2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 5 – Go And Tell The Story

[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!

Scripture

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…

KP Book--Catlyn and Addison

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.”

KP Book--Sharon Li We Care Act

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:

St. Francis Quote

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.

DR Trip 2

DR Trip 1

DR Trip 3

 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)

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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…

AMEN!

 

Our Stories Are Intertwined

A Sermon for Sunday, September 6, Ephesians 4:15-16 and Luke 6:19-31

(A shorter version of the third keynote I delivered for the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, Wednesday July 29)

During my last sermon in July, I preached about how God meets us in the mess of our stories, life and world with love and grace, and how God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

In that spirit, I’d like to take us one step further by saying that God continues to call us to live out and to share our story with others as well as listen to other people’s stories, particularly the messy and difficult parts.

God calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

God doesn’t intend for us to disregard other people and their stories; to duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes; to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined would be un-Godlike and inhuman. To attempt to live solely unto ourselves conflicts with God’s design for us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings.

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

ubuntu

This concept is reflected in the scriptures, particularly Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections and our sharing of one another’s stories that remind us we are bound together with God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. When we sever a connection, we are going against God’s purpose for creation.

This idea of ubuntu—of connectedness and intertwining—is obviously counter cultural. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

However, our faith demands that we live a different way. God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to discipleship and a common thread throughout the scriptures. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version of the story comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Btw, The Cotton Patch Gospels were written in plain Southern speak and therefore it must be read with a thick accent)…

 Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The rich man had everything one could dream of having. He had the finest education, the best job, the most delicious meals and the biggest mansion in the most luxurious neighborhood. And like any good Jewish person of the time, he was intimately familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.

And yet with all that wealth and power and opportunity to do some good, he chose to focus solely on himself instead of recognizing another person suffering outside the gates of his home.

That mistake—that sin—burned him. The problem wasn’t that he was wealthy and fortunate. The issue was that he refused to see and help someone in his midst who was hurting. He refused to reach out to Lazarus and hear his story.

 Even when the man is enduring the scorching heat in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him—a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

You see, when we ignore our connectedness and view someone else as inferior, as the rich man does, we also ignore God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them, like the rich man, we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

When we refuse to help out someone who is hurting in our midst and get to know his or her story, we end up crafting our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

We become more destructive and less creative; more hateful and spiteful and less loving and merciful. And we end up forming a deathly and expansive chasm between God, humanity and ourselves.

Therefore it is vital to our existence as human beings that we live and thrive together in the mutuality of God’s wondrous and transformative love.

It’s crucial to our well being that we become aware of our connectedness and that we do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

The wise retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system known as apartheid in South African more than 20 years ago, reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

 You can’t be human all by yourself. And when you have this quality—ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.

 What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it. Maybe not right away and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way. Stand up for what is right and show compassion to the Lazarus’s of the world who are being mistreated and pushed to the margins of society. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better. It’s a lesson the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning crew “The Bert Show” learned several months ago when Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal.

While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

And then she remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “PROFOUND impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” Davi knew right away that she needed to find this woman and thank her on the radio show. And so she wrote the following letter which Jillian Zinn will read for you now:

 Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

 It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

 I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

 I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

 When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

 “As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

 Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

 We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

 Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

 just to name a few.

 So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

 “I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

 One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

 “beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

 You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

 After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

 I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

 This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

 We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

 And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

 I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

 Kindest Regards,

 Davi

Kelly received the letter and responded a couple of days later with the following message to Davi, which will be read by Kristen Ching (8:30 am worship)/Amy Lewis (11:00 am worship):

Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.

 Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

 a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

 Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

 And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

 How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involved in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

 (And by the way she says both of your pictures on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

What an injustice!

I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

 You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

Thank you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly  

 Our stories affect one another for the better in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone and ignore others.

We are meant to live together and love one another.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to build those connections, recognize how we are intertwined and strengthen our relationships with another human being—

the suffering and downtrodden as well as those we disagree with or those we consider enemy.

We are called as the church to be the hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart of Jesus who helps bind people to one another…every ligament knit together for the purpose of building up love!

We are called as the church to be the body of Christ—

a community of faith that reaches out to others, regardless of who they are, and says:

Welcome. Join us. Be loved. I am because you are.

Let us always take the time to be and become and grow the body of Christ.

Let us always make the effort to see and cultivate the connections and stories that are all around us.

And as we go into the week, let us never take the connections in our lives or the chance to be a part of someone’s story and life for granted…

 And the body of Christ said:

 Amen!

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 4 – God’s Story Is Still Being Written

Thursday July 30, Keynote 4 – “God’s Story Is Still Being Written”


God is with us no matter where the story takes us!

Scripture

Jeremiah 29:11Jeremiah’s Prophecy to the Exiles” (God does not abandon us. )

John 20: 19-23 “Jesus Appears in the Upper Room” (God often enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways.)

