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

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.

The Never Ending Story

never-ending-storyWhen I was a kid, my world was rocked by a movie called The Never Ending Story. A boy finds an old book, and as he reads he is drawn in to the adventure story. There are mythic creatures, heroes, and enemies; a beautiful empress (one of my first childhood crushes) and a world in peril. At some point, he realizes that he is actually in the story himself; that what happens in the story is connected to him in some way. Beyond his imagination and his connection with the characters, his choices in the world have a direct impact on the world in the book. As “imagination” dies in the real world, “The Nothing” claims more of the fantasy world.empress

The book of Acts in the Bible is sort of like this story. It doesn’t really have an ending; it ends abruptly with Paul in prison, almost like it is unfinished. This has led some people to believe its author died before it could be finished, but other people believe it was intentional. The book of Acts functions as a history of Christianity, telling the stories of the earliest followers of Jesus. Maybe the author intended it to be unfinished to imply that the story of Christianity continues with future readers. The story isn’t over, there is no ending, it continues with you and me. Reading the book of Acts, we might find that this story is our story: that we are actually connected to the book. In that regard, maybe it is the Never Ending Story.

This month in Echo, I am challenging our students to read through the book of Acts as we examine some of the episodes from the earliest days of the Jesus Revolution. As we explore the adventures of the first followers of Jesus and their quest to advance the Kingdom of God, we will be constantly asking the question: how can I find myself in this story?

Week 1, we talked out the role of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit sometimes doesn’t get much press. In the old creeds and catechisms (the way the Christian faith has been handed down for generations) Jesus and God the Father get paragraphs of explanation, but the Holy Spirit barely gets one line. Early in Acts, Jesus promised his disciples that when He left them, they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” That word baptized literally means “immersed.” John (the baptist!) immersed people in water as a symbol of being washed to be cleansed of sin. Jesus is saying to the disciples that they will be “immersed” in the Holy Spirit. It will be like they fell into the pool: they will be soaked, drenched, surrounded, and covered by the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, the event that follows, is when the first Christians receive the Holy Spirit. This event is what opens the book of Acts, clearly demonstrating that everything that follows is the result of the Holy Spirit working through these first Christians.

This is AWESOME. The Holy Spirit at work through the followers of Jesus a major theme in the book of Acts. You will see over and over again the phrase “…filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is very clear that what is happening is not because of the people, it is because of the power of God through the Holy Spirit. They did some amazing things in this story. Thousands of people join the Way of Jesus through their ministry, people are physically and spiritually healed, and dramatic miracles take place all because of the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Some of the time, we do not experience God like we could because we are too impatient. We do not give God the chance to show up. We want our relationship with the King of Heaven to work like the microwave: giving us what we want immediately at the push of a button. The thought of waiting for days in prayer like they did in Acts 2 sounds boring and tedious, because much of our faith experience is just “going through the motions.” What if we recognized that we serve a God that wants to be experienced? What if we prayed and worshiped like there is a God that is real and powerful and wants to be with us and near us on the other end of our songs and prayers? If we could settle down, tune out all the distractions, and invite the presence and power of God into our lives? It might not be fireballs and whirlwinds, but we can be sure it would be something that would impact the way we live out the mission of God in this world.

Jesus taught that the power behind his extraordinary life was the Holy Spirit, and that this power was going to be given to His followers when he returned to heaven. I was taught growing up that there was a part of God that was best understood through experience, and that this was the Holy Spirit. The biblical metaphors for the Holy Spirit are wind, fire, water, and oil. All these things are hard to contain, fluid, and evoke some sort of mystery. Maybe this is a case where our head can get in the way of what God wants to do in our hearts. What I do know is that the times in my faith journey that were most transforming were when I encountered the real presence and power of the very real and very personal Holy Spirit. Not as a nice idea, but as the actual Person of God reaching down to earth.

