Tag Archive | communion

Observing Holy Week – Jail Style

City-County Bldg 2Last Thursday I participated in the women’s worship service at the county jail. I’ll be doing the same thing again this Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Women inmates have the opportunity to go to worship once every other week. The women from half the cell blocks are given the opportunity one week, the other half the next week. Last week four inmates chose to come to the worship service. With the chaplain and me, six of us sat in chairs arranged in a close circle with a small table in the center that served as the altar.

We observed all of Holy Week in about an hour. We started with one woman reading the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then we jumped ahead to Maundy Thursday. The chaplain explained the two key events that happened that evening – Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and Jesus sharing bread and wine with his disciples – the first Last Supper. That was a natural lead-in for us to share communion with each other.

potters crackersUsually in the past when we’ve shared communion, the chaplain has provided elements that are commonly available in jail – saltine crackers and a plastic cup of grape juice from the canteen. But this time, she brought something special – Cranberry Graham organic artisan crackers from Potter’s Crackers and organic grape juice. The chaplain had picked up the gourmet crackers and organic juice at the Willy Street Co-op.

The chaplain explained what communion represents in her faith tradition and asked each of us to explain what communion means to us. Then the chaplain held the basket of crackers and the cup of grape juice and offered “the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing” to the inmate sitting at her right. The woman picked up a cracker from the basket and dipped it in the grape juice. As she ate it, we all smiled as she crunched and ate the cracker. The crackers were really crunchy, but oh so tasty. Then the first inmate held the basket and cup, and offered the crackers and grape juice to the woman sitting at her right. We kept smiling while we waited for her to finish eating her crunchy cracker.  Then she offered the holy meal to the next person, and so on until all of us had been served.  I’m glad there were just six of us sitting in the circle so we could truly savor this moment of holy crunching and sharing.

When all had been served, we ended the meal by singing a hymn, just like the original disciples at the first Last Supper. The hymn we sang was “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” I wonder what hymn Jesus and the disciples sang.

Hands playing pianoSince we were trying to observe all of Holy Week in that one worship service, we read more Scripture and talked briefly about the crucifixion and resurrection. Then, as usual, we went around the circle with each of us talking about what was on our minds related to the readings or other thoughts. All four of the women were thinking about being released from jail. One woman was going to be released the next day, and she was really anxious to see her little boy again, and her boyfriend. The three others were going to be released within a couple weeks. All four women were concerned about being able to turn their life around so that they would never have to return to jail, and so that they could live a good, meaningful life. Then we prayed for each other out loud. We went around the circle again, praying for the person on our right, by name. After praying, we sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” We ended the service by reading a blessing as a benediction.

A prison cell doorWhile we were waiting for a deputy to come to escort the inmates back to their cell block, one of the women asked if I knew how to play the song “This Little Light of Mine.” I started to play the tune and she sang along. Then we all sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Both songs seemed quite meaningful for young women about to be released from jail, and about to go back to the rest of their lives.

I left jail that day thinking about lots of things –

  • What kind of bread did Jesus share with his disciples in the first Last Supper? Was it really crunchy and flavorful? Do church worship committees think seriously about the kind of bread they serve for communion – and what that could symbolize on multiple levels?
  • What hymn did the disciples sing before leaving the meal? I can’t believe that I never noticed before that it says in Mark 14:26 that they sang a hymn! That gives me a new perspective to keep in mind when I select music to play as background music during communion in the churches where I play organ.
  • How will God take care of each of these women as they return to their lives outside of jail? After all, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
  • Why do I feel so thankful and invigorated by the prayer the inmate sitting on my left had prayed for me and my family? And, do all the inmates and the chaplain feel the same way when someone prays for them by name? I bet all people (or almost all) are inspired when they know that someone is specifically praying for them…

I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to get together with these women to read scripture, share communion, express thoughts and feelings, sing hymns, and pray together. I need to write up a note about this to drop in my Gratitude Jar.

Gratitude Jar w note 4

 

 

 

Do This in Remembrance of Me

Mint-CandyI think I was four years old the first time I wondered about what was going on in church when my mom and dad left Danny and me in the pew with strict instructions to “sit still” while they walked up to the front of the church in an orderly line with all the other adults. I tried to see what was going on up front, but we were sitting in the back pew, and I really couldn’t see anything except the heads of all the people in front of me. In a couple minutes my mom and dad came back and my mom gave me a few of those little pink and green and yellow pillow mints – the kind you used to get at weddings. Oh, that was it – they went forward to get some candy, and my mom brought some back for Danny and me.

