Friday, September 19, 2014

The God Who Laughs

Last night as I was in the midst of taking care of medical needs that my daughter requires, I had a brief moment to reflect over the past few days. It’s been one of those those times where it just seems like everything is either wrong or bad or crazy. A time when you realize that there are no good choices, only less-bad choices. Things that happen beyond our control that affects us nonetheless. Things seemingly within our control that inexplicably and frustratingly slip from our grasp. Had I the ability, in that moment, to wave a magic wand and make things right I would have. In only a few moments of reflecting on the hard things and the bad things and the crazy things, I was immediately assaulted with the question, Why? Why God does my daughter’s body not work and we have to go through this crap every day? Why are there things and people outside of my control that rain down hatred and crazy on my life and the life of my family? Why can’t I just, for once, not be mindlessly calloused when my wife is in need of care and comfort? Why does everything have to be so hard?

It was a brief moment. I really didn't even think through that much detail. It all just kind of hit me at once all blended in together, just an overwhelming feeling of “Why?” And almost as soon as I had mentally voiced my complaint to God I received an answer. The answer was, “Because of the curse.” The answer was just so plain and obvious and so satisfying. Within half a second my entire disposition was readjusted. Why is the sin of others affecting me and my family? Because of the curse. Why does sin so pervade within me that I don’t realize I've sinned until the damage is already done? Because of the curse. Why does my daughter have this disability? Because of the curse. Why are plans and people so easily frustrated? Because of the curse. Why does everything just have to be so hard? Because of the curse.

The puzzle pieces fit and I could make sense of things again. A feeling of relief came over me. The question ‘Why?’ didn't have the overwhelming force and influence over my soul that it once grasped. I realized I my complaint, which felt justified at the moment I said it, was on unsettled ground. Unbelief crept in, disguised as self-pity. The answer I received, “Because of the curse”, gave me solid ground to stand on. I can battle my unbelief from this position.

And then I realized that I had actually heard a voice. The answer “Because of the curse” didn't arise within my soul like an echo from the Holy Spirit, it was literally audible to my ears. I heard it. Writing all of this out now as a step by step process really gives a false impression. All of this—the thoughts, the complaint, the answer, the satisfaction, the readjustment, the strange realization of an audible voice answering the inaudible question of my soul—took place in nearly an instant.

The audible voice I heard did not come from a burning bush. There wasn't an angel dressed in white seated before me. The heavens didn't open. No thunder from the sky. It came from the other room. It wasn't my wife or kids. It was the TV. The kids were watching a show. I sat and listened for a moment. What were they watching? After a few seconds I realized it was Scooby-Doo. Someone had said, “Because of the curse” in reference to some mystery that needed solved. It hit me. Did my soul just receive a satisfying cleanse from a goofy cartoon show about some stoner kid detectives and their dog? Zoinks. They say that God moves in mysterious ways. Apparently He also moves in hilarious ways.

I’m not going to frame this as, “God spoke to me through Scooby-Doo,” even though I might. I certainly believe in the providence of God. I have no qualms believing He is able to answer prayer with a dose of truth, no matter the source of that truth. I don’t believe that God embodied the TV in some supernatural way and spoke through a cartoon character. But I do believe that all truth points to God whether it means to or not. If God so ordained it that Scooby-Doo would be the instrument of answered prayer than who am I to scoff? Just as John Newton believed every interruption was from the Lord, I’ll take it that this perfectly timed line from a cartoon was an act of the providence of God. I cannot deny that in those moments God was at work in my soul, freeing me from fear and unbelief and strengthening me with truth.

I said that apparently God moves in hilarious ways. And why not? Our common idea of God is that He is not funny. He’s grim and somber and looks down on those who laugh. It’s a topic we’re uncomfortable with. For many it seems sacrilegious to claim that God has a sense of humor. I've never seen a conference on The Humor of God. But humor and laughter are good things, holy things. And like all good things and all holy things, they can be abused. Laughter strengthens and emboldens, which is why there are warnings against cruel humor. God does not want us to be strengthened and emboldened in evil things. But the abuse of laughter does not mean we should abolish laughter. Humor is holy because it is from God. Because we desecrate holy things doesn't mean that it originated from the devil. Perversion is from the devil. Humor is from God. Perverted humor is a desecration of a holy thing.

God is an expert at making the wise foolish and the foolish wise. How can humor not be an instrument in bringing this about? It is a holy making-fun-of. Using the foolish things of this world to shame those who are wise in this world is a righteous punchline. He made a donkey speak to and scold a prophet. He made Balaam the bigger of the two jackasses. How can the inventor of time not also be the inventor of comedic timing?

I get the feeling the reason we don’t like to think of God as humorous is because it is too terrifying. The God with the grim furrowed brows has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is concerned for His Creation in the same way we are concerned over our finances. The God who Laughs has nothing to worry about. He’s carefree. The God who giggles, snickers, chortles, and guffaws exposes our precarious state. We want a God who is distraught over our situation because it validates our worth in our own eyes. We have convinced ourselves that if God worries about what I worry about then that means God cares about me. But what happens if I’m worrying about my sin and bills and pain and ridicule and disease and death and God is laughing!? We get the impression that God doesn’t care.

