Monday, July 23, 2012

Means of Grace

At church I serve on the communion team. Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, is a ritual instituted by Jesus during the Passover meal with his disciples on the night he was arrested. He broke bread for them and told them it was his body given for them. Then he took a cup of wine and told them it was the new covenant in his blood, concluding, "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

So that's what we do, every Sunday. Every third week or so I serve. That means arriving early and tearing loaves of bread into bitesized portions and pouring wine and grape juice into lots of tiny little plastic cups set in trays. After the sermon we bring the trays up to the front and set them on the table. The pastor institutes the sacrament and then we stand at the front with the food as the church files past, telling each man, woman and child that this is "the body of Christ, broken for you," and "the blood of Christ, shed for you."

The small portions may be a little silly, but they mean that everyone can partake in the meal at the same time (followed immediately by the clink of a hundred plastic cups being set down). Then the pastor prays, we sing a song, we're blessed, and that's it. We on the team clean up the supplies and put them away for the next week.

Sometimes we do special things for the bread. Lately the first Sunday of every month we pray for another country specifically, and to go along with that we eat the bread of that nation. Sometimes too people in the congregation bake the bread, as I like to do being a hobbyist baker myself.

The precise nature of what happens at Communion can be hard to pin down, and different Christian groups hold different ideas. Roman Catholics and similar groups hold that the elements of bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. On the other side, some groups of more recent vintage hold the elements are merely symbols intended to call Jesus to remembrance. The Reformed tradition in which my church stands holds a yet different idea. We believe the bread and wine are really just bread and wine, and yet that in their giving we truly and literally receive Christ and his grace for forgiveness of sins. God communicates his riches, riches greater than all the world's reserves, to us via these humble items. They are a means of grace.

Our position may seem like a fine distinction to draw but it makes a big difference. That we should receive the King of Glory through such ordinary means highlights that God is not limited; he can convey himself by whatever way he pleases. It also highlights that the initiative is all his and not ours. It is not through riches or feats of strength or moral piety that we reach God, though such a transaction would come naturally to us. Rather it is through the utterly common things around us that he has chosen.

It is also crucial that he is really there for us week after week, caring for us until such time as he shall actually return to claim us. We say during the ritual not only that "Christ has died," but also that "Christ is risen" and "Christ will come again." A mere memorial of his death will not suffice.

For today's bread I followed Jeffrey Hamelman's instructions for pain rustique, a French name for a simple bread. Indeed it requires no ingredients other than flour, water, salt, and a little bit of yeast. As is unfortunately my wont I arrived late to set up, and I was greeted by a small tide of nervous energy due to the delay I caused. In response I opened up the plastic bag and released a different kind of wave, the creamy aroma of the still-cooling loaves. As we tore them into pieces others came by the table to take in the smell, and one of us joked that we didn't need to tear everything up, that we could eat some of it now. We did, prompting others to come over and share.

As we cleaned up after the service we munched on extra bread in the back room. An older gentleman on the tear-down team named Bob asked if he could have some, and we gave him half of the small loaf that the pastor breaks in front of the congregation. He sat and ate it, and he marveled, saying "This bread is just so good. Does anyone know where it came from?"

"Well, yes," I said. "I made it."

"Get out of here."

"Really, I did. There's nothing special in it."

Bob had the rest of his bread in silence, and then even some more of the remaining fragments. On his way out he thanked me as the rest of us continued eating while washing, drying, and sipping wine from the little cups.

My takeaway from the experience was not that I must be a great baker. As the baker, I know that is not true. There is nothing special in the bread, and nothing special in preparing it. The ingenuity belongs to Hamelman and to centuries of European bakers. It is freely available. What amazed me was that despite the common nature of the ingredients and the practices, that the flour and the books are just sitting on shelves waiting to be made much of, my bread was received as something wondrously new or rare, as an awakening to taste buds that did not know they had missed it.

Even in a land of abundance such as our own there is a famine for true bread, though it is for anyone, anytime, for the asking and for the taking. It is truly common. Nothing need prevent all from having it.

Such is the bread of heaven.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

We make our own sky.

All photos courtesy skabat169. Check out his photostream!

Ben was talking about the sky, so I thought I would talk about a sunrise I saw this week. But first, some cultural context.

When I was in high school I attended a camp called Night Camp for one week every summer. The premise of Night Camp is simple: you stay up all night and sleep during the day while camping out in the woods. The consequences of that premise are many and profound, but those are for another post. Suffice it to say that Night Camp was the defining experience of my high school years, and I worked at Camp Innabah where the camp is held for three of my college summers and volunteered there again last year. This week however I merely went to visit, on bonfire night.

It's not just bonfire night. This night also involved looking at Saturn through a telescope and 2 a.m. Ultimate Frisbee with glow necklaces. But after all that and a Bible study, we had a bonfire.

By now it was after 4 a.m. and getting on toward sunrise. I had already succumbed to a nap on a picnic table bench (I worked a full day; what do you want from me?) and I saw the first lightening of the horizon, though others denied it. We began with a prelude of bamboo, large masses of tender green-leaved shoots dropped unceremoniously on the fire ring and ceremoniously ringing out with pops resembling fireworks and high flames that threatened the tree branches fifteen feet above. Then a pallet was dropped on, not quite so spectacular but with more staying power.


Then, worship. A few Bible verses, a few songs, and a few words generally constitute worship at Night Camp, but the glow of the burning pallet mandated more mirth. We sang what was planned, then we sang what could be called the classics of the camp canon. Another pallet on the fire. Now singing and dancing, now the Funky Chicken, now dosey does for the refrain of "Lord of the Dance," now swaying shoulder-to-shoulder for "Pass It On."

Then the picnic table, the old and wobbly picnic table donated by Steve's church for just this purpose. On top of the fire and burning with surprising speed,  the first little licks of flame in a circle near the center, then the entire length of the boards leaping into the chorus. But we were not singing now; this must be watched.

picnic table graciously donated by Epworth UMC, Cockeysville, MD
Overhead there was no longer any denying that the night was ending, and it is to this moment that Ben's reflection returned me. The waning crescent hung 75 degrees in the sky against a color somewhere on this guy's face:
photo credit: Kevin Bolton
David claimed to awaken the dawn with the harp and the lyre; surely we had kindled the horizon with our fire and roused the sun with our voices. It was not only our moods that were lightened by the blaze, our inhibitions that gave up the ghost; the whole theater around us was literally shifted along the visible spectrum.

This difference in perception was not just a sentimental imposition of the imagination. The colors really did look different to our eyes. When the time came to extinguish the fire (there was still a boat picnic and a polar bear swim to be had, after all) and the buckets of water became sizzling clouds and the orb we had created yielded to another which had not yet shown its face, the spell broke. The sky no longer looked mysteriously indigo, but kinda paleish. With the adjustment of our eyes illumination did not seem to emanate from within our circle, but was shed equally from all directions. Though no one else was around, I suddenly felt observed.

Later on my stepbrother jokingly harassed my mother for allowing me to go to such a place as a kid, insinuating pagan dances around the fire. I don't think he knew how close his description was to reality. There was no influence of substance stronger than s'more, no shameful act committed by firelight, no rash oath sworn, and no stupid tempting of the flame. The God who was blessed and who blessed it was none but the Lord of heaven and earth.

But that was revelry.