Another Portion of Jesus Bread

Another Portion of Jesus Bread*

With thanks to a dear friend and baker

If grandson Cole were a bird, which he often pretends to be, daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt would soon nudge him out of the nest, crying, “Soar, kid, soar.” Not to say his flight would be permanent, but getting an occasional break from little Red-Crest is needful these days.

When Grandma Kathy suggests we pick up Cole for a sleepover, Elena answers in a tremolo: “Really?” Underneath her whispered question is Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Matt’s eyes widen and cheeks flush.

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Cole napping under a pew during one of Pop’s sermons

Never mind that my wife and I take Cole overnight a few times monthly, mostly on Saturday evening. After the three of us go to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown for Sunday worship, we stop for French fries on the way back to Erie, then drop him off at home. Kathy and I adore this routine that has blossomed in our lives. We’re cute enough, with our giggles and scrunched up joy-faces, to trigger friends’ gag reflexes. The whole situation is sickeningly over-the-top.

And our bliss is weak sauce compared to Elena and Matt’s. They still have eleven-month-old Killian to contend with, but—and any parent who disagrees with this has potpourri water for blood—whenever you can send your three-year-old into somebody else’s safe, loving arms for around sixteen hours, the urge to play some Marvin Gaye, dance suggestively and make guttural sounds is overwhelming. And I will add, based on dim memories of parenting young children, that such licentiousness, should it actually occur, leads to some really red-hot napping, and that’s about it.

I’ve not inquired directly about the libido-stomping powers of my grandson, but at the moment he is a gaggle of frustrating challenges and breathtaking highs. His parents’ faces all of a sudden go slack with fatigue.

A couple weeks ago, for example, Cole kept saying “diarrhea” while we were enjoying lunch.

“Honey,” Elena said, “we don’t talk about that at the table.”

Like plenty of kids his age, Cole understood his mother’s correction to mean, “Game on.”

“Diarrhea. Diarrhea. Diarrhea.”

“Cole, do you want to go to your room?”

I heard nothing, but puffs of smoke came from Elena’s nostrils.

When she returned from caging the passive aggressor, I said, “Geez, what the hell did he do?”

“Oh, he looked at me and mouthed ‘diarrhea.’”

Such moxie for one so young. Impressive—to me, that is. For my daughter, it was yet another instance of Cole testing boundaries: befouling the nest with a vindictive pee here, hugging baby chick Killian nearly unconscious there. (Kathy reminds me of the justice of the former offense. When Elena was around Cole’s age, she demanded to be let outside to pee like the dogs do. Being refused this, she squatted on the carpet by the bathroom door. I’d forgotten, probably because I didn’t clean up the mess.)

And, of course, every human parent is familiar with dinner table wars of attrition. We could learn from our feathered friends, who simply hock up worm chunks into their children’s grateful beaks. At our last family dinner, Cole took an inexplicable dislike to anything associated with chickens. Stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and thigh meat crowned by a jiggling gem of cranberry sauce were suddenly non grata.

“But, Cole,” Elena said, “You want to have ice cream cake, don’t you?”

The stakes were unusually high. We were celebrating the first anniversary of Matt slipping on the ice and breaking his fibula. A Dairy Queen treat was required. (I’m patriarch of a clan that keeps steady by observing dark milestones and taking meds.)

How many times did everyone at the table, including perhaps Killian, say, “Just one bite and you can have dessert”?

But our hearts were flint! Cole, a sniveling conscientious objector stripped to his superhero jockey shorts, huddled on my recliner, just feet from the dining room.

We proceeded with the cake.

“Pop,” Cole called out. “I want Pop.”

Elena gave me the nod.

I took one step toward Cole when he made a second request: “Pop, bring your cake.”

No dice, of course, but somebody tell me this kid ain’t going places in life.

The party ended amicably, with Elena persuading Cole to surrender to American cheese. He ate the mouthful agreed upon and chased his cake down with three more slices, so nutrition and gladness were both served reasonably well.

Endings in this family have been happy lately, but I take nothing for granted. Anybody who pays attention knows that joy’s flame can be snuffed at any moment. And believers with a mature faith don’t blame God for the darkness.

So if the day unfolds without a spitty pointer and thumb pinching my wick, I’m ducky. For seasons at a time—often through nobody’s fault but my own—I’ve heard pssst, watched swirls of smoke ascend and stared at cold candles.

Maybe I wouldn’t hold my present blessings up to the light and look at them over and over again were it not for some rough landings. Now, grace won’t leave me alone.

IMG_4286Here’s the most recent visitation. On Sunday, some old friends showed up at St. John’s for worship and brought with them little loaves of homemade Communion bread for Cole and my son Micah. At my previous pastorate, we called it “Jesus Bread.”

