Chocolate Ice Cream – with intention

When I learned that my friend’s husband had taken a turn for the worse, I couldn’t think of anything but chocolate ice cream.

I had been buried in my own pain for several months. I was still recovering from a surgery that was meant to bring me relief, but it was too soon to say if it had done its job. The pain I was in now might be different, but it was more intense than what had gone before. There is little that turns me inward on myself quite so thoroughly as pain. I had not had any energy to carry anyone else’s needs for a long time.

But now I had learned that, after years of having their lives turned upside down: after a diagnosis of lymphoma, after chemo, after a bone marrow transplant, after complete remission, after a return of the cancer with a vengeance, after hopeful results from a new experimental treatment – after thousands of prayers and a publicly lived faithful witness – this family was almost certain to be torn apart by this young father’s death. Months were possible, if unlikely. A year was flatly out of the question. That a miracle was called for was understood. A miracle on top of the miracles of provision that had sustained this family for years, and most especially in recent months. Perhaps that miracle would be yet another remission. Perhaps that miracle would be my friend’s ability to tend to the grief of herself, her husband, and her three young children (each one very different from the other) as he slipped into death.

I didn’t know if I believed in miracles in that moment. I was tired and grieved and in pain. I believed in chocolate ice cream. So I went to the kitchen to get some.

Standing in front of the freezer, I began berating myself. Chocolate ice cream wasn’t going to accomplish anything. It wasn’t even going to make me feel better except for the brief time when I was actually in the process of eating it, if then. I should pray.

Except I couldn’t pray. I didn’t really know what to ask for. Was it right to ask for this young man not to die? It was, of course it was, and yet – I had all too much experience in not getting what I had prayed for – of learning that my ways were not God’s ways, and my thoughts were not God’s thoughts. I just didn’t have the energy to ask for something that I didn’t believe God was going to grant.

I thought about asking that the children be ok, but how can anyone be ok when they lose their parent? The loss of my father remains a defining gap, a significant wound, and I was in my late 30s when he died. How old was their oldest child? Not yet 10? I didn’t know if they would even have a memory of what their father had been like before he first became ill. There were so many things that I couldn’t bring myself to pray for.

Paul’s teaching that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for has been a great gift to me, one of my go to lessons in the spiritual life. But I do worry sometimes – I don’t want to use that as a cop out, as an excuse for not talking to God at all, or for not making an effort to lay my feelings before God.

But then I remembered a workshop I had attended in seminary about praying the rosary. As a Protestant, I had no real knowledge of the rosary – only some vague misconceptions. Of the many revelations I received that day, this one sprang to mind: the idea of saying the prayers of the rosary “with intention.” As a person prayed the prayers over and over again, they were likely also holding another thought in their head – a person for whom they were concerned, their desire for world peace, their grief over a particular sin.

I did not have a rosary, and was anyway, not entirely comfortable with the idea of a traditional prayer in that moment. But as long as I had some chocolate ice cream, I could eat that with intention, couldn’t I?

I remembered my father the Thanksgiving after his diagnosis, watching his children and their spouses all together in his front yard clearing leaves and joking with one another. He teared up. “I’m not ready to leave all of this,” he told me. He grieved the idea of us going on without his being there with us and for us.

And so I took out a spoon, and walked with my bowl of ice cream to the large sliding glass door overlooking my back yard. “If he makes it, this will be his last Christmas,” I thought, “and his children’s last Christmas with him. He has already seen his last summer.”

Before digging in, I said, “I am eating this ice cream for my friend’s husband, who is dying.” And with the shock of the first spoonful of sweet cold fragrance, I asked, “How many more bowls of ice cream will he eat before he dies? When he is eating his last bowl of ice cream, will he know it is the last one?”

