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 me...in 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 you...as 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.