Twilight Part 2 – Bella’s Secret

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As an ongoing exercise in cultural redemption, we have been looking at the Twilight phenomenon. These love stories have taken teenage girls by storm…much to the puzzlement of many teenage guys. It is a typical story of girl meets boy, (who seems to be the only one that understands her) falls in love, and much emotional drama ensues. The twist is: the boy is a vampire. Their relationship is complicated by his “thirst” for her blood, which serves as a bit of a metaphor and the source of erotic tension. These characters endure an ever present, mutual desire that culminates with Bella – on prom night – offering her jugular to Edward so that his bite might turn her into a vampire…Hmm….sound at all familiar?

Let’s look at this story from the perspective of a teenage girl, who sees the unfolding drama through Bella’s eyes. Bella has her dreams come true in storybook fashion. She is described as a very plain, ordinary young lady, yet she manages to capture the heart of a very extraordinary guy (two extraordinary guys if you read the whole series). Edward is a vampire, and that gives him some supernatural charm or power over women. He seems to be able to attract people. He is also in possession of the ability to read the minds of the people around him. The book portrays him as some sort of Super Romeo; the perfect balance of good looks and intrigue. He has his pick of the girls, but he only chooses one. Not insignificantly, this girl is the one whose mind he cannot read. She is the one least available to him. The questions racing through the minds of teenage girls are along the lines of: “how can this happen to me?” What is it that makes some people stand out and others seem rather ordinary? How do I get the attention of Prince Charming? What is it that makes a woman captivating?

This is a huge question that our teenage girls struggle to answer, and their culture is short on quality answers. Am I attractive? Am I enough? Am I captivating? Will a guy ever bother to pursue me and fight for me?

Our girls are growing up in a twisted world. I heard one story (it made national news) of a young woman auctioning her virginity. She is “putting it out there.” That seems to be the model in culture right now. I am not saying that many women are so blatantly “for sale,” but I am saying that many women “have it in the showroom,” so to speak. Modesty is a lost art. I don’t think that girls understand what really captures a man’s heart. Many seem to understand what captures a man’s eye – that is easy. You don’t want his eye – you want his heart. His eye is the most fickle and fleeting part of him. You want a man to give his life to chase you and delight in you and cherish you forever. You want a man that can appreciate the beauty of who you are long after time has its way with your physical body. When it comes to finding a mate, the question our teenagers should be asking is: how do you get the attention of his heart?

Beauty is another reality distorted in the teenage mind by our culture. Let me give you an example: a very pretty 15 year old comes to me and her youth leader because she is struggling with bulimia. This might sound shocking, but when you stop and think that the average model is 5’10” and weighs 110 lbs, but the average woman is 5’4” and weighs 150 lbs, it’s easy to see why this creates a tremendous health risk for young girls. Advertisers are hiring psychologists to help them exploit teenagers’ insecurities to sell more products. Last year, girls saw more advertisements for diet products than adults. I just read an article about students having anxiety attacks about acne on prom. I thought zits were a part of the teenage deal! This distorted ideal makes this world a very hard place to be girl. I am finding more and more girls that never feel like they are enough. “I am not pretty enough, I am not skinny enough, my hair is not thick enough, my skin is not smooth enough, some things are never big enough, and other things are never small enough.” As our teenagers are struggling to figure this out, we need to help them discover the biblical ideal of inner beauty. They need help so they don’t let beauty become something as superficial as their appearance; what they weigh, what they wear, and so on. Let your beauty be found within. When they settle this issue in their hearts, they will finally find “enough.”

These are just symptoms of the real problem. Ultimately, Bella decides what many girls decide: that life without Edward is not really worth living. She is only complete when she is with him. The heart of every woman is seeking the answers to specific questions: am I loved, am I valuable, am I captivating, am I wanted and needed? No guy can be the answer to these questions. Our girls have a hunger in their souls for a significance “he” (whoever he may be) cannot give them. I have met too many girls that are incomplete without a boy on their arm. The truth is: having that boy makes them no more complete. When we can find the answers to the questions of our hearts in the presence of God, we will have found the source of true strength. The most beautiful and strong kind of girl is the one that is confident in her identity in Christ. She respects herself, and so others will respect and value her too.

