If You Hurt, I Hurt Too


I never want to politicize, moralize, or spiritualize someone’s pain.

I am always on the side of the wounded. Where there is loss, I am for the bereaved. Where you are hurting, I want to bring healing. Anything less is making us less human and not more.

It would take only a few seconds to consider the other person’s pain and perspective and point of view. That has the power to heal. The only cost to empathy is losing bigotry, self-righteousness, and pride. Empathy is that good.

It should never be on the wounded to explain their pain, defend their injury, or to forgive over and over the injustices that never should’ve happened but keep happening. Even if your hurt is not my hurt: because you’re hurting, I hurt too.

I want to empathize first, to listen first, to grieve first, and to be angry and to weep alongside. Not lecture, lessonize, or minimize. I don’t want to add burdens, nor demand explanations, nor kick you while you’re down. I want to crawl down there with you.

I cannot understand the hasty, vicious speed by which real hurting people are turned into talking points. I don’t mean the platforms for justice. I mean the ones that degrade and deny. I cannot understand the evil scorn and jeering and mockery: there is no honor in desecration, but only violence to the soul. And while I do not believe we must be forced to give our opinion all the time—so often the silence is chilling, and apathy can be the most destructive force of all.

May I never lose sight of the wound and the wounded. May God forgive me for when I wasn’t listening, for not getting it right. Above all, I must grieve. Through tears, prayer, and action, I grieve with you.
— J.S.

#AhmaudArbery

Even If I Don’t Get It


Once I had this friend who was embarrassed by my laughter. At the movies, he would literally shove my shoulder to tell me to quiet down. At first I just stopped laughing around him. But eventually I stifled my laughter around everybody.

That same friend couldn’t believe it when I was sad about something, or hurt, or not enjoying myself. I was being a downer, I guess. I was interrupting his life.

We went hiking once and he kept telling me to smile. “Why don’t you laugh?” he said. He knew I had lung issues and breathing problems. But he wouldn’t slow down for me, not for a second.

We’re not friends anymore, but here’s the thing: I don’t think we were ever friends. He wanted a customizable, checklisted, wishlisted type of robot that met his every whim. That was all. He couldn’t imagine another person with needs beyond his own. And I was happy to cater to him. There was something about his bully-like authority that I was attracted to, as if I got strength from his domineering. But no, we were never friends. I was his rug, his lapdog.

I could be mad at him, but I’m guilty of the same thing. Sometimes I don’t understand a person’s fears, dreams, and goals, and I judge them for it. I don’t get their hobbies or the movies or music they like or the fact they love quinoa and kale. Mentally I belittle them for being them.

We do this with mental health, gender, race, culture, their stories: it’s as if we withhold permission for people to feel hurt about the things that don’t hurt us. “It’s never happened to me, therefore it never happens” is the most destructive lie that destroys connection.

But I want to get it. I want to get your fear, anxiety, pain, your worries and heartaches and shame. Your whole story. To really listen means that another person’s story is more important than my own right then. But that’s how we grow. That’s how we heal. That’s how we find laughter, loud and free.

I’m sorry I didn’t listen earlier. I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. I want to. I want to hear you, and by hearing, fully see.

— J.S.

When I Ask If God Is Good


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.

Your Hurt Does Not Determine Your Worth


For those who have been severely hurt by COVID-19, whether you lost your job, freedom, have tested positive, or know someone who has:

When you become ill or lose something valuable, it’s easy to tie up your hurt with your worth. When you can’t work or lose your once vibrant health, it can feel like it’s your fault. Physical illness still has a deep social stigma and it can seem you‘re less of a person when you’re sick. Unfortunately, our health is measured like wealth.

I read an interview with a man who tested positive for COVID-19 who said, “I felt kind of dirty. Psychologically, it’s weird, hard to accept. It was hard to tell my family.”

