The Fall Youth Retreat is a holy sacred event. Don’t let the photos of silly faces fool you – taking our youth away for a weekend each fall is one of the most transformative, radical acts we do in youth ministry. There is something about getting away – something holy about leaving behind every weight and the sin that clings so closely – so that we might pause, reflect, grow, connect.
Friday night is the night of energy – of letting go of the stress that one had felt at school that week – and starting to breathe again. It takes the form of a spontaneous dance party on the mini-bus when one of our groups were delayed at dinner; middle school girls leaping around the cabin; high schoolers gathered together on couches as their close friendships are the material of their favorite game, “Pyscho.”
Then when the sun emerges on Saturday, we get our first glimpses at our retreat center in the light (since we had arrived the night before in darkness). Aldersgate is gorgeous – the light peering through the trees, cold temps scream of fall, and our day lays before us – abounding in opportunity. Saturday is the day when the community is built – when the groundwork is laid for God to work. The hours that will follow will be spent gathering logs and arranging them so that they may be set ablaze by the Spirit of God.
Small groups explore risk and contemplate reward. High schoolers plan worship. Middle schoolers create a banner and practice skits. Everyone sets out on a hike that turns out to be much riskier than first imagined. Bread is broken. Hot chocolate is poured. Worship is led by all youth. Arms linked around shoulders at campfire with smores made and shared. Laying underneath the stars, yelling joyously when shooting stars are spotted. Experiences shared, memories made. The flame of holy friendship set ablaze.
Our theme this year was all about risk and reward – identifying the many choices we face in our lives and discussing how we make decisions. For the weekend, we read various “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories (stories where you, the reader, are faced with different choices – whether or not to go to the dance, whether or not to forgive a friend – all decisions affecting the outcome).
As I wrote the stories and watched my small group of middle school girls debate each decision, I was struck with two realities. One is how open-ended our lives truly are. Although we sometimes feel powerless, everyday we face opportunities and chances. All lives (not just the lives of teenagers) are unfinished and full of possibility.
And the other is the inevitability of challenge in life. Certain situations, even if we seek to ignore them, will eventually come upon our path – facing a friend when feelings have been hurt; making the decision whether or not to admit wrong-doing; whether or not to forgive; whether to let our own self-interest lead the way or to love our neighbor.
The annual Fall Youth Retreat is a unique time where youth are invited to pause and think critically about how they live, how they make decisions, how their life will impact the world. What a shame it is that is that too often we relegate retreats to only young people. For it is the act of setting aside the stress of the everyday that we encounter a God who calls us to love radically, live heroically, and dwell in holy friendship.
May we all be inspired by the youth in our midst to risk loving God and loving our neighbor.