Things that make you say “Hmm.”

Only this: a certain dishonesty and laziness of mind, and a certain pretentiousness. The Devout Sceptic wants to lay claim to the glamorous depths of religious tradition, without the embarrassment of actually identifying with it. Do not confuse me with a common atheist (he says), like that brash chap Dawkins, who is blatantly ignorant of the controlling passion of Western culture. Consider me to have the integrity and depth of a believer, yet also the searching mind and defiant heart of a Romantic.

So, this is kinda funny.  I start this blog and so far I’ve told no one about it — I just don’t have the nerve.  I fret for days over a suitable name and finally arrive at skeptically devout — mainly because it sounds catchy in a  paradoxical kind of way — even though I don’t know exactly what it means — and also because it probably describes me as well as anything else I’ve seen.  And then I second guess that name for a few more days — maybe I’m really devoutly skeptical, maybe the title shouldn’t have anything about skeptical at all, and so on and so on.  Finally, I decide to see if anyone else has used this incredibly clever name.  Turns out, there’s not a lot of people describing themselves as skeptically devout but lots of people apparently thinking they are devoutly skeptical and, at least as far as this guy is concerned, that’s not a good thing.  Hmm.  Queue more second guessing and a possible blog name change.

 

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True Love

It’s Valentine’s Day.  Or is it?

I finally screw up the nerve to talk to a bunch of high school students about, of all things, love.  Now that’s putting yourself out there.  A middle aged man.  Who, at this stage of the game, spends much more time thinking about puppy breath, puppy peeing on carpet, and puppy chewing up expensive ties, than he does about puppy love.  Talking to a group of high strung high schoolers about …. love.  Now, that’s tough.  But, I had good reason and I had a plan.  I was going to talk about love because it was, after all, Valentine’s Day.  And so I did.  I dove right in.  It was all love all the time.  And it went ok.  Until the end.  Until that fatal closing moment when I wished everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day.  And my star student looked up at me and said “Ben, you do know Valentine’s Day is next week, don’t you?”  Yea, whatever.  So I forgot the date.  Big deal.  Anyway, here’s a recap:

First, some questions for you to consider:

  • What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you?  What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to someone else?
  • What is the best gift you’ve ever given someone?  What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
  • What is the nicest thing someone has ever done for you?  What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever done for someone else?
  • Think of a meaningful time that you have spent with someone you really cared about?  What did you do?  How long were you together?  How did it make you feel?

Alright, don’t forget your answers.  Now, let me ask you some other questions.

  • How many of you have ever taken a foreign language?
  • Are you better at reading it?
  • Speaking it?
  • Or writing it?
  • If you were in a foreign country and met someone who knew your language only as well as you knew theirs, would you rather communicate in their language, your language, or some combination of the two?
  • If you got in an argument with someone, or you had to explain some important but complicated process to someone, how successful do you think you would be communicating this information in a foreign language?

I’m not real good with foreign languages.  I took three years of Latin in middle school.  It’s a pity, really, as I’ve yet to have a conversations with a real Roman.  In high school, I switched to Spanish.  Three years worth of Spanish and at graduation I could say “No, Susanna es in su casa.”  But little else.  So when I went off to Auburn, I started over.  Spanish 101.  201.  Finally 301.  And guess what?  Now I can say, “Susanna no in su casa.  Susanna es in la cocina.”  But nothing else.  Nothing.  Nada.  Wait, nada.  I can also say “Nada”.  Foreign languages just don’t come easy to me.

They come a bit easier to my sister.  My sister took French in high school and college.  And then with two semesters to go at Clemson, she learned that she had gotten a job working for a company that made fuel injectors … in Spain.  She had exactly two semesters to learn enough Spanish to become the marketing director of a company in St. Cougat, a small village outside of Barcelona.  That’s right.  Marketing director.  As in, director of external communications.  Spanish communications.  So my sister entered a Spanish immersion program for two semesters.  She got what she could and then headed overseas to begin her job.

Once in Spain, she settled in the little village of St. Cougat.  Barcelona was a big urban center.  Industrial.  Sophisticated.  Wordly.  And somewhat English speaking.  St. Cougat?  Not so much.  No one spoke a lick of English.  And so the immersion continued.  My sister struggled, I’m sure.  But foreign languages came fairly easy to her and so she did just fine.  Then one day she called home.  She was excited.  Very excited.  “It happened!  It happened!  I went on a run yesterday and daydreamed in Spanish!     And then last night, I had a crazy, crazy dream.  In Spanish!”  That’s when you know you’ve made it.  That’s when you know you speak the language.  That’s an experience I suspect I’ll never have, at least not in Spanish.

