christianity

How I Lost 27 Pounds on My Own Unexpected Journey

Yes, it’s true: I’ve lost 27 pounds. Here’s the picture to prove it.

How It All Began

It all started when an old church acquaintance (let’s call him “Taylor”) messaged me after the New Year. He expressed that he has just started trying to lose weight himself and that he wanted an accountability partner. We mulled over the operating details for the next couple of days – planning to weigh in every Tuesday and Friday and text each other the results on those days in addition to sending each other random encouragement throughout the week – and I marked January 6th as the beginning of this, my own unexpected journey.

(And yes, that’s a Tolkien reference…well, more of a Jackson reference, but whatevs.)

To be honest, Taylor and I had (and still have) all the reason in the world to lose weight. We want to live past forty years old. We want to have families of our own that we can healthily support for this life and the next. We want to be able to get on a plane without having to buy an extra ticket (I know I’ve been there and done that…twice). Ultimately, we want to be a good steward of the earthly vessels that God has given us.

I’ve struggled with that last one for years. For some reason, I guess I just wanted to prove that fat people have a place in the kingdom, too, so I didn’t take any extra steps toward changing. I was comfortable in knowing that God loves me as I am, and I used that love as a crutch. I would even think that I would be fine with just dying because then I could get a new body and not even have to worry about losing weight.

Thankfully, I got out of that funk by finally realizing that my body is a gift from God – that life itself is a gift from God – and that whenever God gives you something, it’s only out of love for Him that you actually use it in a way that He would want you to use it. Our God is a missional God, and He doesn’t just give us gifts for our own decadent enjoyment.

Even still, I didn’t fully commit to taking the steps that I have so far until Taylor reached out to me. That’s not to say that others haven’t reached out before because they most certainly have, and I’m thankful for them. Unfortunately, when they did, I didn’t have the motivation to reciprocate. Sorry I’m late to the party, guys, but I’m here now.

But enough preaching!

Calorie Counting

Early on, Taylor suggested that I use a calorie-counting app. He mentioned that he was using the MyFitnessPal app by Under Armour (not a sponsor), so I figured it would be a good place to start. After entering my starting weight of 526.2 crunching some numbers (as in entering them into the app’s calculator), I found that it would take about 4,600 calories to “maintain” that weight. The idea was then simple: set a lower goal for calories and let the math do the work – and so far, it has done so beautifully.

For the first few days, I monitored myself being sure to log in everything that I ate. Imagine my surprise, for example, when I found that one Hardees’ Sausage and Egg Biscuits was 560 calories. I was doing two of those and a large Dr. Pepper for breakfast at least three times a week all last Fall. Breakfast was coming out to be over 1,500 calories. That had to change.

Some Minor Dietary Changes

Now for breakfast, I’m doing smoothies. Normally consisting of almondmilk (more on that later), a banana, and a frozen fruit (usually mango or some berries), I can get about 20 ounces of breakfast for only 250 calories (give or take a few, depending on the ingredients). I feel like a mad scientist with a personal blender because  I like trying new things and seeing what works the best. I may even do a separate blog post on how smoothies have changed my breakfast, but that’ll come later.

Regarding that almondmilk, I’ve now given up regular milk and have switched over to almondmilk completely. This change was the result of learning that there’s so much sugar in regular milk (even skim milk). When milk first comes out of the cow, it is full of fat which gives it that wonderful milk flavor. When companies take out that fat, they also take out that flavor. In order to get the taste right again, they add sugar and lots of it. And at the rate I was drinking milk (more than half a gallon a day), it’s no wonder I wasn’t getting any skinnier.

Lunch is getting easier, too, now that I’ve started eating the salads available at the elementary school where I work. My calculations come up to about 500 calories (that’s the salad, three servings of fruit, crackers, and dressing).

So for two meals, I’m barely scratching 750 calories. It would almost seem like I could have anything I wanted to have for supper and be good. It would be good, except that something I’ve learned along the way is that it’s just best not to eat a full meal after 7:00 PM. I tried meeting this particular goal last Fall, but it fell through during the holidays. Back on the wagon, I now try to shoot for a good sized meal by 6:00. If I have to, I go for a light snack (under 300 calories) or a smoothie before bed, and it cures that craving.

