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Photo: Deb Hoag
Photo by Deb Hoag

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Photo by Chris Meehan

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Photo by Chris Meehan

The  2019 Calvin Symposium on Worship began on Thursday, Jan. 29 with opening worship that included prayers decrying war, cheap labor, and toxins in watersheds.

And as participants meeting in the chapel on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., prayed, members of the Western Theological Seminary praise team silently danced, bending and sweeping their arms in the air, bringing another dimension to prayer and song.

With a theme of the Gospel (“good news”) in the Prophets, the annual symposium drew more than 1,400 people from North America and around the world. They came to worship and praise, to hear plenary speakers, and to attend a range of seminars and workshops.

“We represent so many Christian denominations and congregations, and we are here to learn from one another,” said Kathy Smith, an associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), which sponsored the symposium along with the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

From the opening worship time to the closing worship service on Saturday afternoon, Jan. 26, preaching and times of worship focused on the minor Old Testament prophets Jonah, Habakkuk, Amos, Hosea, and Micah.

Neil Plantinga, Jr., former president of Calvin Theological Seminary and a senior research fellow at CICW, gave the opening sermon, based on Habakkuk 3:17-19.

“This is a pretty dark book. It names one trouble after another that the Jewish people were facing,” he said. “These were a people of God who were broken and corrupt. Everyone had a hand in the till or a finger on the scale.”

While Habakkuk was deeply bothered by the sinful behavior of the Israelites, he was appalled that God promised to punish them through the Babylonians, who were ruthless and violent, even more corrupt than the Jewish people, and worshiped idols.

Yet, the prophet waited on the Lord, said Plantinga. He had faith that God would triumph and bring his people back to him. Even further, the prophet concluded,, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Hab. 3:18).

“In the New Testament, Jesus opened a whole new world where there will be no more crying, no more sorrow. Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” said Plantinga.

The Holiness of Work

One of the workshops on Thursday afternoon was titled “Faith, Work, and Worship: The Strategic and Overlooked Role of Local Congregations.”

In it, a panel encouraged churches to place more emphasis on honoring the different types of work that people do. Too often, they said, jobs such as being a doctor, lawyer, or teacher, or serving as a minister or priest are seen as the most desirable vocations or callings.

But other jobs -- such as being janitors, day-care workers, construction workers, or fast-food servers -- are also important and are often ignored, workshop participants said.

Church leaders should view work as a holy calling for everyone because God created all his people to work, said Katherine Leary Alsdorf, who left her job as a Silicon Valley CEO to found and lead the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

At Redeemer, she gathered dozens of groups of people working in similar professions to talk about the challenges in their jobs and to reflect on how their everyday work might fit into God’s plan.

For instance, writers groups shared their challenges and discussed what they wrote about, health care workers reminded themselves of the significance of healing, and stock brokers, especially after the market crash in 2008, sought to determine better ways to manage money.

Often someone would come to her with a concern.

“I remember meeting with a woman who was an architect and who had no sense of how God might use her,” said Alsdorf. “But she came alive when I helped her to see how building a building was a contribution to God’s world.”

Alsdorf helped Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer, to write Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work, which analyzes how faith and the Bible relate to work.

A New Hymnal

In a plenary session on Friday morning at the Covenant Fine Arts Center on Calvin’s campus, members of the committee that put together a new ecumenical hymnal, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, discussed their task.

Before singing some of the hymns in the book, James Abbington, associate professor of church music and worship at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Ga., said that sometimes today churches choose music as if shopping in a convenience store. They stop in to grab something quick and easy to sing.

“These are songs that can be upbeat and sentimental,” he said. “I call them 7-11 songs. They use seven words, and you sing them eleven times.”

This isn’t all bad, said Abbington, executive editor of the new hymnal. “Sometimes we need 7-11 songs, but we also need songs that are rich biblically, that are theologically sound and culturally relevant to where we are today.”

For instance, he said, the new hymnal contains freedom songs, songs that helped bring African Americans in this country through the hard and frequently brutal times of slavery.

“Our goal is not that just African Americans can find their way into the hymnal, but also that people of other traditions and cultures can find their way in and learn about someone else’s history and context” -- as in singing the freedom songs, said Abbington.

Other members of the hymnal committee spoke, and a choir led the crowd in singing such hymns as “When Our Confidence Is Shaken”and “Come to the Fountain.”

Closing Worship

After crisscrossing the Calvin campus for three days of seminars, vesper services, and plenary sessions, people packed the Covenant Fine Arts Center on a snowy afternoon Saturday for the closing worship service.

Preaching from Micah 5:1-4 was Pablo A. Jiménez, associate dean for Hispanic Ministry Programs at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass.

In this Scripture passage, Micah prophesies that in the small, obscure village of Bethlehem will be born “one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

And this was the focus of the symposium -- how words of the minor prophets pointed to the major triumph coming in Christ.

“We find a wonderful promise of liberation in Micah 5,” said Jiménez. “This is a beautiful prophecy, a promise that goes out to the ends of the earth.”

Jiménez spoke softly, even slowly at first, but his voice rose with power and passion as his sermon went on. Speaking alternately in Spanish and English, he asked: “How can a baby born in Bethlehem save us? How can this baby solve our problems?”

We live in a world dominated by a skeptical media and a culture that dismisses Christianity as being naive, he said. If the church is considered at all, the focus is on its shortcomings, he said: “sexual abuse scandals, financial misconduct, support of oppressive governments, and times of blatant racism and sexism.”

Rarely do others look at that baby, he added. If they do, they wonder how a baby could change the world. But this is because, said Jiménez, this was no ordinary baby. “This was Jesus, the Son of God! This poor, defenseless baby saved humanity.”

In this baby, he said, “we see that the weakness of God is stronger than any human strength. Even in his weakness, Jesus is more powerful than all of the universe, more powerful than any death. Jesus is more powerful than anything that may loom on the horizon. . . .

“We are not afraid anymore. I am convinced that nothing, nothing will separate us from the power and love of God!”

After the sermon, the 32th annual worship symposium drew to a close as people filed forward to take a piece of bread and dip it into juice, remembering Jesus, that baby who was born in that out-of-the way place so many years ago.