Not A Travel Blog

When asked what I write about on my blog, I always respond with a tentative “lifestyle things?” although I don’t really know what that means.  I started writing here 8 years ago and since I’m free from all pressures of monetizing the site, I’ve never defined my genre. Content marketing has a powerful gravitational pull and I’d like to keep this corner of the Internet free of all gimmicks, content gating, and gotchas.

What I do know is that this is not a travel blog.  My husband and I currently call Saint Petersburg home and we hope to travel more than we normally would over the next few years, but this will still be my place to share my musings on the world around me, which just happens to be in Russia right now.

Moving to Saint Petersburg has felt like becoming a child again.  I’m slowly sounding out words on buildings as we walk by them, am fascinated by the bright colors of the buildings and parks, and it takes so much longer to do simple tasks than it feels like it ought to.  Just charging my phone is a 3 apparatus ordeal.  And there is the child-like wonder to it as well.  New sights and sounds amaze me and each day is a new adventure as we explore the town, transportation system, and shops.

Daily life here so far is very similar to life in the States on a large scale, and very different in many minuscule ways throughout the day.  The downsized toilet paper and circle electrical plugs, for example. Differences that are neither bad nor good, just different.  These small changes were threatening to throw me off-kilter (is this what they call culture shock?) until I read this passage from C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet:

It was only days later that Ransom discovered how to deal with these sudden losses of confidence.  They arose when the rationality of the hross [a being from a different planet] tempted you to think of it as a man.  Then it became abominable–a man seven feet high, with a snaky body, covered, face and all, with thick black animal hair, and whiskered like a cat.  But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have–glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth–and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason.  Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other.  It all depended on the point of view.

By no means am I suggesting that Russians are extraterrestrials, rather, I’m realizing more and more how similar we all are.  But moving to a foreign country can feel like an other-worldy experience and I’ll drive myself crazy if I’m finding the small differences “disgusting” instead of appreciating things for how they actually are and finding the similarities delightful.  As Lewis put it best: It all depends on the point of view.

I’m a big believer in dreaming and doing but reality is a  strong force to be reckoned with. Our expectations about what reality should look like often cause us to be disappointed when life doesn’t deliver.   I’d rather rejoice in the ways it gives me joy instead of constantly comparing reality to what I think it ought to look like and ending up feeling like everything is just a little bit (or a lot a bit) off.

Of The World, But Not In It

When my husband and I first moved to Southern California from rural Pennsylvania, we suffered from culture shock.  You couldn’t escape the smell of tacos and citrus trees seem to sprout of sidewalk cracks like weeds.  I also noticed the same bumper sticker on most of the cars parked on the street in the neighborhood and in grocery store parking lots.  

2760795Did we just move into a gang neighborhood?  The bumper sticker contained the acronym “N-T-W” and triggered some kind of childhood flashback I just couldn’t put my finger on.

It finally hit me.  I had a sweatshirt with that symbol on it once, back when it was the cool 7th grade thing to do to wear obscure Christian slogans on your hoodie. N-T-W = Not of This World.  I had no idea the company mass producing those sweatshirts and bumper stickers was still around, let alone infiltrating the the rear view windows of suburban San Diego SUVs.

As Christians, is this the best we can do to engage with our culture in a meaningful manner?  And yes, I mean our culture.  The one we live in.  Not the ambiguous secular culture we love to hate or the Christian culture we pretend to like.  But the culture created by where we live and the people we work with and the neighbors next door.  Are they really going to look at that cryptic bumper sticker and think: “Now that’s someone living with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior!”

Probably not.  The message is a good one–paraphrased poorly from John 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”  But the delivery via bumper sticker falls short.

In his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, cultural apologist Ken Myers argues that rather than being in the world but not of it, Christians are far more likely to be of the world but not in it.

It has not been uncommon for evangelical Christians to give up trying to come to terms with “secular” popular culture, and to boycott it altogether.  But often they have simultaneously endorsed the creation of an extensive parallel popular culture, complete with Christian rock bands and nightclubs, Christian soap operas and talk shows, Christian spy and romance novels, and Christian exercise videos.  They have thus succeeded in being of the world, but not in the world.  The “Christian” popular culture takes all its cues from its secular counterpart, but sanitizes and customizes it with “Jesus language.”

Traditionally, critics of popular culture have focused on it’s content.  You turn on today’s latest hits for 60 seconds and you’ll hear filthy language, objectification of women, questionable sexual morals, and violence. But is the solution to replace crass bumper stickers with our “Christian” ones?  Perhaps the problem is not only the content of popular culture but the way we’re sending and receiving messages with one another in general?

Back in those hoodie wearing days of 7th grade, I was invited to an older girl’s 13 birthday party.  This was a big deal, because I was only 12.  The popular catch phrase of the day was a sarcastic “whatever,” usually accompanied with an eye roll.

This birthday girl’s well-meaning parents picked up on their daughter’s favorite retort and decided to slap some Jesus on it for her birthday present.  They gave her a t-shirt with “whatever” screen printed on it in size 72 font and the remainder of Philippians 4:8 in tiny letters: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” They took a popular culture form of t-shirts with sassy sayings on them and attempted to “Christianize” it.  The result?  The Word of God placed on the same level as “I ❤ New York”

It’s the same reason why those cheesy Christian movies always leave a bad taste in our mouths.  And why when my high school youth group leader encouraged us to cut out all non-Christian music from our lives, another mentor suggested that we start listening to country songs to help us make the transition from secular to Christian music.

