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.

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.

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.

I’m Sorry for the Bad Advice


It‘ll happen. You’ll give bad advice. I have given plenty. And it seems every season, I end up disagreeing with a lot of things I’ve said the season before. So is advice ever really any good?

I’ve met people who will say things like, “A long time ago you told me ___ and it really changed me.” And sometimes I panic. Do I even agree with what I said before? Wasn’t I a different person then? Wasn’t I just saying flowery poetic idealistic stuff that wasn’t field tested? That I wasn’t even living out myself?

Here’s where we need to be cautious. The advice we hear, whether from a friend or blogger or leader or pastor or celebrity or book or podcast, is probably good advice. But it might not be for you in your current walk of life. It might just be for that person, in that season, and they grew past it already. Or their advice was something they just made up, and it was never time tested or proven. It sounded pretty, but would never work in the dirt, in the hustle, in the hurt.

It’s amazing how a string of eloquent and witty combination of buzzwords can truly change a life. But I also worry that those same words can take us down a path not meant for us. Or it worked at the time, but can’t now. Or those words came from a version of myself that was a moron, and has learned much better. So the advice you’re hearing from somebody is just a temporal snapshot. It’s a set of clothes, and you can outgrow those.

Don’t trust me. Don’t trust this. Don’t trust an articulate, punchy, hyped up blog post or TED Talk just because of a few flashy graphics and catchphrases. Discern. Think through it. Investigate. Hear many opinions, not just one. Search yourself. Trust your own tears; they’re speaking. Seek new ideas. Seek God. Seek what is timeless. And don’t be too ashamed of your older self: that person believed some weird things, but those were growing pains. You’ll always feel weird about your old self, but that means renovation has happened.

— J.S.

To Wait, To Hurt


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

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

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

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

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

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

— J.S.

Still You Are


I cannot promise that life gets better. Life can be cruel, unfair, intolerable. People can be downright mean. Failure and rejection will happen. Risks don’t always pay off. You will miss chances and opportunities. Injuries and disease are a real danger. Our brains are often broken by depression and other lifelong illnesses. People will leave.

But none of these things—absolutely none of them—determine your worth as a person. Nothing that has happened to you gets the say on who you are. Of course, life hurts. We’re allowed to hurt. We’re allowed to be mad. We can vent and yell and shake a fist at God. All of that is being human. But all the ways in which life can be unfair do not have a single thing to say about you as a person. You are loved, regardless. You are loved simply because you were born. For me, that’s often enough for the next breath. Looking back, I’m glad I breathed again.

As it were, your life has launched into being, and it is the one song you get to sing. It is a song full of beauty and terror. It is a tree full of colors and crevices. There are wonderful and terrible things that life has to offer. But all of it is yours. I hope you lean into it as much as you can. It’s a crazy and ridiculous thing to be alive. I remember the philosopher saying when we look at “how things are” then we will go mad, but if we see “that things are,” that things even exist at all, we might find joy in the madness.

No, I do not feel loved all the time. It comes and goes, often based on my performance or my mood or from some bad pizza the night before. We are weird temperamental creatures. We are capable of having complete blissful giddy euphoria in one second, then chest-crushing deflated saddening numbness the next. Again, none of these things determine your worth. You are loved through and through. You were loved before you got here. You are loved, outside of your age or achievements or acclaim or applause. You are loved. I mean it.

— J.S.

Believe It


You are loved.

You might have heard that a million times, but it’s no less true.

You do have a Creator. He is with you. He is bigger than your situation and closer than your deepest hurt. He’s not mad. He is cheering for you and rooting for you this very second. He’s okay about all the things before. He sent His Son for that very reason.

You can put down the blade. You can throw away the pills. You can quit replaying those regrets in your head. You can quit the inner-loop of self-condemnation. You can forget your ex. You can walk away from the things and people that destroy you. You can resolve your conflicts right now. You can sign up to volunteer at that shelter. You can have the courage to stand up for justice in the street, in your office, in your home. You can forgive your parents. You can forgive your children. You can draw boundaries and say no. You can go back to church. You don’t have to sit in the back. You don’t have to prove your worth to the people you’ve let down. You don’t have to live up to everyone else’s vision for your life. You’re finally, finally free.
You are loved. I am loved.

As much as I love you, dear friend, He loves you infinitely more.

