Communion As Nourishment

I’ve often wondered why I so much like to watch cooking shows on television. It’s not just because I like to eat. I mean, I like to travel, but I find most travelogue programs mind-numbingly dull. I love to read, but I find most programs on which authors are interviewed to be about as exciting watching paint dry.

Well, in the past couple of weeks, I believe I have gained some insight into my fascination with chefs and cooking techniques. It came through a story told by one of America’s great preachers, Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and now a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama.

He was writing about the first time he was asked to teach a seminary class on the significance of Communion. As part of his preparation, he sought the counsel of an older colleague who told him that, if he wanted to fully appreciate the value of Communion, he should learn to cook.

Willimon must have looked perplexed, so the older man went on. “You will never understand the meaning and value of Communion until you learn to prepare a meal and then take pleasure in the joy of those who have been satisfied by what you have prepared.”

That story reminded me of something one of my own Bible college professors once told me.

“When you’re preparing to preach, think of yourself as a cook or a chef in a well-equipped kitchen with a well-stocked larder. You have the best ingredients, the best utensils. Now get to work, and fix something good.”

The connection between preaching (or teaching) and food preparation comes right out of the New Testament. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Peter, up in Galilee, following the Resurrection, recorded in John 21.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Peter) said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, Feed my lambs… (Be a shepherd to) my sheep… Feed my sheep. ”

Later Peter, in chapter two of his first letter to some early believers would describe fundamental Christian truth in these terms:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As important as “spiritual milk” is, it’s not an adequate diet for growing Christians. Paul wrote, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians…

3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready.

And the author of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 5…

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

It should be clear, then, that the New Testament intends for us to think of the process by which we acquire the spiritual nourishment which enables us to “grow in grace…” and to progress toward maturity, as eating. And the means by which preachers and teachers (pastors and shepherds) contribute to that process, through their public ministry of scriptural exposition, the New Testament calls feeding.

To make this image even more graphic, and to etch its importance even more deeply into our thought patterns as believers, Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed, as He ate a final Passover meal with His disciples, took bread; and after He had blessed it, He broke it and gave it to them and said, “Take… eat… this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat it, remember me.”

The most sacred religious observance which it is possible for us, as Christians, to participate in—the Eucharist, Holy Communion—was instituted by our Lord around a dinner table. Why, we even refer to it, sometimes, as “The Lord’s Supper.” The elements which Jesus identified as representative of His body and blood were the bread and the wine which, only moments before, had been items on the evening’s dinner menu.

And it seems clear that Jesus did not intend for the bread and wine, consumed as part of the Communion observance, to be mere symbols which call to mind what they stand for. He could have accomplished that by sanctifying some object which could be put on display, constantly reminding us of the spiritual reality behind the symbol.

Instead, Jesus sanctified—that is, set apart and made holy—both the elements (bread and wine) and the means by which their significance is made real to us (take… eat… drink).

We Anglicans believe that, when Jesus established the Communion meal as an ongoing observance which the Church is to practice until Christ returns, He filled it full of meaning and substance. Not only do the broken bread and the wine represent the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. They also remind us of the constant need for spiritual nourishment through the milk and meat of the Word. But even beyond that, these elements, in some indefinable but nonetheless real way, actually feed our spirits and nourish our souls. That’s why Communion is a part of our service of worship at least once a week.


Waiting On God Is Not Wasting Time

Forty-five years ago, when I was a senior in high school, (I’m 62, in case you are doing the math in your head) God and I entered into a covenant.  He told me that, if I would use my gifts, talents, and abilities to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and to help Christians “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” then He would show me where to use them. He would open doors for ministry. And perhaps most practically, He would take care of me materially and meet my needs.  He didn’t speak to me in an audible voice, but the reality of God’s call on my life would not have been more certain if He had.

Over the course of my pilgrimage, I have come through some periods of time, some circumstances, where I could not clearly see what step I was supposed to take next. At those times, in those circumstances, I had no choice but to wait until He opened a door and showed me where to go and what to do.

Until fairly recently, the periods of waiting were measured in days or weeks, and only very rarely, in a few months. I’m in another period of waiting right now, and this one is already four years long… and counting.

Four years ago I was in my fourteenth year of teaching at a small Bible college in the free church tradition. I loved my job, and if the testimony of my former students and colleagues can be believed, I was pretty good at it.

But about five years before that, my soul had begun to hunger for something which my sojourn up to that point had not provided.  I began to read the early church fathers and to explore the character of Christian worship in the first centuries of church history.  I gained a new awareness of the place of mystery and reverence in worship, a fresh appreciation for the importance of the Eucharist. And I began seeking an experience of more holistic spirituality.

