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What Do We Bring From the Table?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the Lord’s Supper. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Barb Hedges-Goettl

It’s commonplace to talk about what one person or another “brings to the table” as a reflection of the desire increase the available gifts and skills. However, since at the Lord’s Table, God does most of the bringing and we partake of and participate in what God gives, the question could be turned around to ask: what do we receive and take from the Table?

Historic practices of the Lord’s Supper have attended to the past actions of Christ Jesus in the crucifixion; to the spiritual more than to the physical; to fencing rather than opening. While they have not clearly signified bounty, the loaf is bigger, the cup deeper, and the Table wider than these practices would imply.

Our past, present, and future lie in God. We celebrate what — by the power of the Holy Spirit — God has done, is doing, and will do. The Supper signals not only Jesus’ crucifixion but his resurrected presence today. Christ Jesus is present, incarnate in and for the world, not imprisoned in the past or in the rite. Thus, from the Table we receive and take the present presence of Christ Jesus.

The Supper forecasts our eternal presence together with Christ Jesus in the joyful feast, the great banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb. It participates in the “Not Yet” as well as in the “Now.” From the Table, we receive and take part in God’s ongoing work in the world, proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love.

The meal is not ours. It doesn’t belong to this particular church, this particular community, or this denomination. Since it belongs to Christ Jesus, the lost, the suffering, the different, the “Other,” and sinners (even Judas!) are at the Table. Everyone brings who they are and what they have, and from this God makes a potluck dinner party. And so from the Table we receive and take being present with and for one another.

At this Table, we are offered what is central to life. In Jesus’ time, this was bread. As a Korean friend of mine has suggested, in Asian countries it could be rice. In the USA, it might be meat and potatoes. From the Table we receive and take the “meat” of life: God incarnate shared with all people as made in God’s image.

From the Table we receive and take the sanctification of the physical stuff of life. Going beyond even the best language for worship (as described by the Directory for Worship), what we receive and take is more expressive than rationalistic; a matter of affect rather than just thought; a building up and persuading as well as an informing and describing; ardor as well as order. It is an expressing of the whole community’s utterance, as well as the individual’s devotion. This eucharistic experience of faith is visceral as well as intellectual; active as well as contemplative; embodied as well as inspirited; enacted as well as verbalized. (Like Calvin, we experience it more than we understand it.) And so from the Table we receive and take an experience of faith that encompasses all that we are and have.

The Lord’s Supper is not to be scarfed up by those who get to the Table first so that others have nothing. That’s not how the body of Christ works. The koinonia, the body of Christ, is shared. It includes weak and strong, prominent and lowly, not just as distinct categories, but as the mixture found within each person. And so from this Table of koinonia, we receive and take the body of Christ for all of us.

Like at the meals Jesus shared with the thousands for whom he also “blessed, broke, and gave” bread, there is more than enough for all. All eat their fill with basketsful leftover. Maybe the Table should bear a cornucopia. Maybe the cup — whether little individual cups or the large communal cup — should sometimes overflow, brimming over in wild abandon, for from the Table we receive and take plentitude, wild provisioning, Abundanza, God’s uncontainable overflowingness.

[Receive.]
Take.
Eat.
This is Christ’s body, broken for you.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.


Barb Hedges-Goettl is a Presbyterian pastor and worship geek who loves delving into the Word to find words for work of liturgy. She live in the Philadelphia area and currently uses her writing and teaching (and pastoring) skills with inner-city middle school special ed students.

Youth and the Lord’s Table in the Real World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the invitation to the table. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cheryl Carson

How enthusiastic are you about coming to the Lord’s Table for communion? That was a question I posed to 16 high school students as part of my recent doctoral research. What emerged was an interesting tension between their passion for the sacrament and their boredom with the ritual.

