Tag Archives: ELCA National Youth Gathering

Taking Stock of the Week: Grace in the midst of Violence, Hatred, Anger & “Disney Church”

It has been an intense week for me: on Tuesday I drove down to Ft. Jackson, SC to finish Navy Chaplain Basic Leadership Course.  Since Wednesday, it’s been 12 hour days of “zero-dark hundred PT,” learning about combat survival and first aid, and preparing for next week’s 4-day exercise of indoctrination of working in a combat field environment with 16 other chaplains.  It’ll be a week of sleeping on the ground, eating MREs, practicing how to keep Marines and Sailors alive should we find ourselves in that situation, and of course, trying not to get lost out in the woods (land navigation).

Add that to the week the tragic shooting in Chattanooga, TN and the death of 4 Marines and now 1 Navy Petty Officer.  Add to that the KKK/Black Power protests at the South Carolina Capitol Building Saturday afternoon – that I attended and observed.  And add to that the impact 35,000 people in my church are making in Detroit as they attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering has been likened to “Disney World” and “Skittles.” (Update: not all on the outside held this skewed vision. Some saw my church for what I love about it.) 

I just sit here right now, feeling a whole host of emotions, feeling conflicted, trying to make sense of it all.

I’ve made sense of some of it in a previous post, just longing and wanting more from the collective of individuals that make up “church.”  We need to do more than just pray and let such things pass along in the constantly flowing stream of narrative that makes up our world today.  Death, violence, hatred, suffering, injustice…..it can never be for the Christian just another story.  But as I said, I am still conflicted, maybe even still angry…..and it was this offering from a fellow Navy chaplain on Friday morning that I have been wrestling with:

“The things that make us the most angry; those are the things that God wants us to change.”

Now, the language of change is not part of my theological frame; it’s not how I think faith and God works.  I think rather I would say it is the things that make us most angry that perhaps God wants us to pay attention to.  If this holds true, then….

  • the violence and hatred I experienced this past couple days is something that God wants and needs us to wake up to, no matter what form it takes, or whether it’s “personal” to us or not.  Regardless of how it touches us – or how it doesn’t – Christians don’t have the luxury of simply nodding their heads and moving on.  We follow in the way of the cross, diving headfirst right into the discussion and issue of violence created out of fear and hatred.
  • I have to examine why the National Youth Gathering bothers me so much up and against the reality that it is a powerful and important event for the life of the church – the ELCA – that I am a part of.  I won’t lie – the National Youth Gathering seems so disconnected to what I understand what it means to be a church of the cross.  I admit, I’ve never attended the ELCA National Youth Gathering; are my feelings out of jealousy and resentment, or are they borne out of a feeling perhaps, that there is something significant lacking that bears reflection?
  • the negative and apathetic attitudes of progressive liberalism towards the military, the people who serve in it, and the reality of the profession needs to become an opportunity for conversation, not a source of resentment and bitterness. Militant views of Christianity have hijacked and glorified war as a “just” means of defeating evil.  Yet we have to find a way to acknowledge the reality of evil manifested in our world, and come up with a better ethical frame to reconcile military action that doesn’t leave us with “either/or” but rather “both/and.”
  • the question of what exactly is the integrity behind the church today that unites us all is one worth pushing and exploring.

The anger that I feel, God calls me to pay attention to it because God has something to say to me.  That anger I feel should move me towards understanding and connection with others.  It should move me towards a deeper reflection and self-awareness of how I view the world and what I believe.  When my anger moves me in such a way, it moves me straight into the arms of God’s Grace.

I suppose I am odd that way….that such wrestling, such conflict of conscience, and unsettling of my soul always seems to make me feel closer to God.  But it works that way for me.  “Disney World” and “Skittles” community doesn’t do that for me.  Limited interaction and response to the world doesn’t either.   Only entering into the mess and conflict that is the broken world we live in, and trying to live out love in relationship with others – even when their discomfort or disagreement move them to marginalize and attempt to silence me – brings me any closer to the place where Christ encounters me.

It is this grace that helps me move from my anger to a place of making sense of things.  It is this grace that moves me from my frustration to accept that faith is expressed in many different ways by individuals and the church – and all of it has its place under the sun in the Kingdom of God on earth.  It is this grace that expands how I understand Christ and the cross, and expands my understanding of what it means to love.  Love sometimes is an affection we feel for others, but it is also putting oneself in the place of vulnerability to push others – and allow them to pushback –  in the communal process of faith seeking understanding.