Jesus and his disciples were on the sea and a major storm blew in. The boat was being swamped by the waves. The disciples were freaking out. They thought they were going to die. They turned to find Jesus and Jesus was…sleeping!? Are you kidding me? Hey Jesus, wake up and do something about this! Don’t you care that we are about to drown here? Mark tells us that they literally said, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” They didn't see Jesus fretting like they were and it really bothered them. Jesus sleeping in the boat shook their souls harder than the waves shook the boat. Their panic stricken plea to Jesus revealed exactly where their faith resided. They wanted similar panic from their Lord to validate their fear, which is tied to their worth. He doesn't care about us enough to even wake up and worry like we are worrying! When they woke Jesus up, he rebuked the wind and waves, but also his disciples. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”

This is why we are so unnerved at the thought of the God who Laughs. This is why it is hard for us to understand that humor is holy and sanctioned by God. Our faith is exposed and is found wanting. Jesus asked the disciples “why are you afraid?” not because He was unable to conceive why the experience of nearly drowning might be frightening, but he asked to expose their faith. He is telling them, “My sleeping in the midst of a storm ought to be a comfort to you.”  Jesus sleeping in the midst of the storm didn't give them peace. They didn't find rest in the Creator’s resting. In the same way, if God is laughing in the midst of our chaos and we react in rage or we become irritated, we are exposing our own lack of faith. God laughing in the middle of your storm, your pain, your hardship isn't a sign of unconcern or malice. He’s not laughing at you, He’s laughing for you. Rest in His laughter. Find strength in His humor. Hope is beaming from the upturned corners of his lips. What if one of the distraught disciples turned to see Jesus sleeping and in faith found the strength and hope to just lay down next to him? Just as Jesus’ sleeping should have comforted the disciples, the humor of God should comfort you. Your pain and your struggles and your hardship are nothing compared to the hope we have of eternal glory in the presence of God.

As I thought about it, the fact that God provided great strength and assurance and guidance and truth in response to my prayer at just the right moment in a line from Scooby-Doo, I couldn't help but release a breath of laughter through my nose. Contemplating the humor of God in this situation gave me greater faith and hope and a deeper realization that God’s humor and laughter indicates that He has triumphed over the curse. God laughs because the world will one day be remade, because the curse will one day be fully broken, because all my sin will be cleansed, because justice will not be overlooked, because all pain and struggle and hardship will pass away, and because my daughter’s body will one day be made whole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Renew the Table: Christ is Present in the Supper

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

In my previous post I put forward the conclusion that the Memorial view devalues the Lord’s Supper. I attempted to reveal that the bad fruit was due to the bad root. I proposed that the reason Memorialism devalues the Supper is because, at its root, it removes the presence of Christ from the Supper. I also said that if Christ is not present, then my accusations of Memorialism are false, for if Christ truly is not present then Memorialism, out of all the historic views, must be the correct one.

I was raised to be a pretty staunch Memorialist. I've been on the inside, so to speak. In many ways, I still am (although now subversively, I guess). As God allowed me to lead and craft worship services the cracks of Memorialism became larger and more revealing to me over the years. This led me to study and explore Church history and Scripture and after time wading through both I came through convinced that Memorialism is inadequate. But the largest hurdle for me was the presence of Christ in the Supper. I felt (and feel) that this is the issue upon which Memorialism stands or falls. As I mentioned in my previous post, the three other historic traditions, the Calvinist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic views all maintain (though in vastly different ways) that Christ is present in the Supper and that some form of grace or benefit is given. From my Memorialist point of view, it was always assumed that if Christ is present in the Supper, no matter how you define it, it was Roman Catholic. If it even smelled like it could lead to something vaguely recognizable as being acceptable in Roman Catholic worship then the automatic, gut reaction, was to run the other direction. This mindset may have initially preserved purity in the Church’s worship, but today it often is used to avoid deeper thinking about things that really are important for the worship of the Church. There is a kind of immaturity of faith that turns tail and runs at every thorny path. The mature meet the challenge head on with the sword of the Word of God to cut through the thorny brambles to go deeper, getting to the heart of the issue.

To be honest, the theologies produced throughout Church history, while providing me with evidence that the Church did in fact believe that Christ was present and that benefits were offered in the Supper, didn't necessarily convince me that it was the case. What really changed my mind was Scripture. And one passage in particular really led the charge.

Prince Phillip getting to the heart of the issue.
"Grab yer Sword, We're Going In" 
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They are having idolatry problems. Some have fallen back into idolatry and some are having their consciences troubled when it comes to issues with the idolatry around them. Paul is helping them by teaching them to think right about idolatry. To battle this he appeals to the goodness of God, the freedom of the Christian, love for neighbor, and examples from Scripture. In the midst of this discussion about idolatry he touches upon the Lord’s Supper. (Before we jump in I think it is interesting to at least highlight that the Supper naturally comes to his mind when discussing worship. False worship is being contrasted with right worship. The Supper was deeply rooted to the idea of regular Christian worship. I only say this to expose how the Lord’s Supper is thought of today. At least for Memorialists, the Supper is anything but rooted regular worship.)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 Paul says,

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. 18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

First, I should say that I believe the English texts that we have here are good translations of this passage. Often people turn to the Greek words as if they will impart some form of special knowledge that the common English reader will never catch or understand. That’s not what I’m doing here. I believe the English in this passage is adequate to convey the original. So when we look at a few Greek words here, the hope is that they will only augment that which we already see in our own language. It helps us grasp the meaning (a meaning that is already there in plain English) in a clearer way.