The good news was that nearly two-thirds said they were very or extremely enthusiastic. John, an 18-year old high school senior, who was one of two who were extremely enthusiastic said, “It’s a way of connecting to God… I’m more of a hands-on person (rather) than just listening, so I think that’s part of what I enjoy.” Matt, a 15-year-old 10th grader said he was moderately to very enthusiastic “because I realize it’s important, and it’s necessary to take part in. But, I’ve done it a lot and it’s special but not very exciting.”

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a practice of corporate worship where we join with the risen Christ in a meal of remembrance and thanksgiving. But as the youth discovered during our focus group discussions, there are many additional meanings that are rarely lifted up.

In the book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, the authors proclaim that youth are trying to answer three questions: “Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?” Where can students better explore and discover their identity, belonging, and purpose as disciples of Christ than through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?

The youth shared stories of their most memorable experiences of communion. They also, in two focus group discussions, offered their suggestions for making the Lord’s Supper more meaningful. They watched a video available through the PC(USA) entitled, “Communion: A Feast of Grace.” As they watched, they wrote down meanings of communion they heard. The one meaning upon which both groups wanted to build their Lord’s Supper liturgy was the theme of all being welcome. It was important to them to convey that everyone has a place at the table.

The scripture passage both groups selected, unbeknownst to one another, was the feeding of the 5,000. It spoke powerfully to them of the welcome offered by all being fed. They chose to follow the basic liturgical ritual found in the Book of Common Worship. They did not want to dispose of tradition. They wanted to build on it by making communion a full-bodied, sensory experience within that liturgical structure. We need not simply stick to a rote recitation of the Invitation, Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Words of Institution. The youth want to engage all the senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And when we offer a multi-sensory experience, research tells us the memory of the experience is more lasting.

Here is a sampling of the students’ liturgical ideas:

Intinction was identified as a more intimate experience for a number of youth. They felt a greater sense of Christ’s presence by coming forward to be served. And they got a deeper feeling of Christ’s love when the server said, “The body of Christ given for you,” as they pulled a piece of bread from the loaf.

Adding visual elements was suggested by a student based on an experience at a youth conference. Everyone had placed their handprints on a cloth. The cloth was later used on the communion table to symbolize the community gathered at the Table.

One person recalled World Communion Sunday at their church when a variety of breads were served. The different breads provided a representational nod to people around the world who were also participating in communion that day.

It requires some creative thought and extra planning to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with more verve. But, it is effort well spent in order to engage our youth in communion and to potentially reveal Christ in new ways.

If you would like the article length summary of the research project which includes the Lord’s Supper liturgy developed by the youth, please email me at ccarson@cfpresbytery.org.


Cheryl Carson is the Associate Executive Presbyter for Central Florida Presbytery. She advises the Presbytery’s Youth Council, serves as staff liaison to the Leadership Development Committee, resources congregations and their members, and oversees the presbytery’s communications. Cheryl has a Doctor of Educational Ministries degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. She also has her Masters of Christian Education from Union-PSCE (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond and a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida. (Go Gators!) She is also a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA). Cheryl and her husband, Bill, live in Merritt Island, FL with their dog and four cats.

Death to Bring About Resurrection

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Michele Goff

I come to the NEXT Church National Gathering every year to be reminded that I am one of many church leaders striving to teach the radical healing love of Jesus’ Christ.

The ideas I bring back to my church from the National Gathering surprise me, often. This can be some creative element of worship, a particularly insightful phrase from communion liturgy, or the depth of meaning found in one particular scripture preached from insightful and varied perspectives.

During opening worship, when I dip my bread in the cup, I am blessed with the words: “the cup of liberation.” I am floored with humility. AMEN! The intellectual piece of my brain says, of course. But my soul is about to burst from this enlivening kiss from the Holy Spirit. Liberated from sin. Set free to participate in radical love. Loved and unfettered because God’s power is compassion, not coercion, as the preacher articulated moments before. I have just participated in a declaration of liberation. Yes, Alleluia!

