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Friendship: A New Sacrament

The story goes that in March of 2015, my roommates and I headed out on spring break to Texas. We left the icy remnants of an early-spring storm in Nashville and headed south. Our first full day there was a Sunday and we attended Ecclesia Church in Houston. That morning, Thad Cockrell was there as a guest leading worship and he introduced a song to the congregation that I’d never heard before called, “We Will Feast in the House of Zion.” I sang along with tears in my eyes.

Like many 21-year-olds, I was entering somewhat of a deconstruction phase of my faith, beginning to set aside some practices and thoughts that no longer fit as I’d grown and changed. I suppose that’s a nice way to put it. Privately, I wondered if the entire Jesus thing was a sham. Words I’d used for years began to leave a sour taste in my mouth. I now felt uncertain about the lines I had drawn in the sand.

But this song was something on which I could stand. I may have felt unsure of just about everything, but I felt sure enough that there would be a feast. I have always hoped that God liked to eat as much as I do.

Had I been listening more closely that Sunday at Ecclesia, perhaps I would have heard Thad say that the song was soon to be released on Sandra McCracken’s Psalms record. But I wasn’t. So instead I scoured the internet for weeks, trying to call to mind as many lyrics as I could to find a recording of it. Of course, I did find it eventually, along with a treasure trove of other songs on the Psalms album. I devoured it, and then noticed a small notation in the liner notes: “With gratitude, this album is dedicated to St. Mary of Bethany Parish (Nashville) and Ecclesia Church (Houston).” Curious, I researched.

St. Mary of Bethany Parish was a new Anglican church in South Nashville. Drew and I were newly dating and searching for a church to call home together, since part of my deconstruction process was allowing myself to leave the church where I’d spent most of my college years. Mary of Bethany sounded nice enough and so we visited the following Sunday afternoon. Drew and I sat in the car right before the service and breathed shallow breaths, looking for a way to get out of going in. Something about it felt important, so we hyped ourselves up and in we went.

I remember that there was a Wendell Berry poem on the front of the bulletin that Sunday—a sign from God if there ever was one—and I remember lots of standing up and sitting down. It was the quietest church service I had ever attended. We were right at home.

It has been five years since then. I have prayed and played with the folks at St. Mary’s. I have belly-laughed and lamented with them. Perhaps most joyously of all, I have eaten with them. We’ve practiced for the feast that is coming. I’ve sat at the kitchen counter, taking bites of leftover mac and cheese after Sandra’s kids finished dinner. Drew and I have eaten Friday night pizza with the Braggs. We’ve made soups and salads for potlucks after church and hoped there’d be enough to go around. I’ve laugh-cried with Melinda over our meals at Dozen Bakery. It matters what we ate. But also, it kind of doesn’t. It matters that we ate. And that we ate together.

It matters what we ate. But also, it kind of doesn't. It matters that we ate. And that we ate together. Kelsey Miller

I became a Christian eleven years ago, a few months after my 16th birthday. The most formative decisions of my life have stemmed from my allegiance to Jesus Christ. But I’m not the Christian I was a decade ago. Sometimes there is no better choice than to let what stands fall and crumble, even if it’s the very foundation beneath your feet. And indeed, I’ve begun to learn how to be a Christian with my feet on the ground and my eyes wide open. I see that there isn’t one square inch of this world that won’t be touched by God’s healing: every person, every blade of grass, every system that now stands broken. But the healing doesn’t come (and never came) through flying away to glory. It comes through incarnation, which stands as the utter denial that redemption can involve anything except flesh-and-blood people, in flesh-and-blood reality.

There are resources and language for the deconstruction process, especially now as we all get more honest about the ugly truths embedded in the history of Christianity. But what I haven’t uncovered is helpful language for the reconstruction process. And yet I’ve lived it. I’ve felt it in my body. And what I’ve found so far to be the balm to the vital, painful work of deconstruction is quite simple: friendship. What has kept me from kicking the whole thing to the curb, what has kept me somewhat in touch with this reality of belovedness… it’s friendship. With flesh-and-blood humans who have as many questions as I do. Who love to eat Indian food as much as I do. Who love to laugh and play and wonder and feast as much as I do.

God’s love is not as abstract as it used to be because I most often experience it through people whom I know by name. I know God’s love because I know Helena. Because I know Melinda. Because I know Danny, Jon, Mindy, Mary Beth, Nina, Hunter, Beth, Sarah, Hetty, Becca. The list goes ever onward. I know God’s love because I know God’s people.

What gets me every time is that we were led to St. Mary’s through a song. I heard a song one time in Texas and it so captured my imagination that I couldn’t rest until I heard it again. And the tumble of gifts that came from that still overflows my cup. I was so used to rules, equating sanctification with self-flagellation. I was so burnt out on trying to protect God’s image. And then came a message that offered me hope, as though God nestled this song into my heart, gently nudged me outside the cage I’d been living in, and asked me to sing. Loud and free. Head thrown back. And to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one singing. God gave me people to sing with.

According to the powers that be, friendship isn’t officially a sacrament. But having been on the receiving end of loving friendship that washes me clean of cynicism, I’d like to propose an amendment. Perhaps more than anything else, I’ve felt the grace of God in having a literal seat and voice at the table among men, women, and children who’ve joyfully given up being correct and instead have decided to feast.

Photo by Nina Coyle

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