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Together at the Table
By Martha Johnson Bourlakas
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Martha Johnson Bourlakas
All rights reserved.
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Crumbs, coffee, sugar, bread, milk, mugs, chewing, slurping, singing, spilling, visiting, laughing, feasting. The Love Feast, a ritual meal based on the ancient Christian agape meal, occurs several times a year during Moravian worship. While the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, focuses on the relationship between God and humans, celebrating our redemption in Christ and Christ's presence in our lives, the Moravian Love Feast continues the Eucharistic blessing and celebration by connecting humans with each other so that for a few minutes, we may see Christ in each other — even the dirty, difficult other. The other who is spewing curse words. The other who is sitting in a wheelchair. The other who is crying. The other who is laughing. The other who is myself.
While the organist plays hymns, such as Morning Star, O Cheering Sight, for the choir and the congregation to sing, the Dieners, or corps of servers, distribute the sweet buns and coffee to everyone in the congregation. Made with mashed potatoes, flour, sugar, lemon juice, lemon and orange zests, the Love Feast bun is a cross between a sweet roll and a hamburger bun. The coffee, served in narrow white mugs, is about two-thirds sugar and milk. After everyone is served, all pray the Moravian grace: Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be /and bless these gifts bestowed by Thee. Amen. Following the blessing, the feasting begins. Everyone remains seated to avoid chaos, but it is a time for sharing food and conversation with your neighbor. A way to bring together the sacred of God with the earthly pleasures of humanity. A symbol of the bounteous hospitality of God and the infinite possibilities for our own hospitality toward others.
When I was fifteen years old, I sat in a wooden pew of the Home Moravian Church, established in 1771, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and looked at the round sugary bun I held in one hand and the white mug of sugary, milky coffee in the other. I didn't know what to do with either because this was my first time in a Moravian Church. Having grown up in a straight-laced Southern Presbyterian church, I knew I was breaking at least one God-rule, if not several. Church was no place for messes, talking, spilling, sugar, laughter, food, noise, movement, enjoyment.
I didn't know then that the Love Feast would become a metaphor in my life but I knew from that day those two words belonged together. Over time I came to understand that this feast of love was the whole point of the spiritual journey. God, instead of being separate or distant from our unkempt, needy, imperfect selves, is right there beside us, holding the napkin, wiping our chins, tearing off bites of bread, moving us forward into the world.
Moravian Love Feast Bun Recipe
Adapted from Winkler Bakery Recipe
Winkler is the original Moravian bakery still in operation, in Old Salem, North Carolina, since 1800. Bakers still use the wood stove for all their baking.
1 cup hot mashed potatoes, unseasoned, without milk or butter
½ cup scalded milk
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter, room temperature
2 eggs, beaten
1½ pounds flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
2 packages yeast
½ cup warm water
2 Tbsps. orange rind, grated
2 Tbsps. lemon rind, grated
2 Tbsps. orange juice
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. mace
1. Cream butter and sugar; add potatoes, mix well. Add lukewarm milk, then eggs, mix well.
2. Dissolve yeast in warm water and add to mixture.
3. Combine seasonings and rind. Add enough flour to make a soft dough.
4. Knead on a well-floured surface. Form into ball, place in a greased bowl. Cover with a cloth and let rise in a warm place until double in size.
5. Punch down; let rise again five to ten minutes. Flouring hands well (dough will be sticky) form in to small balls (about three ounces).
6. Place on a cookie sheet. Slash tops with a knife (to release air). Cover. Let rise until double in size.
7. Bake at 350 degrees till golden brown all over (15 to 20 minutes).
Makes about thirty love buns.CHAPTER 2
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Church attendance three out of four Sundays a month was and is a requirement for Salem Academy boarding students so they stay connected to the founding Moravian church. I belonged to First Presbyterian Church at home but I was now in an adventurous Nancy Drew mode, so I visited the Episcopal church, the Jewish temple, and the Greek Orthodox church. The congregations were welcoming but the language and liturgy were so foreign that I felt like an outsider. The Home Moravian Church was a two-minute walk from the Academy and since I was usually running late — some things never change — that's where I usually attended church if I had not figured out a way to be out of town for the weekend, the only acceptable excuse for not attending.
I had always gone to church. My father grew up next door to the First Presbyterian Church in my hometown, had been a member his whole life, and required attendance of my brother and me four out of four Sundays a month. Mom, an organist and choirmaster, grew up in the Methodist Church and after marrying Dad, became the organist at First Presbyterian. She worked there for years before moving across the street to become the organist/ choirmaster at All Saints' Episcopal Church.
