Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Feasting From Afar: Thinking About Virtual Communion

Virtual church: More churches turning toward social media ...In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic and the new vantage point it has given us from which to consider some of our longest-held and most embedded theological positions, I thought it would be worth while to share some of my own thoughts and feelings about the "virtual" Communion. Many churches are and will be practicing the sacrament through online platforms like Youtube, Zoom, and Facebook, including (starting this Sunday) my own church.

In the past, I have been fairly impatient with the idea of doing "online church" and especially with the performance of sacrament through virtual media. I believe strongly in the bodily experience of the sacraments. When one is immersed or covered in water of baptism, it isn't just an ethereal or cerebral confession that's taking place. There is a physical experience, a wet experience. One certainly celebrates the event as a confession of God's grace and the practice is certainly a way of attending to that grace, but however we describe the event, the reality always persists - the child still has to dry off, actual water will have to be wiped from actual eyes and faces.

The same goes for Communion. The bread and the cup are indeed the body and blood of Christ, given for us in self-sacrificing love, by grace alone. And the Holy Spirit transforms the fellowship that gathers at the table into a true communion, the body of Christ re-membered and brought together before God. And the meal witnesses to something beyond itself, celebrating God's decisive and saving ministry, remembering as it anticipates the day when all things shall be made new, when people from every nation will be gathered together in the sharing and receiving of grace, when God will be all-in-all.

But in all this glorious reality, the fact remains that the bread that is the body and the cup that is the blood are still "elements." The bread is bread and the cup is a cup that has juice or wine in it. And when the elements are ingested they will also be digested and they'll do what digested food does... and it will smell no sweeter.

The sacraments are bodily experiences. "We are invited with our senses to participate in the mystery of Christ's presence" (Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 23).  Community and communion are bodily experiences. This means that the promises and actions performed by God in these experiences speak over not only some transcendent ether, but they speak and affect real bodies as well. Communion is about eating and touching and rubbing elbows because the kingdom of God and all its promises are for this world of food and water and bodies.  This used to be my main argument against "virtual" Communion. Do not do virtually what has to be bodily and physical! Do not do individually what must be done communally!

However, what I never considered was the possibility that physical gathering and bodily proximity would be an impossibility. I never thought about the "virtual" option being the only option.

While we've been practicing social distancing, our church, along with many others, has been practicing "online worship," which already, in itself, anticipates "online Communion" since, after all, worship is a feast in itself. According to Jurgen Moltmann Christian worship is essentially a "feast of Christ's resurrection from the dead," and thus all Christian worship is "eucharistic" (Moltmann, Open Church, 72-73). Worshiping online already gives way to practicing Communion, the feast itself, online. But I digress...

In all of our "Online Worship" activities at First United Methodist Church of Toms River, Pastor Ed or I will always say something like, "we know this isn't the same as actually being together... but this is just one way for us to connect with God and to stay connected to each other, even while we are apart..." What we are doing with those words, with that makeshift "call to worship," is we are acknowledging the provisionality of the practice. We are confessing that our worship is not perfect, that it isn't quite there, but it's still real. It's not about the practice itself, it's about what the practice points to. It points to God and it points to our being together in this, now only "virtually" and in part, but soon actually and fully.

What this has forced me to realize is that this online worship is actually just like all worship in this one distinct quality. In terms of what we humans are doing in it, it's imperfect and it's provisional. Perhaps every worship service should begin with the confession, "this isn't quite there, but it anticipates the day when we will be!"

All human worship of God is fraught with imperfection. This is true even of our most profound and central practices, even the sacrament of Communion. For our part, the practice of Communion is never completely that which it anticipates. Even as an event in itself, it is always a witness to another event - the event of God's action and the consummation of that action in the coming of God. This is definitively so. For, as the Apostle Paul put it, "every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord's death until he comes again" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

This element of provisionality is what I think I was missing when I was so adamantly against virtual expressions of worship and sacrament. To give it a more theological classification, this element that I was missing is the eschatological element, what Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff call an "eschatological imagination." They write, "A celebration of the holy meal that plumbs its eschatological depth will be an initiation into the Eucharistic life as a protest against the powers of death" (The Eucharist, 7). Communion invites us not to ascend out of our bodies and into some spiritual realm of perfection. Instead, it invites us to descend to the cross, recognizing the imperfection and even the evil of the present. "When we come together at the table, we engage in the work of lifting up the groaning of creation and the labor pains of the people of God" (The Eucharist, 6-7). We confess that though this meal celebrates Christ's real presence with us and anticipates the world's transformation under the reign of the crucified messiah, it thereby also confesses that the world is not yet there. Even as we fill our bodies and are re-membered as we remember, there are bodies that are still yet to be filled, yet to be re-membered and renewed. There are bodies that are missing... in this case, even our own.

