Sunday, April 22, 2012

Invitation to Transcendence

If you thought we were finished with Easter, think again. The Season rolls on.

 It’s not just that there is a seven-week-plus period of time we label “Easter”. More than that, we’re starting to catch on that the Easter experience infects the whole life of the church. Rehearsing the different facets of the narrative helps us absorb a story that changes hearts and minds, and renews lives, including ours.

 In a very real way, Easter lingers on in the life of the church and becomes the dynamic theme of the Christian faith. This is true in our liturgy as well. Easter keeps popping up, on any Sunday, at any time. Again and again the Easter message finds expression in our praise and prayers.

For example, when we gather around the Table for the Lord’s Supper, the invitation often used includes a paraphrase of part of the account of one of the appearances of the risen Christ (Luke 24:30-32*):
According to Luke,
when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples,
 he took the bread, and blessed and broke it,
and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened
 and they recognized him.

The next lines transfer that biblical experience of awareness and awe from the two disciples to all of us gathered at the Lord’s Table:
This is the Lord’s table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared.

This is not a casual connection. The words of the liturgy were crafted intentionally to make sure we realize that our ritual acts at the table are related to what happened at another table so long ago.

Now the temptation is to squeeze time and push the two events, the Emmaus meal and our Lord’s Supper, together. By so doing, we might imagine that we are going back in time to be with Jesus just as the disciples were.

Yet if we do that, the Lord’s Supper becomes nostalgia, a fond, and often foolish, remembering of things gone and lost forever. Quickly the experience is filed away like faded photographs, and while it may have been nice in the moment, is has no continuing impact.

Yet the two events at two different tables, one set nearly twenty centuries ago, and the other where we are today, are, in fact, brought together now. The experience of the disciples then, becomes our experience now: our eyes are opened and we recognize the Risen Lord in the common acts of breaking bread and pouring wine.

Clearly this is not a ritual to plow through quickly. It calls for reflection, for pondering, for wondering, for looking inward as well as outward in the community of faith. We are to approach this table expecting something to happen, anticipating a promise to be kept.

The words of the liturgy introduce more than an act of serving bits of bread and sips of wine to a crowd—they are an introduction of a Person, Christ himself really present in our midst. The liturgy invites us to transcendence. What was beyond our grasp before is now in our hands. What has been ethereal and wispy is now tangible and true. What may have been abstract is comprehensible. What seemed otherworldly is real. In short, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the transcendent becomes immanent.

This is a repeated mystery. Again and again God’s people find themselves around a table they thought was theirs to meet the Living Lord as their Host. The words of the liturgy make the introduction.

Is there a sense of awe and mystery when Communion is celebrated at your church? Do people expect anything wonderful to happen?
*When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" (NRSV)

Sunday, April 15, 2012


In some circles, the Sunday after Easter is referred to as “Low Sunday.” This always brings a snicker from those who think it applies it to the low attendance in church. Apparently the term came from the fact that the Sunday following the grand and high celebration of Easter Day was bound to be less enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, Easter (the Season, that is) moves on its seven-week journey to Pentecost. During these Great Fifty Days we explore the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ, and its implications for and impacts on each one of us.

During the Easter Vigil, in reaffirming our baptisms, we recited the Apostles’ Creed via a question-and-answer process. One line in it struck me as relevant for Easter reflection, and brought back memories.

When I was but a mere lad learning my way among words and sentences, going to church was an educational event. My dad was often the tutor, pointing out the words in print as they were spoken or sung by the people. It was fun to follow along, exciting to be part of the celebration.

As a succinct statement of the Christian faith, the Apostle’s Creed was a wonderful foundational piece of liturgy for a boy like me. There was a small glitch in it, however. Every time the congregation affirmed their faith using the Creed, they left out a line—I saw it there in the print version in the front of the hymnal: “He descended into hell.” The fugitive line was marked with an asterisk, referring to a simple note stating the obvious: “Some churches omit this.”

At first, from my childish viewpoint, I thought it was omitted because of the swear word it contained. Much later I discovered it was a controversial affirmation, and perhaps misunderstood—worthy at least of some serious consideration.

“The descent of Christ into hell” is controversial probably because there is no broad consensus about what it means. As a theological concept, there are a number of different meanings read into it. As a doctrinal statement, it’s ambiguous.

For some it’s a statement about the hell of death’s agony that Christ experienced—an extension of the redundant statement that he was “crucified, dead, and buried.” It was one more way of saying he was really dead, dead, dead, all the way down dead—to heighten the impossibility of such a dramatic event as his resurrection.

Christ’s descent into hell has also been noted as the sign of his enduring complete separation from God on our behalf, and that his resurrection is an even more dramatic restoration of his and our relationship to God.

For others, “hell” is a translation of the Greek Hades, the place where the dead abide, both the godly and ungodly. The idea is suggested here that Christ descended to bring back those of history who were God’s servants, just as he brought Lazarus back from the dead. Orthodox icons picture Jesus lifting Adam and Eve out of their tombs.

