Are Sports and Christianity Compatible?

“I think Jesus would have been a great basketball player. He would have been one of the most tenacious guys out there. I think he’d really get in your face. Nothing dirty, but he’d play to win.”

- Mark Eaton, former Utah Jazz basketball player

“If Christ came to Sydney today, he would be on ‘the Hill’ at cricket matches driving home the lessons of the game. One can imagine Christ reminding the crowd that Satan was the deadliest and most determined googly bowler of all time.”

- Rev. T. McVittie, moderator of the Sydney Presbyterian Church during the 1930s.

(Quotes taken from The 776 Even Stupider Things Ever Said, by Ross and Kathryn Petras)

I don’t know what a “googly bowler” is, but the quotes above illustrate the sometimes awkward nature of trying to integrate theology with sports. For some, sports represent every positive character trait Christianity has to offer — endurance, cooperation, leadership, and discipline. For others, sports are a dangerous pastime, one that encourages millions of people to worship the false gods of celebrity, violence, money, and entertainment.

So how should Christians understand and interact with the world of sports? In particular, how should we view the worlds of college and professional sports, which provide us with joy, but are also filled with sinful behaviors and attitudes?

I’ve never been a particularly good athlete, but I enjoy playing from time to time. I also enjoy watching — last week I watched the World Series with interest, and I have college football on in the background while I’m typing this post. (NOTE: Both of my teams lost this weekend — I’ll try not to sound too angry as I write this).

To be honest, though, I’ve never spent a great deal of time considering what the Bible has to say about sports. I’d imagine that most of my readers are in the same boat. It turns out that the subject is quite complicated, and there is precious little written about it. It also turns out that the Bible is relatively quiet on the issue.

This topic will occupy my next few posts, because it’s not as simple as laying out clear commands from the Bible. Instead, we need to look at what the Bible has to say about related subjects — the importance of the physical body, the value of play, the joy of community, and the dangers of idolatry.

In this first post, we will briefly look at the value of sports when they are pursued in a way that honors God. We’ll deal with some of the negative components of sports and with practical implications in the next couple of posts. So as we begin, how can sports honor God?

First, sports at their best are an expression of the fact that we are body and spirit. A common misunderstanding in Christian theology is that the body is evil or inferior and that spiritual development is all that matters. Biblically, though, our body and soul belong to God, and both are made for His glory (1 Cor 6:13, 19-20; 2 Cor 4:10; Phil 1:20). The miracle of life occurred when God breathed spirit into the dust that composed man’s body (Gen 2:7). We are body and spirit, not simply spirits with a disposable shell.

For that reason, when we run, jump, and use the abilities God has given our bodies, we display His creativity and excellence. And when we watch and celebrate those who have extraordinary skills, we can praise the Creator who made their bodies and ours.

Second, sports remind us that we’re created for community. Of course the purest form of community happens between those who are united in the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But there is also value in remembering that I’m not that different from the non-Christian who lives next door. We’re both people, made in the image of God, and as a result we hold some values in common. When we watch or play sports together, we can unite around common joys and sorrows. Everybody appreciates bravery, discipline, victory, leadership, and camaraderie.

For example, while typing this post, I watched a football player return a kickoff for a touchdown. The camera panned to the crowd, where fans were hugging, high-fiving, smiling, and cheering together. For a brief moment, they were united in celebration of some common values — values originally created by God — whether they knew it consciously or not. As Christians, we have the opportunity to recognize those connections and even shed light on why we want to celebrate together.

Third, sports remind us that God gives His people joy. The writer of Ecclesiastes is generally pessimistic, but he repeatedly states that enjoyment and pleasure are God’s gift to mankind (2:24-26; 3:13; 5:19). Even marriage is given as a gift for us to rejoice (Proverbs 5:18). For David, celebrating God was a reason to leap and dance around (2 Sam 6:16; 1 Chron 15:29). I see no reason why leaping and dancing and playing cannot be an expression of worship to God. God is not a miser, and He rejoices in giving joy to His people.

All that said, I know that sports, and professional sports in particular, contain many problems and sins. The world is corrupted by sin, so it’s no surprise that physical enjoyment would be corrupted as well. So on Wednesday we’ll explore the darker side of sports in more detail.

