An Unorthodox Peace

IMG_3646This past Sunday the church I serve, Abiding Hope Lutheran in Erie, Pennsylvania, held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of our new church building, the foundation of which is already well underway. After morning worship at the old place, we all got into our cars and headed the mile or so to our future home.

For mundane reasons I had to drive son Micah’s car, which is always in unapologetic squalor. Almost to the end of the parking lot, I had to double back: the processional cross was still on its perch in the sanctuary. After fetching it, I looked at the backseat and paused: Should I put the cross down on that mess? Because I realized that entirely different questions were on my mind—ones I could answer right away—I rested the cross on my son’s work clipboard, toilet paper, hoody, etc., no food debris, thankfully.

The groundbreaking was meaningful and fun and didn’t seem at all redundant. No silver shovels for us. Everybody who wanted to turn some dirt brought a shovel from home, especially our kids. The ground was packed down by construction vehicle traffic and hard as the cinderblock foundation. We found a soft patch for the young ones with sandbox shovels and let them have at it, sang with gusto, and said our prayers and good intentions. The adults chipped loose teaspoons of gray crust.

When we finished, I lay the cross over the chaos for its ride to the Coleman house, where it leaned overnight in the dining room.

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Processional cross

“Ooh,” Micah said, spotting what he actually carried years ago as an acolyte. His question was implicit: “What’s the deal with the cross here?”

I explained.

He held it like a shovel—Christ at the top—and pretended to chip at the floor: “So did you dig with it?”

“It would have been fitting,” I said, “but, no, a couple of kids held it for the ceremony.”

As Micah has grown, we’ve developed an understanding. He gently teases me, but knows that my faith is spacious and merciful, blinding white with Mystery. And I take his searching seriously and don’t meddle with his atheism.

The purest image of my spirit’s posture is this: I don’t fear for my son. I don’t fear for anybody.

My Creator isn’t abstract. Often when I close my eyes and breathe, a love that feels bestowed rises in my throat—as when a parent watches a child disappear through the school doors. My chest is drawn toward a planetary embrace. The longing is physical.

It may be nothing more than my own middle-aged chemicals inducing some weird prayer-meditation high. I’m probably bat-crap crazy. I can’t offer a defense, only a description of the love that I bet my life on. God is what I call this love, but the older I get, the more I’m drawn to the ancient Jewish tradition of not vocalizing Yahweh. Shh. Only know and breathe compassion—for all, for self. I want to name the Holy One with my flawed heart and hands. My voice can’t be trusted entirely.

How far is the reach of Sacred Love? Whom and what does it rest upon? On Sunday, when I lay the cross on Micah’s slop in the backseat—nothing compared to the past squalor of heroin, arrest, and rage—I spoke my Christian answers to the questions behind my question. The universe is composed of beloved daughters and sons. Who am I to send anyone into exile? Helpless before grace as I am, how can I presume to stand in the way of Love?

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Christ’s metal blessing upon the chaos

This might not be the most convenient parking place for a pastor. Love’s current in the Bible is strong, but troubling blood flows there, too. I will only say that I’ve made an unorthodox peace with Egypt’s firstborn and Israel’s young women lacking evidence of their virginity, stoned to death on their family’s doorstep—we have a private understanding.

It’s enough, I guess, to admit that in resting a processional cross on the backseat of tired old Mazda sedan, I was confessing my belief: the risen Christ bestows a metal blessing on every mess in every land, on every soul aching with belief and disbelief.

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I Contain Multitudes. Call Me “They.”

Hi, Jeff.

First, I have to say that I’ve always admired your weirdness. Yes, you’re an odd one. To wit: dyeing your hair orange before going to a gathering with 30,000 teenagers. I could never pull off colored hair, but friends just looked at you and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Pastor Jeff.” And at 6’4” you would have been visible in a crowd to all your church kids—clever.

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Seymour

Now, on to that last text message about your child: Seymour doesn’t identify as male or female and chooses to not be called daughter rather child and instead of her rather to be called they. I would love to see a blog post on non-gender word usage in a world that is stuck in binary. I struggle a bit but I am learning to honor Seymour’s name and using they as a way of referring to them not her.

I have a bunch of ideas, Jeff, but none of them are about gender-specific language. I hadn’t finished reading your text before a couple of lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass interrupted:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I confess I also had a sneak preview of your message. Folks in the congregation I’m serving reported about a year ago that their granddaughter altered her name and asked to be referred to as they. So, your child isn’t alone.

For the record, I say that Seymour and Whitman are right. When son Micah was a teenager, he railed against posers. Goth, emo, metal: apparently all groups had posers, kids who were wearing the clothes and moshing the mosh, but not bearing the genuine tribe brand on their souls. Every time we passed some lonely kid on a street corner and Micah gave his critique, I kept my eyes on the road and endured. How could I explain that only the rarest of human beings isn’t a poser? Don’t each of us contain multitudes—compelling personas asking to apply our makeup and fill out our wardrobe?

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Well done, Jeff, but I can still make out your whitewalls.

Gray-hairs like us say, “Oh, Seymour is just trying to find, uh, herself.” Just. As if their search isn’t epic, and as if ours is complete. Seymour is going through a phase, all right, and so are we, brother. It lasts from cradle to grave. You went with orange. My clerical shirts are migrating to the back of the rack—the collar doesn’t mean what it used to. You and I are actually playing it safe, keeping our spiritual boats close to shore.