It wasn’t consecrated, but everybody young and old who loves Jesus Bread tastes something sacred in the late Milton Sontheimer’s recipe, and every batch, for that matter. I don’t know. Maybe the baker’s prayers and intentions add their own blessing to the Sacrament.

Kathy and I sent some home with Cole and brought a bag for atheist Micah, too.

The next morning Cole was acting sneaky as Elena got him ready for preschool. Imagine, a three-year-old with puzzling motives. He wanted to bring the suitcase he uses for overnighters at Grandma Kathy’s and Pop’s to school. Why? Little Red-Crest’s beak was clamped shut.

After prodding and prying, Elena got the truth out of him. “But, Mom,” he said, “I have to take it. My Jesus bread is in there, and I need to share it with all my friends.”

Okay, that right there is grace. And wisdom, too. A loaf of bread, the Jesus variety and all others, isn’t really bread until friends and strangers everywhere get their fill.

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Growing up is hard trouble–tiring, bruising work.

As it happens, Cole will be sleeping over tonight with Grandma Kathy and Pop. What grace does he have in store for us? Who knows?

But I’ll have some grace waiting for him. Elena called to tell me that Cole intends to draw when he grows up. I’ll be rooting for him. He also said, “Mom, I’m having hard trouble growing up.”

Before bed, I’ll tell him, “Pop is having hard trouble growing up, too, buddy. We all are. But eating Jesus bread helps. And sharing it helps even more.”

*A few months ago I had an essay entitled “Jesus Bread” in Living Lutheran. Click here if you would like to read it.

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.

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. 

A Dusty Syrian Boy Presents Me with Questions

Dear America,

My God, we’re all so sad, enraged, and perplexed, at least those of us not inclined to strap on explosive vests. I’m not talking about people directly traumatized in Paris or, on this morning of November 20, 2015, victims in Bamako, Mali. Their suffering is beyond our poor power to add or detract.

But I probably shouldn’t speak for you, only for myself, an American who will have to try not to eat too much for supper tonight. I’m not worried about bullets and bombs in my nonchalant town, though shrapnel is far more likely to come my way than lottery winnings. And nobody on the shores of Lake Erie has grumbled lately about a swarm of Syrian migrants.

In short, the Coleman family is viewing developments from the bleachers, which is plenty close. Last evening wife Kathy and I watched a video of a rubber boat full of refugees from Syria via Turkey landing on Greece’s Lesbos Island. Folks from Samaritans Purse, a Christian organization run by Franklin Graham, waited to receive them. Of course, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, SP will gladly take checks or credit cards, so I get that.

But you can’t stage the tears of cold, soaked toddlers. And they were lucky, unlike Aylan Kurdi and his brother and mother, whose boat overturned on September 2, 2015.

Sobbing live kids and dead ones facedown on the sand get my attention. I ache for the adults, but babies make me get real. You might be able to get pissed at Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but not at the boy I saw shouting, “Asma! Karima!” This dusty little Syrian wailing his dead sisters’ names presents me with questions. Maybe they’re your questions, too. My rants and lamentations are bottomless, but they call forth only anger and grief.

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A dusty Syrian boy (Credit: YouTube)

Asma and Karima deserve more from this American in the stands. The least I can do is wonder about myself.

I wonder . . .

  • what it means to say that I’m a Christian. How high up in the nosebleed seats can a follower of Jesus sit? At what point am I compelled to move down closer to the action, to risk my own wellbeing for a child? When do little ones falling off of rubber rafts make me take the baby step of believing—not acting, mind you, only thinking—that imperiled foreigners have a claim on my safety?
  • if ISIS is my lion. The historical accuracy of Christians being torn apart by beasts is now in question, but the story remains instructive for contemporary believers. Certain moments in history decisive for followers of Jesus. For at least some early Christians, sacrificing to Jupiter and Juno was a line they refused to cross. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer climbed the gallows because he realized that a church cooperating with Nazis was no church at all. He used the term status confessionis to label a situation that forces a Christian’s hand. On a personal level I summarize the discernment as a question: Can I call myself a Christian if I agree that it’s okay to refuse sanctuary to refugee children? From my safe seat, I acknowledge that my soul can be devoured even if my flesh is intact.
  • how long anger and fear should voice my convictions. On the evening of the Paris attacks I paced and said to Kathy, “I won’t think this tomorrow, but I can understand people who say we should bomb the hell out of terrorists. Tell them if anybody else gets killed, that’s on them.” But that was my reptile brain talking, the one that creates faint pilgrims and lonely brothers. What kind of American am I if negative human emotions clog my heart? Regardless of my beliefs, shouldn’t courage and compassion have my last word?
  • how to respond to a question from my son Micah, who actually is on my side. In just a few words, he took all remaining slack out of my deliberations. No way to finesse myself out of the bottom line. “You’re for letting in refugees,” he said, “but are you willing to risk [grandson] Cole’s life?” Well played, son. It took days to work out my answer—or rather, my question. I should say that in a week the Coleman family will celebrate Cole’s second birthday. He has turned me into a complete bore. He is practically all I talk and write about. I’d dive on a bucket of live grenades for the kid. So my question is devastating: “If I were a grandfather in a rubber boat, trying to comfort a soaked and sobbing Cole, wouldn’t I want a nation to risk welcoming me in for his sake?”
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My grandson: Is he worth risking your life for? And if him, why not the dusty Syrian boy? (Credit: Rachel Kaye)

