To Love Is to Fight.


I’m all for love and patience and understanding and compassion —

But there’s also a time to say enough is enough. There’s a time to vent, weep, scream, shake a fist, and to simply be mad. There’s a space when things aren’t okay and the injustice is still a fresh wound and no one is supposed to tell you how to feel. We need to grieve before jumping to commentary and those extra little points of debate and platforms and policy. We need to grasp the magnitude of what happened without rushing to a better place, so we can do the hard work of healing deeply, and to ensure that justice is not forfeited for the sake of politeness. Sometimes love has to be outraged, because it won’t sit down and take anymore of this. Sometimes love has to get up and fight.

— J.S.

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I Was Interviewed by That Christian Vlogger


Hey friends, I was interviewed by the very gracious and thoughtful Justin Khoe of That Christian Vlogger.

We went through some really tough questions and I took a harder line than usual on some current issues. We talk about leaving church, political disagreements, and having a skeptical faith. Whether we agree or not, my hope is for dialogue. I’m open to being wrong and re-informed.

— J.S.

We Wear Casts.


God, forgive me for when I lack empathy,
when I jump to making talking points out of tragedy,
when I forget the pain of community and family,
when my voice is louder than theirs.
— J.S.

Here’s the Truth: Hear the Truth.


If you want any hope of change, freedom, progress, recovery, and growth: you’ll need to confront yourself, too.

The quickest way to not grow is to surround yourself with yes-men, run from rebuke, only read self-affirming bias, and unfollow all disagreement.

I don’t mean we listen to every opinion. Especially not online. I don’t mean we call each other out over the smallest infraction. I mean getting with the one friend who has tears in their eyes, voice shaking, who knows that friendship isn’t all giggles and games, who can say, “You’re better than this.” I still run from it all the time. Hearing the hard stuff is excruciating. But as hard as it is, to admit “I was wrong, I’m sorry, I’m learning, please forgive me and show me” is not the end of the world. It hurts, but not more than the pain of staying ignorant in our ego.

I hope too that we can make space for those who admit they’re wrong and apologize and ask to be further schooled. I hope we can start and finish with grace. Trust and honesty and confession only happens in spaces where we won’t be met with cringing, but embrace.

— J.S.

Love Doesn’t Enable, But Empowers.


I fell for the romanticized, destructive idea in both church culture and pop culture that we must constantly “love and forgive and give away,” a sort of martyr-hero syndrome that guilts us into perpetual generosity.

I spent too many years consumed by the “sacrificial radical love” model of Christianity, which required that I pour out more than I had—but it only scooped out my guts and left me bitter and resentful and exhausted.

To love must include truth, wisdom, and boundaries. Sometimes it means distance. It means knowing when to rest and recharge and to embrace our limits. It always means to have grace for yourself, too.

And to love is not enabling, pampering, coddling, or letting someone off the hook—or it wouldn’t really be love at all. There’s a way to help others that really hurts them because it only feeds into their harmful patterns.

For those who have been abused or traumatized: Forgiveness doesn’t mean friendship. No one should ever be rushed into forgiveness, not for the sake of “getting right with God.” Not for trying to look like the “bigger person” or “because it’s the right thing to do.” We need to recognize patterns of unrepentant abuse and gaslighting and manipulative language that will only guilt-trip back into a vicious cycle. We can never mindlessly open the door again on an abusive relationship. You have the right to say “no.”

God does redeem the evil, yes, but God is for the victims, for the abused, for the survivors, too. God is for the exile, the foreigner, the despised, the despondent who crossed the Red Sea. God is for you.

— J.S.

Squishy Small Brain.


Note to future self:
When you don’t get it right —
Apologize quickly and let go.
Don’t beat yourself up or defend yourself too long.
Humans are squishy with small brains. We don’t get it right every time. And that’s okay. Being wrong is not the end of the world.
— J.S.

No, You’re Not Persecuted.


