The Unstoppable Eucharist

Here’s the good news:  I’ve signed up for classes for next semester and my schedule will be slightly less ridiculous, which means I can settle into a regular posting schedule again.  The bad news is that I’ll continue to be spotty for this semester.  I’m sorry about that.

Halloween is Monday, which is crazy to me.  I have no idea how it’s Halloween already, and the weather here at the Wicket Gate hasn’t been at all cooperating in helping me believe that we’re this far into the fall.  Global warming is crap for polar bears like me.

Halloween is in the running for my least favorite holiday because I’m pretty much a coward and hate frightening things.  An entire holiday designed to scare you is just about the worst (also, waaaay too many spiders), but Halloween is also an interesting time of year for people of the Christian faith.  There’s definitely the segment of folks who can’t abide Halloween because of its supposed connections with Satan and his ilk (y’know, witches and all that).  But I read an article about how All Hallows’ Eve is actually pretty amazing for Christians considering it’s another way for us to celebrate Christ’s victory over death—and I like that spin.

So in that spirit, and in the recognition that I’ve had several God-moments around this particular sacrament lately, let me talk about the Eucharist, that memorial meal of the Resurrection itself.

At my div school, there’s a Eucharist service on Fridays that is a handful of students and the occasional professor gathering purely for communion.  There’s no sermon, no announcements, just some hymns, prayer, and the sacrament itself.  It’s become one of the most important points of my rhythm here, partly because I’ve always been deeply connected to this particular ritual but also because it is an outrageously human part of my week.

Here’s the thing:  because it is almost entirely students, there are so many things that go wrong.  We don’t have a sound system, but one week the person supposed to bring the bread and grape juice (hey, it’s run by Methodists) and so we legit used a bagel from Coffee Hour and some juice the presiding chaplain happened to have in her office.  Twice now I’ve been asked to step up and read the Scripture of the day because they didn’t have anyone and I was, well, there.  This past week no one had remembered to print off the bulletins that provide the liturgy, so part of it we read from the UMC hymnal and part of it we just listened to while the people leading said it all by themselves.

And here’s the thing—God still shows up.  This service is so important to me for a number of reasons, but one big one is that I’m in a program training people to be able to handle holy ritual and sacred relationship and we are still so incredibly not God.  Even when I graduate I still won’t be God (I think knowing that in my first semester will help tremendously in this degree) and I will screw things up a bunch when I work in a church.  But that doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t come to those services; thankfully, He doesn’t wait for our perfection to manifest Himself among his people.  Where two or more are gathered, right?  Right.

In the third and fourth centuries, there was a huge upheaval in the Christian community about the grace of the sacraments.  One of the things people were trying to hash out was the role of the priest; if the priest was a heretic or a traditore (since Christianity wasn’t legal until the mid-4th century, there were a handful of persecutions in which some priests decided martyrdom wasn’t their thing and so “handed over” Christian documents and renounced their faith; this is where we get the English term “traitor”), was their whole flock damned with them?  Or was God’s work God’s work no matter whose hands delivered it?

Thankfully, most people fell on the side of God’s grace being stronger than any individual priest’s faith/correctness, but there was much ink spent on the idea; if you listen to the way people talk about preachers and the relationship they have with their pastors and, through them, with God, I’d argue we’re still having that fight.  But this weekly Eucharist service is amazing to me because it’s super true; God’s grace is unstoppable.  This sacrament in which Christ is present and remembered can’t be shut out by our ineptitude or even by using a bagel.  And it never will be.  There is nothing I can do as a worship leader that will stop God from coming to God’s people, and that is the most incredibly heartening news.

And just as Jesus isn’t restrained by my saying the perfect words, He isn’t contained in that worship space.  Since there aren’t that many of us who attend, there’s always bread leftover.  In the UMC (and most Christian traditions that I know of) you can’t just throw out consecrated bread; it’s a respect thing.  Either you have to return it to nature (i.e. feed to squirrels or somesuch) or you have to eat it yourself.  I have class right after this service, so I often end up taking the leftover bread along with me and offering bits of Jesus to my classmates.  It’s a pretty amazing ritual in and of itself, that we divinity students take handfuls or just tiny pieces of the challah or the naan or the sourdough or whatever bread we had that week and munch contentedly on this tasty tasty Jesus, and it’s not at all sacrilegious.  Far from it—we are sharing in community, hashing out the history of the early Church even as we are filled with this element so laden with grace and hope and possibility even as it’s just really delicious bread.

