Holy Communion Amidst the Coronavirus Disruption

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation

The coronavirus has ushered us into a time of disruption. Our home lives are disrupted. Schools are disrupted. Business and the economy are disrupted. And most certainly, the medical community is disrupted.

The church, too, is disrupted. We’re scattered in our homes, unable to come together each Sunday “at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave.” We are missing out on greeting one another with God’s peace, singing and praying together, sharing our Lord’s supper of grace and mercy, studying Scripture together, and enjoying fellowship around coffee and conversation.

Ours is a Social and Physical Faith

It’s not just a human need for companionship that is met when we come together, but also a spiritual need. Christianity is inherently a social faith and a physical faith. We were made in God’s image for relationship, just as the Holy Trinity itself is a divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint Paul describes the Christian community as a body of believers of many interdependent spiritual gifts – we need each other to be the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). In Genesis 1 God declares that it is not good for us to be alone.

Ours is also a physical faith. Jesus didn’t come to this world as a disembodied spirit but as a man in flesh and blood. God made the world and saw that it was “good;” when God made humanity, he declared it “very good” (Genesis 1). The created world gives praise to God in the psalms (Psalm 148), Saint Paul writes of the resurrection of the body (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; etc), and Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth joined as a physical, tangible new creation (Revelation 21). Jesus calls us to care for the bodily needs of our neighbors (Matthew 25). And, on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and wine and bid us to receive it as his body and his blood. Our central rituals as Christians – baptism and holy communion – are inherently tactile, physical experiences through which our Lord promises to bless and hold us.

In Lutheran churches this tangible meal of God’s grace and mercy – Holy Communion – is administered within the body of believers by an ordained minister. In obedience to our Lord’s command the church gathers for the Eucharistic Meal, the pastor retells the story of our Lord’s Passion, the congregation lifts up its prayers, and God’s people share in the promised presence of our Lord in the bread and cup – the body and blood – of his holy meal. This has been the practice of the Lutheran church for 500 years, and for our Catholic predecessors for more than a millennium before that.

Worship Disrupted by COVID-19

Out of concern for the health of our neighbors, the public at large, and ourselves, and in observance of the Governor’s stay at home order, we cannot gather together to partake in the banquet feast of our Lord’s grace and mercy. Fundamental to the character of holy communion are the prayers and gestures we share, the proximity we keep while receiving the sacrament, the Word proclaimed and present, and the common bread and cup we share in this sacred meal. At the beginning of this crisis we extended the communion table from New Joy into our homes by delivering bread and wine from our altar to many of our New Joy households, striving to faithfully adapt the Christian church’s longstanding practice to these unique circumstances. Under the current public health protocols, we are unable to do so again.

Prevented from gathering as Christians normally do for communion, do we suspend partaking in the sacrament? During Lent do we now add Holy Communion to our list of Lenten fasts? This is the decision some of the historic Christian churches are making. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and many Episcopalians are refraining from communion during this crisis. Our church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is not of one mind on whether or how we should continue sharing Holy Communion as a church that gathers online rather than in person.

Keeping Communion While Keeping Distance

During these extraordinary days New Joy will continue to share in the communion feast together from our homes, joined together “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) as we worship together. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and receive the promise that Jesus Christ is given “for you.”

Over the coming weeks as we continue to gather together in our homes for worship I invite you to use bread and wine (or grape juice) from your pantry to celebrate holy communion in your homes in concert with your dispersed sisters and brothers at New Joy. This is certainly not the norm of Lutheran practice, nor of the Christian tradition. But these are not normal times. With reverence, grace, and promise, we will continue to share in our Lord’s Supper even as we keep our necessary social distance.

To maintain the unity of our Lord’s table and to nurture your own preparation for worship, I urge you to continue observing, as much as practicable, our shared worship time of 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Wake up, get dressed as you might for church, and prepare as if you were heading out to church. But rather than get into the car, I invite you to set up your computer or smart television or mobile device. Prepare bread and wine (or juice) for our communion meal. Print out the bulletin posted on the website, or view it on another screen in tandem with the livestream. If you can’t join in the livestream, use the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing in your household.

