The Pecan Pie Speaks: This is Holy Ground!
“The children want to know why God doesn’t speak to them like God spoke to people in the Bible.” Hélène, a young immigrant from Cameroon who volunteers as one of our Sunday school teachers, said this with a slight shake of her head and a fond smile. It was late one Monday evening just a couple of weeks ago; we were sitting around my kitchen table having a worship committee meeting. There were just three of us – Hélène, Meg (the chairwoman, a lifelong member of the church with a wonderfully dry sense of humor), and myself. The ‘children’ in question were actually, for the most part, a group of middle-schoolers. Only the day before, Hélène had taught them about the story of God calling the prophet Jeremiah. The lesson was on how we listen for God’s call in our lives. Apparently, they wanted something more direct and overt than discerning where Christ might be leading them next through patient prayer.
“They want one of the bushes at church to go up in flames, huh?” Meg said with an edge of laughter already in her voice. “Of course, we’d probably call the fire department and try to put it out before we realized God was speaking!” We chuckled, but we knew Meg was right. Running for the fire extinguishers would be our number one reaction – wouldn’t want to risk the church burning down!
But Hélène said, “I told them that God is always speaking, even now.”
And suddenly a scene from the month before shoved its way to the front of my mind, demanding attention.
It had been one of my busiest days since starting at this small church in Baltimore, so by the time I reached Mrs. Hanson’s house for dinner, my mind was racing ahead with the same sense of uncontrollable momentum that I’d felt once before when skidding down a steep Manayunk hill in Philadelphia at the beginning of a blizzard. With six inches of snow on the ground, even my ABS didn’t do anything more than make my downward descent more jerky and petrifying. My mind was now in a similar jerky free-fall and it refused to be held in the present.
Mrs. Hanson had invited me over because, as she said, ‘we were both single women cooking for one and we might as well not eat alone.’ A grandmother with grown grandchildren, she wasn’t strictly serious when she said she was single; Mr. Hanson was still alive, but had long since lost himself to the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
I tried to concentrate on our conversation as we ate rather than looking at the clock on the microwave and calculating the minutes I had left before I absolutely had to jump in the car and speed back to church for my next appointment. I wasn’t very successful. At least, not until the pecan pie.
“Do you like pecan pie?” Mrs. Hanson asked me this as she bustled around the kitchen putting dishes in the sink and pulling out utensils for dessert. “And ice cream? Al… ,” that was her husband, “Al always loved ice cream. I guess he still does. We’d always get a big tub of it to have around for dessert – every night! Oh how he loved it.” There was just a shadow of sadness lurking at the edges of her words.
As she put the carton of ice cream on the table I nodded, “Yes,” I said, “I love them both.”
“Good. I’ve been saving this pie since Christmas.” And she put the pie in between us. I inspected it – it was April, after all – though I was fairly certain that she had frozen it. It looked perfect: golden brown crust, evenly spaced half-pecans dancing around the top in concentric circles, gooey molasses-brown sugar dripping from the giant piece that she pulled away from the pie and handed to me on a pink-rimmed plate. I took a bite; it tasted perfect too – sweet deliciousness.
“Every year my mother would have this big brunch on Christmas day. Well, we called it brunch, anyway, but really it was an eat-all-day kind of affair.” Mrs. Hanson took a bite of her own pie. She wasn’t looking at me, but she had suddenly commanded my full attention. There was something in her voice that told me that this – whatever it was she was about to say – this was vitally important and I’d better not miss it. “My daughter called me up last year and asked if we could do that again – revive the tradition. So I told her we could and I bought this pie for it – I’d never had pecan pie, did you know that? It was going to be the first time.” She took another bite. It felt like the world had suddenly come to a grinding halt under the magnitude of what was coming. “But then Owen died and brunch didn’t happen.”
But then Owen died…
Owen was Mrs. Hanson’s grandson and he had passed away just before Christmas. I didn’t know very much about him – he was in college, I thought, and had wrestled with illness for a long time. It might have been cancer, I wasn’t positive. The specifics didn’t really matter anyway, not in this instant – the shock of losing him, the depth of grief in this family already suffering from the long, drawn out living death of Al – those were what mattered right then. Those and the pecan pie with ice cream. Because through them, God’s voice was thundering.
“Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!”
Suddenly, Mrs. Hanson’s kitchen had become a sacred space and the meal took on a sacramental quality. The pecan pie that held the vision of what should have been: a Christmas meal shared by the whole family, Owen included. The ice cream that held the memories of a man whose memory had all but been wiped away. It was a Communion of Saints kind of meal – one that invited Owen and Al, whole, healed and fully alive – to sit at the table and break pie with us, if only for a fleeting moment.
“Take off your shoes,” God spoke through pie and ice cream, “for you are standing on holy ground.” It was as clear as any burning bush, like a sock in the gut that raised goose bumps on the back of my neck. I ate in reverent awe.
And yet…and yet it would have been so easy to miss it. It would have been so easy to shove the last bite of pie into my mouth and babble on about how grateful I was, but I needed to be on my way, thank you very much. It would have been so easy to pass it by if I hadn’t ever heard the story of Moses and the burning bush or the story of Jeremiah and the voice from heaven or the story of Isaiah in the throne room. It would have been so easy.
My youth want to know why worship is important. They want to know why church is important. There are a lot of answers to give them. But whatever happens to us as a denomination, I hope that we don’t lose sight of this one: in hearing those old stories from the Scriptures read and hearing these new stories from our own lives proclaimed, while it might not always seem like the Lord is calling to us through them, they attune our ears to Christ’s frequency (if you’ll forgive me for being a little hokey). They sharpen our attention so that we don’t miss those sacred moments when God’s call rumbles through the everyday like distant thunder – so low it would be easy to discount as background noise and yet so distinct, if you know what you’re listening for, that it’s as blatant as that voice that Jeremiah heard.
“God is always speaking,” Meg repeated Hélène’s words with a nod, “we just aren’t usually listening. I’m not sure people even know how to listen anymore.” Gone was the humor from her voice. And there was silence for a moment before she broke the tension with a smile and an enthusiastic, “I guess we’d better teach ‘em!”
Yes. I guess we’d better teach them.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.