The Differences I’m Noticing

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is my reaction to huge amounts of sugar. Last week, for example, it was a student’s birthday, and he brought Little Debbie Fancy Cakes to celebrate. As politely as I could, I refused him, but I just couldn’t keep it up (especially when the teacher came up behind me – not knowing that I was trying to lose weight – and playfully whispered, “Just give in, Mr. Taylor.”

Defeated, I took the two-pack and scarfed it down. The following sugar rush was incredibly terrifying as I got dizzy and could not concentrate on the classwork that I was supposed to be facilitating for that station. On top of that, I found that when I entered the cakes on the app, they were 300 calories alone. That was 300 calories I could’ve used on supper that night! Here I am figuring out a whole new economy on food.

Another moment – this time, a bit brighter – was when I revealed that I was trying to lose weight to my weekly discipleship group. We usually meet once a week, but we had to miss the week before for some unfortunate reasons. Nevertheless, we gathered again, and I told them what I was up to.

Only one other person in that group knew that I was trying, and the three others did not. Their simultaneous looks of surprise and “I KNEW something was different!” was so encouraging, and I’m thankful that they’ll be there to support me as so many others have and will continue to do so throughout this endeavor.

I look forward to losing a total of 300 pounds – as of now, I’m 1/12 of the way there – and I look forward to seeing you all on the other side.

War Room, Christian Filmmaking, and Encouragement: An Evening with Stephen Kendrick

Christian filmmaker Stephen Kendrick (one-third of the Kendrick Brothers film team) recently spoke at North Boulevard Church of Christ. The presentation was a part of the church’s initiative entitled the School of Christian Thought, a ministry dedicated to challenging fellow Christians “to think about what we believe and why we believe it,” as per the School’s mission statement, “hoping, of course, that this will lead to engaged citizens who bless their communities because of their convictions.” This event was the first time I had ever heard of the School for Christian Thought, and I must admit that I am very intrigued by their endeavor and look forward to attending more of these kinds of presentations.

I honestly wouldn’t have even attended Mr. Kendrick’s lecture had it not been for two different people inviting me. One sent me a text, and the other reached out to me via Facebook. Being one to make the majority of his decisions at the last minute, I didn’t decide to go until that day. But I mean, really: how many others chances will I get to drink in some of this man’s wisdom? to listen intentionally to someone who is making a living doing something that I want to do? Not many.

The evening started off well enough. The acapella praise team led those in attendance in some congregational singing, and it all sounded lovely. I found myself singing along with what I did know and humming along with what I didn’t know. Then teaching minister David Young introduced Mr. Kendrick with some well-mannered frivolity and some light-hearted humor. Finally, the man himself took the stage.

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Mr. Kendrick began with a bit of personal biography, an interesting narrative which can be found at their website. Just to give a brief glimpse into their childhood, Stephen and his two brothers were the sons of a minister and a schoolteacher. This somehow led them to have enough free time to shoot home movies. What fascinated me was that their parents encouraged them to keep making those movies as long they kept pursuing a personal relationship with God and kept studying His word along the way. Strange how that kind of encouragement can work.

He then lightly touched on the span of Kendrick Brothers films. On War Room specifically, he regaled us with anecdotes from behind the scenes. For example, finding the right wig for Karen Abercrombie to don in her portrayal of Miss Clara was apparently a doozy. Even finding Miss Clara’s house was a surprising answer to Alex and Stephen’s incessant prayers. Such was the case for many of the film’s accomplishments, including the double-dutch sequence at its conclusion.

In fact, one thing that Stephen constantly reminded us of how strongly prayer affected the day-to-day grind on the set. “Every key decision,” he persistently repeated, “must be made in prayer.” And every key decision made for War Room and every other Kendrick Brothers film was made in prayer. Praying on the set, praying before shooting and after shooting, praying during planning period – prayer led these projects. Stephen’s enthusiasm for this one aspect was contagious.

