“Daddy, Is it our Turn to do the Bread?”

“Daddy, is it our turn to do the bread yet?” my little girls asks, her big brown eyes gazing up at mine awaiting the point in the church service when she gets to “do the bread.”

I am often beside myself at how much truth comes from the mouths of babes, especially my own.

This past Sunday we were running slightly behind on our way to church. As we entered the church, we took our seats in the back to not disturb the service that had just begun. And it’s a good thing to because my little girl was super ready to do the bread that day, so much so that I felt like we were on a long car ride and I kept being repetitively asked, “are we there yet?”

After the opening hymn, “is it our turn yet?”

During the lessons, “is it our turn yet?”

During the passing of the peace, “is it our turn yet?”

Even during the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, “is it our turn yet?” To which I could finally say, “almost, it is almost our turn.”

The most striking part about this engagement is that my little girl knew what was important. Not that the entire service wasn’t important, but she knew there was something special coming to her, her coming to it, and she almost couldn’t wait for her turn. The part with the bread is unique, totally unlike the rest of the service. She knew that at the end of all the details there is a meeting that happens, at this time, in this way, and she was ready for that event.

Lord, grant that we all would be so excited to meet you.

I will resist the urge to discuss liturgy as pedagogy, but I can think of fewer things that teach children more than the rituals of the faith.

She has not been in the Episcopal Church long, but she has learned there is a special time when we get to eat in church, and for her, it’s the most exciting part of the morning.

My little girl is only four years old. Her and I have not had deep conversations about eucharistic theology or the finer nuances of real presence, grace, and holiness that is extended to us in this holy meal. We have not discussed the history of its institution or the drama that it portends each time bread is broken over the altar.  She has not fathomed to the consider the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.

She does not understand as we adults consider understanding, but she understands in the doing. In the doing grace comes to her beyond her understanding. She doesn’t know what she is receiving, but she knows she is receiving something. And this something is all that matters.

It is a pleasant surprise to be reminded by one’s daughter of the Anselmian dictum, “Fides quaerens intellectum.

We had come to the “Prayers of the People” in the service and she incessantly kept asking if it were her turn. As I knelt, my arm around her and whispering for her to be a little quieter, her petitions reminded me of the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5.17-26.

The narrative of Luke 5 is fascinating, it being one of my favorite biblical images of a persistent faith.

The story places Jesus inside a building of some kind and the entrance to the house, presumably, is blocked by crowds. A paralytic, lying on a bed, was being carried to the place to meet Jesus.

As the men carrying the bed surveyed the situation, the crowds, the impossibility of getting through the door, they decide to improvise and lower the man, on his bed, into the house and place him directly in front of Jesus. This story has been creatively imagined by many artists and the text is silent on exactly how this worked, looked, or transpired, but it is the only account in scripture of a men being so persistent that they lower their friend through a roof to see Jesus.

I can see the face of Jesus. If his clairvoyance had kicked in, perhaps a grin comes over his face, knowing what is about to happen. Maybe he is praying over a child, teaching a lesson on scripture, writing on the floor to make his point when suddenly, into the top of his sight, he sees a shadow slowly interrupting the light in the room and a bed making its way into the noise and crowded space of the home. The crowd probably began to murmur louder as they stood astonished that someone would be so rude as to drop a bed in front of Jesus.

Afterall, these folks had skipped the line.

Jesus, one who often embraces such radical expressions of faith, gives the man on the bed his full and undivided attention. Jesus was there. Jesus was event. To have an event happen to the man on the bed the men knew they needed to get to where events take place: the presence of Jesus.

This is a faithful picture of what we often see in the Gospels: Jesus’ presence attracted crowds, large unmanageable crowds, and sometimes these gatherings occurred in the small spaces of ancient society. The presence of Jesus drew people to him. Many who would come to him probably couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup prior to their meeting him. There were no pictures, newspapers, or internet mediums to communicate who he was. They didn’t know what would happen or what he would do. They just knew they needed to get there because of what they had heard. They didn’t understand everything that was going to happen, but they knew they needed a turn.

