The tiny bread, the tiny cup

I might have mentioned, I suppose, in the previous post on Take This Bread, that Sara Miles sees communion as a sacrament, while we Anabaptists see it as an ordinance, a memorial with a strong emphasis on the horizontal relationship implied in community. Either way, all’s well and good, I think;  strange how these differences were, at one time in history, so very important, even enough to provoke martyrdom, but seem unimportant now (while we argue about other things).

Which reminds me of a moment in This Hidden Thing. I do hope it won’t seem too indulgent of me to offer one small glimpse…. In this scene the protagonist Maria is elderly (this is decades back) and not so well any more and she’s leaning against her uncle Peter’s “old, spongy sofa,” waiting for him to make coffee, and since she’s brought him some homemade bread, she’s thinking about that, and it’s reminded her of communion they had on Sunday, the “tiny square of bread, the tiny cup” and “the humility that filled the sanctuary, everyone quietly accepting their share…”

The portions were entirely too small for the spiritual hunger and thirst of her old age, she sometimes thought, tastes so brief they were scarcely comprehended, but once inside her mouth they seemed to swell in their indefinable way; then they were enough. Once she’d thought, well, no wonder, it was his body and blood after all. She’d pushed the heretical notion away, remembering that for Mennonites there was nothing literal in those words; symbols didn’t abandon their ordinary substance on account of a presiding minister’s words; that was one of the things the Reformation squabbled over, wasn’t it, and weren’t the Catholics damned, to a soul?

“Well,” she thinks immediately, “I don’t know.”

Maria loved the convenience of “I don’t know,” the prerogative the church had given women: silence, no theological finesse or bold statements required. It made them lazy perhaps, but maybe not. She, at least, felt she could rest in the truth and squalor she’d cobbled together from what she’d heard and read and imagined. She could always say, as Mary must have, sitting at Jesus’ feet, I don’t know, my Lord, what do you mean?….

…But here it was again. Pasty bread: flesh. The onslaught of juice in her mouth: a taste of blood. Hadn’t he said, Eat me, drink me?…. [S]he liked the subversion of believing it, exactly that way….

I’m resonating with Maria here, letting the bread be what it is, whether sacrament or memorial…. (And if it seems odd that I’d resonate with a character I’ve created, instead of the other way around, maybe I’ll have to weigh in on that relationship some time. In another post!)

Take This Bread

A memoir that begins with walking into a church at age 46, eating a piece of bread and sipping some wine, and then becomes – because that moment “changed everything” – the story of a San Francisco food pantry doesn’t really sound all that compelling, does it? It didn’t to me, at least, but the book was recommended, so I bought it, and read it. And lo and behold, Take This Bread by Sara Miles (Ballantine 2007) turned out to be very compelling indeed.

Miles had led, to that point of the first swallow, “a thoroughly secular life,” raised, in fact, in an environment quite hostile to the church. But there was something about those pieces of bread, about “eating Jesus,” that brought her to faith and kept her there. And once she was at the table, she had to follow its implications.

All that grounded me were those pieces of bread….It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in the grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected.

Take this Bread has a fresh, honest, contemporary feel to it akin to the work of Anne Lamott (whose praise graces its cover) and Lit author Mary Karr. Sara Miles insists on talking about and acting as if Jesus matters, startling those who prefer a more sophisticated version of faith. But she doesn’t play it fundamentalist or pious either. She’s a lesbian and makes no apology for that, or for her relentless quest to feed the hungry, whoever they may be; her church, St. Gregory’s, believed “in the absolute religious value of welcoming people who didn’t belong” and Miles will take this seriously, as she will the Gospels.

Inevitably, of course, there’s conflict over the untidiness and impositions a food pantry in a church will create, but Miles persists: with the congregation, and with the pantry. She realizes, “I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me.” She also knows that “[w]hen you let the wrong people in, the promise of change could finally come true.”

I recommend Take this Bread for its narrative, and for its challenging and nourishing ideas. (Miles has a second book out, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, which made the list of annual recommends from Christian Century.) And here, for a parting taste, is the prayer she wrote for the food pantry, which would make a good table grace for any of us:

O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world, and join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Leaning Yes to an Anabaptist alliance

Myron Augsburger, president emeritus of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and well-known Mennonite statesman, has a new vision for Mennonites in North America.

