October 24, 2020

Another Look: The Great Divide

To the bath and the table,
To the prayers and the word,
I call every seeking soul.

– Inscribed on a church bell in Wisconsin

• • •

I did a couple of talks at my church some time ago, discussing my transition from evangelicalism to the Lutheran tradition. As I talked, words from several iMonk commenters came into my mind. A number of you have observed that perhaps the greatest divide in Christendom is between those who take a sacramental view of life, faith, and worship, and those who take a non-sacramental view. This struck me with new force as I explained my journey.

Gordon Lathrop writes,

This fact [that we need “things” to worship] has often disturbed and offended some Christians. It seems as if we ought to be above such material crutches, as if a gathering come together to speak of God ought to be more spiritual. But that is just the point: for the great Christian tradition, the spiritual is intimately involved with the material, the truth about God inseparable from the ordinary, as inseparable as God was from humanity in Jesus. If these things are crutches, so be it. They will then be for us the very “ford, bridge, door, ship, and stretcher” that Luther said we need. These things will show us something about all things.

Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology

Once, when I was visiting a woman who had come from an evangelical church to our Lutheran congregation, she complained that we didn’t talk more about the Holy Spirit. On one level she was probably correct. But her concern was not that we failed to name the Third Person of the Trinity often enough. Rather, she was saying we didn’t sufficiently emphasize the supernatural work of the Spirit in our midst.

Having lived in both worlds, I understood her point. My answer was, “But remember friend, we experience the supernatural every time we come together for worship. God literally speaks to us from the word. Jesus is present and real when we receive the bread and wine. When we celebrate baptism we are literally witnessing a new birth!” No church believes in the supernatural more than one that truly practices the sacraments.

Stuff of Life

Lathrop observes that the material things around which the church gathers not only provide a center for our community of faith, they also represent things that have long had a “centering power” among human beings. For example, he speaks of the rich imagery of bread:

…bread unites the fruitful goodness of the earth with the ancient history of human cultivation. Bread represents the earth and the rain, growing grains, sowing and reaping, milling and baking, together with the mystery of yeast, all presented in a single object. This loaf invites the participation of more than one person. In its most usual form, it is food for a group. It implies a community gathered around to eat together, to share in the breaking open of this compressed goodness.

Bread is the staple food, the fundamental provision that keeps us alive and enables us to overcome famine and death. We pray in humble dependence, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to remember that, despite the affluence many of us enjoy, in the end we live by grace from God’s hands. So with wine, around which we gather in festive joy. And water for washing. And a book filled with words. All invite us to contemplate the essentials of life through the utmost simplicity.

Doorway into the Story

However, there is more. Lathrop, again:

… the business of this assembly will look more than a little silly to us unless we know that the bread and wine, water and words are used here with historical intent. Bread and wine are ancient foods in Israel, figuring in many of the ancient stories and coming to frame the Jewish festive meal in the time of Jesus. Water for washing is important in Israel from the time of the crossing of the Red Sea and the washing and appointing of the newly constituted priests down to the apocalyptic expectations of the Qumran community and of the early Christians. And Israel was a community of the word from the time of the exile, when collecting, writing, and reading the stories and poems, oracles and laws became immensely important to Israel’s very existence. These things at the center of our assembly connect us to that history. The very choice of these things as the communal central symbols arises from that history.

By these means we enter the Story. Simple objects engage our senses and stimulate our imaginations and we find ourselves as though we had picked our way the through the wood, fur, and fabric in Lewis’s wardrobe and entered Narnia. There we remain ourselves and yet we are more, since we are breathing new air, experiencing new adventures, learning new lessons, and becoming what we never thought possible, under the tutelage of that land’s true Ruler.

