The Emmaus Youth went riding off into the sunrise early this morning, and I did my best to bid them adieu. They're not off to never-never land, but far-far away to Higher Things in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. I was glad for the chance to pray with them before they took off, but otherwise I felt a little awkward and out of place, being the only one there not going to Scranton. I'll be in St. Louis next week, not exactly on my lonesome, but without any youth of my own to accompany me. Monica and Oly'anna will be riding with me to St. Louis, but they'll be spending their time with their godfamilies while I'm serving as the conference chaplain all week.
It feels very odd to have my youth group attending the conference at a different location than where I'll be serving, and I have certainly had mixed emotions about it today. On the one hand, I'm really pleased for Pastor Grobien to be with them for the conference this week, and I know the Emmaus Youth were all very glad of that, too. He's not only chaperoning our young people, but he's contributing both a breakaway and an in-depth sectional; so that is most excellent. If the group had chosen to go with me to St. Louis, then probably Pastor Grobien would have remained in South Bend; after all, a congregation with two pastors should surely have at least one of them nearby, if at all possible. It was for all of these reasons that I urged the Emmaus Youth to make their plans for Pennsylvania, and to go there together as one group, rather than some or all of them coming with me to St. Louis. Half of them really preferred to go East instead of West, anyway, presumably because the Poconos promised to be more attractive and appealing than the city of St. Louis, and probably less hot and humid. So, everything has worked out as it should have, and as I also recommended. Yet, the truth is that I still feel rather melancholy to be separated from the group, and there is a big part of me that really would have loved to have them all with me next week, instead of so far away from me this week (and next).
Everyone was excited and eager to make their getaway this morning. Even my own Nicholai was out of the car and into the van so quickly, when we arrived at the church, that I had to ask him to get back out so I could give him a proper goodbye. I understand how these things are, and I would have been plenty excited to be on my way, too, had I been going anywhere. As it was, I prayed with the group, said goodbye, waved at them as they departed, and then went to work. It's just a very strange experience to be left behind instead of traveling with them, especially since I've not only helped them to plan and prepare for "Amen" from the beginning, but I'm ostensibly attending and serving the same Higher Things conference, only at a different location. They'll hear the same Readings and sing the same hymns that I helped to select with the other conference chaplains — but not with me. It's just odd, that's all, and a bit sad for me.
I'll get over my personal disappointment, just as I am already rejoicing that the Emmaus Youth are on their way to a week of prayer and intensive catechesis. I'm very happy that my Nicholai is part of the group, going to his first Higher Things conference! That's cool. For the time being, though, I'm in the process of waxing nostalgic, remembering past conferences.
For me, the high point of Higher Things was at "The Feast" two years ago in Colorado Springs. But that also felt like the culmination and crescendo of what had begun (for me) the year before at "Dare To Be Lutheran" in St. Louis. Although I've sent youth to several of the other Higher Things conferences, those are the only two that I've actually attended prior to this year. I was asked to do an in-depth sectional in St. Louis — on relationships — and that was great fun, a tremendous privilege and a real joy. It also seemed to go pretty well, I thought.
The best thing about "Dare To Be Lutheran" was the church in which the daily services were held: St. Francis Xavier Church on the St. Louis University campus. It is such a breathtaking place, stunningly beautiful in its architecture and gorgeous in its acoustics. It was especially for the sake of returning to that church that I was delighted to be asked to serve as the conference chaplain for "Amen" in St. Louis this year. I'll simply live in there for most of this coming week, and that'll be alright with me. We'll be going to and from the Seminary for the Divine Service on Thursday, but otherwise I won't have anywhere else I need to be. I wasn't asked to do any sectionals this year, and I'm not preaching for any of the services, so I'm free to oversee the services as chaplain and simply to bask and revel in the glory of the Word of God and prayer.
Well, anyway, it was during "Dare To Be Lutheran" three years ago that I first met with others to begin planning for "The Feast" in Colorado. I had already been asked to serve as the chaplain for that upcoming conference, and so it was in that capacity that I had a hand in planning it from the ground up. I was a real neophyte, in the middle of attending my very first Higher Things conference, yet already working toward the next. It was exhilarating. Those first few months were in some ways the best, since I not only got to work with Pastor Zill (who chaired "The Feast"), but I was still able to benefit for a while from the wisdom and experience of Pastor Peperkorn and Pastor Woodring. As it turned out, I learned the ropes of the position I had been given as I went along, piecing things together and figuring them out as needed, one by one.
When a full year of planning finally blossomed into "The Feast" itself, it was marvelous. There were only a couple disappointments to that week: the heat, especially for the first few days, and the wretched acoustics in the otherwise lovely chapel we were using for all of the daily services. The sound should have been fine, or even better than fine, but the ceiling of the chapel had been corked, and that swallowed up all the sound instead of letting it travel. We managed, but that was a letdown after the splendid acoustics at St. Francis Xavier Church in St. Louis.
The highlights of "The Feast" far and away outnumbered those two frustrations. We were able to celebrate the Divine Service twice: both to begin and to conclude the conference. The plenary speakers were excellent: Rev. Peter Bender and Dr. Brian Moseman, each presenting aspsects of the Lord's Supper. The schedule went smoothly and well, including two in-depth sectional tracks instead of only one. I got to do a couple breakaway sectionals, myself, on Harry Potter, which proved to be rewarding and a thoroughly good time. The daily services went smoothly, and the preaching all week was great. The music was exceptional (despite the lousy acoustics): the organ, the brass, and the choir. I served as the lector for all of the services, as I will do again this year at "Amen" in St. Louis. One of the things I most enjoyed was having three of my young Emmausites, Billy, Nathaniel and my own son Zachary, serving as my acolytes and crucifers and such throughout the conference. It was also a blessing to have Pastor Esget and Pastor Kind as my assistant chaplains (and then they went on to be the conference chaplains last summer). Working with Pastor Zill as the conference chair was outstanding, and I remain ever so grateful to him for his leadership, his assistance and support, and his friendship.
I'm sure there are many other things about "The Feast" that I'm forgetting at the moment, but all of my memories of that week coalesce into a wonderful whole. It was exhausting, absolutely, but I left Colorado Springs (with Zach and DoRena) with a deep sense of satisfaction. It worked. A year's worth of planning and preparation paid off, and the end result was a job well done.
I'm not nearly so nervous or anxious about "Amen" as I was in approaching "The Feast." For one thing, it's a whole lot easier to do something like this the second time around. I know what to expect, and I'm going to a place I've been before. Everything is in place, and I've got a great crew of good people to assist with various responsibilities. It's disappointing that I won't have any of my own youth accompanying me, and that I won't be doing any sectionals this time, but on both counts that also means that I'll be fully unencumbered to focus on my duties as chaplain. I suspect the week will come and go pretty fast, as it is, and that I'll be plenty tired by the end of it all. Hopefully, I'll again be heading homeward with that same sense of satisfaction.