A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”

My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.

One of my many places for prayer over the years. I think of Ray and plenty of others and sit with what is.

Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.

Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.

“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.

Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.

The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.

Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.

Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.

But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.

Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”

At the dog park with one of my friends, Alpine.

After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.

Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.

I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.

I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”

Sherlock Holmes with grandson Cole. And while I’m on a roll, I not a fan of asking children to be something that they’re not, either.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately

Dear Friends:

It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.

If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?

Kathy’s corn, not a lot

Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”

Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.

But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.

“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.

Kathy in August of 2016, with some work for me to do.

Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.

All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.

Out my writing hut window, grandsons and suds

At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.

Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.

Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.

One of Kathy’s sunflowers

So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.

Love,

John

Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart

Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart

If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.

This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.

Killian and Cole, ready to go play in Grandma’s backyard

The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.

My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.

Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.

If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.

Grandma Daffy and Cole: A sacrament

So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”

That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.

Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.

Credit: Wikipedia

50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.

It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.

The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.

Killian digging a hole next to the house

Oniontown Pastoral: Holding My Wife During the Evening News

Oniontown Pastoral: Holding My Wife During the Evening News

Our days generally begin in decent form. As wife Kathy and I are both working from home as the Coronavirus pandemic plays out, she takes one side of the round table in our den and this Oniontown pastor gets the other. I put shoulder to the church or writing wheel, as the day dictates, but last Friday I took a few minutes to smith for Kathy an over-the-top menu for lunch and dinner.

Not seeing this sign much lately.

Shrimp and Lobster Bake, which came frozen in a box the size of an Etch-a-Sketch, provided a tantalizing description: “Premium shrimp and lobster blended with tomato, ricotta, fontina, and mozzarella cheese layered between sheets of pasta.” Another dinner option, Fredonia Grade School Pizza Burgers ala Sherry, owes its inclusion to a St. John’s friend whose mother once wrangled the recipe from a cafeteria worker. “A comfort entrée for the child in all of us!” I promised, but Kathy opted for the seafood.

My establishment was called “Chateau de Pop,” in honor of the grandfatherly chef. It was tame diversion for two 50-somethings making phone calls, clacking away on keyboards and hoping that an oriole would peck on the orange halves waiting by the feeders.

Kathy decided on Ham, Potato and Cheese Casserole leftovers for lunch, which may be the most deadly choice on any menu ever. It’s so shamefully bad. Think ham niblets, instant potatoes and wads of Velveeta cheese. The flourish is an anointing of melted butter that makes your eyes scrunch together with every bite. The Colemans are also a salty bunch, so the health threats posed by this dish are myriad. Had I written a teaser, it should have been a referral to a cardiologist for angioplasty.

Kathy highlighted her selections and took a liberty or two.

Far more than decent, the day verged on merry. Kathy and I safely traversed the afternoon, walked foxhound Sherlock Holmes, and settled in for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir. That last step was a mistake. As we have all learned during our pandemic du jour, current events can send a chilly draft through chateaus both grand and humble.

Before saying what pushed my wife over the edge, I’ll note her frustration with working from home. As an oncology nurse, she shines especially as a calm, reassuring presence to her patients, many of whom are scared and confused. And Kathy is empathetic, not only at work, but also toward people whose turmoil is shrink-wrapped in one- to two-minute TV news stories.

Sherlock Holmes is social distancing with his family. He looks out the den window with longing.

Friday’s broadcast included a report about 26-year-old flight attendant Taylor Ramos Young, who is now recovering from COVID-19. A couple of weeks ago, he asked his father, who along with his mother was unable to visit Taylor in an ICU, “If I go on the ventilator, do you know how long I’m going to be on it?”

Kathy hears every day of patients who are dropped off at a hospital entrance and wheeled away for treatment without a loved one by their side. She can’t bear the thought.

Taylor’s father recounted his son’s question, choking on tears, spittle trailing between his lips. “How long?”

He coped better than I would have. Watching Elena and Micah walk away on their first day of school did me in. Whether children are 6, 26 or 76, a parent’s urge to protect them never expires.

