My perspective on children and Holy Communion

One of the things I most enjoy about pastoring is leading the congregation to the Lord’s Table. Holy Communion is a vital part of the Christian life, given to us as spiritual food for the journey. Ideally, I’d like to celebrate Holy Communion weekly in at least one worship service.

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From time to time people ask me about children’s participation in the sacramental life of the church. Should children receive communion? If so, when? 

There are a variety of ways to answer this question. Some presbyterians do not allow children to receive the sacrament until they are in 9th grade and meet with the Session for confirmation. This is related to Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 11–those receiving must be able, they suggest, to examine themselves. Others insist that children be admitted to the Table from their infancy since they are children of the covenant and heirs of the promises of the covenant. Our congregation has chosen–as a general rubric–that kids ordinarily begin receiving Holy Communion in second grade after our Bible brunch and communion lesson.

So, what’s the right answer? What we (that is, the Gissings) have chosen to do is wait until the kids ask to receive communion. If they never did, we would likely have waited till 2nd grade. Nathan, however, asked to begin receiving communion when he was six. We spent several times talking to him about the meaning and mode of Holy Communion so that he was able to explain why he wanted to receive it and something of the meaning of the sacrament. Eliza, who is five, recently asked and we’re in the process of working with her to prepare her to receive it.

In choosing this course, we have kept in mind several principles:

  1. Holy Communion is serious, but not somber. Tellingly, we celebrate the Eucharist. It is an encounter with the living Christ where we feed on him in our hearts by faith. As such it is both serious, but a joyful thing.  
  2. 2 Corinthians 11 may not be entirely normative. Some conservative Presbyterians (mis)read 2 Corinthians 11 to make it seem that God is waiting to smite those who do not worthily receive the body and blood of Christ. Paul warns that there is a wrong way to receive communion. Generally, however, I think most of the improper ways of receiving communion apply to adults more than to children who typically come to meet Jesus.
  3. Children should be instructed, but not intimidated. We explained to Nathan and Eliza what Communion means and why it’s important. We did our best to emphasize that it’s an important rite, but not something they should be scared of.
  4. Honor your congregation’s structure and practices. As important as it if for your child to receive the sacrament, it’s also important to honor the decisions and practices of your church body.
  5. Err in the direction of grace. With children, it’s safe to err in the direction of grace. In other words, it seems to me that God will not turn a little one away who comes to him in the simple, innocent manner of a child.

What do you think?

If you want to grow spiritually, start small

I had a transformative spiritual experience this morning. After taking one kid to the bus stop and the other to preschool, I hung out our family’s wet laundry. And as I pegged each piece of dripping clothing to the line, my heart rate slowed. My mind grew still. I found myself noticing the humidity in the air, the sounds of the city around—a distant garbage truck and the odd way a siren changes key as it moves away from you—and the chatter of neighbors talking across the fence. My mind and senses moved into the moment. To borrow a term that is perhaps on the cups of cliché, I became present to the moment.

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Like many of you during the course of a week my mind goes in many directions and body stays all but still. I prepare the liturgy for this weeks’ communion service, I think through the congregational meeting I will moderate, I outline some thoughts on an up-coming study of Ephesians. I prepare budget scenarios for the upcoming budget process. Email. Texts. Calls. Office pop-ins. Sometimes these things feel like death by a thousand cuts. No one thing pushes me over the edge and into mental hyperactivity, but together my mind seems to run the marathon my body should be running.

We all know that our world is moving fast. Some Christians seem to believe that if the world moves fast, the kingdom should move faster. In truth, the kingdom keeps its own speed and it’s generally rather slower than we’d like. However, we often get confused and believe that the Christian spiritual life should follow the pattern of, say, a Tony Robbins motivational seminar. Be a peak performer! Shatter your mental barriers and negative self-talk! Live your best life now.

I don’t see much of that in the gospels or in the rest of Holy Scripture for that matter.

In reality, the Christian life is very ordinary. For the most part, we grow incrementally rather than in leaps and bounds. What is true in the world of exercise is largely true in the life of discipleship: you have to run a mile before you can run a marathon. In other words, holiness comes by training, which opens the door for the Spirit’s transformation of the heart.

If you want to grow as a saint don’t quest after high intensity, impactful (I hate that word) events that will catapult you into the company of the holy apostles. Instead, look soberly at your life. God has given you very ordinary ways to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. In the reformed tradition we call them the ordinary means of grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 88 explains them this way:

 

Q: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?

