Lies that Ruin our Relationships

This week in Echo High School, we are talking about the “Mind Games” we play with friends. Our perspective on others is very easily distorted. Think about how envy, judgment, criticism, and jealousy color our perspectives on other people. What you choose to believe about others has a dramatic impact on your relationships. You can choose to believe the best, give the benefit of the doubt, trust people until they prove your trust is misplaced. Or you can choose to believe the worst, be skeptical and cynical and suspicious of others. Much of our success in relationships comes down to mind games. For example – if you believe that you can and should try to control those people around you, you will always resort to manipulation and coercion to get your way. If you believe that love is something that is only valuable when freely chosen, you will refuse to manipulate and allow other people to retain control of their choices. Or if you believe that someone else in your life winning means that you lose, then it is impossible to be genuinely excited about the success of others. What lies mess us up? I think each of these distorted perspectives are like a ditch on either side of the road. When you go to one extreme or the other, your relationships run into mud. Try to find the balance and watch your relationships improve.

1. It’s all about ME…or it’s all about THEM. We have a harmful tendency to focus on our rights in a relationship instead of our responsibilities. This is true in your relationship with your church, with your friends, and it will be true in your marriage: any time you reverse responsibilities and rights, you will be frustrated and disappointed. A huge mistake, but a very common mistake is to get these two things mixed up. We talk in our culture all about our “rights.” We have the right to be treated nicely and to be fawned over and to be appreciated and recognized. We have been told our whole lives how special we are, and so it is no wonder that we expect everyone to be about the business of satisfying our needs. We have the right to be happy, if everyone would just get with the program of making us happy. It always seems when our needs are being met correctly that everyone else is to blame, and we focus solely on the problems with their character. Here is the truth: as long as you focus on your rights or your needs being met in a relationship, you will be disappointed. This is not how things are designed to work. The truth is you are responsible for your own character and the needs of others. If you can focus on your responsibilities, you will be so much happier because you will only worry about things that are in your control. In any relationship, the only element you have any control over is you. You can control your character, your reactions, and your affections. Too often, we want everyone else to change according to our needs and we come into relationships with this expectation. When we are frustrated because this set of priorities does NOT work, we will try to force it through manipulation. This is when we try to control the people around us. Manipulation uses weapons like guilt and fear to control others. You don’t have any legitimate control over other people. Change yourself – grow. Don’t try to change the people around you. You will only resort to manipulation if you do because you will be frustrated by failure.

2. It’s none of my business…or everything is my business. There is a ditch on either side of this road. Check out Galatians 6:1-5 – bear one another’s burdens, and fulfill the law of Christ. There is so much in this passage. You see that this passage teaches we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ to help them out and have their backs. Sometimes we assume that “it’s not my business.” This is really just a thing we say, because we make it our business by judging and gossiping anyway. We have a responsibility for the people we love. It is to protect them, to truly have their backs and look out for them. This passage says our responsibility is to “restore them gently.” This is not talking about criticism or rebuke; but about admonishment. It is a positive thing. The Proverb says “the wounds of a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” That means that the people that tell you what you want to hear don’t care about your nearly as much as the people who are courageous enough to tell you what you need to hear. But this passage also reminds us to check yourself, to examine your own heart and not overdo it with being everyone else’s conscience. This passage is not an invitation for you to go around sticking your nose in everyone else’s business. It reminds us that our character should be our primary concern, even when we are looking to the needs of others. Balance is key. Know when it is your business and when it is not your business. How can you tell? Well, if you can actually help or you are in a position of authority or proximity, it might be your business. This passage is counter-cultural for a lot of reasons, at least it is not how many of us are comfortable in the way we handle relationships. Love wins in environments of open accountability. When we hear people talking about others, often, we remain silent. Either we like hearing the gossip, or we don’t want to get in other’s business. Unity is your business. We become accomplices in the gossip if we don’t shut it down. If you shut your ears, they will shut their mouths. Negativity is dangerous; it is a highly contagious disease that infects the heart.

