Let us Ramble: Prayer and Worship

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of sitting in worship. My wife has been spending a lot of time with the good folks of the Newark Valley United Church of Christ. Once a month they have been having an evening worship service with communion. My family and I attend this service for two reasons. One, it is wonderful to support my wife by going to a church of her choice, which is a rarity as most Sunday mornings I am where I am appointed. Two, it is an opportunity to sit in worship as a person and not as the leader. Sunday morning is a time of worship for me, but I rarely get the privilege of listening to another preacher work through the word of God with the people of God.

So, Sunday night, Pastor Chris Xenakis, a colleague and the pastor of the Groton Community Church, was visiting to preach, serve communion, and lead worship. After his sermon, Chris said something to the effect of “Prayer is the most important part of worship. In many ways, all of worship is a prayer.” Pastor Xenakis is a wise man.

Chris’ words kept ringing through my ears after I returned home. After I realized that it was not going to go away until I figured out why it was bugging me, I went hunting through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I found the source of my distraction in “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology.” In that anthology, Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) of the Orthodox persuasion, is quoted as saying the following in the second chapter under the subheading “The test of everything”:

“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”

The affirmation of prayer by Bishop Theophan is deep, thought-provoking, and reminiscent of what Pastor Xenakis said during the service. Prayer is seen in this concept as that which exists at the heart of everything. Prayer provides everything, drives everything, and directs everything. The bold statement is made that everything is right when prayer is right.

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My thought-provoking copy of “The Art of Prayer”

These concepts tug at my thoughts in deep ways. What is life but an act of worship? We worship when we use our resources to God’s glory. We worship when we choose to use our time wisely. We worship when we treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves with love. We worship when we tend to the world in which we have been placed. All of life can be seen as an invitation to worship. If all worship is a prayer, then truly prayer is at the very heart of our existence.

So, the question then becomes obvious. How do we know if our prayer is right? What litmus test can we apply to our actions, our stewardship, and our relationships that can show whether we are on the right track?

I believe the answer is love. Do our actions exhibit love? Do our prayers lead to more love? If God is love, then we should strive to be more loving. If God is love, then our actions should point towards the Source of love. If God is love, then we are invited to join in the great dance of love through Christ. I believe the true litmus test of our lives is whether or not we are sources of love like the one we worship and claim as our savior.

Inevitably, someone will question whether or not Jesus’ suffering was in line with the idea of prayer not allowing anything to go wrong. In the end, Jesus conquered his suffering and death. As a resurrection people, we are a people who understand that sometimes all is made well on the other side of suffering, struggle, and occasionally death. Can we be patient enough to allow all to be made well? Can we be patient enough to allow things to be made right even when it seems they all have gone wrong?

In the meantime, I am grateful that I went to the evening service on Sunday. It is nice to be in worship and to have the opportunity to both sing from the pews and to hear a good sermon. I will probably keep thinking about Chris’ words on worship and how Bishop Theophan invites us from across the centuries to ponder whether those prayers are the test of everything.

Let us Ramble: On Gluten-Free Communion

Today I intend to ruffle some feathers. I do not often choose to intentionally poke my head into controversial affairs, but I was recently the subject of several heated arguments around a practice our church has adopted for 2018. In 2018 our church is serving gluten-free communion bread to all people who come to the communion table.

I would love to say the most heated debates were in the church, but honestly, the church was not at the heart of the biggest debates. The biggest debates have taken place in my family’s kitchen. The phrase “Never discuss politics or religion” does not hold much water in a minister’s house. Discussions with family members often stray into religious matters and there are few things as capable of bringing consternation into a family meal than conversations around things held as holy as the sacraments. I am blessed to have an extended family who can live with differences of opinion as long as they say their piece. Regardless, I have learned to never bring this subject again during Easter dinner. I’m guessing it would not go over well at Christmas or Thanksgiving either.

