Torn – A Series on the story of Esther

The book of Esther is one of the most dramatic and beautifully told stories in the Bible. It tells the story of a young woman named Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they try to survive and thrive as Hebrews in the land of Persia. Mordecai and Esther find themselves in a very important position, possessing very powerful knowledge, at a very critical time. The story has quite a few unexpected twists and turns, and is loaded with drama, intrigue, irony, and comedy. It is also one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. First of all, there is no mention of God. The book nowhere acknowledges God’s activity on the stage of history. It doesn’t record anyone praying to God or asking for His favor (even though it does record a fast, which might be assumed to be prayerful). On top of that, the characters do not always behave as you would expect Biblical heroes and heroines to behave. There is a lot of moral ambiguity that can be difficult to sort out. Besides being a very entertaining read, it also has a lot to teach us about the tension we sometimes feel between God’s Kingdom and our culture. Esther and Mordecai are in a very tough spot to be a Hebrew.


Lessons from a woman caught between two worlds – This book raises all kinds of questions about how we are to deal with our culture. Many of us feel like Esther did – torn between two worlds. We love Jesus and His Kingdom, but our culture where we live is seductive and has its own allure. The power of Esther’s story is the tension she must have felt being stuck between two very different cultures. She was a Hebrew, and that gave her a sacred obligation to the will of the God of her people. At the same time, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the Persian culture, a culture that was drawing her deeper and deeper into itself. She embodies the struggle to be in the world but not of it. This is one of the hardest things for followers of Jesus to do. What do you do when the culture you are in threatens to swallow your faith, rewrite it, or erase it? I have watched so many people struggle with how to interact with their culture as a follower of Jesus. This is the tension I want to explore in this series. Echo has people all over this continuum. Some are just holding on, barely surviving. Some have already been swallowed up by the culture. Some are doing their best to be the influence and not the influenced. People take three stances when it comes to the surrounding culture:

1. Isolation – No contact, no impact. Sometimes the church has gotten this wrong. Sometimes the church has been tricked into isolating itself from people far from God in the name of protecting the holy ones from corruption. I have met many people that really do love God, but they look at the world and our culture like it is full of potential sources of “infection.” Their strategy to survive is to create a separate culture, walled off from negative influence and protected from corruption. They end up living like bubble boy, afraid of what is out there that might corrupt them. The irony of this is that whenever we do this, we have been tricked. According to Jesus, His disciples are the ones that are contagious! The danger is not to us, but to the kingdom of darkness. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The light is more powerful than the darkness, and when you shut up all the carriers of light inside of little cloisters and holy communities and churches and concerts, there is no chance for anyone bound in darkness to discover the light. Jesus warned his followers against this: he said a “You are the light of the world; city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Look at John 17:13-19. Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken from the world, but that they could be a force of influence and change in the world. Without contact, you can’t have any impact on your culture. You might get a little messy if you try this. Can you imagine a Jesus that avoided what He found impure? For this reason, Echo cannot be allowed to be a shelter from culture, a group of people separated from the world that needs them. I love that we have a pastor that models this. Our pastor, Brad Russell, created the Washington West Film Festival to interface with and engage our culture.

The story of Esther could be very different. At multiple points in the story of Israel, the Jews struggled with influence and took the path of isolation. You can imagine Esther and Mordecai being so offended by the suggestion that they be complicit in this corrupt and perverse culture! The story would be one where Esther was killed and Mordecai as well, dying to persevere her “honor” or virginity. This isn’t easy stuff by any means, but this is how the story goes. What I am saying is that it is possible to limit your influence because you limit the exposure other people have to the hope and life that is in you. Now of course, this works both ways.

2. Assimilation – You can’t stand fast without contrast. The other thing I see happen when it comes to culture is that people are just swept away by its current. The force of culture just swallows them whole and assimilates them, they become just like everyone else in culture and any distinctiveness about them is lost. If you are not strong enough to be the influence and you are always being swept away in the current of your culture and negatively influenced, you might need to limit your contact with negative influences. You cannot be a rescue swimmer until you stop drowning and learn how to swim. It is not what is the similar to everyone around you that will grant you influence, it is what is different. I am not talking about something weird, strange, or bizarre, but something distinct. If you lose your distinctiveness, you lost your ability to influence and attract others. If you are just like everyone else, just one more follower in the crowd of sheeple, why would anyone bother to follow you? The right kind of difference is contagious. Here me on this: if Esther was just another pretty face in the crowd of hundreds, this story would look so differently. Something made her different, something more than superficial made her stand out from among the others. The key to influence is to discover life on a level that few others ever find. Then you have found something that will make you stand out! The Jesus movement, the Kingdom of God – it is a counter-cultural revolution. It is not the popular thing but the right thing. It is not what everyone does, it is only what the remarkable can do. If you want to impact the world, you will have to do it living differently that everyone else. We are called to be aliens in this world, living “in it but not of it.” There is supposed to be a quality about us that is “otherworldly,” like we have been somewhere else and we are from somewhere else.

