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People in Detroit are still talking…

People in Detroit are still talking about how well behaved – respectful, joyful, generous and kind – ELCA youth were. After 18 years working with the ELCA Youth Gathering I am no longer surprised by such comments. I have grown to expect that ELCA youth will represent themselves, their denomination and their particular congregation with infectious joy, respect and generosity.

Most people who comment about the behavior of ELCA youth seem astounded and perplexed, as if they assume all teenagers are aloof and narcissistic, and not trustworthy. When people who encounter youth at an ELCA Youth Gathering wonder how we have such great kids, I always want to say, “It isn’t rocket science.”

It’s mostly about the adults who value and invest in rearing children and youth in the faith. After all, if we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults who are authentic, available and affirming (“Triple A Adults,”  thank you Vibrant Faith) to accompany them not just in their faith journey but in their journey of living in 21st century North America.

I know that there are some dysfunctional congregations, but for the most part ELCA congregations create an environment within which children and youth learn how to organize their lives around their baptismal identity of being an agent of God’s mission in the world. That mission, in my opinion, inspires certain behaviors like self-renunciation (Philippians 2:7), service to others (Galatians 5:13), striving for justice (Jeremiah 22:3), advocating for peace (2 Corinthians 5:18), and loving all (John 13:34). Those are the behaviors that the citizens of the host city bear witness to when the Gathering is in town.

That being said, I am not saying that the message of the gospel is contingent on Christians behaving in a prescribed manner. As I leave my position as director for the ELCA Youth Gathering, my only worry is that during my tenure as director we communicated that certain behaviors exhibited by God’s people are a vehicle through which we participate in bringing about the reign of God.

The 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering was the first for which I was director. Prior to that I was in an assistant role but still had primary responsibility for the program content. The 2009 theme was “Jesus, Justice, Jazz,” and the tag line was “Love like Jesus.” That infers certain human behaviors. Because a major focus was serving the people of New Orleans that year, some young people may connect “loving like Jesus” to serving others, which is OK on the surface, but I worry that they will think their own agency and behaviors are the key to proclaiming the gospel.

In 2012, we taught young people that they were “citizens with the saints,” and tried to model that by teaching that serving isn’t a one-and-done kind of experience, that the behavior of accompaniment means we stay with people for the long haul. I don’t disagree with that on the surface, but I worry that it focuses on a behavior that is transactional.

Here’s the deal: The reign of God (or the kingdom of God) is not something we create or try to replicate by imitating Jesus or creating a world according to the values Jesus espoused in the Gospels. It is God who creates God’s own reign.

The danger of connecting human behavior with bringing about the reign of God on earth – which I fear I have mistakenly communicated more than once – has been a constant temptation for the church and an ever-convenient substitute for the gospel. Clearly, several of our neighbors, and we ourselves, think that doing good works is the church’s message. That may even be what some people think is the purpose of the ELCA Youth Gathering (or a mission trip). But, as I leave this position which I have been privileged to hold for 18 years, I want to reiterate again that the mission of the Gathering is adolescent faith formation. I pray that because of the ministry with the Gathering young people will come to know that we are justified by faith alone, saved by grace alone, and redeemed from our sin by Christ alone. Doing good works produces sinners who are (potentially) better behaved, but the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms sinners into the adopted sons and daughters of God whose gratitude compels them to serve their neighbors.



30,000 Lutherans – the ELCA Youth Gathering was art!

How do you define art? A painting? A sculpture? A fine piece of music? A moving play?

Seth Godin, one of my favorite bloggers, defines art as “a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.” According to Seth’s definition, the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering was art.

30,000 Lutheran humans acted on behalf of a city that needs champions.

30,000 Lutherans contributed generously – 1 million diapers and counting!

30,000 Lutherans risked meeting in a city emerging from economic collapse.

30,000 Lutherans were changed for the better because they gave of themselves in service to others.

30,000 Lutherans connected with Detroiters who were, for the most part, amazed that we showed up with, as one Detroit blogger described, our “insufferably cheerful” energy, colored T-shirts and high-fives!

