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.

Torture

It has been nearly a decade since I read Bill Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, but it is very much on my mind this morning. I am especially thinking about his words about how pain turns the mind inward, drawing one so into one’s own body as to make community with God or others seem unreal – a fading dream or terrible illusion. For those who are tortured, removed from anything to think about but their present, past, or anticipated pain, removed from any persons but those who would cause them pain, torture becomes an anti-Eucharist, a ritual of stripping an individual from communion with anyone. The suffering of the individual makes them more individual than ever before, and even when released, their isolation can be impenetrable.

Last week I broke my tail bone. It is the fourth time in ten months that I have been sufficiently injured to be confined to the sofa for the better part of the day. I am beginning to have my own scale for injuries – this one the least bad of the four because driving, while quite painful, is in fact possible. Once I get going on the subject of it, it can seem that there is nothing much going on in my life but my ailments. I am concerned lest I become a caricature of an invalid – driving away what community I have by an insistence on cataloging my woes, my inconveniences, my various doctor’s appointments, until a sympathetic noise made at a nonsensical point in the conversation betrays that my audience is in fact bored beyond endurance, and has long since stopped listening. Pain can be isolating in more than one way.

It is painful to sit up and write, painful to bend over to tidy up or load the bottom rack of the dishwasher. The most comfortable place for me is the sofa, on my side, with an ice pack wedged between my rear end and the sofa. Which is where I can be found in my alone time, mostly reading novels. Yesterday, I finished Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion. I am hoping to pick up Russell Banks’ Continental Drift again and finish that in the next day or two. And so, in addition to the assurance that my torment is localized, and will come gradually to an end, I have many opportunities for community: with authors and with their characters, with my family, with our neighbors and other friends. Through my memory, I have community with friends past and present, as my eyes light on books and other objects around the house that serve as reminders. And so it is that I have the assurance of God’s presence, too.

For Christians, Trinity means that Godself is communion, and Church means that God is made known to us through communion with one another. My pain does not make me wise or focus my mind. I am distracted and impatient and tired – and not able to think as clearly as I would like. But I am grateful that my pain is materially different from torture in almost every respect – and while not Eucharistic, is neither anti-Eucharistic.

Or better yet, I will endeavor that my pain might become Eucharistic, insofar as it might remind me to pray for those who have been intentionally separated from any but those who wish to increase their pain. Love is stronger than death, the scriptures tell us. For those who endure torture and who have lost all hope for release, may the subverting love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be for them stronger than their pain.
And may the Church find courage to embody this subversive love in defiance of those who would isolate any from that love which, in Christ’s own body (a body which was brought to death through torture,) was offered for them too. If we are to claim Christ as our Lord, then we may condone torture for none – for torture isolates the individual being tortured until the very notions of love and community seem impossible, in such a way as may never be undone. And that is the very opposite of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

This mandate – that we teach others of the love of God for them – for every one of them – if God is real, then there is no more expedient, no more practical work than reaching all with this news. But perhaps, for those who condone torture, Love is a weak thing, neither stronger than death, nor pain, nor fear. Perhaps for them, God is not love, and Christ did not die for all, and security means that we can keep ourselves safe through the biggest guns, the most money, the latest and best information – or, should “the worst” happen, with gas masks, off shore banking, and evacuation plans. Just admit it, please. So that it may be clear that you, my dear trembling sisters and brothers who place your trust in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” so that it might be clear that you, too, might rightfully be considered those who have still not truly heard the Good News:
“Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people…”

When life gives you lemons…

To the best of my ability to remember, this script reproduces a children’s sermon I presented about six years ago.

