Thursday, September 28, 2006

Should Christians Watch Supernatural-Themed TV Programs?

Made you look with that headline, didn't I?

My latest published piece, "Unearthing Unearthly TV," actually used those words as its subhed. It appears in the current issue of Today's Christian Woman magazine.

It would be madness for me to say, "I know definitively what Christians can and can't do." That's like saying, "I know God completely, and nobody else has a clue." I would never say that. So this article really isn't an answer to the question, "Should you watch supernatural-themed shows?" Instead, it's a call to individuals to think about that question for themselves.

I love thought-provoking topics: They make some people think deeply, and they just provoke other people. In either case, people are motivated to pop their heads out of their comfortable, complacent shells--including me. I hope this piece will inspire you to think about all your media interactions: what you read, what you listen to, and what you view.

Here are some comments I've received about the story:

That was an interesting story--thanks for sharing. I think I tend to fall into the second camp--you can watch but just know that everything on TV is either heightened reality or false. I admit I liked watching Charmed and Buffy, but mostly just watched because I liked the characters and their relationships with each other and other people, rather than their exploits. I couldn't get into many of the other shows you mentioned.

Enjoyed the article. My daughter loves to watch Harry Potter movies, but she also loves Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. She just loves the fantasy genre in general. We also love Halloween. Our family is planning to curl up in bed tonight and watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I try to teach my kids the difference between literature and movies, which use fantasy to tell basic good-over-evil stories, and the reality of Satan and demons. My own personal opinion is that a lot of Christians need to lighten up. We know Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are not real. Can't we also distinguish between ghosts, goblins, etc., and real powers of darkness? I understand that someone who comes out of a background in the occult might have particular sensibilities. I can understand that. However, most rational people, even children if they are taught, can distinguish between fact and fiction. An interesting note: I think I was a lot more traumatized as a child by talk of the rapture, demons, and demon possession by evangelical Christians than I was by any "scary" or supernatural stories I read or viewed.

This is a well-written article as usual. I'm always impressed with how you're able to help provoke thought in people to get them to process what's in their own heads about an issue rather than telling them what to think. Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Skinny Pants, Anyone? No, Thank You, I'll Wait for the Return of the Plump Ones

"The skinny pants, low-cut jeans, micro-minis and bubble skirts that are coming our way this fall all look fabulous if you're built like a darning needle, but they're just not going to work on us pincushions. Is there really no middle ground between micro-shorts and muumuus? We can build a camera that makes you look slimmer in photographs, but we can't design a flattering outfit for a 145-lb. woman?"

-From Belinda Luscombe's essay, "The Real Skinny," in this week's Time magazine. Luscombe asserts that we shouldn't blame models for being too thin, but rather the designers who are creating the fashions. She notes the average model was a size 8 two decades ago; today she's a size 0.

(Men, please send this to your wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, girlfriends, and every woman you love.)

These photos are of two women wearing skinny pants. The first is a photo of an average woman of a healthy weight, from an online store catalog. The second, from, was captioned, "Angelina Jolie has got what it takes for skinny pants—long lean limbs and attitude for miles."

Believe me, I have an overabundance of attitude with plenty to spare. But that's not gonna make skinny pants fit me any better.

Earlier this week, I met a healthy, trim 20-something who told me reading fashion magazines made her feel bad about herself, so she'd made it a point to stay away from them. I could relate. I was a fashion writer in my mid-20s. I read all the mags and attended fashion shows where I always felt like the biggest girl in the room. Needless to say, it wasn't a positive feeling.

Around that time, I became friends with Wendy, a 6' 4" former model. She never spoke much about her past career; I only found out she'd been a model after I proclaimed to her, "Wow, you should be a model!" One day, I asked her why she'd stopped modeling. I'll never forget her answer. "I didn't want girls to feel they had to look like me," she said. Wendy comes from a tall, thin family. She's always been tall and thin, and didn't like the notion this was the 'right' way to look. My husband, who also used to model in his teen years, pointed out there was stronger criteria than thinness for models in his day: height. Indeed, back when I was writing fashion stories, the standard for female models was to be 5' 8" or taller; male models had to be at least 6' 0". (I had another guy friend who'd wear lifts in his shoes to modeling auditions because he was a mere 5' 11".)