I want to begin by looking at the words koinonia, koinonoi, koinonous, metechomen, and metechein. These words all carry with them the idea of an intimate sharing. In English they are often translated as communion, fellowship, partaking, participation, sharing. As we see in the passage above (New King James) verse 16 uses the word communion twice. The ESV renders verse 16 this way: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Communion in the NKJV and Participation in the ESV are used for the same Greek word, koinonia. Koinonoi in verse 18 is translated partakers (NKJV) or participants (ESV). Verse 20 in the NKJV translates the Greek word koinonous as fellowship where the ESV uses the word participants again. Actually a literal translation of both koinonoi and koinonous in verses 18 and 20 might be rendered “fellow-partakers”. In verse 17 the word metechomen is translated as partake in both versions. Again, both versions use the word partake in verse 21 for the word metechein. The NIV translates this as “have a part in”. The Holman Christian Standard translates it as share.

Let’s look at the passage again with the Greek words inserted:

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the koinonia of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all metechomen of that one bread. 18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices koinonoi of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have koinonous with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot metechein of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

Do you see how thick this passage is with this idea of an intimate sharing, participating, partaking, fellowshipping, communing? We have the same idea coming up six times in this single passage.

Okay, so let’s think about this a bit. If the context of this passage is about idolatry, why does Paul bring up koinonia? The reason he brings up koinonia is because he doesn't want the Corinthians to “have koinonous with demons”. The implication of this actually made me shiver the first time I really thought about it. The loud banging echo reverberating from this is that you can’t have koinonia with nothing! It takes two to tango and this is what Paul is trying to point out. In verse 19 he says that an idol is nothing and the sacrifice to the idol is nothing (When he asks “is it anything?” the inference is, no it isn't anything). But! The reality is that though the idol is nothing, that which lies behind the idol is something, and that something is demons. Therefore, in worshipping idols, in making offerings to idols (things made of wood or stone which are nothing) they are really worshipping and making offerings to a spiritual reality, namely demons. This is why Paul tells them to flee from idolatry!

But do you see how he framed his argument? Do you see what he contrasted this demonic koinonia with? The Lord’s Supper. Paul points to the spiritual reality of demonic koinonia in idol worship and contrasts it with the spiritual reality of koinonia with Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Something lies behind idol worship and Something lies behind the Lord’s Supper. That Something, that Spiritual Reality is being participated with and in the act of worship.

Let’s go even further. Look at the parallel in verse 21. Paul says, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot metechein of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.” Paul literally equates the act of drinking with metechein, that is partaking, sharing, to have part in. Meaning drinking the cup is to take part in that Spiritual Reality. This is how the Spiritual Reality is joined with, shared in, be it with Christ or with a demon.

More than a Memorial
Now if Paul was under the assumption that Communion (koinonia) was merely a memorial, then why the warnings? If there is no real communion with demons then why bring up the idea of provoking the Lord to jealousy? Why would Paul use an argument revealing that pagan eating and drinking is a partaking of a demonic reality, that Israelite worship was a partaking of the benefits of the altar, all the while believing that Christian eating and drinking is nothing but a memorial? Paul asks “are we stronger than he?” but if Paul doesn't believe Christ is present in the Supper and yet still gives us this argument then shouldn't we be asking, “Are the demons stronger than He?” There is something more than a remembering happening here.

We see from this passage that a spiritual reality is actually occurring, namely fellowship, partaking, communion with and in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Reality, the Presence that we have koinonia with. We don’t just remember His body and blood, we metechein His body and blood. We see from this passage that the act of the Lord’s Supper, the act of communion, is eating and drinking. No eating, no drinking means no communion with Christ. No participation in His body and blood. If this is not the case, then Paul would be foolish to warn against eating and drinking pagan sacrifices for they are nothing and mean nothing. Paul is saying, “This pagan worship is koinonia with demons.” And at the same time he is saying (v16) “This cup of blessing which we (Christians) bless, this act of worship, it is koinonia with Christ.” There is a reality that lies behind, or within, the action.

A quick rabbit trail for the concerned pope-sniffing Baptist. Is this just a magic formula? Just say hocus pocus and eat and Bingo! you are now participating in the body and blood of Christ? Do the elements have some inherent property that grants auto-communion with Christ upon eating? Some say it is so (which is why you smell something), and they've had to justify it in some interesting ways, but I don’t think they gathered that from this passage. If they did, then they missed the passage that says ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” When we approach the Table, like anything else in worship, in life, we are to come in faith. Faith meets Christ at the Table. Unbelief at the Table only leads to judgment. One might even say that the Supper is a microcosm of the conflicting theologies during the Reformation. Does the work of eating enable you to have faith or does the faith of eating enable you to work? Wait. Where did that rabbit go? We should probably get back to the task at hand.

