Surviving Middle School – What Captures your Heart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surviving Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for New College Parents – How to handle your freshmen

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

Echo has been following the research of the “Sticky Faith Project” for a few years now, and listening carefully to their recommendations and findings. They have just published a great article on 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:” You can be first, I will be second.

This month, Echo High School is talking about friendship. One of the most beautiful expressions of friendship anywhere is found in the Biblical books of Samuel, between Jonathan son of Saul and David son of Jesse. If you have never read this account of friendship woven through the saga of David’s life, pick up your Bible and start reading 1 Samuel. This story is as dramatic as they come! Jonathan was the son of Saul, the king of Israel, making Jonathan the crown prince. The Israelites were new to the monarchy game, but given the practices of their neighbors and the popularity and success of Jonathan, his path to the throne looked like a given. The trouble is: Saul had wandered from the ways of God, and God had already selected his replacement. David was the poor son of a shepherd, but one that God had chosen to become King through the prophet Samuel. David is someone the Bible describes as “a man after God’s heart.” This makes David, Israel’s rising star, and Jonathan direct rivals for the throne. Their expected rivalry provides a dramatic backdrop for their unexpected friendship. Jonathan had every reason to see David as a rival and feel threatened by David’s success. This tension makes Jonathan’s attitude toward David astonishing; he is unbelievable unselfish.

Young David goes from zero to hero when he boldly steps across the line to fight the giant Goliath in single combat. When he wins this impossible victory, David has been thrust into the public eye. His fame eclipses both the king and his impressive son. In response, Saul is jealous and suspicious. Doing something heroic or admirable normally attracts envy and criticism from a rival. Remarkably, when Jonathan saw David’s success, he wasn’t jealous of it. Jonathan was the wealthy son of the King. David was the poor son of a shepherd. Jonathan walks up to David and trades clothes and weapons with him. This is not a small detail; this act had profound meaning. Earlier in the narrative, it mentions that Jonathan and Saul are among the few in Israel to possess such fine weapons. Jonathan gives his priceless sword to David, someone far beneath his station, and in return gets a leather sling and a bag of rocks. The exchange of clothing was a common practice in making a covenant. The clothes are tokens of the covenant, sort of like rings are tokens of a marriage covenant. The giving of clothing can indicate the transfer of authority (like in the case of Elijah’s cloak). This act is saying that Jonathan is willing to give his life for David. It means something like: my possessions are yours, my sword is yours, and your enemies are mine. Before you write this off as Jonathan seeking the spotlight like a groupie of David’s success, you have to understand that this friendship will only come at Jonathan’s expense. Think of how strange it would be for Jonathan (the crown prince) to be seen walking around in David’s clothes, and for David (a poor shepherd) to be seen walking around in the clothes of the prince.

As David’s success and popularity continue to rise, Saul perceives David as a threat to his security and tries to have David killed. The affection and the covenant between Jonathan and David compel Jonathan to intervene. Jonathan tries to make peace between David and Saul. He argues for his friend, trying to clear up any misunderstanding and represent David’s heart. In modern friendships, this is often the point where someone would play both sides, acting for their own advancement and trying to impress instead of going to bat for their friend.

The narrative unfolds with Saul’s influence decreasing while David’s increases. All of this comes at great cost to Jonathan, a cost he is willing to pay due to his friendship with David. 1 Samuel 20 records the twists and turns of relational triangle between Saul, David, and Jonathan. After multiple attempts on his life by Saul, David is on the run, pursued by the mad king. David is desperate, he needs safety and support. He needs to know who his friends are. With nowhere else to turn, David puts his fate in Jonathan’s hands entirely. Modern politics and life in general have no basis for understanding such trust in another person. David commits his fate into the hands of his rival. This is the point when a modern story would detail an act of betrayal. We have all seen this before. All Jonathan has to do is go along with the plan of his father…who could blame him? He wouldn’t have to live in David’s shadow any more. He could finally get what should have been his all along.

This isn’t what happens. Jonathan stays true. Their relationship defies convention. It is built on a covenant of hesed, a Hebrew word often translated “lovingkindness, favor, loyalty, faithfulness, love, or mercy.” It is a covenant relationship of fierce loyalty and the pledge of mutual protection. It means you have the other’s back, in every way, as long as there is breath in your lungs. Jonathan has every reason to view David as a threat, and if David does in fact acquire the throne, he in turn has every reason to eliminate Jonathan’s descendent to secure his position. Both men appeal to their covenant to motivate the other to remain loyal despite pressure to do otherwise. Often, hesed passes from the one with the ability to help (the one in the greater position) to the one in need of help (the one in the lesser position). Jonathan’s reply to David is essentially saying: “My help is yours as long as you need it, but remember our covenant when I am in need and you are in power.” There is a beautiful example of mutual submission in this passage. In this passage, it is clearer than anywhere else that Jonathan is indeed David’s covenant friend.

