The Embarrassment of Presence

Wednesday I found myself throughout the day pondering something that has always been an extremely important factor in my life, but which is difficult – sometimes even a bit embarrassing – to explain or describe, “the presence of the Lord”. You see, we had our Bible study and Eucharist Tuesday night, and I had such a real sense of the nearness of God that I found myself wanting to write about it. Here it is Friday evening before I can write. It’s not just business that has postponed my reflection, though (even though a hefty paper due to a professor does factor). It’s that as soon as I begin to talk about what it is to feel the presence of God, I run into certain, well, embarrassments.

First there is the embarrassment I can link to culture. It simply isn’t “intellectual” anymore to claim to know anything certain about God. Our society works with a pretty Freudian worldview, believing that religion is the human invention of sometimes touching, often quaint (but never certain) ways of dealing with very human issues in a language that appeals to the transcendent. Said more simply and in a way that sounds more like what our culture means, “that’s your way of making it through the day, and that’s great for you, but don’t try to convince me that it’s real or for me”. Really smart people are supposed to be able to see beyond the mystical language and pretty rituals the fact that whatever we say about “God” is really something we’re saying about ourselves. To say that we experienced together the presence of God brings us out of the fuzzy “us-ness” of it and makes a concrete claim about the activities of a particular God. What theologians sometimes refer to as “the scandal of particularity” comes home to my living room.

I also cringe a bit sometimes at “presence” language because of my Pentecostal background. So many times when a congregation’s emotions are running high, whatever happens to be going on in the preaching or singing or altar call stuff can be blamed on God, even when it is unscriptural, emotionally manipulative, or, frankly, just cultural. The concept of God’s presence sometimes becomes an invitation to suspend good judgment in order to validate phenomenon. So much of what I and many, many Pentecostals have experienced of the sense of the holy that is good and transformative and powerful can be clouded by the nonsense that has sometimes ensued in the name of “revival” and with the cameras rolling. We were often so desperate for the feeling of God that we sought the feeling more than we sought for God.

Now I’m an Anglican. I am learning the beautiful theology of Eucharist. We speak powerfully of the closeness of God to the Church. We look at the Table and see Jesus. We read Revelation and see our times at Table together as mystical fellowship at the heavenly Eucharist, an appearance with all the saints before the throne of God. But our speech about experiencing, objectively, the presence of God tends to be more reserved. We wonder if one can really distinguish from the sense of one’s emotional lift in the contemplation of the divine a real, live “presence of the Lord”.

So Wednesday I struggled within my own mind and heart. My mind knows that the Lord is always with us. Particularly in the Eucharist, the presence of Jesus is ours to share. My heart leaped, though, to a more concretely personal declaration: I felt so strongly the affirming, loving, powerful presence of God; he was here. My culturally nurtured fear of sounding like a crazy religious nut wanted to mute the language. “Faith is a private experience”, the voice of the age seems to say.

How can I be a balanced “pentecostanglican” and express what I know to a culture that claims to never know anything? I must guard against the emotional neediness of my personal religious history and never use a claim to God’s presence as a drawing card for my personal ministry. I must not leave my expectation of God as a theological abstraction connected to ritual but disconnected from my real walk with God. I must speak responsibly to the world about the Church’s relationship with God without being reductionistic or flippant.

Here goes. I am a lover of a very real God who loves me more than I could ever love him back. He allows me so to live in that love that it sometimes overwhelms me in a very real, visceral sense that can only be described as spiritual and physical. When God’s people gather to worship, God often gives such embarrassingly concrete evidence of his presence that we struggle to express it without appealing to radically non-objective language. And we believe it so passionately, crave it so ardently, are changed so radically because of it that we want you to feel it too.

As the scripture says, “taste and see that the LORD is good”. Amen.

