“Beatrice Zinker always did her best thinking upside down.”
When I read those words, I knew it was going to be a very good book. As the creator of Disney Nerds, I often get the opportunity to review books published by and about Disney before they ever hit the shelves. And as much as I love reading, it’s one of the very best perks about doing it. Once in a while, a story really captures my heart and Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker was one of those. First time author Shelley Johannes wrote an endearing story about a girl who was “different.” She dresses different, she acts different, she even eats her dessert first. Of course, her favorite dessert is pineapple upside-down cake! But what makes Beatrice fun and unique is she EMBRACES her difference. What I love about Beatrice is she doesn’t have any angst about being herself. Despite peer pressure, she doesn’t try to be someone she isn’t. Even when she is criticized or misunderstood, she instead tries to find ways to connect to the people around her while being true to who she is.
We could all use a little of Beatrice inside of us.
I remember as a young kid in elementary school, standing in line for recess when some boy came up and taunted me with that horrible rhyme, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” I don’t know why, but I cried. Even though there’s no more reason to be ashamed of my Japanese heritage as there is of someone else’s Polish, Irish, Mexican, or Arabic heritage, it hurts to be singled out. It’s tough to stay true to yourself when people in your community – whether that’s school or work or church – belittle, make fun of, and otherwise denigrate you simply for being who you are. What I love about Shelley’s book is not just that Beatrice remains true to herself, but that it isn’t always easy to do. Shelley doesn’t paint some Pollyanna picture of Beatrice’s life where everything works out perfectly. She shows the struggle Beatrice goes through in trying to find out how to do it. Which only makes Beatrice that much more of a hero!
It’s probably why the story of Gideon is one of my favorites in the Bible.
If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone and you want to follow along, would you please turn to the book of Judges in the Old Testament. We’re going to be reading from Judges 6:11-16 this morning. Judges 6:11-16. The Bible is full of stories about people, like Beatrice, who don’t fit the mold of what we would consider “normal.” Jesus himself didn’t live up to expectations. Everyone thought the savior of the Israeli people would be a mighty warrior like Captain America or Iron Man or the Hulk, a capable leader who would defeat all those who would stand up to God’s chosen people. But instead God sent a Jewish carpenter who gave up his own life rather than take the life of another. He rode in on a donkey instead of a horse. He talked about the value of women and children when no one else gave them a thought. But God was doing that all the time, breaking the mold of our expectations, taking people who are “different” and making them into shining examples of the very best of who we are capable of being. Gideon is one of those people, a different kind of guy who God believed in.
11 The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
15 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
16 The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.”
We worry a lot about “optics” these days.
That word is thrown around a lot. It’s the new buzzword of the year. “Optics.” We’re so worried about how things look, sometimes we fail to see what God has always known – it’s what’s inside that counts. It’s your heart. It’s your compassion, your thoughtfulness, your faith that matters the most. Not whether or not you look the part. Look at Gideon. Gideon was anything but the perfect leader. If God was looking for a commander to protect the people of Israel, even Gideon thought God was crazy. Verse 15 has to be my favorite. “Pardon me, my lord, but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” But God tells him, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand.” That line is so powerful and key. “Go in the strength you have…” God isn’t calling on Gideon to be someone he’s not. He’s calling on him to be the person God created him to be. And that would be enough.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to embrace your differences.
But it’s those very differences that set you apart. “Go in the strength you have…” Such powerful words, but also encouraging. They tell us that we are enough in God’s eyes. We have gifts of our own to contribute. Shelley told me that it was a quote from director and writer Joss Whedon that inspired her to chase her dreams. He said, “Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset.” She thought to herself, her “weirdness” was her creativity! Her love of writing and drawing is what might very well be her greatest asset. All her life she loved writing and drawing, but she wasn’t sure if those things had value. Her creativity felt like a flaw instead of something to be celebrated. Certainly nothing you could make into a career, but she realized perhaps it was not the flaw she had imagined, but instead her gift and her strength. She told me, “I had to come to grips with that. My brain was intuitive. I thought intuitively, not chronologically. I wasn’t ‘wrong.’ My brain was just different.” Shelley wanted to share that celebration of differences with every child to encourage them to embrace their differences, too. And that’s how Beatrice Zinker was born.
Shelley’s story reminds me of my own life.
When I was a kid, I talked a lot. If you asked my family today, I think they’d say things haven’t changed. My voice was always loud and booming. My parents could hear me from virtually anywhere in the house. I remember one time we went to the doctor and my mom even asked if there was anything they could do to curb my talking and I’ll never forget Dr. Thom told her that talking was a sign of intelligence. My mom probably thought if that was true then I must be a certified genius! All the time growing up, people would tell me my voice carried or that I was too loud and I became pretty self-conscious about it. But that was good because I learned how to control it and keep it “normal” when I needed to and allow it free reign when it was warranted. Still, I always wondered what someone could do with a loud voice and a penchant for talking. Then I started doing this. Instead of being “too loud” people told me from the beginning that they loved my voice. They liked that it carried, that I was easy to hear, and it felt like for the first time this thing that made me stand out did so in a way that was a real blessing.
We try so hard to be “normal.”
But what is “normal” anyway? I’ve found that we’re all “different” in some ways and the trick is to turn those differences into something useful, to find out how being weird might be your greatest asset. God wants you to use your gifts in your own unique way. Not to shy away from them, but find out how they can build us up as a community and give us the chance to be the best version of YOU that God created you to be. If we truly believe that God created us in his image, not literally in his image or we would all look like clones, but in his character, then you have to believe that you have gifts God meant for you to use to make this world a better, more loving place. We are not mistakes but instead we are opportunities to contribute to the world around us. Kids are not encouraged often enough to be the best version of themselves, but instead the best version of what the world expects. We celebrate when children do things the world labels as valuable instead of the gifts and personality they already have. That impacts our whole lives. If you have kids or grandkids, help celebrate not who you think they should be but who they are. Encourage them to seek out their own gifts and how that might make a lasting contribution to their lives and the world around them. And I want to encourage you to do the same for yourselves. It changes our whole lives. What might be where we are supposed to be when we are 20 is far different than where we are supposed to be when we are 40 or 60 or 100. So pray about it and seek out what makes you different and see how God might want you to use that to be your best self. “Go in the strength you have,” and know that is enough for God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.