Still Believing the Best


In the end, you can’t force someone to do anything, even if it’s for their good.

You can’t force someone to respect your feelings or care about your passions or believe your dreams.

You can’t force someone to believe your side of the story, even when you’re right.

You can’t force an apology.

You can’t force someone to engage in justice or fight for the poor or to become nuanced in culture and history.

You can’t force growth.

You can’t force someone to show up on time, or even show up at all.

In the end, I’ve learned that people will do whatever they want, even if that means stepping on you or neglecting you or abandoning you or belittling you or choosing others over you. I’ve probably done this to others as much as it’s been done to me. It’s a terrible cycle that can leave us bitter, suspicious, paranoid, and completely jaded.

I’ve also learned that I don’t care if others don’t care. I have to love anyway. I have to be patient anyway. I have to be cynical to cynicism. Because I don’t want to perpetuate one more cycle of apathy and neglect. I don’t want to be one more rung in the ladder of indifference. I don’t want to react to someone’s reaction all the time. And I must believe the best of others, because change does not happen by standing over, but standing with, in trust.
No, I cannot force change on you, and I won’t. I can only pour out what I have. Even if you don’t care. Especially if you don’t care. I’ll pour out anyway. In the end, our lives will have been given over to dust. I’d rather mine will have been given over to you.

— J.S.

With Hope Intact


I have to admit I often weep reading the news. It’s exhausting. Infuriating. Heartrending. I always want to do something, but I’m not sure where to start, how to help, who to ask. There are so many ways to help, but it never seems enough. The needs are overwhelming.

One look at the news and it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to give in to pessimism. It’s understandable, given our daily trauma, the terrible headlines, and our disappointing leaders. It’s tiring. But often the world is the way it is because too many of us have accepted the way it is. Pessimism has always been a sport for sidelines. I’m afraid that the detachment of pessimism, as fun as it is, is often just laziness.

No, simply “thinking positive” doesn’t make things better. And it takes momentous effort, decades of sweat and tears and rallies and voices, to move the needle towards real change. That has to start with you. With me. With believing that change is possible. With our little corners and small platforms and unseen podiums. With believing that even ancient institutions like politics and the church and social attitudes can be completely transformed.

Optimism doesn’t only see how we are, but who we could be. I want eyes that see that far. The way ahead was lit by others who dared to hope. Change happened by those who first believed it was possible. So we must carry the light for those coming next. We are the next. We are not yet fully arrived, not yet fully home, but we bring a glimpse of home to a world so tired and torn.
— J.S.

Top 19 Posts of 2019

Here are my Top Ten Posts of 2019, from leaving church to codependency to suicide awareness to my favorite female influences.


Runner-Up: I Signed a Book Deal

19) Grace Is Something Different

18) “God Is in Control,” but What This Really Means

17) The Only Time a Christian Goes First

16) Healing from a Breakdown Over a Break-Up

15) Are You Secretly a Liberal Who Hates Conservatives?

14) What Am I About: On Codependency

13) How Do We Show Love for Hate Groups Like Westboro?

12) Why Do You Love Your Wife?

11) My Favorite Female Influences

10) About to Get a Therapist: How Do I Do This?

9) My Greatest Fear Is Death

8) Lessons I Learned from Leaving My Evangelical Church

7) How Do I Confront a Friend Who Is “Sinning”?

6) When You Have to Save Everyone: The Warning Signs of Hero-Savior-Martyr Syndrome

5) Is Suicide the One Unforgivable Sin?

4) The Dangers & Myths of Personality Tests

3) How Do I Open Myself Up to Friends Again?

2) Compassion Fatigue: The Heartache of a Job That Requires All Heart

1) I Am Not My Depression

Loneliness: The Unnamed Pain


Let’s talk about loneliness.

I’m not a therapist or doctor, but as a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen the terrible and awful effects of loneliness on mental health. The problem is that it’s tough to admit, almost embarrassing to say, “I’m hurting from loneliness.”

