worship


 

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Alone in Glacier National Park

{Homestretch…just a few more days in Lent 2018. A photo/meditation per day for 40 days}

I have no hard evidence for this, but my conjecture is that introversion is rampant in the following alliterative vocations: clergy, comedy, and carpentry. The photo above depicts a person alone, gazing up toward a mountain peak out of our view. The soundtrack is not quite silent. There are some birds there in the woods, and a couple of hikers not in the frame, though their voices are hushed, as if in awe of the serenity of the place.

Full disclosure (as if this series has been anything else), that is my wife on the primitive log bench. I left her to take some photos, and glanced back, and there she was in contemplation of nature’s gifts.

This image suggests a tranquil ease with aloneness. As an introvert myself, I understand and treasure times of solitude. I see the value of the monastery hermitage to which a Trappist retreats on occasion, intentionally moving away from the all-important community of spiritual brothers who ordinarily pray, sing, eat, and study as one. At a monastery I visited in Virginia, the hermitage was a little cabin a short distance from the main house. It was far from solitary confinement; it was more a solitary liberation. Maybe a kind of “working vacation” that contributed to a monk’s working vocation of silence, prayer, and labor. But, again, only for a time, for every monk was to find spiritual vitality living in community, not isolation.

My Myers-Briggs profile confirmed what I had known for some time. I’m introverted. And that comes as a big surprise to people at church or in the neighborhood. I’m sure my obituary will note that I was known for my sense of humor. I have a way of speaking with strangers and making them smile. Or, trying to bring a smile. Usually it works.  Sometimes my comments only bring puzzlement or suspicion. And I feel sorry for such folk. But my wife knows that I will stop at the sales desk in a mall store and ask if today is the day they give out free gum. I enjoy interrupting someone’s routine with an unexpected comment that lightens one brief moment.

So, I do speak to strangers, and as a minister I had no trouble speaking from a pulpit, or to a community group, maybe talking about Habitat for Humanity at a Kiwanis Club. I can be “on” when needed, but then, like most introverts, I need to move away from the crowd and find renewed strength in aloneness. For some reason, many (if not most?) clergy are introverted, or border on it. And, I’ve read that the same is true for comedians. Johnny Carson and David Letterman, for example. They would be “on” for the studio audience, but they weren’t into parties and crowds afterward. (So I’m told; we didn’t mix in the same circles. What am I saying? We introverts don’t have circles!)

When I did my radio ministry (with rock music yet) it was the perfect vocation for me. There I was in the solitude of the sound-proofed studio, but speaking with thousands across the country via broadcasting.

I’m OK with my “condition.” I’m no hermit. I can take groups of people for a time. But I’m far more interested in a quiet dinner with my wife than at a raucous restaurant, with music blaring and people shouting to be heard in conversation over the din. We go out socially now and then, but often find ourselves by ourselves, not mixing among the other guests. Please. I’m not judging others, anymore than I wish to be judged. Some of my best friends are extroverts, affably working the crowd wherever they go, hellos, hugs, and handshakes. I smile and chuckle. They throw their heads back in laughter. We’re all OK the way we are. We are just different from one another.

Now, when it comes to church, here’s the thing for me. I am more the Quaker type. Many churches are big into praise bands, hands lifted high in praise and prayer, some applause and shouted amens. I’m more of a sit-quietly-with-head-bowed kind of guy. I’m more into Taize and Iona chants of simple songs than toe-tapping, lyrics-projected, handclapping unison voices raised high, sing ‘n’ sway praises. Again, I’m happy for all who worship in that vein. From the African-American worship traditions to mega-church multi-media spectacles, it works for a lot of folks, and a growing number of people in our churches.

