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”?”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Is Suicide the One Unforgivable Sin?


Anonymous asked a question:

My friends and I were taking about suicide and Christians. They all came to the unanimous conclusion that you must be able to ask for forgiveness for the sin of suicide in order to be forgiven for that, otherwise you can go to Hell. As someone that struggles with depression, I was deeply hurt and argued otherwise, that there is grace for them too.What do you think?


Hey dear friend, I strongly disagree with their take. I’ve written on this once before here:

– “Suicide Is a Ticket to Hell” (and Other Bad Theology)

The idea that “someone who commits suicide will go to hell” was invented as a religious deterrent. There’s no biblical basis for it. There’s no religion that really believes this. And if there was, as a human I’d emphatically disagree.

When someone goes through depression, their brain isn’t working like it should. In that fog, when I’m depressed, I’m literally out of my mind. I am not myself.

But let’s say that I was 100% conscious of my decision right then. One bad action does not erase the goodness and love of God, nor does it erase the faith we had in our lifetime, no matter how small that faith had been.

Here’s my guess. Your friends just didn’t know any better. They really do believe in the “deterrent” view of hell and suicide. Or, they don’t have the capacity yet to understand suicide and depression, so they’ve simplified it to, “Don’t do that or else.” Or, their view of God is punishing and merciless, which says more about them than God. Or, their view of God is so inflexible and forceful that they’re afraid to say, “God can forgive that one too,” as if this will offend God or offend their church. Some Christians are so worried about going against tradition that they have to regurgitate the traditional view, or else they would be frowned upon. So while I strongly disagree with them, I have a bit of empathy for why they’re so hard on this issue. But I will never, ever agree with that point of view. The God that I know is the God who loves the hurting, too.

— J.S.


Photo from Unsplash

Through the Fog


Sometimes words or encouragement or sitting with someone is not enough. Depression is that insidious. It doesn’t play fair; it has no rules, rhyme, or reason. It doesn’t respond to life even at its best.

“Reach out to someone because you never know” is not bad advice. But simply being kind to someone is not enough to stop an avalanche. It’s a drop of water in a desert. It’s not as if enough words will suddenly activate a lever that stops depression in its tracks. It shouldn’t be on family or friends to find a magical threshold, as if the right amount or combination of words was ever going to help.

Being a presence, to be there for someone, is always enough to give—but it may not always be enough to save.
You may not feel adequate enough to help someone who struggles with depression, but that was always true: you can’t be enough all the time.

We cannot cure terminal, and some sorrows only get healed by heaven. That’s a terrible, awful, unfair truth. But God forbid if I ever go that way, I hope you will be released from the guilt of thinking that it was up to you somehow.
When I enter that fog of depression, I’m always aware this might be it. This might be the one that wins. I wish I could tell you that your prayers and messages and books and casseroles and pizza dates and medicine and therapy and holding my tears will get me to the other side. So far, it’s worked. One day, I don’t know. I hope to God it will keep working. For one more day, I hope so. To experience your love and laughter and kindness is still worth it to suffer this fog.

— 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.

I Signed a Book Deal


Hey friends! I’m excited to announce that a few months ago, I signed a book deal with Moody Publishers. I’ll be under their imprint Northfield Publishing, which also publishes the bestseller The Five Love Languages.

My book will be called The Voices We Carry: Finding Your One True Voice in a World of Clamor and Noise. I talk about wrestling with different voices including self-doubt, people-pleasing, trauma, grief, and family dynamics, and finding your voice amidst mixed messages. The book is also memoir-ish and goes through my journey as a hospital chaplain, my strange Asian-American upbringing, and constantly questioning if I’m wearing pants right now.

Along with my wife, parents, and brother, I’ve dedicated the book to my dear friend John Edgerton, who passed away a couple months ago.

I recently met the Moody Team in Chicago and they’re a fantastic, spectacular, and absolutely dedicated group of people. (I also got them to do the wow face.) I felt truly loved and heard. While they work with hundreds, even thousands of people, they spoke with me as if I was their one and only client. It’s not something you can fake. I really appreciate their push towards diversity and that they’ve given me the freedom to write with my whole self, no holding back, with the ugliest parts of my story. They championed and advocated for authenticity the whole way. I’m glad to be partnering with Moody and I can’t wait for you to read the book.