Some of the Jeremiah Project Youth and Omayra Gonzalez (conference theme assistant) come out on stage. They do an interpretative dance to the song “Brother” by NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw. Music fades about 2 and a half minutes in. The Jeremiah Project Youth freeze in position on stage and Omayra steps forward to share her story:

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Omayra:

When I was 2-years-old, my father died, and my mother and siblings moved from a big house to a smaller one. 

A few years later, at the age of 5, my big sister got really sick.

Since we lived in a small town that was literally in the middle of literally nowhere and no access to medical services, our family moved three hours away to the capital of San Juan so my sister could be seen by a specialist and receive care in a large hospital.

For some of you, three hours is nothing. But for our family it was far and difficult without a reliable car or public transportation.

Over the course of the next few years, my older brother Omar and I moved from one house to another while my mother and sister stayed in the hospital.

My brother and I were exiled from our own rooms to live in my grandparents’ house to live with my aunts or uncles homes. We never had one permanent place to call home.

It was strange not having what other kids have: a complete family and a home. It felt lonely, but we were not alone. You see, when my father died, the first person to visit my home was a Presbyterian pastor. And the pastor’s visit inspired us to regularly attend church.

You remember when Andy talked on Monday about people in the church who make promises in baptism to care of others? Well, the pastor and congregation comforted us as we grieved my father’s death. And after my sister got sick, church members, young and old, would visit us, help us with our schoolwork and even provide us with food.

You might be thinking: “That’s the church’s job to take care of people who are grieving and hurting.” But it wasn’t just a job to them. They weren’t helping because they had to help. They were helping because they truly loved and cared for our well-being.

Some of them were youth just like you. The could’ve ignored us or viewed us as those “poor kids with a sick sister and a dead dad.” But they didn’t. The treated us like we were part of their family…because we were family.

Song begins again at 2:38. Jeremiah Project return to the center of the stage, clapping and singing together with Omayra:

 Brother let me be your shelter
Never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call when you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
when the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home

……………………………..

 There are times in our lives—moments in our stories–where we are abandoned, rejected, isolated or exiled by others.

Maybe it was a time when your family was forced to move into an apartment and wear thrift-store clothes because of cutbacks at your parent’s place of work.

Or maybe it was that time when the minister of your church preached that homosexuals were going to hell and your stomach twisted up in knots knowing that your family would have to leave because you were gay.

Or maybe it was that time when the school jock intentionally, who thinks your nerdy and weak, dumped a tray of food on you, prompting everyone in the cafeteria to howl with laughter.

Or maybe it was that time when you walked into a store and several white clerks looked at you suspiciously and asked you repeatedly if you were in the right place simply because you were black.

Experiencing exile is a difficult and disorienting time because you suddenly discover that you don’t fit in anywhere.

You are not welcome.

You are not worthy.

You are not like everyone else.

And in those moments, it seems as if there is no chance of being treated like the unique and beloved creation that you are…no way of returning “home” to a place where you are unconditionally loved and accepted.

It seems as if the despair of exile will last forever and forever and forever…

The ancient Israelites knew first-hand of what it meant to be exiled.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, destroying the temple and burning the city.

And soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzer orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon. The first deportation included the Jewish prophets like Jeremiah.

Babylonian Exile 1

It is Jeremiah whom God calls to be a messenger to the Jewish people who are suffering at the hands of the oppressive Babylonians. And Jeremiah speaks an encouraging message from God:

Babylonian Exile 2

Babylonian Exile 3

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

When all seemed hopeless,

when exile and despair appear to mark the end of the journey,

God tells the people that the story isn’t over…

There is more to be written. There is a future with hope.

The troubadour Manola learns this lesson in the animated film The Book of Life. Manola, tricked by Xiballba the god of Death and facing exile to “The Land of the Forgotten,” begins the long and arduous journey to return “The Land of Living” (via the Cave of Souls)…

 “You are not living the life that was written for you,” the Candlemaker tells Manola, “You are writing your own story!” (Kapoosh!)

 And you are writing that story with others. The connections we have and the connections we make lend to the shaping and continuing of our stories.

We are not alone. There are other people who are with us  in our ongoing stories of exile and despair—people from our present and our past, including those who are no longer living.

As the writer of the Letter of Hebrews tells early Jewish Christians living under Roman occupation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

The hope that exists in exile is that our story continues because of the people who walk alongside us and the people whom we carry in our hearts push us onward.

 Our culture often teaches through story that in order to survive, the main character must persevere single-handedly and emerge as the sole victor or hero.

But that’s a false notion. We are not alone when we experience exile and despair.

We are not alone because there are others who are by our side and within our hearts.

We are not alone because God is with us. And God never abandons us.

Yesterday I shared with you the story of the Selma Marches and Bloody Sunday. As you might remember from the film Selma and your history books, Dr. King and his fellow Civil Rights activists were no strangers to exile.

The unjust laws of Jim Crow and segregation that permeated the South pushed blacks to the furthest edges of town into remote rural areas.

And blacks that lived in town were exiled to their homes where they would lock their doors out of fear of lynch mobs and the Klan. Civil Rights activists—deemed thugs, animals and agitators by white authorities—were exiled to dark jail cells for non violently protesting and standing up for their dignity and rights.

