Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Morning Thanks: Moving the table


He wasn't sly about it. He didn't do it when no one was looking. He stood up there in front of the church, right there behind the communion table, looked out at a full sanctuary, and shook his head. "I always get the feeling I'm speaking to only half the church," he said, annoyed. "Would someone come up here and help me move the table?"

Folks who choose to attend worship services these days are mostly agreeable; within seconds he had help. Together, the pastor and this manservant moved the communion table out front of the pulpit, where it took a new place, centerstage.

I couldn't help chuckling. On a whim, he scrambled the imagery and effectively rewrote the whole Reformation--that's what I was thinking. By giving the sacrament centerstage, he hid the pulpit, putting it in a symbolic place it hadn't been for 500 years, a time when my own nameless ancestors were Nederlandic Catholics, not Protestants. The Catholics are sacramentalists; Dutch Calvinists are children of the Reformation.

Not yesterday.

Like I said, I chuckled. And couldn't help wonder if anyone else in the entire congregation noticed how my good friend and beloved pastor had so utterly blasphemed the whole Reformation. The Lord's Supper went on meaningfully, marred only by the fact that the elders had to scramble for more wine to serve the overflow crowd. Which was nice.

All of which made me think about ritual and symbol, and whether anyone knows or anyone cares about such things as pulpit furniture symbolism these days. Probably not. The moment he moved the table, I felt Zwingli turn in his grave. But how many of us in that church had a clue that the arrangement of furniture--pulpit in the middle, communion table on one side, baptismal font on the other--has actual significance?

Very, very few, I'd guess. Very, very few. And that's just fine. Every soul there understood that the move was, in fact, symbolic: the pastor wanted to stand at the middle of congregational attention; but few recognized that John Knox would thought it sacrelige.

Is that good or bad? Who cares anyway? History is bunk. Besides, all the headlines these days goes to the "Emergent Church," whose constitution begins and ends with "do your thing," drawing on spiritual traditions from around the world in an effort to be, what?--relevant, I suppose, to not be stuck in the woody, impenetrable past.

Besides, if I were to leave the denomination into which I was born, I'd probably move to something in the "high church" market, where the sacraments are more central to worship. Look, I thought what our pastor did was just fine. Besides, it's almost impossible to argue that the sermon--one guy speaking to a crowd--isn't flailing away trying to keep its head above the water.

I'm reading a book titled The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Schulevitz, who is Jewish. Very much so. I'm not. No matter. It's a wonderful book because it talks about a specific ritual once immensely close to the hearts and minds of my people--the Sabbath--and it does so in a way that makes the whole idea vastly more appealing.

But when the pastor moved the communion table yesterday, put it right at the heart of things, I couldn't help think of Schulevitz, because she says that rituals like the Sabbath "make sense to Jews because being members of their community means being committed to making sense of them."

There's an awkward circularity to that argument, but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting--and, even agreeable. My mother-in-law was always happy to say that her own mother fabad her the use of scissors on Sunday, an edict I thought hilarious--and, in effect, so did she.

Until you try to understand. Until you determine where such a silly ban may have originated. When you do, it makes some sense. Not enough for me to lock it up on Sunday; after all, I use scissors on the Sabbath, my kids use scissors on the Sabbath--that's not the point. The point is understanding why. And what Ms. Schulevitz claims is that sometimes understanding why scissors are Sabbath contraband--or why the furniture is arranged the way it is in at least some Protestant churches--is the task specifically of those who are already part of that particular faith tradition. It's taken me most of my life to understand some things about basic Calvinism, most of my life--and neither that quest nor my life are over quite yet.

And here's something else--the idea that those who believe something should be committed to understanding as much as they can about it is, by my estimation profoundly sweet and profoundly humble. The "system" doesn't exist for my benefit; I benefit the system by my own desire to serve it. That strikes me as profoundly counter-cultural. I like that.

Schulevitz says if we do work at understanding ritual and symbol in faith--we meaning Jewish folks, but not just Jewish folks--we'll somehow find living with the burden of ritual (and ritual can be immensely burdensome) vastly more doable.

I think she's right on that score too.

For the record, by the time of the evening service the communion table was moved back to the place it's been for 500 years.

And all's well. Zwingli's fast asleep.

And I'm thankful for the opportunity this morning to think, to remember. . .and to chuckle a little.

1 comment:

Seriously Though said...

You should write a book about this. Being raised Presbyterian USA, but left it for charismania, I really know nothing about sacrements. I'm reading some writings of St. Francis of Assisi and I was shocked to learn there are things as sacrements to get upset about. It has started me thinking about this.