Written by Kurt Fekete
Ten teenagers from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine, along with one virtual teen from Quebec, Canada, attended the Swedenborgian Church Youth League (SCYL) fall retreat at Cedar Hill Retreat Center in South Duxbury, Massachusetts. This was our first in-person SCYL retreat since December 2019. Seven of the teens were shuttled to the retreat by the caring and capable van drivers Heather and Jeff Oelker from Urbana, Ohio. At this retreat the teens looked at the theme “Foundations.” We discussed values, core truths and loves, living in worldly and spiritual community, the Swedenborgian concept of vastation and remains, and how the stream of divine providence flows through it all. Basically, we covered all the things we trust or perhaps should trust to discover, establish, and maintain the core foundational principles that guide and support our lives.
The teens spent three days together on a pleasant October weekend exploring, frolicking, cooking, and living in community. Rev. Kevin Baxter joined us Saturday morning and opened the retreat sessions with the gripping story of Moses, the Egyptians, and the ten plagues (Exodus 7–12). Kevin explained how this is a story of vastation, which he defined as the purification and emptying out when you realize that you are being controlled by something external and/or materialistic. “It involves a loss of identity, as we become enslaved by our desires. When you are controlled by the external you begin to feel an emptiness inside. You become like building bricks without straw and easily crumble and fall apart.” Kevin went on to telling the teens the good news. At the end there is a remnant left that Swedenborg calls remains. These remains are the seeds that exist which you can build on. We have these precious and beautiful remains inside us to remind us that we are spiritual beings filled with the Lord’s love and wisdom. Kevin ended his morning session stating that while we work on the outside in, God works on the inside out. He concluded with the provocative consideration, “We all go thru a collapse at some point in our life. What if we looked at this collapse as a gift?”
After lunch, Kevin continued with an afternoon session on core values. He had the teens sort value statement cards into their four highest and four lowest values. From there, he had the teens share their results and attempt to write life value mission statements. This activity not only helped the youth identify what they value but also lead them into discussions about why these values are important and, as a lead into the evening session, how they can be nurtured so that they flourish in their lives.
After an afternoon of combing the Kingston Bay beach for treasures and numerous rounds of Catch Phrase and Uno games, the teens and staff prepared and ate a delicious dinner, before settling in for my Saturday evening session on Transforming Values into Gifts. I had the youth review their core values from Kevin’s afternoon session then asked the teens to try to identify one simple single word that represents their most critical core value. Next, we looked at a diagram of intersecting circles of love, talent, money, and world need to help us uncover our heavenly occupation. To help guide us and bring us light, we read and mediated on a sentence from Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell §403, “Angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions that are useful to others; all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.” At the end of my session, I had the teens write their one-word core value and occupation on a paper plate that would be used in my Sunday morning session.
In the evening we devoured a large tray of freshly baked apple crisp and headed out on our traditional outing. We like to visit Alley Kat Lane on Saturday night where we can rock n’ bowl under the colored disco lights while enjoying some favorite tunes. We rolled a couple of rounds of candlepin bowling while leaving some time at the end to play games in the arcade area. The teens redeem their game cards for prizes at the end of the outing and it’s always fun to watch them delight in their “treasures” back at the retreat center.
Sunday morning after breakfast it was time for my second session entitled Bringing Your Gifts to Community. First, I had the teens wear their value and occupation plates that they made the previous night. Then, I started an activity based on Heaven and Hell §405, “Useful activities in the heavens occur in similar variety and diversity. The function of one individual is never exactly the same as that of any other, so the delight of one is never the same as another’s. Not only that, the delights of each function are countless, and these countless delights are equally varied, yet they are united in a design that enables them to focus on each other… These are all interconnected in such a way that they focus on what they can contribute to the other and therefore to all, with all mindful of the individual members. They act as one because of this regard for the whole and for the individual.” I arranged the youth in a circle and gave them a ball of string. Next, I asked them to compare their occupations and pass the ball of string person-to-person so that each member of the group was connected to another member in some way. An elaborate communal web was created where the talents of each individual benefited another person. For example, the “friendly website developer” connected to the “caring marine biologist” by creating an innovative social network for the biologist to communicate research news to the public. This activity illustrated how we are all joined together as “There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Our individual interests, talents, and passions can form a networked society (heavenly community) working together in love and wisdom to achieve charitable use.
We were blessed to have Rev. Sage Cole join us for the Sunday afternoon session. Sage presented her session on Divine Providence. She played a video of a beautiful river and exclaimed, “Divine Providence is like a stream, a force in the universe, that moves all of creation to a heavenly experience.” Then, she asked us to imagine what it feels like to be a water molecule in a flowing river. Teens responded very thoughtful. Ivy pointed at the river on the screen and said, “See at that puddle by the rocks where the water is barely moving? I am there watching others in the stream wondering when it is my time to move quickly ahead.” Nathan responded, “I’m in the rapids. It feels like I’m in a group acting and moving fast.” Sage concluded her session by having the youth draw a picture of their life as water from birth on the top of a mountain, to a small trickling stream, to a river finally moving to the sea. Some teens worked on their drawing quietly alone, some worked in pairs discussing the various aspects of their water journey. It was interesting to see and hear the different journeys when it came time to present. Some drawings were very technical where the water went through treatment facilities to get cleaned up. Some were very artistic with beautiful cascading waterfalls. Each picture illustrated a different life journey, and, like our own unique odyssey, all of the water paths meandered, twisted, backtracked, and traversed various environs and terrain.
Later, we were free to play and recreate. We threw the Frisbee around the spacious Cedar Hill field, played Spike Ball, revisited the beach, and played more games. Some of us just relaxed and read or enjoyed a much-needed nap. Jeff took the opportunity to visit Plymouth Rock that is just a short drive away from the retreat center. Sunday evening, after dinner, we enjoyed a closing communion worship service led by Sage. Oliver blessed us with his talented guitar playing and I presented a closing message instructing the teens to let their light shine after sharing a reading from Luke 11:33–36 where Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and hides it. No one puts it under a bowl. Instead, they put a lamp on its stand. Then those who come in can see the light.” After the service, we had our brownie sundae movie night before we wearily shuffled off the bed.
The van with the teens from the Midwest departed at 5:00 AM to drive straight through to get everyone home in time for school and work on Tuesday. Elliot, Zsa Zsa, and I worked on cleaning up the retreat center before we locked up and departed ourselves. After a brief stop at Howland Landing Park, the site of our past beloved Blairhaven retreat center, we left Duxbury feeling physically drained but connected in community and spiritually fulfilled. I am extremely grateful to our session facilitators, Kevin and Sage, along with drivers and support staff Heather and Jeff. We all benefitted a great deal from this time together in person and learned how very important community is to each and every one of us. As we return to the stresses and challenges of our daily routines, we can draw strength from this time together and remember the words of Emanuel Swedenborg in Secrets of Heaven §687, “No angel or spirit can have any life unless he is in some society, and thereby in a harmony of many. A society is nothing but a harmony of many, for no one has any life separate from the life of others.”
Kurt Fekete is serving as both the Vice President and the Youth Director for the Swedenborgian Church. Kurt loves staffing youth groups, retreats and camps where he finds delight both in sharing our uniquely meaningful theology and learning spirituality from the adolescent perspective.
Catch Phrase: Another round of Catch Phrase? “Sure!” say Scout, Kristofer, Nathan, Ivy, Wyatt, Elliot, Ronnie, and Heather.