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?

How to say friend – Conflict

Inevitably, every true friendship will be tested by conflict. Conflict makes people uncomfortable, and it isn’t fun, but it happens. At some point, you will disagree with or misbehave against or get wronged by someone you call a friend, and how you handle this conflict will determine the fate of the friendship. There are all kinds of subtle realities that feed conflict in relationships; we are fallen creatures that look to our own interests and sometimes neglect the interests of others. One conflict that is dramatically narrated in scripture happened between two prominent leaders in the early church.

Acts 15:36-41Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas have been traveling companions and partners in ministry. They have been a missionary team. At first, Barnabas was the “leader;” he took the young recent convert Saul of Tarsas under his wing and invited him to minister alongside him. As time went on and they endured challenges and achieved success, Saul (Paul) distinguishes himself as a powerful teacher and becomes the more prominent of the two. There is actually a moment where the text notes that Paul is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and after that, instead of listing the team as “Barnabas and Saul” (as it had) the story starts referring to “Paul and Barnabas,” or even “Paul and his companions.” There are several things that are at play here:
1st, there is the fact that Barnabas was willing to take a chance on the newly converted Saul of Tarsas. Saul had a very sketchy past in that he was the most zealous opponent of the Jesus movement. This is a testimony to Barnabas’ character – that he believes the best in others.
2nd, the dynamic of power shift had to be a difficult thing for any relationship to endure. The leader becomes the follower, the 2nd becomes the 1st. You can see this on sports teams and it can make for some tense moments. As Paul begins to get more and more attention and prominence, what does Barnabas feel?
Finally, there is the issue of Barnabas’ cousin, a man named John-Mark. (Have patience with the double name thing!) John Mark was a traveling companion of the missionary team, but when they entered a particularly hostile region, he decided to skip out and head back home. We are never given a reason, but Paul takes this as abandonment.

So, how is this conflict a model for us?

1. In many conflicts, there is not a clear right and wrong position – just differences of perspective. Note that Luke (our author) doesn’t give us any judgment as to who is right and who is wrong. I can see the issue from Paul’s side – this was going to be a hard road, you don’t want to have to risk depending on someone who has let you down before. I can also see Barnabas’ side – everyone deserves another chance, this is about grace after all. So often we become so entrenched in our position that we focus on the winning an argument and we can end up losing a friend. Conflict happens and friendship can flourish when we learn to be wrong some of the time, and we learn what battles need to be fought and which ones don’t. You can save yourself a lot of grief if you can learn to consider the point of view from across the aisle. Can you see the reasons in the other person’s argument? Can you understand why this person is passionate about this issue? If you can gain another perspective in addition to your own, everyone grows. You are never as right as you think you are.

2. Comfortable or not, conflict needs to be dealt with. You might be surprised that such a disagreement happened among these Godly men. Sometimes we imagine that everything in the Bible should be stained glass and sacred, and this just seems ugly. It is easy to imagine raised voices and passionate debate. Here is deal – raised voices and passionate debate are not bad. When your relationships are strong enough to create a safe place to disagree, then you are finally in the realm of true friendship and teamwork. No functional team exists without conflict. Face conflict, don’t run from it. Tell the truth. Fight fair. Deal with issues openly, don’t hide it, don’t stuff it, and don’t avoid it. We often hope a problem will just go away if we ignore it. It will not go away; it will just get worse and the longer you wait to talk about the more awkward it will be to have the conversation.

3. God’s Kingdom wins when we chose to look at other people through the eyes of hope. What I love about this story is that God still managed to find a win for his Kingdom. Instead of a great missionary team breaking up, two great ministry teams were formed and the Gospel went out to new places. I also love that somewhere down the road, Paul did learn to see Barnabas’ perspective. Their conflict basically came down to John-Mark and whether or not there was potential there. Barnabas by his very nature is the kind of person that sees the best, gives the benefit of the doubt, and believes in other people. He is known as a “son of encouragement,” which is what his name means. He saw the potential in a young and passionate man named Saul – who later became Paul the Apostle. He also saw the potential in his cousin John-Mark, who later became a pillar of the church and wrote the Gospel of Mark. Late in Paul’s life, when he is in prison for the Gospel in Rome and Ephesus, he asks several times for John-Mark to be sent to him. Paul ends up finding two young men named Timothy and Titus, and just like Barnabas modeled for him, he mentors them and believes in them and brings out their gifts. This is a huge lesson – we need more people with the eyes of Barnabas, the kind that can see the potential in others and believe the best and fan into flame the gifts of God.

So here is my challenge: What conflict have you been putting off that are keeping you from healthy relationships?

