How Then Shall We Drink This?

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“They had come limping, wheeled, carried, ambling, knock-kneed and slow going, with ample head gear and protective padding, drooling, smiling, deadpan, screaming and yet routinely with ears to hear and eyes to see.”

By Enuma Okoro | Twitter: @TweetEnuma

Communion. The lingering smell in the air hinted of freshly baked apple pie and caused me to do a mental double take making sure I was in the right place.

It wasn’t very often that I walked into a sanctuary that smelled comfortingly familiar and reminiscent of fragrances drifting in and out of my childhood. The aromatic candles burning on the altar effused this scent of both longing and familiarity, perhaps what a sanctuary should evoke. And unlike most altars, this one was overladen with the abundance of the harvest season. Fruits and vegetables threatened to trip over its sides as they competed for space with the bottles of jam, the loaf of bread, the acorns and the two handcarved, wooden squirrels. Strewn about were rusty colored leaves curled in on themselves in crisp autumn fashion, giving the display an accented look of the natural world brought to life indoors.

Coming to this communal center for the mentally and physically handicapped this one Sunday morning I had thought I was entering a novel and intimidating world. But so far I had found myself reassuringly lured by the hospitable warmth emanating from the homey surroundings.

The simplicity of the sanctuary instinctively invited me to slip out of whatever genteel layers I was accustomed to donning for Sunday worship. It was a subtle reminder that the only One I needed to impress may not bat an eye at my pious trimmings.

Brown stained, wooden pews stood territorially fixed in a half dozen concentric, semi-circles across the wide span of the well-lit room. The sunlight reaching in possessively spread its fingered rays through red, yellow, blue and green iridescent blocks of frosted pane windows that made up the greater portion of the walls on two sides. Boldly claiming the individuals caught in its incandescent glare the congregants appeared transfigured in a colorful ray of light, the steel of wheel chairs glistening as though transformed into silver chariots.

At first glance I barely noticed the lack of decorative stained glass that usually depicted the scriptural stories. The people who lived in this community, filling this sanctuary, were all the representation needed of what the gospel is about.

They had come limping, wheeled, carried, ambling, knock-kneed and slow going, with ample head gear and protective padding, drooling, smiling, deadpan, screaming and yet routinely with ears to hear and eyes to see.

They had come to hear the Word that whispered its own version of truth and redemption through the hands, arms, lips, face and feet of those who surrounded them. I had come because this particular Sunday the center was short on volunteers. I had come because the Chaplain had asked me to and I was hoping to lend a hand, to give of my time in kindly voluntary work with the less fortunate. I had come proud and pious, confident and righteous, well-nourished, and warmly yet fashionably dressed like the peers I resembled in my own young, vibrant and active world.

I had come to play the role of servant in a realm where I felt securely masterful. And though I was a bit nervous of stepping into this foreign world, I did not expect to dip my cup into any streams of grace with which I was not already familiar.

Laughter and Smooches

Earlier this morning I had wheeled Pete from his room across the lawn. His 38-year-old body confined to the stature of a 10-year-old boy without control of most of his muscles besides his facial ones. And making our way to Sunday service, he had exercised both his facial muscles and his vocal chords by making intermittent grotesque attempts at laughter and smooching noises into the air. I had teased him about flirtatiously blowing me kisses as I returned my own smooches into the inviting wind.  His broad smile took up three quarters of his face, revealing teeth so large it was difficult to imagine how his mouth held them all. It was equally difficult to suspect that a man of his condition could possess such a joyous and contagious smile. I could only imagine what sweet and secret conversation was being carried out on the gentle breeze that blew past me and through Pete, who apparently had ears to hear. I found myself wondering if there were divine images he was privy too that I would never see in this lifetime as a result of my own handicaps.

As I maneuvered his chair through the big wooden doors I tried to dispel those lingering thoughts that seemed to have mistakenly put me in the same category as someone with handicaps. Surely nothing I had to worry about could be as heavy a burden as the physical and mental ailments of those who now surrounded and outnumbered me. And I had come here to help, not to be diagnosed.

In just a few minutes we had all filled the sanctuary, in our varied intensities of brokenness and deformity, some more grotesquely apparent than others, but all in need of healing.

We had come, a ragamuffin band of volunteers, residents, nurses, family and friends, to receive the message, to pray and to praise, to groan and to cry out, and for those residents who could talk, to interrupt the preacher with periodic insights into his scriptural teachings.

When the preacher spoke of the need to give thanks and of how even the squirrels give thanks for their food and shelter, Mike, who sat on the altar bench, insistently yelled forth, “You got that right.” When the preacher explained the dilemma of the disciples who had no money for the “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” Mike confirmed their destitution by proclaiming, “And they ain’t had no checkbooks either.”

And so it was, as the service progressed, loosely ordered and welcoming of the persistent interruptions, a priesthood of believers ministering and being ministered to, until it was time to take communion.

Holy Communion

Pastor Fields had told me earlier how much the members of the congregation enjoyed communion Sundays to the extent that they were now given full cups of grape juice. They always wanted more than the usual tiny cups that the rest of us seemed to be satisfied with.

