Monday, April 24, 2017

Communion (A Seminarian's Perspective)


During Seminary, another student and I, interned at a tiny, historic, Methodist church in New Jersey.  She was Methodist, I was not; but we were both welcomed into the fold in equal measure. 

The congregation was small and aged and the thing they appreciated most about the few sermons I gave was how well they could hear my voice and how clearly I enunciated.  The thing I appreciated most about preaching there was how the cleric’s robe covered me from head to toe, obscuring my feminine figure, rearranging me into a blank slate of black polyester.  Only my flat, tan shoes and the bottom of my dress pants showed and only then when I stepped out away from the pulpit, which was not often. 

My fellow intern, a heavyset single girl, shorter than me and rounder, also wore the robe while speaking.  On other Sundays, though, she dressed to the nines in strappy dresses with tight waists and full skirts like the ones housewives are pictured wearing in magazine ads from the 1950's.  She completed the look by pairing the dresses with impossibly high heeled shoes, the height and skinniness of which, caused her to teeter and totter precariously.

She didn’t seem at home in those dresses and matching shoes and I wondered why she wore them.  But I also probably didn’t seem at home in my drab business-casual attire that I’d purchased specially for the internship and possible future interviews.  Neither of us, I guess, were entirely at home in ourselves or our pastoral positions, which I suppose is the plight of many an intern.   

The small church was traditionally built, with old wooden pews and a long center aisle that led to a kneeling rail and altar.  Each service began with a processional from the narthex, down the center aisle, to the altar where candles were lit while the organist played. 

One of my most distinct memories of that church is of watching my fellow intern make her wobbly way down the carpeted center aisle with a plate of communion bread in hand.  The plate was wide, flat and loaded with bits of bread and she was so precariously perched in her heels that I felt for sure she was going to wipe out at any moment, scattering the body of Christ across the dense carpet.  I held my breath as she mounted the altar’s two steps and exhaled when she finally set the plate down. 

Having grown up Baptist and turned Anabaptist, the rituals of the Methodist church were foreign to me and struck me as overly formal.  I longed for something more personal, less prescribed.  I imagined with equal measures of horror and delight, what it would be like if she simply dropped the whole plate.  Some part of me longed for the broken body to spill, even just once; for us all to have to deal with the sudden beauty, the surprise of Christ spread among us in such an earthy, unscripted way.  

My colleague never dropped the host, but crumbs did often fall as we handed the bread to the congregants kneeling along the rail.  No matter how rigidly we try to contain him, Christ is always breaking through.  Mercy and grace scatter everywhere like crumbs, and who we are and who God is, is always being revealed.  Christ is always spreading out in our midst, disrupting our scripted ways, like the beige shoes and dress pants of a young woman sticking out beneath her robe, like a young woman in a flared out dress and heels making her wobbly way up the aisle, truth that cannot be hidden or disguised. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Communion (A Five-year-old's Perspective)


The Communion with God is simple, so we will not be dazzled; so we can eat and drink His love and still go about our lives; so our souls will burn slowly rather than blaze.  . . . the Last Supper did not take place on one night in one room, and to eat God's love, we do not have to even open our mouths; we can be walking, sorrowful and confused, with a friend; or working on whatever our boat is, fishing whatever it is we fish for; or we can be running naked, alone in the dark.  The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary.  To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way that we receive the sun and sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.  
                   - Andre Dubus in Meditations from a Movable Chair

Five-year-old Isaiah loves bread almost as much as he loves his Mama, which is to say, quite a lot.  He also loves juice.  When there's no Sunday school and he's forced to endure the long church service upstairs in the pews, communion - with its tempting combination of both bread and juice - offers a bright respite in the midst of the otherwise boring service. 

Seated during prayer at the service’s beginning on Easter Sunday, he bobs and weaves his head from side to side, searching out the low table at the front of the church.  Then, he exclaims, “I see bread and juice!”

His brother, Levi, sees it too.  “Mom,” Levi says, like someone who’s just discovered cake and ice cream is on the menu for breakfast, “We’re dippin' bread!”

I turn to them, scandalized by their outdoor voices, and stretch my neck forward, my eyes wide, one finger pressed to my lips.  I silently tap my finger to my closed lips.

They settle back in the hard pew to wait.

My boys love communion and my hunch is it’s because they love to eat.  Sometimes this strikes me as sacrilegious, but, mostly, something in their enthusiasm - the way simple appetite and desire breed longing and consummation - also feels right to me.  They're happy to be part, to take part, and receive something good and nourishing.  

When the time comes, at last, I send Levi under his father’s guidance and push Isaiah along ahead of me.  I wonder again, as we exit the end of the pew, about the rightness of allowing children so young to participate in communion, but they’re so happy, so eager, I can’t see holding them back.  We move slowly toward the altar in two lines that bulge and clot the aisle as adults shepherd groups of children.  Seeing my older son behind me, I push him forward too, intending to lean over he and Isaiah both and orchestrate, regulate, their reception of grace.  

Isaiah reaches the half loaf of Italian bread first.  It sits on a plate outstretched in front of his face, level with his big brown eyes.  He reaches for it two-handed, manhandling the loaf which slides forward precariously the slanted plate and the server and I both lunge to stop the fall.  In my mind, Isaiah’s hands are everywhere (germs!) and I grab the loaf to steady it, tearing off a small piece of soft white dough while he wrestles with the dry, flaky crust.  He peels back a sturdy piece as big as his forearm and we turn to the dipping, then back to our seats.  

While the rest of us have quickly dipped and swallowed our own crumbs, he sits in the pew tearing off bite after bite of flaky crust.  When his twin brother asks about the size of his serving, Isaiah replies, with deep contentment, “I didn’t try to get it so big, but it came off, so I kept it.”  

