Let it Be Ordinary

“Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking.
If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them,
and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me.”
– Revelation 3:20 (CEB) –

*This is the second installment in the blog-along to Mike Graves’ Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community

Graves’ folksy style in his first chapter weaves together tales of meals shared around tables that naturally (and sometimes sluggishly) transition into eucharistic practice. As part of his description of these meals he makes an important point that I will expand as we discuss restoring and enhancing your congregation’s practice of Holy Communion.

Holy Communion is a multi-faceted experience. I grew up in settings where Communion (or, the Lord’s Supper) was a solemn, personal, almost funeral-like event that happened a few times each year. Emphasis was placed on one’s personal relationship with God, an acknowledgement of sin, and a sorrowful reflection upon the death of Jesus. But as Graves’ tells in his stories, just as sermons, music, prayers, and our fellowship all have a variety of emotional and experiential dynamics, so must Holy Communion. It is a practice of the church that can and should reflect the full range of the human experience. Graves’ points to the traditional words of institution often spoken as part of the Communion prayer, words from the last supper account in the Gospels. He is quick to remind us, however, that the last supper was only one of many times Jesus ate with people. In the previous post I discussed how Luke’s Gospel account alone tells ten meal stories with Jesus. The act of sharing bread and wine together is, in my belief, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. In doing so, Jesus is taking the basic practice of humanity – eating – and drawing our attention to the holiness of the ordinary. And a major part of the human experience that even Jesus endured is its ordinariness.

Not every meal we eat or share with others is something we are sure to remember, but ultimately meals aren’t about creating memories. A meal is about nourishing our bodies so that we can live and move and thrive as humans. The practice of Holy Communion is the symbol of Christ’s nourishment for us. It is a gift, a way to remember that Jesus is feeding us along the journey of life. So, it reasons that not every experience of Holy Communion will be a memorable event. To make it so is to force it to become something it’s not. Sometimes we will be moved to tears, brought to laughter, overcome with wonder and awe, stunned in silence. But many times – and this is perhaps the hardest thing to grapple with for those who don’t celebrate Holy Communion every week – it will be ordinary and uneventful.

Here I want to offer a major point of pastoral counsel to leaders and parishioners alike: ordinary is not the same as unimportant. Graves’ discusses both ordinary meals and extraordinary meals. Do we remember what we had for lunch two weeks ago? Probably not, but it served an important purpose by nourishing our bodies and minds to do the work that was set before us until we ate again. Do we remember a first date with a spouse? Probably, because it nourished our spirits and our hearts with a passion that (hopefully) still burns today. It would be unfortunate for a person to say that they would only eat again after that first date if it promised to be as memorable. What would become of the body and mind then? The expectation of emotional experience would become unsustainable. 

If we believe Holy Communion to be a gift from Christ to the church to nourish our spirits with a tangible symbol of God’s love, isn’t a symbol of God’s love something we would want often, even if it was something ordinary? I would argue that God’s love for us doesn’t always move us to deep emotional response. Sometimes – and I would argue, frequently – God’s love is a steadying hand and an ordinary meal along the journey toward the place and time of promised peace in God’s reign. And it’s okay to not be overcome with emotion when that constant and steadying help is given and received. Often, a simple “thank you” is sufficient.

John Wesley in “The Duty of Constant Communion” says,

[Another objection] against constant communion is, that it abates our reverence for the sacrament. Suppose it did? What then? Will you thence conclude that you are not to receive it constantly? This does not follow. God commands you, “Do this.” You may do it now, but will not, and, to excuse yourself say, “If I do it so often, it will abate the reverence with which I do it now.” Suppose it did; has God ever told you, that when the obeying his command abates your reverence to it, then you may disobey it? If he has, you are guiltless; if not, what you say is just nothing to the purpose … Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts: Either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to our faith, or to the love or fear of God. Now, the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural. And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper, the constantly receiving of it must lessen. But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.

Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, died this week. Among his most famous works was a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I reflected on this book as I read through the chapter in Table Talk. In Peterson’s work he notes that the nature of faith is long, spanning years and even decades. One could picture a line of moving from one place to the next. Zoom in and you see the ups, downs, jolts. Zoom out and you see the ultimate direction and the steadiness of purpose. Consider this long arc when you think about weekly Communion, and maybe we’ll begin to see Communion’s “meaningfulness” as a deep reverence for the way in which individual times at the Table all contributed to a long and steady reliance on God’s love.

