Jensen Chapel at Thousand Pines was filled to capacity that late summer evening during the college-career camp I attended at age 19. There had been a few songs, an inspiring sermon by a preacher whose name I can’t remember, and then Bob Shepherd got up to lead more singing.
This was in the days before “worship music”. Yes, we had music from people like Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Love Song, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and more — but Contemporary Christian Music was just beginning to be a thing, and it was not yet any way near as wide-spread as today, or as welcome in church settings.
Besides, Bob Shepherd was from a different era. He was a familiar and beloved figure from my childhood, from the unforgettable “song services” that he had led over the years. He was in fine form that night, and we sang hymn after hymn after hymn, exuberantly and whole-heartedly, with a number of favorite old choruses thrown in for good measure, until he was drenched in sweat, lost his voice, and left most of us exhausted.
I didn’t want to stop. That song, “I could sing of His love forever” was years off in the future, but on that wonderful night I really did feel as if I wanted to sing of God’s love forever…and ever…and ever…
Luckily my wonderful friend Diane felt the same way, and so did four of our new friends. We found ourselves in the outdoor amphitheater, under the stars, praying together, and singing until we finally ran out of voices and songs. There was an incredible meteor shower that night, the best I’ve ever seen. None of us wanted to stop praying, but we didn’t want anyone to miss out on particularly spectacular shooting stars, so we found ourselves pointing them out in our prayers — Praise You, God, for that huge falling star right over the mountain in front of us! — and then laughing at ourselves.
It was one of the most joyous, most deeply meaningful, most profoundly beautiful and precious times of worship and prayer that I’ve ever experienced. It was so sweet, so real, so intimate — and that last part seems all the more remarkable since Diane and I barely knew our new friends at the beginning of the evening.
There are a few things I think of as pinnacle life experiences, and that night was one of them. For awhile, in my youthful idealism, I thought that I could duplicate it. Given the right setting — out under the stars, perhaps — and the right people, maybe we could have that same sense of hearts knitted and joined together in an incomprehensibly mysterious way, feeling as if we were soaring high into the skies, the earth fading behind us. We could hold hands and hearts while marveling together that Heaven seemed almost within reach, so close that maybe we actually were catching a glimpse, a foretaste of it. Maybe if the right things came together in just the right way…
It was not to be. After a bitterly disappointing time half a dozen years later, when I tried to manufacture a similar experience with someone else, I realized that life’s greatest hours are better left as treasured memories. That doesn’t negate the fact that since then, I have experienced a deep bond of unity during some special prayer and worship times with others, and I value those very much. But that night under the shooting stars in Thousand Pines was one of a kind, a rare and priceless gift — really and truly a foretaste of Heaven itself.