Why the “New Taylor” Should Have the Church on Its Guard

If there’s one thing Taylor Swift knows how to do with her songs, it’s sparking conversation (and also writing ultra-catchy choruses. Let’s be real). The superstar has done it again with her controversial new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” In typical Taylor fashion, her lyrics (while admittedly watered-down a bit from her country crooner days) draw you in with cryptic story-telling and a back beat that leaves you wanting more. But as a follower of Christ who was more than a little bit unsettled upon hearing this biting track for the first time, I had to ask myself, Should I be wanting more?”

Ever since her arrival on the country music scene in 2006, I was a self-proclaimed Swiftie. I bought and memorized every song on every album, kept up with her on-again-off-again dating history, and sang along at every tour. Bless my poor dad for taking me… However, after attending her 1989 tour in 2015, my Taylor fever began to subside. I was disappointed to see my role model, “America’s Sweetheart”, prancing around the stage in the tiniest of skirts and crop tops, singing lines like “You can want who you want – boys and boys and girls and girls” and “His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room.” I know, I know. She’s not a little girl anymore. She’s her own person, so she can do what she wants, but for the first time, I was ashamed to call myself her fan.

Despite all of that, I was thrilled when I heard she’s releasing a new album in November. I had heard whispers that she wants to “revamp her image”, so I thought, “Finally! We’ll be getting the older AND wiser Taylor. She’s gotten this “edgy bad girl” phase out of her system, so I can proudly wave my Swiftie banner once again.” Upon hearing the revenge-fueled “Look What You Made Me Do” last Thursday, I realized that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As the ominous opening instrumental began to play and Taylor’s punchy vocals kicked in, something in me started to say, “Whoa. This isn’t right.” I brushed off the uneasiness that initially washed over me, reasoning that I was being too judgmental. “Cut her some slack,” I told myself. “This just isn’t the Taylor you’re used to.” As the song played on, though, I knew that something deeper than a dislike of an artist’s new sound was at play here. There was a spiritual undercurrent to the whole thing that I couldn’t ignore. The only thing I knew to do was to ask Jesus what it was about the song that was giving me spiritual red flags. What I realized next went far beyond melodies, rhythms, and drum tracks.

When it comes to music, the enemy knows he can’t get most Christians to listen to songs with tons of bad language, drug and alcohol references, or sexual innuendo because it’s too “in-your-face”. Instead, judging by Swift’s new song, he’s slipping in something we can all relate to that dishonors Christ just as much – vengeance.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who wrong us, not to sing along wholeheartedly to lyrics like, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me. I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” Granted, Ms. Swift doesn’t claim to be a Christian, so I don’t expect her to act like one (though my heart hurts for her because being angry and holding grudges can’t be a fun way to live), but those of us who are Christians do have the God-given responsibility of guarding our hearts and minds, and that includes our song selection. I’m a big believer in the philosophy “Garbage in, garbage out”, or, as Scripture puts it, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

I don’t want to give the impression that my music choices are perfect. They’re far from it, so I need this reminder just as much as anyone else. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:8 to stand guard and watch out because the enemy is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, and one of his weapons of choice is trying to get Christians to look nothing like Jesus.

Make no mistake about it – What you listen to becomes what you live for. The things the world tells you don’t matter are usually the very things that the Lord says matter most.

Am I suggesting that you should only listen to worship music until your dying day? Of course not. There are plenty of great songs out there in a multitude of genres, but we must remember that words have power, and song lyrics fall into that. If the music playing sounds nothing like Jesus, maybe we should just hit “skip”. And if we’re worried about what other people might think, we can take a much more solid piece of T Swift’s advice: Shake it off.

Don’t Pray To Be Safe. Pray To Be Sent.

