Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I am the Bread of Life

I realized this morning that my post for yesterday ended up posting below the post for Wednesday. If you are looking for it, scroll down and you can find it. It's called "Boneless Chicken and Other Mysteries". It's all about communion wafers.


I have few more things to say about different elements of our communion rite, but I thought today I would try to share a story that I've been wanting to share for about 10 years now. I fear it's one of those "you had to be there"s, which is why I've never really been able to share it. But recently I jumped into presiding at a Mass at kind of the last minute and the Gospel was John 6 where Jesus says "I am the bread of life", and as I was praying this was the story that came to mind. And I thought, well maybe, finally, I can tell this.

When I was studying theology in Cambridge, Mass., for a ministry I used to visit with homeless kids who hung out around the T-Stop in Harvard Square. They called themselves "pit rats". In part they were playing on the fact that if you say still and paid attention around the subway stop, you'd see these tiny mice darting around from crevice to crevice.

And in part I think their name referenced their location and their sense of self. The area around the T stop where they hung out was recessed -- it was quite literally a little pit.

On weekend nights local acts will often perform at the Pit.

And these kids were a crazy melange of goth, punk, emo, wicca and everything else. Lots of eyeliner, pointy objects and tats. Many people believed most of them were not homeless, but suburban kids slumming it -- I think because the kids were white, quite frankly. But the kids I met were living on the street, many of them doing drugs of one kind or another and probably some petty crimes, too.

Some of the "Pit Rats" hanging out.

There was no established Catholic ministry with these kids that I knew of. And I didn't try to really build one either. I'd just go down and hang out with them on a Sunday night, see how things were going. No strings, no obligations. It always took a little extra effort to get myself there, because it was so unstructured and unpredictable, but I loved it. those sorts of on the margins places are where a lot of things about being Catholic make the most sense to me.

So, after I had been around a while, one of the kids mentioned that there was a homeless Mass every Sunday afternoon on Boston Commons, at the fountain just past the Park Street T-stop. Did many of the kids go, I asked. She rolled her eyes. What was I, kidding? But it sounded interesting, so at some point I went down to check it out.

The Mass, known as "Common Cathedral", was part of a broad outreach to homeless people run by the Episcopal Church known as Ecclesia Ministries. Its founder was Deb Little, an extremely and good-hearted priest of the Episcopal Church who had convinced her bishop to allow this to be her full time ministry. The homeless community she worked with was in fact her parish. They used space at a nearby church for lots of programs, like art classes and film nights and work training, and that area of the Common was their worshipping space. It was an extremely unorthodox idea, but it perfectly fit her community. They lived outdoors, and therefore so did they worship.

The Episcopal service is very similar in form to the Catholic. In fact there weren't many things structurally that seemed different at the homeless service other than that they put the announcements between the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The community consisted of a wide variety of homeless people or people who had been on the street, who sort of and went and came and went as the service went on, and then a wide variety of church groups or individuals who came either to pray with this community, or came to help distribute food afterwards. Every service ended with a lunch in which all were welcome to come and get a meal. (On many occasions I did this and was mistaken for someone newly on the street.)

People worshipping at Common Cathedral.

What made it radically different from any other liturgy I had been at was that it was outside in the middle of this active urban area, as you can sort of tell from the photo above. Cars whizzed by, tourists and others passed through (wondering what was going on). And as I said, the homeless men and women often sort of wandered around. And also spoke up when they felt like it; at the time for the homily, Deb would usually have some very short and strong points to make. But she always invited anyone else to speak as well. So, you could suddenly find yourself listening to someone sort of rambling on and on, followed by a testimonial about getting sober, followed by someone asking Deb when the food was going to be served. It was all on tap. And the petitions went the same way -- Deb led, but everyone had an opportunity to share a prayer.

Rev. Deb Little.

It was all sort of chaotic, and yet there was an underlying sense of respect for the moment, and so it never got out of control. And oftentimes someone, even in the very midst of an incoherent ramble, would say the one thing that stayed with me for the week. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but in its own quirky way, it's probably the best worshipping community I've ever been a part of. It was a place where anyone could come and simply be who they are.

All of this is by way of preface. (And by the way, if you're interested in Ecclesia Ministries, they're still going strong every Sunday, in Boston and a lot of other places. Here's a link to their great work.)

The community had its own choir and musicians, consisting of homeless people, formerly homeless people and others. It was never a big group, just 5 or 6 people, but there was always this one guy playing guitar, another guy singing his heart out, and a couple others. And every Sunday during communion, they began with Suzanne Toolan's "I am the Bread of Life." Do you know this song? I can't say it had ever been my favorite. In fact, it generally fell in that vast bin of post-Vatican II music that I considered, well, dreadful. Kitschy, cloying, insubstantial. Save us, O Lord, save us.

But sometimes the difference between kitsch and truth is very small adjustments. Like tempo: most times I've heard Toolan's song, it's paced very slow. It's a lumpy, heavy mess. Musical oatmeal.

Good for cholesterol. Bad for prayer.

But at this Mass, they took it a lot more briskly. And it turns out at that pace it has a nice energy to it. It just sort of bounces right along and becomes one of those songs you just want to sing.

So we're singing the first verse of the song, and I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying it, when they get to the refrain. The lyrics are really really simple: And I will ra-ise you up, And I will ra-ise you up, And I will ra-ise you u-up, on the la-ast day. The key is the "raise" -- each time the word is broken up into two notes, with the second one fittingly going a little higher. And the last time, as you see from my annotations, it's not just "raise" that goes up but the "up" and the "last". It's a nice big finish.

All well and good. The thing is, when those guys sang that refrain, they weren't just singing the words. There was a way in which they meant them. Or no, not meant them -- they weren't evangelizing us, weren't pitching us that this is true. How else can I put it? (This is the you had to be there part.) Listening to them, it felt like they believed what they were saying in a personal way; like what they sang came out of some sort of lived experience that yeah, this is how it works. We live our lives, and he raises us up in the end. If I had questioned them on this, asked them, do you really believe he will raise us up, I have no doubt their answer would have amounted to, well...

There are few groups for whom such a ready acceptance of the resurrection would make less sense. These were people who had nothing -- not even their right minds, in some cases. People who were living on the street, who were using, who were off the street but still had a lot of wounds to show for it, as well as those who had moved on to something more resurrection-y. And here they were, all together, basically giving me a taste of that resurrection bread of life.

How did they come by that ready acceptance? How was it that on some deep, unconscious level, this whole bread of life thing made perfect sense? It certainly didn't to those around Jesus. The story in John 6 where he says this ends with a lot of his disciples leaving him.

When I look at my own life, I can't say I'm living most days out of that sort of trust. It might be that if I'd let him God would take care of everything for me. But most days I'm still trying to do it myself.

But after hearing that group sing that song, with so much easy joy and laughter in their voices, I certainly have a sense of what that feels like, and I know in a new way what I want.

A Common Cathedral cross.

1 comment:

Michael Gormley said...

What is required in order to have Jesus ABIDE in us and we in Him?

Can we do it:

1. By accepting Him as our our own personal Lord and Savior ?
No. Where does the Bible say that?

2. By the grace of GOD only? Sola Gracias?
No. Where does the Bible say that?

3. By faith in GOD alone? Sola Fides?
No. Where does the Bible say that?

It is simple common sense that since He commanded that we must do something, then doesn't it stand to reason that He would also tell us how to do it?

Jesus was very clear in what we must do in order to have Him ABIDE in us and we in Him.

Jesus left this command for us in John 6:53-57:

53 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (the taken away branch);

54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.


57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me."