The Varieties of Communion Experience

Toccata & Fugue in F    D. Buxtehude (1638-1707)

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Extemporization

In my early twenties I was a ‘professional organ substitute’ for a couple years all over the Los Angeles area. One Sunday I might substitute at a rolling-in-the-aisles Pentecostal church, and the next at a Roman Catholic High Mass. It was a fun challenge, and definitely broadened my horizons. Communion is a cornerstone of Christian worship, and being the substitute organist in so many different kinds of churches gave me a first hand view of the enormous variety of approaches. In part this is because the ‘blueprint’ for communion in Scripture isn’t detailed at all: “Take this bread, take this cup, do this in remembrance of Me.” That’s about it.

Personally, I like to think that the same God who made 400 varieties of just parrots (“ooo, purple wings with an orange head for this one — wait wait green and pink wings with a florescent blue head for this one!”) also enjoys seeing the enormous variety of our approaches to communion.

One of the more unusual and moving communions I experienced was one I attended just as participant, not as a musician. It was a congregation of followers of ‘Watchman Nee’ (1903-1972), who was something of a Christian mystic ministering in Communist China (and 20 years in prison for his troubles). This loose-knit congregation met on Thursday nights in a school cafeteria, and their understanding of communion was that it was simply a meal that the congregation shared on a weekly basis — to remember being His Body. It was a big boisterous pot luck, everyone sitting at those long cafeteria tables, with kids running around and everyone having a great time. Then, after the meal, they got out their ‘song book’, in which they had taken well known tunes (e.g. Budweiser & Coca-Cola jingles, and TV theme songs like the ‘Flintstones’) and set them to Christian words. (And Luther ’repurposed’ bar-room songs into hymns.) It was quite a shock, and ultimately not my cup of tea, but the congregation sang their ‘hymns’ with an enthusiasm that was just thrilling. And later, when I heard any of these jingles on the radio or TV, their Christian lyrics came to mind. Hmm, maybe they were on to something!