I Messed Up. I Hugged Someone.


I messed up. I hugged someone. We’re supposed to practice social distancing, but my friend badly needed a hug. I know I shouldn’t have. I couldn’t help it.
— 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.

“God Is In Control,” But Do Something


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If God is really in control, that means I have to answer to Him. That raises my responsibility to the highest level. And if He’s in control, He has given us real resources to help. That should be motivation to do more, not less. And if I’m not in control, then I can’t do it in my strength, but His. That’s good news. That compels me to move.
— J.S.

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”?”

With Hope Intact


I have to admit I often weep reading the news. It’s exhausting. Infuriating. Heartrending. I always want to do something, but I’m not sure where to start, how to help, who to ask. There are so many ways to help, but it never seems enough. The needs are overwhelming.

One look at the news and it’s easy to get cynical. It’s easy to give in to pessimism. It’s understandable, given our daily trauma, the terrible headlines, and our disappointing leaders. It’s tiring. But often the world is the way it is because too many of us have accepted the way it is. Pessimism has always been a sport for sidelines. I’m afraid that the detachment of pessimism, as fun as it is, is often just laziness.

No, simply “thinking positive” doesn’t make things better. And it takes momentous effort, decades of sweat and tears and rallies and voices, to move the needle towards real change. That has to start with you. With me. With believing that change is possible. With our little corners and small platforms and unseen podiums. With believing that even ancient institutions like politics and the church and social attitudes can be completely transformed.

Optimism doesn’t only see how we are, but who we could be. I want eyes that see that far. The way ahead was lit by others who dared to hope. Change happened by those who first believed it was possible. So we must carry the light for those coming next. We are the next. We are not yet fully arrived, not yet fully home, but we bring a glimpse of home to a world so tired and torn.
— J.S.

Top 19 Posts of 2019

Here are my Top Ten Posts of 2019, from leaving church to codependency to suicide awareness to my favorite female influences.


Runner-Up: I Signed a Book Deal

19) Grace Is Something Different

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

17) The Only Time a Christian Goes First

16) Healing from a Breakdown Over a Break-Up

15) Are You Secretly a Liberal Who Hates Conservatives?

14) What Am I About: On Codependency

13) How Do We Show Love for Hate Groups Like Westboro?

12) Why Do You Love Your Wife?

11) My Favorite Female Influences

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

9) My Greatest Fear Is Death

8) Lessons I Learned from Leaving My Evangelical Church

7) How Do I Confront a Friend Who Is “Sinning”?

6) When You Have to Save Everyone: The Warning Signs of Hero-Savior-Martyr Syndrome

5) Is Suicide the One Unforgivable Sin?

4) The Dangers & Myths of Personality Tests

3) How Do I Open Myself Up to Friends Again?

2) Compassion Fatigue: The Heartache of a Job That Requires All Heart

1) I Am Not My Depression

Loneliness: The Unnamed Pain


Let’s talk about loneliness.

I’m not a therapist or doctor, but as a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen the terrible and awful effects of loneliness on mental health. The problem is that it’s tough to admit, almost embarrassing to say, “I’m hurting from loneliness.”

Loneliness is a double-bind in that in order to find comfort, it requires reaching out to people or for people to be near. But some of us have been alone so long, it’s unthinkable that we can connect with another human without risking rejection—which fuels more loneliness.

The unhelpful reply I hear to “I’m lonely” is “Why don’t you just make friends?” But that’s like saying, “Why don’t you just get rich?” or “Why can’t you just go to the gym?” We’re already in deficit, a lap behind, because we fear connection in proportion to how alone we feel.

It’s difficult to make friends and keep them. It’s hard to have real friendships that are not just functional transactions. Even when someone is surrounded by crowds or well connected, they may be the loneliest people on earth, because all their “friends” are transactional.

I don’t know the answer to loneliness. But I know what the answer is not: We can’t just snap out of it. We can’t just cure it with a party, a bar, a church, a dating app. It requires intentional investment and yes, the risk of rejection. The opposite of loneliness is courage. It takes courage to reach out, to enter each other’s orbit, to risk trust, and to be alone in our thoughts and fears.

Friends, this week may be lonely. This season can be brutal. They can remind you of all that’s missing. As trite as it sounds: You may feel lonely, but you are not alone. May you find the courage to reach out, to enter the possibilities of love in all its heaven and heartache.
— J.S.

Fragile and Resilient: So We Fall and Rise


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Details altered for privacy.]

Up Again


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

More Than All That’s Happened


If you’ve grown up in the same town long enough, most people assume you’re the same person you always were. They can’t see past the past version of you.

I wonder a lot: Are we doomed to our former selves, time-stamped to who we used to be? Will the things we’ve done and used to do always drag at at our heels, a permanent anchor?

There are days I keep imagining what other people are saying about me. I imagine a room full of them shaking their heads. “A chaplain? Who’s he kidding? I know who he really is. He’s not the guy he pretends to be. Nobody like him could change.” It keeps me up at night. I mentally argue with them until I’ve finally proven I’m not that same guy. I’ll spend hours inside my own head explaining my side of the story and why you need to know I’m not a bad person and that I’m sorry for the person I was before.

But you know, no one may get to hear your side of the story. No one might believe you’ve changed. Even when you do the right thing, you’ll be accused of wrong motives. And you are still accountable to the wrong you’ve done, as much as others are accountable for how they’ve wronged you.

But there is a grace that says you are different now, and the old you is dead. Buried. No longer you. Maybe no one will know you’ve encountered the kind of grace that has not just changed you, but made you completely new. Your trauma, your guilt, your past, your labels: they’re taken in by grace, by a love that sees in whole and stays. Imagine that. The world may call you something, but you are more. You are new. You are always more.
— J.S.

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.

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?”

The Dangers & Myths of Personality Tests

Anonymous asked a question:

I’ve followed you for a while. I find solace in your blog. I recently did a Spiritual Gift Test in my leadership group at church. I scored a 23 in Mercy and Administration (out of 25), but I scored an 8 in Faith. The test is a tool to show your best qualities to serve your church. It really struck me hard, as I struggle with what God’s intentions are for me, and what my path is. A lot of the time I feel like I’m just going through the motions. I just don’t know what to do anymore. 

Hey my friend, thank you for sharing your struggle here.

Please know: there are a lot of “spiritual tests” out there, and I wouldn’t trust them all very much. In fact, there are thousands, if not millions, of personality tests and horoscopes and “strengths finders” and “which Marvel character are you,” and while they’re fun, they should never become permanent labels that determine your growth and journey.

I have to ask, who is developing these tests? Is it like every other westernized test with a western bias? Are they evidence-based? And if so, how? How many people have been misled by these things? And in a hundred years when they develop better tests, are we all just doomed today?

The most famous test of all time, the Myers-Briggs, is absolutely not based on any evidence or science at all. It’s also highly binary without any sort of continuum or grey area. And since major companies have been hiring and firing people based on tests rather than interaction, it’s a really big deal that we take a step back from them without condemning ourselves to one singular fate.

In fact, if we take a step back from a lot of books and blogs, many of them can be helpful, but they should all be filtered through skepticism. Authors, pastors, celebrities, and “experts” can offer good-sounding advice that does nothing but sound good. Always, always discern.

Continue reading “The Dangers & Myths of Personality Tests”

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.