Monday, September 26, 2011

Narrative of a Sacramental/Preaching Event

(The following is an essay that was written for my first Doctor of Ministry class. Here I offer it to the general public for comment. I am the unlikely pastor and welcome back to my world.)

This essay presents a dilemma. Worship/preaching events by their very nature are formative events. Singling out a particular event is tantamount to singling out which particular snowflake in a large pile was the key to the formation of the drift, or which ripple of a stream’s current eventually eroded the coarse rock into the fine gravel which makes up its bed. From a young age, legs dangling off the folding metal chairs at Springdale Presbyterian Church (Springdale, Ohio); to singing in the Junior Choir directed by my 5th Grade teacher, Mr. Whipple, at First Congregational Church (Madison, Ohio), to recruiting high school classmates to provide special music for our worship services at Calvary Presbyterian Church (Logansport, Indiana), to eternity and beyond, worship/preaching events have shaped, molded, contoured, hammered and forged who I am and who I am becoming.

With that caveat in mind, two interrelated events emerge as places where one might pause to erect a “historical marker”. They are interrelated only in as much as without the occurrence of the first event, the impact of the second presumably would have been limited at best, if it would have had much impact at all. The Holy Spirit indeed works in mysterious and inscrutable ways of which we are granted only fleeting glimpses. Now we see through a mirror dimly…

To the task at hand: I was confirmed on a Maundy Thursday. I’m not sure if that is standard Presbyterian order, but it was the case for me and my 12 classmates. We fought the good fight; we finished the race. We showed up week after week sweaty and tired from long days of school and athletic practice. We stomached the interminable class sessions and skated through the obligatory inquisitional dinner with the Session. All this we endured in an effort to gain the final prize – admittance to the Holy Sacrament, a participant’s seat at the Lord’s Table. After years of watching the cube of bread and “shot glass” of grape juice go passing by without so much as a sniff; after years of hearing Jesus’ words repeated, “I am the vine; you are the branches; apart from me you can do nothing;” I was ready to do something. I was ready to be a part, a branch of my own producing good fruit for my Lord.

It was a special moment, but not one without irony. This sacrament that was so important and life-giving, this sacrament that I waited on and longed for, this sacrament was only celebrated quarterly and on special occasions (i.e. Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday) – a whopping total of 6 times a year, whether we wanted to or not. If indeed this sacrament, this eating and drinking, was so vital to my spiritual connection and well-being, why was I being forced onto a starvation diet? Congregational Teaching –vs. – Congregational Practice created in me a sense of sacramental dissonance.

That dissonance began to resolve as I began college at Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, Indiana) and began worshiping regularly in the Chapel of the Resurrection, the structure which towers over the heart of the VU campus. The choirs, the music, the processions, the liturgy – the sheer size and scope of worship in that space – and above all, the practice of weekly celebration of the Eucharist, struck a much more harmonious chord with my spirit. I was particularly struck by the practice of coming forward to the chancel area to receive the sacrament – God calling the gathered community forward to strengthen us for service in the world, nourishing us at the Holy Table, and sending us out to love and to serve.

My freshman year I was particularly graced to sing in a choir that provided the music for the principle Sunday worship service the majority of the time while classes were in session. We sang Psalm settings and antiphons, settings of the appointed “Alleluia verse” for the day or season, and provided some special music while the rest of the gathered community communed. It was my first experience with a liturgical choir, one woven into the fabric of the service itself and not simply tacked on or crammed in wherever convenient. Singing in that choir kept me physically in worship at a time when a major part of me was headed out the back door. It kept me in worship long enough for my sacramental dissonance to resolve into a more harmonious and soulful celebration of Christ’s presence. However, without that initial sense of sacramental dissonance sounded out by my earlier experience, the impact of worshiping in the Chapel of the Resurrection and of singing in that choir would have been blunted.

Today I still live with a certain amount of sacramental dissonance, as Lutheran teaching and Lutheran practice on the congregational level have not kept pace with each other. None of the congregations I have served to date have felt the need for weekly celebration and sustenance. While I have never understood the logic of such a spiritually anorexic attitude, I have learned pastorally to respect the bound conscience of those who differ in such matters, and continue to pray that one day our differences will resolve and Christ will indeed be all in all.