April Fools #5: Success

“What are men compared to rocks and mountains?” spewed a cynical Elizabeth Bennett.

Perhaps you have heard that line before. It comes from one of my favorite books, the classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, let me paint a picture for you. Elizabeth and her sisters find themselves at the center of thick and complex love triangles. Our poor heroine, Elizabeth, has had the most unfortunate experience of having to deny not one, but two offers of marriage and disappointment at the discovery of her favorite man’s corrupted character, a regrettable event I am sure we can all identify with and sympathize.

Despite the cynicism in Elizabeth’s remark, there is something in it that resonates with me – that grabs my attention and has me unconsciously nodding my head in agreement. In modern day, “rocks and mountains” could be replaced by technology and towering sky scrapers. Either way, what is man, or the products of man, compared to the awesome design imagined by a master creator?  I think her comment takes my viewing experience from mere entertainment purposes and gives it some sort of value because it puts to rest something that is often too exalted. Man. The products of man. And what man longs for and strives endlessly to achieve: success.

Now before you go labeling me a hippie, I am by no means one of those people who regards a Thoreau experience in the woods, away from all modernity and all that entails, as the holiest way of life. I am merely saying that this statement causes me to stop and think, to take man off the pedestal and re-evaluate what I consider his success to mean.

I grew up in a very nice area of beautiful Northern California. Nice suburb with an excellent school system; the kind where your best friends graduate and move on to the likes of Berkeley, UCLA, Pepperdine, Stanford and other top notch schools. You’re nothing extraordinary if you get above a 4.0 GPA. Case in point, it idealizes the world’s definition of success – with the student parking lot containing more BMW’s than I could count on one hand and its graduates becoming world class athletes, students and professionals. As a young woman well-trained in a Christian home and church atmosphere, I was taught not to value the world’s definition of success. So, I thought I had that part of life figured out. Money plus big business does NOT equal a great life. Check. Got it. Move on. I did after all, go against the grain and societal expectations, ditched the college thing and moved to the middle of nowhere Texas to attend a Christian internship. I was met with life-transforming challenges, encouragement, experience and training. Everyone else that bought into the typical life formula were just suckers. Clearly, no one understood not valuing the world’s notion of success better than me.

And then I moved back home, and everything was gone. There was no church community where I was doing fantastic ministry. No weekly mentorship and worship sessions, nights sharing testimonies, challenging physical and emotional experiences. There was just the same four walls of my room, and community college and working in retail folding shirts, while my college friends were off adventuring in their study abroad programs in China and Spain and other exotic places. There were no great quiet times or ministry moments to my heart, no reassurances from the Word that I was on the right path or doing the right thing. I didn’t necessarily think that God wasn’t there, it just didn’t FEEL like he was there. In fact, I questioned it a lot. I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn or missed a “God memo”.

And then I did what the Strengths Finder test told me I am good at. I began to think. I began to think that maybe my perception about what defines success was wrong. Maybe I had used all the cool stuff that happened at my internship in an attempt to hide behind my fear of falling behind in the world. Why wasn’t a smart kid like me in a top school? Why wasn’t the girl who had discipled a group of women for the past year having “intimate” and “inspirational” quiet times consistently (or at all really) in this time of transition?

You see, I hadn’t really swapped worldly notions of success with “holier” ones. I redefined the steps to success in a way that made me feel like I won. I was like the first graders I work with who make up the rules to games as they go to work to their best advantage.

And then I began to think that if I had done that sort of thing, then there were probably lots of other people in the Church that had done the same.  What if the Church had created concepts of what defined a successful Christian life outside of Biblical contexts? You date someone a certain way, you study the Greek and Hebrew biblical texts, you become the head of a department at the church or a of a humanitarian nonprofit organization, your name is known, you make great cookies for Bible studies and pin cool Pinterest pictures.

Living and going to church in Texas (as well as California, but especially Texas), I saw that even fashion among church women can become some measure of success. Even in the Christian community we still desire the honorable and high places. We want the attention, we want to be known as a successful person, in whatever capacity that means.

Now let me make something extremely clear. The above mentioned are all good things. To make good cookies and know the ancient verbiage of the Scriptural texts and be highly regarded by your fellow men are all good things. The Bible praises good character and wisdom as well as the man who is respected at the gates and the woman who can run her household and affairs efficiently. But these are not the definition of success.

We sang a song in church recently with the verse “I was made for loving You.” I started doing that thinking thing again … I was made for loving You. I was not made for college. I was not made to wear cool clothes and look “relevant.” I was not made to be the director of a non-profit. I was not even made for a man. These things can be part of my loving God, but they cannot become my Tower of Babel.