A turn to “do the bread.” A turn at life.

They didn’t need to know the answers.  They didn’t need to have a full-scale theology of miracles or understand how Jesus would do anything. They just knew they needed to get there.

So, they acted. They went where Jesus was. They experienced what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.

While our situation on Sunday was vastly different, the persistence of these friends to bring someone that needed Jesus into his presence was also embodied in the persistence of my little girl to get to the place she didn’t understand but knew was special.

She was ready to go, to move, to see Jesus, even though she might not be able to talk about it in that way. Her spirit and childlike intuitions were drawing her to this special place, the same place everyone else would be going as well. There are times on Sunday when the entrance seems obstructed, plenty of people going to meet Jesus, but if we wait, we know that our time will come. We will get through the roofs of life, and the busyness of the rail on Sunday, and Jesus will be there with us.

Our turn finally came. We stepped out of the aisle, her hand in mine, and I have the holy honor of walking my daughter to the place where Jesus is present. She is shy, so she bows her head as she makes her way to the altar, to not see anyone looking at her. We arrive at the stairs, slowly step up into the chancel, and are now closer. It’s our turn. I bow, take her to the left, and she kneels with me at the rail. She extends her tiny, wonder filled hands to the priest, and she receives the bread. She holds the hands of Jesus and Jesus holds hers.

The cup makes its way to us, she looks at me as if to get approval, I nod and tell her it is ok to dip her bread, she dips it. For a moment she stares at it, this odd thing we are doing, this bread now wet with a red tint, and she puts it near her mouth. Again, she looks at me and I tell her its ok to eat. She takes a bite, as if to try it first, just to make sure this is good. She looks at me with a piece of the wafer missing, reminiscent of the Psalmist suggestion that we should “taste and see that God is good.” Then, without hesitation, she puts the whole thing in her mouth, chews quickly, and then looks at me with a smile you could stretch across the heavens.

Her turn came. She was finally able to “do the bread.” We walked back to our seats and I couldn’t help but think if this is what it might have been like for all those that came to Jesus in the pages of scripture, coming to an event they didn’t quite understand but smiling after they met him because they knew that something had happened, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19.13-15

Lord, that we would be as fervent and undeterred in our desire to meet you where you are and may we persist into the mystery of your presence, believing that in the end the holy smiles upon our faces are reflections of your good work in us. Amen.

Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

St Lukes Altar

The Altar at St. Luke’s

*This is the final essay of my 3 part reflection series “Becoming an Episcopalian,” reflecting on my transition into the Episcopal Church. Please scroll down to see parts 1 & 2 as your leisure or desire so determines*

6. Sermon in Support Role, Eucharist Central

One of the striking dissimilarities between a formal and “informal” liturgical order is the presence of the sermon. In the Nazarene Church, as for many low church or free church traditions, the sermon is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Everything in the service revolves around, and moves toward, the proclamation of the Word. This is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the elevation of the proclaimed Word/word above all else. As a corrective to abusive Catholic Church power, many Protestant Reformers gave the reading and explication of Scripture primacy in worship. A Renewed emphasis on Scripture, as seen in Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, was a welcome but unexpected historical development. Even though Anglican tradition emerges simultaneously as the Reformation in Europe, it, however, remained in harmony with broader Catholic tradition and the Eucharistic table retained its central importance.

First, let me acknowledge that I love listening to sound biblical preaching. As a vocational minister, I love to preach, and I enjoy the study of homiletical method. I have a passion for wrestling with the biblical text and delivering a well-crafted idea from the pages of scripture. I cherish the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit that brings clarity of thought, words of power, and emotive delivery to the Word that is Jesus as I proclaim the words of men in the text. However, this foray into Anglican tradition has been a good check on the central importance of preaching and a much-needed relief.

