Thursday, November 18, 2010

Not Your Way But Their Way

Tom had been married three times. Each time it had felt like true love in the beginning, but eventually the relationship deteriorated. His first marriage lasted ten years, his second marriage three years, and his third marriage six years. In his sadness and disillusionment, Tom couldn’t help but wonder, what happened to the love that was once so real, so powerful and so alive?

As fate would have it, soaring in an airplane at 30,000 feet somewhere between Buffalo and Dallas, Tom found himself seated next to Gary Chapman, who works as a marriage counselor, marriage enrichmnent seminar leader and author on how to make marriages work. Once Tom learned of Gary’s professional identity, he probed the depths of his knowledge. What happens to love after you get married? Tom wanted to know.

Gary knew that the truth of the matter was not that love disappears after a couple weds, but that the problem is that the love that is there is often not communicated effectively in the days, months and years in which a couple lives out their lives together. The problem is that people speak different love languages, and so love gets lost in translation.

In Gary’s book, “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts,” he compares the problem that couples have in communicating their love to the problem two individuals from different countries who speak different languages might have. If I speak Chinese and you speak English, and I try to give you directions to the grocery store in my native tongue of Chinese, you surely will not understand what I am saying, and so even if I am giving you accurate and clear directions to the grocery store, it will not matter because you won’t understand what I’m saying. The language barrier is the problem, and “if we are to communicate effectively, we must learn the language of those with whom we wish to communicate” (pg. 14).

In his bestselling book, Gary explains, “In the area of love, it is similar. Your emotional love language and the language of your spouse [or child or parent or friend or co-worker or fellow brother or sister in Christ] may be as different as Chinese from English. No matter how hard you try to express love in English, if your spouse understands only Chinese, you will never understand how to love each other” (pg. 14-15).

For example, in Tom’s third marriage, he would tell his wife, Tammy, how beautiful she was, how much he loved her, how proud he was to be her husband. Tom was communicating his love for his wife in the love language known as “words of affirmation.” The problem was that “words of affirmation” was not Tammy’s primary love language, and thus, Tom’s words fell on deaf ears. Tom thought he was communicating his love to his wife, but Tammy could not hear him.

In his years of experience, Gary Chapman discerned five different love languages that people speak and hear. They are: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Let me offer you a brief description of each.

1. Words of affirmation. “One way to express love emotionally is to use words that build up” (pg. 37). And the best way to affirm the one you love and build them up is by using simple, straightforward statements, such as: You look beautiful. I love that you’re always on time. Thank you for lining up the babysitter for tonight. I feel like I can always count on you. If you are trying to communicate love to someone whose primary love language is words of affirmation, it’s critical that you always remember, my partner/friend needs to hear how I feel. Words mean something and compliments are important!

2. Quality time means giving someone your undivided attention. It means focusing on your loved one, spending time together and doing activities together. Conversation, asking questions, making eye contact, having a shared hobby, going on vacation, these equate to quality time. If you are trying to communicate love to someone whose primary love language is quality time, it’s important to turn the TV off and turn your attention on.

3. Receiving gifts. This love language has nothing to do with being materialistic. It’s about giving and receiving. It’s about showing tangible, visible, physical expressions of love. Candy, flowers, handmade gifts, living gifts like giving a tree or pet…it’s the thought that counts, like bringing someone back a shell from the beach vacation you just went on. If you are trying to communicate love to someone whose primary love language is receiving gifts, heart-felt generosity and creativity are key.

4. Acts of service. This means doing things you know your loved one would like you to do, such as vacuuming or laundry or changing the oil in his or her car. The language of service is love in action. If your loved one is always asking you to do something or has a list of requests for you, then acts of service is probably his or her primary love language. And if you are trying to communicate love to someone whose primary love language is acts of service, then it’s the little things, like stopping at the grocery store for fresh vegetables, and the big things, like taking them to the airport at 6 in the morning that matter.

5. Physical touch. Never underestimate the power of touch. Dogs will be your best friends if you just scratch their ears and belly. “Babies who are held, hugged, and kissed develop a healthier emotional life than those who are left for long periods of time without physical contact” (pg. 109). The love language of physical touch includes both sexual and nonsexual touch, such as holding hands, pats on the back, kissing, hugging, massage, holding someone as they cry, wrestling. If you are trying to communicate love to someone whose primary love language is physical touch, then don’t be shy and don’t be stand off-ish. They literally want to feel you care.

In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus tells us once again how important it is that we love each other. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). How then can we best love each other?

The key is speaking in the love language of the one you love, not trying to give what you want to receive.

This means that we each have to figure out what our primary love language is and tell the important people in our lives so they can speak to us in that language. It also means that you have to be aware of the people in your life and speak to them in their love language. As Gary Chapman says, “If we are to communicate effectively, we must learn the language of those with whom we wish to communicate” (pg. 14).

Our friend, Tom, has just begun dating a woman named, Samantha. With his newfound knowledge of the five love languages, Tom is being more attentive to try to discern what Samantha’s primary love language is. He brought her a rose for their first date, and while she seemed to appreciate it, he sensed that receiving a gift wasn’t the most important thing to her. However, when he offered to pump the gas at the gas station, though it was her car and she was driving, her face lit up. The jury is still out, but Tom has a hunch that he has a lot more acts of service in his future.

