In the beginning the faithful arrived by horse and buggy. Staring out again at the waving stalks—in a daze almost—I imagine sloppy dirt roads, driving rain, wind chills calculated only by stinging cheeks. If not for these hearty souls, there would be no pastor’s study, snug in winter and cool in summer. There would be an Oniontown, but no “Oniontown Pastoral.” Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: A Lutheran Response to COVID-19
Sometimes I’m particularly proud to be a Lutheran. When I read a pastoral letter about the Corona Virus from Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was so grounded and refreshed I can hardly tell you. Before sharing what Bishop Eaton wrote, I’ll set the stage.
Wife Kathy was just checking the latest news across the table from me in our den—the tongue-in-cheek name of the room where both of us are working from home during COVID-19’s deadly fuss. She exclaimed something from behind her computer screen. (I feel like television’s Tim “The Toolman” Taylor peering over his privacy fence at neighbor Wilson’s forehead on Home Improvement.)
My beloved may have used colorful language, but I can’t swear to it—groan. She passed along a report from NBC News about a Louisiana pastor who persisted in holding worship services in defiance of Governor John Bell Edwards’ executive order against gatherings of more than 50 people. The Reverend Tony Spell, however, packs in around 500 at Life Tabernacle Church. The trouble is, songs and amens are accompanied by airborne spittle, which passes infection.
Don’t be deceived if I sound momentarily whimsical. According to the Los Angeles Times, on March 10th a choir of 60 asymptomatic voices in Skagit County, Washington, assembled for a practice complete with social distancing and hand sanitizer, and now 45 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died.
Faith gives life, but mindless faith can also snatch life away. I don’t fault members of the Shagit Valley Chorale for rehearsing, as no restrictions had yet been announced for their county. Tony Spell’s faith, on the other hand, is dangerous. I’m sorry, it just is. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” he stated. “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
Lutheranism rejects such arrogance. Bishop Eaton rightly referenced Martin Luther, who wrote his own pastoral letter in 1527 on a topic that hits home today. “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” addressed a population still mindful of a scourge that killed over 23 million people in Europe 200 years before:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
I am not a Luther scholar, nor do I possess any insight about 16th Century Germany. For this reason, I trust the ELCA Bishop’s knowledge and direction:
“Many of our [parishioners] have the same concerns as those in Luther’s day. Many of our people are anxious. Luther’s counsel, based on Scripture, is still sound. Respect the disease. Do not take unnecessary risks. Provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the neighbor. Make use of medical aid. Care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”
This exhortation is neither soaring nor inspiring, which is why I love it. Discipleship looks pale compared to the flash and fluorescence that hypnotizes our culture. The acts of belief that move me most are nonchalant: swallowing an unkind word; listening to a loved one without glancing at the smartphone or television; shoveling a neighbor’s steps after a snow storm.
Most of all, in current circumstances, calling myself a Christian has a lot to do with using the brain God gave me. Health care professionals are begging Americans through their exhaustion and tears to stay home. Communicable disease experts say that COVID-19 is stealthy—and doesn’t the poor Skagit Valley Chorale know it?
Tell you what, as a diabetic, I’m going to listen to smart people. I don’t want to be infected or, what’s worse, pass along misery to an innocent bystander. Unless I must go into public places, you’ll find me at the Coleman house, praying for our protection and fumigating, my faith and intellect sitting peaceably side by side.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands
It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.
The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.
My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.
One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.
What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.
Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.
Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?
“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”
He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.
And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.
Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?
When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.
Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”
Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.
You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.
Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship
When son Micah was a boy, he sized me up better than the therapists of my troubled twenties and forties ever did.
“Oh, Dad,” he said with a loving lilt, “you’re such a relationship.” I can’t remember the context or his exact age, but could never forget such a quirky turn of phrase.
I’ve kept his insight in my “Kids Say the Darndest Things” file until a recent development in my daily routine—more on that later—proved Micah prophetic.
Of course, I go by “John,” “Dad,” “Pop” and “Pastor.” You can call me a “writer” if you’re brave enough. On my best days I’ve been accused of being a decent “cook.” I used to consider myself a “runner,” though “jogger” is more accurate.
But as a man who has spent extravagant hours navel-gazing, I admit that “relationship” is closest to the truth. (Please imagine Barbra Streisand singing, “People, people who need people.”)
This pastor’s life is one great tome with many chapters of relationships. My daily planner is thicker with names than tasks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This Friday morning writer friends Mary and Jennie and I will get together for our monthly coffee, commiseration and guffaw session. When we get laughing other patrons turn toward us and stare.
About an hour ago I took friend Ray for a haircut and beard trim. I started out as his pastor, then became his chauffeur and finally decided to be his friend. He is on heavy psychotropic meds and goes in-patient every now and then to deal with paranoia. His flat affect makes our witty repartee all the more hilarious. I love the guy.
