Learning to connect with Middle Schoolers by Arm Wrestling

Arm WrestlingNo, it wasn’t my idea.

Yes, I did win.

My wife, Brooklyn, is a Middle School Pastor.  Naturally, I find myself hanging around Middle Schoolers most Wednesday Nights.  100 to 120 Middle Schoolers.

Last Wednesday Night, I happened to be sitting at a table eating Chic-fil-A with my daughters before the youth service started.  The smell of chicken nuggets activated the natural instinct of hunger in one Middle School boy.  He pointed to our food and said, “Is that mine?  I”ll take that.”

My reply was, “Sure, you can have it if you can beat me in arm wrestling.”  I was totally joking.  I thought he would get the hint there’s no way he is getting mine or my daughters’ food.  Obviously, his appetite for Chic-fil-A convinced him otherwise.

This 5 ft tall, 70 lb boy sat down at my table and said, “Let’s go.”

“No,” I said.  “I’m not going to arm wrestle you.”

“What, are you afraid to lose?” he said.

That was it for me.  I won’t be heckled by a Middle School boy.  We put our elbows on the table, gripped each others hands, and started the match on the count of three.

Slowly, I pressed the back of his hand to the table.  “Let’s do it, again” he challenged.  We did.  Only this time he wrestled with two arms to my one.  Same result.  With a bit more struggle, I lowered his hand to the table.

Then, he called over his buddy.  They arm wrestled me together, with their four arms to my one.  Finally, I lost.

Yet, somehow I think I still won.  I didn’t win the match.  But, I did win an opportunity to build a new relationship with a group of Middle Schoolers that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Arm wrestling opened a door for me.  It brought me into the world of Middle School boys.  It allowed them  to see me as someone who can get on their level.

Here’s what arm wrestling taught me about connecting more effectively:

  • Don’t try too hard to impress, just be yourself.
  • Allow yourself to be young again.
  • Interact in ways beyond “police-ing” their behavior.
  • Get comfortable with looking silly.
  • Challenge Middle School boys to a friendly competition.
  • The less you worry about being awkward, the less they will worry about it.
  • Don’t expect Middler Schoolers to act like adults.

You might be thinking, “Hanging out with Middle Schoolers is not my thing.”  You may be right.  You may not need to speak to a thirteen year old.  BUT, they need you.

As the older generation of Christ followers, I pray we don’t neglect their need.  If arm wrestling opened the door for me with one group of boys, I’m sure God is creative enough to use something about you to do the same.

How do you connect with Middle Schoolers?  What advice would you give to others who haven’t quite figured it out yet?

Learning to Control the ONE Thing I Can

My(self) – control.

There is one thing I can control in my life, and it’s me.  Self-control.

I’m realizing that in my lifetime, a significant portion of my energy has been spent trying to control what I can’t.  I can’t always control what others say or do to me.  I can’t always control the environment surrounding me.  I can’t always control the outcome of my decisions.  I can’t always control my reward for any hardwork.  Most of the time, I can’t control what happens to me.

BUT, I can control my response to what happens to me.  ME.  Myself.  I can control.

How I react to what’s out of my control is in my control.

I control my response to life’s lows and highs.  Whenever my response builds up my character and reflects the image of God created in me, I am exercising self-control.

Any other response lacks self-control.  My control has fallen victim to my circumstances.

It’s not easy.  With all our heart, we may intend to respond with self-control.  But, somehow we still up end with the wrong reaction.  In the book of Romans, Paul speaks to his own internal struggle with this very issue:

I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  (Romans 7:15 & 7:21)

Like Paul, I believe many of us want to control our selves.  We desire to do what is right, good, and pleasing to God.  We don’t want to be under the control of who or what happens to us.  We long for the control of myself.  Yet, a deep struggle ensues.  The controlling grip of evil grows tighter, and we find ourselves doing what we didn’t want to do.

This is why Paul’s words in Romans 7:24 are so liberative.  Here, in these words of Paul, is captured the potency of God’s redemptive story.  You can will all you want on your own to have self-control.  And, to some degree you will.  But, your own strength can only take you so far against the force of evil working against you.  To discover real freedom to respond with self-control, we need a power greater than ourselves working in us.  We need God.  Jesus.  The empowering of the Holy Spirit.