Adult children Elena and Micah as teenagers. The urge to rock them to sleep continues to this day.

When David Muir marched on to the next story, Kathy announced, “I want pizza and wings for supper.” Then she cried. I was affected, but my wife—whose righteousness inconspicuously exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—had reached her limit.

Never mind Shrimp and Lobster Bake! She needed pizza and wings. And not just any pizza and wings, but a scandalous, large Brooklyn style with cheese and pepperoni and 40 barbecue wings from Domino’s. Domino’s! Talk about your comfort food.

What Kathy really needed was a hug, which I promptly delivered. Sounds simple, but the duration of hugs is silently negotiated. Some take a while, especially those that say, “I’m falling apart. Hang on to me.”

She did that for me months ago when, having buried too many folks I’d loved in a short stretch, I leaned back on the couch, no match for sadness. Friday was my turn.

Hanging on the den wall at Chateau de Pop

Other than those irresistible, underachieving wings, I can’t tell you anything about that evening other than Kathy and I embraced in a timeless present. I remember giving and receiving a love that makes tomorrow possible.

God gave us arms for this purpose. To gather up each other’s broken pieces and hold them together until our faces dry and our hearts grow strong again.

Kathy, a few years ago. Where love comes from.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Lutheran Response to COVID-19

Oniontown Pastoral: A Lutheran Response to COVID-19

Sometimes I’m particularly proud to be a Lutheran. When I read a pastoral letter about the Corona Virus from Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was so grounded and refreshed I can hardly tell you. Before sharing what Bishop Eaton wrote, I’ll set the stage.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the ELCA. Chicago, IL 2019

Wife Kathy was just checking the latest news across the table from me in our den—the tongue-in-cheek name of the room where both of us are working from home during COVID-19’s deadly fuss. She exclaimed something from behind her computer screen. (I feel like television’s Tim “The Toolman” Taylor peering over his privacy fence at neighbor Wilson’s forehead on Home Improvement.)

My beloved may have used colorful language, but I can’t swear to it—groan. She passed along a report from NBC News about a Louisiana pastor who persisted in holding worship services in defiance of Governor John Bell Edwards’ executive order against gatherings of more than 50 people. The Reverend Tony Spell, however, packs in around 500 at Life Tabernacle Church. The trouble is, songs and amens are accompanied by airborne spittle, which passes infection.

Don’t be deceived if I sound momentarily whimsical. According to the Los Angeles Times, on March 10th a choir of 60 asymptomatic voices in Skagit County, Washington, assembled for a practice complete with social distancing and hand sanitizer, and now 45 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died.

Faith gives life, but mindless faith can also snatch life away. I don’t fault members of the Shagit Valley Chorale for rehearsing, as no restrictions had yet been announced for their county. Tony Spell’s faith, on the other hand, is dangerous. I’m sorry, it just is. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” he stated. “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

The Luther Seal at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

Lutheranism rejects such arrogance. Bishop Eaton rightly referenced Martin Luther, who wrote his own pastoral letter in 1527 on a topic that hits home today. “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” addressed a population still mindful of a scourge that killed over 23 million people in Europe 200 years before:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Martin Luther in 1529, Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I am not a Luther scholar, nor do I possess any insight about 16th Century Germany. For this reason, I trust the ELCA Bishop’s knowledge and direction:

Many of our [parishioners] have the same concerns as those in Luther’s day. Many of our people are anxious. Luther’s counsel, based on Scripture, is still sound. Respect the disease. Do not take unnecessary risks. Provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the neighbor. Make use of medical aid. Care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”

This exhortation is neither soaring nor inspiring, which is why I love it. Discipleship looks pale compared to the flash and fluorescence that hypnotizes our culture. The acts of belief that move me most are nonchalant: swallowing an unkind word; listening to a loved one without glancing at the smartphone or television; shoveling a neighbor’s steps after a snow storm.

Most of all, in current circumstances, calling myself a Christian has a lot to do with using the brain God gave me. Health care professionals are begging Americans through their exhaustion and tears to stay home. Communicable disease experts say that COVID-19 is stealthy—and doesn’t the poor Skagit Valley Chorale know it?