Loneliness is a double-bind in that in order to find comfort, it requires reaching out to people or for people to be near. But some of us have been alone so long, it’s unthinkable that we can connect with another human without risking rejection—which fuels more loneliness.

The unhelpful reply I hear to “I’m lonely” is “Why don’t you just make friends?” But that’s like saying, “Why don’t you just get rich?” or “Why can’t you just go to the gym?” We’re already in deficit, a lap behind, because we fear connection in proportion to how alone we feel.

It’s difficult to make friends and keep them. It’s hard to have real friendships that are not just functional transactions. Even when someone is surrounded by crowds or well connected, they may be the loneliest people on earth, because all their “friends” are transactional.

I don’t know the answer to loneliness. But I know what the answer is not: We can’t just snap out of it. We can’t just cure it with a party, a bar, a church, a dating app. It requires intentional investment and yes, the risk of rejection. The opposite of loneliness is courage. It takes courage to reach out, to enter each other’s orbit, to risk trust, and to be alone in our thoughts and fears.

Friends, this week may be lonely. This season can be brutal. They can remind you of all that’s missing. As trite as it sounds: You may feel lonely, but you are not alone. May you find the courage to reach out, to enter the possibilities of love in all its heaven and heartache.
— J.S.

The Only Time a Christian Is First


When I preach love in a time like this, my words aren’t credible because the church is not. I can’t help but feel the church is always part of the problem. We contributed to this mess.

The church is called to be the safest, most gracious place on the face of the earth. Not perfect, but passionate, with arms open as wide as the cross. I know I’ve fallen short. God help us. God start with me.

— J.S.

It’s Not Always Persecution


If your faith is making you a jerk, throw it out and start over. If your faith makes you want to fight “worldly people” all the time and you‘re always shaking your head at “this generation,” then your god is too small and your god is probably you.

One of the reasons I was an atheist for so long is because I often wondered if religion makes people worse. Objectively worse. Religion seems to set up a battle position in which “I must guard the truth” and “If you disagree, you’re the enemy, the infidel, the heathen, and evidence of the apocalypse.”

Instead of serving the poor and welcoming foreigners and loving the rejected—you know, the stuff that the Bible cares about—money is spent basically enforcing a kid’s fort with passwords and Don’t Enter signs and alarmist war strategies against a phantom caricature that’s only made up to feel like something important is being fought for.

My guess is that some religious folks do not see their faith as a gift that has saved them, but rather as a weapon by which they must “save” everyone else. So then, the kingdom-military-triumphalist language in the Bible is lifted to boost the ego and separate from “worldliness” and to claim that any criticism against the church is “an attack against the family.” It makes Christians look really weird. I don’t mean that in a good way, like “Wow she’s so weird for giving away money to fight human trafficking.” I mean weird as in “He just hurled that venti Starbucks coffee at the barista because it didn’t say Christmas on it.”

Yes, persecution exists. Which is all the more reason that saying persecution can never, ever be used in a comfortable context. God stop me if I ever think I’m being persecuted when I’m really being called out and held accountable. God help me if I ever use my faith to divide, out of superiority, as a lens of cynicism, instead of giving me hope that we are all within God’s grasp, His grace, His peace.
— J.S.

More Than All That’s Happened


If you’ve grown up in the same town long enough, most people assume you’re the same person you always were. They can’t see past the past version of you.

I wonder a lot: Are we doomed to our former selves, time-stamped to who we used to be? Will the things we’ve done and used to do always drag at at our heels, a permanent anchor?

There are days I keep imagining what other people are saying about me. I imagine a room full of them shaking their heads. “A chaplain? Who’s he kidding? I know who he really is. He’s not the guy he pretends to be. Nobody like him could change.” It keeps me up at night. I mentally argue with them until I’ve finally proven I’m not that same guy. I’ll spend hours inside my own head explaining my side of the story and why you need to know I’m not a bad person and that I’m sorry for the person I was before.