Now, let’s talk about Love.  As in I love my dog.  Or, I’m in love with my wife.  Or I sure do love pretty sunsets and lasagna.  Or maybe tacos.  Unfortunately, we have just one four letter word to describe all that love.

Unlike the Greeks.  When it comes to love, the Greeks have got it going on.   They’ve got no less than four different words for love.

Agape love.  A giving, self sacrificial love.  Like the love a parent has for a child.  The love a husband has for his wife or a wife has for her husband.  The love Jesus had for his disciples and for us.  The love Jesus used when he told us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” or to “love one another as I have loved you.”

And then there’s Philia.  You know, as in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.  A disspassionate love.  A virtuous love.  A brotherly love.  This kind of love describes the love between friends, the love one might have for their college, or maybe the love for a hometown.

Oh.  What about Eros?  Like, uh, erotic?  You know, that kind of love.  A passionate, sensual kind of love.  It might be sexual, but it doesn’t have to be.  But it’s certainly more than a friendship kind of love.

And lastly, there is Storge.  It’s the natural love.  The love that comes pretty easy.  Like Agape, the love that parents have for their children.  The love that describes relationships within a family.

No doubt, the Greeks had it on us when it comes to expressing love.  At least with words.  But, it turns out, that words are only one of the ways we express love.

Gary Chapman, in his book Love Languages, identified five ways people commonly communicate love.

The first he called “Words of Affirmation”.  These kind of people say things like “I love you.”  “You are important to me.”  I appreciate you.”

If you are the type who says things like that to a husband, or a wife, or your children, or even a close friend, then “Words of Affirmation” is probably your love language.  If you find it impossible to say these things, or if hearing these things said to you makes you uncomfortable, then “Words of Affirmation” is definitely not your love language.  In fact, it’s Greek to you.  Or Latin.  Or, in my case, maybe Spanish.

But what if “Words of Affirmation” is your love language, but it wasn’t a language spoken by your father?  Or your mother?  What if this is the language spoken by your wife who desperately wants to speak this language with you but you don’t understand it?  Or what if this is your love language and you immediately start speaking it to a new boyfriend or girlfriend who’s not comfortable with this language?  You get the picture.

Then there are those who communicate their love by giving gifts.  They give nice presents.  Thoughtful presents.  Lots of surprises.  When it comes to gifts, they think bigger is better, more expensive is better than less expensive.  They buy their sixteen year old a nice car for her birthday.  They make sure their family goes on great vacations.  And they make lots of sacrifices to send their kids to private schools.  Because gift givers love their families, and this is how they show it.

And then there’s the love language of “Quality Time”.  This person wants to be with you all the time.  He’s willing to do things with you even when he really doesn’t like what you’re doing.  This is the boyfriend that goes shopping with his girlfriend.  The mom who watches her son’s baseball practices day after day after day.  The Dad who misses the big game to attend a three hour ballet recital only to see his child flit across the stage in 7 seconds flat.

But what if your Dad’s love language is “gift giving” and but your’s is “quality time”.  It’s hard to buy your sixteen year old a new car for her birthday, send the family on awesome vacations and pay for the kid’s private school unless most of your “quality time” is spent at work away from the very children who don’t even recognize “private school” as a word found in any love language, let alone theirs.

Or maybe your love language is “acts of service”.  This is the person that’s constantly doing things for other people.  My wife, for instance.  This is the person that does the laundry, cooks the meals, takes the kids to their activities.  This person helps you with your homework or maybe a difficult work project.  This person never says no.  If you need help, this person is always there.  But this person may be completely incapable of saying “I love you”.  And if your language is “words of affirmation”, that’s a problem.

And then, says Gary Chapman, there are those who communicate their love with physical touch, with affection.  These are the kissers.  The hand holders.  The huggers.  Or maybe just the pat on the backers.  But, chances are, they’re not going to help you with your homework.  Or buy you that fancy watch you’ve always wanted.  Or go see “Notting Hill” for the fourth time.  And they may not ever say “I love you”.  But they do.  And they will swear to themselves that they’ve told you so.  Over and over.

So, what’s your love language?  What about your parents?  Or your friends?  If you are a parent, shouldn’t you know whether your children speak Spanish or Greek or Latin or French?  Shouldn’t you know whether your husband understands you when you cook his meal but rarely buy him what he wants for Christmas?  Shouldn’t you know whether your wife understands you when you spend all day at the mall with her yet still complains that you never tell her that you love her?  Gary Chapman thinks you should and he’s probably right.

