Facing COVID19 from a Chaplain’s Perspective



Hey friends, I did a video with my publisher Moody Publishers to talk about COVID-19.

I go through five points: How to approach the pandemic from a chaplain’s perspective—dealing with our fear, with each other, and with ourselves—and I directly address those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have lost someone to it.

I hope even a single sentence will help you through this time.
(Also, this might be the first time you’ve heard my voice or seen me in video, I apologize in advance.)

God bless and much love to each of you, friends.
— J.S.

“God Is In Control,” But Do Something


When somebody tells me, “Don’t worry, God is in control,” too often that’s an excuse to be passive.

When I hear “God will provide,” that sounds like, “I don’t want to help.”

When I hear, “That’s God’s Will,” it seems to mean, “Better that guy than me.”

While these statements can be helpful truths, they can be said too quickly, and then they’re no better than empty “thoughts and prayers.” At best they’re a callous cop-out, and at worst they become abuse fueled by false theology.

This may be harsh, but if you just “leave it up to God” and take no action, then your god is laziness and your god might be you.

No, we should never be controlled by fear or worry. We do need courage, resilience, and wisdom. But to rush to “We’ll be okay” or “It’s not that bad” is to dismiss those who are at ground zero, to overlook loss, to ignore the especially vulnerable. It’s to forget our part: to navigate responsibly, to hold ourselves accountable for us and for each other.

I doubt constantly. I have trouble trusting Him. I worry. And I remember the story of the Red Sea crossing, and I imagine two groups of people. Some of the Israelites stood tall and walked with chins high. But some were on their tippy toes, screaming the whole way. That’s me. I’m a tippy toed screamer. I find it hard to trust, to have faith. Yet grace makes room for us all. Grace carries both the fearless and the frail. Grace empowers us to make a step, even we are we most afraid.

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. And if I’m not in control, then I can’t do it in my strength, but His. That’s good news. That compels me to move.
— J.S.

How Do We Combine the Bible with “Secular” Advice?

sunmoonandmyrtle asked a question:

Hey J, I know the Bible contains God’s instructions for us, but in this modern time, I wonder if it’s ok to also look at “secular advice” on topics like developing your career (especially as a young person), money management and general life stuff (e.g. being organised and good mental health). I don’t refer to anything against God, but what if the source of the advice is still someone non-Christian? I hope you know what I mean. What do you think?

Hey dear friend, I absolutely believe that “all good knowledge is God’s knowledge,” and that anything useful to you is divinely anointed.

While we might not see eye-to-eye on this, I don’t believe there’s a “sacred/secular” divide. It’s a strangely false dichotomy. As a Christian, to reject “non-Christian sources” is no better than when the evangelical church boycotts a movie or a department store. If we had to boycott the things we disagree with, we’d have nothing left.

Continue reading “How Do We Combine the Bible with “Secular” Advice?”

If My Father Abused Me, How Could I Ever Say “Heavenly Father”?

Anonymous asked a question:

My father is an abuser and maybe it’s stupid, but how can people can not be afraid of the words “our father in heaven”?

Hey my friend, thank you for sharing so honestly and I’m sorry you experienced such abuse. I hope and pray you are at a safe distance today and that you are recovering.

Your concern is not “stupid” at all. It’s absolutely valid. I work as a chaplain at two places, the hospital and a homeless shelter, and when I address God, at both places I am very careful when I say “God our father.” Especially at the homeless shelter. Many of the low income families I encounter have not had good experiences with any sort of male figure. To say “father” is okay for some, but also devastating for others.

Continue reading “If My Father Abused Me, How Could I Ever Say “Heavenly Father”?”

Why I Needed Parasite

The cast and crew of "Parasite," including Yang Jinmo, Han Jin Won, Kwak Sin Ae, Lee Ha Jun, Yang-kwon Moon, Song Kang Ho, Cho Yeo Jeong Lee Sun Kyun, and Bong Joon Ho arrive at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)


I saw Parasite / 기생충 in a packed theater with a diverse crowd. Looking around, I never could’ve imagined a day in the States when such an audience would watch a movie in my language, with my people, telling our stories.

It really meant a lot to me. I have to tell you why.

I remember in middle school when someone assaulted me while yelling “you ch_nk yellow belly.” Someone shoving me in a hallway telling me to go back to where I came from. Multiple times someone would squint their eyes, do their version of an Asian accent, pose at me like Bruce Lee, all while high-fiving each other. Having to endure that scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, being told it was “art.” Someone in my college history class telling me that Korea needed to be nuked, and “it doesn’t matter which one.” I remember when my dad’s business was spray-painted with a swastika. I remember inexplicable rage when some kid yelled “your dad killed my dad in the war,” and his dad picking him up later after he was sent to detention.