There’s no joy in my questions, much less my answers, which are probably clear enough to thoughtful fellow Americans. But a man in the bleachers eating his fill of ballpark franks and sipping draft beer shouldn’t complain.

Syrian refugees are only in my thoughts, not much of an inconvenience, really. As a spectator I am a passable American and a legitimate Christian.

Peace and love,

John

An Unorthodox Peace

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

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

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

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

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Processional cross

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

I explained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christ’s metal blessing upon the chaos

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

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

Naps and Prayers in Ash

Church camp with forty-five teenagers and four fellow pastors is now a couple weeks in the rearview mirror. Every summer we spend six days together at Camp Lutherlyn (near Butler, Pennsylvania) covering Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastor Jeff and I teach first year kids the Ten Commandments, which is an exercise I appreciate more as the summers pile up.

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I’ve come to know the Ten Commandments not as scolding stares (as from this owl in the Lutherlyn Environmental Education Center) but as ways to love neighbor and world.

Spending a couple of hours per day talking about taking the Lord’s name in vain and multiple shalt nots probably sounds depressing, but not with Martin Luther’s explanations of what the commandments mean. Take number seven: “You shall not steal.” As long as you don’t break into a car and run off with somebody’s purse, you’re good, right? Luther pushes the idea open: “We should fear and love God that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get it by dishonest dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of income.” Carry this too far, and you’ll be labeled a pinko radical.

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Martin Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarethe: Severe looking folk! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

With every prohibition Luther tacks on an exhortation. So not bearing false witness against your neighbor comes with the instruction to “defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If you’ll forgive the gender specific language, Luther’s explanations blow the dust off of Moses’ tablets and shine justice’s light on them.

Peeling back the layers was joyful. It’s not enough to avoid strangling our neighbors; we are to “help and befriend” them. And not coveting your neighbor’s possessions includes actually helping her to keep them.

Beyond the classroom time, during which I gratefully hang on to master-teacher Jeff’s coattails, each installment of Camp Lutherlyn has its own personality and unveils its own lessons before this middle-aged novice.

June 14th through 19th had a trippy groove—trippy and drippy. This was certainly the rainiest week on record. My sneakers went into the trash as soon as I got home. But the weather was just a backdrop to the funkiness.

Photographs tell part of the story:

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Lutherlyn’s Environmental Education Center has plenty of curiosities and stuffed animals that appear bemused.

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You’re welcome to pet this porcupine, but, as the signage suggests, go “from the head toward the tail only.” Copy that!

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Pastor Jeff examines a boa skin. If I ever see one of these in the Pennsylvania woods, I’m going home.

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A kid standing beside me said, “Is that poop on a stick?” Not poop, but “galls.” Check out the next slide.

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Church camp’s Harmonic Convergence shone on the next-to-last evening during the annual Snake Pit, when kids get to ask pastors any questions they want. One young lady said, “If you could add another commandment to the ten, what would it be?” I knew my answer right away, but let the other pastors go first while mulling over the risk. “Oh, damn the torpedoes,” I thought, then spoke: “I’d add a commandment that Anne Lamott included in one of her books [Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith]. She said, “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” Gasp. Giggle. “I’d add that second rule.”

That was the message of camp writ coarsely: “For the love of God, be nice. Don’t be a jerk. Keep your promises. Share the buckets in the sandbox.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I haven’t received any complaints yet, so maybe the colorful language was received as intended.

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The week’s oddest moment came on Wednesday evening, when the pastors usually go off campus for supper. This urinal was in an otherwise nice and tasteful brew pub. I’m still can’t figure out how this is supposed to be funny. “Thou shalt not piss on thy neighbors, regardless of their race, nation, creed, etc.”

Photographing a urinal with what looks like a 1970s funk band painted on the porcelain and saying asshole in front of a bunch of kids would have made any week at camp a stunner, but the way my spiritual doors got blown open by the slanting rain was a bigger surprise. Ten years ago Lutherlyn was all about running and writing. Between classes, while the kids were off mud whomping and zip-lining, I got in some great hill work and wrote a thousand words a day.

