By Kristyn Zollos

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering with ELCA World Hunger. Despite having grown up in the ELCA, it was the first Youth Gathering I have attended. As the saying goes, better late than never. I was truly amazed by what I saw and was filled with hope for the future of our church. I feel especially blessed to have been working within the 100 Wells Challenge  space, where I witnessed the generosity and compassion of the congregations of the ELCA and their youth in attendance.    

While I was astounded by what took place within the 100 Wells Challenge space, I was also incredibly moved by what took place in the evenings at the Super Dome.  Worshipping with 35,000 youth from congregations across the country and even some from across the globe was an incredible experience.  I grew up attending a private, Christian school that held chapel services twice a week.  When I think back to those services, I remember looking at my peers, arms crossed, mouths barely moving, thinking it “un-cool” to be too into worship. At the Super Dome, it was not un-cool to care.  It was not uncool to sing passionately or move with the music in worship. And if it was, there was a whole lot of “un-cool” taking place!

At the Super Dome, I heard some fantastic speakers. On the nights that I attended, I loved hearing what Bishop Hanson, Shane Claiborne, and other bishops and pastors had to share. However, it was Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s speech that had the greatest personal impact. Before I comment further, take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a Lutheran pastor. What does that pastor look like?  Is it a young female, covered in tattoos, wearing jeans and a tank top?… Probably not.  When Pastor Nadia walked out, that was exactly who stood before us and I could not have been more excited to hear what she had to say. 

Pastor Nadia spoke of her life, her past addictions, her joining an ELCA congregation and her current role as an ELCA pastor. Towards the end of her talk, she noted that many had not wanted her to speak to the youth because of her past, but how even in her present she should not be allowed to speak. She noted, “I am a flawed person. I should not be allowed to be here talking to you. But you know what? That’s the God we’re dealing with.” She went on:

“I want to tell you about this God…This is a God who has always used imperfect people. This is a God who’s loving desire to be known overflowed the heavens and became manifest in the rapidly dividing cells inside the womb of an insignificant peasant girl in first century Palestine.  This is a God who slipped into skin and walked among us full of grace and truth with sand between His toes and who ate with all the wrong people and kissed lepers and touched the unclean and spoke through thirsty women and hungry men and from the cross did not even lift a finger to condemn the enemy but instead said I would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore… This God has never made sense and you don’t need to either, because this God will use you. This God will use all of you. Not just your strengths, but your failures, and your failings, and your brokenness. God’s strength is perfected in human weakness.”

God was certainly using Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and the words that she spoke. She spoke to the hearts of the youth and I got chills watching their reactions to what she had to say. Within the church we often set a norm of who leaders should be and what the faithful should look like. We forget who our God is, the grace and power God has. We often close our mind to what is new or different, not looking at the beautiful possibilities that could take place. We forget that when the Lord took human form, Jesus used all kind of people, in all walks of life. Jesus used the poor and the wealthy, the sick and the healthy, the children and the elders. Jesus walked alongside the most twisted of sinners and used them for His greater purpose. 

 I think this is something we can often forget as a church. We claim to accept those who are different: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the downtrodden, or those who just may look or sound different. However, by accepting them we may mean only to make them our charity, our service project. We look at these relationships as a one-way street. We only see how God is using us in their lives, not opening our eyes to how God may be using them in our own journeys or how they may be used in the lives of many others. We claim to look at all others as our equals, as our brothers and sisters in Christ, but deep down we often think we know better, that we are the norm and others should aim to be more like this norm set. 

We can forget that it is God that makes people new, not other people. We are all deeply flawed and deeply in need of the mercy and grace that the Lord offers us. Our God meets us where we are, with all the sin, failings, and baggage we carry with us. No one has the solution and no one is beyond being used. Let us open our eyes to the ways that God wants to use us and our imperfections, but let us not forget to look for the ways God may be using others and their imperfections within our own lives.  

Click here for Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s talk.  For other talks from speakers at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering check out Gathering TV or the Youth Gathering’s YouTube site.

Kristyn Zollos is an intern with ELCA World Hunger.