Being carted off to jail in chains like an animal was an dehumanizing experience that took its toll on those activists, including King himself:

Feeling great exhaustion, doubt and despair about their fight for equality, Martin Luther King Jr considered giving up and disbanding the movement. King wondered if maybe the story of the struggle for black freedom was written, was over.

But then God reminds King through his good friend, the Rev. Ralph Albernathy, that there is hope.

God has not abandoned King or the activists or the black race.God is with them and God tells King not to worry, not to fear because like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the Lord will take care of them. 

The Lord will deliver a suffering, oppressed people from exile just as God eventually did for the Israelites and later for the first Jewish Christians.

The Lord God, King realized, will deliver the people from the violent system of segregation and racism. And King also learned soon after that fighting non-violently for a future of equality could result in great injury and death from those who don’t follow God’s plan to do no harm.

During a peaceful protest, a young black activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson is chased into a local diner and killed in cold blood by the police. 

Upon hearing the news, King goes to the morgue to meet with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather:

God, King tells Jimmy’s grandfather, was the first to cry.

Even in the exile of grief over a life that was cruelly and unjustly taken from the world, God is with Jimmy Lee’s grandfather and King and all those who know they can be killed because of the color of their skin.

Even as violence and death surrounded King and black citizens in Selma, the South and the entire nation, every minute of every day,

God was with them and God was saying:

“I have a plan for you, a future with hope.”

God enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways, even when we are fearful, worried and grief stricken as those twelve disciples were following the death of their teacher centuries ago…

 The Jeremiah Project Youth re-enact a modern version of John 20:19-23 “Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room post crucifixion” Jesus suddenly appears or photo bombs a group selfie taken on an iPhone. 

20465036491_044fd375b0_z

 The disciples are in exile.

They are frightened and they are hiding inside a house with locked doors, likely huddled up together in the dark.

Any moment, the religious priests and Roman authorities could find them, charge them with treason and kill them like Jesus.

But then suddenly, when all seemed lost and hopeless, the risen Christ appeared before them and said: Peace be with you. …Receive the Holy Spirit.

 And they did. They received God’s peace and God’s breath of grace.

And they lived out that peace and grace with every fiber of their being.

Their story wasn’t over.

They clung to Jesus’ promise for their lives, God’s plan for a future with hope.

They, with the help of God and one another, continued to write their story.

 King and many black people, during that turbulent time of the 1960s, clung mightily to God’s promise that they would receive a “future with hope.” And they faithfully held tightly to Jesus’ promise of peace and grace.

They knew their story wasn’t finished. And with God, one another and many more standing alongside them, they continued to write their story.

Fifty years later, African-Americans still believe fervently in those promises of God.

Now, that might sound peculiar to many of who us who are white. 

Have we not moved past segregation, racist laws, lynchings and the burning of black churches?

 Have we not become post racial and started living into a hope-filled future?

 Haven’t we as a society done enough to bring about equality?

Sadly, no.

Certainly, many strides have been made. Institutional, legalized segregation is non-existent, and color barriers have been broken in every aspect of life.

Things are definitely not the same as they were half a century ago.

But that doesn’t make us post-racial.

We are, in fact, deeply entrenched in matters of racial injustice. The stories have constantly flooded our TV screens and social media feeds for more than two years.

Stories that we must not forget or turn a blind eye toward:

Race 1

–The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice (and) Walter Scott, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner

Race 2

–The shooting death of Michael Brown & the protests in Ferguson

— The death of Freddie Gray in police custody & the protests in Baltimore

Race 3

 —The racially charged Charleston shooting which left Rev. Clementa Pinckney and 8 church members of Emmanuel AME Church dead. 

WCPO_Sam_DuBose_1438198094464_22090998_ver1-1.0_640_480

–The July 19 shooting death of Samuel DuBose.

Race 5

–Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president, who pretended to be a black woman for much of her life.

Race 6

–The fiery debates about the Confederate flag that led activist Bree Newsome to temporarily remove of the flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of Jesus” before it was immediately hoisted back up.

And if those stories aren’t troublesome enough, there are the daily realities of inequality. For instance:

–The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

–In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.

I don’t share these examples of racial injustice to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists or that all law enforcement officers are bad folks. (There are many dedicated men and women in blue who daily risk their lives to do what is right.)

But I mention them to raise consciousness (mostly among white society) that we still live in a system where African-Americans are mistreated because of the color of their skin.

I bring up the problem as a reminder to white Christians that we called by God to value and appreciate another person’s race because of the unconditional love of God that binds us as the body of Christ.

We can’t sing “Justice Flow Down” or dance to the energizer “Revolution” (by Kirk Franklin) with any integrity if we don’t actually believe in the words of those two songs; if we don’t actually believe in doing what the songs suggest—which is

standing alongside and hearing the stories of those who are hurting, those who are being oppressed, those who are being exiled.

standing alongside and hearing the stories of our black brothers and sisters who are suffering from the stings of racial prejudice every day.

