Last week, I took 25 youth to a Bible camp in Wisconsin for our annual winter retreat.  At this retreat, we encountered Jesus in a new light: we encountered Jesus when we gathered with 180 other Chicago area youth for worship and were reminded that we are beloved and loved for who we truly are… We encountered Jesus when we met new friends and strengthened our relationships with old ones… We encountered Jesus when we played 9-square, Gaga Ball, and sang and danced with our friends… and when we crowded onto a long bobsled, held onto each other as tight as we could, and flew down the steep hill toward the ice-covered lake, screaming and praying the Lord’s Prayer the whole way down.  (At least, that’s what I was doing.)  And we encountered Jesus when we ended the weekend in tears, as we hugged and blessed each other communed together around the Lord’s Table.

And though exhausted, our group left Wisconsin on fire…

On fire for God.  On fire for the church.  On fire for fellowship with one another.

Like the disciples who encountered the transfiguration of Jesus on their retreat to the top of the mountain – where they saw Jesus shine as bright as the sun – we, too, had a special mountaintop experience on our retreat.

… But then, as we all know how the saying goes:  What goes up must also come down.

And so we, too, eventually had to come back down from the mountaintop… to the realities of every-day life…

To school work.  Basketball practice.  ACT prep.  To the struggles of balancing a job and homework and anxieties we had about having to face bullies when we went back to school.  To what seems to be the never-ending busyness of our everyday routines.

And many of us may be already longing to escape and get away from this all of this.

To go back up to the comforts we experienced at the top of the mountain.

I’m sure many of us can relate to having a mountaintop experience in our lives and then having to come back down the mountain to the reality of our daily stress and routines that often keep us running so fast that we can’t catch our breath.

And yet here we are at the beginning of Lent… at the bottom of the mountain, being extended another great invitation to retreat.  Now, this is not the same type of retreat our youth experienced in Wisconsin or the same type of retreat many of us have experienced when we have attended a powerful faith conference or event.   

It’s not a retreat back up to the mountaintop. 

This Lenten invitation is to enter the wilderness… not just for a day or a weekend… but to dwell and wander in it.  It is a retreat from the busyness of life, to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the grace of God, and to think about what it means to be marked by the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead – to think about what it means to be human and to belong to God (and not anyone or anything else.)  And this invitation is to thoroughly examine our own lives – which will not, in fact, last forever on this earth (sorry to disappoint) – and to reevaluate how our lives have and can have meaning in this world…

Because our world needs each and every one of us. 

Now, I am not going to downplay this wilderness period.  There will be times when we will feel tested.  There will be times when we will feel like we’ve already wandered through the wilderness for long enough and we are too parched, exhausted, and famished to have to take on one more thing. 

But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser.  So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who we are and whose we are. 

You see, though we may – and most likely will – experience testing in the wilderness – in this Lenten season – the wilderness is ultimately a place and time of preparation for what is to come.

We tend to forget this because when we begin Lent by looking at Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we often focus on the temptations and his withstanding of them.  And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing for this encounter with the accuser even occurred.

And because we lose sight of this, we also tend to focus so much on how we, ourselves, lack the ability to resist our own temptations, that we turn Lent into a time of legalism and of beating ourselves up: through self-shaming, self-doubting, and self-hating.

And yet, I don’t think this is what the wilderness is really about.  It is not about loathing over our inadequacies and our shortcomings and attempting to meet perfection.

Rather, it is about transformation.  It is about recognizing that we are indeed human beings.  And like all other human beings, we have our faults and we make mistakes… And yet, as humans, we are ultimately made in the image of God… and are constantly a work of God in progress. 

So this Lent, let us choose to enter the wilderness and say yes to our invitation to retreat.  And let us show our youth how to do so, as well.  


Lent Activities at Youth Group

Intro To Lent Youth Group Lesson

Prayer Stations for Lent:

Arts and Faith – Lent:

Lent at Home (for Families):

Lent in A Bag: An Activity for Church or Home:

Daily Lent Activity List: (from Portico Collective)

Psalm a Day Family Lenten Devotional by Christine Hides (dated 2017 but can be used any year)

Family Activities for 40 Days of Lent:

An Illustrated Lent For Families (Devotions and Coloring Pages):

Works of Mercy Tree for Families:

Lenten Candle Liturgy (for Worship or Home):

Family Lenten Devotional:

Christian Meditation for Children:

Family Lent Devotional:


Personal Devotions

Reimagining the Examine (App)

D365 Daily Online Devotional (App available)

3 Minute Retreats (App available)

Lenten Devotional for Dismantling Racism (for $10 download)

Coloring Lent: An Adult Coloring Book for the Journey to Resurrection:

Random Acts of Kindness

Random Acts of Kindness Ideas and Resources

Rev. Emily Heitzman is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran.  She runs a collaborative, multicultural youth group that consists of youth from the three congregations as well as youth from the neighborhood. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. Emily is one of the writers for The Pastoral Is Political feature on HTTPS://REVGALBLOGPALS.ORG. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at HTTP://MUSINGSFROMABRICOLAGE.WORDPRESS.COM and connect with her on twitter at @PASTOREMILYH.