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Teenagers in my Living Room

One of my great joys is working with teenagers. My full-time occupation at this point is as an English teacher in a Wilson County high school. For hours every weekday my world is full of the energy, creativity, and unexplainable goofiness that is characteristic of teenagers everywhere. They say the weirdest mess I’ve ever heard and dance dances I’ll never be able to replicate. Because I show my affection largely with humor, they return the favor and make fun of my clothes, my shoes, my expressions, my bad jokes, everything they can think of. They keep me on my toes. I find myself at my best around them, in terms of my best humor (I’ll never be able to act consistently like a grownup), my best job performance, and – most of all, I think – my best care for their development as human persons. For all of my humor I’m also hard on them. Often provocative. Looking for growth.

My wife and I, in starting a Tuesday night Bible study and Eucharist in our home, would not have expected the majority of those who attend to be teenagers. There’s no pizza. So far there’s very little music (and none of it instrumental). There’s nothing “cool” happening here at all. That explains why we don’t have fifty of them, I suppose. We pray. We examine the Scriptures. We follow a liturgical order. We have Communion. That’s it. And yet the folks most drawn to us are teenagers. Why?

I am becoming more and more convinced that much of what we see happening in the big, fancy youth groups is great evangelism but often lacking in higher levels of discipleship. We see large crowds of teenagers being served, but those desirous of a richer diet being left hungry. This is often simply oversight on the part of the youth groups. They are doing important work for larger crowds, perhaps reaching more teenagers for Christ than I ever could: different “members” of the body accomplish different tasks. The folks I see on Tuesdays tend to be teenagers who are asking difficult questions, who are struggling with real issues, who want to know God in a deeper way. They don’t want easy answers. They are open to historic forms of the faith. They are comfortable with mystery. And they want it to be real.

What I see happening is a deepening of spiritual curiosity, an equipping with spiritual gifts, a strengthening of bonds of love for one another, a release of healing grace in areas of pain or confusion. We are a small group of believers “doing church” in a living room. We Anglicans are an expression of the faith not well renowned for appealing to crowds of youth. But the Spirit is drawing and working among these teenagers to deepen and strengthen their relationship to the Father in Christ Jesus. Our growth as a fellowship is internal before external. I suspect I know the next step: the Spirit that is changing this handful of young lives will work through them to effect discipleship in others. Maybe even lots of grownups! As we would expect, those of us of the Kingdom, the last become first, and God receives all glory.

The Christian Main Event

For much of Christianity it has always been clear what the “main event” is. Within a vast array of worship practices and preferences, of ways of doing the church thing, of competing theologies and cultural expressions all historically-mined Christians, those whose expressions are rooted in the larger Tradition of Christianity have all agreed that the central worship act of the Body of Christ is the Eucharist, Holy Communion. Now, to those for whom preaching or (in the case of many nowadays) singing is central, this may come as a surprise. In fact, throughout history there have been times and places where many Christians did not or could not attend the Table for weeks or months at a time. The record is clear though about the Eucharist’s importance. The Reformers, the Wesleys, and countless revival leaders have pushed for more frequent Communion seeing in it the pinnacle of Christian devotion and expression of worship. But why? What is it about the Eucharist that gives it prominence as the Christian “main event”? Here, in no careful order, are some brief considerations in light of this question.

1. The Eucharist proclaims “Christ crucified” in the manner Jesus requested.

It is at the Table of the Lord that we most dramatically and mystically “show forth” Jesus’ death for the sake of the world. Framed carefully within the story of redemption, quoting conscientiously the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, we remember and live out the experience of him who was taken, blessed, broken, and given “for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins”. This, in picture, word, and spiritual reality, is the Gospel made spectacle by the Church.

2. The Eucharist allows us to receive Jesus.

The “remembrance” in which we share Communion is not a “bringing to mind”, but a “bringing to the present”. In the presence of those gathered (all it takes is two or three) in his name, the Spirit sanctifies a meal and those who partake in it partake in Jesus. He said his body was true food and his blood true drink. We don’t let the arguments get out of hand about how exactly this is the case. The witness of Scripture, the testimony of Tradition, and the reasoned experience of God’s people bear witness that, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, the cup we drink is a sharing in the blood of Jesus. We see bread and wine. We “feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”, as the liturgy instructs us.

