Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Search for the Real Lizzie McGuire

By now, I think everyone knows that Hilary Duff was my main girl during my first 2.5 years of high school, thanks to me discovering Lizzie McGuire right after the start of freshman year.  While the show had its share of detractors--and which one doesn't?--it catapulted Miss Duff into super stardom, and has a cultural impact that is still felt today, especially by people who grew up with it, much like I did.  Lizzie herself was a likable character; a New York Times article called her "the luminous and loyal friend any kid would want to have at a stage of adolescence when the world just begins to seem very dark." Looking back, I think part of the reason I revered her as highly as I did was because I didn't have an actual best friend; sure, there were people I talked to often at school, church, and elsewhere, but I rarely did things with them outside of those places.  It was true that a kid that my mom was taking care of introduced me to the show, but, to this day, I question whether or not he was my friend, only because he acted like a jerk half the time.

I don't watch Lizzie near as much as I used to, though it does make for some nice nostalgia material now and then.  Still, just like with other previous favorite entertainment entities of mine, its impact is still felt to this day...but, in this case, more than any of the rest of them.  You probably already know how Hilary Duff and her show changed my life forever, and woke me up to a whole world of entertainment I'd be missing out on otherwise; I doubt I would have ever discovered my later celebrity crushes or pretty much any show I've enjoyed in the past decade or so if it hadn't been for Lizzie.  What you may not know is how it has also impacted my views on friendship, though whether that's for good or for ill is up for debate.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, you probably don't know this, but, despite its title, it wasn't only about Lizzie.  She had a family, of course--mom, dad, and pesky little brother--but she also had two best friends, Miranda Sanchez and David "Gordo" Gordon.  From the outset, the three of them did pretty much everything together.  Not only did they have all of the same classes--which is actually possible in middle school; I know from experience--but they attended functions together and often got in trouble together as well.  They were pretty much three peas in a pod, until Miranda made an exit towards the end of the show for reasons I never did quite understand.  Together, they braved evil cheerleaders, family drama, school dances, the struggles of growing up, and plenty more.  The same could be said for the main cast of other similar shows, ranging from Austin & Ally to even Nickelodeon's iCarly; even when there was enmity between some of the main characters, they ended up doing the right thing for each other, and, sometimes, became friends before the series finale.

When I think of these shows, I have to ask myself: Where is my Lizzie, or my Miranda, or my Ally? (Yes, the last one was intended as a pun.) I'm not saying that I'm searching for some lovely young single blonde, brunette, or Latina to marry me; if you think that's my focus, you're sorely mistaken.  In fact, the person who could fill that role could be already married, older than I am, or maybe even (gasp!) a guy; what I'm saying is, I'm looking for a best friend.  In the past, I used to have some good friends who took me to the movies and such...but they're all gone now.  Two of them won't talk to me anymore thanks to my own dumb actions, while others have passed away or moved away, if not both.  While it's great to keep in contact with old friends via Facebook or even old-school style--i.e., on the phone--you can't deny that distance and time puts a strain on any relationship, even if it's completely platonic.  Still, I get along with pretty much everyone at my church...but, other than one older couple and my family members, I hardly ever see them outside church events.  I'm not sure I'd call most of them close friends, and I'm sure they'd say the same about me.

Friendship is a concept that has always proved rather enigmatic to me.  I've had bad experiences with people who laid me out--sometimes in public--over nothing, or generally acted in a rather ugly fashion, yet others said of those folks, "They are your biggest advocates!", "They're the best friends you've ever had!", "She is your biggest fan!", or "He likes you and you don't even know it!" If I'm going to have friends, I expect them to treat me with respect, not constantly make me feel like I'm back in seventh grade, dealing with middle school bullies again.  Seriously, when someone comes over to your table only to blast you over something completely innocent you said on is that not persecution? Where is the Christian love in that? I would say that a true friend wouldn't do such a thing...but others would say I'd be wrong about that.

To use another television analogy: I've been a fan of Mork & Mindy ever since my mom first introduced me to it in 1999, and a big part of that is because I identify with the character of Mork.  Just like him, I continue to struggle to understand human ways; after twenty-seven years on this planet, I'm still at a loss to explain some people's actions.  True, sometimes, nobody can explain why someone said or did whatever; my mom has said more than once, "I don't know why _______ said that!", and, depending on the incident, the person in question was anyone from my sister to my elementary school principal.  Still, more often than not, others seem to "get" what people are saying...whereas, I just don't.  It's not that I intend to misunderstand or do the wrong thing; I try my best, but it usually isn't good enough.  Mork needed someone to explain Earth concepts to him, and, as a college student, Mindy was a perfect fit.  I know they eventually married, but, this isn't about a relationship; in fact, in the first season, Mindy's father and grandmother also helped Mork out.  What I want is just someone to look out for me; someone who will help me out if I mess up, not make me feel like an idiot.