White folks can’t turn away from the racial upheaval we see in numerous communities and say “It’s not my problem.”

Because, frankly, it is our problem.

When one of the members of Christ are hurting, the entire body of Christ hurts.

When an entire race of people is living in exile (right among us, no less!) we must walk alongside them and give encouragement as they continue to write their story—a story that is to be heard and received and respected.

And regardless of who is in exile,

regardless of who is hurting,

regardless of who is being oppressed,

we must all put our trust in a God who shows up in our midst

and who calls us to share a vision

of hope

of peace,

and grace.

 

Toward the end of the music video at approximately, 2:45, 17 people, Jeremiah Project Youth and Small Group Leaders, appear on stage and around the inside of Anderson, holding up signs with the following messages:

 “I Want A Better Day!!!” 

“When We All See Justice…” 

“We’ll All See Peace.” 

“I Am The Change” 

“Love One Another” 

“See God In the Other” 

“Listen to the Cries of the Hurting” 

“Be Compassionate” 

“Talk About Race” 

“Lift Up the Oppressed” 

“Welcome the Stranger”

CLK1DmNVEAEy4Vy.jpg-large

 

This afternoon in Small Groups you will be asked to take pictures while holding signs of God’s plan for you (“a future with hope”)—which may be very similar to the signs you are seeing now in this auditorium—and you’ll be posting those photos to Twitter & Instagram. ….

Your story is still being written.

What will it look like?

Go and find out

with God

with one another

with hope

with peace

Amen.

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 3 –Our Stories Are Intertwined

[Note: This is the third 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]

Wednesday July 29, Keynote 3- “Our Stories Are Intertwined”

Our stories—even the ones that are silenced—are intertwined

Scripture

Luke 16:19-31 – “Rich Man and Lazarus” (What happens to the “other” matters to us and God)

As we discussed yesterday, our stories, our life, and our world are messy.

Yet God meets us in our mess with love. God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

God loves us all. God doesn’t prefer one group to the other.

And God also calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

We’re not meant to disregard others and their stories and simply live unto ourselves.

We’re not meant duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes.

We’re not meant to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined is un-Godlike and inhuman.

ubuntu

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa more than 20 years ago, says ubuntu means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

This concept is reflected in the Bible, specifically Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

 

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections that remind us we are bound to God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. To disregard or even severe a connection is to go against God’s purpose for creation, God’s design for us to be in relationship.

This idea of Ubuntu, of connectedness, of intertwining is counter cultural in our world. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

And yet God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to our faith and a common thread throughout the Bible. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s take a look now at the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Because it is written in the language and colloquialisms of the time, the passage must be read in a Southern accent and I’ve invited a youth, Catherine Jones, to read with me.)

Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores.

 It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

 Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

 The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

 But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

 He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The wealthy man was familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Yet he still chose not to recognize someone suffering outside the gates of his home.

And that was the man’s sin—not that he had all the finest things one could dream of, but that he did not see Lazarus.

 Even when the man “sees” Lazarus later in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

We can’t ignore the connections with other people: people whom we know, people whom we pass by, and people whom we only know in the history books or in a news story.

 Ignoring the connections ignores God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them (like the rich man in Jesus’ parable) we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

We create our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

This was very much the case in the turbulent year of 1965 when, despite constitutional law, black people in the South were denied the right to vote by local governments as is depicted in the award-winning film Selma:

Cruel, unjust incidents like these prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists to come to Selma to champion for black residents’ legal right to vote.

King decided that the best way to push for federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in voting would be to conduct a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery.

The first march took place on a rainy March 7, 1965 (50 years ago), however the Civil Rights activists barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

la-na-spider-martin-photographer-selma-bloody-sunday-20150308

State troopers and a group of angry white citizens armed with billy clubs, tear gas and whips immediately confronted the peaceful marchers.

The marchers included a young John Lewis (now a long-time U.S. Congressman for Georgia who spoke on this stage for the 2010 Montreat College Conference). In the photo, Lewis is the man in the long trench coat.

The head of the state troopers gave an order for the marchers to disperse to their homes. The marchers kneeled on the ground to pray and that’s when the troopers and the mob began attacking them in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday 2

Law enforcement fractured Lewis’ skull before he and the other marchers were able to flee back across the bridge to safety at a chapel.

The events of Bloody Sunday spurred hundreds of more people (white and black) from all over the country to come to Selma to march. They believed they needed to stand with their black brothers and sisters who were being denied their right to vote and to be treated with dignity—brothers and sisters who were being mocked, beaten and killed.

All those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans believed as many do today that our stories are intertwined as the body of Christ, and that all parts are needed to help seek justice for and show compassion to the oppressed.

Five months after the marches in Selma, on August 21, 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Christian Action Conference of the Presbyterian Church held here in Anderson Auditorium. During his speech, King told the conferees:

MLK Quote at Montreat 
It’s vital to our existence as human beings that we live together in the mutuality of God’s love.

It’s crucial to our existence that we become aware of our connectedness and do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

And that often means becoming more in tune to the ways in which we are disconnected.