When it comes to true love, look no further than I Corinthians Chapter 13.  It is there that we learn that true love is humble — it is patient, kind, doesn’t boast and is not proud.  We learn that true love wants what’s best for others — it is not rude, it’s not self serving and it’s not easily angered.  That true love forgives — it keeps no record of wrongs and holds no grudges.  That the true love that is God focuses on what is good — it does not delight in evil and it rejoices in the truth.  And lastly, we learn that true love is tough.  Real tough.  It always protects.  Always trusts.  Always hopes.  Always perseveres.  And it never fails.

This is one language we all should learn.  And maybe someday we will find ourselves daydreaming in the beautiful language of love.

Your Turn:  What’s your love language?  How do you know?  Does your partner speak your love language?  Do you speak your partner’s love language?  Let us know.

Keeping It In Perspective

Advent.  The dictionary says that it means “the coming” or “arrival” especially of something very important.  For Christians, it is that liturgical period that encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas.  It is that time of the year when, as Christians, we are to slow down, reflect, and prepare ourselves for Christmas and the arrival of our Savior.  It’s our time of waiting.  Patient but active waiting.

I can remember waiting on things as a kid and I bet you can as well.  Waiting for a birthday to finally get here.  Waiting on the long car ride to Grandmom’s house to finally be over.  Waiting for a friend to come over.  Even waiting on cinnamon rolls to finally be ready to eat.

Waiting doesn’t come easy for most of us.  And, in this day of microwaves, text messages, and instant grits, we aren’t asked to do much of it.  In some ways, that’s a shame.  Waiting develops in us a sense of anticipation, of excitement, of what’s to come.  Sometimes the anticipation grows so intense that the event itself fails to measure up.  But more often, waiting and anticipating simply helps us prepare for the occasion and helps us to enjoy the occasion when it finally arrives.

But for many of us, the advent season is a season not of preparation and anticipation but of stress.  Stress of final exams before Christmas break.  The stress of mobs of shoppers at Black Friday sales.  The stress of decorating for Christmas — how to get it all done and how to determine when not enough becomes too much.  The stress of travel — to grandmom’s house, to and from college, or to another relative’s house.  Financial stress.  So much shopping to be done and so little money available to pay for it all.  And the stress of families.  Dividing time between mom’s house, dad’s house and putting up with siblings and step siblings.

Some of these things almost cause paradoxical feelings — excited about the holidays, but stressed out over everything that needs to be done; sentimental about family traditions, but feelings of resentment that we have to be with family when really we’d rather just hang out with our friends; happy about being with our friends, yet somewhat lonely that we may be separated from a boyfriend, girlfriend or just good friend from college.  Or maybe we feel like we’re supposed to be happy because we’re around so many of our close family and friends when, in fact, we can’t stop thinking about the child or parent or grandparent that we lost to illness or accident this time last year.  And then there’s the conflicting media message.  A message of love and peace and joy yet also a message of materialism, crowded malls and rogue crowds rushing the aisle at Walmart.

Advent should be like a pregame ritual.  That time when we stop what we’re doing and start to focus.  We start to focus and concentrate on the big game — what’s to come — the important stuff.  That’s what advent should be about.  Generally it’s anything but.  It’s hard to focus on the important stuff when everything else is stressing us out.  Jesus’ good friend Martha knows just what we’re talking about.  Luke 10:38-42:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her house to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

So here’s Jesus.  Traveling with his disciples.  Doing the vital work of ministry.  And now he needs a place to stay.  A place to get something to eat and to lay his head and get some much needed sleep so he can carry on with his vital mission.  And Martha steps up.  Jesus is in need and she answers the call.  She shows hospitality and initiative and an appreciation for the work that needs to be done.  Despite short notice, she invites Jesus in.  But there’s lots to be done.  The beds have to be made up.  Dinner needs to be fixed.  The place is a wreck.  So Martha gets to it.  She runs upstairs and makes up the beds.  On her way down the stairs, she sees her sister, Mary, sitting around chatting.  Looking calm and relaxed, like she doesn’t have a care in the world.  Martha glances over at her sister and scowls, but Mary doesn’t notice.  She’s laughing.  And enjoying the stories Jesus is telling.  So Martha heads to the kitchen.  She starts to clean the dishes.  Loudly.  Banging plates into bowls and clanging knifes against forks, she works away, convinced that Mary will get the noisy hint and eventually join her in the kitchen, but Mary never does.  Martha stews.  “This is her house, too.  Why am I always the one doing the dishes?  She knows that Jesus has been on the road all day and needs to be fed, why isn’t she in here helping me get things ready?”   Dishes cleaned, Martha heads back into the living room.  There’s Mary.  Sitting at Jesus’ feet looking up at him, clinging to his every word.  “I’d love to sit and listen to what Jesus has to say too.  But no one’s going to hear what the man has to say if we don’t get some food in him soon.  And she’s just sitting there.  Assuming I’ll take care of it all.  In typical Mary fashion.”  Martha heads back into the kitchen and begins to prepare dinner.  And continues to stew.  Eventually Martha reaches the boiling point well before the water does.  Finally she just can’t take it anymore.  She marches into the living room and confronts both Mary and Jesus.  “Tell her to help me!” she yells at Jesus.  “Tell her this stuff has to be done.  Tell her this stuff is important and she needs to stop chatting and start helping!”

