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ELCA Youth Gathering Blog

We’ve only just begun

This blog is for all of the adults who accompanied young people to the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering. Your commitment to the faith formation of teenagers deserves the admiration of our entire church! We know how hard you have worked these past couple years getting ready for the Gathering, and we have the deepest gratitude for your 24-hour-a-day sacrificial service to your group in hot, muggy, rainyNew Orleans. And we know that your work didn’t end when the bus pulled into your congregation’s parking lot.

From my experience, it is now that the Holy Spirit really gets busy. Please remain connected to the young people who had this potentially life-shaping experience together. There are resources on the Gathering website to help you continue the faith journey: We also hope that you will share your stories and resources with each other on Facebook and continue to follow us on Twitter

We especially want to help you care for the young people who are leaving for college. If there is an ELCA campus ministry at the college they are attending, call the staff and invite them to reach out to the precious soul you are entrusting to their care. Do the same if they are attending an ELCA college, or any other private college with campus ministry. If they aren’t leaving your community, ask your congregation to take note and take action to draw them more deeply into your community of faith. 

If your pastor wasn’t able to come to the Gathering, make a point of meeting with her/him. Invite her/him to intentionally reach out to the young people who attended the Gathering. Encourage the congregation council/governing board to take the time to ask the teens how Jesus was made known to them inNew Orleans. Give the young people opportunities to bear witness to their experiences inNew Orleansin multiple venues at multiple times in the next few months. Let the teens teach the adults !

I think the adult church can learn much from what youth crave – an interconnectedness that transcends differences and conflicts. How could any young person trust Christianity as a viable way of life when it is so blatantly and obviously ignored by the commitments and actions of many adults? Jesus reminds us of our profound interconnectedness when he says that the two greatest commandments on which all the others depend are concerned with relationships, with God and one another (Matthew 22:36-40). And, with the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, the focus on relationships is sharpened, as is the constant emphasis on reconciliation, made possible through the cross, which must be the basis for all relationships.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community wrote in his book “Community and Growth”: “Each human being, however small or weak, has something to bring to humanity. As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”

One body in Christ, Director’s blog, July, 2012

Since I spend the majority of my day sitting at a computer or on the phone, and often go home with a sore neck or a toothache from clenching my jaw, I decided to treat myself to a weekly shoulder massage in these last weeks before the Gathering.

Today the therapist told me that I needed to “have fun and do something creative” to counter balance too much left brain activity. How did she know? Apparently the scalp on the right side of my head was puffier than the left. Who knew? 

I am amazed what bodywork professionals can learn from our bodies. Her insight reminded me of how interconnected our own bodies are. Mental, emotional and spiritual realities often manifest physically, even when we aren’t aware of it. No wonder Jesus used the image of the body to explain his relationship with his people. Not only are we individually connected to Jesus, the divine presence dwelling in our bodies, but we are collectively part of God’s body, the church, many in one, broken and whole. 

This concept of being unified in the body of Christ is one of the many insights young people have at the Gathering. Many youth bear witness to their experience in the mass events, this time in the Superdome, as the first time they realized they were part of a larger community of faith, the “one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15) of which the apostle Paul writes in our theme text, Ephesians 2:14-20.

 It is my prayer that all young people feel the communal embrace of Christ’s church when they are together in the Superdome in a few weeks, and then return home with a renewed commitment to welcome others into that community, a community made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Dangerous rumors. Director’s Blog, June, 2012

I wasn’t going to give time to the rumors that are flying around the church about two pastors who will speak at the Gathering because it gives those spreading such salacious information more press. However, I’ve had to write to enough people who have reached out to us wanting clarification that I thought it would be more efficient to post information to my blog.

 As far as I can tell, anxieties have been raised because of allegations that the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Rev. Andrena Ingram, two people who will speak in the Superdome, are bad role models and examples for youth because of the “things they’ve done” in the past and in their congregations. If past actions were the criteria for allowing anyone to proclaim the gospel, I am guessing 98 percent of our clergy, and the rest of us, wouldn’t be eligible.

 Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and Pastor Andrena Ingram are two out of several speakers who will be contributing to a carefully crafted, multi-dimensional program designed to inform/form faith in adolescents, focusing on Ephesians 2:11-20. Pastor Nadia has been asked to speak about the radical hospitality that Jesus offers to all people. She will do so by sharing her own story of God’s grace lifting her out of the cycle of addiction and calling her to serve the church as a pastor.

 The focus for the first night of the Gathering is to establish the corporate identity of those gathered as a community of people marked by God’s grace, a community into which all are welcome. Pastor Nadia will offer a message of God’s redemption for all people through the lens of God’s saving power in her own life. She will tell ELCA youth about her own experience of God visible in the life she once took for granted, and how, as a forgiven and loved child of God, she now shares her story of the power of God’s grace and mercy with the people she meets each day. Pastor Nadia’s call from God reaches into the gutters and alleys where most would choose not to go. She speaks with the strong conviction of her faith and a refreshing directness in her desire to tell the life-saving story of her Savior, Jesus. Her story is one of hope for what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in the world unfolding around us each day, with the reminder that the message of God in Jesus Christ is for all people, both the saint and the sinner.

 On Saturday night, serendipitously while world leaders gather in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Conference, Pastor Andrena Ingram will tell the story of her personal experience as an HIV-positive individual who chose to not let her HIV status define her life but instead challenged herself to become all that God dreamed for her life.  She will share the message of God’s incredible grace in her own life while at the same time confidently standing on the bedrock of God’s mission of justice for all the people of the world. Pastor Andrena will be the voice that reminds us to speak truth into the world in which we live each day. We will be challenged to look past the color of skin, gender, and the name of a disease, which still carries with it much stigma, to see the incredible image of God brought before each of us in the people we meet each day. Over the years, Pastor Ingram has reached many people in places and situations that are “the road not taken” by most of the church’s focus and attention. And for those concerned, Pastor Ingram WILL NOT be passing out condoms at the Gathering, which is the rumor that seems to have most people alarmed.

 There are many components to the Gathering, each of which is deep enough to stand on its own, but I realize that the mass events get the most attention and cause the most anxiety for some people. I take very seriously the fact that when someone speaks to young people in a venue like the Superdome they assume their church is speaking to them. There is no opportunity for response or dialogue in that venue, so it is our commitment to shape the remarks from the stage around the biblical text and theme we are focusing on each night and not a particular issue. The ELCA Youth Gathering is not a legislative event of the church. Its mission is to support adolescent faith formation. I have always understood the Gathering to be a tool that congregations can choose to use as they fulfill the promises they made when baptizing children, which is that they will rear those children in the faith.

Happy to serve. Director’s blog May, 2012

Our little staff of three is doing our best to serve the almost 3,000 congregations registered for the Gathering. I worry that I set us up for the kind of pressure we live with. I am committed to a standard of service that makes everyone feel heard and valued. That is why we attempt to respond to every email or phone inquiry. We don’t have a perfect record, but we try.

 Our commitment to this level of service, which is becoming more and more rare – as I discovered when I got caught in the spiral of automated phone systems trying to deal with a batch of new checks that were stolen – is why I was so proud of the Youth Gathering volunteers this week. I am in awe of our volunteers. They are modeling, in the way they are preparing for the Gathering, what we hope young people will practice in their relationships with others: a spirit of humble service. I’d like to share three stories with you about our marvelous volunteers.

