Thursday, July 19, 2012

Main Stage Speaker, from behind the stage

It was fascinating to watch the aftermath of the first night of the youth gathering. Nadia, my tremendous wife, was the main speaker for that one night, and the work she did to create her presentation (based on the reaction from the gathering) was well worth it. I've been to a few of these gatherings, and the speakers are always good. She seems to have had a more significant impact, though, than many of the other speakers I've heard over other years.

Obviously I may be biased, and I'm certainly not trying to take anything away from the other speakers from other years. I've always appreciated what they've had to say. What I notice, though, is that the youth who are at the gathering felt more of a connection with her more than they did with other people.

And I think I have an idea why. I could be wrong, but I think I have at least part of an idea why.

Nadia's not afraid to tell the truth. She's not afraid to tell the truth about the world, about herself, and about G-d.

In addition, she has a compelling and engaging way of connecting those three things together.

It seems to me that one of the things that young people (who are trying to figure out where they belong in the world) need and desire is adults who will tell them the truth. But it's not enough to tell the truth ~ young people also need adults who will listen to the truth about who they are, to the truth about what it means to be a teenager in their location in the world today.

In the wake of her talk last night, Nadia has been continually approached by youth and adults who have shared with her how much she meant to them. I didn't argue with any of them, but I'd be willing to bet that they're less moved by Nadia and more moved by their encounter with G-d.

Because that's what I experienced from the event last night ~ the speaker on the stage telling young people the truth about themselves, and the truth about G-d, in a way that gave them enough permission to be able experience Holy Spirit as more than the excitement of a huge gathering ~ and which gave them the vulnerability to allow Holy Spirit to have an impact on the deepest parts of their being.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Youth Gathering Culture

Any time I go to a new city, I try to pay attention to the ethos of the place. Each city has a different character, and (since I don't like to appear to be a tourist) I try to fit in as well as possible. I'm fully confident that I regularly fail; nonetheless, I try to pay attention and make myself belong.

I've arrived last night in New Orleans for a part of the ELCA Youth Gathering. I've been to these events before, but always as a leader with a group of students. This is the first time I've been completely free to be an observer.

Most of the time, a convention doesn't change the character of a city. Smaller conventions might meet in smaller cities, where they'll be noticed … but life will continue in that place with relatively little interruption. And when smaller conventions are in bigger cities, there's even less impact. When bigger conventions happen, the city might notice (especially if there's something particularly unusual about the convention-goers … think Star Trek conventions); but even if the city notices, there's not a huge amount of impact.

However, most conventions don't attract over 30,000 participants. And this event, the ELCA Youth Gathering, might be the only regularly-held event that brings in 20,000 high school students into the same place. So it's notable in that regard.

But it's also notable from another perspective. As much as I might try to blend in to the culture of the city, that's impossible to do as part of this gathering. See, the culture of the city has been transformed simply by the presence of so many young people walking around its streets.

And beyond that, the Youth Gathering has its own culture, which gets superimposed onto the city where the event is happening. For instance, in most cities you go to, people don't walk down the street greeting strangers; people don't give gifts to each other, or receive gifts from each other, on a whim. Youth gathering culture says that it's ok to give and receive gifts, to talk with complete strangers as if you've known each other for years, and to ask for hugs from people you've never met before.

It's fascinating to me to see the relative anonymity of an urban center temporarily pushed aside by the anonymous familiarity of a youth gathering.

It has to be empowering for high school students, even if they don't recognize it, to have such an impact on a city. I'm sure it must give them a sense of agency that allows them to break out, even just a little bit, from the mold in which they find themselves. Whether the mold in which they find themselves is 'geeky-chess-club-member' or 'cheerleader,' 'valedictorian' or 'drop-out,' 'music nerd' or 'popular jock,' or any of the myriad others that students find and create to categorize one another, this kind of gathering gives them a chance (even if they don't experience any different in the context of their own youth group) to experience that box cracking open some.

For the impact that gatherings like this have on the cities in which they're held, I give thanks to G-d. And for the impact that gatherings like this have on the lives of young people, not as much today as five and ten and twenty and forty years in the future, I give thanks to G-d.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Ritual, Change, and Growth

I've said for a long time that people are shaped by ritual, by liturgy.  We yearn for the predictability of routine.  Consider, for example, how you brush your teeth.  I'd be willing to bet that most of us do that in exactly the same way every single day, and that some of us could probably brush our teeth blindfolded without any problem.

We are creatures of habit, and while ritual is infused into much of our existence, it may be most obviously apparent in our religious life.  The rituals of our daily life, and of our faith life, shape who we are and who we are becoming.

So I was surprised yesterday morning, after having been on vacation and away for only one Sunday, that I felt like I didn't quite have my feet under me as I was helping to lead the liturgy (our worship rituals).

Then I remembered that I've felt this way before after having been gone.  It seems like it doesn't take much to change something deep within me, even when I didn't feel different and didn't realize that I'd changed (only so slightly, though ... it was just vacation).

Sometimes, for our faith to grow, it's good to be jolted (in more significant ways than vacation) out of our routine and into a deeper life of faith ... which is part of the reason individuals and communities take part in events like mission trips and silent retreats and youth gatherings.

Wednesday, the ELCA (my denomination) youth gathering will begin.  This event, over 30,000 youth and caring adults gathering together in one city, can be a significant 'jolt' from ordinary routine.  Plus, because it's a faith-event, it may well help many young (and older) people experience the patterns and rituals of their own faith community differently.  At least, that's the hope I approach the youth gathering with.

The question, and struggle, will be to translate the faith experience of the youth gathering into daily life in some kind of meaningful way that can also be transformative for life in community back home.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Exuberant Joy

I got to spend the day today at a water park with my two kids, three of their cousins, and my sister-in-law.  The best part of the day, for me, was the time I spent with my niece, the youngest of the kids, and the only one who had not been to a water park before. 

The two of us started the day together.  We went first to a big wave pool.  My niece warned me that she doesn't know how to swim, and so I planned to keep a close eye on her.  I especially planned to watch her closely in this pool where the waves can be pretty powerful, especially if you're 7 years old. 

At first we stayed back where the waves aren't quite so high or strong.  But for the next set, she wanted to be in the deeper water.

As the second or third wave of that set approached, I could tell that it would cover her head and push her around quite a bit.  But for that wave, I was a few feet from her, farther away than I arm-length.  I made my way up next to her as she disappeared for a third time under a wave.  When she came up out of the water, I looked closely at her face (watching for signs of distress).  What I got, though, was nothing but joy and delight.  This pleased me a great deal.  See, my own children are old enough that they're often often not too impressed by much, so I really enjoyed watching my niece experience such delight. 

This is one of the things I enjoy about youth ministry.  The opportunity I have, on occasion, to accompany young people as they grow and have the opportunity to experience new aspects of and angles on their life of faith fills me with joy. 

Next week, at the ELCA youth gathering, there will be lots of teenagers (and some adults) encountering for the first time the wonder of being with tens of thousands of other people who are also having a similar sort of faith adventure to one another.

Unfortunately I don't have the opportunity this year to accompany a group to the gathering.  However, I will be able to spend a couple days at the event, during which time I hope to be able to see for myself a different angle on the good work, and spiritual growth, that happens in that kind of setting.

And hopefully we'll all get to experience for ourselves something like the all-consuming joy and wonder of a 7-year-old at a water park for the first time.