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Behind the numbers are actual people.

I don’t sell lots of books by most standards. Actual people, however, at times of curiosity or need do order what I’ve collected, and I’m grateful.

A year ago, in the month before funerals changed, I released a book about how to lead funerals and memorial services. (Here’s more about the book.) It has samples and steps and encouragement.

When I wrote it, I wanted to help people prepare to lead funerals in the future, but I particularly wanted to have a resource for those who have never led a service and have a couple days to get ready. In those moments, you can’t wait for a book to arrive, but you can use Kindle to download a copy. And you can use Kindle Unlimited to read it for free.

I get sales reports. Paperback and ebook orders are listed by number of books. I don’t know whether or not the purchaser ever actually reads the book. However, when someone orders using Kindle Unlimited, I see a list of the number of pages read.

By the way, I never see names for any of these (which is why I make general requests for reviews. If I knew who you were, I’d ask you directly (actually, I wouldn’t. I’m too shy for that.)).

Sometimes, during Advent and Lent for example, there are a few pages a day, as people read the daily readings. Occasionally, however, there will be a big spike in pages. Those spikes are most often connected to Giving a Life Meaning, the funeral book.

Though I don’t know for sure, I’m guessing that someone somewhere has never led a service and has a couple days to get it ready. They search Amazon, see this book, download it, and read quickly through it, looking for help.

Each time that happens, I smile, sometimes ask God to help them, and hope that they found the help they need in my words. And it’s a reminder to you and me that helping people one at a time in moments when they are helping others through difficult times is worthwhile.

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What can you say when someone’s loved one has died?

“What’s wrong?” we ask a coworker who looks stunned after a phone call.

“My mom just died.”

It’s a moment that can leave us speechless. Or maybe it should. Because we feel a need to fill the space (and our discomfort) with words. We start fixing and telling and offering and answering.

My colleagues and I are in those moments every day, standing with families and friends by the bed of a loved one who has died. As hospital chaplains, we have learned that usually, the most helpful thing to do is simply to be present and be quiet.

Across time, I started learning some of the things that can be helpful to say eventually. I listened to what people were saying and responded.

In This Is Hard: What I Say When Loved Ones Die, I gathered those responses into a small book that can be given to someone in those hard moments to take with them and read. I also added some journaling prompts that can help with processing over the days and weeks following the death.

If you are responsible for caring for people at those really hard moments, as a chaplain or pastor or healthcare worker, having some on hand to share would make sense. I know of one hospital system starting to use it that way. It’s also helpful for people who have conversations with loved ones and need some ideas of what to say. Another chaplain is sharing it with several nurses in that context.

So you can see what I say, and get ideas right away, you can read the book at

This isn’t a comprehensive resource on grief and loss. But in the first moments, we don’t need a research book. We need friendly, quiet words. And that’s what I try to do.

This Is Hard: What I Say When Loved Ones Die,

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More than just weather

In the middle days of Twitter, a hashtag started in Fort Wayne. #callitoff was the tweeted cry of high school students begging Curtis Smith to include enough snow in the weather forecast to call off school the next day. It was a pretty powerful social media experiment. It gave students a chance to connect with the guy on the TV.

Curtis left TV for Parkview Health. He emceed events fundraising events in the community and at Parkview. Eventually, as Corporate Director for Community Engagement, chaplaincy and volunteers began reporting to him. He became my boss’s boss.

In March, 2020, a bunch of people wished that #callitoff would work with the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Instead, Curtis lead a team that created a daily video program called The Daily Dose.

As many coworkers began working from home, and as we all were wondering what was happening, the daily video, anchored by Curtis, was a way to connect. There were interviews with top leaders and front-line workers. There were conversations with co-workers from all of our hospitals, and from every department. There were links to resources that would help with food, with answers, with policies. And there was always, at the end, a brief prayer from one of our Parkview chaplains.

The tech room in our conference center was turned into a control room. The room where banquets used to happen became a video set (and a place for packing meals). And the show ran for 10 months.

As we worked together, I began to learn about the hosting skills and the heart of the guy I’d only ever seen on a TV screen. His socks were a highlight, as was his interest in the people he talked with. I was grateful for his compassion and his humility. And we shared a couple hard moments, like the one he talks about in the Foreword.

When it came time to put this collection of prayers and reflections together, I asked Curtis to write the Foreword, since he had heard all of my Daily Dose prayers already. He graciously agreed.