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While he gave a well-informed ten-point guideline to Christian filmmaking – “Power Up Your Prayer” being only fifth on the list – the two points that caught my attention were “Guard the Unity of the Team” and “Shepherd Your Sheep” (but let’s be real: they kinda go hand-in-hand, am I right?). We’ve all seen how horrendous a failed experiment can be because the team grew apart for some reason or because the leader didn’t nurture the team like he or she was supposed to. It’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind as I pursue my own creative endeavors.

Here’s the biggest chunk of wisdom from Mr. Kendrick that I’ve been chewing on: “Jesus spoke parables to the lost, but He spoke overtly to His disciples.” Mr. Kendrick said this when speaking about Hollywood’s collective reaction to his films – films which are often criticized as being too full of Christianity, too exclusionary, and too “overt” with their messages of faith. It’s a criticism that I myself am all too familiar in doling out against Christian films.

My perspective changed when Mr. Kendrick mentioned why he and his brother made their initial film Flywheel in the first place: as an outreach. The film’s very conception had a mission behind it, and such has been the case for every Kendrick Brothers film since. And as much as I want to, I can’t argue with how much of a positive impact these films have had in communities both at home and abroad. It’s a feat that can only be described as miraculous.

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Mr. Kendrick has given me – as a burgeoning writer and storyteller myself – much to think about, and I can’t help but think that I’ve been encouraged by his story. I can’t say that I’ll now go out and start writing Christian scripts for Christian plays and Christian movies. After all, as playwright Dr. Gilllette Elvgren of Regent University once said, “What makes a Christian play? Well, what makes a Christian lasagna? Same thing” – meaning that it’s merely people that brand products as Christian. But as long as the Kendrick Brothers keep God at the helm of their projects and follow Him by praying for and obeying His guidance, theirs can’t be a bad example to follow.

Funny How a Gift is Just a Gift

Halfway out the door, I saw that giant, ethereal circle around a small, white moon in a creamy velvet, slightly orange sky. My friend asked me what it meant, and I told him I thought it meant that it was going to snow. Since we both work at the same elementary school, we joked about how awesome it would be to have classes canceled  because of snow and get out of school an extra three days for Christmas break. Funny how even educators (and their assistants) can look forward to being out of school.

As I walked to my car, though, I was struck by the question of whether or not it actually meant that snow was on the way. I had heard that bit of farmyard wisdom from someone somewhere at some time, but I never really looked into it. Funny how we can be so eager to share something that we only took at face value with someone else who would take it to heart.

Snow or not, I enjoy that ring around the moon even if I don’t know what it is or what it means. I enjoy it just because I think it looks really cool; it’s almost like a gift. After some quick browsing, I came across the Wikipedia article on what it is and what causes it – something to do with the refraction of the moonlight off the atmosphere. But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything; it doesn’t necessarily mean that bad weather is on the way. Funny how quickly we question what something means before we even know if it’s supposed to mean anything more than what it is.

I juxtaposed the whole notion with something I’ve been chewing on for while: that God gives us gifts all the time, and though those gifts can take the forms of both good things and bad things, we should be thankful either way. If such gifts mean anything, they mean that God thought we needed it…whatever it may be. Funny how we like to question God’s decisions.

It’s an idea I got from studying Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., the Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of the Book of Job. The controlling theme of the play and the source material seem to be the God gives us gifts all the time and that we are to maintain a thankful heart all the while. Funny how we covered The Muppet Christmas Carol on Finding Christ In Cinema and spoke on that same theme around this same time.

Something else that sticks out to me from the Book of Job and J.B. is the belief that anything good that happens is a gift for something good we’ve right and that anything bad that happens is a punishment for something we’ve done wrong. This countering ideology is reflected in Job’s wife and his three “friends” Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar. They all persistently urge Job to confess to whatever secret sin he had committed, curse God, and die. Funny how they were all so sure that Job had done something horrifically wrong that it prompted God’s immediate and terrifying judgment.

