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Posts Tagged ‘Communion’

I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

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So, at this point I am identifying as some kind of a quasi-transcendentalist vaguely-Hinduish esoterically-inclined green Christian. How I got there from paganism is not really the topic of this post, but I promise to post about it someday. Maybe.

The topic of this post if the trouble with finding a church home for my family, and the disappointment of modern liberal Mainline Christianity.

We have been going to a Presbyterian (PC(USA)) church for a couple of weeks, and I am increasingly feeling like it’s probably not going to work out. I haven’t passed a verdict yet, but so far I am seeing a lot of things that lead me to conclude that this church, like many other liberal Protestant churches, emphasizes social justice to the near-total exclusion of theology, personal righteousness, and spirituality.

And that is the heart of my conundrum. There simply appear to not be a lot of churches out there that are able to be theologically liberal without it reducing to merely politically liberal (and theologically nothing at all). I’m sure my more theologically conservative friends are going to insist that such a reduction is inevitable, that theological liberalism invariably leads to no theology at all. I dunno; they may be right, but I kind of think that’s a false dichotomy. I think that the reduction of theologically liberal churches to mere social justice clubs has a lot more to do with American culture wars and political polarization than it does about anything inherent about liberal theology. But either way, it’s immensely frustrating.

My notions of spirituality and theology may be offbeat, but they’re what I am focused on and interested in, not social justice. Make no mistake, I believe that Christianity can and should give rise to social gospel concerns and the desire to address the evils of our society. But if that’s all that’s going on at your church, I would suggest that you are putting the cart before the horse, and I suspect that if I look hard, I will see that your social gospel is motivated almost purely by political and cultural considerations, not by spiritual or theological ones. And thus I am not interested in going to your church at all, because it has nothing that interests me.

In many ways, I think I would be happier being a quiet heretic in an orthodox, theologically conservative church. Except that I don’t necessarily want my kids indoctrinated that way. And I’m not sure how well being a quiet heretic really works out in practice.

A related issue is the fact that right now we live in a large northern metropolitan area: most of my neighbors are Catholics, Jews, or nonreligious. There’s not the massive smorgasbord of Protestant churches to pick from that I grew up with in my Appalachian-upper-South hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. And while I would dearly love to move back to the South (sooner rather than later), this is where I am at the moment.

Going to church is important to me and to my family (for a lot of reasons–maybe a topic for another post that I can promise to write and then never deliver on?), so I’m not okay with just being religious-at-home. So that’s out, too.

One thing I am considering is whether I will find more satisfaction in a communion/eucharist-centered liturgical tradition. The homily may be about something ridiculously politically liberal, but the service is centered on the eucharist, the eucharist is the real message. Isn’t it? Or am I just cruising for more disappointment? Of course, this line of thinking points me once again in an Anglican direction, which is somewhat comforting. I wouldn’t mind finding a nice Episcopal parish to belong to.

On the other hand, I know that a thought-provoking sermon is essential for my beautiful and sexy wife–it’s basically what she wants to go to church for. And she’s not wild about lots of liturgy. so, Episcopalianism may not be the way to go after all. Where we would really like most to be is back at Cedar Ridge Community Church, but that’s a long drive for a Sunday morning. Cedar Ridge was far from my personally perfect, ideal church, but it was a pretty good place for us as a family. But that’s moot, because there doesn’t seem to be anything comparable around here. I’ve looked.

So there you go. I’m not really sure what to do. I feel like I and my family have pressing spiritual needs, but I am growing increasingly concerned that the right church for meeting those needs doesn’t exist anywhere nearby.

PS, here’s a good recent editorial about (sigh) the state of the Episcopal Church that addresses a lot of these issues.

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Since I started looking for a church, the one that has appealed to me the most has been the Episcopal church.  I liked the Lutheran church, too- in practice it was very similar, but I wasn;t excited about it having Luther’s name attached to it, and I felt like a British church was slightly more culturally relevant to me than a German church, although the preference is only mild.

Anyway, when I look for a direction to go, a way to follow Christ, Anglicanism (and since I’m in the US, that means the Episcopal church) continues to beckon as an attractive and meaningful path.  In all honesty, the odds are decent that this is the direction that I will eventually go, once I get all of my issues sorted out.

Of all the mainline Protestant denominations I am familiar with, the Episcopal church appealed to me the most for several reasons.  I like the liturgical aspect, and I like the communion/eucharist-centered service.  However, my concerns with Episcopalianism/Anglicanism that I am going to express in this post also apply to the rest of mainline Protestantism  So keep that in mind.  In general, I am more interested in older Protestant denominations, though, i.e., the ones that came more or less directly out of the Reformation.