I cannot make idols of the things that point me to Jesus or help me on my journey in loving Jesus. Success is this: to know God, and in knowing God, to become more like Him; it is “to be transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory.” To love and obey His commandments. (1 John)

And that can happen whether or not people know my name, whether or not I lead anything or preach in front of large crowds or host great dinner parties. I cannot pretend to have forsaken the world’s idea of success only to trade it with one that is equally deceptive, that poses itself as kingdom-centered – and might very well have started that way – but is equally as dangerous an idol.

Slowly, I have begun to view my life choices in light of the concept of eternity. Are my decisions going to be easily consumed by the flame? Are they steps that will prepare me for eternity? Are they done out of motives of my heart that will carry with me into heaven?

I by no means claim to be a Mr. Miyagi when it comes to this, and I think success looks different for everyone. It depends on what tempts us, on the individual ways that we find identity and purpose and value. But the possibility of a false sense of success is very real for all of us.

To combat it, I think we need to take a hint from our dear friend Elizabeth Bennett (or her inventor, Jane Austen) and stop and think: who are we? What are our creations or doings or lives or anything, compared to the Master of them all?

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Posted in Culture & Media | 5 Comments

April Fools #4: Love and Twilight

I am a big fan of romance novels. I love them. People getting together despite the odds, cheering on your favorite couples, all in the name of true love? What is not to like? Romance novels get a terrible name. For some reason admitting that you like them is like saying you are a brainless, simple girl who can’t do anything for herself.

You know who I blame for this? Feminism.

Thanks a lot.

But that isn’t my point.

Even though I love romance novels, I hate them at the same time. There is this trend of portraying unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex – men who are super heroes, not just physically, but emotionally. Both strong and sensitive in a perfect balance that all men should be able to achieve.

This is crap.

You know who writes these men? WOMEN. Women who perpetuate this idea of conditional love. They are doing us NO favors.

Let’s take a look at Twilight. I am only using this as an example because this is a book everyone is familiar with. (Before you get out your pitchfork, I am a fan. I have read all the books and seen all the terrible movies.)

Edward loves Bella so much he can’t stay away from her, BUT he wants to kill her all the time. Really? A real man would never put her in danger and he would walk away if he was harming her. THAT is true love. Sacrificing yourself for your love.

Edward is manic depressive, self hating, impulsive, and co-dependant. And this is what we tell young girls is love. Plenty of novels take this route: he’s rich, he’s strong, he’s the best at some physical activity. HE WILL SAVE YOU. But those are not the qualities I teach my son to have, or what I pray over him.

What these books need to say is he is steady, he is wise, he is disciplined, he is committed. But that doesn’t sell novels. That is where we, as women, have been fooled. That is not love.

My husband is the least romantic person I know. He doesn’t show me he loves me with grand, sweeping gestures and extravagant gifts or long talks about his feelings. Actually, that last one is laughable. He has never saved me from scary vampires or werewolves. BUT…

My husband goes to work every day and works sixty hours a week to provide for our family so I can stay home with our children. My husband comes home. EVERY. NIGHT. My husband doesn’t make decisions on impulse, but on prayer. My husband chose to marry a single mother and committed to a life with not just me, but my son. He is my best friend, and sometimes I want to punch him in the . . . arm.

Love is not a feeling that swells inside your chest or puts butterflies in your stomach. Love is the choice that you wake up every morning and look at the man lying next to you with stinky breath and say, I love you despite your pungent aroma.

But we have been lied to by novels –  the cancer of Twilight – and by our own desire to feel the emotion that we somehow correlate with love. I love romance novels, but if I ever compare a fictional character to my husband, I will never pick up another one again.
Novels are fiction. Just as they should be.

Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her.”

My husband gives himself up for me in little ways every day. And that is love. Quiet, unassuming, delicate, and committed. Not in flowers, but in the security of knowing that he is always there, even when I don’t want him to be. Not like Edward, or Heathcliff, or Darcy.

Like Jesus.

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Posted in Books!, Culture & Media, Movies, Relationships | 5 Comments

April Fools, Article #3: Love the One You’re With

I like my Christianity simple these days. I have young kids; I don’t have the time or energy to dissect complicated concepts, and I’m usually trying to explain faith on a preschool level. So the straightforward words of Mark 12: 28-34 have been kicking around in my brain recently. That’s the part of the Bible where a teacher of the law challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, and Jesus answers, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

It’s that second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” — something I’ve heard my entire life — that recently crashed over me like an ice bath. Previously, whenever I’ve heard this passage discussed, the emphasis has been on “Love your neighbor,” with the assumption being that it’s really difficult for us lazy, selfish cretins to look beyond our laptops and love other people. I think this assumption is correct. BUT what recently hit me was the second part, the part that usually gets swallowed up: “as yourself.” Because, if you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, that means that you’re supposed to love yourself.

Did you get that? Let me write it again, verrrrry slowly: I think the Bible tells us that YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LOVE YOURSELF. Maybe this has been obvious to everybody else all along, but it took me three decades to figure out, and it scared the heck out of me when I finally got it.

