We speak so often of “taking” the Sacrament, and too rarely of receiving it. Our discussions revolve around what we should do, what we should wear, what we should sing, when we should arrive at church, how we should quiet our children so that we can be certain to constrain the Lord’s Spirit to be with us. It’s a little silly, really, to imagine that we are in charge, that a member of the Godhead might be put off by the shade of our shirts or the happy prattle of our children. I’ve always loved what Annie Dillard had to say about such delusions:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
Yesterday was a day I needed to be lashed to the pew. I was visiting my brother’s ward, for the blessing of a sweet new nephew. His ward is a funny pie-sliced wedge of city and suburbs, a sometimes awkward mix of suburban apartment-dwelling graduate students and inner city residents, mostly poor, mostly immigrants, many from Liberia. The majority of the members are new(ish) converts, and many of them are therefore adult Aaronic priesthood holders. And yesterday, several of them helped with the administration of the sacrament for the first time. Or, better, yesterday they ministered to us–to me–in the Lord’s Supper.
The first prayer was in beautifully African-accented English. I lost track of how many times it started; I only know it was enough for me to hear and feel every word. “O God, dee Eternal Fader”–the repeated invocation more plaintive each time. And when all the words (or nearly all, at least–in the end, we all shared a single soul, because the plural s just would not come out) were perfectly pronounced, there were no 12-year-old deacons lining up in white shirts; in fact there was no lining up at all, just a bewildered clustering around the sacrament table, a lot of whispered instructions, and a few young men leading their elders by the hand to show them which way to go, or, in one case, to steady an older brother who walked with some trouble.
There wasn’t a lot of quiet prayer or pondering among the members of the congregation, either. We were all nervous to see what would happen; maybe a few people were scandalized by the hint of chaos. I was mostly scrounging around for tissues to staunch the overflowing from my eyes. After a few minutes, there was a motley parade back up to the table–servants of God in parkas, kente cloth, a bright orange sweater, and a necktie or two. Another blessing, another confused outpouring of grace, and it was finished. The cloth folded, our brothers returned to sit among us in the pews, as though they had not just been transfigured, as though they had not been–a moment ago–holy vessels of God’s surpassing love.
I used to think that people were all mostly alike, that if we learned the same things, and especially if we belonged to the same church, we’d eventually understand each other well enough to get along, to feel something at least vaguely warm and fuzzy for one another, and that we’d become unified by being more like each other (by which I meant, of course, that everyone would come around to my way of thinking). I thought we could make ourselves into brothers and sisters by force of will (mostly mine). To my shame, I believed that I mostly knew how things should be done. I knew what a well-planned, elegantly executed sacrament service was, and assumed that this was the goal of all congregations. I thought that loving my fellow Saints, especially new-born ones, mostly meant helping them know how to do things the “right” way. Once we had mastered the basics of reverence, I thought, we might touch the hem of God’s garment, might get a staid taste of mercy.
It is not like that at all, not at all. I have nothing to teach, no help to offer. I am small and broken, and it turns out that I know nothing of love. Yet holiness rains down in wild, pelting torrents, without warning or reason, though we don’t expect or deserve it. Because we don’t deserve it. The mercy seat is right there, in front of us, the table groaning under the weight of Christ’s broken body, His love poured out like water, laughing at those tiny cups as it floods the room to cleanse and heal and refresh, to hold us all in the womb of grace, until we are reborn as true brothers and sisters.