3. If I ignore it, it will go away or get better…or it is my job to point out everyone else’s issues.
Another lie we believe about relationships is that sources of conflict can be ignored and they will go away. This is not how it works. Hurt does not go away, it grows and festers and becomes ugly like an infected wound. Small offenses can be overlooked, but often the best thing to do is address an issue directly. 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. The key is to balance truth and love. One without the other makes conflict destructive. Remember that GRACE is the face love wears when it sees imperfection. Choose to show grace to the people around you. Let me caution you here: a critical spirit is seriously dangerous. It seems to be a widespread practice where fault-finding and criticism is the normal way to address others’ imperfection. We tend to view ourselves through a lens of our strengths and successes, and judge others through a lens of weaknesses and mistakes. Friends will let us down and they will disappoint us. Sometimes we will be unhappy with their choices or their behavior. How we decide to react to such a situation is largely determined by how we have chosen to think about people.

Thoughts to ponder:
-Are you modelling healthy relationships for your teen, including healthy conflict resolution? Remember that what we do will always have a greater influence than what you say.
-Discuss with your teenager: how healthy do you think your friendships are? How about our family relationships? What could improve on my part? What could improve on your part?
-Do you struggle more with avoiding potential conflict, or with sticking your nose in other people’s business? Why?

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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 stickyfaith.org about the tough transition for college freshmen and their parents.

Check it out here: http://stickyfaith.org/articles/out-of-the-nest

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?

How to say “Friend”

In Greece they say: philos; in Spain: amigo, in Germany: freund; in Russia: prijátel; in Italy: amico; in France: am; Japan: 私の友 (tomodachi), in Israel: חבר (chaver); in the Arabic world they would say: صديق (Sadeeq). “Friend” is a beautiful word in any language, because a friend is a priceless treasure. I don’t think we appreciate how wonderful it is to have friends. Life without friends would be an utterly miserable experience.

According to the June 2006 issue of the journal American Sociological Review, Americans are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study states 25% of Americans have no close confidants. 1 in 4 people have no true friends. This makes me so sad. In a world with so many ways to connect, you would think this would be different. I wonder if we have replaced real friendship with something different – a shallow substitute. I have over 1,000 “friends” on facebook, but is using the word “friend” to describe all of these people cheapening the word? Are all of them true friends? I guess “friend” can mean a few different things, and that people can be different kinds of friends. Jesus taught the best kind of friend is one that would lay down their life for you. The Bible talks about a friend that sticks closer than a brother, and gives us several examples of friendship worth celebrating and emulating.

This month, Echo High School is going to be working through some of these stories of friendship, asking questions about how we can become better friends and surround ourselves with better friends as well.

*Questions to ponder:
-A recent study reveals that 1 in 4 Americans have no true friends. Why do you think this?
-With 6.5 billion people on the planet, why do think some people still feel alone? How can we change this reality?
-What do you think makes someone a true friend?
-What are some ways friendships grow stronger? How can we grow to be better friends ourselves?

Praxis – Watch your Mouth

Sunday night, our Echo High Schoolers continued their series called Praxis. Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, it is faith in practice. It is not just believing something, but living it out. The book of James has a heavy emphasis on praxis, arguing that if your faith does not reveal itself in your priorities, your attitudes, and your lifestyle it is not genuine faith.

One of the areas that true faith is revealed, according to James, is in the way we speak. James takes an entire chapter to talk about the significance of our words. James understands that words have power. Proverbs says that “the power of life and death in the in the tongue.” In a culture where people are always getting in trouble for speaking too soon or too sloppy, this truth should give us pause. Your words can add worth or subtract it, build up or tear down; but they can never be taken back once they are spoken. This reality makes communication dangerous in the digital age, when every status update, photo upload, tweet, text or sound bite can live forever in cyberspace. Now more than ever, people need to learn to harness the power of the tongue.

