Since I first saw pictures of Janet Echelman’s sculpture made from thirty-five miles—yes, miles—of technical fiber hanging over a park in Greensboro, North Carolina, I’ve been thinking of ways to capture some of the same airy, flame-like look for a Pentecost visual for worship.
What if we strung netting of some sort—dyed or left natural—from floor to ceiling? But to keep it from looking like a spiderweb, it needs an anchor of some sort—something to give it focus and a purpose.
While I was planning our Trinity Sunday worship service, I was inspired by my study of 2 Corinthians 13:11–13. In verse 11, the word that is often translated “be perfected” or “put things in order” is the same word used in the gospels to describe the mending of fishing nets. In this prayer, the joys and concerns of the congregation are lifted up to the triune God, who is the mender of our nets and our lives. This idea became a theme for this prayer.
When I began to write this article, it had been only a few days since philosopher Alvin Plantinga formally received the 2017 Templeton Prize at a ceremony in Chicago. Through his teaching at Calvin College and then at the University of Notre Dame—and through a bevy of influential articles and books—Plantinga revived serious philosophical engagement with theological and religious topics.
My church had been working through the Church Renewal Lab for almost a year. The Church Renewal Lab is all about encouraging missional congregations who “transform lives and communities for Christ.” Its theme song has been “Build Your Kingdom Here” by Rend Collective. So we decided to create a service of song and Scripture focused on the lordship of Christ, his kingdom, and his power to transform our community. We also wanted to recognize our own role in bringing the kingdom of God to our neighbors.
These two services are based on the full texts of the letters of Ephesians and James, providing worshipers an opportunity to hear, dwell in, and reflect on God’s Word to each of us. This echoes the way the early church would have experienced these words—prayerfully listening as the letter was read aloud. In planning these services, we let the Scripture guide the order, pausing for praise, prayer, and reflection where the text suggests.
Ted Kooser—Iowan, former US poet laureate, and, like Wallace Stevens, an insurance man—famously described the reader he would choose as someone with “hair still damp at the neck / from washing it,” who takes down his book from the bookstore shelf, peruses it, and puts it back, saying, “For that kind of money, I can get / my raincoat cleaned” (“Selecting a Reader,” Flying at Night, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, p. 3).
When people visit our church for the first time, one of the things they often are most surprised to find is that we allow young children to stay in the main worship service. For the most part, churchgoers today are used to having children separated from the adults to attend children’s church while the adults have their own “big church.” The first thing most parents must figure out when they arrive at a church is where to drop off their children with the church’s child care workers or children’s programs.
Last fall I happened to be traveling to Dallas, arriving early Sunday morning. My travel companions and I were encouraged to attend a local Anglican church, where we were blessed by the preached Word and the fellowship of the table. The folk-style music that accompanied the liturgy included some re-tuned traditional hymns and some newly composed, with each text thoughtfully chosen for its placement in the liturgy. The spoken words of the liturgy were profoundly fresh and opened my imagination to a broader understanding of my Christian faith and relationships with God and others. To my delight, after the service I learned that some of the songs were written by congregational members, often as a collaboration between retired priest Fr. Nelson Koscheski and millennial-aged worship leader Ryan Flanigan, founder of Liturgical Folk. Two songs sung at the service are included with this article.
“¡Buenos dias, hermana! ¿Cómo amaneció? ¡Good, morning, sister! ¿How are you today?” These are the words I hear every Sunday when I arrive at my congregation. We start the day with a short prayer meeting. We sing a hymn, read a psalm, and then voice the petitions and prayers for the day: healing for those who are ill, safe journeys for those who are traveling, jobs for those who are unemployed, and the needs of the community, both local and global.
Our church celebrates Christmas and Easter, but not the rest of the year. We are bit perplexed by the long stretch from Pentecost to Advent. Help us understand.
What should we name the season after Pentecost? We debate this every year and never quite arrive at consensus.