The danger of that kind of mindset – of asking what a gift means instead of just enjoying it – is that we then really start believing that God is watching us with a microscope just waiting to either reward or punish us. And once we start having that view of God, we start having that view of our fellow man. It harbors jealousy, mistrust, and suspicion of other people – and it ultimately reflects a lack of integrity and virtue within ourselves. Funny how a trivial thing like questioning a gift can show us so much about ourselves.

Here’s an example from just the past two weeks. A couple of friends and I were fortunate enough to land a spot performing for the local community arts center’s dinner theatre production. We played music while the guests wined and dined. We enjoy playing music, and we thought others would enjoy it if we played, too. On the first night, however, we made a last minute decision to put out a tip jar. It felt awkward at first just because we hadn’t planned on it, and we knew the guests were already spending a lot of money to be there anyway, and we didn’t want to impose, but we figured, “Eh, what the heck?” Funny how a small decision like that can have such an impact on the following performances.

On the first night, it was just two of us (our percussionist had a prior engagement to attend). Imagine our surprise when we each got $27 a piece from tips alone; it was genuinely exciting, and we were thankful for such a great gift. We went out to Buffalo Wild Wings in the next town, ran into some old friends, went to a fabric store (I’m a theatre guy and I was looking for muslin for building a set, get off me), did the rounds at WalMart – you know, the things you do in a small town. Funny those simple things can bring so much joy.

But then, over the following performances – and this is not to chide my friends or shame them or anything like that – I felt like we started basing our decisions on the prospect how we could be given more tips…how we could “earn” a bigger and better gift. We set out a bigger “jar” with the hope that we’d get more money. We waited to play “church” songs until people we presumed to be “church” people walked by with the hope that they would show their appreciation by leaving a tip. We even “dressed up” with the hope that looking more professional” would open people up to giving us a tip. Finally, when we counted the totals each night, we were mutually disappointed that we didn’t “earn” as much as we did on that first night. Funny how we think we have to “earn” a gift when the reality is that it is no longer a “gift” if it is earned but a wage.

My point is that a gift is a gift and that if a gift is given at all, it is to be understood as a show of appreciation and love from the giver to the recipient. To question what a gift means to question the motives of the one who gave it. Thankfully, there is a God that will patiently and lovingly put up with our questions and doubts. That’s what Job learned (or arguably knew the whole time). What’s not okay is letting that doubt and questioning fester unresolved…letting it remain a question without seeking an answer…letting it remain doubt without seeking the faith. Funny how we all tend to do that sometimes.

For this Christmas, let’s remember to have a thankful heart…I need to remember to have a thankful heart. Don’t question the gifts we’ve been given, don’t doubt them, don’t over-analyze them, and don’t look too much into it. So whether it’s getting to see a ring around the moon, getting tips, or getting Christmas presents – simply say “thank you,” don’t compare it to other gifts you may have been given before, be content, and move on.

Funny how that’s so easy to type.

Stormy Water (a poem)

God why did you make loving you hurt so much
why are things most beautiful when they’re gone
to float peacefully over the black waves of anxiety
and still too overdrawn by their gravity to breathe

orange sunset sinking into the gray horizon
hazily miraculously craning backwards
turning the mirage world upside down
because I spine stiff am upside down

I try letting you walk down the stairs
from the top of my head into my heart
and instill your spirit to be still my soul
I’m still afraid of what you’ll find down there

a treasure chest of solitude that has yet to be cracked
open even though I accepted the key several years ago
I can feel you tinkering with the lock and the hinges now
and I’m sorry that I keep putting up such a restless fight

but please don’t throw me out to the fishes just yet
where there’s weeping and pulling of yellow teeth
hold me close to the boat so I don’t drift away
into the atmosphere of mist connections

work on me God and work through me
love on me God and love through me
that I may find peace and rest
in this weary weary world

Sketchbook #3: How to Talk to a Narcissist

Here are three simple tips to keep in mind when in the company of a narcissist. It doesn’t matter in which order you follow them, though; they’re more like general guidelines. Of course, the narcissist in question won’t realize that you’re catering to him; please, then, follow these criteria judiciously:

  1. Wear reflective sunglasses so it will be easier for them to maintain eye contact with you.
  2. Try to stand a foot lower than them so as to prepare for their condescending tone.
  3. If you get the chance to reply, do so only in clichés because narcissists will only want to hear what’s expected and not what’s needed.

