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By the time you start thinking about Ascension and Pentecost services Easter will have passed. Pastors and worship leaders are giving a collective sigh of relief that they have reached this stretch of Ordinary Time without any great expectations for special services. But wait—the gospel story isn’t over yet. Christ has been raised from the dead, but the story continues through Christ’s ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beyond. It is with the giving of the Holy Spirit that we join the story.
Storytelling is a universal phenomenon playing a significant and revered role in all cultures before our modern western age. Through the passing on of stories, history was learned and remembered, children were educated, truths were passed on, and hope was given. Listeners learned about good and evil, about perseverance in the face of all kinds of trials, and that ultimately good wins over evil. Many stories portrayed a simple dichotomy of good versus evil, but more complex stories showed that most of the world had a propensity for either, and it was up to us to choose to do right.
We are a culture that fears the uncomfortable, looks for the easy option, and is quickly distracted by the latest shiny bauble. We are a culture that does whatever it can to avoid being confronted by the darkness and evil that surrounds us, to live in denial of the atrocities occurring even in our own communities. We are a culture that is quick to lay blame for the struggles of other humans at their feet rather than consider our own part in supporting systems that have created and maintained injustice. We don’t want to see or feel truth.
In this issue one of our focuses is older adults. Sometimes younger folks think faith comes easily and somewhat naturally for those of more advanced years, not realizing that the faith of older adults is tested just as their own—yet they still believe. But how does one endure? What is it that has sustained these living saints? Though they might not answer those questions this way, I would argue that it is their baptism that has provided the sustaining power needed to endure.
It isn’t fun or exciting to talk about aging or death. So we don’t. Maybe we think that by ignoring it we can pretend neither reality exists. North American culture has been particularly adept at sanitizing death and coming up with any number of products to disguise the reality of aging. The result is that we aren’t honest with others, ourselves, or God about the challenges and fears that surround either aging or death. It also means that we often don’t honor or celebrate the older adults in our communities.
People often wonder what difference Christ’s ascension makes. The Heidelberg Catechism, written to answer this and so many other questions of the faith, teaches us about the ascension in Q&A 49. Though written in 1563, its summary of Scripture rings as true today as it did then, regardless of our particular denominational affiliation.
Growing up we always celebrated Ascension Day on Ascension Day, which meant gathering for worship on a Thursday night. Interestingly, we did little for Pentecost and never even mentioned Lent. These days Ascension Day services during the week are fairly rare, and sometimes the ascension gets little more than a passing reference the Sunday before or after even while Pentecost has gained in significance. While I applaud the increased attention Pentecost receives, I think we lose out by lessening emphasis on Ascension Day. We need both, equally.
- Share stories of God’s grace: For ideas on how to do this, see crcna.org/FaithFormation/toolkits/faith-storytelling-toolkit.
- Symphony of praise: Invite children (and children at heart) to come forward and choose either a small percussive instrument, a flag, or a ribbon to use during a sung time of praise.
Voice 1: A reading of Matthew 2:13–14
When [the magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
What if . . . ?
What if the angel hadn’t warned Joseph in a dream that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the scope of the incarnation. Jesus was born and dwelt among us. But who is the ‘us’? Were there ever any borders, either physical or metaphorical, that Jesus stayed within? Any study of Scripture is quick to show that Jesus made it a practice to cross as many borders as possible in his time on earth.
Last night I was offered mulberry sauce for my cheesecake and I felt myself recoil. It’s not that I don’t like mulberry sauce. I have never even tasted mulberry sauce. But I used to have a mulberry tree in my backyard—a lovely mulberry tree that dropped big, juicy, purple berries all over my yard and left behind a fermenting wasteland of purple juice. The mess—the stench! My daughter was six months old, getting ready to crawl, and I envisioned a future of purple handprints and footprints all over my home. Before the next summer that tree was down.
“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.
“We pray for darkness so that we may see” is one of many provocative lines in Rod Jellema’s poetic litany “Praying for Darkness in a Year of Glare” (p. 16). I wonder about that line. Is it true? Would I ever dare pray for darkness so that I might see? It seems to me that we’ve been experiencing too much of this world’s darkness. We can’t escape it. It consumes news outlets and social media feeds. It fills our workplaces, our homes, our churches . . .
The World Needed a Savior . . .
Call to Worship
With two readers.
People of God, today we worship a God of revolution;
a God who is in the business of turning our lives—
turning the world―right-side up.
