The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

(8 minute read)

As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.

But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.

In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”

Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.

“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.

“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”

Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.

But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?

Two of my grandchildren. I have millions.

I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”

The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.

I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.

But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?

Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.

One of my boys named Jesse. Sweet face! Soul full of music.

Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.

The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.

If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.

A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.

If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?

  • When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
  • The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
  • Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
  • I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.

Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.

Dear Lord, Let all children feel this safe and peaceful in my presence. Amen

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

The truth arrived at dawn as I enjoyed the calm before facing another day: I see myself in a horse on the way to Oniontown.

My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.

Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.

I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.

But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.

I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.

Ah, Oniontown! Your fields bring me the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”

I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.

I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.

“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.

“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”

When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.

Still on the refrigerator in the Coleman house

Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.

Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Wife Kathy is early girl this week at the Regional Cancer Center, so my kiss goodbye came this morning at 5:30 with this question: “Hey, did you clean the litter box last night?”

The trouble is, our cat, Baby Crash, is such a dainty soul that her ladies’ room doesn’t get nasty. The trouble also is, I always forget. If only I could remember on Tuesday evening before trash pick up, there would be no problem. I mean, yes, of course, an everyday scooping routine would be optimal, but a slight effort on my part would keep Kathy from saying, “I feel like a broken record.”

And another “if only.” If only the late Alan Dugan hadn’t hit the nail on the head in “Love Song: I and Thou.” “Nothing is plumb, level, or square,” he writes of a house he built for himself. The poem is angry and mournful, with the speaker clearly as flawed as his construction. Love enters the picture only at the end, when we learn that all along he has been addressing his wife.

My Oniontown mantra: “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

Dugan’s vision is darker than my own, but that line has persisted with me since my college days. The prosaic translation I constantly offer my St. John’s brothers and sisters is, “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

We laugh and nod together. One tire is always low on air. Your neck has a crick in it from sleeping weird. Your parent / child / spouse / best friend / neighbor (circle one) has shingles / might be laid off / is being a monumental pain in the rumpus (circle one).

Or today everything is fine, but your insides wonder what is misplaced, unfinished or damaged. You can’t figure it out. “Tell me, John,” you say, “why am I looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sensing that the phone is about to ring with terrible news or another fire to put out?”

I’ll tell you why. Because “nothing is plumb, level, or square.” If something isn’t crackers at present, experience has taught us that a sliver, sprained ankle or broken heart can’t be far off. When troubles arrive in rapid succession, rhetorical questions come to mind. What did I do to deserve this? Is God testing me or what?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The answer is generally clear, for me at least. When my thumb smarts, I know exactly who swung the hammer. And the only thing worse than swearing and hopping around on one foot is knowing I’ll repeat this performance in perpetuity. A dirty litter box is easily remedied, but the fact is, if I remember to clean it, I’m sure to forget something else. It’s not like patching one crack in the drywall makes a whole room smooth. The Tower of Pisa leans by name. Bowling lanes are defined by gutters. Pencils live under erasers.

People, on the other hand, are both upright and crooked, and the only way not to stay bent over is to speak. “I messed up.” “Please forgive me.” “I’ll try to do better.” Each of the three is an implied question. In the sanctuary, corporate confessions receive immediate absolution, but in most other buildings, silence and waiting are customary. When answers come, the language is commonplace. “No worries.” “We’re good.” “That’s OK.” The relief is a blessing.

Baby Crash

So the human pendulum always swings between injury and pardon. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or even a believer to recognize yourself in St. Paul’s quandary: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In case you didn’t catch that the first time, he writes two verses later, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” And to be positive, he serves up the next verse: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Ten years ago I read this humbling Romans passage at a parishioner’s funeral. A grizzly soul who wrestled with himself constantly, John was comforted to know that St. Paul understood his predicament.

I lean on the apostle, too, but the poet’s raw testimony blesses me like scripture. “Nothing is plumb, level, or square”—not that anything is really wrong. At any given moment, if I’m not apologizing, circumstance is preparing an ambush.

In my fifty-seventh year, I’ve found an ideal name for this phenomenon: “Life.”

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?

In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.

During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.

Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.

Sometimes the strong one, sometimes the one leaning. You, too?

We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.

I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.