30,000 Lutherans left a mark on Detroit that will long be remembered, not just for our economic impact, but for our witness through service, through the attitude and behavior of our young people and, yes, through our sheer volume that had some people on social media asking, “What’s going on in Detroit?” One Detroiter commented, tongue ‘n cheek, on social media, “They are singing, ‘Don’t stop believing!’ Make it stop.” Another Detroiter wrote, “I have been to other cities for big conventions, typically [people] would blend in but I have never seen a group so colorful that it actually makes their presence known. I hope they enjoy themselves and when they are done that they go home and preach the Gospel of Detroit, Preach the good news that Detroit is Alive :).”

Well, the Gospel of Detroit isn’t exactly what we had planned would be the proclamation when young people returned home, but it certainly is part of the message. Too often we make snap judgments about people and places and situations. Even though no one has granted us the authority to play judge and jury, most of us make snap judgments all the time declaring our approval or disapproval of whatever and whomever we are observing or experiencing. The problem is that these snap judgments forgo careful consideration, or humility, and are typically merely the automatic expression of our personal fears, prejudices and pet peeves. They happen so fast that we often have trouble distinguishing between our judgments and reality, and sometimes we are not even aware of the fact that we are judging ourselves or others. These little judgments, whether we say them out loud or not, are often extremely damaging to those we judge.

In Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus didn’t denigrate the people who were being judged valueless by the political and religious authorities of the time. In fact, Jesus elevated them. Jesus stated that he did not come to minister to those who are well but to those who need healing (Mark 2:17).

Mennonite pastor and professor Ted Grimsrud reminds us that “Jesus plays the central role in the biblical story of God’s healing strategy. Jesus understood himself (and was confessed thus by early Christians) to fulfill the message of Torah. He makes the call to love neighbors, to bring healing into broken contexts, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing central.”

THAT is the gospel – the gospel of God’s healing strategy – I hope young people will proclaim (and practice) as they return home. During their Proclaim Story day at the Gathering, young people learned and proclaimed that Jesus is Good News! Holy Spirit, give us the faith to proclaim to ourselves and to the world that Jesus is Good News for those who judge and those who are judged. That Jesus is Good News for those who are deemed to have no value and those who assign value. Jesus is Good News for Detroit … and Chicago, and New York, and Des Moines, and Anchorage, and Juarez, and San Juan, and Beruit, and Aleppo, and Sarajevo, and …. add your own town/city. May it be so!


A celebration of all of us together

A person’s favorite teaching of Jesus is, “So the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). S/he wants to know when it will happen. When will she get to “revel in the luxuries that [the 1 percent] take for granted.” Apparently s/he thinks the 1 percent are “the first.”

Responding to his/her inquiry, the wise teacher wonders if the inquirer is missing Jesus’ point. In Jesus’ kingdom there are no firsts and lasts, no winners or losers, no chosen and not chosen, no true believer and infidel. “[God’s] kingdom,” the wise teacher says, “is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all game of ‘us against them,’ but a non-zero celebration of all of us together.” The wise teacher goes on to suggest that the inquirer choose to stop playing his/her game and start playing Jesus’ game.

What if we did that? How would our experiences in Detroit be different if our sole focus was on a non-zero celebration of all of us together? I have a few ideas.

Ask the Holy Spirit to help you give and receive trust as you grow together with other Lutherans and Detroiters.

Ask the Holy Spirit to amplify your awareness of people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized and strengthen your resolve to welcome them, not out of pity or obligation, but with a spirit of love and respect.

Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to show your authentic self – even the parts you judge to be bad or negative – and trust that others will form a connection with you where you are.

Ask the Holy Spirit to heighten your awareness of the times you assume power or act as if you have all the power, and ask for the humility to give your power to another.

Ask the Holy Spirit to help you make an intentional commitment of attention and time to listen mindfully to another’s story and invest in their thriving.


We are brought together for a purpose and a message

“A few [weeks] ago we were dispersed; we did not know each other. Now we are together; we belong to each other.” This is part of a longer quote from a book by Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, that describes for me one of the beauties of the ELCA Youth Gathering.

The dispersed will come together in Detroit this summer. They’ll leave knowing that God brought them together for a purpose, and God sends them back out with a message for the world: Jesus is good news! Youth will be sent home with a mission to rise up together as followers of Jesus Christ who build bridges, bear burdens, break chains and bring hope.

