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January 28, 2011

Lisa Nichols Hickman: Communion Skyped from Tehran

Would it be blasphemy, or breakthrough, to Skype communion?

I found myself asking this question after a recent visit to the Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh.

Designed as a public art project by students and professors at Carnegie Mellon University, the Conflict Kitchen raises awareness about situations in the world where there is conflict between the United States and another country.  The first country highlighted was Iran.  This month, the country highlighted is Afghanistan.

During my first visit, I enjoyed an Iranian Kubideh sandwich.  The meal was served from a take-out style storefront.  The storefront façade and the meal itself are both part of the artistic production.  The wrapping that the sandwich is served in unfolds to display the thoughts and reflections of a person from the country highlighted that month.

Beyond the graphic design, the public art project probes even deeper.  Movies and music from Iran and Afghanistan play at the adjacent Waffle Shop.  The kitchen also hosts panel discussions and talks about the politics, culture, and everyday life of the given country. 

One of the events they highlight is a live Skype meal between a group of strangers seated at tables in Pittsburgh and in Tehran.  Sharing the same meal and conversation across seven time zones, strangers became acquainted with each other over broken bread.  Even more importantly, they shared the same hope for peace.

And so I wondered, and ask the same of you, would it be blasphemous to Skype communion with Christians in a country across the globe?  Could Christians in Raleigh and Rwanda find encouragement from each other at the table?  Might strangers from Indianapolis and Thiruvananthapuram (in India) savor communion in a new way at a shared table?  Could Christians connect with Christ and each other in a more meaningful way from the East Liberty community of Pittsburgh, where the Conflict Kitchen is situated, to the shores of Liberia?

Asking this question makes us look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” with new eyes.  The twenty-first century viewer might consider whether Jesus and his disciples are not staged at one side of the table for convenient viewing but instead to see a teleconference screen with Christians from another nation.  Blasphemy, or breakthrough?

Blasphemers might argue that Skyping communion is spectacle over Sacrament: webcams, language barriers and other details are impediments to the Word heard and act engaged.   Technology aside, perhaps the real argument is the nature of communion within community.  Far from being exotic, maybe it is putting up with the mundane within a known community that makes real communion.  What would be sacrificed via Skype is real relationship.  Techonology makes the sacrament sterile and simple to the point that communion becomes sentimental rather than an act of reconciliation.

But those who argue breakthrough might say that the Skyped communion is a first step beyond stereotypes and the capacity of nations to create ‘others’.  Sitting down at the table, even through a webcam, creates the possibility for new community where bread is broken across national lines, language barriers, time zones and war decrees.  The other, joined with bread, becomes brother.

I am still praying over whether Skyped communion is blasphemy or breakthrough.  I left the Conflict Kitchen with the scent of sumac and turmeric, spices I have never used in my home, clinging to my garments.  Every movement throughout the day stirred up the spices that called forth the prayer for peace.  If the scent of stirred spices created prayer, how much more could the sight and sound of strangers now known from across the globe? 

Chris Hedges, author of “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” notes that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history where there has been true peace, a world without a single war.  The only act more enduring than sustained conflict is the sustaining grace of reconciliation broken and blessed at the table.

When I look at that image of Jesus at the table painted by Leonardo over five hundred years ago, what I see is a picture of Jesus with his hands extended and both thumbs pointing to his left.  Such a gesture, if hands would then be joined, creates an incredible picture of Christian community.  Christ is supporting the person to his left.  The person on the right of Jesus offers Christ strength through his raised hand.  Such is the picture of communion.  We find support in surprising ways at the table. 

Maybe Skype is one of them.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.


Really great connection

Really great connection between new communication technology and the very old communication technology of oil painting. Also makes me think of the theology of icons in the Eastern Christian tradition -- not representational art in the western sense of realistic portrayal of living or historical figures, but windows opening onto the heavenly banquet. Icons were the original "flat screen" technology. To push it even further, icons are not 3-D (like statues in a Roman Catholic church or paintings that simulate 3-D through shading, etc.) but 2-D -- but not just 2-D -- they are lenses that open us to the vista of multi-dimensional heavenly reality. So skype communion could help us experience more vividly on the earthly level of contemporary global fellowship what worship also does (or ought to do) at another dimension altogether -- join us in fellowship with the communion of saints in heaven.

Sign Language

While I do not think that an entire service would necessarily work over skype in countries with language barriers, I would be interested to see communion via skype. This however has its problems because I feel like the word needs to be with the sacraments. And while it is great to hear the Gospel in other languages, it is important to know what is being said. While the skype broadcast could end and then each church resume with its own service I feel like the community nature of communion would be lost. However, I still want to see this happen so I have a few suggestions of how this can happen. So, I present the idea of "Sign Language". Even through language barriers the church has its own language that shatters down all barriers. The sacraments themselves acts as signs and have their own language. I can see this working perfectly in a place like New Wilmington Pres. I envision the skype broadcast beginning with the scripture reading, hearing it in two languages. Next we move on to the sermon which is all acted out. Multiple people, liturgical dancing, large movements and colors portray the message of the Gospel leaving room for the Spirit to act. Finally the grand finale of communion. Fewer movements but all intentional. A pastor standing up front lifting bread, breaking bread, holding bread out to the community, lifting cup, pouring cup, holding cup out to the community. I imagine more would be said, and more would be heard in this sign language than our own language of barriers. Who knows, we may surprise ourselves at how fluent we are.

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