And in that, too, is Eucharist.  In people gathering to discuss this Christ with Whom we disagree, Whom we keep learning we don’t really know, Who yet comes and shares this meal with us just as He shared with 5,000 and with 11, we are honoring the sacrament and remembering.

Until He comes again.

 

 

 Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”  (Isaiah 6:2-3, NKJV)

 

 

 

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Celebrity Jesus

I wonder if His contemporaries were ever disappointed by Jesus.

I don’t mean the folks who traveled with Him every day, the ones who of course were going to be disappointed by the times He didn’t get the nuance of the way they said they were fine when they weren’t or when He was too busy healing the crowds to see they were exhausted.  He may have been perfect, but He wasn’t a mind reader—and keeping His disciples always happy/comfortable wasn’t the point of His ministry, anyway.

I mean the folks who came to see Him, the ones who woke in the weird space when the sun has kind of come up but only enough to make the world that yellowish grey, the ones who walked to see this rabbi Who was becoming such a sensation that He drew huge crowds without a single ad on YouTube.  I wonder if they heard Him speak—itself a feat in the days before microphones and speakers, people passing along the words they could make out like a giant and incredibly important game of Telephone as Jesus pushed up His outdoor voice from His oh-so-human diaphragm—and then clamored to meet Him, to have Him heal their ills, to have Him listen to their stories (which is a different kind of healing).

And I wonder if they got up close to this traveling powerhouse and were surprised to find that His hair was going grey (it happens to some of us early, okay) or that His face was much more lined and plain than it had seemed from afar or that His clothes were shabby even for an itinerant rabbi.  I wonder if some of them came on one of the days He got overwhelmed and got in a boat and left while the people still clamored for His attention and they stood in shock, disoriented on the shore.

We may be a society and era who invented the technology for the ways we obsess over various celebrities, but we most certainly aren’t the first to get close to the people we shoved onto pedestals and be disappointed to find that they are, after all, still human.

I was thinking about this after having gone to see a Person of Importance a couple of weeks ago; she’s a Church type of some note (in Church circles) and has a lot of great things to say.  She was keynoting a retreat/conference I attended and said some really brilliant and thought-provoking things.  She also said some things I’m not all that down with.  And she said that she was in no way perfect and wasn’t, really, even all that personable.

She was right.  She knows herself and her gifts well enough to know that her true and engaged self has to be reserved for her congregation at home where she can go deep with her parishioners and that trying to create five-minute relationships with the crowds of people who want to take pictures with her and have her sign books for them simply isn’t going to go well.  In person, she does come across as rather brusque and uninterested, not because she doesn’t care but just because that’s how she’s learned to draw her boundaries.  Also, she’s a human and not perfect and maybe is uninterested because she’s tired and frustrated and running low on grace after the five hundredth signature.  It was fascinating to hear her unequivocally state that this would be the case and yet still see people after her various talks be disappointed by the reality of her—she’s such a good theologian, she tells such great stories of love and mercy, how could she be so sharp?  How could she not listen?

Maybe this was part of what Jesus was doing when He kept telling the disciples not to spread it around that He was the Messiah.  The whole God-in-human-form thing only had that gut-punch impact, after all, if there was a gut to punch—if God was human and not wearing humanity like a clearance-rack coat (as in Docetism).  We want, we need to believe in the incarnation and its reassurance that God understands why we’re skipping church to deal with the flu, that our human bodies both limit and free us to His service.  A huge chunk of early Church history was pushing against the idea that Jesus was some percentage of human or divine in favor of His being 100% both always, all the time.  Jesus being anything less was intolerable even though the alternative—that God the divine being was willingly living as a human and yet still had God’s divine nature—was outrageously improbably and more than a little weird.

But we who come thousands of years after Jesus’ ascension don’t have to be disappointed by His homeliness or His inability to get why it drives us nuts that He always leaves His sandals just that far away from the wall of wherever we’re staying.  We can put Him back on that pedestal as the perfectly loving peacemaker Who said groovy things about kindness and tolerance.

And I wonder, would we be disappointed if we got the chance to get close to this celebrity Jesus?  Can you over-idealize a perfect Being?  Or can you just get rattled that your idea of perfection doesn’t match Who He actually is, which means that maybe you—maybe don’t have as much of a lock on perfection as we’d thought?