Where God Meets Us

Thus, the sacramental elements are those “thin places,” those sites in the world where heaven and earth intersect and God himself meets us, inviting us to receive forgiveness and renewal. For these elements all focus on Christ and introduce us to Christ. Where we hear the words, “for you,” from our Host’s mouth, faith awakens within us, faith that reaches out to Jesus to receive a tangible gift of mercy and promise. In the sacraments, God washes us, God feeds us, God’s promises bring us life. They are not our works to be performed, but his gracious gifts to be received because of the work Jesus already did.

Nothing could be more simple, more earthly, more unexpectedly heavenly.

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.(Gen. 28:16-17)

Originally posted in 2013


  1. Andrew Zook says

    And it (the sacramental) affirms and teaches the central fact: that God through Jesus Christ is now both human and divine. Not surprisingly, the non-sacramental side tends to also deemphasize the material/humanity of Jesus Christ and His kingdom…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Until (like Gnostic Pneumatics) they become so SPIRITUAL they cease to be human.

      Or (like Silicon Valley Singularity Worshippers) they only look forward to Uploading into Fluffy Cloud Heaven as Pure Spirits for a Purely-Spiritual Eternity, leaving the (ugh) Meat behind in (ugh) Meatspace.

      The indifference of “This World Is Not My Home; I’m Just Passing Through…”

      • Heather Angus says

        I used to belong to a shape-note singing group, and a great many of those old (18th and 19th century) songs were indeed about “this world is not my home.” Consider “I’m glad that I was born to die/ from grief and pain I’ll quickly fly/ and I don’t plan to stay here long.” Or “We’ll rest awhile in the wilderness/ And then we’re going home.” Or “Jerusalem, my happy home/ when shall I come to thee?”

        But my take on those seemingly gloomy songs is, frankly, that penicillin hadn’t yet been discovered. People died from all sorts of things that are unheard of in Western culture today: diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid, meningitis, scarlet fever, and simple infection which could be cleared up in less than a week now. Infant mortality was horrendous; at least one out of every four children died in early childhood, and many men married a succession of wives because childbirth was so frequently fatal.

        In my own lifetime, the last of the “killer diseases,’ polio, has been virtually eliminated. My own mom had scarlet fever as a child (and survived, obviously). My grandmother, married to a well-to-do lawyer with the best medical care available, lost two of her eight children in early childhood, while another child was permanently disabled mentally and physically by what was probably spinal meningitis.

        So maybe the hymns about “This world is not my home” sound pretty silly and “indifferent” now. But a century ago they expressed a grim and universal reality.

        • Thank you for your different perspective. Working in geriatrics for 30+ yrs., and listening to people’s personal stories, this exactly expresses the depth of their feelings and their faith. I’ve got a mansion – Jesus has gone to prepare it, gives hope, comfort, strength, perseverance, to hang on in this valley of preparation for eternity. Seems to have kept them grounded, as most of them are pushing a century or over!

  2. A couple years ago I listened to a lecture that John Ortberg gave, in it he quoted another author whom I can’t remember. He said the the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity. He’s standing behind us as we look at Jesus, he’s whispering follow him, do what he does. I agree with your congregant that we Lutherans don’t speak enough about the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit that is stirring the pot. He’s the one Christ gave us to help us recognize and feel the life/power that is in the sacraments. My life changes when I remember to ask for the Holy Spirit to come to me, to make himself known.

    • –> “…the Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity. He’s standing behind us as we look at Jesus, he’s whispering follow him, do what he does.”

      I like that description a lot.

  3. I think Richard Beck in his blog hit on a few good onservations

    Again, whatever we might think of the specifics of the Levitical code, we do need sacred weight and texture. We need seasons and rituals to hallow time, events, people, promises, values, places, life transitions, tragedy, and loss. Even atheists hallow funerals and marriages and light candles at sites of national tragedy.

    And yet, in the day to day grind it’s hard to hallow in our secular, disenchanted age. We don’t have a sacred matrix. And this is one of the reasons why I think faith is so hard for many of us. Instead of living within a sacred matrix that gives our lives holy weight and texture, we experience belief as a choice to be made moment by moment, day after day. Faith is in our heads, an intellectual thing, rather than as the sacred texture filling our lives.

