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.

Showing up for dinner

Last year, I had the privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving eve service at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC.  Today, as so many of us in the United States are preparing once again to join with friends and family around the table, I wanted to share these words with you.

This sermon is rooted in scriptures from Ecclesiastes, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s “jars of clay text” from 2 Corinthians.

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During my last year as a Divinity school student, a friend of mine who was in her first year in her first church called me after returning home from a hospital visit. It was late December. One of her parishioners had become very ill. She was near to death, and the family had been told that this might be their last chance to visit. So a carload of family and near friends got onto the highway to make their way to their hometown to stand vigil, and somewhere on the road they had been in an accident. Now there were two more family members near death, at a hospital more than an hour from their hoped for destination. This friend of mine grieved for the family in this hour, and she lamented: “How can I preach a Christmas Eve service? I don’t feel very Christmassy right now, and neither do many people in my congregation.”

The tricky thing about holidays is that their season is not always our season. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of the biggest festival days in our culture – it is a time for us to celebrate friends and family and good food, to give thanks for happy memories and for all of our present blessings – it is a way to mark time with a series of smiling snapshots – a time to make happy memories!

Which is great for those of us for whom this November is significantly better than last November, and not such great news for those of us for whom this past year has been lousy. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, while for others, this will be the first since the loss of a marriage through death or divorce. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving in a new home, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving since losing their home. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving with a new baby, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving after having lost a child. This may have been one of your best years, or one of your worst – and let’s not oversimplify things: this may have been a year where your best gifts have come with their own burdens: a return home from deployment overseas may come with a reminder of friends who didn’t make it back. A new baby may come with a loss of time with your spouse. A new job or new town is, for both good and ill, not like the last one. It can be hard to be full of thanks if it feels like you are running on empty.

Nothing in this life is permanent, instead, as the writer of Ecclesiastes begins his book, “all is vanity” – life is fragile and fleeting – it cannot be grasped and mastered. Or as Jesus reminds us in Luke, neither poverty nor wealth, neither grief nor joy, neither famine nor feast, neither disdain nor praise are permanent conditions! Grief gives way to laughter, as surely as laughter gives way to grief.

So what shall we do? Insofar as you can, enjoy what you can for as long as you can, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests. Remember that you carry Christ in you, Paul admonishes. Love – love everyone! Jesus tells us. None of them seems to be saying, “Smile, and no one will notice you are having a lousy time.”

If we are going to share a table with one another, we had better show up! Being real about who we are and what season we are in is a real ministry to our friends and family. We have this treasure in clay jars. Our fragile vessels are filled to the brim with God’s grace! God has poured love into us – into our fragile, fleeting, hopeful and frightened, confused happy sad selves – we are loved exuberantly and extravagantly. Not because we are perfect hosts and hostesses, not because we have never burned a pie, not because we flawlessly executed one of the menus suggested in this year’s November issue of Gourmet magazine. And not because we manage to go through the entire meal without once mentioning any feeling of loss or sadness. No – God loves us as we really and truly are without our having to prove anything to anyone.

Our dog can eat the turkey, our toupee can slip down over our eyebrows, toilet paper can stick to our shoe and trail for yards behind us, and yet we are loved. And it may make us a laughingstock. Or it may come as a sincere relief to our companions who have been trying too hard to live up to some impossible Thanksgiving ideal. And the same goes for our grief, our hunger, and our poverty. When we are honest with one another about our needs, about what we lack and what we miss and how we are hanging on by a thread, not only are our needs more likely to get met – but our neighbors are more likely to have the courage to be more fully present as well – to acknowledge where they themselves are standing in the need of prayer. It can be a great mercy to not play at being perfect.