This time around I hadn’t planned on exercise, but did look forward to wide fields of writing. Last year yielded three blog posts, but from the moment I put my pillows and bags in Ash, the cabin I shared with the guys, naps and prayers were the rule. Sometimes the two wove themselves together, with quiet abiding trailing off into healing sleep. In the forty-five minutes between morning class and lunch, I returned to Ash and lay down for half an hour of breathing and letting go. Then when afternoon class wrapped up, I took a siesta with wise and loving arms—ninety minutes, two hours.

It didn’t take long to figure out the lesson church camp had in store for me: I was weary deep down in a place sleep only begins to refresh. In the past I would have denied myself the rest, the old mile- and word-counting impulses pressing harder than compassion for self. But for six days in June of 2015, I surrendered. Of course, the learning was about more than fatigue.

In May of 2013 I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The plan was to write, which is a pleasure, share a few meals with Brother John, and rest in the monks’ peace. Turned out I had more grieving to do over the ugliness of my father’s death. If I hadn’t known before I certainly discovered then that silence is an astute therapist. Wounded and injured parts of myself, often in hiding for months and years, visit and have their say.

Words are optional. In Kentucky I watched Dad obey Dylan Thomas’ villanelle. At Camp Lutherlyn my visitors didn’t need to speak. I know these injuries well and long ago accepted their teaching that forgiveness doesn’t cure everything. Absolution doesn’t get rid of a limp.

So I slept in Ash and took in long draughts of the Sacred Presence. And here what could have been nothing more than days overcast with ache was redeemed by hope. I’ve built my life on the probably foolish premise that interior silence is both invocation and petition. Come, Jesus. Welcome, Buddha. Heal and teach, Mysterious Love. There’s no proof that Holiness exists, let alone that it takes up residence in me when I put aside the smart phone, breathe, and wait. Still, I would hate to think of the person I would be today without the grace and mercy that have found me when I close my eyes and come to rest.

Though my visitors were tossing and turning on the next bunk, I understood that their paralyzing power was giving way to the creation of a new man—or the reclamation of an old one, I’m not sure which.

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Steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. News of the murders there reached me toward the end of camp week–the saddest moment. The shooter, it turns out, is a Lutheran who went to church camp as a kid. (Credit: Spencer Means on Wikimedia Commons)

We’re always becoming, aren’t we? Every last one of us. Refurbished souls with sutured hearts, crooked legs, and bruised skin. (Maybe this explains my weight gain and stretch marks! I’m new wine in an old wineskin.)

I’m grateful for a peculiar week at church camp, a crude commandment added to the usual Ten, and holy naps and prayers in Ash. At 9:05 a.m. on July 6th I’m a fifty-three-year-old novice with an inexplicable smile.

An Understanding of Prayer

7:39 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. 7° with a wind chill factor of misery. A burly guy I’ll call Constance lumbered in ten minutes ago carrying his taut duffle bag. It looks like he’s lugging around a four-foot section of big telephone pole. Who knows what’s in there? The pockets of his fisherman’s vest are tumors of valuables.

After a trip to the restroom, Constance resumes his animated discussion with State Street, jabbing the table with his pointer finger and staring down the swirls of snow. His negotiations are urgent, relentless.

I see Constance a couple times a month. My daughter said years ago that he goes by a woman’s name and sometimes dresses in drag. I’ve only seen him dressed for weather, even in summer, but his name is none of my business. Only death will end his wandering and lonely arguments.

What locks await the cluster of keys hanging around his neck and resting on his gut? Mirage homes? And now, he is pissed: “No! No! You will not!” Silence, then, “I . . . didn’t . . . know! Why are we talking about this?”

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Oh, Constance, may one of those keys open up a home of warm color, a cat waiting for you, and loved ones who agree with your argument.

I pray for Constance. I also pray for the guy who picks up garbage and shovels snow outside my primary Starbucks haunt near the Millcreek Mall. Yesterday was nearly as severe as today. He was bundled beyond recognition when I drove by him on my way to work. I could make out a slit of flesh from his eyebrows to the bridge of his nose. That was it.

“God,” I said. More and more I’m finding that is prayer enough.

I pray all the time, and I mean all the time. This statement is frankly uncomfortable, not because I’m ashamed of prayer. As Constance just said, “No, no, no, no, no!” My squirming comes because I suspect folks would find my practice of prayer weird and pointless.

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The point of prayer: to be spirit still, to let light shine into and through me? (Balcony of chapel at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

In The New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes my context for prayer:

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance.

