Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Higher Things 2011: Coram Deo

Something tells me that this blog post won't win Todd Wilken's approval for brevity. My apologies.

I've worked with young people for a long time now.  It's been twenty years, in fact, which is well over half of my life. In that time I've seen trends and fads, facts and figures, gadgets and gimmicks, both in the secular and ecclesiastical realms. 

I don't think I ever posted my critique on this blog, but I am a survivor of the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod's 2004 National Youth Gathering (and I do mean "survivor", as it was a nightmare of the worst trends in post-modern evangelical Christianity). There was not much about that event that I would consider Lutheran. There was not much I would even consider inherently Christian. The oozing emotionalism, the specially-produced liturgies, the contemporary Christian music, the Bible study that began with the pastor fanning his softcover gathering Bible while holding it up to his ear and asking if we could "hear the Spirit moving", the sermon preached by the wife of the former Synodical presidentthese things did not lend themselves to the edification of the soul.

This past week I took kids from my youth group to the Higher Things conference in Bloomington, Illinois. To my great delight, the conference was refreshingly lacking in fads, gimmicks, and the command to "Shout if you love Jeeeeeeeezus!" I was impressed all around with the commitment of Higher Things to traditional Lutheran theology and worship, a commitment demonstrated amply in the 10 different organized services and the numerous plenary and breakaway presentations. I'm going to list, point by point, the things I liked and disliked about the conference, and there's very little you can do to stop me.


Let's start with all things liturgical. Coram Deo began and ended with the Divine Service. Not only did the conference begin with the Divine Service, but it was a setting taken straight from the hymnal (LSB Setting 1, if you must know), rather than the scattered moonings of some "master liturgist". The confession of sins was an actual confession, where we confess that we are sinners in thought, word and deed, and we received the full forgiveness of our sins; we did not make a confession of sins that doesn't really confess sins, nor did we hear an absolution that doesn't really absolve the sinner of anything. The creed was the Creed taken straight from the hymnal, not some bastardized version of the creed that confesses that Jesus loves us the way the sun loves a flower. No one's wife got up in the middle of the service to preach a sermon in the middle of another sermon. No one's daughter got up to entice the young men in attendance to love Jesus just a little more through the gyrations of her scantily-clad body. The sermons were Lutheran sermonsno "moral of the story", no patronizing the youth. We prayed four times each day: Matins, Vespers, Evening Prayer, and Prayer at the Close of the Day (a shortened version of Compline). This was counter-cultural worship, the kind of things that today's youth aren't supposed to enjoy; and yet many of the kids I talked to described the worship as their favorite part of the conference. And the hymnody?  Well, let's give the hymnody its own section.

And why don't we do that now. Ah, the hymns. The conference hymn was "God's Own Child, I Gladly Say It", which went nicely with the conference theme, which was Coram Deo. I'll talk more about the conference theme in a moment. The hymns were actual hymns, and, with one exception, I was pleased with their selections. We sang the conference hymn at almost every service. We sang the greats like "Thy Strong Word", "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing", "For all the Saints", and numerous others. We sang all the verses of each hymn. Nowhere were we called upon to wave our hands to heaven as we repeated nonsense phrases. Nowhere were we called upon to emote about what we've done for Jesus.

The conference theme was Coram Deo, a Latin phrase which means "before God" or "in the face of God". Where do you stand before God? As a sinner, that is a horrible question to have to answer. In the way of the Law, you stand before God as a sinner, worthy only of condemnation. But through Baptism, this is no longer a horrifying question to answer, because you stand before God as His redeemed child. You stand before God wearing the white robe of Christ's righteousness, and He sees Christ's righteousness and pronounces you "not guilty". Again, the substance was counter-cultural, raising the bar, asking the kids to think rather than to feel. The plenary speakers, Pastor William Cwirla and Pastor Brent Kuhlman, took the kids into the topic intensively. Pastor Cwirla took the kids through Romans, while Pastor Kuhlman took the kids through the Catechism, both of them showing the kids where they stood Coram Deoand Pastor Cwirla adding the extra emphasis of Coram Hominibus: how we stand before our fellow humans. The breakaway sessions continued with the theme. None of the speakers I saw needed gimmicks, and at no time did the speakers insult the intelligence of their audience.

As always, I am impressed with the overall philosophy of Higher Things. "The mission of Higher Things, Inc. is to assist parents, congregations, and pastors in cultivating and promoting a Lutheran identity among youth . . ." (which is taken directly from their website). I have attended a Synodical National Youth Gathering, and I have attended District Youth Gatherings. I know that Higher Things does not intend to deliberately compete with these things in their conferences, but as one who has attended such things, it's difficult not to make the comparison. You can't help but notice the difference in the philosophies behind those who are responsible for Higher Things and those who are responsible for the Synodical gatherings. The monthly mailings from the LCMS Youth Ministry Office are strewn with the results of surveys and "longitudinal studies" about "what youth want today" and "what youth are up to today" from George Barna and others. Their conference speakers are not always Lutherans, much less LCMS Lutherans. On the other hand, Higher Things urges you to "dare to be Lutheran". Everything about their conferences, their magazine, their organization, is unashamedly Lutheran.

