Saturday, April 14, 2007

An Oldie but Goodie 2

Call it procrastination or call it research, I've been reading through some BTB* writings as I try to write my first paper for the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. *Before the Blog

Ash Wednesday, 2004 – At a vespers service tonight at the Methodist church, I had a heart-warming experience in the truest sense of those words.

The organ prelude was calming and should have made it easy to be reflective, but my mind kept wandering to outside responsibilities and to continuing curiosities about another new experience in this church of my Christian beginnings.

As the service started, I was immediately struck by how very much the words and lyrics of the prayers were like a Catholic liturgy. I lost myself in the sameness and in the comfort of finding something so familiar in this new church home I am coming to love.

Communion was served at the altar rail. We – the congregation – formed a long line up to the altar extending down the aisle and waited for our turn to receive communion. Again I reflected on the similarities.

If it is possible to have a slip of the tongue during an internal dialogue with God, I did. I meant to say, “This is so much like the Catholic Church.” What I really said was, “This is so much like Your church.” The immediate response in my mind was “This is my church.”

I like my internal dialogues. They give me an opportunity to ponder, sometimes prayerfully, sometimes not. During the best reflections, I puzzle out a remedy, a response or a way to move forward in the face of some obstacle or concern. And even during the mediocre reflections, at least I’m reflecting. At least I am attempting to face some issue that stands between the person I am and the person I could become.

In recent years, I have come to accept that God knows my heart – all of it. The darkness and the light. If I start to contemplate things better left unthought, I no longer try to pretend I wasn’t. I no longer try to change the subject, because, God only knows, God knows. On good days, I turn those thoughts into prayers: God, you know I feel this way, because you know me. Help me deal with these trials and temptations. Help me transform them from something negative into something positive.

There was nothing negative about my reflections tonight. I was preparing to receive Christ in my life anew. I realized that, ideally, I would be this reflective each time I take communion, pondering my shortcomings and standing in wonder at the patience and grace available to me through Christ and represented in that gift of sustenance.

Approaching the altar rail, watching others kneel and wait to receive this sacrament, I remembered the anticipation I experienced long ago, kneeling at the altar of First United Methodist Church in Paris, Texas, praying for God’s blessing and waiting.

I heard the low murmur of Gary Regan’s voice as he walked along the altar offering an intimate communion to each guest at the table. The murmur was like a comforting chant, a truth repeated. As he neared where I knelt, I could hear a distinct word or two within the murmur. “Christ.” “Body” “Given.” “You.” Until he stood before me and the words came together in focused clarity: “This is Christ’s body given for you.” And as I kneeled in prayer, communion dissolving into my body, the murmur resumed.

I don’t remember the first time I took communion in the Methodist Church, which would have been my first communion ever, but I clearly recall the first time I did not take communion.

It was the first Sunday I attended a Methodist church. My mother had arranged for me to go with the daughter of a friend of hers, someone I knew from junior high school. Several of my friends were there.

As four or five rows of pews filled with teens, sitting together in youthful solidarity, someone noticed that it was Communion Sunday. I was petrified, mortified, filled with all forms or teenage angst. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked my friend. She told me not to worry; she said anyone could take communion. My friends encouraged me to join them. They were offering me the easy way out – just follow along with us, no one cares.

But I cared.

I didn’t yet know if I believed what I needed to believe to take communion in anyone’s church – no matter how open the communion was.

As the rows in front of us began to empty, my heart pounded. It is against most teenagers’ sense of social survival to self-ostracize. But that’s what I chose that morning.

I chose to sit in that pew alone.

I waited for my friends to return, and as I did, I had what may have been my first internal conversation with God. “Why did this have to happen on my first Sunday?” I asked. I don’t recall that there was an answer.

Sitting alone in that empty pew was hard – much harder than taking communion would have been. I felt exposed and vulnerable. But I did not feel like an imposter – that’s how I would have felt if I had pretended I was comfortable taking communion.

For people brought up in faith, this may not seem like such an agonizing decision. They, too, might have encouraged me to take communion that day. Children often receive communion alongside their parents before they are fully ready.

I have no memory of my first communion. I have no recollection of coming to awareness that I was ready. Perhaps I waited until a year or so later when I was baptized at age 14. Perhaps I began to feel more comfortable with my nascent faith, and communion became a natural extension.

By some measure, I suppose I could count that day sitting alone in the pew as my first communion. It certainly was my first communion experience. And there is no doubt it was the day I made a conscious decision to take communion seriously, to hold it in reverence, to await it.

Tonight, until I approached the communion rail, I had not known how much I missed kneeling to receive communion, how much I missed the gentle murmur of a caring pastor reaching out to invite me to share in this wondrous love.
As the minister presented the bread and cup to me, my heart pounded rapidly within me. I took a wafer and dipped it into the cup and consumed this life force, this love, this eternal promise. My heart pounded in anticipation and in nervousness in the presence of the Lord.

And then I was calm, my nervousness quelled by communion, comforted by the realization, once again, of God’s amazing gift of grace.

I remember thinking as a youth that there was never really enough time for prayer after communion. Others were waiting to take my place.

Tonight, I felt that familiar pang of wanting to linger at the altar. I realized, though, that it wasn’t so much a lack of time to pray I was experiencing as a complete loss for words. There will never be enough time to come up with the right words to express my eternal gratefulness except to say to God – you know my heart.

Reflecting later, I reached an emotional awareness that communion is more than just taking Christ’s body and receiving God’s grace. I come to the altar to give myself to God. To say: “I am here. You made me. You know me. I am yours. I accept this gift of your life and, in a much less cataclysmic yet heart-felt way, I return my life to you.”

When my heart began pounding tonight, I accepted it as another unspoken exchange between me and God – a quickening, a deepening of my immeasurable, inexpressible gratitude for this imperfect life redeemed by love.

Words do not begin to capture what I felt – but God knows.

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