Oniontown Pastoral: Wondering Where All the Places Are

Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Gibran’s words visit me every time I’m wandering the valley between gladness and grief—which is to say, much of the time. I should probably give the late Lebanese poet his own loft in my soul.

Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.

Killian and Cole (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.

But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.

Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.

I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”

Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”

Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.

Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.

I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.

Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”

Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?

Dear World, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you please take it easy on this dreamer. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.

The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.

“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”

Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.

Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.

As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.

Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.

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Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

My buddy Ray called last night. “Hey, Pastor, could you drop off my tobacco on your way to church tomorrow? Would it be out of your way?”

Actually, the detour cost me fifteen minutes, but no worries. We have an arrangement: Ray is constantly trying to quit smoking, but he always goes back. To keep temptation at bay, he tosses a bag full of loose tobacco and rolling papers in my trunk, where it keeps my lawn chair and fleece blanket company.

For a couple years I silently stewed about babysitting Ray’s tobacco. Our little routine is exquisitely stupid, but not as bonkers as throwing away thousands of dollars worth of tar and nicotine, only to show up sagging and defeated at Smoker Friendly to buy some more. And that’s exactly what Ray did for years.

So I hang onto what I’m sure is the crummiest of crummy tobacco, $11 a bag. The label says, “Pipe tobacco,” but Ray insists it’s for cigarettes.

“Brother,” I tease him, “you’re smoking shaved, dried out cabbage.”

Whether it ought to be tamped into a pipe or stirred into coleslaw, I’ve driven tobacco to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown and back home to Erie, to hospitals in Greenville, Farrell and Sharon, to McCartney’s to pick up birdseed and along Route 19 to the check on a horse I’ve named Onslow. I bet Ray’s smokes have traveled more than he has.

Within a week or two, my friend “yields”—that’s what he calls it—and I swing by his house. This morning I left the goods on his pack porch. He called later and thanked me for the delivery.

Ray is nothing if not grateful, which is one reason I’m not frustrated over my babysitting duties anymore. Of course, I could tell him this foolishness has gone on long enough, and I should never have signed on for such a lost cause in the first place.

Anyway, ire on my part is far less important than this truth: Ray’s smoking cause is probably lost, but my buddy is not. The trouble is, the man’s soul and his addiction are tangled together.

For most smokers, quitting is about trying to stay alive. Ray, whose health has been distressing for years, says, “I love tobacco. I don’t care if I get cancer. I have to die of something.” Snuff, long-cut chew, pipe, cigars, cigarettes, he does them all by turns. These days, he and his old Laredo cigarette roller are fast friends.

Be this happy, Ray. (Credit: Hedwig Ohring on Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fan of tobacco, but I wish Ray could indulge his addiction in peace. Unfortunately, the vice he adores also torments him. He was raised to believe in a wrathful God who keeps a long list of damnable offenses. Now in his sixties, he can’t stop believing that smoking in this life guarantees burning in the next.

Ray’s many medications leave his body depleted, but what really saps his strength is the withering sense of condemnation he carries around.

My Lord, how we’ve talked. If addictions earn people eternal punishment, then the line into hell is going to reach almost to heaven.

“If you want to improve your health,” I say, “quit tobacco. But if you’re trying to earn God’s love, my advice would be to roll yourself another.” I also tell Ray, “But what do I know?”

Lost cause on my way to Oniontown: an old thresher.

I don’t know the mind of God or claim any particular wisdom. In many ways I’m a lost cause myself. At least I have a nice collection of them. And I spend increasing amounts of time holding hands with folks whose lost causes bring them to their knees or knock them flat.

Does this sound hopeless? Not to me. Sitting cheek to jowl with the unsolvable, inescapable and terminal isn’t about hoping for miracles, but making sure that when a cause is lost, its owner is safe and sound.

So I tell Ray that I’m pretty sure God loves him just the way he is, right down to his smoke-stained fingertips. If he and you and I can believe this, then plenty of causes don’t matter much as long as we remember that our souls can never be lost.

An old, stained, torn message from the Coleman family refrigerator. Only believe, Ray.

Author’s Notes: This post originally appeared in slightly different form in Greenville’s newspaper, the Record Argus. And Ray says I can write about him any time I want.

Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

Roar on the Shore 2017: The Parade

Roar on the Shore 2017: The Parade

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a motorcycle guy. Where wind rushing through what’s left of my hair is concerned, my Hyundai Elantra’s sunroof is more than enough.

What I can’t get enough of, though, is witnessing bliss, so for the second year in a row, wife Kathy, grandson Cole and I stood on Glenwood Park Avenue to wave at the motorcyclists in parade as part of Erie’s Roar on the Shore celebration. My sister Cathy and her wife Betsy Ann joined us on the berm for half an hour of rumbling, infectious joy.

Last year Cole watched in stunned silence, but yesterday he about lost his little ginger head. “Oh my goodness,” he said, wiggling in Kathy arms and adding his rosy-cheeked glory to the evening’s pageantry. Hearing that three year old chirp over and over “Grandma Kathy, look!” and “Pop, hey Pop, did you see that?” was reason enough to take in the parade.

Grandma Kathy and Cole

But to tell the truth, hanging out beside a road in soul smothering humidity as thousands of riders slowly process by, revving the ever-loving crap out of their engines is not this pop’s scene. Picture artist-fartist. Think staring at a Jackson Pollock and wondering what he was getting at or savoring the hush of appreciation after Mary Oliver reads a poem. If anything is going to make a lot of noise, let it be crowd-pleasing end of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto.

And then there’s adventure. My idea of risk-taking is sailing on the Victory Chimes, which slips along calmly off the coast of New England, protected from serious waves by the islands, and serves smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers on deck at 4:00 p.m. In two weeks, when Kathy and I board this schooner that graces the back of the Maine quarter, the only splash I expect is that of a decent Chardonnay making a whitecap in my long-stemmed glass.

Part of me would love to love downhill skiing or bungee jumping or straddling a Harley, but the one thing worse than being sedate by nature is pretending to be wild and crazy. Besides, the spectacle of bikers can’t be a hit without non-bikers lining the route. We need each other.

We really do—at least I do. This fact wasn’t clear to me until the roaring began in earnest and giddy faces passed by and suckers and Tootsie Rolls landed at the children’s feet.

The hundreds of riders getting a rush from their vroom vrooming probably had no clue that they were blessing me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people raising peace signs toward the sky in thirty minutes’ time. As that universal symbol of two fingers forming an amiable V greeted me again and again, I found myself praying, “Oh, my Lord, let it be so. Let there be peace—in my heart, between people.”

I also found myself looking my fellow human beings rumbling by in the eye. Their transportation may as well have disappeared. The close air and racket, too. Honest to goodness, it was just me and them. My wave said to them, “I see your bliss. Get all you can. Never let it end. I’m glad for you.”

Oh, those faces. Some of them got my message. I could tell. When I laid one of my big sloppy smiles on them, they often sent one back, and it was as if we two strangers recognized each other. The whole deal got me choked up, probably because right then and there the word stranger exited the English language.

The traffic never stopped this year for a good photograph, so these smiling faces are from last year. I still remember them all, like old friends.

Taking its place, I now understand, was a sweet word: hope. Am I waxing poetic? Don’t you believe it. We human inhabitants of planet Earth are increasingly cranky, thinking and acting from our reptile brains, and our venom is crazy lethal.

Where is our hope? I saw it at the Roar on the Shore’s motorcycle parade. I saw it most of all on one man’s face. He was nothing remarkable, just a gray-haired dude with a wide smile rolling north on Glenwood Park Avenue.

I caught his eye and waved, and he nodded to me and mouthed, “Thank you.” Moving on, he nodded to others, as if the reason thousands of Erie-ites showed up was to see him and him alone pass by. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Of course, this guy wasn’t having delusions of grandeur. I think his nod and thanks were, in prosaic fact, the hope of the world: “Thank you for noticing me. Thank you for smiling back.”

And thanks to Roar on the Shore. If we keep nodding to each other, then the adventurous, sedate and all those in between can be sure that our parade doesn’t have to end as long we refuse to be strangers.

No strangers

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Announcement: I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I’m on one side, and technology is on the other.

