Run From Abuse: They Won’t Stop.

Dear friend: If you’re continually abused by someone who keeps saying, “I’ll stop this time, I swear, you know I love you” — then I have bad news. They’re not going to stop. The reason is because (and this is important), why would they even want to? What incentive do they have? If their “love” for you is not enough to keep from abusing you, then certainly they don’t respect themselves enough to seek help and to change. This is NOT to say it’s even a tiny bit your fault. But take extreme measures. Expose them, or call 911, or cut them off completely, and don’t look back. An external force is your last resort, but it’s often the only thing that works in the end. Loving a person is not the same as enabling them, and sometimes distance and firm wisdom is the best way you can love them. More than that: have some love for yourself, too. You’re allowed to look for better.

— J.S.

The Fear of Disappointing Everyone.

Lately I’ve been fearing the opinions of people. I’ve been downright neurotic and scared. That if I don’t reply quickly enough, they’ll think I’m too busy or too good for them. That if my reply is inadequate or lacking or phrased imperfectly, they’ll respect me less and say “Now I know how he really is.” That if I don’t live up to the expectations of others, I’ll constantly disappoint others who have now “seen” me as I am.

I don’t mean to say that other people’s opinions are unimportant. It’s worth hearing criticism, to know our blind spots, to truly estimate ourselves. Yet even as a kernel of truth exists in all criticism, so I must guard my heart at the core and ground my security in the unshakeable, for I cannot rise and fall on the praise and derision of others.  I can’t please everyone, or even a few.  God is the only please-able one in the universe, who does not demand the unreasonable, and only His heart could ever sustain the unbearable weight of my need.

It’s possible that we too quickly place a negative filter on someone so that their subsequent actions are regarded with malicious intentions. If I’m seen this way, then I was never going to win the opinion of people anyway.  I will eventually disappoint you, even deeply, no matter how hard I try not to. So if we must be disappointed in one another, I must carry on, not in a prideful strut or swagger, but in a humble confidence that trusts you will give me grace and offer patience. It’s the same chance you would want for yourself.  It’s the same grace we’ve been given by the God whose opinion of us is not shaken, and so then I can be free of your opinion long enough to respect it.

— J.S.

The Giant Gap Between Where You Are and Where You’re Going.

In that Giant Gap between who you want to be and who you really are, every other religion, including the evangelical church, tells you to “close the gap.” That’s religion.

Jesus is the only who said, “I will meet you where you are. I am running backwards through the gap to you. And we will walk this walk together, one step at a time, me in the lead, and I will be with you whether you feel me or not, always.” Faith is being more and more sure of this reality, and it’s not being more sure that you’re sinning less. It’s never just running from sin, but running to Him.

— J.S. from What The Church Won’t Talk About

Hope For Those Punk Kids At Church (Like Me)

Last week I visited a mega-church, and I sat behind a group of college and high school students who were goofing off and checking their phones and leaving early.  One of their mothers left in the middle of the sermon and didn’t come back.  I started getting terribly sad and angry about the whole thing; they all had Bibles in their hands and some had notepads to take notes, but they were just being rowdy and whispering loudly and laughing at the most inappropriate times.  I thought, This is it, this is our future of church.  No one cares.

And then — I remembered when I was in high school and college, and how much I goofed off and talked during the sermon and was so dang fidgety and rowdy, and how God still worked through a young rebellious punk like me.  I remembered how God side-tackled me into pastoral ministry and blessed me with a full scholarship to seminary and pulverized my heart into a Jesus-loving, people-serving, unashamed follower.  Not perfect, never, but far from where I used to be in the very same place as those kids.

So I stopped judging and I started praying.  I prayed for big visions for all of them, that God would do incredible wonderful things that they could barely believe were happening — amazing works that they never thought possible. I mean if I went back to my past self ten years ago and said, “Here’s what you’re going to do for God,” I never would’ve believed it.  But this is what Jesus does.  He takes the most ragged, rowdy, unlikely wanderer and puts us on the frontlines to flex His glory, to wield His love, to heal people just like us.  He’s always doing things like that: and it gives me hope.  It gives me patience, and grace.