There are still height standards for models, but we notice their weight much more these days. Maybe that's because it's easier to emulate weight than height. When Wendy told me she didn't want girls to feel they had to look a certain way, it made me realize: I like how I look. Sure, it would be cool to be a supermodel, but it was illogical to hold myself to standards that were literally impossible to meet. At just under 5' 2", it wouldn't matter how skinny I could make myself--I'd never measure up to the standards of the fashion industry.

For kicks, I went to a department store last week and tried on some skinny pants in my size. ("Skinny" is the cruel renaming of an old style. They've been called "stretch" or "tapered" in the past. At least the former was true to form--it's a stretch for me to even get them on.) I sucked in my gut, yanked up the zipper, and bravely stared at the dressing-room mirror. As soon as I saw the two blue sausages reflected back at me, I felt ... relieved! I, and Wendy, and Belinda Luscombe, the writer quoted above, aren't crazy. I began to laugh my head off, with long, thunderous HAW-HAWs that I'm sure were heard up in third-floor housewares. I almost wanted to waddle out of the fitting area and scoot around the store proclaiming, "Look, girls, one style fits all! Anyone can wear these pants!"

But I'm not that brave. I changed back into my straight-leg jeans from several seasons ago. And I decided to not feel bad about myself, or badly toward my slimmer sisters. After all, straight-leg pants will be back in style someday, and maybe my slender friends won't look as good as I do in them. Maybe they'll skip buying pants for that season. And maybe the fashion industry will get the message: "We don't all look the same. And we don't want to."

Friday, September 22, 2006

Water, Steak, Church Greeting Time, and All the Other Things I've Hated

I don't know how to swim anymore. I realized this a couple days ago, on jumping into the deep end of a pool and swallowing a big gulp of water. As you can infer by the fact I'm typing now, I didn't drown. Apparently, I can still dog paddle a bit, and that was enough to get my coughing, sputtering self to the side of the pool.

Apparently, my childhood swimming teacher gave me a passing mark out of sheer pity.

I've long hated water. Beaches, pools, even bathtubs--I've been avoiding these for years. Recently, I decided to explore that hatred. So I took a bath, went to the beach, and jumped in a pool. Trying these activities made me realize I don't truly hate any of them. Once I got used to a watery environment, I actually enjoyed it ... in the shallow end of the pool. I discovered my true hatred is my lack of ability to swim (and my fear of drowning).

This got me thinking about other things I've hated over the years. Like steak. For years, I wouldn't touch a steak. My husband, who was raised on meat and potatoes, was going batty over the fact I'd never cook steak. One day, he took me to a steakhouse. He ordered steak. I ordered pasta. He pleaded with me to taste his dinner, and when I did--ah, heaven! My taste buds were doing the happy dance well into the next day, when I sped to the grocery store to purchase a good cut of beef. But when I cooked it that night, it didn't taste the least bit heavenly. It was more like, uh, that "other" place. We chewed for what seemed an eternity but couldn't get the stuff down our throats.

I couldn't cook steak. And that, I realized, was why I thought I hated steak.

Sadly, my hatred of steak kept my husband from having his favorite food for years. Similarly, my hatred of water kept others from enjoying it. We live walking distance from the beach and have a pool at our complex, but when friends and family have asked to go for a dip, I've responded, "Ew! The beach is dirty and the pool is full of kiddie pee! I'm not going!" And because I didn't go, my guests didn't, either. I've been a whiny baby, sad but true.

Immediately following my pool jump, I headed to church to attend a special prayer service. I attend a contemporary, high-tech church, so I was surprised when our music minister began discussing lectio divina, an ancient devotional practice which focuses on silent contemplation and repetition of a short Scripture. I loved it. After the service, it popped into my mind that someone there probably hated it. It was slow, quiet, and low-tech: everything our church typically isn't. I wondered if that person or persons might express their hatred of lectio divina to our pastor. As I walked out of the sanctuary, I thought, "If people complain, our church may never do this again. I may never get to attend a service like this again."