Yes, but How?
Granted, this passage (and frankly, all the Supper passages) doesn't give us the clear cut, sharp edged, ship shape theology that we modern systematic organizers desire. We want to know how Christ is in the Supper! (Perhaps because it offers the tantalizing promise that it would solve a lot of problems? Surely Satan wouldn't toy with us in that way...). From this passage we can glean that Christ is present spiritually, but beyond that gleaning we begin to strike out on our own path. It may be the right one, it may have some biblical support along the way, but we can’t be quite sure because it hasn't been explicitly revealed to us exactly how. The quest to unveil hidden knowledge such as this is fraught with peril. Our best bet is to stay close to the source.

It is extremely interesting to note that the Early Church didn't fret over the how. They were content to simply obey Christ in eating and drinking when they gathered. If they were curious about the how, they were at least content to leave it a mystery. It was enough that Christ was present in the Supper sustaining those who ate in faith. Christ commanded us to eat His broken flesh and drink His poured out blood, not to reverse engineer the process so we can be a better Christian theologians, or (God forbid!) that we might corner the worship market. I say this not in order to discredit every theory on the basis that they are indeed theories, nor am I saying that the theories are unhelpful. I only say this to reveal that while I may agree or disagree with certain theologies that have been passed down, what I cling to the above all of them is the foundation, the Word of God. And the Christian doctrine of the Lord’s Supper found in the Word of God affirms the presence of Christ in the Supper.

I said that it was on the basis of the presence of Christ in the Supper that Memorialism stands or falls, and I believe this passage knocks it down with one of those skyscraper wrecking ball cranes. Probably some dynamite too. And if that is the case, then a serious and deep reevaluation of the Lord's Supper is needed in many, many, many (many) churches. This is the reason I'm writing in the first place. I can hold these opinions close to my chest, but, right or wrong, I love the Church and want to see Her worship in spirit and truth. I want to see the Supper restored to reflect the beauty I see in the Word of God.

In summation, it was this passage from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, more than anything else, that convinced me of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Supper and highlighted the inadequacies of mere Memorialism (not to mention the inadequacies of those which believe in the physical presence of Christ in the Supper). Not only that, it added more weight to what I already had concluded, confirming my assumption that the infrequent observance of the Supper is an indicator of how healthy a Church’s worship is. If Christ is present in the Supper then observing the Supper ought to be valuable to our weekly worship. But that leads us to our next bump in the road; a problem that is found in the medieval church as well as the modern. An argument that the Transubstantiationalists and Memorialists alike use to justify their infrequent partaking in worship. It goes something like this: We infrequently observe the Lord’s Supper precisely because it is so valuable. We’ll tackle this in the next post.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Renew the Table: The Root and Fruit of Memorialism

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

In my last post I said that the infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper was a symptom of a deeper problem. I said that infrequent observance indicates a low or inadequate view of the Supper. In this
post I want to dig into what I believe is one of the major contributing factors for this problem. My aim is to show that celebrating the Supper as a mere memorial of Christ ultimately devalues the Supper which causes or contributes to a low or inadequate view of the Lord’s Supper. Admittedly, this is a rather large bite. What we’re about to chew on here has literally been debated for 500 years. But in this case, our advantage is that we get to see how this certain view has played out over half a millennium. So there’s that.

The Root 
To sift through 500 years of weighty theological debate is pretty tough, but we can still summarize with a degree of accuracy. Since the Reformation, there are 4 views on what is happening during the Supper. Basically, we can summarize like this:

1)      Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation – when the physical bread and wine turn into the physical body and blood of Christ – Christ is physically present
2)      Lutherans believe consubstantiation – essentially Christ’s physical body is present but the substance of the bread and wine remain the same. Christ’s body is over, through, and under the bread, but doesn't turn into the actual bread.
3)      Calvin and other reformers believe in that Christ is present in a special way, namely spiritually present at the Supper, but not bodily present.
4)      Zwingli held the view that the Supper is a memorial; that Christ is not present in any special way at the supper.

For our purposes in this post I’m not about to jump into the ins and outs of the first three views, other than to say that, while vastly different, each one believes that Christ is present in some way in the Supper and because of this, something happens. Some form of grace or benefit is obtained by the partaker.

On those grounds the fourth view makes a stark departure. And it is this view—we shall call it the Memorialist view—that most Baptists and many evangelicals adhere to (whether they know it or not). Now when we use our chronological perspective and look along the timeline from when Zwingli and Luther mouthed off at Martburg until our present day we see an undeniable development. Those who have maintained that Christ is present in some special way in the Supper have continued to celebrate the supper frequent and often and weekly and every time they gather for worship even, (to say nothing of whether or not their practice is correct).

