An Anniversary Letter to My Wife

Dear Kathy,

Here we go again: Time to buy another used car.

Life is strange and, as we figure out how to celebrate the thirty-two years that have been our wedded casserole, so different from what I imagined it would be.

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121,000 miles and a blown clutch. Time to say goodbye.

I never thought that when we settled into our fifties, our vehicles would still be shitting the bed. We’ve never prayed, “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Come to think of it, one of our neighbors does drive Porsches, but none of that’s for us. It would be nice, though, to own cars that don’t tremble and wheeze.

Tomorrow I’ll check out a bulbous orange Chevy priced at $5000, and, who knows, maybe we’ll get a couple of worry-free years out of it. Ah hell, it’s just that at this point in our lives, we shouldn’t be sweating bills every Saturday morning at the dining room table and lamenting a pile of dumb debt.

And, of course, there’s my old writing dream. I haven’t given up hope, but the picture has gotten more complicated. Could it be that what I need to say matters only to a small tribe? I’m an authority on precisely nothing except noticing the world and examining my own deepening naval. But the lurking question is, “Am I one of those writers who’s good, but not that good?”

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231,000 miles, tattered but holding up. The clock is ticking on this one, aye, Kath?

Basta! Looking out across decades of slipping transmissions and impulsive decisions and usurious interest and bulging files of sentences is like digging a ditch in mud, climbing in, and having a seat.

The good news is, we bought Schwinns. The other night when we went for a ride, I realized that it’s possible to be frustrated with you and treasure you in the same instant, to say, “You are such a pain in my ass” and “I couldn’t possibly love you more” in a single utterance.

You know that I like to take walks and rides the same way I shop for shoes. I’ve got a mission: Go to shoes. Try on a pair. Purchase. Return home.

Whether you know it or not, you like to take walks and rides the same way you shop for shoes. Go to shoes. Stop on the way at a bargain outlet, check out area rugs, and leave with cookie sprinkles and Swiffer accessories. Arrive at shoes, frown, and go to other shoes. Stop on the way at a fabric remnant store for no other reason than sewing’s gravitational pull. Arrive at other shoes. Ooh. Ahh. But not in your size, ma’am. And so on.

Bottom line: I’m focused on the destination. You’ve got your eyes peeled for Yeti and milkweed. I stick to the chosen route. You veer onto dirt roads and cul-de-sacs.

My dear, how is it that we’re still together?

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Look familiar? One of your favorite detours close to home.

On our bike ride, you took every available detour to get as close as possible to the lake, to receive whatever the waves and light might offer you. Close to home, when we stopped at a cliff for you to have a hundredth look at the water, I watched you—the new helmet making your head look like a shiny white mushroom, your lovely beak pointed north.

Swallowing a grr, I knew that if a Schwinn could fly, you would peddle to a great height, then bank and dive, pulling up just before a splashdown. Your eyes would be wide, and from shore I could hear you laugh.

Nothing has turned out for us like I figured. Used cars and thin wallets. My God, what our kids went through! What we witnessed and endured. And years of paragraphs stacked up like aging split wood in the garage.

But then, I never knew Elena and Micah and Matt would eventually swing open the gate to my weathered soul and come in and go out and find pasture. Such gladness.

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Joy catches in my throat. Our Cole!

Most of all, who could have predicted that a man who doesn’t get misty about babies would be so undone by a grandson?

The truth: If our possessions burned, I could warm my hands by the flames with not much regret as long as my own small tribe was whole and nearby.

Our tribe, Kathy, those we adore in a broken down, breathtaking world, and each other. That’s what matters.

That and what I’m going to tell you now, what I said inside as you enjoyed the view from the cliff: “Damn it, can we go home already?” and “Save me, my love. Don’t give up on me. Teach me to fly.”

Happy anniversary! Love,

John

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Naps and Prayers in Ash

Church camp with forty-five teenagers and four fellow pastors is now a couple weeks in the rearview mirror. Every summer we spend six days together at Camp Lutherlyn (near Butler, Pennsylvania) covering Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastor Jeff and I teach first year kids the Ten Commandments, which is an exercise I appreciate more as the summers pile up.

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I’ve come to know the Ten Commandments not as scolding stares (as from this owl in the Lutherlyn Environmental Education Center) but as ways to love neighbor and world.

Spending a couple of hours per day talking about taking the Lord’s name in vain and multiple shalt nots probably sounds depressing, but not with Martin Luther’s explanations of what the commandments mean. Take number seven: “You shall not steal.” As long as you don’t break into a car and run off with somebody’s purse, you’re good, right? Luther pushes the idea open: “We should fear and love God that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get it by dishonest dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of income.” Carry this too far, and you’ll be labeled a pinko radical.

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Martin Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarethe: Severe looking folk! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

With every prohibition Luther tacks on an exhortation. So not bearing false witness against your neighbor comes with the instruction to “defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If you’ll forgive the gender specific language, Luther’s explanations blow the dust off of Moses’ tablets and shine justice’s light on them.