 A retired couple negotiate all of the contracts with bus companies with which we sub-contract. They have 187 of the 190 completed! Read what they sent to me this week (names are changed for privacy):

 Below is just one of the many, many reasons why Bob and I love what we do [as part of the team preparing for the Gathering] and how God continues to work. 
In 2009 XZY Bus Company was Bob’s first negotiated contract. It was for $850/bus/day which we later realized was way too high. We just got word from a synod coordinator on Thursday that XZY Bus Company would like to subcontract again. Bob called on Friday; John wanted $825 again. Bob explained:
1. We were very close to having all the buses needed.
2. The 2012 average to date was $479/bus/day. 
3. We really enjoyed working with them in 2009 and would love to work with them again.
4. While we understood that they kick back a fair portion of the $825/bus to the synod and that many of the other companies do –
5. We had to be cognizant of the Gathering budget.
6. We could not possibly contract for more than $650/bus/day and at that price he would be our highest rate.
John came back later in the day with a rate of $600/bus/day.  Be sure to scroll down and read John’s email from this morning.  It is all about building one-on-one relationships, one at a time; one child of God to another.  “God’s work. Our hands.”   

Email from XYZ Bus Company:

“OK, thanks and our drivers (both dedicated Lutherans) are so excited about doing this again. They did it the last time.  One of our scheduled drivers has been toNew Orleansnearly a dozen times already forTrinityLutheranChurchdoing service work, so he will be a great asset too.”

And here are the two other stories I want to share with you:

When comparing the 2012 contract with the 2009 and 2006 contracts from one of our vendors, I realized he didn’t increase his price. When I questioned him, I learned that he provides service to the Gathering at a loss because he is so grateful to contribute his expertise to make it the best possible experience for young people. He said he has never had a customer call to question when the price didn’t increase. I just wanted to make sure he was paying his crew a fair wage. Asking that question is one way I hope we offer a witness to the God of justice whom we serve.

Yet another vendor, a new vendor, told us that “due to the nature of the event our owner would like to donate some extra equipment which would present nearly the full option we discussed.” So the team that was reworking their plans because they couldn’t afford what they had dreamed of, was happily going back to their original plan.

Both of these examples were made possible not just because of the nature of the Gathering, and the vendors’ desire to serve young people, but this generosity reflects the power of relationships that have been nurtured over the years.

It seems to me that this is the kind of human-to-human, compassionate interaction that Jesus invites us to enjoy in his name, when there are no walls separating us, and when we practice being “citizens with the saints.” As our bus contract negotiator wrote: “It is all about building one-on-one relationships, one at a time; one child of God to another.  “God’s work. Our hands.”

A hopeful imagination. Director’s blog, April 2012

If you drew a picture of the world as you hoped it would be, what would it look like? Deborah Storie drew a picture as part of a presentation she made at the Australian Missiology Conference inMelbourne,Australia, in 2005. She took her inspiration from Old Testament prophets, New Testament prophets and post-Testament prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The title of her paper was “Dreaming Shalom: Hopeful Imagination asMissioninAustralia.” For this month’s blog, I want to share Ms. Storie’s imagination with you.

 This is Ms. Storie’s description: My diagram has two pictures: a picture of injustice and a picture of shalom. The picture of injustice represents the world today. Twenty percent of the people consume 85 percent of the world’s resources. One side of the fence is barren with emaciated people squatting despondently. On the other side, things look green and beautiful. People are well-fed and amply housed. They consume a lot and pollute a lot but their rubbish mostly ends up on the other side of the fence. What is not immediately obvious is that despair, fear and hopelessness pervade both sides. You can’t hide from the harsh reality of the barren lands but life in the green places is equally desperate, they just spend more on public relations and camouflage.


The picture of shalom summarizes biblical images of the future of God. People rest beneath their own vines and fig trees. They live in houses they built themselves and eat the fruits of their own labor. Everyone has enough, no one too much. There is diversity but not division. There is no domination and no fear. Children play and their grandparents live out their days in peace. Men and women tread lightly on the earth, cherishing creation, respecting its fragility, enjoying its extravagance.

