Sunday, June 2, 2013

"A Gesture of Love That Outlasts Death"

It was not a great day for church, never mind that "church" is my business. I was too hot, tired, and disconnected from God to think it was worthwhile. I spent the first groggy half-hour of the morning sitting in my yard with a cup of coffee, staring at the daisies. (This, too, could be church, I tried to convince myself.) What, in any case, would real church give me that I didn't already have?

A vague blend of guilt, duty, and a false sense of my own piety sent me back, finally, into the house to dress, and then gruffly walk out the door past my bewildered family members, blissfully unaware of the battle that sometimes raged within me.  What did church--or being Christian--matter? Who could prove it was essential to believe?

So I drove into Boston, rewarding myself with treats for the road: a tall iced coffee and a banana. As I poured the milk into the clear plastic coffee cup, it made swirling patterns as it curled into the black depths. Instantly this small task evoked a memory. My late father--who shunned church after his ten years' forced enrollment in Jesuit boarding school--always liked watching the milk dance in his own iced coffee. So much of the past was gone--my father, and much of his family during the war. But now, as the two liquids combined in their flight of fancy, I, too, paused in this small moment of joy, and death separated us a little bit less.

I must've inherited the man's volatile moods, which might explain why I was unusually railing at the very institution I had spent seven years studying in Divinity School. Still, I parked in the secret spot that other church members had suggested over five years ago when I first visited this church. I walked into the sanctuary, as briskly as I'd walked out of my house--eyes down, heading for the pews. I picked a spot I liked with a good, close-up view of the organist, a world-class musician who'd never let me down yet; I knew that if all else failed, there would be some musical magic that the service would provide.

The introit happened. The call to worship was said. I barely heard any of its wise words--because I was still stuck in my own skull ("If you open your eyes but do not recognize the Holy One, come here!") Hymns, greetings, Scripture, the sermon. ("The Spirit is leading a dance of joy.") These prayers, with the ultimate power to heal and to transform, scrolled over me like a gelatinous film   spools around its reels. As if I were still living in my own silent movie.

And then there was this chunky cube of bread in my hand. Communion.

I stared at it, a modern version of the white Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread we used to consume in the 70s.  When you molded it with your tongue, madeleine-shaped wedges would stick to the roof of your mouth. You could roll it into little balls and blow it through a straw--I had friends who did. A spongy slice would go well with melted muenster cheese and Campbell's tomato soup while lying on your stomach and soaking up a new episode of the original Let's Make a Deal.

But this grown-up bread had a new life. It sat there, explaining. And all at once a torrent of thoughts poured forth. It has to matter. This bread--for the past, the present, and a future I will not know. It has to mean something that Christ was, is, and will be. And if Christ is to live in me, I have to matter, too.

The Gospel lesson had been taken from Matthew's mention of the Great Commandment: love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. What, even after so much study, did this mean? I felt I was seeing it for the first time. Did it mean: God before all else? Don't distract yourself with "clouds in your coffee?"

Our pastor began to pray over the elements. Despite the 90 degree heat and the sure weight of his robe, he was saying that the Son of God, in blessing, breaking, and sharing bread and wine on the night he was betrayed: "made a gesture of love that outlasts death."

I looked at the bread in my palm, and it seemed to try to get through to me again: this is the bread of life, and that means, you matter. I am the bread of life. Now, take some bread that I might live in you.

Well, this was a revelation: tears of joy on a chunk of Pepperidge Farm. It felt like the heavens had opened up and a chorus of angels was singing this fresh, re-formed faith into life. That's how the church choir made it sound--their deeply mournful harmonies rising up high into the gilt vault of the church's dome.

And now we were singing, the vibration of our voices changing us. For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night. The beauty of this hour had made us new.

The cup, when passed following the bread, for its part, was not filled with mere wine.

It was sherry, a taste that shot me back again, forty-five years to a time when my teacher parents would hold "sherry parties" in our Danish modern-furnished flat, first in Upper Manhattan, then here in Cambridge, on Langdon Street, off Massachusetts Avenue. The liquor (which they rarely drank otherwise) now sent a silent stream of comfort and calm down my throat, as if salvation were something like that black iced coffee being brought to life by a shot of cream. For all its darkness,  life is a privilege, I now remembered, and I was to live it ... With all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." With all of you. It was almost as if a voice whispered: This is the cup of blessing. Now it is yours to know what to do with it.

A liminal space had been explored, a jaunt into the holy. As quickly as it had opened up to me, though, it disappeared. Not every moment can be full of enlightenment. But that does not mean we can give up the quest.

Weary at my own ignorance, I looked up. Of the four maroon leather-covered hymnals lined up side by side in the pew pockets in front of me, only one had a word scrawled in big, carefully pencilled letters across the top edge of its stacked pages, perhaps by some bored teen many Sundays before. It was a sign, as if God had to repeat himself to be heard.

In capital letters, it read: LOVE.

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