3. The Eucharist calls the world to Jesus.

Jesus’ blood was shed “for many”. We come to the Table sharing, with all the saints of history, a longing for the whole world to join us there. I remember “altar calls” to the tune of “There’s Room at the Cross for You”. Eucharist is the ultimate Altar call. It makes present in the breaking of bread the Passover sacrifice of Jesus. The Table becomes for us the Cross. It is not that Christ is being sacrificed again but that we are present again at his sacrifice. All of the world is called to come to the Cross, to Jesus. We are not, in setting the Table and receiving there, staging an object lesson to illustrate the gift of Christ for us all; rather, we are mystically present in, sharing, and offering to the world, the reality of Calvary as it is present for us. This is “worship evangelism” for the ages.

4. The Eucharist anticipates the renewal of everything.

In drinking the Cup we look for the day when, as Jesus promised, we shares it with him in his Kingdom. Eucharist brings us to the heavenly table of the marriage supper of the Lamb. Just as Eucharist brings present to us spiritually what in terms of time is history, the crucifixion of Jesus, it brings present to us as well that which in terms of time remains future hope, the coming again of Christ and the defeat of death and the renewal of the created order. For a moment as we receive Eucharist, we envision ourselves as the pure Bride receiving her Husband at the Last Day. The dead have risen, sin is no more, and Jesus is King and Lord. This is the present reality of Holy Communion. It is at Eucharist that we proclaim the mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Alleluia!

The "Spiritual Grace" of the Eucharist

According to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace” as well as, and this is often the sticky point, “a means whereby we receive the same”. This definition, when applied to Holy Communion, can open a can of worms for most Protestants that all of the priests of the realm won’t get the lid back onto the top of. For someone like me who comes to a historic form of the faith from a decidedly non-historic – in my case Pentecostal – form, the language can be forbidding and the implications earth-shattering. Nevertheless, it has become my conviction that this language is not only correct but really helpful in understanding the nature of Communion, that is, once we examine what exactly is being claimed about it.

First of all this language of “spiritual grace” can be tricky. What is meant by grace here is not merely a state of God’s liking you more than you deserve; we Christians all agree this is the case. Grace here is much, much more than “favor”, even unmerited. Grace is power, specifically the power of God to do in and for us what we could never do in and for ourselves. Receiving God’s grace means receiving God’s power to work in us according to God’s intention for us. God heals us of our alienation, our sin, even of death itself. Our posture toward this healing and restorative power is decidedly receptive. This says so much more than just that we cannot work hard enough to get to heaven or that only God can make decisive action to save us. This says that our natural and continual posture toward God is a stretching out in openness to receive what is extended by his hand. We reach out our hands not to grasp, but to receive God’s grace freely extended. Classical Christianity does not see this as the case only in the moment of conversion, but every moment of our salvation thereafter. God is extending and we are reaching out to receive.

This grace we receive from God in Christ works on the external life, emanating from our core into our lifestyles, relationships, our ways of being in the world, but this grace that works on the outside happens on the inside. It is “inward and spiritual”. St. Paul prayed for his Ephesian congregants “that you might be strengthened with power by his Spirit in the inner man”. This is a prayer for grace, the power of God doing the humanly impossible within the human heart. How then do we commemorate this reception of grace from God’s hand? How do we pose ourselves receptively as we continue to be saved? What are the signs of the power of God, in Christ, by the Spirit, imparting grace consistently to the hearts of believers? In the act of the Eucharist (that classic – dare we say original? – word for Communion) we approach a Table, prepared faithfully by ancient design for the gathering of the saints of every age. We stand or kneel reverently and hold out our hands. A person dressed in a manner that indicates that he or she is acting not independently but as a representative of Christ and of his Church, dressed to blend into rather than to stand apart from this particular Table, places into our hands and presents to our lips the “Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven”, the “Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation”. We receive. We say “amen”. We take our places again within the crowd of saints to offer thanksgiving and receive priestly blessing for the mission ahead. Eucharist, self evidently, is an “outward and visible sign” of the power we receive continually on the inside to feed on Christ and to be Christ’s together.

