THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

FELLOWSHIP TIME

In many of the congregations I know and have worked with, there is an insider language which we use to describe things in ways that might seem hard to understand to outsiders but which make perfect sense to us.  Often, for example, a special service of some kind might be followed by a “fellowship time”.  The basic translation is simple–there will be food afterwards and all the regulars of the congregation need to remember to bring their particular speciality.

I happen to like fellowship times as my long suffering belt will give witness to.  But one of the interesting realities of church life is that the fellowship time we all enjoy has a very strong and direct connection with another part of church life that many are not aware of.  Fellowship times with food and the worship at the Table (variously called Communion, the Lost Supper, the Eucharist among other things) have an interesting relationship that can make both more significant.

At first glance, there isn’t a strong connection.  Fellowship times have lots of food, coffee and tea, lots of talk, spilled drinks, dropped food, sharing of recipes, laughter and so on.  The worship of the Table is serious and solemn, filled with symbolism and ritual, conducted with reverence and congregational silence.  Fellowship time seeks to bring us together with each other and Communion seeks to reconnect us with God and give us a spiritual boost.

The two are clearly separate but important aspects of church and faith–except that they aren’t as separate and different as we think.  The worship at the Table began as a meal.  Jesus and the disciples were sharing in the Passover meal when Jesus instituted the Communion worship.  The Passover meal has a lot of symbolic and highly spiritual aspects–but in the end, it is a meal complete with all the aspects of a normal meal.  That would include lots of conversation, passing of food, spilling and slopping (Da Vinci’s Last Supper includes a spilled salt dish by Judas).  The people at the table were friends–they had their differences and tensions like any normal group of people but they were in the end friends enjoying a good meal together–much like any collection of people enjoying a fellowship time.

For me, the connection between fellowship times and Communion is important and can help both become more important.  When we look at fellowship times as a form of Communion, our laughing and sharing becomes a spiritual exercise.  When we drink coffee and share food at a fellowship time, we are in some real way experiencing the reality of the Last Supper.  As we fellowship, we can be more aware of the presence of God in our midst, bringing us together and blessing our time together.  We eat and laugh but we also make concrete our love for each other, which makes concrete our love for God.

When we take elements at a Communion service, we can see them not just as symbols of the love of God but also as reminders of the fact that the worship at the table began as a meal among friends and that underneath the centuries of ritual and tradition, we are still sharing food and drink with friends in the presence of God who called us together to the table.  The reverence and solemnity of the Communion should never hide the fact that it began as a good meal among friends.

Both the fellowship time and Communion also point to the fact that ours is a community based faith.  We are joined together by God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and when we eat and drink together, we can remember the community, whether the eating is a full meal or a ritualized event filled with symbolism.  We eat and drink together with people who are important to us and with whom we are comfortable–and in the Christian context, we eat and drink together as people joined together by our shared acceptance of the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

So, whether we celebrate Communion during worship or eat together after worship, we are called to remember and emphasize the community nature of our faith.  God has invited us together to share at his table, a table that we can see not just in worship but also in the food of a fellowship time.

May the peace of God be with you.