Church secretary Jodi recently recounted to me her family’s efforts to rehabilitate an aptly named chicken. Somehow or other, Chicky Chick acquired a bum leg. The stakes were high, as a gimpy chicken stands a good chance of being pecked into pate by the other birds. That’s how they roll, Jodi explained, adding the tidbit that egg-laying hens are poor candidates for dinner, so the chopping block wasn’t the best answer.
More than anything else, she had a soft spot for the old thing, so St. John’s church secretary went into crisis mode and pieced together an isolation pen.
Once a day, Chicky Chick received therapy, which consisted of Jodi pulling and pushing on the compromised limb and her husband or son hanging onto the flummoxed patient. Thanks to the ministrations, the hen has moved back in with her peeps.
Can you imagine my good fortune of having a paying job that includes listening to amiable people tell stories that you just can’t make up?
And the nicknames! Maybe it takes a relationship like me to adore the handles mentioned with a straight face in my Pastor’s Study. My three favorites are “Cucumber,” “Squeak” and “Fuzzy.” I’ve also picked up on an understated Oniontown way of communicating love for somebody without actually speaking the three words. Just attach an “e” sound to the end of the person’s name. Adjustments are often necessary. You’d never say “William-ee,” for example, but “Billy” gushes with affection.
On days I’m not at St. Johnny’s, Pop tends to connections at home in Erie. Most mornings I sit silently with God, whom I pray to behold and hold according to a schedule beyond calendars. I trust that at the end of days, this mysterious relationship will take all others unto itself.
Most Sundays the Colemans have family dinner, a practice daughter Elena insisted on back when Micah was recovering from drug addiction. Our house is noisy and joyful with people who need each other and aren’t ashamed to admit it.
And now my wife and I have stumbled into the routine that has quickly become blessed. After both of us finish work, we face each other on an aptly named piece of furniture, a “loveseat,” and talk. No music or television.
We refer to this new habit as “our time.” Who but a hopeless relationship could savor two such commonplace words? Micah was wiser than his years.
My wife’s proper name, incidentally, is “Kathleen,” but “Kathy” works better. I also say “I love you” an awful lot to be sure she never forgets.
Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?
“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.
The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.
Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”
How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.
“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.
“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.
If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.
I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.
I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.
Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.
I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.
If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.
The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.
A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)
On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.
Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.
Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.
Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”
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.
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.
Here’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.
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.
Napping at Church Camp
The shelter for my naps this week has been the Ark, though nap is too humble a word for what I’ve been up to. Occasionally what Winston Churchill called the blessed oblivion of midday is luxurious. Your body lets you know that something sacred is happening. Muscles are slack, breaths are leisurely and full, the mind is gloriously untroubled.
Naps of biblical proportions rarely unfurl before me at home. Most often I’m on retreat at a monastery or, as is the case now, at summer church camp with teenagers. My cabin is named after Noah’s eccentric craft, and I lucked into a room by myself.
“You don’t need to get up,” I’ve thought four out of the past five days. “You’ve no place to be. Rest. Just rest.” So I have. Waking slowly after two hours, my soul feels like it has received a massage.
My fellow pastors and I have chatted here and there about naps. Some of us indulge only with guilt. My own second thoughts are years in the rearview mirror, but I understand the reservations. Time is costly, lists are long. Besides, we’ll all get plenty of sleep post-mortem.
Pastor Erik has a Jewish friend who once gave him two syllables of wise instruction on taking a siesta: mitzvah, which is, in the generic words of Google, “a good deed done from religious duty.” Millions the world over can’t take naps, their burdens being onerous, or bombs and bullets firing adrenaline through their veins. Receiving a taste of Shabbat each day does less fortunate brothers and sisters an honor. So nap gratefully. Take the oppressed and weary with you in spirit.
For a decade or so I napped not out of devotion, but necessity. Unable to cope with troubles keenly targeted at my neuroses and vulnerabilities, I slid under the covers each afternoon and disappeared for as long as possible. Siestas were my salvation.
Thank God, the rest awaiting me soon won’t be urgent. The Ark may be silent, or clergy friends might be on the porch, their tales and repartee floating through my open window. I might nod off or not–whatever.
Actually, a couple of times during oblivion, my consciousness has risen to the surface for prayer. Love may be the reason.
Not every kid who attends church camp frolics in the woods, eagerly sings around the fire, and flops into a squeaky bunk and immediately gathers REMs. Each summer a few troubled hearts sulk on the periphery, their eyes tired, far away. I have fifteen summers of them gathered up in my memory.