Later in his book, Ken Myers goes on to ask, “Are there natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy, of wisdom that can be encouraged by aesthetic experience?  According to Lewis, learning to ‘receive’ a work of art does encourage habits of the heart that have effects in other areas of life.  And now, to put popular culture on the spot, does it have the same capacities?  No, and few people, even its most ardent fans, would claim that it does,” (Myers 97).

This is why being a critic of form and not just content matters.  Intaking messages that are delivered through media that does pass the Philippians 4:8 test makes us more like Christ.  It’s tempting to make rules like: “No music with 5 or more “yeahs” inserted randomly into the lyrics” or “Only read books that are at least 200 pages long,” but that just teaches us how to check things off a list, not how to value and hunger after the truly beautiful things in this world, explicitly Christian or otherwise.

C.S. Lewis provides a useful guideline for form criticism in his book, An Experiment in Criticism by suggesting we do some self-examination about the way we intake everything (movies, paintings, music, writing, etc..) and ask: Am I receiving this or just using it?  He distinguishes between the two this way:

A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’.  When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imaginations and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist.  When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities….’Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relives or palliates our life, and does not add to it.   

Most of the forms chosen by pop and Christian culture leave little room for receiving the message.   As Lewis says, we become “so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us.  Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”

Lewis’ distinction helps us find forms that encourage us to receive and interact with the message instead of just using it.  Not only will you find yourself a better reader, appreciator of art, and listener, you will also be developing those “natural virtues of sympathy, of love, of justice, of mercy of wisdom.” Using these same forms to glorify our God and share His Gospel encourages active and thoughtful reception of the best message of all time.  I’d say that beats a bumper sticker or t-shirt any day of the week.

How To Lose That Ego Weight in 2016

Stop for a moment and imagine the most annoying person in your life right now. Say their name in your head. Think about the last time you interacted with them, what they said, how you felt about it.

Would you feel any differently about them if you knew for certain that they were doing their absolute best to navigate this messy maze of life? That’s the revolutionary (at least to me) idea that Brene Brown proposes in her book, Rising Strong. It’s a wonderful book recommended to me by a dear friend, full of valuable truths about acknowledging emotions, their limitations, and how to, well, rise strong. Expect more references in the next few posts.

After reading about this outlandish idea that everyone around me is probably not actually maliciously slacking off with the express purpose of making my life more difficult, I immediately felt relieved, shamed, and suspicious. (1) Relieved because I have a new tool to help me understand others better and get frustrated less often. (2) Shamed because I am clearly struggling with a superiority complex here. (3) Suspicious because if everyone is doing the best they can, I want to hear the full story of why their best doesn’t seem all that awesome to me (back to #2).

There’s the rub. We don’t know everyone’s story but most importantly we shouldn’t HAVE to know. I’m all for getting to know others on a deeper level but I shouldn’t reserve granting basic grace or the benefit of the doubt to those around me just because I don’t know their full life saga. As Aslan gently reminds Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, “Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

I’ve got nothing to lose except some ego. And I could use to slim down that particular feature of mine in this new year.

P.S. There’s no way I could write about doing our best without referencing this hilarious stand-up act. WARNING: Some offensive language used. Enjoy at your own risk.

Confidently Incompetent

“You know, the really great thing is that at least he is confident in his beliefs,” my friend whispered to me as we sat at a motivational seminar listening to a 23 year old in an oversized suit waste five hours of our day talking to excess. With effects quite as damaging as if he was simply drinking to excess. Instead, his main intention seemed to be using the catch phrase “we are who we want to be” as many possible times within a single sentence. I counted seven times as his all time high.

While I quickly forgot his inspirational fluff, my friend’s words stuck with me. Was it possible that confidence made up for lack of competence? If as long as you are sure of yourself, is it a good idea to make yourself look like an idiot—albeit a confident one? For your dignity’s sake, I would say no.

I am confident that the military of the United States army will protect me. I am confident that this chair is structurally sound and will support me. I am confident that my God is all-knowing and that His sovereignty can be seen almost everywhere I look. This type of confidence is warranted and quite possibly a sign of sanity. A man who is so unconfident of his life and the world he lives in would be walking around trembling for fear the ceiling was about to fall down or that his life was about to collapse. That man would be seen as mentally unstable. Yet there is another type of mental instability that goes largely unchecked. It was this type of instability the motivational speaker suffered from.

Hubris is an ancient Greek word that means false overconfidence. While being simply overconfident will lead to one being thought of as pretentious and presumptuous, false overconfidence has much worse consequences. What of the man who is unshakably sure that he will have what he needs when he needs simply as a result of that need? He wholeheartedly believes that necessity is the mother of invention. This hubristic fellow will find that his exceptional confidence won’t save him when he jumps off a cliff, sure that his need to be able to fly will allow him to sprout wings.

You may say that I am being ridiculous, that that would never happen. Tell me the difference between that scenario and this one: a man is so confident that he can change his circumstances by simply imagining they were different. He spends his entire life pretending to live in a world that isn’t real, forsaking real relationships and real experiences in the meanwhile. The only thing that separates him from our cliff-jumping friend is that his is a slow and gradual death rather than a fatal plummet. Both were blinded by their overconfidence. I’m afraid that is the fate of our well-intentioned and hubris-afflicted motivational speaker.

If a man claims to be a bird, we would think him deranged. The sincerity of his belief would not change the fact that he was incorrect in his thinking. No matter how genuine a person is, their confidence in their insanity will not make him the least bit saner. Confidence is invaluable; it inspires armies and sets uneasy minds at rest. It is only when we are overly sure of things that are utterly false that we run the risk of jumping wing-less off of a cliff.