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Thomas Merton (Father Louis) (Credit: Wikipedia)

As a spiritual master, Merton dares speak of mysteries with certainty. I avoid that. Who am I? But Father Louis, as he was known at the Abbey of Gethsemani, comes up with words that work for me—as much as language can take hold of the Ultimate, anyway.

If “the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness,” then prayer is my daring to join in. I’ve spent years “analyzing the phenomena of life out into strange finalities and complex purposes of [my] own” and have had enough of that absurdity. The best prayer I can offer, then, is impoverished and goes like this: “I don’t know anything. But please fill me. I’m here.”

Intercessions are important, of course, but I hold an unconventional view of them. My prayer for the garbage-snow removal guy was monosyllabic because of what I believe about God. Of course the Creator wants everybody to be sane, healthy, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. So saying anything more than the Sacred Name isn’t essential—like asking snow to make its way to the ground. It’s what snow wants to do!

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Dear Snow, Almighty and Everlasting, fall to earth, cover our cars and houses. Amen. (Credit: Barasoaindarra on Wikimedia Commons)

If God wants the whole world taken care of, then why the hell doesn’t God do it? We’re heading for the good old theodicy conundrum: If God is infinitely good, where does evil come from and why does it exist? My answer is the spiritual foundation of my prayer life: “I don’t know anything.”

Some believers might tap me on the shoulder with familiar answers: “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Or “God knows what’s best for you, even when what’s happening is terrible.” Or “God is testing you.” Or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, the one I find most irksome: “God never gives you more than you can bear.”

Tell that to the man I hugged whose father died a few months ago and whose mother was going into surgery—anesthesia when you’re sneaking up on ninety is sketchy. Imagine losing both your parents four months apart. Serving up a platitude might get you a well-deserved knuckle sandwich.

After a few thousand hugs like this, I refuse to reduce prayer to a crapshoot. “Dear Lord, please bring So and So through this surgery and grant a speedy recovery.” I might actually say something like this, but I would never do so with a what-the-heck-it-can’t-hurt attitude. And I would never think to myself, “Well, gosh, I’ve prayed like this over and over. Maybe God will hear me this time.” And I won’t try to explain the ways of the Eternal Mystery. The presumption!

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Prayer: whatever I am, whatever I wish, open and vulnerable with the Ultimate Truth? (Figure at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

But as I wait for my cell phone to ring, I pray for the woman in surgery and her son, not because I expect to influence the outcome. I say “help,” sigh, and look beyond these walls, windows, and patrons because my present reality is this: I wish for a dear old soul’s return to health, if nothing else so her son can catch his breath before adding another layer to his mourning. My prayer is, “Please, Lord, please.” At the moment, I am this prayer.

If I’m to join in the general dance, I can only do so as myself—a duffle bag fat with frailty and fear, longing and gladness.

Not surprisingly, most of my prayers are silent. Abide in what is, John. Swim in grace. Dance in peace. Every now and then, I’m aware that I’m praying for everybody who has ever lived, every creature. And though my hands rest in my lap, my spirit arms are open wide, lifting up all of our laughter and lament—yours, too—as if God doesn’t already see!

I’m quiet. My wordlessness says, “Here we are, God, right here in my arms. Beat in our blood. Fill us. We are yours.”

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“Here we are–the Western Hemisphere, at least. Fill us. We are yours.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

World News: A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter

Dear Loved Ones:

Here’s a bulletin! Over the last few years I’ve been discouraged about the state of the world. World: language doesn’t get much bigger. Solar system, galaxy, universe, and eternity all out rank world. In addition to a couple of newspapers and websites, my source for Earth’s latest information is ABC’s World News with David Muir. On the surface, this makes sense. If I want the most important updates available, why not depend on one of the big three television networks still broadcasting free of charge?

On the other hand, what makes the American Broadcast Company so wise? A few days ago after prayer-meditation, I beat Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi to the stable in Bethlehem and had an epiphany, joyous and liberating. The various media have much to report, but they can’t cover everything. This one man’s Teletype constantly receives breaking news deserving of airtime and headlines. World News isn’t only the latest financial collapse, governmental absurdity, or breathtaking slaughter. It’s also unseen sacrifice, modest dreams fulfilled, or simple tenderness.

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I beat the rush ahead of the Magi and received my Epiphany. (Credit: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy; on Wikimedia Commons)

As sickly as things seem these days, grace is everywhere, and probably more abundant than evil. But because I consume so much distressing information, I’m conned into believing that humanity is circling the drain. How foolish! My personal sources have told glad tidings of great joy lately. With love and hope, then, I offer A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter made up of stories not covered by the mainstream media.

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My buddy Ray put up a Christmas tree for his eighty-six-year-old mother, who stopped decorating after her husband died around twenty years ago. No media outlet picked up this story.