3. Transformation – Look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, and listen to this charge by the Apostle Paul. He describes the followers of Jesus as the ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making his appeal for reconciliation with the world through us. He is imagining a force of positive change unleashed on the world with transforming results. Esther’s initial struggle is this: how to I prevent being swallowed by the culture even as I am surrounded by it and immersed in it? That is where many of us are, barely surviving. In that case, you may need to find some sources of strength and change some habits and reroute some patterns. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that living for God’s Kingdom means staying “pure” somehow. It doesn’t mean anything that small! Esther eventually discovers this. It isn’t just about surviving. Not only does she want to survive, but she wants to influence her culture of the Kingdom of God. I know in Echo we have people that are struggling with both of these challenges. The secret lies in protecting the fire of God in your heart, so even when you are immersed in your culture without, you heart is captured by God within.

**Food for thought, seeds for discussion with your teenager:

*What do you find tempting or alluring about your culture?
*Why do you think “Isolation” isn’t an effective strategy for dealing with culture? Can you think of reasons why you should be isolated from some things in culture?
*What exactly should make a follower of Jesus distinct from others? What are some superficial ways that people sometimes look to distinguish themselves?
*What do you think Jesus meant when he prayed that his disciples would be “in the world” but not “of the world?”

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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?

Tips for New College Parents – How to handle your freshmen

Many of our parents are just now discovering a new rhythm of life after sending their kids off to college. This is a very difficult transition for many, especially when so much of life revolved around your kid for 18 years. One of the things we have found to be true of early college students is that they still need the voice of youth ministry – and more importantly they still need the guidance of their parents. Still, the conversation needs to shift as students enters greater dimensions of autonomy. Our youth leaders do their best to keep the conversations about faith going with students, even after they have graduated from our program and head off to college, but the conversation looks different after high school. This is often a hard transition for parents and students alike.

Echo has been following the research of the “Sticky Faith Project” for a few years now, and listening carefully to their recommendations and findings. They have just published a great article on stickyfaith.org about the tough transition for college freshmen and their parents.

Check it out here: http://stickyfaith.org/articles/out-of-the-nest

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”

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?

MTV’s Bully Beatdown – Jesus and Violence

In our current high school series, our students have been engaging MTV’s shows in a redemptive conversation. One of the shows we tackled is called Bully Beatdown. Our Middle Schoolers had a similar conversation around the release of the new film The Karate Kid.

The show’s promo statement says this: Ever wanted help getting a bully to back off? When it’s time to even the odds, it’s time for Bully Beatdown. In each episode of Bully Beatdown, victims reach out to the host, professional mixed martial arts fighter Jason “Mayhem” Miller, to enlist his help. After learning why this guy needs a beatdown, Mayhem will “ambush” the bully. Calling him out in front of others, Mayhem will give him a choice: accept the challenge of fighting a MMA fighter or look like a coward.

What seems to be the case here is that bullies are corrected by being bullied themselves. This sounds okay, almost like “giving them a taste of their own medicine.” However, I wonder if Jesus would provide another way. This is a slippery slope and is dangerous. This is the question – Does might make right?

The problem of bullying is getting a lot of attention right now. 2 girls in Minnesota just hung themselves at a sleepover in response to bullying. Millions of people have seen the viral video of a 15 year old named Casey body slamming his bully. George St. Pierre, the UFC fighter, talks openly about how badly he was bullied as a kid. This isn’t just a physical issue; it is a social issue as well. The psychological torment we inflict on each other is a serious thing.

Bullying is a complex problem without an easy solution. The standard answer from youth workers and school officials is that a bullied person should “go get help” or “tell someone.” Certainly safety is an issue and school officials and other adults want to protect kids and teens. At the same time, this approach oversimplifies the problem. This is a complex issue, because sometimes what you need back is not just your safety but also your dignity. Sometimes “telling” just makes the problem so much worse. If your mom ends up trying to fight the battle for you, it doesn’t help you get back your dignity. Bullies know this and it gives them power. It is also not always realistic solution to just stand up to some bullies. There is always a bigger dog on the block, but you might not be that dog. In the movies, you stand up to the bully and they back down or you gloriously win because you get trained by an old Japanese handy man/karate expert. In real life, sometimes standing up means you end up getting pounded.