We are coming to the thanksgiving table tonight as a family – because eucharist means thanksgiving, and God through Christ has made us all kin to one another – we are coming to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. God invites us to share in this thanksgiving meal with one another because God loves us. At this table, we do not have to hide who we are, or pretend that we are more together than we really are. And having shared together at this table, we do not need to pretend with one another, either – being who we really are is a ministry to one another, and to all the world. Because it is only when we acknowledge that we are not perfect that we can stop demanding perfection from one another – it is only when we know that we are mere clay that we can love our enemies – we begin to see with God’s eyes of mercy.

This is good practice for tomorrow! My hope for each one of you would be that you would be sitting down at the table with people who love you, who are true kindred in Christ, people for whom you do not have to be perfect, but with whom you need only to be yourself. But for the many who are not so blessed to be in that situation, instead let us all pray that though you might be afflicted, you would not be crushed; though you might be perplexed, you would not be driven to despair, and though you may be persecuted, you might remember that you are not forsaken, but instead that you are a most beloved child of God. May you find pleasure simply in the preparation of the meal and the eating of the food. And in your every interaction tomorrow, may you find the strength to be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful – to yourself as well as to those you celebrate with.

Re-membering

For the first time, I have uploaded some audio files to the blog!  You can find them here, or by clicking on the link at the top labelled “Sarah’s other writing.”  Check them out!  The shortest is under five and a half minutes – the longest just over eight minutes.

I recorded these memories of my father for the Connections segment of Trinity Voices: a weekly radio broadcast recorded and produced by Jim Ayres for Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, NC.  They aired on 4 consecutive Sunday mornings in December 2010.

On every other occasion when I had worked with Jim, I had written full manuscripts, barely deviating from them in the recording process.  But having just returned from a week with my dying father – knowing that I would not see him alive again (this side of the kingdom), I was too emotional to prepare anything.

Usually, Jim recorded in a classroom in the basement of the church, but it was a Sunday evening – the basement was being used by several other groups.  The quietest place in which to record was the sanctuary.  I arrived early and wrote a few notes – planned how the four recordings would work together as a series.  Jim wanted me to do something about gifts; all I could think about was my father.  We were not entirely sure how or why he was holding on to life.  I knew that Dad was going to die sometime before the recordings aired.  I sat alone in the darkening sanctuary, redolent with lingering prayers and dusty paraments, and I meditated on my father – on the gifts that he had given me, and on what that might reveal to listeners about God’s gifts to them.  Looking back, I was composing a hagiography – selecting out the saintly bits from my Dad’s relationship with me.  Nestled between the Feast of All Saints and my father’s own impending saint day, it was a season for selective re-membering:  for reassessing and reassembling my father’s life in a way that helped me make sense of my love for him, and the depth of my disorientation as he lingered on the threshold of earthly life.

I had preached or spoken from notes many times before that Sunday night, but never before had I spoken for so long with no more than a sentence fragment or two to guide me.  As far as I remember, Jim recorded these one after the other, in a continuous take.  It was the eulogy before the funeral – a better eulogy than the one that spilled out of me from the pulpit of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Midlothian, Virginia less than a week later.

Jim had never given me a copy of a radio segment I had composed for him before – but without being asked he handed me two CDs with these recordings on it at the Thanksgiving Eve service that year – one for me and one for my mother.  I don’t know if she has ever listened to hers.  I only felt ready to listen to it for the first time today.  Today was the first day that I felt certain that listening to them would make my day better instead of worse.

I hope that in re-membering my father in this way – in piecing this collage portrait out of the best bits of him – that I did not commit an act of violence against those who remember him differently.  My Dad could be a difficult guy.  To say the least.  I was on the receiving end of some of that myself.  A lot of that, actually.

Instead it is my hope and prayer that in the last day, as we stand before Jesus our judge, that each one of us will be re-membered, re-assembled from all that was good and loving and true, and that all that was false and empty and fearful and underhanded will be swept away – tossed like chaff into an unquenchable fire.  Out of the best of who we were, so we will be.  My father as revealed in and through these four stories – this is how I will recognize him when we meet again in that kingdom which is coming.