How I’m coming to peace with Insta-sham

Scanning the socials several months ago, I stumbled onto some posts that nearly caused me to gag up my morning oatmeal.

A group of intrepid mommy bloggers had published a book on all things motherhood, and the authors were fulfilling their due diligence promoting their work by re-posting readers’ photos.

Every single image they shared portrayed the same essential look: warm lighting touched with pleasant sepia hues, superbly manicured stationary objects tidily arranged around the book – a steaming coffee mug here, an artisan afghan strewn there – all positioned on a seamless backdrop of a vacuumed rug, sparkling marble countertop, or the blank canvas of a clean and empty table.

You see why this sight triggered my spew impulse, right?

In my honest/cynical opinion, this is as Fake Not-News as it gets. For one thing, for those with young children, unless your kids are having screen time or napping, there’s no chance in Hogwarts you’re reading a book in peace. Furthermore, I know few moms with children still living at home who can maintain Pottery Barn-perfection and have enough time to stage a stunning portrait without getting interrupted by a sibling feud or having someone smear applesauce across the photo shoot background.

Such is life in the captivatingly fraudulent world of Instagram. Filtered snippets of other people’s daily activities lure us in like moths to the flame of glimmering gratification.

Images like the immaculate motherhood book pics bother me because they don’t depict reality. Sure, those who post their best and brightest photos aren’t necessarily trying to mislead others; we all realize these are just the highlight reels. Still, I have a hard time wholeheartedly liking photos that project everyday scenarios as tranquil and glamorous when I know from personal experience that these situations can be chaotic and even hideous.

Despite my reaction, I’m coming to understand a deeper motivation for why people tend to post their most picturesque clips and gaining a new perspective on aesthetic appreciation.

We crave beauty because God made us that way. He crafted us in His image, to be like Him and to long for Him as the true source of goodness and life. Our desire for and delight in spectacles of wonder throughout God’s creation reveal the blessing and purpose of our redemption.

As John Piper says of the ultimate reason we exist: “Our final inheritance is this: that we will see the glory of God and praise him for it. We will see his glory, savor his glory, and show his glory.”

Piper inheritance quote

Worshipping God by appreciating the marvels of His creation – a concept highlighted in a previous IF:Equip study on the theology of beauty – can remind us of who He is and who we were created to be:

“By learning to recognize the beauty around us, we can better see God’s reflection in everyday life. We remember that this world, while broken, will be made new and perfect once again. This gives us great hope. Beauty lodges like eternity in our hearts, bringing memories of a good God and a future world.” (Lesson 1 Day 1)

You don’t have to be a raging pessimist to recognize the ravages of sin upon God’s perfect creation. The world is fallen and we groan along with it, waiting for the Creator to finally and fully restore its original luster. Until that glorious day, we continue to live in the reality of sinful destruction and acknowledge that it bites.

Feeling both a compulsion to expose the ugly truth of real life as well as an urge to experience genuine beauty demonstrates our dual earth/heaven citizenship. This could explain my disdain for the façade aspect of social media, knowing that the images displayed don’t align with the difficulties experienced in our broken lives.

But in focusing on the earthly perspective – that my life is a wreck and the world is a mess and everyone who lives here is a dirtbag – I tend to overlook the glimpses of majesty the Lord graciously reveals around me and forget to appreciate His goodness in wanting me to experience joy.

So, although it’s enjoyable to rag on faux-flawless social statuses, I think I could stand to cultivate more admiration for images that people intentionally craft to please the eye. After all, any illustrations of beauty we encounter are just that: imitations of splendor deriving from a greater Source of wholeness, peace, and brilliance.

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12a)
1 Corinthians 13 12

Praise God that we will one day behold the glory of His radiance and not have to settle for viewing life through the dull looking glass of Instagram. Our longing for true beauty will finally be sated as we look full on our Savior’s wonderful face – no filter needed besides His precious blood.

[Cover photo: Dmitri Tyan on Unsplash]

writing heart vulnerability God sees love

On writing, sharing your heart, and feeling it bleed out

There’s a story I’ve etched in my mind’s eye for its vivid illustration of regeneration.

In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third book in the classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a whiny and entitled British boy named Eustace lands himself in a dreadful plight when he steals treasure from a dragon’s lair and then turns into a dragon himself.

