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.

Empire Swimming (and Easter)

IMG_6101

Empire Swimming at LaGuardia

E is for Empire Swimming and Easter.

As a swim coach, I thought it funny that I ended up on my first flight to Laity Lodge with a swim team. I didn’t mind.  Swimmers are some of my favorite people in the whole world.

Especially when I get to overhear conversations like this —

Swimmer A: This is my first time flying. I hope I get a window seat.

Swimmer B:  You know you can’t open the window, right?

I laughed, wondering if Swimmer A thought he could open the window and stick his hand out to zoom through the oncoming air.

When the plane took off, I thought of him again, especially when I got that giddy feeling that makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time as the wheels leave the ground.

Flying is such a miracle.

Over a hundred people crammed into a metal tube, with their suitcases and laptops and books — but somehow that heavy thing climbs into the sky.

I really do grin like a 10-year-old and get the watery eyes of a senior citizen at the moment of transformation from earthbound to air-born.

It happened to me again yesterday.  Not the flying part, but the laughing/crying part.

Easter Sunday is, in my opinion, the most important Christian holiday. The crux of our faith lies in the truth that Jesus bore the penalty for our sins on the cross and then conquered death in His resurrection.

Churches around the world have traditions associated with Easter.  Over the years we’ve attended churches with sunrise services, cardboard testimonies, hymn sings, dramas, and traditional liturgies. Each new way of celebrating offers a fresh look at an old but oh-so-beautiful story.

The church we currently attend closes with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and a joyful procession of the children.

Curmudgeonly me, I said to Bud yesterday morning before church, “I’m ready to move on to something besides caterpillars and butterflies.”

I’ll blame it on the persistent headache I’ve had for the past week, but, more likely, I’m just a grump.

Caterpillar down the center aisle

Caterpillar down the center aisle

When the procession started, though, and the caterpillar came waddling up the center aisle, I felt that wheels-leaving-the-runway giddiness.

And when the children threw off the caterpillar shroud to reveal the butterflies, I confess, my eyes got a little watery.

As the procession continued with waving flags and ever larger butterflies, I was thankful for the joy that filled our sanctuary.

Because, if there was one thing I needed to be reminded of yesterday, it was joy.

Confetti-filled, silly-stringed, laugh-out-loud joy.

The kind where it doesn’t matter whether or not the window opens, because you can still feel the wheels leave the tarmac, and know that it’s a miracle, and that you’re being carried somewhere beyond, somewhere amazing.

Easter is that kind of amazing, pressed down, shaken over, overflowing.

The biggest miracle of them all.

For me.

Communion again

IMG_5903[1]I was the first in line for communion.

When the teen server tore off a piece of bread and handed it to me, she looked at me and paused.

I waited for the words — “This is the Bread of Life.” Or, “the Body of Christ broken for you.”  Which would she say?

She hesitated and then her face broke out into a big smile. “Hi,” she said. She had forgotten what she was supposed to say and simply greeted me.

I laughed and took the bread to dip into the challis.

The little girl beside her lifted the cup to me and said, in a tiny voice, “The cup of blessing.”

I dipped my bread and went back to my seat, still smiling.

Sometimes, in the somberness of the occasion, we forget that it was like a family meal in that upper room so long ago. I’m sure there was a clatter of dishes and hubbub of voices while everyone dined, reclining at the table.

  • Peter objecting to Jesus washing his feet.
  • Peter motioning for John to ask Jesus a question.
  • John asking Jesus Peter’s question.
  • Jesus dipping the bread and handing it to Judas.
  • Judas leaving.
  • Peter’s exchange with Jesus.
  • Thomas’s exchange with Jesus.
  • Philip’s exchange with Jesus.

Comings, goings, actions, conversations — all in the course of one meal.

Quiet introspection played no part.

Listening to Jesus did.

Sometimes, in the ceremony and formality of communion at church, we miss the human connection — and that’s what Jesus did on earth, connect with us in a very human way.

“Hi.”

Communion amazes me every time.

Andrae Crouch

The only photograph I could find from my time at Mid-State Baptist Camp

The only photograph I could find from my time at Mid-State Baptist Camp

When I was a teenager, I worked at a small Baptist camp in the wilds of upstate New York.

I was initially hired as the cook — don’t ask me how — but eventually was moved into the lifeguard position after they tasted my cooking and the other lifeguard left.

To my Baptist friends, forgive me, but sometimes Baptists can be stodgy.

Although I attended a Baptist church at the time (which wasn’t stodgy), I was unprepared for the strictness of this camp.

I had to sign some sort of statement of faith to work there, and, being 18, gave it only a cursory reading. Yep, I agreed (or so I thought) and quickly scrawled out my signature.

Trouble arrived on two fronts. One had to do with speaking in tongues.

For the record, I do not speak in tongues. I speak English and know a smattering of other languages. In worship services, I speak in the tongues of men – mostly American — not angels. I told someone else at the camp (I’ve never really been sure who) that I believed that the gift of tongues could still exist today. Before I knew it, I was called in before a panel of pastors to discuss the matter.