For all the amazing ways it can link us, social media can also break our connections.

They  can quickly become petri dishes for cruel and abusive comments about another’s race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status. And it even occurs while we are sitting here in this auditorium or hanging out at the Huck. Even in this sacred thin place, there are some who try to tear down someone else and make him or her feel worthless.

Mockery and ridicule is not limited to social media, of course. There are some who will make disparaging comments to a person’s face.

During Week I of the Youth Conference, the Pleasant Hill and Trinity Pres of Atlanta youth groups invited the youth from two immigrant congregations in the Atlanta area—newcomers to Montreat—to join us for an ice cream and game party in the parking lot of the Winnsborough one evening. One of the immigrant congregations was made up of people from various Latin American countries.

As some of the Latin American guys were walking past Lake Susan on the way to the Winnsborough they passed by a group of young white males who immediately hurled racist comments at them.

The Latin American guys didn’t respond to the insults and they kept on walking.

But upon their arrival to the ice cream party, it was clear that they were deeply hurt and saddened by the sudden encounter with racism.

And no matter how many youth and adults—including their own back home leader and pastor—offered them encouragement, love and support, the boys refused to go past the bottom steps that lead to the parking lot and join the party.

They were too hurt, and angry and filled with fear.

Their connection to other human beings was severely damaged in that moment. They were made to feel as if their lives and stories didn’t matter.

The wise Desmond Tutu reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it.

Maybe not right away, and sometimes when you least expect it.  But trust me, it makes an impact.

 

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way.

Stand up for what is right and show compassion to those who are suffering. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better as the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning show “The Bert Show” learned a few months ago.

Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal. While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

Davi remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “(huge) impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” She then knew that she needed to find this woman and thank her.

After some searching, Davi found Kelly’s contact info and she wrote her a letter that was read on air and which Omayra (our conference theme assistant) will read to you now:

Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

“As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

just to name a few.

So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

“I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

“beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

Kindest Regards,

Davi

Kelly received the letter and a few days later responded with the following message to Davi which Marci (our conference preacher) will read now:

 Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt. 

Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involve in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

 You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

(And by the way she says both of your picture on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

 What an injustice!

 I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

 Thanks you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly

………………………

Our stories affect one another in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone; We are meant to live together.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to recognize those connections and to strengthen them.

Let’s continue to discover those connections throughout the conference experience this week. Those connections and stories are all around; you just have to be willing to see and cultivate them. We’ll even help you seize a special opportunity today to make and recognize your connectedness with another by setting up a rec station on Anderson Lawn called “Take A Seat, Make A Friend” Ball Pit

We invite two random people to come by, stand or sit in the ball pit, pick up a ball and ask questions one of another for a few minutes. We’re not asking you to become best friends or agree on everything. But we want to encourage you to take a risk by reaching out to someone else and seeing them with God’s eyes.

You will be amazed (maybe not right away or weeks or months from now), by the affect your actions have on the other person…and the world!

As you embark for the rest of your day, don’t take the connections in your life or the chance to be a part of someone’s story for granted…

More than 25 High School Youth members of the Jeremiah Project performed a “Pay It Forward” skit set to the music of Greg Holden’s “Hold On Tight.”

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During Week Five, due to not having enough Jeremiah Project members, we showed the music video to “Hold On Tight” instead. 

And the body of Christ said Amen!

 

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 2–Our Stories Are Messy

[Note: This is the second 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]

Tuesday July 28, Keynote 2 – “Our Stories Are Messy”

We can be assured that God enters into our lives and meets us where we are–even when our stories can get messy sometimes.

Scripture:

Genesis 25: 19-34 and Genesis 32:22-32 “The Saga of Jacob” (God works through the messiest of family systems. And in our struggles, we see God face to face.)

Within certain Christian circles, it’s often said: “The current generations are corrupt and messed up; our country and world is doomed! And the only way to fix it all is to get back to the good ole family values in the Bible!”

That viewpoint always makes me wonder if those particular Christians have actually read the Bible that closely—have they delved deeper into the context of the scriptures they present as examples of perfect families, relationships and living?

Because when you step into the stories of an ancient people in an ancient time and begin walking around, you soon find yourself ankle deep in the muck of their lives.

There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole crap within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison! Take the story of Jacob and Esau for example… (as told from The Brick Testament here and here.)

 The Bible is not a collection of tales about perfect people always getting things right. Nor is it a guidebook that offer step-by-step instructions on how live a flawless life. And it’s certainly not a rule book that if followed perfectly will guarantee you a first class ticket on Heaven Airlines.

 The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

And we explore this scrappy book again and again, but not because the stories give us examples of how to live a perfect existence, but for the exact opposite reason.

 We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people to be reminded that—regardless of how messy our life gets and how broken our world becomes—God is with us in the muck just as God has been with human beings throughout time.

We return to the Biblical stories to be reminded that—no matter how much we muddle things up—God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally.

The Bible is messy because life is messy and thus, our stories are messy.

And yet despite it all…

God keeps calling us to show love and mercy to the most messed up among us.

