Youth Cons, and Why to Try One

Middle School CON Worship

What is a Con?  Cons, short for Conferences, are gatherings of Unitarian Universalist youth or young adults from many congregations, usually for a weekend of immersion worship, workshops, and crazy fun.  Cons are incredibly important in the faith development of so many of our youth, and are a deeply loved part of UU Religious Education culture.

Why should youth go to a Con?  The main reason I think they are important for our youth is for them to form connections to Unitarian Universalism that are larger than the local congregation.  We can tend to be very isolated in our little congregations, but how likely is it that our youth will stay put in the same community that they grew up in once they are adults?  In all likelihood they will move somewhere else, and if they are to continue in their UU faith they will need to join a new congregation.  That new congregation will be different – perhaps profoundly different – from the one they grew up in.

Cons are also different from the local experience, and the relationships formed at Cons can be bridges for our youth.  I’ve seen graduates of our youth programs who were headed off to another town for college find friends right away because they knew other youth through Cons who were also going to that college.  I’ve also seen that youth who went to a lot of Cons or other immersion Big UU experiences (GA, DA, leadership school, etc) are more likely to connect with the congregation in their new town when they move away from home.

Similarly, the Young Adult groups and Cons can be a vital place of support for young adults who have just moved off on their own and don’t have a support network yet, and can be an important bridge when the culture of their new congregation doesn’t seem very young.

This is why it is a priority for me to get youth to Cons whenever we can – this is why I spent my weekend chaperoning middle schoolers to a Con for the last three days.

But here’s a personal confession: I don’t enjoy Cons, myself.  As a bit of an introvert and a quiet/reflective type (and a morning person who is decidedly NOT a night owl) I can find them overwhelming and exhausting.  There are ways for introverts or morning people like me to adapt and cope (quiet cabins, there being an early and a late worship, etc), but there is an important distinction to be made.  Cons are not Retreats.  I LOVE retreats.  I love the quiet.  I love the slow and intentional pacing that emphasizes lots of time for introspection.   That is not what I experience at a Con.  Cons are great for extroverts and night owls and folks should know that when they are sending their youth.  Not that an introvert can’t have fun at a Con – they can – but the organizers and planners and the chaperones should be thinking about ways for those introverts to connect while still honoring their own need for quiet.

Just as worship will never meet everyone’s needs perfectly all the time, these immersion experiences won’t either.  That’s why we need a mix – a mix in our worship services and a mix in the immersion experiences we offer.  Cons and Retreats, assemblies and demonstrations, witnessing and pilgrimages – we need to offer all of that to our youth (and adults!).  And we need to try things out that aren’t necessarily our perfect cup of tea.  I attend the Cons and take youth to Cons, even though it is not always just right for me.  And I get something really good out of that, both as it stretches me and as I find unexpected moments of fun and connection or even of Grace.  Similarly, extroverts who love Cons should also try the quiet of a Retreat or the sometimes dull-seeming routine of a traditional worship service, because they will experience both growth and possibly surprising moments of enjoyment.

There really is a big world of UUism out there, and youth (and adults) should be experiencing as much of it as possible.

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What I Did on Sabbatical

During this last week of my 13 week Sabbatical, it’s time to wrap it up and get ready to return to the regular work of congregational life. The sabbatical was actually something that I got very stressed about as I was preparing for it and imagining how it would go, but now that I’m done I am so grateful for this time that you all gifted me with.

First, the reasons why I felt stress before the sabbatical are a big part of the personal and spiritual development that the sabbatical time gave me. Was I worried about leaving you all with coverage in my absence? Yes, but I also knew that Bonnie and the Family Ministry Team and the Teaching Teams would be fine. No, my real stress was that I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do with myself during that much time. I was afraid that in the absence of a schedule and a list of things that Must Be Done By This Deadline, I wouldn’t even know who I was – because schedules and To Do Lists are anchors, and they are also distractions.