Setting up Holy Communion at Home

It might feel odd to celebrate communion at home, but don’t let that get in your way. Your home is a sacred space where God is pleased to dwell! Set aside a special place as your home altar. Place a linen cloth on a coffee table or your kitchen table as a corporal, the cloth on the altar on which we set the bread and cup for communion. Spread another cloth overtop the bread and cup as a veil. Paper napkins can work just as well if linens are not available. Mark this space as sacred by setting up a small cross, lighting a candle, or placing a bowl of water to recall your baptism. Purple fabric is appropriate for our current season of Lent. When it’s time for Easter, bring out some white or gold fabric to make it festive with a celebration of resurrection life.

Any plain bread will do for Holy Communion. There’s no need to keep it small, however. The small portions we share at church are largely a practical concern of how to serve so many people at once in our ritual meal. In the intimate gathering at home let the communion meal more resemble the extraordinary heavenly banquet feast that is to come! On a grocery run before Sunday purchase a French or Italian loaf from the bakery section at the grocery store, or share home-baked bread still warm from the oven. Break off a piece, share it as the body of Christ, and allow the sensory experience to complement the spiritual promise of this meal. Familiar sandwich bread or crackers can be used, too.

Open a bottle of red wine and pour into glasses for those sharing. Grape juice may be used as well. You may share the cup by intinction – dipping the bread in the cup – or by drinking. Again, enjoy a robust glass of this drink of promise. No need to keep the amounts small.

The communion we share together while dispersed in our homes is the same promised presence of our Lord Jesus that we receive at church. Jesus promised that the bread and cup of this holy meal were his body and blood. Martin Luther wrote that the most important words of holy communion are, “for you” (Small Catechism, Explanation of Holy Communion). The body and blood of Jesus is given for you, especially in these times of social distancing and public concern.

The bread and cup of communion bring God’s promised presence to us. Handle these elements not superstitiously but reverently and with thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the service eat and drink any remaining bread and wine. You may also return the bread and wine to the earth, preferably not down the drain or in the trash can but outside to be received by God’s good creation.

Avoid sharing holy communion apart from participating in the livestream (live on Sunday mornings, or replayed later), or apart from using the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing. Communion is the highpoint of a worship that includes confession and absolution, hearing God’s Word, singing God’s praise, offering our prayers, and sharing and receiving Christ’s peace.

God’s richest blessings to you as we continue to be God’s people gathered not together in person but together in spirit and truth. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the church office via email, social media, Zoom, or phone. Let me know how I can support you during these challenging days.

Blessings,

Pastor Chris

What a Week

(My weekly church blogpost shared here, as our church website is in transition)

Remind me not to take vacation during the last week in June ever again.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue Show one summer in late June as a kid, shortly after school let out (I was a really fun kid. Really.). They were talking about the constitutionality of burning the American flag in the wake of United States v. Eichman, a case that ruled as unconstitutional laws that banned the desecration of the American flag on free speech grounds.

The guests were passionate. The audience members were opinionated. There was lots of energy around this issue.

From that moment I got more and more interested in both politics and in the flag, and I learned quite a bit about both. I read the Constitution and the Flag Code, and various opinions about both. One of the lessons I learned is this: even though school is out and summer has started, late June – when the Supreme Court releases its most anticipated rulings – is one of the most consequential times of the year for our country.

In the past week, the Supreme Court has ruled on marriage, healthcare, environmental protections, fair housing, and congressional redistricting, among other issues. Together with the outrage following the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the heated – yet very important – discussion surrounding the Confederate Flag, it was a significant week for our nation.