In order to prepare for this children’s sermon, I had to practice making lemonade. I also had to make my simple syrup in advance – this basically involves taking a large Mason jar and filling it ¾ full with granulated sugar, and then pouring boiling water over it until the jar is nearly full. The sugar will completely dissolve – though it will take some stirring to help it along.
For props, I had my jar of simple syrup, some small bottles of soda water, a bag of lemons, one lemon sliced into wedges in a sealed container, some very small drinking cups, a lemon squeezer, a pitcher, a wooden spoon, and a cutting board with a very big very sharp knife – all of these were hidden away in a large paper Cokesbury bookstore bag. (That was sort of my signature item for most of my children’s stories – the Cokesbury bag. I kept it next to my seat behind the pulpit, in hopes that the kids would be consumed with wondering “what is in the bag today?” On the rare days that I did not need the bag, that was a fun distraction, too – “Where is the pastor’s bag?!” ) Behind the door in the front of the sanctuary, I had stowed a low table to lay all of my props out on.

Pastor: I invite the children to come forward at this time – let’s find out what I have in my bag today!

The kids came forward pretty quickly – one advantage of a very small sanctuary! I had them in the habit of sitting in the (naturally empty) front pew, while I sat on the floor in front of them, so that they would be higher than me – and also so that they would not be on display for the congregation as much as might be otherwise. But this time, when they arranged themselves onto the front pew, I surprised them by not taking my usual position. Instead…

Pastor: [Leaving bag beside communion rail] Oh! I forgot something very important!

I really had forgotten. So I kept talking to explain, because keeping on talking is something that is part of who I am – and as I talked, I walked to the door at the front of the sanctuary, grabbed the small table, and brought it just a bit off to the side from the kids – because there wasn’t room for me, the table and the kids all there in front of the altar rail:

Pastor: I was just looking into my bag and remembered that I have way too many things in my bag today – so I had hidden this little table to put all of my things on. Because I don’t want to make too much of a mess for Miss Johnnie! [Johnnie was our custodian.] So let’s see what I have in here… [pulling out the bag of lemons] Ah, yes! Lemons! There is something grownups say sometimes, maybe you have heard it – “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Have any of you heard this one before? [They hadn’t. Pretty cool that none of them pretended that they had – I liked that they knew it was okay not to know.] Well maybe we can figure out what it means. Let’s see – what do we know about lemons?
Kids: [gave answers like] They are a fruit! They are yellow! They smell good! You have lots of lemons!

Pastor: Do they taste good?

The kids disagreed on this matter. Some thought that lemons might taste good, because lemon pie, lemonade, etc etc taste good. Others had heard lemons were sour, or had personally discovered through trying them that lemons were sour.

Pastor: I think lemons are pretty sour, myself. But I haven’t tasted a lemon in a long time. [Pulling out the baggie of pre-cut lemon wedges.] Would any of you like to try a lemon?

Lots of kids raised their hands at first, but then when presented with a wedge, balked, and asserted that they had just been kidding. The adults began to laugh at this – but as it was my general policy to break the adults of the habit of laughing at the kids’ responses, I took this head-on.

Pastor: [To the children] I wonder what they think is so funny?  [Then, to the grown-ups behind them] Perhaps one of you would like to taste a lemon for me?

I had no takers on this one – but I had been prepared either way.

Pastor: See, none of them want to do it, either!

Then one kid, who I will call Jeff, mainly because there was no Jeff at this church (I have similarly changed the other names), volunteered to try it. He was the quintessential “good kid” – always wanting to help out the pastor. I didn’t want to martyr himself on this one, so I gave him the option of an out.

Pastor: Wow, Jeff, are you sure?
Jeff: Yeah, why not?
Pastor: Well, just so you know, I can still do the rest of my children’s sermon without ANYone trying a lemon –
Jeff: No, I’m actually curious about it now.
Pastor: OK.

I handed Jeff a lemon wedge, and he took a healthy bite of the pulp and immediately made the sour face.

Jeff: Oh! [Then, trying to minimize it] That was not so bad, I guess.

Naturally, the congregation laughed again.

Pastor: That’s alright, Jeff. They are just laughing because they think that it probably was really bad after all, and they appreciate that you are trying to be polite about it. Thanks for making the effort, Jeff!  Now, what can you tell everyone about how lemons taste?

Jeff: They are really sour. They are not all that good, really.