The prophet Isaiah says:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
A branch, bearing fruit?
Christmas, children, and surprises go together like peanut butter and jam. There is nothing more delightful than seeing a child’s eyes light up as they unwrap a Christmas gift they really wanted but didn’t expect to get, or than when you’ve found that perfect gift for someone. Christmas surprises are joyful surprises.
It has sometimes been suggested that we might be better off if we would forget the past and move on. It seems that the more painful, the more complex, or the more challenging the memory, the more quickly we are encouraged to “let bygones be bygones,” to “get on with life,” to “let it rest.” But rarely are those same misguided words of advice offered when memories are pleasant and joy-filled.
As I reflect on this issue the word that comes to mind is expansive. This is the issue for Ascension and Pentecost, two days that are all about expanding. When Christ ascended into heaven his work did not end; it expanded. Christ now sits at God’s right hand ruling the world. Christ is the sovereign Lord, and not just of those who recognize his lordship. He is Lord of all. At Pentecost we see the expansive grace of God in the giving of the Holy Spirit.
“Weep not for me, Mother,
in the grave I have life.”
So begins the poem “Crucifixion” by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). “In the grave I have life.” “Yes, but . . .” we want to argue. We feel compelled to interject that “but.” But Christ didn’t stay in the grave; we don’t stay in the grave; there is life on the other side of the grave, not in it. This is all true. Yet maybe Akhmatova was correct in calling our attention to the grave itself.
Have you heard the news? Reformed Worship is celebrating its 30th anniversary! This is a rather amazing feat, given the current status of print publications. And while we would like to think this is the result of a stellar staff and even better subscribers, we are quick to realize how the services and articles that were sent in for publication were shaped through prayer and the working of the Holy Spirit. The RW staff are always surprised by how the Spirit brings the right submissions together at the right time to formulate each issue of this journal.
As this issue of Reformed Worship moved from concept to reality, I readily shared with people my excitement about doing an issue on beauty. This news was most often met with a quizzical look. “Beauty?” people asked. I received this reaction so often that I took a step back to rethink the theme. But then I began to wonder more about the responses themselves.
Why did the theme of beauty so perplex people? Let me suggest a few possible reasons.
If you are an RW subscriber and are reading this article shortly after it arrived in your mailbox, you are reading this in the midst of Advent. Though it isn’t Lent as I write this editorial either, in many ways it feels like Lent, and I wonder: where is Easter?
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
—John 1:14, The Message
It’s that time of year again. Time to prepare for Advent and Christmas, looking for a new take on the old story, trying to find some creative ideas to get the juices flowing. But, as we all know, those ideas can’t be too involved because the months around Christmas are busy. As you and your congregation begin to prepare for this important season, may I make one suggestion? Leave room to think deeply.
It isn’t enough. I am wholly convinced that it isn’t enough.
World Communion Sunday isn’t enough. All Nations Heritage Sunday isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to sing a song from a different culture on occasion. It isn’t enough to pray for a nation and community other than your own on occasion.
Sometimes I feel weary. I feel weary when I hear about the “nones”—those who claim no religious belief. I feel weary hearing about millennials leaving the church and thinking about all the energy exerted to keep them coming. This week I read about the “dones”—those who used to be involved in the church but simply are done with the whole organizational mess.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come! For those who observe it, Christmas is a day of much anticipation and celebration. In my home it is no different. Blessed with many friends and family, we have multiple celebrations to attend and gifts to exchange. It is a busy time with all the preparations and events at church. And there are so many traditions: the children’s Christmas pageant, our church’s Living Nativity, the Christmas Eve candlelight service, monkey bread on Christmas morning, family worship. Christmas is a wondrous time—a joy-filled time.
Welcome to this theme issue on shalom. You may not see that word outside of this editorial, but the whole issue can be summed up in that one Hebrew word. In reality, shalom is more than a word—it’s a concept, a dream, a promise. Whether we are talking about becoming a hospitable community, caring for the needs of people with disabilities, fighting human trafficking, working for immigration reform, or seeking solutions for the conflicts in the Middle East, we are talking about becoming a people of shalom.
While I was talking with someone the other day, she spoke of the “time collapse” of the Christian year. “Every year, Christ is born, then dies, and rises again. The next year he is born, then dies, and rises again. . . .”
Why do we rehearse the entire gospel message year after year? We do it because we are people who forget. We need to be reminded of the truths the Christian year contains. We need to be reminded of the grace of God’s story and of the fact that we are God’s beloved, saved, and redeemed children.
