Save the World, Change Your Jeans (Part 1)

I have a history of stumbling upon fashion trends the way most people invest in stocks–far too late. I’m a “buy high, sell low” kinda guy.

Example #1 

giphy1989 was the year of snap bracelets. For those too young to remember, snap bracelets were a band of razor-sharp aluminum sheathed with ultra thin (usually neon colored) fabric, which did this [see left] when they touched your wrist. Soon after acquiring an impressive collection of bracelets, my elementary school outlawed them. The aluminum strips were coming unsheathed and slicing into the pre-pubescent hands and wrists. Something had to be done, I get it. My bracelets began to collect dust in my desk drawer, while I hopelessly prayed for a comeback which, to my knowledge, never happened.

Example #2

I grew up during the prime of Michael Jordan’s career. A massive poster of MJ hung on my bedroom wall. I would stare at that poster, mesmerized by Jordan’s airborne tongue exposure, the expressions on the faces of the crowd (halfway between horror and ecstasy), and the humiliated defender below just waiting for the embarrassing moment to pass. I recall the guy on the poster who was “defending” Jordan looking like he’d been hijacked from a late-1970’s Coors beer commercial: a towering, awkward looking white guy with curly red hair, a robust mustache, and the early signs of back forestation.

reebok_pump_originalMichael Jordan had his shoe, but Richie (my 4th grade arch enemy) already owned that shoe. So I was compelled to go a different route. I cozied up to the tomahawk-jamming  Dominique Wilkins  and his Reebok Pumps.
But there was a catch. My parents didn’t have a lot of expendable income, so for my 10th birthday I was faced with a choice: a new bike or the Pumps. To my everlasting shame, I chose the shoes. These days, Jordans fetch over $200/pair, while Reebok Pumps have only recently been reintroduced into the shoe consuming world after almost two decades in fashion exile.

Example #3 

By the time I reached 6th grade, I had developed a warranted skepticism about my sense of fashion. Partly because the first year of middle school is really all about making it through alive, and partly because of the aforementioned fashion blunders, I resigned myself to simply dressing in a way that rendered me unnoticeable: stonewashed jeans, Keds, and t-shirts advertising sports teams. Around that time, however, a French clothing designer blew up the fashion-sphere with these:

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I couldn’t help myself. I had to have a pair. Luckily, another birthday was right around the corner. With the Reebok Pumps mishap still fresh in my mind, I reluctantly began to gravitate t0ward Girbauds. Still, I knew the clock was ticking. If I didn’t purchase a pair of Girbauds soon, I could once again find myself desperately clutching the coattails of a quickly dissipating fashion trend. On an early November night my mom and I raced down to the department store. We weaved our way around the stacks of jackets, sweaters, and suit coats before finding the oasis of fashion. I had already determined to practice conservatism and go with a pair of standard blue jeans. That way, when the Girbaud hype waned, I would possess something classic. I was ill-prepared for what happened next: no blue jeans, no black jeans, no khakis…only two tones of Girbauds were available on the rack: rust or green. With a look of hysteria, I turned to a nearby sales associate and frantically asked, “What happened to the other colors?!” Without a shred of empathy she mechanically responded, “Oh, we should receive another shipment in a couple weeks.”

A couple weeks?! I mean, who knows what wave of fashion we’ll be riding at that point? In a couple weeks, I might find an entire rainbow of Girbaud options at the local thrift store!

So I went with these:

vintage-classic-stone-wash-green-marithe-et-francois-girbaud-denim-jeans-s-32-eeb77d6e98b853c715710221ae41c648

Things went downhill from there. I mean, sure I technically had a pair of Girbaud’s, but what matches green jeans? Certainly not our school colors (brown and yellow). I realized this on my third day of Girbaud ownership when schoolmates who had younger siblings began reminiscing about various bodily fluids their siblings ejected in their earlier years and how the color pallet of my outfit bore a striking resemblance.

I could go on. I won’t. Because my sense is that I’ve thoroughly proven my point and alleviated any belief you, the reader, my have about me possessing any innate fashion sense. I deserve that. And yet, in the second half of this post, I was to talk about a fashion “trend” I’ve stumbled upon that I believe has not only a “cool” factor, but also utilitarian appeal. So stay tuned…and stay cool.

 

Your Unique Story

I’m convinced stories are the most powerful media in existence. In fact, all media is story.

We look to stories to understand where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.

