Pastor Jean, Rebecca and I are currently at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, along with Cat Bottem and several of our young people. The Youth Gathering occurs every three years, bringing together 30,000+ young people and adults for worship, learning, fun, connecting, and service, from all over the country. Some drove, others traveled on charter buses, and still others flew. One way or another, they arrived on Wednesday, and will be here through Sunday.
As we have mingled, we’ve run into folk from all over – from Pennsylvania, Washington, and Florida. We rode the train yesterday with a crew from Holmen, and even ran into Pastor Bonnie Klos, from Our Savior’s, now serving St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Port Huron, Michigan – out of 30,000 people, there she was!
My favorite was the hug Rebecca got. Two guys came around with a sign that read, “Free hugs or fist bumps from Alaska.” They delivered!
So, what a wonderful event. Not much more to say!
Well, maybe a little. Not all was quite so perfect.
First, we had to get to our hotel. It’s Houston. We’ve never been here before. And there is lots of traffic.
The hotel? Nice place, but where’s the car going? Valet parking. Yeah, I know, I just like having my car outside my window, where I can get to it when I need something. At this moment I have no idea where my car is. A bit unsettling…
Then we took the train (that worked well) to meet up with the rest of the crew for dinner, but we had to walk a mile. In Texas heat.
With dinner done we headed over to NRG Stadium for the mass gathering. First we had to figure out what part of the blob of bodies in front of us was a line. We found the tail end of a strand of people, and joined them. And we stood…and we waited…and we stood… The line inched forward. We could see kids going up the ramps to the stadium, but only a few. They were checking bags. Every bag. Every bag from every one of the 30,000+. Through one gate.
Then, suddenly the line surged. Up on the ramps the few kids were now replaced by throngs. I guess they decided to give up on checking bags.
The sudden movement also meant,however, that when we finally got up the ramps into the stadium, it was just plain crazy. With no “tickets,” and no idea where to go we wandered until we ended way up in the upper sections with something of a view. But no matter, the noise, the vibration, and more that I will get to in a few moments, was still pretty intense. Too intense for Rebecca, so we headed off for the designated “quiet room.”
This morning we headed back for our “service day.” The gathering involves a “service day,” a “synod day,” and an “interactive fun day.” We do fun on Friday, and synod on Saturday; others did those things today.
Arriving at the NRG Center with 10,000 others we looked for our bus (number 55). There, we found ourselves in a group of 50, with kids from from Pennsylvania and Washington. We would head out when the coordinators gave us the word. And so we waited. We stood and waited. For 2 hours (2:09 to be exact), we stood and waited. Until the bus finally came. Then, off to an elementary school, where we stained outdoor equipment and cleaned up a garden. Summer school was in session, so kids were around (more on that in a moment too).
So, what’s my point here? Lots of standing, lots of heat, and a bit of disorganization. No, this is not a perfect event! Not even close!
But…remember the noise and vibration in the stadium during the mass gathering? That noise and vibration was accompanied by energy – lots of it. 30,000 kids pumped up and excited to be here to worship, learn, have some fun, connect with others, and serve. An imperfect event, filled with imperfect kids (and a few imperfect adults, like me), embraced by Jesus Christ and energized by the Holy Spirit. Kind of like the life of the baptized! For as baptized children of God, imperfect as we are, God still embraces us and energizes our service.
And the scene of 30,000+ young people getting all excited, really gives me hope. We live in a world where “church” is more challenging than ever. But seeing (and feeling) the energy and excitement renews my hope. Not because of the kids, but because of the power of the Spirit working in their lives. The church experience I grew up with might be changing, might even be gone. But Jesus is at work, the people of God are Spirit-led, and the church will continue. Not because, but perhaps in spite, of me!
But there’s more. Remember too our time at the school this morning. We saw children, walking to and from class, probably a bit bewildered by the strangers in their midst.
Then, as we were breaking for lunch, one of the teachers asked if some kids could come and share a bit of our story with their 5th graders. I corralled two girls from Pennsylvania and their pastor to join me. The girls shared with the class our event, and our desire to serve. The class (and teachers) thanked us. Service, you see, makes a difference in the world. And the morning after 30,000+ energized the stadium, in a small corner of Houston we touched lives. Just like 200 other groups did in other small corners of Houston this morning. And another 200 on Friday, and another 200 on Saturday.
There you have it. Discipleship in a nutshell. Imperfection, the embrace of Jesus and the energy of the Holy Spirit, and the making of a difference in the lives of others.
So, take a peek in the mirror – look at imperfection (that’s you and me). Then ask yourself how you feel the embrace of Jesus, and sense the energy of the Holy Spirit. And finally, how did you make a difference today – and how can you do it again tomorrow.
Or, in other words, be a disciple!