After several days of feeling miserable trapped inside a monster’s body, Eustace is saved by the lion Aslan, who takes him to a well to be bathed. Aslan instructs the dragon-boy to “undress” first, and though Eustace attempts to scratch off layer after layer of scales, he cannot break through to the smooth surface of bare skin. Then Aslan tells Eustace he must let him do the undressing, and the child, desperate to return to his own body, agrees. The lion does so, claws ripping away the entire beastly mantle, throws Eustace in the water, and dresses him in new human clothes.

The restored Eustace later describes the process to his cousin:

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

CS Lewis Narnia Dawn Treader Eustace dragon

Many interpret this story as a metaphor for salvation. We are dragons imprisoned in bodies of death due to our hardened sins, which we cannot remove on our own. Only God can strip away the husk of our wicked nature, wash us clean through the blood of Jesus, and clothe us in His righteousness. This process necessarily inflicts pain on the creature being transformed, as tearing off an essential part of self would naturally do, and comes at a steep cost to the One who does the tearing: the death of His Son, who in Scripture is referred to as both a Lion and a Lamb.

It’s a striking portrait, isn’t it? Eustace’s “come to Aslan” story bears such fantastical imagery that since reading this book as a child, I’ve held it dear as an emblem of what it means to become a new creation in Christ, demonstrating both the agony and the joy of rebirth.

Labor pains

Recently, I’ve discovered another life process to which this parable can be applied.

This is what writing is like for me. When I write how I feel about someone or something, it’s like peeling off skin. Whether it’s really me doing the peeling, or more accurately God rubbing a pumice stone to slough off my flesh, I cannot necessarily say. I just know that it hurts.

I also know that it’s good. Writing helps me process my emotions, to harness the swirling waves of doubt, sadness, grief, and longing, and funnel them into something sensible. Then, I can sort through the rubbish of sin and shame and lies, and pinpoint the Truth that anchors my soul.

It also helps others, or so I seriously hope. Although as a kid I got hooked on reading and composing great works of historical romantic fiction, what really got the ink flowing through my veins was when I began blogging about my infertility issues to encourage others who were aching like me. And nearly all my posts then and now have carried that same intent: reveal the struggle, comfort the heartbroken, exalt the Lord.

Other writers feel this way, I suspect, as well as anyone who lets down their defenses and puts their true selves out there for some greater cause. Those who take up the dare of vulnerability know it’s worth the burn of ripping away your public veneer if it ultimately facilitates healing, for yourself or others. It leaves you tender, sore, unguarded against attack, but it also saves you, changes your thinking, creates new life – like how the Creator breathed the world into life through the words, “Let there be …”

As Brene Brown says in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

vulnerability purpose quote brene brown

Disappointment and true worth

I explain all this so others can understand that when someone uncovers a bare facet of her heart – like when a writer reluctantly pushes “publish” on a gut-spilling post – it feels like both heaving a weight off her chest and deliberately stepping into a nightmare, where she’s standing in front of a classroom, buck naked.

And, when she receives little to no response to her disclosure, left there hanging in the harsh limelight of full exposure, she feels embarrassed. Ashamed. Loathing her decision. Doubting her purpose.

It doesn’t make sense. Why would people not react to something that’s so visceral to you? Do they not care? Should they not care?

As I’ve spent the past several months “putting myself out there” to build a platform for my writing, I’ve experienced a little of this raw and lonely discomfort when I haven’t received the level of reaction I was anticipating. Being vulnerable on social media and not receiving much social support isn’t all that likable.

While valid points can be made about how I shouldn’t care so much about what people think, and should probably spend less time on social media, anyway, that doesn’t negate the genuine pain of feeling let down – a feeling that everyone experiences at some point. And those who unveil deeper layers of their public masks have harder to fall in their disappointment.

Just as I’ve done in the past, writing on subjects like infertility and the challenges of motherhood, I’m writing about this type of discouragement to get it out in the open so that others know they are not alone in suffering the biting chill of unrequited vulnerability.

When you share a private struggle in an attempt to uplift someone else, and that person fails to reciprocate at the same depth of disclosure, you are still heard.

When you passionately step out and take action to advance justice or expand empathy, and few others seem at all interested in that mission, you are still seen.

When you labor over growing a ministry to serve God and love your neighbors, and it reaps a meager harvest, or no visible fruit whatsoever, you are still valued.

We are still heard and seen and valued because we are cherished by a God who measures our worth according to His love for us, not by how others regard us.

