Entries in Ritual (3)
Matilda found a fancy dress in the dumpster and wore it to communion. The dress was torn along the zipper in the back, and had the odor of Chinese carry-out, which must have been somewhere nearby in the dumpster, but it was the only dress Matilda could afford. Out of gratitude to Jesus she wanted to look her best.
Everyone in our little church had watched the odd-looking Bag Lady who walked the streets undergo an amazing transformation from societal cast-away to daughter of the Most High. We needed to repent because Matilda was a non-person we saw everyday. Some people had given her the nickname Whispering Jane because she muttered words beneath her breath constantly. When a college kid took the unusual step of buying Matilda lunch at the Elvis Cafe the dominoes began to fall: Matilda became a person again, with a real name, and in just a few weeks of she became a Christian.
The transformation was remarkable. At first Matilda continued to live on the streets and attend our church. That’s when she dressed up for communion. In following months she beat alcoholism and moved into a halfway house near the church. At first we gave her plenty of space at church. Parents steered their kids away. Most adults didn’t try to connect because after all--what do you say to a Bag Lady with dirty clothes and crazy hair? But we watched her become another person: cleaner, saner, safer, approachable, and--well--more like us. And always, when the church celebrated communion Matilda looked for ways to look her best. Her best kept getting better.
“Jesus cleaned me on the inside,” she would say. “It’s the least I can do to spruce up the outside.”
Months turned into years, and the transformation continued. Her change was quiet but constant. Matilda became the kind of person who could hold a job. The halfway house gave way to an apartment of her own, and eventually that same woman who used to push a shopping cart on the city streets bought a used car. She was more like us than ever. Everyone at church knew her now. She was easy to talk to. And always, on communion days, she dressed up. You could count on it: the cleaner she became, the more spectacular her Eucharist dress.
Still, we had to put up with some odd behavior from time to time. I came forward for one communion-day in jeans and a T shirt. “Honestly? That’s the best you’ve got?” was all she said as I returned to my seat from the altar. I wasn’t even sure she said it to me until next week’s church newsletter included a submission from Mattie (everyone started calling her that after she got a stylish haircut and blonde highlights). The newsletter piece ended with:
“If God has washed away your sin then you can do something special for Him on Sunday. Leave the blue-jeans at home and tell Him thanks by looking good. I think everyone has more to give, don’t you?”
Everyone still counted Mattie as our church’s success story, even if it was years ago. If she wanted to exhort us to all do a little better, what’s wrong with that? Look how far she had come. Between the chatty, conversational style of her writing and the fact that no one ever reads or edits the church newsletter, who wouldn’t give her grace to indulge her convictions?
Eventually Mattie organized a communion ministry team. She talked the pastor into serving communion once a month instead of once a quarter. He would still serve the elements, but the ministry team came in early to decorate the place, and practice special music, and distribute a pamphlet Mattie wrote about why communion is the “Passover of the New Testament,” and how we should all take God’s word seriously and observe the traditions handed down from the time of Moses. Mattie’s Communion Ministry Team baked the communion bread according to the standards in Exodus. Everyone in the church got an email the Thursday before Communion Sunday, with suggestions of how we can color-coordinate with the sanctuary decorations, so the entire church can “become an acceptable sacrifice to God.”
Mattie’s gratitude for God’s grace had welled up into an entire ministry of “Give Thanks: Give Your Best.©” She copyrighted the phrase and began speaking at other churches. Eventually she hit the Christian-ministry big time. After guest-spots on two Christian TV networks, Mattie relocated her ministry to Nashville and said good-bye to our church. We all wished her well.
In the months after she left the Communion Ministry Team became less enthusiastic and eventually quit meeting. We still got the Thursday emails because Mattie took the email list with her to Nashville--the graphic design was amazing, and her email list swelled to 50,000.
Our little church went back to serving communion once a quarter, and people went back to blue jeans and T-shirts.
Saturday mornings around here means pancakes. Mom gets to sleep in while my seven year-old daughter and I play “Top Chef.” Some folks think rituals have to be religious. I think they have to be smothered in butter and syrup. The ritual is Daddy-Daughter time, the altar is the kitchen counter, and I will not make the obligatory joke about burnt offerings--we are too good for that.
Even among the irenic hills of Kentucky everyday events threaten to steal time from the things we treasure most. I treasure time with my family, I treasure quiet mornings, and I treasure pancakes.
We are not particularly creative: my cooking skills extend to reading and following the directions on the box, even though they never change. Her skills extend to mixing the powder and water so carefully measured out by her Dad. Neither are we brave: simple pancakes will do, thank you, without the addition of berries, bananas or yuppie toppings. There was that one morning where we experimented with something other than syrup: whipped cream, honey, chocolate syrup and whatever that green stuff was. But we have promised never to speak of that morning again.
No. The beauty of Saturday morning pancakes is their dependability. Children need ritual and predictability. Grown-ups do, too. Sundays we do church, and there are plenty of rituals there as well, but we need holiness at home--holy without the trappings religious traditions, even when you love the traditions of your faith. I can reliably report that Jesus loves pancakes just as much as we do. The word holy means simply, set apart, and Saturday mornings are set apart for Katie, me, and some guy named Hungry Jack.