For Coleman family dinner, I was working so hard to perfect a chicken in a spirited mustard sauce that I neglected the corn chowder. I said to daughter Elena, “Hey, Len, would you mind trying to fix the chowder?” She hit it with nutmeg, salt, white pepper, a splash of hot sauce, and coriander ground with a new mortar and pestle from friend Mary. I contributed a stick of butter, and together we reached savory. Best of all, before we sat down to eat I hugged Elena and kissed her on top of the head. She said, “I love you, Daddy.”

In millions of kitchens, we help each other out with joy and speak of love. Snark and bicker visit, but I’ll wager overall we’re more kind than cranky.

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Elena, one of my favorite chefs, with her baby bump. Families everywhere embrace, coddle kiddos, and create masterpieces together. I now consider this reality “world news.”

At a party last week, I sipped wine in the kitchen with friends Karri and Joe and kibitzed. Two of their daughters sat off to the side talking. Lauren is about to graduate from college, and Emily is in high school. Rarely would I tell anybody to freeze for a picture, but I figured this one might win a Pulitzer. Yes, Virginia, siblings can get along and do better than that: they can take care of each other.

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Lauren and Emily . . . unposed. (My Pulitzer, please!)

I recently visited a severely ill man and his family. He sat on the couch with feet up on an ottoman. His wife patted his leg, spoke words of comfort, and kept his morphine ahead of pain and distress. The man’s brother wrote a prayer, which he asked me to read—no way he could get the words out. It was simple, humble, fervent. We sat in silence afterwards, passing around Kleenex.

“You’re a good man,” I said. “You know that right?”

A slight tear ran from the corner of his eye. “I’ve tried.”

We all put a hand on the man and entrusted him to God’s care. When I stood to leave, his wife said, “John, wait. He wants to give you a hug.”

For over thirteen years I’ve watched death. Driving away from this visit, I took an unexpected gift with me. What a loving, attentive end, as gentle as any I’ve been blessed to witness.

And I know that this day, in lands everywhere and all fifty states, the living hold the hands of the dying and whisper, “You can let go. We love you. We’ll be okay.”

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Let go. (Credit: Simon Eugster on Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve received a couple of gifts lately that are particularly moving. Both made and bought, they remind me that people who celebrate Christmas are thinking of each other, finding a present that will be received like a kiss on the cheek and a moment’s cheer to the heart.

No doubt, Christmas is awfully commercial, but we’re trying, aren’t we? Most of us? We do want to bring joy. On the news you see Black Friday stampedes, but not the man standing alone in the store aisle, praying to find his beloved something pleasing.

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A handmade ornament–thanks, Barb!

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Bread and butter pickles and a mortar and pestle–thanks, Mary!

A young guy with low-slung jeans was waiting to cross the street as I drove up to the intersection. He started out, saw me, then held up. I motioned him on. At the curb he glanced back, smiled, and waved. I smiled back and shot him the peace sign.

Human by human, peace is sent out, received, and returned. I see it all around me.

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Iraqi boys giving the peace sign. Most of us human beings want peace, don’t we? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I know an astute, witty, practical nine-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus. She leaves him a letter each Christmas Eve by the candy jar.

“What do you write him?” I asked.

“Things like ‘I hope you like bringing everybody presents.’”

Her father says, “She still believes in magic.”

I’m sure she is not alone.

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I believe in Santa, too, especially if he looks a little like Robin Williams. (Credit:Jacob Windham on Wikimedia Commons)

Starbucks friend John and I talk about our dogs. In decent weather he brings his boxer Harley and has coffee outside. John and I both aspire to live like a dog—in the moment, not self-absorbed, often overjoyed.

John loves Harley and shows it. Every once in a while I see a news story about horses starving in barns, but, you know, I bet most pet owners are like John. Most of us are this way, right? We make sure our dogs and cats have enough to eat and drink, gush over their eccentricities, and treat them like our children?

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Starbucks friend John and his guru Harley

I know I love my dog. This morning old gimpy Watson hopped up on the bed with me as I was getting propped up for prayer-meditation. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with us. Like our two cats, Watson came to us as a stray. A clumsy soul, he tore both ACLs years ago. We fixed one, but couldn’t afford surgery for the other. He has fatty tumors on his flank, one the size of a tennis ball. We chase pills down his throat with treats. (I bet lots of you have stories just like this one.)

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Not my dog or John’s. A random pooch with an endearing fang I photographed at Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. Certainly the apple of some dog owner’s eye.

I set my Zen bell for twenty minutes, unpropped myself, lay down, and rested my face on Watson’s side. “I love you, buddy,” I said. He huffed and made the old mutt smacking sounds with his mouth I’ve come to love. “I’m glad you stopped by.” I rubbed his soft ear between my fingers. “You’re a good old pal.”

