Monday, September 17, 2007

Holy and Mundane

One of the things I most love about Lutheranism, if I understand anything about it, is its embrace of paradox: Indeed, I think paradox is the modus operandi of Lutheran theology. I am fond of using an ellipse as an image of Lutheran theology. An ellipse is the configuration of all points defined by their steady relationship to two fixed points, called “foci.” In Lutheranism, there are several of these elliptical arrangements, depending on what one wishes to talk about. Thus, there is “law and gospel,” and proclamation from Lutheran pulpits is framed in terms (one hopes, not expressed in terms) of those two foci. To be a good Lutheran, one must keep the two foci in tension and develop preaching and teaching out of that tension. While one may stress one or the other from time to time, one can’t ignore one or the other (hence, the image of an ellipse as opposed to a circle or straight line). There are other examples of the elliptical nature of Lutheran theology: “catholic and evangelical,” (dear to my heart!) “(simul) justus et peccator,” "Scripture and the Great Tradition," and you can supply numerous others.

One of those tensions planted deeply in my spiritual development relates to the eucharist. It is a tension of “holy/special” with “common/ordinary.” When I was growing up, my congregation celebrated (if that can be the word) holy communion four times a year. The services were in the evening; only confirmed members received – and not nearly all of them; the pastor eschewed the surplice and wore only cassock and stole; the lighting was subdued; the hymnody dour and slow. It was a daunting experience – no trace of joy; lots of talk of fear and trembling – as though the setting didn’t obviate the need for talking about them. And all of this was perceived to be a way of keeping the communion “special.” The great danger, I remember hearing in Sunday School and confirmation, was rendering the Lord’s Supper as something “common” or “ordinary.” As was later opined in the great debates about celebrating communion more frequently (and this was before the push for every-Sunday eucharists), celebrating more frequently or with less sobriety would rob the sacrament of its specialness, its power, its “meaning,” its effect. (That theology was wrong on so many points, but it held sway for decades.)

Well, we live in a new era – and I generally say, thanks be to God. My own congregation, as I have noted ad nauseum, celebrates the holy eucharist every Sunday and on significant feasts, too. We decry “close(d)” communion – i.e., communion only for those who meet certain standards of orthodoxy, as we measure it. We commune “continuously” – i.e., we do not commune by tables, but rather “on the run” – so as to emphasize eating and drinking by the entire assembly as one. (This is not uncontroversial even at Mount Olive. There are still those who would prefer to commune at the altar rail, one group at a time, with each table getting its own blessing before departing. But, while I would appreciate a means of communing that is less “buffet” and more “banquet” in style, I think we pretty much do the best that we can. We have steps up to the altar rail and the problems they pose for some of our members are obviated by communing at the level of nave. I am not a fan of “tables.”) We sing rousing hymns. We “celebrate” and our spirits are uplifted. Most of us come away happy.

But, curmudgeon that I am, I wonder whether even we at Mount Olive are at risk of dissolving the ellipse of the eucharist – that of the tension between “common” and “special.” Now, I believe that the eucharist is meant to be common – it is the most ordinary thing that Christians do, as ordinary as breathing, eating with family and friends, carrying on daily conversation. When my daughter was about four and already communing, she spotted the big red button on the side of my head and, adept at pushing all my buttons, proclaimed just as we were to go forward to receive, “I don’t want to commune today.” Well, for once I had my wits about me (perhaps it was the proximity of the Holy Spirit at the moment) and I said to her, “Of course you will.” “But I don’t want to.” “That doesn’t matter; you will commune.” “Why?” “Because that’s what Christians do.” And that settled the matter for her. Never again have we fought over whether to commune. (I have temporarily lost the battle over communing by the common cup; she prefers the intinction cup, as do most of her friends. But I am confident that I’ll eventually win this war, too.)

My point was and is that communing regularly – as we said of voting in Chicago, early and often – is the very way of life of those who bear the name “Christian.” If we do nothing else, we commune. Of course, if we commune, unless we are in very peculiar circumstances, I don’t know how communing can be all that we do. But that’s for another post.

Now, in the church, the sense of communion as “ordinary” – at least in the sense of being something that should be done as regularly as prayer and Bible reading – has won out. But at what cost, I wonder.

As with so much of church life, the pendulum just can’t seem to stop at the via media; it has to continue past center to the opposite extreme. And I wonder whether communion has become too “common.” Far from close(d) communion, we practice virtually no eucharistic discipline at all: Oh, we may put in our bulletins (as we do at Mount Olive) that we welcome to communion anyone baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but in no sense do we check credentials of any “stranger” presenting himself or herself. (And, truth to tell, I wouldn’t want us to.)