I had an idea that I would fill this time and “get a lot done”. I did get some good things done (my post on Credentialing will be up next week), but that was not the take-away from my sabbatical time. I actually ended up leaning in to the unscheduled time, and found that I could embrace being a Human Being instead of a Human Doing. This quote from the book The Dance by Oriah nicely captures the idea:

When we avoid the emptiness, when we fill the stillness with too much doing, we are trying to outrun our, sometimes unconscious, conviction that who we are will never be enough. The things we try to hang on to – our work, our relationships, our reputation and perspective – are the things we believe will make us worthy of life and love … If we can simply be with the fear that we are not enough, and with the vastness of what we do not know, we discover an emptiness that is not our failure but is the very source of the fullness of who and what we are.

Sabbaticals are interpreted in different ways, with probably a unique idea of how that time should be spent in the mind of each person who is blessed with the opportunity. But I think it is very telling that the word sabbatical has the same root as the word Sabbath. In his book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Sabbath practice as “building a palace in time”. It elevates to a conscious level the realization that we are temporally bound creatures, or that we exist in the flow of time. In fact, as one time management book that I read once pointed out, how you spend your time is how you spend your life. We say “the time got away from me”, but what if we said “my life got away from me”?

The great gift that I found through taking a Sabbatical was that I was reminded that this is the only time I will ever have to live this one life that I have been blessed with. I do not have to earn the gift of life, or prove myself worthy of it, before I am allowed to enjoy it. While the many things that I do are often worthy and wonderful, they cannot define me. The Sabbatical time let me go deep with this idea, struggle with it a bit, and ultimately find my spiritual development greater because of the time.

The Fallacy of “You Can Believe Whatever You Want”

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I recently allowed my daughter to choose a hair color and dye her hair.  This is one of the things she can choose because I want her to have as much freedom as is reasonable for her age and maturity.  But it got me thinking about what we can change and what we can’t, and how much of our identity is a choice and how much is something deeper from within us.

When children and youth describe Unitarian Universalism, they often say “we get to believe whatever we want to believe”.  This is not true.  Within Unitarian Universalism, you cannot choose to believe in the superiority of one group of people over another group of people.  You cannot choose to believe that you have a right to treat other people poorly.  You cannot choose to believe that the people have a right to exploit or abuse, or that some people are destined for horrible eternal punishment.

And the kids know that.  It’s not really like a silly UU joke I’ve heard:

The children have all been in their Religious Education class and when they come out to coffee hour their parents ask them: “What did you do today?”.  “Oh, nothing … we talked about cannibals.”  The parents are taken aback.  “Cannibals?  What did you learn about cannibals?”  The kids say breezily “Oh, we learned that we have to make up our own minds about cannibals.”

This is the parody, the misconception that I have to work against.

The problem is, I think, a confusion between two types of freedom:

Freedom to be authentic, versus Freedom to choose

We can choose our hair color, our style, and so many other things.  But then there are things we cannot always choose:

  • We cannot always choose who and how we love
  • We cannot always choose who we will truly feel friendship or kinship with
  • We cannot always choose our passions, our callings
  • We cannot choose the belief or faith that comes from deep within us

We have to have the freedom to discover or discern these things about ourselves, not the freedom to choose them.  I explain this to kids and youth like this sometimes:

I used to think, many years ago when I was your age, that I would like to be a really cool and tough woman.  I wanted to ride a motorcycle and kick butt (they like it when I say butt).  I thought I could just choose to be like that.  But it turned out that I didn’t like to ride motorcycles – I didn’t even like to go fast down hill on my bicycle.  I also found that I was happier reading a book in a coffee shop than I was running around being tough.  So, I thought I could make a choice about how to be, but really I found out I actually needed to be true to who I really was, inside.  I needed to be my authentic self.  And what we believe in can be like that.  We can really, really want to believe in a God.  We can try, but discover that we just can’t.  Or we can really, really want to believe there is no God, but keep finding one in our heart anyway.  When I was growing up I had the freedom to either be a tough motorcycle babe or a geeky coffee-loving reader, whichever one I truly was.  And, as UU’s we also have the freedom to believe what we must believe in our hearts of hearts, but it’s not just an idle choice.  It’s the freedom to be our authentic selves, not to make idle choices.

