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Communion as Feeding Therapy

The first time my oldest child ever ate bread was at communion, when she was 2, maybe 3 years old.

Though it’s hard for some of us to imagine, not everyone likes to eat. And when it comes to children born prematurely or with medical issues, the oft-repeated adage, “They’ll eat when they get hungry,” simply doesn’t hold true. Left to her own devices, Becca would have starved herself to death, not because of a psychological issue or deep-seated, painful issues with self-esteem or relationships, but because her body doesn’t process food quite normally, doesn’t sense hunger normally, and isn’t able to tolerate much of the sensory  input involved in eating. These issues all stem from her premature birth.

To ensure that she receives adequate nutrition, she has a feeding tube, through which we administer formula straight to her stomach. In order to transition her to an oral diet,  we have gone to feeding therapy for years. At first, her therapy sessions focused on playing with food, learning to tolerate being around it, desensitizing her mouth to touch after all the negative touch she had in the NICU. (Imagine having your entry into the world marked by having multiple tubes shoved down your throat for months…you probably wouldn’t be so into eating, either!)  After a while, we graduated to trying to new foods and increasing the volume of her preferred foods.

Becca made a lot of progress, but even as we began weaning her tube feeds, bread became  a sort of “final frontier” of feeding therapy.  She simply could not deal with the bland softness of it.  She would gobble up onions, olives, feta cheese and green beans, but not bread.  We tried every kind of bread you could imagine, and every trick in the book.  She could touch bread, but not eat it.  She could smell it, but not eat it. Occasionally, she could even bring herself to lick it…but not eat it.

Then one Sunday, I carried her up to communion with me as usual. As usual, Carol offered her a piece of communion bread. As usual, she looked at it and, as usual, started to turn her head away at the sight of food.  But then…she turned back to Carol, took the bread, and put it in her mouth, mushed up, and swallowed it.

It was all I could do not to grab the microphone and go tell it on the mountain. After all our work in therapy and at home, where she still would not eat bread to save her life (literally, even), she took the bread and ate it. There was nothing that John or I could do, nothing that even her extraordinarily gifted and patient feeding therapists could do to get her to eat the darn bread…but here, in our sanctuary, in the midst of this congregation, after sitting through dozens of communion services in which hundreds of people took communion together, she choose to give it a try.

Friends, this is why we “do church” together. Because we can’t do it on our own. Because we can’t do it just as a family.  Because we can’t do it with just the help of gifted professionals. We have to do it as community. We first come together to “play with” our faith, and then to deepen and expand our spiritual palates, if you will. We practice things like prayer, praise, study, and service until they are so ingrained in us that we can live them out every day of the week. The spiritual community helps us to sense our needs and the needs of others and desensitizes our old wounds. It makes us whole. In short, the spiritual community is some of the best therapy out there. Thank God it’s free!