As you think about sports, are there other benefits or joys that I’ve missed? Do you have questions or concerns about the ones I’ve listed?

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So Why Go to College?

On Wednesday I raised the question of the economic value of a college degree. In particular, if it takes 20 years to pay off your student loan debt, is it still worth the investment?

A number of you chimed in with reasons why it is worth it, while some of you suggested that fewer people will choose traditional four-year programs as the cost continues to rise. Your comments and insights were invaluable. Below are a few reasons why I think the college experience is still worth it despite the increase in cost:

First, in the long run a college degree still provides an enormous economic advantage. For data to back this up, look at this chart, which shows the return on investment (ROI) for various colleges and universities. A good example is my own alma mater, Texas A&M (#62 on the list). The annual ROI is estimated at 12.7%. Over 30 years that translates to $842,000 in income. Even with an average student loan debt of $25,000, the investment pays off quite well over the course of a person’s lifetime.

Second (as several readers pointed out), college provides valuable skills not directly related to one’s major or classes. College teaches people how to learn and evaluate new information. It also trains people to take personal responsibility in a way that high school cannot. In order to succeed in college, a person generally has to take some initiative. That’s a critical skill for success throughout the rest of one’s life.

Third, college sharpens social skills. College students are required to interact with other people as adults, apart from the guidance of their parents. Students have to negotiate roommate relationships, work with classmates to complete group projects, and get along with people from different backgrounds and cultures. All of those skills are immensely beneficial to a person’s career, marriage, and interaction with society.

Finally, Christian students often “own” their faith for the first time during college. Without parents around to make them go to church, most students have to decide on their own whether it’s really worth it. For some, their relationship with God reaches new heights during college. It’s a great time to explore the implications of one’s faith and to grow in community with other Christians. It’s also a stage of life in which people have the discretionary time to think deeply about spiritual issues.

That having been said, college isn’t for everybody. There are legitimate reasons why it might be better for some to pursue non-traditional options for their education. Two-year programs, vocational schools, online education, and on-the-job training are all great options for certain individuals. And I fully expect that as the cost of a university education continue to rise, more and more people will take advantage of these other options.

Nonetheless, four-year universities continue to provide a valuable service for a large segment of the population, and the investment still pays off for the vast majority.

So do you agree with my analysis? Would you add or remove anything from my list?

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Is College Worth the Price Tag?

This isn’t a theological subject, but it is an issue that affects college ministry significantly.

I ran across this interesting article about how the increasing cost of higher education is leading to deeper student loan debt for college graduates. Consequently, some are asking whether the education is worth the price tag.

Over the course of one’s career, a college graduate will likely make more money than a person without a college degree. But if it takes ten or fifteen years to pay off the loans, is the extra income enough to overcome the cost of the debt? Also, is it worth going into a great deal of debt for a degree that’s less likely to pay big bucks (for example, the ones on this list)?

I’m very curious to hear from my readers on this issue:

  • Do you think the price of college pays for itself over time?
  • For those majors that don’t produce high-paying jobs, are there non-economic benefits that compensate for the low pay?
  • What other factors ought to be considered in this discussion?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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Waiting Without Wasting Time

One of the most common questions single students ask is, “How can I make the most of the time between now and marriage? How can I use the waiting time well without wasting it?”

Waiting is tough. No matter what stage of life you’re in, the odds are good that you’re waiting for something.

Waiting to graduate…waiting for a date…waiting to get married.

Waiting for kids…waiting for the kids to grow up…waiting for grandkids.

Waiting for a job…waiting for a promotion…waiting for retirement.

Sometimes it feels like our lives are spent waiting, and waiting is difficult. But patience is a critical skill for spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22; James 5:8; Col 3:12). It reflects the character of Jesus, who waits so patiently for us (2 Peter 3:9).

