Faith Works 2-28-15
Why the passing of the peace?
First, a Happy St. David's Day tomorrow for all my Welsh readers, in the hills and out of them. Cymru forever! (That's March 1 for the rest of you.)
So, if that opening didn't confuse you, let me take you even further down the rabbit hole. I'm typing here looking at a coaster from Disney World's Wilderness Lodge, and the restaurant off the vast lobby.
It's a two sided coaster, and both sides say across the top "Whispering Canyon Cafe" but one face is a green ring around an image of a bucking bronco, and the other is red around a silhouette of a row of cowpokes sitting on a rail fence.
If you have this "coaster" turned red ring up, it says around the bottom edge "Watch from the fence!" Flip it to the green side, and it says "Jump in and play."
The purpose of these coasters is to signal the waiters. The "Disney experience" at the Whispering Canyon Cafe during the breakfast hours is one of a sassy staff, whose attitude is part of the show . . . let's just say you ask for ketchup on your hash browns at your (relative) peril.
Your waitress may organize your children into a dining room rodeo, and the waiter may ask you what horse you rode in on, with comments to adjoining tables if your answer doesn't suit him (and it usually doesn't).
UNLESS: you flip the coaster to "Watch from the fence." Which is fine! You get good service, or so it appeared to us, if you choose that option; we've eaten there twice, as much for the "show" as for the food, and interacted with emphasis and enjoyment. The point is: you don't have to, and they give you a way to let the staff know.
The point of this extended aside has to do with a very common moment in Christian worship services, something called "the passing of the peace" that has ancient roots and some modern problems.
It's an opportunity to turn to those sitting near you and reach out a hand and say "peace be with you" or say in response "and also with you" and can be a way to seal the fellowship of the gathered worship community before the primary experience of communion, the sharing of the body and blood and Jesus Christ in loaf and cup.
As to who can receive communion, one of the only clear exceptions in scripture is if you're ticked off at your neighbor. If you have a grievance that burdens your heart about someone else, you're called on by the Apostle Paul to resolve it first. (I think it's more about priorities than restrictions, but it's pretty clear that forgiveness is important to rightly receive communion in the proper spirit.)
So there's a functional side to the "passing of the peace." As you make eye contact, extend greetings, shake hands or even hug and kiss, you are clearly casting aside any obstacles between you and your neighbors before coming to the table of the Lord's Supper.
The problem is that in modern American Christianity, it becomes the fellowship moment. And that's NOT, I'd also note, all bad. In an internet age, that moment of physical encounter and personal recognition can be crucial. But for introverts, for those wanting a more private experience of worship, if you are wrestling with some issues that have brought you to church but don't bring you to want to hug strangers, the passing of the peace can be excruciating.
Yes, extrovert Christian friends, I said excruciating. That's exactly the word I've had people use to me about their experience of the passing of the peace. It's too much, they'd like to simply greet a few nearby with a quiet handshake and simple words of peace, and sit back down to focus on God. I heard from people who have changed congregations because of the passing of the peace.
I don't think stopping doing it is right, or is necessary. But I look at my Disney World coaster, and wonder "how could we do this in church?" And the answer is probably just to remind the more exuberant among us: watch for the cues. Let people off easy if they lean back. You don't have to mug, I mean hug, everyone. Some folks would rather "Watch from the fence."
Who knows? Later one, they may want to "Jump in and play!"
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him your favorite passing of the peace story at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.