Eventually, it became clear that my developing convictions in the area of liturgical worship were incompatible with the college’s theological position and potentially confusing to the constituency. My contract was not renewed after the 2007-08 academic year.

Now, remember that covenant that God and I agreed to? Well, when I lost my job, I pulled it out, dusted it off, and showed it to God. I told Him that I believed I had kept my part of the bargain, and now it was time for Him to keep His. His response to me was one word—wait.

So I’ve been waiting… and waiting…

I haven’t been sitting on my hands. For the first year after I lost my job, our attention was focused on Shirley’s battle with breast cancer. Then, for the next two years, I did what I needed to do—classes, reading, interviews, etc.—to prepare for Holy Orders in the Anglican Church in North America.

I was ordained a priest last May, and since then, I’ve been learning how to function as a preacher and pastor in this new tradition that I’ve adopted.

I still haven’t drawn a paycheck in nearly four years, but God has taken care of us. So, in a very real way, He has been living up to His part of the bargain. But I’m still waiting for God to do what He has done time after time over the course of my life. I’m waiting for a clear sign from God that He has brought me to a place of ministry where I can use my gifts in service to Christ and the Kingdom.

I told you I’m not good at waiting. Waiting is painful. I’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that the pain of waiting is now greater than the pain of losing my job. The situation that produced the need for me to wait is now, itself, less painful than the urge, on some days, to throw in the towel and give up completely.

And then I read Isaiah 40. And I hear the prophet say…

29 (God) gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who wait upon the LORD

will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

I can tell you, it’s been a long time since I felt like I was “soaring on wings like eagles.”  And I would need the “second wind” of God’s grace before I could think of my life and ministry as something I do “at a run.” But I can still walk. Not very steadily, not very sure-footed at times. And some days over the past four years it has taken every ounce of strength I could muster just to pull myself out of bed and put one foot in front the other, because I couldn’t see any farther ahead than that.

Many times recently, I have literally sat down and cried while I prayed, “Lord, speak to me. Say something. Let me know that You are still there.”

And every time I have cried out like that, He has spoken to me. And every time, He has said the very same thing.

It’s like I’ve felt Him put His hand on my shoulder and lean in to whisper in my ear…

“Wait; just wait. Have I ever let you down?  Oh, I could move according to your timetable; I could give you what you think you need. Then you’d have what you want, but you wouldn’t really know me. You wouldn’t know how I sustain the weak and give hope to the discouraged. You wouldn’t know what it means to keep trusting when you are surrounded by despair and all you can see is darkness.

So what would you prefer—for me to clear all the obstacles out of your way or to give you the spiritual strength to prevail in the midst of them? Hang on. I know the pain is sometimes unbearable. But I have promised never to put more on you than you can withstand.

And so, when you consider how much better you are getting to know me when you are forced to trust me this way, it really could be said that my most gracious response to your prayer is that one word… wait.”

The End Of The Glory Road

When I started writing this blog last October, I assumed that, from time to time, I would use this space to review books that I had recently read, or at least base my reflections on something I had read. I never expected that I would do what I am about to do… which is to base a blog post on the review of a book I have not yet read; a book, in fact, that has not yet been published.

Lauren Winner is, by Christian publishing standards anyway, a superstar. She is a professor of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, which, at age 36, is impressive in itself. But she came to the attention of the evangelical reading public with her first “memoir,” Girl Meets God, which appeared in 2002 (when she was, what, 26?). A few years later she wrote Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, and her place among best-selling evangelical authors and on the lecture circuit was secured.

I do not mean to diminish either Ms. Winner’s talent or her accomplishments. I actually heard her speak at a conference in the Chicago area in 2006 and was sufficiently intrigued by her presentation there that I read Girl Meets God, a title I would not likely have otherwise been drawn to. And I’m glad I read it. Despite the title, the book’s insight is valuable for men as well as women. I did not read Real Sex, although I read several reviews, all mainly positive. I had not thought about Lauren Winner for awhile until I read a review, by Katelyn Beaty for Christianity Today, of Ms. Winner’s forthcoming title, her second “memoir,” called  Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.

The book will be published next Tuesday, and it will be downloaded to my Kindle on that day. I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Katelyn Beaty’s review is provocative and insightful enough, in itself, to merit both reflection and comment.