Before I could get angry about these imagined complainers, God flipped his mirror back at me. I've pretty regularly complained at church, in subtly subversive ways. When I don't connect with a worship song, I sometimes clamp my lips shut or even exit the church for a little coffee break. I've regularly skipped out on the greeting time because it makes me feel awkward. I'd never thought about how my actions might affect others. Maybe, at one of those times I refused to sing, the worship leader caught a glimpse of my grumpy face. Maybe the worship leader thought, "Well, this song isn't going over well. I'll scratch it off my list." And maybe someone sitting across from me was touched by that song. Maybe it was their favorite.

God's teaching me about diving in when I'm afraid or just don't understand something. I'll probably never be a good swimmer, yet I've learned I can enjoy the water. I'm learning how to cook steak. And I'm going to do my best to make worship about God, not me. Maybe God will show me something through that worship song I don't like. Maybe a visitor to our church will feel welcome if I say hello instead of running out for coffee. Maybe God's plan will move along faster if I quit demanding my way.

I'm gonna try.

To ponder:
1) Think about a time you've insisted on getting your way. How did it affect the people around you?

2) What do you hate? Why? Does hating this thing have a positive or negative affect on you? On others?

3) If your hate/dislike of something is having a negative affect on you or others, what do you need from God to work through this? What do you need from others?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Little" Prayer Feels Like a Big Leap of Faith

This week, I'm praying the boldest prayer I've ever prayed: that God would keep me from getting a cold.

"Wait a minute," you might ask, "What's so bold about praying for a cold?"

This particular prayer stretches my faith. On a cerebral level, I know God is bigger than cold germs. Truthfully, I don't have faith God will keep me from getting sick. And I know God knows it. That's why it's so important for me to ask for health, and to share this with you now.

This coming Sunday, I'll be attending a women's/girls' self-esteem workshop which was created by a Christian author. I'm writing a story about the author and her workshop program for a Christian magazine. While I've attended events and done interviews when I've been under the weather in the past, I know I don't do my best work when I'm ill. Plus, it's a four-hour, round-trip drive to the workshop, so it's already gonna be a taxing day. Thus, my prayer for good health.

I've explained all this to God, though he already knows my plans. I've explained it to him because I don't feel entitled to good health, even for a week. Logically, I should get sick right now because my husband's been sick for the past five days. (And I always get sick when he's sick.)

Somehow, this simple prayer becomes difficult for me. The usual questions pop into my head:

Does this matter to God?

Will he tell me, "Sorry, kid. You live in a fallen world, and you gotta tough it out like the rest of my children"?

Am I asking for something foolish?

If I do get sick, does that mean God didn't care about my prayer?

These doubts make me want to withdraw the prayer. Thing is, I've never hesitated to pray for emotional healing, comfort, or peace. God has given these things to me every time I've asked. He's given me wisdom, helped to resolve conflict, and offered confidence every time I've prayed for those things.

I know in my head and heart he's Lord over my mind. I haven't acknowledged him as Lord over my body yet.

Above all, that's why I need to pray this little prayer. Turns out, it may not be so little after all.

To ponder:
1) Are some prayers harder for you to pray?

2) How has God's answer to your past prayers affected the way you pray?

3) Is it easier to pray for others or for yourself? Why?

Monday, September 11, 2006

They Were Late for Work on 9/11

Today, many Americans are contemplating life and death.

Among those are men and women who should have been at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon on 9/11 five years ago when terrorists attacked. But for various reasons, they were late for work that morning. Some label their close call as sheer luck. Others say it was divine intervention. And some question, "Why me? Why didn't God save many others from death that day?"