But you know, no one may get to hear your side of the story. No one might believe you’ve changed. Even when you do the right thing, you’ll be accused of wrong motives. And you are still accountable to the wrong you’ve done, as much as others are accountable for how they’ve wronged you.

But there is a grace that says you are different now, and the old you is dead. Buried. No longer you. Maybe no one will know you’ve encountered the kind of grace that has not just changed you, but made you completely new. Your trauma, your guilt, your past, your labels: they’re taken in by grace, by a love that sees in whole and stays. Imagine that. The world may call you something, but you are more. You are new. You are always more.
— J.S.

I’m Sorry for the Bad Advice


It‘ll happen. You’ll give bad advice. I have given plenty. And it seems every season, I end up disagreeing with a lot of things I’ve said the season before. So is advice ever really any good?

I’ve met people who will say things like, “A long time ago you told me ___ and it really changed me.” And sometimes I panic. Do I even agree with what I said before? Wasn’t I a different person then? Wasn’t I just saying flowery poetic idealistic stuff that wasn’t field tested? That I wasn’t even living out myself?

Here’s where we need to be cautious. The advice we hear, whether from a friend or blogger or leader or pastor or celebrity or book or podcast, is probably good advice. But it might not be for you in your current walk of life. It might just be for that person, in that season, and they grew past it already. Or their advice was something they just made up, and it was never time tested or proven. It sounded pretty, but would never work in the dirt, in the hustle, in the hurt.

It’s amazing how a string of eloquent and witty combination of buzzwords can truly change a life. But I also worry that those same words can take us down a path not meant for us. Or it worked at the time, but can’t now. Or those words came from a version of myself that was a moron, and has learned much better. So the advice you’re hearing from somebody is just a temporal snapshot. It’s a set of clothes, and you can outgrow those.

Don’t trust me. Don’t trust this. Don’t trust an articulate, punchy, hyped up blog post or TED Talk just because of a few flashy graphics and catchphrases. Discern. Think through it. Investigate. Hear many opinions, not just one. Search yourself. Trust your own tears; they’re speaking. Seek new ideas. Seek God. Seek what is timeless. And don’t be too ashamed of your older self: that person believed some weird things, but those were growing pains. You’ll always feel weird about your old self, but that means renovation has happened.

— J.S.

Still You Are


I cannot promise that life gets better. Life can be cruel, unfair, intolerable. People can be downright mean. Failure and rejection will happen. Risks don’t always pay off. You will miss chances and opportunities. Injuries and disease are a real danger. Our brains are often broken by depression and other lifelong illnesses. People will leave.

But none of these things—absolutely none of them—determine your worth as a person. Nothing that has happened to you gets the say on who you are. Of course, life hurts. We’re allowed to hurt. We’re allowed to be mad. We can vent and yell and shake a fist at God. All of that is being human. But all the ways in which life can be unfair do not have a single thing to say about you as a person. You are loved, regardless. You are loved simply because you were born. For me, that’s often enough for the next breath. Looking back, I’m glad I breathed again.

As it were, your life has launched into being, and it is the one song you get to sing. It is a song full of beauty and terror. It is a tree full of colors and crevices. There are wonderful and terrible things that life has to offer. But all of it is yours. I hope you lean into it as much as you can. It’s a crazy and ridiculous thing to be alive. I remember the philosopher saying when we look at “how things are” then we will go mad, but if we see “that things are,” that things even exist at all, we might find joy in the madness.

No, I do not feel loved all the time. It comes and goes, often based on my performance or my mood or from some bad pizza the night before. We are weird temperamental creatures. We are capable of having complete blissful giddy euphoria in one second, then chest-crushing deflated saddening numbness the next. Again, none of these things determine your worth. You are loved through and through. You were loved before you got here. You are loved, outside of your age or achievements or acclaim or applause. You are loved. I mean it.

— J.S.

Believe It


You are loved.

You might have heard that a million times, but it’s no less true.