I notice, more than once, that I am not the only one whose emotions stream down my face as we worship together. Whether we are washing one another’s hands or taping prayers to cardboard box “roadside memorials” scattered throughout the space, worship becomes a tactile experience. Worship is traditional and fresh: we break bread as one and in intimate circles around roadside-memorials-turned-communion-stations. And of course there is joyful singing – by those assembled, by the NEXT Church choir, led and shared by special guests, and even performed by the children of the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School Choir.

This year’s theme of “Desert in Bloom” was particularly fruitful. It unified the workshops and was easy to recognize in teaching, sharing, and art.

The message of finding love for the fool kept surfacing for me. “A highway shall be there … no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” (Isa. 35:8)

It is easy to witness many people pointing and calling one another fools lately. And I hear myself doing the same thing. As I experienced this text with fresh ears, I heard for the first time that even if I stumble and behave like a fool, God will guide me back to the highway that is the Holy Way. And the “others”, the ones I may think are blind or deaf or fearful of the truth – they too can be restored. When God restores them, and corrects my own foolishness, we will be on the Holy Way together.

In the preaching I heard: Billy Honor exhorting us to call upon the Holy Spirit to be the “super” to our “natural.” With thoughtful humor, Kathryn Johnston cautions us to be careful where we draw the line [between us and them] because Jesus is always on the OTHER side of it.

There is hope for the fool! This is a blossoming bedrock of hope – an answer to the many fears that threaten and infect the world.

The theme this year successfully zeroed in on the importance of death to bring about the transformative power of resurrection.

I return home refreshed, and open to the ways that divisive and harmful attitudes, traditions and fears may be allowed to die a normal and timely death so that the full glory of resurrection might be realized.


Michele Goff is the pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church in Northwestern New Mexico. After almost 12 years in television production, she graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2015 having finally found her true calling. She is an avid Sci Fi fan and a fledgling knitter whose “happy place” is on the sofa next to her husband with her two dogs at her feet.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Some New Code Words

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Stipp-Bethune

My 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering began while I was still “on the way,” when I met a turn in the road overshadowed by a billboard:

“DIVERSITY” is a code word for #whitegenocide

I hadn’t caught my breath when a couple of curves later revealed another, larger billboard, listing all the white supremacy TV channels.

I didn’t want any part of this! I pinched myself, attempting to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, because I instantly identified with the Magi for whom a “dream” invited them to return home “by another way,” and I had already begun re-plotting my post-conference route!

I simply don’t get this yearning some have for being so divided, so “anti-diversity,” claiming a Christ who causes division and suffering rather than leading the great, diverse, Kingdom of God in all its glory. This lust for white power and domination is wholly and entirely inconsistent with what I know of Jesus that I secretly pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” as my own code words for “my Jesus is coming to kick your Jesus’ a$$.”

I’ve always believed “America” (that presumptive code word for the United States) is at her best when we are an open, diverse, color-filled people who share equality and freedom. Much more so, the Church. Part of the language I’ve been taught was “a great melting pot,” but that’s just a code word for “white-washing” everyone so to see ourselves with no marks of difference or diversity—a way of hiding this ugly ingrained racism that robs us all of our identity. Especially the Church.

One of the images I encountered at the National Gathering was a promise born from an ancient people trying to live into “an incarnate Kingdom of God.” In a conversation about the transition from a first-century Hellenized meal called a symposium to the meal we claim as the Eucharist, my friend and colleague Jeff Bryan reiterated the view that the banquet of the Lord would never fail to bring everyone to the table—literally, the whole stinking community. You would find yourself, quite unwittingly, dipping your bread in the hummus with someone else, not just wholly unexpectedly, but with whom you could never allow yourself to be associated with. Yet you’re already guilty by association, because you’re at this dinner party together with Jesus.

I’ve always had this idea I really shouldn’t want to dip my bread with a bunch of white supremacists.

I live in Arkansas. And while I don’t want to disparage the whole state on account of those here who espouse the anathema of racial purity led by white people, it’s definitely true that enough people here are as prepared as ever to fight for a way of life that I want no part of—i.e. segregation, uniformity, monochrome, black and white, separate but equal. And when I say “fight” I don’t mean the way we fight about what scripture means or the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary.

