Life Around a Table: Part Four

“These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Come to the table.”  Two simple sentences that transformed my understanding and practice of the sacred communion.  Transformed from a simple wafer and mini shot glass full of grape juice passed from pew to pew on oddly-shaped, stackable, saucers into a tangible experience, a communal gathering and a transcendent reality.  A reality, lived and partaken in around a table that calls us into a dysfunctional family, an on-going justice, and, for me most importantly, an inclusive community.

Before hearing those two sentences, my thoughts of this sacrament were wholly separate from my life outside of Sunday mornings.  But these statements made sense to me.  These statements reminded me of the warm, intense, and often challenging times that I experienced around a number of different tables. Tables around which I was welcomed, invited, nourished, and accepted regardless of my imperfections or differences. Hence, why I decided to write this blog series about such experiences in hopes to explain both my fear and my love of this particular Communion table.

~~~~~~

My Nana’s Table

“These are the gifts of God…” Nana knew that everything on her table from the food people enjoyed to the imported china was a gift.  She intimately knew what it meant to have nothing but through this knowledge she learned how to cherish every good thing.  She prepared her food as if it was a spiritual exercise and for her it was.  For what she knew even more than the gifts of such precious physical nourishment was the irreplaceable gift of those around the table through which her soul was nourished.

Thinking of this image of my Nana’s joy in preparing her table brings a new depth to the image of Jesus around the table at his final meal.  A meal with imminent importance and unimaginable finality.  Yet this meal was most likely seen as a rather ordinary Passover celebration to those others around the table.  Many meals had been shared between Jesus and his apostles, many blessings and most likely they didn’t realize the extreme importance of this final meal.

Thinking about this, though, I wonder if part of that was because Jesus was present this meal in the same way he had been present his entire relationship with them.  I imagine that Jesus saw each meal, each gathering around a table as a important ritual.  One where those present found nourishment both in body and in soul.

This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he broke the bread before them.  My body is for you.  My body is broken for you.  I am for you.  I live and I will die for you.  Through me the spiritual is made tangible, as tangible as this bread.  And just as I have shown you complete sacrificial love and selfless giving, you too must sacrifice and give in order to nourish your souls and through that refresh in them my spirit.

That’s what I see when I partake of this sacred gift: a more perfect version of how my Nana cared for her table and those around it with an unassuming, selfless offering of her love and soul.  When the meal was complete, she would sit silently, lovingly and be nourished by the love shared through the breaking of bread.  For as we partake of the gifts of God around the table, our souls and bodies are meant to be nourished both by the sacrificial love of the incarnate God but also that same love alive in all those around us that are welcomed at the table.

~~~~~~

My Family’s Table

“…for the people of God…” My family never really agrees on much.  Maybe a sports team here and there but often any table with all of us around it carries only a mere semblance of harmony.  In fact, shallow table conversations between my family members often carry the depth of past wrongdoings, painful words, or disappointing choices that are present in most significant relationships.  And yet the table remains our table and we are welcomed however we are.

Hearing “…for the people of God…” for the first time in reference to communion frightened me.  Ringing in my ears were the arguments from each side of the never-ending debate among churches, sects, denominations, or religions over who God’s “people” really are.  ‘Yeah, because, yah know, sure they are Christians or spiritual people or humans, but obviously we are the real Christians…you know, the enlightened truth-telling ones.  And, let me tell you, what a burden that is…’  Does that illustrate my fear well enough?

In the midst of my minor panic attack over the complicated debate my mind had just witnessed,I returned to Jesus around a table with his disciples, his family.  Something that had always seemed significant to me when I heard this story is when Jesus points out that one of the men around this sacred, communal table would betray him and another would deny him.  In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus even says “one who is eating with me” will betray me.  Someone around this celebration table.

But Jesus goes on to break the bread and share such a meal with the man that will go out and betray him later that night.  This is a meal for the people of God. So what does it mean for our communion sacrament that even a denier and a betrayer shared in this gathering? What does it mean for our communion practice that even after this betrayal was announced, Jesus chose not to withhold the nourishment of this meal and blessing from this man?

I think that it means that this act must offer individuals hope and mercy, even if they are not ready to accept or fully understand it.  I think it means that the definition of “the people of God” must be all that are called to the table.  I think it means that even though my family is not the perfect family and is sometimes not even the family I wish they could be, they are always my family.  The mess and the resentments,  the hurts and the apologies, the uncomfortable silences and the inaudible whispers do not change the transcendent power of belonging to a family.

