June 3, 2016

The Bread of Life

This Easter Day, once again, I explained the change to the congregation. “We’re using real bread today, and we’ll do so throughout this fifty-day-long season. For those of you more accustomed to wafers, you’ll see what we mean in this place when we talk about Jesus, the Risen Lord, as the ‘bread of life.’ I’ll be honest; frankly, these dry wafers don’t really communicate this spiritual truth, so join us for this seven week season, and thank you!” I said the same thing the following Sunday, too, taking a guess that those Easter Egg Hunts and candy might’ve clouded their hearing the week before.

Some years ago, I baked the bread. The recipe was good, but not great. The last three years, however, a member of our congregation has volunteered to be our Easter-tide baker. She has an awesome recipe for dinner rolls – multiply it a few times and, voila!, out of her oven emerges some big, delicious loaves, one loaf pretty much taking care of each Sunday morning service. I used to give smaller, wafer-sized pieces, but having so much extra bread leftover afterward seemed to unravel the symbol. I started giving larger chunks. Kids and bread-lovers adore the symbolism and, indeed, the actual experience of receiving communion. Even those few leftover bits hardly stick around, not even seconds after the worship is ended; such is the throng of children sticking around to help the altar guild clean the credence table, clamoring for ‘more bread!’ Those more accustomed to wafers put up with the season. Nowadays, wafers are back.

I have a lot of memories growing up in my home church, but one of them rises above the others, reminding me that church, for me, really was a special place, a place where the living God was made known to me, not through any particularly churchy or adult traditions but through an open space in which I could, and did, grow. A stay-at-home dad in our congregation loved to bake bread. His two daughters were around my age, and he and his wife were active leaders in our youth group. Every now and then he’d pull the kids together and we’d spend a Saturday morning baking bread. I’m sure it was a great break for my parents: “Go to church,” they’d say, “Mel’s baking bread today.” I don’t think there was any particular schedule or plan; he’d just get the idea and call the parents and, soon enough, there’d be a gaggle of kids in our church’s industrial kitchen, kneading dough, setting loaves to rise, mixing batter, cooling the baked bread, putting the rest in bags. The next day, of course, the church building was filled with that unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread, and we’d set out a table and sell the loaves. (Turns out, it was also an amazing fundraiser for our Sunday school and youth group!)

I love and appreciate the very adult traditions of The Episcopal Church. Ours is a deep tradition, and sophisticated and heady, at times, and not always so very fun and engaging. Beyond our spirituality and theology, I also enjoy the particularly grown-up struggles we face as lay and ordained leaders in the church. We have to deal with leaky roofs and busted boilers and group dynamics, all the while making sure God is in the room and that we are, first and foremost, Christ’s Body, not some local civic organization or social club. We’re called to walk in the light, and not to do so naively or foolishly but, rather, steadfastly, boldly, with confidence, no longer being children in the faith – no longer “being fed with milk” (1 Cor. 3:2) but striving onward to the goal of eating “solid food,” growing into the full stature of Christ.

I have no fear that our worship will ever be ‘dumbed down’ – the common refrain of those who think we’ll throw out the baby with the bathwater with any more liturgical or canonical revisions – and I, at least, have come to realize that sometimes our worship and church life will be, in the words of more than a few, “boring.” Because it’s not always going to meet our needs. Sometimes, church will put us in a place that turns our attention beyond where we are, to where God is inviting us. At first that might sound boring. In time, it may turn out to be something more.

But I also wonder if we can make just a bit more space in our common life for play, for enjoyment, for expanding our experience of something and see it through the eyes of those who adore and desire and want. If children clamor for baked altar bread, their eyes alight when a piece nearly as large as their palm is placed in their grasp – “…the bread of heaven,” they are told – why should we ever discourage or discontinue such an act? Oh, wafers are holy signifiers, too, and there’s good reason to go back-and-forth. But if there’s ever a time for setting aside the headier, heavier things of our inherited life, and breathe new life into beautifully ancient forms, it may very well be summer – a time to remember that sometimes it shouldn’t be as hard as we sometimes think it should be, a time when God meets us, once again, with lush fruits and bounty that is desirable and, indeed, should be desired. When it’s okay to want these gifts to be very good.

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