And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”

I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.

Grace–all golf aside

My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.

Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.

Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”

Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”

Perfect place to get together

Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?

Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

“Hey, you know what?” I say to wife Kathy.

“You love me?” she answers.

“Well, yes,” I go on, “but . . . .”

“You’re proud of me?” Her Cheshire cat grin sparkles.

This is one of our routines, which concludes with my telling her that I ran into a friend or heard a good joke or whatever. The fact is, I’m endlessly in love with and proud of my wife.

Kathy used to faint at the sight of blood, but went to school and became an oncology nurse. As a mother and grandmother, she is more fun than a sack of spider monkeys. As a wife, she has not only stuck with impossible me for thirty-five years, but she has also replaced our roof, remodeled the bathroom, and built a deck out of planks repurposed from a wheelchair ramp. Her focus these days is coaxing edibles from a modest plot behind our garage. Most dinners include something she has grown, often garlic, which brings me to my point.

My conscience has been twitching lately like a nerved up eyelid. I value honesty, but for years now I’ve been keeping a secret: Although my wife is a marvel, she possesses a quirky mind. And by “quirky” I mean, “Holy cow!” While she is ever eager to recount the thoughts leading up to her whimsical choices, the plots are so circuitous that listening makes drool trail down my chin. Her most recent and finest decision involved elephant garlic, but please enjoy an appetizer before the entrée.

More fun than a sack of spider monkeys

You probably know somebody who “thinks out loud.” Well, Kathy “looks out loud.” While tracking down anything (i.e. smartphone, comb, tax bill, lasagna), she recites all relevant itineraries, identifies last known locations, holds her hands out as if checking for rain and mumbles, “What’s wrong with me?”

Our garage door opener, for example, went missing for several months. Then one afternoon, a yelp of laughter came from the basement. The opener was hibernating in the toe of one of Kathy’s rubber yard-work boots. Okey doke.

Some husbands might get frustrated, but I look forward to whatever oddity hides around the next bend. Take the aforementioned entrée I now put before you. Kathy has been mildly stressed about her overwhelming harvest of garlic. Multiple braids hang from the garage rafters. A four-quart basket-full is parked by the back door. She and I have settled on peeling and freezing, thereby easing her mind. Fortunately, the elephant garlic yield was light, enough to fill a three-pound mesh onion bag, which is where the impressive heads went. From there, I lost track of them.

Last week, in a rare attempt at tidiness, I took a suit jacket I’d thrown over a dining room chair to the basement to hang up in my humble wardrobe area. Making room amidst my jackets, I discovered, slung over a hanger between two of my old favorites, a mesh bag full of elephant garlic, which is rightly known in culinary circles as an “aromatic.”

Proof

Slack-jawed, I imagined slipping on my navy blue number and heading out into the world smelling like a really aggressive basket of butter and garlic wings or an overly ambitious angel hair Alfredo.

The responsible party was not in question. But why? Why would one human being nestle a bag of garlic, which has a well-earned reputation for shedding its skin and bleeding essential oils, between two garments belonging to another human being?

Dangling the bag from my index finger, I climbed the steps and started the interrogation with, “What could have possessed you to . . . ?”

Kathy blinked bashfully and pursed her lips as if to say, “Oh, was that wrong of me?”

Garlic, she eventually explained, will keep in a cool, dark place. A basement is normally ideal, but ours is too light. Ah, but there my suit jackets were, the crevasses between them so chilly, so pitch black.

Thankfully, St. John’s Lutheran is planted in a village named “Oniontown,” which wouldn’t look askance at a minister who occasionally smells like a good sauce. It’s all good.

Best of all, I can take a pinch of pride in practicing what I preach. During marriage preparation, I ask each fiancé what’s most maddening about the other. Then I say, “So if things never change, not one bit, can you still say, ‘I do’?”

How blessed am I, having always known the answer to my own question and remembering that I was never mad to start with.

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Dear Abbey,

Sorry for starting this sendoff with a cliché, but “time is flying” lately. Same with life, especially when fifty sneaks up on sixty. That’s me. Every once in a while I want to grab a day by the scruff to keep it from running away. That’s right now.