He’s moved from Parkview to Crosswinds, an organization that helps teens and families across Indiana. He’s helping them tell their story. I’m grateful that he’s part of my story.


For Curtis’s Foreword and the rest of the prayers, see  God. We Still Need You: A Year of Pandemic Prayer and Practice From a Hospital Chaplain..

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The Great Mother’s Day Ache of 2021

Mother’s Day in the US in 2021 is May 9. The advertisements are already starting. I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile. I think it’s time to finish it.

I don’t hate Mother’s Day, though I am frustrated by what it has done. By elevating motherhood in some contexts, particularly some church contexts, many women have felt great pain.

And it comes with a lot of expectations for families and moms alike. We have made it the highest day for phone calls, the third highest holiday for flower purchases, the biggest day for restaurants (according to one article).

I don’t need to review the kinds of pain in the past. However, I am already anticipating an unusual wave of corporate grief this Mother’s Day. (Chaplains tend to anticipate grief.)

During the last year, it feels like a surprising number of people I know have lost their mom. That’s not just because I’m bad luck. During the period from March 1-December 31, 2020, for every 100 people we would expect to die, 123 people did die. According to that research, if you are a person of color, the rate is significantly higher. Some of these deaths are directly COVID-19 related, some are not. Some are moms, but some are sisters, some are daughters, some are babies, born and unborn.

Added to the loss of the person was the access to the person before and after death. Because of lockdowns and restrictions, people were unable to visit during the last days the way we usually would and then to provide honor in the ways that we usually would.

As a result, we have unspoken stories, unidentified frustration. We missed opportunities to say “I’m sorry”, to hear a last blessing, to feel a last touch.

I’m pointing out this impending wave of grief. But I don’t know what to tell you, exactly, to do.

But I can make some suggestions and invite yours.

  • Rather than focusing on the last visit we didn’t have, we can think about the best visit we had.
  • If we didn’t get to have the last moment of confession or reconciliation, we can write a letter that unpacks your mixed feelings, the things that you didn’t have a chance to say.
  • If we’re not sure what to do on Mother’s Day, we can have the fun that she would have loved to have. Have the parade that she would have wanted to lead. Set off the fireworks that she would have loved to watch.
  • If we never had a memorial service for telling stories, we can have a picnic for telling stories.
  • If we are angry about all the restrictions that created physical separations, we can throw things.
  • If we never had a chance to thank the staff who cared for our mom while we couldn’t, you can send a note to the healthcare facility, care the floor where she was.
  • If we lost a baby or a grandbaby, we can cry.
  • If we have questions about the politics of the last year, we can set those questions aside for a day or a weekend and acknowledge that our family or the family next door or across the street is having one of the hardest weekends of their lives and could use some compassion and care.

There is no right answer, no best answer, that will apply to everyone.

But I wanted to invite you start thinking about it so you can find your answer.


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A challenging time to start being a chaplain.

When Hope and I were talking about how to finish the book ( God. We Still Need You: A Year of Pandemic Prayer and Practice From a Hospital Chaplain.), some kind of afterword made sense. And when we started talking about who to ask, Hope said, “What about Jana?”

Hope and Jana met a long time ago. Their older brothers played club soccer in middle school. Hope and Jana had to go to the games. They talked some, they read more. Now they are part of the same book.

Their parents met even longer ago, in the Lamaze class for those older brothers. Their mothers had met even longer before that, when one was in grad school and the other was working at that grad school. Eventually, their dads played soccer together briefly in an over-40 mens B league indoor soccer league.

There are stories, of course, about those earlier days, but no one wants to linger in “I knew you when” stories. Because Hope and Jana are now the adults.

Hope suggested Jana, in part, because Jana started working as a chaplain just after this book starts, in December 2019. It’s helpful to listen to the account of a person growing in their understanding of how to be the best possible help in the worst times in people’s lives.

In our hospital system, a chaplain responds to every death, talking with the family and staff about funeral homes and coroner calls and grief and next steps. As an on-call chaplain, Jana showed up in the middle of the night to care and coordinate. She covered shifts at two of our hospitals as needed, and started learning another hospital.

Learning all of those things as protocols began changing daily is a significant challenge. (One of our long-term chaplains said that it felt like she was a brand-new chaplain.)

Hope suggested it, but I agreed completely. When you read her story, you will, too.


