[Note: This is the first of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]
Monday July 27, Keynote 1 – “Our Stories Are Unique”
Each of us has a unique story to tell – and our stories matter! – because we have been claimed by God.
Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel” (God spreads our stories over all the earth.)
Mark 3:13-17 “Baptism of Jesus” (We have been uniquely chosen and marked by God through Christ.)
Hi, my name is Andy Acton, and I’m thrilled to be your keynoter this week at Montreat. One of the things you need to know about me and my story is that I’m a huge pop culture fanatic!
Telling stories is a huge part of what it means to be human. We are story people. We can’t exist without living and sharing stories. It’s why Jesus used stories to talk about the kingdom of God—parables of sewers, mustard seeds, prodigal sons and widows that were familiar to the people of his day.
In our time, stories come to us in a variety of ways: face-to-face, phone calls, texting, social media, books, e-books, magazines, blogs, news articles, and video.
But the most powerful and alluring stories these days (aside from a good ole fashion book) are the TV shows, movies, online videos and photos that we view on a daily basis:
It’s been estimated that folks spend 10 billion hours per month watching Netflix. Other research reveals that 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute and 4 billion videos are viewed per day! And according to social media stats, 350 million photos are posted to Facebook and 40 million pictures are uploaded on Instagram per day!
We are a visual story people.
And the visual medium helps us tell unique stories that matter—
stories that reveal who we are and who we are connected to
stories that reflect our experiences, our faith and our views of life and the world.
stories that portray joy, pain, suffering, love, hate, greed, compassion, failure, achievement, humility and redemption.
stories that are so exceptional and important, they need to be shared over and over and over again.
One of my favorite stories that I can never get enough of is Star Wars. Hands down, it is the most epic sci-fi adventure saga of all time!
And it is especially wonderful when told by a 3-year-old girl who has just seen the movie for the first time…
Too cute, huh? I love it when she refers to C3P0 as the “shiny guy who always worries” and says that Obi Won Kenobi tries to teach Luke how to use his “light up sword.”
It’s a delightful telling of a beloved and familiar story.
This little girl doesn’t take out the Star Wars movie script and read it line by line nor is she coached to use accurate language, like: “No, sweetheart, it’s called a light saber, not a light up sword.”
This 3-year-old girl just tells the story from memory in her own unique way—with humorous and insightful descriptions, animated hand gesture and facial expressions and a confident voice.
And although she will eventually grow up and mature and tell more complex stories, this girl will more than likely tell her stories like she did as a child, using those same unique views and mannerisms.
We all have a unique story to tell and a unique way of sharing stories about ourselves, and others.
So here is my unique story.
However, to shake up things a bit, Omayra, our amazing theme assistant, is going to tell it to you as photos are displayed on the screen…
Andy was born in Huntsville, Alabama
He has a wife Elizabeth & two kids: Katie & Davis
They live in Atlanta, Georgia where Andy serves as the associate pastor at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church for Youth and Mission & Outreach
His dream vacation would be Montreat
or Disney World
His favorite story in the Bible is the Gospel of Mark
One phrase that describes his day so far is “AWESOME-SAUCE”
He has met Jon Stewart of The Daily Show
On Saturdays, he likes spending time with his family
And when Andy orders pizza, he likes it with everything! (Storm troopers are optional)
And now, I will tell Omayra’s story:
Omayra was born in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico
She is the youngest of three siblings
She now lives in San Juan, where she work as a journalist in the main media company of the Island
She loves to spend time in a Presbyterian Camp in her hometown of Guacio or any exciting place in South America
Her favorite story in the Bible is about Joseph
One phrase that describes her day so far is “Feliz como una lombriz!” (I’m happy as an earthworm!)
On Saturdays, she likes to spend time with her friends eating or going to baseball games
And…. about pizza… Omayra doesn’t like pizza; she’s more of a rice and beans girl
We have unique stories to tell, and our stories matter.
They matter because God, the author of life, claims the entirety of creation and us, again and again, through stories.
