Reverend Stephen’s sermon this morning was, among other things, about grace.

I’ve heard the song “Amazing Grace” many times, and still don’t really understand what it’s talking about. So “grace” has always seemed like this big, mysterious, complicated thing to me. But Stephen presented it at its most basic, where it’s actually quite simple: grace is when you get something that you didn’t deserve.

(He compared it to mercy, which is when you don’t get something that you did deserve. I kind of like that comparison.)

The traditional Christian example of grace would be salvation: you can’t ever earn it; it can only be given as a gift. I lean with the Universalists here — if salvation exists, I think it’s given to everyone, not just to those who are in the club — so I really don’t know how I feel about the “salvation through grace alone” thing.

Stephen’s point was that, as Unitarians, we find grace — in particular, the gift of strength to get us through the hard times — through community. I’m with him on that one. That’s why I’m in covenant groups (and why I’m facilitating a group this year).

But I was still intrigued by this idea of grace, so I started looking around for it today. And I found it. I went outside and saw it in the sunlit trees against the cloudy sky. It was stunning today. I didn’t earn that kind of beauty, but it was there for me nonetheless. It was there for everybody, and it was there for nobody at all, just for its own sake, but it’s inspiring to think that, yes, it was also there for me. Not earned. Freely given.

Later, when I was at my part-time cashiering job (still working on paying down those credit cards!), I was talking to another cashier, a 20-year-old, about what it was like to have been married for 11 years. And I realized (not for the first time) that one of the real gifts I have is a wife who doesn’t expect me to be perfect. She accepts me even with my weaknesses and faults. That’s a tremendous gift. I try to do the same for her — and, of course, neither of us is perfect about it. But this is not something that I ever could have deserved. Love is not earned. It’s freely given. Love is grace.

(I didn’t try to explain all of that to the other cashier. It would have taken far too long to explain the context.)

Later, when I left the store at closing time, I reached into my pocket for my car keys. And they weren’t there. They weren’t in my coat pocket either. I thought, “Okay, I’ll make sure they’re not in the car before I panic.”

I found them sitting on the passenger seat of my car. The car had been sitting there, unlocked, for six hours, with the keys in plain view. And nothing had happened. My car keys, my house keys, not to mention my car, all still there.

I didn’t deserve that. Some days, I might have thought of it as luck. Today? I’m still wondering.


Got back from Minneapolis yesterday about 6:00. The con was very mixed: there were some awesome things, and some things that were utterly botched.

If there’s anyone reading this who plans a youth con, here’s some advice:

  • Include the adult youth director in the conversations. You know, the person who gets paid to know what’s going on at the church? The church’s youth director had no clue that the con had applied for the YAC seal of approval.
  • Think before you make last-minute schedule changes. Don’t lose track of things you forgot to put on the schedule in the first place, like orientations; it’s silly when you send people off to touch groups and then have to call them back. Don’t add something that pushes coffeehouse so late that the sponsors who have to drive the next day can’t come. And people get cranky when you get them up half an hour early without prior warning, especially if most of them were up most of the night.
  • Communicate. Some of the adults knew that everyone was getting up half an hour early on Sunday morning; none of the youth did. Many of the planners didn’t even know what was going on with some of the schedule changes.
  • We adults like to be part of the community too. Don’t schedule our orientation at the same time as touch groups.
  • Don’t break up a Wink game that’s just hitting its stride to tell people it’s time to go to worship, when worship is in fact running late and won’t start for another forty minutes.
  • Think about your worships. If the idea is for everyone in the room to say something and then blow out a candle, try putting everyone next to a candle, instead of seating everyone in a mass in the middle of a large space with rings of candles all around them.
  • Plan for capacity. You can’t fit a 150+-person hug line in a little alcove.

There was good stuff. The second worship, with tribal drumming and dancing that went on for I don’t even know how long, was truly awesome, and my arms are going to hurt for days from pounding on that tire drum. As always, Unrequited Love was terrific; I had several people tell me I was the best con dad ever. The workshops were pretty good. And we left with a copy of Tombo’s CD, which mostly made up for missing coffeehouse (although I can’t credit the con planners with that one).

