Symposium 2014 features focus on prayer

Symposium 2014 brought 1,600 people to Calvin's campus from around the globe.

On the day the 27th annual Calvin Symposium on Worship ended the Google doodle was an illustration of Harriet Tubman holding aloft a lantern in her right hand. Nicknamed "Moses," Tubman led some 300 slaves to freedom during the course of almost 20 expeditions in the mid 1800s.

The timing was striking for one of the themes of the 2014 Symposium was the Christian journey through life as illustrated in the powerful stories in the Biblical book of Exodus. Indeed in the welcome in the 76-page page Symposium program book, conference organizers John Witvliet, Scott Hoezee and Emily Brink wrote these words: "God delivered the people of Israel (and us) from bondage ... and was the source of their (and our) hope for shalom. Our God is our faithful deliverer then and now."

Those words would have resonated with Tubman, a devout Christian, and they served as a foundation for conversation throughout symposium for the 1,600 attendees who came to Grand Rapids from around the globe, including some 130 attendees from 30 countries outside the U.S. Throughout the conference the themes of Exodus were sounded over and over again in worship and workshops and seminars and panel discussions and countless informal conversations over meals and coffee and tea on and off campus.

The Christian's life of prayer

Symposium this year also had as a key theme the songs Christians sing and how they tell the great overarching story of God's work in creation and redemption, of the coming of Christ and of sending the Holy Spirit to continue to pray in and through Christians as they worship.

And the third key theme for 2014 was the Christian's life of prayer.

The Apostle Paul, noted Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, urged that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone, including kings. Thus, Symposium intentionally brought an intense focus in 2014 to prayer, including how the event's different worship  services could model different ways of praying.

In a Friday-morning plenary session Witvliet, Anne Zaki, Eric Sarwar and Mark Charles expanded on the theme of prayer.

Witvliet invoked the memory of former Calvin music professor and Worship Institute associate Bert Polman who passed away on July 1, 2013 after a long battle with cancer.

Polman, he recalled, was especially passionate about public, intercessory prayer and the ways in which it could enrich all aspects of a church's life "without a single dollar being added to the church budget."

Praying for peace and justice

Witvliet recalled some of Polman's frustrations before his death with what he called the narcissism of the North American church because of what he saw as its unwillingness to explicitly prayer for peace and justice and its narrow vision of what God was capable of in the world.

"I experience some of this on my own sabbatical a few years ago," said Witvliet, "when after the Japanese tsunami we visited various churches and for eight weeks straight we did not hear a single prayer for the country of Japan. Finally we heard one the ninth week, when we visited a Japanese American congregation."

Abraham Kuyper, noted Witvliet, already wrote a century ago that the church had drastically regressed in praying for the needs of the world. In the decades since the problem has only gotten worse.

Praying for the world

Zaki, Sarwar and Charles represented different parts of the world: Egypt, Pakistan and, for Charles, Native Americans in the U.S. and other indigenous people around the globe.

Each offered specific advice for how to pray for people in their context and noted what their most pressing needs were in their corner of the globe. But Zaki perhaps said it for all four presenters when she concluded simply with: "Pray for the Lord Jesus to come back, not in a way that rejects this world or our role in it, but in a way that says we're ready."

The mystery of worship and the cantus firmus

Jeremy Begbie, a professor at Duke University Divinity School and author most recently of Music, Modernity and God: Essays in Listening, also expounded on the idea of a revealed Jesus, including how that impacts the ways in which Christians worship and pray.

Twitter image by Rick Vanderwal ‏@ricardov63 In his address, titled "The Mystery of Worship," Begbie urged attendees to consider the concept of "musterion," a New Testament Greek word that begat the English word mystery. However, noted Begbie, the Greek musterion does not refer to something which cannot be deduced, but rather means something that can only be known when it is revealed.

In the New Testament the revealing is what God is up to in the world through Jesus. In musical terms, said Begbie, Jesus Christ is the cantus firmus, the pre-existing melody that forms the basis for a polyphonic composition. "He is the melody we could never deduce," added Begbie. "It needed to be played for us. We needed to be given eyes and ears."

And having been given such eyes and ears, Christians, said Begbie, then also need to use their voices. "Musterion is not about what is unknown or unknowable," Begbie said, "nor is about the unspeakable. You can and must speak about it."

Jesus in the wilderness

The revealed Jesus was also present in the preaching of Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary who expounded at Symposium's very first service on Exodus 16, the story of God providing for the Israelites both quail and manna.

