Above Reproach

In our current series, Echo High School has been walking through the book of Nehemiah. Last week we came to a point in the narrative that is particularly important right now. I shared with our students a painful story of how leaders we love and trusted deeply ended their ministry career in moral failure, and the devastating effect it had on so many people. It wasn’t shared to point fingers or to cast stones, but just as a warning and word of caution: moral authority takes a very long time to build and only a moment to destroy.

Nehemiah 6:1-16 – Nehmiah’s opponents tried to stop the construction of the wall by threatening violence. It didn’t work. The wall is almost completed, and so the opponents change their tactics: they try to assault the character of Nehemiah, attempting to ruin his reputation and damage his influence with the king, with the nobles, and even with God. It is an attack of false statements, slander, and blackmail. They threaten to accuse him of treason. They threaten him with assassination in hopes he will go into hiding. They hire a false prophet to intimidate him. Nehemiah survives this attack because he is a person of Integrity. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, eventually everyone will know about it. Nehemiah’s integrity puts him in a place to call their bluffs and refuse to play their games. This kind of response is only possible for those with nothing to hide. His integrity makes him above reproach – think about how rare it is to find someone in our world that is “scandal proof.” How freeing it would be to live with nothing to hide – no secrets that could tarnish your reputation or ruin your credibility. This is what Integrity is all about. If there is no false accusation that can possibly stick, you don’t need to fear slander. This story is remarkable because there is no deceit, no cover up, no counterplots, and no insincerity. This is totally different than the modern political scene! He refuses to be intimidated and answers their charges with open and direct statements. I love Nehemiah’s response in verse 8: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” We talked out with our students what it means to be a person of Integrity.

First, the price of integrity is doing more than just enough. Sometimes people mistake an attitude of “good enough” for integrity, but they are not the same thing. Integrity goes above and beyond expectations – it takes the high road even at personal cost. It never asks: “what is enough to get by?”…it asks: “how can I exceed the standard?” Here is a hard lesson about leadership, but you need to understand it if you hope to have influence. When it comes to leadership: “others may, you may not.” Others may, you may not. I often have conversations with teens about defining what exactly is a sin. What is really being asked is “how close to the line can I get without crossing it?” This is a very common attitude but it is not the attitude of integrity. “Enough” is o.k. for many, this is what makes it average. When you find someone that gives so much more than enough, it is remarkable. The exceptional will demonstrate a level of integrity that will win them influence. Leadership hinges on this principle. You can be skilled and talented and smart, but your influence can very easily be eroded by a lack of character. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it. It means there is a price to pay if you want true influence. Let me show you what I am talking about from Nehemiah’s life, just to give you a window into what kind of guy he is.

Nehemiah 5:6-13 – The situation here is one of recession. The people of Jerusalem were such a mess financially, they had to take loans from people (they called them Gentiles) outside Jerusalem from surrounding nations at very high interest. The interest was so high they could not afford to pay back the loans. (Really? What do we know about that!) This causes them to give up property and land and even their wives and children as collateral. The people of Jerusalem had become slaves again to outsiders! Nehemiah shows up casting vision to rebuild the walls, and he discovers they cannot give themselves to this work because they are so busy working to pay off their debts. The government is in shambles, and the previous governors were actually a part of this problem. They took their salary, and then they used their position to take additional money and food and land. Property values have dropped and the Nobles are taking advantage of others’ hardship and turning a quick profit on the low market prices. Nehemiah comes in and he and his people offer a bailout – a financial package that tries to end the crisis. He gives his own money to buy off these loans, and he doesn’t charge interest. Not long after, Nehemiah discovers that the Jewish Nobles have again loaned the poorer people money at high interest rates and they are in the same exact crisis again! Charging interest to another Jew is against the law of that time. The people are back in debt and the crisis is back! Nehemiah is TICKED OFF. He confronts to the nobles and condemns this practice: “What you are doing is not right!” Loan to them, but stop charging interest! The interest is exploiting these people. You are taking from them the collateral they put up on loans you know they cannot repay! Stop taking advantage of your own people! He wanted to reform this practice of injustice. He charges them to give back the lands and property and money of the people. Here is the crazy thing: they agree with him without a fight. Why does this go so easy? Why can he come in and demand something so hard of them and they agree?

