From JNCO Jeans to Jesus: Musing on True Popularity

Image result for jnco jeans

Sixth grade was a transitional year for me. I never really thought about style and appearances before that, but all the sudden looks mattered. That year in particular stood out to me because, wanting to appease one crowd, I began the year dressed in JNCO jeans (if you don’t remember those, they were like denim dresses with an inseam). If you knew me in sixth grade, you’d laugh at the discrepancy between innocent little Caleb and the alternative brand I felt compelled to don. By my birthday in October, though, I was begging my parents for gift cards to the mall in order to fit in with an entirely different group. I went 180° the other direction in my style choice: Gap, Abercrombie, and American Eagle (out of those brands, today I only own Gap).

Back then popularity mattered. Or at least I thought it did. I remember my middle school years being difficult. In sixth and seventh grade I was arrogant, warmly embraced by the cool kids. By eighth grade, though, I lost all those friends as I refused to join them in their initial experimentation with sex and booze (yes, that was in eighth grade!), and, thanks in large part to my amazing parents, I had to slowly rebuild a healthier sense of self-worth.

In eighth grade I had an identity crisis. You know what? I still do.

Every day I wrestle the temptation to find my worth in something other than the only One whose opinion is worth anything.

Salary, stuff, success, fitness.

At thirty-one years old, I’m still fighting the popularity contest. Ironically, that contest is normally a one-man show. I put the pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong; people can be very judgmental. But I actually find that many people really could care less how many career awards I’ve won or that I live in an apartment or that my wife and I share one Honda Fit (or they just talk about it behind my back).

One of the beautiful aspects of teaching is that, in my classroom, I’m also a learner. Here’s what one of my students wrote the other day in her narrative essay:

“[My] experience has made me realize that it’s okay not to be popular. Ultimately, the people who look like they have it all figured out, [sic] are the people who are hurting the most. We therefore find our “popularity” in Christ and who he says we are.”

This wonderfully wise student echoes the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

I could list so many verses that speak into the unique masterpiece that is YOU, a divinely carved image of the sovereign God. Let me also mention one of the great paradoxes of the Bible: the people who thought they had “IT,” Jesus let them know they were lost, and the people who had nothing, they were the ones who were found by Him.

Jesus eternally marked the popularity of His children on the cross when He said, “It is finished.”

It is finished. God already thinks you’re cool. Let that be enough.

“Advent”: A Poem

abstract-abstract-expressionism-abstract-painting-1530710
Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

“Waiting Is an Art”

adult-bench-black-and-white-804682
Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men to do us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancee while he was in prison, December 13, 1943 (bold and italics added)

I am currently reading God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a compilation of notes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of these notes are gathered from letters written while in prison, an enemy to the Nazi regime for his involvement with an assassination plot against Hitler.

I love Christmas. I love the simple, silly little traditions surrounding the holiday: decorating the tree, Christmas movies, music, hot chocolate, snuggling up with my wife (okay, this is actually just my first year celebrating Christmas as a newlywed). I also love the slightly deeper aspects of sharing the holiday with friends and family.

Traditionally, though, the season of Advent is about waiting.

Unfulfillment.     Anticipation.     Hope.     Anxiety.     Wondering.     Wandering.

Will God come through?

The Israelites encountered the deep, wintry silence of God for approximately four hundred years between the final book of the Old Testament and the Immaculate Conception.

God is in that waiting, though. All the build up, the fear and trembling, the white-knuckling it through life (and often the holidays) is really just meant to call us into grasping more tightly on to something beyond our immediate situation:

the deep waiting that will be redeemed in the manger.

So, if you feel restless, you might be on to something.

“For to us a child is born… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)