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  • Writer's pictureJeff Conway

Vanilla Ice Cream & Hot Fudge

It has been passed down for at least three, four generations. Maybe more. Way too much butter, cocoa powder, milk, a secret ingredient and sugar. Lots of sugar. I now use unrefined organic raw sugar to pretend it’s healthy. They all have to bubble together on the stove for at least a minute for the magic to work. Add a splash of vanilla and — VOILA — the best hot fudge ever (and I don’t mean it like the coffee shops in cities that have signs displaying, “Best Coffee Ever”). It’s brilliant. Any decent vanilla ice cream will do. Some renegades in the family use chocolate or mint chocolate chip but I prefer the perfect blend of the fudge dripping over the vanilla, each presenting their glory. Some things just go together.

You may have felt confused, confounded, contrary, if you listened to my first conversation ("Live Well") with Susan on the podcast when I said, “Pain and joy go together like hot fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream.” Maybe it sounded too Jello and pudding, too always glass half-full — not really confronting the issues we face. It may have felt unemotional, unsympathetic, uncharitable. It may have felt too simple or possibly hurtful.

Where was the joy when my parents divorced and the pain of that separation bubbled over into the wider family and friends? How can there be joy when I’ve lost and grieve a loved one that takes me to a place so much more shadowy than the color of dark chocolate? Is joy to be found when I had to escape my home, my job, because of civil war and violence and travel to another country as an unwelcome presence? Why would I expect joy after being fired, not getting the job I longed for, or working at a job that brings no fulfillment? Who can understand the depth of my depression, the sunless pit that medicine and counseling has been unable to pull me up from? How is joy present? How can pain and joy fit together like a perfect recipe?

Pain is experienced when a person feels unjustly accused, verbally beaten down by others, left outside the circle, and can leave thoughts of, “Will I ever feel self-worth again?” Pain can be an emotional wall we face that seems unclimbable. Pain is real when we are calling out to God and feel that we are not getting a response. Pain shouts for attention when your muscles ripple out of control all day, never fully calmed by medicine, that leaves an ache deep into your bones.

Pain is real. It is a part of the human condition stemming from our own actions, the actions of others, and the simple, sad reality of the brokenness of our world. Glioblastoma, a cancer of the brain and spinal column, has tentacles that reach into the tiny crevices, to places unseen and hard to find. But, the patient feels the effects. Pain may be physical, emotional or spiritual, but it can grow in similar ways as those antennae of the Glioblastoma. Pain may start in one place but it affects our entire being. As Susan quoted C. S. Lewis in our podcast, “Pain demands attention.” We can try our best to ignore it, run from it, hide from it, but its tentacles keep moving and multiplying. It does demand attention. Our challenge is how to attend to it in healthy ways.

I have walked with many people through painful circumstances: listening, sitting quietly, and when the moment is right, speaking with them about finding joy in knowing that they are loved by God. Sometimes it can be shared as an abrupt reminder. But, most often it is a sweet journey of trust and empathy that allows me the opportunity to share what it means to wander with joy and pain together.

A friend text me last night and asked what I was doing. I told her I was writing about pain and joy meeting together. She had just completed her fourth major surgery in a matter of months. The first surgery didn’t work. The second surgery brought with it an infection to her bone. The third surgery was to remove the infected tissue and bone. After weeks of IV antibiotics, she had a fourth surgery and is slowly recovering, praying for success. She knows pain, intimately. When I told her what I was writing about, she said, “Well, I don’t see how those two things go together!” Understandable.

My personal experience with the pain I am on a journey with at this time is difficult to write about. “How are you?” “Fine.” Describing the pain is not difficult. But being vulnerable enough to share about the pain is the challenge. That was the key lesson I learned while hiking the Camino de Santiago a couple years ago. After being in a helper position most of my career, it can be hard for me to reach out my own hand when I am in need of help. “Physician, heal thyself.” Though Jesus shared those words in Nazareth to the folks he grew up with and who couldn’t believe he was their long awaited Messiah, it is now commonly used as a proverb to attend to your own being before helping others. Well, I can’t heal myself, but I continue to learn to lean upon Jesus for healing, help, direction, and understanding.

