Real beauty

Last week, Lexi, a 13-year-old girl, and her mom walked into a department store in Wichita to shop for a formal dress for Lexi’s middle school event. The mom asked Lexi to try on one particular long red dress, saying Lexi would look great in it. Lexi hesitated, thinking it wasn’t quite her style, but she finally tried on the dress to please her mom. She didn’t love it, but her mom still thought she looked great, and took a picture of her wearing it. At that point, a sales lady walked in and said that if Lexi wanted to wear that dress, she’d need Spanx (slimming undergarments) to make it work. When mom said that Lexi looked fine without them, the sales lady started arguing the point, that Lexi needed the Spanx. Leaving the store, mom said that Lexi was perfect just the way she was.

Since then, the mom’s Facebook post to the clerk has gone viral: “I wish I had told you how many girls suffer from poor self-image, and telling them they need something to make them perfect can be very damaging…. My daughter is tall, she swims, runs, dances and does yoga. She’s fit. She’s beautiful. She did not need you telling her that she is not perfect.”

Five years ago, the Dove Corporation released the findings of a global study on women and beauty. The study revealed that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. What’s more, women’s anxiety about their looks begins at an early age. 72% of girls ages 10 to 17 said they felt “tremendous pressure to be beautiful.” But not only that, the study showed there is a “universal increase in the pressure to be beautiful” combined with a decrease in girls’ self-confidence as they get older. What’s even more concerning is that the pressure to be beautiful leads to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more.

The Christian faith has the audacity to claim that there is an external, once-for-all standard for beauty that doesn’t depend on what anyone else thinks. Jesus Christ loves us and is madly attracted to us just as we are. What’s more, if we let him, he will begin doing a makeover on us that the not even the greatest fashion experts could dream of.

Canoeing the mountains

Canoeing the Mountains is the title of a new book by Tod Bolsinger. After serving for many years as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church, Tod is now vice-president for vocation and formation at Fuller Seminary. He’s also one of the most thoughtful leaders in the church today focusing on church transformation and change. I’m pleased to say Tod was my coach for a year after our church did strategic planning a few years ago.

Canoeing the Mountains gets its inspiration from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery) from 1804 to 1806. Lewis and Clark were charged by Thomas Jefferson with exploring and mapping the Louisiana Purchase, and for discovering a long-sought after water route to the Pacific.

But Lewis and Clark set out with false expectations. They believed, like everyone before them, that the geography ahead of them was like the geography behind them. When at long last the Corps of Discovery reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected that just over the next hill they would find the Columbia River that would lead them down to the ocean. Instead what lay before them was the Rocky Mountains.

Their canoes weren’t going to be of any more use.

Tod Bolsinger says that churches today find themselves in a similar position to Lewis and Clark. What’s ahead is not what’s behind, so the maps aren’t any good. And yet Lewis and Clark didn’t turn back. In coming so far, they had bonded together as a team. They’d developed trust. Instead of turning back, they redefined their mission and pressed on.

Canoeing the Mountains asks leaders to consider these key questions:

  • How do we lead a congregation to be faithful to the mission God has put before us when the world has changed so radically?
  • What are the tools, the mental models, the wise actions and competing commitments that require navigation?
  • And mostly, what transformation does it demand of those of us who have been called to lead?

Discovering you

After living overseas for many years, a couple moved to the city and enrolled their daughter in a high school downtown. The first question her new classmates asked her was not, “Where are you from?” Their first question was, “Are you gay or straight?”

That was several years ago. Today the question students are asking is, “Do you identify as a male, female, or something else?”

In the January/February 2016 issue of Christianity Today, Alissa Wilkinson says that 2015 was “The year we searched for ourselves.” Wilkinson says that “Christians commonly assume, alongside mainstream culture, that the process of knowing ourselves is an individual one….”  “To thine own self be true,” the famous words of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, may be the unofficial motto of our culture today. But it’s not that simple. The people around us dramatically affect our perception of ourselves.

Wilkinson points to the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a young woman who’s freed after 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker. She sets off to New York to find herself. But the people she interacts with all have their own strengths and weaknesses; things they like about themselves, and things they’d rather not reveal.

The truth is, self-identification takes place in a particular context. If Kimmy went to Des Moines instead of New York she would identify something different in herself.  Wilkinson says, “In reality, though, we don’t first find ourselves, then participate in relationships. Instead, we were made to know ourselves in relationships.”

Christians understand that we were all created in God’s image. This is why God gave us the church; to be, in part, the context through which the creator reveals to us our truest selves. As Wilkinson says, “We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there.”

Passing through the waters

The videos coming out of Missouri were heartbreaking. Floodwaters had risen rapidly and with little warning. Homes were underwater or swept away. Most of the deaths happened when people underestimated the strength of the current and tried to drive through the water. One bewildered survivor said that he had gone to work in the morning and came home to find four feet of water in his home.

As the New Year began, people everywhere were being overcome by different kinds of floods. Some faced the holidays for the first time after the loss of a loved one. A friend was laid off after working at a company for years. In our family, the question of how to care for aging parents was made more difficult when one parent was diagnosed with progressive kidney disease.

The truth is that many things in life can leave us asking who am I? Where do I belong? Do I even matter?

This is the week when the church remembers the baptism of Jesus; when we remember that God went under the water for us. The prophet Isaiah wrote that when you pass through rivers, when you pass through waters, when you walk through fire…God is with you. It would be easy for God to wave a cosmic hand and lift us out of our troubles. Instead God chooses to do something infinitely harder, and in doing so proves his costly love for us: God walks with us through the floods and fires.

When the religious insiders asked Jesus for a sign to prove who he was, he said the sign they would get was the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah had spent three days in the belly of a fish, but Jesus would spend “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus allowed himself to be overwhelmed to death.

The floods of life are always going to come, and at the worst possible time. They may engulf us, but Jesus proves they ultimately won’t overwhelm us.