    This is one of the reasons that, as a Protestant, I’m so attracted to Catholic aesthetics. The sacramental aesthetics of Catholicism–the candles, statues, beads, icons, incense–helps create a sacred matrix. I think Protestants who struggle with faith can learn something from this.

    • Good comment and perspective.

    • Christiane says

      “And yet, in the day to day grind it’s hard to hallow in our secular, disenchanted age.”

      🙂 yes, it is hard, but it is possible in ways to set aside a moment before the ‘daily grind’ begins, if one gets up earlier than everyone else in the house, while it’s still dark, before the birds begin their morning hymns.

      I would rise at 3 a.m. and light candles and make coffee and SIT QUIET for a time . . . . it might only have been twenty minutes or so, but in the way that sometimes happens, the time felt longer and that was a gift . . . . then grading papers, prepping lessons, packing up and arriving at school by 6:30 when the building was opened . . . and the ‘blur’ of time passing at a speed beyond my ability to slow it down again until the next morning early . . .

      I think there is something to ‘ritual’ that sustains our human selves . . . the carving out of moments marked by the lighting of candles and observance of silence in an intended way was my morning ‘re-set’ . . . .

      what was I ‘marking’?
      what was my ‘reason’ for doing it?

      did it help me? Yes, immensely, but I would be hard-put to explain exactly how it worked . . . it just did

      What other ‘rituals’ do people have? Are those with OCD symptoms maybe seeking some kind of ‘order’ in the chaos of their lives, but it gets out of control how they do it? Are our ‘habits’ a kind of ritual when the habit has no rhyme or reason for the time and effort put into it? Like making the sign of the cross when driving past a Church ?
      Or tending a grave by putting flowers on it that you know will soon perish? Questions. Questions when you know that no answers will come but that’s somehow ‘okay’.

      • Christiane,

        This resonates. The ritual is there sometimes to keep focus on what is important. Being from a sacramental tradition I grew up feeling the “Holy” in a number of rituals. As I moved from the childlike view to taking the faith as my own those rituals still provides that mystery I felt as a kid..

        The quiet you mentioned is something I grew into and very much enjoy (much too hyper in my younger days to appreciate). It helps to slow down and appreciate the humans around me (once I emerge from quiet) instead of interacting with the tasks that inundate me everyday.

        • Christiane says

          Yes, this
          ” It helps to slow down and appreciate the humans around me (once I emerge from quiet) instead of interacting with the tasks that inundate me everyday.”

          Thomas Merton had an experience similar to your own and wrote about it, this:
          ““In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.””

          Radaghast, I have felt a sense of the ‘holy’ everytime I’ve entered a sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament was present. And I’ve felt that same experience also in nature, in the forests, where it’s peaceful. ‘Something’ is ‘there’. I think many people ‘sense’ it, but don’t know what is happening to them.
          There’s a poet, Wordsworth, who expressed his own experience of ‘the Holy’ in nature, this:
          “—And I have felt
          A presence that disturbs me with the joy
          Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
          Of something far more deeply interfused,
          Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
          And the round ocean and the living air,
          And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
          A motion and a spirit, that impels
          All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
          And rolls through all things. ”

          I think all creatures that breathe and have life likely ‘sense’ the Source of that life in some way within themselves, within the natural world, and within other creatures . . . as ‘life’ comes from ‘Life’ . . . . .
          the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, this:

          “Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation:
          “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity.”

          This does, for me, make some kind of a case for universal ‘inclusion’, I suppose, in a world where division and exclusion are practiced intentionally to manipulate and control others regardless of the outcome. . . .

          Thank you for sharing your insight.