Here’s a taste from the Afterword:

December 2019, a couple weeks after Jon started writing the prayers in this book, I became a Parkview Hospital chaplain. In our department, we often say chaplaincy is a calling. That was definitely the case for me, as I never wanted to work in a hospital. Honestly, the thought of blood and needles makes me cringe. I had been building a counseling ministry at a local church for the last five years and was just about to pass my test to become a licensed mental health counselor. My job of overseeing care ministries at the church was literally designed for me, but through a series of events, conversations, and promptings, God showed me He had other plans for my future. In October I applied to be a chaplain and started referring to the transition as a “new adventure” that only God could be leading. I had no idea what an adventure my first year in chaplaincy would be.

I had been used to meeting with people to process their darkest moments in life as a counselor. When I became a chaplain, suddenly my job was to be with people during those dark moments. A chaplain’s role is to step into the deaths, traumas, anxieties, and unknowns with patients, families, and staff to offer a calming and empathetic presence. We help people navigate a range of unknowns. In my first couple months, even those procedures that were known to other staff were still unknown to me. I went into almost every shift with some level of anxiety wondering what difficult situation I would encounter during my eight to twelve hours there.

At the end of February, 2020, I was finally feeling more comfortable. And when I say “comfortable,” I mean I didn’t start every shift with a pit in my stomach, fervently hoping and praying for no catastrophes to occur while I was there! I will never be able to account for all the unknowns one faces in the hospital, but I’d been around long enough that I had a sense of what I was doing and who I could go to when I had questions. At that time, I was able to tell my family and friends I enjoyed what I did with some semblance of confidence. The following month, that confidence wavered as the pandemic came to our hospital system.

The policies and procedures I had begun to grasp changed drastically. Instead of walking the newly familiar hallways and units, we started calling patient rooms from our office. I had learned the etiquette of comforting families in the lobby or consult room and escorting them to bedside. Now, I had to inform them of the current visitation policy and offer condolences from afar. The weight and reality of unknowns both intensified and multiplied. Not only was I unsure of how to conduct myself at work, but then I would go home and try to navigate how to interact with my family and the rest of the world. None of us knew what to do or how to handle all the changes. Or what to do with the fear and questions of whether I could bring the virus home with me.


For more of Jana’s story, and the rest of the prayers, see  God. We Still Need You: A Year of Pandemic Prayer and Practice From a Hospital Chaplain..

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When a book is close to home.

A collection of my prayers and reflections during the last year was published recently (God. We Still Need You). I want to tell a little bit of what led to it coming out.


We were walking from the emergency room to the cath lab waiting area. It was midnight. The young woman next to me was concerned about her husband. Appropriately. An hour before, after much testing, they’d been told that he had pericarditis. In the space between the heart and the lining around the heart, fluid was gathering. Now, a team had gathered to drain the fluid.

It happens often. This team is experienced, the procedure is well-rehearsed.

“They are pointing a needle at his heart,” the young woman said. “I know that it’s safe, but still.”

I nodded. “It’s safe, but as chaplains we always are aware of the 1% or the .1%.”

“I know,” she said. “I edited that chapter.”


This collection would not exist without that young woman. Hope Swanson Smith is our daughter. She’s the one who did the collecting. She pulled posts from my blogs, made the formatting consistent, did a read-through, offered questions like, “This is what you had. Is this what you meant?”

She also helped me think through the seasonal structure (Advent, Christmastide and Epiphany, Lent, and so on.) Out of those conversations, we arrived at the sectional introductions, written after the year was over, to create the context for the prayers and essays between. She suggested the writer for the Afterword, which was a wise suggestion. She even created the art for the cover.

This wasn’t the hard work, however. The hard work was that she read her year as she read through the book. The pericarditis happened just before the book was published. But during the year before, Hope and Dan watched a whole job process disappear. Like many people, she had her music season cancelled. She and Dan lost a baby, moved a few times, and kept wondering all year long about what was happening next.

“I’m sorry for making you walk through this,” I said at one point as she was editing. But she was committed to working through the process. Reading these prayers were reminders of moments throughout the year. And yet, there was some help in the reading, and a confidence that other people may be helped, too.             

We offer this collection not as a book of answers. Instead, it’s a gathering of moments where we spoke to the one who we knew, though not always felt, was constant.

And it would have been a long time coming if it weren’t for Hope.