God keeps calling us imperfect people to heal a broken and chaotic world.

God keeps calling us to work with and through the imperfections instead of asking us to be perfect all the time.

While I had a mostly stable and grounded childhood, a loving family and church home, it wasn’t without its messes. I morphed from being a cute baby with chubby cheeks to becoming a dorky kid to a an awkward, skinny, zit-faced, nerdy, big-eared teen.

Childhood Andy 1

Childhood Andy 2

Childhood Andy 4

Childhood Andy 5

I wore large thick rimmed glasses for a few years, had a nice cow-lick in the back of my head and wore my pants near my armpits. I loved sports but I was uncoordinated and not very good at playing them.

I also was too naïve and nice for my own good, which meant I often didn’t get the locker room jokes & classroom sarcasm, and I was occasionally picked on my classmates.

The teasing left me feeling grossly inadequate and unsure of myself.

Home was a refuge from all of this but only part of the time.

My father was prone to losing his temper and yelling at me, my younger brother and mom over the tiniest of things. He would get mad about my lack of coordination and not doing my chores exactly right—accusing of me of not listening, being lazy and purposely trying to undermine him.

And if he wasn’t raging, then he was critical of me about the movies I liked, the music I listened to or the pictures of cartoon characters that I would draw. I continued to try my best to please him and stay out of trouble but usually without much success.

One evening (when I was 16-years old and in the 10th grade) I decided that I was tired of the mess. And I began wondering if it would be better for me to not exist at all.

Just to see what it might look like if I were to end it all, I took off my belt, wrapped it around my neck and looked into the mirror.

It scared the crap out of me!

 And I instantly flung the belt on the other side of the room, shuddering at the image of God that I saw staring back at me.

I was so shocked to think I could destroy what God created.

But even though I decided my life was worth living, I still chose to become a master at bottling all of my feelings, all of the mess—the insecurities and fears—down inside.

Over time, I became more anxious, more depressed and less self-confident about my gifts and capabilities.

I relied on a lot of affirmation, assurance, guidance and attention from others to get from one day to the next.

Although there were friends, mentors and pastors who helped me discard a bit of the mess away at a time, it wasn’t until I was 25 and met Elizabeth in seminary that I began to eliminate a lot of the mess I had collected over the years.

Elizabeth, who was experienced with counseling and depression, encouraged and loved me into getting help from both a counselor and psychiatrist.

I’ve been seeing professional therapists and taking medicine for depression and anxiety for a decade now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The therapy and medicine is not a cure-all, of course: I still have to make a conscious effort through prayer and meditation to step back, take deep breaths and decide not to let the messiness of life—the inner voices which tell me I’m unworthy or inadequate—consume me.

I continually carve away or eliminate the mess to become whom God calls me to be in this life.

In his film and book Drops Like Stars, (author and pastor) Rob Bell says:

Rob Bell Quote

Jacob causes quite a mess when he steals Esau’s birthright and then manipulates his father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.

Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

It took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get Jacob unstuck.

The struggle  made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

It’s always the messy struggles of life that leaves us with a scar or a limp and shapes us forever:

But from the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like 23-year-old Dezzie who ran away from an abusive situation at home to live on the streets of L.A…

Although Dezzie has suffered and is homeless (as the result of choices she and others made), she still aspires to greatness: to be a musician and to make better choices in her life.

Dezzie even gives money to others whom are in worse shape than her.

Dezzie’s mess has affected her, and she has chosen to

become better instead of bitter, open instead of closed and more aware than ignorant.

She has become tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every singe day.

Dezzie has wrestled with God, and she has seen God face to face.

God knows the messy parts of Dezzie’s story, and God meets her in the mess.

From the mess (whether it’s created by human choice or something beyond our control), we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like the three Jeremiah Project youth (Nicole, Virginia and Jeff) who will share their messy stories with you now…(Listen to the Soundtrack Audio above to hear their courageous stories)

………………….

Thank you Nicole, Virginia and Jeff for sharing your messy stories…

God knows the messy parts of our stories, and God meets us in the mess.

There’s a great line in one of the most beautiful messiest books written in the last five years called The Fault In Our Stars about three teenagers who are struggling with their cancer diagnosis. And the line is:

“Pain demands to be felt.”

Pain demands to be felt.

Pain demands to be expressed.

Pain demands to be wrestled with in the long dark night of the soul…

In healthy, constructive ways.

Cutting, drinking, doing drugs, etc., may seem like a great idea at the time, but self-harm only masks the pain and keep the feelings inside.

They don’t bring healing or wholeness. They only make things messier.

A healthier way to express pain is by

breaking some plastic sports trophies,

making art out of junk

exercising,

going to the Spirituality Center at Montreat, or

turning up the music really loud and dancing like a wild person!

But honestly, the absolute best way to deal with your mess is to tell someone about what you are going through—someone you trust and who loves you unconditionally, i.e. a friend, a parent, a teacher, a youth leader, or a pastor.

Don’t keep the mess bottled up.

Don’t try to deal with it on your own.

