June 2013

You Are Not Your Picture

I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.

Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.

We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures.  Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.

On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”

My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.

As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.

Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.

But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.

A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.

A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.

A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.

As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.

Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.


War and Peace, What’s it Good For?

Disclaimer: I’m going to get a little Andy Rooney on you (but I feel entitled after all the time I’ve put into reading this book). I am definitely not a qualified literary critic, so just take my words for what they are, a rant of a girl who doesn’t feel she’s gotten a good return on her investment.

A few nights ago, my family shared a hotel room on our way to Prince Edward Island, and my brother was concerned he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“Mom, do you have any sleeping medicine?” he asked.

I looked over at him, lifted up my two-hundred pound tome and said, “You can have my copy of War and Peace.”

“Why are you reading that book? Seriously?” I have fielded this question many times in the last three weeks, and the answer, “because I want to read all of Tolstoy’s great works” now convinces myself even less than it convinces my friends and family.

In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry tricks Elaine that Tolstoy originally wanted to name his magnum opus War, What’s it Good For, instead of War and Peace. After reading almost 900 pages and being none too impressed, I am inclined to meld the two titles. This may sound like blasphemy to loyal Tolstoyans (not the cult, just his faithful readers), but if War and Peace were submitted to a publisher today, I suspect it might be trashed.

With no real sense of plot, long, drawn out descriptions of the exact set-up for every single battle, and random philosophical musings that border on dreamlike stream of consciousness makes War and Peace one of the novels that I am sure I will not endeavor to read in the original. Tolstoy himself did say that War and Peace wasn’t supposed to be a novel, but to me, that seems like a bit of a cop out, a loophole that allows him to do whatever the heck he wanted and string readers along for an agonizing 1220 pages. But I am not one to give up, so I will keep pushing through the last 300 pages.

Reading War and Peace is like fishing: you sit there for a long time hoping to latch on to something good. Sometimes it happens, but

Front page of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, f...
Front page of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, first edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

often it doesn’t. The book does have its redeeming moments, and these are so great that they make you almost forget how boring the last 100 pages have been. I imagine it’s somewhat like how a new mother forgets the pain of childbirth while holding her newborn for the first time. And I actually do love the characters; they are so well-developed that you feel you may have actually met them, and Tolstoy has the gift of giving each of his hundreds of creations a defining nuance. It is just that so much of the book doesn’t focus on the individual characters, but on the details of (not surprisingly) the war.

If War and Peace was the first piece of Russian lit I had picked up, I probably would have given up. I love Anna Karenina. I really like The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And I wanted to be able to say that I like War and Peace. So far, not so good. But who knows, I still have 300 pages left; maybe the ending will redeem the many hours spent with the soporific volume, wishing that Napoleon Bonaparte would just give up already…

In the Land of Anne

The sand here is like cinnamon, and the quiet is vast and freeing.

The view from the beach by our cabin. Photo Credit: Blake Johnson. Check out his blog here.

The family has just settled in for the week at a little oceanside cabin in Prince Edward Island, the home of one of my favorite fictional characters, Anne of Green Gables.

I have always felt a special connection to the overly dramatic, hopelessly romantic, prone to misadventures redhead, and as I have grown up, my story has mirrored hers in many ways.

My family and closest friends will tell you that I share Anne’s penchant for dramatic, melancholy musings; I long ago adopted her phrases “the depths of despair,” “kindred spirit,” and “bosom friend” into my vocabulary. Sometimes when I feel that no one else understands, I comfort myself with the thought that Anne would. I am blessed to have a “bosom friend,” and our relationship reminds me a lot of Anne and Diana’s. Like Anne, I dream of becoming a published author and I am leaving home to become a teacher in a new place. If you haven’t seen the film, this short trailer will give you an idea of Anne’s character:

One of my favorite Anne moments is when she shatters her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.

