3 Years Ago Today

Did you know that on this day 3 years ago I was writing a blog post?  I didn’t know either.  Yet Facebook, Timehop, and Google Photos want to make it impossible to forget what we ate for breakfast at that super cute brunch place 6 months ago.

I’ve been earning money for the last 5 years as a social media specialist.  I’m the person who’s hyper-targeting the ad so it reaches you: the recent home buyer with a birthday in the next month who is friends with someone who just got engaged.  

So I’m confident that social media and information giants like Facebook and Google never do things without a reason.  And that reason always comes down to their bottom line, as it should.  The currency of all things internet is views, impressions, and active user counts. More Millennials sharing photos of their lattes on Facebook = better active user statistics = more advertising $$.

There’s an intrinsic motivation for social media networks to keep people addicted to sharing every mundane moment.  What better way to do it than to become your scrapbook, time capsule, and memory?  They’ll keep track of the details of your existence so you don’t have to.

But you better have a life worth remembering.

Since Timehop first introduced the concept of constantly being reminded about what happened on this day in your personal history, I’ve started to see a change in the way we take photos.  We must always snap some representative shot of what that day entailed because otherwise, there’d be nothing to reminisce over in a year. 

And if we must take a photo every day, then we must be doing something fantastic with amazing people every day to photograph.  Or at least some latte art.

But  life isn’t always #darling.  Sometimes it’s #painful and #unphotogenic.  And sometimes, we miss the real moments of life, even the gritty hard ones, when we’re constantly on the lookout to find today’s best picture.

This is just a PSA that Facebook and Google Photos and Timehop know what they’re doing.  The more they addict you to seeing a younger version of yourself every morning on your phone, the more you’ll feel the need to keep photographing and posting so you can remember THIS EXACT MOMENT next year.  Just be sure it’s actually you who is in the picture.

Rituals of Reticence

“Quiet time” might be one of the most confusing words in the Christanese English Dictionary.  It’s revered, insisted upon, and I’ve always felt vaguely guilty for not doing enough of it, but it’s hard to know what it actually is.  Quiet time involves Bible reading, of course, and definitely some praying.  I hear whispers about worship songs and something about a special chair in a corner with a quilt.  Not to mention #CoffeeAndJesus.  Or should that be #JesusAndCoffee?

I’m an ex-seminary wife, but I’m no theologian so I won’t attempt a dissertation on the means of grace.  However, I think it’s fairly clear from the Bible reading I’ve done that we are called to read God’s Word regularly and come to Him with our prayers, thanksgivings, and worship.

When I think about those activities, they have a common theme of requiring a great deal of attention.  It may or may not be audibly quiet but to be still before God requires, well, being still.  And reading the Bible well requires time, an attention span, and the mental space to reflect.

I still feel like my 5 year-old self who was constantly getting scolded in Sunday School for playing with the Velcro on my shiny patent leather shoes during prayer time. I continually find it a struggle to sit still for long enough to read Scripture well or to place my attention on God instead of myself for more than 10 seconds at a time.

But why should I expect myself to be able to be quiet before God if I’m not quiet any other time of the day?  If I can’t carve out times to think or reflect about anything without obsessively scrolling through my Instagram feed, why would my time with God be any different?

Our attention is so often misplaced, refracted by the prism of technology into infinite beams of distraction–red inboxes, blue newsfeeds, yellow snaps, and rainbows of images–all stealing my ability to focus on just. one. thing.

The habits we allow to rule the majority of our lives will naturally spill over into the times we set aside to intentionally grow in our faith and relationship with God.  If I lose my literacy by skimming online articles and headlines, my ability to read the Bible suffers as well.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Luke and I often remind each other of this quote from Blaise Pascal. The bad news is that it’s harder than ever nowadays to be quiet and alone. The good news is that replacing the rituals of distraction with intentional attention will not only make being quiet before God more natural, it will smooth out some other wrinkles in the rhythm of life.

And sure enough, when we begin to prioritize thinking over texting and listening over “liking”, we find our problems smaller, our hearts calmer, and our minds clearer.

Living in Russia without a traditional 9-5 grind has provided me with the opportunity for more mental space.  This fall, I’m going to focus on growing my attention span and creating rituals of reticence throughout my day.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on misplaced stuff (not the lost luggage variety) next week! Same place, same time.  You can sign-up for an e-mail notification in the box below.


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.

Insta This.

There have been some pretty great mockeries of the Instagram facade lately.  Like when Barbie when hipster and this girl decided to cut out the cropping. Personally, I’ve been tempted to create a satire of my own, showing the moments that truly encapsulate my day: red brake lights, my empty coffee mug, the dirty dishes that NEVER END.

It’s not news to anyone that our Instagram and Facebook feeds are rarely indicative of reality.  And that’s okay.  We turn to social media as a way to escape from the real world of traffic and messy kitchens.  What worries me isn’t the fact that your albums are full of happy photos and inspirational quotes.  What worries me is that everyone’s albums are full of the same happy photos and inspirational quotes.

My Instagram feed is starting to look like a really good set of stock photos.  Cute feet, artful lattes, the latest book.  Since moving across the country, I’ve become a much more avid consumer of social media.  I like seeing what my friends and family are up to.  But nowadays, I can’t tell if those legging-clad feet in adorable saddle-back shoes belong to my childhood neighbor, high school acquaintance, college soulmate, or dad. Minus that last one, I’m missing what used to be the backbone of social media: connection.

Don’t get me wrong.  The photos are gorgeous.  I just want to see more of you in them.

Until next rant,

The Power of Habit

Disclaimer: This is not a review or promotion of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg although it has made my semester reading wish list.

I believe in Habit.  I believe in having habits just for the sake of having habits.  

I like going to the gym.  Not because I really enjoy straining and sweating on grimy machines to an odd mixture of Christmas country songs and ESPN but every morning that I drag myself out of the bed, is a day when I strengthen my habit of staying healthy.

Ritual, the second-cousin of Habit, also needs a seat at our table.  In my experience, modern technology and the speed of life has stripped us of the humanizing rituals that used to mark individual existence.  Everything must be new, exciting, and efficient in order to hold onto our shrinking attention spans for a nanosecond.

I’ve been studying Ellul this semester (to a very undergraduate and unimpressive degree) and his accusation that modernity has turned efficiency from a means to the highest ends and good struck a cord.

Because I’m all about efficiency.

I’ve mastered the three minute prep routine.  I can read, grade, and sort tests while listening to a podcast.  I flashcard while I elliptical and I eat while I walk while I talk.

I want my humanity back.

Five Rituals For My Life
I will make my coffee with a french press and not a one-press machine.
I will write with a pencil that needs sharpening and a pen that needs dipping.
I will talk with those around me and not those on the other side of a screen.
I will walk whenever possible.
I will make meals from scratch, not boxes.  I will heat my food in a pan, not plastic.

What changes would you like to main to create humanizing rituals in your life?