Thoughts after Echo’s Hero Retreat

This month began with Echo’s Fall Retreat, where 100 echo students went away for a weekend to pursue God and connect with each other. These are always high points for me, and this one in particular. Something started that weekend in the hearts of our students, and so I have kept the messaging from Fall Retreat alive with our high school students.

The Hero Retreat was about inspiring students to do what they can. It sounds simple enough, but if we are honest, most of us actually do very little. There seems to be overwhelming need around us, and we feel pretty small in comparison. What can one person do, in the face of so much need, so much evil, so much darkness, and so much pain? The problems of this world are so intimidating it is easy to be discouraged and feel helpless. After all, I am only one person. One of the most important verses for understanding the work of the Kingdom of God is Acts 4:13.
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus. And that changes everything. If you have been with Jesus – then He is with you. I am just one person, but I am not alone…

A hero does what he or she can do. This is not a statement can be taken a few different ways. On one hand, you can use this statement to disqualify yourself from anything great, limiting the expectation of your contribution to the problem. I get it, the problem is HUGE. This is what happens when people witness an accident or a crisis and stand around doing nothing. We have been conditioned to believe small things about ourselves and to know our limitations. We can’t feed every hungry child, cure every disease, and prevent every injustice. We can’t solve the big problems of our world on our own. We are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, so we don’t think we can do anything, and we do nothing. The difference between a hero and everyone else is that a hero doesn’t think this way.

Most think: “I can’t do everything;” but a hero thinks: “I can’t sit here and do nothing!” No one ever did anything great while whining about how much they “can’t” do. This is what happened on a January day in 1982, in Washington D.C. when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. The plane hit the 14th street bridge and crashed into the frozen water of the river. 78 people were killed in the horrific accident. 5 people survived the wreck, only to struggle with the freezing water of the Potomac river, unable to swim to safety because of injuries. Rescue crews struggled to get the survivors out of the river – and the survivors struggled to hang on to the rescue lines with broken and frozen limbs. Frustrated on the bridge, an office assistant named Lenny Skutnik couldn’t take it anymore. He stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam out to assist her. He drug her through the icy water safely to shore. When asked about it, he said: “Somebody had to go into the water, why not me?” The crowd asks “why?” Heroes ask “why not?” Somebody has to do something about it; it might as well be me. There were many people standing around painfully aware of the need, but only one jumped into the water. We have been so conditioned by our culture not to get involved, we think things like: “Let the professionals do their job.” “I will probably just get in the way.” “What can I do?” Lenny Skutnik’s story makes us feel strong. It reminds us about the best parts of humanity, the potential within each of us. It makes us feel heroic and inspired. Lenny’s story (like so many other stories of heroes) reminds us that sometimes human beings can do amazing things – because we were created by someone amazing to do amazing things.

Most ask: “Why me?” A hero asks: “Why NOT me?” We tend to underestimate what we are capable of. Seriously: I think you underestimate what you are capable of. Another way to look at this statement is through the eyes of Jesus – who thought we were capable of something great. We have disqualified ourselves from greatness because we believe the lie of our insignificance. We have become convinced that the problems of this world are so overwhelming that we cannot do anything to solve them. This paralyzing sense of inadequacy spreads like a cancer. What if we took Jesus and his belief in us seriously? Jesus wanted to change the world – and he decided to do it through a group of misfits and knuckleheads that were already overlooked by their culture. The astonishing truth of the Jesus movement is that the world was forever changed by the efforts of unschooled, ordinary people. They were not super heroes. They did not have super powers; they did not have special abilities. They were not geniuses or savants. They were not famous or super talented; they were not kings or queens. These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus.

In the face of challenge, most shrink back, but a hero rises up. This is undoubtedly how Lenny Skutnik felt. He was an office assistant in the Congressional Budget office. He was just trying to get home on a snow day, fighting traffic, normal, everyday stuff. He is not a coast guard rescue swimmer, he wasn’t even on a swim team! He left the house that morning the same as he always did, and expected more of the same from his day. It was a normal and routine day. Routine has a way of lulling us to sleep, of convincing ourselves of our smallness. This is exactly how he felt, until a crisis woke him up. It became instantly clear that he needed to be something more. In the moment you are called on to do something heroic, you either shrink or rise to the challenge.

