Surviving Middle School – What Captures your Heart?

We wrapped up our series Surviving Middle School this week talking about surviving in faith. After almost a decade in student ministry, I have come to recognize that the strength a student’s faith boils down to one thing: What captures his or her heart? Answer this question and I can tell you whether or not you have what it takes to survive in faith. The kind of people that can face the tests and difficulties life brings and survive with faith in tact might be called “obsessed.” So what are you obsessed with? What captures your heart? What are you in love with – what gets your thoughts and your time and your devotion? The ancient Hebrews knew that centering your heart on God was essential to faith. They would start each day with a prayer they called the “Shema.” This comes from a passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the secret to surviving Middle School with your faith in tact. It is the one thing.

Thriving faith is really about having a heart that is captured by God. Everything else seems to be less important when your give your heart to something or someone. I am talking about being passionately in love with God – worshiping Him with all your heart, soul, and strength. This is the one thing. If God has captured your heart, if you have seen and experienced the Love of God, you will be able to see through everything else.

There are many rivals for the attention and affection of a teenager: fashion, cell phones, iPods, boyfriends, x-boxes, sports, school, pride, vanity, and so on. None of these are inherently evil, but they can still mess up our priorities. There are some great things out there that we can love and be passionate about, but when these things become the center of our lives, we will find that they are inadequate. Many of the things that demand our attention and affection are good things, but they are not supposed to be central things. Inordinate affection has a corrupting and decaying affect on the object and the giver of love. As creatures we have been designed to keep God at the center of our lives. This is a truth that sometimes gets diminished because of fear.

We hear God demanding our love with heart, soul, and strength, and sometimes we feel guilty about loving other things. The secret is that loving God with everything does always not subtract from the love you can display for other things, in many cases it amplifies it. When you center your life on Him, even your passion for other things can be better and healthier. The best way for me to love my wife is to love God with all my heart, and then I learn to love her more. Love is an infinite resource in God’s kingdom.

I learned this in a powerful way when I became a father.
I love my wife intensely, and when our first daughter was about to be born, I wondered how I could make room in my heart for another. So, when she was born I dutifully took the love I had for my wife, cut it in half, and gave half of my love to her and half to our daughter. Of course that is silliness! That isn’t how love works. The truth is that when Arabella (my daughter) was born, I loved Jamie (my wife) MORE than ever, not less. Love can do that – it can grow in capacity infinitely! The more you love, the more you have the ability to love. The same thing was true when my second daughter was born. It was not a challenge to find enough love for her as well, as if I had to make room in my heart for her. In reality, my heart just grew bigger and my love for each member of my family grew as well. Our love for God is much the same: when we direct our attention and focus our affection on Him, our passions for every other good thing in this world become more pure, more refined, and more intense.

So do it! Unlock the secret to thriving faith: receive love from God and return it to Him with everything you have.

Questions to ponder with your teen:
*What does it mean to love God with all your heart?
*What about with all your soul?
*What about with all your strength?
*Does this mean that you cannot love anything else? Why or why not?

Surviving Middle School

I love watching the “survival” themed shows that are always invading the Airways. Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t be Alive, and Survivor are probably the most popular, but my favorite is Survivorman. The Canadian Les Stroud amazes me on every episode. Not only can he survive in the most hostile environments imaginable, but he does so while filming everything himself. No camera crew to give assistance (like Bear Grylls recieves), no tricks (like Bear Grylls employs), and no “dramatization” or theatrics (did I mention Bear Grylls real name is Edward?).

Some people would classify Middle School as a survival scenario. Students leave the predictable environment of elementary schools to roam the labyrinth of middle school hallways and deal with the dangers within. They are faced with social pressure and social changes as cliques are formed and friend groups are tested and established. They are slammed with physical changes as puberty complicates the scene with unwelcome hormones. As a youth pastor, the range of exposure in middle school is hard to navigate: some girls are tucking their stuffed animal collection in at night while other girls are dealing with sexual attention from their boyfriends. This month, Echo has been talking about strategies for survival in middle school. Our goal is that all of our students do more than survive these turbulent years and they actually thrive: growing in wisdom, maturity, and influence.

Survival experts will talk about the Rule of Three, which is a way to establish the order of priorities in a survival situation. A person can live for:
three minutes without air,
three hour without shelter,
three days without water,
three weeks without food,
and three months without love.