We talked about the words we speak that subtract worth from others and tear down: gossip, discouragement, criticism, sarcasm, complaining, and bad attitudes. Life is hard enough without having to endure the negative and hurtful words of others. We can wound the people around us, deflate their dreams, and crush their spirit with harsh or critical words. We can drain the joy out of any situation with enough complaining. Teens sometimes believe they can say anything they want, regardless of how cutting or insensitive it is, and cover it over by saying: “I was just kidding.” Joking or not, your words can wound. James compares the destructive potential of words to a consuming fire. We are dealing with a real danger.

Words also have the power to build others up, lend them courage, or ascribe great value to others. Encouragement, genuine compliments, sincerity, and laughter are just a few of the ways you can give life through communication. We challenged our teenagers to ADD to others and not SUBTRACT from them through the way they talk. We have already seen a response from our students in this area. As I type this, there is affirmation being poured out from teen to teen on facebook. One youth leader commented this morning that an “epidemic of niceness” has been started. This will have a more lasting impact than the usual complaining and sarcasm for sure.

Our words are significant because they reveal something about our character. Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Jesus taught that what comes out of a person’s mouth was direct evidence of the contents of his or her heart. If there is evil in your heart, your words will reflect it. It there is love in your heart, your words will reflect it. We live in a culture that is very free with expression, and we need to understand that we are responsible for every bit of communication we release into the world, good or bad.

***Food for thought:
-How are you using words to communicate life to your teenager?
-If you kept track of your words, weighing the negative against the positive, which would win the majority?
-Do you model positive communication to your teenager?
-Do you think that negative words or positive words have more power? Which comes most naturally?

Words – Resposible Communication in the Facebook era

Words-1We are getting close to back to school – so we decided to address some issues for the upcoming year with Echo. We did a short 2 part series called “words” with our middle schoolers this month to address the issue of responsible communication. Think back to a time before twitter, skype, facebook, myspace, instant messenger, texting, cell phones, computers, land lines, and even the printing press. It is hard for me remember that I lived in a time when I was not INSTANTLY reachable through multiple streams of communication all the time. Every time we there has been an advance in communication technology, it has had a major impact on our culture. Why? Because words are powerful. The communication of ideas and opinions is power!

All over the bible, you will find writers pleading with people to recognize the power of words and to be careful with it. James 3 is a great example. James understood that words have power. He cautions people to recognize that what comes out of their mouths can have a dramatic impact on the world, for good or for evil. The playground proverb: “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” has never been true. The bible teaches people to watch carefully what they say. This is such good advice. Once something is spoken, it is out there. It cannot be taken back. In our technologically connected culture, this is even more important. One youth leader told me a story of a work related online discussion forum post he had made 8 YEARS ago that was still available through a google search. Colleges and prospective employers are getting good at checking out facebook pages and other social networks. How can we help our students be safe and responsible with their words, virtual and actual?

Our students need to know that some things should not be shared. Proverbs 10:19 says “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.” For issues of safety, privacy, and for the good of others, some things should be kept private. A facebook status update that informs the world that your family is going on vacation for a week and leaving an empty house might as well be an invitation for trouble. Those pictures of teens in their bathing suits they so readily post do not help much in our quest to protect them from becoming objectified. Argument between friends can hurt a lot of people and cause a lot of collateral social damage when it is handled through public wall posts. The fact is, you can find out a load of personal information (pet’s names, school, grade, friends names), right down to the times and places where people are through the internet. If you have not talked with your student to make sure they have the right privacy settings on their social networking pages or to make sure they know what is appropriate to share online, do so right now. One of the things that always impresses me is how poor teens do at choosing chat handles and email addresses. “Dancingcutie94” is not a good screen name. It tells me you are 15 years old and it encourages every creep to imagine you dancing. Check out http://www.safeteens.com/ for more tips.

Questions for parents of teenagers:

*Do you know if your teen uses facebook, myspace, twitter, aim, etc? Do you visit their pages often? Do you have their passwords and account info?
*If your teen has their own cell phone, have you talked about appropriate texting and media use?
*Is the family computer in a “high traffic” area of the house, or do students have access to computers in private locations?