There is a particular Christianese language that demonizes “the enemy” and “the infidel,” in which “God is on my side” and “They’re holding me back.”

This triumphalistic self-affirming theology, wrapped up in warfare terms and royalty cliches, cannot stand criticism.

It assumes all disagreement is trolling.

It attempts to say “I have the truth” as if truth must be weaponized to hold over someone’s head.

It breeds yes-men and an insider’s club.

It moralizes its own values based on “who we are not.”

It is an anti-theology that covers deep insecurity with little fleeting boosts of ego.

It attacks the most minor offenses in “secular worldly” culture in order to play victim—when sadly, Christians and truly persecuted groups are killed daily overseas.

I’m guilty of abusing the persecution complex, too. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a dichotomous division between in-groups and out-groups, between my church and your church, my dogma versus yours, to feel important, as if by lots of motion I am really moving. It’s easy for me to write a post like this and presume that I’m above all of it somehow, as if by mere awareness I have it figured out. It’s easier to look certain in our convictions rather than say, “I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out,” or, “Can you help me understand?”

In the end, Jesus told us to love our enemies. Yes, them. To them, it’s us. Every person in this discussion needs grace and a generous space. The people who “don’t get it yet” are also you and me. The people who cry “I’m persecuted” need as much grace as you and I do. I pray for me. I pray for you.

— J.S.

Real Dark Jesus


So my church showed this video of Jesus doing a bunch of miracles. Great production values. All non-whites, mostly authentic languages, culturally and ethnically reproduced to how it would look in the first century eastern world.

But — I was amazed and amused by the reaction of the church attendees (most of whom are classically westernized i.e. white). They were squirming like crazy the entire video. Like very, very bothered. It wasn’t hard to read.

I was smiling ear to ear that this video mostly got the “look and feel” of the actual first century east. But soon I became angry and sad that the church was so squirmy because they didn’t see western interpretations of white Jesus on the screen.

I’m sure this sounds silly and petty, but our preconceived ideas of Jesus, the east, and the grit of the first century plays a lot into how we view culture, faith, and “the foreigner.” Whitewashing is a big trigger word that’s overplayed, but it’s real.

And for evangelical Christians who are used to seeing a tall, handsome, blonde Jesus, this ain’t how it was. Not even close. By all biblical reports, he was ordinary, unattractive, unremarkable, and dark. Christianity is built on a guy that most of the west is scared of by default.

I’m super-glad my church risked an authentic interpretation of Jesus, and super-sad it bothered the church so much. I also had to wonder how many normative images I have in my head of beauty, truth, heroism, and villainy—and how these images have harmed how I see others.

J.S.


Photo from Image Catalog, CC0 1.0

You Don’t Have to Be Right: Just Be Right Here



I always wonder about people who keep picking a fight.

It seems they’re not interested in discussion, but only saying the contrarian opposite thing just to stir up a heated moment. That’s a one-way monologue, never a two-way street. It’s usually disguised as, “You can’t handle my truth” or “I keep it real.” They begin with the assumption that everyone else needs to be taught and they’re the teacher. “Wisdom perishes with me” and all that. There’s backpedaling and deflecting and doubling down and twisting words to appear like they were always right even when they’re proven wrong.

I don’t know why. Compulsion, maybe, or an addiction to drama, or the desperate urge to protect a fragile ego. Or maybe they never learned how to disagree with compromise, but everyone only catered to them and they always got their way. And despite trying to correct everyone all the time, they can’t stand to be corrected. They physically act out and justify and defend themselves to death, clawing at every straw to win. Win what? I wish I knew. In the end it only loses all of us.

I’m that guy sometimes, too. But I want to be teachable. I want to assume I’m never the smartest guy in the room. That’s okay. I always want to learn, to be able to say, “I’m wrong, and I’m sorry, and I need your help.” To be teachable is freeing. It means we can actually have a conversation. It matters less that we agree, but more that we build a bridge between you and me, that we can see how we got to where we are and how we can keep going. I hope we stay connected—because I cannot see with my own eyes alone.
J.S.


