Saturday, April 14, 2007

An Oldie but Goodie 3

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

Vespers, June 1, 2005 – Anyone can serve Methodist communion. Anyone can serve Catholic communion. As long as a minister or priest has consecrated the bread and wine, any willing soul can serve.

But I never had.

During my youth in the Methodist Church, I had sat around a circle of peers as we passed communion to one another during Watch Night services on New Year’s Eve. And, while I remember elements of each of those services some 30 years later, I really had no awareness of the significance of serving communion to my neighbor. Passing communion on was just that, like passing the salt and pepper or the mashed potatoes.

In my last years in the Catholic Church, I regularly took communion from lay ministers because they were the ones who served the choir. We were served first, so we could proclaim in song that “We are the Body of Christ” as the rest of the congregation came forward for communion.

In earlier years, when choosing a lay ministry, I always chose to lector. In the Catholic Church, women can stand in the pulpit and proclaim the Word of God, but they cannot stand in the same pulpit minutes later and interpret that Word. The first time I chose to lector, I did so because I was more comfortable with public speaking than being responsible for not dropping the body and blood of Jesus all over the sanctuary floor. Ever after, though, I chose to lector because of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit I experienced each time I read scripture aloud in worship. I suppose it is possible the communion servers felt the same powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, but I never was tempted to switch ministries to find out.

On reflection now, I recognize that another reason I never felt tempted by the prospect of serving Catholic communion was because, deep within my soul, I knew I did not believe as the Catholics taught that those wafers and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ. Transformed by the Holy Spirit? Yes, that I believed and still do. A moving representation of Christ’s sacrifice? I believe that, too.

Yet, while I accept a multitude of mysteries of faith, I did not believe I was literally consuming Christ’s flesh and blood, and I knew I could not in good conscience serve Catholic communion.

When I returned to the Methodist Church, I was moved to the point of tears the first time I took communion kneeling at the altar rail as I had in my youth. In good faith, in full communion, without hesitation or doubt, I consumed the wafer dipped in juice and felt grace anew.

There was no need to parse my beliefs or deal with dissonance.

At the contemporary worship I often attend, communion is served every week. The community of faith approaches the altar standing. Each person tears off a piece of King’s Hawaiian sweet bread and dips it in a cup of grape juice – both elements transformed by the Holy Spirit into a remembrance of Jesus.

While the minister’s invocation of the Holy Spirit and the remembrance of Jesus are sacrosanct, much else about this service is ad hoc. So the communion servers are usually rounded up as they enter the worship gathering and asked to serve. The simplicity of that act has a metaphoric beauty all its own. At any time, any of us could be asked to serve. At any time, any of us should be prepared to serve.

Nevertheless, when it came to communion, I never had.

Rev. Djalma had once asked me if I would sit near the front of our church’s weekly vespers service to assist him if the gathering grew too large for him to handle alone. He told me he would gesture for me to join him if he needed me. I went prepared to serve, because he had asked, but I prayed I wouldn’t have to. I’m not sure why I was so reluctant, but it didn’t feel real, it didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel ready.

It was two months before he asked again.

This time my reluctance stemmed from a scheduling conflict. For more than a week, my husband had been trying to go see Star Wars, but something kept coming up in his life or mine or ours to keep him from getting out of the house on time. This was, finally, to be his night. I needed to talk to him, and, when I reached him, he absolutely understood the significance of my request.

But the need to call him provided me time to ponder. I did feel ready this time, but I still wondered if it was right. Vespers is the most formal setting in which our church serves communion. The majority of the liturgy focuses on the communion sacrament.

And the altar rail, where communion is served, adds to that formality.

I wondered if it would be proper for me to stand on the service side of the altar rail. Even though anyone can serve communion, I worried that I would appear to be attempting to assume ministerial duties prematurely.

While not specifically stating my concern, I asked Rev. Jim and Rev. Molly what they thought. We were returning to the church from a wonderfully light lunch – the conversation, not the Rubio’s burritos. We had laughed and told stories and enjoyed each other’s company and humanity. Without hesitation, they both encouraged me to assist Djalma at vespers and the healing service that followed.

As soon as Djalma learned that I was willing and able to serve, he walked me mentally through the service. He handed me the scripture readings and took me to the sanctuary, where he walked me literally through the service, too.

