Sunday, January 29, 2012

Toast and Grape Juice

A friend of mine lost her dad to cancer last week. I know that's not really the best way to begin any sort of post, but at least it tells you, invisible reader, that this post will in some way be about death. My friend's dad died of liver cancer, same as my dad. Different kind of liver cancer, but liver cancer. Because her dad got sick before my dad did (he'd been sick for about six years by the time he passed last week), we have had this sort of tandem-like movement over the last few years.

Somewhere in the space between writing a post about living bread and my friend's dad dying, I was reminded of an event I shared with my dad about a month before he died. During the last two months of his life, we saw him go down a pretty steep decline, and even though I'd been preparing for the inevitability of his passing for quite some time, I don't know that I was ready for the reality of it once it arrived--at least, not the INEVITABILITY of it. That's really a story for another time, though; tonight I want to talk about the last and only time I served my dad communion.

As he got sicker and sicker, my dad's appetite slacked off more and more. As my mom tried to find different ways of getting enough protein into him, he lost his taste for one food after another. Toward the end he primarily ate yogurt, popsicles, toast, and grape juice. I've no idea why those foods, but that's where he was. So, anyway, I was in the kitchen of their house, and he kind of hobbled into the room and headed for his favorite recliner. I helped him sit down and cover up with a blanket, and he asked me if I might make him some toast and get him some juice.

As I was toasting the bread, I thought about a story my church history professor told us as she was explaining her understanding of the incarnation. The way she told her story, a few years after relocating to Richmond to begin teaching at seminary, she relocated her parents to Richmond as well. Within a few weeks of the move her father suffered a massive stroke. While sitting next to her father in the hospital room, my professor was thinking of what it meant for Christ to have taken on the "form" of flesh, to have assumed the pattern of what it means to be an embodied human being in addition to having his own physical form, and she had the sudden understanding that if God in Christ has taken on the pattern and form of humanity, he resides in our flesh as well as in his own. I guess it makes sense that it is during these pregnant moments that we get some clarity of our understanding of God and the world, and our relation to both; but during that moment and those shortly after, when I helped my dad sip his grape juice, and served him dry toast, I understood communion in a way that I never did before, and I don't know when in the future I will share communion with people and not think back to that moment with him.

To add to my professor's experience: it became clear to me at some point that not only does Christ share our flesh, but that the spirit of God is shared among us--all of us. In those moments of breaking bread and drinking wine, if we allow ourselves to look at one another, and to see the indwelling divinity we share, we become tapped into that divinity, transcending our own self and space and time while remaining exactly who and where and when we are. There may be something metaphysical about it, I don't know, but I do know that in that moment of being open to my dad, of seeing him as he was dying, I was able to see him as I never had before. The bread and grape juice became something more; we became something more. Ordinary food, ordinary room, ordinary people, sharing an extraordinary experience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Getting back into it

I baked bread tonight for the first time in a long time. Correction: tonight I kneaded bread tonight for the first time in a long time. A couple of years ago, I was baking bread almost daily - it was part of my routine, and I managed to work it in basically anywhere. Gosh, I don't even know when or how the routine started to change, but bread baking slowly slipped out of the scene. I've tried to get back into it a few times, and have done so with some regularity here and there, but I found that if I started using a food processor, instead of kneading by hand, I could work faster. But tonight, as I was mulling over the details of a final project I've got due for a class, I went downstairs and started baking bread. Just a simple whole wheat bread--easy to do if you've got a few hours for the rising, no need for a food processor. It was when I was kneading the bread that I remembered why I love baking bread so much. I like to eat it, sure, but the part I really love is that experience of kneading the bread--of taking a mush of flour, yeast, salt, water, and oil, and seeing it firm up. As I kneaded, the goopy mess started to get a bit it, and as I felt the warmth of it beneath my hands, I started to think about it as a living thing.

I know I've been in seminary too long when I start to think about the living bread I'm kneading into a ball, but the more I think about the power of sharing a meal with someone, the more powerful I realize it is to share a meal with someone. I read a book last week called Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, and was struck by one passage:
"Jesus literally ate his way through the Gospels. And, as remembered over and over again in the Gospels, they killed him because of the way he ate; that is, because he ate and drank with sinners. Apart from the many table tales, the Gospels also remember that Jesus spoke in table metaphors. When he wasn't at a banquet he was telling a story about a banquet. When he wasn't teaching that bread can be a vehicle of God's presence, he was talking about bread as a way to discipleship for those who wished to live as his body in the world."

Since I last posted on this blog, life has kind of been on high speed. I said goodbye to my dad, who died in June, and to my grandpa a month before him. We got married, and are talking kids. In the fall, I started working with LGBTQ youth, and have found a certain fire in my belly over the lack of care given to these youth. We have also planted a garden, and I'm learning how to ask for help, and to trust and forgive myself more (ever a process). Our church started a Supper Church service, where we gathered together to make a meal and worship around the table. I guess I say all of that because in a lot of ways for me, it keeps coming back to food. I could rant all day about the need for more active conversations in the church about the needs of LGBTQ people, or racism, or poverty, but there is something that happens if you can actually sit down at a table with someone whom you perceive as different--break bread with them, talk to them, give yourself the opportunity to really see them.

In thinking about my "living bread" moment earlier this evening, I think about this thing which is so very simple, and still relatively inexpensive to make. And yet, when shared (and especially when shared between people who allow themselves to be present to the act of sharing), it has the potential to be so rich and so full and, dare I say it, so alive.