Dirty Green Paper

Money is powerful stuff! It might not seem like a topic that should come up in church, but money matters to us so it matters to God. Our country has a problem when it comes to money. We do not know how to deal with it. We are part of a VERY small percentage of the richest people on earth, and maybe even in history, yet we forget how rich we are because we are a part of a system that constantly tells us we do not have. Sometimes money works like this: if we get it, it gets us. If we don’t have it, our lives are spent trying to get it. When we do get it, we don’t own it as much as it owns us.

For these reasons and more, your relationship with money is closely linked to your relationship with God. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about money and how we relate to it, and he taught there is a line of connection from our wallet to our heart. The truth is this: we have problems with money that have spiritual roots. We will never truly find financial peace if we ignore the inner condition of our hearts that make us susceptible to money pitfalls like greed and debt. God talks about money all over the Bible, and if you were to follow his instructions, you would have more money, give more money, and make your money work harder for you. Money isn’t evil. It isn’t the root of all evil. The love of money, however, is the root of all kinds of evil. Money can be something powerfully evil, but it can also be something powerfully good! I think at a very basic level, our relationship with money should look like what God told Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God wants to bless us, and it is our job to channel that blessing to others! With this in mind, Echo is having a conversation over the next several weeks about how to relate to money righteously.

After we get some of it, we can basically do 4 things with it:
• Spend it.
• Give it.
• Save it.
• Invest it.

This Sunday, we talked about spending.

First, Good spending starts with settling the “ownership” issue. Jesus explained this once using a coin in Matthew 22:15-22. The way Jesus phrases his question would have reminded his audience of Genesis 1-2, where human beings are created in the image of God. In whose image was the coin created? Caesar’s. In whose image were we created? God’s! When Jesus says “give to God what is God’s,” he is not saying God is not concerned with money. Jesus is implying that God is asking for all of us. The message of the Kingdom of God is one of total surrender. Why should we be concerned about our cash? Because our feelings toward it and how we use it are a huge part of who we are. Remember, there is a line of connection from our heart to our wallet. The starting point to righteous attitude toward money is settling the ownership issue: everything belongs to God, so I have to use whatever He entrusts me with responsibly.

Second – Spending easily becomes out of control, and our culture has even invented ways of spending more money than you have. You combat this with a budget, which is a spending plan. A budget is a tool to help us plan and to help us make our money work toward our goals. It helps us do something we all have a hard time with: telling ourselves “no.” A budget means you have a plan, you have counted the cost, and you are working toward a goal. Budgets can be complicated or simple as long as they balance income and expenses. The simplest lesson anyone ever taught me about money: every time you get 10 dollars, give one of them to God’s work, put one of them in savings, and spend 8 of them wisely.

Third – Your spending habits reflect your values.
If you spent $50 a month on Mountain Dew, we could confidently say you really like Mountain Dew. The problem with that comes in when you consider “opportunity cost.” It means that if you use your $50 to buy the Mountain Dew, you won’t have that $50 to buy your friend’s x-box game when he sells it. We might have all the money we need, but we can’t have everything we want. What a budget does is help us make choices about how to spend money in advance, so our choices will better reflect our values instead of just buying things on impulse. Marketing is so effective, people often buy things unplanned in the moment and regret it later. Living on a budget, no matter how much money you make, will protect you against this. Another thing to consider is what you actually spend money on. This is about recognizing that you vote with your wallet. When you choose to guy a product from an organization or person that you don’t agree with, you are actually supporting them and their issue. You can do this the other way too: actively support products and companies you think are doing something right. This is just another way money is powerful.

Questions for discussion with your teen:

*Talk about the family’s budgeting process. If you can, invite your teen to join you paying the bills or planning the budget for the month. If you don’t have a budget, why not?
*Do you think you are more of a spender or a saver? What do you think about your spending habits?
*What does it mean to “vote with your wallet?” Is there anything we support as a family with our money that doesn’t reflect our values?

