Lent: Jesus Curses the Fig Tree


Mark 11

I went to Christian school only until the middle of seventh grade, and then it was public school the rest of the way.  Maybe this is why when I read about how Jesus cursed the fig tree in Mark 11 I think of Fig Newtons and not fig plants.  Or maybe my education has nothing to do with it.  I am after all, a city girl.  Actually, I remember that the first time I saw a fig that was not in cookie form was when I went grocery shopping with an ex in 2011.  But I digress.

Tuesday of Easter week is when the disciples & Jesus passed by the tree that Jesus had cursed the day before (when he scolded the merchants and kicked them out of the Temple).  As they make their way to the Temple for Jesus’s teaching session, the disciples noticed that the tree had withered as Jesus had commanded it to.  This is interesting given that later in the day Jesus will see the fruitless religious leaders question him about his authority and fruit of His labors, never mind the fact that they have no real authority or real results to show for their work. Because of this, I think the fig tree is a real life metaphor.

You see, many times in the Bible, there are spiritual metaphors.  For instance, in John 4, when Jesus is at the well counseling a Samaritan woman, his disciples come back from wandering about in town and ask Him if He is hungry.  He says to them that he has food that they know not of.  He is being spiritual, but they take him literally.  Speaking to the woman about God was nurishing to Him.  I could be wrong, but I think that when Jesus curses the fig tree, he really does it, but it also serves as a metaphor for the merchants (for surely having a table of business in the Temple had to have been viewed as more spiritual than having a table elsewhere) and for those of us who claim to be spiritual, but who do not have observable results of our spirituality.

I think that this harkens back to the scripture that talks about Jesus pruning the vine tree that bears no fruit (John 15:2). Anything that does not bear fruit will be cut off, because if you’re a plant that isn’t growing, you’re usually dead, whithered up and rotting.  It is like the teacher who removes the misbehaving student from the classroom because she knows that one misbehaving student can infect the whole class with a rebellious attitude which will hinder further academic growth.

I think in the same way we ought to examine our own lives.   We should pray that Jesus would expose those areas in our lives that are not yielding good fruit.  If there is an area of our life that seems to only bring death (Romans 6:23), we ought to identify the bad as bad and cut it off.  Life is too short to be unproductive.  Dead branches are dangerous, so don’t go out on a dead limb!

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It’s Not About the Food

This is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. In solidarity with the 0.5-10% of the female population who struggle with some form of eating disorder (according to the Academy for Eating Disorders), I’m going to reflect upon my own experience with anorexia. (Here’s a complete description of anorexia from the Mayo Clinic, for those who might not be familiar with it).

Last year I revealed in my personal blog that I was anorexic for three years post-college. The only people previously aware of this were my parents and my husband, so it felt like a pretty big revelation. Interestingly, it received almost no response: no surprise, outrage, or sorrow. That’s not for lack of people who care about me; I’m blessed with amazing friends and family. I know it can be hard to know how to respond to an eating disorder (“Uh, sorry to hear you didn’t eat for a few years. Want some pie?”). But I also wonder whether admitting to an eating disorder is no longer shocking.

I fear that eating disorders have become mainstream, acceptable, even fashionable. We take for granted that many girls go through a starving or purging stage, like that’s a normal part of puberty. Emaciated photos of female celebrities are routinely splashed across supermarket tabloids, which shriek “Dangerously Thin!” with sadistic glee; after she’s regained a few pounds the celebrity in question may admit to “taking things too far,” and everyone moves on.

But eating disorders, which have serious short- and long-term health effects — including death — should be shocking. If they’re becoming socially acceptable due to their prevalence and our culture’s perverse notions of beauty, that is sad and dangerous.

One of the pithy sayings about eating disorders is: “It’s not about the food.” That’s true; the roots of eating disorders are self-hatred, control, perfectionism, anger, and a host of other messy things.