In a few weeks you’ll be off to Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, two hours south on I-79 from home in Erie. You’ll take leave, knowing that your tribe can and will hop behind the wheel as soon as you call and show up before tears of homesickness have time to dry.

One of Chatham’s stately buildings

You and I both know you’ll do some crying, right? I’m not trying to be a rain cloud here. You have—in case you haven’t noticed—family and friends who swoon over you with love and support. We’ve watched you overcome serious illnesses, distinguish yourself academically, hang onto your sweet self and take a full step into adulthood. Along the way, disappointment and grief have gotten up in your face, but you’ve stood your ground. Yes, ma’am, you’ve made us proud.

And you, on your part, hold a love for us that’s overwhelming at times, isn’t it? You find comfort in having family and friends in your house, even if you’re not in the same room. If we leave without saying goodbye, you’re a bit hurt. When Kathy, Micah and I moved from the house next door, you got choked up talking about it for months.

Such wondrous love as yours comes with a price. This is actually my reason for writing to you, other than to say what you already know: “I love you and am sad that for most of the year, you won’t be across town.” If only time would cooperate when we try to hold it still. If only those dear to us never disappeared over the horizon. You and I know better, right?

No way to slow it down, right, dear friend?

We’ll see each other often enough, but the move to college can be decisive. On August 22, 2018, you’re off to the Steel City. Four years later, who knows where circumstance and intuition will call you? Will we be able to reach you in a day’s drive? I guess we’ll all find out together.

Anyway, you’re smarter than I am, and don’t bother arguing with me on this point. There’s hardly anything I can say that you haven’t learned or already suspect. Studying and self-discipline have been folded up in your suitcase for many grades now. Those lumps from childhood have taught you not to get knocked out by upsets that might have your classmates on the ropes. And romance? Sure, you might get stung, but brains aren’t your only gift. You’ve got a strong, insightful heart. You’ll outmaneuver each Don Juan.

Your fortune

You’ll also make friends and crush exams and write amazing papers, no doubt in my mind. But I do have a vision of a moment that might come out of nowhere and leave you shaken.

You’ve just walked into your dorm room. Outside it’s dusk, inside the light is thin. The heavy knapsack slips from your shoulder onto your study desk. Strange, nobody is around, not your roommate, not other girls coming and going. The air is heavy and quiet. You check your smartphone. No text messages, no missed calls. It’s been a crummy day. A good friend has been acting like a jerk, for no reason you can think of. Or a guy you kind of like clearly isn’t interested in you (the fool). Or maybe you’ve just been out of sorts. 

Whatever the case, it’s only you, your room, Chatham University and Pittsburgh. That’s it. Not even a test to study for. Being alone is normally OK with you. But now, standing in the gray silence, you want to be in Erie, bellied up to the kitchen counter and snacking on leftover Alfredo I sent home with you and telling your brother or sister to cut it out and hearing your mother call you “Abber Dabbers.”

You would give anything, when darkness comes, to lie down in your attic bedroom and stare at the familiar moonlight and shadows on your walls. More affection than you could ever need would be one flight of stairs away.

But you’re alone at school, listening to yourself sigh.

Trust me, Abbey, I’m not out to depress you. This letter is actually a gift to slip into a moving box and read again when you forget that you’re not only mighty, but mindful—which is why I’ve dared to send you off to college with this sad portrait.

4:30 p.m. on a December day like the one I’ve described will probably visit you. We’re “kindred spirits”—another cliché, sorry. The mere nuance of life can make us tear up or shove our faces into the dirt. So I know that your solitary dorm room on an overcast afternoon might fill your chest with a longing more insistent than you had thought possible.

You can trust this face, right? No, not the moose, your beloved Flanders.

If so, you listen to your forever neighbor Flanders*. This may be the only advice I have to offer you.

When you feel so alone that you want to climb out of your skin, stand still and keep listening to yourself breathe. Don’t run. Don’t busy yourself. In fact, do more than stand still. Lean into the loneliness. Taste it. Hold it gently by the scruff so it won’t get away. If you cry, cry like a big baby. And know this: When you let loneliness have its way with you for a little while, it will pass eventually without much of a fight.

By the time you feel more yourself, you will have passed an exam beyond book learning. A college freshman doesn’t have to be lonely very much, but when you do, Abbey, you’ll be able to handle it. For sure, call somebody who loves you. Call me, but if there’s no answer, you know what to do.