 

 

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:25-27, NIV)

People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

Always, Always Learning

I am super educated.

I have a master’s degree in an esoteric field that most people equate with renaissance festivals.  I’m about to go get another master’s degree because, like potato chips, you can never have just one.  On one side of my family, mine is the first generation in three to have people who stopped going to school after their bachelor’s degrees.  With this kind of education comes a horrendous bias that I fight far less often than I should.

This past Sunday I went to the graduation party of a former student of mine.  She befriended me on Facebook after her semester in my class and still maintains mine was her favorite of the whole degree and that I was her favorite teacher.  We’ve kept in a distant sort of touch as she finished her schoolwork and I was surprised but delighted at her invitation to this celebration.  I bickered with myself until I got in my car on whether or not I was going to attend, but go I did—if nothing else, I wanted the connection to my old life of academia after a long weekend of church politics and procedures.  I also remembered how much it had meant to me when some of my teachers had attended my high school graduation party and wanted to be able to be that for this student, if possible.

She lives, I discovered as I wound my way through various country roads, in what is not affectionately called trailer country, a series of broken-down double-wides huddling amidst yards full of goggle-eyed chickens and rusted-out cars and gathered detritus.  This was the type of living, more than any other, that I was taught to fear growing up.  Get educated, I was told; make something of yourself so you don’t wind up stuck here with the trailer trash.

My heart breaks, Reader, to even admit these things to myself, let alone you.  I have since known dear friends who wound up in trailers for whatever reason; I have had family who made their way in their double-wides.  But the initial prejudice remains, and I as searched my way down the row of mailboxes looking for my student’s house, I hated the running judgment in the back of my mind.

At the party—just past the tarp-covered car on cinder blocks and the knot of people in faded t-shirts chain-smoking e-cigs—I met my student, a vibrant and hilarious young woman in a bright dress who hugged me fiercely and offered me sweet tea.  She introduced me to her father as a kindred spirit of geekery and we talked for some time.  Her father is, indeed, a delightful man and we swapped favorite post-apocalyptic books and talked about the film Kingdom of Heaven and how well-choreographed the battle scenes in Troy were.  He shared his amazement at the rise of acceptance of nerd culture in the last decade and I spoke of being able to connect with my students by knowing their references.  My student introduced me to her boyfriend and we talked about Star Wars and the university where I work and being incredibly socially awkward at these sorts of blind gatherings.  My student told me of what she plans to do and how she’s waiting a year before applying to master’s degree programs and I stood in their double-wide trailer with its clean and spare decor and this bright woman figuring out her way in the world and I felt so utterly humbled.

It is so easy for me, with my alphabet soup of degrees and my history of being The Smart Kid, to assign a lack of intelligence or drive or humanity to people in the trailer country.  We as a society don’t help because we continually portray people in those situations as trailer trash, as rednecks, as all manner of insults we save for those we deem uncultured and poor in various ways.  But this—this assumption is my sin, is my moment of standing with a cup of sweet tea and hearing God ever-so-gently tell me to get off my high horse because these, too, are God’s people.

I’ve had various people speculate as to what kind of church the bishop will assign me when I finish seminary, but several have said that it had better not be rural because I would be bored out of my mind.  I need the intellectual stimulation, I am told, and that may be right.  But far be it from me to tell God that I cannot serve in trailer country because they aren’t as smart as I am, because they won’t understand my sermons, because I am in some sense too good for that kind of a congregation.  What arrogance!  What foolishness!  Did my student’s father need to have read the Iliad (in English or its original Greek) to discuss film battle scenes with me?  Did he need to understand the liberties taken with the historical accounts of the crusades to speak of the power of his favorite movie?  Of course not.

I will never say that knowing these things is bad or that education is too much; it both angers and saddens me that we in the church almost fear education sometimes in the way that we talk about our faith and its history.  I delight in having read the Iliad, delight in learning Greek, delight in telling the stories of the crusades because we should never shy away from the richness of all that has come before, both good and bad.  But my knowing these things should never, ever give me license to forget that those who don’t know—and even, though it pains me to say it, those who don’t care—are still children of God.  God loves each of us, even those in trailer country, even those with several degrees, even those with a yard full of chickens and trash.

God is for all.  God is with all.  God loves all.  And I have no right to say that I am more loved or valuable than another.  Ever.

Thank you for teaching me, student, however unintentionally.

