Virtual Eucharist During Covid-19: Hot Takes and What-Have-Yous

I can think of few better ways to start this post than with the immortal words of The Dude:

This is a complex issue and there is no way that I will be able to capture every facet of this topic in a holistic way. It’s too broad, and there are too many different views. I do want to compile some of the things I’ve read about it, and share my opinion.

I want to start by acknowledging my location in this post. I’m writing this from my perspective within the ELCA. Eucharistic piety is diverse in the church universal, and even in the ELCA in particular. I am writing from my understanding and expression of Lutheran sacramental Christianity. I also am locating myself as a white, suburban-dwelling resident of the U.S. I think that influences my thinking compared to others in other locations.

I also want to echo something Richard Rohr said in a recent devotion: “our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge is fully face-to-face. God is always and forever Mystery.” We can grasp at what God is doing for us in the Eucharist, but our understanding of it is indirect at best. We can say it is a means of grace, and leave it at that.

There are many reasons for and reasons against having the Eucharist in a virtual environment (the Serrano brothers cover a lot of this):

  • Pros: people need communion now more than ever; this is an emergency; God’s presence is everywhere; the Spirit can work through any medium including digital; people are dying, this may be the last time they are able to commune; and many more reasons.
  • Cons: online gatherings are not real gatherings; we don’t have control over what people do with it; what kind of precedent does this set for the future; if you can commune yourself at home online, why would people come back to church; and many more reasons.

I think some of the quickness to jump completely into virtual Eucharist is based on fear of the future. We have articles telling us that nothing is ever going back to normal. That every organization is effectively a start up now. If this were true, then we have to re-evaluate everything that we do, including the sacraments. But is it true? Does everything have to be adapted?

Regarding the Lutheran Confessions, it is hard not to scratch your head while observing the Eucharist being celebrated in an empty room, with no one to administer the body and blood to. Isn’t this, the offering of private masses, exactly what Luther railed against as an abuse of the church (Augsburg Confession, 24)? How have we so quickly thrown out 500 years of Lutheran theology?

On the other hand: “For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel…” (Augsburg Confession, 5.2). Maybe virtual Eucharist pleases God? Maybe God can effect faith through it, whenever and wherever God pleases?

But then again: “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (Augsburg Confession, 7.1). Is online worship an assembly? Aren’t we missing the tangible, physical people? That is the very heart of Eucharist: an incarnational reality of Jesus being really present. Jesus didn’t become virtually present at his birth. He was real, enfleshed. If we are not present and embodied to one another, can Jesus be present and embodied?

Deanna Thompson would suggest the answer is yes. She states that we have to look no further than the cross to find God in unexpected places. “At a time when physical contact is so limited, communing together virtually with our faith communities can affirm the reality that our bodies are engaged in worship even when we’re participating from our living room, that we’re still connected to the other bodies gathered virtually for worship even when we can only see photos of them online, and that Christ comes to us in the gifts of bread and wine even when our pastors’ Words of Institution are mediated by a screen.”

While the focus is primarily on the Words of Institution, let’s not forget the epiclesis. It is a common misunderstanding that the epiclesis is a prayer of invocation for the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine during Eucharist. But the Spirit is being invoked on more than just the elements. Of the 10 options for Prayers of Thanksgiving at the Table given in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 9 of them ask for the Spirit to be poured out upon the people, not just the bread and wine. The words spoken at Eucharist make not only the bread and wine special, but the people special.

Maybe the format matters as well. Prof. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero points out the differences between livestreaming and web conferencing: “The livestreaming approach is unidirectional, which is how one currently watches television and YouTube. The broadcaster creates the material, and those who watch consume the material. Participation at best is passive and could be analogous to a pre-Reformation understanding of the mass. The main role of the worshiper is to watch at the important moments, while simultaneously engaging in their own devotional practices. The web conferencing approach is bidirectional and multidirectional. It allows for both proclamation and response through the same online tool, which is not the case with livestreaming. The ‘congregation’ is part of the interactivity just as the worship leaders. This better simulates the dialogical nature of Lutheran worship.”

Tim Wengert has pointed out that although we are accustomed to receiving the Eucharist every week, “there is no magic number of times to celebrate.” He also reminds us that, “the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it.”

There’s also a justice component to all this. The church in Corinth was critiqued for not being present to one another, not waiting for one another. Is virtual Eucharist a same kind of not waiting on one another? In our synod, Bishop Mike Rinehart said: “If you choose online consecration over the internet, you may exclude those who don’t own computers or who aren’t online for financial or other reasons. If you offer for some, you should offer for all.”