Share it with someone. Get it out.

And for those of us who aren’t dealing with a mess in a particular moment, it’s our calling and responsibility to tell those who are in pain and in the muck that

they are worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace.

It’s up to each of us to say to the mistreated and outcasts: “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of chaos—whether it’s our own doing or another’s or something we can’t control—the mess can never completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved, unique children of God.

We are beloved creations who have a unique story to tell, including all the messy parts.

But the messiness is never where the story ends.

There are still surprise twists to come and one of them is that

God will show, will clean us off and make us whole…

Co-music leader Jerry Chapman plays “You Are More” by 10th Avenue North while the three Jeremiah Project youth from earlier, Nicole, Virginia and Jeff paint on a white canvas and then peel back a middle portion to reveal a message for the conferees:

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2015 Montreat Youth Conference, “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 1–Our Stories Are Unique

[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.

Scripture:

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

AAstory 1

He has a wife Elizabeth & two kids: Katie & Davis

AAstory 2

They live in Atlanta, Georgia where Andy serves as the associate pastor at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church for Youth and Mission & Outreach

AAstory 3

His dream vacation would be Montreat

Montreat-Conference-Center-The-Montreat-Gate

or Disney World

AAstory 5

His favorite story in the Bible is the Gospel of Mark

AAstory 6

One phrase that describes his day so far is “AWESOME-SAUCE”

AWESOMESAUCE2

He has met Jon Stewart of The Daily Show

AAstory 8

On Saturdays, he likes spending time with his family

AAstory 9

And when Andy orders pizza, he likes it with everything! (Storm troopers are optional)

AAstory 10

And now, I will tell Omayra’s story:

Omayra was born in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico

OmStory1

She is the youngest of three siblings

OMstory2

She now lives in San Juan, where she work as a journalist in the main media company of the Island

OMstory3

She loves to spend time in a Presbyterian Camp in her hometown of Guacio or any exciting place in South America

OMstory4

OMstory5

Her favorite story in the Bible is about Joseph

OMstory06

One phrase that describes her day so far is “Feliz como una lombriz!” (I’m happy as an earthworm!)

OMstory7She has met MLB players, an NBA player, and Ricky Martin, but for her the best day was when she met Señor Sapo

OMstory8

On Saturdays, she likes to spend time with her friends eating or going to baseball games

OMstory9

And…. about pizza… Omayra doesn’t like pizza; she’s more of a rice and beans girl

OMstory10…………

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

……………………………

11880489_10153500334402836_1232869668882661585_nAll stories are unique and uniquely told, and….

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.

MYC Andy 1

MYC Andy 2

MYC Andy 3

MYC Andy 4

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:

Lady walking on a bridge at the beach

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

            matter.

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

Amen.

This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 7:36-50

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry
Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

I don’t know if you are aware, but the Bible is full of poop.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Indeed it’s not. What I mean is that it’s literally full of it!

There are piles of scatological references in this sacred text, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that throughout history people have always had to figure out how to deal with their crap.

In the time of the Israelites, modern conveniences like trash bags, compost bins, and indoor plumbing didn’t exist, so folks followed specific guidelines for handling waste, whether animal or human:

But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)

With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

And much like the graphic violence that one finds in cable TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the Old Testament writers didn’t pull any punches when it came to stories about killing the crud out of oppressive rulers:

Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself[e] in the cool chamber.” (Judges 3:21-24)

God also doesn’t shy away from using manure to make a point. In the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to do the grossest thing possible as a symbolic way of showing the people of Israel that they would be eating unclean food in the pagan lands of their soon-to-be exile.

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. …You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.”

Even Jesus mentions human waste as he gives practical advice to his disciples about what will happen when they share the news of God’s kingdom:

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family….A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dung Face,’ what can the workers expect? (Matthew 10:21-25)

Likewise, the apostle Paul explains to the early Christian church in Corinth that those who follow Christ will be treated by the Roman Empire as if they were scat on the bottom of a sandal:

 When others choose taunts and slander against us, we speak words of encouragement and reconciliation. We’re treated as the scum of the earth—and I am not talking in the past tense; I mean today! We’re the scraps of society, nothing more than the foulest human rubbish. (I Corinthians 4:12-13)

Let’s be honest: The Bible is a mess.

And it isn’t solely because the word “dung” is mentioned more than 30 times in the NRSV. There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole messiness within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison!

The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

It is essentially one hot stinking glorious mess.

And that’s exactly what I love about the Bible!

It’s not a 12-step guidebook to success or a rulebook to be followed faultlessly, verse by verse so one can dwell in the clouds with golden wings and a harp. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s love for all of humanity throughout time, despite all its sins and crap.

Some Christians, like the TV evangelists, often say that the problem with this messed up world is that we’ve strayed away from the good ole values of the families in the Bible. We need to return to those stories, they say, so we can make the world and our lives more perfect.

But you and I know that’s bull honkey.

Yes, we need to go back to these stories again and again, but not because they give us examples of how to live an impeccable existence.

