Sloppy communion - part two...

Earlier this week I shared a mild rant about "sloppy communion" - how
it is poorly celebrated in worship by many in the Reformed tradition -  and even wrapped in superstition and/or boredom by clergy and laity alike. The same could be said, however, for much of what passes for worship in my tradition. It is often sloppy in construction, filled with too many words and too little sensuality, obsessed with "relevance" from either a social justice or sentimental spirituality perspective and so emotionally and aesthetically dead that all you can say is: stick a fork in it because it is done!

Now part of the cause for this dreadful truth starts with Protestant theology about worship. While there are some wise and insightful Reformed practitioners in the academy, too many pastors in our local churches design worship from either habit or history. And because so much of our habit and history has been defined as "not Catholic," what we too often get is anemic, disembodied psycho-babble instead of bold, sacramental celebrations of God's love made flesh. As one soul said to me years ago, most of what passes for worship in our realm boils down to three hymns, a poem and the pastor's book report. There may be music as an opener and closer - and sometimes there is choral music of one type or another, too - but that's about it. Almost no liturgical movement, depth or awareness of how the church year corresponds to both the maturation of the soul and the journey of Jesus from life to death and life beyond death.

Small wonder then that when it comes to the Eucharist, which many Protestant churches only served four times a year - very often at evening services that were solemn replications of the Last Supper - this feast was robbed of its sacramental vitality. I think back to the congregations I have served and realize that more often than not, the only time their tradition allowed an embodied liturgical act in worship that held nuance and multiple meanings of spirit in the flesh came on Maundy Thursday. This seemed to be the only time when emotion and liturgical aesthetics was allowed to marry intellect and history. 

Sadly, to my way of thinking, it was restricted to a retelling of the Last Supper. Holy Communion, therefore, was shaped and limited to Christ's death. In fact, many of these churches had never celebrated Eucharist on Easter Sunday before my insistence so they had no experience or comprehension of the resurrection in the bread and cup. And, because so little sacramental work took place during the rest of the year, the Maundy Thursday liturgy became crammed full of symbols, sensuality and emotion. People told me they LOVED this worship - they wept, they moved and used their bodies during the liturgy, they experienced the dread and solidarity of being in total darkness with others - and so much more. In time, it dawned on me after hearing this over and again: the reason why these Maundy Thursday gatherings were so beloved had something to do with the sacramental nature of the celebration. It didn't happen for the rest of the year, but it happened in spades on this night - and the people cherished it and yearned for more.

There is a lot of liturgical reform and education that must take place in my Reformed tradition to move us from our current moribund habits and histories to something life-giving and joy-filled. There are a few authentically Protestant liturgical centers that are profoundly committed to this quest that deserve our support. They have kept abreast of liturgical renewal since Vatican II with both creativity and zest. Yale Divinity School is one exception to the rule as are the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the journal Reformed Worship are two other places of light and hope. (check them out @ http://worship.calvin. edu/ and
I rather like the way Fr. Richard Rohr pushes the envelope and helps us claim WHY sacramental worship matters - especially our celebration of the Eucharist - it leads us into knowing that ALL of creation is sacred. Not just the bread and the wine - but my flesh and yours - our neighbor's flesh as well as our enemy's, too. And let's not forget our beloved pets and plants, farm animals and sea creatures and on and on it goes.
The Incarnation Mystery is being repeated and represented in the Eucharist. Here we have material reality, in the form of these universal foods of bread and wine, as the hiding place and the revelation place for God. We are reminded that God is always perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed in the material world. This is the Cosmic Christ presence. If we deny that the spiritual can enter the material world, then we are in trouble, since we hope to be just that—spiritual and fully material human beings. We had best encounter Incarnation in one focused, dramatic moment, and then theparticular truth has a chance of becoming a universal truth, and even my truth.

The 16th question in the Baltimore Catechism, “Where is God?” is answered straightforwardly: “God is everywhere.” The summit of Christian prayer is accomplished when you can trust that you are constantly in the presence of God. You cannot not be in the presence of God! Where would you go? As the psalmist says (Psalm 139:7-9), if you go up to the heavens or underneath the earth, you still can’t get away from God. God is either in all things, or God is in nothing.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many people say they believe it here, but they don’t make the transference to everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence when they leave the church, when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or somehow strangers. They cannot also trust that this person—every person—is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sin, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders. Usually, early stage religion is not yet capable of that, but fortunately God is patient.

There is an often un-named reason why people don't go to worship today: it is about death not life.  God's love - and God's people - deserve better. 


Judith said…
Yet sloppy worship is often what is left of a congregation demands. It is in part also a Protestant governance issue.

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