My wish has been granted (to call it a prayer might stretch matters): Eucharist has become a common expectation and practice. But for many, I suspect, it has – as predicted – ceased to be special. With the American inability to live with paradox, most of us have resolved the tension in favor of ordinary. And it shows in the manner that many commune: There is a distinct lack of reverence toward the body and blood themselves, which are tossed around like so much old gravy. (In my in-laws’ congregation, after communing, the communicants discard their little plastic individual glass into a waste basket, without regard for whether there’s wine still in it or not. Needless to say, I almost faint – especially when that is combined with happy-clappy songs projected on the side screens.) Communion is seen as “due” to anyone who wants it, irrespective of any commitment to or involvement with the congregation that gives flesh and blood to the body and blood of the eucharist. It’s a picnic to which all and sundry (perhaps even including the ants) are welcome.

And superstition has replaced reverence. I was recently at a confirmation in a large church. This congregation almost never offers congregation communion services; the pressing need for religious services on-the-hour doesn’t allow for it in a 45-minute service. So for the confirmation (which looked and sounded more like a graduation – unfortunate connotations, there – replete with little diploma folders), communion was something of an open question. The church’s solution: Have the confirmands stand, throw out the words of institution (with NONE of the versicles, canticles, or anything else that give the Eucharistic liturgy its substance), and commune just the confirmands, while the soloist sang a medley of Bible camp standards. (Side note: And we wonder why we won’t see most of those kids in church again?) Let the congregation witness the event – after all, it’s a spectator sport, anyway (well, except for the offering). Sanctify the event with a little communion thrown in; don’t worry about the absolute nonsense it makes of whatever meaning the confirmation rite has (and I argue that it has very little). Give it out along with a Bible and a diploma. No need to dim the lights (that only happened for the sermon!). It was almost surreal – and that would have been interesting, if the entire event hadn’t been so damned sad!

Obviously extreme examples prove very little, but they can open our eyes to deeper realities. Reverence is a dying art in Lutheran worship; it has become all too common – almost indistinguishable from the other entertainment venues we frequent. (I’m not sure, frankly, that I would object to a Starbucks outlet at Mount Olive, but I draw the line at cup holders attached to the pews!) And some of that helps explain much of the problem of Lutheranism today.

Back to paradox; re-stress the tensions. Forget Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis; the Gospel is not synthetic and neither should be our theology. Recapture “dialectic”: It means more than “with words.” Bring back “the holy” aspect of Church life. Take off your shoes, as Moses was told; this is holy ground. We could stand lessons in how to stand on holy ground without losing our sense of terra firma.


Steve M said...

Reverence -- what an issue! :-)

As serendipity would have it, I have been chewing on this very thought for about 2 months. I see it as symptomatic of our modern culture; cupholders included! And I'm not sure how we rectify the situation without coming off as a scold (and, as we know, the worst scold is a Christian scold.) We can suggest until we are blue in the face but reverence comes from a humble heart and is not something that we can impose one someone (man, there are times though....).

Moreover, I wouldn't know *how* to communicate the importance of maintaining a posture of reverence. Especially in light of our casual culture. Gentle reminders in church worship folder etc. can help but it's the example of the faithful that will have the most impact.

As for Holy Communtion: as you mentioned, how do you verify ones credentials? You can't. So we give the Eucharist to those who ask with the hope that the recipient is receiving it with the proper heart and then let God do the rest.

-C said...

"... but it's the example of the faithful that will have the most impact. "

This is most certainly true. Having recently entered into a tradition where the body language for worship is far different from what I grew up with and even far different from that which developed naturally in me over the first half of my life, I have found that the best way to learn the body language of worship is by learning it from those who know it well - those for whom it is second nature.

My sincere hope is that by watching and doing, it becomes second nature in me, too.


Wollom said...

Dwight, I wonder if the question isn't one of belief rather than reverence? Many in our church lament the lack of reverence, or some ill defined notion of churchly behavior. We rue the loss of formality of dress and civility of manners and all the while I think we might have lost the deeper concern. Scripture avers that at the name of Jesus ever knee in heaven and on earth will bow. When I question members of the congregation I serve about such, they are quick to respond, "Of course and we would too". Really? When I point out to them that the Risen Jesus comes bodily to us in bread and cup every Sunday, every Wednesday, and every Saturday evening they simply stare at me impassively. Certainly not every knee bows in our congregation at the name of Jesus, or at the elevation, though with increasing frequency many do. I think the question is simply one of belief. Do we believe that Christ is truly bodily present in bread and cup in our Eucharistic celebrations? I doubt it and from what I've tasted of theological education in North American Lutheran seminaries, I doubt that many of our recent M.Div. graduates believe it either. I guess when "Community of Joy" gathers for its contemporary worship, cup holders aren't a bad idea. After all, they sort of fit with the American Protestant cultural milieu, don't you agree? WAJ

Dwight P. said...