Limited and loved

As I’ve been tending to wounds of unmet expectations, it seems no strange coincidence that the next book on my reading list would be one emphasizing how we should embrace our limits as a means of glorifying our limitless God.

In “None Like Him,” author Jen Wilkin highlights traits that are true only of God, and describes how we can better bear His image by acknowledging our human inadequacies.

“Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out.”

limits fear Lord quote jen wilkin

Through my writing, I cannot always successfully reach a sizable audience or elicit a preconceived level of emotional reaction, but God doesn’t have this problem. His Word goes forth and does not return empty (Isaiah 55:11). He Himself will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory (Habakkuk 2:14). If no one would speak about Him in worship, the stones would cry out in praise (Luke 19:40).

We are limited in how much good we can accomplish through our disclosure. We cannot control how people will respond to our vulnerability. We do not have the power to save souls, no matter how greatly our hearts are invested in that purpose.

And that’s OK. We don’t have to be God. We don’t need others to constantly validate our feelings because Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. Rather than being ashamed of our naked state, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing we’re never hidden from His sight. His Word is living and active, and will pierce the hearts He intends to indwell (Hebrews 4:12-17).

He sees me. And He sees you. He loves us all enough to continually strip away our callused scales of sin to ultimately dress us in robes of His holiness.

God’s words will never fail even if mine go completely unnoticed. Knowing this truth, I will continue to write and peel off my skin, risking the sting of feeling ignored. This process hurts. And it also feels a bit like glory.

[Cover photo courtesy freestocks.org on Unsplash]

Whose platform is it anyway?

platform belongs to God.jpg
[Photo: Oscar Keys via Unsplash]
I was born during the Jennifer Era of U.S. history. Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Garner, JLo, and I joined more than half a million of our moniker sisters in dominating the baby name charts from 1970 to 1984, until those scheming Jessicas hijacked our reign.

Whether this trend can be attributed to the name of the doomed heroine in the acclaimed 1970 film “Love Story,” or to random cycling mass phenomena in accordance with mathematical processes, we all know it was a massively popular name back in the day and are wondering which hippie/hipster fad will produce another generation of Jens, Emmas, and Bellas.

My name is thoroughly unoriginal, and I’ve come to accept that. What’s more difficult to swallow is the apparent requirement in this digital age for writers to leverage their names as their brand.

Sure, it makes sense. If you want to reach an audience with your message, you have to get your name out there so people can find you and read your work. To build a successful author platform, you must create a social persona to which fans will flock and publishers will beckon for book deals.

It’s DIY marketing with an egotistical spin, and it seems if you ever want to go anywhere in the publishing world, you’ve got push yourself to promote yourself.

An inner conflict

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I was cringing between the preceding lines. I strongly dislike the concept of self-made publicity for many different reasons, including the aforementioned ordinariness of my name. The world has plenty of Jennifers; it doesn’t need another one running around tooting her own horn.

Also repelling me from the “be your own brand” strategy: my tendency toward shyness, lack of knowledge and desire to market like a boss, and fear – fear that others won’t like me, or that they will like me and expect a standard of excellence I can’t always (or ever) deliver, and fear that I’ll care way too much about others’ perception and evaluation of the person I project myself to be.

Aside from these unpleasant factors, the most stomach-turning aspect of self-marketing is its very nature. Count how many times I dropped an “I, me my” in the preceding paragraph. I sound as conceited as a 2-year-old.

I know there are millions of people out there pounding the social pavement to develop online personalities as a means to spread an important message or advance a worthwhile movement or simply make money as a business venture, and that’s fine. However, I think there’s a tension that can and should arise for Christian authors writing Christian books, a vocation and niche I aspire to pursue.

If you’re ostensibly writing to proclaim the gospel and convey the truth of God’s saving grace, how do you justify throwing your time, energy, and resources into promoting yourself? How can you reconcile God’s command for His people to be like Christ – humble, submissive to His will, seeking His exaltation above all else – with your endless striving for people to like you and follow your words?

He must increase

Prominent Christian authors addressed these and other concerns regarding platform building during an online discussion earlier this year. Beth Moore, Margaret Feinberg, and Karen Swallow Prior shared honest thoughts from their experiences in the Christian publishing industry, warning of the perils of social media ladder climbing and admonishing believers to fight the fleshly temptation to make ourselves known under the guise of making Jesus known.