Even as we take Communion when we are together, there are those among us (perhaps especially the Pastor) who are missing the point entirely. There are times when we fail to "discern the body." There are moments when our liturgies are quite out of sync with our realities... Our practice of Communion, for our part of it, is consistently inadequate...  and yet what makes the practice a sacrament in the first place is that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the event, transforms the practice, the elements, and the congregation itself into the body and blood of Christ re-membered.

So when churches practice online and virtual Communion in the coming weeks, these practices will be fraught with imperfection, filled with peculiarity and irony, and conditioned by provisionality. They will be, in other words, inadequate - only a shadow of that to which they are witnessing and that for which they are hoping... just like every other performace of the church. They will fail at being a true feast of the resurrection. They will fail in their togetherness, in their commuinion, even as they anticipate the our future coming together again.

And the same Holy Spirit that sanctifies every other inadequite human attempt of practicing Communion will sanctify theirs and make it a true symbol of itself, a true sacrament as the church attends to the reality of the grace of God which renders our inadequacy and inability irrelevant. Their meals will be sacraments because they will be "lifting up the groaning of creation and the labor pains of the people of God" in the midst of this pandemic. The argument could be made that Communion is more important now than it ever has been because now the bodies we inhabit are more in need of the hope of communion, of being brought back together with their community. We are groaning for togetherness... but we need to know that we are still connected.

It will be all the more important for us to gather together again for Communion when we can since our meal anticipates our being brought together, but while we can't be together, God can sanctify the practice, just as God sanctifies all sacramental experience, to be a true witness of the coming of God and the resurrection of which Christ is the firstfruits.

In closing, I would like to say that I worry about anyone who doesn't have some hesitations about "virtual Communion." If the decision is too easy, I fear that either eating or drinking or refraining from doing so will be to the demise of their witness, particularly the witness of the physicality of the gospel itself and the here-ness of God. I hold with the highest esteem those pastors and churches that are deciding not to engage in "virtual Communion." But I believe that it is Christ who makes our meal a Communion, that Christ is the host of the table, and that Christ is a generous host who doesn't mind using Zoom or Facebook Live if it honors the situation of the people of God.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Slaves in Egypt

Many scholars maintain that Exodus is truly the fist book of the bible insofar as it provides a kind of logical starting point for the larger biblical narrative. It is out of the memory of being liberated that the entire story of the bible emerges. Even the Genesis account, which precedes it in the order of the canon, was written out of the memory of the Israelites’ exodus from the captivity of Egypt. Prior to liberation, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for generations, made to “serve with rigor” (Exodus 1:13) until they forgot the meaning of freedom. Their very existence was reduced to productivity, to building up Pharaoh’s “treasure cities” (Exodus 1:11). They were slaves, not only by vocation but by identity as well; such that when they were finally free, they needed instructions on how to live as free people (Exodus 19:5-6).

 It was at Sinai that God met with Moses to offer these instructions and to give the law that would guide the people in their freedom. Grounded in the priority of God’s action--“I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4)--the people are given a picture of what it means to be the people of God, a theological rationale for living as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) in response to the salvation they received by the grace of God.

God’s picture begins with the image of what it means to love God--“you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), and so on. It ends with the picture of what it means to love one another, to encounter other human beings as persons and not as slaves--“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exodus 20:13-17). But between those two images, there’s an image that may seem as strange to our modern sensibilities, if we are honest, even as it is familiar to so many of us who grew up in the church.

God tells the people to “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The image is painted,
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:9-11). 
Central (quite literally, in fact) to the image God paints of the rationale for being God’s people, for responding to and participating in God’s ministry, is a command to stop.

God tells the people that if they are to live into their identity as God’s people, they must rest and allow those around them to rest. This may seem counterintuitive. The people are finally free, should they not be getting busy being priestly and holy? It is just as counterintuitive as the seventh day of creation when, just after they had been given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26), human beings’ first task on their first day on the job is to rest with God in the garden (Genesis 2:1-3), a rest they did not earn or need. It is certainly backwards to our modern sensibilities in industrial society which tells us that we should only rest when we need it and deserve it, in order to be more productive and to make better use of our time. But once we remember what this law is really about, once we remember that these are instructions for people who have been slaves for longer than they can remember, the reason for the centrality of such an image comes to light.

These are people who have been programmed, as it were, to believe that their value and their identity as human beings rested solely in their work, their productivity, their contribution to the larger scheme of Pharaoh’s progress. God is telling them that, in their freedom, they are no longer slaves. They are not merely what they do. They are human beings and not just human becomings. They are who they are, even and especially in their rest with God. They not only need to be freed from slavery, but from the rationale of slavery itself. As we discover from the rest of the story, the rationale of slavery is seductive throughout the history of Israel. Indeed this is why the Pharisees in the Newer Testament take the call to keep the sabbath holy so seriously when they're living under Roman authority (tyranny). The threat of reverting to a mechanistic identity is every looming.

