Put Up With Put Downs?

Fat. Ugly. Retarded. Stupid. Gay. Jerk.  

And then there are the ones I can’t (or shouldn’t) even type.

We’re an evil-tongued people.  We swear, we lie, we curse, we gossip, and we put others down.  James had it right when he said, that “the tongue is a fire…the very world of iniquity… and is itself set on fire by hell.”  (James 3:6)

But welcome to 2011 (2 days til 2012).  We have set ourselves completely free to say whatever we want to say because we think it and we think it should be said, and we desire to say it.  Freedom of speech gone a muck.  That’s America for you.

As cowardly as a put-down is, it reaches a new level of cowardice when say from behind a keyboard, through a text, or even worse: posted online for all to see, prop up, and revel in.  Under the banner of “just saying”, we’ve allowed ourselves free reign to bypass the filter between our brains and our mouths.

As you may know, I’ve been working with middle and high school students for nearly 17 years.  And there isn’t ever a shortage of put-downs floating around.  But as I’ve listened to them and corrected them (or attempted to), I’ve seen some common threads.  Whether you’re a teen or not, you can likely resonate with these:

1. Put-downs come from those who have been put down.

It’s the old saying “hurt people hurt people”.  While the sin nature in all of us is surely the leading factor, its also true that when you see someone being destructive with their words (at work, at the grocery store, on the playground, in the home), know that you’ve found someone who has been shown how to hurt others.  This does not condone or defend the behavior, but I constantly have to remind myself that those who are the most painful to be around are often people in the most pain.

#2: Put-downs give a false sense of victory.

Have you ever “stuck it” to someone?  You got entangled in an argument, things got heated,  and that perfect “zinger” came to mind at just the right time?  You likely had a sense of “take that”, but if we’re honest with ourselves those fleeting moments of victory get swallowed up in guilt and an even greater sense of defeat when we choose to employ dirty tactics to gain an upper hand in a verbal combat.

Put-downs are also used in elementary, middle, and high schools to establish who’s who.  Oh yeah, and they’re also used in traffic, in workplaces, offices, factories, homes, and nursing homes.  Heck, I’ve even seen them used at funerals!  All in an effort to establish a footing on a higher pedestal than others.

#3: Put-downs should be corrected…immediately.

Now, some might disagree with me on this one; especially the ultra-tolerant “live and let live” types.  But I’m a firm believer in speaking the truth in love.  Not in pride, or in piety, or in self-righteousness….in love.  When you hear someone say something hurtful, be bold enough to model for them a better way of communicating.  Sure you might get blasted yourself, but hey, take comfort in the fact that you did the right thing. Throwing someone a lifeline is your job.  Whether they take it or not is up to them.

If the atmosphere is too tense then just wait a while, but not too long.  Use a “Remember what you said a little while ago? I wanted to talk with you about that because I’m really struggling with it.”

We possess such power within the small muscle inside our mouths.  Did you know that the tongue is the only muscle not attached on both ends?  That means that you’ve always got a loose end to watch out for!  If you need help then there’s good news.  The God who made it knows how best to help you handle it.  Ask Him.   James was right when he said, “No man can tame the tongue.”  (3:8)  But we know Who can!

“I hate teenagers.”

I was in a well-known big-box store two days ago, standing in the check-out line, waiting patiently for my turn as the lady in front of me wrangled with the cashier over the advertised price of a toy she had planned on buying.  It appears the price on the shelf and the price the computer came up with were two different numbers and naturally the customer expected the lower number to prevail.  They got it settled (she didn’t buy the toy), she was on her way, and it was my turn.

Now, I’m a give-them-the-benefit-of-the-doubt kind of person and maybe this cashier was at the end of her shift, but she just looked worn out.  She looked to be in her 20’s–maybe even early 20’s, she was overweight, unkempt, and overall kind of homely looking.  The recent entanglement with that last customer surely didn’t help her attitude, so I tried to step up and be extra cheery. As she rung up the 2 or 3 items I had placed on the conveyor belt, 2 teenager girls  stepped up to be next in line to check-out behind me.  With no trace of a smile, the cashier pointed to her lane number which was NOT lit and said, “I’m closing.”  With no discernable response from the 2 teen girls, she repeated herself but this time a little louder: “I’m CLOSing.”  The 2 girls looked at the cashier, looked at each other, rolled their eyes and walked away.

Then the cashier looked at me, somehow with even less of an expression than she previously had and mouthed the words, “I HATE teenagers.”  Without missing a beat, I cheerfully replied, “Well I LOVE them! But I’m a youth pastor, so there you go.”  I continued, “But lots of people feel like you do, so you’re not alone.”  (Whatever kind of twisted solace that was.)