God creates human beings and breathes life into the story of humanity from the beginning—a beginning that occurred long ago in an ancient land far, far away….
Andy reads Genesis passage as Omayra & the four Planning Team Youth present the Tower of Babel Story (with Minion background voices and music; and audio of multiple languages playing simultaneously)
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.
From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
This is the Word of the Lord
(Conferees: Thanks be to God!)
The descendants of Noah and his sons–the first people to walk the new earth after the Flood—share one language.
And as they travel the world, they become arrogant and prideful about their unified identity.
They believe they are super-cool and all-powerful as a unit who always speaks, thinks and acts the same.
They function much like an automated machine than a community of unique human beings.
They think so highly of their conformist system that they decide to expand its reach from earth…all the way to heaven!
They do this “to make a name for themselves.”
In other words, they want to become one great god-system—a one-story-fits-all machine—that is more powerful than the One who created the world and commanded human beings to be fruitful and multiply.
And God—after observing the people’s attempt to mold the world in their own image of uniformity and sameness—confuses their language so they are unable to understand the other, and then God scatters them across the planet.
As a result, the city and the tower are never finished. But it is named Babel as a reminder of how God shattered their attempt to make a homogenous life.
Uniformity and sameness run counter to God’s intention for humans and all of creation to live together with their unique stories, special gifts and different qualities.
As time ticked forward, humans eventually learned to live (for the most part) with diversity in unity.
They began to share, collect and preserve the unique stories of people from different cultures across the globe.
The ancients didn’t want future generations to forget their experiences and the lessons that had been learned.
Folks wanted to pass down stories to their children and their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children, etc. so that humanity would continue to learn and evolve.
And that tradition continues today and will hopefully go on for decades to come.
This week is an opportunity to focus on how God calls us to share our unique stories so that we may learn what it means to be immersed in God’s story.
As I said earlier, we mostly tell our stories through movies, TV shows and online video, which you will see often during keynotes this week.
And your generation is also increasingly using a digital visual medium to share the details of your life.
What does that look like exactly? We’ve asked a couple of our Planning Team Youth, Katie and Robert, to tell their stories using their iPhone and Instagram…
Katie shares video via iPhone and Robert shares photos on Instagram
God, who is always present in our lives, claims each of our unique stories. (walk toward baptismal font )
This is symbolized in the sacramental act of baptism, in which life-sustaining water is poured onto our heads to mark us as one of God’s beloved.
By the waters of baptism, God names each and everyone one of us as unique characters who play an integral part in the story of God and humanity.
By the waters of baptism, God calls and equips us to live our stories abundantly, creatively and courageously in the love and grace of Christ Jesus.
By the waters of baptism, in which Jesus is anointed as the Messiah, God clothes, wraps, envelops us into the body of Christ—God’s family…forever.
By the waters of baptism, God’s people promise to nurture our growth into that body, to shape our faith and help us build loving and grace-filled relationships with God and others.
By the waters of baptism, God reminds us that each person has an essential role in another’s story and faith journey.
By the waters of baptism, people make promises to nurture our identity as beloved, baptized, claimed children of God: family, friends, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, church members and church school teachers.
We all have stories or people in our lives like Miss Devine. Memorable, funny, poignant memories that you tell in your church and youth group year after year after year.
Some of my best memories are from Montreat Youth Conferences—the ones I attended as a youth and as an adult.
So many Montreat laughs and tears and moments of exhilaration, joy and heartache make up the chapters of my story and the story of the youth who I’ve brought here.
The author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buchener says this about stories:
Throughout this week, keep track of your stories.
Remember who you are and whose you are.
Remember where you are from, where you’ve been and where you are going.
Remember the people you meet along the way—
the ones who affirm that your story is unique and that you matter,
the ones who have messy and broken stories
the ones who need you to be a part of their story
the ones who yearn to hear that their story is unique and that they
Remember that you are awesome…
Friends, go from this place knowing that you were made from love, to be loved, to spread love
This is God’s story
This is your story
This is our story