Communion Bread

A few months ago, one of the ladies asked me if I could help with communion, setting it up three or four times a year. I would be replacing a woman  who had been showing signs of dementia.

I had my first turn this last week. One of the ladies showed me where the supplies were kept — the chalices and plates, the pretty linens, and a six-pack of bottles of grape juice.

It seemed pretty straight-forward.

Until I asked about the bread.

“You can get any bread,” the woman told me.

“Any bread?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter.”

It mattered to me.

I angsted over communion bread all week. I couldn’t get just any old bread. This was the body of Christ, for crying out loud.

Our church offers communion by intinction. The pastor tears a chunk off the loaf of bread (yeast bread) and offers it to the communicant, who then dips it in the chalice.

I know that some churches use matzoh, or unleavened bread, because that’s what Jesus would have used during His last Passover supper. Others use leavened bread, a reminder of new life and a new covenant. Some churches use wafers and believe in transsubstantiation.

Some churches use individual cups. Others use chalices. Some churches use wine. Others use juice.

Some celebrate the Eucharist weekly, others monthly, and still others yearly.

However it’s done, all Christians unite in this mystery that goes beyond time and space and a morsel and a taste of juice.

The body of Christ broken for you.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

I struggled with what to bring for the communion bread. I prayed about it. I wrestled with in my heart. I looked at bread at the grocery store and at the local bakery. Then I prayed some more.

Finally, I decided to try to make the bread. I pictured myself kneading the dough and praying for the people in our congregation.

I got a recipe from another church, but it didn’t call for kneading. I messaged the woman who sent me the recipe — “Do I really not knead it? Just punch it down?”

She answered, “I think the mixing is enough. I never kneaded it. Yes, just punch it down. No worries.”

“This is an act of faith for me,” I told her, “in more ways than one.”

Before I removed the baked bread from the pan, I laid my hands on the loaf and prayed, “O Lord, please be honored with this bread. Bless the people who partake of it.”

I brought the bread to church in a brown paper bag. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had made it. Bud helped me set everything up on the altar.

The moment in the service came when Pastor Tom lifted the bread for all to see.

“This is Christ’s body, broken for you,” he said, as he broke the loaf in half.

As luckfateGodcoincidencechance would have it, Pastor Tom asked me to stand beside him for communion and hold the chalice.

I watched him tear off chunk after chunk of bread. I tried to focus on my words — “The blood of Christ shed for you” but the bread was so distracting. The pieces got larger and larger.

One woman laughed as she received a piece so large that she had to tear it in half to dip in the chalice.

I laughed, too. It was comical.

After the service, she came up front to talk with the pastor.

“You got your whole lunch there,” I said to her, nodding towards the communion trays.

Tom said, “I was trying to pull off small pieces but I couldn’t!”

She said, “You were very generous, pastor.”

Tom said, “No, God is very generous.”

We all agreed.

Isn’t that the crux of communion — a God so generous that He gave His son.

The woman said, “I didn’t mind. That bread was so good!”

The bread wasn’t perfect — but then, neither am I.

And God honored the bread.

Generously.

 

 

 

 

P is for Presbyterian

Cooperstown Presbyterian Church

Both my mother and father were deeply involved in the Cooperstown Presbyterian Church.

From my mother’s obituary:

Perhaps most central to Elinor’s life was her steadfast devotion to the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown, for it was there that she faithfully blended her love of family and God. A member since 1969, Elinor sang in the Chancel Choir, served in church leadership as a Deacon and an Elder, as Treasurer and Clerk of Session, volunteered as a Sunday School Teacher, was a member and/or chair of numerous committees over the years, and participated fully in the women’s association. A generation of young people will remember Elinor as the one who prepared the food for the weekly Thursday school gatherings at the Presbyterian Church.

I was going to say that my father did everything my mother did at the church and then some — except he didn’t sing in the choir, and I’m not sure he taught Sunday School, and he certainly didn’t participate in the women’s association. He didn’t prepare meals either.

But he WAS a  deacon and an elder and the Clerk of Session (I think). My sister, who is much more entrenched in the Presbyterian Church, could tell you what that all means.

I simply knew that he went to meetings there. A lot of them.

