The scrap of pita bread dissolves on my tongue, my saliva moistening it, breaking it down as I let it rest on my taste buds. The pastor looks into my eyes, saying, ” The body of Christ, broken for you.” I savor the floury weight of it, this piece of the body of Christ, as my stomach rumbles in anticipation. Feeling the softened particles spread throughout my mouth, I swallow slowly, letting the pieces travel to the back of my throat, and down my esophagus. I close my eyes to the sunshine spilling through the sanctuary and the people kneeling around me, letting the nerves of my throat tingle at the touch of God, at the substance of his forgiveness. A splash of cool, red wine follows, “the blood of Christ, shed for you,” and its sharpness tightens my tongue. I wait, eyes closed, the sunlight warming my eyelids as the body and blood of Christ merge with my own.
In the Christian Reformed Church in which I grew up, communion was not celebrated every Sunday, not even once a month; it happened perhaps four times a year. I was too young to participate, but I would watch the flat silver plates move from hand to hand, the pile of dice-sized bread cubes slowly diminishing. The bread (baked by Cal Jongsma, mathematics professor, racquetball player, and baker extraordinaire) was white and soft, and often a few small crumbs would drop from my parents’ fingers to their Sunday clothing. Then came the juggling act as the heavy trays of communion cups filled with grape juice were passed down the pews–I watched my mother hold the tray for my father, so he could take one of the tiny glasses and place it in the holder in the pew ahead, and then he would do the same for her.
When I got older, finally strong enough to hold and pass the weighted tray, I always experienced a tremor as it came into my hands–what if I dropped it and spilled all that purple Welch’s grape juice on my lap? I could almost hear the hard clink of the miniscule glasses bouncing on the wooden floor of the church, could almost see them rolling in all directions, the grape juice spreading in a dark pool at my feet…and then the tray would be lifted out of my hands by my father, and I–and the communion juice–would be safe. I would watch as the pastor raised the bread, poured the juice: “The gifts of God for the people of God”; I would watch as the members of the congregation raised, in one echoed motion, those bits of bread to their mouths to chew and swallow, as they raised the cups to their lips, the juice disappearing.
I wondered, watching their faces, their movements, what they were feeling. They must be feeling something, some magic or mystery, as they took part in this ritual.
And then, my favorite part, the sound of a couple hundred glasses being returned to the wooden holders in the pew backs–clunk clunk clunk clunk clunk!–like hard rain on the roof during an Iowa thunderstorm.
I was eleven when I took my first communion. Eleven was young to become a professing member of the church–most kids waited until they were at least in high school. I don’t remember why I thought this was the right time for me, why I was so insistent upon professing my faith so early. He hovers just above the summer-high corn, breathing life into the millions of tasseled plants as He breathes life into the 6,300 faithful souls of Sioux Center. It probably had as much to do with friends’ similar decisions as with a deep religious conviction on my part, but I knew that I loved God and wanted other people to know it, too. And I wanted to be a better person, and thought that this was a step in the right direction, a jump-start toward a Protestant sainthood. A fifth grader is old enough to know about sin, and a fifth grader raised in a Calvinist tradition is old enough to feel guilty about it. It was simple: I wanted to say the words, to step out of my guilt-ridden existence and into the presence of God.
So I said the words before my congregation on October 14, 1990. There’s a video of my profession of faith, taken by the mother of one of the other children standing next to me. To my 26-year-old self, the girl in the video is impossibly young. I can hardly believe that the child wearing the pink-framed glasses and scrunching up her nose to adjust them at least once a minute is me. She wears a long-sleeved white turtleneck and a green jumper, and her blondish-brown hair hangs to her shoulders. She is skinny and long-legged, no curves yet, a child. But her voice holds conviction, as though she understands both the solemnity and the joy of the moment.
Maybe I did understand, despite my youth, my naîveté. At that moment, I knew I loved God, knew that I could wholeheartedly say “I do” when asked if I believed Jesus Christ to be the son of God, when asked if I joyfully embraced him as Lord of my life, when asked if I would do all I could to participate in the life of the church.
By virtue of saying “I do,” I was allowed to take for myself one of those cubes of bread, one of those tiny glasses. The crumbs fell from my sweaty hand to my green jumper as I waited for Pastor Weidenaar’s words, and as I raised the bread to my mouth I waited for the manifestation of the mystery. The bread was good–soft, yeasty–but it dissolved too quickly. I had no time to savor either the bread or the moment, and the grape juice, too, disappeared rapidly from my tongue, its taste no different than when I drank it from a Tupperware cup after school. I remember thinking, “That’s it?” and then the glasses were clunking back into their holders.
