Can you eat your way to joy?

Does joy in life depend on how much you weigh?

This week, the Today Show debuted a new series featuring actress Valerie Bertinelli. Bertinelli has spent her life in the public eye. In 1975, at age 15, she got her big break in the sitcom One Day at a Time. In addition to acting, she’s had her own cooking show and been a spokesperson for Jenny Craig.

“Valerie Bertinelli is feeling positive about 2020,” the reporter said. That includes paying attention to her own needs.”

“When you’re busy taking care of other people you forget to take care of yourself. I’ve been working so hard for so long…I just want to know what true joy feels like,” Bertinelli said. 

Today said that Bertinelli brought joy to others through her TV roles while hiding her own sadness. Over the years she found comfort in food, leading to swings in her weight. But now, with the Today Show documenting her progress, she plans to eat better and lose weight to learn to feel better about herself.

Who can’t feel her pain?

Women of all ages are crushed by a culture that places a premium on youth and beauty. Any standard of beauty that would suggest that the lovely Valerie Bertinelli needs to lose weight is arbitrary, harmful, and impossible to achieve.

And if your eating failed to cover sadness, does it follow that you can eat your way to joy?

The Christian faith has a whole different path to joy that doesn’t depend on one’s weight, bank account, job prospects, number of Facebook friends, or anything that can go up and down.

The great English preacher, the late David Martin Lloyd-Jones, said that the essence of the Christian faith is to say that “Jesus Christ is good enough and I am in Him.” To say that “I’m not good enough” is to deny the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.

Joy will always be illusive if it depends on anything that can go up and down.  

But the good news is that you are so attractive to Jesus Christ that he left heaven to pursue you. When you are in Him, you have the joy of knowing that you’ve been approved by the only one who matters, and that his approval will never change.

Wild kingdom

Back in 2005, soon after I’d made the decision (momentous for Jana and me) to sell our home in Montgomery and move to Pittsburgh to attend seminary, I heard a talk by Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary. Dr Wardlaw said something startling. He said the church most people had been raised in had served to “inoculate us against the real thing.”

The church most of us grew up in was safe.

The church was where you went to experience religious programs, take part in religious services, be inspired.

Yet the church Jesus gave the world was anything but safe.

Jesus came to bring a new kingdom to all of creation. Jesus was the intersection between his kingdom and the kingdom of the world. Everywhere Jesus went, life as God intended was breaking in.

The early church was wildly countercultural.

The church most of us were raised had become the culture.

It felt safe, but was it what Jesus intended?

Every now and then you meet a Jesus follower who has a quiet calm about them. They’re secure in their person. They don’t need to win every argument. Change doesn’t bother them. Maybe it’s because they’ve had a glimpse of life as Jesus intended.

Maybe they’ve seen the new kingdom breaking in. 

They know that the only safe place is where Jesus is.

Sign of Immanuel

A few years ago, Jana and I were at a church conference where one of the speakers was Gary Haugen, President of International Justice Mission. The mission of IJM is to rescue people from slavery and human trafficking. Gary was talking about finding the courage to end slavery, which is worse today than any time in history. 

When Gary was ten years old, his dad took Gary and his two older brothers hiking on Mount Rainier. He was having a good time until they came to the point where the paved trail ended. There was a big warning sign with all the dangers that lay ahead.

Steep drop offs. Loose footing. Bears and other wildlife. Beware crossing streams and creeks. Watch out for sudden storms.

Trying to be nonchalant, he told his Dad that he thought it would be fun to spend the day in the visitors’ center. His dad told him about the adventure they were going to have, and said, “I’ll be with you.” But Gary wasn’t buying it. He went back, while his dad and brothers went ahead.

When he got back to the visitors’ center, it was nice and warm. There was a video playing, showing what it was like to climb to the top of the mountain. There was a hot chocolate machine which he liked. There were lots of other exhibits. At first, he had a great time.

But as the day wore on, time dragged by. The video was on a loop, reminding him for the umpteenth time, what he was missing. It was the worst day of his life. 

When his dad and brothers came back, their cheeks were red from the adventure, their eyes glistening as they told of all the things they had seen and experienced together. 

His dad asked him how his day had been. And do you think he admitted being bored? Did he tell his dad he was sorry for having been such a coward? No, he lied, and said he had a great time.

Even then he knew he had missed out on a special day with his father.

Gary said, “You miss out on the joy in safety.  The church doesn’t thrive in safety. God doesn’t show up in power in safety.”