 The society of shalom is a society of right relationship: harmony with God, harmony between people, harmony with creation. The diagram has two arrows. Injustice happens whenever non-love (it doesn’t have to be hate – indifference or ignorance are quite enough) uses power to maintain the boundary between “the haves” and “the have-nots.” Injustice happens whenever resources, skills and opportunities are denied to the poor and given to the rich. The tools injustice uses serve some better than others: education, information, health care, legal systems and institutions, economics, trade, aid and development projects, dreams. Injustice can be very subtle. It is often unintentional.

 Shalom, on the other hand, is created by love. Shalom can never be built by coercion or domination. Shalom’s power is the power of the cross, of weakness and humility, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of truth. These rainbow pathways are creative, courageous, audacious; they encompass every hope, every dream, every hopeful act and every movement of resistance through which individuals and societies participate with God in building shalom.

 [A] [h]opeful [i]magination asks: How does the way we live approach or retreat from shalom? What practical strategies might we devise to move us-with-the-world toward shalom? We are not the central focus here. It is not all about us. What a wonderful thing to be where we belong doing what we were made for!

 If you are accompanying young people to the Gathering, I encourage you to ask them to draw a picture of the world as they see it before they go to the Gathering, and again after they return home. What has changed? How do they feel about not being the center of attention? Can they relate to the power of the cross being a kind of anti-power stance according to the North American value system in which we live? How can they see themselves building shalom in the communities in which they live – home and family, church, school, clubs?

This Gospel leads to a place of personal connection with people living in poverty. March, 2012

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”(Matthew 25:35).

Matthew 25 is a familiar text to many of us, and because it is so familiar our brains might not fully comprehend its power to refocus our way of living in the world. On the Practice Discipleship day at the Gathering, young people will ponder what it really means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.

It is challenging to be a follower, especially since the rise of the extrovert ideal in 20th centuryU.S. culture. Think about it. Who usually gets rewarded with the best jobs or the most public acclaim and trust, and who gets noticed most often in a classroom, in a committee meeting, even in church? Often it is people who can attract the most attention and/or speak the loudest and most persuasively. It is usually the leader of the pack who fascinates and attracts us. Is this the posture of a follower of Jesus?

As we heard in the gospel text on Sunday, March 3, Jesus says “get behind me.” Jesus is reminding us that he is the leader, and we are followers. How many teachers or parents would encourage their children to be followers rather than leaders? Yet, that is exactly what Jesus is suggesting. What makes it even more counter-cultural is the fact that the image of the one we are following is reflected in people who are living in poverty and those who are marginalized, not those who are wealthy, attractive and super articulate. Our leader is not a Tony Robbins-type of leader.

As difficult as it is for us to embrace, in Matthew 25 Jesus gives us our marching orders as Christians. How are we to live? We are to follow Jesus’ lead by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison. Not one of these actions will garner much attention or acclaim, but that is exactly what Jesus says we are to do.

This gospel is personal for Jesus as he identifies with people living in poverty and those who are marginalized. Jesus doesn’t say they were hungry or they were sick or unwelcome. Jesus says, I was hungry, naked, unwelcome and in prison. Jesus fully identifies with those who are hungry and on the margins.

Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. has said the message of this Gospel leads to a place of personal connection with people living in poverty. “Humility is that downward mobility and it leads to a place of solidarity with the poor and the outcasts. There is no distance, it’s a one-ness.” He adds that it’s a humility that never wants to have any distance between Jesus and people living in poverty.

Can you imagine what the church would look like if, by God’s grace, we would practice the kind of radical discipleship Jesus is inviting us to, where there is no distance between our self-understanding and those who are poor and marginalized?

This is one reason why I am so proud of ELCA youth for committing to come together in Jesus’ name for the sake of people inNew Orleans. They are demonstrating, by their numbers, that they are at least somewhat attentive to Jesus’ invitation to identify with people who are living in poverty and those who are marginalized. That kind of follower posture may not win them points with their friends or, for some, even their family, but it is the right thing to do. God bless your faithfulness, ELCA youth. See you in July.