Like a rehearsal for a wedding, Djalma gently took me through each step. We walked down the side aisle together to our seats on the front pew. He told me how he would open the service and the hymn that would follow, and then he walked with me to the lectern from which I would read the scripture. He showed me where I would sit in the choir pews while he consecrated communion. He walked to the communion table and showed me how he would signal for me when it was time to join him. We walked to the altar, where he showed me in which hand to hold the bread and in which to hold the cup. He told me what to say as I served. And he walked me back to the communion table, where he would conclude the communion service and bless the oils for the healing service.

And then he left me alone with my nervousness.

After practicing the scriptures from the lectern, I went back to the church office to try to get some work done at the computer, but I was too nervous to concentrate. Demmie noticed, so I told her that I was going to assist Djalma at vespers. Phyllis joined the conversation, and, in her no-holds-barred Missouri way, she asked Demmie – not me even though I was right there – “Why is she nervous?” Demmie answered with the words on my heart: “Because she takes it so seriously.”

I went into the sanctuary much earlier than Djalma had suggested, and I sat in a back pew and prayed. I prayed and I reflected on the week just past and how significant it had been to this ministry journey.

Just a week before, I had sat on a sofa in Molly’s home wondering whether I would still be a ministry candidate when I arose or whether I would simply be a journalist who once considered ministry.

Like many people, I have moments in my life I am not proud of. I don’t like to relive them in my own mind, and I certainly don’t want to relive them in public.

Yet, while I am embarrassed by some of my past actions, I am not ashamed of the person I am becoming through God’s grace. At the point in my life when I felt most broken, God’s grace made me whole. My faith overcame my faults.

And that is a truth I do not fear.

There are many ways I experience that grace – that restoration, but one place I experience it, always, is at the communion rail.

And that is why I take communion so seriously. Communion, for me, is a remembrance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In one sacrament it celebrates the past, present and future of all humanity. It represents the infinite possibilities of the power of God’s grace in the world for each person.

The sacrifice of Jesus, the presence of God, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, make this sacrament both solemn and joyous.

And so I prayed.

I prayed in thanksgiving that I could face my fears and embrace anew my call to ministry. I prayed in thanksgiving for God’s loving grace. And I prayed in earnest that I would not spill the body and blood of Jesus all over the sanctuary floor.

Djalma arrived and we walked together down a side aisle, a man who had served thousands of communions and a woman who had served none. A nervous novice and a gentle mentor.

We sat in the front pew and listened as Bob rang the carillon bells – bells my son later told me he could hear from the playground. Bob then moved to the piano and played four piano reflections that transported me to an even deeper place within myself. I felt peace and calm and joy.

As he opened worship, Djalma introduced me as one of the church’s visitation ministers and said I would be assisting him in the service. Together we all sang the opening hymn, and as it ended, I ascended the steps to the lectern.

The scriptures were both about the healing power and presence of God.

Each time I looked up to connect with the congregation, I saw a familiar face. I saw strangers, too, all listening not to me, but to the Word of the Lord.

At the end of the Lamb of God, Djalma signaled for me to join him. We walked together toward the altar, where he served me communion and I served him.

And then I walked to the communion rail.

What I felt in those first moments was an astonishing unburdening.

I felt joy and release.

The nervousness I had felt at the lectern, the nervousness I always feel at the lectern, was gone. So, too, was my nervousness about serving communion. This was not something to be feared. It was something to be celebrated.

I also felt an immense sense of service – the very same sense of service I feel called toward in ministry.

And so I served, joyously.

Again, I saw familiar faces.

The kindest woman I met in my earliest encounters with this church was there.

The church’s lay leader, with whom I had earlier had a moving conversation about the challenges she faces with her elderly mother, was there, too.

And Molly was there.

It was Rev. Molly who had served me my first communion at the altar rail on my return to the Methodist church. And now, through God’s grace and transformation in my life, I stood here to serve her.

I was struck later by how different my perspective was on the serving side of the rail. I had often, erroneously, thought of communion as an individual act between God and me. But that is only the beginning of communion. Communion is a shared sacrament – the word itself reveals that truth.

We each come forward in both brokenness and joy, each with a unique experience of faith and grace as only our own lives can know it. But, in communion, we bring those individual perspectives together and share the same grace.

In communion, we know that we can rise from the altar rail and serve and live anew in grace and peace and joy.


Orangeblossoms said...

I haven't visited since the pre-Holy Week Wisteria. These last few entries are beautiful meditations on Eucharist and personal process. Thank you!

Marian said...

Such a beautiful and powerful reflection. Thanks again!