Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Announcement: I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I’m on one side, and technology is on the other.

For the record, I have an iPhone 6, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a MacBook Air laptop computer. I send text messages and “chat” with tech support to shoot all kinds of troubles. After years of resistance, the Colemans now have cable television. So nobody can say that I’m sour on gadgets or progress.

What tastes foul, though, is technology designed to boss me around. One exception is the navigational feature (“GPS”—Global Positioning System) on my iPhone. A woman’s cheerful voice tells me where and when to turn, thus keeping my eyes on the road and not on scribbled directions. She repeats herself incessantly, but wins points for not being as snarky with me as I am with her.

Driving around Oniontown the other day, I heard on the radio about Google’s plans to extend the GPS from my car all the way to my living room. My inner curmudgeon grimaced.

Welcome to “ambient computing” and the surprisingly affordable “Google Home” computer. This “personal assistant” can recognize all voices in your household and do each individual’s bidding. “Call Joe,” you can say, and your buddy Joe will answer—as opposed to your sister’s boyfriend of the same name. Google Home has no keyboard and resembles an egg. At 5.62” tall, it’s almost cute.

But give it access to your contacts, calendar, favorite websites, etc., and the trouble begins. National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani described what sounds like a nasally relative moving in and interfering. In “virtual” fashion, Google Home will “follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.” Shahani promised that my assistant will be “all around [me] all the time.”

In a word, “Whoa!” I treasure my wife Kathy, but don’t want to be around even her “all the time.” After thirty-three years of marriage, my relationship advice is, “Learn how to be silent together and give each other space.”

The smart variety of eggs (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, my message is beige compared to Google Home’s. It can warn you that your flight is late. It can define mysterious terms like “covfefe.” It can bark out the Browns versus Steelers score.

But what could possibly be wrong with getting instant answers? Who would object to eliminating inconvenience? Why not let technology “tell me what I need before I even ask”?

I guess there’s no harm in confirming right away that Cleveland is careening toward another loss, but inconvenience is a great teacher. Human experience would be impoverished without it.

The other day, for example, unbeknownst to my iPhone, Kidds Mill Road was closed. When I took Methodist Road instead, my navigational lady went berserk. To save my sanity and hers, I pulled the plug.

In the end her ignorance proved my blessing. I passed the Jughandle and made a mental note to stop soon for pizza and a beer. Further down Route 18 stood a family of three silver silos. Daddy was a massive wonder of the farming world, dizzying to behold. As usual, amazement appeared on a detour.

And the inconvenient detour’s fraternal twin, chance, is generous beyond measure. Most of what shines in my life has come to pass not by design, but luck. Kathy and I are married due to an impulsive high school classmate’s matchmaking improvisation. Thanks, Denise! Thanks, God!

No, Google Home isn’t for me, nor is Google Lens, available soon. Just point my Samsung Galaxy at flowers and Google Lens will speak their names. Or point it at a restaurant and get reviews.

Software already exists that will translate spoken German into English, thereby saving me the trouble of digging out my college flash cards and exercising my brain.

A route to bother and amazement (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These marvels aren’t all bad, but as a collection they make me uneasy. If we don’t learn to wait for answers, smile through detours and make up our own minds, where will patience, endurance and wisdom come from in matters of life and death?

Most important, can ambient computing “tell us what we need before we even ask”? Please. What I need makes so little sense that I trust one voice above all others to guide me, and it doesn’t come from an egg.

Grandma Kathy Home

Grandma Kathy Home

So the Cleveland Indians hold a 3-2 edge over the Chicago Cubs as the World Series moves back to Cleveland for at least another game. One particularly sweet spot here is my sentiment that if the Tribe loses, I can be glad for the Cubbies. Both teams are long overdue for a championship.

Alas, the Fall Classic holds diminished interest for me this year. I’m in a space that is best described by a phrase my childhood friend Vince used a lot: tons of bummage.

Joy isn’t in short supply these days; in fact, I have a surplus, more than anybody deserves. The problem is my reaction to our present American season of bummage.

“Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever,” Saint Francis de Sales said, “even if your whole world seems upset.”

Sorry, Francis, but my peace comes and goes. It goes when I assume my fears about the future are predestined. It comes when I forget myself long enough to be touched by grace.

“I want to go home,” grandson Cole said.

“But, Cole,” my daughter Elena answered, “you are home.”

“No, I want to go to Grandma Kathy home.”

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At Grandma Kathy Home. Cole checks Pop. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Grandma Kathy and Pop have bored our friends slack-jawed with Cole’s words, but it’s hard to keep quiet. Sometimes a moment kisses your soul and brings hope within reach again.

Cole thinks of Grandma Kathy’s house as home. Do I care that he doesn’t include Pop on the deed? Actually, I like his name better. Kathy drops everything for Cole. They play in her garden and go to the basement and make repairs at her workbench. If she cooks dinner, he stands on a chair at the sink and does a few dishes with a whole bottle of soap.

He calls our den “my room,” and he and Grandma Kathy bunk there when he stays the night, as he did last Saturday. On church mornings, she sits beside him in the backseat for the hour drive to Oniontown.

Yesterday my sluggish sermon knocked the kid out, so he crawled under the pew and nodded off at her feet. After worship she let him sleep on, and friends stopped by to chat.

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Got insomnia? Come listen to one of my sermons. Bring a pillow, join Cole. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Cole was safe. Grandma Kathy was there.

He didn’t say, “Grandma Kathy’s home.” He said, “Grandma Kathy home.” My wife is home to him. The dwelling and garden are incidental.

Kathy helps Cole sew. He leans against her, watches a movie and eats pretzels and dip. She hustles him off to use the potty like a big boy.

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Hope

Watching them together, I’m positive of at least one thing that’s right with the world.

Fifteen years ago I copied a Bible verse on strips of paper and during a sermon suggested that parishioners put them on their refrigerators.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The light is love. I bet my life that it will win in the end. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my Indians will whip the Cubs. And it especially doesn’t mean that my candidate will prevail.

I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us clean sheets when we’ve messed the bed.

What I do believe is this: love is the only way out of human bummage.

In 1968, during another ugly season, Thomas Merton asked, “Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one ‘love’ in an impossible situation?”

When I watch a woman and a boy not yet three together, peace fills my lungs. The only way I know to abide in impossible situations is to love.

It seems like hour-by-hour I get hopeless and angry, then hear Saint Francis speaking and try to find my way back to love again. All signs are that I’m delusional.

I want to go to Grandma Kathy home, too, Cole. Let’s live there together.

Message for a New Grandson

Message for a New Grandson

Friend Jan assures me that those in extremis can hear and understand. Son Micah told me once that when death is close, euphoric chemicals show up with kind words, beloved faces, and bright lights.

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Lake Erie light

I’m all for our glands throwing us a going-away party, but what Jan says feels right. Besides, she is wise and knows about deathbeds.

But I have my own reasons for hoping that words of love and care somehow get through. During parishioner Annie’s last minutes, I leaned in close and whispered Psalm 23. Thou art with me. Goodness and mercy. Forever. A single tear ran down her crow’s foot to the pillow. I saw it.

And I saw my mother’s hand lift and fall as I said goodbye to her eighteen years ago. Mom’s purposeful movement said, “I’d answer if I could, John.”

Since then, I’ve spoken freely to the almost-gone. In fact, I’ll speak to everybody and nobody. Words are good, so I say what should be said in hopes that if nothing else, the universe might hear.

Years ago wife Kathy raised monarch butterflies on our front porch. Occasionally, one would be hopelessly deformed, and before resting it underneath a stargazer lily and giving it a quick end, I said, “I’m sorry this life didn’t work out, but it will be over soon. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”

When geese fly over, in a pair or by the dozens, I say, “Thank you.” Am I addressing the birds or God? Both, I guess.

My most recent monologue came out on—appropriately enough—April Fools’ Day. Killian Davis Thompson, grandson number two, arrived at 2:01 p.m., and within a few hours I got to see him.