This issue becomes especially volatile because of the mixed messages teens here from people in authority. Some argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and that the only God-honoring response to bullying would be passive submission. Others advocate fighting back, an action that can lead to more violence and serious consequences (like being expelled from school). Is there such a thing as “redemptive violence,” or is any act of violence abhorrent?

Many people have heard the famous teaching of Jesus about “turning the other cheek.” This is found in Matthew 5:38-48. Some people argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and to follow Jesus means that you have no right to self-defense or resistance. The troubling phrase is: “Do not resist an evil person.” Does following Jesus mean a person cannot or should not engage in self-defense? A better translation of this phrase, one more faithful to the common use of the Greek words would be: “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” We certainly are to resist evil. Jesus is not saying we should lie down and do nothing. A passive response would not accomplish anything but to embolden the bully and maintain the power imbalance. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run contrary to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. I do not think Jesus is teaching people to do nothing. To do nothing when you see someone else getting bullied or mistreated is also far from the heart of Jesus. This is the root of the problem with a lot of bullying. Bullies have power not just because they are big or strong, but often because they have been given social power by the crowd. Unchecked and unrestrained evil just leads to more evil. We understand this when it comes to governments, police forces, authority figures and so on, but what about the average person? What responsibility do the powerful have to protect the weak? Jesus’ goal here is introducing a different way of handling violence, offense, and mistreatment. He is talking to Jews in occupied Roman territory, people that were very familiar with being bullied by someone much more powerful than them. He uses three examples that illustrate his point, all of which would have been understood and maybe even experienced by his audience. Jesus is introducing a different perspective on the problem.

Others argue that the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching has been lost because of historical distance. The original audience would have understood Jesus differently than we do now. To them, all of Jesus’ examples are not examples of passive submission, but of resistance. Jesus gives an alternative to passivity and violence. For example: Jesus instruction to “turn the other cheek” might actually be a creative way to turn the tables on your attacker. Think about the physics of striking someone on the left cheek. Most people, now and then, are right handed. The only way to strike the left cheek would be with a back-handed slap. In the ancient world, this act was less about inflicting injury and more about insult. It was the way a man slapped a woman, or a slave (prejudice that betrays the backwards thinking of the ancient world, not of this author!). It was a way that social inequality was communicated and enforced. The goal of such a slap is to humiliate and degrade. If a Roman punched another Roman, the fine was equivalent to about $40. If a Roman back-handed another Roman, the fine was $4000. The backhand slap was that offensive. (There is no fine for a Roman to backhand a non-Roman, like a Jew, which is the point.) Of course, you could always slap someone with your left hand on the left cheek, but that would be an insult as well because the left hand was used for toilet purposes. By turning the other cheek, you are taking away the ability of the other person to insult you. Yes, they could punch you – but a punch has a different meaning. If they do punch, the oppressor has been forced against his will to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The act of turning the other cheek denies the aggressor the power to humiliate. It is an act of defiance, one that says: “I will not cower in the face of evil, but I will not accept your insult. I refuse to let you demeans me.”

This all goes beyond fight or flight. It is about meeting force with ridicule or humor, asserting humanity, and exposing injustice. Responding in this way, you are forcing the oppressor to see you in a new light and to think about their actions. The goal here is to defeat a bully not by destroying him or her. Your true enemy is not the person; it is the evil present in their actions and attitudes. To seek the destruction of your true enemy is to seek the transformation of the person. Remember that this teaching of Jesus is delivered in the context of the command to love your enemies.

That being said, the hard reality is that we live in a world filled with evil, where people can dominate, exploit, and take advantage of one another. It is a world where the strong deprive the weak of dignity and justice, where the powerful rule over the powerless with violence and oppression. The problem with violence is when only the evil or unrestrained people are capable of it. I am not convinced that Jesus would never support or recommend any kind of violence. Should you not restrain a violent person from harming others because you are afraid of violence yourself? If everyone took that attitude, evil would run unrestrained. In my opinion, there is a certain kind of evil that you cannot reason with. It needs to be brought to heel, even if this means some show of force. Again, the goal is always the disarming end of violence, the restoration of dignity, and the transformation of the other. Could this ever require violent resistance to achieve?

*Questions for discussion:
-Do you think bullying is a serious problem? Why or why not?
-What do you think about Casey, the 15 year old that body-slammed his bully to the ground? Do you think he should have reacted differently? What would you do if you witnessed this event in the hallway of your school? What do you think your parents woudl expect you to do?
-When, if ever, is violence justified?

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.