And always remember that the reason why narcissists repeat themselves so much isn’t because they don’t know you heard them the first time but because they don’t care that you hear them again.

We as good Christians should always keep the other person in mind, you know. Because, as Tim Keller tweeted, “Truth without love is imperious self-righteousness. Love without truth is cowardly self-indulgence.”


Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. (1 John 2:15-17 NLT)

Jim Croce, Communication, and Social Media

I will rarely ever get political on social media anymore. There is just so much to communication that gets lost between the transmitter and the receiver when the only medium for that which is being communicated is the printed word. I can type something with the intent of it meaning one thing, and you or anyone else could read something entirely different. It happens enough when I post something as trivial as a Seinfeld meme; I can only imagine how it much worse it would pan out if I tried to posit my unsolicited political opinion into the mix.

It’s because social media lacks the other, more qualifiable elements of communication. Elements like vocal intonation and body language and even the very pretextual relationship between the transmitter and the receiver – anything from barely being acquaintances all the way to being the best of friends for years – just aren’t there. And since those elements – the vessels of communication in general – are lacking, the true communication of the message is in jeopardy.

One time, I tried. I really did. It involved a blog post that I have since deleted, but I tried. I wrote one of those “open letters” that contained my unsolicited political voice to a certain group of people. I took it down for three reasons: one, because I did not know the full situation until after I had published my post; two, I was publicly shaming other fellow believers – something Jesus himself was totally against (heck, He was against publicly shaming people in general); and three, deep down, I just did it for the clicks.

Nowadays, I just stick to the finer things in life: family pictures, theological maxims, brief but pertinent social quips, movie reviews, podcasts, Seinfeld memes, and the occasional pun. Of course, I’ll also share any creative endeavor via this blog – like poetry, short stories, and what not – but not much else. Not much else intrigues me anyway, so.

It saddens me, though, to see others fighting on social media. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, high-school friends (former and current), religious and non-religious, everyone is at odds with someone. I know it’s just the way things are; people are people, and “you do you” and all that, but it doesn’t excuse the maliciousness, vitriol, and disrespect on either side.

Then again, if there really is no moral arbiter, then who am I to say who’s right and who’s wrong? In both their messages and the words through which they send them?

Either way, here’s some Jim Croce.

 

Sketchbook #2: Grassy Christians

Two kinds of Christians: grassy and asphalty.

On a sunny day, grassy Christians bathe in the sunlight. The sun reactivates and reinvigorates their cells, and they let it warm them, change them, and grow them. While they maintain a portion of their own color, their translucence allows the influence of the true light to shimmer through.

Asphalty Christians remain black and rigid. They obstinately absorb the heat and sear any conscience that touches them. Instead of being pliable and flexible and open to new ideas, they stay like they are. Such quality of strength and integrity is admirable to a certain extent but not to the point of being so calcified that they can only be broken by a jackhammer.

Sketchbook #1: Two Different Skies (prose)

It was the kind of night you could look up and see two different skies.

The first sky – the real sky – the far away sky – was at the top. It was the deep velvet violet everyone thinks about when they think about night skies between a fading warm spring and an impending hot summer. No diamond stars, just soft and deep rumination.

The other sky – the clouds, really – the closer sky – laid at the bottom. Just as soft but more overbearing, looming than the first sky. Spectral gray palates singed with halogen orange from suburban streetlights.

The wind was warm, too; hearty branches on lurching trees leaned back and forth anxiously. Leaves’ pale undersides carry the second sky – turning over, they carry the dark of the first sky, and they can’t decide for themselves, and the wind has better things to do.