It’s said that there are “worship wars” going on in some churches, with worshippers on one side wanting more “modern” or contemporary music, and others desiring more traditional or classical approaches. Many churches are trying to blend worship styles, and others are dividing their congregations into two sub-cultures with separate services. I’m not suggesting that we introverts would be happier with one or the other. I’m just saying…the Quakers (the Friends) are probably not wrestling with these things in their meeting houses. (I could be wrong. I was once….or twice.) Quiet is golden in the meeting house, until the Spirit moves, and even then, quiet returns while listeners consider what has been said.

I couldn’t be a Quaker exclusively, not when it comes to worship. I thrive on great music, classical or jazz, and I love “high liturgy” now and then, and banner-waving, organ-thundering, massed choir-singing festivals!

And then I can go home and take a nap.

I don’t have time to do the research on this, but I’ll bet someone has. I’m wondering if extroverts are more lonely as a group than introverts. (Not lonely in a group, that is, but as a sub-set.) Are we introverts more comfortable with aloneness, and less likely to suffer loneliness? I know we are more likely to be lonely in a crowd; does it work the other way? Are extroverts suffocated by aloneness? Like I said…just wondering.

Oh, I almost forgot. Carpenters. Introverts? Don’t the woodworking artists labor alone, just them and their wood? For fun, just consider Jethro Gibbs! He works by day with his NCIS team, but at night, by himself, he’s in his basement, coveting the quiet solitude, as he shapes wood into a labor of love: a boat, too large to even leave his cellar. Gibbs is fictional, of course. But the image is an honest portrayal of an introvert carpenter at work.

Speaking of carpenters…pardon my psychologizing Jesus here, but do you think he might have been an introvert? I know he liked socializing, even being accused by his critics of eating and drinking too much and with the wrong crowds, “glutton and drunkard” that he seemed to be. He preached to thousands at a time, the scriptures say, and moved through crowds teaching and healing as he went. Wedding feasts, dinners — always surrounded by the Twelve, as well as the unnamed women and men who may as well have been called disciples. And yet… how often Jesus had to leave them behind, to go up a mountain by himself, to often seek solitude for prayer, to re-charge by boat or by foot. While he may have found comfort and strength in being alone, betrayal in those last days would not have fit his plan for solitude.

Eventually, the cross. Alone, yet between two others. Alone, but gazed upon by the crowd. Alone, even feeling forsaken by God, but…

 

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For those who are following along this Lenten season, it’s nice of you to keep up with the “mug shots.” Here is mug #26…I think. No one told me math was part of this.}

When the Presbyterians published a new hymnal supplement in 2003, it was called, as you can read on the promotional mug, “Sing the Faith.” The sub-title, also on the mug,SONY DSC fudged a little, claiming, “New Hymns for Presbyterians.” In reality, the collection was a bunch of new hymns for United Methodists first. It turns out that “Sing the Faith” was a “rebranding” of a Methodist supplement “The Faith We Sing.” The song list in the two books is almost identical, but the Presbyterian publicity that touted the new collection claimed that it “features more than 280 hymns, many of which have been written by and for Presbyterians…” I guess the Methodists really like all those Presby-hymns!

Quibbling over the origin of that book aside, the idea of “singing the faith” goes way back. The book of Psalms is an ancient collection of 150 songs held in common among Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, and too many congregations to count through the generations since harp virtuoso King David wrote some of them. Lament and praise, complaint and wonder…those songs have been sung, chanted, prayed, read, memorized, paraphrased, and revised metrically for worship over the centuries. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” “The Lord is my shepherd..” “I lift my eyes to the hills…” “O sing to the Lord a new song.”

Jesus quoted the Psalms from the cross. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So not only do we sing our faith through the Psalms, but also our un-faith, at least, our doubts and fears and feelings of abandonment. Such honest prayer. Unguarded. “From the depths, I cry…”

I once served a church in northern Vermont, a congregation with Scottish Covenanter roots. The only music allowed in worship in its early history was the a capella singing or chanting of the Psalm book. No instrumental music. No “modern” (or contemporary for the times) hymns.  We got a taste of that when we visited a church in Scotland that still chanted Psalms in its Sabbath services. Fairly dreary as I recall. Seems as if a psalm of joy should have some uplifting beat or danceable rhythm. (I kept that thought to myself, lest we all be tossed to the cobbled Glasgow street.) The Vermont church had reformed its heritage many years ago and sang from the newer hymnals, though singing a psalm each week was still a tradition when I was there.