Prof. Benjamin Stewart also tweeted this:

From Thomas Schattauer at Wartburg: “From my perspective, the kind of virtual celebration of the eucharist that some are commending—virtual consecration and private reception—and various other forms of eucharistic celebration at a distance are not to be encouraged. These practices, which take place apart from an assembly gathered in place, tend to reinforce clericalized understandings of the sacrament as a kind of magic (with the Words of institution as magic words) and the individualism of much contemporary life. My own deep conviction is that the eucharist is fundamentally an action of God within a locally gathered assembly of persons present to one another….”

Craig Nessan said, “it is not only bread and wine in accord with the Words of Institution that belong to the Lord’s Supper but also an ‘assembly.’ At best a virtual Eucharist remains an approximation of that meal in Jesus’ name which occurs in a place where the assembly is gathered.” He also reminds us of our ecumenical partnerships: “What are the implications of the practice of virtual Eucharist for full communion within a denomination and for full communion within the universal body of Christ?”

It all seems to reveal that we’ve just discovered another way to divide ourselves at the table. Yet another unholy discovery over something that Jesus did to unite and remind the disciples. Are we still missing the point?

Bishop Jim Gonia may have said it best: “During a time of pandemic, there are a variety of faithful responses a faith community can choose with respect to the practice of Holy Communion. Each of these pathways presents both challenges and opportunities. None is perfect. Some are more commendable than others.” We don’t need to divide ourselves over this if there is more than one way to be faithful. Context matters. Pastors and lay leadership need to decide together what is best for their context.

Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson reminds us the Eucharist has always been a virtual gathering as the communion of saints. “Like the altar, this virtual table we are now setting is a different kind of table where everyone gathered is invited to bring parts of themselves as well as the rich history handed to us from saints who have come before us. When we bring all our pieces together, holy ground is created. Community is present. God is present.”

In the end, I would agree with the ELCA’s request to fast from virtual Eucharist, and to shift to an extended “teaching moment about the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God, and that we make use of the Service of the Word and Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer and Responsive Prayer. Let us spend time in scripture study, pray for each other, and contact others regularly by phone, email or social media.”

At the same time, I believe as Luther did that parents are the pastors of their home. To that end, I think another solution would be to tell families that if they feel led to celebrate Eucharist at home, to do it around the dinner table before/after a meal. Share the homebound communion liturgy with them and let the parents pastor their home.

And I also wonder about Luther’s words in the Small Catechism on The Sacrament of the Altar: “How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing? Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sin.'”

Perhaps hearing “for you,” eating, and drinking are enough?

Digital Worship Podcast

I’m happy to share “Digital Worship,” a podcast that I worked on for Wartburg Theological Seminary. These are important conversations about how we approach worship in these digital-bound days.

(Sorry I wasn’t able to embed the player directly in the post. Clicking the image will take you to the podcast, which is also available on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.)

The Eucharist in a Food Desert

As I’m preparing to deliver the message at church this Sunday, I’m thinking about food deserts.

From Wikipedia: “A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.[1][2][3] In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis.[4] The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible.[5] Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods.[6] In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas.”

For those of us that live with an abundance of food security it can be hard to imagine not having whatever we want readily available to us at all hours. The gospel for this Sunday tells about how Jesus miraculously fed thousands with just a small amount of food available. Jesus was concerned about their well-being. He wanted the people to be really nourished, not just spiritually fed. What does that mean for us? How does the fact that we assemble around a table for communion every Sunday lead us to action?

The table is not just a place for us to commune with God privately. It is a sign of God’s overflowing abundance and desire for all to be fed, physically and spiritually.

Weekly Worship Thought – Bread for the World

breadOne of the oldest Eucharistic prayers (a prayer from the communion table) comes from the Didache, probably written in late first century: “As grain is scattered over the hills and gathered back together to become one loaf of bread, so let God’s people be gathered together at one table from the ends of the earth.” In this prayer we are reminded of the process of making bread: seeds are planted, they grow, grain is harvested, and then it is manipulated to make the ingredient used to create the loaf. This is a metaphor of the church. We as individual believers are scattered throughout the week to our world to grow and serve our neighbors. On the sabbath, the day of resurrection, we are harvested and assembled back together into one loaf. We become the Body of Christ when we assemble – the image of God’s presence on earth. As we disassemble we are broken and shared for the life of the world, just like the loaf of bread that we consume at the Eucharist.