So how can you use your waiting time well? Here are a few ideas:

  • Deepen your walk with God. Focus on learning His Word and growing in prayer. Ask for patience and faith as you wait for Him to provide for your needs. Remind yourself that you’re ultimately waiting for Christ’s return, so your short waiting period right now is just building your endurance muscles. Remember that God knows you perfectly and has promised to provide what you need if you seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33). That doesn’t mean He’ll always give you what you want, but He will provide everything you need in order to do His will.
  • Practice intentional gratitude. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have. Make a list of God’s blessings. Start with the fact that your heart is beating and expand from there. You’ll almost certainly run out of paper before you finish the list. Each morning read your list and thank God for what He’s given you.
  • Develop friendships. Investing in other people is critical for our spiritual growth (John 13:34-35), but it’s also a great way to divert our attention from the things we don’t  have. When I’m genuinely concerned for others, it’s harder to feel sorry for myself. Organize a game, set up a coffee date, or help a friend with a project. Find ways to engage in the lives of others and learn about their struggles and joys. Ask what they’re waiting for, and pray together for God’s patience.
  • Serve other people. Service reminds me that I’m not the only one with unmet needs and desires. Service also reminds me of Jesus, who commanded His disciples to serve others (Matthew 20:26-28) and modeled it in dramatic ways (John 13:1-17). So visit the local nursing home, go on a mission trip, mow a neighbor’s lawn, or set up the chairs at your church. There are thousands of opportunities, so it shouldn’t be hard to find avenues of service.
  • Learn something new. Take a graduate course or pursue a degree. Read a good book (or two or three). Pick up a hobby. Acquire a new skill. Why spend your days sitting at home pining away for the day when your waiting is over? Follow the example of Jesus, who kept learning and growing in every area of His life while He waited for His public ministry to begin (Luke 2:52).

Are you in life’s waiting room right now? What are you waiting for? What is God teaching you through the waiting process?

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Book Review: Erasing Hell by Francis Chan

Erasing Hell is Francis Chan’s response to Rob Bell’s controversial bestseller Love Wins. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is how quickly it was written and released — it appeared on Amazon less than four months after the release of Love Wins.

Chan co-authored this book with Preston Sprinkle, a Bible professor at Eternity Bible College in California, and a staff member from Chan’s former church. The book is Chan’s attempt to answer Bell’s theology in a readable yet well-researched manner.

SUMMARY:

Chan begins by addressing the concept of universalism, the belief that everybody goes to heaven eventually. He surveys the “all” passages of Scripture, those that seem to teach universalism. Using the helpful distinction between God’s moral will and His decreed will, Chan argues that these “all” passages cannot literally mean that everybody goes to heaven, especially when compared with other passages that indicate otherwise.

He then moves to a short discussion of Jewish concepts of hell in the first century. He makes a convincing case that the ancient Jews viewed hell as a place of eternal, everlasting torment. It’s often described in their literature using images of fire and darkness, just as it is in the teachings of Jesus. Chan also debunks Bell’s argument that “Gehenna,” or “hell,” simply refers to a garbage dump in the ancient world. Instead, Chan states that there is no solid evidence of such a garbage dump until hundreds of years after the time of Christ. Not only that, but even if the Valley of Hinnom was helpful in describing hell, it doesn’t mean that it literally was hell. It was more likely a useful metaphor.

Chan wraps up his initial discussion on the topic of hell by examining the words of Jesus and His disciples throughout the New Testament. He argues that the Bible’s view of hell is that it is a place of eternal and never-ending torment for those who don’t know God.

After a short chapter on how hell should impact the life of a believer, Chan dives into the issue of God’s fairness. Using Romans 9 as his key text, he states that our aversion to hell is really due to a misunderstanding of God’s character. If God is powerful and good and holy, we can’t dictate how He ought to operate, even when it seems distasteful to us.

The final chapter is an encouragement not to be overwhelmed, but to worship God and praise Him for the grace He provided through Jesus.

EVALUATION:

I found Chan’s discussion of the nature of hell itself to be helpful and compelling. He does a great job of carefully, directly, and humbly answering the arguments raised in Bell’s book. For example, he deals at some length with the Greek word kolazo, and argues that it refers to punishment in Matthew 25:46 rather than to mere correction. This discussion has the potential to become heady and unreadable, but Chan makes it clear and understandable. It’s just one example of the gentle and clear tone of the book as a whole.