One of the many temptations of making preaching central is the pride of the preacher and the pulpit becoming a personality cult of sorts. We all want to do well, especially pastors, preachers, helpers of any sort really. We want our words to inspire. Preaching is a practice preserved and performed within the institution of the church. Yet, preachers are humans and humans can be subject to the trappings of pride and inflated egos at the expense of the gospel. Of course, this is not merely a “low church” problem but in a tradition where there is so much pressure on the sermon because it is THE THING each Sunday, pride can seep into even the most sanctified of gifted speakers.

Consequently, the sermon being the pinnacle of worship, there is an unspoken amount of pressure many educated pastors place upon themselves to have a “great sermon” or be a “great preacher” all the time. After all, people come to church to worship and to hear a good sermon. They got their families ready, woke up early after a long week of work, and despite proclivities to maybe sleep in and enjoy coffee on the back porch, they came to church. Older folks, for whom attending church is sometimes a physical struggle, made coming to worship a main part of their day; they need a good sermon for their efforts. The preacher must make sure the sermon is worth listening to! Rarely will people remember all the songs of praise, or out of tune pianos, but most certainly the congregation will remember at lunchtime a sermon that lands with a thud (even as it fades quickly from memory).

Anglican tradition is full of great preachers, past and present. However, in Book of Common Prayer and liturgical rubrics, preaching is tangential and supportive of the central act of worship each Sunday: The Communion Table. The main attraction of each Sunday is not the preacher, whether that preacher was John Wesley, John Claypool, John Stott, or even the very alive NT Wright and Fleming Rutledge. Jesus, and him crucified, is the main attraction each Sunday.

The priest climbs into the pulpit, not at the center of the church, but to its right, when the Gospel is preached. The preaching matters; it is a lesson for the church and should be done well. Priests should not shirk behind the liturgical primacy of Eucharist and produce shallow or anecdotal sermons. There is a place in Anglican tradition of powerful proclamations of the Word.

However, the priest knows that no matter how well the sermon is crafted or how much insight they can demonstrate, the role of the sermon is to always move the church toward the paschal mystery of Jesus that takes center stage in worship. Regardless of the voluntaries played, hymns sung, prayers offered, or the homily presented, all of that is wrapped up into the mystery of the table and the sanctification of the body of Christ by eating the flesh of the savior. This is the direction of worship.

I am thankful that my words will fail before that mystery and that I have discovered, and learned, the efficacy of the Word does not rely on my clever rhetorical packaging.  I rest in this new tradition knowing that while I do matter, I don’t matter near as much as I would like to think, and the table can always accomplish infinitely more than I can with words that will eventually always be forgotten.

7. Crossing Oneself.

For those outside of catholic practice this is an odd thing to see and an even odder thing to begin doing. We often associate this practice with Roman Catholicism but church members in the Anglican Communion do it as well. This is one of those practices that can give the impression to some of the “dead traditionalism” noted by Jaroslav Pelikan. I have been in conversations with evangelical/lower church folk who have commented that it is a routine done by Catholic’s that doesn’t mean anything; it is a “going through the motions” without intent.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of others regarding crossing oneself, or the automations humans develop over time, but I can share my own.

First, the act of crossing oneself is an act of consecrating yourself to God; it is my way of claiming my body for Christ. It reminds me of who’s I am and from where I have come. Whatever I am, I am foremost identified as one that identifies with the crucified Jesus. There are moments when I cross myself that I sense the Holy Spirit testifying to my physical affirmation through this simple act. This is a physical way of identifying with Christ, nothing flashy or presumptive

Scripture notes several ways people “mark” themselves, identifying with God or against God. Of infamy, the Book of Revelation notes the “mark of the beast.” The other mark noted is noted in the Old Testament at various places refers to carrying God’s law on our foreheads.

Marking ourselves (identifying) on the head or body is a common thing done in scripture for both ill and good, for both men and women. The “mark” in Revelation is juxtaposed by this Old Testament mark of the people of God. Crossing oneself is a means of not being marked with the mark of the beast, not succumbing to the powers of darkness that seek to inebriate us with false power and sin. It reminds me of all the promises that lie beneath the cross that has just marked my body.