I lucked out here – I have since learned that some children actually like to munch on lemon wedges – my own daughter for example. I was totally not prepared for that possibility. Just FYI.

Pastor: So, Jeff, if you had a guess about that phrase, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” – What do you think that might mean?
Jeff: Well, lemons are pretty bad on their own… and lemonade is good… and you have a lot of lemons on that table… they aren’t really good for much unless you make them into something else. So I guess it means, don’t eat lemons!

This was a pretty typical literalistic response – kids don’t get metaphors so much. Which is why I tried to use metaphors like this only very rarely in children’s sermons. But I love making lemonade, and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. But working with a metaphor with younger kids means being open to a longer children’s sermon – long enough to walk them through the metaphor.  Be prepared to cut your sermon short for a children’s sermon like this one!

Pastor: That’s right! Nobody buys lemons because they want to eat lemons – lemons don’t taste good by themselves! But somehow we can take these bad tasting, sour fruits and make wonderfully tasty stuff with them – like lemon meringue pie and lemon cookies and lemonade!!  So… I happen to have some lemons here [indicating lemons on table], and luckily, I know how to make lemonade…

I pulled out the simple syrup, the knife, the cutting board, the lemon squeezer, the pitcher, the little bottles of soda water one by one, and the wooden spoon as I told the story of how I learned to make lemonade.

Pastor: When I was in college, I had lots of different jobs. One of my jobs was working at a pharmacy lunchcounter in Richmond. I bet some of you have had lunch at the pharmacy in [a nearby big town.] The place I worked was called the Stuart Circle Pharmacy. I see some of the grownups nodding – some of them must be familiar with the Stuart Circle Pharmacy! It closed, oh I guess about 8 years ago, so you can’t go there anymore.  Which means I went to college a long time ago.  Anyway, in addition to taking orders and serving food, I washed the dishes and made the drinks. We were famous for our lemonade and limeade, so I had to learn to make those drinks in order to work there.

At this point everything was laid out on the table, so I brought my attention back to the task of making lemonade.

Pastor: OK – first we have to cut the lemons! Any of your parents let you use a big knife like this one?

Some of the kids looked a bit scared, while others looked eager, and turned back to look at their parents hopefully, but all ended up indicating that they were not allowed to use big sharp knives.

Pastor: OK then, I had better cut the lemons. [Begin halving lemons.] Now, at the pharmacy, we made lemonade by the glass, but I wanted to make a whole pitcher to share with you all, so I had to experiment with the recipe at home. I have to cut up a lot of lemons!

When the lemons were cut, I asked:

Pastor: Have any of you ever used a lemon squeezer like this one? [None of them had] Would you like to try? Great! We have plenty of lemon halves here – enough for everyone to get a turn squeezing – so line up if you want to try it.

Everyone ended up in the line. Some of them needed me to help them squeeze – it takes a lot of hand strength! Basically it was only the kids who were about 8 or older who were able to do it themselves.

Pastor: Wow! That was hard work! But look how much lemon juice we have! Now I need to add the simple syrup. [Begin measuring / spooning in syrup while continuing to talk] I had to make this simple syrup at home – I filled this jar almost full of sugar, and then I poured in hot boiling water from my tea kettle. Do your parents let you pour boiling water?
Jane: [ruefully] I can’t even use the stove!
Pastor: Well, I guess you would need some help making simple syrup, then, right? It looks like most of you would. But that’s okay – you would already have an adult in the kitchen with you to help with cutting the lemons.

Next, I began opening a couple of bottles, pouring soda water into the pitcher of lemon juice and syrup.  Then I took the wooden spoon and began stirring.  Meanwhile…

Pastor: At the pharmacy, we always used soda water to make our lemonade and limeade – so that it was like a soft drink! I think it tastes better this way than with plain water, but if you are going to make it like this you have to drink it right away.
Wow! This takes a long time – none of you grownups are going to mind if I have to shorten the sermon, are you?
Annie (a parent) shouts back: Not if we get some lemonade, too!

