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
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.