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My favorite picture of my old buddy, Watson. Do you have a buddy, too?

The world news tells us our home is in peril, with all of its explosions and arguments. This Christmas, sisters and brothers, I claim for us another world, one I recognize every way I turn. Join me. Everywhere I see souls unable to contain their love and sacred wishes.

Love,

John

The Dandelion Doesn’t Command the Sun

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God spoke through my daughter Elena in 2006, wearing monarchs about to take off for Mexico.

Over twenty years ago I attended a class taught by Sister Rita Pancera on centering prayer: silence, abide with the Loving Mystery. I told Sr. Rita that sometimes in prayer I feel like God is telling me something, but I hear the message in my own voice. The point of centering prayer isn’t to latch on to thoughts or images—anything—but who wants to turn down Divine Assistance? I asked her, “How can I be sure that the words come from God and not just from myself?” Her answer continues to shape my spirit: “What makes you think God wouldn’t use your own voice to tell you something?”

That was the wisdom of a woman who had spent years in prayer, and I’ve not only shared it with others, but also let myself be liberated and humbled by its implications. In every place and at all times, God might have something to say. And I’m in no position to put limits on how God speaks and through whom. (The dandelion doesn’t command the sun.)

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So . . . I suppose I shouldn’t insist that God speak to me in voices of my choosing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I heard God on blogging friend Melanie Lynn Griffin’s post about her past career, in which she and a group of colleagues met with a Navajo group to teach them about persuasion. Turns out they have no such word in their language. The young listen to their elders and don’t argue with them. After a moment of beautiful laughter and understanding, one of the elders said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.” God speaks through a Navajo man. (Thanks, Melanie.)

I heard God on Winding Road when blogging friend Kerry, whose family recently lost nearly everything in a flood, charted her grieving and recovering with a moving insight: “Reclaiming order sometimes means deconstructing first and one cannot build back up until walls have been torn down.” God speaks through a young mother who got knocked down and is trying to get back up. (Thanks, Kerry.)

I heard God yesterday while reading this: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God speaks through Mahatma Gandhi.

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Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And during morning prayer, I heard God use my voice. It was a mind-whisper: Enjoy. It seems I’ve been turning damned near everything in my life into a program, something to be worked at, a goal to be pursued with one eye on the clock. I haven’t been enjoying my present embarrassment of blessings in my blood and in the cavern of my chest where anxiety has been an intractable squatter.

“Enjoy,” my spirit says. I’ve come to believe in a peculiar miracle: I don’t think God speaks to me directly, though that would be something. Rather, God helps me to hear myself—but only if I sit still. And what I heard in merciful silence was a cardinal calling out to his mate. “Listen,” I said. “Receive this song, this beauty.” In an instant I understood what God longed for me to hear.

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If you sing, I’ll try to enjoy.

The people I love and the gorgeous world exist for their own sake, but they also exist for me. “Enjoy,” God said in my throat. “All of this is for you.” And so, sitting propped up in bed before sunrise, my spirit flew open like a door caught by the wind. As if on cue, I began enjoying.

Micah’s alarm went off. Because I could sleep, I didn’t go through the routine: stopping at his door at about 7:15 and making sure he is awake. “You up, Scooter?” I sometimes say. Or “Cupcake.” Or “Your Royal Dudeness.” Or “Fart-breath.” I go with whatever pops into my head. He always answers, “Yup.” But praying, I listened to him clomp around downstairs like a camel in wooden shoes. I didn’t mind. He was off to work, being a man, propelling his own ass out of bed. My son is well.

Because Kathy didn’t have to be to work until 9:30, we went out for breakfast. She savored sleeping in, and I savored our kiss when I dropped her off.

I took lunch to daughter Elena and got to hang out with her and grandson Cole. “Enjoy,” echoed in my chest, and darned if I didn’t. Vegetarian hippie food. We talked. I got to hold Cole, place my lips on his bald head, breathe in the perfume that still lingers from when God kissed him in the womb. And I snuffled his neck like a dog, which made him laugh. The whole time, I watched my daughter be a stunningly good mother. I’m so proud my eyeballs want to go flying out of their baggy sockets.

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God never has to help me enjoy this guy.

The afternoon offered itself to me. I napped, prayed for forty minutes, cleaned up the kitchen, and made the dining room presentable.

Micah got home from work. My God! My son, just two years ago a heroin asshole, blesses me every day with his goodness. On Mother’s Day, he came home with a bright bouquet and card for Kathy. A quote: “To the Mom who invented fun, creativity, and a wonderful imagination in me. And taught me 50% of what I know about love and compassion.”