So, if any of this resonates with you, I would suggest that we need 2 things to help us control the one thing that we can:

  1. The Holy Spirit.  The empowerment of the Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Bible.  A striking example is at Pentecost in Acts 2.  I’ll let you read it for yourselves.  The point is, the Holy Spirit inhabiting your very being and giving you a new identity is the only way to truly experience the freedom to exercise control of myself.  It’s God at work in you against the sin that wants to continue dwelling within you.  When the time comes to respond, the Holy Spirit can empower you to suppress the urges of evil that lead you astray.
  2. Spirit-Filled People.  These are people who themselves exercise self-control empowered by the Holy Spirit.  A good place to find them is gathering at a healthy church.  Surround yourself with them.  Invite them into your life.  Listen to them.  It is in these relationships that you will learn what it means to have self-control.  It is also where you will find the encouragement to follow through.

There’s one thing I can control, and it’s me.  With God’s help.  I’m learning it’s time to give up trying to control what I can’t, and focus on what I can.

Where is your energy spent?  Trying to control others?  Or focusing on self-control?  What role does the Holy Spirit play in all of this for you?


3 Things I Like (& Don’t Like) About Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace

6 months ago, I became an official graduate of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Tonight, Brooklyn and I completed our second week leading a group of 16 adults through the same class.  It’s part of a church-wide commitment to unloose ourselves from debt.  It’s called Momentum.


If you’ve never heard of Dave Ramsey, let me explain.  He’s a financial expert.  He has his own radio show, best-selling book, curriculum, website, and DVD series  One would be lucky to find another person on the planet more passionate about helping others get out from under the burden of debt.

His name is showing up on church signs across the United States.  His DVD’s are playing in living rooms every night for small groups.  He’s jumped from a mainstream audience into the Christian world with relative ease.  It appears the church doors are open for him and he’s here to stay.

So, I thought I would offer my perspective:

3 Things I Like About Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace

1.  It works.  The principles of money management he teaches work.  He didn’t come up with the ideas, but he’s organized them.  If you follow them, you will start to lose your debt.

2.  It builds community.  We offer the course in a group setting.  We don’t share our bank accounts, check books, and credit card pin numbers with each other.  But, we do discuss our financial situations and struggles.  As this happens, people begin to identify with shared experiences and problems, which creates new affinities between group members.  And pow, community blossoms.

3.  People need it.  Our group has a combined debt of $161,000, not including home mortgages.  Most individuals and couples had less than $3,000 in their savings.  Not enough to cover an emergency.  Enough said.

3 Things I Don’t Like About Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University

1.  It focuses on married couples.  Before I leave myself open for hate mail, I will admit he quickly addresses issues focused on individuals.  However, it is just that:  quick.  It’s more like a side-note or and addendum.

2.  It’s motto is biblically-challenged.  The motto is “Live like no one else, so you can live like no one else.”  Simply put, this means spending less now so you can have more to spend later.  Sounds good, right.  And I agree. Christians should live like no one else by breaking the trend of spending $1.25 for every $1 we make.  God’s word calls us to be responsible with our resources.  I struggle, though, to find biblical support for the motivation being a future of luxurious living compared to everyone else.  I haven’t read, yet, in the Bible where God’s resources are given to us for our luxury.  The biblical challenge to “live like no one else” is a lifestyle of generosity, compassion, and self-sacrifice.  Freedom from debt isn’t about you, it’s about the freedom to use your money to care for what God cares for.  To be fair, the class does talk about giving, which I appreciate.  Still, it’s not enough for me.

3.  It proof-texts God’s word.  Not every scripture citation, but some references to the Bible are taken out of context.  Dave doesn’t claim to be a biblical scholar, and he doesn’t need to be.  Some of his usage of scripture, though, leans hard in the direction of reading scripture into a point.  Scripture is used to fit the point, rather than drawing the point from scripture.  This approach to the reading the Bible lends itself to making God’s word say what one wants it to say.

