I spent the last two weeks keynoting Montreat Youth Conferences with my colleague and friend James Goodlet. While we did not meet until seminary, James and I grew up attending youth conferences with our home churches. We are products of Montreat. It’s in our blood. It’s part of our souls and our faith, and relationships formed there have greatly impacted us personally and professionally. Thus it was simultaneously humbling and terrifying when the conference directors extended the invitation to keynote. I am forever grateful for James saying, “yes,” when I invited him to join me in the adventure, though I’m not sure either of us fully understood what “yes” entailed.
When I was first asked to keynote, the theme, This Is Our Story, hadn’t been chosen. Yet, it was the perfect theme for my first large denominational event as leadership since my mom’s death and going through the very public death of my marriage. I’ve been wrestling with who I am without my mom and who I am apart from my former spouse over the past two years. I have a journal full of what parts of my story I want to keep and what parts I’d rather trash and burn. I have reminded myself daily that there are chapters that can be edited and rewritten. I’ve been surprised with the new characters current chapters hold, and grieved the characters who didn’t stick around through the plot twists. When This Is Our Story became the theme, I was haunted, scared, and amazed at the ways it sank into my bones with such relevance.
As James and I let the Scripture texts and daily themes marinate during the months leading up to the conference, we kept returning to the narratives that shaped and continue to shape our lives. We wanted to be authentic with the young people entrusted to our care-authentic about joy, grief, pain, exile, and all things sacredly messy and imperfectly beautiful about life. We wanted to tell them God can handle their anger and doubt because that’s part of being faithful. We wanted to encourage them to lament during times their stories are painful. We wanted to tell them where we find tangible hope. Above all, we wanted to say over and over and over again that even when it feels like it, we are never alone and nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever separate us from God’s love.
We were as vulnerable and genuine as we could be, and we witnessed our keynotes take on their own language as young people shared their testimonies with their peers from stage. Each week, teens shared where their lives are messy, when they felt in exile, and when they were surprised by hope in front of over one thousand teenage friends and strangers. Their boldness gave us hope. Their candidness gave us courage. Their pain broke our hearts because we want so much better for all of God’s children. Their stories encouraged their peers to share stories in small groups and with their back home groups-some shared deeply suppressed or painful chapters of their stories for the very first time. We are humbled and proud to have witnessed young people articulating their stories and enabling each other to do the same. (We are also pleased to have put a positive spin on the dreaded “testimony” word, in hopes of bringing it back to Presbyterian land.)
Our time together as colleagues was an incredible, exhausting gift. James and I know each other’s stories quite well from over a decade of friendship, and some of the highest praise came when youth remarked about our relationship as siblings, because that’s how they perceived us. We have been chosen family for years, and I love that youth asked us how to nurture adult friendships after witnessing ours. Our relationship embodies that our stories not only matter, but need to be told and held by those we trust most. Per the youth, our relationship reminded them that our stories cannot be edited or shared in isolation, and that youth conference type relationships truly can carry on into the brave land of adulting. For that, we are beyond humbled and thankful.
My hope for all of us is that we never grow tired of sharing our stories of redemption, reconciliation, and grace to a world so desperate for tangible hope and palpable peace. May we never miss an opportunity to accompany someone through the wasteland, and may we never fear our stories are too messy to be told. For on the waves and shorelines of baptismal promises, and amid the salty tears of exile and wilderness, God is faithful still.
*Photo Credit: Mike Erdelyi