Art, music, film, books: these things have the power to take away our fear, our bigotry, our assumptions. They turn masses into individuals. They turn cartoons into real people. For someone like me, I have to prove daily I am a real person. For art to put my story into public consciousness is allowing me more room to breathe, to exist.

A part of me wishes a movie like Parasite could’ve been accepted earlier. Seeing a face like mine on a big screen has an immense affect on how we see each other. But more than that, a good story, like the one in Parasite, makes us more human. Hearing more stories makes us better, more whole, more gracious. We need diverse stories, and good ones.

During the movie, I looked around. Seeing so many faces enraptured by a powerful story, taken in by faces that looked like mine, I wept. Certainly I wept because the movie was incredible. But I wept feeling something I never had before: a kinship with strangers. Humanization. The image of the divine, seen and known.

After the movie ended, we all sat in our seats for a while. Collectively, our breath was taken away. And collectively, we were sharing breath. Maybe I’m making too much of a movie. I suppose it’s a silly thing to weep about. It only tells me how long I have been deprived of such connection. These stories, they’re important to tell.

J.S.


This was posted on my Facebook here and Instagram here.


How Do I Talk About God with Someone Who Doesn’t Want to?

Anonymous asked a question:

What do you do if every time you bring up God in a conversation someone changes the subject?

Hey dear friend, I would say: Let them. Be kind and let them.

That doesn’t mean you never talk about your faith around that person. But my guess is that

1) the topic of God is painful for that person,

2) the topic of God is repulsive for that person,

3) it is not entirely relevant for that person, or

4) I say this with much love, but maybe the manner in which faith is brought up has not been gentle or understanding.

You cannot force someone to talk about something they don’t want to. I’m not saying you’re doing that. But if they’re changing the subject and your goal is to “bring them back to God” all the time, you’re coercing that person into a subject that they obviously don’t want to discuss.

A Christian’s goal is never to transmit information until another person is persuaded. That’s a very westernized way of evangelism. It assumes that a “threshold of theological knowledge” is what makes a Christian. Modern church evangelism is a memorized checklist of systematic facts, and it seems that once you can recite those facts, this must mean you’re close to God. This, of course, is not true.

Continue reading “How Do I Talk About God with Someone Who Doesn’t Want to?”

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.

Five Months Until Book Release!


Hey friends! I’m super excited: My book is going to be released in exactly five months, on May 5th 2020. Home stretch!

Soon I’ll be launching a book campaign where you can get an advance copy of the book, plus I’ll be live on webcam to meet you, answer questions, possibly present my dog. If you’d definitely like to be part of the group, please message me your email!

Next year in April, I’ll be going to Chicago to give a chapel message at the Moody Bible Institute. And in May, I’ll be at the NY BookExpo in the Javits Center, at a stand with my publisher. Hopefully I’ll get to meet you in Chicago or NY! (Sorry, my dog has other plans. He’s a midnight yodeler back in Florida.)

I would love your prayers during this time. Writing a book is crazy hard. This is on top of a wild full-time job, part-time job, marriage, and yep, my dog. Totally not complaining, it’s all a blessing. But I humbly ask for prayers of strength and rest. Thank you in advance, truly. Please let me know how I may pray for you, too.

You need to know: Each of you helped to make this book happen with your constant presence and kind words. Thank you. I’ve learned so much from your stories and comments and dialogue.

God bless friends, and much love to each of you.
— J.S.

Tell Your Story Even (and Especially) If No One Listens


I was telling my story to somebody the other day and I got to the various injustices of racism I’ve endured, and he told me, “That doesn’t happen. Not anymore.” I insisted it did, and he counter-insisted, “That’s just something everybody goes through, you’re just injecting race into it.” I tried to tell him about the times someone had physically assaulted me while yelling “ch_nk” or “go_k” or “yellow kid” or “your dad killed my dad in the war,” but he kept telling me, “That’s not that bad.”

So I excused myself from the conversation. I felt a bit humiliated, honestly. This was a guy I really trusted, who I was sure would understand. He was absolutely adamant he was right.

I’ve seen this sort of thing with mental health, sexual abuse, family upbringing, classism, gender, religion—you try to tell your story, and a wall comes up. You get the reply, “It’s never happened to me, therefore it never happens.” And you start to wonder: Am I the crazy one? Is it just in my head? Am I overreacting and too sensitive, like they’re saying?

But then I’ve found those who heard me. Who listened. Who weren’t just treating me like a sad pity project or asking out of voyeuristic curiosity. I’ve found safe people who may not have gone through the same thing, but they can literally become the other. They pause to believe.

I’ve also found those who have walked in the same shoes and skin. Sometimes they thought they were walking alone, against insurmountable forces with no community and zero support—until they heard someone say a similar story and they knew they weren’t crazy. That gives me enough courage to keep speaking, to keep sharing. It’s in the telling of our stories we find healing, and each other. You may be lonely for a while, but you are not alone.
— J.S.