The second part of the BCP’s description of sacrament, though, is for some a real difficulty. It makes a claim that cuts against every bit of our American rugged individualism and Protestant bias calling us to believe again in the Church. The Church asserts that sacraments are a “means of grace”, that is, that participation in sacrament is a way itself in which grace comes to us. Again it is important to distinguish between grace as the favor of God at the moment of conversion and grace as the power of God working in us as we are being saved. Grace comes to us constantly and effectively, administering to us the mercies and peace of God, keeping us in Christ, healing us and “restoring our souls”. The Church, in her vocation to live the Scriptures, acknowledges ways in which Jesus, by the Spirit, ministers grace to us. At baptism he gives us power to become the children of God and to receive the Spirit. At Eucharist he feeds us with his body and blood, continuously joining us to himself and to one another and making present for us his once-for-all sacrifice for sin. In Eucharist we receive Christ. In the body we eat bread and drink wine. But inwardly this outward action is received as the body and blood of Jesus. This is not, as some modern Christians have asserted since Zwingli, a symbol of what happens at conversion. Nor is it merely play-acting or rememberance through object-lesson. We receive “by faith and with thanksgiving” the Christ of God in our hearts by the action of eating the bread and wine we have consecrated in his words for this purpose. Because it is outward as well as inward we call it at the same time bread as well as body, wine as well as blood, true food, true drink.

One reason that this doctrine of the apostolic Church is difficult for even many Christians to receive is because it contradicts what many of us were taught about the nature of salvation. We are accustomed to the language of “moments of conversion” rather than that of salvation process. We emphasize a “personal relationship with God” with little or no corporate dimensions at its heart. We encourage folks to make “decisions for Christ” without acknowledgement of the whole person in grace. Salvation is often seen by us as the result of either our own personal decision to be saved or God’s sovereign act of saving us very personally, individually. Becoming a part of Christ’s body, the Church, was seen as a result of salvation rather than what it is intended to be, a synonym for salvation. Sacrament reminds us that we are not saved alone, that we are saved into the people of God and into the coming renewal of all things. Sacrament reminds us that we come to “Our Father” rather than just “my Father”. Just as we received initial grace in a posture of receptivity to the offering of Christ, so we receive continued grace in a posture of receptivity to the life of Christ’s body. I can be a Christian, I reason, alone in my living room. But I cannot be the Church there. The Church gathers in order to give that which the Church receives, the grace of God.

The Eucharist is the primary worship act of God’s people. Without it we are far too consumed with personal interests, even in our other forms of worship. Eucharist brings us together to open hands that have too often been clenched, to feed on mystery that transcends the functionality of other meals, to worship in the holy passivity that is the root of reverence. It calls us to submit to an outward, visible sign and to an inward, spiritual power which both amount to grace.

Grace be unto us all.

I’m a lousy blogger!

I have tried before to do the blog thing. I’m not going to tell you where or when or what. That would be silly. I typically have set up a blog, intending to fill it with all of the wonderful insights crowding my mind. Whether or not I really thought anyone would be interested is an issue for me to take up in spiritual counseling. The point for our purposes is that I would start a blog, post one or twice and then forget I even had the thing.

So what’s the point of this blog?

I’m so glad you asked.

Today I launch a blog not to communicate anything within my own overcrowded mind, but to reach out to those who may be looking for a home in their faith that is fully catholic (rooted to the ancient practices and doctrines of the Christian faith), evangelical (passionate for the authority of the Scriptures and the power of the gospel to change lives) and charismatic (open to and dependant upon the gifts of the Spirit in the lives of believers). I represent a small group of believers in Wilson, NC who have come together in the conviction that God is calling us to form just such a home. We’re a small house fellowship with a much larger vision. Not a vision for buildings and programs, but for a household of believers in love together with Christ, expressing that love in sacramental worship, in mutual discipleship, in outreach to those in need.

Although we all come to this from various traditions (pentecostal, baptist, episcopal, etc.), we are working in fellowship with the Anglican Mission in the Americas, a group of mission-minded Anglicans of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda. They are dedicated to church planting, evangelization of the unchurched, and faithfulness within the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

This blog will be a place for teaching, for proclamation, and for dialogue.