Thank you beautiful.

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Praying in a pandemic.

My new collection of prayers and reflections from the past year is now available.:

God. We Still Need You: A year of pandemic prayer and practice from a hospital chaplain.


Here’s the back cover:

Healthcare workers go to work every day no matter what. Even in a pandemic.

With thousands of his coworkers and millions of other healthcare workers, Chaplain Jon Swanson went to work during the pandemic. They cared for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people in the beds and people outside, unable to come in.

Every Sunday, he prayed in the hospital chapel for people—patients, coworkers, families, communities. Other prayers were offered along with other chaplains on a daily video for coworkers. And occasionally, his daily blog reflected his experience in the hospital.

Organized from Advent 2019 through Thanksgiving 2020, this book is a collection of those prayers and writings, gathered as a resource to help those who lived through the first year of the pandemic reflect on what happened and remember what we asked for.

In the Afterword, Chaplain Jana Vastbinder talks about starting her work as a chaplain just before protocols changed the way chaplains serve patients, families, coworkers, and each other.


I’m incredibly grateful that Curtis Smith was willing to write the Foreword. He was the co-creator and producer of an internal daily program for our co-workers. We were able to work together on that project.


From the Foreword-
“Jon always seems to be processing how outside forces are impacting people.  More than that, and the thing that most impresses me, is how Jon then turns that understanding into thoughtful prayer and care for other people.  Jon leans on God and talks with Him in a meaningful way.”
-Curtis Smith Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Lasting Change, Inc. During the time of this book, he was Corporate Director of Community Engagement for Parkview Health.


I’ll talk more about the book soon, but I wanted to let you know it’s out.

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God. We still need you.

My next-to-last book was a collection of Sunday prayers, prayed in the hospital chapel where I’m a chaplain. Each Sunday, I interacted with the texts for the week and with God and with the people watching on the closed-circuit channel and the people reading at my blog. We follow the liturgical calendar. Those prayers were from Advent 2018 through the Sunday before Advent in 2019.

Because the lectionary follows a three-year cycle, it made sense to do a second volume of those prayers. With the help of our daughter, Hope, those prayers were gathered, starting with Advent 2019.

I knew something was missing from the new book. The pandemic.

Because of the pandemic, our hospital system started a daily video in March, 2020. Each video lasted about seven minutes, had an interview with a leader or coworker, and always ended with a prayer from a chaplain. I was the chaplain several times, and so Hope and I added those prayers to the book.

There was still something missing from the book. Context.

We started talking about adding in some non-prayer chapters. They would be short summaries of COVID-19 numbers, the racial violence and responses, and other cultural events. And then we started looking at the real-time summaries I had already written. 

I write six days a week at, and occasionally at Those posts come at the intersection of daily life, the Bible, prayer, and following Jesus. Though they are not the privacy of a personal journal, they do capture moments in time and prayer. As we looked through what I had written, we realized that this book needs to include those moments, as well. 

And so, we are preparing a new book: “God. We still need you”: A pandemic year of prayer and practice from a hospital chaplain.

Starting with Advent 2019 and going through Thanksgiving 2020, these essays and prayers reflect one hospital chaplain’s conversations with God and others during a challenging year. The framework is the church calendar: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Ordinary Time. Each section starts with orientation to the season, to what was happening outside the hospital, and what was happening inside. The heartbeat is the Sunday prayers. Essays from and are placed into that framework at the time they were written. 

The death and uncertainty aren’t always in the foreground of these prayers and reflections. There are stories that I can’t tell, moments that must be protected. But those stories and moments are always informing the writing. 

And this isn’t a memoir, not in the kind that reviews the past and provides meaning. Instead, it is a journal, written in public, offering glimpses of a difficult year.

There are two people (or groups of people) I’d hand this book to. First, to the people I pray with and for. The people in my 300 parish. The people in my hospital parish. The people who have heard or read one or two of these and found them helpful and would like to have them collected.

Second, there are people who, like me, have been in healthcare during this year. I want to offer some voice to some of the things we were feeling at the time we were feeling them.

The target publication for the book is March 31, 2021. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

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A conversation about calling

Jen Bradbury. Called: A Novel about Youth Ministry Transitions. The Youth Cartel, 2020.