— J.S.

Guilt-Trips Vs. Gratitude: One Beats Me Up, The Other Grows Me Up

What’s so crazy is that the Bible wasn’t mass-produced until the last few-hundred years, and even then, it wasn’t translated in an understandable way for us until the last century. Yet we beat ourselves up into a frenzy over memorizing Scripture and doing QT and Bible Studies, when there have been Christians for thousands of years without access to printed copies. Certainly it’s great and necessary to dig into the Bible, but I’m not motivated to read it when someone beats me with a guilt-trip that it’s “collecting dust.” I’m more motivated to read the Bible knowing that I even have access to ancient Scripture at all. To think God preserved it and transmitted it to our language and entrusted it into the hands of crusty squishy people is downright incredible.

If you miss a day of reading, please don’t get on your own case. Simply behold the wonder of having something called God’s Word, and I can guarantee you’ll miss Him enough to start reading again, not as duty but out of gratitude.

— J.S.

Five Simple Tips on Sermon Preparation

foundworthy asked a question:

What is your process for sermon prep?

Hello AJ! While I wouldn’t want to give you a simple formula, since each of us must find our own way, I’ll outline just a few things I do.

1) I often preach in series, about 4 to 7 sermons long, because it helps me to know where I’m going. Usually each sermon inside the series is supporting One Big Point that I’m trying to make.

2) In seminary, my professors always did the 3 am Test.  Basically: If I were to shake you awake at 3 am on Sunday morning and ask you, “Tell me your sermon in one sentence!” — and you couldn’t do it, then it wasn’t ready.  Simplify, simplify, keep it simple.

3) Exegesis (digging into the particular meaning of Scripture) is very valuable, but please know what to put in the showcase and what to keep in the basement. Sometimes I find a really cool fact of history during my study of the Bible, but I realize this is only me nerding out and has zero relevance to what I’m saying. So I save it for another day and look for another.

4) Sermons are hard work. I study hard. I read the news. I pray hard. I listen to how others did the same passage. One message might take about 20 hours per week. But the main thing is: I have to constantly meet up with the church.  Sermons are a way to love and serve people by the powerful healing Spirit of God.  I have to love my people first. Without that, then the pulpit is just a catharsis or a college lecture. Seminarians spend so much energy crafting a precise message, but they barely love their people or love the King.  Love your people.

5) I constantly assume there are people who don’t care or who hate Jesus.  I think of the twelve year old suicidal kid who is ready to hurt himself again.  I think of the single divorced mom raising three kids on three jobs with a father who left them.  I think of the skeptical college student who once loved youth group but has hardened by parties and amateur philosophy.  I think of the pregnant fifteen year old whose parents have shamed her and she’s been vilified at school.  I think of my close friends and family who don’t know Jesus.  I practice my sermons by pulling up a chair in front of me and going one-on-one, because sermons are speaking to real people, and they’re coming to Sunday service with a load of burdens they can hardly carry, and they do want to know there’s something more.

— J.S.

For my podcast, please click here or here.

Please know I’m way more comfortable writing, and speaking has always been tough for me. Thank God for grace.

Also check out:

– Six Things I Write At The Top of Every Sermon

– Preachers: A Sermon Gut-Check

– Seven Tips on Preaching & Teaching For the First Time

– The Difference Between A Speech and A Sermon

Purchase my book on tough topics of faith here!

Purchase my new book on love, sex, and dating here!