I followed these conversations with rapt attention, as I respect these women and want to heed their guidance in venturing out into this field. Yet for all the wisdom I gleaned, the klaxon of prideful posturing alarmed and discouraged me, especially after researching the platform strategy and confirming it as the new norm for author best practices.

This brought me to a crisis of writing about faith: Accept the necessary evil of self-promotion to move forward with my publishing aspirations, or refuse to undertake this sinful endeavor and scrap the whole dang author idea.

Dismayed as I was, I kept thinking and researching and praying, and then came upon this article by a not-yet widely known writer contemplating “The Social Media Strategy of John the Baptist.” Reflecting on John’s gospel, she describes how the outspoken forerunner of Christ grew a following as he proclaimed the coming Messiah, and then once Jesus appeared on the scene, directed his followers to the incarnate Savior:

“God had given John a platform – he had become famous and influential in his own right. But John used his platform to draw attention to the only One who could satisfy and save their souls.”

John used the platform God had given him to draw attention to Jesus, not himself, and made this outrageously meek statement that should be the motto of every follower of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John 3 30

I read this article, and pondered this verse, and thanked the author and John the Baptist for this critical reminder.

Serving purely

Any platform I have is God’s, not mine. He gives and takes away gifts, skills, relationships, email subscribers, Twitter followers, and “tribe” members for whatever purposes He intends – most specifically, to exalt His name and shower goodness on His people.

Knowing this, I can publish a blog under my name, post content designed to encourage others, even seek out new readers to engage and connect with, and do so with a clean conscience IF my heart’s desire is to increase Jesus’ fanbase, not my own.

With whatever my hands find to write, I pray that the efforts involved – from production to publicity – will point others to the King of Kings, the Word of Life, my Blessed Redeemer.

Hands write point to Redeemer

As the pastor at my church stated during a recent sermon on Daniel’s rise to prominence in the Babylonian Empire, all due to God’s divine appointment and his humble obedience: “The greatness that the Scripture teaches is best described by you moving through the world and leaving a wake of the Kingdom of God behind you.”

I will not do this perfectly. The Spirit will inevitably need to convict me, on a repeated basis, and I petition Him to have at it. He knows how much I struggle with craving approval.

I also don’t plan to write exclusively about issues of deep spiritual significance, and occasionally cover more lighthearted subject matter – particularly that of the deprecating, keepin’ it real variety. This is fun for me, and I hope my enjoyment of pouring out some creative juices edifies others and honors God, as much as any mocking commentary about a TV show can accomplish that.

In stepping out on this precarious limb, setting up a platform for my writing work, I ask God to help me make wise choices in His strength, to value His truth above any other opinion or striving for “likes,” and to help me follow Beth Moore’s advice on navigating social media branding:

The answer will be found in serving God as faithfully and as purely as human hearts and souls know how and let Him build His own following and determine who listens to what voice and when.

Serving God with a pure heart isn’t ever easy, and the way forward isn’t entirely clear. Marketing as an author in the Christian publishing industry is risky business, with a danger involving soul-devastating consequences. The uncertainty weighs on me, and I expect to feel apprehension about this platform racket for however long the Lord allows me to write about Him.

But by His grace, I will forge ahead, trusting Him to send forth His Word either through or in spite of me, as I write under my humdrum, exceptionally unremarkable name, aiming to lift high the greatest Name in all the world.

Cyberslang rant #1

family-guy-meme-for-cyber-slang-rant

While the Internet has been great for enabling communication, aggregating information, and allowing us to self-diagnose a variety of ailments via Dr. Google, it has severely corrupted the English language. Influenced by texting chatspeak and the one-liner-rama known as Twitter, our everyday speech now contains jargon that violates all kinds of grammatical rules, flaunting syntactic delinquency and promoting verbal idiocy.

I admit to using a number of modern idioms in my posts, but some I simply cannot stand. The Spirit of Perfectionism compels me to advocate for more articulate, comprehensible dialogue by beating down ridiculous lingo.

For this first round, I’m going full John Wick puppy rampage on three trends that are successfully making the world a dumber place.

Let the editorial bloodbath begin.

Make. It. Stop.
I used to think excess exclamation mark usage was one of the most egregious stylistic offenses a person could commit. Sure, it’s tolerable in enthusiastic text messages to your friend about the One Direction boyfriend Tee you just snapped up at a thrift store, but in a work email? “Jennifer! Our numbers are down! I uploaded the proofs to Dropbox! When are you sending your TPS reports!” Total !nsanity.