A couple months ago, Asbury University’s Director of Cross-Cultural Ministry interviewed me about my take on cross-cultural competency and missions. Once she got me talking about my heart for missions, I couldn’t stop. I went into the meeting having no idea what I would be asked or what I would say, but an hour later, the director had at least ten pages of notes, and I had the answer to the question I didn’t know I had been asking: Yes, I really am called to cross-cultural missions.

Truthfully, I can’t remember half of what I said, but it resonated with the director so deeply that she asked me to come back to campus after I graduate to speak about cross-cultural missions. Even though I haven’t heard from her since then, I often wonder what I might say if I ever give that message. Thoughts have been swirling in my mind about stepping out of your comfort zone, letting go of your appearance and the “American Dream”, and reaching out to the marginalized, all great points to be sure, but my heart and mind keep getting pulled towards Isaiah’s boldness when he said to the Lord, “Here I am. Send me.”

As I mulled over where I am in this process of understanding and living out my call to missions, I asked myself what simple piece of advice I would give to students grappling with the same thing. The answer was simply this: Don’t pray to be safe. Pray to be sent. There wasn’t some kind of addendum to Isaiah’s prayer that said, “Send me, but also protect me from sickness, exhaustion, terrorism, people that are resistant to the gospel, people that tell me I’m crazy for doing missions work, or any other kind of inconvenience imaginable.” Isaiah got straight to the point – He wanted to go and proclaim the Lord’s goodness, whatever the cost. Am I suggesting that we shouldn’t ask God to protect us? Absolutely not. He promises to be our “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble”, and He delights in being just that for us, but it’s worth noting that two things in this verse are present – God and trouble. Praying for protection isn’t wrong; in fact, it humbles us by giving us a way to acknowledge our frailty and our need for the Lord, but safety can’t be our top priority if we want to serve as Jesus did. Jesus confirms this guarantee for a less-than-easy life years later when He says to His disciples, “In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Sadly, many of us have bought into the “American Dream” (health, wealth, and prosperity) version of missions: “I’ll go on this well-organized, perfectly planned out trip with my youth group/university/best friends for a week… maybe two… preferably somewhere warm… probably somewhere in Africa, actually. People love to hear stories about Africa. I’ll make sure that someone brings their super expensive camera that cost more than my plane ticket to take Instagram-worthy “candids” of me laughing with adorable kids. Maybe they’ll even get a video of me teaching the village the one hymn I can actually remember. I’ll buy a few trendy, handmade bags to use as conversation starters once I’m home, give a heartwarming speech to my church (or at least some sort of post on social media) about how my life was forever changed, and give myself a pat on the back for clearly meeting my “missions quota” for the rest of my life.”

I don’t want to downplay the importance of short-term missions work or serving in third-world countries in any way, but a lot of us have clearly missed the point. If we truly desire to call ourselves followers of Christ, our lives should actually resemble His in some way, including the fact that He “did not come to be served but to serve”. When we adopt the aforementioned “American Dream” mentality about service, it’s not others we’re serving, but ourselves. It’s easy to try to meet our own needs for comfort, recognition, and happiness without once considering laying all of that aside (along with our own basic needs for survival if need be) to give it away to someone else. We seem to have forgotten that anyone can do “good” things like meeting another’s basic needs of food, water, and shelter, but only we, as Christ followers, have been sent out by Him to give gifts that only He can give – the saving love and grace powerful enough to bring His lost children home to their Heavenly Father forever.

As much as we’d like to believe it, we aren’t promised safety (or likes on Instagram for that matter). In fact, we’re more likely to lose friends, social status, basic comforts, and maybe even our lives when we’re truly following Jesus with everything we have and everything we are. The good news is, Jesus promises that anything we lose for Him here on earth will be repaid to us abundantly in heaven. Of course, I’m not implying that we should intentionally seek to be in harm’s way or that Jesus’ intent is to harm us (after all, He tells us that His plans for us are to prosper us and not to harm us), but being a completely committed follower of Christ means we are willing to sacrifice our social lives, our personal lives, and possibly even our physical lives in order to be sent into a world that Jesus died to save. If He saw each person as worth dying for, then we should, too.