Photo by Mariyan Dimitrov, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When Should Politics End a Friendship?


Different political opinions can end a friendship—but should they?

How politics, faith, and friendship can fit together.

My post on politics, which was published on the front page of WordPress:
https://jsparkblog.com/2017/03/06/when-do-politics-decide-friendship/

This is part of a series called “Where Faith Meets Life,” covering topics like politics, abuse, marriage, and mental illness.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/user/jsparkblog

Be blessed and love y’all, friends!
— J.S.

The Deal with North Korea



Here’s the deal: If you share any misinformed hype about North Korea, I’m blocking you here and I’m done with you in real life, for good.

North Korean citizens are scared, exhausted, and threatened daily into falling in line. They’re in constant fear of death or worse. They’re imprisoned and tortured for the smallest infractions, and about 3500 die every month from starvation. The very few in power in NK are the monsters, not the people. The entire nation is not some one-dimensional evil entity: it’s comprised of families, and they want peace as much as you or I do.

If your only idea of North Koreans is a ridiculous caricature from action movies or ratings-driven media, then don’t speculate. Either learn or seriously shut your mouth.

Those of you hyping up North Korean panic are exactly the reason why there’s a panic. And yes, you know who “you” are. I’m especially appalled and ashamed at the evangelical American church for fear-mongering and flag-waving about North Korea. I’m shaking as I write this and absolutely disgusted at your antics.

I pray for North Korean citizens. Their liberty is one of the very few times I’ve marched in front of the White House in raising peaceful awareness of their awful conditions. Please pray with me and help however you can. Start with clamping down on misinformation.
J.S.


Photo by Stephan, CC BY-SA 2.0

“9 Tricky Defense Mechanisms That Are Ruining The Communication In Your Relationship”


Hey friends, I was published on Thought Catalog! It’s a post called 9 Tricky Defense Mechanisms That Are Ruining The Communication In Your Relationship. It covers defensive tactics like rationalizing, deflecting, blame-shifting, gaslighting, and other easy-to-spot moves.

The original post is herehttps://jsparkblog.com/2017/03/13/9-tricky-self-deceptive-defense-mechanisms-that-completely-undermine-dialogue/

Here’s an excerpt, the one I’m most guilty of:

6) Value Judgment / Moralizing. Measuring a person’s inherent value as inferior, especially when their preferences or personalities are different than yours.

The way you think is not how things are. Can I say that again? The way you think is not how things are. It’s simply how you think. Your personality and preferences are not the barometer by which the world turns. I struggle with this one the most; I’m always tempted to mold someone into my own image. Even when there are healthy standards to abide by, it becomes a problem when we grade someone’s value based on how well they’ve caught up to them. And surprise!—we rationalize or blame-shift or deflect when we ourselves don’t measure to our own standards. To truly understand another person requires knowing the whole story, and not just a tiny slice of their life.


Read the rest here. Love y’all, friends! — J.S.

9 Tricky, Self-Deceptive Defense Mechanisms That Completely Undermine Dialogue

If you’ve ever been in an escalating argument, you’ll always notice how it becomes a “meta-argument” about unrelated things that are not really the point. The dialogue gets further and further away from the main thing, until you’re both screaming out your lungs and throwing appliances at the ceiling. Arguments, in hindsight, often look embarrassing, full of cringe and regret and wreckage like an irreversible radioactive wasteland.

When conflict comes around, everything feels like it’s at stake: your value, your truth, your work, your very life. So understandably, we resort to self-preserving mechanisms to scratch and claw for our very lives. Here are a few defense mechanisms that get us stuck, and how we can get un-stuck.

