When somebody tells me, “Don’t worry, God is in control,” too often that’s used as an excuse to be passive. When I hear “God will provide,” that usually means, “I don’t want to help.” When I hear, “That’s God’s Will,” that seems to mean, “Better that guy than me.” These are no better than empty “thoughts and prayers.” At best they’re a cowardly cop-out, and at worst they’re abuse powered by false theology.
If God is really in control, that means I have to answer to Him. That raises my responsibility to the highest level. And if He’s in control, He has given us real resources to help. That should be motivation to do more, not less. If I am not in control, then I can’t do it in my strength, but His. That’s good news. — J.S.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this year, I called the Suicide Lifeline. I was in pretty bad shape. My depression has been a lifelong street fight and it’s always been ugly. It’s not romantic or glamorous or poetic or anything like that; it’s the kind that makes people leave. But most of the time, nobody can tell I’m hurting just by talking to me. I tend to smile real big and laugh just as loud. Only in small quiet moments, when I‘m not “on,” not performing, there‘s a shadow across my face. A fog. I can pretend to be okay for a long time.
I’m glad I called the lifeline. I didn’t talk to anyone. The phone started ringing and I hung up. But it was enough to get me moving again. Even the possibility of human connection, sometimes, is enough.
There is a moment after crawling out of an episode of depression where I can hardly believe it happened. It seems silly, even. I think it’s because life is so filled with wonder and goodness, it’s hard to imagine giving it up. But when depression hits, it’s hard to imagine why I should go on.
I’m trying to hold on to that wonder and goodness. To remember there is a sun behind the fog. It’s a cheesy thing, I know. It’s also kept me alive. The dark always looms, encroaching, and I am afraid one day it will win. But I’m always glad I survived. I’ve been blessed and hopefully have blessed some. I am glad to know life today. By the grace of God, I am here. — J.S.
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.
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 porn. You can resolve your conflicts right now. You can sign up to volunteer at that shelter. You can thank your parents for everything. 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.
In the end, you can’t really 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 social 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 as much as it’s been done to me. It’s a terrible cycle that leaves us bitter, suspicious, paranoid, and completely jaded.
I’ve also learned that I don’t care if you don’t care. I have to love anyway. I have to be patient anyway. I have to be jaded to being jaded. Because I don’t want to perpetuate someone else’s cycle of apathy and neglect. I don’t want to be one more rung in the ladder of indifference. I don’t want to be a reactionary pawn.
No, I cannot force anything 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.
Most testimonies have a turning point: “And then I met ___” or “Someone reached out” or “I got this text at the perfect time.” It seems random, but those people and encounters and messages of encouragement happened on purpose. Someone made a choice to reach out, get involved, get near another person’s heartache, and help them for one more step. It was enough to get them moving again. Maybe it was no big deal for the person who reached out. But to the person they helped, it meant everything. It was the turning point. It was the beginning of seeing new light, of finding a new dream, the start of healing. A little bit of your time and wisdom might turn someone’s life around. I’m thankful to those who pressed in and breathed life.
I took a speech class in college because of my stage fright. The professor, Mr. Johns, was about the most encouraging guy on the face of the earth.
There was a girl in the class who was just like me. She was the class because she wanted to overcome her fear. In her first speech, she burst into tears and couldn’t stop shaking. I thought I had it bad, but this girl came undone at the seams. I was worried that we’d have to call an ambulance for her. She wanted to stop but the professor got up right next to her, nudging her to finish. Some of the others stood with her and we cheered her on, rooting for her, clapping and fist-pumping and even saying “amen” the whole way. She finished the speech.
By her final one, she could do it up front by herself. She knew we were still with her up there.
I imagine that when Moses split the Red Sea, there were two groups of people.
The first group was composed of victorious triumphant warriors saying, “In your face, Egyptians! This is our God!” They were pumping their fists and thrusting their spears.
The second group was composed of doubtful, panicking screamers running full speed through whales and plankton.
I’m a Screamer. I’m a cynic. I’m a critic.
I’m a Peter, who can make a good start off the boat, but falls in the water when my eyes wander.
I’m not endorsing a halfway lukewarm faith. I believe God wants us to have a robust, vibrant, thriving relationship with Him. But as for me, I’ll be limping to the finish-line.
I’m more of a Thomas than a Paul. I’m more Martha than Mary. I’m more David than Daniel.
Yet the Warriors and Screamers all made it through.
It’s not easy to have faith the size of a mustard seed. But Jesus promised that this would be enough to move mountains, and I’m learning to be okay with that.
There are days or weeks or even months when I read the Bible and there are no grand epiphanies.
There are whole seasons of Sundays when I sing praise and feel nothing.
There are times of prayer where the silence kills me.
There are great Christian books and podcasts that I eat up which don’t budge my spiritual life.
There are too many times when I doubt the very existence of God and the sending of His Son.
It can all feel like a crazy lie.
It’s in those times that I ask myself, “Am I out of love with God somehow? Am I losing my faith here? How do I get back to where I used to be?”
But I keep reading my Bible. I keep singing on Sundays. I keep praying. I soak in books and sermons. I serve. I enjoy the company of mature Christians. I enjoy the fellowship of the broken.
And you know, sometimes the clouds part and God comes through and His love squeezes my heart and I fall to my knees remembering how good He is.
Then I read Scripture and can’t stop weeping and I turn on Christian songs in my car full blast and sing loud enough to scare the traffic. I serve with shaking hands and get convicted by those sermons and soak in God’s goodness all over again.
So I’ve learned over time: I wasn’t really out of love with God. I’m just a fragile human being who changes as much as the weather. I was setting a ridiculous standard for myself that can’t be defined by self-pressuring parameters. I was tricked by the enemy into judging my flesh. How I feel is important, but it’s not the whole basis of my faith. It’s wholly, solely, defiantly by His grace—and in that, I think I can finally relax.
Leave your phone inside and walk the neighborhood. Talk with Him. Tell Him about your day, what’s been on your mind, what’s bothering you. Thank Him for the trees and the breeze and the sun. If it’s hard to talk with Him, tell Him. If you’re hurting, tell Him. If you’re mad at Him, tell Him.
You died about fifteen years ago. When I met you, you were screaming in pain but you didn’t know why. You were born almost completely brain-dead; you could only eat, drink, breathe, scream, laugh, smile, and cry. I had the privilege of making you laugh once by making a funny face. Or maybe you just laughed at my face.
Why did Jesus have to die? What does the Resurrection do? Why did Jesus punch death in the face?
The story of those three fateful days in three minutes. And why the Resurrection is just as important as the Cross.
Hey friends, this is a Spoken Word performance that I gave with Yale University Students in CT. About the three fateful days from Jesus’s crucifixion to resurrection, told from the viewpoint of a modern day disciple.