[Note: This is the last 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]
Friday July 31, Keynote 5 – “Telling The Story”
Go, Tell and Live God’s Story!
2 Corinthians 3: 1b-6a “Written On Our Hearts (We Are All Ministers of the Gospel: Your life is a letter, written by God.
When I was 18-years-old, a graduated senior of Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama, I sat in this exact spot (7th row from the center aisle, back of Anderson Auditorium) on my very last day of my very last Montreat Youth Conference.
And at the end of the keynote, a guest musician stood up and played the inspirational Garth Brooks’ hit: “Standing Outside the Fire” –Life is not trying, it’s merely surviving if you’re standing outside the fire.
Needless to say, I was a sobbing mess by the time the song came to a close.
All I could think about was how much I was going to miss my friends from youth group and the Montreat experience (there was no such thing as College Conference back then) so I truly thought this was the absolute LAST TIME I WOULD EVER BE HERE!!!!! (Bye Lake Susan!….Bye Huck!…Wah, wah, waaaahhhhh)
On top of all that I was scared to death of to college at Auburn University, two hours away from friends and family, my church, etc.,
And yet, I had to leave and pursue a higher education and learn how to be and live as an adult.
I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.
I had to go.
So I went. (move toward Anderson Aud stage)
And the journey took me through four years of college in which I graduated with a journalism degree and back home to Birmingham to be a newspaper reporter. I also started volunteering as a High School Youth Group adviser at my home church, which….
LED ME BACK TO MONTREAT!!!! WOO HOO!!!!!
And I spent the next three summers taking youth to MONTREAT!!!!!! DOUBLE WOO HOO!!!!
However, in the middle of these MONTREAT experiences as an adult volunteer,
I started hearing God’s call of me to make a career out of youth ministry.
More specifically, I felt a desire to become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who proclaims:
“Go and tell the story! Go and tell the good news!
And yet, I had to take a break from summers at Montreat for a while to attend seminary for three years to learn how to tell and live God’s story so I could teach others to do the same.
I couldn’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.
I had to go.
Since becoming a full-time employee in God’s storytelling business a decade ago, I’ve experienced Montreat numerous times with High School youth. Each one has been memorable. Each one the refueling I needed for ministry. Each one a faith-shaping encounter with God.
And yet, I’m unable to ever stay here for weeks and weeks because I have a family and church I’ve made commitments to in Georgia.
I can’t stay on this sacred “mountain top” forever.
I have to go.
We all have to leave this place at some point. We all have to come down the mountain with the lessons we’ve learned about the story of God that we’re called to proclaim to the rest of the world. Storytellers can’t stay in one spot. And if we are to live our calling as tellers of God’s story…
We’ve got to keep moving. We’ve got to keep living. We’ve got to keep telling.
And, trust me, when we do our job as storytellers, something extraordinary will happen, along the way.
Excitement will grow as we pass the stories
of our encounters and adventures with God
to the next person
and the next
and the next
and the next.
Now you might be saying to yourself:
“Ok Andy, that’s great and all, but I’m not an ordained minister. I’ve never been to seminary much less college. Heck, I don’t even know the Bible that well. I’ve only read a few passages here and there, and I’m not sure I get it. So how in the world can I tell God’s story if I don’t fully understand the Bible.”
Maybe the words of the author and pastor Frederick Buechner can help us to comprehend what the Bible is all about. Buechner says:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety,The Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated:
God creates the world, the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which he created it.
That means that the Bible is a book about you and me, whom he also made and lost and continually seeks, so you might say that what holds it together more than anything else is us.
You might add to that, of course, that of all the books that humanity has produced, it is the one that more than any other-and in more senses than one-also holds us together.
Or put another way, the Bible, the story of God and humanity, is about a God who in Christ
–claims each of us and values our unique lives and stories
–meets us in the messiness of our stories and offers love and grace
–intertwines our stories with others, especially the silenced and oppressed
–appears in surprising ways, promising to never abandon us and encouraging us to keep writing and living our stories.
–calls us to go and tell the good news of an unconditional, sacrificial, redemptive and divine Love that transforms our lives and shapes our stories for the better
And every single person here is capable of sharing this story about God and humanity. In his 2nd letter to the early Christian church in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.
Paul says that all are all called to be ministers. God has chosen you…and you..and you…because “you are the special”…
You don’t actually need a seminary degree or have the Bible memorized or be perfect to heed God’s call.
You don’t even have to be the most brilliant or the most popular or the most wealthy person in the room.
It’s not about that.
You just have to believe that you are “special” and that you are capable of making a difference with the gifts you’ve been given.
God has written a call on your hearts, not in ink but in the Spirit, to live out loud the story of God and humanity.
In case you still have doubts about being called to tell the story and make a difference, let me share a few real life examples of teens like you who are telling the story in their own unique way and inspiring others to do the same…
In 2010, High School students Addison Pointer and Caitlyn Watkins started a simple canned food drive that sparked them to want to do more.