Sing the faith! Words are not enough. The head may “get” the meaning, but the heart must find the music for the meaning to be fully expressed. “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Jim Croce sang, because “every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong.” But music redeemed his verbal efforts, not covering up his awkward words, but adding an embellishment that communicated the emotion behind the nouns and verbs. Now, music may not save bad poetry or bad theology. Hymnals old and new hold evidence of that. Those books are full of (pardon the expression) God-awful lyrics and tunes that are syrupy or downright unsingable. But there are masterpieces too, and songs that feed the soul.

As Fred Pratt Green wrote, “When in our music God is glorified…it is as if the whole creation cried, Alleluia!” And, “May God give us faith to sing always…” And may God give us all excellent voices, like Pavaroti’s or Sills’. Well, that won’t happen, will it? So much for singing the faith, if one can’t really sing.

Some autobiographical notes here. I can’t recall ever hearing my mother sing. Dad, though, would walk into a room singing some ditty now and then, just fooling around. But he made fun of singing in church; thought it was silly. He said as much one day as we sat at the table together at Mom and Dad’s home, and in the presence of my wife, the church musician! The comment defined chagrin. When I reminded Dad of Joan’s musical vocation, he was a little embarrassed, though he didn’t retract his statement. (He also thought people looked silly blowing into horns.)

My first singing was done at my maternal grandmother’s piano. She was an elementary school teacher, and I know we sang songs together, maybe even before I went to kindergarten. Like every other child in school, I sang in the classroom and later, in junior and senior high choruses. Add church choir to the mix, too, but only after my voice had changed. In college, somehow I got up the courage to try out for the Vesper Choir. It wasn’t exactly a “select chorus,” since a tenth of the school’s population of 1200 sang in it. But it did expose me to some of the great anthems and religious masterworks of the ages, the Brahms “A German Requiem” among them.

Vesper Choir also exposed me to a voice major who sang in the Concert Choir as well as for Vespers. It was there in the Westminster College Conservatory of Music that we would look for each other before and after rehearsals. She had the voice of a talented soprano soloist, and I the voice of a trying bass chorus member. Or, was it more the trying voice of a bass? When I had left school for a semester just as Joan and I were getting serious about more than singing together in choir, I asked her to sing me some songs via tape, and I was thrilled to hear her sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” with my reading into the lyrics her feelings for me. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

As Joan moved into professional church music, I continued to sing the faith in a more modest way, always trying to blend my voice well under the other basses in various choirs. Both of us found singing with the 500+ voices of the Adult Choir at the Montreat Music and Worship Conferences to be richly fulfilling, musically and spiritually. To hear the children’s and youth choirs add their repertoire to the week was a powerful reminder that the singing of faith had a future beyond yucky praise choruses and juvenile jingles. Not all sung faith has to be “classical,” of course, but music that is challenging and worth some work has a depth that moves us profoundly, and joyfully.

I have a gift for you, if you wonder if you have the right voice for singing the faith, or anything else for that matter. Click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zELdyu3BKcQ to hear my old Richmond friend Steve Bassett sing some musical advice: “Sing Loud, and Leave the Listening to Somebody Else.”

A rather Cosmic Somebody.

 

 

{This morning’s mug, another in a series of forty, one for each day in Lent 2017. Must be a huge cupboard, right?}DSC07383

One of the seminaries related to the Presbyterian Church USA is Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I have only two connections to that school. I visited LPTS when I was a senior in college, over five decades ago. I was checking out what my denomination’s seminaries had to offer, and Louisville had that all-new campus, very friendly professors, and, well, Louisville! But I was growing interested in media ministry and the school didn’t have much more than a couple of Wollensak tape recorders in a closet back then.

