Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Eucharist Project

Thirteen months ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, my husband went to Kroger, bought a gift card and drained our bank account onto it. I finished my workday, stashed a twenty dollar bill between cards in my pocketbook and packed up the last of the food in the house, except for some flour, some dried beans, herbs and spices and a couple of bags of frozen food. As I recall, all the milk, cheese, cereal, oats, fruits and veggies- fresh and canned- were cleaned out. Almost every bit of food we had was in the coolers and baskets. Except for spending my twenty on the last gift, an Amazon gift card for a sibling, we were set to start out for the annual Reynolds' Christgiving. 

Our sixteen-year-old daughter carried her lime green comforter, stuffing coming out of huge gash in the seam to the Camry  Over her shoulder, she had slung a pillowcase, stuffed with her MP3 player, a couple of favorite stuffed animals, books, games, snacks and her coat. She squeezed her items on top of the packed out back seat and maneuvered her long legs in the cab. My son hefted in under his ratty blue comforter. --Back in our seminary days, when parishes helped Seminarian families buy the Christmas gifts, the kids had opened the blankets.-- This was our second year crawling out of seminary debt and scaling back on all those gifts. Liam too had a pillow case stuffed with toys for the drive. Both kids looked snowed in the back seat, but excited for our trip. 

For the twelve hours drivng, they sharing earbuds, groaned against the unbalanced baskets of gifts and food. Road-weary in the wee hours of the morning, they car-napped and snarked at each other.  We have driven this path so many times, it is no longer adventurous, especially when we cannot bribe them with sodas and Subway this time. 

During seminary, we drove from Pennsylvania to Indiana, for two weeks of Christmas or three months of summer. We stretched our hands and feet as we crossed back into the Hoosier state, joking that one of us had made it home first.

Now we do a four-day round trip in the opposite direction. It's not so bad on the way out, with the anticipation of Christgiving-- Christmas celebrated back to back with Thanksgiving in November-- It is a necessary tradition for an extended family with several ordained clergy. We smooshed together Christmas and Thanksgiving on a lark and ended up with the newly christened Christgiving, a lovely accident since it blends the gratefulness with Christ's gift.  It's a family kind of Eucharist. Eucharist is what my clergy husband and our parish offer up to God every Sunday. It means thanksgiving, literally. 

Last year, I trembled the whole trip, not with the joy of the Nativity season either. I was excited to see family I hadn't seen in months. I was excited to give out my handmade gifts, but spending our last two hundred dollars on gas and tolls scared me. The empty pantry, refrigerator and freezer flashed to mind as the mile markers passed. I pushed  back tears and gulped down the  lump in my throat. We were going on faith. There was no food or paycheck expected for the entire week following the trip. I reminded my husband to hyper-mile. He made up reasons the kids did not need sodas and fast food. In the backseat, they knew. They ate in silence. Thanksgiving felt like oxygen on a mountain peak, thin.

We made it home on what we had. My husband asked the parish for his check early. We bought groceries. In the following weeks, we had enough.

 We stuffed St. Nicholas stockings with socks, undergarments, candy and bubble bath. We bought our modest presents for the kids, even a small bit for each other. Folks in the parish gave us books, gift certificates and little extras. It was festive in a kind of restrained and beautiful way, like a slow and sparkly snowfall. That the week after Christmas, with a full heart, but empty pocketbook, I was looking for a way to give more outside our family. I started a 5000 mile challenge, of walking and running for the year, with the hopes of fundraising for several missionaries, mission groups, ministries and non-profits.

DISCLAIMER: Before I continue, I should tell you that my dream of raising a dollar a mile for the year resulted as well as a sales-drive test by Herff Jones went years ago. I am terrible at the ASK, that is the asking of money, it turns out. I got about five cents on the mile this year because I'm worried about putting people out. I went 5400 hundred miles. Actually, I'm finishing those as we speak, thanks to a free treadmill from my friend Melissa. It probably has 5000 miles on it since she gave it to me five years ago.

