Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop

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Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Micah, around the time he figured out his old man

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.

And I love people. The best part of serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is when parishioners come to the church on an errand and stop for a chat.

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?

In addition to great stories and fun nicknames, I have this view out my office window. Not a bad deal.

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.

Outside my office door, a weaving by wife Kathy. People can come in for peace (pax) and a couple of laughs. And I always try to take the peace of Oniontown home with me.

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.

After “our time,” Kathy and I sometimes go for a walk in the neighborhood and check out beauty hiding in plain sight.

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

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.

Our four-year-old ginger with his little brother Killian playing in the wings

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.

Route 19 South leads to a borough that gives us a laugh. We count one-two-three at the “Sheakleyville” road sign, wiggle our bodies and turn three syllables into six: “Shay-ay-ay-ake-lee-ville.”

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.

The St. John’s sanctuary

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.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

My buddy Ray called last night. “Hey, Pastor, could you drop off my tobacco on your way to church tomorrow? Would it be out of your way?”

Actually, the detour cost me fifteen minutes, but no worries. We have an arrangement: Ray is constantly trying to quit smoking, but he always goes back. To keep temptation at bay, he tosses a bag full of loose tobacco and rolling papers in my trunk, where it keeps my lawn chair and fleece blanket company.

For a couple years I silently stewed about babysitting Ray’s tobacco. Our little routine is exquisitely stupid, but not as bonkers as throwing away thousands of dollars worth of tar and nicotine, only to show up sagging and defeated at Smoker Friendly to buy some more. And that’s exactly what Ray did for years.

So I hang onto what I’m sure is the crummiest of crummy tobacco, $11 a bag. The label says, “Pipe tobacco,” but Ray insists it’s for cigarettes.

“Brother,” I tease him, “you’re smoking shaved, dried out cabbage.”

Whether it ought to be tamped into a pipe or stirred into coleslaw, I’ve driven tobacco to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown and back home to Erie, to hospitals in Greenville, Farrell and Sharon, to McCartney’s to pick up birdseed and along Route 19 to the check on a horse I’ve named Onslow. I bet Ray’s smokes have traveled more than he has.

Within a week or two, my friend “yields”—that’s what he calls it—and I swing by his house. This morning I left the goods on his pack porch. He called later and thanked me for the delivery.

Ray is nothing if not grateful, which is one reason I’m not frustrated over my babysitting duties anymore. Of course, I could tell him this foolishness has gone on long enough, and I should never have signed on for such a lost cause in the first place.

Anyway, ire on my part is far less important than this truth: Ray’s smoking cause is probably lost, but my buddy is not. The trouble is, the man’s soul and his addiction are tangled together.

For most smokers, quitting is about trying to stay alive. Ray, whose health has been distressing for years, says, “I love tobacco. I don’t care if I get cancer. I have to die of something.” Snuff, long-cut chew, pipe, cigars, cigarettes, he does them all by turns. These days, he and his old Laredo cigarette roller are fast friends.

Be this happy, Ray. (Credit: Hedwig Ohring on Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fan of tobacco, but I wish Ray could indulge his addiction in peace. Unfortunately, the vice he adores also torments him. He was raised to believe in a wrathful God who keeps a long list of damnable offenses. Now in his sixties, he can’t stop believing that smoking in this life guarantees burning in the next.

Ray’s many medications leave his body depleted, but what really saps his strength is the withering sense of condemnation he carries around.

My Lord, how we’ve talked. If addictions earn people eternal punishment, then the line into hell is going to reach almost to heaven.

“If you want to improve your health,” I say, “quit tobacco. But if you’re trying to earn God’s love, my advice would be to roll yourself another.” I also tell Ray, “But what do I know?”

Lost cause on my way to Oniontown: an old thresher.

I don’t know the mind of God or claim any particular wisdom. In many ways I’m a lost cause myself. At least I have a nice collection of them. And I spend increasing amounts of time holding hands with folks whose lost causes bring them to their knees or knock them flat.

Does this sound hopeless? Not to me. Sitting cheek to jowl with the unsolvable, inescapable and terminal isn’t about hoping for miracles, but making sure that when a cause is lost, its owner is safe and sound.

So I tell Ray that I’m pretty sure God loves him just the way he is, right down to his smoke-stained fingertips. If he and you and I can believe this, then plenty of causes don’t matter much as long as we remember that our souls can never be lost.

An old, stained, torn message from the Coleman family refrigerator. Only believe, Ray.

Author’s Notes: This post originally appeared in slightly different form in Greenville’s newspaper, the Record Argus. And Ray says I can write about him any time I want.

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

Oniontown Pastoral: My Favorite Color

“Life is what happens to you,” John Lennon famously sang to his son Sean, “while you are busy making other plans.”

Wife Kathy and I are engaged in planning these days. We intend to sail along the coast of Maine in August and visit Ireland in October, meaning that we’ll celebrate our thirty-fourth anniversary on the water and my fifty-sixth birthday on the Coleman family’s native soil.

