Oniontown Pastoral #4: The Late Imposition of Ashes

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Part 1: Holy Saturday Evening

Chopped pears bubbled with white raisins and honey—an improvisation to anoint vanilla ice cream for Easter dessert.

Morning would come early. Before wife Kathy and I headed out for the hour drive from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, bacon and congealed fat, soaking potatoes and sliced onions had to get from refrigerator to crock pot, along with whatever else Grandma Coleman included in her German potato salad recipe.

While I cooked, Kathy went to the Vigil of Easter at Abiding Hope, the congregation I served for fourteen years and said Godspeed to five months ago. The gracious interim pastor invited me to come, too, but it was too soon to go back.

Ash Wednesday arrived at an awkward time for this pastor’s heart. The last fifteen years have been disproportionately penitential, my topography rich with Gethsemanes. These forty days being mostly unburdened, I haven’t felt like sweating in the garden or walking the lonesome valley.

My ingredients for happiness aren’t exotic. A couple of untroubled hours at home suffice. With clove and cinnamon taking over the smell of bacon and guitar solos leaning into the dark, I pulled up the footrest and closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, without warning, a suggestion of Lent rose into my throat.

How many times over the decades have I refused to cry? I’m not sure why deferred tears surface on warm spring days, when each breeze is the Sacred One cupping my face. Or on quiet evenings, when the moon passes through living room windows, when failure and regret are subjects of past calendars and my lungs fill with the air of glad memory.

Part 2: Easter Sunday

7:00 a.m.: Why the mess? Everything everywhere, owner’s manual and insurance card on the floor, napkins and dry pens by the gas pedal.

Some little expletive had rifled through our unlocked car overnight. Since nothing was missing, Kathy and I agreed drug money was the goal. But lesson learned.

Dinner on low, we left for Oniontown: breakfast at 9:00, worship at 10:00. All was in readiness. The tomb was empty; “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . [was] rolled up in a place by itself.”

As Kathy sipped coffee, I thought through the sermon story. Notes wouldn’t be necessary. I can never get far from my dad’s last trip to see wife Mary in her nursing home.

They kissed. He rested his lips on her hand. “Come on,” he finally said. “Let’s get out of here.”

In spite of shared dementia, they both realized the impossibility. Mary’s legs were dead. The only place Dad was going was back to assisted living.

“Well, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad searched his evaporating vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step out on a cloud?” Mary said. “But that can’t be.”

Dad’s eyebrows gathered down—his standard incredulous look. “Why not?”

Dad, who didn’t have one church-going hair in his wavy gray compliment, was proposing heaven: the other post.

My sermon, falling on the ears of many parishioners who had endured loss after loss, wouldn’t be buoyant with resurrection, but hushed with hope. The other post: oh, that we could all gather there, offenses forgiven, injuries healed, fears rocked to sleep like colicky babies.

We were making good time, and my sermon was rehearsed. I can’t remember a more fair Easter morning. The sun was waking up the pale land, telling it to live.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something that placed the fullness of Lent on my lap. Half an hour away from church, the betrayal and nails and the sponge soaked in sour wine lifted on a hyssop branch all caught up with me. If I had consented to tears at that point I might not have been able to recover in time for a triumphant Easter shout.

What I remembered was four years ago. My own beloved expletive—son Micah—was hooked on heroin and owed a dealer $200. Desperate, expecting to be flogged, he rifled through a couple of cars for stuff to sell and scored a laptop and something else that escapes me.

He got arrested, spent a couple hours in jail, then went out and injected melted down fentanyl patches with a friend, who overdosed and nearly died. Micah earned a felony for his trouble.

My son got clean shortly after his one-day crime spree and is now a joy. Anyone who dismisses the earthly poetry of death and resurrection can talk to me.

My teenage junkie once knelt in the middle of West 8th Street, waiting for a minivan to run him over. I have seen with my own eyes the junkie stand and reach honorable adulthood. On the way to Oniontown, though, a wadded Kleenex still next to the clutch, I imagined the punk who chanced upon the car in the Coleman driveway and made a frenzied search.

My boy came to such a place, and it occurred to me that Easter morning’s little expletive was probably loved by somebody. Maybe he or she was a boilerplate creep, but did a parent pray—with face buried in hands, as I did—for a miraculous healing, a decent path, anything?

Familiar landmarks on District Road were a private blur. I couldn’t afford to have Lent—creation aching with needles, wounds, and rancor, lost pilgrims wandering the lonesome valley—crack me open a couple miles away from St. John’s.