I remember thinking, as I read Ms. Winner’s first memoir, that it was a bit pretentious for a 20-something to presume she had lived long enough and gained sufficient experience that her ruminations could actually be of value to the Christian community. But they were. And after I got past that initial cynicism, and could see beyond some of the limitations which her youth and inexperience imposed upon her indisputable talent as a writer, I came to appreciate her honesty and gave thanks to God for her testimony of faith. I also wondered if the exigencies of “real life” would dull her enthusiasm. I hoped they wouldn’t leave her disillusioned.

According to her reviewer, Ms. Winner’s new book reveals that life has indeed taken its toll on both her psyche and her faith. Her first book described her initial experience as a Christian in terms reminiscent of a bride’s reflections on her wedding and honeymoon. Apparently her new book tells us that there never really was a genuine honeymoon. She had thought that her early encounter with evangelical Christianity (she had previously embraced the Judaism of her father) would be an exciting excursion along the “glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever,” the reviewer quotes from the book’s preface. “I didn’t anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall.”

And it is that kind of honest admission that caught my attention as I perused the review of Winner’s book. Lauren Winner came to the painful reality which most, if not all, Christian believers eventually encounter. Unlike most of us, however, she is apparently willing to acknowledge her predicament, admit her own failures and unrealistic expectations, and grapple with the doubts and disappointments she has faced. She writes,

The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone.…Once upon a time I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.

I applaud her honesty. I have been there too. In fact, we all have. But there is something about our “church culture” that prevents us from facing up to the fact that our faith has not been all that we had expected or desired. Rather than grappling with that reality, however, most of us settle into a humdrum pattern of spiritual mediocrity, putting on a happy face at church but hiding a gaping emptiness inside.

Our churches should be hospitals where the pain of disillusionment and disappointment—with ourselves, with our friends and family, and yes, with God—can be acknowledged and healed. Instead, they are too often little more than social clubs where superficial smiles and cursory exchanges cover over the doubts, the questions, the longing for something more and the fear of admitting that in front of all those who, outwardly, seem to have it all together.

I am looking forward to reading Ms. Winner’s story. The reviewer indicates that Winner has emerged, to some degree, from the depths of her despair, from that time when God seemed totally absent. But she has not regained that almost giddy enthusiasm of her initial days as a believer. Her new book apparently reflects her continuing love of Christian liturgy which, according to her reviewer, “reorients her to the biblical story… and often provides Winner the faith she can’t muster.” That is my testimony too.

Lauren Winner reminds us that there are unexpected twists and turns along the glory road. We may feel that we spend more time in the ditch than on the highway. The church will be a better place, however, if more of us will honestly admit that we are weary from the travel, our throats are scratchy from the dust, and sometimes we can’t see where the road is leading. The journey to the kingdom is often just one plodding footstep after another. Admitting our weariness, our doubts, our disappointments, our weaknesses and failures will go a long way to easing the grind of the sojourn. We can’t find rest until we admit we are weary. We can’t be healed until we acknowledge we are in pain. And we won’t fully experience the salutary benefits of the body of Christ until we are willing to grant that sometimes we simply can’t understand the predicament we are in. We need each other to get us through the times when our faith is weak, and Lauren Winner has shown us how to take the first steps to restoration after we come to the end of the glory road.

Becoming Sacramental

For several months after my termination at RBC in 2008, our attention was focused more on my wife’s health needs than on the question of our church affiliation.  By early 2009, however, we were ready to make our commitment to Anglican Christianity. On April 19, we received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and our pilgrimage among Anglicans officially began.

I soon began the arduous process of preparing for Holy Orders (ordination) in the Anglican communion. I had been ordained twice before, once as a Baptist then again as a Mennonite, but all of my education and experience had taken place within the free church tradition.  My knowledge of the Anglican tradition was sketchy, and I needed to do extensive reading in the history and theology of Anglicanism. I also took courses in Patristics, Moral Theology, and Liturgics. I was ordained an Anglican priest on May 10, 2011.

Some may wonder how a man who grew up in the Baptist tradition can now submit to episcopal (Bishop) authority and practice paedobaptism (the baptism of infants and young children).  I do not denigrate the tradition to which I devoted thirty-five years of fruitful ministry.  When I became an Anglican, however, I chose to embrace a different paradigm for understanding the nature of the church, spiritual authority, and those practices I formerly regarded as “ordinances.”

I am now a sacramentalist.  I have come to believe that physical expressions such as baptism and communion are far more than just a “memorial” of Jesus’ death or a testimony to personal faith.  Each is, rather, an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  Further, when I think of baptism as the New Covenant counterpart of circumcision, I have no problem administering it to children of believing parents as a visible sign of the Kingdom community in which the child will be brought up.