Exchanging Comparison for Joy

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We live in a culture that’s obsessed with change. The top song on iTunes changes faster than I do when I’m late for my first class. The press can go from loving a celebrity to criticizing their every move overnight. Every advertisement that we see is trying to lure us into using a product that will totally change our lives for the better: “Try this weight loss routine and you’ll have the body you’ve always dreamed of!” “Use this cologne and all the ladies will love you!” “Use this brand of makeup so that all the guys will want to date you and all the girls will want to be you!” The media does a great job of making us feel like we always need something bigger and better in order to measure up, and most of the time we believe it, even if we don’t realize it. We work out until we’re blue in the face, bathe in cologne, and paint on layer after layer of makeup in the hopes that this is the means to discovering our true self, our happiest self, our best self. If we were honest, though, living this way leaves us feeling burnt out and empty, not beautiful and exciting, doesn’t it?

Social media is another culprit that makes us feel insecure and inadequate. Imagine this scenario: You’ve been amped up for weeks about your spring break plans. You’re spending the whole week on the beach in Florida with your best friend soaking up every drop of sun possible and diving into that new novel that you’ve been itching to read. The break finally arrives, and you feel like you have it made. Nothing could ruin this trip, and quite frankly, you’re too relaxed to care. You decide to grab your phone to scroll through Instagram, and that’s when you see it: A girl from school that you follow is at the beach, too… in the Bahamas… with the perfect tan… and expensive Ray-Ban sunglasses… and five of her friends who are equally as tan, sporting equally-as-impressive sunglasses. Your mood plummets as you begin to think, “I could never afford those sunglasses or a trip out of the country, and my tan couldn’t possibly look that good. And why didn’t I ask a bunch more of my friends to come with me?” Before you know it, you’ve over thought yourself into a funk that looms over you for the rest of the trip.

This need for change even seeps into our friendships. At times, our well-meaning friends urge us to change things about ourselves to better suit their own tastes and interests. Maybe they tell you to cut back on playing video games because it makes you seem nerdy. What they don’t know is that it’s one of the most fun ways that you and your friends bond, and some of your best heartfelt talks have happened at a game night. Maybe they suggest that you grow your hair out again because long hair looks better on you. What they don’t know is that your mom was just diagnosed with cancer, so you donated your hair to Locks of Love in honor of her. Often, the surface-level opinions that we form of others don’t begin to scratch the surface of what’s going on underneath.

No matter the source, here are some things to keep in mind when you feel like you need to change who you are in order to be happy:

1. What You See Isn’t Usually What You Get

Almost everything in the media is airbrushed. That model that you see in the magazine? She’s been nipped, tucked, and glossed over by airbrushing software so much that she probably wouldn’t recognize herself if you showed her that picture. That picture-perfect love scene in Nicholas Sparks’s latest movie that’s everything that you want in a relationship? It was probably shot numerous times because the actors didn’t do it exactly the way that it was in the script. No one is perfect, not even the most glamorous celebrities.

2. It’s Called a Filter for a Reason

You’ve probably heard the saying “all that glitters is not gold”, and that’s especially true of social media. Our Instagram pictures, Facebook statuses, and tweets are a highlight reel of our lives that show only our best and brightest moments. On Instagram, we agonize over picking just the right filter, which does exactly what its name implies: It takes a real, raw moment and filters it through the lens of what we want people to see that puts us in the best possible light. On Facebook, we re-word our statuses time and time again until we’re sure that they will get plenty of likes and even a few shares if we’re lucky. On Twitter, we squeeze our experiences into 140 characters or less, watering down the beauty of a moment for the sake of a retweet. Don’t compare your everyday moments to someone else’s mountaintop experiences and think that your daily life isn’t worth celebrating. One day, we’ll be able to look back and realize that lots of our ordinary moments aren’t ordinary after all if we would only learn to appreciate them.

