The rap, rap, rap of metal on metal woke me every Saturday morning. The smell that accompanied the rapping wafted down the hall of our small house, floating into my bedroom, seducing me to throw off the covers and patter down the wood paneled hall into the kitchen. Mother was baking the “church bread.” She would bake the bread on Saturday morning, using only oil and flour and water, (only unleavened bread would fill the Biblical requirement), rolling the dough into incredibly thin rectangles. The rapping sound began as she made holes in the dough with the tines of a fork to keep the bread from bubbling up as it baked. She delivered the bread to church that afternoon, and early Sunday morning the men would break it into pieces and place it in the communion plates to be passed through the congregation during the service. I always felt special when those plates went down the aisles. My mother made the communion bread.
Mother saved the pieces of bread that had broken as she removed them from the baking sheet so I could play “church.” She would pour some grape juice into a little cup which I took with the bread pieces into my room. Standing on a box with a book in my hand, I would preach to the congregation (my collection of stuffed animals) as they sat around my room in rapt attention. I affixed my face with an angry look and spoke in the most authoritative voice a five-year-old could muster, gesturing and pointing for emphasis. At the end of the sermon, I would pass the sacraments, holding a crumb of bread up to the mouths of each supplicant and offering the juice, like the priest at a holy tea party. I grew up with the rap, rap, rapping sound and the smell of holy bread and so learned that God and baking were intimately connected.
My family attended the Lebanon Road church of Christ. You had to use lowercase letters for the word “church” whenever you wrote it, because you didn’t want anyone to think that you were elevating the church to the same level as Christ himself, which would have been dangerously close to what the Catholics did in elevating Mary and the Pope right up there next to Jesus. In our church, being Catholic was about as bad as being an atheist, what with all that “idolatry.”
Our religion was a religion of fear. Most of what we were taught to do or not do was based on a persistent vigilance about what might happen. You couldn’t wear casual clothes to church because someone might think you weren’t being respectful to God. You couldn’t dance because someone might have lustful thoughts. You couldn’t drink a glass of wine in your own home because someone might find out and be led into a life of debauchery and alcoholism. We were taught to understand the Bible as literal truth, with a few small exceptions. Like that story about Jesus miraculously turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. It wasn’t really wine that he made, it was grape juice.
My mother observed all the rules faithfully. She made sure that we made it to church services three times a week, twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night. My father, on the other hand, grumbled his protests and occasionally stayed home from Sunday night services to watch Lawrence Welk on television.
A creeping awareness began in early adolescence that what I was being taught didn’t stand the test of logic. During the sixties, if a young man had a beard he was not allowed to serve communion or pray in the assembly, but old men with beards were obviously not “hippies” (pot-smoking, promiscuous, rock-and-roll-listening sinners) so they were welcomed. Women were not allowed to speak at all, ever, not still to this day, but were relegated to the roles of teaching children, executing church social events and visiting the sick. Through the years I came to recognize these beliefs as an insidious kind of madness. It was a madness I could not name out loud, but one that I knew was located, not in the center of my wretched, unbelieving self, but in the center of the group psychosis in which I was expected to participate. I became argumentative with Sunday school teachers, asking questions we were not supposed to ask, such as the dreaded, “Why?”
My father’s quiet defiance gave me the first faint strokes of a blueprint for escape from the fundamentalism into which I was, literally, baptized. I can still see those bubbles rising, swirling around the band behind Lawrence Welk as he pumped that baton to the rhythm of horns and strings and bass. Those bubbles were swirling behind the figure of my Father, lying on the couch on Sunday evenings while my mother hustled us out to the car for church. They were bubbles of freedom.
Some parts of my religious training are buried so deeply they are marrow and bone. I never outgrew my love for Communion. From the grape juice and broken bread of my childhood, a deep appreciation for the nurturing nature of God—represented by bread and wine-has grown. I love Communion the way the priest at the little Episcopalian church near my house administers it. He puts the wafer in your hand as you kneel on the velvet altar and says softly, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” He holds the challis of wine to your lips and whispers, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” I feel the warmth of his large hands, smell the spice of his aftershave, taste the bitterness of the wine, and somehow it all seems so possible. The crazy idea of God incarnate comes to life in that moment of Communion. Love has to be embodied. Sacraments are meant to be touched, smelled, and tasted.
When I think of the word “communion” I think of sitting on a church pew waiting for Mother’s freshly baked bread to be passed on chrome plates down the long aisles of the Lebanon Road church of Christ. More often, though, I think of evenings spent with friends, bottles of wine, laughter, and sometimes tears.
The highlight of summer vacations was the time that I spent with my cousin Diane on her family’s farm in rural middle Tennessee. We rambled all over the hills, finding the highest ridge overlooking the Cumberland River where we would sit for hours dreaming of having our own farms someday. We bought bait at her grandfather’s little general store and fished in the pond behind their house. Diane was lean and strong and seemed invincible, yet she died of cancer before she was forty-five. During one of her hospital stays I brought her some real Southern comfort food. She was too weakened and nauseous from the chemotherapy to eat, but it was holy food—a sacrament—because it represented love. I had nothing to give that could make her experience any better, but I could bear witness of my love with fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
The word “communion” brings to mind the faces of friends who know my faults yet administer faithfully the atonement of their love and acceptance. I think of the six women I have dinner with every month, and the care and creativity they pour into every dish they prepare, bathing our dinner tables in laughter, curiosity, and forgiveness: the holy spices of community.
It will be Thanksgiving soon. The children will be here at the farm with us, the farm that Diane and I dreamed of, but she did not live to see. Last Thanksgiving, the main course for dinner was the wild turkey that had roasted in the oven for hours, permeating the house with the smell of holiday. Tim had shot the turkey early one afternoon, near the stand of cedars in the northeast corner of the farm. I was working in the garden beds when I heard the gunshot, and just a few minutes later saw him walking up the hill carrying a huge, beautiful bird. We laid the turkey on papers in the back yard to dress it. As we opened the bird and the steam from its still warm body rose in the autumn air, I was overcome by an intense feeling of reverence. This ancient ritual, the taking of life to sustain life, felt holy. As we sat around our table and shared the turkey, I was reminded of the words those men in suits repeated every Sunday as they stood and prayed over Mother’s communion bread. “Take, eat, this is my body . . . given for you.”
Maybe the purpose of communion, whether is comes in the form of an wafer blessed by a priest, or wild turkey blessed by a family’s prayer of grace, is to remind us that love is a risky business, involving blood and tears and sacrifice.
Someone asked me recently about my journey out of fundamentalism and wondered how I had made the leap. I responded that it wasn’t a leap so much as it was a slow, arduous escape—sort of like being a prisoner of war who finds a hole in the fence and then must make her way through enemy territory before reaching freedom. What you discover is that the enemy is yourself and all the fears living inside your head. What keeps you prisoner is the part of you that is unwilling to be broken, the part of you that wants assurances, the part of you that liked it better in black and white, when you knew the answers so the questions didn’t haunt you.