 

 

Were you born the first Adam,
    brought forth before the hills?
Did you listen in God’s council;
    is wisdom limited to you?
What do you know that we don’t know;
    what do you understand that isn’t among us?  (Job 15:7-9, CEB)

Lent, Week Seven: Anointing the Sick

My apologies for how late this post is this week, Reader.  On top of the usual reality that Good Friday is complicated for me, my car died Thursday.  For a wannabe pastoral type, of course the best time to be without transportation is Maundy Thursday leading into the Paschal Triduum.  Fortunately, my music director was willing to give me a ride to work, my coworker loaned me her car so I could get to class, and then Interpreter graciously ferried me around for the rest of the day and then on Friday.  It helps that he and I were already going to the same places—it’s church week, y’all—but it was still a moment of grace for him to step in and for me to let him.  It’s hard to be dependent on another; it’s hard not to feel like an imposition, a burden.  But in letting that happen while I waited for my dear car to be resurrected (how apropos, no?) we got to talk with each other, break down events with each other, talk shop and not talk at all.  We’re both introverts, after all, so sometimes we are perfectly happy just to pay attention to the road and say nothing.

I do now have my car back (thanks be to God, although my checkbook doesn’t agree) and that is good because I truly don’t live a life of a format or in a place that can count on rides from others and public transportation.  But it was an unlooked for gift, I think, to have that time of simply being with a friend and of seeing the generosity of others.

So what does that have to do with the one remaining sacrament?  Not much, on the surface.  The anointing of the sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is very much about humans and not cars.  But it is (even still in the Catholic Church, though they’ve changed the name and broadened the parameters) about death.  This sacrament was originally the last connection in this life to God’s grace; it served as an outward sign just before death that God was on both sides of that great divide with the person dying.  Now it includes those who are very ill and may yet survive, but the concept is the same; “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

I saved this sacrament for last because I knew it would fall on this holy weekend, Reader.  I realize that technically Lent ended Thursday night, but we are still in the wilderness.  Perhaps we are even more so, because right now our tradition states that Jesus’s body, broken and bloodied and stabbed, lies entombed.  Christ has died.

One of the most awful of the Seven Last Words to me is the one often left in Hebrew (or Aramaic, if you go with Mark):  Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”)  In the hour of His death, Jesus had no one to administer the reminder of grace; no priest hovered in the approaching darkness to reassure Him that the Light would not be overcome.  He was Himself the Light, and He died.

I don’t say this to get into a theological argument of how God can desert Himself but to underscore that death is the one thing we can reliably count on to freak us all the hell out.  It is the one thing that we concretely know happens and don’t know much about.  We persons of faith have lots of ideas, sure, but we don’t know.  We can’t.  Death is beyond all of us; only One has ever come back from it, and He didn’t spend any time at all talking about what it was like.  So to have a ritualized reminder that God is there with us even in that most unnerving of hours is an amazing thing; we are not left alone as Jesus was, we are not forsaken in that time of great need.

Because Jesus was.

Here’s the amazing thing I re-learn every Good Friday—Sunday is coming.  Here on Holy Saturday when Jesus is not in the story, is not in this world, when His disciples huddle together in a room that holds memories now painful and stare blankly at each other wondering what they missed and what else they could have done right, there are birds chirping outside my window.  The slowly dropping sun slants in through my front window and makes my silver-edged table shine, the empty glass on it sparkling in the light.  Soon I will head out for an Easter vigil service and then wake far too early in the morning to go to a sunrise Easter service because Death did not win.  Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is risenand Christ will come again.

If I don’t fully believe that, I need to start playing for a different team.

But in believing that—and doubting it and fighting with it and being totally confused by it and worrying about it and celebrating it—I myself am still confronted by Death.  My best friend will die, my favorite uncle will die, my first love will die, my last grandparent will die.  But in that space of standing on Death’s threshold and feeling his hand reach for ours, we do not have to be alone.  In this sacrament or merely the spirit of it (for those of us who aren’t Catholic) we are reminded that Jesus has stood here and taken that hand and will come back for us every time.

So I know it’s a few hours early, Reader, but let me hear it all the way up here in the Land of Pilgrims:  Christ has risen.

Christ has risen indeed!