Many young people have limited experience with what it means to be part of the Lutheran Christian witness in the world. Many youth learn about being Lutheran from their family, baptismal sponsors and/or other caring adults in their congregation. Many don’t experience other Lutherans outside of their family or congregation. Many don’t know they are part of a larger, geographic grouping of Lutheran congregations called synods, let alone the churchwide organization or the global Lutheran communion. With such a small circle of influence, most young people think the way they worship in their congregation or the values their congregation espouses is the way all Lutherans practice or express their faith. The beauty of Christ’s church is that there is room for all under the tent of mercy made real through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

When we are together in Detroit, youth will talk about how God has brought us together. Each participant will learn where he or she was before coming to this particular Lutheran community … and then will be conscious of now being together. A few weeks ago they were dispersed and did not know each other. Now they are together; they belong to each other. Vanier said, “We realize what an incredible gift God has given us, to bring us together from different lands of pain and loneliness, and to become one people. We become more conscious that we are responsible for each other.”

And I would add that we become more conscious that we are responsible for our neighbors. That consciousness broadens a young person’s perspective, one of the many beauties of the Youth Gathering.

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).


Build relationships with others this summer

You can track almost anything these days—patterns of food intake, fatigue, mood, number of steps you’ve taken, heart rate, and even how much REM sleep you got last night. This phenomenon is part of a rapidly growing movement of fitness buffs, techno-geeks, and people with chronic conditions who obsessively monitor various personal metrics. It has been called the quantified-self movement. I was surprised to learn that there are quantified-self communities worldwide that produce international meetings, conferences and expositions, community forums, web content and services to help people get meaning out of their personal data.

I wonder what my numbers say about me? What meaning do others/companies ascribe to my numbers? On the one hand, knowing my numbers can help me optimize my physical health, financial health and maybe even my emotional health. On the other hand, the more I document and share about where I go, what I do, whom I spend time with, what I eat, what I buy, how hard I exert myself, and so on, I am creating more data that companies can and will use to create a story about me, often a story that evaluates my worthiness—or lack thereof—for their products, services and opportunities. What happens if I don’t measure up to the rest of the population? Am I just out of luck?

Thanks be to God my worthiness doesn’t reside solely in my numbers. I give thanks every day when I remember my baptism and that my worthiness before God—which is what ultimately counts—resides in Jesus. There isn’t anything I can do to make myself more worthy. Jesus doesn’t care if my numbers measure up. I didn’t have to log a specific score to earn Jesus’ love. All Jesus asks of me is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … and your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31).

When we make public profession of our faith, which can’t be quantified, we promise to continue in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism, showing our gratitude for God’s grace by following Jesus’ example of serving all people. (“To serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” ELW p. 237) In Detroit this summer, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will be following the example of Jesus by building relationships with others. Our joy will be in seeing the people we meet through the lens of God’s grace in Jesus, and not through the lens of their numbers.

Being part of God’s story in Jesus leads us into the messiness of life where the numbers don’t always look good. As people of God, we look behind and beyond the numbers. Someone’s bad credit score may be the result of an unanticipated expense, a sudden layoff, or reckless decisions made during adolescence. Getting 10,000 steps a day may not be achievable because it isn’t safe to walk in one’s neighborhood. Addiction may impact a person’s ability to log good food intake points, and a single mom may not be able to achieve REM sleep because of the anxiety she carries for her children’s safety. The people we meet in Detroit—and we ourselves—have stories that are broader, deeper and more dynamic than numbers alone can tell. As ELCA youth co-locate their stories and the stories of Detroiters within God’s love story, lives will be transformed and Jesus will be made known. And that will happen without a GPS, smartphone, Fitbit, Google Glass or a Zeo monitor.


Rise Up Together – create power with posture

Rising up does not mean having power over but, rather, having power with. Mary Parker Follett, a social worker who in the early 20th century became a management theorist and consultant, helps us understand the difference: “Power over is a traditional relationship in which one person has power over another person, or one group over another group, or one nation over another nation.” Having power over involves dominance and coercion, and it usually means the most powerful get their way whether it is best for the other or not. This kind of traditional scenario is marked by polarities — winner/loser, good/bad, right/wrong. In contrast, power with is relational and mutual, says Follett. “It creates new possibilities from the very differences that might exist in a group.” Within this posture is the potential for co-creative power where something new can be generated to benefit both, and hopefully all of creation.

By adding the word “together” to the theme of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering ― Rise Up Together — we were making a statement about our church’s preference for the power with posture. Our church calls it accompaniment, and it is the way we are in mission in the world.