And I remembered the words: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and I thought of communion, and of the heavenly banquet that we remember when we share in it, and of the promise that God gives us far more than all that we can ask or imagine. And I thought, it is hard to imagine much better than a beautiful sunshiny day and chocolate ice cream, but life in God’s kingdom must be even better than that. And I prayed that my friend’s husband and everyone in his family could truly believe that, and I prayed that it really was true that God was that good, and I thanked God for chocolate ice cream, for these scraps of creaturely goodness on days when God’s goodness was hard to believe in, and I asked God’s forgiveness for me not believing, and I asked for God’s love to break in on my friend as bright and unignorable as a spoonful of chocolate ice cream…

And I looked down and my bowl was empty.

It has been more than a year since that day, and almost a year since he died. There are still days when I ignore God, feel distant from God, can’t bring myself to pray. But when I carry the intention to pray – even when I can’t stir up the desire to pray – when I carry the intention to pray, God meets me with abundantly far more than I could ever ask or imagine. I am grateful that God grasped ahold of me that day, and brought me into the community of love between God and my friend and her family and all those who surrounded them in prayer, if only for as long as it took for me to eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream.


Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Today, on Twitter, Whitney Simpson quoted St. Augustine: “You aspire to great things? Begin with little ones.”

Glancing through my feed, I thought to myself, “I have always believed that! I didn’t know Augustine had such a high view of children.” Because of my bias towards children, I had understood Augustine to mean that anyone who would do great things should spend time with children. Which is not, upon re-reading, the meaning of this quote at all, but if it is a misreading, at least it is a Biblical misreading! Jesus said that grown ups need to become more like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, and furthermore that if we lead little ones astray, it would have been better for us if we had been drowned in the sea.

The time I spend with children is time that I spend learning. From my daughter’s questions, I learn how the world is in the grip of sin, and from my answers to those questions I learn what I believe. When teaching a children’s knitting class last spring, I learned anew how different we all are: how different we are in what we understand and what we notice and whose opinion of us matters, and how that determines difference in how we learn and what motivates us. But I was also reminded that most of us are the same, too, in having someone that we desire to impress, in needing another’s patience when we are frustrated, and in delighting in mastering a new skill. From a Daisy troop, I finally started to get a handle on group dynamics by observing the shifts in group functioning when different combinations of girls showed up.

But the time I spend with children is also time that I spend shaping the persons that they will become – giving the knitting students a sense of competence, as well as a stress relieving life skill, for instance; or giving the Daisies another instance of an adult who is not their parents who cares about them, and who cares about how they treat one another…

Do I aspire to a kinder, more equitable world? Then I need to invest in the little ones.

When I was in college, I used to say that the most revolutionary thing a person could do was to raise a child with intention, and my daughter is certainly on the receiving end of a great deal of intentional parenting! My husband and I are shaping who she will become, not just from our direct influence, but also through choosing other people to be in her life (and through the mistakes we make, as well.) Who she is and how she interacts with the world is influenced (though not completely determined) by who we are and how we have raised her. What had not occurred to me when I was nineteen was how much she would shape us, too – how much all the children I have known were shaping me all along. I could spend many hours thinking and writing about it!

Right now, however, I might need to take St. Augustine at his intended word. I am aspiring to PhD work. I have been so long out of school, that I first need to take some new classes, so that I can get “fresher” recommendations. Which means that if I aspire to a PhD, I need to begin with the (relatively) little task of my 200 word essay for my application as a special student. There are no skipping the little steps on the way to our greater goals. So no matter how inspirational it may be at times, I had better log off Twitter and get to work – before my partner in revolution gets home from school.

“Together we Serve”

In the United Methodist hymn supplement The Faith We Sing, Hymn 2175 is “Together We Serve” by Daniel Charles Damon:

Together we serve, united by love,
inviting God’s world to the glorious feast.
We work and we pray through sorrow and joy,
extending your love to the last and the least.

We seek to become a beacon of hope,
a lamp for the heart and a light for the feet.
We learn, year by year, to let love shine through
until we see Christ in each person we meet.

We welcome the scarred, the wealthy the poor,
the busy, the lonely, and all who need care.
We offer a home to those who will come,
our hands quick to help, our hearts ready to dare.

Together, by grace, we witness and work,
remembering Jesus, in whom we grow strong.
Together we serve in Spirit and truth,
remembering love is the strength of our song.

