Real. Present. God. – A Celebration

It was a night for celebrating our Real. Present. God. as the 2019 LCMS Youth Gathering opened with high energy. Throughout the night, we explored the Psalms and how they help us express our faith and invite us to bring our very real and difficult questions to God. In the end, despite the ways we express our faith and the answers we seek, we were reminded that we have a Real. Present. God. whose promises are ours in Jesus.

We opened with the Gathering theme song, “Real. Present. God.” based on Psalm 46, and then met our Mass Event emcees, AJ Vega and Emilie Stooksbury, who led us through an exploration of the Psalms. 

“Our prayers can be interactive, energetic, and expressive,” AJ said. “We see this in the Psalms. The writers of the Psalms: they’re dancing, they’re using instruments, sometimes they are SCREAMING to God in pain because He is a REAL. PRESENT. GOD.”

Emilie Stooksbury and AJ Vega 

This led to a Psalm celebration as the band kicked into “Happy Dance” by MercyMe and a flash mob of dancers rushed to the stage. The mood turned serious as Emilie said, “The Psalms give us permission to feel all sorts of different ways, and God invites us to bring that to Him in prayer.”.

Students from Concordia University St. Paul read from the Psalms, and then, as the band performed a musical rendition of Psalm 42, artist Thomas Clark began painting on a large canvas. 

Thomas Clark’s painting.

When Emilie and AJ returned to the stage, they proclaimed God’s love for us: “He loves people from all nations, and languages, and ages, and everything!” Emilie read from Psalm 22: 

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. 

As the Gathering band lead in singing “He Reigns,” the Gathering cross was processed through the crowd and flags from countries around the world were carried in to surround the cross. It was a powerful moment recognizing and celebrating God’s kingship.

“All God’s children singing Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns, He reigns.”

Flags of the nations gathered around the cross.

AJ and Emilie introduced Pastor Jake Allstaedt. “This is the place to ask questions. We shouldn’t be afraid of having them. This is the place to be real, to wrestle, and to ask,” Pastor Jake said.

We explored the tough questions we all ask…When will I figure it all out? Is there really a plan for my life? Is this the way I’m always going to look? How am I going to do that algebra test? Why do I always end up hurting people? Why isn’t my faith stronger? Why didn’t my parents stay together? Why do kids get shot in classrooms? Why are bad things happening to good people? 

In the “Answer Lady” skit, we saw some of the answers we’ve all heard…and have all said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”…“There are plenty of fish in the sea”…“Tomorrow is another day”…“This too shall pass”…“Just Be Yourself”…“Actions speak louder than words”…“When God closes a door, He opens a window”…“Everything happens for a reason.” 

Not surprising, none of those answers were satisfactory. We’ve all asked the same questions, and we’ve all heard those answers. We’ve all said those answers. We all have questions, but real questions need real answers.

Harry Grimes took the stage to share his story and his questions.

Harry Grimes shared his story and his questions for God.

“I have a lot of questions for God,” he said, “but the one that stands out the most and that I can’t shake is this: why does God allow such terrible things to happen to people who follow Him?”

He shared about his dad, with whom he was able to confide every struggle, and who died while Harry was in seventh grade. He shared about his brother, who died during Harry’s sophomore year of college. He asked, Why God? Why was God allowing such terrible things to happen to someone who wanted to be faithful to Him? 

Harry’s Director of Christian Education (DCE) made a huge impact on him. She sat with him, and walked with him. She let him ask questions and helped him to be real with himself, with her, and especially with God. He learned to turn to God in faith and give Him his questions. He felt called to become a DCE, and is now in his final year at Concordia University Chicago.

He closed by saying:

“You see, those are just some of my questions. Some days I feel like I’m close to understanding, or at least closer to trusting God’s plan in all of this. And I’m learning that I don’t always have to understand God in order to trust Him…. I’m going to keep bringing Him my questions and holding on to His promises and His promises alone.“

AJ shared his questions for God. “Why are cheeseburgers so good?” And he recalled the first time someone called him fat and his struggles and insecurities with body image. He came to understand that it wasn’t about how he looked, but where he looked to find worth. 

“And as I stand and look at myself, who God created me to be, whether I like it or not, I think to myself, “‘God, I’ve got a lot of questions.’ And I think that’s okay. I believe God wants us to know that we can bring anything and everything to Him. Questions are good. But maybe there’s more to life than those answers we’re looking for. I believe God invites us to ask Him those questions and to be real with Him…But more than just giving us specific answers, God continues to make promises for me. God keeps his promises for you. Big promises. I don’t always understand, and I am left with questions, but sometimes God invites us to trust. And that is something we can hold onto.” 

Emilie shared her question for God: “Why her?” Her was her friend Makenzie, who died in a car crash when they were in high school. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever know why. I just cling to the stuff I do know – I know God’s ultimately good. I know He doesn’t hate me. In fact, I know He loves me. I know He is just. I know He is kind. I know He is worthy of my trust. And I know this life isn’t all there is. There is so much more. So many answers He’ll have for us someday, in His time, in His way. And in the meantime, I’ll live in hopeful, purposeful expectation for that day.” 

Pastor Jake then brought it all together with the Psalms. Just as we ask questions, the Psalmists also asked questions, but it sometimes seems like God doesn’t answer.

Pastor Jake reminded us:

“God doesn’t always give us the “why,” but He does give us the “what.” He tells us what He’s doing in our suffering. He’s loving us. He’s caring for us. And He’s given us His promises.”

He encouraged us to continue asking questions, and to listen for answers that we’ll be digging into throughout the Gathering.

Our first Mass Event closed with a prayer led by the Gathering’s Morning Session leaders in American Sign Language. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”