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.