Continue reading “9 Tricky, Self-Deceptive Defense Mechanisms That Completely Undermine Dialogue”

When Do Politics Decide Friendship?


lovelyishe asked a question:

 What is your opinion on the stance that you should end a friendship because of differing political opinions? Is there a time when you believe it is best to drift apart from them or no?

Hey dear friend, this is certainly a difficult, relevant question today, as it seems political differences more than ever are not merely a disagreement of opinions, but becoming an aggressively different opinion of human value, with all kinds of dangerous implications.

I’m fortunate and blessed to have friends with a wide range of political beliefs who are open to discourse or even changing their minds. Not every person on the opposite side of politics acts like the caricatures you’ve seen online. There are many, many thoughtful people across the spectrum that do not fall easily into our biased categories.

My concern is not that everyone has to agree a particular way. My major concern is that our beliefs have sound reasons behind them. When I hear the stories of enlisted soldiers, military veterans, the mentally ill, the desperately poor, victims of racism, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates, immigrants (like my parents), and abuse survivors, I can begin to see why their experiences have shaped their positions on specific issues. The more stories I hear, the more I can understand. I can become a student instead of a critic. I can more easily reach across the aisle, not necessarily to change minds, but to build bridges where our stories are respected in the overlap.

Of course, this bridge-building cannot happen with everyone. Sometimes a person’s politics are so explosive and divisive that it seems they only want to watch the world burn (or as it’s said, it’s a zero-sum game). There really are people who cannot be engaged with, no matter how gracious we approach. But unlike the terrible circus we see online, on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr, most people are way more three-dimensional than that. It’s only ever a last, last, last resort that I would ever break off a friendship because of politics.

Continue reading “When Do Politics Decide Friendship?”

Tell Me Your Story.

I was nearly an abortion. I was an unplanned accident, born out of wedlock, and the one before me was aborted.

I was born to immigrant parents, who naturalized and met in New York. They started with nothing, working as many as 100 hours per week, slowly and painfully saving money until they could open their own businesses. They believed this was a great country, and still do. My father served alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War, and he is a proud veteran of this nation.

Many of us have these sorts of stories; they inform who we are, what we believe, and what we fight for, and so we are a myriad of uniquely shaped stories, each giving rise to a different voice in the world.

The really tragic thing is when we superimpose a particular idea on someone without attempting to hear their story first, and their voice is then stamped and smothered. We can too quickly assume a person is only their picket sign, their political party, their social media feed, or a cartoonish, dogmatic, one-dimensional archetype sensationalized by a grab-bag of Hollywood images. We predict what they might or might not believe without asking, without listening, without understanding.

A person’s voice is always built from their stories, their experiences, their very real pains, and it’s this blend of blisters that has brought them to stand on their particular hill. It is a hill, whether rightly or wrongly, that has been reached by a stream of forces that no two individuals can fully comprehend in each other.

So we can only try. Patiently, graciously: to hear their story on the hill.

Continue reading “Tell Me Your Story.”

Top 16 Posts of 2016

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Here are the Top 16 Most Viral Posts of 2016 from my blog, ranging from topics such as porn addiction, feminism, neo-Nazis, being at the bedside of death, and the time my wife and I broke up for six months.


16) The Christian Life Isn’t a One-Shot Deal, But a Walk Painted by Steps

The Christian walk isn’t a “one chance and it’s over,” but a life-long mosaic.


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15) The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out; the prayers go unanswered; we won’t know why.


14) I’m Not Okay. Is That Okay?

I need to know I can tell you everything.


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13) How Do You Keep Believing This Jesus Bulls__t?

I’m often asked how I keep believing, and I can’t believe that I keep believing.


12) A Few Quick Things About Forgiveness: What It Is and What It’s Not

Seven truths and myths about forgiveness.


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11) Movies That Christians Should Watch: The Truman Show

In my movie analysis series, I go over the spiritual and cultural themes of The Truman Show, a deeply tragic comedy about opportunism and freedom.


10) I Hate My Life and Myself and I Want to Die: What Do I Do?

