Rooted in Love

Rooted-content-1Echo continued our conversation about strengthening the roots of our faith with a reality that Jesus identified as the center of Kingdom ethics – Love.  Strong, enduring, Christ-centered faith must be rooted in Love.  Jesus prayed that love would be the defining characteristic of His new community. Jesus taught that the root of all the commandments is love. Jesus helped us imagine a different sort of humanity, one where selfish and hateful attitudes are replaced with selfless love as we allow the life of Christ to grow within us. He talked about being connected to the Vine, the source of life. As we learn to abide in Him, we have life. Apart from the Vine we can do nothing. This kind of love has very little to do with our culture’s definition of the term.  What if our love was rooted not in our emotions or in our feelings, but in our connection to Jesus? Think about the beauty that would be built in our world if we loved like God loves. Look at what Paul prayed for the community of faith in Ephesus:

Ephesians 3:14-21 – “I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may have power, together will all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Paul prays that the Ephesians would receive specific knowledge – the knowledge of the Love of Christ.  Paul prays that through the Spirit the glorious riches of God’s power will strengthen God’s people in their “inner being.”  Don’t miss this.  This is not a shallow intellectual understanding, like you know this trivial fact or that. Paul prays for the Spirit of God to impart something wonderful deep in the hearts of His people.  This is phrase, the “inner being,” in the Greek language refers to the personal core of each individual.  It is the seat of the will, the center of belief, and the conscience.  Paul is praying that the Holy Spirit would impart truth so deep down in them it would change their instincts and impact the way they see everything.  We use the phrase “change of heart” to describe this kind of internal transformation.  This is about the core, our true selves, and our deepest held beliefs.  Think about the way that you know your name, your family relationships, or the loyalty of your best friend. This is the kind of knowledge Paul has in mind. It is about Jesus coming and dwelling in our hearts through faith.

This transformation, this impartation has us rooted and well founded in love (agape).  Paul’s prayer is that through the Spirit, these people would experience the love of Christ at the core of their being.  Paul is talking here about a power from within – that power comes from the knowing and experiencing the crazy-big Love of Christ! I invite you: get ROOTED in the LOVE of Christ. Let your roots grow down deep into the soil of His Love for you.

This love is inexhaustible.  I love the poetry of Paul’s dimensional description of Christ’s love. When Paul prays that they would understand how wide, long, high and deep the love of Christ is for them, he is inviting them to wonder at the expanse of Christ’s love.  It is wide enough to include every individual of every kind in every age in every world.  There was no limit to the length that Christ would go to reach us with His love, going even to the cross.  In depth, Christ descended to the humility and poverty of the human condition, accepting even death.  In its height, the love of Christ raises us higher than we could ever reach on our own, seating us in Heaven with our Father as His children and heirs.   No one is outside the love of Christ, no place is beyond its reach.  Every time we learn something new about the Love of God, there is yet more to learn.  It is inexhaustible.  We learn this truth, according to Paul, together with all the saints.  It binds us one to another in unity.   Here is something that we need to wrestle with: we enjoy the limitless love of God for us…but we do not always easily accept the limitless and sweeping love for other people.  We struggle with the idea of God making no distinction between “us” and “them.”  We like to think of ourselves as worthy of the love of God, while others maybe not so much.

This love surpasses understanding.  This is a huge point for you to consider.  We sometimes treat the love of God as a simple thing that we can easily understand.  The love of Jesus is the subject of simple nursery songs and slogans. I think teaching children the love of Jesus is a great idea, but I also want people to experience the power and depth and magnitude of God’s love. Paul is talking here about something so vast and expansive that we have yet to wrap our understanding around its measure.  Paul himself talks about struggling to grasp the mystery of God’s Love.  Paul is saying here that comprehending the love of God is a spiritual exercise that can keep them busy for the rest of their lives.  This is a little paradoxical, talking about “knowing what surpasses knowledge.”

This love is unconditional.  We spend so much time looking for affirmation on the outside.  We wonder if we are enough and we ask that question in every relationship and in every moment.  We endure nagging little voices, disgusting voices, lying voices, that tell us we are no good, that we do not matter, that we are not enough.  We are in constant search from the world around us for affirmation that we matter.  We ache in our emptiness, longing for approval and for affirmation.  Paul is describing something completely different here.  Paul describes affirmation and truth that come from within.  They come from the overflow of the love of Christ in our “inner being.”  Jesus fills our hearts with mind-blowing reality-defining truth-amplifying love.  One of the most powerful realities in scripture is the way that God loved us before we met any criteria or performed in some certain way or established the right conditions.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  While we were enemies of God in our minds, God reached for us.  There are no conditions that we need to meet to establish this love; God loves us because we are His.  I believe this – if you can get this truth down in your core, so much that tempts you and distracts you will be rendered powerless. You will find the kind of strength that David rested in when he wrote: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” You will enjoy the confidence of Paul that wrote: “If God is for me than who can be against me?” You will find the unshakable truth that we are more than conquerors and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