Tell you what, as a diabetic, I’m going to listen to smart people. I don’t want to be infected or, what’s worse, pass along misery to an innocent bystander. Unless I must go into public places, you’ll find me at the Coleman house, praying for our protection and fumigating, my faith and intellect sitting peaceably side by side.

Be safe, Oniontown, until my return!

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

A dining room I left behind

Have you ever moved out of a home you loved? Before closing the door, you walked through the empty rooms. Your footsteps echoed. You could hear yourself breathe. Floating from space to space, you knew that you would never leave. Part of you must abide under the ceiling you stared at before getting up each morning and beside the wall you slid down to sit on the floor, crying over terrible news.

You finally drove away, though the weeks were off kilter until new walls became home again.

I find myself on such a road right now. In fact, I’m not going anywhere. St. John’s in Oniontown will be my pastoral perch for years to come—God willing and the creek don’t rise. A small house in Erie will remain the Coleman’s nest.

No, I’m talking about change. Hemispheres of my world are like the hollow home I once stood in, letting all it held and witnessed work joy and sorrow in me by turns.

It’s impossible to explain why certain passings bring on tears while others drift by like wispy clouds. Maybe the best we can do is acknowledge this reality and listen to each other.

Godspeed, Onslow.

What I want to tell you first is trivial to the universe. The blonde horse I named Onslow is missing in action. For a few years he occupied a yard along Route 19 all by his lonesome. He shared space with a comrade named Sandy for a while, then suddenly was gone, along with eight or ten other horses in an adjoining pasture. Two horses still roam the field, but Onslow and the others belonged to a person who took them to another location.

The fenced-in half acre or so my friend haunted is forlorn, especially in March, when the landscape sleeps. I visited him once and couldn’t get him to come close. Will I ever run my hand between his eyes and down his nose? Probably not.

At the same time Onslow departed, a parishioner died, leaving a deserted room in many Oniontown hearts. His name was Bill, and he was my buddy. I’ve never met a man who had such a huge presence and yet expected so little attention or recognition. He liked my “Report from Oniontown” and even watched for Onslow when his travels took him down Route 19. He said Onslow out of the corner of his mouth, then busted out that great smile. His belly laugh, it was the best sauce ever.

But the last thing Bill would want me to do is pace the bare floors, my footfall a sad tick tock. He was about moving on in good time and taking hold of each day’s possibilities.

Bill’s wife Connie passed in 2017 after a long illness. He grieved as his St. John’s family expected, but kept active. “The evenings are tough,” he told me.

“Well, sure, Bill,” I said. The house was quiet.

Then one afternoon he showed up at church and told me that he had a lady friend. I was overjoyed. As anybody who has lost a beloved and found another knows, it wasn’t that Bill was forgetting about Connie. He just had more living to do.

“Her name is Tye,” he said, “and she’s a great lady.”

What a joy it was to watch St. John’s and Bill’s family welcome Tye into the fold.

Those two did everything together, but as I learned after Bill’s death, they were cleared eyed. He was 80 and had all kinds of systems breaking down.

“I was hoping for a year, but we got a year and a half,” Tye said with a smile. It wasn’t enough, though. It never is.

Early on, Bill told her, “I don’t know how long we have, but we’re gonna give ‘er hell.”

I trust God knew what he meant. What they got was 18 months of heaven.

May God rest you, Bill. (Credit: Sherry Lesnett)

When I go by Bill’s house on Mercer Road, I remember that he’ll never again show up at my office for some chin wagging.

He would tell me not to fuss, so I’ll move on. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, especially given how the world is spinning today. Onslow sure didn’t receive notice of his relocation.

So I mean to be like Bill, to give ‘er hell until the last moment, to close the door of the empty house behind me and light out for a new one, my spirit of good cheer and heart ready for more portions of love.

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.

My phone messages

Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.

I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.

“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.

“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.

Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.

And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.

Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.

To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.

As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.

At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”

Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.

But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”

And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”

A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.

“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”

“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.

Lord, please grant Ray a full deck. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.

Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.

When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”

If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.

Faith is answering my phone.

Warren State Hospital, 1886. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

In Memory of Warren Redfoot

Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.

Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.

“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.

What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”

He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.

As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”

He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.

Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”

Then the sun came out.

“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”

“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”

I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.

Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.

These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.

Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.

Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.

Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.

Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”

“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”

“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”

And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.

When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.

I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.

I did the same. We kept the silence together.

“Peace?” I finally asked.

He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”

Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Old and new.

Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.

Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Ground

Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Ground

The real question is, “Why don’t I get up and go some place else?”

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(Credit: Brian Snelson on Wikimedia Commons)

My morning at Starbucks in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania, began with a man shouting into his smartphone. Every word in The Drunken Sailor’s Handbook was deployed with such speed and spittle that the manager—courageous woman!—went over and told him to quiet down.

I thought we patrons might end up on the local news, but he apologized and soon walked calmly outside.

And is it ever cold out there, with the wind chill at 14 degrees. Sure, the weather could be worse, could be a blizzard stinging faces. Even in the still air, though, if you have nowhere in particular to be, the situation gets serious in a New York minute.

Erie is no Big Apple, but this is the urban scene playing out before me. In addition to students staring at their laptops, business types picking up their café whatevers, and readers and writers like me lost in words and white noise, there are folks who are homeless and/or mentally ill. Some seem like lost souls.

Of course, I’m doing guesswork. “All those who wander are not lost,” a popular saying goes. The pilgrim wearing a torn, mustard smeared parka might be a college professor for all I know. The guy who gets into heated discussions with his duffle bag and repeatedly sorts scraps of paper into stacks might have a cozy loft nearby. Clearly some live on the streets or in shelters.

A controversial Starbucks policy adopted in 2018 has made possible the spectacle I’ve described. A Philadelphia barista wrongly kicked out a couple of customers who hadn’t yet made a purchase, and the whole ugly episode played on TV. In response Starbucks wrote to employees, “Any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”

The company obviously has protocols to deal with people who act up, but the intent here is otherwise. First, Starbucks wants to avoid further bad press—I’m not naive. But second, I do believe there’s some genuine hospitality in what is a risky business decision. As Gene Marks wrote on entrepreneur.com, “Do you sympathize so much [with the homeless] that you would sit next to someone who’s been living rough (and smells like it) after spending six bucks on a Frappuccino?”

(By Jan Georg van der Vilet, c. 1632 on Wikimedia Commons)

Yeah, I hear him. I’ll even confess to a similar frustration an hour ago when a drunk man staggered in to use the rest room, but couldn’t resist working the room and making like a mime while checking out the pricey travel cups. The same annoyance takes hold, too, when guys who—doggone it—look sketchy slouch for hours at prime tables and thumb out text messages.

“Why don’t I get up and go some place else?” Well, I certainly could leave and not be kept awake tonight by guilt. In fact, I wouldn’t think ill of anyone who said, “This is nuts. I’ve got to get out of here.”

As it happens, the man who was railing away on his smartphone when I first arrived has returned with several companions in tow. Meanwhile, traffic through the front door, down the hallway to the rest room and back outside again has been steady.

I’ll mention one thing more. I’m no superhero, but my spidey sense—or is it my prejudice?—tells me that this person or that is up to no good.

By now you must be screaming, “Hey, Oniontown Pastor, so leave already.”

I’ll respond first with a request. Go ahead and consider me a fool, but don’t call me “holier than thou.” My duffle bag of sin often has me weak in the knees.

What also weighs on me is a truth that I’ve given my life to: The people here—from the unfailingly friendly baristas to the studious young ladies beside me to the pale, tattered procession that needs only to pee and warm up—are God’s children, equals in the ways that matter most.

(Moses and the Burning Bush by Bourdon Sebastien, 1616-1671, on Wikimedia Commons)

A whisper tells me to abide with these sisters and brothers. It may well be that in eternity’s eyes, this Starbucks isn’t here so much to sell me beverages as it is to comfort those with no particular place to be.