How do we speak in worship? What language do we use? Sometimes the best response is silence, awe, and wonder. Sometimes we need to spring to our feet with joy, raise our hands in praise, and clap with the trees of the field. We speak with unscripted words such as “amen” and “praise the Lord” and with scripted but equally sincere phrases such as “thanks be to God” and “hear our prayer.” And sometimes we speak in poetry.
- ByAugust 13, 2013
For many of us, Advent marks the beginning of the church year. But is it the proper place to start? The season from Advent to Epiphany is only one chapter in the metanarrative that began with the creation of the world. Scripture makes it clear that the mission of God is to redeem the world, to bring the nations to himself.
In the Old Testament, God chose to work primarily through the Hebrew people to bring others into the covenant community. In Genesis 12 God says to Abraham:
Some years ago at a Calvin Theological Seminary chapel service, the college choir led us in singing “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” by Robert Lowry, also known as “How Can I Keep from Singing” (see p. 3). It was a good service, but I don’t remember reflecting on it much as I tucked the bulletin into my coat pocket.
One of the challenges when planning a hymnal is deciding where a particular song belongs, knowing that though the index in the back of the hymnal may suggest multiple places for a particular song, the location of the song has greater influence on when it will be sung. The challenge in this Noteworthy is to think outside the hymnal placement, as each one of these songs can be used both during the time from Advent to Epiphany as well as at other times of the year.
As I reflect on this issue of Reformed Worship, the words “longing” and “journey” come to mind. Longing is what sends us out on our journey to discover what more there is to life. Ever since the fall, people have been longing for things to be the way they were meant to be. We long for the restoration of relationships gone wrong. We long for a creation restored. We long for an end to war and violence and hunger and pain. And so we journey on in faith and hope.
Historically, this final issue of the liturgical year has been dedicated to one topic, such as psalms (RW 96), faith formation (RW 92), or the Lord’s Supper (RW 88). In that vein, this issue is focused on our gifts and how we use them for the glory of God. In a way, that’s the subtext of every issue of RW, but this issue takes a closer look, expressing the theme in four related subthemes.
It’s hard to have a relationship with ants. Try as you might, they’re just not very good listeners, and they seem to pay little mind to humans. Granted, ants are marvelous creatures with amazing strength and a way of communicating and working together for the good of all that serves as an object lesson for humans. But since they can’t communicate with us, there is no relationship.
Christian or not, you can’t help but wonder if the world is about to implode.
No, this isn’t another Harold Camping-esque attempt at prophecy. It’s just a simple statement of fact. The world as we presently know it will end. This truth is as certain as the birth and resurrection of Christ.
“Help us not to be so overwhelmed by the details of ministry that we forget what is central. And help us to find that which is central, even in the details.”
—Maryann McKibben Dana (p. 40)
Help us not to be so overwhelmed by the details that we forget what is central. . . .
You go for the kids. At least that’s what you tell yourself. You know the story, and though the songs may change from year to year, little else does. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable; it’s just that it’s so predictable. The story doesn’t change, and you don’t expect it to change you—not after all these years.
I’ve been planning and looking forward to this issue for some time. And now it’s finally in your hands! I feel a little selfish in dedicating this entire theme issue to the psalms because part of the impetus for it was my own desire to learn. Why is it that people are attracted to the psalms? What do we make of the current trend of increased psalm singing?
Disturbing.” “Odd.” “What does it have to do with worship?” These are just a few responses I’ve heard to the cover image of this issue. What does The Eyes of Gutete Emerita by Alfredo Jaar have to do with worship?
When we look into Gutete’s eyes, what do we see? Anguish? Despair? Christ? Do we see a child of God? Our sister? She has a name; she has no voice. Will we speak and pray on her behalf? Will we sing the songs she needs to hear?
These days we’re connected to people all over the globe. The Internet and other electronic media allow us to be as “plugged in” as we want to be: websites and e-news blasts provide us with up-to-date information on what’s happening in the world (see sidebar).
As Christians, this awareness informs our personal devotions and our corporate worship whenever we intercede on behalf of those suffering from injustice in our own communities and around the world. It’s a natural step to put those prayers to music so that they may be sung by God’s people.
Imagine you are Job. What are you thinking, feeling, and experiencing as you live through the loss of your property and your family? How do you experience the grief and then the questioning of your friends? How do you relate to God?