And he sold hot dogs at the annual Ice Cream Social.

From an old newspaper clipping on the refrigerator

The birthday cards from the church people often talked about his leadership, like this one:

My most powerful memories about you relate to the leadership you gave when several times over the years we found ourselves between pastors. You helped keep the ship floating and moving forward…

This was my favorite church story:

My most vivid memory … is of the congregational meeting relating to the arrangement of the pews in the sanctuary which were to be reinstalled after being removed for refurbishing. The temporary chairs used while the pews were worked on were arranged in a semicircle, and some church members wanted the pews to be arranged like that. Other members were determined that the pews should be placed in straight rows as they had been in the past. Supporters of both views expressed strong feelings, but you did a masterful job as moderator in keeping order, giving everyone opportunity to express their opinion, and guiding the factions to a compromise whereby the two center sections of pews were replaced in straight lines as before but the two side sections were angled to give an overall sense of a curve.

I can picture my father, patiently listening, patiently giving everyone a chance to speak, gently leading the way to compromise. Attentive listening is one of his super-powers.

Today, I stopped by the church to see the “curved” pew arrangement.

from the back

from the pulpit

The angling is so slight that it’s barely perceptible. If I felt strongly about the curve, I might have felt cheated.

Or not.

Sometimes it’s enough to be heard.

In any event, the church stayed afloat and moved forward, thanks, in part, to my father.

A Little Bit of Narnia

March 28, 2018

Yesterday’s sunrise was pink and blue.

March 27, 2018

The day before it was orange and yellow.

March 1, 2018

I take so many pictures of the sunrise. I’ll be at the pool and one the ladies swimming will say, “Ooh! Sally! Get your camera!” I’ll grab my phone and step out the door into the cold for yet another sunrise photo.

February 23, 2018

It never grows old.

February 19, 2018

Here’s one of my favorites, looking in a slightly different direction:

December 4, 2017


I’m reading excerpts of Lamentations for Holy Week. Feeling the sadness of the Jewish people as they lament the destruction of Jerusalem sets the tone for the sadness Christians should feel as we approach Good Friday. I love the way C. S. Lewis,  in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, described Aslan walking to the Stone Table

…one of the girls walked on each side of the Lion. But how slowly he walked! And his great, royal head drooped so that his nose nearly touched the grass. Presently he stumbled and gave a low moan.

“Aslan! Dear Aslan!” said Lucy, “what is wrong? Can’t you tell us?”

“Are you ill, dear Aslan?” asked Susan.

“No,” said Aslan. “I am sad and lonely. Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that.”

And the girls did what they would never have dared to do without his permission but what they had longed to do ever since they first saw him — buried their cold hands in the beautiful sea of fur, and stroked it and, so doing, walked with him.

That part of the story is almost unbearable to me. Because even if I picture burying my cold hands in his mane, I know that soon the lion will be gone and my hands will be colder than before. It’s an awful feeling.

But Lamentations 3 holds one of my favorite passages — and arriving at it is like arriving at Easter morning.

21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Every sunrise holds that promise for me. His mercies are new every morning. In Narnia —

There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.

The Narnian lampposts that line the driveways and parking lots at the pool extinguish themselves one by one every morning and I am left with a glorious sun. Even on the grayest days, I know it’s there — and it brings me hope.

 

Shall We Gather At the River

Yesterday morning, when Dad came out for breakfast, he told me that he had composed a song while he was sleeping.

“Really?” I said. “Are you going to sing it for me?”

“Yes, I will,” he replied. “Just give me a minute to remember it.”

He sat there thinking, while I took his blood pressure and got his morning meds for him.

My father has compared his singing with Lee Marvin’s in Paint Your Wagon. In fact, I can remember times when my father would burst into “Wand’rin’ Star,” singing the first few lines. Lee Marvin’s gravelly baritone-bass was just enough off-key that I felt a kinship to him, and just enough on-key that I enjoyed the song — but my father was just off-key. I always smiled, though, when I heard him singing.

My mother was a soprano. Yesterday we sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” at church. I got a little lump in my throat because I could hear her singing this good Baptist hymn. It reminded me of my mother’s Baptist upbringing. I remember her singing it.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

My father was bobbing his head a little, trying to find the rhythm for this song he wanted to sing for me.

