Thoughts About Serving Holy Communion

Young pastors sometimes struggle over the use of rituals, especially the ritual for Holy Communion.

Their struggle may rise from an aversion to rituals because they seem dull and lifeless. Or the service may feel “unspiritual” because the words spoken are prescribed in advance.

I once heard of a young pastor’s novel come-and-go communion service. The elements were laid out on the communion table and people were invited to come anytime Sunday afternoon and serve themselves, without benefit of ritual, pastor, or possibly even fellow believers.

Or there was the pastor so opposed to rituals of any kind that he simply passed around the elements without any designated invitation, consecration, explanation, or prayer. Any unchurched person would be sure to go away asking, “What was that about?”

Whatever the cause for disinterest or aversion, here are some simple suggestions to help pastors conducting a communion service. They might also be useful for lay persons who attend feeling the need for fuller engagement with this sacrament.

1. During the week prior to the service, live in the four brief New Testament passages that report our Lord’s institution of this ordinance ( Matt. 26:17-30. Mark 14:22-26. Lk. 22:19-23. 1Cor.11:23-26). Let the scene set itself in your imagination and let the words sink in. If the truths seem wrapped in mystery, remember that in the early days of the Christian era the Greek branch of the church, often referred to the Lord’s Supper as the “Mystery.”

2. Also, before the day the Lord’s Supper is served, spend time with the ritual itself as printed at the back of the hymnbook. Read it aloud. Personalize its opening invitation for yourself. Think afresh what the sacrificial death of Jesus meant and turn that understanding into prayer. It is sometimes the “savoring” of words — “putting them under your tongue and sucking them like a sweetie,” as one Scottish divine advised, that releases their power.

3. Practice reading the service out loud slowly and thoughtfully. In doing so you may hear fresh truth for your own need. One teacher of pastors offered this advice to those called upon to read the Bible in public services: Read it as if you are listening to it yourself, not as though you wrote it. The same advice fits the reading of the ritual of Holy Communion.

4. If you have any impulse in your mind to diminish or neglect the serving of the Lord’s Supper, remember that it has often been called throughout history, “the central act of Christian worship”. Better to let that fact refashion your own understanding than to dismiss the fact and leave yourself burdened with a serious misunderstanding.

6. Finally, when it comes to the service of the Lord’s Supper, resist the tendency to seek innovation if you are a pastor, or to look for innovation if you are a lay person. Sometimes in our youth we are inclined to diminish the value of constancy and repetition in the fundamental exercises of our spiritual lives in favor of new ways of saying or doing things. Innovation certainly has its place, but not with a staple ritual such as The Lord’s Supper. Repetition is intended to fix its truths in believers’ minds.

After one communion service at which I had served believers of all ages, an elderly woman, the widow of a minister spoke to me. She had heard the ritual all her life. She said to me with feeling, “The longer I live, the more meaningful the Lord’s Supper becomes to me.”

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Musings Prompted by the Wedding of the Century

As I viewed the splendor of the “wedding of the century,” this week I couldn’t help but recall the countless times I had stood at a marriage altar to administer wedding vows. I was reminded of the seriousness of the occasion for the couples involved.

I was moved by the realization that William and Kate met at the altar of Westminster Abbey, exchanged simple but all-encompassing vows, and departed the altar as husband and wife — now married in the eyes of both God and State. The changes effected in minutes could scarcely be more momentous!

The Abbey event has made me ponder why a couple would choose a church above all other settings for the ceremony, a building especially set apart for the worship of God.

I have been around young people enough to know that some moderns would say a church building is only one of many possible sites for a wedding. It has no other significance than its convenience. For extremes, I recall reading of a couple who went aloft with an official qualified to marry, exchanged vows high in the sky, then skydived to earth, harnessed together.

Another newsy case was about a bride and groom who snorkeled underwater, while pledging undying faithfulness to each other, as bubbles rose and underwater cameras rolled. I’ve heard of less venturesome couples who chose a city park or a museum, as the site for their vows. I will admit that all such locations can be legitimate.

But I think there are good reasons for Christians to exchange vows in a building especially dedicated to the worship of God, however grand or modest it might be. Here are reasons I’ve accumulated over a lifetime of ministry:

(1) It seems to me that a Christian wedding should be above all else a high moment of worship. So why not make its setting the place where worship is regularly carried out?

(2) A wedding is also an occasion at which a bride and groom make life-time pledges to one another “in the sight of God.” I don’t believe that the everywhere-present God is only present in the sanctuary of a church but the symbolism of the place can be taken full advantage of to enrich the spiritual meaning of the event.