That inspired a lot of laughter – and also some nodding from the other grown-ups.

Pastor: You’ve got a good point, Annie!  I am always leaving you all out, aren’t I? The kids get all kinds of cool stuff, and you grownups are left out! It’s not fair! Well, not today – I made enough for everyone to have a little lemonade.

I brought the little paper cups out of the bag, and began pouring about 3 oz of lemonade into each one.

Pastor: OK kids, I promise that there will be enough for you, too – but I would really appreciate it if you would help the ushers – oh, right! Could the ushers come forward please? – So kids, you and ushers make sure all the grown-ups out there have some lemonade, and then come back for yours.

There was about 2 minutes of scurrying around – this would have taken forever in a bigger congregation. Meanwhile, I began putting things away.  I did not want a distracting mess up front after the children’s sermons – but neither did I want a long pause in the service as everyone watched me clean up between worship elements.  Finally the kids came back for their own lemonade, and I turned my attention back to them.

Pastor: After you have picked up a cup for yourself, could you sit back on the front row for just a minute? You can drink your lemonade while we talk.

I finished putting things away, and carried it all back through the door at the front of the sanctuary while the kids arranged themselves on the front pew.  I came back into the sanctuary holding a cup of lemonade myself.

Pastor: So how about that lemonade?

Some kids nodded while drinking – a couple called out, “Good!”

Pastor: That’s pretty cool!  Jeff was right – lemonade is a lot better than lemons! But when grown ups say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” they mean somehting else, too! They mean to say that you can do this with anything in your life that seems not very good – They mean that if something makes us feel sad or angry, we can use that experience and turn it into something good!  That can be pretty hard to understand.  So let’s try to think of an example – Has anyone ever said anything mean to you? Or said something mean about you to someone else?

There was lots of nodding and hands shooting up – and one child, unable to wait to be called on (he was probably bursting to tell – to have someone commiserate) spoke up right away:

Joey: Someone on my team told me I was a slow runner, and a bad baseball player.

Pastor: Oh no! I bet that really hurt your feelings! That is terrible! Is it even possible to make lemonade out of a really sour lemon like that one?  Is it possible to turn that bad thing someone told Joey into something good?

Blank looks all around. Which is about what I expected.

Pastor: Well, let’s see. Maybe… maybe now that you have shared how terrible that felt when someone said that to you, I hope that all of us will remember that, and try not to say mean things to other people. Because none of us would want to hurt Joey’s feelings. And everyone has feelings, just like Joey.  So if we remember that, and say nice things to other people, and try not to hurt their feelings, then that is something good.
[Then, addressing Joey directly again]: I hope that that teammate of yours was not trying to be mean, but was just not thinking about how much saying that would hurt you. But either way, they never should have said that. And I sure hope they learn to be nicer in what they say.
[Back to addressing everyone]: Now I have a problem with the idea that we can take the sad things that happen to us, and make them into something good. I noticed that Joey had a hard time thinking of a way to make something good out of the bad thing that was said to him. It is too hard, sometimes, to make our own bad thoughts and feelings into something good. It is very very hard to take something bad that has happened to us – something that makes us sad and God sad with us – it is hard to take that bad thing and turn it into something good – something that makes us kinder, or makes the world a better place – it is hard to take a bad thing and turn it into a good thing, something that makes God happy.
It is SO hard that we are not expected to do it by ourselves. Remember making the lemonade? You need a grownup to help you make lemonade from real lemons, right? In the same way, we need help – help from our friends, from grownups that we trust (like our parents or our pastor or a teacher or an aunt or uncle) – we need help from our friends – and help from God!! – to turn the bad things that have happened to us into things that give God glory – things that make God happy and make the world a better place.
So remember – when life gives you lemons, ask for help – from God and from your friends and family – ask for help making lemonade. We can’t make yucky things better all alone, by ourselves.

Let us pray:
Dear God, Thank you for helping us. Thank you for listening when we pray. And thank you for giving us people who love us and will help us feel better when bad things happen. Amen.