My other connection is this mug. I guess that’s the school’s logo, a combination of Christian symbols arranged around a variation of the Chi-Rho cross. Word and Sacraments, the foundation of Reformed theology. Open Bible, chalice and loaf, pitcher and font. This is one of the most (pardon the expression) blatantly “Christian” mugs in our cupboard. It almost makes drinking the morning coffee a sacramental experience. Somewhat.

But the mug is a joke. It is masquerading as a pious vessel, marked with a seminary’s theological identity, serving, as many institutionally-endorsed mugs do, as a community building device. That is, look…we’re all drinking from the same cup. We are one in the spirit, one in the schoolhouse. But wait, there’s more to this than meets the eye on this side of the mug. Turn it around, and there’s this:DSC07384

If you are of a certain age, you’ll recognize an image copied from a library “card catalogue,” from one of the seminary’s many, many drawers of cards listing every book in the joint. Look closely at the title of the book, if you haven’t already caught it. John Calvin: a stud. Now Calvin was known for many things, but Alister E. McGrath must have found another side of Calvin never before explored in Reformed studies. A stud?

It turns out, of course, that there is only so much room on those small descriptor cards in the drawer. So the lengthier titles get chopped and what is missing is the full subtitle, “A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture.” Sounds intriguing, but not nearly as much fun as what’s printed on the card (and mug).

Good for Louisville Seminary to see the humor in it all. Some student must have run across this card doing some serious research, chuckled enough to be shushed by a librarian, who then also saw the humor there, and the word went out to others on campus, until someone said, “Hey, let’s put this on the mug!”

Much of what is genuinely funny is due to its being unexpected. The last panel of a comic strip carries its humor, and whether we chuckle or laugh out loud, we are struck by the punch line, the twist, or the pun. My wife and I got giggling last week when I tried to fill the birdfeeder on snowshoes. (Well, I was on snowshoes; not the birdfeeder.) The snow was a very fluffy three feet deep, and the snowshoes were worthless. I fell face first into the deep snow and couldn’t get up. It didn’t help that we were both laughing at the unexpected silliness of the situation! The video would have gone viral.

I’m not going to try to explain humor here. I trust E. B. White’s words: Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

It’s enough to reiterate that it is the unexpected that prompts good-natured smiles. (That said, I agree that sometimes the “unexpected” can be eerie, scary, or troubling, too. The old gag about slipping on a banana peel is funny if a comic does it, but if Aunt Fannie falls on hers, and breaks her hip…nothing funny there.)

While we may be in Lent right now, and while there’s little humor in it by its very nature, be assured that some preacher-types are already planning past Easter to the Sunday following Resurrection Day. Some will join in the ancient (really?) tradition of Holy Humor, a Sunday service celebrating the totally unexpected. Some run the service backward, opening with the benediction and closing with the Call to Worship. Others will lace their sermons full of jokes and/or funny stories. One pastor I know wears a jester’s hat (I hasten to add that I don’t know the guy very well) to add to the fun.

Why Holy Humor Sunday? I quote something I stole freely from the “The Joyful Noiseletter:”http://www.joyfulnoiseletter.com/hhsunday.asp

The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.

In 1988 the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches and prayer groups to resurrect Bright Sunday celebrations and call it “Holy Humor Sunday,” with the theme: “Jesus is the LIFE of the party.”

I offer this little caution though. This Sunday had better be well-promoted a few weeks ahead of time. If I were to offer this special post-Easter day of joy and laughter, I wouldn’t want someone to show up for worship that week who had just experienced a heavy loss and came seeking spiritual comfort and quiet support. Losing a friend or a job or suffering a recent diagnosis of a serious illness — perhaps another church might be a better choice. Then again, even funerals find some folks smiling, even laughing, a kind of relief from sadness or tension, a salve for grief.  Everybody’s different. I’m just saying, be careful. One person’s humor may well be inappropriate or hurtful to another.

