taking Communion, and other subversive acts

This weekend, I had a totally unscheduled Sunday morning.  That’s become a rare thing when I’m at home, and one which—oddly—means a decision about where to worship.  Lately, I tend to take these “free” Sundays and either visit a local emergent Christian church or my old ELCA stomping grounds, mainly so I can take Communion.*

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Truth, which I have mentioned before: this feels sneaky.  I’m not sure if internal ethical struggle is innate in my personality, or if this is based on a misguided sense of denominational expectations . . . or if I am responding to actual denominational expectations, perceived indirectly, but accurately.

Regardless, one of my goals for the next few years is to find peace and balance around my own self-care of the soul.  For me, for now—and for the foreseeable future—that includes the Christian rituals that call me back to my best self, grounding me more firmly in my body, yet fixing my attention more compassionately outside of it.

Other than prayer, which is highly portable and available individually, I most yearn for Communion and for the Kyrie–the ritual confession and forgiveness of sins.  It’s not a matter of needing a larger Christian context, I don’t think–I would partake of these elements in my home church, and I have, gratefully, when that’s been a choice.  It’s just that, as part of my deeper spiritual practices, an annual memorializing of these rituals isn’t enough for me.

So now, realizing that I’ve spent years waiting for the desires of my heart and the realities of my church to meet in the middle, one task is to acknowledge the obvious: an intersection of my Christian-based ritual needs and the practices of my UU church is not an achievable goal.  In many ways, I have always known this, and I wouldn’t turn my UU church into something that it is not, even if that were within my power.  But I also don’t want to wish that I were different—what I want, in sacrament as in so many other areas, is to go deeper in my faith: to challenge myself to connect with what matters, and to articulate it where that’s helpful.

Thus, I find myself returning to this question of cloak-and-dagger Christianity, and wondering: why the guilt?  Is secrecy necessary?  I don’t know anyone who “sneaks” to yoga, thinks very carefully about whether to wear Buddha beads to UU worship, or feels like a visit to the local Zen center might somehow indicate disloyalty to their UU faith.  Yet my own desire to make the Lord’s Supper part of my Sunday does feel a bit like I’m two-timing my church. And perhaps, in a sense, I am.  I have no choice, in that they’re both churches.  Scheduled opposite one another. With the rituals in question available in one, and not in another.

What’s a Christ-smitten, UU-dedicated girl to do?  I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.  For myself, I’ve tried to imagine, especially lately as I think about what it would mean to really claim and connect with this ritual, what it might look like to truly make Communion an option in the UU context. One thought: what if there were a bread and wine table somewhere in the building, not once a year, but once a week?  What if we made it so that those of us so inclined could stop by, do our thing, offer bread to one another, pray individually or together?  This time of ritual and reflection, done carefully, might take 10 or 15 minutes; participants might then simply begin, continue with, or rejoin other events of the morning.

On the “Christian” side of this equation, this obviously wouldn’t work for someone with a Catholic approach to the sacrament.  However, it seems unlikely that Christian orthodoxy tries to make a home within UU often, if ever–from what I have observed of UU Christianity, a DIY communion ritual could be a fit for the majority of us.  As for my non-Communing fellow congregants, what might this mean for them?  I was tempted for a moment to assert that the possibility of ritual inclusiveness would change no part of the worship experience of anyone who chose not to participate.  But that’s almost certainly not true, so a question: how might something like this affect others?  What might the presence of bread and wine and a greater awareness that there are practicing Christians among our number change at our church?  What might this challenge?

As I reflect on all of this on a personal level, I am also wrestling with the theological and historical underpinnings of Christian ritual, and Communion in particular.  This is academic—I took three classes last month at Meadvile Lombard, the first of which was African American Humanism.  (I decided that if I were really going to open myself to this experience, I might as well start with what would challenge me, and just reading the title of this class made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.)  The course was one of the most challenging and thought-provoking I’ve ever taken, and I am currently working on a paper about framing communion within “strong humanism” as outlined by my professor (and UU theologian) the Rev. Dr. Anthony Pinn.  Thus, I have been reading–and reading, and reading–about breaking bread together, on our knees and not, and reflecting on what our embrace or rejection of this ritual might mean for us as a liberal faith.

