In an On Being podcast, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells a story about her grandmother. Although her grandparents were quite poor in Russia, they often fed members of their community. Given that theirs was the rabbi’s home, neighbors often stopped by. Her grandmother was skilled at making food supplies stretch.
In America, every corner of her grandmother’s icebox was filled with food because she had known hunger in Russia. Remen remembers the family story:
“If someone opened the door of the icebox without caution, an egg might fall out and break on the kitchen floor. Her grandmother’s response to these accidents was always the same. She would look at the broken egg with satisfaction and say, ‘Aha. Today, we have a sponge cake.’”
“Perhaps this is about our wounds,” observes Remen. “The fact is that life is full of losses and disappointments, and the art of living is to make of them something that can nourish others.”
Her own life is testimony to this truth. When she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 15, the news was devastating. Her mother was with her when the shock hit home. “She did not comfort me or cuddle me. She took my hand, and she reminded me of this family story. And she said, “Rachel, we will make a sponge cake.”
Out of this experience, Remen believes that “the way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life.”
I first came across Remen’s story as I was preparing a sermon for the retirement celebration of a dear friend from seminary days. Because he was facing into terminal cancer, the occasion was bittersweet. In many ways, Peter L. Haynes epitomizes for me the essence of a treasured pastor. Until his untimely death in early May, I experienced him as a joyful, creative, playful, humble, wise, genuine, and passionate follower of Christ who loved his church family of many years and had inspired a generation of young people to love camping, church life, and Jesus Christ.
Yet, Pete’s life was not without suffering, tragedy, and loss. In a recent social media post, he commented that “death is part of the picture sooner or later, but I’m still rooting for the second, but prepared for the first.”
Living in these days of a pandemic, we face into the reality of death, loss, and suffering, some of us way more than others. Life is truly precarious and precious in ways we never knew before. Especially those on the front lines of response and service to others root for “later” but must be fully prepared for “sooner.”
If it’s true that being fully present to the losses of life can shape us into spiritually healthy and resilient persons, then by all means, let us seize those moments with courage. It is the losses and daily “little deaths” in the midst of life that have the capacity to give us practice at carrying Christ’s life within us.
More than mere pluck, picking up that proverbial broken egg as the start of a fine sponge cake is a way of looking for the life of Jesus in the midst of the brokenness and death within life. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, but it is so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. We are always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
There will inevitably be a significant number of life’s broken eggs filling up the basket on your journey and mine. Through divine grace and human grit, may they become the very ingredients that God uses to serve up the tasty, nourishing life of Jesus within us for the sake of the world.
Nancy Sollenberger Heishman is director of the Church of the Brethren Office of Ministry.