Once, my life was made of bread. I was the pastor of a “dinner church” where our worship took the form of a meal we cooked and ate together. Our church was filled not with pews, but with tables. Not with the heady smell of incense, but onions softening in olive oil and rosemary as the bread warmed in the oven.
For eight years, the same song was on my lips every Sunday: an ancient prayer that marked this meal as holy. I was the founder of this small church, and, three years ago, it became clear my job was complete. The fledgling congregation was ready to fly on its own, and I stepped away from my role as pastor. The grief was so potent, I could find only one course: I ran away. I scraped together some cash, sublet my apartment and left town in a 1994 Dodge camper van.
On the road driving West, I belonged to no one. Detached from the rhythm of Sunday night supper, I was untethered, and often forgot what day of the week it was. When I discovered it was Sunday, the songs of my congregation rose in my heart. On the wind, I thought I could detect a hint of rosemary.
Lately, I’ve been reminded of that half-year of journeying. The coronavirus pandemic has plunged our world into global grief, tinged with fear and longing. The routines that once gave structure to our lives have drifted away. In this strange new land, it’s easy, as it was for me on the open road, to forget what day it is.
For Christians for whom the Eucharist is central, this is a startling loss. Relegated to worshiping online, denominations have been flummoxed by the question of whether communion can be celebrated via the internet.
Priests and pastors across the church have been grasping for metaphors to help us make sense of this time away from the table, and one another. Some have framed it as a fast from communion. Others have struck upon the metaphor of the wilderness: an arid, unforgiving desert traveled by the Israelites for forty years. We haven’t been quarantining for 40 years, but at least in the wilderness, the Israelites had one another.
I’ve been drawn to a different metaphor. Jesus gathered people (especially around tables), but he also scattered them. Early in the Gospels, Jesus sent his newly recruited disciples out to heal and cast out demons. They didn’t have much in the way of supplies, and in two accounts, they’re sent not in pairs, but entirely alone.
Start looking, and you’ll see roads all over the Bible. These solitary travelers journeyed in situations of great uncertainty, much like our own. Their destinations may have been clear, but their futures were less so. Somewhere along the way, however, they always encountered something unexpected: the astonishing presence of the sacred.
Jacob, for instance, ended up in a wrestling match with God as he journeyed. A court official of the Ethiopian queen is baptized by the side of a thoroughfare. Two disciples trudging along a dusty byway, having heard the news of Jesus’ death, find that he was walking with them all along. And Paul hears God’s voice and ends up blind on the way to Damascus.
A road is an unlikely metaphor for a pandemic that has us stuck at home. But what happens when we see ourselves as purposefully scattered — sent out on an unexpected journey, traveling solo? In the bible, the road is often a place of desolation and isolation, but also of encounter. A road has direction; it carries us from an old life to a new one.
Perhaps there’s something about being jolted away from our rituals and routines for a time that helps us see their value in new ways. We never planned to walk this path, but it’s given us a shock of clarity. At once, we are suddenly unemployed, attempting to both parent and work full time, hesitating about next year’s college plans, or fearful of illness.
Instead of clamoring to go “back,” we can turn, and face into a future that is uncertain, but rife with possibilities to build a world that is more compassionate. There are others on the road ahead of us: the protesters who’ve flooded our streets, risking their health to call for a nation free of racist brutality. They can see a new world.
The church, too, can head out on the road. Our buildings may be locked tight, but the world beckons, aching with need for justice and restoration. What if we are not barred from the meal we long for, but simply turned toward the table’s counterbalance?
On the road, I eschewed church for a time, but communion found me anyway.
Stranded in the middle of Nebraska when my van (predictably) broke down, a kind Lutheran pastor took me out to a diner. Over eggs and toast, he told me stories of the refugees and immigrants who worked at the meat packing plant in town. At the Whistle Stop Café in Montana, I sat next to Norma, celebrating her 84th birthday over burgers. And in the California desert I was invited to the sturdy table of an almond farmer, where big bowls of home-cooked veggies were pressed on me with generosity fit for the prodigal son.
In Erie, Pennsylvania, I rolled into a campsite and backed my van up to the edge of the great lake, surrounded by Harley-Davidsons. I shared a beer with a biker who had one thing to tell me about my trip: Don’t plan a thing.
“Because all my plans will fall apart?” I asked.
“Not only that,” he answered, “but because when you don’t plan, things will happen you wouldn’t believe.” He winked, his bristle of mustache rising mischievously as he smiled.
During this pandemic, I can’t depend on communion each Sunday as I used to. But there will still be bread. Here, on the road, between the old life and a new one, we have the opportunity to be remade. Who will we choose to become?