The Higher Things staff and volunteers (CCVs) impressed me as well, from the top of the organization to the lowliest college student who volunteered their time. I admit that I've met a large number of the Higher Things staff before, and the Media Executive is a good friend. Even without those connections, one cannot help but be impressed by the commitment of the staff in putting together three consecutive conferences in three weeks. And for each of these conferences, a group of college students pays (if sufficient donations are not made) to volunteer their time to making sure the speakers have no technological issues and the youth don't spend too much time lost on a college campus. Of course, two of my adopted sisters were CCVs at the Bloomington conference, so I'm a little biased, but even the ones that I didn't spend a year with on vicarage were excellent.

I was also given the opportunity to appear on Higher Things Radio! Since my group of kids traveled with the group from Pastor Buetow's congregation, Bethel Luthern in DuQuoin, our groups did our nighttime prayers together. When the prayers were over, he said he was going down to record an episode of HT radio where they'd be doing an "Ask the Pastor" section, and he asked me to participate. Of course, now I know why God called me to the Office of the Ministry: to save me from my delusions that I'd have made a dynamic radio personality! Nevertheless, I had a great time doing it, even if I sounded like I've never spoken in public before. You can listen to that particular episode here.

All around, I was impressed with the kids who attended the conferencewith a special mention of my own group from St. Peter Lutheran in Campbell Hill, IL. As I said, we traveled with a group from Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, IL. We also had a group with us from my vicarage congregation, Trinity Lutheran in Norborne, MO. So we already knew some of the kids who were attending. Of course, 20 kids in the sea of 1,200 kids isn't much. But watching how these kids from 25 states and 4 Canadian provinces came together, daring to be explicitly Lutheran . . . well, it was quite a sight to see. With few exceptions, the kids were well-behaved, respectful of the speakers and staff, and willing to jump right in and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

A couple personal highlights: (1) I met Dr. Lamb of Lutherans for Life, an organization determined to preserve human life at all stages. I shared with Dr. Lamb the text of my hymn "Before I Formed You in the Womb I Knew You", and he said to look for it in one of their future periodicals! (2) I was also reunited with three fellow alumni from my alma mater, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. I hadn't seen any of these gentlemen since I completed my course of studies eleven years ago, and it was nice to be reunited with them (and to meet their wives, two of whom I hadn't met before). (3) It was also a blessing to meet in person for the first time (and to be reunited with) friends from Facebook and other circles of friends.


My biggest dislike in the whole of the Coram Deo experienceand the only one over which the Higher Things staff had any controlwas the selection of the Stephen Starke hymn "We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God" (LSB 941). It's a wonderful textit's hard to screw up the Te Deum Laudamus, after all, and I'd love to see the text set to another tune, even if "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" (LSB 940) is one of my favorite hymnsbut the tune is Thaxted, which is the melody of the central section of the Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst's "The Planets". I believe that using that tune sends a bad message. We tell our young couples not to use Mendelssohn's Wedding March from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or Wagner's Bridal Chorus from "Lohengrin" because of the context in which those pieces appear. By the same token, "The Planets" by Holst deals with the astrological and mythical significance of the planets. Whether or not the kids know the context of the music, it's inappropriate for a Christian hymn. It is, however, firmly embedded in Lutheran Service Book and is quite popular with the Higher Things crowd, especially since (If I remember correctly) it was the conference hymn for one of the past conferences, so I have no illusions that it will disappear from Higher Things any time soon.

Of course the Higher Things people have no control over this, but it was hellishly hot in Bloomington last week. It was in the high 90s all week, and I don't think it slipped below 80 until at least midnight. This polar bear nearly went extinct!

The whistles. Exhibitors always attend things like this, and for the most part I was pleased. One exhibitor, however, handed out whistles. Give a kid a whistle, and you know what he's going to do with it. Those whistles were a plague! 

I was ever-so-slightly disappointed in the organ playing. Of course, when you go in expecting to hear the great Chris Loemker, anyone else is going to be a letdown. But circumstances kept Chris away for most of the conference, so he was only available for one service. Dr. Eifert of Mt. Calvary Lutheran in San Antonio, TX, was an admirable substitute, though.


All in all, as I'm sure you can tell, I was very much impressed by the whole experience. Even with high expectations going in, I found those expectations surpassed. I arrived tired and spiritually run down. I departed exhausted and spiritually refreshed. (Yeah, you don't sleep a lot at these things.) If you are a kid, ask your parents and youth leaders and pastors if you can go. If you are a youth leader or pastor or parent, encourage your kids to go. Finally, here is a place where you don't have to be embarrassed to be a Lutheran. In fact, a Higher Things conference will encourage you to "Dare to be Lutheran"!

1 comment:

Rev. Alex Klages said...

For the record, I share your dislike of Thaxted as a hymn tune (and also dislike the Ode to Joy as a hymn tune).

Great summary. And good to see you again, dear brother!