In These Waters

Sermon for Sunday June 20, 2010, Amos 5:21-24 and Mark 4:35-41

On Saturday morning two weeks ago, Elizabeth, Katie and Anne (aka Nana) left for the Montreat Youth Conference in Montreat, North Carolina. They went up a day earlier than the group of 33 High School youth and 8 adults from Pleasant Hill because Elizabeth—one of the conference’s small group leaders—needed to attend some training sessions and prepare her classroom for the week ahead.

After driving through the stone gate of the Montreat Conference Center and settling into their accommodations at Assembly Inn, Elizabeth went to a training session while Nana took Katie to the playground. The playground is located along side a beautiful creek that runs through the 4,000 acres that is Montreat.

Within seconds after stepping onto the playground, Katie gleefully darted for the creek and plopped down into a shallow area where water and mud mix so well together.  A flabbergasted Nana—unprepared for this spontaneous adventure—trudged into the creek in a short-sleeve sweater blouse, slacks and white tennis shoes—to retrieve a happily soaked and dirtied child.  Later Katie watched with fascination as Nana scrubbed her mud covered sweater blouse in the sink of their room at Assembly Inn. Katie was so intrigued by this act of hand-washing that she quickly grabbed the garment and threw it on the floor before picking it up and tossing the sweater back into the sink, causing water to splash everywhere.  Of course this made Katie giggle more and more and Nana less and less.

To say that Katie enjoys water is quite an understatement. She has loved water ever since we began sponge-bathing her in the sink when she was a week old. Last summer at Montreat, after turning one, Katie sat in the freezing water of the creek with nothing on but a diaper and a big grin. Our little girl relishes every splish, splash and spray of water whether it’s from a creek, a pool, a bathtub, a sprinkler or garden hose and regardless if the temperature is cold or warm! Katie embraces the water without reservation or judgment.

Katie seems to have some inherent knowledge that water is as much a part of us as we are of it. Those two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen makes up two-thirds of our bodies and covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. In a special edition of National Geographic, published in April and entitled Water: Our Thirsty World, best-selling fiction author Barbara Kingsolver writes:

“Water is life. It’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive…We stake our civilizations on the coasts and mighty rivers. Our deepest dread is the threat of having too little—or too much.”[1]

The heart of Montreat—the centerpiece of this sacred place in the mountains—is Lake Susan which is about 3 acres in size and home to fish, frogs, muskrats, turtles and two ornery swans, Johnny and June. It is also a prime gathering place for all who visit Montreat, especially the 6,000 youth who pass through each summer.

Folks stand on the bridge to look over into the waterfall that runs off the lake and into the creek; some even sit on the dam itself. Others hang out in gazebos with friends while enjoying an ice cream cone they just purchased from The Huckleberry, a shop whose building connects to the walkway that frames the lake.  On the last night of every youth conference, all of the participants gather around the lake with candles singing hymns like Sanctuary, Amazing GraceDown To the River to Pray. There is something unique and holy about Lake Susan and Montreat that draws people to God’s living water. and

Over the course of a week, Pleasant Hill youth and adults (along with 540 others like us) dove into depths of the Montreat Youth Conference theme to understand what it means to live “In These Waters”—these waters of life that flow from calm to rough, that may remain still for a time and invite quiet contemplation yet are strong and sometimes erupt in chaos at a moment’s warning.”[2]

Throughout the conference, we heard over and over that we are children of the living God who were watermarked in our births and baptisms for the spreading of God’s love and grace in the world. We were reminded by biblical stories and current events of the symbolic and physical power of water that can be a giver and renewer of life and also a harbinger of destruction and death.

We also learned again about folks like the Rev. Martin Luther King who, in the tradition of the prophet Amos, pronounced that God’s justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” in a society of violence and oppression. We learned that God calls us to enact a justice that causes the flood of hate to recede and rivers of love to flow unceasing.

And we were assured that in the midst of storms—both real and metaphorical—we were not alone; God and God’s people are with us even when we’re struggling to keep our head above the rising water that threatens to swallow us whole.  God and God’s people reach down to pull us from the depths and envelop us in unconditional love as some of our youth can attest to…

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(Luke R.—11 am service only)

I’m not normally a very spiritual kind of guy. I’m an engineer – a scientist. I like facts, formulas, concrete answers. But my week at Montreat was one of the most spiritually powerful experiences in my life. As many say, Montreat is a “thin” place – where heaven and earth seem to blend together, and you can feel God’s presence all around you. I certainly felt it during my time there.

Small groups are a huge part of the Montreat experience. You meet with your group of about 30 people twice a day to discuss the theme of the day, study scripture, do fun activities, and build relationships with others. I knew this going into Montreat because I had been before, but by the second day of my small group, I was blown away. Somehow, my small group – small group 43 – had become a safe haven – somewhere where everyone could trust each other. People were confiding their secrets in our small group. People were opening themselves up to others who were complete strangers just two days before.

Back-home groups are also a huge part of the Montreat experience. Every night, back-home groups discuss the events of the day. The PHPC youth group, however, is no ordinary back-home group. People were again opening up and trusting others in an amazing way.

These were two examples of the amazing effect of Montreat. You feel safe, and cared for. Montreat is a safe haven – a place where you can trust the people around you completely. Not only that – Montreat is a place where you can recharge and prepare yourself to go back into the rest of the world as a better person than you were before.