Thank God for Summer – Echo Middle School Series

Our Middle Schoolers are preparing for the welcome relief of summer vacation, so we thought we would address what is already on everyone’s mind and see what we can learn about God in the process. Summer vacation is an American institution, at least for now. Summertime is the season for pool parties, camping, fireworks, backyard BBQ’s, camp, sleeping in, and more.

One of the best (if not the best) parts of summer is that there is NO SCHOOL. Freedom and fun are measured not in days, but in months. Where you normally have to give 7 hours of your day to sitting in class and learning, you now have those hours back! Think about the possibilities: you could read a good book, have a movie marathon with friends, get a summer job, or serve your church and community. Having time to recharge is something very much in line with the heart of God.

In Genesis 2:1-3 –, we find the story of God resting after the work of creation. After God created the heavens, the earth, and all the creatures that inhabit it, He took a break! Get this picture: God working hard, then kicking back and enjoying what He created, even delighting in it.

In Exodus 16:21-30, Moses is trying to teach people about the importance of taking a break. Six days a week, they can work and gather and toil. The seventh day, their work should be done so they can be with God and relax. They are having a hard time understanding this; so God reminds Moses that the idea is a gift, not a burden. Jesus makes the same argument in Mark 2:23-28 .

So how do we follow the command of God to rest? How do we make “sabbath” a reality in our busy lives?

Learn the power of the word “no.” What a powerful word! This is a lesson that I am not sure people teach much around this area. You cannot do everything. You cannot accept every invitation, join every club, play every sport, be a part of every activity. Human beings are not meant to run all the time. We are meant to have downtime and to recharge. We can easily get so busy and our schedules can become so complicated that we miss out on opportunities to meet with God. The only way to simplify our lives is to stop doing so much. Between homework, sports, dance, karate, FBLA, Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, and babysitting jobs, you will have no time for family and no time for God. Saying “no” should also apply to setting boundaries on certain things. For instance, just because your phone is ringing, it doesn’t mean you need to answer it. Don’t become a slave to your phone, calling, texting, and chatting until you are tired and worn out.

Learn to slow down. The pace we live it is just too fast. We have all this technology that is designed to save us time. We can travel much faster, communicate with anyone anywhere instantly, and we have a huge number of gizmos at our disposal to make life easier and save us time – yet we are very “time poor.” We live at a faster pace than at any other point in human history. We spend less time with family, and less time with God. This pace is not good for our soul, it makes us stressed out and fatigued. The only answer to this is to deliberately slow down. If that means doing less, then we need to seriously consider it. You might say: “But I am in middle school, my life is not that crazy!” I would disagree. I have had enough conversations with students trying to find time to live and not being able to fit it in. This summer, slow down a bit.

Learn to take a break. This sounds like something that is nice, but not really that important. This idea is very important to God. The idea of “Sabbath” even made it into the Ten Commandments, right next to commandments about murder and adultery. In God’s eyes, practicing Sabbath is something very moral. This is not hard to udnerstand: think of how much better we could treat others if we were well rested? Think how much better our world would be if everyone was well rested? Sabbath is important because it is closely tied to our ability to embody key virtues like patience, temperance, prudence, and justice.

How do we apply this “Sabbath” idea today? Go get ice cream, have a movie night, take a nap, play a board game with your family. Since we all have busy families and busy lives and busy schedules, focus on finding “Sabbath moments.” Remember: the heart of this law is to allow us to reconnect with God and to recharge. So, what about taking advantage of drive time, or maybe instead of crashing in front of the TV or Xbox, you can spend some time with the Bible or listen to some worship music? What if you did something special as a family this summer, and started a family Bible study?

*Questions for discussion with your teenager:
-How do you feel about the pace of your life?
-Why is it hard to say “no” to good things?
-What do you notice about my character or behavior when I don’t have enough “down time?”
-What are some creative ideas for our family to better practice “sabbath?”

Praxis

Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, praxis is faith in practice. It refers to what you live out, not just what you believe. It is one thing to know something, but it is another thing to live it. It is something remarkable that our culture has such a profound disconnection between knowledge and practice. For example: I know all about physical health. I know about eating healthy and exercising. I know how to get into “fighting shape.” That theoretical knowledge actually does nothing for my actual physical health unless I put into practice. People for the most part understand good financial planning. They know that if they spend more than they make, they will go into debt. They know that it is bad idea to live beyond their means. They know that if they do not save any money for retirement, they will not have any money with which to retire. All of this knowledge does them nothing, because the average American household has thousands in consumer debt and nothing saved for retirement. It doesn’t really matter what you know if that knowledge does not translate into action. Your theoretical knowledge might be impressive, but it is worthless, practically speaking. This is especially true in the area of faith. People come to church to learn more about Jesus, who He is, what He did, and what He asks of us. Yet for all this knowledge, sometimes it seems like nothing actually changes. We know that God asks us to love others, but do we love them? We know he asks us to be just, but do we practice justice? We know God asks us to worship Him above everything, but do we do it?