I’m curious.  Have you been through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University?  Are you going through it now?  What’s your opinion?


Learning Why Jesus Wept

SundownIt’s not what you think.

Most of us think of what many refer to as the shortest memory verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  He began to weep over the death of a dear friend, Lazarus.  According to Mary, Jesus came too late.  Now, her brother is dead.

Mary’s emotion was too much for Jesus.  She wept.  All of her friends were weeping.  Experiencing this deeply moved Jesus, and he began to weep.

That’s not the reason I’m thinking of, though. 

Jesus also wept in Luke 19:41. This time for a different reason:  missed opportunity.

At this point in the story, Jesus is making his final approach to Jerusalem.  You know the story.  He comes riding on a donkey with a crowd waiving palm branches and throwing their coats on the ground before him.

On the way, Jesus sees the city and has a moment. Thoughts and memories flood his mind as the city comes into sight.  And, “he wept over it.”  As the tears streamed down his face and the pain of sorrow stung his heart, this is what he said:

If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes. . . you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”  Luke 19:42-44

God’s people missed their opportunity.  They missed it.  For years, Jesus tried to show them and tell them, but they missed it.

I’m not talking about sinners and non-Jews.  When I say “God’s people”, I’m referring to those who have been following God since Father Abraham.  They know God.  They know God’s law.  They know all the stories of God’s love and mercy.  They know the writings of the prophets that foretell a coming Messiah.

Yet, they missed it.

Jesus wept over a missed opportunity.  A chance to change the world slipped right through their hands.

Less than a whole chapter away, we learn 2 reasons why:

  1. They were too busy judging sinners.  Are you familiar with the story of Zacchaeus?  Maybe you know the song?  Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  He climbed into a sycamore tree to see what he could see…  It’s a Sunday School story found in Luke 19:1-10.  Most of the time, we focus on the fact that Zacchaeus is short and can’t see above the crowd.  If you read closely, there’s more to the story.  The crowd did not want him to see.  He is not exactly a crowd favorite.  Verse 2 tells reveals two things about Zacchaeus that would be enough to make him an enemy of everyone in town.  He’s a chief tax collector and rich.  The crowd’s loathing for him is evident in Luke 19:8.  Jesus called him down from the tree and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house.  The crowd’s response:  “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a SINNER.”                                     Missed opportunity.  The people miss the chance to imagine how God can use them to bring salvation to a sinner.  To deaf ears, Jesus says:  “the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”  Luke 19:10
  2.  They were too preoccupied with their own power.  Eleven verses after Jesus wept, he tells a parable (Luke 20:9-19).  It is a story of vineyard owner who leased it to tenants.  He went away and allowed them to care for his property and it’s profits.  The time came for the land to produce, so the owner sent a slave to collect his portion.  The tenants sent him away with nothing.  The owner sent a second slave.  Less fortunate, this slave was beat and sent away with nothing.  The owner sent a third, who was also beat and sent away with nothing.  The owner decides to send his own son.  The tenants recognize the son.  Thinking they will inherit the land, they throw the son out and kill him.  The owner’s reaction?  To visit the tenants himself, destroy them, and give the land to others.                                                                   Verse 19 reveals a twist to the story.  It’s about the religious leaders.  The descendants of Abraham.                                                                                           Missed Opportunity.  God’s people misused God’s possession.  The people used it for their own gain, rather than according to God’s purpose.

Jesus wept over a missed opportunity.  God’s people missed their opportunity to bring God’s salvation to the world.  Instead, they created and maintained the world in their own image.

What would be Jesus’ reaction to God’s people in our nation?  In my city? In my church?  In my family?  Me?

Are we missing our opportunity? 



Learning to Name Our Values

ValuesBrainstorm#1ValuesBrainstorm#1Brooklyn and I cleared the schedule for an entire day to focus.

Our focus was directed toward strategic planning for a ministry we lead together.  Saturday Night Church.

We’ve been serving as co-pastors for 2 years.  Looking back, we recognize a few mistakes we made.  We also see breakthroughs and transformations.