For those of you who are part of congregations that do not celebrate Holy Communion weekly, I would encourage you to experiment. Set aside eight consecutive weeks to practice it. Don’t force a particular emotion from the experience; instead, pull stories from the Gospels of Jesus eating with people and use those as a framework for the way in which you celebrate it. Gather your people together to talk about the experience. And, perhaps most importantly, give everyone who participates the same permission you give for music and sermons, permission for it to be an ordinary time that doesn’t necessarily emotionally move them the way it moves others. Open up space for your brothers and sisters to share stories of God’s long arc of love as part of the experience, and highlight the times that God worked in their lives where a simple “thank you” was the best response.

Give it a try, and I suspect that your congregation will begin to think differently about how you think about faith and God’s presence among you.

St. Luke and the Table of God

* This is the first installment in the blog-along through Mike Graves’ Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community.

Today, October 18, is the Feast of Saint Luke. As a member of the Order of Saint Luke, a religious order dedicated to liturgical scholarship and sacramental spirituality, today is an important day for me. It is a day that I remember my vows in the order and I honor the saint whose gospel account tells the story of Jesus, a story of love, peace, and hope. The Gospel according to Luke is a masterful piece of literature and an indispensable part of the biblical narrative. In it we see a Jesus who eats with people, heals them, listens to them, challenges them, tells them stories, and re-interprets all aspects of life through the lens of God’s magnificent reign of shalom that is coming – and, indeed, has come – into the world.

The great poetry that forms the heart of the daily office of prayer is woven into the fabric of Luke’s story of Jesus: Zechariah’s prayer of praise for the compassion of God, Mary’s song of justice and rejoicing, and Simeon’s expressions of gratitude for answered prayers.

The humanity of Jesus is fully displayed in Luke’s story of Jesus: the boy, teaching at the temple, frustrating his parents, growing in knowledge and wisdom; the tired man, recognizing his own death was immanent, giving his disciples hope in his final moments with them; the resurrected One, walking, teaching, blessing, sharing.

But perhaps most influential part of Luke’s Gospel on me in my own journey as a Lukan are its ten meal stories. Ten. More than the other three gospels, Luke highlights that important things happen at meals where Jesus is present. People are healed, truth is revealed, and the status quo is, sometimes dramatically, overturned in the process. Each of the ten meal stories shows us something different about Jesus and yet all show us the same image of a God whose love is beyond measure, even (and especially) for those outside the frame of our own limited worldview.

In his opening pages, Mike Graves identifies four traits about early Christian meals that frame the rest of his book. He says that these meals exhibited an “intimacy that naturally developed as [Christians] spent a whole evening together eating and talking;” “they were mostly inclusive, breaking down barriers of gender and socio-economic status;” “festive joy characterized” the gatherings; and, “everyone participated in lively conversations,” with the emphasis on “how everyone could participate in the dialogue” (6-7).

Graves’ notes that, for most parts of the early church, the meal that was shared in honor of the resurrected Christ constituted the essence and core of the liturgical service. This is, however, not a fellowship meal in our contemporary language. It was an intentional gathering, structured and designed around established ancient cultural traditions of fraternity and pledging loyalty to the empire (in this case, Christ’s new commonwealth of shalom). It is distinctly political and widely radical. The sharing of the Christ-meal at Table is a re-telling of the ten meal stories of Jesus through a communal rehearsal of their theology in community.

It is fitting to be offering the first thoughts on a book about communion and community as I reflect today on Saint Luke the Evangelist’s contribution to the Christian tradition and to my own journey of faith within that tradition. I joined the Order of Saint Luke in 2013, took my public vows in 2014, and since then have worked diligently to promote the worship of the church and to magnify the sacraments (two of our vows). Luke’s Gospel account continues to be an inspiration in this calling. In all this work I have become more and more convinced that intentional, joyful, and abundant Eucharistic practice must be at the heart of Christian worship every time the church gathers. Saint Luke tells the story of Jesus in an ordered and poetic way that draws our attention to how important things in God’s reign are revealed and practiced at Table. Why would we want to forego the chance to experience such wonder?

