly prolonged, for the conflicts that will drag on longer than they should, and the belief that I could have made a difference.

A wave of sadness passed over me when I took myself off call this evening, There is so much more I wanted to do. I wanted to have weekly rounds with nurses and physicians so we could identify potential problems earlier and provide more support for families. I hoped to train others in how to perform ethics consults, to train nurses and physicians in how to better communicate with patients and families and to educate community members in how to better communicate with medical providers. I shared these ideas to as many leaders as I could, wrote proposals and gave presentations, all of which were ultimate ignored.

I don’t like to admit defeat, but this was a fight I could not win. For now I will take solace in the knowledge that I did the best I could and the hope that God has other things in store for me to do,