Accompaniment is defined as walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. The ELCA lives out accompaniment in its relationships with more than 80 companion churches, striving to share God’s love and participate in God’s mission together. Our relationship with those companion churches is marked by mutuality, inclusivity and vulnerability. We will enter Detroit this summer with the same posture, a power with posture, and in the sacred space of that relationship God will be active, as we co-create something new and hope-filled with the people of Detroit.

In her book “The Deepest Wound,” Linda Crockett says, “Accompaniment goes beyond solidarity in that anyone who enters into it risks suffering the pain of those we would accompany. Accompaniment … does not necessarily share the assumption that we can fix, save, or change a situation or person by what we do. It calls for us to walk with those we accompany, forming relationships and sharing risks, joys, and lives. We enter into the world of the one who suffers with no assurance that we can change or fix anything … . Accompaniment is based on hope despite evidence that there is little reason for optimism.”

It is the hope of the resurrection that ELCA youth cling to as they serve throughout the Detroit metro area. In light of the resurrection of Jesus, and together, young people will be strong in their vulnerability and empowering through self-emptying.  That is the posture of accompaniment.

It isn’t about the work we accomplish, although that is helpful; it is more about the relationships established in the process of doing the work. Young people will courageously risk suffering the pain of those whom they meet, as well as share their joys. In the space of those relationships, which are made possible by the sharing of power, God will act, new possibilities will be created, and lives will change. The whole creation will be blessed.

A question I hope young people will consider when they return home is how our dependence on relationships of power over can be diminished.


Surrender to the experience

We are either baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection or, as the Rev. Richard Rohr says in his book “Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi,” “Christianity is largely a mere belonging system, not a transformational system that will change the world.” The ELCA Youth Gathering has been and will always be a ministry that transforms the lives of teenagers, and transformed people of God transform the world.

As the director for the ELCA Youth Gathering I’m not interested in nurturing teenagers into a belief system that is only focused on life after death. I want to nurture teenagers into a way of life modeled by Jesus that hopefully is supported in and by the church. I’m not interested in encouraging teenagers to be part of a church hawking a spirituality of worthiness or prosperity or moral superiority. I want to invest in a generation that is formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not just formed but transformed.

That is why we expose young people to places like Detroit where they can come face-to-face with another’s fear, loneliness, loss and brokenness, and their own. Taking up the cross of Christ, as Andrew Root points out in his book “Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry,” is not about doing hard things or suffering through things we don’t like to do, which we often tell young people. It is about encountering the mystery of Christ in another’s story and recognizing it as the familiar cycle of loss and renewal that keeps all of creation moving toward more life. That is the promise of the cross that we can count on.

My fervent prayer since we announced Detroit as the site of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering is that the Holy Spirit would begin to stir the hearts and minds of youth, preparing them to welcome an experience that could potentially rock their worlds. I pray this because I know that at the Gathering young people and adults will be transformed if they will surrender to the experience. “The foundational meaning of transformation is to surrender to [one’s] new identity [in Christ] and consciously draw upon it.” (Rohr, p. 68) All that we are preparing for this summer at the Gathering will put young people in touch with their identity in Christ and teach them how to consciously draw upon that identity.

We will return them to familial communities and church communities that hopefully will welcome and consciously draw out their newly embraced baptismal identities and channel their energies and gifts in response to the good news, which is Jesus.


Carrying the good news into the world

I promise that youth and adults who attend the ELCA Youth Gathering will return knowing the opening line of Mark’s Gospel by heart: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  They will also know that they are the ones who carry the good news of Jesus into the world.

Mark’s opening line was theologically radical at the time. When the Romans met Jesus, they learned that the new era of peace, good news and justice did not begin with Augustus Caesar as they had been enculturated to believe. Rather, claims Mark, it begins with Jesus. Mark tells the story of the Lord (also a name used for Augustus Caesar) who rules through self-sacrificial service in contrast to the bullying, conquering power of the Roman Caesar.

Mark calls us to believe the good news of the “kindom” of God rather than the proclamations of the empire, whether Roman or otherwise (Mark 1:15). (I prefer to use “kindom” rather than kingdom as I believe God’s real purpose is to build kinship—globally; between different religions; between friends and enemies; between ourselves and the neighbors we don’t know.) The story of Jesus is the story of a different kind of “kindom.” The Roman Caesar dealt with his enemies by conquering them; Jesus deals with enemies by loving them. Through the ministry of the Gathering, young people and adults will ponder the characteristics of this new “kindom,” and proclaim it for themselves, Detroiters and the world.