Among those who were running late that September morning:

Because she stayed up late Monday night to finish a master's thesis, former Louisville-area resident Elizabeth Kramer was slow getting to her job with the Peace Corps yesterday morning in the World Trade Center complex. ... "The first thing I did was look for a pay phone to call my mother. I waited in line. A woman next to me was crying. She worked in the first tower that was hit. Her colleagues were on the floors that were burning. She had been running late to work, too." (The Courier-Journal, Kentucky)

Four friends who called in late for work because they stayed up the night before to watch a Giants game on "Monday Night Football" missed being there when the planes hit. (The News Journal, Delaware)

A worried woman approached Seamus Campion to ask what was going on, saying she was late for work at Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading firm with offices above the 100th floor in the first tower. Those floors were completely devastated; no one made it out alive. "I gave her a hug and told her she was safe, and to stay where she was," Campion says. (Daily Herald, Illinois)

On a routine day, Bud Flanagan would ride an elevator to a sky lobby on the 78th floor, where he'd board another elevator for the 105th. He usually was at his desk by 7:45 a.m. But that Tuesday, he was running late. ... Two phone calls [to his home that morning] and a brief conversation: If not for them, Flanagan would have been in his corner office, high up in One World Trade Center that morning. (The Virginian-Pilot, Virginia)

"I take the bus into Manhattan every day, which leaves me about two blocks away from WTC," Debbie Archimbaud said. "The bus was running just a couple of minutes late. I was a little annoyed, because I wasn't going to have enough time to read my newspaper at my desk before I started my day. As I was walking toward the WTC, I decided to stop for a cup of coffee and a muffin at one of the street carts. I rarely do this anymore, but I hadn't eaten dinner the night before so I was a little hungry. These two miniscule details—a late bus and a muffin—saved my life." (Pocono Record, Pennsylvania)

Lorraine Wallace was one of those people who routinely arrived at work 15 to 30 minutes early. But on Sept. 11, 2001, the 20-year-old felt sick and was late for her job as a finance manager at Landmark Education. The office was located on the 15th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. ... "The funny thing is that day everyone in my office was either running late or sick. Fifteen people worked there and everyone was not there except for one person, who made it out OK, and one was just entering the building but was evacuated. Literally, everyone just missed the train, was off that day, or was sick. It was weird. Our manager always wanted people to be on time. I’m very lucky." (The Times-Reporter, Ohio)

Rob Herzog was not among the 297 people from Marsh & McLennan who died that morning when American Airlines' Flight 11, a Boeing 767, slammed directly into their office. ... It had been a morning of improbable delay. He was still exhausted after returning from a trip to California, so when the alarm rang, he reset it for a half-hour later. He had to drop off laundry and pick up mail. The C Train is a local run and makes many stops, but when he tried to transfer to an express train that would take him directly to his destination, the door literally closed in his face after he pushed through the commuter clog. ... "I really have struggled with the whole question of why I was saved when others weren't. Was God looking over me? And if so, why was he looking over me and not the other people in my office?" (The Tampa Tribune, Florida)

A friend forwarded a piece that's been circulating on the Internet about those who were late to work on Sept. 11, 2001. It suggests we should count our blessings when we're tied up or running late—that God may be putting us in the right places at the right times, or keeping us from the wrong ones.

I know many Christians who point out how God was at work on 9/11, how much good came out of the horrific events of that day. Like them, I tend to look exclusively on the bright side of every dark day, even ignoring all negative effects. Yet I wonder if I should consider the dark reality that life can be lonely, sad, unfair, painful, and short. Maybe sometimes, we're meant to realize, "Hey, life stinks. There's got to be something better than this."

Today, I'm contemplating life and death. And while I'm grateful for the former (and glad I haven't had to face the latter), I want to be thankful for more than what I've got now. I want to remember there's something beyond both.

Is God Really in Control of Our Lives?

To ponder:
1) What are you thankful for?

2) Is it hard to think about death? When others bring up the topic, do you choose to think about it, or do you try to change the subject?

3) How do you deal with the tragedy of 9/11? Has it affected the way you think about God?