Monday, April 10, 2017

To Experience Resurrection (a Poem for Holy Week)


You have to return to the tomb
to experience resurrection. 
Return to the place where once
you knew without doubt
all hope was gone, the last
dying gasp of breath expelled.
Then silence, stillness
and the great tearing open
of sky and earth. 

The first sign of spring
is the revelation of all
that’s died.  Snow’s clean
slate hides decay,
but when the sun’s warmth rises
its first disclosure is the depth
of loss – the grass,
brown and trampled, barren
broken limbs scattered, earth
exposed and the empty stretch
of field filled with brown stalks
of decomposition.

This is the time of waiting,
the time in which we grow
weary and lose heart. 

You have to watch the barren
earth, pull back brown leaves,
lean close scanning the hidden
places.  You have to stand beside
the stone, Martha would tell us,
your trembling hand pressed against       
its cold, hard surface.  You have to enter
the dark cave, Peter whispers, not knowing
what you’ll find. 

You have to sit through the long,
dark night to see the first light of morning,        
to feel the sharp intake of breath
as the sky’s closed eye, cold and gray,
cracks open slowly, then with growing
determination.  This is what you must do
to experience resurrection. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Twins, the Cross & Community


(A stomach bug arrived at our house last week and returned again today, wreaking havoc on my writing plans and life in general.  So, I thought it might be a good time to re-post this one from the archives, from back when the twins were just 18 months old and we lived, daily, in a sea of chaos both deep and wide.)  

Looking at Stars

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood splattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

- Jane Kenyon


“You know you have blood on your shirt, right?” my husband asked.

I was getting ready to meet a friend at a restaurant after a long, exhausting day and my husband was concerned with the bloody stain on my shoulder. 
“No,” I said, “I already changed my shirt once.  Did you see his clothes?”  I led him over to the laundry basket and showed him our eighteen-month-old son’s clothes, streaked and stained with splotches of red.  It had been a bloody day. 
That morning I stood at the bathroom sink holding Levi who cut his finger on a can he looted from the recycling bin.  I turned his body out away from me, hoping to avoid staining my new shirt.  But while I rooted through the medicine cabinet, looking for a band aid, blood gushed out of the tiny cut. 

It ran in a bright red stream
     down the hand that held him,
          splashing onto my pants and shoes as he waved his little hand around.
It drop,
      drop,
          dropped
                    to the beat of his pulse, 
falling onto the white counter-top like so many crimson beads off of a broken necklace.  I felt it clinging to the hairs on the back of my hand and marveled at its rich scarlet hue. 
I called my four-year-old to fetch a washcloth while Levi's twin, Isaiah, wandered in anxious circles by my feet.  Finally, we all sat down at the dining room table and I doled out band aids with great liberality.  I put two or three on the finger that still gushed and two or three on other fingers and on his other hand in hopes of distracting him from pulling them off.  Then, of course, Isaiah needed some too and my assistant, the four-year-old, as well as the little girl I was babysitting. 
It wasn’t until later that I noticed Isaiah had blood on him too, places where it had splashed and splattered as he stood nearby watching me tend his brother. 

Looking at Isaiah’s splotched clothes, I thought, “When your brother bleeds, it gets on you.  This is what it means to be a brother.  This is what community really is.” 

*   *   *   *   *

Blood is messy and vital, rich, and yet we talk of it so complacently.   Somehow, in our dainty sipping of communion cups, we manage to miss the mess and I wonder if, in missing it, we don't also miss the communion.

Christ came and died on the cross, where blood drop,
                                                                                  drop,
                                                                                       dropped out,
splattering onto those who gathered near.  This is the community that Jesus establishes, a blood-splattered, blood-drinking communion of sinners turned saints.   

 *   *   *   *   *
The stomach bug hit later in the week.  It started with Levi in the middle of the night standing, crying in his crib and we went through layer after layer of sheets and pajamas, as my husband and I tag-teamed the dual tasks of comfort and cleaning.  Isaiah stood in his own crib, just a few feet away, looking-on, bleary-eyed and curious and each time we laid Levi back down to sleep and crept our way back out of the room, Isaiah laid down too. 
By the next day they were both down with the bug and I sat holding them on the couch while John took the older kids to the store to stock up on saltines and Pedialyte.  I sat in the corner of the couch with Levi in my left arm and he drifted into a deep sleep, exhausted and drained.  Isaiah fussed, tossing and turning in my right arm, slipping off, then turning and begging his way back up into my lap the second his feet hit the ground. 
Levi slept on through it all, so I didn’t dare move and just about the time I was getting frustrated with Isaiah he turned, suddenly, and threw-up all over me and his brother.  Levi woke, of course, as I grabbed a changing pad and laid it across my soaked chest.  But then, just like that, they both dropped off into a heavy sleep. 
When my husband came home some forty minutes later, we were sitting there still, the three of us covered in Isaiah’s vomit and I thought, again, “This is what community is.  When your brother, throws up, it gets on you.” 

*   *   *   *   *

I wonder sometimes about how we do community these days, all distance and convenience, all house-picked-up and table-manners-please.  Community, real community, is a cracking, bleeding thing.  It’s the voice that breaks into a sob on the phone without holding back and the “oh, thank God, you stopped by because I didn’t know how I was going to make it through this day.” 

Maybe we settle for something less because we’re afraid that, if anyone gets too close, we’ll vomit our messy lives all over them.  But isn't it possible, my friends, that this bloody, messy communion, this breaking open of our lives like so many loaves of of bread, is what it’s really all about?