And again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like The Devil Wears Prada.

A sixth parable: In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep depicts fashion mogul and long-time Vogue editor Anna Wintour–though her character has a different name in the film, of course (the real-life parallels are too blaring to be ignored).  A young, idealistic journalist, Andy (played by Anne Hathaway), desperate to get an “in” anywhere in the writing world, takes a job as an assistant to Miranda Priestly–Meryl Streep’s character.

Early in the film, there’s a scene in which the staff is agonizing over which turquoise belt to use in a shoot; witnessing the turmoil, Andy scoffs.  Ms. Streep turns her venomous tongue on Andy, delivering a powerful monologue tracing the history of the frumpy sweater which Andy proudly sports as a sort of anti-fashion statement.

So it is in the Kingdom of God. (see yesterday’s Gospel lesson: Matthew 13:31-33 & 44-52)

Sometimes we mistakenly think that it is our accomplishments or our self-made worthiness that elicits God’s response in becoming incarnate and eventually dying to stay with us.  It is not because there is something intrinsically superior about me, or you; it is because Jesus chose us.

Our worth comes from the price which has been paid for each of us–every person has a market value that is equivalent to Jesus’ life–our deepest identity is that we are loved by God.  We are really not such impressive, fantastic people; how exhausting it is to pretend that we are–how frustrating and tiresome to always try to work yourself up to perform and behave relying on your own steam and goodness!

If, however, our energy, our hope, our “steam” comes from finding ourselves only in what God has told us, we are free from being impressive, trying to achieve God’s love, or others’ acceptance.

We are both the cerulean sweater, and Andy, the idealistic journalist.  There’s nothing intrinsically better or more impressive about cerulean versus navy or lapis or even kelly green–the only thing that sets the cerulean sweater apart is that Miranda Priestly chose it.  The only thing that sets any one of us apart, that makes any one of us special, is that Jesus chose each of us–not that any one is particularly exceptional in and of themselves.  And we’re like Andy because we often think we’re in control of our own fashion–or our own image, or lives!–but really, we aren’t.  If we stake our image, our understanding of ourselves on anything other than being God’s child, being the one for whom Jesus sacrificed himself, then we won’t ever be at peace.

Matthew 13:44: “‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

The Good News is that looking at ourselves honestly, rightly, allows us to see our shortcomings, admit to them, own up to our sinfulness, and to still know that we are the field, the pile of dirt, that Jesus has joyfully bought with everything that he has.  I think it’s not a coincidence that a field, a pile of dirt, doesn’t do anyone much good unless life is put in it somehow–if someone plants it (as many of the parables surrounding this verse describe), or if, as in Genesis 1, God’s own breath–ruah–is blown into the pile of dirt, animating it, making it live (making it into us, into humanity).  Without God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s energy and hope, we are just piles of dirt, but with God, because of God’s sacrifice of love for us, we are made free and alive and full of color.

May we be free from the expectations and achievements which this world–and we ourselves!–puts on us, knowing that our life, our worth, our very breath, comes only from God.

Prophet Daniel & the Leather Oxfords – a sermon.

In May, I was in NYC for my brother’s graduation from college, and while I was there, I wanted to find the right kind of walking shoe for the summer. I started looking through shoe stores in SoHo for the slip-on tennis shoe I had in mind, but by the time I walked into the second store on Broadway, I had given up my crush on ked-look-alikes and moved on to a leather oxford with a bit of a heel. Where did that desire come from? I’d never spent a moment looking at them online before my trip, or in any stores once I’d arrived; I hadn’t even noticed that there were any pairs that style in stores, but suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire for oxfords. I moved from store to store, in pursuit of the perfect pair.

Many of you are aware I’d been taken in by the ubiquitous advertising of the fashion world—leather oxfords with a small heel are all the rage for spring. After a few days of walking around in New York City, seeing the shoes on women on the street, on billboards on buildings and in the subway, and on manequins in store windows, the image had lodged itself in my head, and I had no idea it was weaseling itself in there until I had a sudden and unquenchable thirst for these classic leather shoes.

