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.

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.

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.

To Wait, To Hurt


So my wife and I have been trying to have a child for eight months now. No news yet. I know that eight months is not a long time. I’ve heard it can take years. But—it’s been a little discouraging. Sometimes painful.

I was watching a couple of those cute Disney World videos the other day: a dad plays piano at a Disney hotel while his daughter cheers him on, or a mom takes his daughter dressed up as BB-8 to see BB-8. I love watching that kind of stuff these days. And I didn’t expect to feel a strange, almost fiery ache in my chest. It’s a bit embarrassing. Like vicarious joy and hope and jealousy and wistful delight all mixed up and rolling around inside.

Is that weird? Small? Over the top? I don’t know. It feels crappy, truthfully.
I’m really waiting and wanting to be a dad. I didn’t expect it to hurt this much.

I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of literature for guys who are waiting. I know this is a much harder role for women, and I don’t mean to compare. But it’s hard to know where to go or who to talk to about it. It’s a compound loneliness, when it feels like no one really cares that you’re lonely.

One thing I’m learning in the process is that I don’t control a thing. Very little, really. Miracles are God’s business. I can’t make that happen. It’s frustrating. Humbling. Exhausting. It’s enough to make me pray and do a little light cursing. That’s the language of waiting.

The one thing I’m holding on to is the old cliché: the waiting isn’t wasted. I’d like to think so, anyway. I’d like to think the waiting means something. That it’s redeemed somehow. Is it? I really hope so.

— 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.

The Three Hardest Words


Dear friend: I know you might have had a picture of how you wanted your life to be, but some terrible tragedy swept it away. We all have a certain picture of how we want our lives to be, and sometimes it gets ripped from our grip and smashed to pieces. Our dreams can get crushed in an instant, no matter how much you’ve planned, with irreversible results.

You might be living in a life right now that doesn’t feel like it’s yours. You might be in a different place than you had hoped for, than you had imagined a year ago, a month ago, a minute ago. Your heart will pull for another chance, another door, another world.

The three hardest words to live with are often: In the meantime.
Yet — in the meantime is the whole thing.
If you’re waiting for your “real life” to start after the heartache, or even after good things like graduation or a wedding or when you get to the big city, you’ll stay in a holding pattern. The time will pass anyway. The tide doesn’t wait.
So I hope you’ll consider starting in the meanwhile.

When a dream dies, it dies. We can mourn. We can pound our chest. We can bleed. And at some point, you can open your hands to another dream. I hope you find it. It might even look a lot like your old one: but you won’t. It’s you that will be new.
You can overcome what’s over, because you’re not over yet.
When the ten count is over: you can count to eleven.
What comes next will not be what you had envisioned. I hope you’ll keep dreaming anyway. I hope you‘ll consider God can do a new thing.
You are free to pursue something new.
— J.S.

Stand Against, and Stand For


In sixth grade, I had this friend who was six foot two. He was twelve years old, with wrists the size of my torso. Imagine that: my own personal giant.

He became my voice.

His name was Tripp. I was bullied a lot in sixth grade, but when Tripp was around, nobody tried to clown me. One time, Tripp wrapped his hand around a kid’s head like it was an apple, and no kidding, just like a crane out of heaven, he gently placed the kid on the other side of the hall from me. For weeks, that apple-headed kid had been telling me to go back to China. After the crane incident, Apple-Head never bothered me again.

The thing is, nobody should need a guy like Tripp. We should all get an equal distribution of voice. But that isn’t how it is right now. People get squashed. Silenced. Stuffed in a locker. Told to get on a boat.

Really, I wish everybody had a guy like Tripp who spoke up for them. I wish that nobody needed a guy like Tripp, either. Until then, I’m grateful for the people in the hallway who speak up. Not just online, but in dorms and cafes and churches and check-out lines, when it’s not easy or popular, when it costs something, when no one is looking and when everyone is. I hope to be that guy, too. A crane out of heaven.

— J.S.

