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.”)

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?

Empty Promises

Sorry it has been so long since my last blog, I was really shaken up by the death of my beloved Billy Mays. Well, I guess that is a bit of an exaggeration and a poor excuse. Speaking of Billy Mays:

Echo Middle Schoolers are experiencing a new teaching series right now called Empty Promises. We live in a world of constant advertisement, where every time we turn around, someone is offering to solve our problems or improve our lives for just $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Whether it is Sham Wow, Zorbeez, The Magic Bullet, The Hercules Hook, Magic Putty, Slap Chop, or Oxy Clean – the pitch is generally the same. These products claim to save you all kinds of money and deliver amazing results, but the real story of these products is that after paying $19.99 plus shipping and handling, what gets delivered to my house is disappointment.

They never seem to live up to the hype.

Well, what did I expect? Do I really expect that something I bought on TV would solve all my problems? The real issue for me is a bit deeper: in a culture that promises so much but delivers so little, how can we trust the promises of God? The fact is that God promises us some pretty incredible things, and that we can actually trust Him. God’s promises are never empty, which is more than I can say about Billy Mays or the Sham Wow guy. In this series, we will check out some of the biggest promises of God – the ones that almost seem “too good to be true.”

To celebrate the great pitchmen that are helping us teach about God’s promises, I am wanting to start a contest – the first ever Echo Film Contest. The best “pitchmen” style video commercial about something to do with ECHO will be worth MAJOR bonus points.

***Questions to talk about with your teenager:
-What is your favorite infomercial or pitchmen style product?
-People often say “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Do you agree with this statement all the time? What about when it comes to God?
-What are some of the biggest promises of God in the bible?
-Do you ever struggle to believe some of God’s promises?

Thoughts after Echo’s Fall Retreat

75 Echo students just returned from our Fall Retreat, a weekend packed full of God encounters and memories. This year, our theme for the retreat was Love Revolution, where we explored the story of a crippled man meeting Peter and John outside the temple gates. We examined this story from three different angles: Peter’s perspective as an unlikely hero, the story of the unlikely partnership of Peter and his former rival John, and finally the perspective of the man begging at the temple gate. Saturday night, we brought the weekend home as we talked out what this man’s story means for us today.

We know of him that he was forty years old, and that he had been crippled from birth. We know that he had arranged a way to get placed every day to beg at the temple gate. This man has a sad story, but everything in his life was about to change. He was about to meet two agents of God’s Kingdom, two people committed to having their lives become an Echo of Christ. That day, three things happened to him that had maybe never happened before. It changed his heart toward God, and it changed his life forever.

First, he was seen – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of indifference. The text makes note that “Peter and John looked intently at him.” He was noticed, he was valued. This man had to be so used to being ignored and overlooked. We all know the feeling, because we have all done it. We see a homeless man on the road, or some other undesirable, and something in our fear or misunderstanding makes us reflexively think “don’t make eye contact and I am O.K.” It was 3:00pm, a regular time for temple prayer. This was a crowded scene – many people had already walked past this man. Some had given him pity, throwing him a few coins or a scrap of food. None of them had given him love, none of them had given him anything of true value. People like to be charitable, but they rarely perform acts of charity that are truly sacrificial. This beggar might have learned to expect nothing from most people that passed by. But these two men seemed different. They didn’t look over him, they didn’t even look down on him, they looked right at him, and they saw him. Where others had given him indifference, they gave him their attention.

Second, he was helped – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of inaction. When the beggar found the courage to ask for money, he must have been disappointed when Peter gave his answer: “I don’t have any money.” This man though he knew what he needed, but he was wrong. He was asking for the wrong thing. Jesus once said to a woman that as they talked about drawing water from a well: “if you knew who I was, you would ask me for living water.” Well, if this man knew who he was talking to, he might have asked for something more. This did not stop him from receiving what he needed though. Peter continued: “I don’t have any money, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” At first, his emotion might have gone from disappointment to confusion and anger; this was an impossible thing he was asking for! Yet there was something in the faces of these men, some deep well of love and sincerity, and the man must have realized that it was not a demand, but a gift. As if to ensure he was making good on his promise, one of the men reached down with his hand to pick up the cripple. Peter helped him up. He reached down with his hand to pull him off the ground. This is the most practical, tangible expression of love this man could have received. At that moment, this man who had been crippled for 40 years, never able to stand let alone walk, became aware of a strange new strength in his legs and feet: instead of collapsing beneath him, they actually supported him. He could stand! Miraculously so! He decided then to be brave and bold and reckless – and venture to do what he had never done: walk. He put one foot in front of the other, each step a miracle, each step astonishing, each step bringing more strength and health and life and faith. Soon, walking seemed such a plain and ordinary thing to do. He began to leap, jump, and run – daring to trust in the reality he was experiencing and casting away the haunting suspicion it was all a dream or that it would not last. After 40 years of broken immobility, being held in a motionless prison, and dependent on the charity of others – he could now move. By the Grace of God and the power of His Holy Spirit, this man could do what he had never even dreamed of doing. He leapt and ran, with each step discovering all his new limbs were capable of. People all around began to worship and exalt God – as if his joy was contagious. Where others had shown him inaction, Peter and John showed up with action.

Third, he was invited in – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of judgment. This man had somehow arranged to be set outside the temple gate that people called “Beautiful.” It was an ornate gate made of decorative bronze, and it was a famous sight that tourists would visit. This was an ideal place for a beggar to find crowds of people. What I want you to think about though is what this crippled man thought about God. As a cripple, he was not allowed in the temple court. Outside the gate, there were notices posted in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew warning those unqualified to stay out on penalty of death. Think about how this man had to think about God, the one that had overlooked him, rejected him, labeled him unacceptable, unworthy. The Beautiful Gate had become to him an ugly barrier. He must have felt invisible. In his culture, it was assumed when you were crippled that you or your parents had done some horrible wicked thing, and the infirmity was God’s way of punishing you. Everywhere he went (with his limited ability to travel) he was judged and looked down on. How was he to think of God as anything but the unloving, hateful judge? This is so important, and I don’t want you to miss it: Peter and John showing this man mercy, acceptance, and love actually helped this man rethink his assumptions about God. It enabled him to soften his heart and receive from God. It was through faith in Jesus that this man was able to be restored, and that faith is only possible with a receptive heart. Peter and John showed him the truth about Jesus through their LOVE. The first thing they do with him once he is on his feet is walk him right through the Beautiful Gate, into the Temple Court. He can enter now because he is whole. This gate had become a symbol of his separation from God, but that separation has been erased in Jesus.

****Thoughts for you and your teenager:
*This story is about faith in Jesus removing the barriers between a man and God. What barriers stand in between people and God today?
*Peter and John were the avenue of love, mercy, and acceptance to this man. Their love helped him rethink his concept of God. What do you think our culture’s perspective of God is? Why do you think that is? What should followers of Jesus do to reshape this perspective?
*Who do you identify with most in the story, Peter, John, the crowds, or the crippled man? Why?

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.