4) Read "Is God Really in Control of Our Lives?" Do you feel every event is part of God's good and perfect will? Has your thinking about this topic changed over the years? If so, what caused your change in thinking?

New Book Explores Connections Between Politics, Business, and Religion


of Protestant suburbanites who attend church at least weekly identify as Democrats or independents.

--From Applebee's America by ex-Bill Clinton aide Douglas Sosnik, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, and journalist Ron Fournier. The book traces common qualities in successful leaders from politics, business, and religion. Some of its other findings:

  • People make choices about politics, consumer goods, and religion with their hearts, not their heads.
  • Successful leaders touch people at a gut level by projecting basic American values that seem lacking in modern institutions and missing from day-to-day life experiences.
  • The most important Gut Values today are community and authenticity. People are desperate to connect with one another and be part of a cause greater than themselves. They're tired of spin and sloganeering from political, business, and religious institutions that constantly fail them.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Is the Perfect Christian Coalition My Biggest Critic?

You've probably heard the saying, "I'm my own worst critic," about a million times. Maybe you've nodded in agreement at the words. Or maybe, like me, you've wondered whether it applies to you.

I've never felt very self-critical. I generally like the things I write and the work I do. On any given day, I'm pretty pleased with myself. That was, until a few days ago. I was cleaning up my kitchen after dinner, half-watching TV when an old Sex and the City rerun came on. At the end, Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie, realizes she's truly her own worst critic.

Her words might have bounced off me just as they have a million times before. But on this millionth-and-first time, it connected. Carrie desperately tries to gain approval from a woman she just met. She keeps telling the woman not to believe stories she's heard about Carrie's past. Truth was, Carrie wasn't really looking for approval--she just needed to address her own guilt and to find forgiveness for her past actions.

The episode had shown how we perceive someone else to be critical of us. In reality, we're still self-critical; we're superimposing their face on our own view. Thus we're able to blame someone else for the negative feelings self-criticism causes.

In my mind, the "Perfect Christian Coalition" (PCC for short) has been my worst critic. I get anxious thinking about how the PCC might respond to my every action. If I get a book on biblical meditation, is it "Christian" enough for them? Is a TV show with ghosts inappropriate for a Christian to watch? Or, are there must-see movies (like The Passion of the Christ) all Christians are required to watch? If I don't live up to the PCCs high standards, will they revoke my evangelical privileges?

Seriously, I constantly fret over what other Christians think of me. Right now I'm worried how you readers will respond to the fact I half-watched Sex and the City. It's taking all my willpower to not offer up some excuse or rationale for my viewing choice. In my mind, a thousand judgmental Christian faces are shaking their heads at me, whispering amongst themselves, "How could an evangelical Christian writer, who's supposed to be keeping her head clear and her heart pure so she can minister effectively to others--how could she watch such a program!"

And this is where I realize: I am my own worst critic. I worry I'm not reading my Bible enough. I worry I won't correctly comprehend Scripture. I worry the things I watch and read and listen to might make me doubt my faith. I worry when I have questions and doubts about God, so I often don't ask and don't talk about my struggles. I'm worried someone might say, "You don't deserve to have a ministry. You're not a good enough Christian to serve God."

Actually, I'm not so concerned about that last one because it's happened before and it will happen again. Inevitably, we all come across people who criticize us for not being enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not spiritual enough.

Not good enough.

When I hear words like that--or think them to myself--I look to these other words:

[The Lord] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. --2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

As for my personal situation, being anxious about whether I'm "Christian" enough, I read some good words this week in Christina DiMari's memoir, Ocean Star. God gave her these words in her late teen years: "I'm not asking you to be perfect. I'm asking you to be pure. Don't get these two confused. This is not about keeping rules; it's about letting my light shine through your life."

I'm also trying to realize the Perfect Christian Coalition isn't real. I've replaced the judgmental faces of the PCC members in my mind with bobbleheads. The little plastic toys shake their heads at the tiniest jolt or movement of the wind. They can change from approval to disapproval in a second. When I think of my inner critic this way, I realize I can't allow myself to feel too bad--or too good--at that opinion.