It doesn’t matter whether these stories are “true”, as in, whether they actually happened. What’s important is which stories we grant power in our lives

Consider your career:

At some point in your life you have (or will) travel along what’s referred to as a “career path”. It’s called a “path” because it’s already been traveled. Older people have done the arduous bushwhacking. Additionally, there are folks traveling along with you. Chances are you path is well worn and relatively crowded, which is both a blessing and a curse. Why?

Because on one hand, we can learn a lot from our predecessors and contemporaries. For example, advances in medical technology come through a seemingly endless process of trial and error. The mistakes and dead-ends discovered mean those who are currently setting out to advance the technology/industry/art/etc. know where not to travel.

But on the other hand, traveling the same path others have traveled/are traveling offers the temptation to believe some insanely damaging stories; stories fueled by what I like to call the cancer of comparison. 

This is where really crappy stories start:

You exist in all your multi-faceted glory:

  • Your field of work
  • Your relationship(s)
  • Your body size/features
  • Your level of intelligence
  • Your family of origin

This is your life: an awkward blend of beauty and frustration–your partner broke your heart, the sunset ignites the sky, your pet got run over by a Fiat, you won a few bucks on a scratch-off, you’ve got a few extra pounds you’d love to see vanish, but this enchilada tastes so good. And guess what, that’s life…for everyone. The question isn’t whether we’ll experience joy and sorrow, but how we’ll interpret sum of it all. In other words: what story do we believe these experiences are telling?

Some stories lead us to adopt what I like to call a “binary comparison” framework (below)untitled-2-01This is when the story we choose to believe about our reality maximizes the perceived joys of another person’s life while minimizing our own. Simultaneously we seriously downplay the perceived struggles of another’s experience while utterly blowing ours out of proportion.

This is toxic because we’re essentially comparing what we know about ourselves with what we don’t know about another person. Meaning, our world offers countless avenues for displaying awesomeness to the watching world. Think: plastic surgery, insane lines of credit, social media, and Photoshop. But since there’s no counterbalance, no one holding us accountable for the authenticity of our broadcasted awesomeness, what ends up happening is (barring some tragic personal disaster that goes public) people assume our lives are far easier, more exciting, less frustrating, and include better lighting than theirs.

Binary Comparison is the fallout–our lives are compared to the life of another person against whom we simply cannot win, because the projected awesomeness of their life is always better than the gloriously tragic monotony of our own.

Imagine your life as “Life Option #1”. There you are, on a bad day. You feel like you it’s going to be ok…that is, until you gaze across the endless abyss of nothingness (because there is no nuance; either your life is awesome like theirs or lame like yours). As you gaze across the endless abyss of nothingness you see your co-worker, classmate, etc. scaling the glorious heights of “Life Option #2”. With her trophy in hand and grin perpetually pasted upon her face, the cancer of comparison sets in and you assume that only means of pursuing a better life for yourself is by doing your best to mimic her life.

Most of us are playing this game…today, and everyday.

Here’s the best news you’ll hear all day: Your life isn’t supposed to look like his/hers 

You think you’ve got issues? Well, you do. But guess what? So does everybody else. “Life Option #2” may have it’s benefits, but what you can’t see (because the person living “Life Option #2” will work tirelessly to keep you from seeing it) is that it’s got huge problems–addictions, family of origin issues, relational chaos, financial struggles, depression, anxiety, abuse.

The following quote has been attributed to numerous people throughout history:

Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

But what if the remedy for our pervasive problem with comparison lies not simply in learning to understand that inevitable struggle hiding behind every smile, but in taking our eyes off of others altogether?

Here’s an alternative to binary comparison:

untitled-2-02

In this scenario, not only are we refusing to compare ourselves to others, we can actually celebrate the unique contribution each person is meant to make in the world. The underlying premises of “non-binary life options” is as follows:

  • You are uniquely made for a unique purpose. 
  • You need the unique talents and perspectives of others in order to live out your own purpose.
  • Your neighbor, co-worker, classmate, etc. is not your competitor, but your partner, your brother and your sister. 

In this scenario, we can truly love others. And when we love others, our love imparts the courage others need to trust that when they share their tragedies, frustrations, doubts, fears, addictions, they won’t be shamed and rejected, because we’ve let go of that malicious parts of ourselves that actually enjoy watching those we’d placed on pedestals fall and crack and bleed all over. Finally, by embracing this level of vulnerability (and in that vulnerability being met with love) the stories we all tend to believe about ourselves will begin to change.

This process begins with each of us making a conscious choice:

We must choose to reject the cancer of comparison.

We must affirm the dignity of each person by affirming that each person has a unique story to live (this necessitates viewing others as a brother/sister rather than competitor).