Grieve Angry


The other week, a shooting took six lives and I thought, “That’s not too bad.” I immediately felt sick. Because this isn’t normal. It isn’t okay. And I don’t want to get numb, desensitized, detached, withdrawn. I don’t ever want to get over the anger and grief of how “normal” this has become—whether it’s thirty, six, or one.

It’s a national habit to look at the death toll, but shootings really destroy lives twice. At the hospital, we regularly receive GSW (gunshot wound) patients through the ER. Many survive. Sometimes, surviving is worse. The trauma of it. The nightmares. To witness such a thing is a lifelong wound. The death tolls are horrific, but the mental and emotional toll is just as destructive. I’ve been up close with GSW victims and families—and I can’t watch the news with neutral disinterest. I can’t watch movie violence the same way. I will never get the smell out of my nostrils. When you sit among people with bullet wounds, you see most political “dialogue” for what it really is: fear, cowardice, pomp, rationalizations, and self-aggrandizing, all which speak past the victims instead of for them. I hope I’m not doing the same thing. Please tell me if I am. Please tell me what I can do.

I don’t know if anything will change. Again. It seems hopeless. But I want to grieve angry. I don’t want to calm down. I want courage. And compassion. And champions who will make waves so that something will change. God, keep us loud. God, give us strength.

J.S.

What Am I About


Towards the end, when my then girlfriend came home later and later and stopped picking up my calls, I’d get in my beat-down Corolla and try to find her. Windows open, stomach twisting, December air pouring in: I have to find her.

What would I do, though, if I did?
Storm in and madly declare my love? Fight the other guy? Rant and sob and flail as they stare?
How exactly does this scene end?

I drive everywhere. Hotels, theaters, restaurants, subdivisions, complexes. I ball up my fists and strike my own forehead, stay awake, stay alert, mad that I only have two eyes, mad at myself for doing this.

At a complex, I find her car. With the Columbus State sticker. I wait. The sun comes up, a wax smear. A door opens. I think it’s her. She’s with someone. They kiss, I think. I knew it. All this time. I get out of there. I end up in a hospital.

It’s embarrassing to remember this story. I learned the hard way that it’s possible to get so attached to someone that you want to die, that you can’t imagine going on. You can become sick enough in your stomach over another person that your very life is coiled with theirs. And to plant a soul in something so collapsible leads to a life that is untenable.

There’s a codependency so overwhelming that you wait for the other person’s every text, flinch at their every move, hang on their every word, cater to their every whim. It’s a panicked, mindless, gut-squeezing desperation, a constant seasick cramp that craves a look, the nod, their attention.

On the surface, it probably looked like I really loved The Girl from Columbus State. But my over-attachment made me controlling, manipulative, overbearing—and really, I drove her away. It was as much her decision as it was mine. I blame myself.

I learned that I can only love others when I enter into their lives with a surplus, and not to steal their worth for my own. That requires knowing who I am, to know what I’m really about.
I had to ask myself:
Who am I without you?
What are my non-negotiables?
What am I called to contribute?
What am I made to do? To be?
What am I about?
— J.S.

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


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.

Challenge What You Believe


Our convictions can only be as strong as the questions we ask.

I’ve been in places where questions got me shamed, assaulted, and destroyed. Our platforms of social media, church, politics, and campuses might seem open-minded and willing to dialogue, but if you move against the status quo, you’re likely to be called a heretic, sinner, apostate, or ridiculous. Most places will stomp out dissension and cancel you if you mess up a single time. We can play the game of “we are a safe place,” but conflict always shows our true selves.

I’ve been guilty of this, too. I don’t like asking uncomfortable questions, or being challenged with ideas I’ve never heard, or assuming that my precious ideas are too narrow and naive, when really my own ideas have never evolved. I’ve shut down disagreeable opinions not because the content was unsound, but because I was comfortable where I was. God forgive me for covering my ears to a better version of life.

If you’re in a place that won’t ask questions and always reject what you ask, then 1) you might be called to shake the status quo, or 2) it’s time to leave.

I want beliefs that have been strengthened by skepticism, that have gone through the crucible of confrontation, experience, and a choir that doesn’t always echo each other. I want truth that will keep me through darkness. I need a faith full of doubt to make it through the hardest valley. I want resilience born of grit and growth.