Another caveat: not every pastor can pull this off. Some are just not funny. Odd, but not funny.

Bottom line…(well, ten lines up from the bottom!): While the gospel accounts have Jesus hinting, suggesting, or proclaiming that “after three days” he would be raised from death, for his disciples it was still unexpected. In fact, put a capital U on it: Unexpected! A cosmic surprise! An event worthy of lots of exclamation points! That morning was not filled with joy at first. There was confusion, still some fear, puzzlement. But eventually, yes, joy and laughter at the Unexpected act of God that prompted the stud John Calvin to write:

“…We are not only invited through the example of the risen Christ to strive after newness of life; but  we are taught that we are reborn into righteousness through his power.”

Insert your own smiley face here.

{After a Sabbath break, Lent continues and we hit day number 11 and therefore the 11th mug from the Kellam kitchen cupboard. It’s a theme; that’s all I can say at this point.}

One would think that our cupboards would be filled with church mugs. My wife DSC07318.jpgJoan is a retired church musician and I am a retired pastor, so, yes, we have our share of mugs from the churches we’ve served. We have two of these from Bon Air Presbyterian Church (BAPC) in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a very special church to me, and to our family as well.

My first year in seminary, as part of a “Work of the Ministry” practicum, I was assigned to “shadow” the pastor Richard Perkins as he made pastoral calls, led committee meetings, and prepared for teaching and preaching. The church was (still is) a contemporary structure, and at that time the sanctuary was really an all-purpose room that served as dining room, recreation area (I recall volleyball and square dancing), and Sunday worship area. Folding chairs were set up, put away, set up, and put away…over and over. But it was a stewardship of space that made sense then, and I believe it still does. The rationale then still applies: why spend a million dollars on a room permanently dedicated to use as a worship center only a handful of hours a week?

The then-modern sanctuary with folding chairs didn’t lack a suitable feel for worship when we gathered on Sunday mornings, and using that same reconfigured space for fellowship and education made financial sense.

In my short time with Rev. Perkins I did not get to know him well, but perceived that he was dedicated to social justice and that the church took mission outreach seriously. Liberally, one might say.

Only a couple of years later, as a recently ordained minister, I would get to know the church more intimately. I was called to serve an ecumenical, interracial youth center as its “youth director.” The “Spanish Castle” counted among its strongest supporters the Bon Air Church. A Bon Air parent had suggested the need for such a neighborhood gathering place for teens, church members served on the Castle board, and its pastors rallied its cause when various controversies  arose (it was the 1960s after all).

And I found a church home there.

By the time the youth center closed a few years later, while Joan served as musician at another church, I took our kids to Bon Air. Our son was baptized there, and thanks to the moveable chairs in the sanctuary, the font was moved into a central position in the midst of the people. Eventually our two children went to the church’s preschool, then Sunday School, and youth group. They were confirmed there. I was involved with the youth group, and co-taught the senior high class on Sunday mornings. Joan was elected an elder. And the Associate Pastor Andy Sale led me and several youth and adults on a five day Appalachian trail hike.

I’ve titled today’s reflection “Mission.” Mission meant youth ministry, a peace group, building at least one (maybe more) Habitat for Humanity home on its own; supporting a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, welcoming Richmond’s homeless for a week each year, and helping found an ecumenical agency that unites surrounding churches in providing emergency help for people in need. That’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The list goes on. Still.

While I did work professionally in another church during part of the 22 years we lived in the Bon Air suburbs, I was finally called to serve BAPC as Associate Pastor (halftime) and focused my work in liturgy and congregational care. This church was our family’s spiritual home for so many years, a congregation filled with glorious music, nurturing educational programs, courageous mission outreach, faithful preaching, creative worship, and dear, dear friends.