And some of those people are in our churches regularly!

And I struggle to know exactly what I need to be doing about it.

Because “church” is one of the places where we have a history of being divided by issues of race.  Maybe that’s why in the new-to-me-congregation I’m serving, one of the “rules” has always been “check your politics at the door—we don’t talk about these things in church.” Code words for “we know we disagree and if we have to admit it, it leads to division.”

But it’s either the meal of the Kingdom’s freedom, joy, diversity, and love; or it’s not.  “Jesus, bread, and wine” are—or should be—code words for living together—not because we agree, but maybe because we don’t?

Because “church” is one of the places we think or believe we should be more “at one” with each other, “communion” is another code word we use to demonstrate oneness in Christ, downplaying difference and diversity because we must be “a part of the same.”

But maybe Jesus had another idea. That a part of loving one another is not based on agreement.  But that we are at table as the Psalmist says, “even in the presence of our enemies.”

The Lord’s Table: code word for Christ’s holding the different together.


David Stipp-Bethune has a passion for most things PCUSA, thinks General Assembly should still meet at least annually, and currently serves First Presbyterian Church El Dorado, Arkansas as pastor, having arrived in November 2016 and after pastorates in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arkansas, and Nebraska. 

Potluck Sacrament

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jeff Bryan

What we do is not what they did.
What they did could transform who we are.

For my D.Min. final project, I focused on the history and origins of the Lord’s Supper. When it comes to this sacrament, recent scholarship has the potential to upend our theology, our practice, our everything. Frankly, Jesus and his first followers were subversive. The way they worshipped was so normal, and so radical, it threatened the entire Greco-Roman way of life. They took a cultural given — the banquet — and made it a revolution.

I’ve had questions about the Lord’s Supper for a long time. As a pastor, I’ve also had plenty of frustration. This recent, historical scholarship has answered my questions, taken away my anxiety, and changed the way I read Scripture. It’s opened up possibilities for my own subversive future.

My first call was to a big-steeple church in a Midwestern college town. I was the lowest totem on the pole: campus minister. Each Sunday night, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper at a contemplative worship service; and each Sunday night, after worship, we held a free meal for college students. I began the communion liturgy with, “This is the table of our Lord Jesus Christ.” However, the “table” was a giant wooden box separated from the congregation, who sat in rows several feet away. When I reached down to break the bread, I said, “When our Lord was at table with his disciples.” But I was the only one at the table, with the bread, by myself. When it came time for us to actually be “at table” with one another — at the free meal — we had to walk down a hall and up two flights of stairs to get there.

I’ve served two churches since, and it’s always the same. The sacrament and the meal are divorced. It’s a familiar setup, because we’ve been doing it this way for a very long time. But is this really what Christ intended for the sacrament? Where are the drunkards and prostitutes?

Let’s keep asking questions. Who should receive the sacrament? The baptized only? Open table or fenced? Intinction, trays, or something really cool that I don’t know about? Who’s going to serve on Sunday? Where do they sit? Will the servers even show up? Who’s going to buy the bread? And what about the pervasive and insidious individualization of the sacrament? For something so central to the faith, it’s an administrative quagmire. It’s enough to make a pastor scream.

There is an answer.

Following new research, my workshop, “Potluck Sacrament: Renewing an Ancient, Underused Form of Worship,” will look at ancient practice, its implications for the first four centuries, and its possibilities now. We’ll explore the Bible with new insight, and we’ll look at our ministries in new ways. We’ll find relief, and we’ll find revolution.

Potluck Sacrament is being offered on Tuesday during workshop block 2 of the 2017 National Gathering. 


Jeff Bryan is pastor of Oakland Avenue Pres, Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and Philadelphia Lutheran. He has served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and the Philadelphia suburbs. His D.Min studies focused on worship and sacraments.