I grew up as the only child of loving parents who affirmed my strengths, and I grew up going to church. But somehow, whether it was through subtle messages passed down through my hard working immigrant ancestors, or through a church that didn’t place much emphasis on grace, I grew up fooled into believing that being a good girl meant that you didn’t think too highly of yourself. In fact, it was okay if you kind of hated yourself, because you wouldn’t want anybody to think you were stuck-up. And being a good Christian meant that you had to constantly be a little sin sleuth, tracking down your deepest darkest yuck and repenting for it. If you’d asked me ten years ago, I probably would have told you that it was a sin to love yourself.

I think that culture, whether it’s church culture or secular culture, fools us into believing that we’re not supposed to love ourselves or gives us the wrong idea of how to love ourselves. Churches tend to ignore the “as yourself” part probably because they think that’s not the biggest problem in our selfish, consumeristic society. Instead, church culture focuses on waking us up to the needs of others or our own failings (which is not, in itself, a bad thing!). On the other hand, the economy thrives by encouraging us to be self-centered and materialistic, and produces ruthless advertising campaigns to make us feel that we’re not quite good enough (unless, of course, we buy what they’re selling). So here we are, stuck in the middle, with our churches telling us we’re too selfish and our society telling us we’re not selfish enough. Maybe we just don’t have the right words, but “loving yourself” like I’m talking about is much different — and harder — than being selfish or shopping a lot.

Here’s what I mean by “loving yourself”: I mean that you believe, REALLY believe, that what Psalm 139:14 says is about you: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  I mean that you believe that you are — we all are — a beautiful son or daughter of God, with your own marvelous and peculiar mix of gifts and talents, and that you were put here to share yourself with the world.

Bear with me while I clear up some conclusions that you may be jumping to:

1. I do not mean that we’re supposed to be vain and self-centered. Obviously, that would negate the “love God and your neighbor” part. If you’re only looking out for #1, there’s no room left to love others. But here’s what I DO think: I think that loving our neighbor and loving ourselves are two sides of the same coin. I think it’s almost impossible to really love your neighbors if you don’t love yourself. If you’re not okay with yourself, then loving your neighbors will turn into something you do to fill your own gaps. Service to others will become your own personal performance art; you’ll serve other people to earn their love, or to impress whomever’s watching — whether that’s other people or God. There’s also the danger, if you don’t love yourself, of serving others while ignoring your own needs — needs for rest, sleep, food, fun. If you love yourself, that means taking care of yourself so that you don’t burn out.

2. I do not mean that we’re all perfect just the way we are. Loving yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have things to work on, because you will always have things to work on. Our pastor gave a great illustration of this based on the local saying that in spring, Vermont farmers harvest rocks. Because of the annual freeze and thaw, every spring new rocks get pushed up to the fields’ surfaces and need to be dug out. This is just like us; every year I feel like I’ve got something new to clear out of my “field.”  Took care of some of that anger? Great! Now here’s some envy to work on. But loving yourself means saying to yourself, “Sure, I’ve got junk that I have to keep working on in order to become a better me, but I’ve also been covered by grace. So I don’t need to waste time beating myself up for every little sin, because that check’s been picked up, baby!

Al Franken used to do a hilarious Saturday Night Live routine called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley,” in which he played a smarmy self-help guru who sat in front of a mirror and intoned, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I laugh as hard as anybody when I watch those sketches, but when I think about it, he’s basically right: loving yourself means to stop exhausting yourself by striving to be somebody you’re not. You ARE good ENOUGH, you ARE smart ENOUGH — God made you ENOUGH for who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Now you just have to get out of your own way, which means getting rid of self-doubt, self-hatred, and guilt.

Before I close, I feel like I need to address another thing Jesus said, which could be interpreted as an argument against loving yourself. In every single gospel (Matthew 10:39 and 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24 and 17:33, and John 12:25), Jesus says some version of: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to love yourself, but rather that you shouldn’t love your life (in the other gospels, “love” is replaced by “wants to save his life” or “tries to keep his life”). In my understanding, loving your life means that you fear death and/or losing the trappings of your life (possessions, relationships, reputation) to the extent that you’re paralyzed from fully living. But that’s quite different from a healthy love of yourself; you can love yourself and still hold loosely to your life.

I guess the bottom line is: Jesus loves you. He died for you, and you don’t do that for people you’re lukewarm about. If we’re supposed to be imitators of Jesus, that means that you should love you, too. (But love God the most. And while you’re at it, love other people just as much.) If you’re anything like me, you’ll need God’s help for all of the above: loving self, loving neighbors, working on your junk. But don’t be fooled: I’m pretty sure that it’s not a sin to love yourself.