Now, in the midst of all this news and critical issues before our country, the church cannot be silent. At the least, the church and its leaders should seek to make sense – in terms of faith – of what our society is experiencing in this moment. Even more, the church and its leaders should be public voices for justice. After all, a lamp isn’t lit to be set underneath a bushel (Matthew 5:15), the call of a prophet is to cry out loudly against injustice (Isaiah 1:23, for example), and the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Cries for the church to stay out of politics, and for preachers to speak on matters of faith not politics, miss the point. Jesus engaged in ministry publicly. Jesus spoke about how people treat one another. Jesus died at the hands of government – publicly. The prophets of old decried how society neglected the widow and the poor. Faith without works is dead, and one work of faith is to seek a more just society that improves the health and welfare of any who suffer injustice, indignity, poverty, hunger, and oppression of any kind. Faith is inherently public, and is inherently concerned with public things.

After all, Jesus’ main way of speaking about God’s intent for humanity was to speak of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like ….” Kingdoms are societies. They are inherently social, public, corporate. The life of faith is not just something we keep to ourselves, individually.

Even more. Faith is not just one part of our lives, but informs the whole of our lives. We do not put faith on and take faith off. Faith is not just found in one box in our closet, to be taken out on Sundays and holidays. Faith is part of all that we do. Faith informs all of our actions. Faith – and the God in whom we have faith – is concerned with all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thus faith led me to weep when nine African Americans were murdered while at prayer. When one member of the body of Christ suffers, I suffer. Faith led me to ask tough questions about the legacy of racism, the power of symbols, and the unfulfilled promise of “we the people” seeking to form “a more perfect union.” In faith I read where Scripture tells me that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and that we are called to “bear another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Looking at the burden of racism and the legacy of oppression that my sisters and brothers bear, I grieve and ask, “How can I bear this burden with them?” I don’t have a very good answer. The question gnaws at me. The status quo is not working. Racism persists. This sin, and the structures that were shaped by it, need to be dismantled.

Faith led me to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, extending marriage rights to same-gender couples in all fifty states. For years couples and families have lived without the dignity and legal protections of marriage. Medical decisions, estates, health insurance, shared property ownership, and so many other protections and opportunities were denied to same-gender couples and their families, to our neighbors and friends, to Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, to our fellow human beings and sisters and brothers in Christ. Legal prohibitions created a hardship for millions of people. Faith celebrates when hardships are alleviated, when “the lowly are lifted up” (Luke 1:52). Faith rejoices at wholeness and healing and justice.

In neither of these issues am I directly implicated. I am not black. I am not gay. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith is not primarily concerned with the self. Our faith is primarily concerned with the whole of society and the care of the other. “Love does not insist on its own way,” writes Paul, speaking to the faith community in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:5). Faith is oriented toward the justice and renewal of the Kingdom of God and those who live within it. Justice is experienced – and enacted – in community. Faith is inherently interested in the community and the world.

So too, I believe, is the American Experiment. The United States was established by “we the people” to establish “a more perfect union.” The Bill of Rights was written to restrain society, its government, and its majorities from trampling on the rights of individuals. But more than a mere restraint function or a statement of the rights of individuals, the Bill of Rights and the eloquent call to create “a more perfect union” speak to a positive view of a society in which “liberty and justice for all” is the goal.

In the critical conversations about race that our nation has begun since the Charleston shooting, and in the celebrations and hand-wringings and questions of “what’s next?” following the Supreme Court’s ruling, our nation is one step closer to realizing its calling to form a more perfect union. Such steps are difficult, and ours will never be a perfect union – sin will make sure of that.

Yet we strive ever forward, as Christians and as Americans, to make ours a more perfect union. Such a more perfect union begins to take shape when our focus turns from self to other, and we recommit ourselves not to insisting on our own ways but instead to bearing others’ burdens … to seeking liberty and justice for all.

Talking about Politics and Sexuality at Church

This November, Minnesota voters will have the chance to accept or reject a proposed state constitutional amendment that would write a definition of marriage into the state constitution. Understanding the sensitivities that arise when talking in the church about either politics or sexuality – let alone both! – I shared the following letter in my congregation’s August newsletter as a first step to kicking off a formal conversation about these matters.

Dear members of Grace,

We’re about to ramp up to a busy fall election season – every member of the state legislature is up for election; there’s an election for President of the United States, and an election for one of our US Senators; and, there are two state constitutional amendments up for approval in November. It will be busy. The airwaves will be crowded. You’ll hear and read lots of conflicting and diverse messages. As bothersome as all the advertising might be – and yes, it will be – there are important matters before us, and we should take care in preparing to cast our votes.