In today’s Scripture lesson (Daniel 1:8-15), Daniel just isn’t refusing Babylonian biscuits and gravy, or turning down a grass-fed filet. By “not defiling himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies,” Daniel is standing up to the lie that Babylon is trying to pass off on him. Daniel knows the truth—life is found in no one else, there is no other god or person or philosophy or lifestyle on earth that gives the kind of life that following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does.

Actually, our language has done us a great favor— “Babylon” continues to be a label used to describe those things in our world that are corrupt and evil. We are called to be Daniel here, today, in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina. We are called to reject Babylon, to purpose in our hearts to not defile ourselves with the portion of the king’s delicacies. We are called instead to eat fruits and vegetables, those things which will truly build us up, give us the energy we need in order to live good, joyful lives, attuned to God and to each other.

Just like Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as the Tempter offers Jesus bread, and the ruling of kingdoms, and the service of angels, there’s nothing inherently evil about bread or being a world leader or about angels’ help. There’s nothing wrong with wearing beautiful clothes, or watching television, or enjoying grass-fed filet mignon.

How many more malicious desires and ideas take root in our minds and hearts when we’re not looking? Television like the Real Housewives might be one—have you ever noticed what happens to you after you watch shows like that? I’ve found that I’m usually crankier, more tired, and most discontented with my life than I was before I sat down on the couch, even though my purpose in sitting down to some mindless TV was to relax. I’m less-relaxed, less-calm, less-rejuvenated when I finish Millionaire Matchmaker or Scandal. These shows lull me into new expectations about how exciting and shiny and sexy my life should be; my little bungalow with its husband, and garden, and German Shepherd in South Carolina suddenly looks very, very dull—and it happens without me realizing it.   I snap at my husband and I roll my eyes at vacuuming; surely the Real Housewives don’t have to deal with dog hair or with ironing.

How about Don Draper? We are desensitized to advertising all over and around our lives. Just like suddenly developing an urge for those oxfords, it’s a given matter of course that the ads on the edges of our pages while we surf the web are related to the shopping sites we visited earlier in the day, and the emails we receive in our inboxes are tailored to appeal to our particular weaknesses and consumer habits.

It is a lie to believe that what we ingest doesn’t matter. Our culture is becoming very aware of the importance of the sorts of things we eat, but by the same token, our culture tries to tell us that what we watch and read and talk about and worry about and focus on doesn’t matter, it doesn’t shape us nearly as much as the food we put in our mouths. This is the lie of Babylon that Daniel identified and purposed in his heart to resist.

We’re being lulled to sleep, thinking that what really matters is whether we are eating ethical shrimp or fair-trade zucchini. Though ethical food and fair-trade practices are vitally important to our lives as Christians and citizens of this created world, we ought to spend at least as much time considering the kinds of influences we allow in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Are we ingesting the kinds of television shows, music, radio programs, novels, movies, and conversations that help us to stay awake, or do the lull us to sleep?

It’s not a coincidence that we read Daniel wanted to eat vegetables—celery and kale do not make you want to take a nap. They keep you alert. Babylon wants to make you fall asleep; to not realize what is happening to you until it’s too late. We are the proverbial lobsters or frogs in the pot on the stovetop. Just a little bit of discontentment sneaks in to start with, we repeat the same annoying story about our spouse or best friend, and after a few times, we start to believe it. The water starts to warm up, and we start to believe the lie that others’ lives are naturally more glamorous and peaceful than ours. Soon, the water is boiling and we’re cooked—we didn’t even notice it.

This is what happened to Walter White in Breaking Bad—a timid high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer without having smoked a day in his life. He eased up next to evil under the guise of providing for his family by starting to cook and sell very pure, very cheap meth. A few seasons later, he’s a drug kingpin in the Southwest.

My friends, we live in Babylon. We are strangers in a strange land. We are offered all sorts of shiny delicacies by the king every day. As we notice all the moments that shove tempting, sleep-inducing food beneath your nostrils, let us remember Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

A version of this sermon was preached at Downtown Church in Columbia, SC, on July 20th, 2014.

The Age of Too Much Information – Flipside

Over on The Living Church‘s Covenant Blog today, I write about how social media might serve as a tool for character development.  Below, thinking about professional networks, accountability, and isolation, I consider another angle of this sticky, timely issue.