Things I’m discovering: a Christian vision of Communion as a subversive, action-inspiring, and human-focused ritual does exist—it has existed for millennia, and has adherents today.  Again, to be clear: this more human-centered view has Christian adherents.  And also, the familiar, comfortable ritual that brings me so much peace and connection hasn’t always been such a show.  It used to be more humble.  It used to be more real.

There are many great treatises on the history and theology of the Lord’s Supper; I’m happy to provide some resources for further reading if this excites anyone besides yours truly.  For now, though, I’m going to attempt only to provide a bit of context within modern popular culture, through a reflection that Rev. William Willimon, of the United Methodist Church, shares in his book Sunday Dinner: Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper:

[Previously, congregations were seated] at tables, and had a meal which looked and tasted like a meal.  The custom of using individual pressed white tasteless wafers is an extension of medieval preoccupations with the bread as a holy, untouched, spotless portion of Christ’s body.  Over the years both the glasses and the wafers got smaller until the church seemed to have a make-believe meal without food.

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Willimon continues:

I finally said “enough is enough” a couple of years ago when I read of a man who . . . has begun marketing a product for those in a hurry.  He produces airtight packets which contain a crackerlike pellet in one compartment and two grams of grape juice in another compartment—a disposable, self-contained, eat-on-the-run Lord’s Supper—“This is my body packaged for you.”  There you have it.  The last hindrance to totally self-contained, self-centered religion is removed . . . Now, thanks to unit packaging, we need never come into contact with or be touched by another human being again.  Just when you thought modern life had depersonalized the gospel to the uttermost, we have another breakthrough—Communion without communion!

And in reflecting upon this, I realized something: that in retreating, for the love of safe ritual and the comfort of what is familiar, to a church not my own, one where I don’t really speak to anyone and one where I incur no obligations–I think I especially love that part– I, too am partaking of Communion without communion.  And what, really, is the value of that?  There is much academic and religious discussion of what “Do this in remembrance of me” might have meant, but I have yet to see an argument that the aspect of gathered community is irrelevant.  That joining together as one, signified by the single loaf of bread from which pieces are shared, is an insignificant part of the ritual.  That I might justifiably avoid what provokes my soul, week after week, for a drive-through wafer and wine experience.

Yep, convicted again.  And so, finally, I chose yesterday to commune rather than to Commune.  On that day, it was the right decision; I got what I needed, if not some of what I wanted, and I helped others to meet their needs as well.

And that, friends, is why we call it the beloved community.

This post could end here.  That would be convenient, but ultimately unhelpful—because the questioning and internal struggle do not end here.  In fact, they simply do not end.  This summer I have discovered that learning about, and indeed, being open to, the powerful messages of humanism neither erased my own theology nor made my questions about it less urgent.  Similarly, this “personal convenience vs. community” struggle will go on in my heart, no matter how I name or explore each side.

This process is a wrestling match, to be sure, but that’s different from a battle: there will not be a “winner.”  Any success will be incremental and personal: gradually, I will develop the strength and patience to truly hold a sense of “both” in a polarizing situation—to simply accommodate what will not be reconciled.  And from there, I might look for creative ways to serve needs more fully, and more beautifully.  It’s hard to think of something more Christian . . . or more humanist . . . than that.

And in the meantime: it’s a serious pain in the ass.  And thus I’m glad that, in this particular case, there is potentially wine involved.

j

*I generally write “communion” in the lower case, even where I’m referring to high-church ritual.  In this post, however, I am following Christian theological convention in capitalization.  My intention in this context is to highlight the distinction, as drawn by Rev. Willimon as quoted in this post, between the ritual act (“Communion”) and the connection with community (“communion”) that may or may not accompany it.

pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  

Peace,

j

Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.

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