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District Road landmarks were a blur.

Breakfast was five-diamond Lutheran. We shouted and sang. When I talked about the other post, my tears behaved, but some of the folks cried on my behalf. I appreciated their help and knew unfinished ashes would rise in my throat again on a still evening of their own choosing.

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Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

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Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

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“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

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Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

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“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

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Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

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Dolores Coleman, younger than my daughter and son are now

March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.

She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.

The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.

The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.

But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.

And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.

But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.

Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.

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Lawrence with ah Bobby and ah Cissy, 1969 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.

My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.

The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.

Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.

The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.

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Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Nixon (Credit: Robert L. Knudsen on Wikimedia Commons)

Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.

Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.

Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.

But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.

I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

Good night, good night, until we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.

And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,

You know you’ll always remain in my heart.

Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.

Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.

And now till we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.

Good night!

I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor*

A few Mondays ago my friend’s son, forty-four, overdosed on heroin. The next day I took her stunned grief with me to the pastor’s study at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

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Farm art near Oniontown

My commute from Erie has four legs: I-79 South to US-19 South to District Road to Mercer Road. For seventy minutes gray trees and rolling fields heal me, but on this day my mind was on iffy roads and my friend. She and her husband had long anticipated the knock at the door and the crushing news. My wife and I used to have the same nightmares about our son, now thankfully clean.

As I thought about the numb terror of fresh loss, a line from Philippians visited me: “Your citizenship is in heaven.” Good sermon theme! I started to flesh it out. When political candidates carpet bomb each other, when explosive vests cut down the innocent, when El Nino and Zika lead the news, and when nasty heroin is as cheap as beer, then heavenly citizenship sounds, well, heavenly. My point, of course, wouldn’t be to reject this life, but to remember that we have a home over the horizon. Not particularly uplifting, but not all sermons can be sunbeams and dandelions.

I looked forward to getting to church and putting the ideas on paper. Alas, a snowy parking lot stood in my way. But since secretary Jodi’s truck was in its spot, I bravely punched the accelerator. Turns out my burnt-orange, bulbous Chevy HHR can’t compete with four-wheel drive.

“Man, am I stuck,” I reported to Jodi, who didn’t know when the plow guy would get to St. John’s. Might be evening. “We’ll get you out somehow,” she assured me.

I sulked at my desk. Wait-and-see isn’t my best mode. The sermon I pecked away at would sound whiny, I could tell.

Within half-an-hour Jodi said, “Do I hear a tractor?”

“I hear something,” I said. “Don’t know what.” Then out my window passed a bundled up man with a long beard pushing snow with an old tractor. The blade was behind the driver, a configuration I had never seen, but he was blazing me a trail.

“He lives over there,” Jodi pointed. He had seen my problem and arrived unbidden. Shoving snow this way and that, he kept at it, like a man subduing a wooly mammoth with a straight razor.

Watching him ride into and out of view, I came to love that tractor, pale red, faded by decades of sun and squalls. It must have been shiny once, but endurance gave it a different beauty. Hope, I think, is the color of my Samaritan’s tractor.

I finally understood why Jodi wasn’t concerned. And the sermon in process took on a glad color. “Our citizenship may be heavenly,” I now plan to say, “but God resides in Oniontown, too.” Then I’ll tell the folks about our neighbor and his tractor. And I’ll tell them about hope.

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*This essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s, newspaper, the Record-Argus. 

Oniontown Pastoral #2: Visitation

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I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.

(“The Geese” by E. B. White)

Who doesn’t love summer? Millions of northerners flock south each year in hopes of denying winter its due.

I accept the migration’s logic, but my attraction to summer or any mild weather is complicated. If the sky is flawless blue, I remember that for some folks, clouds block the light.

E. B. White’s summer sadness descended as he watched an old gander on his farm defeated by a young male. The Charlotte’s Web author, in his early seventies, sympathized with the displaced bird.

My ambivalence toward nice weather has its own causes. When I was a teenager my grandparents tried to outrun Gram’s arthritis by moving to Sun City, Arizona. While the dry climate was physically medicinal, the miles from children and grandchildren punished her heart.

My mother died in June of 1998 while I was doing chaplaincy training. At the end of each day of caring for others, I floated a city block to my car through a hot haze of grief.

So memories and disposition keep the unbridled joy of a beautiful day in check. I wouldn’t call my mood sad, though. Mindful is more accurate. I pray for people for whom getting from stoop to car is herculean or impossible. I dream them with me into the light.

