In case you didn’t know, last month I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination. As part of my reflection on that singular event, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many events and people which have made up my calling to this point. I hope in posts to come, to share some of these events/people with you.
One person is Henry (name changed to protect anonymity). I wasn’t too long in ordained ministry before I got a call from Henry, or should I say, his wife. She told me he was in the hospital and requested that I come visit him. Since he hadn’t been to worship in the few months I had been at my new congregation, I asked some of my parishioners about him before I went to see him (the novice trying to be prepared). They described him as a bit “off,” and that he never came to worship. I didn’t have much to go on. When I walked in the hospital room I met an older small and frail looking man. He was awkward in conversation, but I quickly recognized that as shyness. As an introvert myself, I’m generally pretty good at distinguishing shyness from aloofness.
The next time I visited with him I brought him communion, and the conversation came a bit easier. I discovered what his fellow parishioners meant by “off.” Conversation may have been easier, but it was definitely different. Henry was very focused on Scripture. Most people I visit in the hospital even now aren’t as concerned about Bible passages as they are about prayer. Some don’t want Scripture or prayer, they just want someone to listen to their concerns and “hold them,” almost as a confession. But not Henry, he wanted to talk to me about Scripture. We had a good conversation.
Then he was released from the hospital to home. I set up a time to visit him there and arrived Bible in hand, prepared for questions and/or curiousities. He lived in a very small house – older and a bit run down. I introduced myself to his wife, who was not a member of the congregation – she too was like her husband and their home – small, older and a bit run down. She showed me to their room, where Henry was sitting up in bed. After some conversation, Henry stopped and said, “Pastor, I’d like to have communion now.” This caught me by surprise – very much by surprise.
My first congregation was not what you would call “sacramental.” They most certainly believed in the sacraments (for Lutherans that’s Baptism and Communion), but they didn’t feel especially tied to Holy Communion. My parish’s community was heavily Roman Catholic, and among older members there was a tangible “anti-Catholic” feeling. I heard stories from these older folks about “anti-Protestant” bias when they were growing up. One man had children in his neighborhood who were not allowed to play with him because he wasn’t Catholic. It stung. So, as a result of the anti-Protestant bias, they developed an anti-Catholic bias. I first started hearing these stories when I suggested we begin celebrating Holy Communion weekly, instead of the twice a month practice that was in place when I arrived. The reaction was STRONG. Weekly communion was too Roman Catholic. I thought this was outrageous, but at that time, even as a young, green pastor, I knew it was more important to listen than dictate.
Since I had communed Henry earlier in the week, and given the “congregational psyche” on the sacrament, the thought that he would desire communion again so soon was not remotely in my mind. I was unprepared. No communion kit. I apologized profusely and felt quite embarrassed at being caught “off guard.” But then I had a thought (I like to believe it was the Holy Spirit). “Henry, do you have bread in the house?” “How about wine?” “No? Hmm… how about grape juice?” So his wife and I gathered a slice of sandwich bread and a cup of grape juice from the kitchen, brought them to his room, and Henry and I had communion together.
Henry and I would visit several more times. A few months after that first hospital visit he died. But I still think of Henry often, and the lessons he taught me –
- Just because a person doesn’t come to worship doesn’t mean they aren’t faithful. Don’t get me wrong, worship is VERY important in our faith life, and people miss out immensely when they separate themselves from corporate worship. As a pastor, it’s never ok with me when people just don’t feel like going to church, or say they don’t get anything out of it. Those are lame excuses which would be a good topic for another post… but… even though Henry didn’t come to worship he was still immersing himself in Scripture and spending considerable time in prayer. I never got to discuss the reasons for his non-attendance at worship because he health declined so quickly. I’m curious, even all these years later, what those could have been.
- We don’t have to have the fancy “stuff” to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Yes, I knew this intellectually, but it was the first time I had to scrape together the elements needed (sliced white sandwich bread and Welch’s grape juice). We don’t need fancy patens or wafers or chalices for the Lord to be present. Those things are nice, because they show the level of respect and honor we hold for the sacrament, but they are not necessary.
- ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS bring my communion kit, whenever I visit anyone. I only forgot this ONCE in the 20 years since, and you know what happened? Yep. She asked for communion. I felt the same rush of shame as my face turned red in embarrassment, as I did with Henry. UNLIKE Henry, she didn’t have bread or wine or grape juice in the house. Thank goodness she lived two blocks from the church, so I ran out, then ran back, and we celebrated together. You never know what a person needs when you walk in their hospital room or home. The communion kit may go untouched, but at least it’s there if needed.