Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion a few times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday at morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for  it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I decided to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my priest/mentor: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (forgivable for a nonagenerian), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where my grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out the “blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her waiting hands. Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion. Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    

 

The Spiritual Discipline of Instagram Use

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” – Sherry Turkle

This Fall, I’m taking a course on “Intro to Christian Spirituality” with Dr. Lauren Winner, in which we are tasked with completing the following assignment:

  1. Technology Fast: For one week this semester, fast from cell phones and Internet-based communications technologies (e.g., email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, messaging clients including text messaging).
    OR
  2. Art-Staring Practice: Over the course of the semester, engage in the practice of art staring for three three-hour sessions, as described in this article.

One of the main points of these exercises, it seems, is to set aside distraction to bolster a sense of sustained presence with and appreciation of the life going on around us.

After technology-fasting or art-staring, we students are to write an essay about the experience. I may also write a blog about the experience.

But for right now? For now, I’m not thinking or writing much about the spiritual discipline of fasting from technology to appreciate the beauty of life so much as the spiritual discipline of using technology to appreciate the beauty of life.

2016_instagram_logoI’m thinking in particular of Instagram.

Throughout its first several years of rising popularity, I resisted Instagram both because I’m habitually a late-adopter when it comes to technology and because I suspected it could become something of an addiction.

Confession: It has become something of an addiction. It can at times become a source of distraction, narcissism, and social comparison. (Forgive me, for I have sinned. No joke.)

But, I have become convinced that, when used with prudence, Instagram can also become something of an inspiration.

I am convinced that Instagram can display far more than the user’s dinners or dogs (although those things are fine in moderation). Rather, these images can be thoughtful photographs, the captions poetry, the hashtags prophecy, and the post as a whole a profound piece of art.

Over the course of this year 2016, I have noticed 2 things: my Instagram use increased and my awareness of beauty in my surroundings increased. As with the chicken and the egg riddle, I’m not sure which came first — the Instagram use or the awareness of beauty. But, for the sake of my emotional, spiritual, and creative health, I would like to maintain both as a spiritual discipline.

When I’m on vacation and taking numerous pictures, I would like to discipline myself to select only one sight to represent and remember the day’s adventures.

When I’m waist-deep in work and taking zero pictures, I would like to discipline myself to still select at least one sight to remind myself that, even in that difficult day, there somehow exists an abundance of adventures if I only pay attention.   

I would like to discipline myself to use technology intentionally as “the architect of our intimacies,” as Turkle put it, which I understand as a guiding lens through which I can see my self and my surroundings. If I ever seem to use Instagram in excess, bear with me. But, as long as I’m posting once every few days as I tend to these days, I hope it can be a useful bit of beauty to bless you and me both.

In a Foreign Land

“How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137:4

IMG_3085I recently moved to the foreign land of North Carolina. To be sure, I am no Israelite in exile, for I chose to move here of my own free will, accompanied by all the familiar belongings that would fit in my car, a few familiar faces, and countless familiar chain restaurants (God bless Cracker Barrel).

But there is a foreign-ness to be faced nonetheless. New roads to roam, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies to track down, and — most interestingly in my opinion — churches to visit. Churches that remind me of home just enough to turn my slightly-homesick heart into a gumbo of gratitude and grief over what was and is and is no longer in my life at this point in time. Churches that make me wonder: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Apparently, we shall check and double-check church websites, take the wrong exit off the highway, arrive nearly ten minutes late, and eventually slip into the back pew.

We shall study the bulletin and juggle it with the hymnal, Book of Common Prayer, and Bible with all the clumsiness of a court jester.

We shall see a bespectacled gentleman who reminds us of our own beloved priest back home and a young family with two boisterous blonde boys who remind us of a young family back home — a family that almost always sat in the pew in front of us, their own boisterous blonde boys squirming and saying “peas be with you” at the appropriate time.

We shall close our eyes and click the heels of our Sunday shoes three times, thinking “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

We shall receive bread into our open hands and wine to our waiting lips and think, first, like a pouting three-year-old that it tastes nothing like we’re used to and, second, that it feels everything like we’re used to — like sitting as we do so many Sundays “at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all” (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion).

We shall be grateful for that bread and wine, that one old hymn we recognized, that one priest who offered a handshake and a helpful “Hi, are you new here?” on the way out.

We shall drink coffee and meet parishioners, who in turn introduce us to more parishioners, whose names we can’t keep straight and who make us long for the many names and lives we know (knew?) so well back home.

Finally, we shall drive home wondering what home even means.

And, if we listen we shall hear Jesus say:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

We who are homesick, who wander and wonder, who miss things and mourn things — we shall be home with Christ and in Christ both now and forever.

On Orientation

orientation
noun ori – en – ta – tion \ ȯr-ē-ən-ˈtā-shən
: a person’s feelings, interests, and beliefs
: a main interest, quality, or goal
: the process of giving people training and information about a new job, situation, etc.

I have a very intelligent friend who has done research in medical anthropology, with a focus on the values communicated to aspiring doctors during their medical school orientation.

compass-008As I write this, I have just completed 3 days of seminary orientation at Duke Divinity School. And I wonder: What would my researcher-friend be observing if she had been in my shoes (or perhaps I should say “in my pews”)? What is the orientation or “main interest, quality, or goal,” to quote Merriam-Webster, of these aspiring ministers around me?

