Fumbling the Bread of Life

When you go to a new place you hope that the new people will think you are smarter than you are—or at least smarter than the people at the old place think you are. Moving is a chance to leave behind every time you dropped something you needed to hold on to, tripped over your shoestrings, or forgot what you were supposed to remember.

Carol and I recently began serving as interim ministers at Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, more than 4,000 miles from any of our old places. This international, interdenominational congregation is made up of gracious Christians who have never been to a Baptist church—or even wanted to!

I went to worship the first Sunday hoping that our new congregation will think that I am smarter than I really am. I was concerned about the details of the Lord’s Supper in this Anglican/Presbyterian/Methodist/just-about-everything-but-Baptist church. After the sermon (which they keep telling me is shorter in Chile) the minister walks to the front, receives the offering plates, holds up the money, says a prayer, calls for the passing of the peace, walks to the table, leads the Great Thanksgiving, recites the words of institution, eats the bread, drinks the wine that is not Welch’s, moves along the railing sharing the bread, circles the choir, along the rail, and around the choir several more times. I did almost none of this when I was pastor of Mother Neff Baptist Church in Moody, Texas.

The service is going as planned. I receive the offering (pesos weigh more than you think) and the congregation willingly passes the peace. But when it comes time to share the bread, I walk towards the railing, stumble just a little, and fumble several pieces of the body of Christ. If this was a Roman Catholic congregation I would have been on the next plane back to Georgia.

I kneel to pick up the bread of life and hide those pieces under my thumb. I stand and say, “This is the body of Christ,” and hear the sacred response, “Your shoe is untied.” This is not what I expect, but it is accurate and explains why communion wafers have hit the floor. I kneel on the other side of the choir to tie my shoe, a skill that most master as a child.

Then I remember that I was supposed to take communion first. I am now the loser with his shoe untied who dropped the bread and took communion at the wrong time. I wanted them to think of me as the kind of minister who keeps his shoes tied, holds on to the body of Christ, and takes communion at the right time, but that is not going to happen.

Most of us want the people at church to think we are better than we are. We would like to be admired, but communion is for people who are not always impressive. The Lord’s Supper does not depend on us doing it perfectly, because communion is about the forgiveness God gives in the bread of life and cup of grace.

One of the requirements for coming to the table is admitting that we are not as smart as we wish. We are part of the church because we are imperfect. Christ’s table is for those who need a place to go when they do something wrong. We tell a seemingly insignificant lie that threatens to poison everything. We speak a careless word that haunts us. We betray someone we love. We wish our mistakes would fade away, but they keep showing up to remind us that we are not all we hope to be.

We need the church because we need a place to go when we feel empty. We bend under the weight of unfulfilling routines. The glories of motherhood give way to baby-related chores that must be repeated with nauseating monotony. The subject we loved in college becomes a dull job we must keep to pay the bills. The retirement we looked forward to for twenty years shows up five years too late to be enjoyed the way a fifty-year-old imagines retirement.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that we will get it right, but that God loves us in spite of our foolish ways. The gospel is not “Be good, kind, and friendly.” The gospel is not “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The gospel is “We fumble the bread of life, and God loves us anyway.”

You and I need the Lord’s Supper because sometimes we trip. We drop things. We forget what we should have remembered. We need a place where we can join with others who, like us, need God’s grace.

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Meeting Children Who Have Never Sung “Deep and Wide”

When I was growing up in Mississippi we sang, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right.” We had to go so “the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright.” People all over the world were waiting for Southern Baptists to come so “Christ’s great kingdom shall come to earth.”

Missionaries went to distant lands (any country other than the United States) to encourage native women to wear shirts and pagan men not to eat missionaries. Their primary responsibility was to recite the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the foreigners in the sinners’ prayer—which must be in the Bible somewhere.

These superstars came back from the mission field to show slides on Sunday nights: “This is the market where we bought goat brains—which tastes better than it sounds.” “This is the stream in which we beat our clothes against the rock.” “This is the hut where the chief and his seven wives live.”

They told heartbreaking stories about children who have never made a Galilean village out of popsicle sticks! They have never sung “Zacchaeus was a wee little man!!” They do not know the motions to “Deep and Wide!!!”

We were the world’s only hope.

Carol and I finally made it to the mission field. We are 4700 miles from home serving a congregation with twenty nationalities and eighteen denominations. Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, does missions. The congregation cares for disabled adults and abandoned girls. The church includes people who would not find a place in many churches. Worship is sacred and joyful. Bible study is lively and thoughtful. And get this, our church in Chile has offering envelopes, but they don’t have a line on which to write your name. I am used to getting credit when I give money—and a tax break.

Carol and I attended a Catholic service in Spanish in a cathedral that was constructed in 1800 (before there were Southern Baptists). We didn’t understand everything, but we recognized “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”—which was not written by a Baptist—Estad por Cristo firmes. We recited the Nicene Creed—written 1300 years before Baptists existed—Dios de Dios y Luz de Luz, Muy Dios de Muy Dios. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. We shared the Lord’s Supper, Este es el cuerpo de Cristo. Worship is filled with hope. The people are filled with Christ.

I was taught that we need to take Jesus to people who were not blessed by God to be born where we were born, but when I got here I learned they have been worshipping Christ for a long time. They are already following Jesus, many more closely than I am.

We interpret the Gospel through the lens of our environment. Churches make assumptions that are not shared by churches in other cultures. Sometimes the individualism in the United States leads to a “just me and Jesus” faith that neglects community. The Chilean people have an amazing commitment to friends and family.

Church functions for many in the United States as a break from their job. In the church I am serving, jobs function for many as a way to live out their faith.

When we tailor the Gospel to fit our desires we end up with a partial gospel. Chileans can’t understand how a “Christian” country could sell handguns at WalMart, a wealthy “Christian” country could allow so many to be homeless, a “Christian” country could support capital punishment, or spend more than half of its discretionary government funding on military purposes.

Maybe sharing the Gospel is just that– sharing the Gospel—exploring the Gospel that is bigger than any country. I will go home to Atlanta with a bigger vision of God and a greater concern for the world. We have a story to tell to the nations, but the nations have a lot of stories we need to hear. We cannot take God anywhere without discovering that God was there long before we arrived. Missions is the opportunity to listen, learn, and share “the kingdom of love and light.”

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