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Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.

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Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.

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Boozin’ it up with Jesus

I ‘ve been preaching through Ephesians the last 7 weeks, going with the RCL’s secondary reading.  A few weeks back, part of my pericope was Ephesians 5:18, part of which reads, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”  It is one of those places where the Bible is clear on drunkenness.  It was also quite convicting.

My background is fundamentalist and Southern, which means I was raised on the idea that alcohol is, in the words of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy, “The DEBIL!”  When I went to college, I realized quite simply that the people who insisted that drinking alcohol of any kind was “unchristian” were quite simply talking out of their anuses.   They didn’t drink because their parents didn’t, they claimed it was based on “the Bible” but could never account for why Jesus enjoyed wine so much that he provided a last round for everyone at  little soiree in Cana.
So I started to drink, once I turned 21.  And it was fun.  I partied with my friends…never did anything too stupid, never drank and drive, but I did enjoy partying to the point of intoxication.  This *maybe* even happened in seminary.  I know the dangers of alcoholism because my family is rife with it, but it’s never been a burden to me in that way.  I never drank when I felt bad or drank to get courage, but it was quite simply a way to enhance my enjoyment of good company.  Such days are over now, largely, though I enjoy my occasional glass of scotch or beer.

But the Bible Belt is, even though my church is not fundamentalist, essentially all Baptist.    Among many people in my pews and others around North Carolina, alcohol is still a touchy and sore subject.  I’m not sure how to account for it, because certainly (like abortion and the gay marriage issue) the Bible is not nearly as concerned as we are about booze.

The best I have surmised is that this sentiment is a leftover, a sort of long-term nuclear fallout, of the Temperance Movement.  Of course, the great irony of the temperance movement was that it took a word which meant ‘moderation’ and changed it to ‘abstinence’.

Most people around the world and throughout history have simply had alcoholic beverages as part of their everyday lives.  I was surprised to learn recently that even the Puritan settlers of the early New England colonies drank primarily homemade beer (and their children drank a diluted version of this).  The lack of clean water made this medically necessary.  How we got from that everyday, staple understanding of beer and wine to “alcohol is the devil” is interesting.  I would ask my Baptist seminary friends why their churches were so against alcohol and none of them could ever give me a real answer.  Even many of the more liberal ones that I know still did not drink alcohol.  This is all the more interesting because Baptists have no unified structure to declare a top-down policy on alcohol; this stance is simply assumed at all levels.

So, WWJD at a bar?  Would he sit in the corner with upturned nose as the heathens drank their Guinness and Cabernet and Johnnie Walker?  [Note: this image is modelled after my Campus Crusade friends’ actions throughout college]  Doubtful.  Wine is, after all, still preserved as part of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.  Generally it is not things themselves which are evil, but their ill use.   As Ephesians points out, the problem is not the wine but the drunkenness.  The problem, usually, is not with the things themselves but with us, within our bent and twisted and ego-driven souls.  So, I contend that Jesus would probably have a beer with us (he touched lepers, after all)…but, in the immortal words of Cal Naughton Jr, I doubt he would ” get HAMMERED drunk.”

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What hath the Pope to do with the President?

I came across this naughty little quote while reading the most recent edition of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life:

People still have hopes for the historical process, but these impulses, now strangers to faith, have been transformed into a secular faith in progress.

This reminds me of the quasi-religious character with which President Obama’s campaign and current reign have been met.  Certainly the fervor and the frenzy surrounding Obama, especially by a 20-something generation normally marked by apathy, was something unique.  I think Ratzinger has hit the nail on the head here: in our modern Western search for meaning outside the Christian faith, we are looking for other outlets for our energy and our eschatological hope.

The liberal sentiment that Obama aroused is, of course, but a bastard child of Marxist faith in human progress (which is, as he points out, an attempt at eschatology without God).  It makes me question, though, whether we are so “postmodern” as our intellectuals seem to think.  The kind of secularized (read: vacuous) faith that Obama has roused can only lead one to believe that the project of modernity is alive and well.  As Mark Twain said upon reading his own obituary, “Reports of my death are greatly exagerrated.”

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Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

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The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.

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Greetings

by Drew 0 Comments

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  That is how I often times begin a worship service, and it seems a fitting beginning for this new venture.  Much to come, I hope.  As a young pastor, I have many thoughts I need to vent.  My prayer is that this will be useful for me and for readers.

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