 

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.  And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.  (Mark 16:1-2, AKJV)

Lent, Week Four: Baptism

The Protestant church accepted two sacraments from its Catholic roots:  Eucharist and baptism.  The idea that this matters comes out of Jesus’ own baptism; John the Baptist (when you’re that good at something, it becomes all of who you are) made a whole career out of prophesying that the kingdom of Heaven was coming so you should probably take a spiritual shower—that is, be baptized and confess your sins.  It became important enough that Jesus Himself came down to the Jordan River for the rite.  This, understandably, freaked John out a bit, partly since Jesus had nothing to confess and partly since that would be like telling the pope how to run mass.  He knows this way better than you do.  But when John tried to protest, Jesus said chill out, it has to be this way.  So John baptized Him and a dove come down and God said, “Yup, this One’s Mine” and this is usually seen as the beginning of the three year’s of Jesus’ ministry.

So since Jesus did it, we tend to think we should (this does not apply to the crucifixion business).  However, because we’re human, we have all sorts of ideas about how to do this.  Should a person be totally dunked in order for it to count or does putting a handful of water on his/her head count?  Should it be done when you’re older, like Jesus, or younger because it’s a recognition of God’s grace being with you for the whole of your life?  Does it have to be in a river or other natural water source or is a water tank just fine?

I myself have been baptized twice, which is a bit sacrilegious and it totally scandalizes Interpreter.  It’s not because I was trying to outdo Jesus; rather, I got stuck in the mess of humans trying to figure out the holy.  I was baptized Catholic as an infant, none of which I remember.  When I came to the faith myself and actually started believing this Jesus business, the denomination I found didn’t recognize infant baptism.  For them, it had to be a choice you consciously made and a promise of which you were aware.  So I was baptized again—and I remember that one, as the water was hella cold and I got totally dunked.  In Church rather than spiritual terms, I’m glad I have both of these to draw from because I can have this conversation in a way that few others can.  I get that it’s not such a great idea to treat this sacrament like a spiritual pick-me-up that you do every time you re-seal your commitment to God, though.  This isn’t like the Eucharist; it’s supposed to be a one-for-all deal.

Someday I’m going to write an article on the use of baptism to legitimize historical rulers (the way history re-wrote the baptism of Constantine to more closely match Jesus, for instance, is pretty fantastic.  It even has some conversion of Paul thrown in for good measure.  Man, I love medieval theology).  I won’t do that to you, though.  I will instead tell you a story about how baptism ever so quietly sauntered into my life this week.

So I work with middle schoolers, which is a beautiful and frustrating and marvelous and God-awful thing.  Middle school boys especially are God’s gentle reminder that you are not God and that humans are essentially rebellious creatures.  They’re also the reminder, though, that humans are made in the image of their creative Maker, endlessly wondrous and marvelously curious.  It’s a wide-spectrum job.

We’re getting closer to confirming some of them (confirmation is another sacrament that I’ll talk about in two weeks; stay tuned!) and the lesson this past week was about birth and re-birth and how very often Christianity uses the language of being born.  Much of that is tied into the use of water; our bodies are made mostly out of water, the amniotic fluid that surrounds us in the womb is mostly water, the planet on which we live is mostly water.  And what gets used in baptism, the very symbol of birth and rebirth?

Water, of course.

Interpreter was teaching and decided to bring along a bowl of water.  It wasn’t to baptize the kids but rather to help them (those who had already been baptized) to remember their baptism.

Now, this is not literal; since most of the kids were baptized as babies, they can’t actually remember their baptisms.  But it’s a symbolic thing:  remember the commitments made on your behalf; remember the Presence of God that never leaves you; remember the faith into which your parents (or whoever was present at the original baptism) have brought you.  Remembrance of baptism involves putting a hand of water on someone or flicking water at people (so yes, this is one of the best things pastors get to do).

Since I was standing right next to Interpreter, he handed me the bowl to hold while he poured the water and explained to the kids what they were to do.  And Reader, I almost dropped it.

I was suddenly shaking with this beautiful and history-laden bowl in my hands, shaking as the water splashed into it and the weight of this sacrament poured over me, shaking as I looked backward to the baptisms I have seen and been part of and forward to the ones I will be performing one day.  It was one of those unexpected “take off your shoes because this is holy ground” type moments, and I shook.

I did not drop the bowl, but as each confirmand came up and grabbed a handful of water I trembled in that thin place and knew it to be holy.  The sacrament was sacred, as it is meant to be.  I wonder if any of the kids felt the same.

