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.”)

How to say friend – Conflict

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

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

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

So, how is this conflict a model for us?

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

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

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

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

How to say “Friend:” 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.

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?