How To “Win The Girl’s Heart” (Spoiler: You Don’t)

Someone asked me how I “won your girl’s heart.” I replied:

Hey, I don’t mean to rain on your parade at all and I know it’s a struggle, but I definitely didn’t “win the girl’s heart.” We both made mutual decisions toward one another out of risk and much reflection. To “win” someone assumes that she has no autonomy and she’s not her own person. She decided to take a chance with me, and it’s no small thing for a woman to entrust herself with a man. I’m not the hero of my own narrative who “won” an objectified trophy called a woman. I learned to respect her personhood and that she has her own hopes, dreams, and insecurities, like everyone else. She supports my dreams as much as I support hers.

I’m sorry, I know you expected a fun cute answer and I’m definitely not accusing you of false motives. I’ve just always had problems with the idea of “winning” a person and I think we’ve all been conditioned to think of women this way, which is why many men haven’t grown up, and why I myself still have plenty of growing to do. Until men see women as people, men will never be mature enough to be a person on their own, either. I’m preaching this to myself too, brother. May we all get there.

— J.S.

My Most Horrifying Church Experience Ever

Disclaimer: To protect my family and myself, I am not using names and I’m purposefully obscuring certain details. I cannot confirm them privately, either. These are well-known people in Christian circles who I still believe are doing helpful things, despite the terror behind closed doors.  I must be careful here, because 1) they would absolutely crucify me if they saw this post, and 2) they could also deny having ever met me, despite email correspondences and recorded conversations.  But I have to speak up.

I want to tell you about my most horrifying church experience ever, because it began so ordinary and subtle, and I want to protect you from the nightmare I eventually woke up to.

I know there must be so many more terrible experiences at church and mine is not nearly the worst, yet I hope you’ll know that not every horror story about church happens in a cult of backwood druids sacrificing goats to chanting.  It can happen in the most mundane sort of atmosphere with a slowly tightening chokehold, until it’s too late.

Years ago, I befriended the lead pastor of a church ministry that was doing amazing things in the community and we first became friends over the phone. The pastor explained that every church in America was doing it wrong.  This really appealed to my discontent about the church culture, and our phone calls were filled with tons of encouragement and positive affirmation over my “gifts, talent, treasures, insights, and abilities given by God.”  Whenever I spoke bad about my own church, the lead pastor agreed as loudly as possible.

In the first few months, he offered me a position at his ministry, but I was obligated to my current church.  However, I was still able to visit.  I was completely seduced by the way he and his team did ministry.  Their preaching was fun, their services were boisterous, their praise team was incredible, and they knew every single family by name.  They were well-respected by the community and they were funded completely by other churches and individuals from all over the world.  All the while, they were saying, “We do it better than the other guys” and their website sold tons of church curriculum.  I even bought some.

Continue reading “My Most Horrifying Church Experience Ever”

The Only Pure Sustainable Motivation.

I can do one of two things for you as a pastor, as a Christian, as your friend. I can beat you up with rules and religion — “Do more, try harder!” — and I can make you conform your behavior. Like that guy who makes you jump during worship. It would be an external apparatus working on your outside, but it would never become a part of you. You’ll get short-term change, but Monday through Saturday when the fear is gone, the change won’t last.

Or the second thing I can do is: I can tell you about the grace of God, the goodness of God, and the love of God — where God loves you no matter what, without conditions, even counter-conditionally, through the depth of our very worst, at the cost of His very Son. So then our actions would spring out of gratitude for what He has done for us and for who He is. That comes not just from rules and religion, though those are important, but from a real living relationship with the living God. That’s the only pure sustainable motivation. Grace can take a lot longer than guilt-trips, but in the long-term, grace is the only thing that can internalize to change your heart.

— J.S. from The Christianese Dating Culture

The Pastor’s Calling: How It Really Is, Not How You Want It To Be

thistreasureinjarsofclay asked:

Is it really improbable for someone to “like” or “want” to be a pastor? I just think that there really are people who understand what it means to be one and are really filled with passion to preach Christ, with compassion for the lost and with care for the flock, that they really “like” or “want” it whatever might be the cost.

Hey there my friend. I think you’re referring to some of the tough things I said about seminary and a pastor’s calling.

