Friday, February 28, 2014

Learning to Love Myself...

Thank you to everyone who read my last post, and thanks especially to those of you who sent me feedback. I really appreciate it. In light of some of your responses, it seems like a follow-up post may be in order...and perhaps a little clarification.

In my last post, I shared my struggle to love myself as Jesus loves me...especially my kid-self. At the end, I wrote that learning to love myself probably started with loving that little boy. As I reflect more on what that looks like, I wonder just how loving it was for me to post that picture and some of those childhood memories for everyone to see.

As a 25-year-old man, I have no problem with you all reading  what I wrote on Wednesday night. All of those memories are in the past. We can look back now and smile, maybe even laugh. I'll smile and laugh too. Who wasn't a little strange as a kid? However, I have to ask myself...if little Stephen was sitting next to me right could I ever explain to him why I did what I did? 

Why did I do it? I wanted to make a point about love. Sure. I wanted to share what was going on in my own heart in hopes that it would encourage some of you in a similar place. Okay. But why else? Why did I pick out one of the most awkward childhood pictures I could find? Why did I wrack my brain trying to remember embarrassing childhood moments--moments that often earned me ridicule as a kid--so I could share them with the world-wide-web? 

Maybe in my honest effort to start loving that little boy, I was still trying to publicly distance myself from him as much as possible. "That was him," I wanted you to see..."but this is me. He is not me." 

Instead of only pointing out all the awkward parts of little Stephen's childhood, why didn't I also point out the cool and awesome things about him too? Honestly, there really was an awful lot to love about him. 

He was a phenomenal artist, and his masterpieces won plenty of art contests. He also loved to write. He'd write skits and stories and even novels...illustrated novels! He loved to perform. Whether it was for the family at Thanksgiving, for the school talent show, or as Mr. Bundles in a local production of Annie, little Stephen loved the limelight. Starting with a tape recorder and working up to a video camera, he and his friends would produce and star in countless radio shows and movies. They took three regular teddy bears and gave them names, voices, personalities, and their very own entertainment franchise. He was fascinated with Star Wars. He memorized all three original movies and knew the names and back-stories of every single character, major or minor. (He was also especially gifted at doing impressions of Star Wars characters.) Little Stephen dreamed of either being a movie star or President...but either way, he wanted to be famous. He was never all that good at physical activity or sports, but he always loved the Florida State Seminoles. Some of his favorite memories were going to FSU football games in Tallahassee with his family...and he was loyal to the end, win or lose. He was fascinated by history and loved all of his family's vacations to places like Washington D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg. He enjoyed school and got good grades. He was well-behaved and sweet and sensitive, and teachers always loved him. He always loved his teachers too.With his interests being so different from most other kids, it was sometimes hard for little Stephen to make friends, but when he did have friends, he loved them well too. He never had any siblings, but he always loved his cousins like they were his siblings. He had a very tender heart, and he never liked to see anyone upset or sad. He had a way of making people laugh. 

There's more that could be said, but that's a start. It feels a little strange and unnatural writing out cool things about my kid-self, but I guess it's the least I could do. It's funny, because most of these cool things didn't really make me cool back then. Some of these things kept me isolated, feeling different and strange and awkward. How easily we believe those lies we hear as kids. They're incredibly difficult to root out. Many of those lies still have their roots in me today...evidenced by my last post. Since when did different or abnormal become bad? Since when did God create boys and girls with cookie-cutters? Our God loves diversity. He creates diversity. I believe He hates it when we try to squelch diversity. 

One last comment on my previous post, and this comment will apply to all my future posts as well. Friends, I'm a feeler...a strong feeler, in fact (INFJ, baby). I'm wired to feel things very deeply, and I believe that's a good thing. Granted, we can't all be feelers...but good heavens, we certainly can't all be thinkers! [shudder] All this to say that my feeling impacts my writing. I write what I feel. I write what I feel because I like to write that way, but I also write what I feel because I believe that's a powerful way to connect with people on a deeper level. Of course, this means that what I write is not always necessarily what I think. When I wrote in my last post that I hated that little boy in the blue shorts, I should have clarified. I'm afraid many of you understandably took me at my word. By writing that I hated my kid-self, maybe it seemed I was somehow endorsing or settling into that hatred. That couldn't be further from the truth, but I see how many of you might have read it that way. 