— J.S.

The Only Time a Christian Goes 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.


I Hope You Will Hear Me


Eventually I’ll say something that you’ll disagree with. I will disappoint you. I’ll come off brash, inconsiderate, ignorant, and misinformed. Your favorite writer or pastor or celebrity will miss an angle or fumble a point or miss the whole thing. You’ll think, “How could I have ever liked this guy?” We then dismiss and demonize based off one sentence, one phrasing, one particular choice of word. I’ve done it, too. You know, farewell forever.

Maybe it’s for a legitimate reason, and they really did go too far. Then farewell, sure. But I wish we could give a little space for a conversation. Even over coffee. It’s possible this person misspoke because they’re just a person and they don’t always get it right. It could be that they need the patience of dialogue to re-examine what they said, instead of the hasty hate-train that offers no fair exchange. It could be they really didn’t know better, or they just needed a nap.

I want your help. I want to know when I’m wrong – but it’s hard to hear what’s right when everyone is yelling. I want the freedom to make mistakes so that I’m not afraid to learn from you. I don’t want to be afraid that you’ll throw things when I don’t phrase things exactly the perfect way. And really, I’m not sure if you would listen to yelling, either. I’d want the same chance you’d want for you, too.

I know there are some non-negotiables that can never be compromised. I cannot say every “side” is equal or that every platform is good. None of us will ever agree on everything. Sometimes we must part ways. And that’s okay. I just don’t want to judge an entire life over a few degrees of difference. We can disagree and still be friends. Even if we must part, I want to become better from our disagreements, to see what I had not seen before, and mostly, to see you. I will hear you.

— 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.

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.

Forgiveness Is Not Friendship


It’s unfair to rush someone into forgiveness. It’s powerful and necessary, but forgiveness is not a one-time moment that magically seals up the wound. It takes a deliberate, daily battle over a lifetime. That occasional angry twitch doesn’t mean you’ve failed at finding peace; it’s only part of the process. Let it happen. It hurts because it meant something. It has to pass through your body, like flushing out poison. No one is allowed to rush your healing, including you. No one can just “get over it.” It’s your pain, your pacing, your tempo. But I do hope to see you on the other side, where there’s freedom. You can take all the time you need, and I’m with you.
J.S.

Loving “Them.”

The nurse told me that the patient Willard had taken a bite out of another nurse. He had swung at one of the doctors and thrown urine at a surgeon. Willard couldn’t walk; he kept demanding to go home. “Get me a wheelchair, I’ll flop in and ride over you people.” The staff kept trying to get him to stay, to get treated, despite his violent non-compliance, because nurses and doctors have the guts to look past that stuff.

The staff called for a chaplain, and I was the lucky one. I walked in and saw the patient had a tattoo of a swastika on his hand enclosed in a heart.

My eyes locked on the swastika first. The symbol held a terrible place in my memory: when I was a kid, someone had spray-painted a red swastika next to the front door of my dad’s business. Though my dad had tried to paint over it, I could still see it on hot summer days, a scar on the wall and a scar in my head, a mad throbbing declaration of all the world’s ugliness dripping in crimson. I still dream about it sometimes, and in the dream I’ll peer down at my wrists, engraved with the same red marks down to the veins.

The patient, Willard, saw me and said, “Thank God, a chaplain, finally someone who can hear me.”

But I didn’t want to hear him. And a part of me also thought, “You deserve this. I hope you never leave. Then you can’t hurt anyone out there.”

He said, “Look, I see your face, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. You get it? I just want to go home. Fetch me a f__ing wheelchair, would you?.”

Willard got louder. He clenched his fists and waved them around. He went into an f-bomb monologue about the staff, “you people,” about the whole dang world.

I had half a mind to leave. I didn’t have to stay. I didn’t want to stay. I kept looking at that swastika. I kept thinking he deserved to be here, to be sick and sorry and helpless.

When Willard stopped talking for a moment, I said the only thing I could think of.

Continue reading “Loving “Them.””