 

This is why (as is noted in the curriculum Articulating Your Faith) it is not that UU’s believe whatever they want to believe, but rather believe what they must.  We are a tradition of free-minds, hearts, and souls, seeking to grow into our own authentic faith in a community of love, hope, and freedom.

To be true to oneself is a far more challenging proposition than the phrase “believe what you want” can ever represent.

 

Faithiest

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Last week I wrapped up an adult education class discussing the book Faithiest by Chris Stedman.  I wasn’t sure how the book would be received, but I thought the message was good and the title very catchy.  I like to teach my adult education classes during the daytime hours (I already have so many evening meetings, a daytime class means one less evening away from my family), and daytime classes generally attract a crowd of retired folks.  Would this book written by a gay Millenial Humanist speak to my crowd of retired Unitarian Universalists?

Yes, it did.  We had some great discussions (I adapted the discussion guide from here for the class, and I’m absolutely willing to share my class lesson plan if anyone wants to message me for it).

I was also hoping to try out an online book discussion on Google Hang Out, but that option didn’t get any registrations and so I still haven’t tried it.  Does that mean that the whole idea of online classes is a waste of time and effort?  I don’t think so … I think the problem was that I advertised the class in our regular Adult Education catalog and no where else.  Folks who might want something different probably aren’t in the habit of looking in our regular catalog.  Oh well, live and learn – I still want to branch out into virtual learning environments and next time I’ll market it differently.

What a Religious Educator Reads

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The Time of Your Life by Robert L. Randall has not received great reviews (2 stars on Amazon, 3 stars on Goodreads), so I almost skipped it even though it is one of the few books in the “Self-Care” section of the religious education credentialing resource list.  I ended up really glad that I didn’t skip it;  it’s not a Great book, but it has some good stuff in there that I really needed to hear.  Instead of focusing on techniques to try and be more “efficient”, Randall points out that often the problem is fragmentation within your sense of self, so that you are trying to please others and prove something rather than focusing on what is the most effective thing to do right now.  All management – of whatever kind – is built on self-management first.  This was something I needed to hear.
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Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg is a delightful book: part memoir of her own spiritual journey, part Buddhist teaching, and part a model of faith development that could be followed by a person of many different religious traditions.  Here, faith is separated from belief, and becomes something that I find much more compelling – what Tillich called our “alignment with our ultimate concern” and what Salzberg calls “an active, open state that makes us willing to explore”.
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Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time by Marcus Borg was also a delight for me to read.  I haven’t ever really “met” Jesus before, to be honest, so this was more like my first introduction to him.  And I like this Jesus – this “spirit-person” counter-cultural wisdom teacher is a pretty cool dude with some insights I find pretty profound.  I especially was moved by Borg’s comparison of a life lived by “conventional wisdom” to a life lived by the wisdom of compassion.  Compassion rather than judgment, grace rather than striving.  Sounds lovely.

The Transient and the Permanent

“Everyone plays the philosopher out of the small treasures of his own fancy… the heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and ‘only infallible rule’ of the next.”

Theodore Parker, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity 

I’m here in Meadville-Lombard this week (one of our UU theological schools) studying Liberal Theology.  And one thing keeps peeping out at me from the history of liberal theological thought: each new thinker and generation is in some way reacting to what came before, and we have a tendency to swing back and forth as we note what was wrong with the ideas of those who came before us.

The cyclical nature of generations is fascinating, but I can’t believe that big “T” “Truth” changes in that same cyclical way.  So maybe we are always reacting to those who came before, but where is the kernel of truth – the permanent – that carries through from generation to generation?

What will my children believe?  What of my beliefs will they react against?  Will they agree with anything I think is true?

Into the 21st Century we go, like it or not

A few highlights from Day 1 (yesterday) a very interesting training I’m taking this week, 21st Century Faith Formation.  It’s a very content rich website, you should check it out.

Some quotes from the conversation I just had to jot down as the presenter said them:

“We have become accustomed that in church the only metric that counts is how many bodies showed up, not what was accomplished.”

“The fact that every church in the country doesn’t have a content-rich, exciting website is a sin.”

“The issue is control – and face it, we don’t have it.  Don’t think for a minute we’re going to control this conversation – this ship has sailed.”