For the record, I have an iPhone 6, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a MacBook Air laptop computer. I send text messages and “chat” with tech support to shoot all kinds of troubles. After years of resistance, the Colemans now have cable television. So nobody can say that I’m sour on gadgets or progress.

What tastes foul, though, is technology designed to boss me around. One exception is the navigational feature (“GPS”—Global Positioning System) on my iPhone. A woman’s cheerful voice tells me where and when to turn, thus keeping my eyes on the road and not on scribbled directions. She repeats herself incessantly, but wins points for not being as snarky with me as I am with her.

Driving around Oniontown the other day, I heard on the radio about Google’s plans to extend the GPS from my car all the way to my living room. My inner curmudgeon grimaced.

Welcome to “ambient computing” and the surprisingly affordable “Google Home” computer. This “personal assistant” can recognize all voices in your household and do each individual’s bidding. “Call Joe,” you can say, and your buddy Joe will answer—as opposed to your sister’s boyfriend of the same name. Google Home has no keyboard and resembles an egg. At 5.62” tall, it’s almost cute.

But give it access to your contacts, calendar, favorite websites, etc., and the trouble begins. National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani described what sounds like a nasally relative moving in and interfering. In “virtual” fashion, Google Home will “follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.” Shahani promised that my assistant will be “all around [me] all the time.”

In a word, “Whoa!” I treasure my wife Kathy, but don’t want to be around even her “all the time.” After thirty-three years of marriage, my relationship advice is, “Learn how to be silent together and give each other space.”

The smart variety of eggs (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, my message is beige compared to Google Home’s. It can warn you that your flight is late. It can define mysterious terms like “covfefe.” It can bark out the Browns versus Steelers score.

But what could possibly be wrong with getting instant answers? Who would object to eliminating inconvenience? Why not let technology “tell me what I need before I even ask”?

I guess there’s no harm in confirming right away that Cleveland is careening toward another loss, but inconvenience is a great teacher. Human experience would be impoverished without it.

The other day, for example, unbeknownst to my iPhone, Kidds Mill Road was closed. When I took Methodist Road instead, my navigational lady went berserk. To save my sanity and hers, I pulled the plug.

In the end her ignorance proved my blessing. I passed the Jughandle and made a mental note to stop soon for pizza and a beer. Further down Route 18 stood a family of three silver silos. Daddy was a massive wonder of the farming world, dizzying to behold. As usual, amazement appeared on a detour.

And the inconvenient detour’s fraternal twin, chance, is generous beyond measure. Most of what shines in my life has come to pass not by design, but luck. Kathy and I are married due to an impulsive high school classmate’s matchmaking improvisation. Thanks, Denise! Thanks, God!

No, Google Home isn’t for me, nor is Google Lens, available soon. Just point my Samsung Galaxy at flowers and Google Lens will speak their names. Or point it at a restaurant and get reviews.

Software already exists that will translate spoken German into English, thereby saving me the trouble of digging out my college flash cards and exercising my brain.

A route to bother and amazement (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These marvels aren’t all bad, but as a collection they make me uneasy. If we don’t learn to wait for answers, smile through detours and make up our own minds, where will patience, endurance and wisdom come from in matters of life and death?

Most important, can ambient computing “tell us what we need before we even ask”? Please. What I need makes so little sense that I trust one voice above all others to guide me, and it doesn’t come from an egg.

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

“Life is what happens to you,” John Lennon famously sang to his son Sean, “while you are busy making other plans.”

Wife Kathy and I are engaged in planning these days. We intend to sail along the coast of Maine in August and visit Ireland in October, meaning that we’ll celebrate our thirty-fourth anniversary on the water and my fifty-sixth birthday on the Coleman family’s native soil.

I’m giddy about these journeys, but embrace the late Beetle’s wisdom. Who knows what the future holds? How often do “thoughts for the morrow” obscure the blessings of today?

Iman, a Muslim classmate of mine from nearly thirty years ago, constantly acknowledged the future’s fragility by saying “God willing” when talking about her plans. “Insha’Allah,” she would have said back home in Egypt.