Twilight – Summer Cinema Series

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This Sunday, in the Main Service at DCC, I will tackle the movie/book Twilight as a cultural parable. We did an entire series on the book a few months back for Echo High School, and we had some great conversations with our students about desire, temptation, appetites, and sexuality. As I prepare to talk to DCC’s adult population, I have never had so much “input” from people that want to make sure I handle the message “correctly.” This is not from teenagers, this is from adults. People LOVE their vampires it seems.

My thoughts for the parents of Echo students on this book, movie, and cultural phenomenon are as follows:
First, let me comment on the church and cultural engagement. Years ago, when the craze was a boy named Harry who happened to be a wizard, our youth ministry did a sermon series talking out redemptive themes and looking critically at the worldview behind the “Potterverse.” The fact that a youth ministry was talking about these issues severely disturbed a pastor of a neighboring church. He called me to warn me about the dangers of witchcraft and the sinister nature of Harry Potter and to tell me about the plan of the author to turn our children into warlocks. When I respectfully disagreed, he called the officials of the denomination I was credentialed with (who told him to mind his own business). The facts as I saw them then were: 1.The kind of fantasy magic in books like Harry Potter resembles the real witchcraft that the bible forbids like W.W.E. resembles real hand-to-hand combat. It is imaginary. The imagination is something that honors God and should be set free and employed to the purpose of the Kingdom of God. 2. The church is at its best when it can hear the stories and songs of the culture it finds itself in and redeem them. Hiding from culture or ignoring culture are two fast ways to minimize the influence God has called His people to have. 3. The apostle Paul, when preaching to a crowd of pagans and philosophers in Athens, did not quote scripture. Instead, he quoted the words of one of their own poets. He used the art and expression of the receptor culture to find common ground for spiritual conversation. 4. Not one of the students that sat through our sermon series on Harry Potter became a warlock. No spells were cast and no brooms were ridden. My point is that the crowd that says “Vampires are evil because blood drinking is forbidden in the Old Testament” needs to be reminded that no one reading a novel about a girl falling in love with a vampire believes such vampires actually exist.

Second, let me tell you why I do think the Twilight books are somewhat dangerous. Many students (and children) are reading these books like they consume most media: in a vacuum. They watch TV alone because mom and dad don’t want to watch what they want to watch. They listen to music with little white earbuds because mom and dad don’t want to listen to that “noise.” My experience has been that teens and children are great observers but horrible interpreters. They don’t miss the subtleties of emotion or even innuendo that we assume goes over their heads. They have no idea what to do with the information or emotion they observe. When mom is reading Twilight with them, she can be so engrossed in the romance herself that she does not view the book through the eyes of her teenage daughter. I heard of a facebook club started by one woman calling women to join whose “husbands no longer met their expectations after Edward.” Song of Solomon, which is a Hebrew love poem, says 4 different times: “Do not awaken love before its time.” The bible is not down on sexuality, it celebrates it. It does however warn young people about starting a fire they cannot control. Twilight is a highly erotic book for the teenage mind. Yes, the characters remain celibate and their romance seems outwardly and physically appropriate. Yet there is much erotic tension in the wanting. Bella does not want to live without Edward, Edward hungers and thirsts for Bella. This is a heavy amount of passion for a 6th grader. They might not be able to connect the dots about how Bella offering up her neck to Edward on Prom night to make her a vampire is more than a bit allegorical about her virginity…but they do feel the impact of all the fantasy, desire, and longing that are exchanged between the teenage characters. There is a time and a place to celebrate that kind of intimacy, but it is not in the teen years. Our young teens do not always know how to process the introduction of this kind of emotion. Would you think it was appropriate for a father to give a 6th grade boy a Victoria’s Secret catalog? We all know how visually stimulated teenage boys are, so this type of thing rarely happens. I am not so sure we are as diligent about protecting our girls who are equally as stimulated emotionally. Again, I am not saying that Twilight is evil, but I am saying that parents should be aware of the heavy emotional and sexual themes in the story and prepare their teens accordingly.