Somehow, at some point recently, for no good reason whatsoever, the exclamatory frenzy gave way to another equally atrocious, linguistically laborious trend that is So. Freakin’. Annoying.

Yeah, I typed out all three of those dang periods, hating myself with every keystroke.

Who the heck got so infatuated with a typographical symbol designed to mark the end of a declarative sentence that they up and made it trendy to use when separating short and – let’s face it – usually simple-minded words?

Back in journalism school, we were taught to use punctuation marks sparingly to conserve precious print space, hence the AP style’s rejection of the Oxford comma. This period fetish is yet another way the Internet has screwed over the journalism profession and made us all highly informed yet stupid as muck.

As a blogger with a journalist background, it behooves me to warn you that period binging is a slippery slope. Right now, it’s cool to use three periods, but who’s to stop that from increasing to four, then eight, then 15? And how soon before it creeps into single words and makes our language even more dis.joint.ed.?

During this election season, I think we should launch a different, more productive campaign to Make Sentences Coherent Again and put the kibosh on this choppy, stunted speech pattern. Let’s find other ways to convey emphasis, such as using italics or underlining – something besides periods. Or, here’s an idea: Quit talking like a hipster. Bam! Problem solved.

Why is ‘thing’ a thing?
Now this is just embarrassing. Have we all grown so empty-headed as a society that we can think of no greater word for – well, anything – besides “thing”?

“It’s kinda my thing.”
“I want all the things.”
“I wish I had a thing.”

It might’ve been funny the first, maybe even the second time someone used this trivial word in a catchall type of way. But today, it has become an epidemic, infecting normal adult conversations from soccer mom chitchat to coffee shop discourse to Bible study discussion – even pseudo-intellectual TED talks.

What if – God forbid – someone starts combining this ambiguity-perpetuating buzzword with other inane expressions? Our language would become completely meaningless.

“Just sayin’ a thing.”
“Today be like things.”
“WHAAAAAT thing.”

This is middle school sexual innuendo-level humor, people. There’s a better way to say stuff. Lemme introduce you to a neat resource that’s handy for all sorts of items – like I just swapped out the potential usage of “things” with the ordinary yet less brain-insulting “items.”

It’s called a thesaurus, located under Tools in Microsoft Word, and also available for your convenience online at sites such as Merriam Webster. Let these resources help you find synonyms to build a stronger vocabulary beyond a single syllable word you learned as a toddler.

Get over this absurd addiction to “things” and start talking smarter than a stoner.

#Ihatehashtags
Yea, I know I’m a hypocrite when it comes to this fad. Yet at the end of the day, aren’t we all hypocrites who hate Wal-Mart but shop there anyways?

Hypocrites shop at WalMartnew

The way I see it, hashtags are a necessary evil if you want to gain new followers on social media. But do the pros of using them always outweigh the cons of exasperating readers to the same level of annoyance induced by people who scrape their forks against their teeth?

On a pleasant note, hashtags can be clever and help people connect. On a practical note, they are difficult to read and come straight from the fourth level of linguistic hell reserved for group text messages and Kanye West quotes.

For your origin story of the day, the now-mighty # symbol has been known as the number sign, the pound sign (not to be confused with the British £ sign), a sharp in a musical context, and the sci-fi-sounding “octothorpe” – supposedly created by an employee of Bell Laboratories in the 1960s in honor of U.S. athlete Jim Thorpe.

Not sure whose bright idea it was to take the perfectly decent octothorpe and warp it into a mark looping a word or phrase to a broader online conversation on a designated topic. I’d say the inventor should be shackled to a stockade shaped like that wretched symbol of their own making, but it’s probably not their fault that social media users exploit it so profusely.

If you must use hashtags to promote your upcycled pop can Christmas wreath etsy shop or whatever, at least take a minimalist approach. A thought to ponder: When you have to scroll more than three times through the hashtag list on your Instagram post, you’ve probably ODed on tagging. Ain’t nobody got time to read through all that gibberish.

As a reluctant participant in this trend, I’m committed to reporting and rebuking hashtag abuse. We must stand up to reckless tagging of insignificant words and bizarre combinations of wordsjumbledtogether before we begin audibly speaking other symbols before phrases just to sound relevant and cool, as in: “Asterisk, this post is lit.”