You can read a quick description of my physical neuromuscular challenge in the “About” section, so I won’t repeat it here. The disorder causes 24-hour pain. It is not fun. Much of the time it can be quite intense. And it’s exhausting — not just because of the many medications I take. Constant pain is just plain exhausting. It does demand my attention. I am constantly aware of the challenge of movement and travel and have to calculate the cost/benefit involved and the consequences that will follow. A back and forth six-hour trip to Connecticut to see my son and daughter-in-law is worth it. A three-day trip to see my other daughter-in-law and son as he joins a church in Washington DC is worth it. A two-hour trip with my wife to Lancaster County to get some favorite goodies is worth it to be with Patti, but a bit of a stretch for the reason. A road trip to see the largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas — not worth it. I don’t drive anymore so Patti would have to drive. I don’t think that one would hit her top ten list.

The pain in my life is constant and real but it sits right next to the constant and real joy I have in my life.

Joy is a word that is used casually in our vocabulary. It can be used to describe multiple circumstances that make people feel good, optimistic, happy. When I’m writing about joy it comes from a place that is deeper than the situations that makes us happy. In fact, you can feel joy when you’re feeling unhappy.

For me, joy was a seed that was planted in my soul at the moment I recognized I was loved by God. And, the more I celebrated and struggled through the human condition, the joy continued to blossom and grow. Joy, too, demands attention. It is rooted in the reality that God knows me fully. As I began to read and study scripture in my early years of faith, I could celebrate with the Psalmist, “How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey in my mouth.” Joy is tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. Joy is understanding what it means to feel precious to God. Joy is the deep dwelling inner assurance, the smile of our hearts, confirming our true personhood, place, and home Jesus has marked upon our souls. To know Jesus is to know Joy. To receive Jesus is to receive joy. To live with pain is to live with joy. My friend who had the surgeries knows this truth well, she just didn’t understand my context when we were texting. But, sometimes in the pain we need others to come alongside and remind us, encourage us with the joy. Sometimes I need to be encouraged and sometimes I am called to be the encourager.

Traveling to Herat, Afghanistan to meet with NGO’s (Non-Government Organization) I was called to be the encourager. They were exhausted from their community development work under the cruel, watchful eye of the Taliban. I was there to remind them they were precious to God.

Preaching at a church in Cairo, Egypt immediately after the Arab spring rushed through the country with many churches burned, I was called to remind them that every valley would be lifted, every mountain would be laid low and the crooked road would be made straight so that they could see and celebrate the joy.

When a family member took his own life, I needed others to come alongside me, to sit, to be quiet, to let the truth shine in the midst of the overwhelming grief and pain.

“Joy and pain go together like vanilla ice cream and homemade, rich hot fudge” — the white vanilla being covered with the rich, dark fudge though never fully enveloping the vanilla. The pain is still there but the joy is always covering it with a melting warmth.

But to make these words real and not just blather we need to know Jesus’ love for us. I encourage you to take some time to begin to read about the life and witness of Jesus. As my PK (Preacher’s Kid) fraternity roommate lit a fire under me in college to begin to read about Jesus as a first step, I am cheering you on to read, particularly starting with a letter written by one who knew Jesus well. 1 John is a letter that can be found near the very end of the New Testament in the Bible. Read it. Read it again. Sit with it. Reread parts that are speaking to you. Let your soul marinate in the words. How does it speak to your pain? How does it point towards joy? Let’s communicate so I can read your thoughts and hear your wisdom.

Pain and Joy. Together. It’s Peace. Just Peace. Peace.

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About Jeff


I've always been a fish out of water (and I love fish). From being an artist in a sports family, to a Christian who leans into the mystery of God while still trained in a Word-centered mainline tradition, and now a person in a wheelchair amongst able-bodied hikers, my life has perpetually been outside the box (or bowl). 

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