And we must display the courage to be honest about our own struggles, knowing that in sharing them, we are offering others a different way to live, a better story to live.

Essential?

We live in the tension between how we believe we should spend our time and how we dream of spending our time. For many, the instinctive response to this statement goes something like:

Sure, I dream of spending my life in a tropical paradise on perpetual vacation, but I’ve got a mortgage and kids and student loans, so I should spend a significant slice of my life in my cubicle [insert obligatory TPS Report joke here].

But this sentiment is shortsighted. We were all made to do something. The imperative given to the two humans in the Garden of Eden was about productivity: “Be fruitful and increase in number… (Gen. 1:28)”

Humans have always harbored a deep longing to contribute something uniquely important to their world.

While a perpetual vacation may provide a measure of much needed rest, it cannot squelch the relentless longing to leave our mark upon this world. Over the past ten years, technology has broadened the horizon of possibilities. Entrepreneurship has almost returned to the record level it stood before the 2008 recession, and products that hadn’t existed a decade ago now feel vital to our existence.

Options aren’t necessarily a good thing. Grocery shopping in rural Uganda has taught me about the beauty of simplicity. When there are only two breakfast cereal options (instead of 200), you’re spared the predictable rush of anxiety wrought by engaging in price comparison, scrutinizing nutritional information, and taking into account the importance of flavor. When there are only two choices, you pick one and move on.

Our culture of almost infinite choice functions as a double-edged sword for our day. Within the eight square inches of a smart phone lies a universe of possible distractions. Our phones seem to scream the announcement of a nominally important email at the very moment we fell as though we’re about to jump a major hurdle in an infinitely more important project we’re working on. And just like that, our attention is diverted, the inspiration is lost, and we find ourselves subconsciously cursing the person who felt the need to send us that email at that very moment. And then there’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Apple News, etc., etc….

Let’s be honest, most of our days feel like this:

sharks-01

Most of the people I talk with don’t feel a significant amount of freedom in their schedule. Their kids, spouses, homes, and jobs tend to dictate where they devote their. But I believe we have a lot more freedom than we think.

Several months ago Laura Vanderkam wrote an illuminating opinion piece in the New York Times. You should read it, but the gist is that we aren’t as busy as we think. Rather, we use the work “busy” as a way of justifying the real or perceived productivity in our lives. My contention is that even when we are actually busy, we are often busy doing things that aren’t all that important.

So, here’s a few practical challenges (running in conjunction with my previous challenge):

  1. Keep the smart phone/tablet out of the bedroom (or, if you’re like me and use your phone as an alarm, keep it on “airplane mode” and resting alone on your nightstand). Research shows that looking at a screen before falling sleep can be very problematic. For many, when morning arrives, grabbing and surveying the midnight happenings on social media seems involuntary. But what if you spent that time practicing gratitude, praying, intentionally breathing, even visualizing what you’re really meant to do today?
  2. Check email only during scheduled times. Did you know you can give your email a gag order?! On an iPhone, go to  “settings” – “notifications” –  (scroll down to) “mail” and simply turn off notifications…presto… the only time you’ll be notified about an addition to your inbox is when you choose to notify yourself. Do this during pre-determined times. Trust me, whoever is sending you that “urgent” email can wait a few hours. If not, they can call you. I’m convinced our manic (co-dependant?) relationship with technology has created the expectation that everyone ought to be instantly accessible, but that’s a lie you can choose to reject. You’re not the President. You’re not a even a Senator. So relax. Let go of the illusion of self-importance.  Mr/Mrs. ______ will survive without your immediate response.
  3. Spend the beginning of the week “architecting”. I recently came across this concept via Greg McKeown’s work (mentioned in my previous post), but a good friend of mine has been doing this for a long time. Until recently, I thought my friend was simply a robotic control freak; however, I’m learning that if you don’t take control of your schedule, someone else will. Schedule architecting will look different for everyone. As a full-time employee, my upcoming schedule is technicolor explosion across the 8am-6pm time-spectrum (at 6pm I’m home for dinner, always). Each color relates to a different facet of my job and every hour is accounted for. My inherent lack of discipline and focus requires this level of color-coded, hour-by-hour specificity. My wife, on the other hand, is a full-time mom and a part-time employee. For her, it helps to schedule her day into 2-3 hour “blocks” of time. The point isn’t a particular method, but an intention to “own” your time. I think this is an important thing to do at the beginning of every week, since each week brings a new array of potential distractions. Take control now, so that others don’t take control for you.
  4. Delete social media from your phone. For the vast majority of us, doing this will profoundly improve our quality of life. Some will cringe at the prospect of wholesale deletion, perhaps because (like me) they wrestle with the illusion of self-importance.  But rest assured, the watching world can wait a few hours to hear your groundbreaking insight on our voting options. Save social media (just like email) for regularly scheduled times. Who knows, you may save a life by making this move.