It’s Lent, and I must mention one more Bon Air Presbyterian offering while I was there. Joan and I grew professionally and personally in countless ways from our denomination’s Music and Worship Conferences in Montreat, NC. One year the focus was on the Book of Common Worship, and that included a section on Daily Prayer. One Lenten season I suggested that the church offer a service of Morning Prayer for forty days. Assuming this would be a small group able and willing to meet each morning at 7:30, we gathered in the intimate space of the choir loft in a circle of, yes, folding chairs. We sang, read scripture, prayed, and sat in silence each morning. I have to admit that by the time Lent ended I was more than ready to let that daily discipline go, despite its “success” and how our participants had grown together! But forty days!

Nonetheless, or all the more, we repeated that Lenten discipline two or three more years before Joan and I moved from Virginia to Vermont.

We visited the Bon Air Church several months ago. The all-purpose room sanctuary is now completely renovated and dedicated to worship space. No more volleyball or square dancing. There’s a gym now for that. But there are still moveable chairs, new ones far more comfortable than the clanky ones that folded. And mission is still at the heart of the church’s ministry. Numbers are down, partly because the church helped plant new congregations deeper into the Richmond suburbs, but also because the “mainline” churches aren’t as mainline as before.

Still, when I pick up this mug for morning coffee (of course, a fair trade brew), I am reminded of the deep meaning of the term “church home,” and I am grateful God led us there and fed us there. We give thanks for all the saints at Bon Air, whether at rest now or still laboring to make the Good News a breath of fresh air for all God’s people!

 

 

After today, one image more. It was chosen at the start of this journey. But today’s image was found just moments ago. I had considered an Iona cross, one of the ancient stone crosses that tower over visitors to Iona Abbey. But then I found this crucifix, more appropriate to Good Friday than the empty crosses of Iona.

This stunning figure hangs over the chancel of St. Nicholas’ Church in BeDSC00924.JPGrlin, Germany, the church where Johann Crüger became the cantor in 1622. Crüger composed the tunes we sing for the hymns “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “Now Thank We All Our God,” among others. At the Maundy Thursday service I led last night at a small, hardly-surviving church, we tried our best to sing “Ah, Holy Jesus,” but the little electronic organ and the aging voices couldn’t convey the lament of the tune, making it sound more pitiful than the composer could have imagined.

We had heard how Jesus kneeled at the feet of his friends, and washed their feet at that last supper, even the feet of Judas one assumes, since surely John’s gospel would have told us otherwise. We then broke bread, shared the cup, and prayed together. “Ah, holy Jesus,” we sang at the end, “how have you offended, That mortal judgment has on you descended? By foes derided, by your own rejected, O most afflicted!”

Our struggling voices betrayed the sad beauty of Crüger’s song of lament, and we could hardly attend to Johann Heermann’s text: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Lord, that has undone You. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you; I crucified you.”

By hymn’s end, we were just glad the ordeal of singing had ended. Now, the morning after, I realize that maybe our mournful musical whimper may have been more appropriate to the text than that of a performance of some grand cathedral organ and professional choir. That there is sorrow and passion in the composer’s music cannot be denied. The power of his composition might move us emotionally, even to tears, even without any knowledge of that text. But I will say this about our singing last night: if we twelve in the chapel truly identified with the twelve in the upper room, if we owned the text about treason and denial, the sound of our weak singing could not have been more appropriate.

The well-known verses of Matthew 25 about the day of judgment when sheep and goats are separated according to those who see and minister to Jesus in the “least of those” and the ones who don’t — those verses might well be amplified beyond Jesus’ first century vision. “When did we see you hungry…thirsty…a stranger…naked…sick…in prison?”
That was the query in Matthew’s text. But let’s imagine a further inquisition: When did we see you fleeing violence? When did we see your child a refugee? When did we turn our hearts from girls kidnapped in some African village we’d never heard of? When did we see you aged and abused? When did we gather nails, wood, and…

“Inasmuch as you did it…” Oh. We know the rest. And we are complicit. ‘Twas us, Lord. Or, to make it more precise, linked most closely to the hymn text, “I it was denied you; I crucified you.” My DNA is on the hammer.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Well, we know on the surface what it is we do, because just look at him hanging there. But deep down, we don’t have a clue about Love Incarnate dying. Not yet.

