Yesterday, I spent the day on what has become one of my favorite middle school ministry events every year: our annual middle school mystery road trip. Here’s how it works: students sign up, not knowing what we will be doing throughout the day or where we will be going. I spend weeks and months planning a day of fun adventures, random stops, and with opportunities for growing in relationship with each other and with God. Then, we all pile into cars for a day filled with fun and adventure (and listening to middle schoolers as all day, “Are we there yet? Where are we going? What are we doing next?”). Like I said, it’s one of my favorite events every year. Mostly because it’s just. plain. fun.
Last year’s mystery road trip was scheduled for July 7, 2016, and ended up being cancelled at the last minute, because I was in the hospital waiting on the birth of my son, Alexander, who, by that point, we knew was no longer living. When I scheduled this year’s trip for June 7, I just prayed that it wouldn’t be filled with reminders of what wasn’t and what we lost last year. (Honestly, that was one of the reasons for moving the trip out of that first week in July for the first time in my six years at Epiphany.)
Anyways, this year’s trip, with four wonderful adult leaders and seventeen incoming 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, involved a series of stops at some of my favorite places ever. (I suppose that’s the beauty of being in charge.) We piled into cars in the morning, and drove to our first stop, which included an hour on the high ropes aerial adventure park at Mohican Adventures. We got to see kids conquer huge amounts of fear as they scaled cargo nets, crossed tight rope wires high up in the air, and ziplined just over the edge of the Black Fork river. With my dear friend (and outstanding volunteer) SC by my side, I got to conquer the course for the second time in just a couple of weeks, while also encouraging and cheering on some young people who made me so incredibly proud in the ways they faced challenging situations.
After conquering the high ropes, we shared packed lunches together, and then headed out for a rafting adventure along the Black Fork and Mohican Rivers. The kids splashed each other, gave up paddling and then found their second (and third and fourth) winds, raced each other, collected leaves from low hanging branches, and just had a generally good time. The adults hung back in the last raft to keep an eye on everyone, and just enjoyed a leisurely float down the river. We passed by my parents’ seasonal campsite and the campground where I spent a lot of my childhood (and a lot of my adulthood too). Some of the kids jumped into the water. Some of the kids were really hard to get back out of the water at the end of the trip. But everyone had a great time enjoying the beauty of God’s creation in one of my favorite parts of the state of Ohio. They sang “Little Einsteins” (SO LOUD) on the bus ride back to the livery, and then we all got dried off, changed, and headed out for a quick dinner stop in Ashland before our last stop.
Our last stop took us to Camp Mowana, where I spent summers during my own college years as a camp counselor among the pine trees. The staff are currently in training for the upcoming summer, and we had received an invitation earlier that day from my friend and the program director there, to join the staff for their evening chapel service. So, we pulled into camp (which several of our kids were super pumped about because they have been there for summer camp and/or retreats with our youth ministry), I shared with them about our special invitation to worship with the staff, and we hiked up the hill to the outdoor chapel. We arrived just early enough for a few quiet moments in the chapel before the staff joined us and started leading songs and then the rest of the chapel service.
A few minutes into the chapel service, as a few of the counselors were up front performing a skit, I started to notice it.
Alexander wristbands. On every. single. counselor’s. wrist.
Counselors who I have never met. Counselors who are, at this point, too young to even have been my former campers.
Here comes the lump in my throat.
Here comes the overwhelming feeling of gratitude.
Here comes the sense of pride in my son, Alexander. Oh, how I love that boy.
After the chapel service, we were sitting around in the chapel hanging out with the staff, and giving our kids (and adult leaders) the chance to ask some questions about camp, being a camp counselor, etc. I introduced our group of middle schoolers from Epiphany, and shared a bit of what we had done throughout the day on our mystery road trip.
Then, I knew I wanted to say something.
The lump in my throat grew, but I wanted these “kids”–these camp counselors–to know the impact they had had on me in just the short time we had been there.
“On a personal note, I just to thank you–all of you who are wearing these wristbands,” as I pointed to the one on my own wrist, “that’s my son.”
I said it. Right there. Right then. Out loud.
Lump in my throat.
Tears welling up in my eyes.
That’s. My. Son.
“so thank you,” was just about all I could manage from there. But, I was just so thankful. I was so thankful to be able to acknowledge my sweet boy, and to see those young adults wearing his name on their wrists as they prepare for a summer of ministry to kids at camp–an experience that my sweet Alexander will never have.
Later, as we were on our way back home, I received a couple pictures from my friend, the program director who is working with those staff members, along with these simple words:
We are honored to be Alexander’s counselors.
Oh. My. Heart.
My sweet boy will never get to go on the middle school mystery road trip. He will never get to conquer his fears on a high ropes course or float down the Mohican River in a raft with his buddies. He will never get to walk through the pine trees at Camp Mowana, a place that is so very special to me–especially to my journey into youth ministry. He will never get to go five days without showering (but it’s okay if you jump in the pool every day) and come home smelling like a strange mix of bug spray, sunscreen, sweat, and campfire.
And yet, there he is.
With some of the very best first-year camp counselors in the entire world.
I am honored to have my son’s name being carried with these counselors this summer.
That’s my son.