The final meeting of these friends is recorded in 1 Samuel 23:15-18. Check this out:

“And Saul’s son Jonathan wen to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this.’ The two of them made a covenant before the Lord. Then Jonathan went home, but David remained at Horesh.”

With each encounter, Jonathan’s benefit diminishes as he sacrifices and gives for his friend. This is the heart of true friendship – the desire to be second to the needs of another. So much of life in our culture is about being first. We want the top position, the best promotion, to be the star player or the top of our class. Jonathan didn’t claim the throne himself, he surrendered the top position to his friend. Jonathan demonstrates to us a powerful reality about friendship, and the heart required to live in it. He genuinely chose the happiness and success of his friend over his own. This is exactly what Paul wrote about in Philippians 2:3. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” What would happen if we became a group of people undeniably committed to each other? This could be a place where relationships only brought strength, and never heartache. Where no one would manipulate, hurt, gossip, or take advantage of someone else; where everyone always placed others before themselves. This could be a place where relationships were a life-giving force of change and transformation. God, let me be a friend like Jonathan.

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?”

Childlike Wonder

My daughter Arabella is two years old today. I cannot believe how much our lives have changed because of this little blond girl running around and enriching every moment with a sense of wonder and joy. She is obsessed with princesses, shoes, jewelry, magic, and beauty. I still harbor a secret hope that someday she will turn into a hunter that likes watching football shooting guns with her daddy. Given that she has not taken off her pair of glittering pink princess shoes since her grandma bought them (she even wears them to bed), I should stop holding my breath. Seeing the world through her eyes is always a treat for me as her father. Jesus understood something about the benefit from such a shift in perspective and the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

Mark 10:13-16 – this is a great passage. Jesus is having a blast hanging out with some kids, and his disciples see this and make to remedy the situation. They come over to righteously defend their teachers importance and his lack of time for such a trivial thing as playing and such insignificant people as children. Their attitude leads to one of those moments when Jesus gets ticked off. He is indignant about their pride and assumption: to Jesus, there isn’t anything more important than what he is doing. And he uses the kids as a great object lesson – become like them if you want to get the Kingdom of God. So what can we learn from kids about life and about God? In what ways can we actually learn about spiritual maturity from the simple mind of a child?

Mystery – kids are okay with the unknown. They don’t feel they need to know everything. This doesn’t stop them from asking questions. Arabella is just getting to this age. She flips through her books and asks “What’s this?” “What’s that?” She looks at the world like it is a puzzle she is going to figure out if she just pays attention. Never will there be a group with more questions than children. They want to know if God is really invisible, or if that is just a trick. They want to know if God could make the sky green if he wanted to. Why don’t we have any questions anymore? Because we have moved on and become mature and we don’t like to admit we don’t know everything. Sometimes we focus on showing everyone what we know, not admitting what we don’t know. There are just some things we will never understand. Some of us have a hard time understanding girls. Others of you, you just don’t get guys. Good luck understanding your parents. Sometimes, we don’t even understand ourselves. There are questions in life that you and I can’t answer. We offer up platitudes. We make guesses; sometimes even educated guesses, but we really don’t know. For example, we don’t understand why good people suffer. Or why bad people prosper. We can’t understand why some people from a certain kind of background become criminals, while other people growing up under the same kind of circumstances become sterling citizens. The difference between kids and us is that they are okay with not knowing everything, while it drives us nuts. Kids have the potential for remarkable faith because of their comfort with the unknown.

Wonder – Kids are amazed by the simplest things. My daughter is impressed every time I make chocolate milk. She studies the way the milk and the chocolate swirl around and cheers when it is done. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to impress us. We have lost our sense of wonder. I think it is because we have become so big that God has become smaller. I love what John the Baptist says about Jesus – “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Kids know they are small, and the world and God are huge! I love to see a kid that is amazed and impressed.

FUN – Why do kids have more fun than adults? Things that are common and routine to us are pure excitement to them. Running, jumping, dancing, music, games, and laughter. They laugh deep; energy that comes from their core. It isn’t just a courtesy laugh, you know, the little chuckle we give each other when something really isn’t funny but a laugh is appropriate or expected. Kids laugh from the gut, and it erupts out of them like pure, care free joy. Arabella reminds me every day about the simple reasons to laugh. Yesterday, we danced in the living room for 10 minutes with no music other than the melody of her contagious joy. Then she wanted to jump. Then she wanted to pretend to sleep while I pretended to be a pillow, complete with snoring sounds.

Kids don’t care if their clothes are the coolest, they don’t care if they have the best looking prom date, they don’t care about so much that is so superficial. Kids don’t worry about popularity or image. Think of the barriers that we have to deal with between us and serving God with abandon: our reputation, selfish agendas, our plans, our hang ups – kids just aren’t encumbered by this stuff. Jesus was on to something when he taught us to rediscover the faith of a child. If this is something you struggle with, come over and hang out with my 2 year-old. See the world through her eyes.

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?