“It opened our eyes to the bigger need in our own community” says Addison. And so the friends created Handy Lunches—a once a month program where they and their classmates go into the west side of the Florence, AL community and serve a free meal to anyone who is in need.
“Handy Lunches is an organization that feeds the body and the soul,” Addison says. “Handy Lunches is no where near reaching its end. We plan to continue to grow and serve the community and anyone in need.”
Sharon Li of Texas remembers the harrowing images from the television in 2008, when the earthquake in China devastated Sichuan province, which killed tens of thousands of people and razed buildings.
Sharon, who was 10 at the time, was haunted by an image of a mother who was killed by falling rubble but was able to shelter her baby with her body. “That was really the first sadness I felt as a child,” she says.
Sharon and her siblings were moved to do something, so they with just began walking around their neighborhood and collecting money to send to victims in China.
“We came back and we decided this couldn’t be a one-time thing,” she says.
But it wasn’t. Some months later, Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, and the Li family went to a Gavelston school to donate books and winter clothing, among other items.
However, Sharon said the most meaningful action came in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan. Instead of the traditional disaster-relief monetary and goods collection, Li and her siblings decided to do something more personal:
they gathered between 5,000 and 6,000 letters sharing condolences and stories from around the world as well as origami cranes, sending them to schoolchildren in Japan.
From that project, Sharon, now a recent High School graduate, co-founded the non-profit group “We Care Act” which distributes donated items to disaster victims around the globe.
Li estimates that the organization has collected
$220,000 worth of donations since it all began.
Addison, Caitlyn and Sharon—
they’re not ordained ministers or Bible scholars or celebrities or people who have a wealthy of resources at their disposal.
They’re just ordinary people who wanted to do some good in the world.
Even if they never say a single verse from scripture, they are still telling the story of God’s love with their lives! There’s a quote that is often attributed to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, which says:
This is a philosophy that we adhere to at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian where I serve as an associate for Youth and Misison & Outreach. It’s a way of believing and living and telling the story that we are constantly teaching to the youth (as well as the congregation.)
And the greatest gift I am regularly given as a pastor for Youth and Mission is seeing the young people at Pleasant Hill preach the gospel through their service to God and others in need.
Earlier this month, a group of 10 High School Youth returned, for the second consecutive year, to the community of Consuelo in the city of San Pedro in the Dominican Republic.
Serving in the DR was such an incredible, faith-shaping experience. And these youth worked hard and gave abundantly and loved fully as they complete the building of a new church for a Pentecostal congregation, led Vacation Bible School for the children of Consuelo and helped out at a medical clinic for the community.
The youth at Pleasant Hill inspire me—not only through this trip in the DR—but in every aspect of their lives. They make me a better minister, a better husband, dad, and human being.
They enrich my story in ways I can barely describe. And often its with few words and lots of laughs
Or it’s an incredibly sweet gesture like making a 4 hour-drive from Atlanta to come (and driving 45 minutes back and forth from Hendersonville, NC) to hear my keynotes (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) this week.
I am grateful that their stories are a part of my story and that they model (for me) the telling and living out …of God’s story.
You see, it’s not always about praying the right prayers out loud or being able to articulate every aspect of Reformed Theology and Presbyterian beliefs.
It’s about speaking the love of Christ Jesus through actions and seizing the opportunities to act-to make the world better than it is.
Three of our Jeremiah Project youth will now share how they are going to seize opportunities to go and tell the story—to go and tell what they’ve discovered this week at Montreat…Listen to the Sound Cloud Audio to hear their incredible stories
God created you to be patient, courageous, and loving (among other things) and God creates opportunities for you to use those gifts to serve and help others.
You don’t need an advanced degree in science or a wad of cash.
You are special. You are creative and you are capable of changing the world. And God places people in your life to create alongside you.
Whatever you do will have an impact on people’s lives and stories.
I want to personally thank each and every one of you for sharing your stories this week, whether in your small or back-home groups or while sitting in these pews before keynote and worship or as you hung out at the Huck and Lake Susan.
Thank you to those youth who personally shared their stories with me during the conference and who lovingly affirmed the stories that have been told from this stage.
In the words of gospel musician Morgan Harper Nichols who sings “Storyteller”:
Oh the mountain where I climbed
The valley where I fell
You were there all along
That’s the story I’ll tell
You brought the pieces together
Made me this storyteller
Now I know it is well, it is well
That’s the story I’ll tell
For years and years and years I’ll tell
That’s the story I’ll tell
What is the story you will tell when you leave this place?
What is written on your hearts as you go down from the mountain and back into the valleys of the world?
(The song “Let Us Love” by NEEDTOBREATHE plays as members of the Jeremiah Project form two lines and pass spray paint cans and pantomime what they want the two people at the head of the line to paint on the large canvas)
As you go, let me share this final quote from the book When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox (which a Back Home Leader told me the day before when I passed him in Anderson Lobby)
Some people tell stories. Some people are the type about whom stories are told. Rabbi Jesus was both.
Let us love and tell the story of him, like him and for him.
And all God’s storytellers said…