One of the topics before voters this November will be the issue of same-gender marriage. Same-gender marriage is illegal in Minnesota, and the proposed state constitutional amendment would write a prohibition of such marriages into our state constitution.

If you open your worship book to page 286, you’ll find the Marriage liturgy. Marriage has been part of human society for eons, and has been part of the life of the church for over 1500 years. Marriage is among those rites of the church that are sometimes referred to as “pastoral services,” that is, as non-sacramental services that accompany significant moments in one’s life. The church has been interested in marriage for a long, long time.

Yet the church’s role in weddings is not an uncomplicated matter. Marriage is a legal union of two people that is regulated by the state. The government determines who can marry whom. When pastors preside at weddings they are officiating over a ceremony that is simultaneously civil and religious – enacting the civil marriage in the eyes of the state, while also proclaiming God’s blessings upon the couple. The church’s ministry with marrying couples is indeed intertwined with the government’s policy on marriage.

Rarely do Christians have the opportunity to cast a vote in the public sphere on a matter of such historic significance in the life of the church. Few times, if ever, have ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments been so clearly connected to the life of the church as is this upcoming vote on a state constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to opposite gender couples. This is a unique time for our church and for our state.

Marriage is in our worship books and is among our church’s most cherished traditions. And this November, marriage will also be on the ballot. Clearly, we in the church should be talking about this. We’re not all going to agree, of course, and some of us might be weary of such conversations. But I invite all interested members to share conversation, prayer, deliberation, and study around these matters, in informal conversation and in structured settings. At dates and times to be announced next month, I will convene a series of gatherings for any who wish to explore these matters here at Grace.

In this election season, we pray that God blesses us – and the people of this state – with a spirit of understanding and a desire to seek the greater good.

Peace to you,

Pastor Chris Duckworth

Pastor’s Approach: Weddings

I’ve been writing monthly articles in my church newsletter about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about weddings, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category link.

Marriage is Both Legal and Religious
Marriage is a legal union regulated by the government upon which people of faith have historically asked God’s blessings. The United States is somewhat unique in its practice of allowing clergy to preside at legal wedding ceremonies. In much of the world, including the historically Christian nations of Europe and Latin America, couples first go to a judge to be legally married. Then, if the couple desires the church’s blessing on their marriage, they come to the church at a later date for their church wedding. In fact, in his writings on the wedding service, Martin Luther describes a couple getting married on the step to the church’s front door. Only after making their legal vows to one another does the couple step into the church to seek the blessings of God and the Christian community on their marriage.

Couples are welcome to have the entire wedding ceremony – which includes both the legal marriage and the declaration of God’s blessings – performed at the church. Alternatively, couples are welcome to be married by a judge and then come to the church to ask God’s blessings upon their marriage. I’ve presided at both kinds of weddings, and each are perfectly legitimate.

The Church Wedding Service
The church wedding service is a Christian worship service celebrating God’s love for and commitment to the couple and the world, and the love and commitment God has given them for each other. While many options are available to the couple to make the service rich with meaningful symbols and experiences, a few essentials mark a wedding as a Christian wedding:

  • Gathering in the name of God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit;
  • One or more readings from the Bible;
  • A sermon proclaiming God’s love and grace;
  • Vows the couple makes to each other;
  • Blessing of the couple;
  • Benediction (ie, words of blessing at the end of the service).

The wedding service can be a full, robust church service, too – complete with liturgical music, hymns, prayers of intercession, holy communion, and so forth. This is what Jessicah and I did at our wedding … which lasted about 90 minutes and was a festive time of prayer and worship.

Many other elements may be part of the wedding service in a variety of ways – how the couple enters and leaves the church (Jessicah and I walked in together); the use of other symbols or rituals of marriage (such as the giving of rings; the lighting of a unity candle); the selection and use of music; the reading of non-Biblical texts (such as poetry); the type of clothing or flowers that are used; the role of parents, children, and other family member; the “first kiss,” and so forth. I work with couples to develop a meaningful service that gives praise to God and gives expression to the couple’s love for and commitment to one another.

