Communion before conversion

“Catholic pt. in 405 wants communion before conversion. Please come asap.”

I had only been a hospital student chaplain for a month. This was my first night on call, which meant I was the only chaplain on site in a 700 bed facility in Chicago. Nothing prepared me for the pages I received that night, including this one above.

What should I, an inexperienced Mennonite hospital chaplain, with no ministry credentials yet to my name, do? Sure, I could call the on-call priest who lived just a couple miles away, but first I needed to respond to this page request asap.

As I found my way to the 4th floor I wondered all sorts of things: What was this patient converting to, why, and why now and here? And more importantly, why does she want to take communion one last time? In Mennonite tradition, conversion/baptism usually becomes before communion, not after.

“I understand you want communion before your conversion,” I said, trying to hide my confusion, disbelief, and the questions I really wanted to ask.

“Yeah, could we arrange that in the next couple of hours?,” the patient said in a relaxed, no-big-deal sort of way.

“Sure,” I said, in my own no-big-deal sort of way.

“First can you tell me more about your conversion?”

“The doctors really should be the ones to tell you about that,” she said with a laugh. “Ask them.”

I left the room even more confused than when I first arrived. I found a nurse who calmly explained that a conversion was a medical procedure involving the heart, as in cardioversion. “We call it conversion for short,” she said. “I can see why that was confusing, she continued. “Both kind of conversions involve the heart, huh?”

Relieved and embarrassed, I picked up the phone and called the priest. When he arrived a short time later I told him that I had been preparing for a different kind of conversion. We both agreed that when it came to understanding medical terms and sacraments like communion, the learning curve was steep. I asked if we could keep this between the two of us and he said, “Not a chance, this is way too good.” The rest of the year my fellow chaplains would ask me questions like, “Hey Mennonite, have you had any more conversion calls?”

Sometimes I still feel out of my league when discussing, serving, partaking in, or presiding over communion. The learning curve continues. Gordon Zerbe, from Canadian Mennonite University, articulates some of the many questions that I wrestle with:

What kind of event is it: sign, corporate symbol, sacrament, ordinance, ceremony, ritual? What really happens in the event? Who should preside and serve? What occasions or contexts are appropriate for enacting the event: formal church gatherings only, or also other informal gatherings of Christians? Who is welcome to participate? What preparatory activities are proper: self examination, corporate sharing or reconciliation, table fellowship? How should the physical dynamics be orchestrated: rows, queue toward a table, circles around tables, common cup, individual cups? When and how often is it best celebrated? How has Mennonite practice of it evolved? How experimental might the celebration be? What varied biblical texts or themes might be used to enhance the practice? Finally, what should we call it: Communion (from “koinonia” in 1 Corinthians 10:16, the Eucharist (“thanksgiving,” from 1 Cor. 11:24), the Lord’s Supper (from 1 Cor. 11:20), the Agape (“love feast,” in Jude 12)?

-Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology: Vol. 2 No. 1, Spring 2001. Published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at AMBS and Canadian Mennonite University.

I won’t address all of these questions at Rainbow on Sunday. We might all have heart trouble if I tried to do that. Instead I will share a variety of communion stories and reflections. Then all will be invited to receive the gifts of cup and bread during our first of the month conversion, I mean communion. Hope to see you on Sunday.

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