Just yesterday, in a cranky mood, I told my husband that I needed to stop spending any time on Facebook or Twitter.  It just seemed like I received a barrage of one thing wrong with the world after the other – things that I was powerless to change.  It was not a lot different from watching television news, and I have given up on the news — the very goal of television news seems to be to desensitize me and overwhelm me at the same time, because it is impossible to process the magnitude of any one news story when there is no pause between one injustice and the next and the next and the next – for 24 hours now, if you watch cable.  (I think this is why I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – because they are not news anchors, they can express their emotions about a piece – genuinely or ironically – before moving on to the next piece.  For me, that moment of reacting to the news item is cathartic.  Also, they tend to report on stuff that is off the “approved television news topics” list.)

But today, I am noticing the difference between the Twitter barrage and the nightly news barrage: community.  A story develops in the reactions that people have to a story, so that the different angles of the story are examined, and articles and other pieces of evidence are proffered, until a thesis in 140 character chunks is laid out.  It was on my Twitter feed that I discovered that I was not alone in being offended by the proposed “Fitch the Homeless” campaign, which was reassuring.  (And probably excessively re-tweeted related stories – apologies to all who follow my feed.) As I followed the story on Twitter, I learned something new, too:  that there is an excess of cast-off clothing in this country – that textile waste is a growing problem.

I started to think about the recent death of more than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh. Interesting that people seemed to be getting much more worked up over a CEO saying sociopathic things about what body types could belong to “cool kids” than over a number of CEOs sociopathically profiting from unsafe overseas labor.  Why were we singling out one person as a jerk instead of getting angry at the whole system of textile manufacturing: from pesticide runoff and waterway habitat destruction resulting from cotton farming, to the toxic manufacture of synthetic fibers, to the closing of U.S. factories and destruction of local economies, to the opening of factories in countries with little environmental or labor (or building and fire safety!) oversight, to child labor, to the high environmental cost of trans-Pacific shipping, to union busting… how could anyone simply hand an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt to an impoverished person and feel like they had done their part?

And as I was thinking about all of that, I found an editorial by Stephen Thomgate on the Christian Century blog talking about the Bangladeshi factory disaster (again via Twitter!!), in which he draws on an idea of Justo Gonzalez about powerlessness.  Thomgate writes:

…the key element is naming not our relative power—the instinctual move for us western liberals—but our relative lack of it. The world’s evil is not something we could stop if only we cared enough to; we are captive to it—and the path from impotent guilt to true solidarity requires naming this powerlessness we have in common with those who have far less power still.

He goes on to write about the need for collective action, because we are indeed powerless on our own.  We can choose to shop in thrift stores, for example, but that does not necessarily change very much about the global economic system.

We do not like feeling powerless.  So we get depressed, or we tune out the world’s problems.  Or we pray, which is much more functional than hiding in our blanket cave – because as we pray, we are acting out of the reality that we are powerless – each one of us alone is, to a greater or lesser extent, powerless.  No wonder the larger, thorny issue of the global economy (particularly as it relates to our clothing) was not getting attention – it is so big, we feel powerless to comprehend its scope, much less do anything about it.

If we think in terms of being members of the Body of Christ, we remember that rather than being called to be functional on our own, we function as parts of a Body in concert with one another.  As thankful as I am for Twitter tonight, I am even more thankful for Church – for the Body of believers that, in their best and truest moments, acts out of love instead of out of fear.  “Together we serve… our hands quick to help, our hands ready to dare.”

So friends – what will you dare to do as a small part of the solution to a very big problem – the global textiles industry?  In solidarity with all the others powerless before this big big problem – from cotton farmers to Bangladeshi garment workers to the displaced former textile factory workers who have left North Carolina trying to find work elsewhere… to the countless Americans, yourself included, who are considered important only as buying units – as “consumers” – what collective action shall we take?

Even as my weight fluctuates, I am going to attempt to buy no newly manufactured clothes for a year.  Second-hand clothes only between now and May 15, 2014.  Will you join me?  And if not, what action will you take? Working together in opposing injustice, we strengthen one another. “Remembering love is the strength of our song.”