This week’s message is longer than usual, a message adapted from the address given to Montreat Patrons at last week’s reception.
I always have a glad and grateful heart when I attend the annual Patrons Reception to honor the donors and leaders who make Montreat’s mission and ministry possible, and when we gathered this past Saturday night, I think my heart set a new record for gladness and gratefulness.
As I told those assembled, “Thank God we are here, thank God we are together!” This gathering was an important opportunity to say thank you to the people who have made the Montreat Conference Center a priority in their lives and to celebrate the generosity that has played such an important role at the conference center over the past year – and friends, the year 2020-2021 was a year to remember!
At the outset last year, we committed to remaining open through the pandemic and to maintaining our campus and our readiness for the resumption of normal programming as soon as that day would come. At the time, we just weren’t sure how long the pandemic would last. All we knew when the year dawned was what we didn’t know. When I speak at Patrons, I usually open with a joke or two, or maybe some stories that at least I find humorous. However, this past year was no joke. This past year, our donors, volunteers, leaders, and prayerful supporters were the story.
The story began before last year, actually. I think of others who’ve come before us, including some we’ve known who are no longer here. For a while, the pandemic robbed us of the chance to gather together to celebrate the lives of so many who died since last we were together – again, too many names to mention in this space. And when our donors gave, they often gave in gratitude for these saints. Giving to support “The Montreat We Once Were” can be a very good thing.
Then there’s the financial story of last year. That started long ago as well, at least fifteen or twenty years or so. That’s about the time leaders here began giving us straight talk about what kind of shape the conference center was in. That’s about the time the conference center faced what more than one person has described to me as a functional bankruptcy. That’s about the time a whole bunch of folks stepped up – again, too many to single out by name, though many of them continue to be deeply involved in the life of the conference center.
Shortly thereafter, people started giving in greater numbers. Personally, that’s when the light went on for me – what Montreat had done for me, how this place had nurtured me, had centered my life in early adulthood, and had remained an anchor, a constant as our family grew. That’s how I thought about Montreat in those days – a constant, something I could always count on. I wanted my children to have what I’ve had. Perhaps you started giving around then, or in the years that followed. We began, all of us, to assemble the foundation of support that would be needed last year. That story continued through the Building on the Tradition campaign and the Inn renovation. All of that was part of the story that prepared us for last year.
And then, during the pandemic itself, so many of you reached out to us to see how we were doing. Your prayers, your questions, and your support were essential for us, and continue to be. It was a rich experience to open the cards, letters, and emails. It was a rich experience to write the thank you notes, illegible though they may have been. One of the sweetest, most affirming moments came in early July. There was no parade but our Presidents Council had organized a little trip around town, to give out popsicles and spread a little joy. Of course the heavens opened up with pouring rain. But out by the side of the road, with her umbrella, was Jane Holt, Patron since 1962, the first year. As we drove by she leaned forward and said, “I think you all have done about everything you could possibly do!” I was so grateful for her words.
Thank God we are here, thank God we are together. Montreat is such a special place, one certainly worth preserving. What other place strikes us so personally, so directly, and can so easily remind us of the miracle of our own existence? What other place can so joyously remind us that we are a blessed people of God? What place more aptly reminds us just how beautiful God’s creation is, surroundings that call to mind John O’Donohue’s observation that “the landscape was the firstborn of creation”?
I know you love Montreat and understand these blessings, and yet the blessings that have come before us and the Montreat that we enjoy today are not enough to justify Montreat being such an object of generosity and gratitude. After all, there are other places where God’s voice can be heard. There are other beautiful places with beautiful scenery. There are other places that are deeply meaningful to family and friends. If our gifts recognize only the gratitude we feel for what Montreat does for us, then our motivations are, at least to some degree, missing the mark.
And so I remind you that Montreat has a higher calling. We can thank God for what has come before and for the gifts this community provides us, but we must remember that the blessings of Montreat are realized to the fullest only as long as we continue to direct them in the service of reaching out, of welcoming others, as God calls us to do. The blessings of Montreat flourish only as each generation continues to embrace its role as emissaries of God’s hospitality, God’s generosity, God’s love.
Friends, whether you are PC(USA), or a Presbyterian cousin, or Christian, or religious, or non-religious, I hope that you support Montreat with an optimistic faith for what Montreat is for others beyond your own knowledge and experience. Thanks to all of you, the conference center adapts and evolves with changes in the church. Thanks to all of you, Youth Conferences are once again gathering young people beyond local congregations. Thanks to all of you, our programs for adults are returning. Congregations are booking retreats again. Thanks to all of you, Montreat is back!
Earlier this summer, I came to the daily worship service of a Youth Conference and watched the preacher hold a crowd of teenagers spellbound while he proclaimed that Christ had claimed them without hesitation, that Christ loved them without reserve, and that in fullest understanding of that knowledge, they are called to go out into the world and do likewise. Yes, Montreat is back, because witness like this is alive and moving from the valley out into the world.
I hope that you continue to support Montreat out of a belief for what Montreat can still become, that we are not only about the past and the present but about the future. Let’s claim what’s truly valuable about our past (and let’s be honest about our past, too, by the way). Let’s claim what’s valuable, and what’s worth holding onto, about our past and present, and then cast those values into the future in new and relevant ways.
What we’ve done here, what we do here, we can always do better. We are called to serve better, to invite better, to reach out better, to build on our ability to extend God’s embrace through our ministry to others. This is the purpose that brought us here, that endures still today, a purpose that grows as generosity flows. This is the purpose that will help Montreat flourish for another 100 years, and more.
In this last year, by your cards and letters, and calls and gifts, and your long-distance embrace, I know that you have been mindful of this. When you supported Montreat in these ways, you were doing more than saving the conference center, more than saving Montreat. You were strengthening us, and empowering us all so that the best of what we can be is still ahead of us.
From the bottom of my heart, on behalf of everyone who works here or volunteers at the conference center, thanks to all of you for your support in whatever form it may have taken. We’ve come a long way together, and together we carry on, in gratitude but also with eyes fixed firmly on the future. Into that future we will carry an even deeper appreciation for the journey we are on, not only its joys and blessings but its sorrows and sacrifices.
Thank God we are here, thank God we are together.
Montreat Conference Center