The minute we got home every Sunday, my parents started poking the white underbelly of church life and politics. Somebody in the choir was mad at somebody else so had stopped coming to church all together. Somebody on the Session (the governing board for a Presbyterian congregation) who did not get his way on the budget stopped speaking to the person in the chair next to him. Such irony for a place that was all about love and neighbors and forgiveness. I didn't like the ugliness in a place that was not supposed to be ugly and I didn't like that my parents talked about it for what felt like hours.
Even with all the bickering at church, the people who were angry, the sermons that went on too long, the youth event that flopped, we kept on going and going Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. We loved our assistant minister Andy (our Basset Hound's namesake) and the kind old members of the church who had known our family for years. Mom's hymn playing sent chills down every spine and there was something about singing those words with everyone at the same time. We were all in it together. My parents knew that there was no escaping messiness or disagreement or strife. If they quit the chaos in the church, they might as well quit the chaos in themselves, their families, their town, and every community of which they were a part.
I kept seeing that this is what you do, even when community and people are selfish and difficult. You keep hanging in because at the moment you peg someone else as selfish and difficult, you realize you are, too. And if you are not in community with these folks, all together, in one big pile of talking and arguing and singing, you never learn to work out all those selfishnesses and difficulties.
Here is what I had learned of denomination in my hometown: There were Presbyterians, (my family growing up), Methodists (my maternal grandparents), Baptists (my cute first boyfriend), Episcopalians (my family later and the people who drank wine at communion) and Catholics (the families in town with more than four children, leading me to reason that Catholicism had everything to do with sex).
My friend-since-preschool was Baptist and I often visited her church on Sunday nights. The pews were packed and it felt like these were the popular people. What could have mattered more during preadolescence? There were good-looking guys, big games and snacks far better than we Presbyterians had. All the people who carried around their personal marked-up Bibles looked like they were important, like they belonged. My friend's mom wailed Great is Thy Faithfulness on piano and people were singing and swaying and being saved and crying after they had "dedicated" their lives to Jesus Christ. Such a swell of emotion.
But something held me back. It might have had to do with that foreboding swimming pool down front. Why was it so deep? Or maybe it was all the certainty. There was so much of it. Definite heaven, definite hell. People who belonged, people who did not. People who were forgiven, people who were not. Despite what the Baptist minister was telling me, I did not believe God needed me to be baptized again, especially in that scary swimming pool. Granted, I had screamed through my entire Presbyterian baptism when I was a baby, but my baptism was no less legitimate. I was fresh from God, not yet marred by life, and babyhood, when I was still adorable, was a perfect time for me to join in community with others who vowed to care for me. That water on my head pointed to God's free, unearned grace. Most days, I cannot accept that God loves me unconditionally. That kind of love is too overwhelming. Then I think of that water and my baby tears. I am a beloved child of God. You are, too.
When it came to Communion, Jesus must have had other places to be most Sundays because at our Presbyterian church, we only shared His body and blood once a quarter. I was excited to walk in church those Sundays when I saw the polished silver stack of Communion trays on the table up front. When the sun shone through the multi-colored panes in the windows and ricocheted off the silver Jesus trays, the Divine seemed present, but that is not what excited me. What was exciting was the change in routine, the chance to eat food, even if it was just a little, in church. In combination with the lemonade and Saltines I had just been given in Sunday School, at least on this day my Cheerios wouldn't have to tide me over till lunch.
Communion Sundays were solemn days. The ushers, when they were not passing trays, placed their hands, one over the other, on their crotches. Our minister closed his eyes at the altar up front and told us this this was just like the Last Supper Jesus shared with his friends before he died. Sadness and darkness. Why did the sun pick now to step out from behind the clouds and shine through these contemporary stained glass windows, tall palettes of color blocks? This was serious, not a time for light.
After we all confessed our sins and brokenness and acknowledged we would receive this body and blood with our brothers and sisters in Christ, Mom played Break Thou the Bread of Life on the big Schantz organ in the balcony behind us. We did not dare leave our seats to meet Jesus at the table. We were Presbyterians. Jesus was coming to us. The non-smiling ushers passed the polished silver tray of tiny squares of unleavened bread pellets. I knew these squares to be unleavened bread but they looked and tasted like undecorated postage stamps.
We put them on the tips of our tongues and, like a Zyrtec allergy pill, they disintegrated. I couldn't believe such a tiny, tasteless morsel existed. Just like Dad, after I put the stamp on my tongue, I closed my eyes. I didn't see his lips move but I think he was praying.