I believe it’s not improbable to just “like” or “want” to be a pastor, but it’s certainly unlikely.

Please hear me saying this in all love and grace for you.  I know it will sound like such a downer, and when I talk to young dudes who want to be pastors, this is always the hard part.  I feel like the harbinger of bad news or the crusher of dreams.  I end up saying “No you’re not ready” a lot of the time, and usually the response is, “You’re just a hater, you don’t know me man, God’s gonna use me.”

I’ve hurt a lot of fragile egos who weren’t willing to undergo the honesty of self-examination.  I get cussed out or cut off, and that’s okay.  By now, I’m jaded by those sort of things.  There’s a lot of triumphalistic tribal language about victory and haters and trolls, but really: I’m trying to give an honest accurate view of what pastoral ministry is really like.  If I don’t do that, then I wouldn’t be a good friend.  And even if that person “thinks” they understand what it’s like to be a pastor, they don’t.  Seriously.  I’m being nice here.  You can’t possibly know what it’s like until you’re there, day to day, in the trenches of real people bleeding your life away to serve.

Simply: Ministry is downright impossible except for the anointing of God.  There’s no way to simply “like” your way into ministry.  The life of a pastor is extremely difficult, and if it’s not, you’re probably doing it wrong.  I will never ever sugarcoat this or water it down to spare your feelings.  It’s why doctors will tell you that med school isn’t for kicks and cred: they want you to man up and be ready.  If you’re called, awesome.  If not, wait.

I do see what you’re saying.  There should be joy in ministry.  Of course it helps to like what you do.  Pastors must certainly “like” the church, even and especially when it’s difficult.  But if that’s the sole motivation, it will never last.

I hate to be the jerk that says all that.  It’s just that I’ve seen so many distracted half-focused jokesters in the pulpit that I realize: no one ever told them the true meaning of being a pastor.  They don’t realize they have the lives of entire families in their hands who want healing and guidance and truth and a true picture of God.  It’s like some of these dudes went to youth camp once and thought it would be fun and easy and so they sign up for seminary to have a “one day per week” job.  And that’s not even close to how it really is.

Continue reading “The Pastor’s Calling: How It Really Is, Not How You Want It To Be”

You Make Me Nervous With Your Correct Theology

I get nervous around guys who want to be theologically correct all the time. I know it’s important and I can’t diminish right doctrine, but I’m constantly anxious I’ll say something stupid or wrong around them. I can’t really be sloppy or tip off my weakness.

I say this as a pastor who graduated from maybe the most conservative seminary in the world, who was taught by world-class professors and authors, and I can hang with the best of them.  I just get exhausted of the secret competition to know more Bible than the next guy.  You can quote Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, that’s cool, I actually read the whole thing, but right now I want to talk about TV shows and my favorite hamburger place and that really dumb thing my dog did the other day.  I want to relax sometimes because Jesus played with kids and drank wine with his buddies and roasted fish for his disciples, and one time he took a nap on a boat while a storm almost flipped them all over. I love theology, but it drives me to love you and to love the King.  That’s the only theology worth having.

— J.S.

If I Don’t Forgive, Am I Not Forgiven?

ernieyip asked a question:

Hi, I have a question about forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, there’s the part that says “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Also, in Matthew 6, Jesus says “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. To me it looks like the verse says that God’s forgiveness is conditional on our own acts of forgiveness, but I don’t think that’s the case. Could you help me better understand this passage? Thanks

Hey my friend, the passage you mentioned definitely scares me too.  There are also other similar ones.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. — Mark 11:25

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. — Luke 6:37

In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” — Matthew 18:34-35

At first glance, all these passages seem conditional, as if God will only forgive when we forgive others.

But as with any Bible passage, we must always balance out singular verses with the rest of the Bible in theme, intent, and the GospelOtherwise, we end up with a lopsided theology that might be half-right, but is therefore all wrong.