Now, we ask the questions:  What’s next?  What will it mean for us to be faithful to God’s leading for the next 2 years?  What steps lay ahead of us?  How can we lead our people into new kingdom realities?

On our focused day, our focus landed on values.  What are our essential values?

The answer.  We weren’t exactly sure.

Our response.  List as many as we can think of and then narrow it down.

Here’s our list  (**Warning**  The list is long, but worth making it to the bottom):

  • Safety
  • Compassion
  • Self-Worth
  • Justice
  • Generosity
  • Christlikeness
  • Love
  • Hospitality
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Dialogue
  • Friendship
  • Care
  • Encouragement
  • Education
  • Perspective
  • Individual
  • Fun
  • Community
  • Risk
  • Persistance
  • Children
  • Words
  • Inclusivity
  • Relevancy
  • Advocacy
  • Humility
  • Self-Expression
  • Empathy
  • Progress
  • Scripture
  • Experience
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Beauty
  • Restoration
  • People
  • Time
  • Consistency
  • Legacy
  • Mutuality
  • Courage
  • Guardianship
  • Play
  • Spirituality
  • Contentment
  • Equality
  • Excellence
  • Kindness
  • Awareness
  • Doing
  • Being
  • Change
  • Culture
  • Rest
  • Work
  • Language
  • Gender
  • Planning
  • Serendipity
  • Synchronicity
  • Health
  • Activity
  • Talent
  • Aesthetics
  • Pleasure
  • Growth
  • Happiness
  • Mentoring
  • Multiplication
  • Affinity
  • Talkability
  • Transformation
  • Opinion
  • Serving
  • Differences
  • Theology
  • Surprises
  • Cooperation
  • Emotion
  • Balance
  • Objectivity
  • Subjectivity
  • Sincerity
  • Honesty
  • Authenticity
  • Collaboration
  • Vulnerability
  • Longevity
  • Wisdom
  • Sustainability
  • Listening
  • Presence
  • Positivity
  • Connectivity
  • Patience
  • Adventure
  • Journey
  • Sacrifice
  • Holiness
  • Sacred
  • Grace
  • Forgiveness
  • Cheer
  • Encouragement
  • Strategy
  • Outcasts
  • Stimulation
  • Fairness
  • Collectives

Not every word makes sense as a value.  Some contradict.  Others we would completely discard.

Our goal was to get to our wits end.  And we did.  Once there, we thought we may have driven ourselves to insanity.  Then, it became clear.

We were able to name our values:  Mobility, Risk Taking, Influence, Love, and Missional. 

In naming our values, we discovered a new sense of identity.  Trimming all the negotiables away, we get to the core of who God is calling us to be.  A people committed to these 5 values.

Over time, they may change.  For this moment, these are it.

Now, we feel the confidence to answer the big question:  What’s next?

If you listed as many values as you could think of, what would the list include?  Do you know what you value?  How does it help you answer the big questions of your life?





Learning How Children Say Thank You

PA#12I had no idea it was Pastor Appreciation Month.

It’s kind of a silly idea.  Churches designating an entire month to shower their pastor(s) with thank you cards, special meals, awards, and the all-so-coveted love offering.   I’m sure it was a pastor who came up with the idea.

I guess it can also be a litmus test for some pastor.  Acts of appreciation mean stay.  No signs of appreciation means the back door is open.  Time to walk through it.

Like I said, I had no idea it was this month.  I was not expecting to receive a “Thank you” card from each child in our children’s ministry.  From 2 yeas to 10 years old, every child hand crafted a card of appreciation for Brooklyn and me.

Some were sweet.  Some were funny.  Some made no sense.  All of them were precious.

It doesn’t seem fair to keep them all to myself, so here’s a sampling of a few of my favorites.


To all the kids at Saturday Night Church, You are welcome.  Brooklyn and I love you, too.




Learning that 8th Grade Boys Need an Example

8thGradeBoy5 out of 6 Eighth Grad boys in my group claim they don’t know anyone who relies on Jesus as their source of joy.

To be fair, I will change it to 4 out of 6 of the boys felt this way.  I think one has an example in his parents, but he was too embarrassed to admit it.  I’m confident the other four were being honest.