“The words are kind of crazy,” he said. “I don’t think I can remember them all.”

“Just sing what you can,” I said, getting more curious by the moment.

He closed his eyes and sang, “Humpty-backed camels and chimpanzees…” He swayed to some internal music, then finished with, “but there ain’t no uni-corn,” and opened his eyes to see what I thought.

“I hate to break it to you, Dad,” I said, “but that song has already been written.”

He laughed, “Well, isn’t that the darnedest thing.”

I sang The Unicorn Song for him, (not nearly as well as The Irish Rovers)

There was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
The loveliest of all was the unicorn*

He mouthed the words with me and nodded, remembering them better as he heard them.

“That’s right!” he said.

“You were listening to it last night,” I said. “It probably got stuck in your head and played in your dreams.”

He shook his head, “The brain is an amazing thing, isn’t it?”

The funny thing about the Wand’rin’ Star song is that my father was born under the farthest thing from a wandering star. He was born under a stay-put star. Fifty-some years ago, when he left the Army, he bought a house and settled in.

He put closets in the house.

The house had only one closet when he bought it — not nearly enough for a family of seven.

He planted trees, putting down roots.

My brother standing by the newly planted orchard – 1968

Those humpty-backed camels — I suppose they were a part of his life, too — but only a small part.

My father and I riding a camel

The last verse of Shall We Gather says —

Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Perhaps it’s there that we’ll find those missing unicorns.

 

Lent 2018

My sister messaged me yesterday, “…about Tuga… has he returned to your pocket, or was he so last year?”

Tuga, the little brown bunny who stayed in my pocket for Lent 2017 as a reminder of the sorrow in the world, is not so last year. He’s so in Bosnia.

I have other Tugas. Three sets, as a matter of fact, of Tuga and Aleluja, sitting on my shelf. One set is promised to someone. The other two are at-the-ready, for when I meet someone who needs a mindfulness token of sorrow and joy.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, has had new meaning for me since 2014. That year, early in the morning of Ash Wednesday, my sister called with the news that my oldest brother had unexpectedly passed away after a heart attack.

Yesterday I read through some of the posts I had written in the subsequent days. Most are private now — as in, you can’t read them; I took them down because they were too personal — but the Ash Wednesday one is public.

When I’m telling someone about Stewart, I almost always refer to him as brilliant. Hamilton College undergrad — their first Russian Studies major. Yale Divinity School for his M. Div. and then Syracuse Law for his J.D. He had a home computer before that was a thing — like in 1983. He had set it up to run tessellations — which, of course, has nothing to do with Russian or Divinity or Law.

In the last few years of Stewart’s life I had been frustrated with him.  He had been nearly job-less, doing pulpit supply and seemingly little else. Every month my father sent him money to pay his rent.

In the meantime, I was running myself ragged, driving back and forth between Greene and Cooperstown, trying to help my father take care of my mother.

“Why can’t Stewart move in with Mom and Dad?” I griped to my sister. “He could be of real help to them and Dad wouldn’t have to keep sending him money.”

It irked me.

It seemed unfair.

But when Stewart died, and I met the many people whose lives had been touched by Stewart’s, I realized that I only knew part of the story. Stewart lived in a low-income area. He drove neighbors to doctor’s appointments and listened to their lives. His congregation gathered every evening in the apartment complex’s gazebo.

“That’s where Stewart sat,” one lady told us, pointing to a bench at one of the picnic tables. “He was always here for us.”

He had a church, unrecognized by anyone, because it was so informal, yet so personal. It didn’t pay the bills. It paid in intangibles.

I couldn’t see it — I don’t think anyone could — until he was gone, and we slowly unknotted the knot that was his life.

In his book, Great Lent, my Lenten reading for this year, Alexander Schmemann said,

If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the “soul” or “person” He gave every man. There is no “impersonal” love because love is the wonderful discovery of the “person” in “man,” of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery of the unique in each man of that which is “lovable” in him, of that which is from God.

I looked around my room this morning for something to carry in my pocket for Lent. Tuga had been a good companion last year, but I wanted something to remind me of the hidden person, the God in each person I meet.