To feel angry like heat lightning flicker with no rain for relief. To be too inadequate to rest and too apathetic to try.

To know God’s presence and not believe. To know his love and not obey.

To know His love and not obey.

To smolder.

The Devil At Work (a poem)

Most people think that the devil at work
is a creature with horns, a red cape, and a fork
that sneaks up behind us and tells us to sin
whenever we’re tempted to stumble again.

That could be the case if the devil were God
and was at one time everywhere and abroad
and actually used all the power we give him
instead of the fear in which he has been livin’.

But all our mistakes and the folly we live in
result from the chances we think we’ve been given
and choices we make when we try to be level;
the devil just doesn’t have time to be “devil.”

The devil at work isn’t worth the explorin’ –
our pride and our lust will do all the work for him.

This image shows a crowd of people in a movie theater watching a movie.

I’m Tired of Bashing Christian Movies

I like bashing Christians movies. It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something good when tell others what I honestly think about them, with no grace in my heart at all. I want to “save” people from having a bad experience like I did, so I do whatever I can to win others from seeing such films.

It started back in the late winter of 2014 with the release of the cut-copied-and-pasted-from-the-History-Channel Son of God. Then the Spring of 2014 with the release of the landmark God’s Not Dead. Later in that very same Spring saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as well as Heaven Is For Real (although some would argue that the former of those two is not a Christian film…an arguable sentiment, but valid).

After a summer of phenomenal blockbusters came the gem that is known as Believe Me (which you need to see right now if you haven’t already). The Year of the Christian Film at last closed out with Ridley Scott’s so-so interpretation of the Exodus account entitled Exodus: Gods and Kings.

2015 looked promising with the release of Old Fashioned,  but that hope quickly fizzled out with Do You Believe?Since another summer full of high-octane action and adventure has come to a close, War Room has come out, and I tried showing a little grace in withholding what I really thought about it and sharing only the positive side.

But after hearing that God’s Not Dead 2 is now in the works and is slated for release in Spring 2016, I am preparing for another opportunity to bash it and rip it to shreds. Because I know what’s going to be. It’s going to be the same old plot line of someone who believes in God coming face to face with someone who doesn’t.

It’ll be the same old storytellers telling the same old story of “perseverance in trials” and “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” and the protagonist will come out on top after having defeated the angry atheist.

Then the epilogue will be at the same old concert, and the same old celebrity cameo will urge the audience of the concert (and, by the transitive property, the audience of the film, too) to text their friends that “God’s not dead” (except this time, they’ll have to do it twice…because it’s a sequel…eh? eh?).

Gather ’round, kids; Uncle Brenden’s gonna learn ya something about Art:

  • Art is one part Content and one part Form.
  • The Content is the Message that the Artist is trying to communicate to an Audience.
  • The Form is the Medium by which that Content is delivered to that Audience.

My discontent with Christian films, then, is not with their Content but with their Form. Because I can and most often do agree with the Message of such films – that is, I agree with the Content – but that Message is unfortunately tainted by the Medium by which it is communicated to the Audience.

That Form could be a weak character development – like a one-sided college professor – or a cliché plot narrative – like making all the main characters of a film come together in only one, too brief moment; whatever the case, I find it unsettling and a waste of my time.

But I need to face the reality that some other people actually like these films. Some other people are actually encouraged by the Message of these films no matter how diluted by the Medium they may or may not be. Some people can actually look past the Forms of this Art and see and understand the Content for what it really is.

That this outlook on films is so indicative of how I should be as a Christian astounds me. If I can’t support a film or any other piece of Art because I only focused on the outward Form as opposed to considering the inward Content, what does that say about how I deal with people? That I’m too alienated by the Form of a fellow brother or sister to even be bothered with considering their inward Content? That’s definitely not how I want God to judge me.

Next Spring, I’ll the opportunity to bash another same old Christian movie; or, next Spring, I’ll have the opportunity to exhibit a little grace in expressing my subjective opinions and withholding my condemnations, find something good in that film (even if I have to dig and stretch), and be a little more like Christ when it comes to engaging the culture.