We Need Twelve Hugs A Day and Communion

The dinner table has been on my mind lately, even more than usual. Gathering at the table is important to me. Family dinners are some of my favorite memories; both as a child and a parent. Our family dinners have shrunk in size from 11 to 4 over the last few months as our three adult children and their families have left to find their fortunes in the bigger-than-Abilene world. Ironically, we have become more intentional in the planning and executing of family dinners now. We want to make sure we are all there, if at all possible, or the long table feels even longer. And emptier. Also, it is actually possible to satisfy all of the four remaining Mendenhalls, even with our varied tastes, but it has required surprisingly more work. So, I have been thinking about the magic of eating together.

I was especially thinking about that magic a few Sundays ago.

I was raised in the Churches of Christ, and my early experiences with communion or the Lord’s Supper are mostly associated with the traditions of that group. For the most part, it was done as quickly and as quietly as possible. Various men served from the table, whether from the front or back, and passed trays of bread and tiny cups of grape juice systematically throughout the rows of the church building. Occasionally songs were sung during the passing of the meal, but for the most part it was silent. You were to quietly bow your head and reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus, or read the words to a song or scripture that would guide your thoughts in that direction. It seemed nothing like the Last Supper from which we derived our practice, where there was eating and talking and communion with one another. That has always been puzzling to me.

Since then, I have participated in the celebration of the Eucharist in a number of ways:

• Even more solemnly within the breathtakingly beautiful stained glass windows of a local Episcopal church at the altar from the hands of the priest.

• In a moving sunrise service from the always gentle hands of my dear friend, Amy, an ordained Methodist pastor.

• On mountaintop ladies retreats singing, “How Beautiful” to one another as we ate.

• In small house churches passing the emblems to one another accompanied by words of affirmation for each other.

I have been moved on a number of occasions while gathered with folks at the Lord’s table in the celebration of this feast recalling the example of love in the life and death of Jesus. Only recently, though, have I understood communion.

On Sunday mornings these days, I find myself at the nursing center in my neighborhood, participating in a worship service there hosted by a local Church of Christ. One of the residents who is wheeled in to attend is a former nursing school teacher who was present 30 years ago during my very short tenure as a nursing student. All of the teachers back then were tough because it was a new school, and I was intimidated by all of them—at least initially. I came to think of Dr. Shirley Morrison as funny and fiery and even a bit quirky. Listening to her stories 30 years later assures me that my memory, though fuzzy, is FullSizeRenderaccurate. It was a treat to be reunited with her. Thirty years has turned her flash of red hair white, but there is still a hint of the fire in her eyes. Her hands that once delivered babies of famous country singers and guided student nurses through the rigors of head-to-toe exams are affected now by tremors. The legs that danced their way into the finals of numerous competitions are motionless under the crocheted lap robe. Her sharp mind and wit are still there, but are beginning to show signs of fading some days. She holds fast to the nurses’ study that proclaims 12 hugs are necessary for health and happiness, and continues to contribute to her beloved medical profession, doling out hugs and hug coupons daily.

She waits anxiously for me to arrive. Her songbook is open to page 417, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, in hopes the leader will remember it is her favorite and sing it. If not, she will most likely shout a gentle reminder his way. She gives me hug one or maybe even hug two and clasps my hand in hers as we begin the service. I can feel it trembling beneath mine as we sing and pray.

Things have changed in the last 30 years, though. When the communion trays are passed, I take a large piece of cracker, break it and place half in my mouth and the other half in hers, bypassing her shaking hands. She thanks me, and when she has swallowed asks me how I am doing, and how my family is doing. Her ears are also 30 years older, so this cannot be a quiet conversation. When the tray of small cups is passed, I take two. I raise mine to my lips and then the second to hers. (This part was tricky at first. Too fast and she would get choked. Too slow and it was awkward for both of us.) Again, she thanks me with a sweet smile and continues to ask about my life. At first, I was uncomfortable, worried about disrupting the service. I squirmed and looked around apologetically at the worship leaders. I was surprised how ingrained in my head was this pattern of quietness and solemnness.

Maybe she doesn’t remember we are supposed to be quietly reflecting now.

Or maybe, after such an intimate act, continuing this communion with me seems the most appropriate response. I have stopped squirming, and I look forward to sharing with her a snippet about my week and my family, and hearing about her week. She may need my help to eat at the table, but I still need her help to commune there.

Wherever you are gathered around the table this week, I hope you have the chance to experience the magic of communion.