Youth ministry in America, I am afraid, has a history of its own kind of rationale of slavery. As youth workers and youth ministry theologians, our history of instrumentalism, of reducing our ministerial identity to productivity and seeing our ministry merely as a means to an end, is a seductive image and we need to embrace a new image of ministry not as a means to an end, but as a theological task of encountering and resting with God. We are not slaves to the outcomes of institutions, we are free to encounter God as we encounter one another and to accept God’s coming to us, God’s taking us “on eagles’ wings” (Exodus 19:4) as an end in itself.

A Pastoral Prayer

The following was the Pastoral prayer we prayed this Sunday at First United Methodist Church of Toms River:

Loving and merciful God, 

You have gathered us to worship you, to worship you together as one body. And we remember today that this is your prayer for us as a church—that we may be one as you are one. That we may love one another, welcome one another, lift up one another, and be open to each other. 

We confess that we have failed to do that. 

We confess that, even here, we are too narrow minded and too selfish to love as you love, to be as indiscriminately loving as you are. Our community, our body, is broken. So God, we pray that you would heal it. We pray that, just as your body was broken for us and restored, that you would restore our broken body; even as we re-member you at the communion table today. Help us, as we eat and drink, to “discern the body” to be sure that we have invited everyone whom you have invited. 

 God, for some of us, this was a long week. Some of us faced trials that seemed overwhelming. Some of us received news that was devastating. Some were burdened by worry and despair. Some of us, even now, are weighed down by fear and trouble. God, we do not know why we experience such hardship and struggle… and sometimes it causes us to doubt your love and your power. But God, in the mystery of our struggles, we trust that you are here… 

You are with us. You are closer to us than our very breath, and we trust that your presence is life-giving. So give life to those who are struggling and give hope to those who feel hopeless. Seek and save the lost. And God, with your life-giving presence, bring us joy so that we may celebrate the good in the world—every good gift that comes from you. Help us to be free and to find rest in you. Help us to be people of joy and gratitude… And it is with gratitude that we pray in the strong name of our crucified, risen, and reigning lord, Jesus. 


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Grace as Spaciousness: Reviewing Emptiness by David Auten

With this, his third book, David Auten has really come into his own - not only as a theologian and a pastor but as a spiritual guide. With a style and demeanor that's reminiscent of the likes of Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, Auten invites the reader into an alternative space. Too much of our theological writing approaches reality as a problem to be solved. Auten approaches it as a mystery to be embraced, liberating the reader from the compulsion of analysis.

Exploring various experiences - including ignorance, conflict, and death - Auten invites the reader to live life with open hands and open hearts, from the spaciousness of emptiness. Reminiscent of Nouwen's concept of speaking out of silence (see The Way of the Heart), Auten invites us to live ex nihilo (from nothing). What we discover when we live in the embrace of this spaciousness, this emptiness, is that whatever is is a gift. In short, we discover that spaciousness is itself a grace. In Christ, we discover the freedom to become nothing and the joy of emptiness. In a world where it has become taboo to do nothing, where we feel compelled, forced even, to fill every minute of our schedules with stuff, to fill every space on our shelves with something, the allowance of emptiness is a transforming and revolutionary grace.

This book should be read and savored by theologians, pastors, and anyone who feels strangled by the clutter of life.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Encountering God in the Stories of Others

This post was originally published at Kindred Youth Ministry

Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives. ... READ MORE

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Right Tool For The Job

You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hammer metaphor: "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This metaphor rings true when it comes to how we think about the young people with whom we minister. The tools we have for interpreting young people’s experience will largely determine how we treat them and, ultimately, the shape of our ministry. This works the other way around too. If all we see are nails, we’ll never see the point of using anything but a hammer. This is why it’s really important for us to think about how see the people in our ministries—to wade into that sometimes monotonous debate about what we call young people. Should we call them “kids,” “youth,” “adolescents,” “young people,” “students”? Do we need to make up some new term? Most of us, I imagine, are ready to move beyond this debate. But I think we need to keep coming back to it, otherwise we risk using a hammer when we should be using a wrench… or perhaps a stethoscope or a mirror.

So let’s look at a couple of the terms we use to refer to the people in our youth ministries and what tools they invite us to use.