Martha is sure that equity is on her side.  Jesus is all about fairness and anyone can see that it’s not fair that she has to do all the work, while Mary just hangs out and chats.  Martha is looking forward to Jesus putting Mary in her place.  Martha smiles, looks at Jesus and waits for him to speak.  And he does:  “Martha, Martha”, he says.  “You are worried and upset about so many things.  You have more than you can possibly do.  But only one thing is really needed.  Mary has found it and it will not be taken away from her.”

“Are you kidding me?  Are you freaking kidding me?”, Martha fumes to herself.  “I have worked non stop since the second you walked in to this house.  A house, by the way, that I share with Mary.  That’s right.  She lives here with me.  Rent free I might add.  We both live here together.  You wouldn’t know it since I do all the work and she does virtually nothing.  Oh, wait.  She does some things around here.  Like she sits around and chats with house guests.  You know, the life of the party.  Laugh a minute.  She puts everyone at ease and everyone thinks she’s just a laugh riot.  Oh she’s a laugh riot, all right.  And meanwhile, I spend all freaking day in the kitchen so she can enjoy her role as a social butterfly.  I don’t get it Jesus.  I don’t get it.”

Some of us are Mary’s.  Some of us are Martha’s.  I tend to be the Mary type, but I don’t mean that in a good way.  I like to socialize.  I’m not afraid to sit around and chat.  Even if, or I should say, especially if, there’s work to be done.  I’m the guy that keeps chatting with the guests when everyone else, particularly my wife, is frantically trying to get everything ready.  Speaking of my wife, she’s the Martha type — and I mean that in the most favorable way.  My wife is the one that gets the job done.  She’s not going to have company come and see the house a wreck.  She’s going to make sure it’s clean.   Everyone is going to get a good meal, even if dinner is on short notice.  She’s not afraid to work hard and she’ll do just that if it’s needed.  She’ll stress until it’s done, and she may scowl at those who aren’t helping out, but she’ll get it done.

Mary’s like me like to point to this story and claim victory.  Score one for the social butterflys.  Screw the preparations, let’s just have a party.  That’s probably not Jesus’ message.  But Jesus does seem to be telling us that we need to stop worrying so much and doing so much.  That we need to see what’s really, really important and tend to it but let the rest slide.  Here, he seems to come down on the side of Mary simply enjoying his presence and against Martha’s frantic activity to make everything perfect.  Jesus does seem to come down on the side of more “just being” and less “just doing.”

As I’ve said, generally speaking, I’m the Mary type.  But not always.  I may be more of a Martha in my spiritual life.  I stay busy.  But I rarely take the time to simply be in the presence of Jesus.  My prayer life is, at times, woeful.  I don’t take time to be reflective.  I don’t immerse myself in scripture.  Church attendance is spotty.  I am more apt to squirm in the quiet presence of God than I am to sit still and simply listen.  I’d rather be doing something.  Like teaching Sunday School.  Or serving as an Elder.  Or serving on a church committee (or three).  Or volunteering at several non profits or raising money for a number of worthy causes.  I serve God with my busyness.  I convince myself that these things have to be done and I set about doing them.  I work hard at it.  It takes up a lot of my time.  It keeps me pretty well worn out.  Which is why I just don’t have a lot of time for prayer, or quiet reflection, or church on sunday.  It’s why I just don’t have time to simply sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen attentively to him when he visits my house …  like Mary.

So this natural born Mary is more like a spiritual Martha.  Forsaking the presence of Jesus for the busy work of his ministry.  Is the busy work necessary?  Of course it is.  But is it more important than Jesus himself.  Of course not.

Some of us are Mary’s.  Some of us are Martha’s.  Some of us are a little of both.  We need to keep things in perspective.  We need to remember that the goal of our work is to be in the presence of Jesus.  If the work itself keeps us from that place, we might be doing too much of the right kind of things.  It might be time to slow down, get things in perspective and spend some time at the feet of the One who is to come.

