Never did say good-bye

What happens when we don’t get a chance to say goodbye?  Do we live with a sense of unfinished-ness?  Or do we move on and squish the unresolved stuff into that deep well in the gut where it gurgles and festers but never sees the light of day?

There are so many unfinished goodbyes.  A beloved, a friend, an acquaintance dies suddenly and there is no way to ask him for his cobbler recipe or to thank her for bailing you out that time.  A couple divorces, and friends must choose a side, and in-laws are cut off.  I know of two  (and there are more) congregations where the pastor was summarily dismissed, there one Sunday and gone the next, and parishioners who were for and against that person never had the opportunity to say things like “I never liked you but you showed up when you needed to” or “that sermon you preached on the woman at the well turned me around.”

A hospital chaplain used to admonish pastors and interns and everybody to keep our goodbyes current.  What happens when we don’t, when we lose the opportunity to get in a last, good word?  Sometimes it’s a mess, when we don’t say goodbye.  Sometimes we cling like shrinkwrap to the next best person.  Sometimes we grieve everywhere but the place we most need to.  Sometimes we wander lost, the way my cat did when his littermate died suddenly; he roamed the house, mewing and looking around, so sad and confused.  Bereft too, I would say.

I once served a congregation whose previous pastor had been let go suddenly, with no going away party.  I served there part-time for seven months, but when I left, they threw me the biggest shindig you can imagine.  I was bowled over; my husband reminded me that really, the party was as much for the previous pastor as it was for me.  Interim pastors learn that sort of thing, but I wish my predecessor could have been there too, since 90% of the party was for him.  (I did keep and still treasure the quilt they made for me.)

Our word goodbye derives from a 14th century word meaning “God be with ye.”  There is hope in that – though I didn’t get to say goodbye, I choose to believe that I and the one I miss are with God.  But one last hug would have been nice.goodbye

Keystone Kommunion

For some, the sacrament of Holy Communion, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist -whatever you call it – is a solemn and holy occasion. It is replete with mystery, with grace, with all that church should be. Delicious, inclusive, meditative, intimate, theological.

And it is all of those things, except when it’s not, which is just about every month for me.

Everybody does communion a little bit differently. In our congregation, and I would guess in the majority of Presbyterian congregations, we celebrate communion once a month, on the first Sunday. Usually, but not always, we “do” communion by intinction, which means that the people come forward and take a little pre-cubed bite of bread and dip it into the chalice of grape juice. We say “the body of Christ” or “the bread of life” or “the bread of Heaven” and “the blood of Christ” or “the cup of salvation” or “the cup of forgiveness.” And the people partake, and then return to their seats as guided by one of the deacon ushers with all efficiency of a flight attendant giving safety instructions. We also sometimes pass plates of bread and trays of little cups of juice out into the congregation, but that does not make for very many good stories.

So here are three common communion mishaps that make it not a solemn and holy occasion but a joyful, mirthful feast.

1. Floaters

It always happens, and usually at the beginning. Someone very understandably drops their tiny piece of pre-cubed bread into the chalice. We always tell them to take another piece, that it happens all the time, but the partaker usually feels deep mortification, which I think is a spiritual discipline among the Opus Dei folks that involves flaying oneself with a studded whip. But I could be wrong. But maybe dropping the Bread of Heaven into the Cup of Salvation is the emotional or spiritual equivalent of flaying oneself. I actually wouldn’t know, as I always go last when there are plenty of floaters in the cup and it’s no big deal if my bread goes skinny dipping with the other pieces.

2. Drink Ye, All of It

Occasionally we have people who are from a different tradition within Christianity who are used to coming forward and actually drinking the cup. They’re usually from a tradition in which only men in white regalia will serve them, and in which they stick out their tongues and someone puts a communion “wafer” (read: piece of cardboard treated to look edible) on their tongue so they don’t have to touch anything. These people get confused by us Presbyterians. First of all, there might be women up front, and people who aren’t clergy. But our guests are game and hungry and faithful, so they help themselves to our nice yeasty bread cubes. Then they want the cup. Sometimes they get. Sometimes there’s a wrestling match. Sometimes they drink the floaters. Then we all pretend we’re not throwing up just the tiniest bit in our mouths, and we move on.

3. “But all I wanted was a little blessing…”

We have guests with us who want to be a part of the party but they’re really not sure about the whole body/blood thing. That or they’re scared of the floaters, or the person in front of them just drank the cup. Anyway, all they want is a blessing, but sometimes they’re not sure how to get that. I once attended a Catholic wedding, and one of the bridesmaids was Jewish. She had been instructed, when the wedding party was served communion, just to cross her arms over her chest to indicate she would not be partaking. In the heat of the moment, she forgot the choreography and instead clamped both hands over her mouth as though coming into any contact with the Body of Christ would magically indoctrinate her into the Christian Club, or would so offend the priest that he wouldn’t finish the wedding ceremony. (The couple is no longer married, but the bridesmaid is still a faithful Jew, so there you are.) Sometimes our people who just want a blessing do that too, put their hands over their mouths or cross their arms over their chests and that would all be fine. Unless the pastor and her serving partner misread the cue, and we end up trying to force-feed them the dang bread and cup, already! Yes, that happens. To me. More than once.

My husband is best on his feet at the spur of the moment and I love it when he offers the invitation to the table, because he manages to weave in the theme of the sermon or the image from scripture or some phrase from a hymn along with the graciousness to be someone who creates a floater or otherwise does thing not so decently or in order. And I love that, because really it is all about grace, about being invited to a table regardless of whether we’re hungry or sated, perfect or really screwed up, faithful or doubt-full, good/bad, wise/foolish, ballerina or bumpkin or clown.

clown communion

When I did a google image search on “clown communion” none of the clergy were the clowns. Pity. I think that’s more accurate!

So now, would you be gracious enough to share your Mirthful Feast stories?