Secondly, as crossing oneself is often done at moments when the trinity is named, after prayers or repentance, prior/after receiving consecrated elements, etc., it is a reminder of God’s otherness and my submission to the mystery of God. When I mark myself, it is my physical confession of acceptance of this Christ and affirmation of participating in this great mystery.

What I have discovered is that marking oneself is not something done out of a false sense of piety, as if this is a Timothean (2 Tim. 3.5) version of having a form of religion without the power thereof. It is a physical gesture of an aphysical reality that centers and reorients the one who crosses themselves with intent.

Lastly, as part of the liturgical renewal movement of several decades ago, fonts were placed where the nave and chancel meet. Fonts are also traditionally at the entrance of churches, prior to the sanctuary space. I sometimes mark myself with holy water (crossing myself) when exiting the chancel post-communion or when entering a church. I have seen fonts at both places (entrance of church/exit of altar area) and have used the water from both. This is a simple act of dipping one’s fingers in water (that has been consecrated) for the purpose of sanctifying the one that uses it and reminding us of the sanctifying power of our baptism. There is surely some grand baptismal theology do be done here, but my personal experience as an act of piety is that it takes me back to my baptism, reminds me of that birth in Christ, and extends grace to me through the watery chaos of death overcome in Jesus. For these reasons, with a thankful heart I dip my fingers and mark my head or body with the waters redeemed in Christ and presided over by the Holy Spirit.

8. Smells and Bells

As one who had never been in a service wherein liturgical time/events were marked with bells, nor the divine presence of God noted with incense, I too had the common “eye roll” over these sorts of activities. It was easy to sit on the outside and wonder “why” and then equate these sorts of things with traditionalism. I would argue at this point that I was wrong in these leanings and offer these remarks to those who wonder at the smells and bells we do in church. Key word of this section (as well as Eucharistic theology) is anamesis.

First, it should be noted that every context is different. I have been to churches in Cleveland, TN (where I attend), Chattanooga, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA and Glenmoore, PA. Each church has a tradition within the tradition and within their context have all been faithfully Anglican. Some churches chant more than others. Some use bells, some do not. Some use incense, some do not. Some have a full slate of Holy Week Services that culminate in the Great Vigil, some do not. Etc, etc. As in the Nazarene tradition, there is more latitude across region and context in the Episcopal church than many outsiders know.

Secondly, the smells and bells are not a dead traditionalism. They perform key functions in worship through sensory means. The smell of incense reminds (anamnesis/re-member) one that we are in a holy space, the presence of God, and takes us back to the same sorts of experiences that would have been shared by ancient Israelites. The smell permeates the space in much the same way the holy spirit can be sensed, but not necessarily seen. The incense is a cue that we are “somewhere” with this unique air and invites participants to ask, “what is that smell? What’s happening?” That, my friends, is the point. The smell is a trigger to look for what is happening, to seek out the reasons for the smell. The incense means we are in a different place, a place where this smell resides and that means there is something special about this place. Pay attention.

Likewise, the bells are a notation of action. The bells are typically used during the Great Thanksgiving to denote the sacrificial action of God in Christ. When the bell is rung, the intent is to look for the place from which the ring comes, to look for what it announces. When literacy was not as prevalent as today the bells were used to communicate various parts of the liturgy. This is the simple role of bells: they are an alarm, stop what you are doing and take caution, etc.

In the liturgy, the bells draw our attention to the table when the Christ has given us his body and blood. Jesus is lifted via the elements, and to make sure we do not miss this divine act, the bell brings our attention to the drama unfolding at the table. There may not be anything biblical about ringing a bell in worship but that does not mean that worship cannot incorporate means of drawing one’s attention to the central drama of worship.

*I trust that these brief reflections have been as edifying to read as they were for me to consider. I have not written all that can be said (or debated) on these issues  and I invite you to explore and reflect your own experience as a part of our deeply rich Christian tradition. May the peace of God dwell in your hearts and shape your lives continually*