My patient was a frail, elderly woman. Under religion on her chart were the code letters "OTH," a catchall term for "other" religious groups not large enough to warrant their own code. Mabel* seemed withdrawn into herself, a bundle of misery trying to be invisible.
Mabel's illness was a crisis point of unprecedented magnitude in her life; she was waiting for test results that might spell disaster. Around her room were evidences of a spiritual back ground: a Bible, devotional book, religious get-well cards. Our conversation revealed a woman of faith who enjoyed a personal walk with Jesus. Yet seemingly incongruously, she was suffering from spiritual thirst and loneliness. Mabel's personal relationship with Jesus added to her discomfort because she felt it was "sinful" for her to be straggling spiritually "like an unbeliever." She seemed in need of something extra, something above and beyond the normal everyday spiritual food and support she was receiving.
As our visit drew to a close, I asked if there was anything in the way of spiritual ministry she needed. I'll never forget her answer. "It has been so long since I had Communion. I would dearly love to have it."
I responded, "Perhaps I could call your church and ask the minister to bring Communion to you."
Mabel looked startled, then shook her head. "Oh, no. We don't do that."
"Your church doesn't bring Communion into the hospital?" I asked.
"We do," she replied. "But we have Communion only four times a year, and it isn't scheduled for now. But I would love to have it." Her voice trailed off, and I saw tears trickle down her cheeks.
"May I ask you what the name of your church family is?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. I'm a Seventh-day Adventist."
An overlooked resource
Mabel felt the special need for Christ's presence as she endured_one of the most crushing, frightening experiences of her life. I'm sure local Adventist ministers would not have refused her need. My patient, how ever, suffered in silent longing be cause of her limited, ritualistic under standing of Communion and its potential role in a spiritual crisis.
Without question, Adventists as a people as well as individuals will be in grave crisis soon. We all know the importance of spiritual resources that can prepare us, such as the Bible, prayer, abiding in Jesus, the latter rain, and Christian armor. One often-over looked element of crisis support is Communion.
Hospitalization is a model of church members in tribulation, a concentrated dose of the many trials, emotional stresses, and needs that people en counter in crises. Having labored with many patients over the years, I've come to believe that Communion in the hospital environment is a model of what the sacrament can become for us in our soon-coming time of trouble.
Earl's story is a shining example. Far from home, Earl had been diagnosed with a terminal illness that left him weak and confined to a wheelchair. Cut off from all familiar sup ports and comforts, he pondered the possibility of renewing his relation ship with God. He remembered the spiritual fullness he had enjoyed in the Adventist church of his childhood, and he longed for a return of that grace. In that state of yearning he reached out to Jesus. With joy he confessed his sins. Still he felt incomplete, needing some thing more intimate, some tangible celebration of the nearness of Christ and the Christian hope.
One day an Adventist elder was visiting another patient in that unit. Upon learning about Earl, he visited with him. When preparing to leave, the elder asked if there was any thing Earl would like. Hesitantly, he answered, "Well, there is, but I don't know if it's possible ... I'd like to have Communion. I feel like it would be the greatest blessing in my life right now."
"Is tomorrow soon enough?" the elder inquired.
"Yes, that would be wonderful," Earl replied. The next day the elder returned and held a Communion service just for Earl. They prayed and wept together. Earl testified: "I haven't felt so close to the Lord since I was a boy. Something happened just now. Now I know He'll stay with me."
This was the beginning of a trans formation in Earl's life. He still had worries, misery, and emotional challenges; but now he also had spiritual staying power. He had an obvious Source of spiritual support not drawn upon before and a keen sense of God's nearness. These changes did not hap pen because Communion was some kind of mystical potion; that sacrament was simply the vehicle of the Holy Spirit in reinforcing for Earl the reality of Christ's nearness and His care.
Not just quarterly
Sometimes the Communion service assumes the semblance of a ritual that must be performed only four times a year, only in the sanctuary, and only with the full array of pastors, elders, and deaconesses. However, the purposes and benefits of Communion are wonderfully broader and freer than this. Although the order, doctrine, solemnity, and manner of Communion are not to be subjected to wildly diverse experimentation, which would rob them of sacredness and meaning, 1 Communion can bring tremendous benefit outside of its traditional set ting. For example, pastors frequently bring Communion to shut-ins and patients after the celebration at the church. Also, many revivals and other high days are blessed by extra Communion services.
The descriptions of the Communion given by Ellen White in her chapter on the Lord's Supper in The Desire of Ages mesh wonderfully with the needs of Christians in crises:
1. The need to meet with Christ more tangibly. Isolated from familiar support systems, surroundings, and customs, many patients sense an intensified longing for more tangible connections to God. For example, a person may take a Bible and keep it beside her or him in the hospital bed.
