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.
The Jewish people have a practice of reading the book of Ruth during the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34:22), which takes place fifty days after Passover and commemorates God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Festival of Weeks (or Shavuot) is also known as Pentecost. The people of God who gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 would have heard the story of Ruth.
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.
As we enter the season of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Holy Spirit came not to make a splash and then exit again, but to continue the work that Christ was doing. The Holy Spirit continues to be active in the world, and we as followers of Christ are called to join the Spirit’s work. This prayer is for those of us who are on the front lines, working in the trenches, or completing more tedious assignments for God’s glory and the advancement of his kingdom.
O Lord, our gracious God and heavenly Father,
This article was originally presented as the plenary address at the conference “For Such a Time as This! Worship Meets Justice and the Arts in a Turbulent Time,” held at First Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on October 21, 2017.
Someone is always telling a story about you. That story might include the place you work (or used to work), the organizations you volunteer for, the people in your life who are important to you, or the places you have lived. For me, that includes things like:
“God rescues his people and calls us into a life of holiness in order that we may have a living, personal relationship with him. . . . Salvation is not merely the forgiveness of sins. God’s goal for us is that, having been rescued from the bondage of sin, we might live daily in the glory of his presence and manifest his holy character.”
—John Oswalt, introduction to Exodus in the NLT Study Bible, 2nd ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008).
When Christ went up to Heaven the Apostles stayed
Gazing at Heaven with souls and wills on fire,
Their hearts on flight along the track He made,
Winged by desire.
Their silence spake: “Lord, why not follow Thee?
Home is not home without Thy Blessed Face,
Life is not life. Remember, Lord, and see,
Look back, embrace.
Indigenous youth are succumbing to the harsh legacy of residential schools, the forced adoptions of Indigenous children in the 1960s, and the current child welfare system. Suicide rates among First Nations youth are five to seven times higher than that of non-Indigenous youths, and rates among Inuit youth are eleven times the national average. Please pray for their lives. Pray for action and for conviction in our hearts.
Lord, hear our prayer.
This article first appeared in Public Justice Review and is reprinted here with permission.
September 11 fell on a Tuesday. Five days later, on Sunday, September 16, millions of American Christians, shocked, angry, and grieving, filed into church.
The music began to play. Some were invited into the defiant and militant melodies of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America.” Some were invited into a time of mournful silence, prayer, and reflection. Others just sang the same old songs as if nothing had changed at all.
A while ago a friend of mine (who is not a preacher) made a good observation. She noted that when she began attending a certain congregation, she found the pastor’s sermons to be mostly just OK. There was nothing wrong with the sermons. They were solid, fairly interesting most of the time, and very biblical.
We involve a few of our high schoolers in worship, especially those with musical gifts. What ideas do you have for engaging other young people?
Some years back, a biology professor gave a presentation at our church that included photos taken by the latest high-powered microscopes. The photos were amazing, but what I remember more was the awe in the professor’s voice as she described the complexities of God’s creation in the very, very small world she studied. Even though she’d taught for years, she acted as if she was seeing these splotches and patterns for the first time. Her presentation was a prayer of praise to the limitless creativity of our God.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“¡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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When “faith and vocation” books speak of “connecting Sunday worship to Monday work,” they often mean overcoming the false dichotomy between individual Christians’ personal, private faith and their public lives. This is captured, for example, in the subtitle of pastor Tom Nelson’s book Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. From this perspective, the primary task of integrating faith and work is to instill a biblical worldview in Christians on Sundays and encourage them to make connections to their weekday work.
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?
Sometimes we don’t know we have something until it is taken away. Sometimes we don’t value something until it’s gone. Sometimes we fail to recognize the significance of something until we try to imagine our lives without it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
A friend of yours says, “You have got to read this book! I’m halfway through it, and it is amazing. The drama, the plot, the unexpected surprises. It really is out of this world . . . but I’ve decided to stop reading it.”
"It is the Spirit that creates the new humanity where God’s dwelling will be forever.” —Herman Bavinck (in Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, Baker Academic, 2011)
The church was founded on the bedrock of reconciliation—the reconciliation of God to humanity and the reconciliation of humanity to one another. This is evident in three significant ways:
Combining words and images is a powerful way to communicate the gospel. For Pentecost in 2011, we designed a service focused on four symbols of Pentecost: breath, wind, fire, and dove.
Todd selected Scriptures and wrote reflections for each image. Amy prepared for a visual presentation of the four symbols to unfold during the readings. Choral music and hymns were selected to follow each reading, highlighting each symbol.
The coming liturgical season is one in which we reflect on the mystery of the Easter event, witness Christ’s ascension, and participate in the stirring day of Pentecost. It is a time focused on the departure of the Christ, whose earthly ministry turned lives and prophecies upside down and who reigns as the sovereign Lord of all.