Being mighty has a summit: Standing alone with yourself and not trying to escape. You’ve got this!

Love,

Flanders

*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.

 

I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love

I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love

The 1993 movie Philadelphia teaches the powerful lesson that love is something to be proud of, even though folks may find certain expressions of it hard to honor at first. On the soundtrack, a Neil Young song, also named after the City of Brotherly Love, resonates with me, especially the line “I won’t be ashamed of love.” The protagonist is a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. My sister Cathy is married to Betsy Ann, and sister Cindy is married to Linda. Far from feeling shame, these kind and upright women ought to be proud.

One of my favorite photographs of all time: Cathy and Betsy Ann

But as moving as Neil Young’s words are in context, their message begs to be taken down from the screen and worn like a wedding ring. Love isn’t something you put on when it feels good and take off when it proves inconvenient.

Here in 2018 the temptation to compartmentalize love and all the rest of our emotions is great. Our tear ducts, for example, work overtime for YouTube videos of Christmas puppies and soldiers returning home to surprise loved ones, but an emotional voice in a political debate is often persona non grata. Two Facebook comments show what I’m getting at:

Awww did the bad man hurt ur feewings again

and

You need a safe pwace with a blanky

These responses landed in a sparring match over recent news developments, with one side expressing genuine concern and the other sticking with locker room towel snapping.

I don’t mention specifics here because I’m not looking for a fight. My point is directed to the whole sociopolitical spectrum. Not only won’t I be ashamed of love, I want to be its champion. Americans from many quarters insist that something essential to their identity is under attack, which may explain why we’re always putting up our dukes.

While my own rhetorical fists aren’t raised, my arms are crossed. I admit it, I need a safe pwace with a blanky. Some folks take pleasure in calling people like me a “snowflake.” Nothing new here. Those who drag kindness and compassion into the debate hall used be “pinkos” and “bleeding hearts.” Today, a merely descriptive term, “liberal,” is being wielded as a slur.

Such language is weaponry in what I believe is a war on love. Emotions, the reasoning goes, have no place in policy formation, and those who suggest otherwise deserve a good mansplaining.

I disagree, so with a blanky on my lap, I’ll speak only for myself. Tease the worried and teary-eyed if you like, but you’ll not shame this old softy for a few love-inspired convictions:

  • Being proudly American doesn’t require that I think ill of other nations or view them as opponents. My faith calls me to welcome and assist foreigners and strangers, even when sacrifices are likely.
  • Saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem are two ways of demonstrating love for America, but they aren’t the only ways. When fully understood, peaceful protest can be a profound sign of patriotism. And insisting on a couple of core values amounts to taking up our country in a strong and lasting embrace: 1.) Misleading others is wrong, and “well, that’s politics for you,” is no defense. Cases can be made for lying in extreme circumstances, as when Oscar Schindler did so to save Jews during World War II, but when falsehoods are deployed to protect the powerful, line their pockets or advance their agendas, the results may be rightly called “evil.” 2.) Knowledge is good, so precious, in fact, that it is the duty of citizens to seek out reliable sources of information, not just ones that confirm previously held opinions. Loving America requires homework. Facts exist, and they do matter.
  • The first priority of any government should be the wellbeing of children and those unable to care for themselves. Scripture could easily support this claim, but love alone is my defense—messy, counter-intuitive, vulnerable love. In the recent instance of immigrant families being separated at America’s southern border, simple human empathy makes an unapologetic case against such a practice. Might some undesirables slip into the country along with innocent children? Of course, but philos allows that the presence of bad actors among law abiding citizens may be collateral damage in the campaign to protect children—and not the other way around! Always err on the side of aiding the innocent rather than punishing the guilty. Might the guilty cause trouble? Absolutely, but love devoid of risk is just another four-letter word.

As you can imagine, my commitment to love reaches beyond the controversial issues of a given season. Love means putting my iPhone away when somebody is talking to me. It means thanking police officers and soldiers for their service. It means remembering that nothing makes me better than the guy at Erie’s State Street Starbucks who has loud arguments with himself. Nothing. I’m one chromosomal kink, chemical hiccup or bad decision from being in his shoes.

