An Essay by Larry Patten
Picture an immense cathedral. Add a congregation, listening to the somber words of preparation for communion. But no fresh bread or those grim processed wafers. No fancy chalice with wine. And so, moments before my first communion as a minister, I yelled out, “Who has bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything!”
I was newly ordinated and had moved to a new town and one-year job as a student intern pastor. The youth group immediately roped me into becoming the token adult leader on their annual backpack. We would venture into Yosemite’s wilderness, a granite cathedral of wind-scoured peaks, alpine meadows, vast blue sky, and nights ablaze with stars.
The kids seemed to be a collection of high school stereotypes: the cheerleader, the jock, the brain, the quiet guy, the shy girl. There was also the teen who sleepwalked and the boy who wouldn’t eat unless he caught his own fish and the girl who refused to do her business in the woods because the dirt in which she had to dig a hole looked, well, dirty.
Along the up-and-down trail, their bickering became support for each other to take another step. During the night, they snored. In the dawn, they grumbled about the early morning cold and critiqued the food. By the final night, several youths wondered about serving communion. Why not? Weary and carrying an assortment of blisters, sore feet, and aching muscles, we had survived. Thrived, even. Most of the archetypes had transfigured, gone the way that an afternoon mountain storm thunders through and leaves a clear, bright sky. The jock and the brain bonded. The shy kid spoke. The cheerleader let others talk.
Did I have bread? No.
Did I have grape juice or wine? No again.
Had I brought my new, blessed-by-the-bishop Book of Worship with its proper words for celebrating Holy Communion? No times three.
And yet, my question—Who has bread? Crackers? Chips? Anything!—was immediately answered. After a week-long trek of freeze-dried food, Gorp, and beef jerky, one kid still had oyster crackers. She offered a plastic bag full of the oval morsels. Ah, the bread of life! Plop ‘em in hot soup; they don’t sink, they swim! Even if the box gets shuffled to the back of the pantry, oyster crackers remain edible—crunchy even after being stuffed in a backpack for days and miles.
That took care of one of the elements. As for the cup, it was filled with water from a meandering creek. Humans are 70% water, give or take a percentage point. As we slog around this good earth—headed for school or work, or over a mountain pass—water is what we need the most. Drawn from a bubbling brook nearby, it can taste better than the finest wine.
I don’t remember the words I said, but I recall the kids’ faces. They grinned. They cried. They held hands. They knew they mattered. They knew the person beside and across from them mattered. They shared and received those crackers, drank from that cup.
Now retired, I have preached thousands of sermons, taught thousands of Bible study classes. I’ve forgotten most of the communions I led as a pastor in various churches, but not that first one where I blessed and then gave the living bread of oyster crackers accompanied by sweet water born of mountain snow. All of us gathered shoulder to shoulder, around a campfire, in a granite cathedral, nourished by the bounty of God’s mysteries.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor who lives in Fresno, California. He worked with churches, campus ministry, and hospices during his ministry. Patten’s writing has appears in publications such as Spirituality & Health and The Good Men Project. His book, A Companion for the Hospice Journey, was published in 2019.