When the Fourth Commandment comes along, at least one kid’s eyes water up—never fails. “Will God forgive me if I can’t honor my father and mother?” A few years ago I took the liberty of giving a silly-hearted girl a new commandment: “Kiddo, I bet God would be happy if you just loved yourself. How about if you honor yourself for now?” Then I said I would take her as my daughter any day.
Outside the window by my cafeteria table, campers line up to get their medications. Seems like our world practically insists that all of us, young and old, fret and obsess ad infinitum. One chunky boy from a dozen years ago comes to mind. His days were fine, with counselors keeping the teens in constant motion, but dusk thundered with the approach of homesickness and insomnia.
And camp week never passes without some half-pints walking alone, sitting alone, directing praise and blame to the empty space around them.
But I listen—to the lovely runts of our church camp litter, to those who think of nothing but home, especially to those who lug heartbreaking secrets in their knapsacks.
I love all the kids, but the ones whose tears are always close to the surface look at me as I pray, and I look back.
Not so long ago each mid-day I slept in a nave built for one, but this week guests have arrived. Their presence has been a duty-free mitzvah.
Thirty years ago panic attacks brought me to my knees. And I still remember the day in fifth grade when my mother met me at the door after school to say that my father was at the courthouse applying for a divorce. As a teenager, surrounded by love, I fell asleep aching with confusion. In other words, I’ve been a runt myself off and on from the beginning. I relate.
So this summer’s campers are welcome to join those from years past and visit my spirit at nap time. My sanctuary has room for them now. I ask God to dry their tears, make them feel at home, and say into the ear of their hearts, “You are loved. Don’t forget.”
Love . . . to you, friends, and to my whole litter of kids,
John (a.k.a. Pastor John, PJ, or Johnny-Boy)
Oniontown Pastoral #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear
My title here is widely attributed to the Buddha, but Bodhipaksa, host of the blog Fake Buddha Quotes, traces the idea to the 1886 book Light on the Path by Mabel Collins: “For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.”
Like any writer I want to be accurate, but in this case I’m busy learning and can’t afford to dwell on scholarship. In recent months, calmed and awakened by the pastures of Oniontown, I’ve found unexpected teachers, probably because I’m finally ready to receive their wisdom.
My teachers—the homebound, mostly—don’t recognize the lessons they’re lavishing upon me. I’m their pastor, after all, with a direct line to the Man Upstairs. When I pay them a visit, they expect to be on the receiving end of whatever insight and solace our time together yields. If only they could see how their fortitude blesses me.
Hopefully I have plenty of vitality ahead, but my teachers make me wonder if I will be strong in my final seasons, when the world grows painfully small. Afternoons bleed into evenings within the same four walls. Aches and frailties invite despair. Boredom and loneliness blanket even those blessed with visitors.
Wallowing would be understandable, but my teachers joke and ask after me and the St. John’s family. “It’s got to get discouraging,” I said to one man. “Well, sure,” he smiled, shifting in his recliner to ease a stab of hip pain, “but once you head down that road you’re done for.”
“What did you have for lunch today?” a parishioner with declining short-term memory often gets asked. “I don’t know,” he answers, “but it was good!”
Caregivers lift and wash and soothe hour after weary hour, unaware that they’re instructing my spirit in grace. How would I roll out of bed each morning with the knowledge that today will be just like yesterday? My teachers are heroic, their faces cleansing breaths of gentleness.
If my beloved Kathy no longer remembered our lives together, how would I cope? “You’re a hero,” I told a man who shows up at a nursing home every day to visit and eat dinner with his wife. “It’s what you sign up for,” he answered. For better or worse, indeed.
And could I endure infirmity, eyes dead to novels, ears deaf to sonatas, muscles slack, lungs spent?
Some of my teachers, their bodies like the elderly farm equipment castaways in the fields surrounding Oniontown, find ways to move forward without traveling anywhere at all.
One has model train tracks on a table in front of a window overlooking squirrels stealing from bird feeders. Imagine finding life in a locomotive with no destination!
Or how about turning old, brittle pedal sewing machines into shining end tables? One of my sweetest teachers did just this. On the morning his young daughter died recently, he and I sat at his kitchen table. Cancer and grief had knocked the wind out of him, but he mustered the stamina to look with me out a window.
“My God,” I said, “is that a Baltimore oriole?” I had never seen one up close before.
“They’re only here a couple weeks,” he explained, “and then they’re gone. They like jelly.”
Every time I drive to the church I see this man’s house. Less than a month after his daughter passed, he got his wish and followed her into the rest of everlasting peace.
Can I be like him and my other teachers? Can I witness beauty until my last breath? Can I endure and soothe, laugh and learn even when the future is four walls?
And when death is near, can I remember that someone may visit my small world—a student who is finally ready to receive the quiet treasure I have left to share?
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.
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*
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.
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.
*This essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s, newspaper, the Record-Argus.