Now this is not to say that it has been a steady line of frequent observance from 1517 until today. Hardly. There are definite peaks and valleys. But it is important to see that when these Churches began to infrequently observe, the reasons were due to either outside restrictions (via the State or financial hardship) or internal necessity (such as the pastoral need to battle a real superstition…something we'll discuss in a future post). The point being, infrequent observance was not the result of their theology, but of things that, for a season, triumphed over their theology. One of the reasons I can say this is that we have the teachers and theologians from these traditions on paper defending the frequent observance of the Supper and speaking against falling into a habit of infrequent observance. Those congregations whose theology affirms the presence of Christ in the Supper, unhindered by outside influence, have maintained a frequent observance.

Memorialism, on the other hand, from its beginnings has maintained an infrequent observance because of (rather than in spite of) its theology. Memorialism teaches that there is no special presence of Christ and no benefits from Christ in the Supper. The Supper is purely symbolic and is observed with the understanding that it is merely a memorial; a time set aside to remember. The bread and cup help aid the memory of those who partake. By stating that Christ is not present in any special way in the Supper, Memorialists, to their credit, believe that they have removed (at most) a heretical or (at least) an unhelpful doctrine from the Supper, therefore restoring the Supper as intended. A rather bold claim even during the Reformation which was undeniably a time for bold claims.

All the Reformers desired to restore and purify the Church and Her worship practices. They were often appealing to both the authority of Scripture and the example of the early church. Most of the theologies and practices they sought to reform were beliefs and practices (good or bad) that had been added to the church that were not derived from Scripture, nor exemplified in the Early Church. Stripping and removing false beliefs and unhelpful practices was essential for a reformation. In this way the intentions of the Memorialists really were noble, but the reason this was a bold claim in a time of bold claims was because it stripped and kept on stripping. The phrases like, over the line, tossed the baby out with the bathwater, you doth protest too much, come to mind. The Church for 1500 years before Memorialism actually did have a belief that Christ is present at the Supper. The early church simply accepted that Christ was present, but as the ages passed the medieval church began to investigate how Christ was present. And it was the conclusions the Roman Church made that many of the Reformers protested. They objected to the definition of How, not the involvement of Who. The Memorialists protested both. Get rid of the presence of Christ and the question of How evaporates altogether.

In light of this history, I want to briefly reveal how the removal of Christ’s presence in the Supper has influenced many churches today. What are some of the fruits Memorialism has produced? In what ways has the removal of Christ’s presence devalued the Supper?

The Fruit
The major fruit by which Memorialism devalues the Supper is that Memorialism produces an “it doesn’t matter as long as we meet the bottom line” mindset. Christ commanded we do this in remembrance of Him. So long as we do it, that’s all that really matters. The stripped down mentality of Memorialism encourages the least amount of effort. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t become a valuable part of worship so much as a box to be checked off. In this way, Memorialism is the prime option for pragmatists.

If the only thing Jesus requires is that we do it in remembrance of Him then LOTS of things don’t matter; when we take it, how we take it, what we use to take it, who takes it, etc. All of these things now fall under the umbrella of “It doesn't matter”.

We might touch on this more in a later post, but for now let’s see how Memorialism approaches the elements of the bread and wine. First, if the only thing that matters is that we do it in remembrance of Christ, then it doesn't really matter what we use to do it. We've all heard about the churches that have used Cookies and Coke, or Pizza and Pop in place of bread and wine. Although this is simply the logical outcome of a memorialistic mindset, yet, I think it’s safe to say that most Memorialists believe those options are a bit out of line. Surely going so far as to replace the actual element that Jesus commanded with something else is going a bit too far, right? (They say with Welch's on their breath). And this highlights how deep the problem goes. The only reason the Memorialist can justify grape juice over Coca-cola is because grape juice does a better job than Coke in helping us remember. It has nothing to do with whether or not coke is permissible. It has everything to do with the grape juice being good enough to meet the bottom line.

The danger (and further devaluing) here is this: who gets to determine the bottom line? And this leads us no our next example. Memorialism devalues the Supper by shifting the emphasis from Christ to the Christian. Who determined that grape juice was good enough? Was it Christ or the Christian? The scary thing is that the honest Memorialist will come to the conclusion that ultimately “it doesn't matter”. This is because the only thing that matters is that we remember Jesus when we eat and drink. That’s the real issue for the Memorialist. Grape juice became popular during the Temperance Movement. For Churches that made the switch from Wine to Welch's, the truth of the matter is that the culture actually had more sway on what the elements should be than Christ. This abstaining spirit entered the church and has stuck around to this very day, touting its authority over Christ at least four times a year. But wine and alcohol tend to get folks cranky and I don’t want it to overshadow the point, so let’s look at this from a different angle.

I said that Memorialism devalues the Supper by shifting the emphasis from Christ to the Christian. In Memorialism, the Supper becomes less about Christ and more about the individuals partaking. In case you missed it, the key word is ‘about’. There is no doubt that the Supper is certainly for the church, but we venture onto dangerous ground when we start to act as if the Supper is about the church. Just as the Bible is for you, not about you, and the sermon is for you, not about you, so too the Supper is for you, not about you. But the fruit of Memorialism is a highly individualistic and introspective preparation and partaking. A time to sink deep into you own thoughts and examine your life. Just you and God. No one else. The Supper has become a type of private, internal, confession booth. The antithesis of communion. The only unity we see in such as service is that everyone is united in acting individually. In this way the Memorialist cuts the nose from its own face. We remember more about our sins and our worth than we do about what Christ did with our sins and His worth. Jesus might as well have said, “Do this in remembrance of thee.”