Most of the ills in our society can be traced back to the teenage years.  I want to be sure you don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  I’m not vilifying teenagers, not at all.  I’m simply saying that a huge chunk of who you are, how you think, what you feel about others, and your overall worldview started in your formative teen years.  And like it or not, for most people it sticks around well into adulthood and for many even to the grave.

Think about it: most habits you have (that make up your much of your “identity”) began in the teen years.  Did you know the average age for a new smoker is 13?  About half of all teens graduating high school have reported to have already had sexual intercourse.  And half of THOSE did so under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Also, as we have progressed technologically as a society, we have ushered teens into a “have it now, have it all” mentality.  With our amazing modern conveniences, we have seen nearly stride-for-stride a moral compromise.  The word “could” has reached the level of “should”.  In other words, if a cell phone is within my reach, I should have one of my own.  After all, my friends all have one.  If a Facebook page is the social norm, then I should have one of my own.  If every pair of jeans I see walking around appears to be painted on, then I should also have mine painted on.  Its the word that has unfortunately become commonplace when talking about teens today: entitlement.

And this is why I LOVE working with, serving, teaching, and loving teenagers.  Because I get the extraordinary privilege and responsibility (and sometimes challenge and headache) of showing them a far better way to think about life, view life, and live life.  I get a front row seat to watch teenager after teenager come to the realization that not only are they not the most important thing on the planet, they’re not even in the top 3.  I get to watch them open their eyes to the reality that while God loves them, died for them, forgives them, and lives within them, their happiness is not His #1 priority.  And they embrace that.

That’s why I meant what I said to that cashier.  I truly do LOVE teenagers.  Not because they’re always fun to be around, or because they’ve got everything (or anything) figured out, or because they’re respectful.  It’s simply because I know that once they see the awesome potential that God has placed within them and they surrender that to Him, they’ll be unstoppable forces of God’s grace and redemption on earth.

We’re Not Lobsters.

Ask anyone.  I’m not a complainer.  Complaining is akin to worrying and neither strategies do any good.  Jesus said it best (duh, of course He did–He’s God) when He said, “And which of you by worrying and add a single hour to his lifespan?” (Luke 12:25)  It wasn’t a question to be answered, but a strong statement all by itself.

Also, Dan Webster once said, “Complaining is the language of cowards.”  I use that one on my kids from time to time but they’re not quite ready to fully appreciate the truth of it.

So don’t think I’m some “grumpy old man” leaning back in his rocker waxing nostalgic about the glory days.  Lord knows I’m not old enough for that.  Really.  I’m not.  I’m really not.  And besides, how the heck did “glory” get connected with the past anyway?  If you ask me, glory hasn’t arrived yet!  But the more I look around, the less things seem to be going well for us as a human race.  We seem to have released our grasp on the concept of doing what’s decent, what’s civil, what’s amenable, what’s respectable, and dare I say it; what’s “right”.  Now all you hipster relativists can hold your tongue on your “what’s IS right?” soliloquy.  I’ve heard it all before.  And I’m not even arguing for Biblical behavior (for the moment), I’m arguing for “I’m a human, you’re a human. Let’s treat each other with dignity and care.”

I’ve stepped in it, haven’t I?  Yep, I’ve put my size 12’s right in the middle of a pile of the issue our society is entrenched in.  For all our “greener world” do-gooding, we have left behind the sense of common anything.  For all of our connectedness, I’d defy you to find a time in history when we were less TRULY connected than we are today.  For all of our intentions and ideals to be a better people, we just aren’t.  And from where I sit, its getting worse.

I once worked at Axelsson & Johnson’s Fish Market in Cape May, NJ.  It’s still there.  Go eat a crab cake sandwich. They’re delicious.  While I was working there one day, I stood at the cutting table next to a co-worker named Jen.  Jen and I were killing and gutting live lobsters as fast as our hands could move.  There was a big order to fill, and we were the ones to get it done.  While we worked, Jen asked me (without looking up from her lobster), “What if God is a lobster and we’re going to be in big trouble for killing all these lobsters?”  Now, I consider myself an open-minded individual but I’ve heard it said that you can be so open-minded that your brains fall out.  Personally, I prize truth over open-mindedness.  I’m an extremely teachable person…unless you’re wrong.

So, I quickly affirmed my belief that God is NOT a lobster, and shared that belief with Jen.  I added that lobsters don’t have souls.  They were created by God for His good pleasure and our good purpose; namely food.  Jen showed neither acceptance or disdain for my stance on the whole lobster/God issue and it was honestly never brought up again.