Here again the book by Robert Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which I mentioned in my last post, is helpful.  In describing his journey from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism, Webber noted “six aspects of (Christian) orthodoxy that were not adequately fulfilled” for him until he identified with the Anglican tradition.

For me, Anglicanism preserves, in its worship and sacraments, the sense of mystery that rationalistic Christianity of either the liberal or evangelical sort seems to deny.  I found myself longing for an experience of worship that went beyond either emotionalism or intellectualism.  I believe I’ve found that for myself in the Anglican tradition.  I also felt a need for visible and tangible symbols that I would touch and feel and experience with my senses.  This need is met in the reality of Christ presented to me through the sacraments.  These three needs—mystery, worship, and sacraments—are closely related.

At times I felt like an ecclesiastical orphan looking for spiritual parents and a spiritual identity.  I am now discovering my spiritual identity with all God’s people throughout history by embracing the church universal and a holistic perspective on spirituality.  These three needs—historic identity, an ecclesiastical home, and a holistic spirituality—are also closely related.  (pp. 15-16)

He goes on to say that he is “not sure one has to become an Anglican to satisfy these longings,” but he makes it clear that, for himself and the others whose stories are told in the book, “the Anglican church is a refuge, a home, a place where an intuitive and inclusive Christianity is taught and practiced.”  (p. 16)

That is my testimony as well.

An Evangelical On The Canterbury Trail

Each step of my pilgrimage has required me to jettison some elements which I determined to be inconsistent with authentic faith, but I never abandoned my commitment to orthodox doctrine or salvation through faith in the work of Jesus on the cross. About ten years ago I began moving into yet another stage of my continuing pilgrimage… a further step in my relentless pursuit of authentic faith.

My soul began to hunger for something which my sojourn among Mennonites had not provided.  I began to read the early church fathers and to explore the character of Christian worship in the first centuries of church history.  I gained a new awareness of the place of mystery and reverence in worship.  I found meaning in the Daily Office, as a way of structuring my Bible reading and prayer time, and in the seasons of the church calendar, which is based on an annual review of the earthly life of Jesus, as a guide for devotional life and discipleship.  I gained a fresh appreciation for the importance of the Eucharist (Communion) in the church’s worship, and I began seeking an experience of holistic spirituality which was not focused on conversion alone or doctrine alone or ethics alone.

Along the way, owing in part to a growing awareness of my Irish heritage from my mother’s side of the family, I came to appreciate the benefits and influence of Celtic Christian spirituality.  With its Trinitarian foundation, its emphasis on community, and its sensitivity to nature as a beautiful expression of the creative power of God, Celtic spirituality offers a needed corrective to the materialism and individualism which characterize so much of contemporary Christianity.

In addition I read a great many books which encouraged me to drink long and deep from the stream of the ancient traditions of the church which had enriched so many believers from so many different theological families over the centuries.  One of the most influential of these was a short book by the late Robert Webber called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.  As I read Webber’s story of his own passage from mainstream Evangelicalism to Anglicanism, I gained a new perspective on the word “sacrament” and its place in the life of the church. The more I read, the more I realized that Webber’s story, and those of the other six “pilgrims” whose stories are told in that book, was also my story.

For more than five years after we moved to central Ohio in 2000, Shirley and I tried to relate to one or another of the Mennonite churches in that area in hopes that, somehow, we could combine our commitment to Anabaptist discipleship with our growing sensibilities in the areas I have just described.  I still believe that combination is possible, but our efforts in that regard proved futile and frustrating.  Ultimately we determined that we had to relate to a church that respects our convictions in the area of discipleship while it also nourishes our spirits in an expression of worship which not only rehearses the entire gospel story every Sunday but also involves all of our senses in the process.

When I embraced the Anabaptist distinctive of biblical nonresistance, I lost many of my former friends and my family, many of whom are still rooted in “God and country” fundamentalism.  I didn’t realize that, when my relentless pursuit of authentic faith led me to embrace a liturgical approach to worship—which, I maintain, is fully compatible with radical discipleship—I would lose my job in the process. (See my previous post.)  But when I think of the sacrifices made by our Christian forebears in their pursuit of faithfulness, mine is a small sacrifice indeed.

The Liturgy Saved Me

Three years ago, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, while sitting at a corner table at Panera Bread in Dublin, OH, I wrote an essay, later posted as a note on my Facebook page, which I called “I Quit.”  I remember the date because I was on my way to the hospital to spend time with my wife who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  Actually, she was in the hospital because the chemotherapy she had been undergoing for three months had made her so sick, she needed more care and attention than I was able to provide for her at home.  It was also the day after OSU had beaten Michigan for the seventh time in eight years.