In Memorialism, the fruit of removing Christ from the Supper is that something else has filled His place. His authority is usurped when it is deemed that changes to the commandment don’t really matter. His place as the Guest of Honor is filled in by the individuals pondering themselves at the table. This is the fruit of Memorialism and the reasons I give to support my claim that it devalues the Supper.

I’m still not out of the woods yet. Removing the presence of Christ from the Supper only devalues the Supper if Christ really is present. If Christ is not present, then the Memorialists are vindicated and my claim that it devalues the Supper is false. So in my next post we will look to see what Scripture reveals about all this.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Renew the Table: A Symptom of a Deeper Problem

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

Let’s start like this: infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper is not the problem; it is a symptom of a deeper problem. This means you can’t fix the problem by simply observing more often. That’s just masking the symptom and ignoring the real issue.

The reason I crunched the frequency numbers in the last post and belabored the fact that frequency or infrequency is an effect of a held belief is because I wanted you to see the ginormous number of churches that are exhibiting this symptom. And this, for me, serves to highlight a major roadblock to overcome. The fact that there are so many churches exhibiting this symptom skews our perspective a little. The idea being that if 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, neither can 80% of SBC churches.

This do in remembrance of a coupla months
When the symptom cuts across such a majority, it soon becomes settled, a mere fact of life. For years you drove to work past that plot of land until one day someone built a building on it. The landscape changed starkly and for the first few weeks you are mindful of it. But months go by and you soon adjust to the new construction, so much so that you don’t even think about anymore. You have gotten so used to it that you virtually ignore it. It has become just another blur you pass on your way to work.

In this way it is not hard to see how the majority fails to recognize the symptom. It has become so settled that it is hard to be unsettled by it. And this is where we find the difficulty, for if infrequent observation of the Supper is truly a symptom of a larger problem, then there is a majority of people don’t recognize that there is, in fact, a problem at all.

And so now we have issues. I just told 80% of SBC churches (at least) that they have a problem with their worship and that most churches probably don’t even recognize it. That’s bound to make me some friends. So while I’m at it I might as well just cut to the chase.

I contend that a church which observes infrequently has a low, or inadequate, view of the Supper. I add “or inadequate” because I believe there are many churches that infrequently observe who may hold a very high view of the Supper, but perhaps not a complete or robust view.

To that end I intend, over the next few posts, to think through some of those reasons which I believe cause or contribute to a low or inadequate view of the Lord’s Supper.

Some of these reasons center around preservation and protection of the event, such as preserving its uniqueness or guarding against things like legalism. Some reasons are related to pragmatism and seeking to be relevant to our time and culture. And some of these will be theological reasons, such as observing the Supper as a mere memorial.

In these last three posts have been saying, “I see a symptom which indicates a problem.” Going forward I want to say, “Here are the problems that might be related to this symptom. Are these true? Do any of these hit close to home?” And hopefully, either during or after we discuss the problems, I will attempt to offer a good and biblical prescription which, if doesn't lead to anything else, will at least contribute to folks thinking deeper about the Lord’s Supper.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Renew the Table: Some Supper Stats

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers. Especially since this one is a little baptisty...and mathy. 

A Lifeway survey came out in two years ago highlighting the Lord’s Supper in Baptist worship. Questions were asked of a sampling of pastors regarding open communion and how often communion is served. When the survey came out the internet seemingly exploded in debate regarding open communion verses closed communion. Although it’s good to discuss that issue, I found the other question regarding frequency (and the lack of concern after the study was released) more revealing.

Over half (57%) of the responders indicated that they only serve communion Quarterly. As you can see, this number alone towers over those who indicated they serve Weekly (1%) or Monthly (18%). The two other categories indicated churches were partaking 5-10 times per year (15%) or less than 4 times per year (8%). 

The “5-10 times” crowd and the “0-3 times” folks can be viewed basically as satellites of the Quarterly group. It would be reasonable to assume that the majority of the “5-10 times” crowd is likely including their holiday communion (ie. Quarterly communion plus Easter and/or Christmas) and the “less than 4” group is probably only serving communion around the holidays (ie. 1-2 times per year). Due to this reasoning, and for our purposes we can combine these two groups into one, (call them the “Holiday” group) with the understanding that they serve the Lord’s Supper roughly 6 or less times during the year, with the majority serving it 4 times.

With that bit of reasonable conjecture, and with the understanding that the Holidays are the moons to the Quarterly planet, we begin to see an even more drastic picture. We can roughly divide the Southern Baptist Churches in to three camps regarding frequency in communion: Weekly (1%), Monthly (18%), and Quarterly/Holiday (80%). 

