Back in 2009, Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio began offering an annual retreat for youth and family ministry professionals. The Renew! Youth & Family Ministers Retreat is held annually in the fall as an opportunity for colleagues to gather for education, renewal, and connection.

The community of colleagues I have gotten to know over the past seven years of attending this retreat has been incredibly valuable to my career in youth ministry. In fact, when I was job searching after seminary, it was this community that encouraged me to apply for the job opening at Epiphany Lutheran Church. This community provided the voice of discernment that led me to this place and this community of faith.

This year’s retreat was different for me.

It was hard. Really hard.

It was my first time away overnight without Scott since losing Alexander.

It fell on the first major holiday that we were living through without Alexander.

It was so hard to be away from Scott and from home and from friends and from the rhythms of life that have started to establish themselves in our “new” normal over the past month or so.

There were at least three occasions in the 48 hours I was at camp that I seriously considered just packing up my stuff and heading back home.

After a long and quiet drive up to camp, I walked in just a little late on Monday afternoon for registration, because I had spent so long getting ready at home and debating even then whether I even wanted to go this year. I walked into a quiet room full of some familiar faces, but also a number of unfamiliar faces. People I was excited to see. People who I didn’t feel ready to see again. It was uncomfortable.

We went through introductions and the usual beginning-of-retreat stuff. We were asked to share our names, church contexts and positions, as well as what it was that brought us to the Renew Retreat this year.

Hi, I’m Erin Haligowski. I’m the Director of Youth & Family Ministries at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Dayton. This year, I’m here for renewal. Naps. Solitude. Renewal.

In the past I’ve led music. I’ve taught and led workshop sessions. I’ve been on the leadership and planning team for the retreat. This year, it took everything in me to just be there.

I wrote yesterday about the guilt I felt over being away from home on Halloween. Monday night was terrible. I cried. I contemplated loading up the car and driving home. I got into bed much earlier than I normally do at the retreat.

I texted a friend. I want to come home. It feels like I shouldn’t be here. This is so hard. My friend reminded me of all the truth that I so needed to hear: “Remember, it’s the hard stuff that gets you to the good stuff… You are brave… You are doing the next right thing… You’re there where you’re supposed to be… Hour by hour…”

So I stayed. I slept in Tuesday morning. I skipped breakfast and stayed in bed until 10:00am. Then, I skipped the morning session. I stayed back in the lodge and picked up a favorite book to reread. I texted with Scott and cried again about missing Halloween. I read some more. I sat in the quiet. I spent some time chatting and catching up with a colleague in ministry who had also skipped the morning sessions. I got to talk about Alexander and about our support network and about how hard it was for me to be there. To just. be. there.

Perfect fall weather. Blue skies. Bright leaves.
Perfect fall weather. Blue skies. Bright leaves. I spent a lot of time outside, looking up at the trees and thinking about Alexander. 

This year I had to take very seriously the “do what you need to do” part of the Renew Retreat. I skipped sessions. I napped. I hammocked. I spent time just sitting with a few close friends from the community.

I didn’t lead. I didn’t play guitar. I didn’t pour out lots of knowledge and tips and tricks for youth ministry from my experience. I didn’t share a lot about what we’ve been doing right and wrong and the challenges and joys of youth ministry at Epiphany.  I didn’t reach out to connect with the new people at the retreat. I just didn’t have the emotional, mental, or physical capacity to do any of those things.

I was there for renewal. For rest. For a little bit of respite.

And, it turns out, I was also there to grieve.

Last night for our vespers, we did a candle lighting along with a liturgy of grief and hope written by our synod youth and family ministry coach and his wife after some colleagues asked recently how they could best support Scott and I in our grief. Here are some pieces of that liturgy:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Heavenly Father, we are reminded that just as there are seasons with nature, we experience seasons of life. Some seasons are filled with joy, awe, and hope. Other seasons it takes every ounce of our being to trust you. We grieve loss. We have empty dreams. We feel so alone. Yet, we hold onto the promise that you are near, and you can redeem our brokenness and renew our hope.

Psalm 139:4: “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and my soul knows very well.”

Lord God, your works are marvelous. From the stars that fill the night sky to each blade of grass, you fill this world with your presence. You spoke the words and the world was created. You hold every atom together. You are truly worthy of praise. Lord, we know that everything you created you pronounced as good. So, we thank you for life, for our lives and the lives around us. It is good to be here and in your presence.

Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Redeeming God, your love is beyond imagination. You have never stopped caring about us. Even from the beginning of time you have prepared a way for us to be with you forever. 

Dearest Jesus, thank you for your gracious love and sacrifice. We would be utterly lost without you. How wonderful it is that we can be with you forever, and that nothing can separate us from your love.

Sweet Spirit, when we get bogged down with life, worries, and our deepest cares, please come swiftly and remind us of your amazing love. 

2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

God of all comfort, as we think back upon this past year, there have been times of sorrow, strife, and hurt that cannot be put into words. Our losses at times can overwhelm us and we need you. Father of mercy, envelop us with your love and peace. Draw us close to you and to each other. Jesus, you know our sorrow and grief. Holy Spirit, you know our hearts. Come, hold us, Lord. Be our Prince of Peace.

We lit candles. GP got us started by lighting his candle in memory of Alexander Scott Haligowski. Oh, my heart. There were tears. And such a heaviness. And yet there was also incredible support. These colleagues of mine. They are good people. They are burden bearers. They bring a healing presence.

Candles of Hope, Life, Love, and Comfort as well as the many candles lit for those who are hurting and grieving in our lives.
Candles of Hope, Life, Love, and Comfort as well as the many candles lit for those who are hurting and grieving in our lives.

After we wrapped up with vespers, we sat in silence just looking at the candles. All of us. For five to ten minutes, we just sat. It was holy ground. It was a kairos moment.

Then, a couple of friends got up and suggested we get a wristband picture over the candles. A couple of new folks asked, and my sweet friend JF beautifully told the story of a sweet boy named Alexander born into Jesus’ arms this past July. A sweet boy named Alexander who has taught us so much about community. A sweet boy named Alexander who continues to shine the light of Jesus in so many ways and in so many places. We passed out wristbands, and took a picture.

Remembering Alexander with colleagues at the Renew Retreat following Tuesday evening vespers. So much love for our sweet boy.
Remembering Alexander with colleagues at the Renew Retreat following Tuesday evening vespers. So much love for our sweet boy.

And once again, there was so much love for our sweet boy.

I managed to stay all the way through closing worship. I slept through breakfast again this morning, but I did make it to our last session together and to closing worship in the outdoor chapel on a beautiful November day.

Then, I was ready to come home. Like I said, this retreat was a lot different for me than it’s been in the past. I was ready to come home to my boys, and to my friends.

And while these past two days have been incredibly difficult, I do feel renewed-ish. I did what I needed to do to be present, and to take care of my own grieving soul.

And I am so grateful for the space and the colleagues who let me show up right where I was.

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