Advent Devotional: Dec. 11, 2020

by Allison Floyd

1 John 4:7, 12:
“Behold, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whomever loves has been born of God and knows God. … No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

This morning, I am baking ginger snaps for no other reason than that it gives me time to be grateful and contemplate the previous year – both the good and the bad. 

Today, though, the instructions to let the butter soften and sift the dry ingredients are bringing to mind a friend who died about 18 months ago. It’s as if she is here in the kitchen with me, dropping by to make the memories more vivid.

I knew Jean Welch from Young Harris UMC, where she sat next to me in the pew, greeted me with a warm hug every time we met and corralled me into volunteering to help other people.

Jean was Scottish. Though she had been in the United States since the 1970s, when her husband Roy brought her across the pond as a young bride, Jean spoke with such a thick brogue, most people couldn’t understand everything she said. She’d smile, explain that she was from Glasgow and ham up the accent a bit more to make the other person less self-conscious.

She drove a Toyota Highlander, had half a dozen huge hound dogs, wore practical shoes and made helping people a full-time job.

Superficially, Jean fed people. She organized the volunteers to feed the crowd at Our Daily Bread. She provided an evening meal at the Salvation Army homeless shelter. She brought supper to the families staying with Family Promise, which shelters families experiencing homelessness.

She made me pot roast with potatoes and parsnips for my birthday, at my request, and made the most ah-mazing shortbread cookies each year for Christmas.

The shortbread came on Christmas Eve in small decorated bags, and the people lucky enough to receive some rationed their cookies to make them last longer. Only a few dozen people received cookies each year, and Ms. Jean said jokingly (though she was serious) that she wouldn’t bake more; she would add another person to the list only when someone died.

Photo by Katherine Sousa on Unsplash

The secret to the cookies lay in a special kind of sugar, she said. Though she wasn’t proprietary about the recipe, she assured me that it is so laborious, I didn’t want to try it.

While Jean seemed perfectly at home in an apron, cooking was just an expression of her love for people. She volunteered thousands of hours at St. Mary’s Hospital to help people through the worst days of their lives and served with Stephen Ministry, where she basically listened to people work through their own brokenness.

She described her role as listener. We are most alone when we are lost in the wilderness of adultery or trapped in the net of addiction, she said. When we are too ashamed to talk to the pastor, we isolate ourselves even further. “How are you supposed to find repentance there?” she asked.

Jean died suddenly of a stroke in March 2019. Because she and Roy never had any children of their own, her only blood relatives were in Scotland so the funeral was delayed a few weeks while they made travel arrangements.

At the funeral, a nephew described their ancestral home, an outlying island with no trees and  mainly lobster and mutton for protein. (No wonder Jean knew how to make that pot roast so tender.) Her name actually was Barabul MacNeil and English was not her first language. I never knew she spoke Gaelic.

The nephew told us how Jean sent her nieces and nephews the hottest toys from America each year for Christmas and, when she learned that the delivery created a huge buzz with all the kids in town, she began to send gifts to each child in the village.

The story reminded me how she insisted I take ten $100 bills from her when a young friend came from Nicaragua to study in the U.S. “This is travel money for him. I have been an immigrant, and it is terribly lonely. This is only to travel. If you think he will spend it on anything more practical, you keep the money and buy plane tickets with it.”

At her funeral, dozens of strangers shared similar stories.

And the pastor told the congregation that he had a handful of Ms. Jean’s shortbread cookies left in his freezer. He jokingly urged us to practice our baking skills so that someone could fill her shoes. It was March, so we had nine months to find a successor.

But, he pointed out, the cookies were just a sweet reminder who Jean was. It is more important for us to study her recipe for love and service. The world needs that recipe today more than ever.

My kitchen is now full of sweet smells and rich memories. If anyone wants ginger snaps for Christmas, let me know. I’m still compiling my list.