That grace has taken many different forms this week.  Friends expressing not just their resonance with what I have to say, but also saying while they don’t quite understand they are willing to engage the conversation.  It’s coming to the place where I can respect what matters to others about being church while hoping they respect the disconnect I feel. It’s even those suppressing the comments they’d probably like to throw at me – as a friend told me, “…not everyone wants a Honeybadger.”

It is this grace that finds me in the midst of violence, hatred, anger, and expressions of a church I feel no connection with this week that moves me from the margins and right into the center of the Christian community that is formed in Christ and the cross – to connection and engagement with the world and others, not alienation from it.

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It’s Practice…..not the game. (ELCA National Youth Gathering)

“Our faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” ~ Martin Luther

My Facebook Newsfeed has been blowing up the past couple days as friends, colleagues in ministry, and former youth post pictures and comments from New Orleans, site of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for those that don’t know) National Youth Gathering. Over 35,000 youth and adults are gathered, representing the ELCA as they worship, explore New Orleans, and learn what it means to participate in God’s work of justice as disciples of Christ in the world.

I have to admit: I’ve never been to a National Youth Gathering in my lifetime, and I admit, I find it pretty cool that the national church denomination that I affiliate with can pull off such an event. There’s pluses and minuses to such events, like all things. But overall, I think it’s generally a more positive thing for the church than a negative thing.

Today at the Gathering, folks are participating in “A Day of Discipleship.” And I just want to highlight is that discipleship doesn’t last a day, and it certainly isn’t limited to an experience in New Orleans, at the National Youth Gathering. I hope that folks there, and all following it realize is that events and experiences such as the National Youth Gathering, “It’s practice….not the game.”

And thinking about things like the National Youth Gathering as practice is important, because this is what practice does….it helps us play the game better. But the thing about practice is that well…there’s nothing at stake. Practice is easy in a way, because it’s not as serious, there isn’t as much on the line, you can have a bad practice and there’s no harm.  There’s no pressure in practice situations and experiences.  And that’s ok…practice is meant to be a time to learn, discover strengths and weaknesses. It’s meant be a time to prepare.

But it’s not the game itself.  The game, competition, is all the things practice isn’t: there’s uncertainty, the situations can’t be controlled, it’s not as safe, there’s more at stake in playing and in the outcome.  As an athlete, and as a coach, the hours and hours of practice one endures don’t mean anything until you compete. The preparation, the things you learn and discover, never become fully appreciated until you actually test it all out on the court, the field, the mat, etc. In terms of our faith, events like the National Youth Gathering will never quite mean as much, have as much impact, if they don’t move us to become more actively engaged in living out our faith in the world each and every day.  If we only understand discipleship and faith to be situations and environments like a National Youth Gathering, then we miss out on participating in God’s call to participate in God’s mission in a complex, messy, and uncertain world.  Because, in my honest opinion, that’s where God’s real game is being played….

Martin Luther was right in saying faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing. It is those things when surrounded by 35,000-plus people who inspire and support, making it easier to step out in faith. But it is those things even more so, when we’re in the minority, facing the struggles and pain and suffering in this world, and still having the courage and daring to engage.

It is my hope that youth and adults are learning and discovering new and wonderful ways to live out faith in New Orleans. My hope and prayer for them is that what gets expressed is a need and urging that God desires them to live out their faith just as much in more mundane, routine, and challenging places.  I hope they come to know that what they do today and all they do at the National Youth Gathering simply gives them clarity and hopefully inspires them to live out their faith actively even in the routine, the “ordinary” of life. I hope it helps them see God’s vision and call more clearly in places where it’s challenging to see it, know it, and engage in it.  I hope that their experience at the National Youth Gathering instills passion and courage to enter into and work in places where there’s suffering, pain, violence, unknown, and incomprehensible things going on.  I hope that their experience at the Gathering helps them see that discipleship is difficult….but also a life and death matter for God’s people…..it engages us in the game: a life where the outcomes and situations are uncertain, but where there’s a lot at stake when it comes to humanity and the world. To not make that move, the Body of Christ just becomes background noise in a world that is desperately needing a life-giving shout of hope.

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Filed under Leadership, Missional Thinking & The Church