We are very grateful to Dr. Amos Yong for allowing us to share his insights with you. This article, based on a talk given at the National Worship Leader Conference in Dallas, Texas, on October 2, 2015, is a bit more academic than most that are found in Reformed Worship. But after reading it you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the Pentecost event and its implications for our lives and worship today. —JB
At Thornapple Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, MI, in the summer of 2014, our preaching pastor, Rob Peterson, planned a worship series on the book of James entitled “A Word to the Wise: Exploring the Themes in James.” The book of James is full of godly wisdom, wisdom that is needed today especially in order to develop Christian maturity and a healthy Christian community. Some of the questions addressed in James include these:
Mary Kay Beall and John Carter are a husband-and-wife hymn-writing team. Mary Kay was born on August 16, 1943, in Akron, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University (B.M.), Ohio State University (M.A.), and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio (M.T.S.). An ordained minister in the American Baptist Church and United Church of Christ, Mary Kay and her husband have served in a variety of positions in numerous churches of different denominations.
I have recently been reading some literature that speaks about public worship as a “concentrated form of Christian practice.” I like the sound of that phrase, but I can’t define or explain it. Can you help me?
It’s safe to say that most Christians have memorized the Lord’s Prayer. But when we do so, we often become attached to the wording of a specific Bible version. As a result, some of us find it distressing when we hear a different reading of the Lord’s Prayer. When planning worship you might have been surprised by the strong response of some when you use an unfamiliar version. “What next?” they say. “Is nothing sacred?”
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.
Instead, be filled with the Spirit,
speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.
Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,
always giving thanks to God the Father for everything,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Psalm Prayer and Blessing for Children
Note: Words in bold type indicate congregational response.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold
against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger. (Ps. 8:1b-2)
At Third Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, when planning a series on prayer the imagery of Revelation 5:8 captured our imaginations. The elders were before the Lamb, each holding a harp and “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
It is getting near the end of the school year, which also seems to mark the end of choir rehearsals and other regular rehearsals to prepare for worship. As you think of the many people involved with worship over this past season, consider how you might recognize the gifts they have given the church. One idea is to write them a letter, maybe even publishing it in your church’s newsletter. Roger Hicks has provided this one for the faithful choir member.
Dear Choir Member,
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.
Have you ever wondered if God might have a favorite color? Perhaps that sounds like a trivial question for theology, but what is the first color mentioned in the Bible? Might it have any significance in God’s design for creation and redemption?
Ascension Day and Pentecost are major events in the life of the Christian church. We confess the truth of Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Spirit every time we repeat the words of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. But what difference do these days make in the life of the average worshiper today? And how do Christians and churches mark these important events?
In the spring of 2014 I had the opportunity to visit Light of Hope Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. There I heard about their recent Pentecost celebration. It was clear that the visuals they created for their celebration had a significant impact on the congregation and could be an encouragement to the broader body, so I asked Pastor Edwin Gonzalez-Gertz to describe the process and final visual.
For Pentecost 2012 at Village Chapel Presbyterian Church in Charleston, West Virginia, we decided to visually depict the fire of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. We were blessed by the results!
First, using white copier paper from the recycle bin, the worship committee folded 150 paper cranes (but called them “doves” since they were for Pentecost). With a small hole punch we punched a hole near the top of each dove’s back.
This engaging and active children’s message is designed to be shared on Pentecost Sunday. Red feathers are used to symbolize the flames of Pentecost that hovered over Jesus’ friends as they gathered.
There’s a word used to indicate the practice of singing two different songs at the same time. The musicological term is quodlibet. My teenage children call it a “mash-up.” Sometimes melodies or texts are superimposed over one another to demonstrate the musical skills of a composer. Other times it might be done simply for the fun of it.
More recently Jeffery Archer wrote a book titled The Gospel According to Judas. Like Short, Archer sought to give insight to the gospel by looking at it in a new way: this time through the eyes of the disciple who betrayed Christ.
The problem we humans have, as one of my seminary professors put it, is that people forget. Even in a world where death is all over the news, where gravediggers are always employed, where Ebola and war and famine wreak havoc, people forget about death. We don’t passively forget—that is not possible. But we actively turn our minds away from our own deaths, even if we cannot avoid death in the world around us. We lobotomize the part of our brain that considers the fact that except Christ comes again, all of us will die.
When a church closes, its remaining members grieve. But in Christ we are not without hope. The final service of Gallatin Gateway Community Christian Reformed Church in Bozeman, Montana, was a moving expression of remembrance, pain, and faith.
Call to Worship: John 11:25-26
Hymn of Praise: “How Great Thou Art” LUYH 553, PH 467, PsH 483, TH 44, WR 51
The Lord’s Greeting
Passing of the Peace
The ballots had been counted, and we, the members of the McBain CRC, had voted to close our church after ninety-seven years of service. The decision came after a year of prayer, soul-searching, and seeking guidance from the denomination’s Home Missions office.
Three people were appointed to plan the closing service; we hardly knew where to begin. But we chose the theme “Celebrating God’s Faithfulness.”
Q Why does Ascension Day matter? We don’t celebrate it anymore, and I need to give my congregation a better rationale for why we should. By the way, they don’t have patience for a treatise on the matter. I need short, pithy explanations.
In 2009, Emily Brink and Paul Neeley participated in two worship conferences in Pakistan co-sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and the Tehillim School of Church Music and Worship (TSCM). Rev. Eric Sarwar, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and founder of TSCM, arranged both conferences, one at the Presbyterian Seminary in Gujranwala, and the other hosted by Christ the King Roman Catholic Seminary in Karachi.