Wedding Policy
I am currently working with the Worship & Music Committee to revise our congregation’s wedding policy. Please contact the church office if you would like to learn more about weddings at Grace. As with all special church occasions, dates for weddings need to be coordinated with the church to assure the availability of the church space, and of the pastor.

Pastor’s Approach: Funerals

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about funerals, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category tab.

When someone dies, loved ones – family and friends, neighbors and church members – need space to grieve, to remember the deceased, and to give thanks to God for their loved one’s life. A church funeral service is an important part of the grieving process that may also include a visitation at a funeral home, family’s home, or at church; a reception where friends and family gather to tell stories through laughter and tears; a public act of memorial, such as planting a tree or donating a park bench in memory of the deceased; and any one of many other possible acts of grieving and remembering the deceased.

The Funeral Service
The Christian funeral service is a chance to come together to hear God’s promises for the deceased and to take comfort that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). In the Christian funeral service we remember the baptism of the deceased by draping the remains of the deceased in white, the color of baptism and resurrection, and splashing the casket or urn with baptismal water. We hear from Holy Scripture words of God’s comfort and promise – comfort for those who grieve, and promise that the deceased is in God’s everlasting care. We sing such promises in hymns and/or hear them sung in a solo music.

Holy Communion is celebrated, as we believe this sacred meal to be a mystical gathering of God’s people – from the past, present, and future – around our Lord’s table of grace, mercy, and life. The deceased, and all those who have gone before us in faith, are truly in communion with us as we share in this sacred meal. Only in cases where significant portions of the funeral gathering would not receive – ie, if a large portion of the family is not Christian or cannot receive Holy Communion in a Lutheran Church because of the teachings of their faith – would we consider not celebrating the sacrament.

At funeral services we give thanks to God for the deceased and commend the deceased’s remains to God’s care. One or two remembrances (eulogies) are shared in the service, about 3-5 minutes each. If additional people would like to speak about the deceased, the reception is a very appropriate time to do this. In the sermon I strive to weave stories of the deceased into the story of God’s saving and gracious work in the world, and so in this way to tell the story of God by, with, and through the story of the deceased. A prayer near the end of the service, said with a gesture blessing the deceased’s remains, asks God to gracious receive the deceased into everlasting care.

Funeral Service, or Memorial Service?
A funeral service is one at which the remains of the deceased are present, and is often held within four to eight days of death. A memorial service is very similar to a funeral service, though the remains of the deceased are not present. Though there is no religious teaching in our faith that requires funerals to be held within a certain timeframe (as our Jewish sisters and brothers traditionally have the funeral within a day or two of death), funerals taking place within a week of death give family and friends a meaningful and timely opportunity for grief, prayer, and mutual comfort. Memorial services are held at a later date, when funeral services are not being held closer to the date of death, or when the funeral is held in one location and a memorial service is desired in a different location.

Services need to be scheduled with the church. Though the church and the pastors have schedules that are generally flexible, there will be times when other church events, pastors’ vacation time, or other extraordinary circumstances would prevent the church or pastors from being available at particular dates and times. In these rare circumstances, we should work to find another date for the service, or seek out another location and/or another clergyperson for the service.

Full Body Burial, or Cremation?
The Lutheran church teaches that cremation is a perfectly appropriate way to care for the deceased’s remains. Remains are appropriately buried at sea or in the earth, giving a dignified final resting spot to the deceased. Burial of remains – cremated or not – often takes place immediately following the funeral service, but may also take place at a later date.

Make Some Plans
I encourage everyone to consider making preparations for their death – medical plans, financial plans, legal plans, and yes, funeral plans. If there are hymns or readings that are your favorite, or that you believe would give comfort to your family members upon your death, write those ideas down. Come and meet with me to talk about your funeral, or that of a loved one. I work with surviving family members to make appropriate selections of Scripture and hymns for a funeral, whether or not the deceased has given us any indication of their preferences for a service. Nonetheless, your notes – given to the church office, or left at home in an accessible place – will bring comfort to your family and help us honor you in an appropriate way upon your death.