It is only Friday.

 

 

“In the same way, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.'”

Tonight, as I lead the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or as my childhood home church called it, “The Meal with the Master,” I shall repeat those words about cup and covenant and blood, as I pour the wine. Truth be told, it won’t be wine, but grape juice, though if I had my way, it would be wine in all its fermented fruitiness!

Usually I refer to the drink that accompanies the sacramental bread as “the cup,” instead of pretending it is wine or naming it more honestly “juice.” There’s something that sounds odd if we were to say that this holy communion consists of “bread and juice.” That sounds more like a church preschool snack.

Wait. We could in all honesty call the drink “the fruit of the vine!” That would be true to the grape, right? But I go with “the cup.”36160007.jpg Simple. And scriptural.

If you have been following this blog for the past 37 days of Lent (2016), you are aware that each day I have chosen a photographic image from among the many thousands I’ve taken since I got my first camera as a child. The image today comes from the Iona Abbey Cloisters sandstone carvings, this one a depiction of a man receiving the cup. (I was surprised to learn that the carvings are relatively recent, having been commissioned in 1967 and completed in 1997.)

On this particular evening, when we remember Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, having their last supper together, we will break bread and share the cup. A seminary professor of mine John Leith (he was never a fan of my so-called theology) wrote that it was a “thrilling fact” that not a Sunday (or probably a day) had gone by in over 2000 years that Christians somewhere on the planet had not “gathered at the table of their Lord,” to break the bread and pour the wine.

Tonight, Maundy Thursday services may be more creative than usual. Some churches will host a Seder; the church Joan and I belong to will have a Tenebrae service around tables in the fellowship hall; and the church where I will “sub” tonight will have a simple service of quiet communion in a small chapel. We will not be drinking from a chalice as the stone carver has depicted at Iona. Probably grape juice in little cups.

I’ll not stress that. Instead I will emphasize that we share (symbolically) one cup. My understanding is that the meaning of sharing a cup is sharing in the life of all who drink from that cup.  When Christians drink from that cup, there is a unity, a bond, a communion in one another’s lives. I know the traditional understanding of the cup filled with red wine is that it is a reminder of Jesus’ shed blood, just as the bread reminds us of his broken body, but, Lord, let us be careful of our vocabulary here. From almost the very beginning of this sacramental meal, Christians have been accused of cannibalism, pretending to eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood.

“This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” God’s new deal for us. I don’t know what kind of grade the late Dr. Leith would have given me for this bit of personal theology, but I much prefer to think of this “cup” as sharing in the “lifeblood”of Christ, as in a blood connection to him and his family. We are of the same blood, sharing in his vitality, his mission, his sacrifice. As in our willingness to share his cup. Not drink his blood. Ick.

In Luke’s gospel, on the eve of his crucifixion Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives. And he pleads, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” Even Eugene Peterson’s relaxed (and very popular) paraphrase keeps the word “cup” there: “Father remove this cup from me.” Here the cup stands for the cross. When we share the cup in that communion meal, do we not also announce that we are willing to share his cross? His sacrifice? Sometimes, as we break bread and pour the wine, we speak of the “cup of salvation.” The profundity of that full chalice of rich wine is almost quashed when we, for the sake of mere convenience, fill plastic shot glasses with bland juice to sip, or worse, dip a tiny corner of a piece of bread into a chalice of juice and floating crumb debris. Cup of salvation-lite.

Please…I don’t argue for a particular form of authentically-holy Communion here. I do advocate, however, that we remember the solemn, heartfelt, and mysterious meaning of our sharing that cup together in communion with one another and with Christ himself. To quote Frederick Buechner one more time:

…when feeding at this implausible table, Christians believe that they are communing with the Holy One himself, his spirit enlivening their spirits, heating the blood and gladdening the heart, just the way wine, as spirits, can do.