You do have a Creator. He is with you. He is bigger than your situation and closer than your deepest hurt. He’s not mad. He is cheering for you and rooting for you this very second. He’s okay about all the things before. He sent His Son for that very reason.

You can put down the blade. You can throw away the pills. You can quit replaying those regrets in your head. You can quit the inner-loop of self-condemnation. You can forget your ex. You can walk away from the things and people that destroy you. You can resolve your conflicts right now. You can sign up to volunteer at that shelter. You can have the courage to stand up for justice in the street, in your office, in your home. You can forgive your parents. You can forgive your children. You can draw boundaries and say no. You can go back to church. You don’t have to sit in the back. You don’t have to prove your worth to the people you’ve let down. You don’t have to live up to everyone else’s vision for your life. You’re finally, finally free.
You are loved. I am loved.

As much as I love you, dear friend, He loves you infinitely more.

Believe it. Walk in it. Walk with Him.

God is in the business of breathing life into hurting places.

This is what He does, even for the least likely like you and me.

— J.S.

To Be Set Free Takes Honesty


Honesty is the first step to healing. It’s really difficult to confront your own ugliness inside. It’s hard to confront your own selfishness; it’s threatening to confess that you are wrong. But it’s only with a reckless self-confrontation that you can be liberated from the lies you have believed. You can see the lie for what it really is. It’s only by stepping back from the momentum of darkness that has swallowed up your vision that you will begin to see once more. The light is staggering, blinding, painful, and even humiliating, but to see yourself as you really are is to begin the path to be set free.
— J.S.

In Darkness He Rolls the Stone


When I ask if God is good
I see a cross, an empty tomb.
What He writ large in the stars
is writ small for our wounds.
From the sky to my sin
He is re-making us again.
When nothing else is good,
He is the only one who is.
— J.S.

Jesus, Barabbas, You and Me


I wonder how they could yell Barabbas instead of Jesus.
I wonder how they sang “Hosanna” and days later, “Crucify him.”
I wonder how Pontius could wash his hands of it, as though a dirty conscience could be so easily cleaned.

But – I am Barabbas, sinner set free.
I yell “Crucify him” as I sing praises with ease.
I am Pontius, who turned a blind eye to glory.
And yet, so Christ still died for me.
Still he died, where I should be,
a perfect love on that tree.
J.S.


If You Say You Love God


It’s super easy to preach “love your neighbor,” but the loving part is crazy hard. I think most people really believe they’re loving and kind when they have to be, but the second someone disagrees or causes inconvenience or looks at you funny, the love thing can go out the window real quick.

What I usually see online or in church or in politics or in marriages is that unless a person fits an exact specification of beliefs and behaviors and likes and dislikes, that person is cast out of the inner-ring. I’ve spent a lot of terrible energy trying to carve others into my own image, overriding their point of view, always waiting for others to “come around.” That‘s no better than hate.

It seems Jesus said that “hate is murder” because when we only accept the people who match our values, we are disappearing them. We’re essentially saying, “Be like me or you don’t exist. I’d rather you be someone you’re not.” This is hate, and it’s crushing somebody out of existence.

This is especially obvious in social media, when one wrong word gets you canceled. But it’s worse when it comes to religion. That’s attributing a supernatural superiority to hatred. It gives an awful permission to say, “God said it, not me.” Which is cowardly. And if your god always agrees with what you believe and only likes the people you like—that god is the one you made up to justify your bitterness and to boost your ego. It’s a push-button keychain god that does your bidding. It isn’t the God who will challenge you, stretch you, surprise you, and who loves the people you can’t stand.

No, we cannot love all the things that people do. Yes, I believe in accountability and justice and boundaries. But over all, I want to love my neighbor for who they are and not for my version of them. I believe not in who someone should be, but could be. It’s the same way that I believe God loves a guy like me.

J.S.

What I’m About


Discouraged, exhausted, beat down, beat up, clawing and falling, it’s so far, but my God, by God, another inch I crawl.
J.S.