One final note: this is an in-process post. Meaning, I am learning to re-creating my life by taking ownership of my schedule. I’ve put some things in place, but I’m convinced that the hard work involves the following through. My hope is that evidence of the benefits of committing to the aforementioned challenges will fill the blank spaces of posts to come…stay tuned. And be sure to offer your insights to the conversation (comment below).

Priorities

I find it ironic that one of the most challenging aspects of living in our culture is the opportunity we have to accomplish so many things. It’s as if the extent of our potential effectiveness, maximized by new media, inevitably leads us to burnout. In other words: because we can do so much, we do do so much, and in the end we are exhausted.

I recently listened to a couple great podcast episodes from “The Art of Charm”(HERE and HERE), and found myself confronted by the staggering amount of clutter in my life. venn1_blog-01

Jess and I have too much stuff. We’ve come to realize that we can experience more freedom and less stress in our lives with fewer things (a thought that runs counter to our culture’s value system). There are items in our home that gather dust; big, bulky things we hold onto “just in case”. In all likelihood, we’ll never need them. Still, there they are, filling space. There are other items lying in boxes scattered across our garage: old high school yearbooks, photos from my early twenties, books I read (or intended to) in undergrad/grad school, and half-used home improvement items I thought I knew how to use, but didn’t.

But there is another kind of clutter I’ve noticed dominating my life. As I mentioned above, technological advances have made it possible to pursue far more than in previous decades. And yet, activity does not necessarily build legacy. There is a unique danger among those who take advantage of modern technology to devolve into manic activists who are able to quickly respond to the demands of others, but whose lives function like small rudderless sailboats caught in a swirling wind–spinning in circles and technically covering great distances, but really going nowhere.

For many of us, our family/career looks like this.venn2-01 Because of the opportunity we have to do so much, we attempt to refocus by identifying “priorities”: the 3-5 activities/relationships that really matter. The problem is that for the first 500 years of the word’s existence, priorite exclusively referred to one thing that took precedent over all others. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown points to the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century as the turning point for word “priority”, when it became pluralized (note: a contradiction in terms). Which means, now our lives begin to look eerily similar to our homes with dusty “priorities” scattered in dark corners, projects and opportunities we ran after for a short period of time before they were relegated to the sidelines because the running got hard or something more interesting came along. Instead of pursuing one thing to the bitter end, until our heaving chests lunge forward and tear the paper stretched across the finish line, we run a few hundred yards in a thousand different races. 

What if we made a resolve to own less stuff and pursue fewer opportunities so that our lives can function more like a rifle and less like a shotgun? Sure, shotguns work, but they are used for smaller targets. It’ll take a lot of dove to feed your family, but a single bullet fired at a hulking doe will provide food for a long time.

In regards to our possessions: what if we committed to thirty days of purging (giving away/selling stuff). Here’s how it works:

giveaway-01

In regards to our possessions: McKeown suggests we work to “architect” our weeks, rather than allowing others to shape them for us. What if we took thirty minutes on a Monday morning to sketch out the skeleton for our week, asking critical questions like: What’s the one thing I need to do this week? What’s one thing I can schedule that will bring me life? What’s one way I can use my time to bless my family this week? What do I perceive to be potential threats to living out this schedule?

We live in a world where we must fight for simplicity. What are some ways you’re doing this?

The Forgotten Parable

When I studied in Israel a few years back, I took a class called, “The Parables of Jesus”. The  course was  taught by a Jewish Rabbi who wasn’t entirely certain the Jesus of the Bible ever actually existed and certainly didn’t believe in Jesus’ claims of divinity. And yet, Rabbi Moshe is a man utterly fascinated with Jesus.

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Moshe, as you probably guessed, is the dude on the left.

Throughout the course we looked not only at Jesus’ parables, but also a number of other parables written around the time of Jesus. Two thousand years ago, a parable was simply a rhetorical device used by teachers to implicate and inform an audience. It’s something like a poem, an allegory, and a moral lesson rolled into one; a dance of colors, sounds, characters, moral and political commentary.

One of the things that fascinates Rabbi Moshe about Jesus is the way he taught parables. According to Moshe, the parables of Jesus are more complex and provocative that any of his contemporaries. Sandwiched between Jesus’ other profound teaching, his parables are astounding works of art.

