Pentecost Picnic: How the Spirit made what was all wrong go all right

This piece is an excerpt from one of the weekly e-mail newsletters she sends to all college students away from their home church. (http://www.mcs.com/-w crc/)

I'm a front-row kind of person—always have been. Rut on Pentecost Sunday morning, when we arrived at the outdoor joint service/potluck with Vietnamese New Hope Christian Reformed Church, the lawn chairs were already spilling down the hillside, so we settled in.

In previous years they set up for this service with the pastors at the bottom of the hill and the congregation on the hillside, amphitheater-style. But apparently the slope is just steep enough so that people fell out of their chairs—usually deemed a negative thing in a worship service, unless you are into being slain in the Spirit, which generally we're not—so this year the pastors were uphill and the congregation on chairs, starting on the level and then straggling downhill.

So we couldn't see the pastors, and we couldn't hear much, either; it was pretty windy, and the speakers didn't cany. After a while the kids gave up on following the service and started to drift off down the hillside to play—which was good, because the walnut tree we were sitting under starting dropping walnuts, so those who remained in the chairs spent a good part of the service trying not to get brained.

Communion should have been a really moving experience: We were to stand in three separate circles and pass the bread, each saying in his or her own language to the next person, "The body of Christ, given for you." Trouble was, it wasn't bread; it was those paper-thin wafers, which, we now know, are aerodynamic marvels in the wind. By this time the children on the hillside were whooping it up so gleefully (for all I know, chasing wafers) that I turned to Dang Nguyen, who was next to me in the communion circle, and said that we should have a joint church picnic sometime. He replied, "1 think this is it."

By the end of the service I felt the missions committee had done a really good job of giving us a sense of how difficult missions work is for those who try to lead worship services with no facilities, across language barriers, and in the face of multiple distractions. I decided they'd made the point that you can't just transplant worship to a different setting and have it work, though I felt bad that Pastor John had spent time preparing a sermon that no one heard.

So imagine my amazement, after the service, when I heard people saying what a wonderful service it had been, and what a powerful sermon (not that I figured it wasn't; just that I figured no one could tell), and what meaningful communion! It turns out that the people up close to the portable platform, where they could hear and see (and where there were no walnut trees), had a completely different experience than 1 did. While I was experiencing one big object lesson in services gone wrong, they were really worshiping!

It reminded me of something I heard a while back: if you want to grow spiritually, you have to put yourself in the places where that's most likely to happen. You can put yourself in the Word through personal devotions and Bible study and worship; you can put yourself in a Christian community by the friends you choose and the church you attend; or you can sit under the walnut tree and spend your energy in self-preservation. Here's a good test to figure out where you are: in the first scenario, you find yourself looking up. In the second, you don't dare.

When my dad sold his house and moved into a retirement center last summer, 1 took home some old photo albums from my mother's side of the family. One of my strongest memories of her extended family is of multigen-erational picnics at John Ball Park. In my mind's eye I can still see us all lined up on both sides of a long row of picnic tables.

I finally looked through the albums this Saturday. I found picture after picture—going all the way back to 1914—of different generations of the family lined up along rows of tables. Sometimes the table boasted a turkey; sometimes a watermelon. In one, the men have taken off their flat-topped straw hats—the sort of thing you see in history book pictures—and laid them on the grass. In many, Gram Minnie Termeer sits at the end of the table (no matter whose house it was, Gram always took the head), backlit by the window so that she's only a silhouette.

I resolved this Saturday to start taking table pictures. There's something about food and family that transcends generational and cultural differences, and I want to keep the tradition going.

Then Sunday I saw Martin LaMaire squatting with his camera at the end of the long row of tables holding Vietnamese food and flanked by members of the Wheaton and Vietnamese New Hope churches, and all of a sudden it didn't matter that the communion wafers and the sermon had blown away on the wind.

Because we were family around the table.

Jane Vogel (sjvogel1@attbi.com) is a youth leader at Wheaton (Illinois) Christian Reformed Church, and coauthor of Sunday Morning Life: How and Why We Worship (Faith Alive Resources, 2003).