I'll probably never shake the PCC. But I know how to hush it--by continuously recognizing I'm not good enough. That's OK, because I've got grace, too. And God's grace is more than enough to compensate for everything I lack.

To ponder:
1) What critical thoughts do you have about yourself?

2) Do these thoughts motivate you or make you feel unmotivated?

3) When you're feeling beat up and dejected, is there a particular Bible verse you look to for encouragement? Or, is there a spiritual practice that encourages you (e.g. singing a particular worship song, meditating on God's creation)?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Greg Albrecht Pitches Deep Thoughts on Grace, But All I Caught was the Sarcasm

I hate sarcasm.

Since the word "sarcasm" is often misused in different ways, I'll explain that when someone's being sarcastic, they're basically ridiculing someone else in an intentionally cruel manner. Say I overheard someone misusing the word "sarcasm" in a sentence. I could gently correct their misuse of the word. Or, I could employ sarcasm by shouting at them, "There's this subject taught in school called 'English.' You need to pass English to graduate, and apparently you never made it past kindergarten."

If that sounds mean, you're getting the point. When people are sarcastic, regardless of the words they use, they're essentially saying, "You're an idiot. I'm so much better than you."

So there's a lot to hate about the mean-spirited nature of sarcasm. Nothing makes me reconsider an opinion faster than hearing someone wax sarcastic about it.

I recently read some sarcastic words in "Grace,but," a commentary by Plain Truth magazine editor Greg Albrecht. Greg basically says we are saved by grace alone, and that any "works"--good deeds--we perform in life are not cause for rewards. Rather, any good thing we receive is another demonstration of God's grace.

But I couldn't have told you anything about the article the first time I read it. I was too upset by the sarcastic way he dealt with his friend in the piece. From the first word, he sets it up to bash his friend, a pastor who took issue with Greg's opinion:

This was a serious discussion, so I didn't ask him (though you can bet I wanted to!) if he had been a contributing writer for the Keeping Grace Under Control New World Dictionary. ...

I respectfully told him that his theology had gone to the dogs. My pastor friend seemed to be suggesting that God conditions humans somewhat like Pavlov’s dogs. ... But, according to my Bible, we humans are not dogs (and this is just one of those pearls of wisdom you will gain from listening to me!). ... We are created for a relationship with God in a way that no other part of his creation is (including man’s best friend).

Greg often adds a humorous edge to his writing, poking a little fun here and there. But it deeply troubled me that he was cutting his Christian brother down in a widely available public forum. (And, considering this was in a print publication, Greg already had a limited amount of space to offer ideas for contemplation. Why waste space ragging on his so-called friend?) It does seem his friend's opinion was off-track, but couldn't Greg offer correction in a gentle, loving way?

I'll admit, I fall into using sarcasm sometimes because I'm sure I'm right. Such certainty can be a dangerous thing. Who among us can define grace with 100 percent accuracy? That's like saying, "I know God completely. I know what's going on in his mind, and I can explain his nature and actions as if I were God myself."

I've learned a lot from Brooke, Kevin, Paul, Peggy, Mark, Judy, Tina, Russell, LaTonya, Angela, and everyone who has commented and talked to me about opinions I've expressed on this blog. I need regular reminders I only see a small part of the picture of faith. I appreciate how others have expanded my field of vision.

Thankfully, you all keep me in check. Please continue to add your thoughts and expand these discussions. And call me on it if I start to get sarcastic.

To ponder:
Why do you think people use sarcasm?

2) Is it ever right or helpful to sarcastically point out someone's error?

3) What are some problems sarcasm can cause in relationships?

4) Think of a time when you used sarcasm. Did you realize the words were hurtful? Did you intend for the words to be hurtful?

5) If you find yourself using sarcasm frequently, ask God to identify any pride, anger, hurt, sadness, or esteem issues that might cause you to communicate this way. It might help to ask a friend who's around you often for accountability.