If we had to make amends, confess our sins, and right our wrongs before gathering around our table and receiving nourishment, then we would never come to the table.  I think this is the beauty of the communion table.  We trust in the sacrificial love of that it represents to be real and present regardless of our own heart and wrongs.  Our imperfections, our mess could never decrease the spiritual presence and power of this sacred meal.

While this meal did not reconcile Judas to his community or change his decision to betray Jesus, it presented him with the mercy of still being a part of this gathering and the choice to seek reconciliation through the love experienced around the table.  Sometimes I choose to not forgive my family members, I choose to intentionally hurt them, or I choose to disassociate myself with them. In those moments I reject the opportunity or the moment to create reconciliation. But sometimes I ignore the burning pride within me and ask for help or forgiveness.  Sometimes I choose the reconciliation against all human odds and it’s in those moments that I see importance of always being welcomed at the table just as I am in that moment.  For only at the table am I present to the hope of possible redemption within my messy existence.

While this suggestion in particular is a controversial one, it is one that I hold strongly to because I believe that if one is never welcomed or accepted at the communion table, the sacred gathering, the experience of sacrificial love, one would never see the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, let alone choose such spiritual hopes.  Judas was given the vision, the opportunity for reconciliation and even though he chose not to embrace it, he was still radically welcomed at this communion, celebration table.

~~~~~~

My Community’s Table

“Come to the table.”  An announcement that, in my Amate House community, could mean a variety of different gatherings from an actual meal to a house meeting to a skit video-taping.  But such an announcement never failed to invite us all to gather together after long, exhausting days at our individual volunteer placements.  A repeated invitation to be refreshed and remember each other.

Another reason why these words, “Come to the table,” uttered by a pastor at LaSalle Street Church before communion one Sunday, still echo within my mind is that they were accompanied by a movement by the congregation to approach the alter.  While I had been to many churches where the congregation approach the front of the church to receive the elements, never had I seen it done quite like this.  Instead of individually receiving the bread and the wine and then moving quietly back to your seat, we stood in a line probably ten or so people long and we each partook of the meal, waited for each other to be finished, and then the individual that gave us the bread and wine blessed us saying, “Go now in peace to love and serve the world.”

Come to the table.  Come to the table together to be nourished.  Come to the table together to be nourished so that you are reminded that you are not alone.  So that you are reminded that you have a community.  So that you are reminded that you do not bear the burdens of injustice, disappointment and pain on your weak, frail shoulders.  So that you are reminded that people that may not even know you are united in love to you through this table.

Amate House taught me more about the communion table than any church service or minister could teach me.  My community taught me how to come to the table without fear that I would destroy the bonds of our community with my own struggles and mistakes.  My community taught me how to come to the table daily despite my desire to isolate myself and bear the burden on my own.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I could finally be nourished instead of worrying about nourishing others.  My community taught me to come to the table so that I would have the courage and strength to face the next work day full of injustice.

I came to the communion table every night around my Amate House table for I was surrounded by sacrificial love, offered the opportunity for reconciliation with others and redemption of my own story, and reminded of the presence of a community around me.

No wonder Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  For only through being surrounded by a community, by being nourished along side someone that is as desperate for nourishment as you are, by celebrating small mercies around a table, would even the son of God, Jesus, have been ready to endure future suffering.  Suffering increases our desire to be alone but it increases our need to be with each other.  We come together weekly, daily, hourly, to remind each other that we are safe to take risks even if we fail, suffer, or make a fool of ourselves because we are sure of the community waiting to celebrate with us regardless of the result.

Communion must be about nourishment for both body and soul, but it must always be an act of unity and community.  Only around the table, any loving community table, can I muster the strength to do the work of justice every day.  And on the days that I’m unable to see the hope and promise of redemption, the community that gathers with me at the table is living proof of the reality of this promise.  We must always respond to the call of community, which we most frequently hear during this call to communion, but is also present around other tables.  Responding to the call means giving up the crushing weight of the whole burden to instead carry your portion arm in arm with the person next to you.

~~~~~~

I have not explained nearly half of my thoughts about this all important topic, but I have given you a glimpse into the tables of my life and how they inform my understanding of communion.  May we never forget that despite our beautiful, human imperfections the power and the sanctity of this communal meal never changes.  Each gathering brings a new experience, insight, and understanding.  And through this we are changed by it.

“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God.  Come to the table.”


If you missed this blog series, you can find the other posts here:
https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/09/life-around-a-table-part-three/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/07/life-around-a-table-part-two/

https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/

Picture from: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.