Looking ahead: At some time in the fall, I will offer a workshop on funeral planning.

Pastor’s Approach: Praising God, Honoring Country

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. This month, I wrote about the intersection of patriotism and Christian worship. It is a variant on pieces I’ve written on this blog in the past. Below is what appeared in my congregation’s July newsletter.

The 4th of July is a wonderful holiday, celebrating our nation’s independence and calling all who live in this land to reflect on the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy in this land. There will be flags waving outside of houses – including my house – and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products. Yet at church we don’t make patriotic celebrations a centerpiece of our worship or fellowship. This is intentional.

When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God. Worship is a time to give praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God. Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music. Yet if a hymn’s theme is secular, and cannot be reasonably understood as giving praise to God, it is not appropriate for Christian Worship.

Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership. This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully crafted.

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance. But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers, but such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God’s Word.

Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community. Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies. Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the local parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism. As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples. We don’t cease being Americans when we come to worship, but neither do we come to worship to celebrate our American heritage. We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from God.

May you have a safe and wonderful Independence Day holiday.

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Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.

Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.

Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastor’s Approach: Holy Communion

This is the second in a new series of articles that I'm writing for my church newsletter.

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Several members of Grace have asked me how I go about doing baptisms, funerals, communion, and other areas of ministry. These are important questions, and different pastors go about their ministry in different ways. In this new Pastor’s Approach column, I will explore a different issue each month, sharing how I go about different aspects of the ministry. What I write here is not absolute, fixed, or non-negotiable, but simply an outline of how I approach my ministry. I hope this column is a conversation-starter on important topics in our shared life of faith here at Grace.

WHAT IS HOLY COMMUNION? Holy Communion is a sacred meal in which Christ comes to us in bread and wine. “This is my body given for you … This is my blood shed for you.” We believe those words to be true. Christ is truly present in Holy Communion. When we receive the bread and wine of this meal, we receive his body and blood.

WHAT HAPPENS IN HOLY COMMUNION? Christ comes to us in, with, and under the bread and wine to nourish the faith of Christians and the church. We share in a sacred meal that spans all time and space. We commune with the saints who have gone before us and with other Christians around the globe who gather at our Lord’s Table. The uncontainable presence, grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy of Christ comes to us in simple bread and wine.

WHO RECEIVES HOLY COMMUNION? All of God’s people are welcome to our Lord’s table – it’s our Lord’s table, after all, and all are invited. Let’s be clear – it is not “my” table, or “our” table, or a “Lutheran” table … it is our Lord’s table, and He sends out the invitations … to everyone under the sun.

The norm is for baptized Christians to receive the sacrament, as this is a Christian sacrament that nourishes and strengthens faith in Christ. And, it is the norm for Christians to receive instruction prior to first receiving the sacrament … and to continue to reflect on and learn about the sacrament throughout their Christian life. (Surely a few classes during childhood isn’t enough to comprehend the mystery and blessings of Holy Communion, is it?) These norms are not iron-clad laws, but they are norms … patterns for how this sacred meal is generally practiced.

There is no minimum age for receiving this sacrament. In years past an age-requirement reflected a desire by the church that those receiving the sacrament examine themselves and understand what it is they were receiving. Now such examination and understanding takes place at a variety of ages, and is a part of on-going, life-long education and faith formation. I generally ask that children express an interest in receiving the sacrament, and that they are able to sit through and participate in the worship service, prior to receiving communion for the first time. First communion classes will be held twice annually, during Lent and in the fall.

HOW SHOULD WE RECEIVE COMMUNION? We are to receive these gifts of bread and wine, of Christ’s body and blood, in faith, trusting that in this meal our Lord comes to us, forgives us our sins, renews us in faith, and leads us into new life. 

