BREAKING NEWS: Old fat man tries to keep up with 2,500 teenagers

This was my fourth year of attending Warmth In Winter as a chaperone. It’s a massive weekend youth event for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. My first WNW (the preferred, if slightly stylized, acronym/hashtag) was held in 2016 at the Embassy Suites conference center in Murfreesboro, but by that time the event had really outgrown the Embassy Suites and moved in 2017 to perhaps the only facility in Middle Tennessee capable of hosting it, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

The past two years, the First UMC Shelbyville group has stayed at the Opryland Hotel; this year, as a cost-saving measure, we stayed instead at a Comfort Suites on Elm Hill Pike. That will figure in to my somewhat self-serving story later on.

I look forward to Warmth In Winter every year. Other people from church thank me for making the sacrifice to be a chaperone, but I always enjoy it — there’s a good speaker, good music (with professional, concert-style stage production), and we have a great group of teenagers at First UMC, led by a great youth leader, so I’m able to enjoy the content without worrying too much. I really sort of feel like it’s selfish of me to go.

This year’s event was a good one. Samuel Yun, from Embrace Church in Alameda, California, was a great choice for the speaker. I’d looked up one of his sermons online, and even though it was a sermon preached to an Annual Conference, and thus not necessarily representative of what he’d preach to a youth event, I knew I’d enjoy him, and I did.

Elias Dummer and his band returned to provide the music. He’s been a fixture at WNW for the past three years — in 2017, as frontman for The City Harmonic, and then since that time as a solo artist. Dummer is a Canadian who now lives here in Middle Tennessee, and was a founder of The Village, a UMC church plant in Nolensville. I was part of the IndieGoGo for his new CD, “The Work, Volume 1,” which releases officially on Feb. 9 but which was sold at his merch table this weekend.

WNW has a theme each year. This year’s was “Woven,” and the messages tied in with Colossians 2:2: “I want you to be woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know about God.” As a reminder of the theme, during our big group sessions, there was a woman, who came to be known as “Connie the Weaver” (I don’t think they ever told us her last name), stationed off to the side of the stage operating a loom. She produced a cloth which was used on the communion table for Sunday morning’s final session.

Connie the Weaver became a bit of a rock star over the course of the weekend — people were taking selfies with her, and when Brad Fiscus brought her up on stage this morning, there were chants of “Connie! Connie! Connie!” and a standing ovation. She seemed truly moved by the experience. She said she started weaving at age 50 and has been doing it for 19 years, and then joked that we could do the math from there.

In addition to our big group sessions, there were breakout sessions on Saturday morning. I attended an excellent session on cultural differences and assumptions led by Rev. Eric Little of Bell Buckle UMC, where my brother and nephews attend (and which my father once pastored).

Speaking of my Bell Buckle nephews: This was T.J. Carney’s first time away from WNW in several years. The past three years, the same ones I’d attended, T.J. was a member of the “design team” which planned the event. This year, T.J. is away at college; he talked about driving down this weekend to pay a visit to his WNW friends, but apparently didn’t make it.

But his younger brother James was there with the Bell Buckle UMC group, and I ran into James several times over the weekend.

Saturday was a full day, and I racked up more than 15,000 steps on my fitness tracker. We had a big group session in the morning, then breakout sessions, then we walked over to Opry Mills for lunch and shopping, then back to our hotel on Elm Hill Pike to catch an all-too-short breather, then back to Opryland for dinner and the evening session, followed by late-night activities.

Here’s where my age, obesity, and self-involvement step in.

The past few years, when we’ve been staying at the same hotel as the event, it was possible for the adult chaperones to go back to their rooms right after the evening session. We wouldn’t go to bed yet — there would always be a late-night devotion in the youth leader’s hotel room with our FUMC group, and in some years each chaperone would be responsible for making sure that his or her assigned youth were in their hotel room at curfew. But we could at least take a breather, stretch out on the bed, and (in my case) write a blog post.

This year, though, allowing the youth to enjoy the late-night activities meant that all of the adults had to hang around the Opryland Hotel — a pleasant place to hang around, to be sure, but not quite the same thing as putting your feet up. That’s why there were no blog posts from me on Friday or Saturday night. I posted a lot of stuff to Facebook, from my phone, but there wasn’t time to do anything longer.

Just a few days before this year’s WNW, I had learned that a devotion which I’d adapted from one of last year’s blog posts had been accepted by The Upper Room, the worldwide devotional magazine published by an arm of the United Methodist Church.

The teens stayed for the late-night stuff on Friday. After Saturday night’s session, Abby asked them if they wanted to stay, and they immediately said “yes.”

I had been praying for “no.” By that point on Saturday night, I was dog tired. My legs were achy, and I was cranky and feeling sorry for myself. Did I have any reason to feel so bad? No. One of my fellow chaperones had gotten a cancer diagnosis — a friggin’ cancer diagnosis — earlier in the week, and I never heard her complain once.

Anyway, I kind of sulked for a while, sitting by myself on a bench on the Delta Island, and had very little to say to anybody the rest of the evening. (They may have been relieved, if they noticed.) When we finally got back to the hotel, I asked Abby if I could be excused from the end-of-the-day devotion, and I crawled into bed, defeated.

The next morning, my attitude had improved somewhat, and I was a little more pleasant to be around, but I was still kind of tired. I zoned out during Samuel Yun’s message — I don’t think I actually fell asleep, but I might have — and missed the meat and potatoes of his central story, which helped set the stage for communion.

As we were wrapping things up, it hit me.

Last fall, about the same time I signed up to return to Warmth In Winter, I also agreed to be a chaperone this summer for Youth 2019. This is a national youth event, held every four years, which will be held this year in Kansas City. It’s similar to WNW.

But, here’s the thing — it’s a nine-hour drive there, and a nine-hour drive back, and the conference itself is about a day and a half longer than Warmth In Winter. I suddenly thought to myself, If this were Kansas City, I would still have a day and a half left to go.

And that scares the living daylights out of me. I don’t want to hit the wall too early and let my church, and the teenagers, down like I did last night. In my panic over the thought this morning, I seriously considered telling Abby that I didn’t think I could do it.

But I think I’m just going to have to suck it up and trust God to get me through it. I’ve done things before that I wasn’t capable of doing, with the help of God’s grace. I just hope this is one of them.