Eb, Jon, Terry, Jen

I’ve known Jen for several years. We’ve worked on some research projects together. I asked her to write about one of my books. For me, she’s the person who asks me to consider “What’s the understanding of Jesus that underlies this?” (To use her word, “What’s the Christology?”) For a whole bunch of students, she’s been Pastor Jen. Jen’s worked in youth ministry for many years and has researched and written about youth and belief.

What happens eventually to many of us is that we wonder whether to stay where we are or move to something new. When we are employed in ministry, or when we do our work in response to what we think is a calling from God, the idea of changing jobs is complicated.

It would be nice to have someone to talk to as we are at that point.

Jen has given us a book to be one of those conversation partners.

In Called, Jen Bradbury has combined her own experience in ministry, her countless conversations with students, parents, colleagues, and ministry counterparts, and a rich understanding of biblical conversations on calling.

Instead of writing a book that gives all the “right” answers, it’s written as a novel to explore discernment as it unfolds. As a result, we can listen in as a person who is frustrated in a church job talks with herself, her family, her mentor, and people in various churches. This process approach is how job discernment actually works. The questions asked are ones I’ve heard. The conversations ring true. Rather than ending my reading of the book with a formula, I end up having a framework for reflection.

As a person near the end of several ministry careers, (higher education, pastoral staff, chaplaincy, consulting) this book helped me better understand some of my own experiences. As I read this book, I recognized, from my own life, many of the feelings, many of the conversations, many of the people.

This isn’t a novel for escape. But if you are thinking about escaping from ministry, or considering how to better understand the interplay between calling and job, this is a helpful resource.


For Jen’s perspective on the book, read “The story behind CALLED.

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A prayer for the person at the edge of life and death.

I’ve written about everyone else at a CODE BLUE–an event, usually in a hospital where a person’s heart has stopped and a team of people gathers to restart it. I wrote about how to talk with God about all the people who are gathering. When I wrote it, I didn’t talk about how to talk with God about the person.

It’s time.


God, at this moment, there are people who are trying to restart a stopped heart. God, in this space at the edge of life and death, I do not know what to ask you for.

I know too much and not enough.

I know the research about CPR. I know that the longer this process goes, and the older the body, the lower the chances that the person will walk out of this hospital. The higher the chances that the lack of oxygen to the brain will cause irreversible brain damage. The more that the bones in the chest are breaking.

For this family, this person is 1 in a million. For you this person fully matters. But even as we are talking, the chances are slipping away. From 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 to 1 in 10 to 1 in 100. To zero.

I know the conversations we have about quality of life, about playing God, about doing everything possible, about one last chance to know you. I know that for people who say they love you and believe the Bible, the fear of making you mad by making wrong choices is a real fear. I know that fear isn’t consistent with your character.

I believe that our times are in your hands. I believe that our days are limited, that it is appointed to humans to die, in these bodies at least. I believe that we don’t know when that day and time will be.

I know the stories of people who, in a variety of situations, with insurmountable odds, endured and thrived. I know Ellen’s story who wondered why she was brought back when she had said that she didn’t want to be resuscitated and who died a couple days after our conversation.

I believe that what looks like dead isn’t. And yet I know when we don’t hear a heartbeat and don’t see a heart moving with ultrasound and don’t see any reflexes when we shine lights in pupils, that the person is dead.

I believe that dead people can come back to life. I believe that there was a young man who was really dead that you raised and a girl who was really dead that you raised and a young man that Elisha raised and a woman that made clothes and a handful of other people. I know that there were many people when you were living, Jesus, that you didn’t bring back to life. And I know that except for the people who are alive now, everyone who has ever lived has died, even if they came back briefly. Except, of course, for you, Jesus, the firstborn of us.

All of those thoughts are swirling through my mind, God, as we stand here, now.

But I confess that I don’t know what to ask you about this person in this room with a heart that is stopped.

I don’t want to be disappointed, to have this family devastated by your apparent inaction.

I don’t want to be unfaithful, to believe that if only we had prayed harder you might have brought them back, as if this death is someone on our hands.

And I acknowledge that, for all we know, they are already absent from this body in front of us, being prodded and pushed. And I acknowledge that, for all I know, this person will start talking in 15 hours. Or 15 minutes. Or right now.

I confess that I don’t know what will happen. But in this moment, I know you are here. And with this person. And so God, even as we ask many things for everyone else in this room, I ask that this person in this moment at the edge of life and death will know your love and your peace.



I’ve written about books that review decision-making at end of life.