Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

IMG_4286Cashiers at Wine and Spirits Stores always ask the same question before scanning my bottle: “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

I say a lazy “yes, thanks” because an honest answer requires a treatise. Rarely, when nobody else is in line, the thesis comes out: “Well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’m good.”

After a polite chuckle, the cashier carries on with no idea that a confessional transaction has also taken place.

I seldom know what I’m looking for. Call me slack, but purposeful searching generally yields frustration. The quotation residing warmly in memory is elusive, impossible to verify. And never go hunting for epiphanies. Those gems hide in desert caves until the seeker has forgotten that they exist.

But when I look for nothing, wonder ends up finding me. Of course, sometimes we’re all assigned a specific mission. There’s no avoiding, for example, the Thanksgiving curse of tracking down nomadic French fried onions in the grocery store for the sake of green bean casserole.

Obligations aside, though, I live like my late dog Watson, who was clueless as to what he was sniffing for, but overjoyed to discover it. What am I after? I’ll know when I find it.

Case study: Parishioner Barb invited me to her neighborhood. About twenty minutes from Oniontown, her neighbors are Amish. She introduced me to a couple of young guys working in their family’s lumber mill and walked me to points of interest, which on dirt roads can be beautiful, but nonchalant: houses with curtains pulled to one side, a sugar shack tucked back in the woods, a one-room school house, and one thing I wasn’t expecting.

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Amish phone booth

A phone booth. The Amish, it turns out, have a nuanced relationship with telephones. They can use them, but they can’t own them. So in her front yard, Barb collaborates to provide them with phone service. The booth, built with their wood and running off of her lines, gets used six or eight times each day.

An obvious question occurred to me: “What sense does it make to use a phone, but be forbidden to own one?” But hush. My faith can’t stand up to logic, either.

When Barb and I returned from our walk, a horse and buggy was parked by the phone booth. The father indulged in technology while his kids waited. The horse worried its bit and nodded as we rubbed its long face.

Since the Amish don’t allow photographs, I snapped only a shot of the booth. It says something about caring for people you don’t quite understand and keeping a spare room open in your heart for guests.

This is why I love Oniontown so much: it always teaches me. A village an hour south of Erie has even helped me to look at home and everything nearby with fresh eyes.

Days ago at Starbucks, I chatted with a boy, maybe six or seven, and his mother. The kid was a whip, his mom cheerfully resigned to having a child able to talk the bark off a tree. His segue between topics was “by the way.”

Our conversation ballooned to ninety minutes and included his Gentleman Claptrap toy, requests for the family shopping list, and some kiddie movie. I was weary, but sensed the approach of wisdom.

As Mom loaded her purse, I said, “I’ve never heard of that movie before.”

He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You have a lot to learn.”

Mom gave him a tame rebuke, but I interrupted: “Well, actually, he’s right.”

And he was. As a lifelong novice, I learn best by opening my eyes and holding out my hands.

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Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.

Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.

Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.

Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
  • “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
  • “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).

This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.

Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.

The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.

Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”

The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.

“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.

“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”

Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”

Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

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Prescription for discouragement: a look out at the soybean field behind St. John’s Lutheran Church and a dose of E. B. White’s wisdom

When I get discouraged about the civilized world, I often turn to E. B. “Andy” White, essayist for The New Yorker and Harper’s and author of Charlotte’s Web. White was not only a great prose stylist, but the last century’s most devoted naysayer to change.

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E. B. White at his Maine farm in 1977 (Credit: Getty Images)

He frowned upon atomic energy: “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

He rejected conventional wisdom: “Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, [and] the big greater than the small.”

And he challenged orthodoxy—and got my mind working just the other day: “Our whole economy hangs precariously on the assumption that the higher you go the better off you are, and that unless more stuff is produced in 1958 than was produced in 1957, . . . you are headed for trouble, living in danger and maybe in squalor.”

I agree, but wondered, “Is growth necessary for a healthy United States economy?” Actually, I hoped the investigation might lead to existential insights—my habitual trajectory of thought.

The Internet ambushed me with economic principles. Turns out experts disagree so diametrically that Andy could be heard laughing from the curmudgeons’ bleachers in heaven.

I also received a wave of nausea for my research efforts. In 2014, Forbes printed Peter Ferrara’s “Why Economic Growth Is Exponentially More Important Than Income Inequality,” which presents dizzying statistics and a blueprint for our technological future.

The author rhapsodizes over futuristic physicist Michio Kaku, who claims, “When you need to see a doctor, you’ll talk to a wall in your home, and an animated artificially intelligent doctor will appear. You’ll scan your body with a hand-held MRI machine, the ‘Robodoc’ will analyze the results, and you’ll receive a diagnosis that is 99% accurate.”

My AI doc better be more skillful than my smart phone. Siri, my allegedly intelligent assistant, can’t locate a Dunkin Donuts. Why should I trust a virtual endocrinologist with my pancreas?

More to the point, why would I ever confide in a wall? In 1955, White grumbled at his telephone company “for having saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators.” My misgivings about healthcare via hologram will seem similarly quaint in eighty years.

Still, I have a quick response for Ferrara and Kaku: “I’ll pass!”

Give me Andy instead. He was never a churchgoer, but he held a divining rod for the sacred. And he would have delighted in the county tour parishioner Dave, a retired cow veterinarian, took me on last week.

We wandered a 4-H Club show, where I visited Jocelyn and her prize-winning cows and greeted pigs, goats, a llama and an alpaca.

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St. John’s Lutheran Church’s very own Jocelyn with Dilly and Luci

We browsed at McCartney’s Feed and Hardware, which is packed with implements exotic to my city eyes and operates without cash registers. The clerks make change directly out of their pockets.

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Exotic to my eyes, anyway: a “boot jack”

And Dave took me to the farmland he owns with wife Anne, where I got a primer on round bales and found out that cows can sleep out under the stars.

Andy would have pronounced the tour medicinal. Even now, his commentary on the wondrous land and skepticism about progress persist in my imagination. “A 99% accurate Robodoc might increase longevity,” he might ask, “but will the extra years hold any savor?”

While pastoring in my beloved Oniontown, I’ll honor E. B. White’s words and devote myself to “living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

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