(3) No one will deny that a wedding is a “rite of passage.” Certain events in life are epochal: birth, marriage, conversion, baptism, certain anniversaries, death. The situation is not always the same but the events themselves are momentous and they deserve appropriate elevation in the normal flow of life. I ask myself, what better setting for that elevation than the altar of the church?

(4) Also, the wedding is a community event so shouldn’t the Christian community be called to gather in their usual place of meeting.

(5) I’m especially moved by the fact that in the setting of worship family and friends look well beyond the event itself and pledge prayerful support should there be times of crisis in their future. This signals the ongoing nature of the faith community.

(6) I think of a wedding as a splendid occasion for Christian witness. The unchurched often attend and everything about the environment of the occasion should bespeak Christian meaning -– the altar itself, the pulpit furniture, the cross, even banners and art work — but especially the ritual, songs, and prayers.

(7) Finally, the setting of the church sanctuary should prompt a review of the meaning of marriage for many who attend. A friend, married more than 60 years, tells me that every time he and his wife attend a wedding they renew their own vows in the presence of God and in sync with what the minister is saying.

I concede again that the church altar is not the only possible setting for a modern wedding. Kathleen and I ourselves were married in her sister’s home. But under the secular hammering against the Christian faith that goes on all the time, there is great need for the rethinking of many ways in which theology and practice are kept together. Should weddings not be an important one of them?

These are my thoughts about weddings after more than 50 years of pastoral ministry. The Royal wedding of this past Friday in Westminster Abbey brings them all to the fore again.

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Does the Lord’s Supper Need Ritual?

A close associate tells me he took a professional friend to a Sunday morning worship service in his church. It was the morning for the Lord’s Supper.

When the time came for communion, the pastor simply had the elements passed, virtually without comment. There was no explanatory ritual.

The layman who reported this admitted he went away from the service with a sense of holy disgust. His friend had little church background, was not a person of faith, and might therefore be mystified by those unexplained little cups and bits of bread. Or the absence of explanation may have robbed him of spiritual enlightenment.

Ritual, in the present case, means the prescribed words and actions that we use in church repeatedly to refresh memory, clarify understanding and deepen conviction. “The ritual of the Lord’s supper reinforces our understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the grace He imparts as we remember.” Served with skill, and in the Spirit, the words themselves can do real work in communicants’ hearts and minds.

Our forefathers bequeathed to us the core arrangement of these words to accompany the symbolic actions of the Lord’s Supper. What value should we seek in them? (1) They define who may partake. (2) They review for us the meaning of Christ’s atonement. (3) They remind us that repentance is always needed in the Christian life, and they prompt us to repent. (4) They also prompt us to review the seriousness of our commitment to Christ. (5) They unite us as a body around common declared Christian beliefs. (6) And above all, they prompt us to give thanks — eucharist! Who can question these values?

Without the words, only the communicants have an understanding of what the acted ritual is saying, and even they may need the detailed reminder.

When I was a college pastor, I sometimes had communion for the whole of Sunday afternoon in 30-minute segments. First it was for college freshmen who were believers or seekers, then for the sophomores, followed by the juniors and then seniors. During the last 90 minutes I served the three large adult Sunday School classes, serving the eldest last.

It was not lost on me that the oldest seemed to feel the deepest gratitude. There were tears. I assumed it was because those who had served the Lord the longest understood and felt the need for atonement most deeply. The depth of gratitude seemed to be the fruit of a deep and mature faith.

The Sunday after New Years I served communion for the first time in many years. I confess that I heard the words of the service more deeply and movingly than I recall ever before. I believe the congregation was helped by the conviction with which I led the ritual and served the elements.

The ritual can be fresh and doesn’t need to seem formal if the server has prepared his own heart and feels deeply the truth of what is being read. That was evidenced by the response of the elderly who had heard the words most often.

So why did the pastor described above have such a deep resistance to the spoken ritual of the Lord’s Supper? This was not his only case of resistance in worship. He never invited his congregation to pray the Lord’s Prayer together, never had them sing the Doxology, and intensely avoided the riches of the hymn book. Liturgical prescriptions — which are few in number in our more free church worship — may have threatened what he considered his “freedom.”

Or he may never have learned that words have power and that the Holy Spirit can ignite them as messengers of truth in the hearts of God’s people during worship. Perhaps his real commitment was to a sort of folk religion which had no alliance with believers of all ages. Or it even may have been a simple unrecognized resistance to authority that he was acting out in this way.

It has been the long conviction of our denomination that the serving of the elements of the Lord’s Supper needs with it a review of the carefully-stated meaning of redemption. The words are heavy with truth.

