Who I Speak For


I need to tell you this story.

When I was a pastor over ten years ago, I preached at a tiny conference and afterwards a young woman approached me. She had tears in her eyes, said she was single and anxious all the time and nearing forty years old and had “accomplished nothing.” I hurt for her.

Then suddenly—
I drew a blank on what to say. My seminary hadn’t prepared me for this. And I was scared for her. How would her church reply? Her pastor? Was this place safe? All I could do was process with her, validate her feelings, remind her of her inherent value, pray with her. Was that enough?

After I had met this young anxious woman, I changed two things.
1) I rewrote the rest of my sermons for the week.
2) I vowed to always think of this woman and others like her every time I spoke or wrote.

I knew up to then, to my own shame, I had never preached for the ones in the back row.

How could I have forgotten? I was once in the back row too. But my eagerness to keep “sound” and sound pretty and to please my professors overshadowed grace.

To this day, if anything I say does not speak to the person in the back row, to someone like me or her, it’s not worth saying. I have to remember where people really live. Hope cannot smother or bypass, but must only gently enter.

If our words only work for the well-off, able-bodied, and undisturbed, then maybe we’re
1) only speaking to popular powerful folks,
2) expecting profit from big pockets, or
3) comfortable outside reality.

I have a litmus test when new theological movements pop up. Will it matter to one of my dying patients and their families? Maybe that’s basic and unfair. But that litmus test has simplified and clarified my faith.

I still make this mistake, but always a reminder to myself: If it doesn’t work in the end, it won’t work at the start. If it doesn’t work for the wounded, it won’t make you whole. If it means a lot of arguing and posturing instead of compassion and action, I’m too tired to care. I don’t. Leave it out of the patient’s room and keep it on your platform.

Jesus is with the wounded and that’s where I want to be. Bottom line, dotted line, and end of the line.

Keep me where the people are.

— J.S.

What I Used to Believe


What do you no longer believe?
What are old beliefs you grieve?

I used to believe
all anger was wrong, so I was the captain of the tone police—
until I discovered politeness is not rightness, that anger is not always hate, but hurt, and to be loving is to be fiercely angry at injustice.

I used to believe
forgiveness meant friendship and even a flicker of pain meant I hadn’t forgiven my abusers—
but I found I can forgive from afar, over a lifetime, and that the pain was not my lack of forgiveness but how deep the wound was carved.

I used to believe
that death could bring people together—
until I saw covid take hundreds of thousands of lives and not even their deaths could evoke compassion,
until I saw refugees ceaselessly die in the headlines and too many justified their demise.

I used to believe
that god was American, homophobic, emotionless, and secretly disappointed in me—
until I found God had a vision of grace far greater than our sight, an imagination that far outweighed mine.

I used to believe
my value was found in my usefulness and contribution,
instead of inherently being human,
in an irrevocable Image.

I used to believe
every pain had a purpose, a connect-the-dots lesson, a fire to refine us, a reason to teach us—
until I saw pain is pain, it is not mine to explain, and maybe the only reason it happened was evil and abuse and systems that need to be unmade.

I used to believe
my depression was from a lack of prayer or faith or moral grit or fortitude—
but my mental health only lacked the help I needed and I found that therapy and medicine were not giving up, but giving life.

I used to believe
those who looked like me chose to be silent and passive—
except we were not silent, but silenced, and we had always spoken up despite this.

I used to believe
we could never unravel lopsided power dynamics and racist systems—
until I saw heels in the dirt making moves insistent, for years they had woven new stitches by inches.

I used to believe
everything I believed
was so certain.
I grieve my certainty
but I trust the mystery, to know
there is always more unknown.
Being “right” is to be alone,
but in discovery
we walk each other home.

— J.S.

Theology Is Complete with Our Hands and Feet


There’s a classic dispute among psychologists that’s best shown by the hair dryer story. It goes like this:

A woman believes her hair dryer is going to burn down her house. It gets to be a real problem; she’s driving back home twenty times a day. Her work life and love life and social life all take a hit.

Finally a therapist asks her, “Have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

It works. When the fear creeps in, the woman opens her office drawer and sees the hair dryer and she’s fine.

Some psychologists see a major problem here: “Nothing was solved! She still has issues! She needs to get to the root of it!” But others say she found a solution that worked for her.

I lean toward the second camp. The problem was real to her and so was the solution. Maybe later she would get to the bottom of things. But until then, she had found a way to make it okay.

The big idea is her story was taken seriously. That was the start of her wholeness. Only when a story is fully heard is there the possibility of connection or challenge or growth.

The thing is: Too many of our injuries are real. It is not merely “in their head” or “their side of the story.” And it is not enough just to believe it happened.

Abuse, racialized trauma, mass violence, systemic failures, misogyny, manipulated power dynamics, and all the mental health issues not seemingly visible—all of these need empathy, but it doesn’t stop there. They also need presence, action, compassion, and a complete reframing of all the ways that things are done. Justice would make things so right that we would never need accountability or to convince others to “believe me.”

It is already hard enough proving my injury is real.
I have the scars to prove it.
But what I need is more than belief,
more than moved hearts, more than speech.

Theology is only complete with our hands and feet.
Psychology can diagnose and make valuable notes, but only heels in the field, in the dirt, bring us hope.
Even with all our treatment and remedies, I still need you to sit with me.
In grief, your advice is probably good, but not as good as being on the floor with me.
May your pain be mine,
and your hopes mine too.

— J.S.


Part of this post is an excerpt from my book The Voices We Carry