When I asked how many of these six 8th Grade boys relied on God as the source of their joy, zero (0) answered with an affirmative.  None.  0%.

I’m not convinced the 0% answer is indicative of all 8th Grade boys everywhere.  It may just be the group of boys I lead.  Or, it could have just been the boys who were at youth group this night.

But, I imagine the percentage is still depressingly low.

As I think about this realization, my disappointment isn’t directed at the 8th Grade boys.  My concern rests with me and all the other Christ-following adults who know these boys.  Why didn’t they answer I was their example?  Or you?

What can we do to change this?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Personally invest in a Middle Schooler outside of church gatherings.
  • Introduce students to other students who can be an example.
  • Ask a teacher at a Middle School to invest in a student.
  • Connect a student to a retired adult or family with the time to lead by example.
  • Connect a student to a team or coach who can be an example.
  • Create intergenerational experiences that can connect students to others who are great examples.
  • Mentor a student at your local Middle School. 

I’ll stop here.  These aren’t all the possibilities.  This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive.  It’s only the beginning of God’s imagination.

I’m not sure what your experience tells you.  My experience with a small group of 8th Grade boys is teaching me:  they are in desperate need of an example. 

You’re it.

Did you have an example growing up? 



Learning the Most Effective Way to Listen

EarThe most effective way to listen is with a resolve to understand.

I’m learning.  I’m not saying I do this all of the time.  Or that I even do it most of the time.  I (we) need a major shift in my (our) practice of listening.  Listening to understand seems to be the most effective approach.

Our default mode is listening with the intent to reply.  As you are speaking, I’m thinking of all the ways I will respond back.  As words and stories are coming out of your mouth, on the tip of my tongue is advice, judgment, explanation, or some random comparison to my experiences.

If we’re feeling tired in the moment, we may even pretend to be listening.  “Yeah.”  “Hmmm hmmm.”  “I hear you.”  It’s possible we might give the obligatory nod of the head.  Then, we walk away with no clue what you were talking about.

Listening with a resolve to understand puts me in your world.  It helps me begin to see the way you are seeing.  It moves me from the perspective in which I stand and gives me a view from your shoes.  It protects me from projecting my story onto your story.

Listening with a resolve to understand strangles out any impulse to reply, to control, or to manipulate.

Before you give it a try, let me give you 3 warnings:

  • It’s hard.
  • It’s risky.
  • It improves your relationships.

I admit, it’s tough to slow down my brain when someone else is talking.  A million responses are racing in the back of mind to the front of my tongue.  Most of the time, my restraint is too late.  The words are out before I have a chance to truly understand.

I’m learning are more effective way.

How do you listen to others?  


Learning Why I Need to Remember Yesterday

Brooklyn and I had a first as parents.  We pulled out the home videos of our daughters.

Times have definitely changed.  No longer does it require digging out the slide projector and screen from the attic.  (Wow, saying that makes me feel old.)  No more clicking through slide after barely visible slide.

We opened our laptop.  Made a couple clicks.  Here’s what we saw:

2 year old Kirra singing like Ariel

After watching several videos and reminiscing over many pictures, I told Brooklyn:  “Someday, we won’t be able to make it through these memories without crying hysterically.”  Reality is, if I wouldn’t have been holding it back, a deluge of tears would have come streaming down my face in this very moment.

I don’t want to get too mushy, though.  I’m a tough guy, right.  Back to what I learned.

In watching these videos, I learned why I need to remember yesterday:

  • It makes me happy.
  • It shows the strength of our relationship.
  • It shows how much we’ve grown.
  • It shows how far we’ve come.
  • It gives me new perspective on today.
  • It gives a reason to cherish the “now.”
  • It proves how much we need one another.

It’s interesting how often the Bible speaks of remembering.

Time and again, God’s people are told to “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.”  Exodus 13:3

God also remembers.  “Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”  Leviticus 23:42

Yesterday is too important to forget.  Whether it’s yesterday with my family or yesterday with my faith, I need to remember.  Yesterday is not just a thing of the past.  It has power to influence the present and the future.

When is the last time you remembered yesterday?