The weak point of the book comes in Chapter 5, when Chan talks about the relationship of hell to the Christian. Unfortunately, the careful exegesis he uses in the first four chapters takes a back seat to Chan’s Calvinistic theology. He tries to make the case that Christians can go to hell for things like racism, insulting other people, and failing to give money to the poor. The problem is that he interprets several passages out of context. One example is how he turns Matthew 8 into a general discussion of racism, when in reality it’s a discussion of how one’s heart toward God is more important than Jewish identity. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t address racism; it’s just that it’s a major stretch to conclude from this passage that racists go to hell even if they’ve believed in Christ. Unfortunately, that’s just one illustration among several to choose from in Chapter 5. At times Chan borders on a sort of cooperationism, in which works add merit to one’s status before God. I’m fairly certain he would deny the position if pressed, but the chapter reads that way in certain places.

On the whole, this is a useful and concise summary of the traditional Christian position on hell. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the problems in Chapter 5, but if you can get past those issues, then his discussion of hell is well-research yet accessible. Chan presents a thoughtful case for the traditional doctrine of hell. He reminds his readers that this is more than a theological argument, but that souls and lives are at stake. In that sense it’s a necessary corrective to the harsh debate that’s surrounded the issue in recent months.

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Pastors and Politics: Robert Jeffress and Rick Perry

The biggest political story last week was a religious story. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was talking to reporters after he introduced Rick Perry at the Values Voters Summit, a yearly gathering of social conservatives. During his remarks, he stated that evangelical voters should always prefer a competent Christian over a Mormon. He called Mormonism a cult, and argued that Christians shouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney, since he is a moral man but isn’t truly a Christian.

A few thoughts:

Pastors need to be extremely slow to publicly endorse political candidates. This has nothing to do with the IRS — if my church faced the loss of non-profit status for preaching the Bible, so be it. But the reasons to avoid endorsing political candidates go deeper than tax status.

First, the Church’s allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ. When we look at church history, we see that the church’s mission gets obscured when it aligns too closely with particular political parties or leaders. For that reason, a respectful distance between the Church and government is appropriate. We’re called to submit to our leadership (Romans 13) and to pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-12). We’re even called to pay taxes (Luke 20:22-25). Notice, however, that Jesus says our money can go to the government, but our allegiance and our lives belong to God.

Second, politicians are just people. They do what politicians do — try to win elections, and hopefully try to govern well. There is no doubt that one’s religious beliefs affect how he or she governs. But politicians are capable of professing Christianity (or any belief system) for the purpose of winning elections. I’m not doubting Perry’s faith — I don’t know the man. I do know, though, that virtually every President of the past 100 years, Republican or Democrat, has claimed Christianity. It didn’t always make them good Presidents or even good men. So we ought to be very cautious in assuming that one’s public religious affiliation will determine how he or she acts in office.

That being said, pastors are responsible to evaluate political issues in light of the Scripture. I prefer to help people think through the critical issues from a biblical perspective and let them follow the Holy Spirit in deciding how to vote. So pastors should address what the Bible says about government, abortion, economics, war, and other issues but avoid endorsing candidates. I do vote, and I have opinions about which candidates are best, but it’s simply not my job to align my ministry with a particular politician. It’s my job to examine what the Bible says about the issues. Then, people can vote for a leader based on his policy positions as they relate to God’s values.

Finally, I think Jeffress has been treated too harshly for his assessment of Mormonism. Whether we use the word “cult” or not, Mormonism is clearly a group that deviates from traditional orthodoxy. Mormons do not believe in the unique deity of Christ or in the deity of the Holy Spirit. They believe that people can become gods, and that God was once a man. They profess that salvation is achieved through works, not by grace through faith alone. They deny the unique authority of the Bible and add additional Scriptures. The thing for which Jeffress is being most harshly criticized is actually the one area in which he was correct, regardless of whether you agree with his terminology. (As a side note, he isn’t the first to call Mormonism a cult. It is a widely held view among evangelicals that they are a cult, based upon their doctrinal deviation from orthodox Christianity.)

I’m sure I’ve opened a can of worms here — your thoughts and opinions?

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The Internet Didn’t Make You Do It

It didn’t make you look at pornography today.

The internet didn’t hit you over the head and force you to procrastinate.

Facebook didn’t type those angry words on somebody else’s wall.

You didn’t neglect your friends or your family because the internet made you do it.