Your Turn:  So what stresses you out?  How do you regain perspective?  Let us know.

Accepting The Kingdom Like A Child

A little child.  Somewhere between ages 7-10 maybe?  Certainly younger than 10.  Not an infant, but no middle schooler either.  Just a kid.

We’ve all had some experience with small children.  Maybe we are parents of a small child.  Or a grandparent of one.  Or maybe we have a kid brother or a kid sister.  Or maybe we’ve just babysat for a little one before.  We all know what a small child is like and if we were to make a list of their most common qualities, it might look something like this:

Honest

Trusting

Needy

Dirty

Loud

Dependent

Innocent

Appreciative

Curious

Wondrous

Enthusiastic

Loving

Persistent

Playful

Affectionate

Transparent

Forgiving

Powerless

Obedient

Disobedient

Humble

Eager to Please

Open Minded

Fearless

Fearful

Imitators

Self Centered

Irresponsible

Forgetful

Willing

Creative

There’s lots of stories of children in the bible.  In Matthew 15, Jesus heals a little girl who was demon possessed.  In Matthew 17, Jesus heals a little boy who is having seizures.  In Mark 5, Jesus raises Jairus’ 12 year old daughter from the dead.  In John chapter 6, Jesus uses a small child as His assistant in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.  In Matthew chapter 21, versus 14-17, we hear the voices of children as they sing songs of praise, “Hosana to the Son of David!”

But there is one story having to do with children that is repeated in 3 of the 4 gospels. Pretty impressive seeing as how even the Christmas story isn’t repeated in all four Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the story of people bringing their children to see Jesus and the disciples aggressively shooed them away.  And Jesus wasn’t happy about that.    He said: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Then he took the children in his arms and blessed them.

If you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.  Wow.  That’s strong.  Makes me wonder if Jesus spent much time around children.  But we know he did.  Maybe he noticed some things about kids that we don’t always notice.  Or, maybe he noticed something about us that we’ve never noticed.  So let’s look at our list.  Of the common qualities of children that we came up with, which ones might actually help us receive the kingdom of God and the message of his son?  As it turns out, probably quite a few.

 Honest?  Yep.

Trusting?  Oh yea.

Needy?  You bet.

Dirty?  Hmmm.

Loud?  Maybe.

Dependent?  For sure.

Innocent?  Yep.

Appreciative?  Certainly.

Curious?  Without a doubt.

Wondrous?  Yes!

Enthusiastic?  Double yes!

Loving?  Yep.

Persistent?  Oh boy.

Playful?  Couldn’t hurt.

Affectionate?  I’d say so.

Transparent?  Definitely.

Forgiving?  Essential.

Powerless?  That would probably help.

Obedient?  Yep.

Disobedient?  I’m gonna say no.

Humble?  Yes.

Eager to Please?  Yes.

Open Minded?  This is a biggy.

Fearless?  Yes!

Fearful?  Hmm.  Actually, yes!!

Imitators?  Are you kidding?  Of course!

Self Centered?  Uh, no.

Irresponsible?  We’re on a losing streak.

Forgetful?  That’s better.

Willing?  Yep.

Creative?  Yes.

 Well, wouldn’t your know?  Turns out Jesus was probably right about this one.   The kingdom of God probably would be easier to receive if we approached the Creator of the  Universe with the same mindset as little kids approached Jesus.  And once upon a time, that wouldn’t have been so difficult.  After all, we were kids once.  Those qualities used to describe us, didn’t they?  Enthusiastic.  Filled with wonder.  Curious.  Forgiving.  Dependent.  Open minded.  Honest and trusting.

But then life happened.  We learned to do for ourselves.  Everyone pushed us to become independent and so we did.  We grew in knowledge and, as a consequence, grew in skepticism.  We experienced betrayal and stopped trusting so much.  Someone embarrassed us and we stopped being so darn transparent.  We saw 10 bald eagles in one day on a trip to Alaska, the mighty Colorado river on a trip out west, and skyscapers in New York and, somewhere along the way, lost our wonder.  We tried to be persistent, but felt like we were beating our heads against a wall.  We tried to remain curious, but frankly, it just made us feel confused, even overwhelmed.

I’m sure Jesus gets all that.  I’m sure he knows exactly what’s happened to us.  I’m sure he knows exactly how we lost our wonder and came to be so skeptical.  It may have even happened to him.  But I think his instruction still stands:  “Receive the kingdom of God like a small child.”

Your Turn:  So here we are.  We’ve worked our whole lives to put away childish things.  And now we need them back.  Can we get them back?  How do we do it?  Let me hear your thoughts.