Maybe you can start by taking yourself out for coffee.

Posted in Being a Woman, Culture & Media, Self Esteem, Theology & Philosophy | 2 Comments

April Fools, Article #2: “I’m Having a Pity Party, and You’re Invited”

Editor’s Note: Beth wrote this article before the April Fools series began. I held onto it because it fit perfectly with the topic. Sometimes, we believe what culture tells us about entitlement. Beth does a good job of being open and honest… I’m sure some of us can relate to having felt this way before! Enjoy. (Originally published by Completely Devoted)

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I struggle with self-pity. Maybe it started in my pregnancies—hormones raging, interrupted sleep, excess weight—I would burst into tears as I struggled to pick up something I had dropped. Poor me. And then there was having babies. Yeah, they are cute and all. A joy. But they also are sooo demanding! Again, hormones raging, interrupted sleep, two babies crying at once! What do I do? How do I make it stop? What ever happened to my “me time”?!? I look for someone to blame. It’s my husband’s fault. If he had just swaddled her more tightly she wouldn’t have woken up so much tonight. Poor me.

It really is embarrassing. I mean, when I’m not in the moment of despair I see it all more clearly. Um, at least I have a husband who would try to swaddle the baby. He is an amazing father and a huge support to me. Not only that, but God has blessed me with two beautiful babies! I’m not as bad off as self-pity would lead me to believe.

Helen Keller is often quoted on the danger of this subtle emotion: “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” How true. When I give in to self-pity I am acting selfishly and it paralyzes me. I can’t see anything beyond myself. Self-pity blinds me to the truth of the situation and I choose to wallow in exaggerated lies that exalt my “pain” and “suffering” instead.

My friend once had a prophetic picture of self-pity. The “victim” of self-pity was holding and caressing a small child. She was giving it love and affection. But when one looked closer, it wasn’t child at all. It was an ugly demon from the pit of hell! Self-pity is deceptive and a tactic of the enemy to get us off track.

The solution? I’m still working on that, but I have a feeling it is all about perspective. What will I choose to believe? The truth or a lie? And it has something to do with yielding. Will I be over-taken by this empty emotion or will I stand up against it?

Hebrews 12:3-4 says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

How about that for perspective? As we keep our eyes on Jesus and what he endured for us, we will have the strength to stand in our struggle against sin.

BTW – My pity party is cancelled. No need to RSVP.

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Posted in Adversity, Being a Woman | 2 Comments

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

1. Theater-worthy! See it!
2. Definitely rent it.
3. Stream it on Netflix, if you must.
4. Don’t even bother.

I recently received tickets to a screening of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen in the Sacramento, CA area. I had seen previews for it for months and thought it looked somewhat interesting, especially considering Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor were in it, and it was directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat) and written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). But I thought the title of it was absolutely awful (not exactly beckoning me to purchase a $10 ticket), and never saw it actually come out in the theater. Come to find out, it’s only been released in select theaters, and I was actually kind of looking forward to going to my little screening.

I took my friend, Nikki, along with me for a little girl time, and, despite the movie-goer in front of us giving off an extremely foul odor throughout the entirety of the screening, we covered our noses in our clothing and stayed in our seats, because it was a great movie. We really couldn’t figure out why the film was only a limited release, and even after doing a little digging online, I couldn’t see that it was going to be released wide. However, you may have noticed the poster at the top of this article says it’s coming out April 20th. I hope that’s true! So, even if it doesn’t come to a theater near you, I would whole-heartedly recommend renting it.

The gist is there is a sheik (from Yemen) who has a British assistant/representative of sorts (played by Emily Blunt), and he has a vision to introduce the peaceful sport of salmon fishing to the desert sands of his country. They hire a fishery expert (played by Ewan McGregor) to make it happen, sparing no expense. Really, it’s a fool’s errand, as the fishery expert is convinced, but then the British press secretary gets involved, thinking it’s a great photo op for British “good will”. And, they make it happen, against great odds. In the midst of all of it is, of course, a love story, and some undertones of faith which I found endearing.

The synopsis may not seem all that thrilling, but the story is told well and acted well. It’s a comedic, lovable story with a couple little twists to keep it moving along. Also, the subject matter is quirky, which made it all the more interesting to me.

Now, even though the love story (yes, between Ewan McGregor’s and Emily Blunt’s characters) is very tame, McGregor’s character is actually married – albeit unhappily – to another woman. That was kind of the biggest “bummer” of the whole thing to me. It’s clear the marriage is failing and the couple is really drifting apart, but I found myself rooting for this romance between the two main characters and then scratching my head thinking, wait, this guy’s still married! Why it’s ok in some stories to cheat and in others it’s not is beyond me, but of course we know it’s never ok.

So, despite that moral glitch, it was an inspiring, funny, charming, clean film that was really enjoyable. I say rent it for sure.

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