Series Graphic for PraxisJames is a book of the Bible all about praxis. James teaches that faith is something that needs to be lived out. The only kind of faith that matters is faith that is practiced: faith that you can see “evidence” of. Faith is an internal reality, a change from the inside out – starting in the heart and surfacing in changed priorities, affections, attitudes, and actions. James argues that if people cannot see a change in action, your faith probably doesn’t exist.

This month, our Echo High School students will be exploring the book of James and examining where our lives need line up with our beliefs. We will look at practical expressions of our faith in areas like social justice, our handling of money, and what comes out when we open our mouths. We no longer want to miss the path between knowledge and action, faith and charity, piety and moral proof.

Questions for you and your teenager:
*What does “praxis” mean to you – how do you put your faith into practice?
*Some people would say that Christians have a reputation for being hypocrites. What do you think James might say about this, based on what you read, heard, and discussed at Echo?
*Do you think people that “practice what they preach” are rare? Why or why not?
*What are some beliefs you hold that are tough to practice?

Boring Teens to Death?

The 4th message in our series The Never Ending Story brought us to a passage that is comical and tragic at the same time. Acts 20:7-12 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus. Eutychus means “Lucky.” However, this guy was not so lucky. Paul is leaving the city of Troas in the morning, and I guess he is trying to make the most of his time. After an evening of “church,” Paul keeps preaching late into the night. Our lucky young man Eutychus is trying to stay awake, but he can’t. He falls asleep. Now this is a problem because the meeting is being held on the third story, and Eutychus was sitting in the window sill. When he falls asleep, he actually falls out of the window. It wasn’t the three story fall that killed him; it was the sudden stop as he hit the ground! This story is a bit amusing, but still pretty tragic. A young man dies in this story, right in the middle of their church service. Now, it does have a happy ending, because Paul raises him from the dead. This is one of only a few miracles like this in the whole Bible. What is crazy to me is that after this drama, Paul goes back up stairs to finish his message.

As someone who has given his life to help this generation of young people, this story hits me pretty hard. I have sat through some boring messages in my life, the kind you wish would end, and I am sure I have even delivered a few myself. I have to ask the question: why did this young man fall asleep? Why was he in the window? How did this happen? In many ways, a whole generation of young people have essentially “fallen asleep” when it comes to God’s Kingdom. What is going on? Is church boring teens to death?luke9_26

Was Eutychus bored? If so, I find this disturbing. Something has gone horribly wrong when the revolution that was started by Jesus Christ is viewed as boring. It means that we are under-challenging people and soft-peddling the gospel. I am not saying that everyone should be able to love the message of Jesus. It could be rejected as too hard, but it should never be boring. This is an assumption that I would really like to do my part to challenge. The message of Jesus is anything but boring and irrelevant.

Was Eutychus worn out? Maybe he was like many teenagers in this area – a bit overloaded with “stuff.” Maybe he had just finished his biology homework, knowing fell well that he still had that English essay and those Latin vocab words to memorize by tomorrow. Plus there is always a girlfriend to text, karate practice to attend, and a meeting for some future business leaders of Loudoun County that his dad made him join. Maybe he was just worn out. Maybe Eutychus had no time for what really matters because he was so busy with other stuff.

Was Eutychus overlooked? This is the one possibility that I really lose sleep over. One of my friends and ministry mentors told me a haunting story. When he was a youth pastor, he had an unremarkable boy named Brian Warner visit his youth ministry several times. The boy did not connect with anyone, make a friend, or try very hard to get involved. The group did not seem very interested in involving him or reaching out to him either. After a few weeks, he was gone. What makes this boy stand out a bit in the sea of nameless faces is that he is now known by a different name: Marilyn Manson. Just a thought – but his future could have been considerably different if one or two teens showed some hospitality or concern.

The thought that any teenager would feel like they do not matter or they do not belong breaks my heart. That should not be the case as long as God has any people living and breathing down here on earth. The Kingdom of God is in the business of ascribing unsurpassed worth to everyone, even those that might otherwise be overlooked or go unnoticed. Every student should matter, they should be seen, and they should be known. We talked out this week how it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure this never happens.

Echo exists because we are concerned about the teens that are sitting in the window in danger of falling asleep concerning the things of God. We want to seek out the teens like Eutychus, invite them off the window sill, and help them hear the challenge of the Gospel of Christ.