I wrote that essay, which I have long since removed from Facebook, to explain why I had given up on God and the church.  I’d like to be able to tell you that the essay was the product of an addled mind, discouraged by circumstances, exhausted from lack of sleep, at the absolute nadir of a period in my life from which I have since emerged. Well, some of that is true.  I was addled, discouraged, and exhausted. But I was not at the nadir of my despair.  And while I have emerged, at least to some degree, I had no idea, at that moment, how much lower I could, and would, go.

In the eighteen months prior to that November Sunday, my mother had died, our daughter had become a single mother, I was fired from a job I loved, and my wife was diagnosed with cancer.  I was just about to turn 60 and had recently received my first rejection of a job application to read:  “You were among many qualified applicants, but in the end we selected another candidate who, we believe, will suit our needs better.”  (Read “Sorry, you’re too old.  Of course, if we came right out and told you that, we’d be setting ourselves up for a lawsuit.”)

I still wince when I recall that day and the emotions which gave rise to that cry of desperation.  I actually feel faint and my legs start to tremble when I then reflect on how much deeper I would sink into the “slough of despond” before I would start to see the first faint glimmers of hope penetrating into my “dark night of the soul.”

At some point, early in 2009, God got through to me.  Some small kernel of truth, which had been all but buried during the darkest months of my depression, germinated and began to grow inside me. God reminded me of the words of C. S. Lewis to the effect that Jesus Christ was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of Glory.  My heart was still hurting, but my mind was at work.  I could not deny the truth of Lewis’ assertion.  No lunatic nor liar could affect the world the way Jesus had.  That left only one option, and while my heart and emotions yearned for more, my brain and intellect grasped that straw of hope and held on for dear life.

My faith had been restored, but I doubt that I would ever have set foot in a church building again had it not been for one thing—the liturgy.  Months before, I had bought a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.  We had been attending an Episcopal church off and on, and I wanted to become familiar with the liturgy so that I wouldn’t feel so lost in the worship service.

I began to read the Prayer Book.  It was confusing, but I loved it anyway.  I read the prayers, the order of service for Eucharist, Baptism, Ordination.  I came to see that I didn’t need to feel anything emotionally in order to affirm the truth of what I was reading.  I just consented to the content intellectually.  And slowly, little by little, the truth I was acknowledging in my mind seeped down into my heart and, like Wesley, I was “strangely warmed.”  Further, what had become a reality for me in the privacy of my study became even more real when I could finally drag myself out of bed on Sunday and into a worship service at an Anglican church.  The light was beginning to dispel the darkness.  There is still a lot of darkness to dispel, since I had sunk to some pretty grim depths.  But this is my testimony today.  The liturgy saved me.  The liturgy saved me.

The Kingdom Is The Thing (Part Two)

Just a few more thoughts on the transformational nature of the Kingdom of God… for now.  By “the Kingdom of God,” the Bible means the right and authority of God to exercise His power and sovereignty in each human life and in the world at large.  For now, although God is the sovereign power in the universe, He has chosen to give humans the freedom to choose whether they will live under His authority, as citizens of His Kingdom.  When Kingdom citizens choose to come together in community and encourage one another in Kingdom living, a local church exists.  The church is the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world.

While the New Testament does not contain a constitution or a set of bylaws for the way Kingdom citizens should live, it is not difficult to surmise such a pattern for behavior.  Kingdom citizens should emulate the character of the King.  The cultivation and development of Christlike character traits is called spiritual formation, and it is the most important work in which the church can be involved.  It includes public worship, personal devotion, and self-sacrificing service.  And it takes a church, the community of the King, to be the context, the fertile environment, in which spiritual formation can flourish.

The truth about the Kingdom of God can resolve all manner of church conflicts—simply follow the course that most consistently models the values of the Kingdom and the character of the King.  It can provide guidance in political issues and matters of public policy—support the candidates and policies which are most likely to produce a society which reflects Kingdom values.

It was the truth about the comprehensive nature of the Kingdom of God which ultimately drew me to the liturgical tradition which I now embrace in Anglicanism.  Many of my friends in the free church tradition, where I lived and worked for thirty-five years, feel uncomfortable with what they perceive as “pomp and pageantry” in some forms and expressions of liturgical worship.  For me, those outward expressions—the bowing, the kneeling, the incense—all remind me that I serve the King of Kings, and one day I will have opportunity to acknowledge His very presence in similar acts of honor and worship.  Until then, they bring a little of heaven to earth, and instill a level of reverence in public worship which never fails to lift my spirit and transport me  spiritually into the presence of the King.