So why did you do those things?

Because you tend to be a lustful, lazy, angry, selfish person.

Me too, by the way. It’s in all of us (Romans 3:10-12).

The sin is inside our hearts — it didn’t start online (Matthew 15:19).

So here’s the deal: because the problem began inside of us, it can only really be solved inside of us.

No internet filter will fix it. Don’t get me wrong — internet filters can be helpful and often are a necessary precaution. But they won’t fix the problem.

No Facebook hiatus will make you a kinder, gentler, more patient person. Yes, it might remove some temptation. And it might allow you time and space to think about why you are angry or impatient or unkind. But it won’t fix the problem. You’ll be as angry when you’re not on Facebook as you are when you’re on it.

So what will fix the problem?

Or rather, Who will fix the problem?

Since the problem is our hearts, we need a transformation of our hearts. And only the Holy Spirit can accomplish that. Once we admit we’re sinful, that we really are sinful, God stands ready to give us His grace to obey (Romans 8:1-17).

We pray, we listen to Him, we depend upon Him. We fill our hearts and minds and spirits with His word. We allow His people to speak the truth to us. And we let Him slowly but surely transform us. It won’t happen immediately, and it won’t be completed in this lifetime. For most there will significant setbacks (and forgiveness and grace when those happen).

But the real answer is not more rules. The real answer is depending on the Spirit.

Because the internet didn’t make you do it. And simply logging off won’t make it stop.

Question: Do you struggle with legalism in your spiritual life? How do you overcome it?

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Are Social Media Damaging the Church?

I’ve been on Facebook since March 2006. When I joined, it was just a college student thing for the most part — I managed to get an account by acquiring an alumni email address from my university. My assistant at the time assured me that I would be a hopeless dinosaur if I didn’t connect with college students through this relatively new medium.

I joined Twitter about a year ago, after my younger brother convinced me it was a fantastic tool for communicating with the masses (which for me currently involves 195 people — I’m not exactly Justin Bieber material).

As both platforms have become more popular, I’ve also seen an increasing number of warnings from Christians about the dangers of social media: they rot your brain, destroy your social skills, stunt your spiritual growth, and make you vulnerable to dangerous predators. Some of the objections have validity, but I’m beginning to think the reality is much more complex.

My church has tasked me with expanding our online presence and content in the next few years, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about the relationship between church and the internet. Are social media an effective tool for spiritual growth, a hindrance to it, or a bit of both? Should “real Christians” just unplug from all that junk and read our Bibles by the light of our kerosene lamps?

At this point my thoughts are still very preliminary and I’d love your input. Here are a few initial musings, though:

Online conversations are not generally shallower than most face-to-face discussions. One of the most common objections I hear about Facebook  and Twitter is that people use them to engage in shallow, meaningless dialogue. The implication of course, is that such conversations lead to shallow, immature people.

I used to buy into that line of thinking, but I really don’t anymore. If people are having shallow and meaningless conversations I’m not convinced that the internet is guilty. I think social media simply reveal in print the types of things people talk about anyway. In other words, Facebook doesn’t make us shallow; it just reveals how shallow we really are. Compare the small talk you make on a daily basis with the stuff you post online, and I’m guessing you’ll see a strong correlation.

Social media can be used to provoke deeper discussions about spiritual issues. I’m still learning how to effectively dialogue through Facebook, Twitter, this blog, and other online platforms. I’ve made some mistakes and even alienated some friends (on accident). However, I’ve found that most of my blog traffic comes from my relational connections on Facebook (and, to a lesser degree, Twitter). And people are reading it and interacting with some relatively complex issues — heaven and hell, inclusivism, eternal security, and sexual ethics, among other things.

I don’t think social media have significantly dumbed us down. I might be going against the grain here, but I think what’s really happened is that we’ve learned to process information in new ways. Instead of reading a 500-page book, we read several articles and essays on critical topics. The danger we face, of course, is that we gather loads of information without processing it well. Nonetheless, I think many people use the internet as a launching pad to learn about topics they wouldn’t otherwise think about. People who will probably never pick up a book on theology will interact with the issues online — and that’s a good thing.