But your child is—or are?—frying Jonah’s whale. When Seymour says, “Call me they,” they are fussing with not only personal identity, but also with what it means to be human. Your Child-Formerly-Known-as-Anna’s project is Applied Whitman. And picking your own name, that’s a move of biblical proportions. Parents name their children, but Yahweh gets the final say.

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The face of those who force God’s hand–whatever that means. Teach me new words. I’m listening.

So has Seymour forced God’s hand? I’m crazy enough to consider them faithful. As for you, wife Sue, son Isaac, and anybody who cares about Seymour, we ought to speak a brave language, adopt a compassionate grammar–and not complain. Love that won’t receive the beloveds’ new vocabulary and speak awkward sentences as if they’re really songs isn’t love at all.

Just to check, I sent you this text message: “So Seymour is good with my posting this?” You answered, “They are indeed.” I love you for your answer, Jeff. You tell me you’re “learning to honor Seymour’s name.” Let’s all keep learning. What we say will sound like poetry.

Your brother,

John

Blogger’s Note: for photo credits, contact me at my email address, JohnColemanObl@gmail.com.

I’ll Find You, Art, in the Sunset Dance

Art and I had a routine. He poked his head into my office doorway, checking to see if the coast was clear—a few times a week since Doris passed nine years ago.

“Thought I’d come in and bug you for a few minutes,” he said, then had a seat.

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Friend Art

Half-hour by half-hour we picked through his life and pulled out stories as if from attic boxes: Korea, close enough to the action to hear the shells whistle; a garage-building crew in the old neighborhood and the keg they were bound to finish and the world spinning; Doris dying alone in the afternoon while he ran errands—he never quite forgave himself.

“Well,” Art said, standing up, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“But, Art,” I always answered, “I have been working.”

He had to stop on the way home for something, maybe boloney. Samwiches every day for lunch get boring. After a while you forget to eat.

Art got to church first on Sunday mornings, unlocked the doors and set the bulletins out. But arthritis clamped down on his shoulders so badly that he gave in and got a crew cut. Combs and spoons weren’t his friends anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed his collar or untwisted his suspenders . . . . Getting to worship became a project, weary and burdensome.

This past winter Erie, Pennsylvania, was cruel. Art’s car and many others at Niagara Village were snowbound, but the wind chills would have kept him inside anyway. He had time to dwell on the indignities of age: obstinate hearts, lungs, and bowels. And loneliness. He looked at Doris’ picture on the wall and told her, “Send me my ticket. I’m ready.” He lay in bed before dawn, anxious and hazy, and wondered if what he was feeling was death.

Kidney failure pushed him over the edge. I was there when a kind doctor leaned in close and with his manner as much as his words let Art know that forgoing dialysis was just fine. We prayed.

Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.

Loved ones and nurses took in what was happening. Muffled tears. Compression devices off of his calves, the Velcro cackling. A tube or two removed. I don’t remember, exactly.

Art’s faithful son Mark went to make calls. Suddenly, Art and I were alone.

“What do you think Doris will say when you get there?” I said.

“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”

“Can I tell the [church] people what’s going on with you?”

“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”

I held his hand as he looked far off. Death wouldn’t arrive for a week or so, but he seemed to be peeking into another doorway, one where the coast is always clear—so I believe.

“Are you okay with this, Art?” I said. “Are you at peace?”

He was already on his way: “Yep, just help me through the door.”

Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.

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Church was home for Art. He always kept a prayer candle lit for Doris.

The sanctuary filled up for Art. We gave him a good send off—big choir, his boys sharp in uniform, loving words and a salute from his eldest, “How Great Thou Art” sung by one of his beloved church-grandchildren. We ended with our beautiful old prayer poem: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Art. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

The next morning I gathered with family at the cemetery. We said more words—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and slid Art’s urn in next to Doris’. Some hugs later, I drove away through the deep, winding green of summer. I can’t recall what I did the rest of that day.

I sit now with coffee, keeping company with a few more tears that are still floating in my reservoir.

And I sit with an understanding: nothing can rush sadness through the door after a friend dies, especially one you’ve said to many times, “Here, let me fix your suspenders.” It was my privilege.

IMG_3583Last evening, knowing the best I can do is keep my own door open wide enough for grief to go in and out freely, I drove with wife Kathy to Presque Isle, to beaches that feel like home.

The Lake Erie sunset was on. Yes, a sunset, stunning cliché of the western sky, light everybody sails into eventually. Wind kept the landscape in motion, waves and light playing in the last few minutes of day.

Kathy and I stood at the water’s edge and held each other. The air moved over us—I want to say blew through us. As I breathed in and out, we seemed to be welcomed in by the sinking sun, the clouds mysteriously still, restless Lake Erie, and all the quick and the dead. We embraced each other, and creation embraced us.

It would be satisfying to say that I sensed Art’s presence, but that would be a slanted truth. Rather, resting my cheek against Kathy’s hair, receiving her cheek against my chest, my soul knew the hope of a gathering, a cosmic dance of sun, water, wind, sand, grass, and hearts. The song is of mercy.

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A pale vault opening

Just after the sun set, a pale vault opened in its place, glowing in the memory of the great light. I felt as though I was looking into the dance, moving with it as much as anyone can without joining it entirely.

What does death feel like? Art wondered, and so do I. Now he knows. I pray that it’s like losing yourself in a dance, completely embraced, yet free, too amazed by color, light, and love to straighten your collar or imagine that anybody has ever died alone.