Third, I believe strongly that more than anything else, parents shape the values and worldview of teens. If you haven’t yet, have some good conversations with your teen about sexuality. We know its awkward…we know they act like they don’t want to talk to you about it. I really believe it is all an act – they secretly want and need your guidance and advice on this stuff. Talk to them often and talk to them openly. Twilight gives you a great excuse!

I will blog about a few talk points for you and your teen over the next few days taken directly from our sermon series to Echo High School.

The Game of Life – Prudence

This series we have been talking about how morality has more to do with becoming the right sort of person than it does being a person that follows all the rules. People sometimes assume that if they can do “good” things more and “bad” things less, they will somehow put God in their debt or gain his approval. This attitude fails to consider the level of transformation that is available in Jesus. In Christ, there is the possibility of New Life, where an internal transformation occurs supernaturally. This is not based on our moral performance, but on Christ’s work on our behalf. This is how we are to become the “right sort of person.”

What is the right kind of person? In this series, we are looking at morality in terms of “virtues:” internal characteristics that define who a person is or is becoming instead of external rules that define what they do or do not do. The 4 classic virtues (sometimes called the “Cardinal Virtues”) are Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude.

Let’s talk about Prudence. This is one of those words that has lost its meaning over time. What I mean by prudence is the correct knowledge of things to be done or avoided, or the ability to make the right choice. Prudence is first among the virtues because it guides the others by setting the course of life and helps in applying moral principles to particular cases.

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Remember the Game of Life? You make your choices, and depending on how well you choose, you either end up living in “Millionaire Acres” or as some dead beat. I don’t know about ending up in “Millionaire Acres,” but I do think that the Game of Life has a lot to do with Prudence. Prudence, like Life, is all about making choices.

The bible gives us a great conversation throughout the book of Proverbs that sets “Wisdom” against “Folly.” Wisdom is personified by in a noble and beautiful young woman. She is the kind of girl every young man dreams of marrying. Folly on the other hand, takes the form of a woman with “questionable character.” If wisdom is the ability to make good choices, folly is the opposite. Folly is impulse, empty promises, misplaced desire, reckless affection, and self-destruction. She is sneaky and seductive, but in the end she is disaster. She represents all the choices that seem like a good idea only to end in unbearable consequences.

When it comes to virtues, Prudence is not on the top of the teenage list. They tend to make decisions based on feeling, considering only the most immediate impact and ignoring long term consequences. Being prudent means having the ability to forecast the long term impact of our decision. Our culture struggles with this idea, as evidenced by the “credit card philosophy” by which many people live. Play now, pay later is a slogan that would sum up the average student’s attitude toward life. Prudence means taking the time to stop and think, weigh each option for pro’s and con’s, and proceed with the logical choice. Jesus warned about “counting the cost” before beginning any endeavor.

Prudence also means knowing where to find wisdom when you need it. When they are at an impasse, most teenagers naturally look for advice from their friends. This is a bit like asking another drowning person to help you out of the pool. One of the marks of maturity is when a young person starts seeking advice in the right places. Very often, when people say they are looking for advice, what they are actually looking for is someone to agree with what they have already decided. Proverbs 12:15 says it just right: “Fools think they need no advice, but the wise listen to others.” Teens need to be challenged and reminded that teachers, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, and (gasp) even their parents are MUCH better sources of advice than other teenagers.

ORANGE MOMENT: Of course, there are plenty of topics in the teenage universe that they are not comfortable talking to mom and pop about. This is where youth ministry can offer families a great tool. In youth ministry, we have adults (that are not mom and dad) that have taken the time to enter the teenage world and earn enough relational currency to matter. These adults have established a platform to say the same kinds of things that mom and dad would say. This is why we work so hard to create environments that are conducive to deepening the relationship between youth leaders and students. This way parents have a resource they can turn to when another adult is needed to “echo” the wisdom that our students should be hearing at home. Now we are thinking orange!

Questions for you and your teenager:

*How do you make decisions? What is your thought process like? What kinds of things do you consider before making a big decision? Why?
*Who can you go to for advice on something important? Should you trust these people to give you good advice? Why or why not?
*How should the Bible play into our decision making? What role should God have in our choices?