As I see it, before and around and behind what is going on between God and the communicant, there is a kind of grand ritual involved in the serving of communion. I believe that instead of cancelling the words that go with it, or abbreviating them severely, it is better to treat the prescribed words and actions with respect and give them the freedom to do their potentially deep, accompanying work in our hearts!

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What Makes a Funeral Christian?

I’ve been reading a book about funerals. That may sound morbid or melancholy but it’s a subject worth exploring because sooner or later we are all involved in a funeral — someone else’s or our own. Death breaks into all families. When it does, for Christians, one question should dominate: What will make this funeral thoroughly Christ-honoring?

The book I’ve been reading is by Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. It is the fruit of 12 years of research and reflection. His research took him throughout the entire United States, including Alaska, to get a clear sense of current funeral customs continent-wide.

Long registers with me as almost a universalist, believing that in the end all will be saved. It appears to me that he views baptism, rather than the new birth, as the key to heaven. At the same time, he appeals for the centrality of the Christian gospel at a Christian funeral. In this respect, he brings valuable resources to his subject.

According to Long’s findings, modern trends tend toward the replacement of the funeral with a memorial service — a “celebration of life” event. Following this newer custom, the body of the deceased is buried separately in a private ceremony, typically for just the family. At the memorial service, stories are told by those who knew the deceased best. There is usually laughter. On occasion, an open mike is available for anyone who wishes to share memories spontaneously.

Long responds to this trend with two particularly helpful contributions. First, he sets forth what is known about the early Christian way of dealing with death. In the early church, there was no effort to diminish death’s reality. The body was washed, cared for lovingly, and prepared for burial by family members. In the service that followed, at one and the same time, human life was celebrated as sacred and death was recognized as irreversible and transitional, a towering reality.

Among the early Christians there was joy because of the deeply-rooted conviction that resurrection, not death, has the last word. The body of a believer was carried to its grave with singing. Hence, the title of Long’s book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.

A second point of great value in Thomas Long’s book is that the central motif of a Christian funeral must be the gospel narrative of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That must mean that hymns and other songs sung, Scriptures read, prayers offered, and sermons preached must glorify him. Long points out that the trend toward memorial services and the absence of the body diminishes the reality of death and tends to displace the great hope of the gospel.

The life of the departed should, for sure, be recognized in tributes, but this ought not to take center stage in such a way as to overshadow or even mute the gospel narrative about the Christ who came to live, suffer, die and rise again — the very ground of the Christian hope! The good reason to keep the gospel central to the event is that death, according to the Scriptures, has a penal aspect (“by sin came death”), but Jesus Christ defeated death when he “tasted death for every one.”

Our culture tends to progressively secularize all things Christian. But there should be some hard thinking and teaching going on in Christian circles to assure that Christians continue to face the reality of death and at the same time keep the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ central in any Christian event — particularly in funerals — carried out in his name.

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How to Have a Christian Wedding

When is a wedding truly Christian? It seems to me that that question can be answered at two different levels. Consider the first.

Suppose a young community couple approaches a pastor seeking his wedding services. They are not members of any church. They are not believers. Thoroughly secular in their outlook, they nevertheless have a residual sense that a wedding should in some way be religious and, motivated by that sense, they seek a pastor’s help. Can they have a Christian wedding?

In such cases, if the pastor’s ritual is Christian in content – that is, faithful to the word of God — and his prayers are offered in the name of Christ, and if the songs sung have Christian lyrics, then in a broad sense, what he offers may be called a Christian wedding. It’s not Buddhist, Hindu, nor even broadly secular. It carries the notes of Christian truth about marriage throughout.

But if the couple are a man and woman who love Jesus Christ devoutly and who make known that they want their wedding in every way to honor him, that promises a Christian wedding in a much fuller sense. The event has a discernible authenticity. It is this kind of Christian wedding that I write about today.

I remember with particular warmth Ken and Judy, or Larry and Cheryl, Jim and Fern or David and Faith, and a string of others across the decades. Often they were young and inexperienced when they arrived at the altar, starry-eyed, eagerly anticipating the adventure they were about to launch. Sometimes there was slight apprehension over the serious nature of the vows they were to make. But each couple, in their own way, saw the event as a time to reflect the faith they so ardently held.

A wedding marks one of life’s most important rites of passage. It is an adventure and – one hopes — a once-in-a-lifetime event. One couple steeped in romance may approach it as the fulfillment of a dream; to another more down-to-earth couple it may be more centered on the making of vows. Couples come to the wedding altar with a variety of concerns. For all these reasons, the event deserves the full attention of the pastor asked to officiate.