The manner of receiving varies in different churches and even within churches, and there is no “right” way to receive. I suggest that people approach reverently – not somberly, but reverently and expectantly – holding out their hand to receive the body of Christ from the ministers. Then, they may take that bread between two fingers and dip it into the cup, dabbing the bread so as to avoid dripping wine on oneself or on the floor, before consuming the bread and wine together. 

Upon hearing the words, “Body of Christ, given for you,” and “Blood of Christ, shed for you,” it is appropriate to respond, “Amen,” or “Thanks be to God.” It is also perfectly appropriate to smile a joyful smile, as this bread and wine are amazing gifts. Some Christians make the sign of the cross before and/or after receiving the bread and wine, as a sign of blessing and remembrance of their baptism. Others may also genuflect or bow before the bread and wine, a gesture that honors the body and blood of Christ … and which also humbles the one about to receive this great gift of Christ’s holy presence.

WHAT ABOUT ALLERGIES OR OTHER SENSITIVITIES TO BREAD AND WINE? The church has long taught that communion with just one element – receiving only bread or only wine – is a perfectly valid form of communion. Yet, other forms of food and drink – including gluten free bread, non-alcoholic drink – are available to churches, and have been the topic of conversation at a recent worship committee meeting and in personal conversations in my office. We will continue to discuss these issues and review our communion practices.

MORE TO SAY …  There is much more to say about Holy Communion. We can say more about all the prayers and words we traditionally say at the table. We can say more about how Lutheran practices of Holy Communion relate to those of other Christians. We can say more about the “how” of Holy Communion … from large chalices to little cups, wafers to pita, altar railings to standing to receive. We can look at what the Bible says about this meal. Clearly, there’s more to say …

Pastor’s Approach: Baptism

This is the first in a new series of articles that I’m writing for my church newsletter.

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Several members of Grace have asked me how I go about doing baptisms, funerals, communion, and other areas of ministry. These are important questions, and different pastors go about their ministry in different ways. In this new Pastor’s Approach column, I will explore a different issue each month, sharing how I go about different aspects of the ministry. What I write here is not absolute, fixed, or non-negotiable, but simply an outline of how I approach my ministry. I hope this column is a conversation-starter on important topics in our shared life of faith here at Grace.

Before we get to baptism, the topic of this month’s column, let me write this: I understand church rites and blessings to be acts of faith for people of faith. What we do in the church is intended to nurture the believer in faith, shape our life as a congregation according to the way of the cross, and lead us to act faithfully as bearers of Good News for all people. Our church rites and blessings are deeply personal and rooted in our shared faith, yet they have an impact on our wholes lives and on the life of the whole world, too.

WHAT HAPPENS IN BAPTISM? In baptism God joins us to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). Baptism is a promise of resurrection and eternal life, an assurance that sin, death, and the Devil will not have ultimate power over us. Joined in baptism to Christ, we are made members of the Christian Church (the newly baptized are also made members of Grace Lutheran Church and added in our parish record).

IS BAPTISM HOCUS POCUS? Baptism is not magic. It is not a spell to keep children from eternal damnation. Rather, baptism is a unique proclamation and bestowal of God’s promises, promises that stay with the baptized and from which the baptized can take comfort throughout their entire life. Yet, we do not understand the absence of baptism to be the absence of God’s promises in one’s life. Scripture testifies that God works in and through all kinds of people. Through baptism the church does not presume to control or limit God’s activity. Baptism is a special and unique way through which God works, one which we Christians should take seriously. Yet, we know that God is at work in ways we do not understand, and we are confident of God’s love for all people, baptized or not.

GRANDPARENTS: I often get questions from grandparents asking about baptism for their grandchild, especially when the child’s parents are not church goers. This can create sorrow for Christian grandparents. Please talk with me if you have this concern. I want all such grandparents to be assured that their grandchild is loved by God, who knew them in the womb before they were even born (Jeremiah 1:5), and in whose image they were made (Genesis 1:27).

WHERE DO WE BAPTIZE? Because in baptism we are joined to the body of Christ, baptisms generally take place during worship. In emergency medical situations, or other situations where attending a service is impossible, baptisms can take place apart from worship. Such baptisms are generally later announced and affirmed in the congregation at a later date.