A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

The church needs to recover ordinary means ministry. That is, before we start talking about missional practice or the five-fold model of ministry, we need to establish that the foundation of Christian faithfulness is no less than following the pattern established by the apostles—gathering for word, sacrament, and prayer.

Our congregational gathering for common prayer, for the proclamation of Scripture, and for the celebration of the sacraments provides the corporate foundation for our private and family lives of devotion. It also provides the base from which we are sent into the world as part of God’s mission to the world.

The one thing that ties together the great works of God across the centuries is the resurgence of the means of grace as the heart of life in Christ. For the church to stand firm in its new cultural exile, we must once more embrace word, sacrament, and prayer. The reality of the Christian life is that a thousand whispered prayers while hanging laundry on the line is of more value than a handful of celebrity pastor conferences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gay Spring

2013 saw incredible change in the legislative landscape of the United States with respect to marriage–a gay spring, if you will–that sharply divided the country along regional lines. Across the South and Central United States voters protected the traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman and refused to extend that the definition to include same-sex couples. In the West and Northeast the definition was–sometimes against voter intent–expanded to allow for same sex marriages (as in California and Utah).

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This spring and summer–the time when Kings go off to war and denominations do too–Presbyterians will likely redefine marriage to allow for same sex weddings where civil law provides for it. And even where state law doesn’t permit it the option of sanctioning, blessing, consecrating, or otherwise attaching the churches endorsement to same sex unions will likely become an option for teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Since I live in North Carolina, this change will have little impact on me personally. Assuming, and it’s far from likely this would happen, that two men wanted me to marry them I could demur to state law without having to cite my own theological understanding of the issue. That’s a convenient position in which to find oneself. Of course, when ministers of the gospel look to the state for theological guidance it’s possible that the battle has already been lost.

Yet, there are many ministers across the country who will have lost the comfortable protection both of the state and the church in this regard. It is, however conceivable that with a change in marriage definition ministers will now be forced to be open about their views on marriage, even if they are not being asked to perform something that the state understands to be a wedding. This is difficult at the best of times, but in the face of opposition from both the state and the church it is onerous.

Mass culture has swung to affirm the GLBTQ community. Many Americans maintain traditional views with regard to sexuality, but it is now unacceptable to voice these in a public forum. I’m not talking about Duck Dynasty or some other pop culture person expressing views that are out of the “mainstream culture” as that culture constructed and communicated across media. I’m talking about a more general and diffuse pressure to join in with the chorus of affirmations of the sovereign right of the individual to discover (or construct?) his or her sexual identity.

I disagree with expanding the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to encompass the right of same sex couples to marry. I disagree with it for a variety of reasons most of which are rooted in my theological understanding of God, humanity, creation, and the nature of marriage.

Since we don’t live in a Christian state, since what little moral consensus that once existed around this issue has evaporated, and since the line of precedent around this and other issues like it have unalterably led us to this place, I understand why many states are embracing this new reality of marriage.

I respect same sex people who choose to enter into legally-recognized partnerships. All things being equal–which of course they’re not–it’s better for a gay couple to enter into to some form of monogamous partnership or marriage than the alternative.

In the eyes of some states these are marriages, but in reality they are really only approximately equal to marriage. Those elements that are essential to marriage are missing from same sex relationships. As a result, to the church, these are really no marriage at all. On one level I’d prefer to not have to write this, but to do so would betray the Holy Scriptures that were handed to me as well as the churches theological reflection on Christ and the Scriptures for the last millennium.

To my mind, gay marriages are marriages in the same way that a corporation is a person–as a result of a legal fiction. A corporation may have rights like a person–political speech for example–but at the end of the day I think we can all agree that Goldman Sachs isn’t a person in the same way that Aunt Betty is.

So what of those whose views are popularly portrayed as slinking to occupy the hazy background of our current cultural snapshot? It simply remains for us to live peaceably with gentleness and respect.

My Augustinian view of history makes an awful lot of room for our culture to choose poorly, to favor error over truth. It happens in my own denomination and certainly within my country. In the end any law that violates God Law will be proven to be false and in the age that is to come will melt away. That is, of course, an eschatological statement, and we’re not in the eschaton yet. What remains is for those of us who are called and ordained to the work of preaching the Gospel to remain faithful to respect the civil authority while protecting the purity of the church’s teaching, worship, and sacraments. If I have to break civil or ecclesial law to do that, so be it.

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