Let the Symbols Speak: Preparing for worship by looking around

Anne and I arrived at church twenty minutes early and slipped into our accustomed pew. I bowed my head and prayed for an outpouring of God's grace on the congregation, on our pastor as he led in worship, on our family, and on myself.

Since retiring from the active pastorate, I confess I have found it a challenge to worship. My previously well-stroked ego gets in the way Too often I have participated critically and wondered why it isn't done the way I used to do it. I again prayed for humility and openness to the Spirit. I read the four pages of bulletin announcements and the prayers of the liturgy and still had time to read the Scripture lessons for the day. I noted the sermon title our pastor had chosen out of the readings and thought about the connections he might make.

When I finished perusing the printed material, I watched friends and strangers sliding into their pews. Pulling my coat sleeve back, I glanced at my watch. Still twelve minutes before the start of the service. I looked around again.

Prompted by a then unidentified nudge (later grudgingly recognized as the Holy Spirit!), 1 began studying the furnishings and appointments in the front of the church and asking myself, "Why were these traditional furnishings and symbols chosen, and what do they mean?" And 1 soon discovered—both on this Sunday and on subsequent Sundays—that the common symbols in our churches can be vehicles of divine grace if we are open to what they have to tell us.

Stained Glass

In our sanctuary there is a dominant stained-glass window above the worship center's focus—the cross. If there is such a window where you worship, what are its components? Why were they chosen? What do they say to you?

Ours is the shape of a half-moon and has an open Bible at its center, from which radiate golden rays of light. Our church historian, who has been busy preparing for our 350th anniversary year, says there is no record of who the artist was, what he wanted to convey through his art, or when it was installed.

As I looked at the window with fresh receptivity, the words of the poet came to mind: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Ps. 119:105). I searched for the poem in the pew Bible and read the verses before and after it and was enlightened.

Consider the symbols in the stained glass of your church. What is God waiting to say to you through them? Come and contemplate with me.


Our church building here on Cape Cod is a mile from the Atlantic Ocean and two miles from where the Pilgrims first met the Indians, whom we now identify as native Americans. In this locale quarter-boards are everywhere—on boats, in restaurants and shops, over doorways of homes, and, appropriately, beneath the stained-glass window in our sanctuary. Installed in the 1985 redecoration, this distinctive deep cranberry-red quarter-board boldly declares in six-inch-tall gold leaf: ...the Word of our God will stand forever. That is the second half of Isaiah 40, verse 8. The first phrase of the verse speaks of the frailty of the material world: "The grass withers, the flower fades; but..."

As I read the quarter-board's message, my mind opened to absorb the reality God communicates through Isaiah. I asked, "What does the phrase up there mean? How does it relate to the first part of the verse? In my present circumstance, how and where does the board's message have meaning for my life?"

Are there similar words in your sanctuary, painted on a wall, imbedded in a window, written over a doorway? What is the Lord saying to you through that selection as you wait for worship to begin? Digest the phrase. Grapple with the words. Let's contemplate as we sit in our pews during our preparation for worship.


The two candles—just a tall symmetrical ornamentation, or is there a reason for the two? They remind me of the dual nature of Jesus Christ—fully God and fully human. John wrote, "The Word became flesh and lived among us" Oohn 1:3). The eternal is permanently among us. The lofty and distant has drawn near. The Infinite has become the finite while remaining the Infinite.

While examining the two candles from the pew, I remembered that the Greeks of the first century had more than 3,300 gods. None of them was personally available to mortals in need. In that early environment, Christ's incarnation was a fantastically radical new experience. I had forgotten that. The candles had become "old hat" to me. Through them I was suddenly reminded that God has walked where I walk, laughed where I laugh, agonized as I agonize, grieved as I grieve, and triumphed as I may in the Christ. The eternal continues among us.

Considering the duality of the candles, I read John 1:1-18. No longer are those candles ornaments. A bit of contemplation has made them rich with meaning for me.

The Communion Table

Carved on the face of our table are the familiar words, "This do in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:24). It is the table of the Lord's Supper, where Christ's death and resurrection is celebrated through ordinary household things—bread and wine. What occurs around the Table is a visual reenactment of the Almighty's bridging the chasm created by my sin as it bulldozed through the earthiness of God's love and separated me from the eternal. Through the event at this common table, the Lord invites me to allow him to be the means by which I may return to our Creator "whiter than snow," as the poet experienced it (Ps. 51:7).

From my pew I looked at the table. Though simple in design, it has a powerful personal and transforming message. What about the table in your sanctuary? What does God say to you through it before worship begins? Contemplate with me.

The Cross

The cross is the central symbol in the architecture of my church. It sits on the communion table, its brass surface reflecting the illuminating spotlights. How deceptive that shining luster is.

As other people entered church that morning to sit in their pews, I remembered that the original cross was a common thing, the horrible everyday death tool used to dispose of the ordinary criminal. The horror of the cross may be more accurately reflected in the crucifix, but in the Reformed tradition we have removed Christ from the cross to emphasize that he is among us, not "back there" dealing with our sin. The grim anguish and meaning of the Son's death too easily eludes you and me. Sitting next to Anne in our pew, I asked myself, "At what point in my personal life right now does the deeper significance of his cross have application for me? For you? For us?"

Will you contemplate with me when next you sit before the cross in your church?

The Baptismal Font

When my parents presented me for baptism, the font was the focal point of their acknowledgment of God's invasion of their life and their response in commitment to him. As I sat in the pew and recalled their faithfulness, the Spirit brought to mind people, times, and places when Anne and I presented our children at other fonts in the same manner, of friends who opened doors of insight so I might more clearly relate to Him. Faithful to their vows, they also assured me I am acceptable within God's community of people.

At a font like this one, I was baptized with "the sign and seal of God's covenant." Through the confession of others who have been baptized in the years since, I have been invited repeatedly to renew my vows of fidelity and commitment.

The Lectern and the Pulpit

From the lectern I hear the Word read, and from the pulpit I hear it proclaimed. From the one I join a centuries-long line of believers to hear the Word of eternal life, and from the other I hear how that life is to be experienced now. Depending upon my human condition on any one Sunday morning, the Word surges or slithers into my life, but it comes. Am I open to it?

The lectern and pulpit in our sanctuaries: strange-looking pieces of furniture, or vehicles of the divine transmission of the Word of God into our common life? How? Why? Where, personally? Let's contemplate together.

Come and Contemplate

The next time you are in church twiddling your thumbs as you wait for the first hymn, the call to worship, or the introit, look at the rich diversity of symbols abounding in your church's sanctuary. Let the Holy Spirit plow the fertile field of your mind and soul as you contemplate the representations before you. I gladly acknowledge that such a simple discipline has enabled the Creator to plant seeds of openness in me. They have borne fruit in the formal act of worship that followed in the community of God's people.

Donner B. Atwood is a retired pastor in the Reformed Church in America who lives in Eastham, Massachusetts.


Reformed Worship 42 © December 1996 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.