Unlike Columbia, South Carolina, where I now live, there are many cities that are simply too large to provide much accountability for one’s actions.  In such a global age, building up a network for yourself which provides only the sort of feedback that you desire to hear, isolating yourself from any real challenge, is a frighteningly easy prospect.  By not seeking out people with whom you disagree, and listening to them with respect and engagement, you lose not only opportunities to sharpen your own skills and work-excellence, but you put yourself in a position that provides little accountability.

Left to our own devices, we humans are a crooked lot.  Together, we’re perhaps a little bit better off than by ourselves, but especially in the professional world, and even more so in fields where fellow professionals may be few and far between, establishing a little club of friends and building a wall about yourselves can lead to very serious myopia.

This double-edged sword of American individualism is duller on the side of accountability.  As towns grow and people move more frequently, it is ever more rare to find and sustain deep friendships and professional relationships that provide the sort of accountability and character formation necessary to produce people of integrity.  The internet, as I argue on the Covenant Blog, can provide some of this accountability, but for those not as engaged online, it is easy to slip into shallow relationships, or to drift out of someone’s life–even if you continue to live in the same place, because there are often plenty of people to keep the both of you otherwise occupied.  Especially as Christians, we are mistaken to think that we have any right to any sort of privacy in the way we treat others (or even, I would argue, in what we do to or with ourselves).

There are many things that southern towns get right–keeping track of where her minister eats Saturday night’s dinner is not the least of them!


Mary and Martha and a heart problem

Today’s Gospel lesson is the well-loved account of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which is used to blast both those who find their spiritual fervor in serving the Lord through activity, and to rein in those who would love to sit forever without lifting a finger.

This video, about a woman who suffers a life-threatening heart condition, communicates a bit of what Jesus might be getting at in today’s parable; she hasn’t stopped doing anything since her diagnosis, but her attitude toward her life,  accomplishments, and activity has changed completely.

How does this video, and Jesus’ call to the “one thing” inspire you?

Grey’s Anatomy & Jesus

I’ve found my true calling: recognizing (“rationalizing”?) the echoes and underpinnings of the Christian message in popular television.  It’s a difficult job–watching lots of television and searching as for a needle in a haystack to find something true to affirm–but it’s the calling I’ve been given.  (tongue-in-cheek, my friends)

But seriously: in this year’s season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, a main character realizes that she and her ex-husband/companion/lover (that is, they got divorced in order to keep their love alive…) have mutually exclusive life goals, and that she must end the relationship.  The nugget of wisdom I heard in all this mess was this woman telling her not-husband, as he tried to convince her that their relationship didn’t have to end over the difference they suffered, “It’s already happened.”  He’d had a desire to adopt a child, and while it was only a desire, it was one that he dwelt on and dreamt of, all the while, not telling her.  It didn’t work out, and he didn’t try to adopt the boy, but the not-wife knew that the damage had already been done.  The irreversible change in their relationship had already happened, though he hadn’t made any physical, procedural, or preparatory moves toward this life change.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'” (Matthew 5:27-28)

In our relationships, how much damage is done by both the fleeting thoughts and the thought-patterns that we allow to seep into our heads?  I’m aware that just by saying out loud to everyone who asks, “this move has been bewilderingly easy and wonderful!”  I’m teaching myself to believe it’s true (of course, it helps when, as in my case, it happens to be true!).  Hearing yourself, or someone else, say the same positive thing again and again makes it seep into your head and heart, and you begin to believe it–because it’s true (a lot of life is which details we choose to underline).

However, if we aren’t active about the sorts of things we habitually say and think, we easily slip into negative habits and thought patterns, looking at others with contempt, focusing on our exhaustion (as we complain to everyone how tired and achy and over-worked we are). Or, in the case of our favorite Grey’s Anatomy characters, our minds run away with us and our plans, knowing that at some point the new life we’ve created in our heads will come crashing down when reality–that is, trying to life out this dream-life–sets in.

There are times and places for honest discussion about those things in life which are challenging, and perhaps even suffocating for us, but being aware of our mental tape loops  can allow us to create new, powerful, more truthful thought-and-speaking patterns about our lives.

With (spoiler alert!) Yang & Hunt on GA, Christina Yang knows that Owen Hunt’s foray into fatherhood through adoption in his mind has already planted the growing seed of desire which will turn to resentment; “it’s already happened”–our thoughts count.