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Even in a Stupid Loaf of Bread

or

Transsubstanti-what?

I don’t take enough risks.

More often than not, I’m content to stay quiet and not rock the boat.  I don’t really discuss my faith on this blog.  It’s not that I have a problem with sharing it, or even that I don’t like talking about it.  It’s just that I have not set this space up as a venue for that sort of thing.  It’s a risk; maybe not a giant one, but one that I’ve felt more comfortable avoiding.

But I don’t take enough risks, so here it goes…  I play drums for a contemporary worship service on Saturday nights, and I was asked to speak at a special service this past summer.  I would give more exposition, but this is already going to be a long post, so I’ll just get to it.  The following is the testimonial I gave:

I don’t spend much time discussing my faith.  I’m not entirely sure why; I’m certainly not ashamed of it.  It might be because I’ve had a somewhat tenuous relationship with evangelism over the years.  In fact, I’ve had a somewhat tenuous relationship with many aspects of Christianity, and it is one of those aspects that I want to tell you about tonight.

About two years ago, I started celebrating communion at Saint Thomas.  My reasons for only starting at that point, and not two years earlier when I began attending service there, are complicated, and probably stem from the various understandings I’ve had of communion.  I was raised Catholic, and as some of you may know, there is a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding communion in the Catholic Church.  There are classes, and speeches, and rehearsals, and special services, and parties.  And why not?  After all, the Catholics believe that the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.  The fancy-pants terminology for that, which I picked up while I was studying religion right here at BW, is “transsubstantiation.”

Fast forward a bit, to my teenage years, and I had begun attending a non-denominational church.  It was a serious awakening for me.  Talk about being completely unlike any other church I’d attended.  For one thing, there was a drum set.  And somebody played it during service.  Like, every week.  Weird.  Also, they did not celebrate communion at every service, and when they did, they used oyster crackers and grape juice.  This was another far removal from the Catholic experience with which I’d become so familiar.  Communion was stripped of its pomp and circumstance.  Certainly no transsubstantiation of bread and wine into body and blood; just some really lovely symbolism.

It is worth noting that questions like this: whether it’s bread or Jesus or both, are a serious point of contention even within Christianity.  Issues like organ music versus guitars, or using a liturgical calendar versus not, or whether or not women get to be priests are among the many, many things often seen by Christians as an indication that somebody else’s ways of experiencing God are somehow less ‘good’ or less ‘authentic’ than one’s own.

To get back to the story, I began playing the Saturday evening service about four years ago.  This was my first experience with an Episcopal church.  The service was very familiar — sort of Catholic-y — so I recognized all the parts.  And then there was the Eucharistic Prayer, and the slide on the screen that says “All baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion in the Episcopal Church.”

Now, I had already been baptized – twice – once as a baby and once during my brief stint at a Baptist church.  But my experience with the various faces of Holy Communion got the better of me.  I had seen a version where we were engaging in some kind of bizarre cannibalistic ritual, and another  that, from a standpoint of ceremony, felt more like snack time in Kindergarten.  And in all that I realized something troubling and a little isolating: I didn’t know what communion meant for me, to me.  And so I abstained, because I didn’t want to be inauthentic with God.

As I mentioned, I studied religion here at Baldwin-Wallace, but I was actually a double major in religion and English.  I learned a lot of things, and many of them are important to different areas of my life.  But one of the big ones, one that influences the way I experience the world and live my life every day, is that sometimes the things that we say and write transcend literal fact and become something truer.  In the English department we called it poetry, and in the religion department it’s called scripture.  As part of my religion program I began studying the life of a certain monk from Kentucky, and I learned that it doesn’t only happen with words, but also the things that we do.  It might be called theatre, or art, or just playing pretend.  In the religion department it’s called ritual.

Some of you might be a little startled to hear somebody speaking of poetry and scripture, imaginary games and religious ritual, in the same breath.  But I think that the truth of it (the one that makes sense to me, and that I keep learning and learning anew, every day) is that if we are going to take seriously the notion of a God who is truly immanent – that is, present everywhere, at every time, in every single moment, then we don’t get to make arbitrary qualitative judgments about how different experiences of God measure up against each other.

The way I see it is this: if God is truly everywhere, all the time (and I believe that God is), then every single poem, and novel, and text message, and door held by a stranger at Starbucks, and sunset, and song, and meal is an opportunity for us to experience God.  That realization: that the specifics of the event are not intrinsically important, but that my openness to receive God, even in the mundane, was what mattered, is what led to my celebrating communion at St. Thomas. 

There’s a part of the Eucharistic prayer, when the celebrant says that Jesus asked his friends to think of him whenever they ate bread or drank wine.  I’ve experienced many versions of the Eucharistic prayer, from Catholic, to Lutheran, to Episcopal, to Andrew Lloyd Weber, and I have always loved that moment.  It’s always seemed very human to me.  Like he knew the end was near, and he was afraid, and he just wanted to know that he’d be remembered.

But I think that Jesus was saying something else, too.  I think he was saying “I will always be with you, in every moment, no matter how insignificant or mundane.  Even in a stupid loaf of bread and a little cup of wine, I will be with you.”  I know, now, what communion means to me.  I’m still not sure about magically transforming bread and wine.  But I understand now that whatever happens to the wine, the really important transformation occurs inside of us, in being willing to experience God no matter how simple and plain the occasion.  In a simple, human moment of asking his friends to remember him, Jesus also reminds us that we will always be remembered, and that we are never alone.

Thanks for indulging me, blog-reading folks (this is no longer part of the testimony, in case you hadn’t put that together).  I know it’s a bit of a different flavor than my usual entry, and I’m not sure how often this sort of thing is going to happen.  If you like reading blogs about God and church and all that excellent stuff, you should definitely check out the beautiful and talented Scatterbrained Seminarian.

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