I just returned from a large group bible study at the youth gathering of one of our ecumenical partners. The opening band had the audience of teens jumping in unison with raised-arm praise, singing lyrics about their God being greater, stronger and higher than any other. In fact, most of the songs the group has sung for two days have been about how awesome God is, and how awesome they are in God’s eyes.
When I got back to my hotel room I spent some time in prayer, trying to discern my discomfort with what I was hearing and witnessing. Not that I don’t think God is awesome, and not that I don’t support full-out, full-body praise of Jesus, and not that I don’t think young people need to hear they are the desire of God’s heart. It just felt like the planners of the gathering chose the easy path.
It is relatively easy to get a room full of Christian youth fired up about an all–powerful God who is greater than any other. One can’t help but get swept up in the moment, especially when the decibel level alone overwhelms all senses. But is that an accurate depiction of God in light of the cross of Jesus Christ? And is the kind of preaching that substantiates teenagers’ identification with a God who is all about buoying up their Ego reflective of the church’s mission?
Martin Luther taught that a Superman-kind of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. He reminded us that God’s power is hidden in the form of weakness. When Christians talk about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness. That is NOT the easy path!
Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us in her book Almost Christian, that the Gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live. That is a much more challenging message for American teenagers to embrace. Most of us would rather invoke the power of our collective American determination to fix problems than surrender power or turn the other cheek like Jesus asks. Jesus’ example of sacrificial love goes against the grain of can-do American individualism.
In the biblical text around which the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering is being shaped, the first thing that Jesus does is offer a gesture of peace. If we are following Jesus’ path it should be our intention to offer – first – a gesture of peace to each other and to the people of New Orleans. The biggest lesson we can learn from New Orleans, in New Orleans, is a way of being Christian in the world that values humility, sacrifice and mutuality. You may be disappointed if you come to the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering expecting to join an army of Christians all fired up to “help those poor people,” or fix something that is broken, to get dirty and tired doing service projects, and then come together each evening to celebrate our accomplishments.
Our service projects – or justice experiences as we are calling them – will reflect our identification with Christ in how we relate to people in a distinctive way. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” For some that will mean listening to stories of injustice; for some that will mean cleaning a playground that is not a safe place for children to play; for some that will mean learning how they contribute to the systems that keep people in poverty; for some that may mean reading stories to children; for some that may mean painting pictures to brighten the halls of a dingy school building; for some that may mean planting to rebuild wetlands.
We return to New Orleans, not as representatives of a fist-pumping, all-powerful God who uses us to “fix” broken lives, but as representatives of a wounded God who brings a greeting of peace, and a gesture of understanding by joining with them in their life. That is the harder path.