If you get the love of God into your soul, into your inner being, everything will change.  Everything else will fall into place. If you can get how much God loves you and cares for you and longs to be near you past your doubts, past your fears, past your rationalizations and into your core – if you know deep down in your DNA that God loves you and YOU ARE HIS, if the love of God sinks deep into your core, no lie can affect you.  No suggestion or insinuation can distract you.  No temptation can destroy you.  You will be rooted in the love of God.  Your identity will be secure; your confidence will be unassailable.  This is the core of rock solid faith.  God is FOR you.  God adores you.  The love of Jesus empowers and transforms you.  Love will change you.  Love will transform you.  Love will perfect you.  If you accept it.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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! Love Your Enemies

As we continue to talk about love as a choice and not as a feeling, Sunday’s echo experience brought us to one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus: the call to love our enemies.

Luke 6:27-38 records one of the times that Jesus issued this challenge. This is a revolutionary teaching about love. Jesus turns the conventional ideas about love and fairness updside down. When it comes to love, conventional wisdom says “love those that love you.” This is rational and logical; it happens naturally. It is an easy thing to love the people that are good to us. Jesus explains that for children of God, it is not enough. They are called to love their enemies.

Is this even possible? The word Jesus chooses to use here is agape, which is a different sort of love than the kind you would have naturally for your close friends and relatives. It would be impossible and unnatural to have that kind of love for people that are your enemies. The kind of love Jesus describes is much more than a feeling, it is not an act of the heart but an act of the will. It means that no matter what people do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they heap on insults and injuries or even break our hearts, we will never allow hate for them to invade our hearts. Instead, we will regard them with an unconquerable benevolence and goodwill, seeking only their benefit and advancement. This is only possible with the help of Christ.

Is this hopeless ideology? Many people dismiss this kind of statement from Jesus as being a figure of speech, or something Jesus said strictly for shock value, or a hopelessly high ideal that is not achievable. These are all easy ways to rationalize such a challenge away and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to obeying it. Maybe the most striking reality of this statement is that it was actually meant to be taken seriously. That is how the earliest followers of Jesus understood it. If this was meant to be taken figuratively or as impossible idealism, the early church missed the memo. Look at Romans 12:9-21 and see that the tradition of “lov[ing] your enemies” and “bless[ing] those that persecute you” was alive and well in the teaching of the early church. This was actually being taught and it was actually being lived out.

Loving your enemies is a powerful weapon of influence and change. This attitude completely changes the game. Instead of becoming victims, hurt and mistreated by people around us, we are empowered to actually overcome evil with good. When he was caught mourning the loss of northern and southern troops after a civil war battle, Abraham Lincoln was once reminded that it was the president’s obligation to destroy the enemies of the nation. His response was something like the command of Jesus: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?” Love alone has the power to make friends of enemies.

The ability of the earliest followers of Jesus to show love to the people that abused them (and even hunted them down to kill them) was a major factor in the growth of the early church. It was utterly compelling to watch selfless love being demonstrated in such a supernatural and irrational way. It would both endear people to the cause of Christ and undermine the image of the Roman persecutors at the same time. The harder the hammer of persecution fell, the more glorious the love would seem, and the faster the gospel would spread. This happened with Stephen in Acts 7, and it continued to happen for two centuries. This kind of love does not go unnoticed.

Where does the inspiration for this kind of love come from? From Jesus. In the presence of the mocking crowd and the taunts of his executioners, Jesus had the strength to utter few words from the cross. In the face of the rage in their eyes and the hate in their hearts, Jesus asks God for mercy. He does not ask for mercy for himself, but for the crowd and the soldiers that are insulting him, abusing him and destroying him. “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.” This is the model for loving our enemies: Jesus hanging on the cross, asking his killers to be forgiven. They meant him nothing but harm, but he meant nothing but good for them. This is the greatest picture of love ever. No poet has expressed it more beautifully; no song has ever captured its essence more precisely. This is the foundation of influence the early church was built on. Not flashy programs or services – but love. They changed their world through unbelievable, irrational, unconquerable LOVE.

Questions for you and your teenager:
*Do you think it is realistic to love your enemies? Is it possible?
*Why do you think showing love to someone that shows you hate is so powerful? What does it mean to “overcome evil with good?” Can love actually transform hate or change the heart of someone else?
*What examples of affecting change through love can you recognize through history?