The Future of ELCA Worship

The Future of ELCA WorshipOn October 19-21 I will be in Chicago for a trip to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide offices. It is an honor to be asked by Rev. Kevin Strickland, Director of Worship for the ELCA, to participate in the Consultation on the Ongoing Renewal of Worship in the Church. We will be discerning what the continually unfolding renewal of worship in our churches might look like in the years ahead. As I prepare, I have been reflecting on what I long for in my own life and in my own ministry context. Where do I need to experience growth in my pilgrimage as a disciple following along the Jesus path? In what ways do I want to see the worship I design and lead stretched and deepened? Here are three areas I want to discover and grow into the future – both personally and corporately:

  1. Learn to Worship – I realize that stating a desire to learn to worship can sound bizarre coming from a professional church musician. Perhaps a better proposition would be that I desire for all my assumptions about worship to be challenged. Asking the right questions can peck away at our engrained assumptions about worship. Where is my understanding of worship one-dimensional when in reality it is three-dimensional? When am I distracted from truly worshiping in the midst of the assembly? Why don’t I make room for quiet and stillness? Where is God present when I assume God’s absence? How do I faithfully prepare my heart for worship before every assembly? Why do I suppose the living, breathing, moving God of heaven and earth is restricted to my preferences and tastes? What would a Sunday without music or speech look like? Where have adiaphora taken place of the central things? Renewing worship means asking critical questions about why our worship is the way it is.
  1. Learn to Feast – I have long felt that communion is more feast than funeral. Yet we more often than not connect the weekly Eucharist to Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, and subsequent execution. What about every other meal Jesus ate? What about the food with tax collectors, and the miraculously expanding fish and loaves, and the meal with two disciples at Emmaus, and the post-resurrection fish breakfast tacos? Jesus was doing something significant in reconstituting the Passover, no doubt. Christ is our Paschal Victim/Victor. But I think there is something important beneath it all: Jesus ate with people. Our celebrations around God’s table are connected to every meal Jesus ever ate – including the everlasting meal to come in God’s eternal Kingdom. What does the ritual action of feasting look like? How can communion become more feast than funeral?
  2. Learn to Converge – We are trapped by the need to clearly label and categorize our worship. Using worship as a tool to target a specific group of people produces consumers, not disciples. Instead of being preoccupied with the copyright date of the songs we sing (as if church music had an expiration date), we should be singing the best and broadest types of music from God’s people in all places and times. In doing so our worship becomes countercultural (perhaps counter to the surrounding culture, perhaps counter to the prevailing church culture). Liturgical action teaches us self-denial and humility, where the surrounding culture may teach us to get ahead and have it our way. Through singing broad types of music we also become cross-cultural and can see God through the artistic offerings of cultures besides our own. This is the heart of convergent worship. Convergent worship is not a style. It is a mindset. Convergent worship is the coming together of the historic and the contemporary at every level of worship (not just the music) to create maximum opportunities for engaging worshipers with the presence of God. Convergent worship expresses a willingness to reopen all questions about worship and to learn from the entire worshipping community. Convergent worship has a healthy respect for the past while maintaining an absolute commitment to contemporary relevance.

These are the areas where I see a need for growth in my own personal and corporate worship. What about you – what does the future of worship look like to you?

FREE Download – My Eucharistic Setting

Eucharistic Setting graphic

For a while I’ve wanted to create my own setting of Eucharistic liturgy music for use in worship. I wanted something that could be used in a contemporary/post-modern service with a guitar or band. I also wanted to use fresh language and imagine some of these well-known texts in a different way.

I ain’t gonna lie – this recording is a little rough. I recorded it at my home studio with a couple of mics. I played and sang all the parts. So there are some exposed edges – which is kind of how I like it anyway.

This music was meant for the church. We have been singing them at Faith Lutheran. Please use them if you think they’ll work in your context. Permission is granted for use in worship. The mp3s are free to download. If you’d like the lead sheets they are available at the PayPal link below for $5.

Eucharistic Setting (2014) – Click here for all mp3s

Let me hear from you if you find these songs useful.

“God Still…Draws the Whole World” Message

Magi_(1)Matthew 2:1-23 –
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus (Arche-Lay-Us) was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

  • Prologue
    Welcome to the first Sunday of Christmas; remember that there are 12 days in the season of Christmas. Unlike our house, the tree is still up here at Faith. Also this is the last Sunday of the year 2013 – which happens to be the most heretical Sunday of the church year! Why are churches across the nation filled with heresy today? Because this is the Sunday that every pastor takes off, thus leaving others to fill in the pulpit. Which leads to all sorts of heresy! (Hopefully not here.) Continue reading

Holy Communion – what’s in a name?

RollDid you know that there are a variety of names for the sharing of bread and wine in worship? Those names include the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Breaking of Bread, Eucharist, Mass, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Divine Liturgy, and the Divine Service. Each title highlights a unique aspect of the Meal.

The “Lord’s Supper” speaks of the meal that the risen Lord holds with the Church, the meal of the Lord’s Day, a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come. It also reminds us of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was handed over to his death.

“Holy Communion” accentuates the holy community established by the Holy Spirit as we encounter Christ and are formed into one body with him and so with each other. The word “communion” reminds us of how the early church shared everything in common (Acts 2:44).

“Breaking of Bread” is a phrase used four times in the New Testament (Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46, and 20:7). It recalls how the early church celebrated communion within the context of a larger common meal (known as the Agape Meal).