Unfortunately, that just seems hard to come by; even people who I should have been able to trust did me seriously wrong.  I found many teachers in school hard to respect because they acted like jerks; even my kindergarten teacher was rather cold and aloof.  I had two different principals at my high school, and hardly anyone respected either of them; the first one got booed at a pep rally, while the second was complained about by many teachers, all because of their overreactions to certain situations.  My family and I ended up leaving our home church of nearly three decades because of corruption within the leadership; they were doing whatever they wanted without regards to how the congregation felt, and many longtime members departed as a result.  My parents often try their best, but, due to their age and everything they've had on their plate over the years--even just this year alone--they often don't have the time or energy to deal with situations as they'd like.  I'd say I need a true best friend...but, I wouldn't know where to find one.

I will conclude by saying this: While I believe that anyone who wants to be my friend can be (Luke 9:50), in my experience, women seem to "get" me better than guys do.  It's not that every female human I've known has had the utmost respect for me--I currently know a few who pay me absolutely no mind, though, in more than one case, I have no idea why--but, in most cases, the women seem to understand me while the guys just sit there flummoxed.  I recall an incident at a high school youth retreat where we were discussing media discernment, and I proudly proclaimed that the only "R" film I'd ever seen was Vision Quest; when one of the girls heard that, she was shocked and quickly replied, "That was bad! You shouldn't have watched that!"...but, one of the guys thought it was no big deal.  I have to say, I agree with the member of the fairer sex; in fact, I only saw that dumb flick because another guy in the group lied to me about its content.  You might say that was just immaturity, but I've had the exact same problem since then countless times.  That's why I'm more inclined to think that I would need a female best friend like Lizzie McGuire, Mindy McConnell, or Ally Dawson; then again, maybe I'm totally wrong.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Worship Vs. Entertainment

Though it's been ages since I've been to one, during my middle and high school years, I went to Christian concerts fairly regularly.  I've seen various artists and bands within the CCM genre live, ranging from the well-known (TobyMac, Third Day, and the Newsboys) to the...well, not so well-known (ApologetiX, Sanctus Real, and even the local, now-defunct band Saving Sam).  I also got autographs and other memorabilia at said shows; to this day, my mom adores the photo of me with the since-disbanded Australian group Paul Colman Trio.  (If you haven't seen that photo, I can show it to you sometime.)  Since my mom isn't exactly a fan of rock or pop music of any kind, I mostly attended Christian concerts with my sister and/or brother-in-law, who were responsible for me discovering contemporary Christian music in the first place, all thanks to them playing dc Talk's Supernatural during rides to and from church.  Sometimes, friends from church would join in; unfortunately, most of my fellow youth group members never bothered with such music, choosing to listen to Eminem or Limp Bizkit instead, so it was usually older church members.  Back in 2002, after one such concert I attended with both of those family members and some friends, my sister said something to me that has stuck with me to this day: "When we go to these concerts, we're not going because we like the music; we're not going because it's not secular; we're going there to worship God.  We're going to work on that."

Honestly, when I first heard those words, I was so flummoxed that I didn't really know what to say; those of you who know me know that's a rarity.  When I listened to music--of any kind--I wasn't worshiping; I was simply letting the music and vocals envelop me.  To me, listening to dc Talk on my CD player was no different than hearing Smash Mouth on the radio; music was music.  It's still largely that way...but, then again, much of Christian music doesn't really fall into the category of worship for me anyway.

What do I define as worship? An article in Breakaway magazine--a publication from Focus on the Family for teenage guys--described it as being music "directed to or about God."  Webster defines it as, "reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also, an act of expressing such reverence."  A Facebook friend gave this definition: "Reverent honor and homage paid to God."  Sure, Christian music does go into that area sometimes; some bands and artists produce nothing but worship music.  Still, many of CCM's best-loved artists talk about other things as well.  dc Talk did everything from a pro-life anthem ("Children Can Live (Without It)") to "Godsend," a song about romantic love.  ApologetiX retells stories from the Bible that have nothing to do with the Gospel, including obscure ones such as the demise of King Eglon ("Plump").  Relient K's first few albums have everything from an ode to ThunderCats to a love song to fictional sleuth Nancy Drew to even a song almost completely in gibberish.  Though the messages behind those songs are great, I wouldn't call them worship tunes; in fact, if I saw the song leader at my church try to lead the congregation in one of those songs during a service, I'd walk out.  It's telling that most of the hymns we sing rarely mention Biblical figures other than members of the Trinity: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; church is no place to sing the praises of Saturday morning cartoons or the person you married.  Sure, there's a time and a place for everything--including that--but a church service isn't it.