Whew. Quite a weekend. And now I have to go back to work? Wish me luck…

9/11: Five years

There’s a place in my brain labeled “Things about 9/11 I will Never Forget”. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m pretty sure there were once three things in there, and now I can remember only two. But those two are: Yasser Arafat donating blood; and the British palace guard, for the first time in history, standing at attention during the “Star Spangled Banner”.

9/11 brought the world together. I hope that that, and not fear, will be its lasting legacy.

Dragging Boone

I spent the weekend with about 70 teenagers. It was a terrific weekend. Very long, very draining, but terrific just the same.

It was the big UU youth con in Boone, IA, and it really made me realize how much I love helping out with our youth group. Youth group in general, cons in particular, are just a place where the kids are allowed to be who they are. And they shine.

To take just a few examples of what really stood out, at this con in particular:

  • One of the graduating seniors said that she was planning to go into theater in college — and the main reason was cons. She had performed at the coffeehouse (talent show) at several cons, and it was the other youths’ reactions and support that made her realize this was what she wanted to do.
  • Never once, at the entire con, did I see a loner. Everyone got drawn into a larger group. Everyone mixed, and began to hang out with others they hadn’t known before. As a serious introvert, I still marvel at the amount of community they’re able to build in less than forty-eight hours.
  • There were several youth there who were openly gay and/or bi. Some of them wouldn’t dare let that be known in their hometowns, but at the con, it was a non-issue. In some small ways, it was even celebrated.
  • Wink is always a blast. Jennie said that Deathball was terrific fun, too.
  • Both the adults and the youth at this con made a real point to ask the adults to get involved: to participate in touch groups, attend workshops, and even just talk to the youth. (I wasn’t about to wait for an invitation; I joined in with a touch group two cons ago, and loved it. And wasn’t able to join in at the next con, because they always had the adults scheduled to do our own thing, and I really missed it.)
  • Where, but at a Unitarian youth conference, can you have a teenager leading a workshop called “Root Beer and Smut”, and have it attended by about ten youth and two adults? (That was a lot of fun — he brought root beer and some trashy romance novels, and people took turns doing dramatic readings of the sex scenes.)
  • They have some traditions that some people might find in questionable taste, but that I, having been there and seen how they pull the community just that much closer, would definitely put my full support behind. Things like the obscene Yogi Bear song at closing, or the foofing of the con virgins, or getting all of the first-year Boone guys dressed up in drag on Saturday night.

And yes, for the record… this was my first Boone. So I put on a dress, eyeshadow, and lipstick, and strutted across the complex with the rest of them. (And, later, past a group of Camp Fire girls, on the long trek to my cabin to move my stuff. One of my colleagues said it was worth the walk just to see the expressions on their faces.) I’m still a little surprised to say it, but it was actually a lot of fun. I got all theatrical about it, blowing kisses and getting my Angelina pout on. One of the girls told me I was a natural at doing The Walk, and several guys told me I was the hottest one there (yes, beard and all). Jennie just laughed and laughed.

It’s amazing. The more youth cons I go to, the more I love them, just like the youth do. I still wish I’d known about Unitarian cons when I was a teenager, but even being an old (30) guy like I am, I’m starting to get drawn into the community myself. The first con I went to, several months ago, I made it to one touch-group meeting and I think one workshop, and otherwise kept to myself, and didn’t join in on the hug line at the end (because I still wasn’t comfortable with the idea, and wasn’t sure it would even be considered appropriate). The next con, I didn’t get to go to touch groups, but had fun at the dance (for as long as I’m constitutionally capable of having fun at a dance), loved Unrequited Love, and did take tentative part in the hug line. At Boone, my third con, I was giving everyone bear hugs at the end.