A fictional sage put it this way to his impatient disciple: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Since I’m reluctant to speculate about God’s intentions, I generally say, “Who knows?” If you had x-ray vision, you could witness my brain shrugging dozens of times each day, and not only about the months ahead. Facts I base my actions on also have a funny way of taking U-turns.

Yesterday, for example, St. John’s church secretary Jodi brought me two-dozen farm-fresh eggs, each one its own pastel shade of brown or green. Not only are they rich and savory, but they offer a lesson. If I catch myself worshipping at the altar of conventional wisdom, I contemplate the egg. When I first joined the high-cholesterol fraternity, eggs were out and statins were in. Now, a stroll through the Internet informs me that moderate egg consumption is fine. Ironically, statins can pummel your muscles and liver.

So I dip my toast in free-range yolks without concern and depend on my doctor to be sure my liver doesn’t get strangled by Lipitor—which, by coincidence, I pick up at a pharmacy across the street from the former site of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Erie, Pennsylvania. I served as pastor there for fourteen years. Just before I left for St. John’s in Oniontown, the property was sold. Once the congregation relocated, the new owner leveled the church building, which was not yet a decade old.

When picking up my pills, I pause in the pharmacy lot to smile and shrug. How I sweated the endless decisions and debates involved in constructing a new sanctuary. How my guts churned over the leaky roof. How worrying about mortgage payments creased my forehead.

Lonely puddle where a church once stood

Matters of plaster seemed almost as urgent as the care of souls. And now, what’s left? Clumps of earth and lonely puddles. Far from depressing me, though, the abandoned corner of 54th and Peach Streets is as sacred as ever. A truth that feels like worship passes through my aging spirit as I recall watching the wrecking ball swing:

I don’t know about tomorrow

or much of anything.

More often than not, my certainties in life are either neutral or leaden, whereas mysteries and wonder are joyful and light.

Example: Grandson Cole often stays with Kathy and me on Saturday evenings and goes to church with us on Sunday. In what is becoming a morning routine, I lie down beside Cole on the sofa bed as Kathy gets dressed. He sleeps on, and I have nothing to do but look at him and pass strands of his bright hair between my fingers. The gladness is consuming.

My gladness

During those twenty minutes, knowledge doesn’t count for much. Only essentials deserve a place with Pop and Cole: A loving God is mindful of us; my calling in this world is compassion; and the color I love most is red.

The last of these I never knew until last Saturday. Before Cole and Grandma Kathy went to bed, he asked, “Pop, what’s your favorite color?”

“Gosh, buddy, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess the color of your hair, reddish orange.”

“But, Pop, my hair’s not resh orange.” He was almost stern. “My hair’s red.”

“Well then, Cole, I’ve decided. My favorite color is red.”

In truth, the choice was made for me. I could almost hear God whisper my answer.

When grandson #2 Killian gets more hair, I may have two favorite colors. But hard to see, the future is.

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

This past Sunday evening I sat with wife Kathy in the emergency room as the kind professionals there tested her blood and prescribed a legion of pills. “Viral bronchitis” was their diagnosis, but they clearly meant, “Yeah, you caught that nasty thing going around.”

I’m just now getting over the same scourge, which the family acquired from grandson Cole, who brought it home from pre-school.

But who really knows where it came from? A virus bloweth where it listeth, and thou heareth the cough and sniffle thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.

My mind has been swirling with questions lately, frivolous and profound. What gives a cough the nerve to linger for weeks? Why do some souls suffer more than others? And what do animals think about snow?

I asked retired cow veterinarian Dave that last question after worship recently: “So, Dave, when I see a horse with snow on its back, should I feel sorry for it?”

The gentle, loving laughter that came from those gathered round was fully expected. This city boy is a willing source of amusement at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (It took six months for “round bale” to sink in. I had to get “rolled bale” and “round hay” out of my system first.)

Dave explained that most cows and horses would choose to be outside, even if you offered them a heated barn.

Karen knows horses and added, “You know, horses can sleep standing up?”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I see so many lying down. Why is that?”

“Because horses are all different,” she said. “Some like to lie down.”

Karen’s husband Ron’s eyes were tearing up, his face pink, which suited me fine, since I love to laugh at myself and watch others join in.

