Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

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Joe Burgert

Organist and devout Christian Joe Burgert died in his sleep on June 25th at the Lay School of Theology, which was held at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. His friends, my wife Kathy included, were devastated and knew they wouldn’t be able to continue attending class sessions, so they headed for Erie. Since Kathy had hitched a ride with Joe, she drove his car, the hatch filled with his luggage and laundry.

Traveling east on Route 322, the women in the two-car caravan had just started to grieve. Joe was a big presence, but sensitive and thoughtful. His laughter was thunderous and infective. Although health issues tired him out, he always seemed to be overflowing with life. How could he be gone so suddenly?

Kathy was hit particularly hard by Joe’s passing. They rode together, sat side by side at dinner, worshiped together, and then, pow, he was gone. But there was something else: I don’t think Kathy realized how much she loved Joe until he died. That was my experience, too. Let’s just say, Joe Burgert was a great soul.

So great, in fact, that he has helped a skeptic like me to believe in signs. For good or ill, much as I embrace miracles and the workings of the Holy Spirit, I resist explaining mysteries. “Leave them be” is my approach.

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Joe! (Credit: NASA/Gary Rothstein on Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s hard not to think that Joe reached out to his stunned friends on the highway. A bald eagle flew right at them, down the middle of the road, just at the treetops. The way Kathy tells it, they all saw the wings spread wide, almost close enough to touch, and thought the same thing: “Joe!”

He was considerate that way. If, in the governance of eternity, the dead can reach out to the bereaved, Joe would have put in a request for an eagle flyover. For days Kathy couldn’t share the story without crying. She loves eagles, scans the sky for them all the time.

Joe gave me a sign, too, I think, but to appreciate this, you have to know that I drove him crazy. He was meticulous and, even he would have admitted, kind of fussy. I’m more improvisational theater, as pastors go. We loved each other, but I tested the poor man’s patience.

A few days after Joe passed, I was running errands, my mind doing its normal noodling. Walking across a parking lot, I remembered that eagle and thought, “Hey, Joe, how about a sign for me.” No misty eyes were involved here at all. I might as well have been musing, “Boy, an ice cream cone would sure be good right now.”

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Good one, Joe. (Credit: Niceckhart on Wikimedia Commons)

Then I looked up at the storefront: GIANT EAGLE. There was my sign, and it was vintage Joe Burgert—exactly his sense of humor and sharp mind.

“Here’s your eagle, Pastor,” I imagined him saying, followed by his great laugh.

In Joe Burgert’s memory and honor, I’m choosing to believe not only that he staged my sign, but that the Communion of Saints conspired with him, joyful to the point of tears.

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

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The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.

The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?

I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”

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Lovely field . . . could use a few cows

With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?

No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.

And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.

This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.

Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”

A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”

Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.

This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.

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Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Wikimedia Commons

Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.

How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.

What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.

This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.

Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.

On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.

Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.

Message for a New Grandson

Message for a New Grandson

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

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Lake Erie light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kathy and Killian

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

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

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

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Killian and Pop in a bubble

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

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

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

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

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Lucky baby, lucky family

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

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

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

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

A Witness for Richard

I’m used to burying strangers. Plenty of deceased and their families believe in God, but the church not so much. That’s when pastors get a call from a funeral director. Not much explanation is necessary: “Are you available to do a service on such and such a date and time?”

If nothing is going, I’m in. Details are provided, name, next of kin, a phone number. From there I watch for an obituary and make the visitation if possible, talk to loved ones, gather some sense of the departed.

But my latest burial was a first: no name, no contacts, just when and where. I did reconnaissance in Section B of the paper and found one possibility, a man with a brother and a couple of nieces. Maybe the brother wanted a prayer and “ashes to ashes” at the grave. No fuss, just a man of the cloth and a few words. At the appointed hour I fishtailed to my commitment, confident I would find a seventy-something man in the casket.

Instead I found Richard, a fifty-something resident of a group home, where he lived with other adults in need of supervision and care. Some of them were sitting with their caregivers, waiting for an unfamiliar face to bring comfort and hope.

The funeral director pointed me toward Richard’s primary caregiver, who didn’t quite know what to tell me. Richard didn’t speak. He loved to look at artwork. “He loved to eat,” she said, raising her eyebrows and drawing out loved, making the vowel sound delicious. He expressed disapproval by screaming.

Others told me that he insisted on being called Richard and looked forward to his morning routine of chocolate milk.

Twenty minutes before the service, I stood with Richard: African-American guy about my age; chin drawn in; fingers showing some atrophy, I believe; passable suit jacket and tie; favorite afghan across his legs.

In certain situations I take it as my responsibility to witness, to pay attention and make a silent announcement to creation. Or maybe my job is to confess a belief consisting of equal parts tears, hope, and wonder. I don’t know.

But staring at an embalmed man whose life was nearly invisible, I put words in God’s mouth. Doing this has always felt dangerous. I don’t know the mind of God. I can’t even put together a sound argument that God exists. Anyway, words were in my mouth. I didn’t invite them. I heard them in my head as true beyond debate. It was as if I were not their author:

You’re as important as anybody in the world, Richard. Nobody is more loved than you are.

I imagined that Richard’s face, the lip puffed out over teeth that never got braces and his fingers bent at the last knuckle, were dear to God—as when a parent watches an infant sleep, each feature counted as a miracle. And to God’s ear, were Richard’s screams music?

I did my best with the service. Some lives make for scant eulogies, but that’s only if you forget that one person’s chocolate milk in the morning deserves mention as much as another’s Fulbright. “Richard was a charming, and funny man,” his obituary read. “He had a loving, caring soul and his smile would light up a room.” His friends, a dozen or so, cried for him. They wiped away tears, too, at the suggestion that God beheld Richard loving food and in him was well pleased.

A soul’s resume lists sacred trivia: knowing how to taste chocolate milk, getting lost in a painting, demanding to be called by name, caring for others with a smile or a scream. Richard’s accomplishments don’t shine up very well, but those who loved him in the world appreciated them and loved him to the end—from the group home to the funeral home to the cutting cold of the cemetery.

In under ten minutes, we had spoken the final amen and were back into our warm vehicles. Not many days later now, I sip routine coffee. Richard reminds me to taste it. His face, as clear in my eyes as when I stood by his body, doesn’t belong to a stranger. His features are fine the way they are. May God and all the quick and the dead remember to call him Richard.