More to the point, it would seem that some people, including Christians, have a warped definition of what worship music really is.  Around Y2K, writer Mark Allan Powell released an Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music.  Most of the information in it is now outdated, or can easily be found on Google or Wikipedia; still, at the time it was released, it was heralded by many Christian music fans as a wonderful piece of work, probably due to the fact that such a volume had never before been published.  Though it had some great information, I quibbled with one part of its article about ApologetiX, a Christian parody band I used to listen to constantly.  It described their spoof of Beck's "Loser" as "a worship song," and quoted the lyric, "I want You to save me, so why don't You fill me?" to prove its point.  Unfortunately, like many Bible verses, that quotation was taken out of context; the chorus actually went like this:
Someone's at the door!
Find out who's there, baby!
Go light up your building!
Go and tell the Lord:
"I want You to save me,
So, why don't You fill me?"
That doesn't exactly sound like worship, does it? Just like many CCM songs in general, while the message behind it was great, it wasn't exactly worship.  Even if a song mentions God in a positive way, that doesn't exactly make it a worship tune.

If there's anything I've always loved, it's entertainment.  Some would say computers are my lifelong love, but, I mostly used them for entertainment-related purposes: to play games when I was younger, and to research my favorite media when I got older.  I once saw an article claiming that a study supposedly proved that watching lots of TV at a young age causes autistic disorders...but the myriad of comments debunked it; instead of the television watching causing the autism, it was the exact opposite.  While I may not be as severely autistic as some people--seriously, some of them can't even begin to carry on a conversation--I find that it's a natural impulse to stare at what's on a screen or listen to whatever music is playing, even if I don't like it; without headphones--sometimes even with them--it's impossible for me to tune it out.  These days, many parents allow their young children to play with iPads, Kindles, Nintendo DSes, or other devices in order to help them remain quiet during church services.  While I don't take offense to that--my mom did the same thing with books when I was their age--I have to admit it can be distracting; I sometimes find myself staring at the screen of their device instead of singing along like I should be.  More to the point, my mom turned on some reruns of Two of a Kind, a sitcom starring the Olsen twins, who are among my least favorite celebrities.  A kid who my mom was taking care of said that I must have liked them, because I was sitting there watching it, but, honestly, I was just watching it because it was on; I did the same thing sometimes when my mom turned on figure skating or the news, two things that aren't exactly my among my viewing preferences.  It was just too difficult to not pay attention, regardless of what was on the screen, which is why my mom was usually careful about what she allowed me to watch and listen to.

To me, there's little difference between Christian entertainment and mainstream entertainment; whether books, movies, music, TV shows, or anything else, it exists only to entertain.  Sure, Christian fare may have a big message behind it, but so does much secular fare, even if the message isn't morally right.  When I listen to Christian music, I don't find myself worshiping; I find myself pleased by the sounds hitting my ears...which is the same thing that happens when I'm listening to Victoria Justice.  That's why I'm glad I go to a church that doesn't use instruments; if every church service I went to was like a Demi Lovato concert, I'd lose focus of why I was there.  I remember an instance in the middle school Bible class where the teacher asked if we felt church was boring, and one guy commented, "We don't come to church to have fun." I agree; church services aren't movie showings or ball games, and shouldn't be treated as such.  True, some slight instrumentation--i.e., a light piano background--wouldn't be too distracting, but heavy rock guitars would be.  That's why I was shocked when I heard my sister say that we were going to Christian concerts to worship God; that wasn't why I consumed entertainment of any kind, including Christian music.

I've known some people who are anti-CCM, for various reasons: they feel said music is of low quality, that Christian music shouldn't have instruments, that the music isn't really Christian like it claims to be, etc.  While I'm not against it--after all, I've been listening to CCM since I was in fifth grade--I still feel that it's not a replacement for the music we sing in church.  Most popular music--of any genre, Christian or otherwise--is about sonic quality: the instrumentation, the vocals, or both.  However, worship music--as we sing it in church, that is--is all about the lyrics; it's not about the vocal prowess of the people singing it.  If you've sat in a church service, you've probably sat near someone who sang off-key; I once heard a story about a now-late fellow church member who always sang loudly, even though he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.  It wasn't because he wanted everyone to hear him; it was because of the One to whom he was singing.  The rest of us would do good to follow his example, regardless of vocal talent or lack thereof.

In closing, I will say this: Regardless of what kind of music you listen to or how many hymns you sing during church services, you have to be careful about idol worship.  I've always heard the definition of "idol" as "anything that takes the place of God," and that could be pretty much anything in the universe but God.  People used to know me for my "idols"; one high school friend asked me after we reconnected via Facebook, "You still worship that one actress?" He was speaking of Anne Hathaway; while that friend wasn't a Christian, it wasn't a good sign that my adoration of a celebrity--any of them, really--came off that way.  The secular definition of "worship" is usually used in regards to people's attitudes towards famous people; I've often heard the term "idol" used as a synonym for "hero," when it really isn't.  It doesn't even have to be someone famous; it could be an abstract entity, such as entertainment, or a loved one, such as a spouse or other romantic interest.  I'm not going to accuse anyone of idolatry; I really don't know anyone reading this well enough to know where their priorities truly lie.  What I do know is that I have to make sure that I don't let anything come between me and my eternal salvation; while having a hobby is fine, my tendency is to turn a fun activity into an addiction, which is a problem.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

What Do You Think? It Really DOES Matter!