Believe it. Walk in it. Walk with Him.

God is in the business of breathing life into hurting places.

This is what He does, even for the least likely like you and me.

— J.S.

The Three Hardest Words


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

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

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

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

Stand Against, and Stand For


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

He became my voice.

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

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

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

— J.S.

Grieve Angry


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

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

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

J.S.

Don’t Get Cynical; Keep Hope


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 can’t go down without a fight.
— J.S.

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


When somebody tells me, “Don’t worry, God is in control,” too often that’s used as an excuse to be passive. When I hear “God will provide,” that usually means, “I don’t want to help.” When I hear, “That’s God’s Will,” that seems to mean, “Better that guy than me.” These are no better than empty “thoughts and prayers.” At best they’re a cowardly cop-out, and at worst they’re abuse powered by false theology.

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

Farewell, My Brother


John, I can’t believe I have to bury you this week.

You were one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, fun-loving people I have ever met. You were the best. Easily top five of the human race. You loved to talk. Sometimes you would talk for forty minutes straight without taking a single breath. Then you’d get this sheepish look in your face, a little embarrassed, and you’d say, “I’m talking way too much.” But it was never too much. Ever. I’d give anything for you to talk and talk and talk again, as long as you wanted.

The first time after you heard me preach, you walked up to me and asked, “Why aren’t you famous?” I laughed really hard. But you weren’t laughing. You were serious. You had that silly, goofy, wide-eyed grin on your face. The one that everyone loved. You were that earnest. That sincere. You were always texting me some new insight you had, or a podcast, a song, a quote you heard, a picture of your baby girl, a video of you working out with bricks. You were exactly who you were, all the time. That’s rare. You were that rare sort of guy who was always yourself. You let people be comfortable with themselves, too.

I got to say goodbye to you at the hospital where I work. You were on my assigned floor, even. They say that people can still hear in a coma. I tried to say everything. But I never got to say sorry. I’m sorry that we didn’t have more time. We were supposed to eat Korean BBQ together. We were supposed to hit the gym together. I never told you that I liked to write or had a blog. I had so much more to say. And I’m sorry.

I miss you man. I’ll miss the funny way you turned your head sideways when you laughed. I’ll miss that effusive, embarrassed grin. It’s those little things that make a person which we miss the most. If your baby daughter turns out anything like you, she will be spectacular. A bright shining star.

I love you, man. I’ll see you again one day. I promise. Until then, I will make the most of it. It’s goodbye for now, for only a little while.
— J.S.

To Be Set Free Takes Honesty


Honesty is the first step to healing. It’s really difficult to confront your own ugliness inside. It’s hard to confront your own selfishness; it’s threatening to confess that you are wrong. But it’s only with a reckless self-confrontation that you can be liberated from the lies you have believed. You can see the lie for what it really is. It’s only by stepping back from the momentum of darkness that has swallowed up your vision that you will begin to see once more. The light is staggering, blinding, painful, and even humiliating, but to see yourself as you really are is to begin the path to be set free.
— J.S.

You Can’t Be Too Hard on People


A homeless man once told me: “You can’t be too hard on people. They only know the world they came from.”

I’d like to believe that everyone’s trying their best with what they have in all the ways they know how. Maybe not everyone’s trying their best. But it doesn’t help anyone if we don’t believe the best about them. And that’s my best: to believe we’re trying.
— J.S.

Grace Is Something Different


Grace is thoughtful. It considers a back-story, an upbringing, their trauma and trials, the whole person, and not just a tiny single slice of their life.

Grace brings wholeness to a hasty judgement; it regards my own flaws first, in light of the grace I’ve also been given.

Grace brings what could be instead of what should’ve been. Grace covers my past and empowers my future. Grace does not shame. It does not enable. It does not condemn nor condone, but convicts and re-creates.

Grace confronts the worst of a person and does not shy away from surgical rebuke. At our worst, we realize how much we must confront the ugliness inside. But grace restores there, in the wreckage. It sees what is both our doing and the undoing of others; it sees both our affliction and the pain that was inflicted. It is always healing the fractured fallen weary sinner.

Grace is what we least want to give but most need to receive. Jesus saw what we deserved, but gave us what we needed instead. That’s grace. Not merely unconditional love, but counter-conditional, unfazed, unrelenting.

— J.S.