Well, dear Wally, I think I can re-assert my premise in answering you. I think belief (or faith) is the fundamental issue, but I think the wearing of belief on one's sleeve (or on the knees of one's trousers) goes hand-in-hand with belief. I think the attempts to de-formalize worship did not grow out of lack of belief; I think there was an effort to reclaim the Gospel from legalism and what Barth calls "religion" (although "Gospel" was inadequately analyzed, so acted as though the full content of "Gospel" was that people feel "good" when they heard it). But the efforts to render liturgy and the life of faith more supposedly "user-friendly" have had the completely expectable result of rendering the Gospel -- and that is to say, the life of faith -- less compelling, less serious, less life-or-death, less "worthy".

I'm tempted to say that it's our culture in general that has caused this decline in reverence, quite apart from any shaking of the faith. I mean when parents let kids wear pants below their butts, exposing (because their shirts are too short to cover the indiscretion) their boxers-not-briefs, to church, there is a sign that culture is in decay generally. Perhaps we are incable of showing respect in old ways; perhaps my stuck-in-the-mud ways are simply out of date. Perhaps I judge too harshly, and there is reverence where I can't see it.

But then I look at the all-too-damned-frequent funerals of (mostly, it seems) kids killed in Iraq, and that theory flies right out the window: There is an unbelievable degree of formality, of reverence (for what, I'm willing to debate), of seriousness to the entire enterprise of remembering them and giving them funerals, and burying them. (That is, when that jackass Fred Phelps isn't on hand.) Nobody wants to bring their Starbucks (or, horrors, Caribou) into those services. No one objects to the vesting up of the "honor guard." No one complains that they service goes too long.

And in the event is the perfect enactment of what we really believe. On this you are right, Wally: It is a matter of faith. Jesus as buddy can't compete with America as our one, sure defense.
That we will tip our caps to the American flag, but not bow our heads to the bread-and-wine incarnation of the Incarnate one, says all that needs to be said about what we believe, honor, and revere.

But it's a kind of chicken-and-egg question (which is what the paradox will appear): Are we nationalistic and so we show it? Or were we never allowed to be less-than-respectful of such things as the National Anthem, the flag, "the uniform" and so we were formed into reverence and belief? I think the conduct and the mental/emotional side live in symbiosis -- just as they do in the alternative reality of the Church.

Steve, I think I'm willing to be a scold (as I was for way too many years on my congregation's worship committee): What we do with our bodies shapes what we think and what we believe "in our hearts." That's Cha's experience in Orthodoxy, and it has been mine: She had to leave Lutheranism to gain it; I found it within Lutheranism.

Of course, and this goes to another of Wally's plaints, in this regard (as opposed to in economics!), the trickle-down theory applies. If the ones up front on Sundays (and whatever other days we gather) don't have this or get this or care about this or practice this, it ain't going to happen. The office of priest/pastor is divinely ordered precisely "to secure such faith," as our own Augustana so clearly sets out (and is so almost universally ignored in saying). And that's a whole 'nuther chapter.

Wow! Talk about a burr under the saddle!

Wollom said...

Samuel Simon Schmucker thought that the Lutheran presence in North America ought to be Protestant as he read the theological/liturgical landscape and he shaped a seminary, a synod, and re-defined the confessional documents of Lutheranism to accomplish his goal. The ELCA since its inception has opted to be a "mainline protestant" denomination in synch with SSS's early vision. Although I was, as were you, quickened at his (SSS) seminary, I was fortunate to have had the influence of a strong Evangelical Catholic systematician, church historian, and liturgist in helping me to understand what it means to be a confessional Lutheran. Understanding that I am not a protestant pastor but a pastor in the evangelical catholic tradition of the Lutheran Church has given me the compass orientation to be faithful in worship and free to adore (i.e. love)the god whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and who comes bodily present in the bread and cup of the Eucharist. It's not about manners, it's about understanding which part of God's holy church I am baptized into and believing that Christ is faithful to his promise to be bodily present in the community's gathering.

Eric Lee said...

You mentioned paradox, Lutheran, and Hegel, yet one pretty sweet dude who was Lutheran, spoke a LOT about paradox in contradistinction to Hegel was Kierkegaard! There is plenty to more than whet your appetite in his Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. He gets a bit repetitive in the CUP, but it is really quite good.



Dwight P. said...

You know, Eric, I appreciate the commendation of Kierkegaard. I have sensed the need to read him -- beyond the, maybe, five pages of "great quotes" I've seen. I think you're right about his sense of paradox and its importance for the life of faith. I'm going to get to him -- though I may have to wait until I finish the 5'6" stack of unread books that I have promised my wife I'd read before I buy another theological work on spec. But thanks for the recommendation.

As for your most recent comments, Wally, I can of course resonate to much of what you say. You had a happier (though scarier) into to systematics than I did, but I have benefited over the years from the personal support, witness, and writings of some of those grand LTSG teachers. Working with one of them on the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology has re-energized my discontent with "protestantism" -- or is it "Protestantism"? -- as that term is commonly understood. Isn't it ironic that Gettysburg should provide one of the roots for the tree now known as "megachurch," "entertainment evangelism," "church growth," or whatever?