The reality is, our dreams get crushed, and people will leave or cheat or abuse us, and our perseverance doesn’t always pay off. Most of us are not prepared for how harsh and brutal that life can be, because no one gives the hard talk about what it’s really like.


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9) “4 Unexpected Things That Happen When You Quit Porn”

An article I wrote for X3Church about four incredible things that happen when you quit pornography.
(My book on quitting porn is here.)


8) Breaking Up and Getting Back Together: About Me and My Wife

My wife and I had a six-month break-up. We needed it.


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7) Five Husbands

On a whirlwind day at the hospital, I visit five husbands who have lost their spouses.
(My other chaplain stories are here.)


6) What The Bible Talks About When It Talks About Women: A Mega-Post on Those Troubling “Anti-Women” Bible Verses

Contrary to pop opinion, the Bible is one of the most, if not the most, pro-women document in history.


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5) She Stole My Shoes: What Being the “Other Guy” with a Cheater Taught Me About Loneliness and Lasting Love.

A girl gets mad at her boyfriend and tries to cheat with me, and things only get worse from there.


4) You Won’t Like This But I Hope You Hear Me

No one likes to hear the hard truth about themselves: but without it, we will never grow, never heal, never go.


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3) I Held a Swastika

At the hospital, I visit a patient who tried to bite a nurse and threw urine at a surgeon, and happens to have a tattoo of a swastika.


2) 5 Kinds of Romanticized Crushes That Will Mess You Up

When “romantic feelings” overtake you, here’s a little guide to see where that goes.


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1) 15 Things I’ve Learned Not to Say at the Hospital

My work as a hospital chaplain has helped me to know what not to say to patients and the hurting.


The Worst of Me, the Best of Me.

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I believe people are worse than we think.

I believe people are better than we think.

As a Christian, I’m both a pessimist and an optimist at the same time.

I’m painfully aware that we are capable of the worst sorts of evil, and worse, that we too easily turn a blind eye to the real grief of others. Many of us are so sheltered that we deny how deep such depravity runs in our veins. We laugh it off, we whistle past the graveyard, we gloss over the wounded. I’m pessimistic because I see how awful we can be.

I’m also painfully aware that we can be manipulated into thinking people are one-dimensional cartoon caricatures, so much that we become cynical and jaded over the possibility of change. Our very real fears are often exaggerated by a binary social narrative that has us ravenous for blood. We forget that each of us do have hopes and dreams and passions that overlap and interweave. I’m optimistic because I see how harmonious we can be.

I’m hopeful that the best of us, within us and among us, can build bridges through open scars and new stories through broken hearts. That we can give a voice to our uncertainty. That we are on hand one not extremely dismissive, and on the other hand not completely nihilistic. That we validate each other’s concerns and lean into our very real wounds, while not buying into the back-and-forth backlash of answering hurt with hurt.

I am holding space for our fears.
I am holding space for our hopes.
I’m a cynic and a critic.
I’m a believer and I’m with you.
Will you be with me, too?
J.S.


Photo by Image Catalog, CC BY PDM

TV Shows That Christians Should Watch: 24


24 (2001-2014)
Fox Television

Summary:
Over an exact period of twenty-four hours — each episode in real time — federal agent Jack Bauer gets shot, stabbed, electrocuted, tasered, burned, choked out, attacked by dogs, infected by a killer virus, killed twice, and endures various other health hazards all in the name of America. That’s usually before breakfast. He is part of CTU, the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit located in Los Angeles, and we’re privy to the worst days of Bauer’s life. The show uses splitscreen, a running clock, ridiculous plot twists, and a you-are-there handheld madness with zero slow motion for a show that my friend described as “a speeding train with no brakes.” But perhaps the best part of the show is Bauer himself, played in a determined, dogged performance by an incredible Kiefer Sutherland.

Also starring Mary Lynn Rajskub, Carlos Bernard, Dennis Haysbert, Xander Berkley, Elisha Cuthbert.