Come to think of it, he hasn’t been around in quite a while. I hope he is OK. He might not understand my concern for him, but I’m sure you can. I’m not ashamed to say that he is worthy of my love.

Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows

Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows

Though not much of a collector myself, I admire those who are. Parishioner Bill has been a Cub Cadet enthusiast for years, at one point owning over a dozen of them. My barber hoards sneakers but plays coy about revealing numbers. Retired Limerick plumber Michael Kelly’s ever-expanding model aircraft collection finally had to find a home at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.

I used to collect baseball cards and comic books, but these were passing endeavors. Boxes jammed with Sudden Sam MacDowell and Johnny Bench cards and Jonah Hex and Iron Man comics have journeyed from attic to crawl space to closet, their whereabouts now known only to wife Kathy, the household storage maven.

Only recently have I tripped over a collection that has been quietly amassing not in cardboard boxes or curio cabinets, but between my ears. Turns out I’ve been accumulating windows.

When wife Kathy and I lived in South Haven, Michigan, only treetops were visible as we lay in bed and looked out our window. Why were we soothed by gusts making branches bend and sway? Was it that the leaves, waving and trembling, had no choice but to surrender to the weather? Our yearlong stay in that small town on Lake Michigan was blessed, but also challenging and unpredictable. Our heads on the pillows and hands clasped, we enjoyed the solace of treetops, straining like us not to snap when tempest tossed.

Shenley maples, with only tops visible from our bedroom window

In 2001, following seminary studies, Kathy and I moved home to Erie, where Shenley Drive gave us a boulevard of maples. Once again, for over a decade, waking up in the morning and napping involved trees. As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Way leads on to way.” My forties led on to fifties. Seasons used high branches as an excuse to sing, and I could no longer pretend to be young. The trees helped me to whisper to myself: “If I die on this bed, hopefully ages and ages hence, that will be fine.” The message was freeing. Forever, it seemed, I longed to be in a place more cultured, more interesting and exciting. But truth had its say: “Move as much as you like, John, you’ll always have to accept four walls and the certainty of your own end.” At 322 Shenley I was finally home.

I had also developed the habit of finding joy buried under adversity and mortality. The first time I saw an oriole up close, parishioner Tom and I were standing at his kitchen window. His daughter Nadeana, only forty-seven, had died that very morning of cancer, which afflicted Tom as well. Shoulder to shoulder with a devastated father, I wondered what nerve lovely wings had visiting on such a wretched day. There they were though, reminding us both that even on Golgotha, life has the last word.

Another of my windows is beside Fred and Marilyn’s backdoor. When I visit, we chat and keep track of birds that share seeds and nuts with the squirrels. Last week while saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I noticed the yard was deserted. Then, when I said, “Shed for you,” a red-bellied woodpecker, titmice, and squirrels had returned, as if to attend our meal. Fred’s condition makes holding a cup difficult, but as he persevered, a conviction alighted on me: While we birds, beasts and siblings struggle wing-to-hoof-to-elbow, God is mindful of us all.

My St. John’s window in spring

The pastor’s study window at St. John’s holds an honored place in my collection. Just as the Shenley Drive maples calmed a restless middle-aged man, a line of pines, a field in which corn and soybeans take turns, and one grand red barn compose a landscape that means: “You love St. John’s. They put up with you. You’re fortunate, you small church pastor, you.”

And now, to my delight, Grandson Cole shows signs of inheriting his Pop’s unusual tastes. Some weeks ago on the way to Oniontown, Cole gazed out his car window and said to Grandma Kathy, “Do you know what kind of woods those are?”

“No, best buddy,” she said, “what kind are they?”

“They’re ‘Ice Cream Woods,’” he said.

“Ice Cream Woods? Why?”

“Because you could go in there and eat ice cream.”

“Oh,” Kathy played along, “so could you sit under a tree and eat ice cream?”

“No, Grandma, ants would get on you,” he explained. “You’d have to stand.”

Okay, I’m not sure what Pop has passed down to Cole, an interest in windows or a fanciful way of seeing the world. Either way, I’m glad to have his company.

Ice Cream Woods set Cole’s mind to dreaming. Round bales do the same for me.