Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Heavenly Eucharist!

Dear Friends, 

For those of you close to my age, you remember where you were and what you were doing when President Kennedy was shot. You remember the moment you heard that Elvis had died. You remember when Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. That was July 20, 1969 and the 50th anniversary of that enormously important event in America’s history was celebrated last Saturday. Armstrong was the first to step out of the lunar module and said: “One small step for a man, one giant step for mankind.” Then, Aldrin stepped onto the moon’s surface and both men spent the next 2½ hours walking and exploring with our Nation transfixed in awe as we watched the camera feed and listened to the live broadcast.

When Armstrong died in 2012 I started to reminisce about that historic moon landing and as I scanned the various published articles about the voyage of Apollo 11, I read something that I had not heard before. As soon as the lunar module had landed, and before Armstrong’s historic first footstep and statement, something happened of even greater importance that was not broadcast. What we heard was Aldrin saying: “This is the lunar module pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."

In the radio silence that followed, listen to Aldrin describe what happened next: “In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in Me will bring forth much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.’ I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

Aldrin had wanted to broadcast the Communion but NASA had refused for fear of lawsuits by atheists. Aldrin was an ordained elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas and the bread was a piece from a loaf consecrated by his pastor at a communion service the week before the Moon landing. Aldrin said that he and his pastor wanted to “express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets.” He said that “There are many of us in the NASA program who believe that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.” 

Buzz Aldrin – this man of God – took the Presence of Jesus Christ to the moon. Among the first words spoken after the lunar landing was scripture – the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in John 15:5. The first meal served on the moon was the Lord’s Supper. The world’s most epic event in space featured the Eucharist! 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

What Would You Do?

Dear Friends,

The psychology department at a seminary conducted an unusual behavioral experiment. A class of seminary students was told that their professor was unable to make it that day and another instructor would give them their mid-term exam. The students, studying for the priesthood, were given a passage of scripture and told to write a two page paper explaining their interpretation. The instructor told them that he was unable to stay and the students would need to monitor themselves. He told them that at exactly five minutes before the end of class, all the students would need to leave together in one group and turn their papers in to the administration office. The students were warned that they only had five minutes to get to the office and any paper not turned in by the deadline would result in zero credit on an exam that was worth 40% of the final grade. The instructor left and the class began the assignment. They finished and all left together for the administration building. As they were walking down a narrow eight foot wide hallway, a man walking ahead of them suddenly collapsed on the floor and appeared to be seriously ill. He was clutching his chest and gasping for breath.

All but three students stepped over him to hurry to the administration building as the man lay groaning on the floor. The three who stopped to help the man did so assuming that as a result of their action they were going to get zero credit for their mid-term and possibly fail the class. But remember the students didn’t know that this was only an experiment devised by the seminary’s psychology department. So no actual grades were to be given for the paper. In fact, if a grade had been given, the three who stopped to help the man would have received A’s. The seminary students who stepped over the man in their rush to turn in their papers would have been given F’s. The sick man was an actor friend of the instructor. And the passage of scripture the students had just been asked to write about  was the parable of the Good Samaritan. Before you continue reading, stop for a moment and ask yourself what you would have done if you had been one of those students...

The man..asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’ Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” Luke 10:29-37 NLT

When I am comfortably sitting in my reading chair with Christian music in the background and a cat on my lap, it’s easy for me to read my Bible and imagine myself doing the right thing if I had been the seminary student or the “Good Samaritan” in the parable told by Jesus. It’s when I get up from my chair and step out into the messy world, that doing “what Jesus would do” can challenge my faith.

Last week, I’m at the post office to mail the printed copies of the AMEN Corners and there is a homeless person sitting on the concrete and leaning up against the building next to the glass doors. As I’m crossing the parking lot, I see several people walking up, glancing at the person but then looking quickly away. As I got closer, I could see why. He was a large, Black man in his twenties. Clean looking. But on his left arm the skin was split open as if an abscess had burst leaving a large hole. There was no blood but the visible white layer of fat on his arm surrounded by his dark black skin was startling to see. As I watched the people walking ahead of me hurry on by not wanting to look at this young man, the parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind and I could hear Jesus say, “This is your neighbor.”

Jesus says to “love your neighbor” and my neighbors make it easy for me to do so. I love Nick and Liz, my Christian neighbors who live right next door. I love Albert and Heather, the young couple who recently moved in across the street and are expecting their first child. I love Jeff and Trish – we used to go to church together. It’s easy for me to love my neighbors and pray for them. But then Jesus takes a nice, safe, hypothetical Bible story about a good Samaritan and drops it into the reality of my day. 