You have to picture it — I was a slip of a girl, blonde, freckled, unschooled in theology, wearing t-shirt and shorts — and, in my mind’s eye, I still see them wearing suit coats, sitting in a semi-circle around me, grilling me about the charismatic movement, of which I was not a part. I stood my ground, though. I do believe the gift of tongues could still exist. In the end I had to promise never to discuss tongues with any campers, and they would allow me to continue working.

The other problem was music. The dining hall was a long low building with a kitchen at one end, rows of tables and folding chairs in the middle, and a turntable with speakers at the far end. I had just discovered Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. His album, Keep on Singing, lived on that turntable.

While I worked in the kitchen alone, I blasted Andrae Crouch over those speakers and sang at the top of my lungs.

Take me back. Take me back, dear Lord.
To the place, where I first believed…

I closed my eyes, clasped my hands, and swayed while I sang:

How can I say thanks
for the things You have done for me?
Things, so undeserved,
Yet You gave to prove Your love to me.
The voices of a million angels
Could not express my gratitude.
All that I am,
And ever hope to be,
I owe it all to Thee.

I opened my eyes to find two Baptist ladies staring at me.

“Turn that music down,” one said.

“You can’t play music like that here,” the other one added.

I turned it down temporarily, but, oh, I still played Andrae Crouch — for two solid weeks. He kept me company and lifted my spirits. He gave me confidence. Trouble came from time to time, but that’s all right, I learned not to be the worrying kind.

Maybe that was why they booted me from the kitchen.

Andrae Crouch passed away yesterday. I’m sure he’s singing now in heaven.

But one summer, I sang his songs on a mountaintop. Today, I just gotta tell somebody.

Communion

Communion is a joyful time at our church.

For so many years, I was used to a different way of celebrating communion.  A somber, sober way.  A stay-in-your-seat kind of way.  A contemplative, inward-looking way.

Not that those are bad things.  Communion — eating the bread and drinking the cup — shows forth the Lord’s death until He comes again.  Death is a somber, sober thing.  It calls for contemplation and looking inward.

IMG_2808[1]At our church though, we walk to the front and receive the bread, a chunk torn from a small white loaf, with the words, “This is the Bread of Life.”  Next, we dip our bread into the challis and hear “This is the Cup of Blessing.” The bread, now soggy with grape juice, must be eaten immediately, unless it is so large that it takes several bites.  Children love this.

At first, I was critical of this method.  I mean, really, everyone knows Jesus didn’t use leavened bread, I would scoff to myself.  But the reality is that Jesus also didn’t serve wine in cute little cups that could be used later for VBS crafts.  No, modern communion only recalls that Last Supper; it doesn’t replicate it.  And that attention to the outward details is exactly the pit into which the Pharisees fell.  What’s important is what’s going on in the heart.  More precisely, for me, in my heart.

Once I set my inward Pharisee aside, I could laugh and enjoy communion.  It’s a little chaotic. Children grin broadly and sometimes laugh when they are handed a large piece of bread.  More than once bread has fallen into the challis.  One parishioner’s guiding eye dog, not always in harness, but still in church, sniffs the floor hopefully for a few crumbs.

Yesterday, I went forward for communion.  The pastor said, “This the Bread of Life,” and tore a piece from the loaf.  I looked up into eyes that were warm and tender.  This was someone who knows me and loves me.  The young acolyte lifted the challis for me.  His little voice was timid and sweet as he said, “The Cup of Blessing.”

Afterwards, as I sat in my seat, I thought about that last supper Jesus shared with His disciples.  I’m sure He looked them in the eye and smiled at them as He gave them the bread.  Maybe it was a little messy sharing the cup.  I know for certain, though, that the love was palpable.

It reminded me of something Frederick Buechner once wrote about a communion experience.  I’ll leave you with that.

… I was receiving communion in an Episcopal church early one morning.  The priest was an acquaintance of mine, and I could hear him moving along the rail from person to person as I knelt there waiting for my turn.  The body of Christ, he said, the bread of heaven.  The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.  When he got to me he put in another word.  The word was my name, “The body of Christ, Freddy, the bread of heaven.”

…There was nothing extraordinary about the priest knowing my name — I knew he knew it — and there was nothing extraordinary about him using it in the service because he evidently did that sort of thing quite often.  But the effect on me was extraordinary.

… For the first time in my life, maybe, it struck me that when Jesus picked up the bread at his last meal and said, “This is my body which is for you,” he was doing it not just in a ritual way for humankind in general, but in an unthinkably personal way for every particular man or woman or child who ever existed or someday would exist.  Most unthinkable of all, maybe he was doing it for me.  At that holiest of feasts we are known not just by our official name but by the names people use who have known us the longest and most intimately.

from Spiritual Quests:  The Art and Craft of Religious Writing,
edited by William Zinsser

Food for thought the next time you partake in communion.