It is because the payoff of integrity is “moral authority.”
Nehemiah 5:14-18 – Nehemiah’s seemingly impossible ask works because he has moral authority. They trust him. He explains in v. 14. Now, understand that it might have been enough for Nehemiah to just not be corrupt and to take his fair share and no more. “Enough” is not enough for Nehemiah, because he wants to demonstrate moral authority. “Out of reverence for God I did not act this way.” He actually surrendered his salary for 12 years to see his country out of a recession. He could have taken advantage of the low market to buy up land and increase his wealth, but he didn’t. As a result, the nobles followed him. They followed not just his words, but his example. A pastor named Andy Stanley said: “Moral authority is total alignment between your creed and your deeds.” It means you do what you say. It means you are a person of your word and are trustworthy. Nehemiah motivates the rich to care for the poor – loan to them without charging interest. They were inspired to be generous because he was generous himself. Nehemiah doesn’t lead because they call him governor; he leads because he has moral authority. He gives himself to the building of the wall and to seeing his country out of the crisis. He doesn’t sit back with a cushy and luxurious job, enjoying the perks of his position. Instead, at personal cost he leverages his wealth for others. Because the demands on the people were heavy, he didn’t take what was rightfully his. He did exactly what he was asking others to do and more. The nobles took him seriously because he had earned their respect and trust by going above and beyond. He could stand in front of the rich and powerful and lead them because for 12 years he led by example, walking his talk. He won a level of influence you cannot be given with a title.

If you want to lead with moral authority, you have to be willing to do more than you expect or require from others. If people see a discrepancy between what they hear us saying and what they see us doing, we lose the ability to influence them. Are you willing to do more than other people think is enough? Keep this in mind – this level of authority takes a very long time to build, but just a moment to destroy. Don’t sell your integrity cheaply, because it is very costly!

For discussion:
*Talk about with your teen about some leaders you know whose influence was damaged by scandal or a lack of integrity. How can our choices today guide us away from a similar fate?
*Talk about the dangers of the digital age we live in and how this forces a level of accountability on people. What used to be private can easily become public on youtube or facebook. A bad choice can go viral and be viewed by thousands. How can we protect our reputations and live with integrity online?

Thoughts after Echo’s Hero Retreat

This month began with Echo’s Fall Retreat, where 100 echo students went away for a weekend to pursue God and connect with each other. These are always high points for me, and this one in particular. Something started that weekend in the hearts of our students, and so I have kept the messaging from Fall Retreat alive with our high school students.

The Hero Retreat was about inspiring students to do what they can. It sounds simple enough, but if we are honest, most of us actually do very little. There seems to be overwhelming need around us, and we feel pretty small in comparison. What can one person do, in the face of so much need, so much evil, so much darkness, and so much pain? The problems of this world are so intimidating it is easy to be discouraged and feel helpless. After all, I am only one person. One of the most important verses for understanding the work of the Kingdom of God is Acts 4:13.
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus. And that changes everything. If you have been with Jesus – then He is with you. I am just one person, but I am not alone…

A hero does what he or she can do. This is not a statement can be taken a few different ways. On one hand, you can use this statement to disqualify yourself from anything great, limiting the expectation of your contribution to the problem. I get it, the problem is HUGE. This is what happens when people witness an accident or a crisis and stand around doing nothing. We have been conditioned to believe small things about ourselves and to know our limitations. We can’t feed every hungry child, cure every disease, and prevent every injustice. We can’t solve the big problems of our world on our own. We are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, so we don’t think we can do anything, and we do nothing. The difference between a hero and everyone else is that a hero doesn’t think this way.

Most think: “I can’t do everything;” but a hero thinks: “I can’t sit here and do nothing!” No one ever did anything great while whining about how much they “can’t” do. This is what happened on a January day in 1982, in Washington D.C. when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. The plane hit the 14th street bridge and crashed into the frozen water of the river. 78 people were killed in the horrific accident. 5 people survived the wreck, only to struggle with the freezing water of the Potomac river, unable to swim to safety because of injuries. Rescue crews struggled to get the survivors out of the river – and the survivors struggled to hang on to the rescue lines with broken and frozen limbs. Frustrated on the bridge, an office assistant named Lenny Skutnik couldn’t take it anymore. He stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam out to assist her. He drug her through the icy water safely to shore. When asked about it, he said: “Somebody had to go into the water, why not me?” The crowd asks “why?” Heroes ask “why not?” Somebody has to do something about it; it might as well be me. There were many people standing around painfully aware of the need, but only one jumped into the water. We have been so conditioned by our culture not to get involved, we think things like: “Let the professionals do their job.” “I will probably just get in the way.” “What can I do?” Lenny Skutnik’s story makes us feel strong. It reminds us about the best parts of humanity, the potential within each of us. It makes us feel heroic and inspired. Lenny’s story (like so many other stories of heroes) reminds us that sometimes human beings can do amazing things – because we were created by someone amazing to do amazing things.

