This weekend was complicated. Even this morning, I am at a loss for words.

This weekend was our fall retreat weekend at Camp Mowana with our youth ministry. It has always been one of my favorite weekends of the year, as we gather for a weekend of faith building and friendship with middle schoolers, high school leaders, and adult companions in one of my favorite places. The high schoolers plan and lead the weekend for our middle school students, and we bring adults along to support the high schoolers in their leadership and to build relationships with our students. It’s good youth ministry. In fact, it’s really good youth ministry. In my 10+ years serving in church and camp settings, this particular weekend is one of the things that I am most proud of–not because I somehow made this weekend retreat great, but because of the incredible ways that God works through our high schoolers and so many adults in the lives of our middle schoolers. It’s just good stuff.

When we originally made the booking for this year’s retreat, we had booked extra housing for Scott and I to stay with Alexander, since this would be his first youth trip. We had made plans for our friend CN to come along to help take care of him while Scott and I helped run programming with the high school leaders. This year’s retreat should have looked a lot different for Scott and I as we learned to balance youth ministry with caring for our son during a weekend away at camp. That difference, and all the thoughts of how this weekend should have been different were palpable to me throughout the weekend.

missed my boy so much this weekend. I wish he had been there so much. He would have seen his first snowfall. He would have gotten his first (of many, I’m sure) experiences at a place that is so special to his mama. He would have been held and loved on by so many people who had been anticipating his arrival: adults, high schoolers, and middle schoolers.

Throughout the weekend, there were so many reminders to me of the impact that Alexander has made and continues to make in our community of faith:

  • On the drive up, one of the middle school boys mentioned in the midst of casual conversation about how he wears his wristband everyday and how he prays for us and for Alexander on a regular basis.
  • An adult leader came up to me during free time after walking the prayer labyrinth and told me about how just as she was praying for Alexander and for Scott and I, it started snowing. Huge white fluffy flakes. “He’s here this weekend,” she said to me.
  • A middle school girl asked me repeatedly for a wristband so that she could join the army of folks supporting us.
  • I laughed this weekend. Hard. I am so thankful for those moments of belly aching laughter that remind me that even in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances and seasons, there are still moments of joy. And it’s okay to feel joyful. It’s okay to feel happy. Even when that joy and happiness carries with it the weight of grief.
  • So many of the adult leaders (and kids) on the retreat were wearing their Alexander wristbands throughout the weekend. It is amazing how something so small can have such a profound impact as it just reminds me over and over again that there are so many people walking with us through this, grieving with us, and carrying us when it gets too hard for us to walk.
  • Saturday night after lights out, as I was up working on powerpoint slides for Sunday morning worship, I received an email notification for a blog post sharing that our friends Mark and Christine have received their Matthew bear from Molly Bears. I couldn’t help but imagine their Matthew and our Alexander watching over this very special weekend with Jesus by their side.

Our high schoolers had planned this year’s retreat using the theme of being lost and found around the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. We spent the weekend diving deep into the different characters in the story and identifying where we are finding ourselves in this fairly well-known parable. In my family group, I had several opportunities to honestly share about how difficult this year has been for me. I talked about how over the past year, I have found myself able to relate to all three of the main characters in the story at different points–sometimes in the same day, sometimes in the same hour.

The one image, though, that I haven’t been able to get out of my head from this story is the image of the father running to meet the weary younger son as he comes up the road towards home. I came into this weekend feeling weary. I was counting on our high school leaders and adult leaders more than I ever have before to carry the weekend. (Don’t get me wrong, I still had my own control issues to fight against a few times.) I was nervous about how my own grief and exhaustion and the weight of everything I am carrying would change the tone of the weekend. As a leader, that was really really hard for me. It’s hard for me as a leader to let myself be ministered to during an event that I am supposed to be leading. But this year, that happened. This year, I needed so badly to be at this retreat.

During Sunday morning worship yesterday, we sang the song Prodigal by Sidewalk Prophets. It was my first time leading music since before we lost Alexander. As we sang these words, and I looked out at this community of youth and adults, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly overwhelmed:

It’s been a long time since you felt peace
In the valley you made where you’re not meant to be
Where the shame throws shadows on you
But don’t you forget

That you’re headed to more
But you’ve settled for less
Don’t buy the lie “it’s as good as it gets”
The same feet that left you lost and alone
Are the very same feet that can bring you back home

Wherever you are, whatever you did
It’s a page in your book, but it isn’t the end
Your Father will meet you with arms open wide
This is where your heart belongs
Come running like a prodigal

There will be nights, when you hear whispers
Of the life you once knew, don’t let it linger
Cause there’s a grace that falls upon you
Don’t you forget
In the places your weak
He is very strong
Don’t ever believe “you don’t deserve love”
The same God that protects you when you’re lost and alone
Is the very same God that is calling you home

Wherever you are, whatever you did
It’s a page in your book, but it isn’t the end

Your Father will meet you with arms open wide
This is where your heart belongs
Come running like a prodigal

Oh…
Let your life be made new
Oh…
As you come into view
Your Father’s not waiting, no he’s running too
He’s running straight to you

Wherever you are, whatever you did
It’s a page in your book, but it isn’t the end

Your Father will meet you with arms open wide
This is where your heart belongs
Come running like a prodigal

This weekend should have been much, much different than it was. Alexander should have been there to share in the laughter and the snow and the silliness and the depth and the moments of peace. And yet, I couldn’t help but find myself feeling like the prodigal son, being celebrated extravagantly after coming home from a long long and exhausting journey, welcomed into the wide open arms of the Father.

I know this isn’t the end of my grief. There will be very difficult days in the coming weeks as we go into the holiday season. But at least for this weekend, I was thankful to be wrapped in the love of this community and ministered to so deeply by the very people who I am called to lead.

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