“Eucharist” calls us to see that the whole meal is a great thanksgiving for creation and for creation’s redemption in Jesus Christ. The term “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek noun εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning “thanksgiving.” Communion is understood as a meal of thanksgiving, reflecting how Jesus “gave thanks” as he broke and blessed the bread and wine.

The term “Mass” is derived from the old dismissal of the participants at the end of the service and the sending away of the bread and the cup to the absent. It invites us into mission. The term “Mass” originates from the Late Latin word missa (dismissal), a word used in the concluding formula of Mass in Latin: “Ite, missa est” (“Go; it is the dismissal”).

“Sacrament of the Altar” invites each one to eat and drink from the true altar of God, the body and blood of Christ given and shed “for you.”

“Divine Liturgy” says the celebration is a public action, carried out by a community of people. This is the term used in Byzantine Rite traditions, such as in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These churches also speak of “the Divine Mysteries,” especially in reference to the consecrated elements, which they also call “the Holy Gifts.”

“Divine Service” helps us to see that the primary action of our gathering is God’s astonishing service to us; we are called to respond in praise and in service to our neighbor.

(This article includes excerpts from The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 36.)

Experiencing God in Worship

1228670_90111056How do you experience God in worship?

Is it a feeling? Is it an attitude? Is it a thought? Does it bring joy? Does it feel mysterious? Does it make your fingertips tingle?

Which part of Sunday worship is most meaningful to you?

Is it the songs and hymns we sing together with one voice? Is it the water that cleanses us and renews us as new creatures in Christ? Is it the reading of God’s story and the proclamation of the good news in Jesus? Is it the common meal we share in broken bread and poured wine? Is it the blessing and sending that propels us to be God’s people for the good of the world? Where do you experience God the most in worship?

The important thing is not how you experience God in worship – but that you experience God in worship. If you come to church week after week and never experience the person of God, never enter the fellowship of the Trinity, you’ve missed the point and we as a church have failed in our task.

Also valuable to remember is that how you experience God is not the same as how other people experience God in worship. God creates us as individuals and wires each of us in unique ways. Just because one person experiences God in a different way than us does not make it better or worse than the way we experience God. What becomes crucial is how we act and respond to those who draw near to God using “worship languages” that are different than our own. The words of Philippians 2:3-4 should guide the hearts of everyone in our assembly on Sunday: “In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” We worship God as one body, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Worship is designed to create space for the Holy Spirit to move and show up in fresh and unexpected ways. Worship is not a one way conversation. We are not the only ones speaking during worship. Worship is space for the Spirit to provoke, whisper, and prod us into Christ-likeness. The work of our worship is to be attentive in both heart and mind and then follow in obedience.

God's Meal & Table – Alternate Preparation for Eucharist

On Sunday at Theophilus, I improvised some words as we prepared to celebrate God’s meal together. Someone asked me to re-share what I said, so I wrote it down in an email. I’m reposting it here, just in case anyone else would like to reflect on it more:

Now is the time in the service when we celebrate God’s meal together. I want to share 4 stories from the Bible that included meals:

  • In the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, there was an event called Passover. It was the time when God freed his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt and gave them a new home. It included a meal. And in the meal God’s people were supposed to eat unleavened bread, which is bread that didn’t sit and rise. After God’s people were rescued from slavery, they were to re-commemorate the event every year by eating this meal. And when they ate the unleavened bread it was a reminder that God’s mercy and redemption were going to come quickly, and there wasn’t time to wait for the bread to rise.
  • Jesus, the night before he was handed over to his death, ate a meal with his closest followers, his disciples. And that night he got on the floor and washed his disciples feet. And he told them that he was giving them a new commandment – that they were to love one another. Jesus was teaching his disciples that power and leadership doesn’t come from beating people down with violence or intimidation, but it comes from humility and service. Jesus’ followers were going to be known by their love, not their hatred or violence toward others.
  • After Jesus’ death and resurrection, a couple of his followers were on the road walking. They were discouraged and confused about what had happen to their teacher. A stranger came alongside them, and began explaining to them what had happen to Jesus and why it was necessary. Jesus’ followers stopped and invited the stranger to eat a meal together. When they sat down, the stranger took bread, broke it, and gave thanks for it. And suddenly the disciples recognized something they had heard before. And then it clicked – and they realized it was Jesus with them, risen from the dead! And instantly he was gone.
  • The final meal that Jesus eats with his friends is yet to happen. It will be the meal that we celebrate with Jesus for eternity in the new heaven and the new earth. This meal is the feast that every tribe, tongue, and nation are invited to. And Jesus will be there with us, face to face.

This meal that we celebrate today is a reminder and a foretaste of all these stories that include meals. Everyone is welcome – come to the feast at God’s table!