Still, I am passionate about this subject, even as I understand the reticence of folks to having anything change. If a church has had the same type of bread for the past 50 years, it can be hard to understand why they need to change because of others. Would it not be enough if we were to put a couple of gluten free wafers on a plate? Why should we all have to “suffer” from having bad bread in order to allow one or two people an easier time coming to communion?

Well, I have theories and responses to those questions. First, let’s deal with the idea of having two loaves of bread. Consider the words from the “Service of Word and Table I” in the United Methodist Hymnal: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” While the body may be shared in other churches with different loaves, there is something powerful about witnessing that in the local church we are all sharing in one loaf as one body. There is no division when we share one loaf.

The other questions about suffering bad bread and about changing our own behavior will take a bit more nuance. I will say there is a thing called bad bread. Bad bread comes from people who have not taken the time to learn how to make bread. As we currently have a study based on the spirituality that can be drawn from bread baking, we are currently creating a crop of good bakers who may be able to rise (pun intended) to that particular challenge.

So, let’s go deep. In 2004 the church adopted the document “This Holy Mystery.” The document laid out the groundwork for the United Methodist Church’s understanding of the sacrament of communion. The document is a deep document, which has been reprinted in subsequent Books of Resolution, including the 2016 Book of Resolutions.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from “This Holy Mystery” found in the subsection labeled “Communion Elements.” The excerpt speaks on the use of alcohol at the communion table:

“Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations
have always used wine in the Eucharist. During the movement against beverage
alcohol in the late nineteenth century, the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church turned to the use of unfermented grape juice. This continues to be the position of the denomination.”

There is a tradition of using alcoholic wine at the communion table. Despite that tradition, the United Methodist Church does not use alcohol at the communion table. We share in the unfermented fruit of the vine. Why buck tradition to engage in a practice that differs from so many other denominations? Our church felt a call to battle the spirits of spirits and we continue to stand against the abuses of alcohol. Consider what it says in ¶3042 of the 2016 Book of Resolutions:

“As God’s children and participants in the gift of abundant life, we recognize the need to respond to those who know brokenness from the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs in our world. The experience of God’s saving grace offers wholeness to each individual. In light of the reality of alcohol and other drug abuse, the church has a responsibility to recognize brokenness and to be an instrument of education, healing, and restoration.”

Consider the words and the implications of this responsibility to recognize, educate, heal, and restore those struggling with alcoholism. Our love of these individuals has moved us as a denomination to do something strange. We recognized the problem and as a church we chose to change instead of continuing to follow tradition. Compassion and wisdom moved the church to consider the challenge faced by individuals. The church was convicted.

If you are not familiar with life in most churches, change is a difficult idea. For some people, change is a four letter word. Despite the power of tradition, inertia, and complacency, an entire denomination decided to do something different for the sake of people who had a need. The church felt a responsibility upon recognizing the brokenness of individuals. This motivated them to do things differently.

I can personally attest that there are folks who do not come forward at communion because of a number of factors. Some people think those wafers are nasty and they usually are pretty bad. I have to agree and sometimes admit that the gluten-variety are no picnic either. That being said, if we’re serving wafers, which occasionally happens when plans go askew, we can all suffer together.

Some people do not come forward because of embarrassment. Why are they embarrassed? Sadly, snide comments about having gluten-free communion is one reason. Some people believe they are drawing attention away from communion if they confuse things by asking for something different. Some people believe others will judge them for “wanting to be different” even if they have an actual concern like celiac’s disease.

For these folks, I will name the brokenness. The Lord’s table is a place of welcome and grace. If embarrassment keeps people from participating in this means of grace, the situation needs to be addressed. To avoid the difficulty being faced by individuals for the sake of our own comfort is selfish. In United Methodist tradition, the sacrament is a form of blessing from God. Our lives are literally made better by participating in the sacrament. How could we look at the table, see there are people who feel excluded, and not work to address the situation?

In other words, if we have to choose between our gluten-filled tradition and the possibility (in our church the certainty) that a gluten-free change will help to bless more people, are we not obligated to consider a change? If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, are we not obligated to make certain that they are welcome at the communion table? In this odd, strange, topsy-turvy world, doesn’t our own integrity demand action?