    • Yes, this is one of (many) reasons I married my husband years ago…I was very attracted to liturgy, even though raised a born/bread evangelical/fundie.
      I found my boyfriend/future husband’s catholicity attractive. There was a reverence there not found in evangelical world.
      Yup, parents sure I was going over to the dark side…my dad even thought he should resign as an elde cuz he ‘couldn’t keep his house in order’ or whatever it is in Timothy.
      Hmmmm, 33 years later…thickness we’re doing ok, one kid is now Anglican with her husband and our son is Presbyterian….who leans liturgical.
      Maybe that infant baptism ain’t so bad? Eh?

    • Patriciamc says

      Great points! We need the set-apart, the special, which is what we call the sacred, or expressions of sacredness to distinguish it from the ordinary, at least I do. I attend a mega-church that is great but doesn’t have a feel of sacredness or any sacred practices other than communion. So, I still struggle with how to incorporate the sacred into my everyday life.

  4. Is there an issue of extremes as well? Could it be that a side NEVER sees the supernatural in the sacraments, while another side NEVER sees the supernatural outside the sacraments?

    • flatorcker says

      and we might add… some sides see both and some see neither.

      • Christiane says

        perhaps the answer is not so much ‘yes’ to ‘some see neither’
        as it might be said that they see neither at this time

        if they are not yet awakened to an ‘experience’ of ‘the Holy’, it is still better to say
        ‘they are not YET awakened’

        we can rule out anyone ‘becoming’ aware in the future, if they live and therefore have a chance to ‘awaken’; which is why the Church so strongly advocates an end to the death penalty if at all possible to give a ‘chance’ for a person to repent for the sake of their soul

    • Ronald Avra says

      Good observation.

      • +1.

        Side note: I’ve met people who’ve told me the Holy Spirit told them what to wear every day. That seems to be another extreme.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Probably similar to Utter Predestination.
          Unload All Responsibility on the Holy Spirit/Predestination — what to wear, what to think. Just go with the flow.

        • I personally know people who say they don’t get out of bed, don’t get dressed, don’t choose what to eat, and don’t leave the house unless the Holy Spirit explicitly tells them to do so, otherwise they will be out of the will of God.

          Yet more teachings I was subjected to for half a decade of my life.

          • — > “I personally know people who say they don’t get out of bed, don’t get dressed, don’t choose what to eat, and don’t leave the house unless the Holy Spirit explicitly tells them to do so, otherwise they will be out of the will of God.”

            Oy vey!!

            –> “Yet more teachings I was subjected to for half a decade of my life.”

            Ugh. So very thankful that kind of experience wasn’t mine.

          • Patriciamc says

            You know, that strikes me as a form of OCD.

    • A third side sees the historical and ANE and mythological ties to the concept of eating a god’s flesh and drinking a god’s blood in order to remember/gain strength/impart something. As well as the tying back into Passover by Paul and then the gospel authors.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    But her concern was not that we failed to name the Third Person of the Trinity often enough. Rather, she was saying we didn’t sufficiently emphasize the supernatural work of the Spirit in our midst.

    Did “supernatural work of the Spirit” mean Speaking in TONGUES TONGUES TONGUES 24/7?

    Because that’s the vibe I get when anyone from a non-liturgical background talks of “Supernatural Work of the Spirit”.

  6. Thin places are wherever you find them, wherever they open themselves to you. If you find them in the liturgy on Sunday, but don’t take them with you into your world the rest of the week, and don’t look for them beyond the sanctuary walls, then the whole exercise is not adequately Christ-like. Christ came into the world to fill it with his presence; yes, he’s in the sanctuary and liturgy, but he wants to carry us outside them, and make us part of filling the whole world with his presence.

  7. All day long the title of this blog has been bothering me. It finally clicked.

    “but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide”


    • Stumbled upon this quote today:

      “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
      ? Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

      • Christiane says

        there is a kind of counseling theory based on Viktor Frankl’s writings . . . . I think he wrote as a survivor of the death camps in Nazi Germany and his theories were a product of his own experiences

        I guess in places like that, one learns very quickly what really matters