Symposium 2017 concludes

Symposium 2017 drew 1,600 people to Calvin's campus.

The 30th annual Calvin Symposium on Worship began with two simultaneous worship services: one in the Calvin Chapel and one in the Covenant Fine Arts Center (CFAC). In the Chapel the text was Revelation 1:1-20 with Luke Powery, dean of the Duke University chapel bringing the message in a sermon titled "What Do You See?" In the CFAC it was Revelation 4-5 with Trygve Johnson, dean of the Hope College chapel, preaching on "The Mountains Are Out."

Revelation was at the center of all five Symposium worship services in 2017, and the overall conference theme was: "The faithful witness: being Christ's church in an apocalyptic world."

In the 206-page program book for Symposium, Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, which sponsors Symposium along with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) wrote about being Christ's church.

"Throughout our world in recent years," he said, "Christians along with everyone else have been convulsed by terrorism, martyrdom, persecution and political upheavals of many varieties. Like other key moments in history, these are days when the Church needs to rely on the foundations of the faith and on that utter certainty that Christ really is the First and the Last whose loving hands hold together God’s people in heaven and on earth. The Bible’s closing book of Revelation is filled with majesty and mystery. But weaving throughout is the golden thread that God is in charge over even the most tumultuous of earthly events. The past has not undone our God in Christ, the present is held by God’s grace and the future is sure and altogether trustworthy."

A singing people

Johnson grabbed hold of that golden thread during his opening worship sermon on day one. He spoke beside a liturgical banner called River of Life, a banner made by Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven which blended imagery from the Psalms, Ezekiel and the book of Revelation, and he began his sermon talking about growing up on Whidbey Island just north of Seattle, a place where it seems to rain, he said, sometimes for weeks. The cloud cover is omnipresent, thick, grey, concrete-like banks of cloud cover. It's the only place in the world, he joked, where people go to live by mountains they cannot see.

"You're always in the presence of something larger than yourself," he continued, "but you just can't see it." Yet, he noted, every once in a while it happens: the clouds part, and you can see the mountains. And people on the island will stop, and they'll ask each other: "Did you see it? The mountains are out today."

"That experience," he said, "prepared me for a life of faith. My life can feel like grey cloud cover sometimes. Maybe you feel that way coming to Symposium. You need help to see that the mountains can still come out. When I need help to see, this is where I go: Revelation 4 and 5. This is the vision that I need to train my eyes on."

Johnson noted that the two books of Revelation dwell on the throne. "The throne is at the center and the center holds," he said. "John wants us to see a throne. We see the power, we see the good news, and we get to sing. The people of God are a singing people."

Soaked in the story

International guests Those who came to Symposium -- 1,600 attendees from around the world representing 40-plus countries from A (Angola) to Z (Zambia) -- were indeed a singing people during their three days on Calvin's campus.

Singing certainly was a hallmark of the worship and vespers services. But it also was the focus of many of the almost 100 seminars and workshops that were offered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, seminars with such titles as "Singing Bilingually in Spanish and English," "Singing and Praying with the Suffering Church," "Young Composers of Congregational Song and Sacred Choral Music from Southeast Asia," "Music from African American Traditions for Use in Any Congregation," "Organ Resources for Holy Week," "Latin American Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs" and many more. There was even, in the words of one Facebook post using the #wsymp17 hashtag: "Spontaneous music making on the bus ride back to the hotel."

N.T. (Tom) Wright, one of two plenary speakers for the 2017 event, spent some time in his talk, "Public Worship as Sign and Means of New Creation," thinking about singing.

Wright, a leading British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, had as his focus the larger story of Scripture -- Scripture as a whole -- and the ways in which public worship might better nurture a deeper understanding of Scripture as a whole. He bemoaned the lack of time in public worship to read much scripture, adding that Christians need to be "soaked in the Story if we're to be wise, worshiping communities."

But he also spoke to the worth of singing as a way to better understand and embody the big narratives of Scripture. He invoked Augustine's belief that to sing was to pray twice, adding that "singing is reciting scripture; singing brings your whole body into play so that you as a temple of the Spirit are resonating with this act of praise."

A picture of Revelation 7

In her prophetic plenary, "Glorifying God in a Diverse World: Next Steps in the Journey," Sandra Maria Van Opstal challenged a packed house in the Calvin Chapel to take seriously the futuristic vision of Revelation 7, especially the idea captured in verse nine: "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb."

"Who was there," she asked? "Every tribe. Every tongue. Every nation. It's not one beige mass speaking one language. It's many people with their distinctives and beauty. It's where we are headed, so let me ask you: if this is our future why are we so uncomfortable with it now."

Van Opstal, executive pastor at Grace and Peace Community on the westside of Chicago and a preacher, trainer, liturgist and activist, encouraged attendees to consider how diversity now can be about not just hospitality (where many churches often stop), but also solidarity (we stand with you) and mutuality (we need you).

And she sang. She sang scripture at the start of her talk, and at the end she sang again, this time a snippet from a favorite song of her two-year-old son, a Korean hymn called "At The Throne."

"So here is this Polish Dutch Latino child growing up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood," she said, "singing his heart out to this Korean song, and I don't know that he knows it says 'forever and ever, forever and ever Jesus.' I don't know that he knows it's a picture of Revelation 7. But I know the Holy Spirit of God is somehow in a mysterious way forming his little heart. That's what I want for our churches. That's what I want for the church globally."

Art exhibitions too

2017_artVisual art was another hallmark of Symposium, as it has been since the first event was held in 1988 as the Symposium on Worship and the Arts. In addition to a plethora of liturgical banners, the art on the cover of the Symposium program book and much more, the Calvin Center Art Gallery and the Woodlawn Ministry Center both hosted exhibitions, including Lord's Supper illustrations by Symposium presenter Joel Schoon Tanis for the children's book, At God’s Table (forthcoming from CICW Books, Calvin College Press).

In addition "Most Highly Favored: The Life of the Virgin Mary" and "Ecce Homo: Behold the Man" were in the two on-campus Calvin galleries (and will continue to be on display through March 7, 2017) and "Sola Scriptura: Biblical Text and Art" was at the Woodlawn Ministry Center.

All of it -- the seminars, the workshops, the sermons, the singing, the art, the meals and more -- combined to create another memorable Symposium. As one participant wrote on Facebook: "As always, this is a first-class event, filled with global voices, wisdom from across the Kingdom, art, music, theology, worship, the faithful all gathered to celebrate together and learn from each other in conversation! It's as humbling as it is inspiring. Thank you."

-Phil de Haan