As a volunteer this Sunday, I followed the chaplain around the sanctuary bearing the tray of grape juice as she led me in and out of the pews circumventing those who required their feedings through a tube. Beyond that, there was no pattern to our steps, no order to our procession as we sought the gathered community scattered randomly around this inner sanctuary.

Those who could control their limbs stretched out antsy hands towards us to let us know they had yet to receive even as they saw us teetering forth with burdened arms. The room was filled with a choir of groaning as these, God’s children, created in his image, eagerly awaited the hope offered to them through the Bread and the Cup. One man took the cup full of grape juice offered to him and began to gulp it down as though ravished, deaf to the gentle reprimands of his nurse who sat beside him as she urged him to slow down.

Listening and observing, I was struck by the irony of this scene: this mentally disabled man barely able to control his desire to drink the communion juice fast enough, the juice that was offered with the words, “by this you are forgiven” and the healthy able bodied woman beside him urging him to slow down.

The Sound of Susie

Above the cacophony of disparate attempts of communication was the sound of Susie, the organist who stared blankly at the keys before her, playing a medley of hymns and snippets of whatever her fingers reminded her to play, relying on her memory and the faithful encouragement of her peers. Bobby sat behind her, next to Mike, persistent and enthusiastic in his constant affirmations, “Good job, Susie! Good job, Susie! That was nice, Susie.” I wondered what Susie was thinking behind that blank stare. I wondered how she knew what to play. I wondered if she knew the words to any of the hymns she chopped up into this musical salad of leftover recollections. And if she did know the words, I wondered what it felt like to see words in your mind but to not be able to speak them. I wondered if she knew that people looked at her with awe and wonder the way I was looking at her now.

As we finished with communion I looked over at Pete constrained to his wheelchair, straining his oversized head towards us, his tongue hanging out of his mouth and his distorted, knobby hands attached to bent arms permanently bumping into his chest.

“How does Pete drink this?”  I asked the chaplain. “He doesn’t. He can’t chew or swallow safely by himself.” She replied matter-of-factly. I should have known that just by looking at him, but I wanted so much for Pete to get communion the way I did that I suppose I chose not to see the obvious.

We took the trays back to the altar and I returned to my seat in the pews while the chaplain took her place behind the pulpit. I realized that in the midst of serving and observing I hadn’t taken communion either. As I walked past Pete I caught his eyes and wondered if he felt like he had missed something. And I wondered if anyone had ever told him that he was the body of Christ, the way I wanted to tell him now, the way I wanted to tell him that when I looked at him, I couldn’t help but do so in remembrance of Christ. I wanted to tell him that I, too, did not often know how to drink what was offered to me.

When the service ended I found myself walking quickly to Pete’s chair, protective and eager to be the one to wheel him back to his room. During the service I had spotted a white-coated nurse gently massaging his chest to alleviate his deep coughing. I had been caught off guard by my desire to take her place, to be the hands that soothed and calmed, whatever I could do to convey this inexplicable care I felt growing in my heart with each moment I looked at him. It was an odd feeling to find myself already somewhat attached to this strange man I had met only an hour ago. He couldn’t say one word to me, but we had shared blown kisses in the wind and that had to account for something.

Wheeling Pete across the lawn, I fell into my usual habit of softly singing whatever song lyrics filled my head. This time I surprised even myself as the words to the benediction spilled out over and over again as I gently massaged his shoulder with a freed hand, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you. And give you peace, and give you peace, and give you peace for ever.”

It was as much a prayer and a blessing for me as for him as I felt myself overcome with mixed emotions.

– I wanted to cry for myself and to sing for Pete, to give abundant thanks and praise for the beautiful channels of grace that catch us unaware.

– I wanted to pray for eyes to see and ears to hear and a spirit willing to drink the cup, to share the cup.

I wanted to pray for mercy and forgiveness, to pray for my own healing because somehow I was beginning to sense that on the inside I was just as misshapen and helpless as Pete appeared on the outside. I sensed that when God peered at me with the intensity of One who knows me better than I know myself, He must see the deformity of my spirit that keeps me from walking steadily along his path. He must see the uncomely protective garments and superficial padding I have fashioned for myself out of stubbornness and fear, lest He demand what I fear I lack the courage to give, lest He call me to love myself as He has loved me and to show that love in action. And I feared He might call me to learn what it means to be humbly and courageously dependent on Him for all my needs, the sort of dependence Pete had known all his life.

And all the while I was lost in such conflicting thoughts and prayers, I could hear Pete randomly bursting into that absurd laugh of his and sending his kisses out in the wind to anyone bold enough to receive them.

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About Enuma:

Enuma was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and England. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University Divinity School where she served as Director for the Center for Theological Writing. She is an author, speaker, spiritual director and continues to lead workshops and retreats on varied topics engaging the literary and visual arts, and spiritual disciplines.

Her spiritual memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books, 2010) was a winning finalist in the 2010 USA Best Books Award and received the 2011 National Indie Excellent Book Awards Winning Finalist in “Spirituality and African-American Non-Fiction.” She is co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Okoro’s new forthcoming book, “Silence,” will be released in Summer/Fall 2012

She blogs at Reluctant Pilgrim hosted by Patheos. You can find her online at www.enumaokoro.com
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Image Credit: Communion by Bernice Sheppard

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