Concordia University held its "Festival of Beginnings" service as an opener of the 2012-2013 school year. Faculty, students, and others filled the Buetow Auditorium on Thursday, August 30, 2012, the morning of the year's first day of classes. The theme for this year is "Our Refuge and Strength," based on the words of Psalm 46. Fittingly, the service began with singing the hymn, "A Mighty Fortress." After the hymn Dr. Carter and two student ministers led the congregation in an invocation dialogue, an alternating pattern of responsive verses from Psalm 46. Isaiah 41:10 was read as the Old Testament verse, followed by a reading from Mathew 11. A significant section of this passage is comprised of verses 28, 29, and 30, in which Jesus invites all those who are "weary and burdened" to give up their cares and concerns to him, promising to give "rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:28, 29). After another hymn President Ries spoke an excellent homily around the theme of Psalm 46 in relation to the new school year and the refuge and strength God provides--that he indeed is--to those who look to him in trust. The Rite of Induction of student ministers and servants on campus followed the sermon, at which point the congregation was dismissed. Apparently time had run out; the prayers, benediction, and hymn "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past" were left out of the service's conclusion.
This service related to the learning accomplished throughout the Honors program in one main way. Just as the Honors program connects faith with learning, so this service, especially the homily given by President Ries, connected this academic year with trust in the God who is always with us. The school year's components such as new experiences, unfamiliar environment for new students, academic stressors, schedules, extracurricular opportunities, difficulties in relationships, and daily living lead to the value of not just one more thing, but the main thing: time spent in stillness with God, who makes all things possible and provides the solace and strength necessary to carry out this life while looking forward to the next. God's refuge--a place to which to flee, or a place of safety--is always in the same place: in his word, sacraments, and presence in our hearts. Turning to him for refuge in times of uncertainty or exhaustion is not really turning to him, because he has always been there. It is taking time to pay attention to his words of truth, drawing one's focus away from the distractions of earthly life and spending time relying on him and placing hope in higher things. Placing one's hope in God's strength does not create abilities that weren't there; turning to God for strength means humbling oneself to recognize that the aspirations and goals made possible during student's young years are given by God's blessing. The ties of God's refuge and strength, woven among students' everyday lives, closely resemble the ties made during students' Honors studies as secular issues are woven among theological issues. This service's introduction to the school year appropriately mirrors an introduction into a new year of Honors Program learning.
President Ries's homily certainly made up for the missed parts of the service. His lengthy speech may have contributed to a miscalculation of time, but the value of what he had to say was irreplaceable. Many of his words were meaningful to those listening and to me. He connected Psalm 46 with the newness or unfamiliarity or anxiety that many new students feel in this environment. God is our refuge, when we need to rest in a safe place, and our strength, when we need to push ourselves out of our box and believe more than what we think possible, for "with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26). Even for students who are not new to Concordia or to college or to these surroundings, life is full of uncertainty and questioning. Am I headed in the right direction? Am I doing what I "should" be doing? Is this the best path to pursue? What about the people I miss, the place where I often wish I was, the time I feel I can't make up? Is this really where I ought to be? What if I made the wrong decision? How can I know? Can't God tell me more clearly? Neon wouldn't hurt. It's so hard to trust God. Well, actually, it's not, according to my favorite Dr. Trapp. In my baptism God has built within me a new nature that desires to place all my trust in him. My old nature still wants to doubt and deny God's wisdom and compassion, claiming that it is hard to trust God and that he probably doesn't know what he's doing--or worse, doesn't care--but my new nature is not to be overcome. God gives me his own strength. God gives me faith to believe him until the day when I will be with him face to face, with no more ends of summers and beginnings of being away from home, no more missing those we love, no more questions and no more fear. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or tears, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).