Most ask: “Why me?” A hero asks: “Why NOT me?” We tend to underestimate what we are capable of. Seriously: I think you underestimate what you are capable of. Another way to look at this statement is through the eyes of Jesus – who thought we were capable of something great. We have disqualified ourselves from greatness because we believe the lie of our insignificance. We have become convinced that the problems of this world are so overwhelming that we cannot do anything to solve them. This paralyzing sense of inadequacy spreads like a cancer. What if we took Jesus and his belief in us seriously? Jesus wanted to change the world – and he decided to do it through a group of misfits and knuckleheads that were already overlooked by their culture. The astonishing truth of the Jesus movement is that the world was forever changed by the efforts of unschooled, ordinary people. They were not super heroes. They did not have super powers; they did not have special abilities. They were not geniuses or savants. They were not famous or super talented; they were not kings or queens. These were average, every-day people in normal positions in their culture. But they had been with Jesus.

In the face of challenge, most shrink back, but a hero rises up. This is undoubtedly how Lenny Skutnik felt. He was an office assistant in the Congressional Budget office. He was just trying to get home on a snow day, fighting traffic, normal, everyday stuff. He is not a coast guard rescue swimmer, he wasn’t even on a swim team! He left the house that morning the same as he always did, and expected more of the same from his day. It was a normal and routine day. Routine has a way of lulling us to sleep, of convincing ourselves of our smallness. This is exactly how he felt, until a crisis woke him up. It became instantly clear that he needed to be something more. In the moment you are called on to do something heroic, you either shrink or rise to the challenge.

You cannot do everything, but you can do something.
You cannot feed every hungry kid, but you can feed one. You cannot solve every problem, but you can solve one. Open up your heart to something outside yourself and see what God will put there. See the challenge, weep over it, let it in – but then listen to my challenge: stare that impossible, insurmountable thing in the face and instead of shrinking back, RISE UP. Dare to TRUST HIM.

Check out this dramatization of Lenny’s story here.

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.

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.

Praxis – Watch your Mouth

Sunday night, our Echo High Schoolers continued their series called Praxis. Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, it is faith in practice. It is not just believing something, but living it out. The book of James has a heavy emphasis on praxis, arguing that if your faith does not reveal itself in your priorities, your attitudes, and your lifestyle it is not genuine faith.

One of the areas that true faith is revealed, according to James, is in the way we speak. James takes an entire chapter to talk about the significance of our words. James understands that words have power. Proverbs says that “the power of life and death in the in the tongue.” In a culture where people are always getting in trouble for speaking too soon or too sloppy, this truth should give us pause. Your words can add worth or subtract it, build up or tear down; but they can never be taken back once they are spoken. This reality makes communication dangerous in the digital age, when every status update, photo upload, tweet, text or sound bite can live forever in cyberspace. Now more than ever, people need to learn to harness the power of the tongue.

We talked about the words we speak that subtract worth from others and tear down: gossip, discouragement, criticism, sarcasm, complaining, and bad attitudes. Life is hard enough without having to endure the negative and hurtful words of others. We can wound the people around us, deflate their dreams, and crush their spirit with harsh or critical words. We can drain the joy out of any situation with enough complaining. Teens sometimes believe they can say anything they want, regardless of how cutting or insensitive it is, and cover it over by saying: “I was just kidding.” Joking or not, your words can wound. James compares the destructive potential of words to a consuming fire. We are dealing with a real danger.

Words also have the power to build others up, lend them courage, or ascribe great value to others. Encouragement, genuine compliments, sincerity, and laughter are just a few of the ways you can give life through communication. We challenged our teenagers to ADD to others and not SUBTRACT from them through the way they talk. We have already seen a response from our students in this area. As I type this, there is affirmation being poured out from teen to teen on facebook. One youth leader commented this morning that an “epidemic of niceness” has been started. This will have a more lasting impact than the usual complaining and sarcasm for sure.

Our words are significant because they reveal something about our character. Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Jesus taught that what comes out of a person’s mouth was direct evidence of the contents of his or her heart. If there is evil in your heart, your words will reflect it. It there is love in your heart, your words will reflect it. We live in a culture that is very free with expression, and we need to understand that we are responsible for every bit of communication we release into the world, good or bad.

***Food for thought:
-How are you using words to communicate life to your teenager?
-If you kept track of your words, weighing the negative against the positive, which would win the majority?
-Do you model positive communication to your teenager?
-Do you think that negative words or positive words have more power? Which comes most naturally?

Love This! Love Your Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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