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?

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.”)

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.

Childlike Wonder

My daughter Arabella is two years old today. I cannot believe how much our lives have changed because of this little blond girl running around and enriching every moment with a sense of wonder and joy. She is obsessed with princesses, shoes, jewelry, magic, and beauty. I still harbor a secret hope that someday she will turn into a hunter that likes watching football shooting guns with her daddy. Given that she has not taken off her pair of glittering pink princess shoes since her grandma bought them (she even wears them to bed), I should stop holding my breath. Seeing the world through her eyes is always a treat for me as her father. Jesus understood something about the benefit from such a shift in perspective and the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

Mark 10:13-16 – this is a great passage. Jesus is having a blast hanging out with some kids, and his disciples see this and make to remedy the situation. They come over to righteously defend their teachers importance and his lack of time for such a trivial thing as playing and such insignificant people as children. Their attitude leads to one of those moments when Jesus gets ticked off. He is indignant about their pride and assumption: to Jesus, there isn’t anything more important than what he is doing. And he uses the kids as a great object lesson – become like them if you want to get the Kingdom of God. So what can we learn from kids about life and about God? In what ways can we actually learn about spiritual maturity from the simple mind of a child?

Mystery – kids are okay with the unknown. They don’t feel they need to know everything. This doesn’t stop them from asking questions. Arabella is just getting to this age. She flips through her books and asks “What’s this?” “What’s that?” She looks at the world like it is a puzzle she is going to figure out if she just pays attention. Never will there be a group with more questions than children. They want to know if God is really invisible, or if that is just a trick. They want to know if God could make the sky green if he wanted to. Why don’t we have any questions anymore? Because we have moved on and become mature and we don’t like to admit we don’t know everything. Sometimes we focus on showing everyone what we know, not admitting what we don’t know. There are just some things we will never understand. Some of us have a hard time understanding girls. Others of you, you just don’t get guys. Good luck understanding your parents. Sometimes, we don’t even understand ourselves. There are questions in life that you and I can’t answer. We offer up platitudes. We make guesses; sometimes even educated guesses, but we really don’t know. For example, we don’t understand why good people suffer. Or why bad people prosper. We can’t understand why some people from a certain kind of background become criminals, while other people growing up under the same kind of circumstances become sterling citizens. The difference between kids and us is that they are okay with not knowing everything, while it drives us nuts. Kids have the potential for remarkable faith because of their comfort with the unknown.

Wonder – Kids are amazed by the simplest things. My daughter is impressed every time I make chocolate milk. She studies the way the milk and the chocolate swirl around and cheers when it is done. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to impress us. We have lost our sense of wonder. I think it is because we have become so big that God has become smaller. I love what John the Baptist says about Jesus – “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Kids know they are small, and the world and God are huge! I love to see a kid that is amazed and impressed.

FUN – Why do kids have more fun than adults? Things that are common and routine to us are pure excitement to them. Running, jumping, dancing, music, games, and laughter. They laugh deep; energy that comes from their core. It isn’t just a courtesy laugh, you know, the little chuckle we give each other when something really isn’t funny but a laugh is appropriate or expected. Kids laugh from the gut, and it erupts out of them like pure, care free joy. Arabella reminds me every day about the simple reasons to laugh. Yesterday, we danced in the living room for 10 minutes with no music other than the melody of her contagious joy. Then she wanted to jump. Then she wanted to pretend to sleep while I pretended to be a pillow, complete with snoring sounds.

Kids don’t care if their clothes are the coolest, they don’t care if they have the best looking prom date, they don’t care about so much that is so superficial. Kids don’t worry about popularity or image. Think of the barriers that we have to deal with between us and serving God with abandon: our reputation, selfish agendas, our plans, our hang ups – kids just aren’t encumbered by this stuff. Jesus was on to something when he taught us to rediscover the faith of a child. If this is something you struggle with, come over and hang out with my 2 year-old. See the world through her eyes.