God, Be Here Somehow


Flashback. I’m twenty-one. I’m in the hospital. I’ve swallowed half a bottle of acetaminophen. My brother is there. He says, “That must’ve been a hell of a headache,” and we both laugh. I love that sound. In the middle of laughing, I vomit all over the place. It’s pitch black. The nurse had given me a cup of liquid charcoal to neutralize the pills. It’s blasting from my nostrils; my body is ejecting a nightmare. My brother yells for help. I try to tell him I’m okay, but I vomit some more. I think the charcoal is working though. My liver has stopped twisting into my ribs.

I go to a “mental institution,” one of those padded lock-ups with the words “Life” or “Care” or “Point” in the title. I’ve been discharged from the hospital. I lost thirteen pounds in three days. I have to be Baker Act’ed (the nurses keep saying it like that, “You’ve been Baker Act’ed”).

My bunkmate thinks roaches are crawling into his pores. The patients roll eyes at him. We go to a group meeting and the counselor asks, “What’s your goal today?” We get these giant rubber pens with round paper. One of the guys pulls the fire alarm and yells, “I don’t care, I’ll suck it for crack, this is a free country!” Two nurses sedate him. He’s dragged across the floor, sneakers scraping the linoleum, his shrieks drowned out by the alarm.

The counselor asks again, “What’s your goal today?” I write down, “To get out.”

Later that night, my bunkmate wakes me up. He’s spinning his mattress over his head, saying, “Roaches in my bed, my veins, come on, it’s true, it’s really true!” “Hey,” I say. “I know. Let’s look for them, you know? If we don’t find any, we can sleep, how’s that? Let’s look for them together.” He likes this plan so we get on our hands and knees and look for roaches. After thirty seconds he plops onto his mattress and falls asleep.

I try to pray for him. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for him, to think roaches are really in his veins. Never mind that it wasn’t true. It was true for him. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry it hurts so bad. At least you can sleep tonight. God, be here somehow.”

— J.S.

Five Years in the Making.


I proposed five years ago to the light of my life.

Marriage is hard work, a daily deliberate choice to merge, invest, pour out, and share dreams alongside, even when they collide. It’s not poetic or romantic most of the time, not the way we’ve seen it in soundbites and highlights. Real love meets down in the dirt, the grit, the mess of the other. That’s where the good stuff happens.
— J.S.

You can do the thing. It starts with another thing.


You can really do the thing. You can really achieve the dream and pursue your goal and find recovery.

But it has to start with one thing. It has to start with letting go of a lot of other things.

Maybe that means your current group of people. Or one person. Or some late night habits. Or the thing you keep throwing money at. Or an ideal version of yourself that’s just impossible.

None of that is easy, I know. I have this habit of starting new stuff and then I quit halfway through. It’s because I look sideways, seeing what everyone else is doing. It’s discouraging. “I could never be that good,” the little voice says. Everyone else seems better. More witty or charming or articulate. I’m missing “it,” you know, the elusive charm they were born with. So I stop doing all the things. “They’re already giving the world what I can barely do myself,” is the voice that keeps me down.

I have to let go of comparison.

I have to let go of some romanticized self.

I have to let go of the fear that I won’t be well received, the fear of silent response, the fear of crickets and tumbleweed.

You can do the thing. It starts with letting go of fears, habits, harmful people, bad advice, even beliefs we once held dear.

You can really, really do the thing. The stuff that hinders can be shed.

— J.S.

Work in Progress Looking Forward


Trust that God is working something in you now, something you can’t imagine, a miracle beyond proportion.
Look beyond circumstances, long nights, broken trophies, mental arguments, the swirl of gossip, the false self-talk that you’ve rehearsed over and over.
Leave yesterday where it belongs.
Don’t cave in to what has happened to you.
God says you are more than that – because you are His.
As hard as it sounds: you are loved, you are treasured, you are written on the heart and mind of your Creator.
Rejoice and revel in what He has done, is doing, will do.
— J.S.