A Christian wedding deserves to be theologically grounded, beautiful, well-ordered, with logical sequences, free of unnecessary distractions, and in all, an experience of the sacred for both the wedding party and the worshiping congregation.

But, it seems to me that the Christian essence of even some church weddings is under siege. It is threatened by the incursion of materialism – the impulse to make the event into a theatrical spectacle that fairly drowns out the Christian notes of reverence and worship. Materialism calls for props, showiness, the piling up of expense. The families involved may be unable to afford the cost and this may trigger a lot of behind the scenes conflict.

Another peril the mood of our times seems to encourage is narcissism – the tendency for one or both parties to make the event into an ego-trip rather than a covenanting service carried out “in the sight of God and the presence of these witnesses.” When narcissism takes over, the wedding becomes exlusively a “now” and “me” moment. The couple cheat themselves of valuable insights about weddings. For example, they deprive themselves of wisdom the church has gleaned across two millennia.

They are likely to scorn the value of traditions which serve an important function – to bring together two families as harmoniously as possible. Traditions have been accumulated across the centuries to meet this goal. It’s a demanding task, and in observing these traditions, family rivalries and interpersonal tensions are reduced.

So, to avoid these perils, what should we aim for in planning a Christian wedding? Here are three goals:

If the wedding is to be seriously Christian, from the start the couple must keep in mind that Christ is to be the guest of honor. Therefore, all planning must be to please him. What better situation than a wedding to put into practice the advice of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:17) Wanting his blessing above all else will assure the proper sense of reverence and restraint.

The couple should also do all they can to lay a groundwork for the expression of Christian joy. Where Christ is honored, there is joy. Joy is a great Christian grace. It is a key element in worship (Ezra 6:22) so it should be in evidence at a Christian wedding. When preparations have been well laid, joy will be present, subdued but deep, and at the later reception it may become jubilant and overflowing.

Finally, in all the planning, the aim should be for simplicity. That doesn’t mean stark plainness — without color or beauty. It means keep things as uncomplicated as possible. Remember that understatement often reveals the heart of beauty. If a main line of planning is established and adhered to this will reduce distractions and mishaps as the big day approaches.

Are such goals worth the trouble? I have in my memory weddings of unforgettable Christian witness and loveliness and I say, Yes! Without hesitation, Yes!

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Why Do We Celebrate Advent?

When we observe Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – what are we celebrating? We know that the word stands for the coming of the Messiah in human form. But what credence are we to give this claim?

There’s the story of Mary, the chosen virgin who was to become the birth mother of our Lord. We think of the angel, Gabriel, who brought her the news. And there is Zechariah, the aged priest, who was also visited by Gabriel while on priestly duty at the altar of incense in the magnificent temple.

The angel’s news to Zechariah was that he and his elderly wife, Elizabeth, were to be favored by the miraculous birth of a special son — later to come to be known to the world as John the Baptist — and this in spite of their advanced years.

These are fascinating accounts, but what kind of stories are they? Myths? Legends? Folk tales? Or maybe just mere fantasies that have worn well through the ages? All would agree that they make wonderful material for little Sunday School skits the children can enact during the Christmas season. But, do they speak of actual happenings at a specific time in history?

It was the physician, Luke, who reported the stories and so he is the one to ask. He answers the question in the opening paragraph of the gospel account in the New Testament that carries his name (Luke 1:1-4).

In splendid classical Greek not obvious to those of us who read his account in the English translations and in the longest sentence of any in the Scriptures (also not evident in English translations) he sets forth carefully what he intended in putting the Christ story into writing. In a series of shortened sentences let me break down and paraphrase that one sentence of his stated purpose. He wrote:

Truly remarkable things have happened. Many have tried to capture the story in writing. They’ve gathered their details about these unusual events from first-hand observers. I have done my own careful investigation of everything from the outset, leaving nothing out. So it seemed like a good idea for me to write my own account of what has happened. I’ve done this for you — most excellent Theophilus — with a special purpose. I want you to be even more certain than you now are of the things you have already been taught.

Does this sound like Luke intends to spin folk tales? Or cunningly fabricated myths? He says, I have “carefully investigated” what I am about to write. I have been meticulous in my search. I’ve checked it against other first-hand accounts. I am convinced of the facts and I reduce this to writing to increase the certainty of my reader, Theophilus, who already is a believer.