The bread to be and several tools. Bob’s Red Mill does not sponsor me, although we would be happy to pray for them if they mailed us a couple of coupons. Gluten-free flour isn’t cheap!

Now, I want to be clear. I do not believe in judging other churches or other ministers. Each church has to make their own decisions. As far as my ministry is concerned, I am always seeking to draw the circle of inclusion wider. I will keep trying to serve gluten-free communion as often as possible to make certain people are not left out. So, wish me luck as I seek to perfect gluten-free bread making despite the fact that I personally add extra gluten to the bread I make for my family. Pray for me as well, because it is difficult to educate when you only have a few minutes on any given communion Sunday.

Let Us Ramble: On Split Animals

So, after the busyness of the Lenten season and a week taken away to provide childcare for my three children during their spring break, I am back in the saddle again. In the next few weeks I will be preparing for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and then it is time to prepare for Annual Meetings, so you can guess the direction of posts as those events draw closer.

In the meantime, in between changing diapers for my smiler and breaking up youthful hijinks between the two elder gooseballs, I have been pondering a passage from the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been thinking about the nature of covenant.

As a pastor, I am surrounded by covenantal relationships. I have a covenant with God in my own personal spiritual life, a covenant with my wife to remain faithful until death parts us, a covenant with God to care for the children I have been entrusted with as a parent, a covenant with God to care for the people I minister with in my appointment as a minister, a covenant with the Maine Federated Church to support this local church, a covenant exists between the United Methodist Church and the Maine Federated Church that sets the guidelines for how the church cares for me and the parsonage in which I live, a covenant with the United Church of Christ to minister on their behalf in this community, a covenant between myself and other United Methodist Elders in my Conference’s Order of Elders, a covenant between myself and all pastors and deacons that serve within our common denomination, and finally a covenant with myself. Like I said, there’s a lot of covenant relationships in my life.

If that run-on sentence above doesn’t prove the point that it makes sense that I think about covenant a lot, then let me just assure you that I do think seriously about covenant and covenantal requirements often. Covenants are often conflicting and challenging. Which covenant takes priority on a daily basis? Do I spend another night away this month at another meeting or do I spend time with my children who sometimes don’t really see me except an hour a day some weeks? Do I sit in the office and wait for someone to come by the church or go visit people who cannot leave their homes? Do I blog about the nature of covenant or do I spend another few hours writing letters to church members? Covenants are complicated.

Genesis 15 lays out a sign of the covenant that is quite gruesome. Animals are split into two pieces and in the midst of the night a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot pass between the two lines of animal parts. It seems a bit gross, but the reality behind the imagery is even more frightening. In covenantal language, the promise is made. May I become like these animals (split in two) if I break this covenant. The severity of the response to a break in covenant is intentionally graphic, intentionally troubling, and intentionally recorded for the people so that they understand the importance of their covenant with God.

So, being surrounded by covenants, what do we do? Do we look at our relationship with God as being so important that we might be divided in two if we were to break it? Do we look at our relationship in the marriage covenant as being so powerfully binding? I have never been divorced, but many of the people I know who have been through the process refer to it as being a traumatic and spiritually violent process—almost as if they were torn in two. Do we look at our relationships we share with our beloved family in the church the same way? I know few places where a falling out can be as traumatic as in a church. Hearts break in those circumstances.

In honesty, where I found myself pondering covenant a lot this week was while thinking about the United Methodist Church. Are we facing a breaking in covenant as a whole? Have we been so brutally biased in our approaches to each other, to the looming conversations, and in our application of church politics that we have missed basic concepts such as loving each other? Has a lack of love led to a breaking of covenant? Are we tearing ourselves apart in some literally testimony to the concept that broken covenant leads to torn relationship and a torn body split in two?

As we go through this season of resurrection, what does it mean to go forward in covenant with a God who moves past death into life? There is much to ponder this Eastertide. I pray that we all go forward with love and peace.