Sioux Center, Iowa, is spread out along a north-south highway in the northwest corner of the state, surrounded by farmland, its highest buildings the grain elevators on the west side of town. In all directions lie gently undulating hills covered by rustling soybeans and high corn plants. Farms scatter across the landscape; the few trees in this corner of Iowa cluster around the farmhouses, ser ving as windbreaks. Cattle and hog confinements have their places, too, as the nose of any visitor will discover on a windy day. But both the cur ves of the land and the putrid smells on the wind are forgotten when one looks up, for above stretches the endless Midwestern sky. God, I always thought, was somewhere in between that high sky and the thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields, hovering above His people like a protective layer of clouds. He hovers just above the summer-high corn, breathing life into the millions of tasseled plants as He breathes life into the 6,300 faithful souls of Sioux Center.
I never thought much about the corn, growing up. Its presence was a gift to the eyes; I noticed that it was beautiful in the summer, green and tall and rippling. It was elegant in the fall, golden and crackling in the autumn winds, the leaves rustling against a grey backdrop of sky. It was hidden in the winter, only stubble poking through the layers of snow, and in the spring that stubble was turned over into the dark earth, from which slim green shoots poked up in straight rows. I saw it, but its beauty and abundance were never in the forefront of my mind. The cycle of planting and harvesting was as familiar and unacknowledged as the bus and train schedules are to big city-dwellers. I knew corn was food, but it was many years before I learned that all those corn plants weren’t the source of the bright cobs of sweet corn sold off the backs of trucks on Main Street in the summer. It was many years before I learned that the corn in those fields was governmentsubsidized feed corn, much of which was fed to the livestock whose pungent smells were a constant reminder of the presence of the confinements in every direction.
Each time I take communion I’m reminded, in the words of institution–“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed”–that the first communion was the Last Supper, which was itself a celebration
of the Jewish Passover meal. The Passover, too, was a meal of remembrance, commemorating the night when, centuries before, the Hebrew people had waited, sandals on their feet, children held tightly in their arms, for the angel of the Lord to pass by their blood-stained doorways.
My pastor–not of the church in which I grew up, but of the church I now attend in Missoula, Montana–recently preached on the manna in the desert. “It was crispy, and a little sweet, perhaps,” she said. “It came in the morning, with the dew. I like to think of it as Honey Bunches of Oats floating down from heaven.” God’s breakfast cereal. I like this image, God sending down flakes of cereal to feed his people. “He gave it to them every day,” Pastor Jean reminded us. “And the people were forced to trust him, trust that he would daily provide for them. If they tried to hoard up their manna, it would rot, fit only for the worms to eat.” She paused and smiled. “God was warning his people against materialism, against accumulating goods, against taking more than we need. He wanted them to know that he was providing for them, that they weren’t capable of providing for themselves. Think about it.”
I did think about it, sitting there in the church pew. I do still. I think about how I go to the grocery store to stock up my supplies, how I feel far more content–more in control–when my cupboards are bursting. I love grocery shopping, deciding what to put in my basket–kiwis, all the way from New Zealand? Bananas, shipped from Costa Rica? Strawberries–on sale for $1.99–from California? Sweet corn, in honor of my home? The world is at my fingertips. Why, then, do I feel I might be missing out on something? I wonder what it would mean to trust God for my daily manna, my Honey Bunches of Oats from heaven. I wonder if I would feel more connected to God, to the world around me, if my sustenance came floating down from the sky rather than from the brightly-lit shelves of the grocery store. Yet somehow that does not seem as if it would be enough.
I worked in a friend’s garden for several months, starting in the fall, followed by a break for an Iowa winter, and then working through a warm, wet spring. I needed work, those months, and the opportunity came floating, manna-like, from heaven. My friend is a person who pays attention–she has to. “When it’s sunny, Al, make sure you open the doors to the shelter,” she told me. Every spring she starts her seeds in homemade wooden boxes and puts them in the shelter, a small greenhouse on the south side of their home. “Those plants are fragile,” she said sternly, “and can’t take too much heat. Check them several times a day, and water them gently; sprinkle it from your fingertips rather than dousing them straight from the watering can.”
Later in the spring, once the weather began to warm, we turned over soil in her garden beds, scattered strategically throughout the ample yard. “This soil hasn’t been walked on in 25 years,” she told me, more than once, “so don’t walk on it now. Feel how light and crumbly it is: let’s keep it that way.”
I felt the soil, and she was right–it was perfect. It submitted easily to our pitchforks, crumbling willingly as we tilled the plots. And though she’d warned me numerous times not to walk on them, I would occasionally forget (not having 25 years’ worth of habit behind me), only to hear her voice calling, “Watch your feet!” causing me to jump and remove my toe or heel a safe distance from the edge.
I was twenty-five the year I worked in Sue’s garden. And though I’d known for a long time that the food in the grocery store didn’t spontaneously generate its pre-packaged self onto the shelves, those months were the first time that I recognized just how much work goes into producing food. Working in the garden reminded me daily that the food I eat, whether pre-packaged or fresh, is a result of a communion of earth and water and sunshine and earthworms and human hands. A communion of creation.
