by Randy Lubbers
When first even the least drop of faith is instilled in our minds, we begin to contemplate God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious toward us. We see him afar off, but so clearly as to know we are not deceived…. …However much we are shadowed on every side with great darkness, we are nevertheless illumined as much as need be for firm assurance when, to show forth his mercy, the light of God sheds even a little of its radiance.
–John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.19
…Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing.
–John Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.33
Lake Crystal, Minnesota (pop. 2,549) is in a rural and historically Welsh area of the Minnesota River Valley to the southwest of Mankato. Our Presbyterian congregation worships in a red brick church—on first glimpse it immediately reminded me of home—built during the depression after a January fire destroyed the building. Start to finish, rubble to renewed joy, tears to 1937 Christmas celebration—the project took just over ten months.
Back when the first wooden church building was constructed, in 1899, the church was part of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church—Presbyterian in its polity, reformed in its theology, and rooted in the passion for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit evident in the 18th century Welsh Methodist revival.
Sometimes I remind our demure, change-averse members of this—their spiritual roots are in revival, their ancestors in Wales were nonconformists, and their grandparents listened to short, fiery, passionate preachers talk about the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
I remember hearing, not only in a theology class but also in church history, that whenever large constituencies of the church ignore a doctrine or facet of the faith we can expect a correction from within the church. This was true during the Welsh Methodist revival—the whole idea of the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts had been neglected. Revival recaptured the doctrine of the Holy Spirit for believers wanting seeking vitality over the domination of form and longing for a participation in the reality of transforming power.
In the Reformed church where I grew up, the pulpit and table were clad in red not only on Pentecost but throughout most of the summer as well—the season of the Holy Spirit, although we never called it that. For all I knew, the church decorating committee liked red. So I can relate, to a degree, to the story Robert Morris tells in the introduction to The God I Never Knew: How Real Friendship with the Holy Spirit Can Change Your Life. Church leaders, says Morris, treated the Spirit “…a bit like a crazy uncle who shows up at Thanksgiving once every few years and horrifies everyone with his inappropriate behavior. You can’t help being related to this uncle, but you hope that if you don’t mention his name or send him a Christmas card, he will stay away.”
Actually, come to think of it, the Spirit is indeed like that crazy uncle! Like a mighty wind (or, nonconformist uncle), the surprising Spirit shows up unannounced, sometimes descending upon us like a dove, sometimes blowing like a gentle breeze providing a refreshing perspective or chuckle in a tense council meeting, sometimes rushing through the sanctuary like a hurricane—
Our sanctuaries? Well, maybe not?
We can only hope and dream.
Guide us, O Lord, by your Word and Holy Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Liturgy. Reformed Church in America.)
I should know that prayer by heart—but, alas, I’m just not that sure of myself. I have it taped to the upper right hand corner of the pulpit’s bookrest—14-point font on a 3×5 card. Just to make sure I get it right. It’s my “go-to” prayer asking “God to kindle the light of faith which enable the Word to come alive in us” (Directory of Worship, Reformed Church in America.) which is spoken before the scriptures are read and proclaimed. Not merely before the sermon, but before the readings. Because, even though my congregants don’t read Calvin’s Institutes, they have come to understand that “without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing.”
Pragmatically (not to diminish its efficacy), including a prayer of illumination is a teaching tool. When we say scripture is the inspired Word of God (God-breathed), we are not only talking about the Spirit’s work in those original writers, but about the Spirit’s work in our hearts today. Besides, it gives liturgical congregations a good place to sing contemporary songs, and contemporary-style worshipers a good dose of liturgy. “Speak, O Lord,” (Hymn #755 in Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013.) by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend is one good option—we have sung all three stanzas, or just the first, or just the third works fine too.
In our rural setting, we often use a song by Handt Hanson during the planting season:
Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way…
Lord, let my heart be good soil. (Hymn #79 in Sing! A New Creation, Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2001.)
Or, write your own!
God of Truth, you reveal to us your essence and glory in even the first drops of faith—glimpsing your face we find you to be peaceful and calm and gracious toward us. Open our minds to contemplate what we cannot comprehend, to study what we cannot completely grasp, and to live into a Shalom we cannot imagine even in our wildest dreams.
God of Providence, you have promised to watch over us in such a way that not a hair can fall from our heads—truly, this is beyond our understanding! Open our hearts to receive your incomprehensible peace. Open our arms to offer others your Shalom—in our prayers and through our work—in the midst of a world where bluffing braggarts belittle women and children; the callous rich starve the poor; and the wealthy, strong, and powerful seem to be unrestrained to abuse, insult, and bully those without voice.
God of Light, you sent the Messiah to be a God-revealing light to all peoples. Open our eyes—we want to see Jesus. Open our souls—we long to see even a glimpse your Shalom.
About Randy Lubbers: Father of John, Elyse, and Luke; friend of locally owned coffee shops and breakfast cafes everywhere; proud Central College Dad; pastor and teacher at First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Lake Crystal, Minnesota since ordination in 2004 (RCA); ministry interests include the theology and leadership of worship and the sacraments, social action and peacemaking, spirituality and prayer, ecumenism, and interfaith dialogue.
Two things I’m proud of: (1) People tell me I’ve been a great dad—my wife Carolyn died in 2009 after battling ovarian cancer when Luke and Elyse were 9 & 13. (2) Leading (with Mark Pries and Tom Trinidad) an ecumenical communion service after the passage of the Formula of Agreement linking the ELCA with the RCA, PCUSA, and UCC.
A short list of things which make my heart sing: playing catch with Luke, coffee, laughter, books, writing, baseball played on real grass, vegetarian lasagna, asparagus, chili on a cold day, scenic drives in October, friends, family, music, art museums, basketball, tennis, bicycling, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Guthrie Theater, long hikes in the woods, and looking into congregants’ eyes while speaking the Assurance of Pardon.