Monday, July 27, 2009

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 4

Saturday (July 25) was my morning to NOT set the alarm clock! After several late nights followed by early wakeups, my body was telling me: “Slow down, old boy.”

Which raises an interesting question for adults trying to keep up with teenagers: When do we get to be “too old” to hang out with youth? I hope the answer is NEVER….but I also know that my stamina isn’t what it used to be for late night stuff, sleeping on church basement floors and keeping up the pace with youth. So, like so many things, we middle-agers have to figure out HOW to stay engaged with young people when our bodies aren’t quite as cooperative as they used to be. Fortunately I saw MANY “oldsters” (older than me even!) serving joyfully and effectively as church group advisers in New Orleans. Old folks rock!

Saturday was sort of a high-low day for me at the Gathering. After a trip to the hotel fitness room (my first and only workout in NOLA….but I did plenty of walking, like everyone else), I logged on in the hotel’s wi-fi hotspot, posted my Day 3 blog entry, and put the finishing touches on the Bible study I was scheduled to lead in the Convention Center. Lunchtime in the Morial Center gave me a chance to visit with colleague bishops and Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson—one of the benefits of being at the Gathering.

When I arrived at the room where I was scheduled to lead a Bible study, however, the posted schedule didn’t match up the schedule that had been emailed to me. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that there were a number of scheduling snafus at the Gathering, and I was mildly frustrated not to have the chance to lead the Bible study I had prepared.

Here’s a bigger concern I need to name: it seemed to me that the Gathering planning team could have interacted much more energetically with the ELCA Book of Faith team. Doesn’t that seem like sort of a no-brainer? Here we are in the midst of a five-year Book of Faith initiative—and this is the only national youth gathering scheduled in those five years. My 24-year-old daughter innocently asked me, “Hey, dad, haven’t they had regular Bible readings as part of the evening mass gatherings?” That’s a young adult speaking!

I learned from other bishops (who didn’t get bumped from the schedule as I did) that participation in the Bible studies they led was pretty dismal. Perhaps that had to do with the fact that the Bible studies were all offered on the hard-to-find 3rd floor of the Morial Center, literally at the end of a long line of meeting rooms. Hmmmm. What’s wrong with this picture?

So instead of leading Bible studies, I had some hours on Saturday afternoon FINALLY to “see the sights” just a bit and pick up a gifts for my family. Supper was superb in a little bistro called “Luke” across from my hotel—I hung out with my daughter and her counseling group from Sioux Falls. Then we hoofed it over to the Dome.

Saturday’s Dome gathering was, in my judgment, much better than Friday’s. The mood was lighter, more joyful—kicked off by heartfelt greetings from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and a congratulatory letter from President Obama, read by Presiding Bishop Hanson. Then we were treated to the juggling magic of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Their unspoken message seemed to be: don’t worry if you drop one of the clubs you’re juggling (i.e. “make a mistake”)….just work it into your act! Do you hear echoes of the rhythm of confession-and-forgiveness in the Christian life? (The Karamazovs are great jugglers—but they DO drop their clubs with frequency…in the way that Babe Ruth held the records for both homeruns and strikeouts!)

Donald Miller’s message was one of the most simple, straightforward “God words” at the Gathering (although he spoke as an American “free will” evangelical, not a confessional Lutheran). I wish he had been given more time to speak about his particular interest in men’s ministries; he dropped one quick statistic we could have heard about much more—that 94% of all prison inmates in America are men, and that 85% of these men grew up fatherless. There’s a huge, huge mouthful in that one sentence….but alas, Don mentioned it and had to move on. (After the Gathering I learned that Don is the founder of The Belmont Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation which partners with working to recruit ten-thousand mentors through one-thousand churches as an answer to the crisis of fatherlessness in America.)

This brings up something else about the 2009 Gathering: the speakers, by and large, were all very limited in the number of minutes they were granted—and several of them clearly labored under such strict time constraints. In past years speakers have been given 20, 30 or more minutes for an address….and the great ones kept their hearers spellbound. I understand that the digital age has reduced our attention-spans, but there has to be a happy medium in this. A number of folks I spoke with shared the same sentiment: we would have loved to hear MORE from some of the speakers, but the stopwatch was running.

Because the focus of the Dome event was JAZZ, we were treated to the Zydeco talent of a pint-sized accordionist (and his backup band) Guyland Leday. The little guy could really punch out the Cajun music…and he demonstrated he could keep playing the accordion in all sorts of postures—a real crowd pleaser, with his even littler brother playing a cool washboard that he wore like an overcoat. Guyland wasn’t the only young musician on stage ,though—we were treated to the amazing fiddling of 16-year-old Amanda Shaw, a New Orleans-based singer, songwriter, fiddler and actress….who is dedicating some of her music (and proceeds from her performances) to restoring the vanishing wetlands of Louisiana. These wetlands, as Amanda put it, are like a “speedbump” that can slow down the flooding that hurricanes bring.

The evening’s episode of “Lil Luther,” an animated short video series (featuring a Martin Luther character who sounded suspiciously like the Governor of California!), made a good connection between jazz music and the “improvisational” nature of Christian discipleship. If the young people caught that—it seemed to “connect”—it will serve them well as they head back home. Each mission context has its own needs and opportunities, so “improvisation” is a gift of the Spirit worth tending.

Venice Williams, the second speaker of the evening, was one of the best on the program. She is heavily involved in urban gardening programs in the Milwaukee area, but what I really loved about her presentation was how God-centered she was. Venice said, every which way, something young people desperately need to hear: that “going green” isn’t about us “saving the earth”—it’s about caring for God’s creation. Go Venice!

The final speaker for the evening was Anne Mahlum, a lovely young lady who overcame challenges in her family of origin and founded an outreach among the homeless in Philadelphia, Back on My Feet. At the heart of her work is the value of running in maintaining one’s physical, emotional and spiritual health. Anne seemed like a fabulous young woman, but aside from a parting “God bless you,” I didn’t find her presentation faith-driven or Christ-centered. Rats! She talked about “being saved”—by running, and by listening to the voice within her. But Jesus didn’t seem to be part of the picture…

But wait, the evening wasn’t over yet: the final band to perform was the Katinas. They were great—joyful, Christ-honoring, and very participatory. Youth and adults were able to sing along—finally!—with words and music that were inspiring and heartfelt. On my scorecard (very biased comment coming!) it reads: “Katinas 10, Skillet 0”…..though I know that Skillet was #1 for many youth in New Orleans.

I ended my Saturday with devotions at 11:00 p.m. in room 477 of the Residence Inn, with the youth from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Crookston. What a friendly, talented bunch of youth and adult leaders! They were so welcoming of me, I felt right at home….and it was clear that the Gathering had been a spiritual high point in their lives. Who would have thought that French toast could be so tasty at MIDNIGHT? Thanks so much to their adult leader, Jolanda Anderson, and her great crew of adult leaders and kids!

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