With clapping hands and stomping feet, whoops and hollers and swaying arms, a packed house of 1,300 Presbyterian teenagers kicked off week three of the annual Montreat Youth Conference here July 12.
The theme of the week is “World on Fire” — alluding to both the scourges of war, degradation and violence that plague the planet, but also the power of God working through countless people to restore God’s vision for creation.
And throughout this week, these young people are certain to be challenged — in keynote addresses, worship and small group interactions — to take the healing of God’s creation seriously and personally.
“Some of us love our worlds just as they are. Sometimes we want some parts of them to change a little bit,” said keynoter Adele Halliday of Toronto, who is program coordinator for cultural diversity and anti-racist educator with The United Church of Canada.
Transformation — world-altering change — is tougher.
Speaking from Exodus 3 and 4 — God’s call to Moses, Halliday said “our lives can go on in very ordinary ways until God enters unexpectedly, wakes us up and calls us to do something different.”
She told of a call she received from God to transform her academic interest in environmental issues into action in Belize.
“I didn’t even know where Belize was, but God called me,” she said. “Like Moses, I thought God should send someone else, but God still called.
“I had plans, but none of them involved Belize. One day I just got up and went, with all my doubts, fears and wonderings and went,” she said.
And it was in that willingness to follow God’s call that she discovered both herself and Christian community in action.
“I didn’t have the whole picture, but others also had pieces of the picture, and together we created something lasting,” she said.
Sometimes transformation seems like just too big a task, Halliday said. And for stressed-out teenagers, the greatest desire sometimes is to simply escape, added the week’s preacher, the Rev. Tim Beach-Verhey, co-pastor with his wife, Kathy, of Faison (NC) Presbyterian Church.
“There are many ways to escape — movies, music, drugs, alcohol — some healthy, some unhealthy,” he said. “What it is, we’re all longing for something more, something better than ordinary life.
“But usually, we just settle for letting off a little steam and then return to ordinary life,” Beach-Verhey said.
Forsaking the ordinary for something transformative “is scary and even dangerous because the world is on fire,” he continued, against a backdrop of placards reading “war,” “disease,” “hunger,” “violence,” “sexism,” “hatred,” “greed” and “pollution.”
“But the fire of God’s unquenchable love is there, too, just as God was in the burning bush encountered by Moses. Transformation will require your life, but it will also give you life,” Beach-Verhey said.
“God’s spirit calls us to transformation, to set the world on fire … and God promises that God will be with us whenever and wherever the call comes.”
Montreat Youth Conference — week three continues through July 17.