I settled on a Monkey’s Fist that had been sitting on my dresser. It probably belongs to one of my children — but it’s mine for this season. A knot, the heart of which is hidden from me.

Wikipedia says, “Monkey’s fists are commonly used as a convenient and unobtrusive method of storing and transporting precious gemstones.” What can be more precious than God?

God wears a costume of human flesh. He’s in the guy at the gas station, and the friend that encourages me.

But He’s also hiding somewhere in the woman who irritates me, and the man sitting on the couch in the other room, rifling through papers again and again.

I’m going to be on the lookout for Him.

Pearls

Let me be candid. I was shouting in the officials’ room at the swim meet on Saturday.

Not my finest moment, for sure. That ugliness left me bone-weary at the end of the day.

The next morning when I got up early to read, I still felt the stone in my gut, the last vestiges of that conflict.

Several years ago, my friend and fellow-blogger Anna Brown made a reference to pearl-formation. I liked it so much I tried to incorporate it into my daily prayers, specifically in my creed where I state those things I believe. After many iterations, I settled on these words:

I believe that the trials in my life are ultimately God’s good for me; they are like grains of sand in an oyster that God uses to produce pearls.

When I arrived at that part the other morning, I thought of the man who had shouted at me and at whom I had shouted in turn.

“Lord,” I prayed, “I believe that ______ is a like a grain of sand, and that You can use him to produce a pearl in me.”

I sat there picturing the process that happens in an oyster. The presence of the irritant is sometimes a grain of sand, but often in nature is a parasite. The  oyster excretes a fluid that coats the irritant, and then coats it again and again and again. The fluid, called nacre, is otherwise known as mother-of-pearl. Shiny, luminous, iridescent. Beautiful.

The longer the irritant stays in the clam, the more coatings it receives. It’s a slow process that can take up to three years for the pearl to reach its size. “Lower-quality pearls have often been ‘rushed’ out of the oyster too quickly (sometimes a year or less) and have a too-thin coat of nacre.” (from Pearls.com)

As I prayed, I could feel the edges of my irritation softening.

I prayed it again, this time inserting a different name. I’ve been walking the edge of irritability for a while now, more and more often losing balance and falling into frustration with this person or that situation.

As I named specific people or issues and prayed the prayer over and over, I began to picture a string of pearls.

And tears began to roll down my cheeks.

The more irritations, the more pearls. I found myself feeling thankful for each one.

The funny thing is, I know I have three more years of interactions with the shouting man.

Three years. Just the right amount of time to form a good pearl.

 

First Sunday of Advent 2017

I peeked at the first page of The New Christian Year (compiled by Charles Williams) one last time before putting it on the shelf.

My well-worn copy is even more well-worn now that I’ve been through the book several times. The New Christian Year isn’t so new anymore. My copy is from 1941 — and it was written in but not falling apart when I got it. I picked it up at a used bookstore, not knowing what a dear friend it would become. It’s falling apart now, like a Velveteen Rabbit of books.

Charles Williams introduced me to so many Christian thinkers — St. Augustine, John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, and Blaise Pascal to name a few.  The New Christian Year helped me fill my bookshelves with deep, rich books.

But, when I read Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance earlier this year, I knew I was reading a modern author who would challenge me to change my life and deepen my faith. I ordered Gift and Task as soon as I finished the Sabbath book.

When it arrived, I set it aside. I would have to wait for Advent, the start of the Christian year.

My brand new copy of Walter Brueggemann’s Gift and Task beckoned me this morning.

All those pages so new and clean.

Oh — to write in the margins!

Brueggemann starts the Christian year not with light and hope, but with a roar.

…Advent is “in like a lion,” a roaring truthfulness that disrupts our every illusion…

…Christmas is not a safe, private, or even familial enterprise but is preoccupied with great public issues of war and peace and issues of economic justice that concern the worth and bodily well-being of human persons. Our Advent preparation may invite us to consider the ways in which we ourselves are complicit in the deep inhumanity of our current world.

Not what I was expecting at all.

Indeed, for me, Advent roared in like a lion, but Brueggemann concluded today with these words –

The lion opens space for the Lamb, who will arrive soon.

I hope I’m ready for this new Christian year.