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014
Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people so that we can be reminded that no matter how messy life gets, God is there with us in the muck; and that no matter how much we mess up, God still loves us; God still calls us to show love to the most messed up among us.

What was true in the ancient world remains true in this post modern one: Life is messy and thus our stories are messy.

Sometimes the mess is of our own making as human beings.

We dump our waste on the earth, filling the land, skies and water with garbage and pollution. And we dump on one another—people we like, people we love, people we hate and people we don’t even know.

We have difficulty seeing God’s image in our fellow human beings. We have trouble showing dignity and respect to others who are different from us. We spew a lot of hateful things instead of speaking in love, and the garbage that comes out of us only makes the situation messier.

Then there are the messes we put ourselves in as the result of a bad choice we made…

—The traffic tickets we receive for constantly zipping through a red light.

—The tummy aches we get after eating a pint of ice cream and two bowls of tater tots for dinner.

—The moody demeanor and poor health we experience following months of late night partying with illegal drugs and bottles of alcohol.

—The cutting marks we make on our skin because it’s the only way to release the amount of pain we feel inside over things that we dare not tell another soul.

Isaac's Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images
Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

These messes threaten to consume us bit by bit by bit until our identity is completely lost, much like Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob caused quite a mess when he manipulated his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. And after fleeing home for fear that Esau will kill him, Jacob still manages to wade even deeper into trouble in an encounter with a man named Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

Other times the messes are beyond our control—the stuff that suddenly happens without any reason or explanation…

—The family dog that has an accident in the middle of the living room during a party.

—The child who flips out in the middle of a department store because the annoying pop song is blaring too loudly from the overhead speakers.

—The tree that falls onto your fence during a heavy rainstorm.

—the landscaping crew who kicks up a rock while mowing and breaks your car’s back windshield

—The boyfriend who breaks up with you and gives you the silent treatment.

—The grandparent who gets cancer.

—The sudden death of a friend.

These messes comprise a lot of daily life. And more often than not, we try to stick our chins out and wallow our way through the messes in the best way possible.

And finally there are the messes that the world and society has deemed to be a problem, but actually aren’t messes at all…

 —The working poor and homeless

—The LGBTQ person

—The African-American man wearing a hoodie

—The transgendered athlete

—The developmentally challenged child

—The woman with a black eye

—The young adult struggling with depression and anxiety

—The man with severe skin burns on their face

—The middle-aged adult battling their weight

Each of these folks is declared to be a mess by society, and they hear the message so much that they start to believe it themselves. They start to hear their inner voices say: “You’re a mess, you’re a worthless piece of trash!”

But it is up to us to tell those who are viewed as rubbish that they are indeed worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace. It’s up to us to say to the marginalized and downtrodden, “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of a mess; whether it’s our own doing or otherwise (and all of us have our own messes to deal with), that mess doesn’t completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved creations of God.

Therefore we should show great compassion to others who are dealing with their own mess, unlike the religious leaders who dismiss the sinful woman who comes inside the Pharisee’s home to greet Jesus.

While the details of her mess are not known, the woman is viewed as one who is unworthy of human contact. To Simon the Pharisee and his cohorts, the woman might as well be a pile of dung. Even if she has managed to distance herself from whatever mess she created, the woman can’t seem to escape the label of disgust that has been placed upon her.

And yet hope is not completely lost. Because it’s in the mess that we find God. Or better still, it is in the mess that God meets us face to face.

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012
Jacob Wrestling by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012. edwardknippers.com

In Jacob’s case, it took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get him unstuck. And the resulting limp in his walk slowed down this slick thief who’d been on the run for so many years. It made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

 

 

It’s always the messy struggles that leaves us with a scar and shapes us forever. As one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell, says in his 2010 book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts On Creativity and Suffering:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

From the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals. Often it’s a matter of laying the mess at the feet of Christ so that we can be changed.

Anointing of Jesus' feet, artist unknown, Google Images
Anointing of Jesus’ feet, artist unknown, Google Images

For the woman who has become a pariah in her own community, there is nothing else she can do but interrupt a dinner party to bring all of her pain and tears to Jesus and pour it into the washing of his feet—an incredible act of humility and servant hood.

Jesus responds to this act—in the midst of the Pharisees who want to make more of a mess out of the situation—by showing the woman compassion and mercy. And the woman, we assume, is changed for a lifetime by Jesus’ love.

When the mess is too much to bear—too much to lift an arm to wrestle with—the only thing we can do is humbly bring it to Christ so that we can be cleaned and made whole.

And just as Jesus awaited the woman at the table in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he awaits us at this communion table now—ready to forgive our messes, to promise us hope of a kingdom and a future without messes and to send us out in peace to clean up the messiness of the world.

And all God’s messy people say Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is a short version of the 45 minute keynote I will give during Week V of the Montreat Youth Conference, Day 2 “Our Stories Are Messy.”

The sermon was inspired by the 2014 book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by The Skeptical, The Faithful and A Few Scoundrels, edited by Cathleen Falsani

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, head-writer and executive producer of the primetime TV dramas phenoms Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which all air on ABC.