In my case, multiple factors converged immediately following my college graduation, creating the perfect environment for anorexia to flourish:

– My college mistakes ripped apart my fragile “good girl” self, revealing my imperfection for the first time. Everything looked great on graduation day: I had nice friends, devoted parents, high grades, and a post-college job. But – story of my life – that was just the outward appearance. In reality, I was — to quote a line from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” —  “stuck…together with glue.”

-The job waiting for me was a teaching internship in Greenwich, Connecticut. I knew nobody in Greenwich. My college friends were headed to major cities; I was heading to the wealthiest suburb in the country. I had almost no support. By day, I taught the children of the rich and famous; at night, I attended graduate school for a Master’s degree in education. Not a lot of time for healthy eating. And in addition to being the wealthiest suburb in the country, Greenwich is probably one of the most anorexic suburbs in the country. It’s filled with the stick-thin trophy wives of wealthy hedge fund managers, who have seemingly endless time and money to work out, shop, and be groomed. Anorexia can be culturally contagious; in Greenwich, “normal” meant being emaciated — and most people want to look “normal.” (I write this with sympathy, as someone who ended up marrying a former hedge fund employee whom I met in Greenwich).

-Starbuck’s Coffee was at its height of popularity, and I found that if I drank a huge skim latte for breakfast, I wouldn’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

-The actress Calista Flockhart, at her gauntest, was starring in the hit TV series Ally McBeal.  So I am living proof of the powerful influence of media on body image. To my knowledge, Calista Flockhart has always denied having an eating disorder, but she certainly looked anorexic. I didn’t think Calista Flockhart was particularly attractive, but she looked the way that I felt; she looked miserable.

Anorexia was ultimately about wanting my outside to match my inside. I hated that I was flawed and messy. I felt so small, and shrinking my body was a way of showing the world just how small I felt. I also felt deeply lonely and unloved. And the nice thing about anorexia is that it gets you a lot of attention; people are always exclaiming that you’ve lost SO MUCH weight, and encouraging you to eat more. Even if it’s the wrong kind of attention, it works.

So I shrunk. I lived on Starbucks coffee, bread, and bananas. I exercised like a fiend: at the gym, on long walks, in Bikram yoga. This lasted about 18 months. And for those 18 months, it was ALL about the food. Relationships, work, fun — everything in my life took second place to obsessive thoughts about what I would eat, and when, and how to burn it out of my system as quickly as possible. Every part of me was hungry all the time, the physical hunger a constant reminder of my deeper soul hunger.

Now remember: I was teaching at a school. A GIRLS’ school. I was teaching elem entary school girls. And THAT still kills me today when I look back: I’ll never know what kind of damage I did as an anorexic teacher of young girls. I had a chance to provide those girls with a role model who didn’t look like a typical Greenwich woman, and I blew it.

The school’s headmistress didn’t look like a typical Greenwich woman, and one day, she called me into her office and gently but firmly told me that I had an eating disorder, and that if I didn’t actively seek help and make visible progress, they’d have to let me go. I can’t remember if she actually used the words “public health risk” to describe me, but that was the gist of it.

That got my attention. Because, despite all the junk going on in my head at the time, I was still a people-pleasing perfectionist. I was still trying to be a good girl. And good girls don’t get fired.

So, I did what she told me. I went to an outpatient eating disorder clinic which set me up with a counselor and a nutritionist. I did what they told me. Gradually, my body got better. My soul limped behind for a while, but I stayed healthy enough to keep my job, graduate with my Master’s degree, and land a teaching job in New York City where I had more friends and support. It was at this point that I met my husband, and re-met God, and they both helped me discover that there was a me who didn’t have to be perfect in order to deserve grace and love.

It happened in fits and starts, but a few years later I looked around and realized that my eating disorder was gone, replaced by a healthy body and soul (still very imperfect, mind you, but healthy enough).

I no longer pay attention my body’s weight fluctuations. I don’t own a scale. I’ve learned to enjoy food because it tastes good. I’ve learned to love meals for what they signify: times to gather and give thanks and nourish our bodies. I’ve learned to value exercise as a way of caring for myself long-term, regardless of whether it results in weight loss. And I’m so grateful for my body, which has borne four daughters.