Sharing that cup carries both blessing and risk. It means that we benefit from the grace of God, and that we pledge ourselves to take up our cross and follow Jesus as he, through us, his present body, feeds the hungry, comforts the afflicted, and welcomes the stranger. And that will take all the nourishment we can stand. Pass the wine, please.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been taking pictures of church interiors since high school. It was a challenge back then because my cameras were not at all sophisticated and the film was too slow to light up those dark sanctuaries. As years went by, I began focusing on architectural details: stained glass designs, a wood carving, a cross, or, as in today’s photo, a sacramental symbol. This is the baptismal font in First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Without going into a theological discourse on the meaning of baptism in the Reformed tradition, I just want to study this picture for a moment and tell you what I see, and why I’ve chosen this phoB0003625to from all the other baptismal “furniture” images I’ve got filed away.

First, if you look closely you might realize that this baptismal font is right in the middle of the center aisle of the sanctuary. In fact, the font is in the midst of the people as they gather for worship. Note how the pews on the right have been shortened to make room around the font. A familiar exhortation, especially following the administration of the  sacrament, is “Remember your baptism!” In this church, it’s easy to remember, because the font is right there, impossible to overlook, and worship takes place around what I once told children was “the promise place.”

Next, notice that there is no cover, no removable cap or top. Most churches have some sort of cover, some quite ornate, but if you ask the clergy why it’s there, you get no more than a shrug. Between baptisms, the font is dry in most churches. It’s not as if we need to keep bugs from swimming around in there, nor is it necessary to “cap off the well” and lock it down lest someone steal the water. No one at this Santa Fe church thought it important to guard the font with a top. So, the message here is, the font is always open, welcoming, inviting.

(If I recall correctly, many centuries ago baptismal fonts did have covers and even locks to keep both the pious and superstitious from stealing the “holy water” and sprinkling it on their fields, believing that there was a magical element in the H2O that would guarantee fertility. And the covers were handy too as a matter of cleanliness when water was kept in the font for long periods of time.)

That welcome is evident too in the pitcher of water that stands glistening, ready for pouring, and the naming, the promising, initiating, and sending forth that the sacrament offers. In our Reformed theology, it’s not as if someone walks into the church on a Wednesday, pours water into the font, and does the grace-filled deed. We baptize in the midst of the gathered community of faith, where Word and Sacrament are wed, and God’s children become one in the family of faith.  No private ceremonies here; the sacrament is a communal event of grace and joy. But I do appreciate the symbol here of water so ready to be used for holy purpose.

One quick story about another kind of “font.” When I was called to serve as pastor of a small, rural church in northern Vermont, on my first Sunday there I noticed there was no baptismal font. Odd. Curious, I asked around and someone said that there hadn’t been a baptism for awhile, and the silver dish they had used in the past was probably put away somewhere. Sure enough, in the clutter of the pulpits innards (you’d be surprised at what you’ll find inside most church pulpits– many are like open cabinets in the back, filled with old candles, tissue packages, golf pencils, the occasional sticky horehound drop!)…well, there was the little silver dish, tarnished and askew, a dish just deep enough to hold sufficient water (we Presbyterians can immerse or pour, but mostly we sprinkle) .

“I’d like that kept in view, ” I said to an elder who helped me find it, “to remind us each week of our baptisms.” She took it home that day, and the following Sunday the shining silver dish was placed on the pulpit next to the big Bible, Word and Sacrament together helping us remember who we are and to whom we belong.

Silver dish, wooden sculpture, or granite hulk, the “promise place” is our home base.

[A footnote: I cannot describe the deep joy I experience in worshipping today in the very church in which I was baptized as a toddler. I may not remember the day or the act, but I am deeply grateful for the sacred space of my home church.]

 

 

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