Continue reading “If I Don’t Forgive, Am I Not Forgiven?”

There’s No Such Thing As “Too Late” With God, Ever.

I must also add: God absolutely loves you and He’s crazy about you no matter what. In our rock-bottom moments of ill consequences, it’s easy to think that God’s response towards us is disappointment or frustration. But God sent His Son exactly for this very reason — to draw you near Him in spite of yourself. Don’t ever let self-pity get in the way of this; don’t ever feel you have to pay off your guilt with self-inflicted punishment. God did the work for you already. He preempted your failures and saw your sin coming a mile away, but He loved you anyway. He will not time-warp His Son off the cross. He says in Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”

I know it feels like you’re walking in a fog you created. and there will be some tough days ahead, but God is with you in this struggle to the very end. Pace yourself and don’t rush the healing process and have grace for you, too. If you mess it up again, get back up. God is there to cheer you on and restore you for next time. There’s no such thing as “too late” with God. When your church or your family or the whole world will not give you a second chance, God is the God of infinite chances. His grace is that big. Continue to stumble after Him.

Please don’t let the weight of your consequences say anything less about you as a person, because God continually has grace for you in the middle of the mess.

— J.S. from The Christianese Dating Culture

Where You Can Be Your Slobbery, Ugly, Screwed Up Selves

One value I cherish more than almost any other is honesty.  I mean being vulnerable. We can put on a good front out there but this slowly strangles us inside, and it’s probably why the world is the way that it is: because we’ve bottled up everything about us inside tiny cubicles of courtesy, a tightly coiled parade of modified bravado.

I heard a theory once that conspiracy theories couldn’t exist, because the people hiding those elaborate lies would just blow up.  No one’s good at keeping secrets too long, most especially our own.  We need a safe place to deposit them somewhere, to not be judged for them, to know our tears and scars are not wasted in the silent echo of hiding, to say, “I’m not okay right now.”

I think we need that one friend who’s an open-and-shut vault, where we can vent and just go nuts.  You know, the one friend where we can be our slobbery, screwed up, frustrated, upside-down selves.  And they still hang around in the morning because that’s what love does: it says good morning.  It sticks around.

A culture of honesty could only come from a culture of grace, where we have the undeserved hope of being known but still loved.  We crave grace.  We crave honesty.  You have a friend like that: don’t ever let that go.  They see you at your darkest and limp with you to the light.

— J.S.

Christianese Dating: The Adventure of Dating and The Reality of Relationships

Christianese Dating Logo

Hello beloved wonderful friends!

This is a seminar I gave on dating and relationships to a wonderful ministry of college students and young adults in Gainesville FL, aka Gator Town.

It’s called The Adventure of Dating and The Reality of Relationships. It’s about the exciting prospect of dating and the gritty, difficult, raw reality of relationships. Stream here or download directly here!

Some of the content is from my new book on relationships called The Christianese Dating Culture.

Some things I talk about are: The romantic theology of Taylor Swift, that time I overheard a girlfriend catching her boyfriend with another woman, two soldiers at war gossiping about the Kardashians, the best Christian pick-up line ever, the gritty raw painful sweaty work of theater actors and ballerinas, the difference between “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Hurt Locker,” three directions that every relationship takes, if my fiancé gained 200 lbs, the scary anxious fear of marriage proposal and possibly hearing “Nope,” and a Q&A Session including the truth about “wives submitting” and how to find “The One.”

Be blessed and love y’all!

— J.S.

The Christian Life Isn’t What We Run From.

The Christian life can’t just be about running away from sin: but is ultimately about running to Him.

That means finding His mission, His purpose, and His heart for you. It means asking for His wisdom in how to discipline yourself, to be shaped by His truth, to be restructured in His image. It means bonding with other like-minded individuals to live out your God-given calling. It’s so fully experiencing the love of God that you are shaken down to your very core, melted and tenderized by His grace to never go back, but only pursue Him forward.