But Jesus didn’t invent parables. The Old Testament is littered with examples of parabolic literature. You can find examples here, here, and here.

In my opinion, the most captivating and challenging Old Testament parable is told by the prophet, Nathan. His parable constitutes a heart-wrenching and courageous rebuke of King David in the wake of the monarch’s moral downward spiral. As you read it, let the words paint a picture in your mind. Let the emotions come: tenderness between the poor man, his family, and their little ewe lamb, anger over such blatant injustice, grief over the careless killing of the treasured lamb:

And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” (2 Sam. 12:1-5)

Notice that the ewe lamb was the only possession of the family. Meanwhile the rich man had more than enough. The little lamb is stolen, torn from the arms of the poor man in order to provide for the guest of a rich man (who could have easily taken from his own massive flock).

I read this passage via the Moravian lectionary this morning, and I felt emotion dripping from the parable. I thought of the profound tenderness in the poor man allowing the tiny animal eat form his own (probably meager) portion, his embracing of the lamb in his arms (i.e. bosom). Then, I read those words, “and it was like a daughter to him…”

Lately, my daughter seems to find deep peace and pleasure laughing, dancing, and (mostly) lying in my arms. I find it hard to describe the rush of emotion that is unleashed from some hidden well within me the moment she looks into my eyes with the unmistakable look of contentment woven through her countenance.

This is the bond that existed between the poor man and the little lamb.

Biblical prophets served as a tool for calling out systemic injustice existing in the world around them. In this case, Nathan is calling out David’s  misuse of power. How dare he do such a thing!

I’ve always found it appalling how quickly we are to wipe the slate clean for the beloved King David. We’ll even go so far as to refer to him as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22)–whatever that means. David and Israel have something of a co-dependant relationship. It was David who (through many morally questionable political maneuvers) was able to temporarily unify the two halves of the family of Israel into a single kingdom. If you have the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem, you’ll find the legacy of David in full regalia. He’s a titanic hero who’s celebrated throughout the city, and as a visitor, you can’t help but get caught up in it. But let’s be honest, David was a shady character; the kind of guy you work extremely hard to remain in his good graces, otherwise…

Nathan’s parable stands a sharp rebuke of David, and for David’s part, he feels bad about what he had done. Psalm 51 allegedly constitutes his heartfelt response to having been caught in the act. But lest we assume the parable of Nathan is locked tightly within the confines of a distant century or are words simply meant for the ears of one man, we should know that parabolic literature isn’t merely a story about something that happened, but something that happens. Which means, along with David (who proved himself profoundly dense), we’re invited to find ourselves in the parable. In this case, I believe we’re to ask,

“Am I the poor man OR the rich man?”

This 3,000 year old parable causes me to consider realities Nathan knew nothing about: sweatshops, global food distribution problems, socio-economic inequality, political alliances, matters of race/white privilege, etc., etc. Frankly, I CANNOT think of a scenario where (as a white male) I am NOT the rich man. Which means the question I ought to ask myself is:

“From who am I stealing sheep?”

The radical, upside-down nature of Jesus’ Kingdom lifts the challenge of Nathan’s parable to another level, because it’s not enough to NOT steal the poor man’s little ewe. Jesus invites us into radical generosity; leveraging all of my resources (which are not really mine) in order to add a few more ewes to the poor man’s life, thereby extending the kindness of God in a practical way–something like THIS.

And I can’t help but wonder: What if this is a way Scripture can be alive in us today?

The Long Walk Out of Eden

dust-storm-hp

Scraps wrap sagging shoulders
Staggering into the fog-lit dark.
Cast empty-handed and aching
Onto the heaving bosom
Of a starched and scorched wilderness.
Kept by flaming and whirling sword.
From the only home I’ve ever known.

Life is a burden cast upon exiles,
Drifting with age ever further from familiar.
The wind lifts me toward my oblivion
Frost biting lines and freezing tears across my face.
I pull the sewn skin scraps tighter, dropping my head,
…and press on.

These are the photos hung on the walls of my mind—
Columns of lavender, birds birthing choruses, blades of grass rolling,
Eyes bathed in perpetual sunrise.
Before Eden fell from my gaze.

And I, handed scraps to remember her by,
To keep hope alive.
From a tear-laden God.
Still I keep walking.
Wrapping scraps of grace
Around a hollowing face,
Mocking the cold chill
As it leans against my bowing back.

I keep walking.
For I have not forgotten the earth’s curvature,
That in walking,
In pulling and stretching grace
Like a naked snake reversing what has already been cast.
We’ll all arrive once again where we began.