He’s proposing an Alliance of Anabaptists.

In an article in the current issue of Mennonite Weekly Review, Augsburger says that some 60 years of ministry among diverse groups of believers have shown him that Anabaptist denominations are “too small, too exclusive and too institutional.”

“I’d like to see something far larger, more diverse, more open to others who differ – and also a fellowship of shalom rather than a structural organization,” he says.

Augsburger is not talking merger, but alliance – for “fellowship and witness.”

He suggests benefits such as a greater impact on our society, unity in diversity, support for “our common quest to walk with Jesus,” and a sense of belonging.

Two other bloggers have already responded to this proposal at “The World Together,” one leaning yes and the other no.

As for me, I’m leaning Yes. Oh, there’s a flurry of questions that immediately arises in me and pessimism that such a thing could ever be launched, let alone flourish. And yet I find something intriguing in this vision, something compelling, something that needs to be given space for solid consideration before I let myself bog down in questions and fears. (It’s a personal tendency, I’ll admit). A kind of dreaming space where visions can root, a space to absorb all the reasons this idea is both wonderful and timely.

I’ll start by affirming the reasons Augsburger has already articulated and in addition, offering the following reasons I like his proposal.

1.The fresh theological articulation of a broad, yet core, understanding of what it means to be Anabaptist today is well underway. And, what’s significant about this articulation is that it’s coming from places outside, and/or larger than, individual denominational statements. I’m thinking of the work done by the Mennonite World Conference in their What We Believe Together by Alfred Neufeld and The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray, for example, as well as non-Mennonite articulations of Anabaptism in other parts of the church such as Emergent.

2.The “third way” of Christianity that Anabaptism represents is, by many reports, increasingly relevant and attractive today. But it will need a new wineskin for the twenty-first century, one shaped not only by the traditions and histories of those already in the Mennonite family but by a new generation within Mennonitism and by those coming to it new and unencumbered from the outside. Today’s global culture, technological realities, and ecclesiastical challenges not only require new ways of thinking and being but could make it possible for such an alliance to succeed.

3.Working together across denominational lines works. I have no 60 years of experience on the Mennonite scene as Myron Augsburger does, but I know this from my own small experience of inter-Mennonite cooperation. I’m part of Jubilee Mennonite Church, a congregation that belongs to two long-contentious denominations (the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Canada, formerly known as General Conference), still alive and well after 15 years, and have watched what’s happened over 10 years at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, which merged schools from the same two often-contentious and sometimes dissimilar denominations. Such ventures do not allow for “same old” and both involved many questions, fears, resistance from the powers-that-be and/or the constituency, and many challenges. I still remember my own fears, inner resistances, and doubts. The new that results is — yes — different, but it’s “good new.”

(I know Augsburger dares wish for no structural amalgamation but if “more with less” is a Mennonite credo, just think, for a moment of a publishing house that operated out of Anabaptist Alliance ownership instead of denominational ownership. The creative potential – the reach, the resources! — for all groups and the wider church would be enormous.)

4.For Mennonite Brethren, I think, there would be two additional advantages in such an alliance. First, it would solve the problem of the MB name. Both “Mennonite” and the non-inclusive “Brethren” are currently significant barriers in Canada (compounded, in our Quebec churches, by Catholic scandal that attaches itself to the word “brothers” in the name.) Many congregations avoid the label, or reference it in such small print that it’s scarcely to be found. Imagine being able to say, below one’s church name, “an Alliance of Anabaptists in North America congregation” instead. Second, since the MBs have had, and continue to acknowledge, an identity problem, it would force (or allow) clear occupation in their acknowledged large main house. And if they wish to set down in the house’s “evangelical” wing, so be it, but at least it could be said, this is where MBs live. Mennonite Brethren could begin to define themselves from within that alliance name/ID, instead of working backwards towards and through MB-ness in a continuous quest to sort out and measure the denomination’s constituent components.

What do you think of Mr. Augsburger’s idea? Why not register a response to his article at MWR, “The World Together,” or here?