— J.S. from The Christianese Dating Culture

The Strangers We Meet On The Way

My car got another flat again, my fourth one this year, and I needed to get towed. My spare was also flat and I was on the side of the interstate with giant trucks flying by. I was pretty bummed out about the whole thing, because financially I’ve hit a rough place and I’ve been dead-sick from a cold since yesterday, the kind with green snot and evil-witch-coughing.

The lady on the phone from roadside service gave me the reference number 5377, and said, “You’re the five-thousand three-hundred seventy-seventh caller today, so you’re not the only one having a bad day.” We both laughed. It was like I totally unclenched after that and I stopped worrying. Not that I want other people to have a bad day, but there is no uncommon struggle. I put my phone away and watched the clouds for a while. I realized I hadn’t looked up at the sky for a long time.

The tow truck driver was with his mom, and his mother was living at a shelter for abused women. The son would take his mom to work on every tow, to keep his mom company. We talked about my upcoming wedding and about being a pastor. Then the son told dirty jokes and his mom and I couldn’t stop laughing; I was honestly embarrassed to laugh so hard at such vulgar jokes. I knew some of them but I didn’t stop him. We got to the car shop and I gave him all the cash I had, ten bucks, and he thanked me like crazy. The mom shouted out, “Best of luck with your wedding” and I waved as big as I could.

I guess bad days can get turned around when good people light it up. Just have to look up sometimes to notice.

— J.S.

Breaking The Grip of the Lesser.

Here’s what I’ve learned about choosing the things of God and partaking in His mission.

I’ve noticed that after I disciple a young kid and see his eyes light up from the truth of the Bible, I can’t go back to how I was. It’s too good to give up. After I serve food at the homeless ministry, after I volunteer at a retreat, after I go on a mission trip, after I serve at an orphanage or a prison or the projects — the attraction of sin loses its grip on me.

Because the things of God are so much brighter and bigger and deeper than the things of this world. This is what Thomas Chalmers called the Expulsive Power of a New Affection.

Ever notice that after the gym, you’re too tired to fight anyone? Ever notice that after a healthy meal, you’re much less willing to eat a bag of Cheetos? And whether you “feel like” going to the gym or eating healthy, you choose it anyway: because not only is the alternative bad for you, but it makes the alternative less attractive.

Sometimes people wait to “feel right with God” to go serve Him. You don’t have to wait. You don’t have to be qualified or clean or deserving to serve. Your choices change your heart just as much as your heart changes your choices. What you do comes out of who you are, but who you are also comes out of what you do.

— J.S. from The Christianese Dating Culture

The Horrifying Moment When All This Faith-Stuff Sounds Crazy

I often have these troubling moments when I totally don’t believe in God anymore, and I wonder what it would be like to live without Him.

I was an atheist for most of my life, so these thoughts are comfortable and familiar, like the blue plaid super-hero cape I wore in third grade. I go down a spiral of binge-reading atheism blogs and I can’t stop myself. I start to wonder if God even does anything because there’s so much horror in the world, or if He’s just a construct of a hopeful mind looking for momentary relief. It can take days to pull back from this, and doubts never really fade; you just live with them.

I remember the words of that father with the demon-possessed son, who told Jesus, “I do believe, but help my unbelief!” And Jesus healed him. He didn’t shut them down. He didn’t say, “You better believe all the way first.” I get to thinking there must be more than all this, and that God did break into this fractured world somehow and began a healing at some point in history for all of eternity, an invitation to a new story, a reversal of entropy. I get to thinking we’re not just spinning alone out here, and that this is all going somewhere, and I have this tiny mustard-seed-sized faith that Jesus tells me can move mountains. I think even if this isn’t true, I so badly want it to be, and maybe that’s okay too. I do believe, and he doesn’t shame me for my unbelief. For that, I can believe Him — and for a moment, the mountains get shaken.

— J.S.