PREPARATION: Baptism involves death and resurrection, sin and forgiveness, and incorporation into the body of Christ. Baptism is not to be taken lightly. In the early church preparation for baptism was a several year process. While we no longer do such an elaborate process, preparation for baptism is important. I generally meet with families for two to three sessions prior to baptism to review what the church teaches about baptism, to inquire as to whether the individual (or their parents) are able to make certain promises about the Christian life (promises that are in the baptismal rite), and to encourage the candidate (or their parents) in faith filled practices for Christian living.

SCHEDULING: Baptisms need to be scheduled in conversation with the church. Not every church service is appropriate for a baptism, either from a church-season perspective or from a logistical perspective. And given the need for baptismal preparation sessions, baptisms generally need at least 6-8 weeks to schedule.

 

I understand that my approach to ministry might be slightly different than that of other pastors who have served here. Please come speak with me if you have any questions about baptism or any other aspect of our ministry together. For we have been called by God to be the Body of Christ in this world, working in faith, hope, and love to proclaim God’s Word and share God’s love with all the world.

 

Advent: Blue or Purple?

Reposted from my congregation's December newsletter, The Steeple Light

What is the “proper” color of Advent – blue or purple?  Purple was the long-standing color used by Lutheran congregations, as well as other liturgical churches, through most of the 20th century.  The purple of Advent and of Lent served two purposes – emphasizing the royalty of Christ, as kings in western culture over the centuries were often adorned with purple garments.  Furthermore, purple has a penitential nature to it, inviting introspection and repentance on behalf of the believer.

Indeed, the connection of Lent – with its pilgrimage to the suffering of the cross – with penitential acts is pretty easy to make.  As we reflect on the sin of the world that nailed our Lord to the cross, we also confess our own sin and seek to live more faithful lives. 

But penitence in Advent, in preparation for Christ’s birth?  Absolutely.  For as we prepare to see Christ face to face, in the Christmas incarnation and in his promised return to earth, we anticipate both joy and judgment.  Joy, for in coming to us God is bridging the gap that separates humanity from its Creator.  But judgment, too, for in coming to us God will confront our sin and brokenness, and pass judgment on the degree to which humanity has been unfaithful to God’s commands and vision for human community.

That’s a pretty good case for a purple Advent, don’t you think?

Well, blue has a pretty good case to make, too.  In the late 20th century, some churches began to use blue for Advent, while retaining purple for Lent.  Why?

I can’t give you the historical details – what great church councils or scholars or congregations first began the shift.  But I can tell you that blue offers us a different shade, so to speak, of Advent.  If the purple of earlier years resonates with the penitential nature of the season and draws certain parallels to Lent, the deep blue of Advent highlights the expectant nature of the season, and of our faith.

Deep blue is the color of the clear, predawn sky, the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east.  Most of us are not looking at the sky at that hour – perhaps we’re still asleep, or too weary to notice it as we get onto the Metro or hop into our car for a long commute.  Nonetheless, a deep, dark blue is the color that covers us in the dark, cold hours before the sun dawns.

Thus we use deep blue for Advent to shade the season with a hint of expectation and anticipation of the dawn of Christ.  Surely penitence and spiritual discipline is part of the traditional Advent observance, and this is why so many of you are using Advent wreaths and our congregation’s Advent devotional to mark the days of Advent.  Advent is a time to recommit to our faith and to our God – no matter the color!  But Advent involves more than penitence, and by using deep blue we err on the side of emphasizing the church’s hope-filled and faithful watch for Christ.  The deep blue of Advent is meant to inspire in us the hope of faith, and to encourage us to keep watch for the promised light of Christ to break over the horizon, changing night into day, darkness into light, and filling our lives and our world with a holy and righteous splendor.

No matter your color preference, I hope and pray that you will find this season to be shaded by both the purple and the blue, by the reflective self-examination suggested by the penitential purple, and by the hopeful anticipation suggested by the predawn blue … for both colors call us to lives of faithfulness in this time before the coming of our Lord.