By JOHN I. CARNEY
I think I had been asked a couple different times to be a chaperone for Shelbyville First UMC’s Warmth In Winter prior to 2016, but I’d always had some sort of schedule conflict.
In 2016, I was asked again – and this time, I said “yes.”
It wasn’t until after I’d agreed to go that I found out my nephew T.J. Carney, who attends Bell Buckle UMC, was part of the design team of youth and adults who work so hard to put on the conference. Each year, I take pride in seeing him participate on stage and knowing that he’s been working hard behind the scenes. This year, he played a key part in the communion liturgy and gave the benediction at Sunday’s closing session. His younger brother, James, also attended, as a youth with Bell Buckle UMC.
The first time I agreed to chaperone, I got the requisite teasing from some of my fellow church members about spending the weekend chasing teenagers around, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. Our youth group from Shelbyville First UMC, like many others I’ve observed at Warmth In Winter over the past three years, is appreciative of the chance to enjoy the conference, and while they’re normal red-blooded teenagers they’ve been focused and well-behaved, which has allowed the adult chaperones to relax and enjoy the content alongside them, which is as it should be. And while that content is chosen to benefit the youth, it covers themes and topics that are relevant to Christians of any age.
Obviously, this is a peak experience for many of the youth – a time of big emotions. And that can be a good thing. We all need those moments of peak inspiration.
In his closing remarks on Sunday morning, keynote speaker Brock Morgan noted that we often respond to the end of such moments – the last day of a retreat or camp or conference – with a phrase about going “back to the real world.” Morgan objected to that phrase, and I was delighted – I wanted to leap up and yell “Amen!” I gave a devotion at a Mountain T.O.P. camp in 1993 saying almost exactly the same thing, and a teenager who was there that day told me years later that the devotion had stuck with him, and he’d used it himself as a youth leader. The closeness to God we feel in such peak moments is reality. As Morgan stated, it’s the distractions of the outside world that are the illusion. No, we can’t live our lives in the peak emotional state that we experience during a conference or retreat. But we need to look to those times for inspiration, as a standard for which we can strive when we realize we’re passing through a valley.
This year’s Warmth In Winter was, I think, the best of the three I’ve attended. It was held Feb. 9-11 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. Last year’s worship band was The City Harmonic, and lead singer Elias Dummer is now focusing on a solo career; he was back this year, with his new band, but still performing some City Harmonic favorites that our youth and adults remembered from last year.
As soon as the band started to play, the teens from Shelbyville First joined many of their peers in leaping out of their seats and running down front. Even though I stayed in my seat, like the crotchety 55-year-old I am, their joy was infectious.
During the morning on Saturday, there were breakout sessions, some targeted to middle school students, some targeted to high school students, some targeted to adults, and some open to everyone. I attended an excellent session by Kris Lott of Calvary UMC on identifying the signs of potential suicide.
By Sunday morning, as we shared in the Lord’s Supper, it felt, as it always does, like a community – a community of 2,600 youth and adults, although it seemed like something more intimate.
Sunday afternoon, we drove back to Shelbyville, stopping for hamburgers on the way in Murfreesboro. The next day, the teens would be back in school and the adults would be back at work. But hopefully we took something with us – bits of inspiration and information to nourish us in the weeks and months ahead.
Perhaps someday, our teenagers will look back at these moments the way I look back at a couple of my junior high camp experiences at Beersheba in the 1970s – pivotal moments that helped me to understand who God is, who I am, and how I can understand God better.
– John I. Carney is a certified lay speaker and lay leader at Shelbyville First United Methodist Church. He’s city editor of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette and author of the self-published novel “Soapstone,” a fictional story inspired by his mission trips to Kenya.