My new book, “Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us” (Abingdon Press, December 2014), explores the Eucharist as a powerful means of grace for Christian formation and church renewal. You can read more about it and even order a copy at the following website: www.abingdonpress.com/product/9781426796333. The excerpt from below (in italics, along with some additional thoughts and commentary) is from chapter 1, “A Prayer of Thanksgiving: Seeking the Presence of God,” and it invites readers to see the Lord’s Supper for what it truly is, namely, a prayer thanking the God of our salvation.
The first time I walked into the church’s prayer chapel, my heart sank. The dank, dimly lit room had become essentially a catchall. The walls were lined with boxes and dusty bookshelves overstuffed with old certificates, pictures, and other mementos (the congregation was gearing up for its 150th anniversary celebration). There were baskets of prayer request slips from services held years before. I don’t even want to know how old the tissue box was! This space, once consecrated to God, was no longer used on a regular basis for the originally intended purpose. Instead it had become overrun with stuff, a lot of it junk.
There I was, the new pastor of a church that had a strong, proud heritage but more recently had experienced several decades of slow decline while nobly carrying on, a congregation like so many others these days. I was trying to envision through hope-filled eyes the potential for renewal and growth in that setting, but as I stepped into the prayer chapel that day almost all I could see was a bunch of clutter in a space that was supposed to be devoted to prayer.
One way to gauge the vitality of a church is to look at the place of prayer in that church’s life. The same is true on a personal level; the role of prayer in one’s life probably gives a good indication of the depth, breadth, and power of that person’s faith. God calls us to be a people of prayer, a people attentive to God’s presence.
So easily, though, the stuff of our lives can spread and take over, as it did in that prayer chapel. We will likely find such a place in most churches, as well as most human hearts and lives—spaces or areas that were at one point dedicated to God and God’s presence, but have since begun serving other purposes or no purpose at all. Without sufficient formation and care, without the light and order that we need, without remaining open to the fresh air of God’s grace stirring among and within us, parts of our lives can become cluttered and musty, stifling rather than encouraging spiritual vitality.
Thankfully, God gives us the sacraments, sacred gifts endowed with divine power to clean up our lives. By these outward signs of an inward grace, and God’s good will toward us, the Holy Spirit works invisibly in us, and quickens, strengthens, and confirms our faith in Christ. God authorizes and graciously imparts the sacraments to us for our sanctification.
Think a little more about the problem with the prayer chapel mentioned above and its spiritual implications. (By the way, in the book I go on to talk about how the people of the church have since reclaimed that space, and the newly renovated prayer chapel is a symbol of the new life that God wants to bring us through prayer and Holy Communion.) Are there any aspects of your life that are like that prayer chapel—areas that were once consecrated to God but have since become neglected? How can you reclaim those areas for God’s purposes?
Later in chapter 1, I lead readers on a journey through the liturgy (or order of worship) presented in the hymnal that I use for leading worship, “The United Methodist Hymnal,” beginning with the words of invitation to commune with Christ and with others in his name: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with God and one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.” The order of worship continues with such elements as the peace and offering, the Great Thanksgiving (which recalls Christ’s Last Supper with the disciples and the words of institution), a prayer invoking the power of the Holy Spirit, and the giving of the bread and cup. Saying these words takes time, but they are important; as a whole, they constitute a prayer of thanks to God. In Communion services at your church, what does the pastor say leading up to the distribution of the elements? Have you ever stopped to think about the meaning of those words? What do those words say about God, the world, and the purposes of God? What do they suggest about how we can encounter and live for God?
Every year here in America we set aside a day for giving and receiving gifts—and what do we do on that day? We eat a lot. Then we eat some more! We relish all the delicious food and time with family. But for Christians, our most important meal is The Great Thanksgiving, Holy Communion, a true feast for our souls. How does considering Communion as first and foremost a prayer of thanksgiving affect your understanding of what this holy meal is all about and why it matters?
This post includes material quoted from “Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us” (www.abingdonpress.com/product/9781426796333).