Imagine you are the centurion watching yet another crucifixion. But this one is different . . . why? How does it feel to be forgiven by the one you have put to death? What do you make of the eerie darkness and the earthquake?
Imagine you are Mary. Your heart is crushed by the sight of your son dying. How do you bear it?
I admit it. I’m a self-professed worship nerd. I’ve been known to match the color of the runner on my office table to the current season of the church year. In fact, just about all the décor in my office and home is liturgical in nature. I like to surround myself with reminders of who I am in the much larger scheme of God’s plan of redemption. At Christmas, of course, the décor includes a nativity set.
Sometimes my three-year-old daughter wants to join me for worship instead of attending her Sunday school class. On one such Sunday, I ran down the litany of things she would not be allowed to do during worship if she stayed. I told her she wasn’t allowed to walk around, crawl on the floor, or talk; she would need to sit still and listen. Innocently she looked at me and asked, “Am I in time out, Mama?”
Is it possible that my desire for the logical, the factual, and the easily comprehensible has kept me from seeing, experiencing, and maybe even believing that God is at work here and now? That’s the question that arose in my mind (or was it my soul?) as I read through the articles in this issue.
When I was growing up, there was no such thing as Lent—at least not in my church. We did know about Palm Sunday. That was the day the Sunday school kids made palm branches out of paper, though we didn’t do the whole processional with palms that is so common today. And of course we went to church on Good Friday and Easter. But I didn’t hear of Lent, Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil until my college years.
If you’re like me, you find the cover of this issue of RW thought-provoking. Chris Stoffel Overvoorde’s That Glorious Form stops us short and makes us think. The Christ child in a crown of thorns? It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not the typical picture of Advent and the Christmas season. If given the choice, we would rather focus on the perfect, beautiful baby in the manger with the loving gaze of his mother and father falling upon him. We prefer the pretty picture.
Each issue of Reformed Worship has its beginning in a brainstorming meeting that takes place more than a year before readers hold the printed copy in their hands. Yet I am always amazed by two things: how certain topics pop up that were never part of our original plan, and how the individual articles, when placed side by side, tend to create an overarching theme for the whole issue.
I don’t know anyone who enjoys waiting. We do whatever we can to avoid it. We scrutinize each checkout line to predict which one will be the fastest. We speed up to make it through the yellow light so we don’t have to stop for the red. We use ATM machines, automated lanes, and Instant Messaging in hopes that we won’t need to wait. But try as we might, waiting is unavoidable. Christians are a people living in advent—an in-between time, a time of waiting.
Have you ever stumbled across a phrase in your reading that was so packed with truth you were compelled to stop and reflect? Like a delectable dessert that needs to be lingered over, or a favorite book or movie you return to again and again, you roll the phrase over and over in your mind.
Publishing is a strange thing. As I write this editorial it is the end of August. I have survived the heat wave that made its way across the United States and parts of Canada and I am enjoying the cooler temperatures. But when this issue is released it will be November. I can’t help wondering what the world will be like in three months. Will the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah be over? What will be going on in Iraq? How much will gasoline cost?
I despise change! That may be an odd statement coming from someone who has moved repeatedly, attended four post–high school institutions, and worked as a high school teacher, youth pastor, research assistant, and editor, not to mention the biggest change of all—adopting an infant. Regardless of all that change in my life, I am no fan. Change destabilizes, creates tension, and requires us to adapt. Frankly, it is often uncomfortable, at least for a while.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:2).
These days hospitality may most often be associated with a Martha Stewart-esque home decor complete with fluffed pillows and fresh flowers placed just so. In Scripture, though, it means something quite different than creating the perfect environment. Instead, hospitality refers to creating a space in which relationships can develop.
How many of us remember the specific lessons we learned in Sunday school? Probably not very many. But how about the songs we sang in those same Sunday school classes? Do you remember the words to “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “Away in a Manger,” or “O Be Careful, Little Eyes”?
In our postmodern society we hear a lot about the importance of narrative. There is nothing all that remarkable about that emphasis; telling stories to recount important events and pass on values and knowledge has been integral to all communities throughout history. The postmodern twist, however, is that each person is able to make up their own story and to interpret or reinterpret the grand narrative as they like. Though touted as being the key to true freedom, the end result is like trying to build a house on a sandpit—it doesn’t work.
- ByJune 5, 2005
The following list of resources is a small sampling of the growing library available on the broad topic of understanding the various generations who worship in our churches. Some of these books could be added to your resource library, others could be read and discussed in a worship committee setting. All are available from Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.FaithAliveResources.org; 1-800-333-8300).