Then it was time for the heavy solid silver trays of tiny plastic cups of grape juice, not a drop of alcohol. My hand shook as I took the laden tray from my neighbor, at once petrified and thrilled by the possibility of dropping the whole tray. Jesus's blood splashing my dress and the gold fabric of the pew cushions. Dad and I closed our eyes again while we shot the juice to the back of our throats. It was finished. We prayed and moved on with the rest of the worship. I still felt hungry for more.
I cannot claim some kind of sophisticated spiritual understanding at a young age and I am guilty, as we all are, of reconsidering history from my current vision and understanding. At the same time, I believe that God bestows our children, our teenagers, our young adults with a deep and powerful perception of the Holy Spirit's presence in worship. In their freshness, they might be more able to live out the flip-flopped, first-shall-be-last, resurrected life that we adults, so confident in our wisdom, can't fully integrate. When we hear of radical, inclusive faith that fills you up to the brim, we balk in our cynicism. That's not the way the world works, we say. Why not, they say back to us?CHAPTER 3
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I never knew much about blood before I met my husband Mark and then it came spilling out all over the place. So red and viscous, I could not turn away.
We were dating in college, sitting outside together one night when he said he needed to tell me something serious. The mountain sky was filled with bright stars, but so black and dark, I could not see his face. Olber's paradox. As close in proximity as we were, I could tell only from the direction of his voice that he was looking down while he spoke. I had a horrible wreck when I was in high school. Something so bad, I've never told anyone away from home.
When he was seventeen, he was driving his Camaro at dusk on a hot July evening. Two of his friends were in the car and they were singing, laughing together. Mark arrived at a familiar four-way stop in his neighborhood, glanced up the hill on the cross street, and even though his view was obscured by summertime honeysuckle bushes, he saw nothing moving and so began to roll through the intersection.
In that precise moment, Mark heard a thud and the smash of his windshield. His mind raced. He knew he had not hit a car but he could not understand what had happened. Did I somehow hit a telephone pole? Maybe it was an animal. Did someone throw something at my car or did something fall from the sky? Beating heart, sweat. His car still moved so he peered through the web of smashed glass and crept to the side of the road. When he and his friends got out of the car, they saw a motorcycle on its side and the rider's body, bloody and nearly lifeless, thrown far away from the car. It was the boy's body that had shattered Mark's windshield.
An ambulance took Mark to the hospital to be treated for minor injuries. The motorcyclist was taken to the same hospital to be treated, but was pronounced dead. When the families of both boys saw each other at the hospital, they hugged and cried because they knew each other from the small Episcopal Church where they were all members. The priest from their church arrived to minister to both families.
There were no charges filed, as the police determined shared culpability with both Mark, who had not come to a complete stop, and the boy, who was riding without a helmet and going twice the speed limit. A tragic collision of two impetuous boys, one of whom was living, the other one dead. The facts, however, could not bring the boy back to life. The facts could not heal a mother's heartbreak. The facts would not change Mark's feelings of both responsibility and guilt. As Mark told me of his wreck, I wished I could see him more clearly. I wanted to be able to look into his brown eyes, but the night was too black.
Everything was different after the wreck. His friends at school were distant and confused, not knowing what to say to him. Mark had little interest in the now-trivial subjects they had talked about before — basketball, debate, prom. He began volunteering with a group of intellectually disabled men, playing board games and taking the men into town to get milkshakes. Everyone was familiar with one of the men, Jack, because of his frequent walks all around town. One of Mark's friends at school asked him what he was doing walking around with "that retard, Jack." Mark was shocked by his own outrage over this cruelty. He had become friends with Jack and now empathized with his outcast status. Little did Mark know, years later he would feel that outrage again when he heard someone refer to his own daughter as retard.
When I saw Mark the day after he disclosed his wreck, he said he was afraid I might run away. I assured him I had always been a clumsy runner, with bad form, so I probably wouldn't get very far. But I could now see how the blood had changed him. Most of our friends and I were thriving in a young adult world of classes, college parties, and over-cooked dining hall food. Although Mark found solace in this same predictable world, he bore an additional burden most of us did not. He could not escape the crash, the thud, the absence. Red was so loud.
Excerpted from Love Feast by Martha Johnson Bourlakas. Copyright © 2016 Martha Johnson Bourlakas. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction / Grace 1
Love Feast 7
Recipe for Moravian Love Feast Buns 10
Recipe for Greek Pastitio 29
A Way In 33
Target 49 Photographs 59
One Right Answer 69
Recipe for Sarah's Birthday Apricot Scones 86
Recipe for Easter Potato Salad 92
The Academy 95
Recipe for Hello Dolly Bars 104
Recipe for Hannah's Buttermilk Pancakes 119
Recipe for Elizabeth's Comforting Tomato Soup 129
Sunny Side 131
Gaper's Block 141