The sign of Immanuel means that God invited us to be part of the greatest adventure of all. God came to us and said, “I’ll be with you.”

As Gary Haugen said, “Let God show up in power. Go where you can only go with God.”

You were a child once too

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the new movie starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. The story is loosely based on the relationship Mr. Rogers had with real-life Esquire magazine reporter Tom Junod. In the movie, the reporter (fictional movie character Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys) is assigned to do a story on Mr. Rogers. Vogel objects; he’d been hired to do investigative journalism, he said. But his editor insisted. Vogel had anger issues; all his previous profiles had turned into hit pieces. None of the other subjects for the Esquire article would agree to speak to him. The editor thought that talking to Mr. Rogers might do Vogel some good.

Grudgingly, Vogel set off to interview Mr. Rogers and get the assignment over with. But Mr. Rogers refused to be rushed. He gave Vogel the same undivided attention that he gave to everyone, even if it meant getting behind in production and frustrating the studio crew. Mr. Rogers was far more interested in Vogel’s life story than in talking about his own. Like he did with the children watching his show every day, he wanted to help Vogel deal with his emotions.

Did Vogel have a favorite toy growing up? “You were a child once, too,” he said.

Vogel was incredulous. Could Mr. Rogers really care that much? And about him?

Slowly, the movie begins to reveal some of the sources Mr. Rogers’ profound grace.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t a Christmas movie, but it is a story of grace and love. Like the grace and love that came down at Christmas.

God was a child once too.

Facing the darkness

For years I’ve heard that suicides spike during the holidays. It turns out that’s not true. Suicides are actually lower this time of year, yet news outlets recycle the myth that because people are under stress, miss loved ones, etc., they take their lives in greater numbers. No.

It turns out the opposite may be true; the season offers hope and support that are lacking at other times. People care and give and volunteer more during the holidays.

But we still need to “face the darkness.” So says Anglican priest and author Tish Harrison Warren in her excellent op-ed in the New York Times last week. The world really is a dark and broken place and only God can fix it. It’s why Jesus had to come.

So Christians observe this season called Advent where we prepare for the coming of the Savior. In Advent, we avoid jumping straight to the celebration; we linger in the darkness for a while. We take stock of what’s wrong with us, and what it cost Jesus to save us.

And when we celebrate, and we certainly do, we remember that Jesus not only faced the darkness, he went into the ultimate darkness.

Jesus allowed his life to be taken so we can live in hope.

Come down there

Years ago, I saw an outtake for a new Air Force recruiting commercial. The ad featured the F-22, the hot new stealth fighter, soaring through the sky. The voice said something like, “It’s a bad bird; the meanest, baddest bird in the sky.” After a few more seconds of aerobatics, the voice said, “Don’t make us come down there.”

Like I said, it was an outtake; that last line was never used on the air. But the words resonated because they sounded like something our parents said to us when we fought with our siblings. “Stop fighting! Don’t make us come down there!”

Well, Christmas is coming, and we humans are still fighting.

But at the first Christmas long ago, God really did “come down there” to set things right.

We have a persistent dream: peace on earth. The ancient Prophet Isaiah had the dream nearly 3000 years ago. But Isaiah was realistic about the prospects for peace. His tiny nation was surrounded by enemies. The only hope was for God to “come down there.”

We humans fight as much as ever. We’re not very good at setting things right. But there is one who is.

Christmas reminds us that the dream came true and will come true again.

Come down here, Lord. Come quickly.

Special needs

Jesus and his disciples were walking along when they came across a blind beggar. This prompted the disciples to ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Puzzling.

They didn’t say, “Master, here’s a man who needs you.” No. In the first century, if you saw suffering, you probably thought that person was a sinner. If that sounds superstitious and backward, consider that modern people make a similar mistake. To the extent they consider it at all, modern people think that God blesses those who are “good.”

The disciples saw a blind man and said nothing about helping him. They just asked the kind of question about suffering that theological students ask. It seems they were willing to walk by a hurting person as long as they got their question answered. 

Jesus wasn’t buying it. He said, “You don’t understand. Sin doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t work that way. This isn’t a question of sin; it’s a question of serving. Don’t you know who we are? Who I am?” 

We belong to God. We were put here to reveal God’s glory, and often that glory is revealed when we serve.

Even a person with a special need, like needing accommodations to overcome blindness, can reveal God’s glory. 