I tell you that story to point out that in my estimation, we’re forgetting that every person we see has a soul.  And not just a soul, but an eternal soul.  And not just an eternal soul, but a precious eternal soul that God (non-lobster that He is) cared/cares enough about to offer a pleasant eternity rather than an eternal punishment.  But when we lose sight of the fact that everyone has a soul, we start treating others like obstacles, like objects, and like opportunities.  In other words, we’re dehumanizing ourselves.  We’re bit-by-bit subtracting from ourselves the very thing that causes us to be human in the search for the human experiences of happiness, peace, joy, hope, and love.

There’s more to say on this (which I’d rather hear from you), but for now I’m going to get up from this computer, walk out the door, and look for souls to show love to.  Join me.


“You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul that has a body.”  –C.S. Lewis

Advent-urous Living: Day 2: Joseph

If historical records can indeed be trusted, anyone who denies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem just as prophesied hundreds of years prior is not someone you want on your team when playing Trivial Pursuit.  (No offense to the morons.)

A college student in our church wrote me several months ago to ask me some questions that arose from a Religions class she was taking.  As we wrote back and forth, I came to find out that her professor for said class denied the birth of Jesus.  Not the birth of Jesus as the Son of God and ransom for humanity; just the actual historical event itself.  How anyone can refute the fact that a baby named Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of Caesar Augustus, during the reign of King Herod, when Quirinius was governor of Syria is simply beyond comprehension.  I can understand denying the significance of His birth, but to deny His birth altogether?  Somebody needs a pink slip from their position as Professor of Religion.  But I digress.

In the whole Christ-birth story, we tend to focus on all the various characters involved; from the shepherds to the angels to the magi to the sheep.  Heck, even an unnamed inn keeper gets an honorable mention.  But it has always felt to me like Joseph gets among the least amount of attention in all this.

Have you ever read the first 17 verses of the book of Matthew?  Most people skip it because it seems to be essentially a long list of names.  Not terribly exciting.  Like watching somebody else’s home movies, but nobody you know.  Most people generally skip to the good part which starts in verse 18 so that they don’t start nodding off as they try and get through the genealogy of Jesus.  But its in the genealogy that we find some pretty interesting details.  Do you know what 14 x 3 is?  It’s 42.  Now 42 might just seem like a number, but what we should realize is that this the minimum number of generations that had been waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting (don’t worry I won’t do this 42 times) and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for the promised Messiah to come.

We’ve lost sight of that kind of waiting.  It doesn’t exist anymore.  That stretch of time was a once-in-history thing.  Trace the lineage of the genealogy back into the Old Testament accounts and you’ll see glimpses and foreshadowing of the Messiah.  The centuries preceding His birth are peppered with teasers as to the fact that He was still on His way.  So, when He came it wasn’t just a “Oh look. Jesus is here.” kind of thing.   It was a sky-splitting, angel-heralding, eternity-shaking, shepherd-gawking, humanity-rejoicing kind of thing!  And Joseph was the final man in the long line of waiting.  Joseph would be the one chosen, just as Mary was chosen, to usher in and raise up this child from heaven.

Not much is said of Joseph, but we do know that he was in the line of King David, so he had a legal right to the throne.   We also know that Joseph was a carpenter by trade.  The last mention in Scripture of Joseph was when Jesus was age 12 and was found in the Temple discussing the Law with the priests and teachers.  It was then that Jesus made His well-known statement, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?”  And by “Father”, He didn’t mean Joseph.

We can safely assume that Joseph likely died before Jesus earthly ministry began.  He is not found at any of the otherwise significant events recorded in Scripture.  He wasn’t at the marriage feast in Cana where Jesus performed His first miracle; only Mary was mentioned.  He wasn’t mentioned at the cross where Jesus was crucified; only Mary was mentioned.  And remember that at Jesus’ death, He turned the caring of Mary over to John, his cousin.  This would indicate no one was left to take care of Jesus’ mother.

So, what can we learn from a man who we know so little about?  Let’s take what we know and apply it:

1. Joseph sought to do what was right.  When he learned that Mary was pregnant and that the child wasn’t biologically his, he planned to divorce her quietly so as to save her from public disgrace and quite literally save her life.  Do I live each day with a sincere desire to simply do what’s right, no matter the cost?

2. Joseph was dedicated to his wife.  We get the sense that Joseph was a “man’s man”; a guy who worked with his hands, who wasn’t afraid to get dirty, a man with a solid work ethic, and a man who loved to love his wife.  We see glimpses of this in how Joseph cared for Mary through her pregnancy, how he listened to and obeyed the angel’s instructions (Joseph also got his own angelic visit, too).  Do I dedicate myself every day to the care, love, and protection of my wife?