The orientation is toward creativity. I heard a sermon that had such lyricism and imagery it may as well have been preached at a poetry slam. I heard a visionary lecture on “theological education for the future of the Church.” I see abstract art and sculptures and posters about all manner of creative and collaborative initiatives.

The orientation is toward integrity. One professor spoke on the school’s Conduct Covenant, calling community members to a high standard of academic and behavioral integrity — not just to avoid consequences but to honor God, self, and others with our actions. Two presenters spoke in detail about sexual harassment policies and prevention. All of us sang this morning that “we will guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The orientation is toward diversity. On Wednesday, we sang gospel songs led by a small ensemble of singers — mostly black students, a couple white. On Thursday, we sang hymns, hymnals in our hands and pipe organ in our ears. On Friday, we sang songs by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong, led by a small band of guitar, drums, and vocals. Every day, I met folks of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual, political, and denominational identities. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic. Gay, straight, trans, cis. Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Reformed, nondenominational. We are undeniably different from one another and undeniably called to respect one another.

The orientation is toward community. The Director of Admissions & Recruitment opened orientation by saying, “Listen to what I’m about to say: Welcome. Home.” Every faculty, staff, and student has been quick to say, “If you need help with anything, I’m here for you.” It’s as though that’s our last name around here, as in “Hi, I’m Sarah I’m-here-for-you!”

The orientation is toward Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He’s the main interest, he’s the quality, he’s the goal.

Remind me to read this blog again in a couple months, when I’m in the middle of midterms and feeling less inspired. When the mind, heart, and soul are spinning in ten different directions like a broken compass in need of orientation.

Until then? I’m as oriented as I’ll ever be.

Why Seminary?

“A woman asked me at lunch today — not in a confrontational way, but just in the I’m-confused way in which it often comes — ‘And why are you going to seminary?'” – Dr. Greg Garrett, Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that (and asked myself that) I’d be a wealthy woman.

First, there’s the answer that, well, I think God told me to. Insert mic drop here.

Then there’s the professional, practical answer about pursuing education and experience to be equipped for work in my field of interest.

There’s the intellectual answer that, as Frederick Buechner writes in Now And Then: A Memoir of Vocation, I want “to learn about Christ — about the Old Testament, which had been his Bible, and the New Testament, which was the Bible about him; about the history of the church … about the theological systems that the passion of his original followers, and of Saint Paul in particular, had been distilled into. No intellectual pursuit had ever aroused in me such intense curiosity, and much more than my intellect was involved, much more than my curiosity aroused.

And then, there’s the stories. Oh the stories.

How I perked up in 9th grade world history, in which I was honestly apt to doze off, when I heard mention of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a title that roughly translates into English as “the highest of theological knowledge” or “the sum total of theological knowledge.” I would later learn that this difficult work comes in multiple volumes totaling over 3,000 pages, and I will likely ever tackle only a tiny percent of it. But, I will never forget feeling so unnaturally fascinated nonetheless.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow, when I was 16 years old, I stumbled into a youth program at Duke Divinity School which involved spending 2 weeks at the seminary praying, singing, serving, hearing theology lectures that were way over my head, and then attempting to discuss and apply them. At the end of the 2 weeks, I learned that it was possible to perhaps one day do that kind of thing for 2-3 years  — as an intensive training to perhaps do that kind of thing vocationally for all my years. My jaw dropped at the realization. And my spirit clenched onto the conviction that that’s precisely what I was going to do.

How the conviction has lived in the back of my mind for years while I play a life-size Game of Life, taking one step forward and two steps back, through college and first jobs and countless conversations and applications.

How, when I was 23 years old, my mom asked me to officiate a short graveside memorial on what would have been her father’s (my grandfather’s) 100th birthday. I pestered a priest for some advice and somehow patched together a quilt of Bible verses and BCP prayers for my part-Baptist, part-Episcopalian family. When I invited the tiny congregation to share their remembrances, all my grandma wanted to say was this: “You drank too much, old man.” My mom sighed and said something sweet and I said amen. It was undoubtedly awkward. And God was undoubtedly there.

How many times friends have asked me where God was when they were diagnosed with depression, date raped, or dealing with anorexia. Asked me what God thought about their Muslim friends or LGBTQ family. Asked me what the Church thought about such-and-such social issue or why we practice such-and-such sacrament. Over and over, my answer has been “I don’t know. But I’d like to sit with you and consider your questions just as much as we can.”

How very much, in those maybe-ministerial moments, I longed to engage those comrades’ concerns in a more robust, informed manner — something I believe seminary will help with.

I tell these stories to know who I am. We all have to, I think. Have to gather up our stories to know who we are. Whether aspiring to be a pastor or poet, professor or pediatrician, so many of us have stories of those moments when we just knew we had to do something. The career day, the field trip, the toy stethoscope or telescope or microscope we played with as children — longing all the while for the eventual real deal.

To return to Dr. Garrett, who opened this blog:

“Do I think that in [a couple] years when I complete seminary, I’ll be ordained as an Episcopal priest? I don’t know. And you know, it almost doesn’t matter. What I do know is that as long as I have life and breath, I’m going to try to be a Christian. I’m going to write and teach and preach and live in a fashion that shows how thankful I am. … I’m going to try to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world. That’s all I know. And really, that matters more than anything else, any title you could put in front of my name, any collar you could put around my neck.”
As I start seminary next week (strange to say), life is going to look very different in some beautiful ways and busy ways, some sweet and some stressful. I don’t expect to blog as often, although hopefully still at least once per month. But I do expect to collect stories. Stories of trying, as Dr. Garrett said, “to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world.”