My goal with this blog is to be real with you guys, and maybe even to encourage you all to be real with yourselves and real with other people. I don't actively, consciously hate my kid-self, but you know what? Sometimes I feel that anger. Sometimes it burns inside me, and instead of stuffing it down and pretending it doesn't exist because anger is bad, I think it's far better to name it for exactly what it is. I'm saddened by that anger. I often need to repent of that anger, but if I don't name that anger, it will only build and continue to control me. 

What are you angry about? What are you afraid to admit that you're angry about because you're not allowed to be angry about it? This is the anger that will control you, and one day, it might destroy you or those you love. Tell someone about that anger. Be honest with yourself. Be honest with God. Give that anger to Him. David certainly did just that in the Psalms. Don't pray for distraction or numbness...a mere absence of anger...pray for healing. Don't tell yourself you shouldn't be angry. Admit that you are, and lean into figuring out why. Repent if necessary. Maybe even be willing to admit that you are right to be angry about something. Evil is real. We see evil all over this world. We do evil, and evil is done to us. All of this should rightly make us angry, but in our anger, we must trust in a God who is far angrier about evil than we are. He weeps over it. He hates it. 

He defeated it. 

I'm sorry if you find this post to be self-important or over-dramatic. Maybe you saw nothing wrong with my last post...that's okay. In fact, that's good. I still stand firmly behind the message of my last post.

But as I seek to follow my own advice and learn to love myself, I felt like I owed my kid-self an apology for using his shame to garner laughs...for dealing callously with his pain in a public forum. That wasn't fair to him, and it wasn't fair to me. It was an affront to the loving Father who created that little me, fearfully and wonderfully...the Father who never stopped loving me, who never saw me as anything other than His. To deny that child dignity would be a great sin. That's why I wrote this follow-up post. I hope you understand. 

Grace and peace to you, folks. Thanks for reading. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Learning to Love Yourself...

I hate this picture. 

Don't get me wrong...It's hilarious. I have to laugh every time I see it. This is one of those pictures you wish your mom had never taken...and one of those pictures you know you'll take of your own kids someday.

So what's going on here? It was Field Day...already an embarrassing occasion for awkward 2nd graders who like art class way more than P.E. My class was lined up for some relay or dash, and as we stood baking in the merciless Florida sun, I realized I could make my shadow look like a rooster. No one else seemed to notice (except for my mom), but that was okay. I was perfectly happy in my own imaginative world. I wanted to make my shadow look like a rooster. Why not?

It's a funny picture, yes, but I have to be honest...I hate it. I hate it because of how it makes me feel. I hate it because it makes me hate that little boy in the blue shorts.

If I could catch a time machine back to 1996 and show up at Covenant Christian School's Field Day, there are so many things I would say to this little boy. Maybe you can relate...

"Stop that!" I would say, "Put your hands down. You look ridiculous. Look at the other kids around you, standing in line like normal people. Why can't you just be normal? Look at the kid behind you with the soccer ball. Why can't you be more like him? Why can't you be good at sports? Why don't you even care about sports? If you would just stop being so weird you might actually have friends. Why are you looking at me like that? No no no...don't you dare cry, kid. Not here...not now. People are looking at you!. JUST STOP. JUST BE NORMAL.

That's what I would say to that boy--to seven-year-old Stephen--as he made his rooster shadows. That's what's in my heart. That's why I hate this picture.

I think it's fair to say I was a little quirky as a kid. I probably started one-too-many Star Wars clubs at school, and that was in my popular phase...when I actually had friends who would join those clubs. In third grade, I would reenact my favorite musical at the lunch tables by pulling my shirt over my head nun-style and singing "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" (a performance which ironically won me applause later in middle school: can't believe I'm posting this video.) I wasn't good at sports, and I couldn't have cared less about them...not even the Chicago Bulls. I didn't play video games, but I wrote a lot of Start Wars fan-fiction. I was really good at talking in muppet voices, especially Miss Piggy. I dressed up like Jar-Jar Binks for Halloween in 6th grade...the same year I cried in class for getting a demerit. I rarely got in trouble, but when I did, it was usually for subconsciously making Star Wars laser noises under my breath during class. (pew! pew! pew!)

