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A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

I spend a lot of time making pastoral visits to aging members who are no longer able to attend worship, whether visiting them at home or in senior living facilities. Currently, there are 20 households on that list, and I try to see most of them every 4-8 weeks, depending upon their situation. I celebrate Holy Communion with many of them at every visit, although some prefer it only at holiday times.

Most of the time, I wonder about the value of these visits. Yes, it is a comfort to lonely or isolated individuals that the pastor comes to see them, to express the church’s ongoing care and concern. Sometimes—oftentimes—visits from lay people can accomplish the same message even better. We often just chit-chat, catching up on news from the church family. We pray, but we don’t talk about the deepest things of the heart.

Until we do talk about those things. And then things get very profound, very fast. Although I always try to invite those deeper conversations, it still catches me off guard when people venture there. I am surprised by how much people yearn to unburden their hearts to me. They move swiftly sometimes from chatting about the weather to disclosing deep secrets of their past. We visit five, ten, 20 times and tell the same pleasant stories, until the one time I come and they open up about the guilt and self-doubt they harbor, the questions they have about God and salvation, the fears and anguish they bear for themselves or members of their family.

I become a secret-keeper, a holder of stories, a bearer of burdens. I hear stories that break my heart, things I can never forget, sadness that cannot be overcome. Long after the teller of the story has died, I remember.  On the next visit, when we return to talking about the latest church social or who’s been in the hospital lately, I wonder if they will want to talk about it again. Always, I pray, and through those prayers I try to surround us with comfort and forgiveness and hope, to release the story to God’s hands.

I am honored by these confidences, even though sometimes they can feel overwhelming. I am humbled by the trust people place in me, even when it leaves me emotional and exhausted. Most of all, I am grateful that God knows too. I do not carry these stories alone, and it is not upon my shoulders to provide the healing, forgiveness, hope and courage they require. All I have to do is show up every few weeks, ready to talk and to listen about whatever—just as prepared to talk about whatever has been going on, whatever the weather is, and whatever matters most, whatever the Spirit summons. And trust that whatever happens, it matters.

Take This Bread: A Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First Century Christian by Sara Miles, 2007, Ballantine Books, 294 pp.

This book was so rich and full it is hard to describe. The pink pen I was using to make notes and stars and underlines seemed to bleed across every page. Sara Miles is a beautiful writer with a powerful story and a profound witness of faith to share.

Take this Bread is a spiritual memoir centered around the experience of feeding and being fed and developing a theology of the Body of Christ. Miles’ story begins with an atheist childhood and early adulthood spent as a reporter covering left-wing radical revolutionaries, who shared whatever scant food they had with her. The turning point comes one day when she stumbles into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. She receives her first communion there, unprepared and uneducated, and finds her life transformed by the sacramental experience. She experiences a mystical encounter with Christ’s body in the bread and in her connection with the bodies of those around her. With joy and trepidation, she launches on a quest to understand this experience and share it with others. This pursuit leads her to found a food pantry at St. Gregory’s, and then more pantries across the city.

Take this Bread is her interpretation of those experiences as a journey of hunger and its satisfaction, and the deep connection between the hunger of the body for food, the hunger of the soul for God and the hunger of the creature for community. Miles makes a passionate argument, grounded in mystical experience and biblical theology, that our mortal bodies matter, that the Body of Christ is all about our bodies connecting with other bodies we might not choose to know or love, and that God blesses all of it when the hungry are fed.

This summary does not do justice to the beauty and passion of her writing. Here are a few of my favorite passages:

From her war reporting years:

What I learned in those moments of danger and grief informs what I now call my Christianity. It was a feeling of total community with others, whether or not I was like them, through the common fact of our mortal bodies. We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed; we all had hearts that could stop beating in an instant. In war, I looked at other, different people and saw them, face-to-face—and in seeing them, felt a we. (p. 39)

From her first communion at St. Gregory’s:

There was an invitation to jump in rather than official entrance requirements. There was the suggestion that God could be located in experience, sensed through bodies, tasted in food; that my body was connected literally and mysteriously to other bodies and loved without reason. (p. 64)

From her experiences at the food pantry:

This was where I found my faith: a faith expressed in the wild conceit that a helpless, low-caste baby could be God. That ugly, contaminated and unimportant people embodied holiness. That my own neediness and misfitting, not my goodness or piety, were what God intended to use. … The kingdom was the same old earth, populated by the same clueless humans, transformed wherever you could glimpse God shining through it. (p. 222)

Throughout the course of her memoir, Miles talks about sacraments beyond communion (baptism, anointing, marriage), about her disappointment with the imperfection and rigidness of the church, about the various people she comes to know through the food pantry, about family tensions and forgiveness. Take this Bread is a treasure trove for preachers, an affirmation of social justice and social service Christianity, a witness to the mystical power of the sacraments, a moving spiritual autobiography and a bold theology of the Body of Christ. I can’t say enough to describe it, and I can’t recommend it to you highly enough. As Anne Lamott is quoted on the cover, this is “the most amazing book.”

 

B celebrated his first Communion today, a few weeks shy of his third birthday. We were visiting a parishioner in a nursing home, taking communion for Christmas. As I was setting it up, he got very inquisitive about what I was doing, and he said, “I want to have communion too!” That was enough to make me say yes.

As a child, my parents decided that we should not take communion until after our confirmation, usually around age 12. Because everyone in my home church went forward to kneel at the altar to commune, I remember feeling conspicuous, excluded and isolated sitting alone in the pew. I remember being angry that people thought I wasn’t old enough to understand, and a sense of righteous indignation that anyone would try to deny me access to Jesus’ own body and blood. Clearly, I understood what communion was all about–I should have been able to partake. This experience has given me a passionate commitment to the openness of the communion table to this day. Christ invited everyone to partake at the table–no one should be denied access to Christ’s table, for any reason.

In reaction, I decided I would never deny B the chance to come to Christ’s table. I also decided that I would not ever allow him to participate without some explanation of what we were doing. This is not “snack time.” Since we will be serving communion at the family-oriented Christmas Eve service, I figured that would be his first time. I had planned to spend some time explaining it in advance. But today he asked to be a part of Christ’s table, and I could not deny him. Prepared or not, today was the day, this nursing home room was the place.

As I filled the tiny cups and stacked the silver platter with wafers, I explained to him that this was very special juice and bread–that we didn’t eat until we heard the story, and that the story was about Jesus. This bread and cup help us remember the story about Jesus. Then I proceeded to perform the short liturgy for home communion. B listened carefully throughout, and paid attention appropriately. He was probably more attentive than the resident we were visiting!

When the time came to serve, I served my parishioner first, then broke my piece in half and gave some to B. He held it until I said, “take and eat,” and he took and ate. I had to tell him to wait, not to grab the tiny cup of juice that was so tempting, but he waited patiently while I served her and took a sip myself before giving him the rest. Then he drank, and sweetly collected the cups and carried them to the trash.

Oh, the life of a preacher’s kid! What an odd collection of spiritual milestones he will have!

Who knows if he will remember this, but it was a special moment for me, to include him in this holy sacrament, to bring him into the circle of Christ’s family table. I pray it will be the first of many, many tastes of the bread and cup, and that he will always feel welcome at the table.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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