That’s right: Call it fate, or karma, or providence, but I ended up with four daughters.

So now is my chance to atone for being an anorexic elementary school teacher. While I can’t control what my daughters will do in the future, I am their first female role model. I can show them how to love and care for their bodies, how to be balanced when it comes to eating and exercise. Most importantly, I can try to help them grow into women who aren’t crushed by their imperfections, who have a spiritual core to steady them when life gets lonely and scary, and who don’t need to starve for love and attention.

Let’s not accept that eating disorders are part of normal female development. Let’s remain shocked by them. And please, let’s discuss them openly with our young women. They are hungry, and it’s not about the food.

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Posted in Beauty & Fashion, Being a Woman, Culture & Media, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, Self Esteem | 7 Comments

Post-Holiday Lessons from Christmas Cards and Fudge

This year’s Christmas card photo

Every year, I feel conflicted about Christmas cards. They’re impersonal; many on our Christmas card list hear from us once a year, and at best we send them a form letter. Christmas cards can seem braggy; we showcase our best photo and write a rosy update — no mention of the potty accidents or the fights or the dusty corners. Christmas cards have absolutely nothing to do with the real Christmas, and they’re a lot of work and expense at a time of year that’s already stressful and expensive.

But every year I cave in and create a Christmas card, because I really like getting Christmas cards. (And the best way to get, of course, is to give.) Erick and I have crossed the country twice during our 11 year marriage, so we have a lot of dear friends whom we never see. I treasure the annual cards we get from these friends; once Christmas is over, I cut out all the photos and string them around the entryway to our dining area so that we can remember our loved ones whenever we sit to eat.

It’s become a major challenge to take our Christmas card photo. This year we waited until my parents were in town for Thanksgiving; they provided extra hands AND adorable matching dresses for our four girls. We decided to take the photos out in our yard, which is prettier and cleaner than the inside of our house.

On Thanksgiving morning we woke to find that it had snowed overnight; the temperature was 20-something, which we hadn’t considered in our plans to take outdoor photos, but thankfully our girls are hardy. We’d just have to take the pictures quickly, which we’d be doing anyway with four children.

I set up the tripod, showed my father which button to press, and then with a “GO!” we herded all four of our girls outside for a fast-and-frigid photo session.

By some miracle, we took more than one photo in which everyone’s eyes were open and everyone was looking in the same general direction. I chose a final photo in which everyone except me looks pretty good. (I think I look kind of horsey in the winning shot, but motherhood is about sacrificing vanity, right?)

We don’t have many photos of all six of us, so this was one of my first opportunities since the birth of our fourth daughter to see us together in one frame. And what struck me was this: My children are really small.

I know in my head that they’re small. But because I’m with them all day long, because at the moment they are essentially my job, my children often seem larger-than-life. Their joys, tantrums, struggles, gifts, and flaws — all of these things consume my mind and heart. But there they are on paper: little tiny people. Even my oldest daughter, the six-year-old who now seems impossibly gangly — she barely reaches my armpit.

Our Christmas card photo was a tangible reminder that children are small. As parents, we give them such large spaces in our lives that we can forget how unfinished they are. It’s not wrong to love our children largely, of course, but it can warp our perspective. We imagine that today’s problem will never be resolved, that the way they are now is the way they always will be.

But that’s highly unlikely. Just as their bodies will grow and change, so will their characters. There’s a lot of LIFE that (God-willing) will happen to these tiny little people between now and adulthood.

Which is where the fudge comes in. For our family, fudge is a Christmas food — a recipe passed down by my grandmother, which we only make during the holidays. It’s not difficult to make fudge, but it tends to impress people. Here’s how:

1. Melt a bunch of chocolate chips (2 cups milk chocolate, 1 cup semisweet) in a double boiler. The chips will become a smooth swirl of melted chocolate, and you’ll think you can stop there, but you can’t…

2. …because you have to add salt (a pinch), vanilla (1.5 tsp), and sweetened condensed milk (1 can). It’s the condensed milk that makes things funky. Suddenly, that smooth swirl of chocolate begins to thicken and curdle. Lumps appear. You stir until your wrist and shoulder ache, and you think to yourself, “I’ve RUINED it! Why did I add that condensed milk?!? This will never, ever become smooth.”

