His First Communion
Walking into the handsome old sanctuary of First Broad Street Methodist Church, I see communion sitting on the front table. We don’t do communion every week in my church, so finding it there always makes my stomach flip like the Pevensies at the name of Aslan. This is not just a ceremony for me, it’s a wardrobe door, a direct line into unseen dimensions.
Thanks to John Wesley, you can let your heart be strangely warmed in a Methodist church without a bunch of theologians who never let the living God step past the iron gate of their analysis telling you why inspiration is really just a case of sausage indigestion.
And so I can relax here in that quiet way Methodists do. I welcome instinct and inference into my flickering child soul, where the sacrament becomes a hard reset, a call to lay down my attempts to achieve goodness (or defy it) and like a baby, drink down grace into the thirst of utter dependence.
Today is my son’s first communion. He knows what God’s love means now, and he’s ready for this. He’s been waiting for this day for weeks.
Halfway through the sermon he has to pee, but while he wiggles his butt around on the pew pad and pinches his thighs together, he whispers in my ear, “If we go now, will I miss communion?” I say no, but he’s still a little nervous slipping out the doors.
I love the sacrament, but it also sobers me. Like all holy things, it seems to be alive in a way I can't quite describe. Maybe the bread and wine don't morph into the actual body and blood of Jesus, but something more is going on during this exchange than human animals sucking down crackers and grape juice, and I can feel it. Even if the Catholics don't get it quite right, they are pretty close to whatever it is that is taking place here. Words are metaphorical, after all, and this is both a mystery and an intersection.
In our old church there was a group of twenty-somethings who would snarf the communion remainders after the service. They would laugh and throw down so recklessly, but I couldn’t join them. I don’t mean they were wrong, perhaps this is the best way of all to receive grace. I just mean that for me, I have to take it slowly and let it work through me. It's too mighty to forgive and be forgiven.
One of the smartest agnostics I know can't get over the difficulty of that one concept. Forgiveness. It's a hard math because of the simplify of the equation. Maybe harder for some personality types than others.
A few weeks ago I received a random Facebook message from a friend who lives across the ocean. He was praying and felt like God was leading him to exhort me to lay my bitterness aside and forgive those who had hurt me.
I wouldn’t give much weight to a message like this from a lot of people, but this man is sensitive in prayer. He has a radical sort of trust and sensitivity that has been proven in the past, so I began to ask the Lord what he wanted me to do.
It's true that I've been at an impasse with several folks who hurt me. I’ve reached out to ask them to reconcile so many times, but I've asked with boldness and with open grief, and for the most part, I have only received silence in response.
As best as I can, I’ve tried to forgive and move on. Lines of anger still rise sometimes, but mostly that anger is sadness. I don't want the relationship to end this way.
So when we get to the part of the liturgy that says “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I scrape the insides of my heart and once again chose the grace-in-process that I guess all people choose in the middle of conflict. If I saw their faces right now in the room with me, I would flinch. But they are not here, and I do the best I can.
I pray God’s mercy for them, imagine the best of them, visualize us together one day in glory, and pry my fingers off old claims. “Take it, God,” I say. And I’ll ask him to do that for the rest of my life, I suppose.
Before me are rows and rows of older people... a sea of white puffs of hair and bald heads. I attend this service for that very reason, to watch their beautiful hands on the hymnals, to hear their shaking voices sing and pray beside me, to feel the softness of their palms on mine as they say, "Peace of Christ to you." As far as I can help it, I plan to never worship again in a church that isn’t full of the merry faces of the elderly.
Before service the narthex is a flutter of suits and synthetic dresses. Hearing aids. Faded costume jewelry. Glasses chains. Walking sticks. The smell of roses and powder from a powder box. White foundation smeared over with blush that is too bright. Tidy polished shoes. Ages spots. Lipstick seeping into wrinkles.
Little old men wobble to the parking lots so they can wheel Cadillacs to the back walk and pick up their wives. There are the wealthy ones, too -- the carriage of wealth isn’t moved by time.
Friends in their seventies and eighties exchange the sort of laughter people my age can’t produce. These folks learned to laugh before the world got cynical, and they have kept their musicality. I love them for being bright and jolly, though it’s a mystery to me how this sort of spirit works. They are aliens. They are Native Americans who gather around strange fires to play Rook and smoke peace pipes. My people have taken over their land.
I watch them twenty feet away and think surely it must hurt somehow to have lived that long. Children and friends betray. There are losses and wrongs done. But their souls float, though they are bent over in their spines, and I know they must have released life's poisons instead of holding them inside their mouths.
When we walk up to the front to kneel, my son holds out his little fat hands for the communion. “The body of Christ, given for you,” a woman says. She says it intentionally, meaning every word, and I get choked up watching that soft white bread fall on his palms.
He is forgiven, and he will forgive. He is running over with laughter and courage, the same sort of levity as that of the old people who look at him so fondly as he bounces about. They are cut from the same cloth.
Then she puts the bread in my hands. “The body of Christ, given for you.”
“Thank you,” I say, while the faces of those I am forgiving flash through my mind, and while the faces of those I have offended come too. But I can only reflect for a second, because my son shoots up from the kneeling bench giddy. He has done it! He has done it!
2+2=4. 2-2=0. He knows the math of this better than I do. Simple. Free. Moving on to the next good laugh that comes to the light of heart.