Peeling back the layers was joyful. It’s not enough to avoid strangling our neighbors; we are to “help and befriend” them. And not coveting your neighbor’s possessions includes actually helping her to keep them.

Beyond the classroom time, during which I gratefully hang on to master-teacher Jeff’s coattails, each installment of Camp Lutherlyn has its own personality and unveils its own lessons before this middle-aged novice.

June 14th through 19th had a trippy groove—trippy and drippy. This was certainly the rainiest week on record. My sneakers went into the trash as soon as I got home. But the weather was just a backdrop to the funkiness.

Photographs tell part of the story:

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Lutherlyn’s Environmental Education Center has plenty of curiosities and stuffed animals that appear bemused.

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You’re welcome to pet this porcupine, but, as the signage suggests, go “from the head toward the tail only.” Copy that!

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Pastor Jeff examines a boa skin. If I ever see one of these in the Pennsylvania woods, I’m going home.

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A kid standing beside me said, “Is that poop on a stick?” Not poop, but “galls.” Check out the next slide.

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Church camp’s Harmonic Convergence shone on the next-to-last evening during the annual Snake Pit, when kids get to ask pastors any questions they want. One young lady said, “If you could add another commandment to the ten, what would it be?” I knew my answer right away, but let the other pastors go first while mulling over the risk. “Oh, damn the torpedoes,” I thought, then spoke: “I’d add a commandment that Anne Lamott included in one of her books [Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith]. She said, “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” Gasp. Giggle. “I’d add that second rule.”

That was the message of camp writ coarsely: “For the love of God, be nice. Don’t be a jerk. Keep your promises. Share the buckets in the sandbox.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I haven’t received any complaints yet, so maybe the colorful language was received as intended.

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The week’s oddest moment came on Wednesday evening, when the pastors usually go off campus for supper. This urinal was in an otherwise nice and tasteful brew pub. I’m still can’t figure out how this is supposed to be funny. “Thou shalt not piss on thy neighbors, regardless of their race, nation, creed, etc.”

Photographing a urinal with what looks like a 1970s funk band painted on the porcelain and saying asshole in front of a bunch of kids would have made any week at camp a stunner, but the way my spiritual doors got blown open by the slanting rain was a bigger surprise. Ten years ago Lutherlyn was all about running and writing. Between classes, while the kids were off mud whomping and zip-lining, I got in some great hill work and wrote a thousand words a day.

This time around I hadn’t planned on exercise, but did look forward to wide fields of writing. Last year yielded three blog posts, but from the moment I put my pillows and bags in Ash, the cabin I shared with the guys, naps and prayers were the rule. Sometimes the two wove themselves together, with quiet abiding trailing off into healing sleep. In the forty-five minutes between morning class and lunch, I returned to Ash and lay down for half an hour of breathing and letting go. Then when afternoon class wrapped up, I took a siesta with wise and loving arms—ninety minutes, two hours.

It didn’t take long to figure out the lesson church camp had in store for me: I was weary deep down in a place sleep only begins to refresh. In the past I would have denied myself the rest, the old mile- and word-counting impulses pressing harder than compassion for self. But for six days in June of 2015, I surrendered. Of course, the learning was about more than fatigue.

In May of 2013 I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The plan was to write, which is a pleasure, share a few meals with Brother John, and rest in the monks’ peace. Turned out I had more grieving to do over the ugliness of my father’s death. If I hadn’t known before I certainly discovered then that silence is an astute therapist. Wounded and injured parts of myself, often in hiding for months and years, visit and have their say.

Words are optional. In Kentucky I watched Dad obey Dylan Thomas’ villanelle. At Camp Lutherlyn my visitors didn’t need to speak. I know these injuries well and long ago accepted their teaching that forgiveness doesn’t cure everything. Absolution doesn’t get rid of a limp.

So I slept in Ash and took in long draughts of the Sacred Presence. And here what could have been nothing more than days overcast with ache was redeemed by hope. I’ve built my life on the probably foolish premise that interior silence is both invocation and petition. Come, Jesus. Welcome, Buddha. Heal and teach, Mysterious Love. There’s no proof that Holiness exists, let alone that it takes up residence in me when I put aside the smart phone, breathe, and wait. Still, I would hate to think of the person I would be today without the grace and mercy that have found me when I close my eyes and come to rest.

Though my visitors were tossing and turning on the next bunk, I understood that their paralyzing power was giving way to the creation of a new man—or the reclamation of an old one, I’m not sure which.

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Steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. News of the murders there reached me toward the end of camp week–the saddest moment. The shooter, it turns out, is a Lutheran who went to church camp as a kid. (Credit: Spencer Means on Wikimedia Commons)

We’re always becoming, aren’t we? Every last one of us. Refurbished souls with sutured hearts, crooked legs, and bruised skin. (Maybe this explains my weight gain and stretch marks! I’m new wine in an old wineskin.)

I’m grateful for a peculiar week at church camp, a crude commandment added to the usual Ten, and holy naps and prayers in Ash. At 9:05 a.m. on July 6th I’m a fifty-three-year-old novice with an inexplicable smile.