3. Just when you’re about to give up and toss the lumpy mess, something happens: All that stirring suddenly pays off, the lumps disappear, and the mixture becomes smooth once more. Pour it into a pan and chill it, and it emerges as gorgeous, melt-in-your mouth fudge.

This year, while I was grunting and cursing during the fudge’s condensed milk stage, I realized that making fudge is a lot like making people. Some say God is like a watchmaker; I think He’s more like a fudge maker.

Children start  like melted chocolate chips: they look good, but their characters are thin. Then life begins to complicate things. The condensed milk of life is heartbreak, disappointment, mental and physical pain, the character flaws that keep getting us into trouble, poor decisions. We see our children experience these things, and for a while they may look pretty lumpy. “They’re ruined!” we wail, “They’ll never come out right!”

But if they survive the condensed milk stage, most people emerge as fudge, with richer characters for having endured some lumpiness. I remember learning, years after the fact, that my father experienced a crisis of faith during my own condensed milk stage (your typical bad break-up/depression/eating disorder): H ow had God allowed his beloved daughter to become such a mess? When I heard that, I thought, “Dad, don’t you understand? That time is what made me! It wasn’t much fun, but without it I’d still be the kid who threw a tantrum over the new color you painted the front door!” (True story.)

So this year, our Christmas card and fudge revealed some valuable parenting lessons: Let them have time, and let them have trouble, and more than likely it’ll come out okay.

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Not At “Home”

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photo via.

Recently our family visited a church that we don’t normally attend. I noticed rather immediately that one of my daughters was not engaging in worship, which is usually a clue that she is either upset about something, or ticked at me for one of our unpopular parental decisions. But she also is the child who does not enjoy change. After service was over, I asked her about it. She listed out all the ways this church is different from our home church, how the way “we do it” is better, and how she is soooo thankful for our church.

Now, she is perfectly entitled to her own opinion. In some areas, I agree with her. And she is a teen, which means all views and opinions are very deeply felt yet very lightly researched. But it presented an opportunity to use the area of worship style to talk about the difference between personal preferences and value judgments.

We need to be careful that we do not judge what is happening in the heart by what the body is or isn’t doing in an act of worship. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance , but the Lord looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7

How we respond to God’s presence has a lot to do with our personality. Someone who is dramatic and expressive will likely respond to the Holy Spirit in a dramatic and expressive way. While someone who is more quiet and thoughtful will likely respond in a quiet and thoughtful way.

The truth is, God does not reserve a special anointing for the people in the front. If going to the front helps your worship experience, then by all means, do it. Maybe you are less distracted there. Maybe you enjoy the music as loud as possible. Maybe you like to move around a bit without worrying about smacking the person in the seat next to you. You are the steward of your own life, which means you get to make those choices. You know yourself best.
By the same token, the last few rows of the church are not actually a spiritual wasteland! Who knew? The person with his head bowed in his seat may not be asleep; he may be having a genuine, heartfelt interaction with the Holy Spirit. Who knows what the Lord is revealing to his heart? What if you are the kind of person who has a hard time focusing in a crowd of people and loud music? What if you interact with the Lord best when you shut everything out around you and give Him your full attention? Again, you are the steward of your own life. You get to make those choices.
We get to set ourselves up for success in life. We can’t control whether it happens or not, but we can position ourselves as best we can to receive it. Our personality plays a huge role in everything we do: how we communicate, how we  recharge, how we work, play, and even love. It certainly has a hand in how we worship.
Worship is, at its core, simply recognizing God for who He really is. Loudly or softly, hands raised, folded, or at our sides, swaying or sitting, it’s all what is happening on the outside. The Lord is dealing with the heart.
This is my challenge to you, to my kids, and to myself. Is it possible that my personality, with its dents and dings and yet unsanctified parts, is playing a role as well? Maybe my struggle with judging others is causing me to observe the outward appearance of others around me, and then tempting me to judge the “true spirituality” of their worship by projecting my own preferences upon it. Maybe that is my distraction. That is my sin.
We all gravitate toward friends, churches, and social circles where we feel like-minded. It’s human nature. It’s comfortable and supportive there. For me, I find that venturing out of that comfort zone every few months provides an opportunity for a self-check in ways staying “home” does not. How do I react when things look, sound, and feel different? What does it bring up in me? Do I, once again, need to humble myself? Can I still worship, pray, learn, serve, and minister alongside and to people who are different than I am? That’s my goal.
Now, I did not preach this whole thing to my teenagers. I validated that there were indeed differences between this church and our home church. I agreed that some I liked, and some I didn’t, and that I was also thankful for a church that she enjoyed being a part of and felt safe in. My husband and I made a few statements about how everyone is different, and how much we like that, and that God is still the same and worthy of our worship and love no matter where we are standing. Then we went out for ice cream.
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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire



The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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

I don’t know if it is possible for me to like this movie more, which, if you recall my review of the first movie, stands in stark contrast. I rarely see movies multiple times in the theater, because, well, it’s expensive and free time is scarce these days. But I saw this one twice, and if I’m being totally transparent, I would probably see it another time.

The second in the Hunger Games trilogy was well written, well directed, had an obviously outstanding budget, brilliant acting with great chemistry, and made some really smart, small diversions from the book that took the story to the next level appropriate for the film adaptation.

For those of you a little fuzzy on the story and why you should see it, it takes place a year after Katniss and Peeta became the victors of their Game, and now it’s the 75th Hunger Games. Of course this means there will be a twist, and, as President Snow is looking for a way to eliminate Katniss, who has become a beacon of hope to a smoldering rebellion movement, he calls back past victors to compete again. As the games move forward, we discover who is on whose side, and this time the enemy isn’t necessarily just within the arena.

Let me start by singing the praises of the actors, beginning with my favorite. Jennifer Lawrence is the new darling of Hollywood currently, and for good reason. Her acting is pretty genius in general, and this movie is another demonstration of that. This girl is seriously committed to her roles, and that’s exactly what is needed for a strong protagonist like this. Her character tells the story in the film. It brings depth and emotion and dynamic differently than in the book, and Jennifer carries the character convincingly. We are able to feel so deeply throughout the story largely because of her. (Pay attention to the very last scene *when* you see it. This is where her brilliance as an actress is so raw and obvious – and she doesn’t even have to say a word.)

The other actors did a fantastic job as well. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta actually won me over this time. In the first movie I thought that casting decision was terrible, but I’ve done a total one-eighty on him. Not to mention his chemistry with Jennifer/Katniss was one hundred percent believable this time. (Thankfully.) Elizabeth Banks as Effie was great the first time and even better this time. She IS Effie. Woody Harrelson took Haymitch to a loveable level. And while I could give a shout out to all the actors because they really were wonderful, I loved having some older talent in there. It brought a maturity to the film that brought the quality way up as well as the intensity.

Moving on, a major thing that stood out to me was that the pacing was so incredibly satisfying. Extra time was spent in all the right spots. Editing (from the book version) was appropriately placed. This way the story unfolds in a way that keeps you totally engaged the entire 146 minutes (that’s almost two and a half hours, for those of you trying to quickly do the math). Just enough action. Just enough character development. Just enough emotion. Just enough plot movement. Just right, in my opinion.

There were, admittedly, a few things I thought were a touch wonky. A few camera angles here and there that seemed like a flash back to the ’70’s/’80’s and made me chuckle. One or two too many dramatic close-ups of Katniss’s horrified face. And then the animated logo closing out the movie before the credits left me scratching my head. I have no idea how that got there. I’d like to think of it as an editing glitch. But these things in no way significantly damage the film!

See it at least once. Or twice. 😉 Let me know what you think!

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