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.”)

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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?

What I learned watching MTV

MTV and I were both born in 1981. I was born with little fanfare in a Detroit hospital: a baby too big for a momma too small that required an emergency c-section. MTV on the other hand, was born when they prophetically aired “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Back then, all you could see on MTV were music videos. The concept of a channel devoted to showing commercials 24/7 was brilliant. A music video is basically a commercial for the song and artist, and they interrupt these commercials with other commercials on their commercial breaks. We are suckers! Now, MTV rarely if ever shows music videos; it is in the business of creating culture.

Our high school students are engaged in a series right now that I like to repeat every few years called MTV and the Truth. The idea is to confront the worldview behind some of the shows on MTV with a critical and redemptive eye. We have engaged classic shows like Pimp my Ride, Room Raiders, Punked, The Real World, Made, My Super Sweet 16, and many more. This year, we are tackling Bully Beatdown, The Buried Life, Skins, and 16 and Pregnant. This year is by far my favorite!

I will put up some thoughts from the series in the coming week.

Words – Resposible Communication in the Facebook era

Words-1We are getting close to back to school – so we decided to address some issues for the upcoming year with Echo. We did a short 2 part series called “words” with our middle schoolers this month to address the issue of responsible communication. Think back to a time before twitter, skype, facebook, myspace, instant messenger, texting, cell phones, computers, land lines, and even the printing press. It is hard for me remember that I lived in a time when I was not INSTANTLY reachable through multiple streams of communication all the time. Every time we there has been an advance in communication technology, it has had a major impact on our culture. Why? Because words are powerful. The communication of ideas and opinions is power!

All over the bible, you will find writers pleading with people to recognize the power of words and to be careful with it. James 3 is a great example. James understood that words have power. He cautions people to recognize that what comes out of their mouths can have a dramatic impact on the world, for good or for evil. The playground proverb: “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” has never been true. The bible teaches people to watch carefully what they say. This is such good advice. Once something is spoken, it is out there. It cannot be taken back. In our technologically connected culture, this is even more important. One youth leader told me a story of a work related online discussion forum post he had made 8 YEARS ago that was still available through a google search. Colleges and prospective employers are getting good at checking out facebook pages and other social networks. How can we help our students be safe and responsible with their words, virtual and actual?

Our students need to know that some things should not be shared. Proverbs 10:19 says “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.” For issues of safety, privacy, and for the good of others, some things should be kept private. A facebook status update that informs the world that your family is going on vacation for a week and leaving an empty house might as well be an invitation for trouble. Those pictures of teens in their bathing suits they so readily post do not help much in our quest to protect them from becoming objectified. Argument between friends can hurt a lot of people and cause a lot of collateral social damage when it is handled through public wall posts. The fact is, you can find out a load of personal information (pet’s names, school, grade, friends names), right down to the times and places where people are through the internet. If you have not talked with your student to make sure they have the right privacy settings on their social networking pages or to make sure they know what is appropriate to share online, do so right now. One of the things that always impresses me is how poor teens do at choosing chat handles and email addresses. “Dancingcutie94” is not a good screen name. It tells me you are 15 years old and it encourages every creep to imagine you dancing. Check out http://www.safeteens.com/ for more tips.

Questions for parents of teenagers:

*Do you know if your teen uses facebook, myspace, twitter, aim, etc? Do you visit their pages often? Do you have their passwords and account info?
*If your teen has their own cell phone, have you talked about appropriate texting and media use?
*Is the family computer in a “high traffic” area of the house, or do students have access to computers in private locations?

The Game of Life – Prudence

This series we have been talking about how morality has more to do with becoming the right sort of person than it does being a person that follows all the rules. People sometimes assume that if they can do “good” things more and “bad” things less, they will somehow put God in their debt or gain his approval. This attitude fails to consider the level of transformation that is available in Jesus. In Christ, there is the possibility of New Life, where an internal transformation occurs supernaturally. This is not based on our moral performance, but on Christ’s work on our behalf. This is how we are to become the “right sort of person.”

What is the right kind of person? In this series, we are looking at morality in terms of “virtues:” internal characteristics that define who a person is or is becoming instead of external rules that define what they do or do not do. The 4 classic virtues (sometimes called the “Cardinal Virtues”) are Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude.

Let’s talk about Prudence. This is one of those words that has lost its meaning over time. What I mean by prudence is the correct knowledge of things to be done or avoided, or the ability to make the right choice. Prudence is first among the virtues because it guides the others by setting the course of life and helps in applying moral principles to particular cases.

Know-the-Game-Title-3

Remember the Game of Life? You make your choices, and depending on how well you choose, you either end up living in “Millionaire Acres” or as some dead beat. I don’t know about ending up in “Millionaire Acres,” but I do think that the Game of Life has a lot to do with Prudence. Prudence, like Life, is all about making choices.

The bible gives us a great conversation throughout the book of Proverbs that sets “Wisdom” against “Folly.” Wisdom is personified by in a noble and beautiful young woman. She is the kind of girl every young man dreams of marrying. Folly on the other hand, takes the form of a woman with “questionable character.” If wisdom is the ability to make good choices, folly is the opposite. Folly is impulse, empty promises, misplaced desire, reckless affection, and self-destruction. She is sneaky and seductive, but in the end she is disaster. She represents all the choices that seem like a good idea only to end in unbearable consequences.

When it comes to virtues, Prudence is not on the top of the teenage list. They tend to make decisions based on feeling, considering only the most immediate impact and ignoring long term consequences. Being prudent means having the ability to forecast the long term impact of our decision. Our culture struggles with this idea, as evidenced by the “credit card philosophy” by which many people live. Play now, pay later is a slogan that would sum up the average student’s attitude toward life. Prudence means taking the time to stop and think, weigh each option for pro’s and con’s, and proceed with the logical choice. Jesus warned about “counting the cost” before beginning any endeavor.

Prudence also means knowing where to find wisdom when you need it. When they are at an impasse, most teenagers naturally look for advice from their friends. This is a bit like asking another drowning person to help you out of the pool. One of the marks of maturity is when a young person starts seeking advice in the right places. Very often, when people say they are looking for advice, what they are actually looking for is someone to agree with what they have already decided. Proverbs 12:15 says it just right: “Fools think they need no advice, but the wise listen to others.” Teens need to be challenged and reminded that teachers, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, and (gasp) even their parents are MUCH better sources of advice than other teenagers.

ORANGE MOMENT: Of course, there are plenty of topics in the teenage universe that they are not comfortable talking to mom and pop about. This is where youth ministry can offer families a great tool. In youth ministry, we have adults (that are not mom and dad) that have taken the time to enter the teenage world and earn enough relational currency to matter. These adults have established a platform to say the same kinds of things that mom and dad would say. This is why we work so hard to create environments that are conducive to deepening the relationship between youth leaders and students. This way parents have a resource they can turn to when another adult is needed to “echo” the wisdom that our students should be hearing at home. Now we are thinking orange!

Questions for you and your teenager:

*How do you make decisions? What is your thought process like? What kinds of things do you consider before making a big decision? Why?
*Who can you go to for advice on something important? Should you trust these people to give you good advice? Why or why not?
*How should the Bible play into our decision making? What role should God have in our choices?