I continue to consider in my writing those prayers that have pulled me and others through in tough times. As I am becoming more convinced that all our practices – whether they be prayer, acts of compassion, opening up to others for support, care for the earth, choices to help sustain our physical health – are most sustainable done in the context of community, I am focusing on the suggested prayers of my own community, the United Church of Christ. Today I return to prayers found in its Book of Worship. I would love if some of you who read this can reflect on words used in your community that help open you up to prayer, to compassion, to joy, even in the midst of suffering.
What I turn to today is not maybe what conventionally we think about as a prayer that pulls us through – the prayer at communion used in my church. But as a chaplain I have to say there are so many people who do say “all I want is communion. I have been so sick I could not be at church for months,” sometimes even years, “and there is something to breaking bread together”.
My own practice is if they have a tradition that matters to them, to try and use the words of that tradition as a chaplain but, if not, I often used the words that speak to me. The words of blessing are as follows:
“God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your heads.
We lift them up to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Our loving Creator,
Close to us as breathing and distant a the farthest star,
We thank you for your constant love for all you have made.
“We praise you for Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection
And for the calling forth of your church for its mission in the world.
“Gifted by the presence of your Holy Spirit,
We offer ourselves to you as we unite our voices with the entire family of your faithful people everywhere:
Holy, holy, holy God of love and majesty,
The whole universe speaks of your glory,
O God Most High.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God! Hosanna in the highest
“Merciful God, as sisters and brothers in faith,
We recall anew the words and acts of Jesus Christ.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples
And said: ‘Take, eat: This is my body’.
“Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks, gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Drink it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.’
“We remember Christ’s promise not to drink of the fruit of the vine again until the heavenly banquet at the close of history, and we say boldly what we believe:
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come. Bless this bread, and bless this fruit of the vine. Bless all of us in our eating and drinking at this table, that our eyes may be opened that we may recognize the risen Christ in our midst, in each other, an in all for whom Christ died. Amen.”
And then following communion, we pray: “We give thanks, almighty God, that you refreshed us at your table by granting us the presence of Jesus Christ. Sustain our faith, increase our love for one another, and send us forth into the world in courage and peace, rejoining in the power of the Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
There is so much to these rich words of prayer that, as with the Serenity Prayer, I expect to spend a posts reflecting on them. What I would like to do today is just say something about how I have experienced such acts as communion in my life and seen them experienced by others in trial and crisis.
I did not grow up with regular communion. It became a part of my life as a minister, when serving a church that did communion each month but, to be fair, acting as one of the officiants, I didn’t really get to experience communion as an experience of Christ present for me, but more as me as a host welcoming people to the table to experience Christ for themselves. My first really sustaining experience of communion was when I left the denomination that ordained me initially, now called Grace Communion International, over their treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their churches when I was asked to participate in actions I viewed as un-Christian, unloving, and hurtful to people in those communities. When I made that choice, I experienced oh so many people who had sworn they were good friends who would stay by me come what may, who swore they would be like family, drop me. Some did it quietly, drifting out of my life without comment or response to me reaching out. Others did it quite loudly, letting me know how my choice to embrace “such people” was a choice to reject Christ, to turn from God, even though in that quiet place in my soul in which I believed God spoke and from which I think in my moments of clearness I still can sense the guidance of the Spirit the best, I knew the choice I was making was right for me. I felt shattered too. Like a failed minister. A person without a home, uncertain of a future.
At this point I thought I would never be a minister again. I didn’t know what I would do about church and faith. Friends invited us though to a little tiny community called Heartland Metropolitan Community Church, a church predominantly with queer members. That church embraced me like family when some in my own family were not sure what to do with me, and many friends didn’t want me around. And each Sunday they took communion. And when you took communion it was not waiting impersonally for a tray to pass. It was walking up, taking that bread from the hand of one of the leaders of the church, dipping it yourself in the cup, and then the pastor, Pastor Sandy, speaking a few very personal words of prayer over you individually.
I was astounded by the experience. Each time I came crushed and broken, but something about going forward, ploddingly moving my body with others to that simple altar, holding my hands out, accepting that little cracker, dipping it in the cup, and hearing reminders in prayer over me that though I felt rejected and a failure, God’s eyes always looked at me with love seeing infinite potential, was healing. I came to take that bread as a starving man a morsel, as a broken man healing.
I must confess communion is not as personal in the big church I attend now, but every time I go I know it is my way of saying “I cannot do this on my own. I come empty handed. I come with an empty yearning soul. I come not knowing the way. Give me just that bit of strength, grace, hope, healing, I need to know I can get through”.
I find this is what seems to be happening with patients and as pastor parishioners requesting communion from me. It is very rare anyone really believes I have magic hands or magic words that can turn the simple bread and juice into anything but what it is: the stuff of earth. But there is something in our bodies that is touched by when the hands of another lay on our shoulder and whisper blessings quiet in our ear. When we hold up bread remembering how God makes the earth to grow food to nourish our bodies, and how the yearning our soul is a hunger too. There is something to eating that bread, drinking that cup, the knits together the physical and spiritual sides of ourselves, reminding us that it is not that there is a part of us that is holy and good but this other part too dirty, too broken, too wrong for God to touch. It is a reminder that fills the cells of our body with the reassurance that we are not alone.
In the adult Sunday school I attend at United Church we are reading Sara Miles’ wonderful book Take This Bread. In it she tells the story of being one who was deeply secular, skeptical to religion, yet who opened to the people around her. She tells how meals opened her up to depth of relationships to people in any number of contexts in which people often sat divided. Then she shares how a chance decision to visit a church and take communion made her aware of a deep spiritual yearning, ultimately beginning the journey to faith for her. Her story is a beautiful portrait of the role in which embodied prayer, which is what communion is at heart, has. So often we think that it is in our words that we connect with God. There is truth to this, so in later posts I will consider the words of the communion prayer. But I think that sometimes words fail. Sometimes we need with our bodied to move, to act, to do. This is why some who mail struggle with wordy prayer are so open to yoga. Or to prayer with their hands by working soup kitchens, holding babies, building buildings. Communion reminds us that yes, our bodies can be ways of connecting with God. It invites us to embrace all of who we are.
This is so significant in trauma, in suffering, in illness, in grief. I found that it felt as if my body betrayed me when, on finding my late wife not breathing, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t wake up. Or I would and be restless. I was hungry when I normally wouldn’t be. I couldn’t eat when meals came. I broke into tears or rages without warning. At times my hand would tremble, or I would need someone to lean on physically to get where I needed to go.
Our bodies bear the brunt at times of our grief, our sorrow, our pain, our trauma. Finding ways to reconnect body, mind, and spirit is important. Communion is one way. So is yoga. Exercise. Healthy eating. Good sleep.
I invite you in your time of trauma, grief, loss, illness, or caregiving to realize the call to accept that God is present in your body however much it betray you and a part of prayer is opening up to the ways in which Spirit can reconnect body, heart, soul, and spirit. In discovering your embodied life as a way to healing.
Your progressive redneck preacher,