The Jesus That I “Prefer”


The Jesus that I want would only serve me and my own interests and align with my theological leanings and plans and dreams.

The Jesus that I need would serve the people that I forgot existed, who lived outside my best-laid plans and doctrinal camps, and he would just as quickly subvert my interests to care about others’ interests above my own.

The Jesus that I want would probably listen to my music, look like my race, match my Myers Briggs, and fight for my ideology.

The Jesus that I need would knock me over with songs I never knew I craved, enter my culture without condescending or conforming, would accept and challenge who I am, and transcend my time-locked ideas of ideologies.

The Jesus that I want would probably die for people who liked me or were like me or were most likely.

The Jesus that I need died for the people who were nothing like him and he loved them, and even liked them, and he rose to find them. He even rose to find you and me: the least likely, because he’s the love we want, and need.

— J.S.

My Favorite Female Influences

purposedinthecosmos asked a question:

Who are some well-known women you respect, look up to or have been positively influenced by? (Christian and non Christian)

Hey dear friend, I really love this question. I’m assuming you are asking me about writers, authors, celebrities, etc, but I have to give a shout-out to my wife, my mom and mom-in-law, my sister-in-law who’s a musician, and my chaplain supervisors (who are all women).

Here’s a list, by no means complete, of awesome women I’ve been influenced by. Truly, I sit in their shadows.

Continue reading “My Favorite Female Influences”

Fragile and Resilient: So We Fall and Rise


I’m always saddened by how little it can take to break someone, because they have already suffered so much. And I’m always surprised by how much a person can endure and keep fighting.

Lisa and Aletha, twin babies, had a ton of complications. One had survived. The other had died. The mother had just lost her own mother. The father had fled.

I had been called up for a baptism, my very first one. I entered the room with a bottle of saline water, feet shuffling. The mother called me in.

“Chaplain,” she said, smiling. “Weird to see a guy walk in instead of walk out.” She chuckled, and burst into tears. Then laughed some more.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “How are you?” “Besides wanting to punch my boyfriend in the neck?” She cackled, loud enough for a nurse to walk by. “It is what it is. I’m so tired of crying. I just found out I have to put my dog to sleep. What a week it’s been. I’ve never had to be so strong.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “Maybe you don’t have to be so strong. Weak and strong are both okay.”

She replied, “I’m surprised I’m still alive.” She grew a fierce look. “You know, chaplain, I’m not religious. I don’t know why I want this. It just feels right. Bless my baby into heaven, and bless the other one to live her best.”

Both the cribs were next to her bed. I looked at Aletha, perfectly still, future interrupted, a snapshot of dreams in a box. My stomach swirled with a very different grief, a pain over all that could’ve been. I sprinkled some water over Aletha and I held her and I prayed.

I thought about how resilient and fragile we are, little creatures born into blinding stimuli, fighting for breath, fighting to the very end. I saw that flat-lines can become summits and a pulse can crash mid-flight, and what crushes one person may sculpt another, and healing is just as hard as hurting. I grieved over all that Aletha would miss, and I was scared for all that Lisa would endure.

After I prayed, the mother said, “That was a weird prayer. So weird. It was perfect.” Through tears, she laughed hard.
— J.S.

[Details altered for privacy.]

Up Again


Trauma does crazy things to your brain: cognitive gaps, inexplicable phobias, silence and shut down. But the soul is so resilient and capable. It has a way of healing around good people, safe communities, and the chance to be heard. Given the opportunity, we get up again.
— 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.

The World Needs Your Anger


Being angry doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It points to something real, something hurt. Rage is often unspeakable grief, the body in defiance of a heinous and hostile intrusion.

We want justice, but many demand it within a narrow definition of coolheaded, reasonable, level-voiced, forgiving, ever patient, neutral “peacefulness” completely without error or passion or volume, within strict suburban parameters meant to feel as safe as the safety that was plundered from us. This is asking me to protect everyone from the pain I suffer by packaging it in a palatable, appealing, articulate platform that informs but never offends, convinces but never convicts, straddles but never stings.

Some anger is wrong. Sometimes it is vengeance. Sometimes pain gets offloaded to hurt others. But other times, we must listen. Sometimes anger and pain are passion and courage. And my guess is that many of us have forgotten the sound of standing up: it sounds messy, loud, boisterous. It’s never clean.

Your voice is important. Don’t halfway your opinion. Don’t back-pedal and soften it up and cater to everyone else. You’ll catch hate anyway. I don’t mean you never say you’re wrong; we’re all wrong, a lot. I mean: be fabulously passionate about what’s right. You’re a drop in this ocean and then you’re gone. Make it count. Stand for something.

— J.S.