When it comes to Surviving Middle School, the rule of 3 looks a little different. These are the three areas that every adolescent needs to address if they are going to survive:

1. The Challenge of Identity – Who am I? One of the things students soon discover in Middle School is the amount of labels that are tossed around. People want to categorize other people: are you going to be a jock, a skater, a hip hop boy, emo, preppie, goth, glamor girl, punk, geek, brain, lax bro, or whatever. So much energy in Middle School can be spent trying to maintain your reputation or enforce or define you label. The danger is when students stop being themselves in an attempt to be who others want them to be. Middle schoolers need to be reminded that they are not what the crowd says they are; not unless they choose to become that. No label or reputation really defines one’s identity. Some students will rise above this pressure and refuse to defined by anything but God. These students know that first and foremost they belong to God and what He says is most important.

2. The Challenge of Belonging – Where do I fit? One of the biggest challenges students face in Middle School is LUNCH. The questions that troubles many in the first weeks of school are: where will I sit? Who will you sit with? Do any of my friends have the same lunch that I have? Remember, they are in the uncharted wilderness of the Middle School social system; the last thing they want is to be the person that has to sit alone! The question “Where do I sit?” is really about a deeper question: “Where do I fit?” Never before has who you choose as your friends mattered so much. Here are a couple of survival tips that we offer to new middle schoolers: figure out before hand which of the friends you already know have the same lunch as you, so you know what to expect. We also give our students this challenge: be on the lookout for people who are sitting alone – it is your job as a follower of Christ to not let that happen. Never underestimate how much friends can affect your future.

3. The Challenge of Purpose – Do I matter? Do my choices matter? Every student has to deal with the challenge of establishing autonomy. This is the source of much conflict between parents and teenagers. As they search for independence, they often do so by pushing back against authority figures, especially mom and dad. They start desiring greater levels of freedom without necessarily demonstrating greater levels of responsibility. Here is the good news: everything I have seen and everything I am reading is still confirming that students values and choices are MOST influenced not by media or their peer group, but by their families. As parents, you still are the most important voices in the lives of your students. They will listen to you, and they do listen to you. This can be tough to believe during the times of one-word answers and ipod earplugs, but it is still true. The time you spend with your teenagers and the input you give them will have the greatest affect on their values formation.

One of the mistakes that I see parents make is assuming that the “stiff arm” of their teenage kids actually means they want “space.” They are struggling with the challenge of autonomy, and how they express their independence from you while still feeling that they want to be close to you. Push through the stiff arm and know that you are the most important voice in their world. Your affirmation and guidance will always carry more weight than anyone else’s. We have to learn to hear what they mean past what we think they are saying. It is easy for us to misunderstand the language of adolescence (largely because it is always in the dialect of sarcasm with an accent of attitude), but let me try to translate a few things I am sure teenagers are looking for:
-They long to belong. (They say: “You don’t know me.” We hear: “I don’t matter to them.”)
-They long to be taken seriously. (They say: “You never listen to me.” We hear: “They don’t want to listen to me.”)
-They long to matter. (They say: “I can do it!” We hear: “They don’t need me.”)
-They long for a safe place. (They say: “I’m fine, okay?” We hear: “They want to be left alone.”)
-They long to be uniquely themselves. (They say: “It’s my life – you can’t tell me what to do.” We hear: “They don’t care what I think.”)
-They long to be wanted. (They say: “Nobody cares about me.” We hear: “They don’t care about me.”)

Tips for New College Parents – How to handle your freshmen

Many of our parents are just now discovering a new rhythm of life after sending their kids off to college. This is a very difficult transition for many, especially when so much of life revolved around your kid for 18 years. One of the things we have found to be true of early college students is that they still need the voice of youth ministry – and more importantly they still need the guidance of their parents. Still, the conversation needs to shift as students enters greater dimensions of autonomy. Our youth leaders do their best to keep the conversations about faith going with students, even after they have graduated from our program and head off to college, but the conversation looks different after high school. This is often a hard transition for parents and students alike.

Echo has been following the research of the “Sticky Faith Project” for a few years now, and listening carefully to their recommendations and findings. They have just published a great article on about the tough transition for college freshmen and their parents.

Check it out here:

The Road – Not all who wander are lost.

Some things are only found on the road. J.R.R. Toilken once said of one of his most powerful characters: “Not all who wander are lost.” Sometimes you find more on the road than you do at your destination. Jesus has a way of meeting people on the road. Faith is much more like a journey than it is like a destination. This means that we are always in process, it means that we should re-frame how we talk about spiritual things in terms of “before” and “after,” it means that we should be careful to judge others because they might be walking the same path they are just further back. This month, Echo High Schoolers are looking at encounters with God on the road to see what we can’t learn about faith in process.

