by The Rev. Rich Heinz
This year several people found joy in quoting Pastor Mark Buetow, saying that at Higher Things, we emphasize the “Three W’s”: Worship, Word, and … Fun (?) No matter how you look at a Higher Things conference, these are the clearest and best way to describe our four days together. But for now, let’s look at these in reverse order.
At Higher Things, there is always fun. The campus at Grand Rapids provided opportunities for various games, whether something like Jenga with a CCV in the Commons, a spontaneous game of Red Rover with some 40 youth and a few pastors, or Karaoke. Kramer Entertainment joined us on campus, providing simulators and thrills.
Flexibility is key for working with youth, especially at conferences. Thursday was supposed to see some stormy weather in Grand Rapids. The decision was made to call off the picnic and games at Millennium Park. But get this – the capable CCV leadership and Entertainment Coordinator rolled with the punches and provided an evening of great fun. Besides opportunities to swim, watch The Chronicles of Narnia, or just hang out with HT friends, a new event was created: Hymne-oke!
Hymne-oke was a hymn sing in the chapel, led by the gifted organist, Mr. Chris Loemker. Well over 150 youth and some pastors and leaders spent an hour and a half singing great hymns from Lutheran Service Book. As we concluded, a youth came up to Pastor Borghardt and said: “Pastor, can we do this every year?!”
At HT, we have three categories for our catechetical (teaching) sessions. Plenary sessions are the main teaching times, when all of us gather to hear the Word of God taught to us. This year we had the gifted and dynamic Pastors Bruce Keseman and William Weedon. Both pastors engaged us with the powerful message of SOLA, bringing God’s Law and Gospel to the forefront of our attention.
In-depth sectionals have three periods throughout the week. These are provided for topics that take more than 45 minutes to “unpack,” such as Pastor Cwirla’s topic of Answering the Atheists, or Pastor Stuckwisch bringing the liturgy into our daily lives, beyond the Divine Service.
Breakaway sectionals give 45 minute electives on a wide variety of issues. Quite a few Pop culture items surfaced, such as my “Finding the Gospel in Star Wars,” or Pastor Drew Newman’s “The Shack: Reimaging God or Help with Suffering?” Each person attending Sola had the opportunity to hear four breakaways.
In all three settings, no matter what the topic, the Gospel is at the heart of it all. Discussion always comes back to and centers on Christ crucified and risen for you.
It has been said that the heartbeat of the Church is the Lord’s Supper given in the Divine Service. The Conferences this year built up to the Divine Service as the final service of the week, with joyous anticipation all week long during Matins, Vespers, and Evening Prayer. Each full day has three services. Matins is the organized Morning Prayer of the Church. Vespers among Lutherans is another prayer service for afternoon or evening.
Some question these prayer offices (services) as too historical, too traditional, too foreign to youth. Experiencing an HT conference, you would never guess that. The singing and chanting of liturgy and hymns is amazing! The youth love the challenge of joining the Church of all ages in these prayers and songs.
The highlights? On Thursday we sang the hymn version of the Te Deum, “We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God.” Timpani, cymbals, other percussion and wind instruments joined the organ. Adults and youth alike sang their hearts out. Chills ran down spines, and tears flowed. Is such emotion the reason for our worship? Absolutely not! But here, people were moved by the awe and joy of joining the Church of all ages and all places in a 21st century setting of this honored, ancient hymn.
Yet for all the Twittering and Facebooking about the Te Deum (myself included), we must remember that the most important and most amazing moment of the conference was actually the Divine Service! The heartbeat of the Church is what nourishes our faith and gives us life. What a joy and privilege to hear the Word of God and receive Christ’s Holy Supper in the midst of our friends that make up Higher Things!
Once again, I left the Higher Things conference renewed and refreshed. Christ gave His gifts for my forgiveness, life, and salvation. Gift received. Amen!
Now I am home. Actually, I’m in the middle of moving to my new home. And as I do, I look forward to next year’s HT conference, where His Gifts will be GIVEN.
The Rev. Rich Heinz is Pastor-elect of St. John’s Lutheran Church & School in Chicago, Illinois. Sola was his third HT conference.