 

 

When Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven open. The Holy Spirit came down on him like a dove.  A voice came from heaven and said: “You are my Son and I love you. I am very pleased with you.”  (Mark 1:10-11, ICB)

Lent, Week Two: Eucharist

DANG IT I PACKED A TURKEY SANDWICH FOR LUNCH AGAIN.

Deep breaths.  Deep breaths through the fact that I’m utterly failing everything I set up for myself in observance of Lent (how Lentian, perhaps).  Deep breaths through having had a week of incredibly stressful travel and being unable to find my footing on returning to this life I’ve made that increasingly seems almost foreign.  Deep breaths through yet another meeting, yet another task, yet another extroverted moment when all my introvert heart wants is to curl up and read for a day.  Deep breaths through a lunch eaten at my desk as an afterthought, the thousandth of such lunches and breakfasts where I eat because the clock tells me to.

One of the two sacraments that survived the transition from the Catholic Church to the Protestant ones is that of communion, the Eucharist.  I recently heard a professor say that the Protestants have made it unrecognizable from what it was originally as a sacrament, but I’ve no desire to get into that here.  I’ve also no desire to get into what the meal is.  I want to get into the fact that this is the one people know—the bread and the cup, the Last Supper, that moment when Jesus says some crazy stuff about dinner.

This is the one that, honestly, is hardest for me.  There are many reasons why, but you don’t need to know them, Reader.  What you do need to know is this crazy story about a man and a woman and some soup with bread.

Here’s the thing:  I don’t like soup.  I’ve never liked soup.  The older I get, however, and the longer I live in places that get cold for part of the year, the more I realize that whether I like soup or not is somewhat irrelevant.  I’m going to have to eat soup sometimes, especially because well-meaning people serve it to me and there’s simply no point in continually reiterating that I don’t like soup because they will tell me that this is because I haven’t had their soup and proceed to serve me their soup and I will have to be polite about it.  So I’ve developed a sort of cultural resignation toward soup, an attitude where I won’t necessarily choose it but I no longer refuse to eat it.  This past week I had a rather intense couple of days of driving and stayed with a very kind couple whom I had never met before and who had graciously made dinner.

Which was, of course, soup.

Sigh.

It was fine soup and I was very much aware of the gesture of the thing, but the best part of the dinner was that there was this bread, a honey-sunflower-seed wheat bread that was fresh from the oven and warm and crackly and wonderful.  It was soft to a perfect degree of softness and crusty but not painfully so and just damned delicious.  I ate rather a lot of that bread, smeared with real butter because this was the country and that’s how it’s done.

I say all of this not to go all Instagram on you (don’t worry, there are no photos of this bread) but to showcase this incredibly ordinary moment of communion.  That was not the sacrament, to be sure, but it shared the origins of the sacrament.  Jesus’ conversation with His disciples, His friends, was at a dinner table; it was taking the things of the meal and reshaping them.  He didn’t go out to Kroger and buy bread and wine specially to make a point like show and tell.  He used what was already in front of Him, pieces left from a ritual already drenched in sacredness both by its religious connections and the very necessity of eating to maintain this frustratingly blessed thing called a body.

Communion is done in a thousand ways these days; some go for intinction, some are fed by the priest, some have the pre-packaged wafer and grape juice, some will only serve crackers, some separate the wine from the bread and devour fistfuls of the latter in the delight of breaking fast.  It has had some super bizarre moments of importance in the past.  But hopefully the concept always remains—in this act we remember that Christ sat down and ate with those who loved Him (and those who didn’t) and said this will be a new world.  This will be a new way, a way that takes what you understand and turns it upside down but I will be there with you always, I will be in and through this act of remembrance because I am bringing you into Me and into relationship with all the parts of Myself.

Eating is a powerful bonding experience.  I don’t know why, but I designed an entire service-based house on the idea when I was in college and I believe still that the best way to join people together is over food and drink.  Whole relationships have been shaped by coffee for me, others forged over sandwiches and Gatorade or shared Kit-Kat bars that break apart to bring together.  For God to put a meal at the heart of this faith is gutsy and genius and utterly, utterly human; we have to eat.  This is an earthy thing wrapped in such divine understandings that it points us in receiving it to deeper aspects of this faith life—somewhat like accepting soup because the bread is so delicious and so freely offered.

 

 

Then Jesus took some bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the apostles, saying, “This is my body, which I am giving for you. Do this to remember me.”  In the same way, after supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new agreement that God makes with his people. This new agreement begins with my blood which is poured out for you.”  (Luke 22:19-20, NCV)