Questionable Content:
Very dark themes, cursing, occasional sexual content, a paranoid atmosphere, and at times extremely violent, e.g. open wounds, gunshots, broken necks, stabbing, eye gouging, and Jack Bauer not eating for 24 hours straight.

Why You Should See It:
Debuting the same time that the World Trade Center was attacked, 24 was an American catharsis for a wounded, vulnerable nation. It fueled our sudden demand for justice by any-means-necessary. Jack Bauer was the means. He was an unstoppable force, a projection of our twitchy national outrage who did whatever it takes, and became our vicarious Monday night superhero. Everything we’ve always wanted to do to the bad guys, without daring to speak them out loud, he does. At first glance (and second and third and fourth), 24 plays out like every patriotic, flag-waving, terrorist-hunting fantasy.

But the show doesn’t downplay the harrowing effects of Jack Bauer’s methods. He slowly devolves into a dehumanized, haunted soul with nine seasons of regret (plus a TV movie). A life of torture brings about a tortured life. Bauer’s only tether to “normal” is his put-upon daughter, who both loves him and is repelled by what he does. Fans complained that Bauer became more unlikable as the show progressed, but of course this would only make sense: Bauer and guys like him were never destined for happily-ever-afters. He secured such endings for everyone else at the expense of himself, and even worse, for those who got too close to him. This dreary subtext was too often obscured by Bauer’s more sensational tactics.

Continue reading “TV Shows That Christians Should Watch: 24”

Seven Questions to Ask Before Voting


Some questions to ask ourselves before voting:


How will my vote affect the story and direction of our country?

Is this candidate I’m voting for going to help defuse our current racial tensions?

Is this candidate going to hold themselves accountable as an example?

Is this candidate capable of proper foreign policy as well as bridging the divisions between American individuals?

Is this candidate a step forward in the tapestry of progress and history?

Is this candidate the kind of person who can address grief, loss, and prayers with sincerity and movement?

Who are we more or less comfortable with in directing our social and cultural narrative?

J.S.


Photo by Saint Julian, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Can We “Judge Not”? What About Calling Others Out?

Anonymous asked a question:

How can we not judge others? What if they are doing something wrong and I wanna correct them? Does that mean I “judged” them? What if I categorized their action as a sin? Still “judged” them?

Hey dear friend, I believe this is one of those myths that needs to be cleared up with a big dose of nuance and balance.

If you ask most people about the general message of the Bible, we might say, “Love everybody” or “Don’t judge or you’ll be judged!” And those are true. The problem is: that’s way too simplified for our human condition. The Bible also offers many extra layers for us, because we’re all squishy fragile beings with three lb. brains that need more than a sloppy idea of “love” and “don’t judge.”

Love includes telling the truth (Ephesians 4:15, 1 Corinthians 13:6). It includes accountability, wisdom, boundaries, and healthy exchange (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5:12-13, 1 Cor 6:19-20). We’re called to be as pure as doves but as wise as snakes (Matthew 10:16). Love doesn’t mean we let people off the hook, and there are plenty of examples where Bible figures spoke up at the risk of death: Esther, Nathan, Micaiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and John the Baptist, who was beheaded for it. And saying “Don’t judge” is often a hidden ploy that really means, “Don’t judge me because I want to be selfish and destructive without your finger-wagging nagging.”

The famous passage on judging, Matthew 7, actually says:

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

That final verse is important. Paraphrased, it says: First look at yourself, and then you can actually see someone else.

In other words, there’s actually a way to judge someone that isn’t a passive-aggressive, flesh-driven, smug, backhanded superiority, but a sincere effort to see the best in someone when they’re slipping up. It necessarily starts with looking at ourselves first. Am I judging this person out of my own need to win? To just get things off my chest? To just tell them off? To let them have it?

Continue reading “How Can We “Judge Not”? What About Calling Others Out?”