All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.
But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.
It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”
That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.
That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.
The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.
We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.
Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.
That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.
In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.
My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.
So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.
But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.
Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:
He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.
The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:
I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.
After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:
I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.
I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.
Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.
The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:
The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.
By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.