Okay so what? I mean...I was kid. Now I'm 25...still plenty quirky, but a little more grown up. We can all look back at our childhoods now and laugh, right?

Maybe on the outside. I laugh because I'm supposed to laugh. I laugh patronizingly. Inside, I'm angry. Why did I have to be so weird? Why couldn't I have been a "normal" boy who liked Michael Jordan and Power Rangers and playing outside? I'm not angry at the kids who teased fact, I'm on their side. I'm laughing with them. No, I'm not angry at them. I'm angry at that little boy. I'm angry at me.

Maybe you can relate. You might not be angry at your elementary-school self, but maybe you're angry at that nerdy high-schooler or that wild-and-crazy college student. Maybe you're still angry at you. Maybe you still believe that you're to blame for everything wrong that's been said or done to you. Maybe it's not an old picture that you hate...maybe you hate what you see every time you look in the mirror.

It makes me sad that I still blame that little boy for getting picked on. I should want to hug him, to tell him how creative and funny and compassionate he is, to enter into his world of imagination and play. I should want to share some wisdom from what I've learned over the years, to be the big brother he never had. Instead, I continue to blame him. I may be older now and more "normal" (whatever that means), but deep down, I still see myself as that 2nd grader making rooster-shadows. I can't believe anyone really wants to be friends with me because I still don't think that I would want to be friends with me.

This isn't for lack of affirmation from other people. It's not a failure of communication but a failure of reception. I can't even hear the truth being spoken to me because the lies still echo far too loud.

I need to learn how to love myself.

Maybe that makes you nervous. Don't worry, as a Reformed Presbyterian, it makes me a little nervous too. I mean, isn't that what's wrong with American society? Everyone loves themselves too much, right? Everyone's too self-centered and thinks way too highly of themselves. Perhaps. That's certainly what it looks like on the surface.

You see, I definitely know how to blame myself. I know how to demean and belittle myself. I'm a pro at that. I also know how to indulge myself. I'm excellent at giving myself whatever I want and chasing after what will make me comfortable...but I have no idea what it means to show myself kindness or compassion...or love.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus says in Mark 12:31. He didn't say "You shall love your neighbor instead of yourself," or even "more than yourself." The assumption is that we are to love ourselves...not more than we love others, but the same as we love others. If we take Jesus' words seriously, how will we ever truly love our neighbor if we can't even love ourselves? How will I honor the image of God in my neighbor if I don't honor the image of God in myself?

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Brad Matthews, said the following in class last week: "We've elevated self-deprecation to a virtue. I'm not advocating self-glorification here, but demeaning yourself is not glorifying to God." Preach.

When I get angry at that little boy in the blue shorts, when I tell him to "just be normal," to do something different to make himself worthy of love and friendship...I am demeaning the very image of God. It's a broken image, yes. Sin has marred and distorted our beauty...but it hasn't destroyed it. God created that little boy. He loves that little boy, and He loved him enough to die for him...enough to begin lovingly restoring him to the original, beautiful masterpiece that He designed.

When I dwell on all the ways I still don't measure up, all the things I could and should do better, all of my disorganization and weakness and failure--when I look in the mirror and hate what I see--I'm hating what God has loved. I'm calling bad what God has called good. I look in the mirror and see a mess, but like the father in the parable of the lost sons, God looks at me and sees his beloved child. He runs to me. He embraces me. He delights in me. 

Do you believe that God delights in you? Not just the future, glorified you, but you...right now. Does that concept sound ludicrous? Is is that unbelievable? Friend, I have been there. Hey, guess what...I'm still there. I need to hear this:

You will never be able to forgive your enemies if you can't even forgive yourself. 

You will never be able to love other people as Jesus loves them if you can't love yourself as Jesus loves you.  

You will never fully appreciate the beauty and dignity in your neighbor if you can't appreciate the beauty and dignity that's found in an image-bearer of the King. 

I need to learn what it means to love myself...and I think it begins with learning to love that silly, lonely little boy in the blue shorts.

May God give us the grace to show ourselves grace.