By Ann Osburn
Nearly 2,100 Lutheran youth, church workers and chaperones gathered this summer for the 2013 “From Above”-themed Higher Things youth conferences held at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa.; Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; and Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Wash. The conference at Purdue, with nearly 1,400 participants, was the single-largest Higher Things conference yet.
“There’s no ‘From Above’ unless our Lord comes to you from above, and that first from above is ‘Merry Christmas’ — even in July,” Higher Things President Rev. George Borghardt said in his sermon at the conference opening services. “On Good Friday… the God whose job description says ‘cannot die’ did just that. Now He showers His Christmas gifts to you and into you from the water and blood flowing from His pierced side.”
The “From Above” conference theme was based on John 3:3: “Unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“Your second birth bails you out of your first birth,” said the Rev. Sam Schuldheisz, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, Calif., during his Matins sermon at the Tacoma conference. “And so you, too, are marked by death, but it is Christ’s death that you are marked by. You are marked for life. Just to make sure you never forget it, Jesus marks you as well on the forehead — smack dab on the middle of your head, the cross to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.”
“I really, really enjoyed the conference,” said first-time attendee Kristen Larson from Forks, Wash. “It’s nice to focus on specific topics and learn about them in detail. I really enjoyed how many times a day we attended services. When you go in there and worship with everyone, it’s family-like and makes me feel at home.”
The three Higher Things youth conferences ran Tuesday through Friday afternoons and had similar schedules. This year’s opening Divine Service at the conferences had a Christmas theme, which included hymns such as “Away in a Manger,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” as well as this year’s conference hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
“We began the conference celebrating Christmas,” said the Rev. Peter Cage, pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind., during one of his four plenary sessions at the Tacoma conference. “There was a sign — a Child is born for you … You will find Him wrapped in cloths. This looks like the end, right — the crucifixion, the death … and they wrap Him in cloths and lay Him, not in a manger, but in a tomb? Here’s the One who comes from above, the gift of the Father that we celebrate at Christmas.”
“It’s been a lot of fun this year, because I could better understand the classes I attended and could relate to them because of things going on in the world right now,” said Jamie Burton, a 16-year-old attendee from Marysville, Wash. “I really like the fact that it’s so interesting to high-schoolers.”
“I really enjoyed the sectionals because I love learning about the Bible and theology,” said Ramona Tausz, an 18-year-old attendee from Melrose Park, Ill.
“I loved the services but really loved the breakaway sessions,” the Rev. Daniel Pool, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Clinton, Iowa, said of the Purdue conference. “They addressed very specific issues that kids are dealing with or should be dealing with. They see that other pastors are saying the same things and doing the same things.”
This year’s breakaway topics ranged from Lutheran worship, apologetics and various books of the Bible, to dating, social media and The Augsburg Confession.
“The conference is interesting. I learned about Mormons, science and religion,” said Cooper Socia, a 17-year-old attendee from Coos Bay, Ore.
The conference at Purdue had 113 breakaway-session options. Attendees at all three conferences attended six sessions of their choice throughout the week, as well as four plenary group-teaching sessions.
“I’m learning so much, even as an adult,” said Kari Walker of University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis, who attended the Purdue conference. “It’s so nice to see so many Lutherans here, and the kids are getting so much out of it.”
“I had a lot of fun and I now have a new perspective on the Bible and what I believe in. I liked how there were several short worship services throughout the week,” said Kenneth Wolfrum, a 15-year-old from Dyer, Ind.
Groups prayed Matins, Vespers and Evening Prayer throughout the four-day conferences, and many groups gathered for Compline in the evenings.
“The services are awesome. I couldn’t believe that the kids belt out the songs and they know them,” said Carol Ward, a first-time attendee and recent convert to Lutheranism from Fort Collins, Colo. “The way the hymns are played on the organ gives me goose bumps. You don’t think the kids pay attention, but they do. Even during plenary session, I couldn’t believe how the kids responded with the answers they did.”
“I especially liked Compline because it’s new to me,” said Candace Debowey, a second-time conference attendee from Springfield, Ill. “It’s so nice to know that we’re going to bed right after hearing God’s Word.”
Free time was available each evening of the conferences. Entertainment options included various outdoor sports, bowling, billiards, “Iron Chef” competitions, talent shows, English-garden dancing, karaoke, improvisational comedy, a 6,000-egg Easter-egg hunt, “Super Twister” on an oversized outdoor game board, a trivia game show, rides on the Purdue Boilermaker train, bounce houses and more.
“I really had so much fun at Higher Things this year. I wish there were conferences twice a year,” said Kathryn Kincheloe, a 16-year-old attendee from Albuquerque, N.M.
The Rev. Carl Thiele, a pastor in Queensland, Australia, attended the Tacoma conference. He said that he appreciated friendships made at the conference and noted, “The nature of Higher Things and all that it represents shows that it is OK to be fair-dinkum Lutheran.” (“Fair dinkum” is an Australian term meaning honest or genuine.)
The conferences came full circle with the closing Divine Service theme: Easter.
“Death stinks. We know this because the women, when they went to the tomb that Sunday, brought with them air fresheners,” the Rev. Mark Buetow, pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Du Quoin, Ill., and Higher Things media executive, said during the closing conference sermon. “It stinks because it hurts; because we lose those we love. Death exudes us our whole life long. No amount of Febreze is going to get the stink of death out of our nostrils and no amount of condolences are going to soothe our hearts.”
“Jesus doesn’t just drop-kick death; he drop-kicks your death,” Buetow continued. “In this world of death, we need the reminder and the promises. You need the promises and inoculation of your Baptism by which you have been prepared to survive even falling asleep for a time. You will live forever with your Lord and all of His saints and you will never have even a wisp of death ever again. That is life from above.”
Higher Things, a Recognized Service Organization of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, holds annual youth conferences and assists parents, pastors and congregations in cultivating and promoting a distinctly Lutheran identity among youth and young adults. For more information, visit higherthings.org.
Ann Osburn lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and serves as marketing coordinator for Higher Things.