Put yourself in my place as you watch the good citizens of Sylmar hurry past the suffering young man lying there at the post office. As you approach, he looks up and your eyes meet. You hear Jesus say: “This is your neighbor.” What would you do?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Why Do You Go To Church?

Maria has been faithfully attending our services for the past three years. She is a small, frail woman in her eighties who speaks no English at all. She listens to the pastor singing unfamiliar hymns and worship songs and hears prayers and a sermon in a language she does not understand. She has difficulty walking but always struggles to her feet and reverently crosses herself before receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during Communion. Once when her daughter joined her for the Sunday service I told her how much I appreciated her mom being there even though the service was in English. She told me her mom always feels the peace of God after attending the service. 
A woman who attended a high-energy Pentecostal church told me that she was bored in the service and “not being fed” by the pastor’s sermons and needed to find another church where she could again feel excited about going to church on Sunday. (“not being fed” is what we say when we don’t enjoy the pastor’s sermons but we want to say that in a way that makes us sound more spiritual than shallow) A woman in a mainline liturgical church wrote: “Frankly I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and the listening?” These two women are religious “spectators” and I understand the point they are making and why they feel that way. They attend their church as they would attend any music concert, lecture, class or movie – as a nonparticipant who simply sits and listens and expects to be entertained, emotionally moved or taught something that will be of personal interest to them.

If church really is only about the music and the message then I’d be the first one to say that it is pointless to attend any church considering that we live in an entertainment-oriented world where we can watch professionally produced church services that rival any Las Vegas show. On any web-connected device I can live-stream services of Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Charles Stanley and other church superstars. So why do I need to sit through a sermon at that little neighborhood church? I can download music from the top worship bands in America’s mega-churches, so why do I need to listen to amateur worship singers in church? A pastor has an online church that even celebrates Holy Communion. She pauses during her taped service while you run to the fridge and fetch the grape juice or something else to drink and then get a cracker or grab a cookie. As you watch her read the words of the ritual, whatever beverage you have in the glass is automatically turned into the “blood” of Jesus. Then as you hold your Oreo cookie up to the screen on your phone, her prayer of consecration turns it into the “body” of Jesus Christ. Is this the church that Jesus founded 2,000 years ago? Something is missing.

Jesus established the “church” (Greek: ecclesia meaning a community of believers) to glorify God and worship Him forever. Centuries later, church leaders turned His church into an institution that became the “mediator” between the believer and God. The Protestant reformation turned back to the first Century church that focused on a personal relationship between believer and God, but many of today’s Americanized Protestant services have become performance events with professional worship bands, short, funny, self-help messages by pastors and, for some, an unrelenting focus on social justice activism. Something is missing.

What’s missing is what Jesus established the church to do. It’s missing our reverent worship. The church is a “thin place.” In Celtic spirituality, thin places are where the ordinary of our lives and the holiness of God meet and our worship moves us between both of those realities. Thin places are often described as being where the veil between heaven and earth seems transparent. The sacrament of the Eucharist pulls back the veil and reveals the presence of God. During the moment in the service when the Eucharistic Prayer is said over the bread and wine, the sanctuary becomes thick with His Presence. If you have never experienced church as a “thin place,” you have never experienced the church as it was meant to be. Author Annie Dillard writes, “If we really understood the power we routinely invoke during Sunday worship, we’d wear crash helmets in church.” 

Our ecclesia – our community of believers – is where we gather to glorify God and worship Him. But if our focus is solely on what the church can do for us, then we will inevitably become  disappointed. Church is not our spiritual health spa, it’s where we go to worship the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The service is not for us and not about us. It’s all about God. But it’s when you gather on a Sunday morning to worship and glorify God, that’s when He reaches down and touches us. When we worship Him, we are changed–transformed–and we leave church a different person than when we walked in those doors.
It doesn’t matter to Maria that her church service is in a language that she doesn’t understand. She is there to worship God. She knows the English words “God” and “Jesus” and so she knows that the songs being sung are hymns and worship songs. She hears those two familiar Names in the prayers and in the sermons. That’s all she needs to know. She knows that worship is taking place and in her heart and in her language, she joins right in. She is not there to be entertained or educated but to worship her God. And in doing so, He meets her right there and takes her into His presence. She loves God and knows that He loves her. She feels His peace. She comes to worship and leaves transformed. That’s why she comes to church.