3.  Joseph cared about Jesus.  If there were anyone in history that could rightly have that “That’s my boy!” sentiment, its Joseph.  From the delivery of Jesus to the toddler years in Egypt to helping to retrace their steps back to Jerusalem then they misplaced Him at the age of 12, Joseph cared deeply about Jesus.  And not merely Jesus his son, but Jesus THE Son.  Do I care about Jesus more than I care about any other person or thing in my life?

As you move slowly toward Christmas this year, take some time to get to know Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.

Living Advent-urously: Part 1: Simeon

As I sit and type this post tonight, I do so in the warm glow of Christmas lights on our tree nearby.  And within arm’s reach are our stockings hanging on the mantel.  Across the room I can see garland wind through the banisters lining the steps leading upstairs.  From the other room comes wafting the sounds of Amy Grant singing “A Christmas To Remember.”  I’m struck by how appropriate the song is at this very moment.

Today is December 1st, and along with millions around the globe, I have started on the road we call “Advent”.  It will eventually lead us to peer over the edge of a manger and to gaze down at a child wriggling in the blanket He’s wrapped in as the straw is pushed away from His face by His mother.  We’ll gather there and stand in amazement at not just the miracle of birth, but rather the miracle of THIS birth; the fleshy incarnation of the divine plan to reunite the creation with the Creator.  In this baby is the promise of the ages, the help for the nations, and the hope for eternity.  In the face of the God-child, we see all-at-once the normal traces of a newborn child as well as the mystery of a God who would care enough about His lost children to send the only One who can help, who can save, who can redeem.  The Messiah is born.

The word advent is a word that means “coming”.  It is the season of expectation that precedes the arrival of Jesus, born to earth.  The focus on this season is that our hearts would be drawn into a reverent, jubilant announcement that the Savior of the world, prophecied about hundreds of years beforehand, is finally here!

I’ll be honest.  While I have known about Jesus almost as long as I’ve known about Santa Claus, I really haven’t gotten myself into the whole “Advent” thing.  My mind has traditionally categorized it under the same heading as things like Lent, Ash Wednesday, and other “high church”-feeling activities.  To put it simply, it hasn’t been interesting to me.

Until now.

Let me share with you a brief history of me and Christmas.  I grew up in a home that loved Jesus.  I saw it more as loving going to church services, but now I see that a love for Jesus was behind it all.  Still, my parents (I don’t blame them) also wanted me to have the fun of believing in Santa Claus.  So for the first several years of my life I went to bed Christmas Eve with the full knowledge that an overweight elf was going to somehow deliver gifts to my house.  The fact that we didn’t have a fireplace didn’t seem to faze me in the slightest.  After all, if he can visit every home in the world in one night, the absence of a chimney hardly seemed like an obstacle.  Not to mention, he had proven himself several years running.  Yep, a fan of Santa was I.

That is, until the inevitable happened.  It was Christmas Eve and my folks had tucked me in to bed and I assumed were heading off to bed themselves.  After all, they wouldn’t want to get in Santa’s way, right?  Certainly they wouldn’t want to slow him down, what with his tight schedule and all.  That’s why I didn’t think twice about getting out of bed and heading down the hall toward the kitchen for a drink.

And that’s the moment Santa died.

I approached the living room to find my parents; each with presents in their hands as they were in mid-stoop to place them under the tree.  They both turned to look at me and……have you ever been in that moment when you walking into an occupied bathroom and both occupier and intruder have that hanging moment when eyes lock, minds scream, but neither does or says anything due to being frozen solid?  Yep, that’s the moment.

I don’t remember saying anything, and come to think of it, I don’t remember getting that glass of water either.  I simply remember being back in bed shortly after with a new found maturity and newly lost grip on who in tar nation had been raising me all these years, because according to recently discovered evidence, I was the lovechild of two bold-faced liars.  Turns out they’re actually 2 amazingly gifted and giving people.  And I have grown to love them dearly.

This morning I was reading “Day 1″ of an advent reading.  It was the account of an 8-day-old Jesus being brought to the temple for his…um…shall we say…”ceremony”.  A man there named Simeon had been awaiting the arrival of the King and identified the Godboy immediately.  In fact, he was so moved by seeing Jesus he took God the baby in his arms and began talking to God the Father: “As you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.”  Or in other words, “I can die a happy man!”

Can you imagine that kind of joy?  Just the very sight of a drooling, perhaps dirty-diapered baby; but the One you KNEW was the promised, anointed Savior of the world.  The very sight of that child brought Simeon to immediate readiness for the grave.  Can you reach into your own heart and bring out that kind of passion for Jesus?  THAT is the kind of joy this Christmas season will captivate my heart with.  And I can’t wait.