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?

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?

Love This Priority #1 – Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength

Love-This
Love is in the air at ECHO! We just wrapped up our first week in our “Love This!” series. Some thought from last Sunday that are worth talking out with your teenager:

Sometimes people talk about falling in love, like falling into a puddle or something…as if it were an accident; completely uncontrollable. This attitude sometimes makes us think that love is some mysterious feeling that we cannot harness – like “the Force.” We hear songs with lines like “you can’t help who you love,” and the general attitude of our culture is that love is something that happens to you. Then we hear about people that “fell out” of love. Brad used to be “in love” with Jen, but then he did a movie with Angelina, and he must have fallen out of love with Jen and then fallen in love with Angelina. Couples that were so convinced they were “in love” are now not “in love,” and they might be “in love” with someone else. If they fell into this puddle, I guess you could just fall out of that puddle and fall into a different one, right? We have this other cultural image of “cupid.” He is a baby with a bow and arrow, and he goes around shooting people in the butt to help them fall in love. Whoever thought it was a good idea to give a baby a bow and arrow needs some parenting help. Again, in this frame of mind, love is something that happens to you and is out of your control. Our students have grown up in a world where love is an accident, marriages are based on the strength of a fickle feeling, and the whole idea of love has been reduced to the warm fuzzies. Feelings are unfaithful because feelings fade. Ice cream is great…but it eventually melts.

What if our culture has love completely wrong? Love is not a feeling, Love is a Choice. You can choose who you love, you can choose what to love. C.S. Lewis said it like this:

“love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by the grace which both [people] ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.”

Some people may be easier to love; other people might be more difficult. But you can make the choice. Love isn’t a feeling, it is a verb. It is an action, a way of living, a way of communicating importance and ordering your heart. This means that if something is important to you, it should change the way you act, the way you think, the way you live your life. Ultimately, no one understands love like God. God is Love – Love is his language. The universe might just be a huge experiment in love. When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he said that when it came down to it, love is at the heart and soul of everything.

With this conversation as the backdrop, we looked at Mark 12:28-31. The most important commandments in the entire bible are about love. If love is a choice; I mean to say that if you and I have something to do with the affections and attitudes of our hearts, than this is a critical point to pay attention to. What Jesus is saying is that your entire life should be oriented around one thing: Love. The Love of God and Love of others, these are the most important realities in our lives. And Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus taught all kinds of revolutionary ideas about love.

Questions for you and your teenager:
* What do you think about the idea that love is not a feeling, but a choice? Does this challenge the way you have thought about love in the past? Do you think it is possible for someone to choose love without ever “feeling” it? Why do you think our culture is obsessed with feelings?
* Do you agree that some people are easier to love than others? Why do you think this is?
* Jesus challenged us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. What do you think he meant by “with all your heart?” What about soul? Mind? Strength?

Love This! New series in Echo for June

Love This Series Graphic
Love This Series Graphic

In the month of June, Echo will be exploring the teaching of Jesus on Love. Love is a word loaded with meaning that is sometimes used flippantly in our culture. “I love ice cream.” “I love my wife.” “I love your new computer.” Three times I have used the same word, yet you can be sure the word does not carry the same meaning. My love for my wife compels me to lay down my life for her and do all in my power to bring her joy and ascribe to her unsurpassable worth. My devotion to ice cream is slightly less intense. (I hope slightly is an understatement, but I am my father’s son in this regard.) In the teaching of Jesus, love was a central reality in the Kingdom of God. When Jesus was asked about the “greatest” commandment, his answer would not have been unfamiliar to an audience saturated with the Jewish scripture. He modifies the commandment laid out for Israel in Deuteronomy 6: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.” Love is the language of commitment in the Kingdom of God. It establishes priorities and motivates the rhythm of life otherwise known as worship. Love is a verb – something to be lived out. It is a commitment that should have a profound effect on our behavior. Our love for God should be inextricably linked to our love of ourselves and a group of people Jesus called our “neighbor.” Jesus also challenged his followers to open the envelope of love to include their enemies. This month we want students to encounter what love is all about when it is lived out through service. When we value something, love should become more than a feeling and express itself through action.

As a resource to compliment this series, I am recommending this book to our students: http://www.youthspecialties.com/shop/product_info.php?products_id=228

Get a copy for your teen.

Expect some discussion questions for you to tackle with your teenager to follow as we work through this series.

Week 1 – Love God – We will talk about how we as creatures were designed to first and foremost love and know God. Love of God should consume our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Week 2 – Love Your Neighbor – We will talk out the way that our love for God should be lived out in a selfless commitment to others – including those people that our prejudices and history categorize as undesirables.

Week 3 – Love Yourself – We will talk out what it means to have a healthy self image and to see ourselves as creatures created in the Imago Dei – the stamp of God that is on each of our hearts. If God has decided we are priceless, who are we to suggest that we are worthless? What does it mean to have good self-esteem in a world out of control and off balance?

Week 4 – Love Your Enemies – We will talk out this huge challenge that Jesus throws our way – love the people that it is easy to hate.