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.

Discovering the Only Identity That Matters

I’m learning that many of my favorite verses of Scripture aren’t the classics you would embroider on a throw pillow, but they’re just as powerful & bring me just as much hope & encouragement.

A new favorite that I’ve tucked away in my heart is found in Acts 4. Peter & John are standing before the Sanhedrin after they heal a lame man in the previous chapter, & verse 13 notes, “The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter & John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.”

I did a little research, & it turns out Peter & John were close to my age at this point! They were young, yet they were bold enough to speak the convicting truth of the gospel to men who would have loved nothing more than to silence them. It’s no wonder Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his age. In fact, Paul may have been thinking about those two young men when he wrote that. He was one of the religious leaders before he met Jesus, so he was probably among those who witnessed this display of God-given bravery. He was there at Stephen’s stoning a few chapters later, so it wouldn’t surprise me. That’s why it’s so important to be unashamed of the gospel & to speak its truth everywhere we go without backing down – We never know who could be listening or the seeds those words might plant.

And here’s another thing – Peter & John had just healed a man, yet they were still called ordinary men. It’s not what we do for God but God Himself in us that makes us more than ordinary. It’s all Him.

My favorite part of the verse comes at the very end: “They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” Above all else, I pray that’s how people know me. Not “the worship leader”, “the writer”, or “the missionary”… simply “a woman who has been with Jesus.”

Get Ready, Another Eclipse is Coming

All of the excitement and anticipation surrounding today’s eclipse made me think of an event yet to come that I hope and pray would stir an even greater sense of joy in the heart of every believer: The day when everyone will once again look heavenward, this time to see Jesus Himself coming back to take His people home. The day when we will need no light, lamp, or sun because Christ Himself will finally eclipse the darkness of the world to shine His glory for all to see.

As I thought over how beautifully that parallels today’s event, the Holy Spirit convicted me with a few questions:

Am I as eager to soak up Scripture and wisdom from the Lord to share it with a world in desperate need of a Savior as many are to buy up “eclipse glasses” and share them with their friends?

Am I more in awe of the beauty of the creation than the brilliance of my Creator?

How can I be so concerned about people protecting their eyes from the sun & yet so often apathetic about protecting people’s souls from spending eternity without Jesus?

Everything in heaven and on earth points back to truth about the One who made it, so today, I’m thankful for the reminder that “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

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.

Stray Hairs and Set-Apart Hearts

Being tempted feels a lot like having a pesky stray hair clinging to your arm. Initially, it doesn’t seem that bad, but the longer it’s there, the more unbearable it becomes. Many times, you can’t see it without a change of perspective – looking in the mirror after you brush your hair, the light hitting your shirt a certain way, or even a friend pointing it out to you and asking if they can help you get it off, but no matter how you discover it, you know you would do anything to get rid of it. Often, it’s somehow managed to become so embedded in your clothes that you have to tug quite a bit, and you probably aren’t even sure how it got in there that deep, but once it’s gone, you see it for what it is – light as air, dispensable, unable to hold you back any longer. It might be a challenge to get rid of, but with the brightest of light, solid friends, and a good look at your own reflection from time to time, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Today, do the hard thing and ask Jesus what the “stray hairs” are in your life. Ask Him for His light to give you a new perspective and illuminate dark places in your heart and mind that you might not have even realized were taking root. Surround yourself with close friends who have your back and aren’t afraid to lovingly tell you that some things might not be quite right in your life. Take an honest look at your heart and ask yourself what’s holding you back from being more like Christ. Walk with confidence. Jesus has given you the power of the Holy Spirit and an abundance of His grace to pluck those “stray hairs” off of every part of your clothes – for good.

Resolving to “Love” Less

Friends-Hugging

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.

Street “Preachers” at Asbury University: A Reflection

Street Preachers

An antsy crowd huddled around the crosswalk near the apartments on Asbury University’s campus could have only meant one thing: Campus Ministry USA was back. This group consists of street “preachers” who use antagonistic tactics, such as yelling about how girls are whores damned to hell if they wear yoga pants, as their preferred method of “evangelism”.  As I passed by the swarm of students and the angsty instigators of the chaos, I was immediately overcome with harsh, bitter thoughts toward them: “How do they think they have the right to come onto our campus and hurl insults at us? What a miserable life… Going from school to school to demean and belittle students and then trying to bully them into believing a gospel of hellfire and brimstone… These people are the reasons why Christians get such a bad reputation these days.” The longer that I dwelled on these negative feelings, the more intensely the Holy Spirit began to convict me of my attitude towards them. I began to pray that He would wash through my heart and mind even in that moment and help me to view the situation through His eyes. Here are just a few things that He began to bring to my attention:

  1. One positive thing that I took away from the whole ordeal was those people’s commitment & dedication to their cause & their beliefs, although they were heartbreakingly misguided. I was reminded of the fact that God can change anyone’s heart & use them & the abilities He’s given them for His glory. It made me think of how Paul, one of the greatest human reflections of Christ’s love, started out his life killing Christians & mocking Jesus, but an encounter with the grace & mercy of the Living Jesus literally changed his life. Just think about how powerful those people’s boldness for their beliefs would be if they used it to speak the truth in love. No one is outside of the love & redemption of God, so it’s my prayer that their hearts would be transformed just as Paul’s was.
  2.  When Jesus was on the cross, He did not retaliate against His accusers, rather He had compassion on them & asked God to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing. In the same way, even though it goes completely against human nature, we should not act out against those trying to antagonize us. Arguments don’t change hearts, especially for those who don’t really want to listen to reason; only genuine, godly love can do that. We can’t change hearts because that’s the Lord’s job, but we can love people with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.
  3. Satan would like nothing more than to tear down our faith-filled campus from the inside out by trying to plant seeds of resentment, doubt, & insecurity in our hearts, but we can be encouraged by the fact that if we truly know Jesus, then we know that He & His character never change, so our identity as His loved & redeemed children & our hope of salvation doesn’t change either, regardless of insults that are thrown our way. Jesus wants to take that offense & criticism from us so that we can move forward today with the freedom to forgive & the grace to love unconditionally because of the way He loves all of us.

Scripture says in John 3:17 that God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it. While it’s easy to throw that verse at those people & tell them to stop condemning us, we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn them either. Instead, let’s try to see them through the eyes of Jesus as His children who are not disqualified from His love, no matter what they’ve said or done. Let’s be the set-apart people that we are called to be who love our oppressors so radically that they can’t help but to be drawn into the presence of Jesus. And finally, let’s count this time of suffering as joy, grateful that it gives us a chance to put Jesus’ command to love our enemies into practice.