That’s my earliest memory of what “Holy Communion” was all about. Communion didn’t happen very often in our church back then – maybe three or four times a year. It took me a while to learn that “communion” was about something other than getting candy, but I eventually caught on, especially when my mom stopped bringing back those pillow mints, and she looked for whatever candy she could find in her purse to reward me for “sitting still.”

When I was a kid, we didn’t take communion until we were confirmed, which was in eighth grade. By that time we had learned that communion was a time to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, a time to remember how much Jesus loved us.

One of the most memorable times I took communion was when I was in high school. I was with a group of ten kids and a youth pastor (my brother-in-law) in Mexico at the jungle base of the Wycliffe Bible Translators Missionary Training Camp. We were on a week-long trip to learn about all the different kinds of jobs missionaries held. We happened to be at the jungle base on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For our communion service we sat on stumps in a small clearing in the thick jungle growth. For the bread and wine we had tostados and grape Kool-Aid. It was a very moving experience. I thought about God’s love for all people, including people all around the world, some who lived in the jungle and didn’t even have a written language – which meant they had no way of reading the Bible, or anything else. What was God like for them?

More recently, I’ve been thinking about communion from a little different perspective. For the past thirteen years I’ve been a church organist. In the Presbyterian church, we had communion once a month. In the two Lutheran churches where I play now, we have communion every Sunday. Usually I’m “working” (playing the organ) during communion, and the main thing on my mind is: How can the music I play prompt people in the congregation to think about how much God loves them? Sometimes it’s by trying to set the right tone and tempo for a reflective hymn that the congregation is singing. Sometimes it’s by playing an old familiar hymn that has words that might bring Jesus’ love and suffering to mind.

holy-communionThis Thursday is Maundy Thursday, the day we commemorate the original “Last Supper.” I’ll be “working” double duty that day. I’ll play the piano for the women’s worship service at the county jail in the afternoon, and I’ll play the organ for the Maundy Thursday service at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church in the evening. I’m looking forward to both services. This is my first year playing at East, so I don’t know quite what the service will be like, although I expect it will follow the traditional Lutheran liturgy fairly closely.

I know what to expect for the service in jail. Based on my experience the last couple years, I expect the service will be quite informal and very meaningful for everyone involved. There will probably be about ten of us sitting on wooden chairs arranged in a circle in the jail chapel. After the chaplain explains what communion signifies, she may invite us to share with the group what communion means to each of us personally. After this time of sharing, the chaplain will bless the bread and “wine” (grape juice); we will pass the cup and bread around the circle; and we will offer communion to each other. As the inmate sitting next to me holds the bread and cup for me, she may say, “The body of Christ, given for you; and the blood of Christ, shed for you” – or something similar. I will pick up a small piece of bread, dip it in the cup of juice, and eat it. Then I’ll take the bread and cup and hold them for the inmate sitting on the other side of me and offer the bread and “wine” to her. The process will continue until everyone has offered and received communion. Then I’ll go back to the piano and we’ll sing a hymn.

Of all the weeks of the year, this is the one to especially remember how much God loves us. Jesus gave us an important tip when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The important thing that happens whenever we take communion is that we are prompted to remember how much God loves us – even more than my mom loved me when she showed her love by giving me pink and green and yellow pillow mints.

How do you talk with God?

My mom and me looking pious for a program in church about 1955.

That’s something I’ve been trying to learn ever since I was a little kid. I remember the first prayer I ever learned: “God bless our food. Amen.” I said that prayer and then my brother and sister said the Norwegian table prayer, and then we could eat. My mother never had the patience to teach me the Norwegian prayer.

In kindergarten, I learned the prayer I still use before meals, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed. Amen.”  When my sister (eleven years older than me) went away to college, my mother dropped the Norwegian prayer, and whoever was at the table recited the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer. It was easier for everyone. And, I guess that prayer let God know we appreciated God’s providing for our physical needs even if the words were English. The prayer didn’t have to be in Norwegian.

As I grew older, I sometimes thought that we should say a more mature prayer like visiting ministers or missionaries would sometimes say, something like “Our Father, thank you for the food that Thou hast provided, and for the hands that have prepared it…” When I was asked to pray in front of guests, I sometimes tried to say something like that, but was never quite sure I was saying it right. I hated to be asked to do the prayer. It didn’t feel like I was talking with God with that kind of prayer. I was doing a ritual for the approval of the guests around the table.

