Communing Lulu
J.T. Ledbetter

In Southern California’s sprawling San Fernando Valley, churches appear and disappear like the people who started them, worshipped in them, and then left them as the Valley has grown and changed. Central Lutheran Church (ELCA) is one such spot, a gloriously big, beefy kind of building with rooms for whatever you need or want. A phone call from its pastor, Marsha Lewis, asking if I would fill in for a Sunday, took me there.

The Sunday I preached brought folks looking for the gospel and/or the sandwiches, cookies, and coffee after the service. The term “street people” is perhaps too strident a description for many of these folks, yet one cannot sugarcoat a problem that is reaching epidemic proportions, especially in the Valley. They came at various times during the service, many sitting in silence, their heads down. But at the passing of the peace they stood and walked about, greeting each other with hugs like they were old friends, as indeed they were. Their personal prayers were quiet, barely audible as they grappled with words commensurate with personal agony.

Communion lifted their heads as well as their hearts! They received the body and blood of Christ with a light in their eyes that I had not noticed as I preached. Reflecting on that later, I thought it was right that it should be so: there was no contest between my words and their communion. A lady in the second row had a cart full of blankets and a toy Chihuahua. As I bent over her with the bread, I noticed the toy moving: it was a real Chihuahua! It was Lulu, I later learned. She was a sweet, gentle little girl with beautiful large, round, brown eyes. I patted her head and moved on, but out of the corner of my eye it looked like her “mama” broke her wafer and gave it to Lulu, then tipped her wine cup to let Lulu sip. I could not stop mid-pew to ask myself if I saw what I thought I saw. All I could do was think, “Right on!” and move along.

What was the magic/beauty/startling moment I had just witnessed? I did not and could not express what I felt at that moment; “Right on!” had to do. And why not? Is not the Eucharist meant for everyone? God’s creatures include Lulu too, not just us humans. At Ascension Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Pastor Steve Herder sets aside one day a year for the Blessing of the Pets. During this special service we move from dog to cat to lizard to a picture of a cherished animal, now deceased. We offer words of prayer and a blessing for these beloved pets.

God blesses everyone and everything. Meister Eckhart, thirteenth-century German mystic, whom Luther loved, said:

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—even a caterpillar—
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God Is every creature.

A friend of mine said it was wrong to commune an animal. John Muir asks, “Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos.” My friend’s reaction to that? “It’s sacrilege to commune a Chihuahua.” And I thought of these lines in Psalm 148: “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost… mountains and all hills, fruit trees… wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying birds. Praise the Lord!”

Many years ago, while leading a tour to Europe, I took my students to Notre Dame Cathedral. The day was hot, and the streets were full of tourists. We barely made it through the huge doors before they were closed. But there we were, plastered against the inside of the doors, with hundreds of people between us and the sanctuary. I happened to be next to the holy water font; a Parisienne on my left dipped her finger into the water and crossed herself. Her friend was two people to my right and could not reach the font, so the lady on my left dipped her finger into the water and stretched her right arm across me as far as she could, while her friend stretched her left arm as far she could toward the font, and—miracle—the lady on the left touched her friend’s finger: a water drop from finger to finger, and the lady crossed herself. It was a serious moment, and my students understood what had just happened whether they understood or believed in baptism. “It’s like God’s finger touching Adam in the Sistine Chapel,” a girl said. “In a real sense it’s like God’s finger touching mine, isn’t it?”

“Just like,” I said. “Just like.”

First it’s blessing animals, and now it’s salvation by proxy? Sanctification by intention?” my friend asked. I don’t know how animals praise God, and I don’t know how blessings work, nor do I doubt that our intention for good is good, and efficacious. I gave my friend a card with Thomas Merton’s famous prayer, in which he says: “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Intention is very important, I tell my friend, and our inability to understand how animals praise God shouldn’t keep us from believing it.

While fishing unsuccessfully in Lake Casitas, another friend (a philosopher) said he thought that in the future AI would produce people/machines/things that would have a soul. Argue that if you are so inclined, or just leave it alone and see. Future generations will do just that, won’t they? So, we must abide in doubt or joy or both. Meanwhile, Lulu got communed without a murmur and nestled down among her blankets and stuffed toys. The service went on. Afterward we ate sandwiches and cookies and drank coffee and listened to glorious piano music played by a young man who, moments before, talked to me about things I could not understand, almost in language I could not understand, and did not need to understand: he talked; I listened. Gospel on the loose in this church. Thomas Merton said that people in church were the exegesis of the gospel. Right on to that, too.

One trip into a poor neighborhood does not make one a super pastor, but it does offer an epiphanic moment, and that is gospel as well. The sandwiches are gospel, the cookies are gospel, and the coffee is gospel. The street people wander in for—what? A prayer, something mysterious and maybe magical in the bread and wine, a place to rest their minds and bodies, a place of communion no matter who they are or where they’ve been—this is their home now, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not for long, maybe…

Forget the maybes. Thanks be to God for all of them. Thanks be to God for Pastor Marsha, for the musicians, for the few members left—remnant of fatter years for church going. Thanks be to God for those in tears and those weak from hunger and those torn by guilt or sorrow or angst of spirit—they are here NOW, and Lulu communed with them.

Right on!


J.T. Ledbetter is professor emeritus at California Lutheran University.

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