Singing songs of the oecumene—the whole inhabited earth—is rooted in the feast of Pentecost, portrayed in the book of Acts, when people from the whole known world gathered in Jerusalem and heard the disciples singing of God’s glorious acts in many tongues.
Now, as then, we are assured that we are surrounded by the unseen host of the saints of God, who in countless tongues sing with us the unending song of praise.
Orthodoxy is right belief. Orthopraxy is right action. Paradoxy is a faith riddled with seeming contradictions, and the Christian faith is paradoxy extraordinaire. At the very heart of our faith lies paradox: Death leads to life. In fact, our sacred story is more of a triple paradox: a God who is three in one, who embodies his divinity in humanity, and who dies to bring life.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
and in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
Our God is a God of expansion. Abraham was called in order to be a blessing to others. The nation of Israel was birthed so that all others could be blessed through it (Genesis 12:2–3). God pours into his people so they might share that blessing with others.
A news story I read today about a popular picture-sharing smartphone app included this quote: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” This struck me. It’s common knowledge that pictures speak louder than words and that vision is one of the strongest of our senses. Why then do we have such trouble including pictures in our worship? Certainly it can’t be a carryover from the fifteenth-century Reformation, can it?
If you can’t hear the Word clearly, how can you worship effectively? If the worship sound is distracting, how can we join with others in worship?
While how microphones are used doesn’t affect the spiritual quality of worship, it makes a great difference in its technical quality and, if done poorly, can impede worship. To have the most technically excellent worship service, one must understand how microphones work and how to use them effectively.
When a new pastor is ordained or installed in a congregation, much celebration usually occurs. Several ordained people might take part in the service. Councils of neighboring churches are invited to send representatives to witness the occasion. The official installation and/or ordination form is read and sometimes embellished with ministry symbols and several readers. Perhaps the choir presents music, or congregational singing time is enlarged. To add to this celebration, cake or even a meal may be served after worship!
In Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist speaks of his anxious soul that is disturbed and would rather retreat than encounter the Lord God who is most worthy. The psalmist is assailed with doubts and confusion. His resolve is weak. Yet the psalmist has heard God’s call, and the deep longing of his heart is to hurry to worship the God who he knows loves him.
And so the two psalms oscillate between a confident approach and a doubting retreat. This shows itself in a kind of liturgical stammer, a conflicted hesitation that is not readily resolved.
Twenty years ago I adopted my daughter from Russia. While I was there I had the opportunity to visit several Russian churches with their golden onion-shaped domes and altars covered in icons. Icons are paintings of biblical characters, and the artists over the centuries were careful to keep the style and form of each character as consistent as possible. I asked our tour guide a question that betrayed my ignorance. “Why icons?” She quickly reminded me that most of the peasants in those days were illiterate, and the icons were there to help them “read” the Bible.
During three of my four years as a student at Calvin College I served on the Knollcrest Worship Service Committee. This was a group of about a dozen students who were advised by the two college chaplains. It was our job to plan and help lead the two worship services held every Sunday during the school year. We were also supervised by a consortium of local church councils that sent elder representatives to every service.
At least three thousand miracles happened at the festival of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Three thousand people put their faith in Jesus Christ. Each of those miracles involved three people: an apostle who preached in an intelligible language; a festival-goer who heard the gospel message in his or her own language; and the Holy Spirit, who produced faith. As the apostle and the festival-goer come together through the work of the Holy Spirit, we see the mission of God and his church. Pentecost especially is about those three-person missional miracles.
This service was developed as a result of our church council’s desire to build congregational awareness of the persecuted church. Pentecost, when we remember Jesus’ apostolic charge to “make disciples of all nations,” seemed to be an appropriate service in which to do this.
We are excited about a vision of “vocational discipleship,” the idea that faith shapes how we engage in the workplace. We are starting to think about setting aside a Sunday to focus on this. What advice do you have?
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