Maybe those with special needs especially reveal God’s glory.

Clear skin

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross.

He was going through the border region between Samaria and Galilee when he was met by ten men with leprosy. They called out to Jesus, “Have pity on us!” Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, and while they were on their way, their leprosy was healed.

One of the men, a Samaritan, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus and threw himself at Jesus’ feet in gratitude.   

“Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Jesus asked.

My guess is that when you have a horrible skin disease like leprosy, the differences between people, like the ethnic and religious differences between Samaritans and Jews, seem pretty minor. But take away the disease, and the underlying differences emerge. Hence, only the ethnic minority, the hated Samaritan, was grateful.

One out of ten.

We live in a culture which says, from morning to night, “You deserve it.” It’s the air we breathe. So, when something good happens to us, we think we’re just getting what we’re owed. We don’t even recognize the blessing.

Jesus told the Samaritan, “Rise and go; your faith has made you whole.”

Do you see?

All ten had been cleansed, but only the grateful one was made whole.

The irony is that we, like the nine ungrateful ones, live with a fraction of the blessing that’s available to us. We go through life like practical lepers.

We’re one-tenth as grateful (probably more like one-hundredth) as we ought to be.

Jesus came to make us whole. We settle for clear skin.

Identity

A friend recently told me about the Fort Henry Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Originally built as a private home in 1850, the building was turned into a private men’s club in 1890. Walking by as a boy, my friend would marvel at the impressive columns and grand marble steps.

The club had a reputation for elegance and propriety. Famous guests included Charles Lindbergh, Herbert Hoover, and Babe Ruth. Businessmen from across the country kept their memberships there. They didn’t just come for the networking; they came for a sense of stability; an experience of life as it used to be.

But then times changed. The club didn’t. The roof started leaking and the columns started crumbling. In 2011, the club declared bankruptcy and closed. But rather than see the building demolished, the church across the street bought the property, and later sold it to a developer, who began to restore it. Today three businesses lease space there.

Private clubs are just one of the things that help(ed?) us make sense of the world. Our friends, our jobs, our looks, and our families are also sources of our identity.

In his book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher describes the major changes in the global west over centuries. One of the sources of identity was religion. The root of the word “religion” is the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” A shared understanding of religion used to bind people together and was a source of shared identity.

But then times changed. Over time, identity became an individual thing, something that you create.

Dreher suggests that the practices of a monastic community prescribed by the 6th century monk Benedict of Nursia can help everyone, not just monks, survive in a changing culture.

Styles change.

Kids grow up.

Friends move away.

Companies downsize.

Our favorite places go bankrupt.

Only Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Can you be anything you want?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my Dad told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I believed him. He wanted me to be a doctor, or a CPA, or an Army officer. I became an Air Force officer. Close. Dad’s generation had won the greatest war in human history and times were good. What could possibly be wrong with dreaming that you could be anything you chose?

Well, Dad would never have imagined that his boy might dream of growing up to be a girl.

Now, I never dreamed that, but a lot of folks like my late father might be surprised by the conversations parents and kids are having today. But here’s the thing. While the greatest generation won the great war, it went on to lose the culture war back home. Society started replacing the concept of the transcendent with the concept of self. As churches started shrinking, some replaced the biblical narrative of Creation—Fall—Restoration with “God just wants to bless you and make you happy.” Still other churches replaced cultural engagement with finger wagging.

So, why should we be surprised that a new generation thinks it’s OK to switch genders, or even define “gender” for oneself? Aren’t they just taking us at our word, like I did with my Dad, that they can be anything?

But this is about more than choice.

A small number of people experience a mismatch between gender given at birth and how they understand themselves, and that leads to anxiety and distress. Some churches have treated these folks with disdain; others with unquestioning affirmation. Neither approach is right. The good news is that the historic Christian faith has lots of resources to help.

We are all made in God’s image; “fearfully and wonderfully made,” the psalmist said. Every single one of us is someone for whom Christ died. But we’re fallen, and that means the image of God in each of us needs to be restored.

Jesus didn’t come into the world, become one of us, and die a painful death just so we could be anything we want to be. He did it so he could restore his image in us; so that we could become the persons he created us to be.

God’s idea of what we can become is infinitely greater than any category we were born into, or any new category we create for ourselves. Every person you will ever see is someone loved by God; someone you could spend eternity with.

We really don’t have the power to become anything we choose.

But as the church, we do have the power to give the world a glimpse of the unconditional love of Christ.