Pulpit Hero.

Photo by evcpics, CC BY 2.0

I get a little nervous when a preacher only preaches his hero-stories, when he seems to be his own marketing guy saying, “This is what Jesus does, and if you do what I’m doing, you’ll make it.”

But I always lean in when the pastor tells me about his failures. When he’s really for real. That time he blew up on someone in traffic. When he lost it with his family. When he quietly refused to help a homeless guy. His sudden shopping spree. Those seasons when he stopped praying and reading the Bible because he was so jaded and burnt out. His frustrations with the church culture, not in a sneering way that points out any one person, but really grieving over our collective lack of passion. The times when he doubted himself, when he doubted God.

It doesn’t mean we imitate all of the above, and pastors are held to a high bar for a reason: but I don’t want the act. I’d love it for a pastor to rip the mic and tell us how much he’s hurting right now and how much he still trusts Jesus to get him through all this and even tell us he’s barely holding on by a thread of his beat-up faith. Hero-stories are okay, but I want to know we’re in this uphill fight together.

Then the pastor isn’t some guy “up there” as if we’re “down here,” and it makes us a little more human too, and this points to our need for Jesus and for grace. The pulpit becomes a haven instead of a tower, a manger instead of a throne. I want to meet there inside our mess-ups, where Jesus is, the real hero of this story. With Him, we’ll make it down here.


Breaking Through Jealousy: Passing the Fire to the One Ahead

I’ve learned that the quickest thing that kills friendships is jealousy. Sometimes it’s a slow death; jealous people can act loving for a lifetime, but they waste their lives comparing to each other instead of helping each other out.

Jealousy can cut short the empowering work of friendship and all the joy and vision it brings forth.

I have two choices: I’m either your cheerleader or the loop of condemnation in your head. And I know which one I prefer to be around.

I just hate what jealousy does to people. The worst, most cutting words come from envy. Families, churches, and businesses rot from the inside. It causes even the nicest people to horde their own talents and hold others back, and they’d rather snuff out the torch then pass it on to a new generation. It turns us into small, shrewish versions of ourselves.

I’ve lost friends this way, and you can’t really call someone out on jealousy. It feels arrogant, and no one would confirm such a dirty accusation. No one confesses it, either. In my years of ministry, I’ve never heard someone tell me, “I’m just a jealous, insecure hater.” Have you ever said that in the mirror? Me, neither. You’ll hear about murder and drugs in the confession booth before envy. It blinds us into denial.

I’ve seen a lot of good friends get blown up when envy got a foothold. One friend would get successful in their field while the other stayed unseen, and the unseen friend starts to feel like their famous friend owes them. There’s a lot of fist-shaking at God and self-directed anger. It’s nasty stuff.

Preparation is half the battle. If you can name the demon, you have a better chance of beating it. Fighting sin means expecting the monster, and then tackling it in the doorway. It means laying down the worldly weapon to pick up a weapon of grace.

Continue reading “Breaking Through Jealousy: Passing the Fire to the One Ahead”

5 Ways to Diligently Discern All the Good and Bad “Christian Advice”

There’s a ton of Christianese literature out there, and some of it’s bad, bad, bad advice.

In my best movie trailer voice: In a world of Christian bestsellers, blogs, podcasts, and instagrams with Bible verses on ocean wallpaper, who are all coincidentally on an “authentic relevant struggling faith journey,” one ESV-carrying Christian millennial rises above the handlettering and “I’m not like those Pharisees” YouTube channels to authentically struggle with discerning what’s theologically sound and really works in the mess of real life.

But seriously: witty snark and pretty prose in bite-sized blog posts (like this one) don’t ever mean credibility. We really do need to know what “works in the mess of real life.” And it’s not going to be stitched-up quotes and here’s-what-I-would-do sort of fluff that sounds ideal but doesn’t work down here in the dirt.

I don’t claim to know any better on this. In fact, please don’t trust me, because I will let you down and inevitably disappoint you. Bloggers are not your counselors, no matter how flowery and fluffy their words. And your favorite “Christian celebrity” with the million followers might not be as inspirational as his tweets and t-shirts in his Etsy store.

Christians are called to discern everything we read, especially from sources that claim they’re fellow Christians. Here are a few questions to consider when we run into any kind of advice.

1) Where is it coming from? Says who?

It’s easy to start a blog and start preaching way further than our lives have actually lived. So much of Christian advice is idealistic guess-work that hasn’t been field-tested or approved by experience, much less cited or researched. In fact, a lot of it’s packaged to get hits and go viral, instead of actually caring about the real person it claims to help.