The Gathering’s program is built around three opportunities to proclaim the in-breaking of Christ’s “kindom” into our current day empires: Proclaim Story, Proclaim Justice and Proclaim Community.

On their Proclaim Story day, young people will learn that God’s story is a love story, and that all of God’s people have an important role in this story. Everything we do is “The beginning of the good news…” and, as followers of Jesus, we are sent to live out the rest of this story through discipleship. Through storytelling, music, Bible study, interactive learning and worship, participants will dwell in God’s story, begin to articulate their own story, engage each other’s story and be sent out to proclaim that Jesus = good news.

On their Proclaim Justice day, young people will work alongside Detroiters helping them to recreate an American city.  Many people have written off Detroit, but we have the unique opportunity to see first-hand the resiliency of the people of Detroit. Although they are only giving a day of service, young people will learn lessons from the people they serve alongside that they will remember long after the Gathering.

On their Proclaim Community day, young people will visit the interactive learning center and in doing so follow Jesus on the way to the cross. Through a variety of mediums, such as art, music, technology, sports, community, fun, and reflection, students will be challenged to: recognize the good news in all relationships while working toward reconciliation in Christ, listen before speaking and ultimately proclaim the good news in their own communities.


The grace of a new beginning

In his poem “For a New Beginning,” John O. Donohue writes:

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

I recognize that everyone has a comfort zone. How hard (and how often) are you willing to work to get out of it? Many who have chosen to come to Detroit this summer chose to do so because something – someone – was urging them forward to experience new ground. The “destination is not [always] clear” but, as Donohue reminds us, we can “trust the promise.”

To the nearly 30,000 people who have already registered for the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering, thank you for being willing to “unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” And, with Donohue, I pray that you are awakened to the Spirit of adventure in you, that you hold nothing back, that you discover the new rhythm that awaits you in Detroit and join your soul to the world you will experience there.


Giving of the self for the sake of the other

Why are we so captivated by celebrities’ acts of kindness? I have been overly aware, particularly during this past Christmas season, pictures of celebrities offering a day at a soup kitchen, or ballyhooing a good cause, or sharing their talents to benefit a charitable organization. Magazines are filled with pictures and stories of our favorite movie stars or athletes doing good. Alongside the commercials of luxury cars wrapped in big, red bows are segments featuring movie stars or pro-athletes asking us to join them in supporting one cause or another.

Every time I see another ad or commercial I wonder if any of them – or us – is asking how we can impact the systemic reasons why people live in poverty. Why some people are privileged over others? Or what drives us, especially in the United States, to celebrate celebrity  rather than do the hard work of changing the systems?

I have also been keenly aware of how the message of this past Christmas season was co-opted by our over-identification with our consumer tendencies. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in a post on Patheos that the platitudes about Christmas include “the F’s–family, food, fellowship, presents we give to ourselves.” She doesn’t deny that those things are part of Christmas, but reminds us that they are not the “essence” of Christmas. “In a strange twist of history” she writes, “St. Nicholas himself has been turned from a gaunt self-sacrificial loving person who served others into jolly old St. Nick…over weight, and the cosmic sugar daddy that fulfills all the dreams of our materialistic little American hearts.”

That message was been particularly disturbing to me this past Christmas. It was amazing to me how mixed the messages are about Jesus and Santa in popular Christmas songs that are played. The same holds true for the images on the majority of the Christmas TV specials. Pictures of Santa bringing smiles to the faces of middle-class, white children while “O Little Town of Bethlehem” plays in the background. No wonder so many of us still think of God as an old man with a white beard who rewards us for being good. And if God is Santa, then is Jesus Santa’s elf who delivers the reward?

Popular Christmas celebrations have come and gone, but in Detroit this summer  (and  this is one of the major reasons I think our church needs to show up in Detroit) young people will learn about the true meaning of Christmas, which is incarnation, the giving of the self for the sake of the other. How can we celebrate Christmas every day?

Our church needs to show up in Detroit this summer; we need to incarnate the self-giving love of Christ. That is what followers of Jesus do.