To think, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to come to Boone. I don’t think that’s going to happen again. I think, next time, that it’ll take a lot more than being worn out from the last con to keep me from the next one. Biblical response to Jerry Falwell’s anti-gay preaching

While reading today’s headlines, I ran across a Web site,, that challenges Rev. Jerry Falwell’s attitudes about gays and lesbians, and does so from a Christian and a Biblical perspective.

Many otherwise well-meaning people have believed that gay people are commiting a sin. Jerry Falwell has been one of America’s leading promoters of this mistaken idea. This notion has created profound suffering and torment, not only for gay people, but for their friends and families as well. It has also dealt a devastating blow to Christianity itself, as fair-minded people have turned away in response.

I know this because I have received hundreds of emails from heterosexuals who have left Christianity directly due of its embrace of homophobia and anti-gay prejudice. Peace, acceptance, love, charity and humility have been replaced by a gospel of intolerance, ignorance and political ambition.

There can be no goal that is less holy than that which seeks to maintain a level of societal prejudice against a particular group of fellow human beings.

In contrast, Jesus reached out to those on the margins of society. The only people that Jesus ever condemned were religious fundamentalists. (See Matthew 23). Jesus also said that the two greatest commandments were those that commanded us to love (Mark 12:28-34). Fundamentalists have failed most miserably in fulfilling that task. It has been my privilege to counter their untruths, and it is an endeavor that I will continue.

These quotes are all from the About the Lawsuit page (Falwell sued the site for trademark infringement, and lost — that’s the headline that led me to the site), which provides a very good one-page overview of what the site is all about. Much more content is available through the front page of the site.

If there are any fundamentalists reading my blog, I’d be curious to hear what you think of this site.

Unnamed youth finance class, intro session

This Wednesday was our first session teaching our as-yet-unnamed personal-finance class to the youth. (They already asked us what we’re going to call it, since “No Matter What” is already taken. We’re all going to think about names.)

We wound up with about ten or eleven people in the class (I should have made a list of who was there, but didn’t think of it till later). They didn’t seem shy about speaking up when we asked questions, even some of the youth who I hardly ever hear from in the larger group, which was really cool.

I was a bit worried about how they would react when we said we were making up our own curriculum, but most of them actually perked up and seemed to get more interested because of that. I suspect it helps that a lot of the youth already know and like me, and know I’ve been to cons. I think it would have been different if I was just someone, who was teaching just some class.

Learned that I’ve got a lot to learn about teaching a class. (Or facilitating, rather. The difference being that teaching is standing on high, passing out information; facilitating is drawing the answers out of the audience.) Facilitating is an incredibly powerful way to teach and learn, but it’s also, I’m finding, very tricky to manage from a time perspective. When everyone wants to give their answer to every question, there’s no time left for the actual class! We got through the class introduction and our first four “opening questions” before we ran out of time.

And yet, the youth were excited about the class, eager to come back next week, wanting to ask their parents if they could stay a little later after youth group so we could make class an hour instead of 45 minutes. Even though we hadn’t even taught them anything yet!

I think there are two big reasons for that. One is that Cheryll was probably dead-on in wanting to limit the class to high-schoolers, though I wouldn’t have realized it before this first session. These are people who have some real-life experience with money. Every one of them has had a job of some sort, even if it’s just delivering papers or babysitting. Several of them have savings accounts. One of them really wants to learn how not to live paycheck-to-paycheck (which is exactly what our first several sessions, especially the first one, are going to be about). They already know that this is something they want to know more about.

The second reason is that we’re listening to them. We spent probably a good ten or fifteen minutes making a list of everything they wanted to learn in this class, because we knew the answers would surprise us. (And they did. Actually, most of the youth are really interested in learning about filing their taxes — not something I would have even thought of.) But that active listening, that taking their ideas and writing them down, really drew them in.

There’s no possible way we’re going to be able to cover everything they listed between now and the end of the youth-group year at the end of April, although the youth are already talking about continuing the class into the summer. Even though we didn’t get past our introduction to the first session, I think I’d consider it a rousing success.

And I hope I never again underestimate the power of listening to a teenager.

I’ll post their topic list later. Gotta go get some exercise before work.