Finally, to answer Tom’s original question, what happens to love? Love doesn’t magically disappear. It doesn’t go anywhere. The answer is, we happen to love. And it’s up to us to communicate love in ways our family and friends can receive it. It’s up to us to keep love alive.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tough Love

(Read Haggai 1:1-15)

Today, we are given a different glimpse of God than most of us are used to. We see and hear of the God of tough love. What sort of wisdom can we gain from the God presented to us in the Old Testament book, Haggai?

Let me tell you the backstory. In 587 B.C., the Temple in Jerusalem was plundered and burned, and the Jewish people were sent away from Jerusalem into exile in Babylonia. By 520 B.C., some 60 years later, the people had returned from exile and were living in Jerusalem for a number of years, but the Temple still lay in ruins. When they returned to their native land, the first thing the people did was build new homes for themselves. This was understandable to a point, the people did need a place to live afterall, but the time came when God was angered and impatient with the people because God wanted them to put their personal affairs aside and work on rebuilding the Temple, for God’s sake and for the community’s sake.

The Lord spoke to the prophet Haggai saying, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.” How is that right? said God, should you go on living in your fine homes while my house lay in ruins?

God continues by telling the people to look at where this has gotten them in their lives. “Consider how you have fared,” God says, or in another translation, “Give careful thought to your ways.” “You have sown much, but harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and workers cannot earn enough to live on.”

God says,“Can’t you see why this has happened? Now go up into the hills, get lumber,. And rebuild the Temple; then I will be pleased and will be worshipped as I should be.” Until then, God says, you want large harvests, but they will be small. And even the harvest you bring home, I will blow away. Why do I do this? Because my Temple lies in ruins while every one of you is busy working on your own house.

You see, here we have the God of tough love. God is punishing the people until they get their priorities straight and do what God wants them to do.

Perhaps you have wondered why things aren’t going the way that you want them to go in your life. From this Scripture, we glean that the possible answer could be: things are not going the w ay you want them to go because your priorities are not in line with God’s priorities. God may be preventing you from having what you want because you go about doing things according to your own ways and according to your desires instead of doing things according to God’s way and according to God’s desires.

To think that God could be preventing us from happiness or even intentionally making us unhappy because we are seeking happiness in ways that contradict the will of God is a tough message to swallow indeed. But I think we should consider it.

What sort of lesson can we learn from this portrayal of God?

That God wants us to get our priorities straight.

Many of the decisions we make on a day to day basis don’t go through a formal decision making process. We make them without much thought, but these decisions, the choices we make, reflect our priorities in life.

It seems to me that many of us want to think our priorities are noble. We care about our families, our health, our work, our relationships to God and one another, but just look at how you spend your time, your money and your energy, and you can discern what your priorities actually are.

If you have a day off, even three hours off, how do you spend that time?

If you have $1000 of disposable income to spend, how do you spend that money?

What do you spend your energy on during each and every day?

Your answers to these questions indicate your priorities in life.

You might say that your family is your priority, but then spend the majority of your time working and then veging out in front of the TV. You might justify this by saying that working is taking care of your family, and that of course you need down time after a long day, but what about the quality time that is required face-to-face and in conversation that really makes family relationships a priority?

You might say that personal growth is a priority to you, but then every time you are challenged by someone or some situation, you get angry and defensive. If this is the case, your priority is not personal growth but protecting yourself.

You might say that helping others is a priority to you, but if you really look at the way you spend your money, you will see that having a diet rich in food and drinks is actually more important to you.

You might say you care about your health, but if you don’t exercise, eat vegetables and relax, then how is health actually one of your priorities?

I don’t say any of this to make us feel guilty. I’m just trying to get us to be honest about the way we live our lives versus what we say is important to us.

Make two lists. What you want your priorities to be and how you actually spend your time, money and energy. This will help you to realize how true to yourself you are being. And if you are being true to yourself and your values, then I think you are being true to God.

I’m sure that the Jewish people who gave God all the credit and praise for returning them to their homeland after the exile thought that they were making God a priority. But God checked them on that and said, hey, if I’m really your priority, then you’ll rebuild my house and not just your own.

The God of tough love wants us to get our priorities straight, and until we do, our lives might be more difficult than we think they should be.

Now where is the grace in all of this? Because God is not only the God of tough love, but of grace as well.

The grace is that God gives us the power to get our priorities straight at any time. It’s as simple as knowing what we truly care about and choosing that thing. No excuses. Just a human being exerting their free will in the direction of good and godliness.

The Israelites were consumed with working on their own houses until the Lord told them it was time to begin working on the temple again, but once they heard the prophetic message that came from Haggai - “Now go up into the hills, get lumber, and rebuild the Temple; then [God] will be pleased – they headed that message. The Scripture says, “…all the people who had returned from the exile in Babylonia did what the Lord their God told them to do.”

And as soon as they turned toward the Lord, God said, “I will be with you-that is my promise.” And then, God inspired everyone to work on the temple. Instead of thwarting their efforts as when they were seeking their own gain, God helped them and made it easier on them to live up to their newfound priority of rebuilding the Temple.

And so God will do that for us as well. When we actively choose what is important to us and set about doing it, God promises to be with us and to inspire us to accomplish what we set out to accomplish.

My brothers and sisters in the faith, sometimes tough love is just what we need in order to get the life that we truly want.