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, remember

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Detail from “Crucifixion with Two Thieves,” by Beato Angelico
Photograph by Asaf Braverman
Ark in Time via photopin cc

The Bible shows us so many ways of praying, so many circumstances under which we might pray. My father used to say, “The most honest prayer in the Bible is when Job told God, ‘God, come down here – I’m angry with you!” (It was years before I learned that God answered that prayer, and not with an apology, either.) But the Bible doesn’t deal in superlatives when it comes to prayer – as in so many other areas, the Biblical witness about prayer is varied. Anger is not absolutely more honest than any other emotion we can express to God – it was the most honest note that my father could sound, and he generalized from his own experience. The Bible can be like a Rorschach that way – we are revealed especially in the details that we notice.

About 10 years ago now, I was doing a unit of CPE, which is to say I was interning as a chaplain, at a state psychiatric hospital. I would pray as I walked between buildings, singing whatever rose up in me. Near the end of my summer there, I noticed that I kept coming back to the Taize chant based on Luke 23:42 – “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Why that one? Because it is plaintive sounding, and repetitive, which is comforting when everything seems strange and wrong? Because it is something to ask when I don’t know what to ask – notice me, see me, remember me? No, that didn’t really get at it.

I haven’t been writing lately. I have been ill. What we thought might be pneumonia turned out to be medication withdrawal – which has a much more uncertain course. I have gone six years without feeling so depressed for so long. Many days, it is hard work to simply convince myself that life is not pointless. I am reminded of the terminal nature of this illness.

This morning is a good morning. Better than the new normal, anyway. I was in the shower, and I began to sing – first a song without words that I was composing as I went along, and then, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And as I sang it the fourth and fifth and sixth time, my mind was taken back to the cross, and I remembered the one who first prayed this prayer, hanging beside Jesus. A terminal case, wracked with pain and guilt (“we are getting what we deserve”), a man without hope, who reached out to Jesus at a time when faith in him was most absurd, when Jesus seemed least likely to be who he said he was.

This morning, it is the truest note I can sound: I am in pain, and God seems unlikely. That Jesus has not yet come into his kingdom seems self-evident. But I give thanks that I can pray into the not yet, “Jesus, remember me…”

This is your brain on fiction

My three and a half year old daughter is obsessed with astronauts.  She spent more than two hours yesterday playing with her toy astronauts:  having the moon rover wheel over to the lunar lander for some banana milkshakes whipped up by Ham the space chimp, giving them a lecture about how to fix a satellite, trekking to see the “space cat” who had camped out in her sofa cushion space ship, and even putting on a ballet recital for them.

She has already seen one astronaut movie in the theaters – the IMAX movie “Hubble” – and she was very excited to be going to the planetarium for their full dome showing of a short film simply titled, “Astronaut.

I was a bit skeptical – she had clung to me like a baby orangutan through most of the showing of “Heart of the Sun” yesterday (which we ended up seeing because I had gotten us to the theater a bit too late for “Astronaut”), complaining that it was too loud.

I was delighted with the opening sequence, in which we were swept through an astronaut’s brain, bloodstream, heart, and lungs.  And while I was nervous that the lack of a frame of reference and the simulated speed would be unsettling for her, she seemed fine, leaning comfortably back into me and tracking the action with rapt attention.  Then, as they pulled back to a picture of the astronaut coming out of an airlock into the cargo bay for a space walk, her awestruck voice was heard through the quiet theater, “Look, Mommy, the space shuttle!”

Things were going along swimmingly, even as they spun us more and more rapidly around the human centrifuge trainer.  What set her off was not the speed, or the darkness, or the sound, or the loss of her usual frames of reference:  what finally led to her turning into a quivering mass of frantically whispered, “I want to go RIGHT NOW!” was the abuse heaped on “Chad” – an goofy animated test subject demonstrating all of the things that could happen to an astronaut if they were not wearing their spacesuit outside of the craft.  The fact that there were about 8 identical Chads was a bit cognitively disturbing to myself.  But the abuse didn’t faze me – I knew that he was just a drawing, and have become a bit desensitized to cartoon violence, thanks to Chuck Jones, et. al.  For my daughter, however, Chad really was unable to breathe, or floating away untethered, or crushed by space debris.  When Chad was finally turned to a solid block of ice, she had had enough.

Later, she wanted to know why the astronaut kept getting hurt.  I tried to explain that he was not really real, but just a drawing – that he couldn’t really be hurt – just like her doll isn’t really hurt when she is bonked into the window blinds.  (Somehow, the comedic value of that particular action is limitless these days.)  But that was not good enough for my daughter – she wanted to know why they would want to show us a drawing getting hurt over and over.  “So we’ll know why spacesuits are important,” I began to say, “So that we know why astronauts must always wear their suits outside of the spaceship.”

“But if they always do, why do we need to know what will happen if they don’t?” she replied.

I still see the value of the lesson, but clearly the movie was not the right match for her at this developmental stage – we are going to have to wait until she really understands the difference between fact and fiction, between what is real and what is not.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder to what extent any of us ever reach this stage.  Us “grown-ups” keep watching serial dramas and comedies because we become invested in the characters. Certain scenes and images haunt us even though we know that they were made up – even though we went to see the movie simply to be entertained.  (Which reminds me, I would advise you to avoid The Pillow Book, unless you find yourself in need of a memory that makes you physically nauseated every time it comes to mind.  Actually, I might extend that warning to all Peter Greenaway films in general.)

Fiction calls for us to suspend our disbelief, something that humans are frighteningly good at (some of us more than others!) But when we do that, when we allow action and character to unfold “as if” it were true, then we are also (often unwittingly) absorbing the author’s world view.  For instance, in order to get a few pages into The Time Traveler’s Wife, we have to grant the device of time travel.  But do we not similarly and unthinkingly grant the author’s views about romantic love, and if so, why?  Who certified Audrey Niffenegger as a love expert?

Authors and directors are not reporting something that did happen – they are describing what is possible in their own mind.  And our own minds are a great deal more limited than the universe.  To quote one man of great imagination, “There are more things in Heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”

So – it is not just my daughter who is susceptible to getting drawn into a fictional world.  I myself am trying to discipline myself not to suspend my belief in a loved and redeemed creation when I read or watch or listen to the creations of human creatures these days.  Instead, I am learning to observe with a bit of skepticism – to ask – does this diverge from the world I know, and how?