Anglicanism’s via media is very appealing to me.  In theory, it has the good parts of Catholicism- the meaningful liturgy and ritual, an ordained clergy that can trace apostolic succession, and a lot of tradition, coupled with basic Protestant theology, a lot of tolerance, and (in theory) a tradition of latitudinarianism that allows for a pretty theologically diverse bunch to all be united in one communion.

I also really, really like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If allAnglicans were like him, I would join the Episcopal church without reservation.  He is intelligent, creative, insightful, and he is able to maintain the same kind of balance between theological orthodoxy and progressive social action and an inclusive attitude that Brian McLaren advocates.  Except where McLaren is kind of adorably fumbling about it, the Archbishop does it all with such elegance.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of a church of Rowan Williamses, the Anglican communion is more a church of John Shelby Spongs and Peter Akinolas, tearing at each others’ throats, and I want nothing to do with either of those types.

First I want to address my Bishop Spong problem, and it’s really not a problem with Spong per se  so much as it is a problem with theological liberalism in general.  But given how outspoken Spong has been, and the kind of “Christianity” he has advocated, he’s kind of my lightning rod for everything I think is wrong with that side of the theological spectrum.  In my opinion, theological liberalism is dross.  Why be a Christian is you don;t really believe in the empty tomb, the incarnation, the resurrection?  Why bother?

As Rowan Williams put it in his eloquent (if slightly academic) response to Spong’s 12 theses, back when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth,

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

If Jesus is just a mortal philosopher, I see no reason to bother with Christianity at all.  I realize that accepting Jesus as God means having to deal with some hard issues and maybe living with some serious paradoxes, but I see it as the only way to be a Christian, and I want to be a Christian.

My point is that mainline Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in specific are so riddled with theological liberalism that I don’t know if they’re really worth bothering with, or if I’ll just be frustrated all the time.

At the same time, I think religious fundamentalism is equally ridiculous.  Both religious fundamentalism and theological liberalism are the bastard children of modernism, and are in my mind the chief case for why modernism was horribly bad for Christianity.

If the Episcopal church could find a way to be progressive without compromising the essential beliefs of Christianity, it would, in my opinion, be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, at least the American Episcopal church seems to be doing a whole lot of compromising.

I have other concerns with the Episcopal church, too.  Chief among them is that so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of authentic community.  Juice and cookies in the undercroft do not a community make.  I imagine that part of this is a matter of finding the right parish, and also of persisting- real community is like a living thing, and living things don’t usually spontaneously spring fully grown into existence.

There’s also a teeny tiny bit of stigma attached, since becoming an Episcopalian would mean pretty much embracing the ultimate expression of WASPishness.  But I guess I can deal with that.

Next, I think the worldwide Anglican Communion’s current shenanigans over homosexuality are shameful.  Don’t get me wrong- I think Christianity’s attitude towards homosexual people has been decidedly un-Christian.  However, I think that by stepping out on its own to ordain gay bishops and bless homosexual unions, the American Episcopal church pretty much pissed all over the idea of unity within the Communion.  It was rash and reckless, and probably (if also unfortunately) too soon.

At the same time, the response of the Northern Virginia parishes has been tantamount to “taking our toys and going home” when the game doesn’t go their way, which is equally disrespectful to unity and togetherness.  And Peter Akinola’s response, to actually promote the schism, has been the crowning deed of the whole affair, completely un-called-for and inappropriate, displaying a kind of scorn and derision to the Anglcian Communion as a whole that completely undermines everything that it is supposed to stand for.

Whatever it turns out that God really wants, I’m pretty sure it’s not recriminations and schism.  The actions of both sides of this debate betray a disregard for Christian unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that makes me very sad.  Kudos to the Archbishop for dis-inviting both sides to the Lambeth conference.

Now, as a non-Anglican, it can be argued that the whole thing is none of my business.  But at the same time, I’m considering becoming an Anglican, and so the situation is important to me.  I’m not excited about the prospect of joining up and then being caught in the ultra-liberal faction of a schism that never should have happened in the first place.

But I have to weigh that concern against the incredible good that I see in Anglicanism.  I feel the sense of authoritative-ness that I’m looking for, both in the clergy and in the institution.  I feel that there is so much room for spirituality and even mysticism (especially with Rowan Williams in the Archbishop’s seat), and also Christlike life and social action.  The churches and the liturgy are beautiful, and they bring a sense of holiness and connection to God.

In any case, this is the situation where I am seriously torn.  I want very badly to go down this road, but I am afraid that the obstacles are simply too great.

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