No, I haven't died and gone to heaven, but this servant of the Lord surely could depart in peace, for my eyes and ears and nose and mouth and hands have beheld the Glory of God in the gifts of His Christ, on earth as it is in heaven, by His Word of the Gospel throughout this week. I'm in St. Louis, completing my duties as the chaplain of the Higher Things conference that began on Tuesday and concludes this afternoon at Vespers. What a joy and delight, what a privilege and a pleasure it has been to serve in this capacity. How rich in grace and mercy the Lord has been to lavish such loving-kindness upon me and all His children here gathered together in this place.
Granted, I have missed having my own Emmaus Youth here with me. There have been times I've almost forgotten that, when I have momentarily wanted to seek them out in the midst of the crowd and exult with them as their pastor in the good gifts that we are granted to receive. Then I immediately remember that they have already rejoiced in that privilege last week in the Poconos, and that here I am given to serve as a pastor for other young people, for their parents and pastors and chaperones. There is a twinge of melancholy sadness, that I am not able to share this immediate experience with my own young people, who are in many ways almost like my own children (and in some cases are, in fact, my own children). Yet, there is the benefit that I have been able to give my full focus and complete attention to my office as chaplain.
My entire week has really been consumed with preparations for each of the services: ten of them altogether, from Tuesday afternoon through Friday afternoon. I've been able to consider every detail ahead of time, so that, when the time comes to pray with this group of 800+ youth, we are simply able to rest in the Word of the Lord and to pray together in peace and quietness. What a marvelous thing that is. There is such a beautiful rhythm to this week. It is more full and complete than we are able to follow back home; though, at the same time, each of the prayer offices are like an old friend, a familiar and comfortable place to be at ease: to be "at home," as it were, not geographically, but in Christ Jesus our Savior. Praying Evening Prayer and Vespers with my own congregation every week throughout the year, I find that praying with the people here at the conference is simply a continuation and extension of that regular pattern and practice. Thus, even separated by hundreds of miles, I am still praying with and for my dear people at Emmaus.
It was a different experience for me to administer the Holy Communion to a congregation of disciples some ten or twelve times larger than I am normally given to serve. Having bread and wine ready to hand for 900 communicants makes for a lot of food up there on the Altar. To take that in hand with the Words of our Lord and to oversee the distribution of His Body and His Blood into the mouths of His people is an awesome responsibility and task. Yet, the same Lord whose gifts I was given to administer also surrounded and supported me with faithful brothers in Christ and in the Holy Office, that all things might be done in love, in decency and good order. Looking out over the distribution as it was occuring last night, there was such a wave of joy that flooded me, I could hardly have expressed it, except by joining in the singing of the hymns as best I could while remaining attentive to my duties.
The music all week long has been tremendous. I have basked in the opportunity to be served by my dear friend and father in Christ, Kantor Resch, as he has served at the organ bench for all of the services of the conference. Mr. Tim Lacroix returned to this conference to serve, as he has so well in the past, as the choir director, and what great work he has done with a wonderful group of young people. My seat on the chancel has been immediately in front of the choir, and their beautiful singing of the Word of God has both comforted and delighted me.
For each of us here in this place, to sing in the magnificent St. Xavier Church on the campus of St. Louis University is truly a taste of heaven on earth. Architecturally, artistically and acoustically, it is simply marvelous. As the Lord opens our lips to show forth His praise in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, it has been almost an effortless undertaking. And to hear the great Lutheran chorales swell from the lungs and lips of this group is breathtaking.
Three years ago, when I was attending the "Dare To Be Lutheran" conference here in St. Louis (my first Higher Things conference), I was in such awe of the chapel space and daily services. If anything, my perspective and experience as the chaplain has been even more exhilerating. What is definitely sweeter this time around is the weather and my experience of the campus. In 2005, it was so terribly hot and humid all week long, and everything seemed to bake in the sun like the Sahara desert. I remember walking from my dorm, then, to the student center where the sectionals were held, a matter of only four or five blocks I suppose, and arriving drenched in perspiration. Wearing my clericals that week, I felt like a mobile solar panel, and it was dreadful. Our dorm for that conference was the one south of the campus, right on Grand Avenue, immediately off the highway. Consequently, I never actually saw the bulk of the campus, but basically walked back and forth up and down Grand Avenue all week long. Mainly what I saw was concrete and blacktop and lots of traffice. I don't think anything was very green that summer, either, and the overall feel was that of an inner city.
This year, my dorm is toward the western end of the beautiful campus. I walk amidst fountains and trees and grass. Everything is green and lush and lovely. I've seen very little traffic most of the time, because I haven't had to be on Grand Avenue much. Sure, I've spent most of my time in the church, because that's where I've been preparing and officiating all of the services. But I've had the pleasure of enjoying the campus in my movement to and fro, and it simply feels like a different place altogether than the last time I was here. My dorm is very nice, too, and I've had a couple of great roommates; although I will say that I have missed having my Zach here and rooming with him, which was the other thing I enjoyed best about "Dare To Be Lutheran."
I suppose that if I got to revel in this kind of splendor all the time, I would be tempted to fall into a theology of glory. Leaving this place will tug and pull at my heart, because this truly has been a joyous opportunity to serve and be served. Yet, the parish and people to whom I return are God's own children, the very ones He has given me to care for, not only for a week, but for a lifetime. I don't have a space as architecturally, artistically and acoustically astounding as St. Xavier Church, but our own Emmaus is the place where Christ Jesus comes to be with us, to open the Scriptures to us, to open our ears, our hearts and minds to Himself, and to give Himself to us in the Breaking of the Bread. He gives those gifts to me, His child and servant, and He gives me the tremendous privilege and pleasure of giving them to the congregation in His Name. That, also, is heaven on earth; under the cross, to be sure, but no less so for that reason. Indeed, it is by and with the cross that heaven is ours, even now, by grace through faith in Christ. It has not yet appeared what we shall be. Even here in this place, we do not see or hear or smell or taste outwardly what the full glory of heaven shall be like. Yet, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily among us in the Word and Flesh and Blood of Christ the Crucified. Heaven itself would be void and bare, if He were not near us, but here and back home He is already a very present help in trouble; and He shall never leave us nor forsake us.
I'll take my leave of St. Xavier Church with a touch of sadness, but I am already looking forward to being again with the flock entrusted to my pastoral care in South Bend. There it is true, no matter how any given day may feel, that I am given to live a heavenly life here on earth.