Maybe it meant that he went also to give the ungodly one more chance, proclaiming his Good News to the lost so they might be found again and caught up in the embrace of God.

Christ’s going down to the dead is also understood metaphorically, reminding us that there is nowhere Christ will not go to bring us out of the tombs of death that threaten to box us in, and give us resurrection in our own lives.

Nevertheless, precious few sermons have been preached on this line of the creed (I confess neglecting it), and it hasn’t attracted a lot of academic theological analysis either. The descent of Christ to the dead might be thought a minor theological point, but there it is in the Creed.

Perhaps the statement’s ambiguity is its virtue. It calls us, as does the rest of the Creed, and the Nicene Creed as well, to find application of our affirmed faith to the lives we live. We are summoned to explore another dimension of the mystery of life and death—and resurrection—that we see in Jesus Christ.

Does your church include the phrase, “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed? What do you understand it to mean? Would you prefer to include it in the Creed or omit it? Why?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Can Church-Going Be Spiritual?

There’s an oxymoron for you: “Church-going” and “spiritual” in the same sentence? Nevertheless it’s a real question, and for many the obvious answer is, “of course not!”

Our culture has come to drive a sharp wedge between what, for want of better terms, might be called “religion” and “spirituality”.

The “religious” types are characterized as those (usually older) folks to toddle off to church on a Sunday, and make their way through whatever formal liturgy is set before them.

The “spiritual” ones are (usually younger) people who are not likely to be seen in church on Sunday, but even so consider themselves God’s children and constantly seek, by various means, a stronger connection with the Almighty.

Before you start filing yourself and everyone you know in one folder or the other, please understand that these are not “never-the-twain-shall-meet” categories. All of us, if the truth be known, and if we take our faith seriously to almost any degree, will find ourselves shifting to and fro, and often settling on a blend of the two.

For one thing, setting oneself to the task of worship, even in a church building with a group including strangers as well as friends, is in itself a spiritual discipline. It may not be the most thrilling or profound experience, but that’s beside the point that worship is a way for people to seek an encounter with God.

Where the church often fails, is in corporate worship that is unrecognizable as a spiritual discipline. If the liturgy is lifeless, the prayers pedestrian, and the scripture stammered out, then it becomes an activity to be endured rather than to be entered into.

What needs to happen is that we catch on to the fact that in order to worship in any fashion or tradition, we will need to claim various insights and means that can only be defined as “spiritual”.

Each of the various acts of worship in a given service reveals where “spiritual disciplines” come into play. For right now, however, let’s focus on one.

The Prayers of the People is a relatively new term for most of us older folks. In my youth and early ministry, the term was The Pastoral Prayer. The idea was, I suppose, that the pastor was qualified to write and then speak the prayer by virtue of being the pastor—the one who shepherded the congregation and cared for the spiritual, and sometimes physical, needs of the people.

As a result of being a good pastor, she or he could take a quiet hour or so in the study to contemplate the people’s circumstances and the grace of God, and then craft an appropriate prayer. When the pastor read the prayer during worship, if done with sensitivity, the people would hear it as their own.

The Pastoral Prayer, then, was really the Prayers of the People. The format changed, however, so that the people were not allowed to be so passive in prayer. Forms of bidding prayers, guided prayers and congregational refrains led to more involvement vocally, and, it was hoped, spiritually, in each petition.

The prayers themselves became more generic in order to cover more territory, and required more thoughtfulness on the part of the people. Prayer book prayers, written long ago and far away by strangers, don’t always cut it, so it’s still necessary for pastoral editing and writing to take place to make them fit “this congregation, today”.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is that these are the people’s prayers—not the pastor’s or anyone else’s. So in offering the prayers, in presenting them with and for the people, time and care must be taken to encourage the worshippers to engage in spiritual disciplines.

For example, the discipline of silence. Too often pastoral and people’s prayers are rattled through. Without meaningful pauses, such prayers will go by in a flash, unused by those in the pews.

When there is quiet time in prayers, the spiritual disciplines of meditation and reflection can take place. Each person has the opportunity to make the prayers their own, to fill in the blanks and add their own petitions, and to have their souls open to the touch of the Holy Spirit.

Elsewhere in a worship service similar spiritual opportunities are available: quiet centering at the beginning of the service, celebrating the grace of God, a silent prayer of personal confession, quiet contemplation following Scripture readings, rejoicing in the community of faith, pausing to reflect on the mystery of it all when receiving the elements of the Lord’s Supper, thoughtfully accepting the charge and benediction—all are ways of seeking and being open to the presence of the living Christ.

Going to church should not be devoid of spiritual experience. On the contrary, that’s what it’s all about.

How would you define “spirituality”? Where do you find worship in your church to be “spiritual” for you?