He called Exodus 16:10 one of the most startling and vivid verses in the Bible, particularly the phrase: "They looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud."

"The wilderness would be the cradle in which God would nourish and nurture his people toward a greater maturity," Hoezee noted. This wilderness is one that Jesus knew too, said Hoezee, recounting the story of Jesus' own baptism and then his immediate exile to the wilderness for 40 days and nights.

So too do followers of Christ now and through the ages deal with the wilderness. But, not without hope, said Hoezee: "Jesus has been to the wilderness and so he is still there in that terrible place when we arrive there too."

Hoezee was pressed into emergency sermon service when scheduled preacher Pablo Jimenez was unable to get to Grand Rapids because of the winter weather in Atlanta, leading Hoezee to joke that next year he had an idea for a new workshop topic. It would be called "The Emergency Sermon."

A plethora of learning opportunities

And while that was not a topic in 2014, there was an abundance of other fodder for the 1,600 people who came to Grand Rapids for Symposium, almost half of whom were at Symposium for the first time (half also were under the age of 40 and more than 75 high schools, colleges, universities and seminaries were represented).

During the three days on Calvin campus they had a chance to participate in numerous worship services (morning, night and afternoon vespers), hear from such plenary speakers as Begbie and the quartet of Witlvliet, Charles, Sarwar and Zaki, and attend numerous seminars, workshops and panel discussions on a multitude of topics, including:

  • Effective Song Leadership in Worship
  • Top 10 Challenges Facing Worship Leaders in 2014
  • Projection Practices
  • Writing Hymns for the Liturgical Calendar
  • Cultivating Baptismal Identity
  • Can the Organ Sound Like a Conga
  • The African American Preacher's Voice as Social Prophet and Priest
  • Seven Deadly Sins of Choosing Music for Worship
  • Leading Effective Praise Team Rehearsals
  • Faith on Campus
  • Worship in Korean Christian Communities

It was a smorgasbord of worship-related topics, as exciting to first-time attendees as it was to those who have been around for all 27 iterations.

Symposium on Twitter: #wsymp14

The Symposium Twitter hashtag -- #wsymp14 -- captured many of the reactions via hundreds of Tweets as people posted both their own thoughts and also the wisdom of the presenters, including:

  • You can't draw the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father, but you can play it. (Begbie)
  • Lament makes sense only if God is a God of unfailing love.
  • We prayed a powerful prayer based on Psalm 13.
  • Didactic prayers of confession fall flat; they don't pull us in.
  • If your children/YA weren't in worship, would your service go off w/o a hitch? If so, they're not plugged into your church.
  • My house will be called a house of _____ . Praise songs? Announcements? Duck Dynasty sermons?
  • Rich, full worship this morning at the Chapel on the theme of the 10 Commandments. Loved how Scott Hoezee did assurance of pardon.
  • Incredibly inspired and deeply encouraged at Calvin Worship Symposium--well worth the snow-impacted journey!
  • The plenary on prayer, esp. Anne Zaki has been the most moving moment of the conference so far. That  came from out of the blue.
  • Prayers and songs can fortify each other. Prayers written to complement songs are ligament prayers
  • We are people who must sing you for the sake of our very lives

We are people who must sing you

The last Tweet referred to a Friday-afternoon Vespers service led by Debbie Lou Ludolph, dean of the chapel and director of the Kanata Centre for Worship and Global Song at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Waterloo, Ont., along with her global song choir Inshallah.

In the recital hall of the Covenant Fine Arts Center, Ludolph and her brightly attired choir led participants in songs from around the world, from South Africa and Argentina and Nigeria and Canada, songs that Ludolph said were a prayer, "our calling to be God's peacemakers in the world."

Included amidst the songs were spoken prayers, including the words of Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann (a former Symposium presenter) who 15 years ago wrote:

"We are people who must sing you, for the sake of our very lives. You are a God who must be sung by us, for the sake of your majesty and honor. And so we thank you, for lyrics that push us past our reasons, for melodies that break open our givens, for cadences that locate us home, beyond all our safe places, for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control and our futures beyond despair. We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers who have sung you deep and true; We thank you for the good company of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments that sing for us and with us, toward you. We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor; We will not keep silent… ever again.  Amen."

It was a fitting spoken prayer for a service entitled "Singing Our Prayers with the Global Community." It was perhaps also a fitting summary for Symposium 2014, an event that was filled with participants singing God and witnessing to his mercy and splendor,  not keeping silent but remembering his promises to his people past, present and future, at Symposium and around the world, now and forevermore.