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Kathy and Killian

Kathy helped with the birth, so she had already held him. I let Micah go first. After Kathy had seconds, it was my turn.

Time passes dreamlike when you’re looking at a baby you’ve been imagining month after month. I heard giddy voices—daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, Kathy and Micah—but, I swear, no words.

Killian and I were in a bubble. Even now, I remember only a couple of details, which I report without exaggeration: I disappeared into his face; before I knew what was happening, I found myself whispering to him; and, on one lucid front, I hoped my breath wasn’t nasty. (The little nugget was defenseless, after all.)

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Killian and Pop in a bubble

I can’t bring back exactly what I said, but what I meant is still fresh. As much as I wanted Mom to hear my goodbye, I longed for some quiet room in Killian’s soul to hold in safe keeping his foolish Pop’s welcome. I meant . . .

You were so safe and warm. Now here you are. It’s so cold and bright. Don’t wake up. You must be exhausted. Being born is hard, isn’t it?

But, listen, don’t be afraid. You’re so lucky! We’ve all been waiting for you, wanting to meet you, wanting to see your face.

Don’t be afraid. You have a whole bunch of people who will take care of you. Your mom and dad are beautiful. You have a nice little home. It’s warm and dry. And you have a big brother.

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Lucky baby, lucky family

I named everybody in the family and told him about his tribe. Then Elena’s voice penetrated the bubble: “Are you talking to him?” “Yeah.”

This world is pretty good, but it might not be as great as where you came from. I don’t know. But I’m here, don’t forget. Whatever you need, I’m here. I’ll try to stay close.

Yes, I know, newborns don’t remember anything. And a dying woman doesn’t take green pastures and still waters with her into forever.

But maybe. I’m allowed to hope. All I know is, loving words are good, and if only the universe hears, I’ll keep trying to say them.

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. 

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

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Fats Waller (Credit: Alan Fisher on Wikimedia Commons)

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and Fats Waller make me grateful. As Steve Martin said decades ago, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” Same with driving in the country and listening to piano rolls, rags, and strides.

This past week Fats, the color white, and gratitude owned my commute from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania. The hour south on I-79, Route 19, and District Road was a hot damn of thanksgiving–“Handful of Keys,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When Someone Thinks You’re Wonderful.”

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Grandson Cole, wonderful kid with a new lid

Why did pianos and frosted branches make me take inventory? I don’t understand myself all that well, so who knows? My list wrote itself slowly and silently.

  • I have a surplus of love. One step in any direction, there it is. Wife, grown kids, one grandson and another on the way, more family and a ton of friends. An absolute wonder of wonderful souls.
  • Those closest to me are holding together okay. No crises going down or chops busting in process.
  • I have a home, warm or cool as desired, so much food that possibilities have to be eliminated, and a king’s ransom of clean water.
  • My closet holds wardrobes for varying weight classes with acquisitions I’ve forgotten.
  • Bill collectors are not breaking down the door.
  • I dig the bookends of my commute—solace to the north and good purpose to the south.

As the miles clicked away, as Fats sparkled, as the snowy trees formed cathedrals surreal with beauty, Gershwin lyrics came to me: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song.”

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Beloved Watson with the mother of fatty tumors

“No use complaining,” Porgy says as an aside, though he didn’t know about the Coleman family’s dog Watson, weary, arthritic, laden with tumors. He is our hobbling source of agape—unconditional love. A month ago, a lump appeared in the middle of his forehead. Its rapid growth foreshadows his absence, even as he manages a fetch or two. He snorts constantly, trying to clear a mass that won’t budge.

Nearing the end of my commute, I allowed that happiness isn’t a prerequisite for gratitude. Twelve years of Watson’s mild presence has been extravagant by any measure.

IMG_4150I would say that my inventory was a prayer, but Fats alone was that, as were the frosted trees and a line from a musical. I received the wide mercy—alpha to omega—of giving thanks for miles with my eyes, ears, and lungs and not once calling God by name.