Graves’ book promises to offer insights on how to reclaim some of the early church’s practice for a contemporary context. Along the way over the next six weeks I will offer my own insight into how your congregation can move to weekly communion practice, reflecting the importance of meal in our heritage and rehearsing the very activity that was the foundation of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel.

So today, join me in giving thanks for Saint Luke the Evangelist, and pray that the God-who-is-still-speaking will stir our hearts toward the Table where Christ is making all things new.

October and November Book Blog: Table Talk

During October and November, beginning October 14, I will post weekly reflections on Holy Communion using Mike Graves’ Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community. The back cover reflects: “if we could travel back to [the] earliest Christian gatherings, we would realize we are not just two thousand years removed; we are light years removed from how they ate when gathered because eating was why they gathered in the first place, a kind of first-century dinner party.”

I will offer brief reflections in each post and engage with Graves’ work to explore the necessity of Holy Communion in Christian worship. An overwhelming majority of the church through an overwhelming majority of its history has gathered at the table every week. And, as a colleague and friend who teaches worship has said many times, “If your congregation isn’t gathering at Christ’s table every week, you are outside of orthodox Christianity.” How can we have civil conversations around the frequency of Communion, particularly with those who either crave weekly communion because it is considered essential to worship and with those oppose weekly communion because it is considered too special to be celebrated weekly? How can we re-engage our worship with the life-giving essence of Christ’s table in creative ways?

Graves’ book will form the launch pad for our conversation on this important topic. I hope you read along, or at least join the reflecting and consider implications for your context.

The City of God

The City of God

Babylon and Rome, to be sure, have a veneer of glory and a semblance of beauty, but they always seem to hide the ugly truth that they have built their city on the shed blood of their brothers.
– Brian Zahnd

* This is the fourth installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

Zahnd’s book continues to pick up steam. The fourth chapter, “East of Eden,” is a well-written contrast of the ways of the kingdoms of the world to the ways of God’s reign. He draws on the story of Cain and Abel, how Cain’s legacy is one that is built on the blood of Abel. He then moves forward to discuss the story of the founding of Rome, with the great city built on the blood of Remus (Romulus’ brother). His primary thesis is that the nation-states of the world are almost always built on the blood of another taken in violence. And while he doesn’t make the connection explicitly, even the United States was founded on the blood of violence, killing others out of what some may consider revenge. The commonwealth of God’s shalom, however, is one that is built not on the vengeful taking of a life but on the self-sacrificial giving of a life. The New Jerusalem, the eternal city of peace, will come bearing with it the faith of the martyrs and the blood of the Lamb rather than the seemingly virtuous slaying of an enemy. This chapter is a reminder that God’s reign is so vastly different from the ways the kingdoms of the world choose to operate. And on this day that remembers the events of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing 17-year war against an ethereal enemy (“terror”), it is appropriate to consider how the safety and stability of a peace gained for the western world through sustained violence differs greatly from the eternal stability and security of God’s holy reign that has come and is coming in the Prince of Peace who gave up his life.

Pacifism is a theological and ethical concept that has draped around my conscience for as long as I can remember. Since childhood I have been uncomfortable with violence, both in reality and in entertainment. It was during college that I stumbled across Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Until this point I fretted over whether one could be both opposed to violence and be Christian. I grew up in a military family where violence was not a necessary evil but a necessary good ordained by God. It was a relief to discover that I was in the company of Jesus in choosing the way of peace!

I was a pastor for many years in the Anabaptist tradition, in two of the three historic peace churches that oppose violence, warfare, and military participation. While I am still credentialed by one of these denominations and no longer actively pastor a congregation, I still teach my children the principles of nonviolence and hope that they choose the path of conscientious objection to violence. But being part of the historic peace churches provided a helpful cover in the face of questions over my opposition to violence. I could simply say, “Well, I’m Mennonite,” and that was sufficient. In the past few months I have realized the need to come to terms with what exactly it means to say I oppose violence. Pacifism, unlike the criticism that is often put to it, is not passive-ismIt is not a lie-down-and-don’t-say-a-word approach to injustice and violence. What is often lacking in the conversations around world decisions related to war, and even personal decisions related to the use of self-defense, are the ample opportunities we are presented in life to both prevent a situation that leads to violence and to engage in nonviolent dialogue when presented with violence. I see in Zahnd’s chapter a call to remember that the beauty of God’s reign is that violence can and should be something we abhor, and the way of peace through peaceful action should be our present course of action. Do we do enough to dialogue, understand the “other,” and refuse to pick up our swords or violent speech before we jump to force?