Luke is self-consciously attempting to record history. But it’s sacred history. He wants to report what actually happened, avoiding inaccuracies. And he does it well, winnowing out the chaff of speculation from the weighty grains of fact. But, in doing so, his story can’t be authentic without including details of the miraculous elements in the account. He is regarded by most impartial scholars today as, “One of the very best and most reliable historians of antiquity” (New Bible Dictionary p. 756).

That gives us our key to the celebration of Advent. Our celebration is rooted in history. It’s about events that really happened. But Advent is a holy season because we believe these things happened miraculously. The message to Zechariah was solid and he and wife Elizabeth really did receive a child, John, against the impossibilities of nature. And Mary was indeed the virgin mother of the one who became the world’s saviour, Jesus the Christ.

So, in Advent we celebrate the historical coming of God in human flesh. He came as a real person, to be worshiped by his followers as fully human and fully divine. He came into a real world, blessed by resplendent beauty and scarred by the darkest of sins. He came to bring redemption through a perfect life and a sacrificial death.

For those who embrace this truth and declare themselves his followers his coming will now be three-fold: he came in an historical moment; he comes to the hearts of his followers wherever they are; and he will come again to rend the skies and declare his universal lordship over all.


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Reading the Bible in Church — and Elsewhere

One Sunday morning we drove to a Presbyterian church in Fergus, Ontario, where our son’s Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church choir was to sing. At the appointed time, the sexton entered from a door behind the pulpit bearing a large Bible and, with deliberation, opened it on the pulpit. This was a sign that the service could now begin. When the benediction was pronounced, the sexton went to the pulpit, closed the Bible and, carrying it chest high in front of him so all could see, preceded the minister down the aisle to the door. The symbolism was clear: this service was conducted from beginning to end under the authority of God’s word.

As I watched, I thought of a trend I and others have witnessed in evangelical churches over the past decade. I have seen the Bible given a less important place than it deserves in public worship. For example, my wife attended a service in the Midwest in which no Bible reading of any kind was a part of worship and the preacher himself made casual mention of Scripture only a couple of minutes before the end of his sermon. My wife wondered if anyone else had noticed this glaring omission.

An isolated case? A minister friend on vacation attended a church which advertised itself on the front lawn as a “Bible Church.” He was surprised that at no time was the Bible read except for a few verses before the pastor preached. Consider also, that this very week, while speaking to a denominationally diverse class at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, NY, I asked, “How many of you lead or attend a church where there is no separate Scripture reading as an act of worship?” Nine of the 19 raised their hands.

How radically different this is from the longstanding practice of having the Bible read, a portion from each Testament, as a separate act of worship. This custom traces back through the church historically even to the practice of the synagogue when our Lord was called upon to read.

The first time I heard this trend explained several years ago I was told that our worship services should be designed with seekers in mind. Unchurched people have neither the attention span nor the interest to give to the reading of Bible passages. The idea was that you had to give them a service that was contemporary and, above all, relevant!

The reason for deleting Scripture reading from worship, however, may be more serious than merely modern man’s short attention span. The omission may expose to the light a great reduction in the authority we grant the Bible, an authority such as the sexton enacted in the Presbyterian church.

No one can question that there is an authority crisis in homes and schools of this country. The daily news trumpets the results — battered parents battered children, battered teachers. But in damaging ways this crisis may be showing itself in the church as well.

Since the authority of the Scriptures has been passionately asserted by classical Protestantism, what but a reduction of that authority can be suspected when the word of God is both diminished and diluted in public worship in favor of a greater outpouring of the words of man?

This is no mere issue of taste in public worship. A Barna nationwide survey reports that 86% of teenagers in America claim that they are Christians. Three out of five teenagers say that they believe the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches. Yet, 2/3 stated that Satan is not a living being but merely a symbol of evil; six out of ten said that a good person can earn eternal salvation through good deeds; and a majority (53%) said that Jesus committed sins while he was on earth.

In all candor, this is serious error. Reading the Bible in church at least once a week may not by itself correct it. But the erosion of an emphasis on the authority of God’s word and the drift into obvious heresy on the part of young professed Christians should ring alarm bells and cause pastors and church boards together to look at whether or not the Bible has both professed and actual authority in their worship.

Churches may not want to copy the early Presbyterian way of symbolizing the authority of Scriptures in worship, but the evident slippage may prompt us to ask questions. For example, if the slippage can go so easily unnoticed in public worship, what place is Bible reading getting these days in the family life of Christians? Is Bible content really being addressed in Sunday Schools? Are children led to memorize Scripture? Do Pastors show evidence of wrestling with Scripture in preparation for preaching? The omission of the reading of the Bible as an act of worship may be symptomatic of a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

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