Online interactions are no substitute for in-person relationships and corporate worship. Most people know that, though. We are not merely mental/emotional/spiritual beings. We are physical, and cannot separate our brains and spirits from our bodies (unless we die). When we talk about “corporate” worship, we’re using a word that derives from the Latin word for “body.” Being together bodily allows us to interact in ways that online discussion does not. In person I can see you, touch you, and hear you, things I can’t do online. I can’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper with you online, I can’t hear you sing hymns out of tune, I can’t hug you, and I can’t see the body language that helps me figure out how you’re really feeling.

For that reason, online discussion is limited. It only engages certain aspects of our being. In the long run it must be paired with vital connections to the body of Christ face to face. Meeting together means just that (Hebrews 10:25).

I’m still wrestling with the practical implications of these observations. Maybe you can help.

In your opinion, how should a church use the internet to minister to its congregation and to those beyond it? In what ways should a church avoid using the internet and encourage personal interactions?

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Five Common Mistakes College Students Make

College can be one of the most productive and enjoyable times of your life if you approach it wisely. You’ll spend your time learning, developing relationships, and growing as a person.

On the other hand, your college years can quickly become disastrous. Poor decisions during these critical years can negatively affect your life for decades to come, and that’s no exaggeration.

In my time as a college pastor, I’ve seen many students navigate these years well, but I’ve also seen many of them make terrible mistakes and reap terrible consequences. Here are five of the most common mistakes college students make:

1. Acting like what you do during college doesn’t really matter. Some students view college as an interim period in their lives, one in which actions have no real consequences. It’s as if they believe there is a “reset” button they can hit when they graduate, erasing all of the poor choices they’ve made for the previous four or five years. Students engage in promiscuous behavior, thinking that it won’t affect their future marriages or families. They drink to excess, as if that MIP or DWI won’t be a black mark on their good name for years to come. The truth is that once you enter college, you should consider yourself a real adult, one whose choices have real consequences. And act accordingly.

2. Underemphasizing your schoolwork. Your classes are important, even if you never get a job in your field of study. Through them you learn how to study, how to gather information, and how to work under authority. For the Christian student, you are setting a pattern for how you will approach work for the rest of your life. And we are called to do everything to God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). When you show up late, blow off your homework, and barely scrape by, you are not living in a way that reflects the character of Christ.

3. Overemphasizing your schoolwork. While schoolwork is important, it’s really not the only thing that matters. Some students ignore the other critical aspects of their college years and spend all their time locked away in the study dungeon (read: library). Although you are learning a career and learning how to work, your life consists of more than that. It’s important to make friends, join a church, and participate in campus life. It’s impossible to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) if you never talk to anybody! You are setting patterns now for how you will manage your life — your work, relationships, spiritual life, and free time. All are important.

4. Avoiding the opposite sex. This is a weird one that I’ve seen more recently. Students seem afraid to spend time with people of the opposite sex, especially in the Christian community. In fact, I wrote a post about this a few months ago. I’m not saying that dating or getting married are essential elements of life for everybody. However, many students avoid dating because they are afraid, or have strange ideas about the appropriateness of it. Whether you ever get married or not, you will need to know how to interact with the opposite sex in a normal (read: not awkward) way. College is a wonderful time to learn that skill, and you can’t do it if you always sit on the other side of the room from those of the opposite sex.

5. Failing to connect with a church in a meaningful way. I’m all for campus organizations — I was involved in them as a student, and I’m currently on the board for a major student organization at A&M. However, these organizations do not replace the local church. Most student organizations are homogenous — people of the same age, station in life, and ethnic background gather together. Many of them even choose their members based on who is cool, smart, good-looking, or spiritual. A local church, though, forces you to sit next to people who look different than you. People who are older, younger, more mature, less mature, from a different country, cooler than you, or nerdier than you. It reminds you that the Gospel is about God’s grace for all people, and not just the people you really like (1 Cor 12:12-13). It also prepares you for life after college, where it won’t be so easy to just hang out with your favorite group of people. I really think it’s a critical element of your spiritual growth in college.

These are obviously just a few of the common mistakes students make. I could write a whole other post on the things students do particularly well, and perhaps I will.

Are there others that you’ve observed in your own life or among your friends that you’d like to share here?

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