One afternoon Sue and I transplanted bok choi into a garden plot that had been worked through with manure a few weeks before, and over the following weeks the plants grew enormous, putting out thick, glossy leaves. We cooked them up in a stir fry for lunch one day, to eat along with Sue’s thick homemade bread, just removed from the oven. “We thank you for this food,” Sue prayed, as tantalizing scents rose from our plates. “We thank you for friends to share it with. Bless it to our bodies.” I opened my eyes and looked down at my meal, thinking, I know where this came from.
For a long time I struggled to feel the mystery of communion. Those first few years, the movements of my hands and arms and mouth echoed with those of the adults in my church, but the echo of the movements never seemed to reach my soul, no matter how hard I tried to force them to do so. I simply didn’t feel the magic, and I began to wonder if anyone else sensed anything besides the taste of the soft bread and the grape juice. It tasted good, but it was not enough.
I began baking my own bread five years ago, and since then I have learned to pick out the taste of the yeast, the salt, in the bread I eat; I can tell how much sugar has sweetened it, can guess at the ratio of wheat flour to white. But until recently I thought little about where the f lour itself came from–for all I knew, it could have f loated down from heaven to be bleached and bagged and put on the shelf of the local Safeway. I know the wheat does not come from Iowa–the land is too well suited to other crops. The wheat may come from North Dakota or Montana–or China, or Russia. The world in a bag of flour.
I had to learn to pay attention when I take communion. Slowing down enough to notice the texture of the bread, the shade of the juice splashing in the miniscule glass, seemed simple, as simple as noticing the scent of the air or the sea-rippling green of an Iowa cornfield. I’ve never had communion bread that tastes as good as Cal Jongsma’s, and I don’t know if that’s because it truly is that good, or if it’s because the taste of that bread first defined communion for me. Some Sundays the bread was not cut into cubes; some Sundays the crusty brown loaf was broken into two by the pastor, and we filed up to the front, tearing off a piece of the bread’s white inside, dipping it into the communal cup, letting the bread soak up the dark liquid. Cubed or torn, it was always good. In other churches, during other communions, I have noticed the blandness of Wonderbread, the Styrofoam crispness of wafers, and, most recently, the floury thinness of pita bread. I have felt the tingle of red wine, the smoothness of white.
It is not the texture of the bread nor the taste of the wine that I had to learn to pay attention to. No, it is the shape of the mystery I have learned to recognize, the prick of Spirit I have had to teach myself to feel. I have learned to feel the breath of God in church as well as outside. In recent years of taking communion, I have forced myself to slow down, not to be so quick to devour the elements. I would hold the bread in my hand, staring at it, thinking, “This is the body of Christ. The body of Christ, broken for me. For my sins. For all the darkness in the world.” I would force myself to pause, to consider my sins–God, forgive-me-for-not-doing-my-chores-swearing-at-my-motherimpatience-jealousy-anger-pride-hatebefore lifting the bread to my mouth. I remember chewing slowly, tr ying to feel something, some sense of space, or grace, or light, some smoothing out of the rumples in my soul. I would have been content to see a shimmer in the air, or to hear a quiet little rumble of thunder, but all I ever heard was the shifting of bodies in the pews, all I ever saw were beams of sunlight slanting through the windows behind the pulpit.
Recently I read the Scripture passages aloud at my church, so I had to attend both services–one at 8 a.m.,
the other at 10:30. I now attend a Lutheran church and celebrate communion every Sunday. Two Sundays ago I got to celebrate it twice.
During the second service, I walked to the front of the church, took an empty glass, and knelt at the rail, waiting for the bread to be pressed into my hand, waiting for my cup to be filled. I chewed the bread slowly, felt the tang of the wine, put my empty glass into the basket held by the acolyte. I remained kneeling for a moment, feeling the carpet pressing against my knees, the smooth wood of the rail beneath my wrists. The sun shone through the windows of the sanctuar y, and I could hear the shuff le of people behind me, coming for ward to kneel; I heard their footsteps and the whispers of their breath.
“This is the body of Christ,” I heard the pastor murmur.
This is the body of Christ.
It is raining today, a quiet, washing spring rain. I heard it in those first moments of consciousness early this morning, heard it dripping on the roof, heard the water-muff led sounds of traffic outside my window, saw the gray, dim light spilling into my bedroom.
The grass will turn green now, and other f lowers will pop up to join the fallen bits of crocus that lie scattered on my neighbors’ lawns. The tomatoes and chard and onions in the garden will soak up the nourishing wetness, growing tall and strong.
And perhaps, along with the rain, sweet white manna will come drifting down from heaven, the f lakes falling to rest on the glistening grass, and I will pick them up, filling my hands and heart with what I need for the day and no more. My neighbors, too, will be out on their lawns, marveling at this gift from the sky. We will kneel to scoop it up; we will smile at one another across the street and over the fence. We will bring our brimming hands to our mouths, and the flakes will melt on our tongues, washed down with raindrops.