I have never smashed a slate over a boy’s head, but I did do something similar. In seventh grade, I had quite the crush on my pastor’s son, and at youth group, he would not let me get a word in edgewise while I tried to tell a story. He kept guffawing, his husky twelve year-old voice drowning out my own. In a desperate attempt to both shut him up and get his attention, I smashed my Styrofoam bowl full of nacho cheesier Doritos hard on top of the boy’s head. From his reaction, I think it hurt. Unlike with Anne and Gilbert, that relationship never did work out…

I have also gotten injured because of my pride. After being dared, Anne tries to walk the ridge of a roof and sprains her ankle. In order to prove to a friend that I was “adventurous,” I tried to land an ice skating move that I had no business attempting. I spent that night with a scary Russian dentist name Konstantine who sewed up my chin. You can read about it here.

It is wonderful to finally experience the enchanting island that has captured me again and again every time I have popped in one of our old Anne VHSs. I am looking forward to seeing life as Anne saw it. Let’s just hope that this doesn’t happen:

But Being Unequally Yoked Is So Romantic!

If you have grown up in Christian circles, you are probably familiar with the term “unequally yoked.” This phrase comes from 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, which states:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”

Growing up, I heard these verses over and over concerning romantic relationships, and they made complete logical sense. I mean, if my purpose in life is to know, glorify and serve Jesus, then why would I want to unite myself with a man who spits on the cross with his life, who scoffs at getting “too radical” over faith in Christ? At my heart of hearts, I want to marry a man whose life is Christ and who will be a spiritual leader to me and my family. Yet despite my desire to only find my heart drawn to men who are passionate about the gospel and becoming like Christ, I have been deceived.

Like Eve in the garden, I have become convinced that the forbidden is the best, and that only outside of the boundaries will I find identity and fulfillment. And like all the best deceptions, this lie has come to me through an insidious guise of light. This lie has not come through reading books like 50 Shades of Grey, not through watching X-rated films, but through a steady I.V. of (gasp!) Christian fiction and heartwarming PG movies.

I am convinced that these purportedly innocuous mediums have served to distort my view of relationships, and this post is an attempt to work through the lies that I have believed, that I have seen many Christian women believe and that I want to be free from.

Go to the Christian fiction section at your local book store, look on the back of books marketed to women, and you will find something like this: “Katie Anderson is working tirelessly to start a nonprofit that is sure to save all the orphans in Africa, that is, until the devastatingly handsome Byron Blakely comes on the scene. Byron is all Katie has ever wanted in a man, but alas! He is not a Christian. Join Katie as she struggles against her feelings for Byron but ultimately draws him to her with her sexy innocence and the book ends with not only a wedding, but a baptism!”

The books are usually not that bald-faced, but  insidiousness is defined by subtlety. The narrative of the moral, upstanding young Christian woman turning the non-believer from his ways has become a poison that is a part of many young Christian women’s diets.

I was first fed this lie through one of my favorite movies, A Walk to Remember. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it is about the rebellious, disturbed Landon who unexpectedly falls in love with Jamie, a guileless, understatedly pretty Christian girl who captivates him by her purity. Ultimately, she changes him for the better and they get married.

The second example comes from my favorite series, The Mark of the Lion by Francine Rivers. In this series, Hadassah, a plain, faithful Christian girl falls in love with Marcus, a Roman aristocrat, who on the outside, is the epitome of worldly success. Marcus is strangely drawn to Hadassah and confides his inner struggles to the pure-hearted girl. Soon, he finds himself captivated by her faith and way of life. Hadassah fights her feelings for him, but we all know where this is going. Eventually, Marcus is won over, becomes a Christian, and they live happily ever after. She just has to wait it out. This is only one of many examples in Christian fiction where this happens.