When I started a year ago, I was full of hope and thanksgiving, trepidation nagged at me, because I had just overcome a pretty nasty sprain. On Dec. 31, 2011, I was running a 9-minute mile. Still it seemed a good idea, a good gift for my running and my restless, worried body.

In the past year, I trained non-stop. Before my marathon this October, I was running a 7:21 minute mile. I ran the marathon well, though I tripped. i finished in 3 hours and 41 minutes. Within a few weeks, I hit my 5000 mile goal. The same week, I felt the sprain. It traveled down my legs and knotted up my feet.

I'm nursing it back to health, running once a week, at most, and slow. I'm running 12-minute miles. I hurt. And the thanksgiving this year, well, I think I'm cresting Mount Rainer, or K2. It's been thin and I'm ragged.

Twelve months ago, when I began, I acknowledged the unknown snarls that might undo my plans. Injury aside there was job uncertainty, and many demands and choices that years bring. I knew I would be facing the annual uncertainty that my position for a Pennsylvania virtual school creates. I live too many states away. If I were not such a committed teacher, they might have let me go, as they have to several friends who moved after me.  

I started a graduate program, to hedge those fears about my job. It's like working two full-time jobs, while being a mom to a teenage girl and 'tween son. Spice that up with a few other roles, like ingredients in my identity and energy: priest's wife, partner, supposedly a friend, sister and daughter. 

Of all of those, parenting has been the biggest challenge this year. Maybe because I feel time is running out with my beautiful daughter. She has a boyfriend, is apply to colleges, and starting her first job. She texts people all day and aces her AP and Honors classes. But, if you have heard the adage that parenting a teenager is akin to parenting a preschooler, heed it. Preschoolers need mom and dad at all hours and have no sense of time or general awareness outside of their sphere of existence. Teens are like this too, but the situation is deceptive, because parents can convince themselves this is not normal, that these kids are older and more mature than this needy-ness they exhibit. It is normal, and they are age-appropriate. -- Too bad I haven't been age appropriate. If I graded myself, I would get F's in some of those positions, and none would hold at higher than a B on some tests. Most F's come in the area of parenting a teenage daughter. Just when I need to be flexible to start a tearful heart to heart at 11pm, I am bleary eyed, demanding the shower, and nodding off, or just plain intemperate at her imposing need for reassurance at that hour of the night.

That's just speaking to my failure as a mother. 

So, when Rachel, who started going to my church this year, handed me a book last week, Ann Voscamp's 1000 Gifts, I got the sense it was providential.

Voscamp is a protestant, but she had me at her epigraph on Chapter Two, words from Fr. Alexander Schmemann from his book For The Life of the World:

Eucharist is the state of perfect man.
Eucharist is the life of paradise.
Eucharist is the only full and real response of man
 to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven.

Remember that Eucharist is the oblation- the obedient offering- of Thanksgiving that involved the Body and Blood of our Savior. We say the Church is a hospital, that Christ came to save not the righteous but sinners, that the Body and the Blood are for healing, for the life of the world.

In thirteen months, in more ways that I can count, but close to 1000, I have not been thankful. I have grown sick and shriveled, akin to the figs on the tree cursed.

I need a 1000 thanksgivings. I cannot do all those liturgies in one year, I cannot take in the medicine, literally, 1000 times. I can begin, though. I can begin by offering a thanksgiving for every mile my feet take me this year. I would love to replace every curse, every complaint, every groan and growl, every sigh of hurt and anger with a thanksgiving, but I know my stubborn will. I will pair Thanksgiving with the use of my body, which gets hurt and tired, and joyful and energetic in seasons. I will learn thanksgiving like one learns prostrations.

And perhaps, I will find the joy of the Lord is my strength,
That He gives beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness,
His peace {He} gives to me, that passes all understanding,
That He clothes the lilies of field resplendently,
That he heals bruised reeds,
That he comforts those who mourn,
That He might be glorified.

Pray for me. At the end of this, there will be fasting, repentance, joy and peace, In short, Eucharist.

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