2. The need to focus one's faith. The isolation and depersonalization of hospitalization can destablize the soul, particularly with the added threat of major medical problems being revealed by tests or the pain of serious illness. At such times concrete tokens of faith can inspire and focus faith in Christ. Speaking of the Communion service, Ellen White observed: "It is at these, His own appointments, that Christ meets His people, and energizes them by His presence. . . . All who come with their faith fixed upon Him will be greatly blessed." 2
3. The need for reassurance of deliverance. In times of medical stress or tribulation, eternal realities and the need of divine deliverance weigh much on the soul. Even if a person already has accepted salvation in Christ, often he or she thirsts for some token of spiritual deliverance the very reason for Communion. "The ordinance of the Lord's Supper was given to commemorate the great deliverance wrought out as the result of the death of Christ. Till He shall come the second time in power and glory, this ordinance is to be celebrated. It is the means by which His great work for us is to be kept fresh in our minds." 3
4. The need to channel brokenheartedness and contrition. Often personal crises stimulate self-examination and conviction. Prayer is enough to carry repentance to the cross for cleansing. Sometimes, however, further healing is needed not for salvation, but to bring peace to the broken heart. In such cases Communion offers a special balm. Regarding this, Ellen White wrote: "Christ by the Holy Spirit is there to set the seal to His own ordinance. He is there to convict and soften the heart. Not a look, not a thought of contrition, escapes His notice. For the repentant, brokenhearted one He is waiting. All things are ready for that soul's reception. He who washed the feet of Judas longs to wash every heart from the stain of sin." 4
5. The need for spiritual light and peace. Physical crises often act as "cloud collectors." Clouds of pity, doubt, pain, fear, and spiritual oppression gather and linger. In this atmosphere peace is hard to come by and harder to keep. Here too, Communion has a contribution to make: "Now they come to meet with Christ. They are not to stand in the shadow of the cross, but in its saving light. They are to open the soul to the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. With hearts cleansed by Christ's most precious blood, in full consciousness of His presence, although unseen, they are to hear His words, 'Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth,give I unto you' (John 14:27)." 5 The Communion, in a unique way, brings Christians out of the shadow and into the Sonshine.
6. The need of hope. Often this is the most vital need of a hospitalized patient, even if her or his case is not serious. The blessed hope, which Communion was designed to revitalize for those enduring trials, is the most precious gift any pastor can give to some one suffering or frightened: "In their tribulation they found comfort in the hope of their Lord's return. Unspeakably precious to them was the thought, 'As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come' (1 Cor. 11:26).' " 6 If we develop a regard for Communion as a divine resource outside of the quarterly church context, it could bring tremendous blessings of hope in tribulation.
7. The need for familiar tokens of Christ's love. In any unfamiliar environment, familiar tokens especially tokens of Christ's love bring healing to the spirit. A hospitalized child, for example, will seldom relax until in the company of a familiar "friend," such as a doll or stuffed animal. Then, content with this token that the love of home is still available, the child will rest. On a spiritual level, we too need familiar tokens of Christ's continuing love and a renewal of His assurances. Referring specifically to the Communion, Ellen White wrote: "These are the things we are never to forget. The love of Jesus, with its constraining power, is to be kept fresh in our memory. Christ has instituted this service that it may speak to our senses of the love of God that has been expressed in our behalf. There can be no union between our souls and God except through Christ.... His sacrifice is the center of our hope. Upon this we must fix our faith." 7 Persons in crisis often need a more tangible voice to speak of Christ's love. Communion speaks with just the right tone to give them assurance.
9. The need of personalization. Hospital routine and medical procedures (like homelessness, ostracism, imprisonment, other kinds of tribulation) serve to depersonalize patients. Their clothes are taken and replaced with an anonymous, generic costume. Their distinctive names are reduced to information on a label. The body is invaded, privacy is nonexistent. Eating, sleeping, socializing, and even private bodily functions are no longer under personal control. Patients must conform to the schedules and demands of others. In this context they desperately need assurances of worth and identity. Most precious are those reflected in the atonement. God loved this patient enough as an individual of worth in His sight to die for her or him.
Perhaps there is no better reassurance of that worth and identity than Holy Communion. In a physical, tangible way that internalizes the reality of heaven's love, Communion transcends any depersonalizing influences in the environment. This is true only when celebrated spiritually rather than as a formality, with full knowledge of what it represents.
"The ordinances that point to our Lord's humiliation and suffering are regarded too much as a form. They were instituted for a purpose. Our senses need to be quickened to lay hold of the mystery of godliness. . . . Our eternal interests demand that we show faith in Christ.... 'He that eateth my flesh,' He says, 'and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.' ... To the holy Communion this scripture in a special sense applies. As faith contemplates our Lord's great sacrifice, the soul assimilates the spiritual life of Christ. That soul will receive spiritual strength from every Communion. The service forms a living connection by which the believer is bound up with Christ, and thus bound up with the Father. In a special sense it forms a connection between dependent human beings and God." 8
Dispensing with superstition
Seventh-day Adventists have always labored to keep Communion free of elements of superstition that might degrade it into being a supposedly magic ritual, possessing power apart from living faith. As part of this effort, early Adventists limited it to once a year. Then Ellen White wrote: "The washing of feet and partaking of the Lord's Supper should be more frequently practiced." 9 From that evolved the plan of formally observing Communion four times per year. Nothing, however, restricts us to only those four observances. On special occasions many of our churches add extra Communion services.
It is good to safeguard Communion against being taken for granted or be coming a rite of superstition. But while we must beware of promoting any view of Communion as a cure-all or magic potion, we should consider allowing it a larger role in the lives of our people. With pastoral guidance, we might come to see it as a much greater resource in times of trial than it is now. Unspeakably precious is the thought: "As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come."
* Names have been changed.
1 See Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1986), p. 79.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Moun
tain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1940), p. 656.
3 Ibid., pp. 652,653.
4 Ibid., p. 656.
5 Ibid., p. 659.
7 Ibid., p. 660.
8 Ibid., pp. 660,661.
9 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1945), p.