After the fun, though, the germ of my question remained. What started me thinking was a blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. He abides in a fenced-in yard, munching from his private round bale. Another dozen or so horses have run of the place. (I trust that the farmer has good reasons for this arrangement. People who live near Oniontown tend to have wise hearts.)

Onslow, whom I see but a few times per week on my commute, takes up a disproportionate amount of my spiritual space. He was the animal who had snow on his back.

Is it foolish to wonder what a horse is thinking? I can still see him standing there motionless, a white dusting settled where his saddle would be.

Days ago on the way to St. John’s I looked for Onslow in his usual digs. A tarp covered his hay. I felt a twinge of concern. Where was he?

The answer came immediately and, to these city eyes, joyfully. Grazing in the same field with the other horses was my old buddy.

The dear folks at Wagler’s figured I’d be stopping by for my farmers cheese, so they set aside a few slices. God bless them.

When I got to the church, I enjoyed farmers cheese from Wagler’s Camp Perry store and savored Onslow’s freedom.

Since the morning was quiet, I looked out at the pine trees and took stock of how little I know for sure. Maybe I caught my virus from a dirty doorknob. Maybe Onslow didn’t appreciate being moved from his solitude. Maybe napping on his feet as snow covers him is bliss.

Who knows? Certainly not me. But I bet my life that God is mindful of Onslow. Making that wager while chewing farmers cheese, I felt sweet hope settle upon me.

I received it for St. John’s, Oniontown and beyond—the way a child’s open hand welcomes falling snowflakes. The goodbyes we’ve said in the last year, many hard to bear, have left us raw. Hope is our salve.

A penny for your thoughts.

So I’ll keep asking questions, especially the one greeted only with silence this side of glory: “Why?” If I get exposed to a few answers, I might catch wisdom.

Last Sunday I told Dave, “We need to have lunch. You need to tell me more about cows.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can tell you all about cows.”

I’ll listen eagerly. Whatever is on their minds, I want to know they’re well. And I want Onslow to be glad.

Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

Another Portion of Jesus Bread

Another Portion of Jesus Bread*

With thanks to a dear friend and baker

If grandson Cole were a bird, which he often pretends to be, daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt would soon nudge him out of the nest, crying, “Soar, kid, soar.” Not to say his flight would be permanent, but getting an occasional break from little Red-Crest is needful these days.

When Grandma Kathy suggests we pick up Cole for a sleepover, Elena answers in a tremolo: “Really?” Underneath her whispered question is Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Matt’s eyes widen and cheeks flush.

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Cole napping under a pew during one of Pop’s sermons

Never mind that my wife and I take Cole overnight a few times monthly, mostly on Saturday evening. After the three of us go to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown for Sunday worship, we stop for French fries on the way back to Erie, then drop him off at home. Kathy and I adore this routine that has blossomed in our lives. We’re cute enough, with our giggles and scrunched up joy-faces, to trigger friends’ gag reflexes. The whole situation is sickeningly over-the-top.

And our bliss is weak sauce compared to Elena and Matt’s. They still have eleven-month-old Killian to contend with, but—and any parent who disagrees with this has potpourri water for blood—whenever you can send your three-year-old into somebody else’s safe, loving arms for around sixteen hours, the urge to play some Marvin Gaye, dance suggestively and make guttural sounds is overwhelming. And I will add, based on dim memories of parenting young children, that such licentiousness, should it actually occur, leads to some really red-hot napping, and that’s about it.

I’ve not inquired directly about the libido-stomping powers of my grandson, but at the moment he is a gaggle of frustrating challenges and breathtaking highs. His parents’ faces all of a sudden go slack with fatigue.

A couple weeks ago, for example, Cole kept saying “diarrhea” while we were enjoying lunch.

“Honey,” Elena said, “we don’t talk about that at the table.”

Like plenty of kids his age, Cole understood his mother’s correction to mean, “Game on.”

“Diarrhea. Diarrhea. Diarrhea.”

“Cole, do you want to go to your room?”

I heard nothing, but puffs of smoke came from Elena’s nostrils.

When she returned from caging the passive aggressor, I said, “Geez, what the hell did he do?”