Playing with Numbers
Let’s imagine four people, all of whom became a Christian at the age of 20. Let’s say each of these people began worshiping at a different SBC church. Quinn joins up at First Baptist Quarterly. Max becomes a member of Monthly Community. Will worships at Weekly Fellowship. And Hank joins Holiday Baptist, a sister church of Quarterly. Now imagine the wholly unrealistic scenario that each of these men are able to attend every Sunday gathering that is held at their respective places of worship for the next fifty years. And so that everyone is on the same playing field, let’s say that each church partakes the Lord's Supper in the same manner and each is undergirded with a sound, gospel-centered communion theology.

Let’s see how many times each one is able to partake of the Lord’s Supper as the years accumulate.

How often each man partakes
4x a year
6x a year
12x a year
52x a year
Age | years at church
Quarterly Quinn
Holiday Hank
Monthly Max
Weekly Will
21 | 1 year
22 | 2 years
23 | 3 years
24 | 4 years
25 | 5 years

Five years in and we already see a stark difference. Will has partaken 260 times compared to Quinn who has only partaken 20 times. In fact after 5 years, both Hank and Quinn combined have not partaken as much as Will had in his first year as a Christian. Again, assuming sound theology, and knowing that worship is formative, what conclusions might we draw from this? 

Before we draw conclusions, let’s gaze farther into the future:

How often each man partakes
4x a year
6x a year
12x a year
52x a year
Age | years at church
Quarterly Quinn
Holiday Hank
Monthly Max
Weekly Will
30 | ten years
40 | twenty years
50 | thirty years
60 | forty years
70 | fifty years

By the time Quinn turns 30 he still hasn't celebrated communion as much as Will had ten years ago in his first year as a Christian. Once Quinn has hit 70 years of age he would have partaken only 200 times. Which is still less than the amount of times Will had partaken when Will was the ripe old age of 24! The cumulative effect of weekly communion is quite staggering.

Think long and hard about it. Quinn has been going to church for 50 years. He is a 70 year old man. Will has been going to church for 4 years. He is a 24 year old man. And Will has partaken more than Quinn.

Also, remember these numbers indicate the wholly unrealistic scenario that each man attended every communion service until they were 70 year old men. This means that Quarterly Quinn would have to attend every single communion service for 50 years in order to have partaken 200 times. How monumental is it then for him to miss a service? If Quinn missed communion in the Second Quarter, he’ll have to wait months before the Supper is served again. If Will missed communion, he has to only wait a few days. Again, assuming a sound theology in both cases, what would the formative effect be for each of these men?

Let's Keep Playing with Numbers
The Southern Baptist Convention released an Annual Church Profile in 2012. This record indicates that in 2012 roughly 6 million Southern Baptists attended worship each week. Using the three groups we identified above (Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly/Holiday) let’s extrapolate these percentages across the SBC.

On any given week there were 6 million Southern Baptists in attendance for worship. Let’s say it’s the first Sunday of the new Quarter, which lands on the first Sunday of the Month. According to the numbers nearly 6 million members of churches associated with the SBC will be partaking communion.

Now let’s move a month later. The Quarterly group is not partaking, but the Weekly and Monthly members are. Of the 6 million members in the SBC, only 1,140,000 members are now partaking. That’s a drop off of 81%.

Now let’s move to the following week, the second Sunday of the month. Neither the Quarterly nor the Monthly members are partaking. Now of the 6 million members attending worship this week only 60,000 people will be celebrating the Supper. That is equal to the weekly attendance of just a couple Texas megachurches.

Out of 46,034 churches (in 2012) that’s only 460 churches across the nation. Just for a little perspective, in the state I live in, Missouri, in 2012 there were 1,859 SBC churches. In the counties comprising Kansas City Metro alone (in 2010) there were 313 SBC churches.

For comparison, out of 46,034 SBC churches in 2012:
Number of SBC churches serving communion weekly: 460 (1%)
Number of SBC churches serving communion monthly: 8286 (18%)
Number of SBC churches serving communion Quarterly +and/or Holiday: 36,826 (80%)

An astoundingly low number of churches in the SBC serve communion weekly, while the number of Quarterly/Holiday observing churches is through the roof. 

What Do These Numbers Tell Us?
If belief informs practice, then what can we infer from this study? For one, infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper must indicate a belief that does not place an emphasis on the Lord’s Supper as an important or vital element of weekly gathered worship. Notice I did not say they believe it to be unimportant or non-vital. Based on the numbers I just can’t say that. Numbers tell us “what” not “why”. And what the numbers say is that the majority of SBC churches do not believe the Lord’s Supper to be an element of worship important or vital enough to conduct for at least 48 weeks out of the year.

This all touches on what I said the yesterday when I put forward the notion that practice is the effect of a held belief. The frequency in which a church serves the Supper is an indication of a church’s theology and understanding of communion.

Indication is a key word. We gain knowledge from indicators. When the engine light comes on, there isn’t anything wrong with the dashboard; it is an indicator that something is wrong with the engine. When a boy gives a girl a rose it is an indicator that he wants her to be his sweetheart. We should also be careful to remember that while indicators are important, sometimes they don’t tell us the whole story.