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Happy Mother’s Day from Micah

A couple weeks ago I raged at God about some grievous assaults on children. I didn’t enjoy my rant, but as I sit here now I give thanks for the sense that prayer is about offering to God whatever I am. So glad or furious or quietly depressed, I fall backward into God. It’s the trust game kids play: fall and I promise to catch you. My game is a little different, like letting go into forever. If God’s catch isn’t unconditional, my soul will shatter. I don’t have much choice here. I don’t know any other way to be with God, so I fall and try to trust. Enjoy isn’t a sacred enough word for the safe landing.

Of course, even if my soul doesn’t shatter, other things will: sickness, disappointment, floods. So for now, I receive the cardinal’s call, my wife’s kiss, the sweet breath of God on Cole’s head, and every other way God shines on this fifty-two-year-old flowering weed named John.

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Micah’s Mother’s Day bouquet still hanging in there with Baby Crash

A Prayer for Martin Cobb and Nigerian School Girls

A Prayer for Martin Cobb, His Sister, All Who Love Them, and for the Abducted School Girls in Nigeria

“Richmond, Va. — The family of an 8-year-old boy beaten to death as he tried to defend his 12-year-old sister from a brutal rape gathered outside their home Friday, grappling with the details of the vicious attack. They leaned on one another, crying, shaking and struggling to understand the loss of little Martin Cobb” (nbcnews.com).

Dear God:

Behind my eyes and in my throat and chest: I can’t decide if it’s a roar or a sob. Maybe both.

I believe what your servant Paul wrote centuries ago about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens,” but I’m not sure how much longer I can comply. Tired, Lord, so tired. But don’t worry. I’m not giving up, not about to fall on a sword. The problem is, my spirit can’t catch its breath. Where does ferocious evil come from? Why won’t it stop crushing your children?

I don’t mean your children poetically. I’m talking about your literal children. You know what happened days ago in Nigeria, so I say this not for you, but for those who pray with me:

A “tragedy is unfolding in Nigeria, where members of the ultra-radical Islamist group Boko Haram grabbed . . . [school] girls, most believed to be between 16 and 18, from their dormitories in the middle of the night in mid-April and took them deep into the jungle. A few dozen of the students managed to escape and tell their story. The others have vanished. (Roughly 200 girls remain missing.) The latest reports from people living in the forest say Boko Haram fighters are sharing the girls, conducting mass marriages, selling them each for $12.”

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Don’t you care? Where is my daughter? (Credit: the guardian.com)

Your creation is kind of strolling along like this is no big deal. Hear my blasphemous prayer: “God damn it! God damn it! God damn it!” As you can see, I’ve no idea what to do with your priceless girls being shared and/or sold for the price of bottle of wine, so my soul sits in ancient Jerusalem’s town dump under a cross, with blood staining my trousers. Sometimes the only sane response is rage.

Of course, I’m actually drinking beer at my dining room table and feeling guilty. A restaurant messed up my order this afternoon, and I was pissed. I’m still pissed, but it wasn’t until that I sat down here and learned the news of Martin Cobb that my vision cleared. Forgive my pettiness.

Martin. My God, my God! And his sister and mother and loved ones. Just playing by the railroad tracks, Lord—a sister and brother who loved each other. The news doesn’t say whether Martin’s sister got raped, but it sounds like maybe not. I’m grateful for that, but not for the brick that smashed Martin’s head. They didn’t even have to take him to the hospital.

So, God I love, what should I pray for? Take machetes and bricks out of the world? Bring all people to their senses? Protect the vulnerable? Obviously you and prayer don’t work that way. I still love you, but I sure don’t understand.

I would like to ask that the ultra-radical Islamists’ penises catch fire, that Martin Cobb’s killer / sister’s assailant get ripped up in jail. But that’s the reptile in me praying. Rapists and murderers are your children, too—the subject for another prayer.

For your Nigerian girls who are now getting married or shared in the jungle: if nothing else, give them a sign. Something! Let them know that they are your beloved, that not everybody in the world has forgotten them.

For Martin Cobb’s sister: let it all be a blur; let her eyes have been turned away from her brother’s end; let her body and soul be well in time.

For Martin: you caught in your hand of grace the brick that smashed his skull, right? He felt nothing, right? He rests now in your lap of pure mercy, right?

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Martin Cobb: “A flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (Credit: nbcnews.com)

For Martin’s mother and loved ones: shit, how can they continue? Martin must have been really something. Give them what they need to remember him with joy.

It’s time to close, Lord. The beer is gone, and I’m sipping an affordable red Zinfandel. Your creation is shredding itself bloody. I trust you, but just don’t know what to think anymore.

Amen