You cannot do everything, but you can do something.
You cannot feed every hungry kid, but you can feed one. You cannot solve every problem, but you can solve one. Open up your heart to something outside yourself and see what God will put there. See the challenge, weep over it, let it in – but then listen to my challenge: stare that impossible, insurmountable thing in the face and instead of shrinking back, RISE UP. Dare to TRUST HIM.

Check out this dramatization of Lenny’s story here.

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?

Love This Priority #2 – Love your neighbor as yourself.

This series in Echo, we have been talking about love, which is not a feeling, but a choice. When Jesus was asked what was the heart and soul of this whole religion thing – what is a relationship with God all about, the conversation turned to the “great commandment.” Love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself. This week it was all about loving our neighbor.

Luke 10:25-37 recalls how a teacher of the law wanted some clarification. His question was: “who is my neighbor?” If I am being commanded to love someone, I want to know who that someone is. This sounds at first like a great question, but Jesus seemed to to think it was the wrong question to ask.

Jesus answers in a very unexpected way. This is a great example of Jesus doing what he does best: masterfully helping people who are focused on the wrong things find the right things. This teacher of the law intended to have an abstract theological conversation. Jesus manages to turn it into a stinging real life situation. A lot of what made Jesus’ answer scandalous has been lost because of historical distance, so let me talk some of this out.

First, you need to understand the question being asked. By asking this question, the teacher of the law is implying that some people are “neighbors,” and as such are to be loved, while other people are “non-neighbors,” and we might not need to love them. He is trying to draw lines and categories of who should be loved and who should not. The commandment about “loving your neighbor” was from Leviticus, and Jews had been debating what was meant by “neighbor” for a long time. This rabbi would teach one thing, while another rabbi would teach something different. Some rabbis taught this only applied to other Jews. It would certainly not apply to a Samaritan. There was a quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans that was centuries old. The road from Galilee to Jerusalem led through Samaria, and the Samaritans were known for hindering or even injuring Jews that tried to pass through. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as “half breeds” and “heretics.” They were not friends. When Jesus’ story unfolds and the Samaritan is the 3rd person to find the beset traveler, the original audience likely assumed that the villain had just arrived. Jesus does not pick a Samaritan as his hero on accident. He picked a Samaritan because Samaritans are in the “non-neighbor” category of the person that asked the question. This introduces a new question for you and I: who is in our “non-neighbor” category?

The priest and Levite serve as examples of empty religion that does not work because it is not concerned with the needs of others. They are the story’s true villains. They are expected to be the good guys, but they end up acting in a horrible way. I just heard a story about a woman that was in a rollover accident where she lost consciousness. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, only to arrive and find her wedding ring was missing. Eyewitnesses told police that a man actually reached into her overturned car and pulled the ring off her finger while she lay there helpless. Stealing is one thing; seeing another human being in desperate need and failing to respond is another. Stealing from a human being that needs your help? that is a special kind of evil. The priest and the Levite saw the same need and heard the same cries for help as the Samaritan, but what did they do with what they say and heard? What will you do with what you see and hear? Neighborliness is only limited by our failure to see, feel, and respond to the needs of others.

This brings me to why I think Jesus was a master at this type of “mind game.” We enter the story along with the teacher of the law, thinking about who qualifies to be our neighbor and who does not. Who should receive our love and who can we withhold it from? Who is our neighbor? Well, it might be everyone – including the people we would not expect. It would include those that are not like us and that we do not like. But this is the wrong question, at least to Jesus. Through the story, Jesus flips the question and the answer. Instead of worrying about and assessing others to see who fits the bill for “neighbor,” or who is good enough for us to love – Jesus’ call is to become people that behave in a neighborly way to everyone. We (and the lawyer) started off seeking to limit who we (and he) have to call our neighbor, and we end up evaluating ourselves and how we are doing as a neighbor in the broken world we share. We are not to worry about who is our neighbor, we are to worry about how to be better neighbors ourselves – serving them, showing them love, and healing their wounds. Jesus says let the neighbor be you. Be the neighbor. This reminds me of Gandhi who once challenged us “to be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Questions for you and your teenager:
*Do you know the names of your actual neighbors (meaning the people living next door to your home)? What can you do to get to know them better?
*What would be different if everyone treated everyone else the way they wish they were treated?
*Can you think of anyone on your “non-neighbor” list? Are some people harder to love than others? Do you think Jesus ever intends for us to have a certain number of people that we do not love, for whatever reason?
*Should you help someone in need if it means putting yourself in danger? Why or why not? Are there limits to this?
*What are the needs around you right now, and how are you doing at being neighborly?