My bedtime prayer was always more spontaneous. Typically it was something like, “Dear Jesus, thank you for keeping me safe today and for giving me a good day. Take care of mother and daddy, Nancy and Danny, grandma…” and whoever else I was thinking about that evening.

In Sunday School and confirmation classes, I learned that my prayer should include several sections: praising God, thanking God for specific gifts to me and those I love, praying for the needs of others, and lastly, praying for my own needs. My bedtime prayers got longer, more inclusive, and more structured.

But praying before meals and at bedtime didn’t really cover all the times I felt I wanted to talk with God about something. Inevitably, there were moments of crisis when I wanted to pray to God for help or protection – like needing to do well on a particular test in college, or walking alone on a street in Chicago when I sensed someone was following me. That’s when I really wanted God to hear me, and I wanted to have God reassure me that I wasn’t alone.

As my understanding of how to talk with God continued to develop, I discovered that music was an amazing way to communicate some of my thoughts and feelings to God, and to gain new insights into what types of communication were possible with God. One old gospel song that helped me envision what my relationship with God could be like was “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles.

I come to the garden alone,
while the dew is still on the roses;
and the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

Refrain:
And He walks with me,
and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share
as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing.
Refrain.

Over the years, music has become one of the most meaningful ways for me to visit with God. I don’t sing, but I take a hymnal, sit down at the piano and pray the words as I’m playing the music. I can spend hours having a conversation with God through the hymnal.

A few years ago I came upon the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I’ve mentioned this book several times in this blog. It’s a book of daily devotional writings, with each day’s entry written as though Jesus is talking directly to me. Scripture citations are listed at the bottom of the entry as proof that the Bible really does say those things. This book has been very helpful to me in making my conversations with God true dialogs rather than just me stating my immediate concerns. Here’s today’s entry.

Welcome challenging times as opportunities to trust Me. You have Me beside you and My Spirit within you, so no set of circumstances is too much for you to handle. When the path before you is dotted with difficulties, beware of measuring your strength against those challenges. That calculation is certain to riddle you with anxiety. Without Me, you wouldn’t make it past the first hurdle!

The way to walk through demanding days is to grip My hand tightly and stay in close communication with Me. Let your thoughts and spoken words be richly flavored with trust and thankfulness. Regardless of the day’s problems, I can keep you in perfect Peace as you stay close to Me.

James 1:2; Philippians 4:13; Isaiah 26:3

I know I’m not alone in wanting to know how to have a conversation with God, because the disciples also asked Jesus how to pray. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus told them, “… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Then Jesus went on to say what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.”

So what prompted me to write about talking with God today? Saturday I participated in a centering prayer workshop at Whispering Winds. Prior to this workshop I had a vague understanding that centering prayer was a Christian form of meditation, somewhat similar to the meditation practices of eastern religions. Saturday’s workshop was led by three leaders who had been trained by Contemplative Outreach, the organization founded by Fr. Thomas Keating in the 1970’s to develop methods of reviving the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. (More about centering prayer and this organization is on their website www.contemplativeoutreach.org.)

In the workshop we learned practices to help us quiet our mind and sit silently with our eyes closed for periods of 20 minutes or longer. At this point, I’ll have to admit that I’m somewhat intrigued by centering prayer, although I’m not about to say it’s the “sliced bread” of prayer. The process of sitting still and emptying our minds of distracting thoughts so that God can fill us is suggested by the Psalm that I have always loved reading, “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10]

One of the key messages from Saturday’s workshop was that as we continue to develop our own personal relationship with God, prayer – or communication with God – takes on many forms, not just one. I can still say “Come, Lord Jesus…” and know that I’m including God in our mealtime. I can pray for my friends and family and others as I understand their needs. I can worship God and ask for help in my life by spending time at the piano with a hymnal. I can read the Bible in a variety of forms to hear God speaking to me. I can go for a walk and hear what God has to say through the songbirds and the rippling brook just down the road from Whispering Winds. And, I can sit silently in a straight-backed chair with my eyes closed for 20 minutes of centering prayer.

God wants to talk to me – and you – just as much as we want to talk with God. We have a lifetime to learn all the ways to do that.