I have fallen for the romanticization of the Christian woman-heathen male narrative, and I believe that at the root of this is the sin of pride.  In my own life, I have seen myself fall for the lie again and again because of the following three manifestations of pride:

  1. He Makes Us Feel Special: After seeing A Walk to Remember, I wanted to be Jamie. After reading The Mark of the Lion, I wanted to be Hadassah. Why? Because they were chosen, they were special. They were chosen by a man who could have anyone, but something special about them made them uniquely attractive. The danger in this mindset is that it encourages women to use innocence and morality as twisted seduction tools. Many non-believing men do find the innocence and sincerity of Christian women to be a breath of fresh air after living in a different scene for so long. Every girl I know wants to feel like she is special, beautiful, and often, the non-believer fulfills these desires in her.
  2. We Want to Fix Him: This is the most audacious manifestation of pride. So many women fall into the trap of wanting to fix men in their lives, thinking that they can become the Holy Spirit in a man’s life. What is a noble desire can turn into a twisted vying to attain a godlike status in the man’s life: the hope that I will be the one to reform him, I will be the one he will forever be grateful to, I will be special, I, I, I!  My personality type is especially prone to this savior complex. According to my Myers Briggs Type (I am an ISFJ), my type is especially prone to getting into relationships with alcoholics because they want to save or change them. I cringed when I read this description, because I see this distortion of a noble desire constantly play out in my life. In my prideful desire to be “special,” and a “savior,” I am tempted to compromise my convictions and to try to usurp the Holy Spirit from His rightful place (yikes!).
  3. We Romanticize Danger: The dangerous, troubled man who needs a woman to fix him is romanticized in our society.  Taylor Swift’s song “Trouble,” shows how this narrative of the attractiveness of the troubled, noncommittal wanderer permeates our society. Lines like “I knew you were trouble when you walked in,” and “I guess you didn’t care, and I guess I liked that,” seem to indicate that American girls, including the Christian ones, are masochists at heart. And I will admit, that for some reason, I love the taste of these words on my lips. Somehow this “trouble” is fuller of life than a stable relationship. What’s more is that the unequally yoked narrative seems even more attractive because of polarized stereotypes of Christian men versus non-Christian men. Sadly, Christian men are often painted as boring, legalistic, too domineering or too passive. On the other hand, non-believers are painted as full of adventure, drama, excitement and confidence. These broad generalizations are easy for women to latch onto if they are (ahem) 22 and are getting a little bit impatient. It is easy to become bitter at “Christian men” as a whole when you are having a pity-party for your yet-un-kissed lips.

Isaiah 44:20 sums up this struggle to grasp the insidiousness of the lies that I have believed in its depiction of Israel’s idolatry:

“Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

So this post is above all, really a challenge to myself.

A challenge to resist the lies that I have swallowed again and again about the unequally yoked narrative.

A challenge to stare my pride in the face, no matter how painful it is, and surrender it to Jesus.

And finally, a challenge to trust, really trust, that if He wills it, God will unite me with a man who loves Jesus with all his heart.

I need accountability in this. I need encouragement. Because I am weak, I am impatient, and I am full of pride. But with Christ’s help, these lies can be overcome.

So the next time someone walks in and I know that he’s trouble, may I bite my lip, spit out the lie, and get out of there as fast as I can.

And if I don’t, please slap me in the face. Hard.

Obsessed with LingQ!

Now that I finally have time on my hands, I have excitedly begun to dive into my Russian study for the summer. I don’t have a tutor, don’t have a class in my area, but I already am making huge improvements. How so, you ask? A few years ago, I stumbled across, a language learning website that features podcasts with accompanying texts ranging from interviews with Russian journalists to Chekhov’s short stories to newspaper articles on “How to Look Fresh After a Sleepless Night.” The site is addictive for anyone with a competitive streak and/or likes to obsessively track his or her progress.

Each article is customized to your progress: unknown words are highlighted in blue, and you can “LingQ” them by clicking on them. The word becomes highlighted in yellow, a definition pops up, and the system automatically makes your new vocabulary word that can be reviewed either in context of the sentence or on a simple flashcard.

I am obsessed, addicted, in love, and I have already found myself unable to pull myself away from the computer after listening to articles and  LingQing words for hours…

This is the special badge they gave me to show that I know “more than 5,000 Russian words.” (I guess I was always one motivated by gold stars).

I have no idea the accuracy of this count- the site counts each different verb conjugation and declined noun as a separate word, but I love seeing the count steadily go up. So, if you are looking for a fun and cheap way to learn a language this summer, I would highly recommend this gem of a program. Now, off to continue my obsession…

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