The City of God, the New Jerusalem, the Eternal City, is not a spiritual ideology that embodies the way of peace in a distant future when we have vanquished our foes. That is the way of Cain, of Romulus, of empire. The eternal city of peace of which the Scriptures speak, the prophets long, and the Christ embodies is something that is breaking into our world now. Congregational worship should be our training ground, our source of understanding of that reality. For in worship we gather around Christ’s table. It is the table at which friends and enemies alike sit and dine. (Remember, Jesus ate with Judas!) During worship we hear a different story from the world, and it isn’t a spiritualized or personalized message of inner peace. It is a startling declaration that the City of God is here, now. Are we claiming and living into our citizenship as ambassadors of peace and goodness?

What stood out to you in this chapter? How were you challenged by Zahnd’s writing?

A New Politic

A New Politic

We have no king but Caesar!
– Chief Priests, at the execution of Jesus

* This is the third installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

This was the most captivating chapter yet in Zahnd’s work as he brought us from the beauty of the crucifixion to the wonder of the incarnation to the political implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He compares the earthly nations and kingdoms (which he calls the “axis of power”) to the reign of God (which he calls the “axis of love”). His contrasting draws heavily on the nature of Jesus’ work in peacemaking and forgiveness, particularly during the passion narratives in the gospel accounts. Rather than using force to defend himself, Jesus dies at the hands of both the religious and the political leaders. Zahnd does not view this as acquiescence to their belief or consent to their practice, but rather a full unmasking of their ultimate powerlessness. He asserts that Roman crucifixion was designed to bring humiliation and shame, so the convicted were executed nude. Jesus, in going to the cross, allows the shame of crucifixion to be turned back onto the corrupt system that attempted to shame him. It was not a passive act; it was active defiance in a way of forgiveness and love. For Zahnd, clearly showing his Anabaptist stripes, this is the way the world changes and will be saved, not through violence but through forgiveness (the ultimate unmasking of violence).

I’ve had a strong interest in the Gospels and the kingdom of God since college when I was first exposed to the beauty of Jesus’ message by a great professor and friend. The Kingdom of God (or reign of God, or as I am preferring more these days, God’s commonwealth of shalom) is the vehicle through which God is bringing salvation into the world. The shalom-commonwealth of God breaks down all the barriers that divide, exposes the fallacies of our violence and fear, and offers a radical alternative to the ways of the principalities of the world. Caesar, as he was labeled in the Roman era, exists still in every nation. Perhaps the most earth-shattering revelation for me in college was that America itself is a form of Caesar, a kingdom of this world that sustains itself through violence and demands ultimate loyalty, and that it will pass away. In the face of such knowledge, what should be the Christian’s posture?

One of the things I look for when I enter a new worship space is whether there is an American flag in the building. Christians in America have far too often decided that their loyalties to God’s commonwealth of shalom and the nation-states of the world can be shared. Hierarchical language is used to distinguish priorities, such as “God first, America second.” Or, even more detrimental is the co-existence language, “We are citizens of two kingdoms.” And so many American Christians give no pause or question to the presence of the emblem of a contemporary Caesar in their worship space. (Imagine the early church hailing Caesar during worship!) The rhetoric of the nation’s founding that resonates into the current political environment of America being a city-on-a-hill, a beacon of hope to the world, is a co-opting of the very language Jesus used in the Gospel accounts to talk exclusively about God’s reign. Rob Hewell’s work Worship Beyond Nationalism addresses this topic in greater detail, and argues that such ambiguity is dangerous for faithful and truthful formation in the ways of Jesus.