A man who has told his wife he loves her every day of their marriage has abruptly stopped telling her so in the last few days. This indicates to us that something has changed but it doesn't tell us why the change has occurred. For that we must investigate further. Perhaps he fell ill and in his misery understandably forgot to say the familiar words. Perhaps he’s having an affair with his secretary. Perhaps she’s having an affair with the mailman and he found out. Perhaps he's getting lazy. There could be a thousand reasons, but the important thing is that the indicator is what led us to investigate further. One more thing. While we may not know the whole story about Why the man stopped telling his wife he loves her, we do know enough about the What (he stopped) to know that things have not changed for the better.

So when I say “the infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper must indicate a belief that does not place an emphasis on the Lord’s Supper as an important or vital element of weekly gathered worship,” I cannot tell you, based on the numbers alone, why this is the case. But I can take those numbers and place them in the context of Scripture and Church history, and when I do I see a vast divergence. We need to investigate.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Renew the Table: A Frequent Fallacy

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers 

I initially wanted to jump right in to some interesting statistics regarding the frequency of communion, but as soon as I began to interpret the data I became aware of an objection. Answering the objection might have been done simply enough in one or two statements, but I realized that the objection not only needed to be answered, but analyzed. If, as I believe, the objection is false, I thought it would be beneficial to examine why is it false and how it hinders many from thinking a bit deeper about this subject. And here we go.

In abstract thought, the frequency of which the Lord’s Supper is taken in and of itself means nothing. The trouble though is that in reality the Lord's Supper is never alone. Frequent or infrequent partaking of the Supper is an effect. What we believe about the Supper (through theology or tradition) is the cause. This means frequent or infrequent partaking is never the starting point. If our belief about Supper is the cause and frequency of partaking is the effect, then frequency or infrequency can be used as an indicator of belief. The question "What do you believe about the Lord's Supper?" informs the question "How often does your church conduct the Lord's Supper?" The answer to the second question is dependent upon the answer of the first. Because X, therefore Y. Or if you like, Y because X.

I highlight this impact of Cause (belief) and Effect (practice), because it exposes an argument that also gets us to the heart of the matter. An argument espoused by many (knowingly or as I suspect, unknowingly) that tries to sidestep or diverts the deeper issues related to the Lord’s Supper. It's the old maxim: Quality is far greater than Quantity. In this case, meaning that the frequency of the Lord's Supper doesn't matter as long as it is done right. And more than that, the insinuation is often that Quantity will likely lead to a decreasing of the Quality, therefore our infrequent participation in the Supper preserves the "Quality" of the Supper. See what has been done here? See how it is spun? Frequency (or in this case infrequency) is no longer the effect, it is assumed to be the cause. Infrequent communion is believed to be what preserves the "quality", be it orthodoxy or intimacy or whatever else. But as we've seen, this cannot be the case because Frequency (or Infrequency) is the result, the outcome, the effect of a belief. 

When seen in this light, far from settling the issue "Quality is far greater than Quantity" actually begs the question; if a church is sound and faithful in their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper, then why restrict what can only add and augment the glory of God and the edification of the people in gathered worship? In other words, because frequency is a result, an effect, of our theology of the Lord's Supper, the argument cannot be "Quality is far greater than Quantity" not because it isn't true, but because it's not what we're talking about. Since frequency is a result, the argument must be (if we insist on speaking this way) "Infrequent quality is far greater than frequent heresy". My gut tells me that this is what most people who use the Quality over Quantity argument for Communion actually mean. It cuts closer to the truth and the heart of the matter.

But the reason folks stick to the same old adage is because (when accepted on its face) it blocks our vision, and while some are blissfully ignorant, others are comforted by it because it justifies a held belief. A few, (though I have the feeling that it's more than a few) cling to it like a spooked kid beneath his blanket. If they peek out they might see a ghost and they aren't sure if their belief can handle the truth. But regardless of whether or not people use it as an objection or justification, it is easy to see how “Infrequent quality is greater than frequent heresy” or “Infrequent meaningful intimacy is greater than frequent meaningless familiarity” cuts through the fog and actually gets to the real root of that argument. It clears our vision to see where the truth leads, and in this case, if frequency is the result of our belief and “Quality is greater than Quantity” is just a blanket on our heads (here comes the ghost), then frequent quality must be far greater than infrequent quality (boo!). And that is a tough path for many to walk when their beliefs tell them otherwise.

I must be careful here. I am not now equating Frequent with Good and Infrequent with Bad or vice versa. I am only pointing out a major flaw in an objection that I have seen and have come up against which tries to (knowingly or unknowingly) avoid getting to the root of this issue. Ultimately, the issue isn't frequency. The issue is what we believe about the Lord’s Supper. At the same time however, I want to highlight that frequency is not a neutral subject and that in fact it is actually an indicator of a held belief (known or unknown). Your belief (or your church’s belief) informs your practice. If your congregation celebrates Communion weekly, this is a result of your church’s belief in the Supper. If you celebrate Communion four times a year, this also is based on what your church believes about the Lord’s Supper. There is no way around it. 

This, I hope, helps clear the path before I started using words like robust and healthy and anemic and weak.