“Oh, he looked at me and mouthed ‘diarrhea.’”

Such moxie for one so young. Impressive—to me, that is. For my daughter, it was yet another instance of Cole testing boundaries: befouling the nest with a vindictive pee here, hugging baby chick Killian nearly unconscious there. (Kathy reminds me of the justice of the former offense. When Elena was around Cole’s age, she demanded to be let outside to pee like the dogs do. Being refused this, she squatted on the carpet by the bathroom door. I’d forgotten, probably because I didn’t clean up the mess.)

And, of course, every human parent is familiar with dinner table wars of attrition. We could learn from our feathered friends, who simply hock up worm chunks into their children’s grateful beaks. At our last family dinner, Cole took an inexplicable dislike to anything associated with chickens. Stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and thigh meat crowned by a jiggling gem of cranberry sauce were suddenly non grata.

“But, Cole,” Elena said, “You want to have ice cream cake, don’t you?”

The stakes were unusually high. We were celebrating the first anniversary of Matt slipping on the ice and breaking his fibula. A Dairy Queen treat was required. (I’m patriarch of a clan that keeps steady by observing dark milestones and taking meds.)

How many times did everyone at the table, including perhaps Killian, say, “Just one bite and you can have dessert”?

But our hearts were flint! Cole, a sniveling conscientious objector stripped to his superhero jockey shorts, huddled on my recliner, just feet from the dining room.

We proceeded with the cake.

“Pop,” Cole called out. “I want Pop.”

Elena gave me the nod.

I took one step toward Cole when he made a second request: “Pop, bring your cake.”

No dice, of course, but somebody tell me this kid ain’t going places in life.

The party ended amicably, with Elena persuading Cole to surrender to American cheese. He ate the mouthful agreed upon and chased his cake down with three more slices, so nutrition and gladness were both served reasonably well.

Endings in this family have been happy lately, but I take nothing for granted. Anybody who pays attention knows that joy’s flame can be snuffed at any moment. And believers with a mature faith don’t blame God for the darkness.

So if the day unfolds without a spitty pointer and thumb pinching my wick, I’m ducky. For seasons at a time—often through nobody’s fault but my own—I’ve heard pssst, watched swirls of smoke ascend and stared at cold candles.

Maybe I wouldn’t hold my present blessings up to the light and look at them over and over again were it not for some rough landings. Now, grace won’t leave me alone.

IMG_4286Here’s the most recent visitation. On Sunday, some old friends showed up at St. John’s for worship and brought with them little loaves of homemade Communion bread for Cole and my son Micah. At my previous pastorate, we called it “Jesus Bread.”

It wasn’t consecrated, but everybody young and old who loves Jesus Bread tastes something sacred in the late Milton Sontheimer’s recipe, and every batch, for that matter. I don’t know. Maybe the baker’s prayers and intentions add their own blessing to the Sacrament.

Kathy and I sent some home with Cole and brought a bag for atheist Micah, too.

The next morning Cole was acting sneaky as Elena got him ready for preschool. Imagine, a three-year-old with puzzling motives. He wanted to bring the suitcase he uses for overnighters at Grandma Kathy’s and Pop’s to school. Why? Little Red-Crest’s beak was clamped shut.

After prodding and prying, Elena got the truth out of him. “But, Mom,” he said, “I have to take it. My Jesus bread is in there, and I need to share it with all my friends.”

Okay, that right there is grace. And wisdom, too. A loaf of bread, the Jesus variety and all others, isn’t really bread until friends and strangers everywhere get their fill.

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Growing up is hard trouble–tiring, bruising work.

As it happens, Cole will be sleeping over tonight with Grandma Kathy and Pop. What grace does he have in store for us? Who knows?

But I’ll have some grace waiting for him. Elena called to tell me that Cole intends to draw when he grows up. I’ll be rooting for him. He also said, “Mom, I’m having hard trouble growing up.”

Before bed, I’ll tell him, “Pop is having hard trouble growing up, too, buddy. We all are. But eating Jesus bread helps. And sharing it helps even more.”

*A few months ago I had an essay entitled “Jesus Bread” in Living Lutheran. Click here if you would like to read it.