Luke 24:13-35 – tells a dramatic story, one you can imagine vividly. This takes place on Easter Sunday – the very first Easter Sunday, before many people have seen the risen Jesus. Two disciples are walking toward a town called Emmaus, their hopes and dreams shattered. They were confused and downcast – heading into the sunset physically and figuratively. They are travelling west; the setting sun before them is a constant reminder of the growing darkness in their hearts and their sinking hopes. These are people whose expectations have been frustrated. They are a picture of disappointment. They have just endured a wild ride of emotion: discovering Jesus, marveling at his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and eventually believing his claims about himself. They were compelled so much by the person of Christ that they left their former way of life and became disciples of Jesus. Then, all their hopes and dreams are dashed to the ground as Jesus is arrested, tortured, and executed. Try to imagine what it would have been like to ride this emotional roller coaster. The fall is so much worse because of how high they soared!

This line captures everything: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They had placed their hopes in him – they had bet on Jesus and risked their trust and affection. The expectation of many was that the Messiah was going to lead Israel to military victory and usher in the Messianic Kingdom. When Jesus was executed, his followers all assumed their hopes were misguided. Jesus was defeated; the movement he began would die out. Maybe these men were journeying back home to life as usual. Maybe they were going to give up. These people had to be confused like so many others were. They certainly felt far from God. In their minds, they had never been more defeated and Jesus had never been further away. How could God let this happen? Why did this happen? These are the kinds of questions that people ask as they process the grief and letdown of disappointment.

This is where the story gets very interesting, because they were wrong. Jesus was not far, God had not stopped acting, and God’s plan was still unfolding before them. When they felt like God was so distant, Jesus was actually walking with them. Maybe they are looking right at the setting sun to they can’t physically recognize Jesus because all they can see is his silhouette. Maybe their hearts are so broken that they cannot see with the eyes of hope. Whatever the reason, they cannot recognize the nearness of Jesus, his victory on their behalf, the activity of God to bring life and not death. This speaks to all us – can we see through the eyes of hope even when we are thoroughly disappointed?

What if God is closer than you think?
These disciples learned something on the road to Emmaus: even if Jesus seems distant and hope seems lost, God is still at work and Jesus could be walking right beside you. Life takes us down all kinds of different roads. Some of those roads go through dark country and are treacherous and difficult to travel. In these moments of weakness or darkness or despair, it is easy to think that god is not there and that He is not working on your behalf. I just walked through something like this with a friend. His mom just died, far too young and far too tragically. What was remarkable was that in the midst of this loss and difficulty, my friend could still talk about how close God was, almost like he was being carried through the pain. I don’t know if the pain is any less, but it is better to bear when you are not alone. Another friend lost his fiancé to an evil crime just months before their wedding. When we talked to him, he told us about how great God was and how near Jesus and the community of faith came to support him through this time. Be careful about making the mistake of assuming that because you walk a lonely or difficult road, God is not there. It is precisely this reality that the Psalmist wrote about: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4).

Are you journeying toward the sunset or toward the sunrise? Another way of asking that is: does the road of your life take you closer to death or life? I don’t mean optimism or pessimism, I mean are you actually growing in life and journeying away from death? Do you walk toward choices and realities that will bring death and destruction into your life, sapping your hope? Or are you pursuing life and those things which strengthen you and make you grow? If Jesus wants to meet you on the road and journey with you, he does want you to go in a certain direction. When these guys realize that Jesus has been walking with them, they understand everything in new light. They are not defeated and downcast and depressed, they are filled with hope and life. They turn from the sunset and start heading toward the sunrise of something new. Hope has been awakened in them – hope for something better. Hope that God’s plan has not been thwarted and that God’s kingdom is still invading this reality and hope that Jesus is alive and that their present frustrations and difficulties do not need to define their reality. They can have hope in a better tomorrow and an even better one beyond that. This is a huge part of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom. It means recognizing and embracing the redemptive plan of God to restore this broken world. It means having eyes to see the beauty of God’s work rising from the ashes of our human mess. This is what it means to have resurrection faith: to believe that since the resurrection of Jesus, all creation is following him out of the grave as the Kingdom of God advances. This is the hope we can put our confidence in and share with a world that so desperately needs it.