Review of Dave Ramsey’s “No Matter What” youth finance class

Our youth group bought the starter kit for Dave‘s “No Matter What” personal-finance-for-youth-groups class, and I’ve started looking through it.

It’s mostly taught by video. I expected that someone would have written a script for these videos, like they did for Financial Peace University. Turns out they didn’t bother; they just used the video footage from FPU. For the first two sessions, they took the footage from FPU session 1 and cut it into two pieces, added some hip-hop jitter to the captions and some discordant intro/outro music, slapped on an awkward “ask Dave” clip and called it good.

And the result is something that just isn’t relevant to teens. Sure, there are some good jokes, and sure, there’s (some) good content for them. But urging the fifty-year-olds in the audience to save money? Talking about what you do when your children need new clothes? The best way to buy a china cabinet or a dining room suite? Good grief! What about emergencies that matter to these kids? Where’s the stuff about your computer breaking when you have homework due? Where’s the stuff about getting sick while you’re at college and having to go to the doctor? Where’s the stuff about your roommate racking up long-distance charges and the school coming after you to pay them?

This class simply isn’t designed for youth. Someone wrote a first draft of a workbook, did a little video editing, and slapped it onto an online storefront. Dave is on-camera doing new material for maybe thirty seconds in the first session, and the script for that bit is stilted and contrived.

The workbook isn’t as bad, but it’s not that great either. It’s a mixture of mostly-reasonably-good Bible quotes, rambling prose unrelated to the videos, fill-in-the-blank-with-the-least-important-word-in-the-sentence (“Bounced checks are a sign of crisis living“), and the occasional gem. It does not have the same editorial quality as FPU. (Not that the FPU workbook is exactly a shining star of writing, either, but at least it’s a little less first-drafty.)

There just wasn’t much effort put into this curriculum. Certainly nowhere within a couple orders of magnitude of the effort that was put into FPU. And these youth going to pick up on that, and they’re going to tune out, and they’re going to leave, and they’re not going to come back.

(I’m beginning to understand why Dave never talks about this class. I think it embarrasses him.)

So Jennie and I decided, as we watched the video clips this past Wednesday, that we’re going to write our own curriculum. Due in weekly installments, starting this coming Wednesday.

(Guess whether either of us has ever written a lesson plan from scratch before…)

Of time and rocks

I was so psyched about covenant groups before they started, and now we’ve been doing them for a couple months now and I haven’t blogged about them yet.

Our group has been meeting two nights a month. We start with check-in, which usually lasts through the first hour, and then there are some readings and a topic for discussion, which takes up the second hour. We’ve had some good topics (silence, experiencing the holy) and one that everyone agreed was kind of a dud (what the chalice symbol means to us).

Last night’s reading was about a time-management instructor who, as a visual aid, filled a jar with big rocks, then filled in the spaces between them with gravel, and then sand. If he’d done it the other way around — starting with the sand — the big rocks never would’ve fit. The point being, you have to schedule the most important things first, and then let the less important things fill in around them, not the other way around.

The discussion questions centered around “What are the ‘big rocks’ — the most important things, timewise — in your life?”

As usual, the topic was fairly lively. We spent about half of the second hour discussing funerals, although I have no idea how we got off on that tangent.

Anyway, as other people talked, I mulled over the question, in light of what I actually do with my time (like play video games, read books of comic strips, and surf the Web). I finally said that I don’t really know what my “big rocks” are. There are a lot of things I’m really enthusiastic about in the abstract, but lose steam when it comes time to spend time on them. I was really excited about covenant groups, and now I haven’t even blogged about them. I think OWL is really important, and was happy to agree to help teach it, but I always seem to put off looking at the next week’s lesson or researching the question-box questions until the last minute. I really want to see our church offer Financial Peace University, but when it comes to doing the legwork to build support in the congregation, I just don’t follow through. I procrastinate a great deal, and seldom make time for the stuff I actually feel is important and that I want to give my energy to.

And Gene asked me a question that really startled me. He said, “So, is procrastination one of your ‘big rocks’?”