In fact, as the arguing man paces around, making proclamations non-stop and itching for more trouble, that same whisper both shames and edifies me: “John,” I hear in the ear of my heart, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Oniontown Pastoral: About Your Dresser, My Dear

Oniontown Pastoral: About Your Dresser, My Dear

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Wife Kathy was raised in a house where the dining room table was a catch all for an infinity of whatever: the daily mail; a can of cream of celery soup that didn’t get put away with the other groceries; a lonely knee-high stocking; coupons and bum lottery tickets.

Mind you, the place was clean, but disheveled—a rumbled literature professor of dwellings, let’s say. The table was cleared for supper, but amassed new treasures by bedtime.

Meanwhile, the dining room table in the Coleman household fifty years ago was tabula rasa, ever ready for meals. Our miscellany was exiled to the “junk drawer,” which held a demolition derby of, well, junk: spent batteries; bobby pins Mom used by the hundreds; Elmer’s glue with the lid crusted shut and a roll of masking tape linty on the sides; and, gloriosky, tangles of weary rubber bands and twist-ties from bread bags we were not to throw away.

The principle—I mention this as an aside—was that messes were best kept contained, hidden from sight. A jar containing three bobbing pepperonchinis lived at the back of our refrigerator for most of my childhood, but there was no shame in that. The icebox, as Dad used to call it, was clean enough, but full. Nobody could see those peppers without a hard hat light.

I’ve been aware of the contrast between the tables of Kathy’s youth and mine since our beginning. It was the kind of difference that could have gotten prickly if we had let it.

At our house on Parkway Drive in Erie these days, my wife’s strategy for junk management prevails. I generally keep the dining room table a blank slate, but several dumping grounds maintain a thriving business: under the lamp on Kathy’s small drop-top desk, perfect for free bank pens and our grandsons’ rogue, toe-stabbing Triceratops; the far end of the kitchen counter, begging for restaurant soda cracker packets and a crescent wrench meant for the basement; and, our frantic hub of this and that, Kathy’s bedroom dresser.

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The Coleman’s hub, with more drawers below and much traffic above

“I’m going to get that cleared off,” she says, pausing while dressing in the morning or passing through on an errand. Once a year or so, she faces down the accumulation. Some items are relocated, while others go clunk into the trash. Medicine bottles are no brainers, as are the nail polish remover, bergamot-scented foaming hand soap and sunglasses. But there’s so much more.

Last week Kathy came into the kitchen, where Micah and I were conducting an end-of-day post mortem. Playing upon our grown son’s taste for all things eccentric and provocative, she held out a shawl made of leopard print silk and said, “I don’t imagine you’d be interested in this.” This garment, I should add, boasted a black cotton fringe with bulbous tassels. She won it at friend Joe’s cancer fundraiser and tossed it guess where.

“Are you kidding?” he practically howled. “Yeah!” Since that moment, he has constantly worn the shawl over his bare shoulders, praising its comfort and surprising warmth.

Ah, the wonders wrought by my wife’s knack for acquisition and messy dresser. Last week while making the bed, I decided once and for all that our current junk arrangement is for the best.

Here’s the thing. Making sure that the hail of articles pelting our souls gets sorted and put in just the right place takes energy. It really does. The brain has only so much room to accommodate the questions, pleas and absurdities that blow in day by day. If you’re not mindful, priorities get mistaken for yard sale bric-a-brac.

In this spirit, then, here’s a closing addressed to Kathy, who reads everything I write.

Thank you, my dear. You work your rear end off full time so that I can serve in Oniontown part time and devote attention to writing. You wonder non-stop about how to bring our grandsons joy. Everybody you touch receives blessings: a campy silk shawl for our son; blankets straight from our dining room table for newborn twins; a handmade Advent calendar for your Goddaughter.

An Advent calendar for a 14-year-old Goddaughter

You were created by God to create in turn. My eyes aren’t drawn so much to your pill bottles and hair conditioner as to the framed words above them: “A life is much to ask of anyone, but not too much to give to love.” So please leave that dresser of yours be. It reminds me of your love, which whispers to clutter that it will just have to wait.  

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