Students - Some of us use of the term, “students,” to refer to the people in our youth ministries because we think it has more dignity than “youth.” Perhaps we saw something pejorative or maybe just a little awkward about the term “youth.” Many of us started calling our ministries “student ministries” and we started referring to ourselves as “student ministers” or something like that. And while this might avoid some pitfalls of “youth,” it comes with its own problems. Besides the fact that not all young people are “students” in the traditional sense (some young people find themselves in socioeconomic situations that force them to drop out or not to enroll in school), and not to mention that young people with learning disabilities may have a complicated relationship with the term, there’s a more fundamental problem. As Andrew Root pointed out in his short but important article, “Stop Calling Them That,” “student” is a function, not a person. A person can be a student, but a student is not a person. This limits the tools we’ll use in ministry. If all you see are “students,” then you must be a “teacher” and your tool will be “teaching.” However, if it’s ministry we want to be about, not just education, we have to see the youth in youth ministry as persons. “Student” is about doing, person is about being and being-in-relationship. The young people in our ministries don’t just need us to teach them, they need us to minister to and with them. And we don’t just need to teach students, we need to learn from the young people in our churches, because the Holy Spirit at work in them is the same Holy Spirit who’s at work in everyone else.

Adolescents - This is a complicated one. While few would wish to suggest that we call our ministries “adolescent ministries” (though I would venture to guess that there are a few churches out there that do), we are often trained to think that adolescence is just the technical term for youth. But as I have written elsewhere, not all youth is “adolescence.” What I mean by that is, adolescence is not always the best diagnosis for what young people are experiencing. Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere, means “to grow to maturity.” The term took on its technical meaning and its contemporary form after G. Stanley Hall made it famous as a psychological interpretive category within the framework of developmentalism (a framework that really came into its own through the work of Erik Erikson). All that’s to say, adolescence is not actually a thing, it’s an interpretation of a thing. Specifically, it’s an interpretation that sees the young person’s experience as, at its core, a transition to adulthood. The danger in seeing all youth as adolescence is that we will see ourselves—the adults—as the gatekeepers of what young people need. We’ll see our experience, the adult experience, as the best account of what it means to be human and we’ll think our job is to get young people from where they are to where we are. Some youth ministry thinkers have even identified the whole goal of youth ministry as developing adolescents into mature Christian adults. Again, the hammer just sees nails—we see balls of clay to be molded instead of people in relationship. The only tools we’ll see necessary are the ones that can influence young people and move them from A to B. If every young person is an adolescent, we risk turning youth ministry into a Christian adulthood factory instead of a chance to encounter God.

So what should we call them? It’s not perfectly clear. I’m fine with “young people” or just “youth,” even though I would guess that those terms also have their dangers. In the end, we have to recognize that terms like these are just training wheels… we’ve got to be able to ride without them at some point. In the end, ministry is about God and people—persons-in-relationship with God. The tools we need are whatever will help us to participate in what God is doing in young people’s lives, to be present in that ministerial event. This means that the tools and even the terminology will change with what God is doing in that moment and we can’t limit ourselves to just one. We need to be receptive enough to the Holy Spirit to discern which tool is right for the job.

Friday, June 23, 2017

4 Reasons Not to Engage in Missional Entrepreneurship

The church’s energy around missional entrepreneurship and innovative approaches to ministry is encouraging. While there is no shortage of complacency and while fear still too often precludes real creativity in our churches, more and more church leaders and clergy are beginning to discover new ways of engaging in the mission of God in the world. A movement is afoot. But as you consider being a part of that movement—as you consider taking the plunge into a journey of innovative missional entrepreneurship—consider your motivations. Why innovate in the first place? It may seem like a silly question to ask (like, “why breath?”) but I would argue that it’s the most important question for this journey. There are all kinds of good reasons to engage in missional entrepreneurship, but here are four reasons NOT to engage in missional entrepreneurship: READ MORE


Thursday, April 20, 2017

How Should We Think About Young People?

I talked a little with the guys from Kindred Youth Ministry about adolescence and how we should think about young people when I was in Florida for the Flagler Forum.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Abigail Visco Rusert and Kenda Creasy Dean on Youth Ministry

Last month my friends Kenda Dean and Abigail Visco Rusert were interviewed at Yale Divinity School on "awe" and "transcendence" in youth ministry. Take the time to listen to what they had to say, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Thought on Being

To say, "you are what you love" (see James K.A. Smith) is not actually all that far from saying "you are what you do"--which is the hegemonic claim of a capitalistic anthropological imaginary. The two claims both emanate from some autonomous interior self, outward--perhaps from an ego or super ego. The two claims were, after all, side by side in Freud's mind. When he was asked, "what must a 'normal' person be able to do well?" Freud answered, "lieben und arbeiten" ("to love and to work," see Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis, 136). The really dramatic shift, therefore, would not be for us to move from "you are what you do" to "you are what you love," but instead to insist, "you are a child of God" and to answer Freud's question by saying, "a person must BE loved."

"A person's humanity is defined and maintained by God's gracious movement towards them in love." -John Swinton (From Bedlam to Shalom, p. 31).