3. Celebrate Your Differences

The more people you meet, the more you’ll begin to notice just how different we all are, and that’s actually a really good thing. We all have things in common with our friends, of course, but none of us are going to be cookie-cutter versions of each other. That would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? When you start comparing your life to others’ lives, it robs you of your joy and chips away at the beauty of who you were created to be. You’ll never be able to use and appreciate your own gifts if you’re constantly wishing for someone else’s. You can admire what someone else has while still finding value in what you have. Someone else’s success doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.

I know that I was put on this earth for a unique purpose that only I can fulfill, and I was given a circle of people that only I can influence, so I’m not changing who I am, and neither should you. Let’s stop worshipping at the altar of image and embrace the freedom that we have to be ourselves, flaws and all.

Resolving to “Love” Less

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a pretty complex person. (I AM a woman, after all. Being hard to figure out is in my job description, right?) One thing that’s easy to figure out about me, though, is that I’m a lover of life and most of the things in it. I’m an eternal optimist and encourager, and trust me, I am NOT afraid to let people know it. My conversations usually turn out like this: Oh, you got a new shirt? “I LOVE that color on you.” You want to know what I thought of the new “Hunger Games” movie? “I loved it! Jennifer Lawrence? #goals.” What’s my go-to drink at the campus coffee shop? “I seriously LOVE the Mele Kaliki Mocha. Whoever thought of mixing chocolate, coffee, and coconut is a genius.” Oh, look! My best friend is walking this way! “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.” Are you noticing a trend here? Because I’m starting to. While I’m being genuine in my love for these things, I can’t help but wonder if the fact that I say it all the time makes it start to lose its meaning. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I don’t ever want my friends and family to think that my enjoyment of coffee could even begin to measure up to the love that I have for them (although it might be debatable when I’m waking up for my early morning classes). The new year is quickly approaching, and while I don’t normally make a New Year’s resolution, I think that I’ve finally found a reason to do so. I’m resolving to “love” less in 2016. Before you think of me as a horrible, heartless person who is anything BUT encouraging and optimistic, let me explain what I mean…

The English language is absolutely beautiful, and we have lots of different ways to say what we think and feel… Except when it comes to the word “love”. I’ve studied a bit of Greek in the past, and one thing that I appreciate and admire about the language is that it has different words to distinguish between different types of love. “Eros” is used for passionate, romantic love, “philia” refers to the deep love shared between family and close friends, “ludus” is the kind of playful love present in bantering or flirting, “agape” describes a radical, selfless love for all people, whether they are complete strangers or family members, “pragma” means longstanding love that implies a level of commitment found in married couples or lifelong friends, and “philautia” encompasses a healthy kind of self-love, a sort of self-assuredness that enables us to love others well. In a society where we’re quick to declare our undying love for our favorite celebrity, our go-to comfort food, and our significant other all in the same breath, I definitely wish that we had a clearer way to express ourselves in English.

But what if I DO have other ways to show my feelings of affection or enjoyment without constantly throwing around the word “love”? What if I decided to show my feelings of fondness by going out of my way to be kind to others and to talk about my emotions and opinions in more unique ways? Oh, you got a new shirt? “Wow, it looks amazing on you! It really makes your eyes pop. Where’d you get it?” You want to know what I thought about the new “Hunger Games” movie? “I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and Jennifer Lawrence gave a flawless performance as always. Are you Team Gale or Team Peeta?” What’s my go-to drink at the campus coffee shop? “I’m obsessed with the Mele Kaliki Mocha right now, but I should probably branch out and try something new! What’s your favorite?” Oh, look! My best friend is walking this way! “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH (for real). How’s your day going?” It makes such an impact when we take the time to get to know others on a deeper level by asking them questions. Besides, we have the whole of the English language at our disposal, so why not use it? Love is so much more than an overused word. It’s a way of life, and this coming year, I’m resolving to prove it.