I’ve seen this in the hospital. Patients not only feel physical pain, but an embarrassment about their situation. It’s an almost humiliating dread and shame, like their body has betrayed them. To be stripped of health can send a brutal and confusing message: “This pain I feel is who I am.” And so often they blame themselves, because we’ve been trained to believe that when we’re sick, we’re somehow morally wrong inside.

The thing is, you can do everything right and still get sick. Yes, it’s absolutely crucial we stay at home, wash our hands, and keep distance. Please hear me: these rules are necessary and they mean life or death. But there’s a side effect of any rule: a built-in legalism and judgment. Even when it’s not your fault, the false message we preach is that to fail the rule means you’ve failed at life.

If you end up testing positive for COVID-19, you might be seen as bad or reckless or lesser, as if “you didn’t try hard enough.” Even if you recover, you might get strange looks at the office or from your family. You may feel cursed, stained, unclean.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how you got ill. What matters is that you’re made in the image of God still. Your body and health and job are not a currency for your worth. By grace you are more than the things you lose and the things that happen to you. The grace of God is so that nothing can separate you from His love, that He has no social or spiritual distance from you, that He sees you far more loved than you see yourself.

While you may be cut off or abandoned and it‘s crushing to the soul, the one who made that soul will never leave, never forsake, never stop drawing near to you. This may not fix anything now: but please know, in the midst of an unfixable situation, He is with you. He is always with you, and by grace you are always more.

If you know someone directly affected by COVID-19, my hope is you will see this person from the eyes of grace, that they’re not their illness, that their hurt does not determine their worth. Love them. Humanize them. Affirm their dignity and their imago dei. To see a person is to heal them. See by grace.
— J.S.

The Storm Doesn’t Always Pass


Not everyone can stay home to wait it out.
Some have to keep working.
Some have lost their jobs.
Some have never had a home.
Some will never go back.

Maybe things are “not that bad” for you. Maybe “this too shall pass”—in your world. But someone you know doesn’t have that luxury. Someone you know is permanently affected. They’re grieving a loss, whether it’s loss of their autonomy or a whole person. Our advice doesn’t apply to them, because it can’t.

Stats and facts gloss over real loss. Two in one-hundred doesn’t sound like a lot, but if any two people I knew had died this week, it would be absolutely devastating.

To downplay any grief and loss doesn’t help, and if you keep quoting statistics to show “it’s not that bad,” you’d be the last person I would go to for help.

No, we shouldn’t panic.
But please don’t tell people it’s fine
when they’re not.

The storm doesn’t always pass. Not for everyone. Pain can last for a lifetime. We can only hope to adjust to the new normal. By the grace of God, I will crawl down there with you.
— J.S.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Love Sees a Greatness Even When


I believe that people can change. Not everyone will, no. There are the few who refuse, and we must decide wisely how to move. But holding someone accountable, in the end, is not just to punish them. It’s to see the best of them. It’s to believe in the possibility that they are more than they seem.

Whenever we dismiss someone as incapable of change, we instantly suckerpunch the sovereign grace of God. We are downsizing Him to “those” people and not “these.” Then we’re no longer talking about God or grace or accountability. We’re just exposing our laziness.

No, I do not believe that love enables. It does not pamper or coddle or let off the hook. It’s a chisel that sculpts towards better. And it must contain boundaries, wisdom, and proper distance. But we cannot use accountability as a sledgehammer. It’s not for revenge or holding someone back. Too often we use it as a weapon instead of an aid, as an ends instead of a means.

You know what I mean. I see a person on their first lap of faith and I make assumptions; I see 0.5 percent of a person’s life and somehow predict their future; I see half a story and presume the whole story. But this is a sort of evil that holds back potential, that undermines growth, that destroys a child’s dreams. It’s an ugliness that I’ve experienced from others, who wouldn’t give me a shot, who wouldn’t see past their negative filters and accusations and condemnations, who saw me as a deadbeat nobody with no hope of a turnaround.

But occasionally, love would cut in and open a door. It grew my heart. It embraced me in. Love sees a greatness in someone who cannot see it in themselves. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It hopes in all things, it does not rejoice in evil. It perseveres.

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.