As we consider Zahnd’s chapter on the politics of Jesus against the politics of the world, I think it is prudent to consider an important point he raises. It is not enough to believe in Jesus or to believe that Jesus is right; we must also believe what Jesus believes. The Gospel accounts give us a remarkably clear message about what Jesus believes. The reign of God is one of the major themes of the gospel accounts. Jesus believed that God’s reign was a commonwealth of shalom that existed not as a disembodied spiritual idea, or as an ally, supporter, or legitimizer of whatever nation-state happens to be ruling, but as a present reality that is breaking into this world and will, in the end of all things, be the one politic that remains. It isn’t the axis of power that will last, contrary to the “stars and stripes forever” anthems and declarations we too often herald in our theology of dual citizenship. Jesus did not and will not come as the propagation of any political entity other than God’s commonwealth. The reign of God as Jesus describes and embodies it is an ethos and community of forgiveness of enemies, generous provision even for the ungrateful, and lavish grace on the most undeserving. These are not the attributes of any Caesar. To invest our loyalty and allegiance into anything else is, quite frankly, a statement of denial to the life and ministry of Jesus.

So when I find an American flag in a worship space, it does not signal to me a community whose primary loyalty is to the reign of God that Jesus believed in, preached, and embodied. It tells me of a community of faith that is unsure whether Jesus’ reign is something that can and will last or affect real and substantive change in the world. It is a less pointed but equally ardent declaration of “we have no king but Caesar.” Because, as Jesus reminds us, we cannot serve two masters. One will always win out. For me and my family, I hope that we will have the courage to give our lives in the service of Jesus’ radical commonwealth of justice and peace that will outlast whatever new alluring guise Caesar takes.

The Wonder of the Incarnation

The Wonder of the Incarnation

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
– Socrates

* This is the second installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

With Zahnd’s opening chapter focusing on the cruciform image as the foundation of beauty for the Gospel message, his second chapter focuses on the incarnation as the basis of forming wonder in the Christian journey. He draws contrast between the kitsch of some contemporary Christian art and the incarnation itself, arguing for a deeper and more theologically rich understanding of Christian beauty. For Zahnd, the incarnation expresses such rich understanding by propelling humanity toward wonder – an awe-filled posture at the God who becomes human. It was a fine chapter that drew heavily on biblical stories and prophetic texts to point toward the fullness of both humanity and divinity that exists in Christ’s incarnation, and the wonder that it provokes.

During my doctoral studies, I spent time considering the ascension of Christ and that story’s theologizing of the person-hood of God. During those months, through reading some excellent texts on the incarnation and Christ’s continuing human existence in the heavenly realms, I began to realize an essential point that Zahnd implicitly acknowledges. The birth narratives of Jesus tell us of the God who becomes flesh (beautifully illustrated in the poetry of John 1). In the life stories of Jesus we find commonality with the human-ness of a God who is hungry, thirsty, tired, happy, mournful. The crucifixion story shows us the lengths to which God will travel to fully experience the condition of the marginalized human: brutal, humiliating, and wrongful execution. The resurrected Jesus is, however, too often portrayed in sermons and Christian artwork as almost angelic, a ghostly-type figure stripped of the humanity we witnessed pre-crucifixion. Though John’s gospel ends with Jesus’ interaction with the disciples (mainly Thomas) trying to prove his continued humanity, I never really considered Jesus’ ongoing humanity beyond the resurrection. The ascension story shows Jesus rising into the heavenly realms to return to God’s full presence.

Here, Zahnd talks about the incarnation as an hour-glass where the divinity (top half) meets humanity (bottom half) in the middle point. What struck me in those months of doctoral research, and continues to profoundly shape my view of God, is that in the incarnation, God descends, becomes human, and the world experiences a divinization: God’s divine presence enter and changing all things. But also in the incarnation (specifically, the ascension), God-as-human in Christ ascends, still fully human, and the blessed Trinity experiences a humanization of itself. It is a mystical union where we are filled with the presence of God in the Spirit and the divine Trinity is filled with the humanity of Jesus from creation.

This is where I believe our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are able to perceive a reality we miss in the west. Their doctrine of theosis, that in our salvation we become like God, gives voice to the wild and wonderful notion of God becoming and remaining human in Christ. There is now and always will be a part of God, the person of Jesus, that is fully human. It is a solidarity to creation that is profound and deeply moving.

How does this play out in our liturgies and faith formation? I believe the Eucharist is an easily recognizable experience of this, but so is the community that gathers in song and story that acknowledges and realizes God’s sustaining presence in each other. Perhaps you can think of other ways.

What were your thoughts on Zahnd’s second chapter? How does our worship, prayer, and spirituality embody the same solidarity that God embodies, and how does that move us beyond cliche and kitsch and into wonder and awe?