I've always been a staunch advocate of living my life the way I want to live it.  I'll watch whatever shows and movies I want to, read whatever books I want to, listen to whatever music I want to, spend my spare time doing whatever I want to, post whatever I want to on Facebook and elsewhere...and it doesn't stop there.  However, now that I think about it, that attitude has turned people off; when I've offended or bothered those who cared about me, but couldn't care less about what I did, and chose to proclaim my innocence instead of owning up to my was rather off-putting, and led to me losing friends.  True, sometimes, I realized the errors of my ways...but, by that point, it was usually too little, too late.  If I'd just thought about what I was doing before I did it, I could have saved myself from the consequences.

Over the years, my mom and my sister--who was kind of my second mother, especially when I had no father to speak of--would often say, "What would your friend(s) think if they knew you were _____?" It usually didn't stop me; I was bent on doing what I wanted to do, regardless of what they had to say.  Still, I think they make a great point; if my friends--especially ones of the female persuasion whom I was hoping to date--had seen me angrily refusing to help around the house, that would have been a major turn-off.

In both cases, I wish I could say I've put such actions behind me...but I haven't.  Just this week alone, I've reacted to situations at home in ways that would embarrass me if my friends were there to witness them.  Of course, nobody is perfect; we all mess up now and then; still, continually having to apologize for losing my cool over essentially nothing is not fun for anyone, especially not me.

So, what's to be done? Instead of simply doing my own thing and not caring who I bother or offend, I need to act in a way of which my Christian friends would approve.  I know we're supposed to please God and not people, but, I think many of my friends who are reading this would always be pleased with me acting in a Christian way.  That also means that I won't do anything that my friends wouldn't approve of, regardless of who is watching.  Some time ago, I came across a book that had a cover and plot that appealed to me, even though I knew it was something that I probably shouldn't read.  A now-former friend told me to go ahead and read it, and not worry about what my friends and family would think...and not only did I do just that, I also read the sequel.  I've also been reading quite a bit of manga; you may know the story of how a scary scene in one of those Japanese comics was burned into my retina, but, thanks to a friend's comment, I realized that much of it isn't something I should be reading for other reasons as well, especially since it often objectifies women.  I won't give up on reading or even manga/comics completely; like any medium, printed media can be used for good or for evil.  Still, I'll need to make more informed decisions before plunking down cash or store credit, or whipping out my library card, for entertainment...of any kind.  If I would be embarrassed for my parents or my Christian friends to see me reading or watching it...then I shouldn't bother.

We all know entertainment is a big thing for me, but this whole thing goes beyond that.  Sure, television, movies, books, and music are fun, but they shouldn't be my whole life.  As a Christian, it's my duty to help people in need; whatever we do for those who need help, we've done for Jesus.  If anyone needs my assistance, it doesn't matter what I'm watching on TV; it's time to turn the set off, get up from my recliner, and take care of business.  It also means that I need to have hobbies outside the realm of entertainment; doing nothing but reading books and watching television shows is lazy and unhealthy.  In the past, people have suggested that I try my hand at everything from running to martial arts, and I always declined...but I shouldn't have; doing so would help me lose weight and get physically fit, not to mention be much better for my mind than a steady diet of the Disney Channel.  I think many people would be proud of me for achieving something that doesn't involve technology or bargain hunting.

In conclusion, I will say this: I once read a Christian book about dating that discussed the oft-asked question: How far is too far before marriage? The author argued that you shouldn't do anything while dating you wouldn't want your spouse to find out about...because, despite how in love you may think you are, you may not end up marrying that person.  Secrets have a way of being discovered, sometimes by complete accident. I remember an incident where one of my aunts was positively livid with another aunt of mine because of something the latter had done...but, though my mom told me of the former's angry response, she wouldn't tell me what made her that angry.  I eventually found out, though, only because the latter aunt told me during a phone conversation; presumably, she didn't know that my mom didn't want me to know what had happened.  I mention that for one reason: If I plan on being married one day, I have to act in a way that a woman would be pleased with; regardless of how I try to hide it, if I mess up, she'll find out about it.  Unfortunately, I have turned right many women off; most of the people who have unfriended me have been of the opposite gender, and most of said ladies have been around my age.  Of course, I don't want to be a show-off or a braggart, but, I can't expect to be admired if I don't do anything admirable.