Sunday’s church service was warm and welcoming. The music was great, the sermon was rich. Just like the Sunday before that, and the Sunday before that, and the Sunday before that.
In this way, our church is a little like San Diego – a place which weather.com describes as having a “moderate climate, and an endless 70 degree summer.” San Diego is the epitome of “temperate”: always warm, but not hot. Cool at times, but never cold. The people from there carry the happy-go-lucky air of those whose only shoes are a pair of flip-flops. Some say it is the most glorious weather of all.
San Diego is warm and welcoming. But San Diego has no seasons.
Denver, on the other hand, has seasons. Denver summer days average 90 degrees, with occasional triple-digit spikes. Their winter temperatures shiver up to no more than 45F. Summer is Hot(!), and winter is Cold(!), and as the temperatures plummet during the Fall transition, the leaves burst out in red, yellow and orange songs. Summer has heat, Fall has color, Winter has snow play, and Spring bring the hope of brave bulbs peeking out after their long hibernation. Some say this is the most glorious weather of all.
On Sunday morning, I sat in my church grateful for its San Diego-type climate. But there was a part of me that longed for a little bit of Denver. For Sunday was Pentecost, and not one word was said or sung to acknowledge it. It was a Sunday like any other.
For believers who observe the liturgical calendar, Sunday was celebrated as the church’s birthday: the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out to fill the church as God’s new temple. It was the day when the church was empowered and commissioned to go into the world, when Babel with its one-language-divided was answered with the arrival of the Spirit and many-languages-united in understanding. It was a day to celebrate the unification of the separated families of humanity.
There was a reason that thousands of Jews were gathered at the temple on that first pentecost. It fell on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot: the day when God’s spirit was poured out on Israel at Sinai and the law was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 19). Hundreds of years later, it was at Shavuot that God’s Spirit poured out the Holy Spirit who was to write the new covenant on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) – the day we know as Pentecost.
Pentecost is a joyful ‘summer’ celebration, it basks in sonlight after a season of sadness. Following the stripped, autumnal days of Lent’s loss and the wintery shadow of Good Friday, Easter Sunday – with its promise of new life and a new birth – looks and feels like Spring: the joy of bulbs peeking from the snow after it seemed nothing would survive the dead of winter. Pentecost is like summer: the full joy following the hope of Spring.
The church calendar, and the liturgy which accompanies it, take us through spiritual seasons. It leads us through repentance, grief, waiting, enlightenment, and just as those who have endured the winter crave the returning sun all the more, so too the liturgical calendar celebrates joy and renewal and worship with the gratitude of those who have known loss.
My insightful friend Stanford (who also goes to San Diegoesque church), recently observed that in churches where we do not have a formal liturgy, the worship and teaching pastors carry a heavy theological load. Week by week, they bear the weight of incorporating all that needs be said about history and purpose, mission and calling, sin and salvation, suffering and hope.
It is up to them to ensure that the whole counsel of scripture (and not just our most comfortable parts) is read: that we have honored and acknowledged Scriptures’ laments and judgments as much as we have celebrated its deliverance and joy. It is up to them to lead and instruct us in prayer. They alone bear the burden of expanding our rather narrow emotional and theological bandwidth: a weight which, in Denverish churches, is shared by the church fathers.
Liturgy gets a bad rap: to many it seems rote and routine, soulless and stilted. And I daresay, without the Holy Spirit, it is. But non-liturgical churches have their own unspoken liturgy – the same phrases we say, pray and sing, week after week. They just aren’t written down in a book. And without the Holy Spirit, it can be just as soulless and stilted.
I love my church, and I like worshiping in San Diego. I love the people in my San Diego, and I am not looking to move.
But sometimes, I still find my soul longing for seasons.
*thanks to Stanford Gibson, Lois Tverberg, Tim Keller and Alastair Roberts for their helpful thoughts- links are included above*