- ByJune 4, 2004
When words fail us, whether in times of joy or sorrow, it is often the words penned by another that help us give voice to our soul’s prayer. Maybe the written prayer expresses our thoughts so profoundly we use the same text, or maybe it helps free our own tongue to form a new prayer. But where do we find those prayers? There are many great prayer books, but another readily accessible source is the Internet. Many good sites provide prayers and other worship resources free for use in congregational worship.
Robb Redman. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002. 272 pp. $19.95 www.josseybass.com
D. A. Carson, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 256 pp. $16.99. ISBN 0310216257. www.zondervan.com
There have been several collections of essays published in the last few years. Though these collections don’t provide narrative cohesiveness, they are able delve deeper into narrowly defined subject areas.
Lukas Vischer, ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. 444 pp. $45.00. ISBN 0802805205. www.eerdmans.com
John D. Witvliet. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003. 320 pp. $26.99. ISBN 0801026237. www.bakerbooks.com
This final collection of essays is by a single author, John D. Witvliet. Witvliet has organized these essays, many previously published but here presented in revised form, into five broad categories: biblical, theological, historical, musical, and pastoral studies.
Thomas G. Long. Alban Institute, 2001. 132 pp. $16.00. ISBN 1566992400. www.alban.org
Ronald P. Byars. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2002. 144 pp. $12.95. ISBN 0664225721. www.ppcpub.org
Michael Horton. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002. 256 pp. $19.99. ISBN 0801012341. www.bakerbooks.com
Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition. D. G. Hart. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003. 264 pp. $24.99. ISBN 0801026156. www.bakerbooks.com
With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship. D. G. Hart and John R. Muether. Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R Publishing Company, 2002. 208 pp. $12.99. ISBN 0875521797. www.prpbooks.com
- BySeptember 2, 2002
I have often been struck by how different psalms fit different parts of the entire church year. For this Advent service I related specific psalms to the season of Advent in the traditional lessons and carols format. The anthems we used reflected themes in those psalms. Because the budget for our small choir allowed for only one new anthem, I chose several older anthems—some now out of print—from their library. You may want to choose different anthems, depending on your resources. Many of the psalms came from Sing!
Every Thursday afternoon just before 4:30, students, faculty, staff, and community people start moving toward the chapel at Calvin Theological Seminary for a time of prayer together. These contemplative services in the manner of the Community of Taizé, planned and led by students, have become for many an important mid-week Sabbath rest that provides, as one person said, a welcome time of “beauty in simplicity.”
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- ByApril 28, 2020
Worship practices during the COVID-19 pandemic have opened up opportunities for worship leaders to reflect the principles and the most important elements of corporate worship.
During this Advent season, are you the one knocking or the one invited to express God’s love and mercy and open the door?
My daughter and I took a road trip one summer and because I wanted some scheduling freedom we didn’t book campsites ahead of time. Given just how many campgrounds there are I naively thought we would have no problem securing a site each night. How wrong my assumptions were and as place after place said they were full I felt my anxiety rising.
The anti-idolatry response [to worship’s “de-Christianizing of God’s people] is to make sure that our worship leaders and planners from pastors to musicians, artists, tech, liturgists and elders, and yes also those gathered, understand that it is God who calls us to worship, it is the Holy Spirit who enables our worship, and it is Christ who perfects it.
Is it ever OK to be intentionally exclusive in worship?
I’ve been having this internal argument of late about whether or not it is ever OK to make a worship decision that you know will result in some demographic being left out when it is within your power to be more inclusive? In other words, is it ever OK to be intentionally exclusive in worship?
Think through these scenarios with me:
Even in the midst of falling steeples, in the face of the crucified Messiah, in our own baptismal drowning we are assured that the church won’t fall.
Like many people around the world, my social media feed has been filled with images of the burning Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France. Knowing its history and having been privileged to visit it many years ago I was saddened by its partial destruction and can understand the grief of those with closer ties. As I watched the video of the falling cathedral spire the words of this hymn came to mind:
I am excited that Reformed Worship is beginning a weekly blog and absolutely thrilled at the group that we have gathered to write. They are a diverse group of practitioners, academics, musicians, and theologians; what connects them all is their love for the church and worship that is thoughtful, relevant, rooted, innovative, global, contextual, creative, and disciplined.
-Rev. Joyce Borger, editor