Last week I visited homebound parishioners. Ah, the weather! Driving was a pleasure, windows down a couple of inches. Walking across parking lots was all Julie Andrews spinning and singing from the lively hills.

But it never takes long to recall that beauty depends on your perch. If walls and a non-compliant body keep you from taking in deep draughts of outside air and picking tomatoes with your own two hands, then whatever breeze sneaks in through the screen might bring out a sigh of resignation rather than delight.

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Bulletin board in an old folks’ home near Oniontown

This evening while enduring the television news, I’ll have a splash of pinot noir—just to gladden my human heart. What does a long-stem wine glass look like to an elderly child of God who shakes unpredictably? Or a chalice full of Sacred Presence? Spills waiting to happen?

Such questions should depress me, but they don’t. Seeing through homebound eyes is a lighter prayer than you might think. Anyway, I won’t dishonor them with sorrow. Maybe God can use my gratitude—for the filling of lungs, lifting a spoonful of broth, finding the Big Dipper—to bless my friends, to grant them an hour’s gladness.

My own joy is tender to the touch—only selfish joy isn’t bruised. I miss Mom now more than eighteen years ago when summer hung on me like wool.

But this March day is stunning, brilliant, 60 degrees. Chores are next on the list, then a walk. I’ll bring Mom and gather everyone I can remember as I go.

Dear God, please take the saints I forget by the hand and lead the way.

Words from the Dead in a Frightening Season

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Our beautiful country . . . out my office window.

Voting seasons are generally a drag, but the 2016 presidential primaries in advance of this fall’s general election are scary. In response to a long, humorless essay on the subject I posted on A Napper’s Companion a few days ago, friend Mary wrote, “I am sick and frightened and don’t know where our beautiful country is going.”

To her excellent words, I would add powerless. Today is Super Tuesday, and millions of Americans are looking around wildly for a pause button that doesn’t exist. Will our next president’s greatest gift be barroom brawling? And will the spectacle that is United States government morph from paralysis to legislative deliberations dominated by bellowing, spittle, and locker room insults?

I’m not the only citizen asking these questions and fearing these fears. Friend Judie wrote to me, “I am so ashamed of what we have become in politics.” Mary and Judie speak for thoughtful Americans and, obviously, for me. I’m weary with sick and frightened and ashamed.

As the first votes are being cast, I’m taking this moment to up my personal ante: Shame for others’ conduct is bad, but shame for my own thoughts and actions is worse.

When hitting below the belt is the order of the day, the temptation to counterpunch in like fashion is acute. If you call me a loser, I can call you whatever I please—and think even worse. But this way is neither Christian nor mindful. It’s the way of the lowest common denominator and the reptile brain.

Frightening times can bring out the worst in us, myself included. We’ve been scared before, though. I’m too young to recall vividly 1968, another year that America felt itself cracking to pieces. Think the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

In April of that year, monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal while on the road: “So the murder of M. L. King—it lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. And it finally confirmed all the apprehensions—the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year. That the things are finally, inexorably, spelling themselves out. Why? Are things happening because people in desperation want them to happen? Or do they have to happen? Is the human race self-destructive? Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one just “love” in an impossible situation?”

Anyone familiar with Merton’s life and work knows how he would have answered his own questions. One must love. In beastly times, love is the mindful person’s center of gravity. Such love is sometimes obliged to fight, but its arsenal is selective. Cruel or dehumanizing weapons, for example, are out. Such love is also sacrificial and can appear not only risky, but reckless.

How difficult to remember in an alarming season that assaulting my neighbor ends in wounding myself. In an informal address in Calcutta in October of 1968, Merton spoke indirectly of love: “And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

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Flower Power, 1967 (Credit: Bernie Boston on Wikipedia)

Monks from various spiritual traditions, Western and Eastern, heard these words. In the context of what feels like a contemporary planetary crack up—campaign explosions, not to mention real bombs and climate change—Merton probably seems flighty, like a hippie sticking a flower in a rifle barrel. (And the monk himself added a tragic explanation point to 1968 on December 15th when he died of an accidental electrocution in Bangkok.)

If the human race is self-destructive, I want to be the weirdo holding out a daisy. If Christian love and human unity are pitiful delusions, nobody wake me up.

Wherever our beautiful country is going, history has taught us where hatred and fear lead. Call me a flake if I refuse to take the beastly path.