This will sound mean, but a lot of the shrill imperatives we see in blogs and books are from well-intentioned, untested upstarts who vicariously uphold an image that isn’t really them, either to compensate for their own shortcomings or to grab those precious followers. I only know this because I started that way, and I regress easily. Social media, for all its benefits, has made pedestal preachers of us all. I’d much rather someone tell me how it really is, with candid humble honesty, instead of how it “should be,” and to learn from their mistakes rather than get imprisoned by an impossible parameter—a paremeter, by the way, which is hardly practiced by the ones preaching it.

A suggestion: Check their bio. This isn’t to judge them or to assign value, but to see what they’ve actually been through. This also doesn’t mean that “youth” can’t say wise things, or that only experienced elders have knowledge. But rather, it’s to ask: What makes this person credible in this particular subject? What have they seen and who have they been around? How have their experiences informed their faith? And certainly there are those who have hardly been through much but can still write wonderful things, beyond their years, and it’s worth celebrating the exceptionally rare gift of youthful wisdom.

2) Is it reactionary?

I love snark and sass, but some advice is just a childish temper tantrum that caters to pseudo-outrage and preaches to a choir in an ivory tower. I call it Popular Discontent: find something wrong, multiply the fear and anger, call out some names, and you’re instantly viral. Also include, “I’m not like them, we’re like us, I’m protecting you, and everything is terrible and evil and I miss the good old days and these young people don’t even know.” Hashtag: Get off my lawn.

Another thing is that contrary to the cool postmodern professor, Christianity always challenges you to think for yourself. Discernment also means investigating every voice and giving it a fair hearing, no matter how dissenting, unpopular, or critical. But a church steeped in reactionary backlash tends to say, “My way is better than theirs and it’s the only way,” which becomes an echo-chamber cult of self-congratulatory chest-bumps.

A suggestion: This one’s tricky, because we do need to call out things that are obviously harmful, and I definitely sympathize with people who have been extremely hurt and must react as loudly as possible. The problem is building an entire platform on what you’re against instead of what you’re for. We go too far the other way, and it’s not hard to find something wrong with everything. Cynicism is easy mode. And everyone can tell when someone is secretly barking at a bone to pick or beating a dead hobby-horse. It’s a constant “throwing them under-the-bus.” I have to catch myself on that all the time (and I’m trying my darn hardest to balance that here). If the tone is passive-aggressive instead of pro-active, I let myself out. It’s a balancing act to be fair and firm, which leads us to—

Continue reading “5 Ways to Diligently Discern All the Good and Bad “Christian Advice””

Honeymoon, Official.


Hello friends! My wife and I are finally going on our official honeymoon, since we couldn’t afford a “big honeymoon” last year (we went to the Passion Conference, which in itself was a huge blessing and a really awesome start for our marriage). We’re going on a nature tour through Costa Rica! Super-excited for zip-lining and horseback riding through rainforests. We’ll be back in a week. Please send us a prayer for safety and rest!
— J.S.

Writing Them In Instead of Writing Them Off: A Grand Vision of Saul to Paul

Photo by VSP, CC BY 2.0

Hello dear friends! This is a message I preached called, Writing Them In Instead of Writing Them Off: A Grand Vision of Saul to Paul, on the story of killer Saul becoming Apostle Paul, from the perspective of his first roommate, Ananias.

I talk about how the disciple Ananias helped to turn a Christian-killing terrorist Saul into the Bible-writing healer Paul — and how God does that kind of work in us. Stream below or download directly here. I’m also on iTunes here.

Some things I talk about are: Adopting my abused dog Rosco and rehabilitating him, how an African-American musician befriended and changed a KKK leader, why I agree with the Elder Brother against the Prodigal Son, the impossibility of outgrowing your nickname and time-stamped hometown past, the one frustrating difficult person that never changes, how the back-row of punk kids at church completely humbled me, and the freedom of finally becoming the kind of person that loves no matter what.

All messages are here. Be immensely blessed and love y’all!

We Bleed, All The Way Up

The patient really believed her cancer was somehow “God’s amazing plan for my life.” She went on to say the things I always hear: “He won’t give me more than I can handle. Thank God we caught it early. God is going to use this for my good.”

I get why we say these things, because we’re such creatures of story that we rush for coherence. But even when such theology is true, I want to tell her that it’s okay to say this whole ordeal is terrible and that it really hurts and that we live in a disordered, chaotic, fractured, fallen world where the current of sin devours everything, that bad things happen to model citizens, that nothing is as it’s meant to be, and the people who don’t catch the cancer early aren’t well enough to thank God for anything, and that not every pain is meant to be a spiritualized, connect-the-dots lesson as if God is some cruel teacher waiting for us to “get it.”

Pain doesn’t always have to be dressed up as a blessing in disguise. God hears our frustration about injustice and illness: for He is just as mad at suffering as we are. He doesn’t rush our grief. He bled with us, too, in absolute solidarity, and broke what breaks us in a tomb. He is the friend who meets us in our pain, yet strong enough to lead us through. I can only hope, in some small measure, to do the same.