The release date is May of 2020, just nine months away. Be on the lookout for a launch campaign, for podcast and radio interviews, and for free content.

God bless, friends, and much love to each of you. Thank you for being a part of the journey here.
— 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.

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

Anonymous asked a question:

Hey there. so I’m going to be starting counseling soon and I’m kind of anxious about it. Do you have any advice on opening up to a new medical professional?

Hey dear friend, that’s great news you’re getting counseling. If it were up to me, I wish we could all have a mental health scholarship to get a counselor.

In my experience here’s what I’ve found to be helpful in a therapeutic alliance. It’s a lot, but of course, you don’t have to memorize these or anything. Maybe even one thing here will give you some peace. And friends, if I missed anything, please comment below.

Continue reading “About to Get a Therapist: How Do I Do This?”

How Do I Open Myself Up to Friends Again?

Anonymous asked a question:

I read a text post from you about wanting friendship just for appreciation of the person, not opportunism. I used to be like that. But somehow through the hurt I’ve accumulated from people, real relationships feel too fragile. To cope, I found myself using people for clear defined reasons, than sentimentality. It has kept me safe, but I feel like I’ve lost a part of my humanity too. How can I love people for who they are despite the total possibility of being letdown?

Hey dear friend, thank you for your very honest message.

I went through a very similar phase where for years, I couldn’t trust anyone. I had been brutally hurt by a church and I never thought I would recover. I did. It took a ton of therapy and self-examination and safe people to get there.

Continue reading “How Do I Open Myself Up to Friends Again?”

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.

I Am Not My Depression

Anonymous asked a question:

Hi J.S., as someone who has been diagnosed with depression, GAD, and PTSD, your writing has been a huge comfort. I wanted to ask this – have you come to accept your battle with depression? I still struggle to accept that my mood is out of my control. My faith has been rocked after the past few years of intense battling. I still get discouraged when I think that I have to work so hard to feel “normal” and even then, normalcy isn’t guaranteed. How do you continue to trust God and fight through?

Hey dear friend, first I want to encourage you: You are loved, you are incredible, you’re doing great.

My answer to your question, “Have you come to accept your battle with depression?” is both Yes and No.

Yes, I recognize that my brain is broken. Something essential to my well-being will always be missing. I will, out of nowhere, seemingly at random, fall into the abyss for long seasons. One day, my depression might win. I have accepted it as much as any person can accept they are mortally wounded. I have accepted the hand I’ve been dealt.

But no, I do not accept my depression. I am angry. I am livid. I am insulted by it. I hate what it does to my friends and family. And I have to fight. It’s exhausting. But I have to scream no. And I think part of my non-acceptance is what keeps me alive. I do not accept that God wanted this for me. I am open to therapy, to medicine, to every treatment available. I have to fight.

Continue reading “I Am Not My Depression”

Only Heroes and Monsters


No one is the one-dimensional, evil caricature that they’re painted to be.
No one is the shiny version of a person that’s worshiped on a pedestal.
It’s easier to hate a cartoon-parody idea; to denigrate a hologram; to blast the artificial; to praise the effigy. It’s easier to demonize a faceless, disembodied, phantom enemy.
If you and I could sit down for coffee, we would discover hidden layers, messy dimensions, buried motives, unspeakable trauma, two fractured people hanging on.
We are wildly struggling, conflicted, complex.
We are not wholly evil nor holy good.
Yes, monsters deserve justice for their crimes. Heroes deserve more applause. But I will pause to consider that we are often both. We can be our own worst enemy, and we are just as capable of being our own heroes, overcoming the worst of us with the best in us.
Across a table, chair to chair, eye to eye, we might disagree—but I hope we will learn how we came to be. To hear the whole story.
— J.S.

God, Be Here Somehow


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

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

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

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

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

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

— J.S.

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.