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(Nicole W.—8:30 and 11 am services)

Good Morning…Ever since my first experience at Montreat in 2009, I had been counting down the days until the next youth conference arrived. I posted a countdown on my bulletin board in my room and was very adamant about changing it every night. My dad always said the same thing: “This Montreat must be really special because you change that thing every night..,” or something to that effect. I never really knew what to say, but when I think about it now, he said it right…Montreat is special. I can’t describe it any other way because words like “outstanding” and “awesome” fall short. “Special,” perhaps, does not even encompass the true spirit of Montreat. However it does describe how I feel about the annual retreat to this quaint community in North Carolina. This past Montreat came and went all too quickly. I started counting down from a good 290 days out and those were the fastest 290-something days of my life in retrospect.

At Montreat, we all explored the themes of water that resonate throughout the Bible, keeping with the conference theme “In These Waters.” Yet the most poignant of all of these discussions was that of our personal “storms.” Our youth group opened up so much. I felt special to have been trusted with such stories and, in some cases, secrets. It was also a special experience to be able to trust in others as much as I felt them trust in me. People at Montreat are so kind; they are inclusive of everyone.

There is a hill that overlooks a common area and is central to the Montreat campus. When you prop up on that hill and observer others you can sense their compassion, their kindness and you can’t help but feel like you are a part of a special type of experience. In a week where 600 youth and adults can get together without typical teenage drama, petty feuds, or harsh words, any outsider would be surprised, maybe even stunned, but I can explain it… Montreat is special! It’s unlike any other experience for high school youth that I know of. We leave Montreat with a sense of togetherness, we are family. Not only is that one week the most amazing week of the year, you go home feeling like you can spread the Montreat spirit to others, and you can. Its infectious, it’s truly special. Now my bulletin board reads 350 days until Montreat. I suppose it might as well say 350 days until the best, most special week of my life.

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Nicole and Luke are absolutely right: Montreat is indeed a special time and place. The stories they told and the common experience we shared at Montreat, reflecting on the theme of water, stirred up a flood of memories for me of when I was a teen.  Those feelings surfaced at Montreat, interestingly enough, during times in which I was physically on the water (paddle boating with Katie on Lake Susan on Tuesday afternoon) or in the water (rock hopping in the creek with some of the youth).

In late June 1993, shortly before my youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian in Birmingham, embarked for Montreat, my parents sat me and my younger brother Ben down one night after dinner to tell us they were getting a divorce. It was a sad but hope-filled moment. My parent’s yelling matches, and my dad’s erratic behavior and verbal abuse over the span of 12 years could no longer be stomached. Divorce was the best and only option to ensure a calmer and peaceful household as well as help my father establish a better relationship with me and Ben.

But in mid August, a few weeks after returning from Montreat and prior to the start of my senior year in high school, my mom, brother and I discovered that my dad had been having an affair with a woman in our church. We were devastated and heart-broken by the news, and needless to say, things got ugly for a while. For many days afterward, I felt like those scared disciples who were watching the winds and waves toss their boat to and fro on the water. The storm cloud that hung over my head was immense and I didn’t believe I’d be able to shake it.

The aftermath of the storm stuck with me through young adulthood and it wasn’t until I saw a pastoral counselor in seminary that I began to make some sense and meaning out of those murky waters.  I stand before you now as a 34-year-old minister who weathered that heavy storm and many others since, and I can say unequivocally that I made it through the storms only because of God’s love in Christ which was embodied by those around me.

In those days following the news of my dad’s affair, I was spending a lot of time lying on the couch watching TV—paralyzed by the storm swirling around. One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and two of my good friends from youth group, Kathy Potts and Stacey McGill,[3] were standing on the front porch with large smiles.  Before I could say hello, they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!” I asked my mom if it was ok to go and she said yes without hesitation. I grabbed my stuff and jumped in the backseat of Stacey’s car.  The drive from my house to the park, which had a nice lake with a man-made beach, was about 25 minutes, and we spent the whole time listening to music and laughing about various other things.

We got to Oak Mountain and waded into the cool shallow water of the lake. We were quiet for a while, taking in the brilliance of the blue sky and the way the sun hit the evergreens that dotted the shore on the other side.  We talked and laughed and splashed one another a bit and swam a little. Mostly we just hung out in the water and never once did we bring up my storm, which all of my friends and everyone in the church knew about.  Words weren’t necessary. Their love and care for me was evident by their actions and by the calm and peaceful moment we had as friends in the waters of that lake.

Looking back on it now, I believe that Kathy and Stacey were embodying the very command that Jesus gives to the storm: “Peace! Be still!” I will forever be grateful to Kathy and Stacey for the gift they gave me that day. I am also grateful for the youth and this congregation for being with me during the current storms that I’m enduring.

May we all be grateful for the numerous people in our lives who at one time or another, said or are saying in the midst of our storms, “Peace! Be still!” The Lord knows that I don’t always have the strength to say those words much less embody them myself at times. But thanks be to God for creating a place like Montreat where those words can be said, where our wells can be replenished, where our weary souls can be restored and where we can be made whole.  Thanks be to God who creates others to swim alongside us in those calm and rough waters. Thanks be to God who watermarks us as God’s beloved children and empowers us to make promises to carry and love one another in these waters, forever and ever.

Amen.



[1] National Geographic (A Special Issue) Water: Our Thirsty World. “Fresh Water” by Barbara Kingsolver. April 2010.

[2] Adapted from the “Back Home Leaders’ Guide” for the 2010 Montreat Youth Conference In These Waters.

[3] Kathy died in the summer of 2003 in a car accident in Birmingham, leaving behind a husband and 1-year-old son. Stacey married a mutually good friend Jeff Tarrant in 1998 and lives in Birmingham with their three children. They were part of mine and Elizabeth’s wedding in April 2004 and Stacey read scripture during my ordination service in August 2005.

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