I’m giddy about these journeys, but embrace the late Beetle’s wisdom. Who knows what the future holds? How often do “thoughts for the morrow” obscure the blessings of today?

Iman, a Muslim classmate of mine from nearly thirty years ago, constantly acknowledged the future’s fragility by saying “God willing” when talking about her plans. “Insha’Allah,” she would have said back home in Egypt.

A fictional sage put it this way to his impatient disciple: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Since I’m reluctant to speculate about God’s intentions, I generally say, “Who knows?” If you had x-ray vision, you could witness my brain shrugging dozens of times each day, and not only about the months ahead. Facts I base my actions on also have a funny way of taking U-turns.

Yesterday, for example, St. John’s church secretary Jodi brought me two-dozen farm-fresh eggs, each one its own pastel shade of brown or green. Not only are they rich and savory, but they offer a lesson. If I catch myself worshipping at the altar of conventional wisdom, I contemplate the egg. When I first joined the high-cholesterol fraternity, eggs were out and statins were in. Now, a stroll through the Internet informs me that moderate egg consumption is fine. Ironically, statins can pummel your muscles and liver.

So I dip my toast in free-range yolks without concern and depend on my doctor to be sure my liver doesn’t get strangled by Lipitor—which, by coincidence, I pick up at a pharmacy across the street from the former site of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Erie, Pennsylvania. I served as pastor there for fourteen years. Just before I left for St. John’s in Oniontown, the property was sold. Once the congregation relocated, the new owner leveled the church building, which was not yet a decade old.

When picking up my pills, I pause in the pharmacy lot to smile and shrug. How I sweated the endless decisions and debates involved in constructing a new sanctuary. How my guts churned over the leaky roof. How worrying about mortgage payments creased my forehead.

Lonely puddle where a church once stood

Matters of plaster seemed almost as urgent as the care of souls. And now, what’s left? Clumps of earth and lonely puddles. Far from depressing me, though, the abandoned corner of 54th and Peach Streets is as sacred as ever. A truth that feels like worship passes through my aging spirit as I recall watching the wrecking ball swing:

I don’t know about tomorrow

or much of anything.

More often than not, my certainties in life are either neutral or leaden, whereas mysteries and wonder are joyful and light.

Example: Grandson Cole often stays with Kathy and me on Saturday evenings and goes to church with us on Sunday. In what is becoming a morning routine, I lie down beside Cole on the sofa bed as Kathy gets dressed. He sleeps on, and I have nothing to do but look at him and pass strands of his bright hair between my fingers. The gladness is consuming.

My gladness

During those twenty minutes, knowledge doesn’t count for much. Only essentials deserve a place with Pop and Cole: A loving God is mindful of us; my calling in this world is compassion; and the color I love most is red.

The last of these I never knew until last Saturday. Before Cole and Grandma Kathy went to bed, he asked, “Pop, what’s your favorite color?”

“Gosh, buddy, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess the color of your hair, reddish orange.”

“But, Pop, my hair’s not resh orange.” He was almost stern. “My hair’s red.”

“Well then, Cole, I’ve decided. My favorite color is red.”

In truth, the choice was made for me. I could almost hear God whisper my answer.

When grandson #2 Killian gets more hair, I may have two favorite colors. But hard to see, the future is.

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 #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear

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.”

IMG_4284Like 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?

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Faded-red castaway

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?

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 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

A Prayer from State Street Starbucks

Dear God,

You know everything I’m going to tell you. I’m writing these words as a way of inviting friends into my prayer.

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Oprah smiles on us all–hope she’s channeling you, God.

Constance* is ranting eight feet away. He’s pounding the table with his pointer finger. He’s alone, and there’s no way to join him. Years ago daughter Elena told me Constance sometimes cross-dresses and, in fact, has a home and money. I don’t know what’s true. I only know that Constance wears perma-stained sweat suits, walks everywhere, lugs a stuffed army duffle bag, and talks constantly to imagined companions or combatants.

What happened to Constance, God? I can’t imagine these wandering days and upset conversations are what you intended for him. I’m sad, choked up actually, because the only meaningful thing I can do is look at him without judgment and love a man who can’t escape a nightmare. What human being is under the soil and blather? You must know him. In your mercy, here or in your eternal arms, birth a sane Constance, bring to life a soul who can speak to real friends. He just walked outside—for air, to follow a hallucination—and he’s weary, winded. Pacing, talking, exhausting himself.

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Did Constance start out like grandson Cole–loving mother and father, gushing family, sound mind?

And now he’s back, grabbing the bathroom key and aching his way down the hall. It’s hard for me to trust that in your own time and way you’ll grant him peace. To tell the truth, God, I often feel like a dunce, believing that somehow, as days turn to decades and millennia waltz toward the eventual collision of galaxies, you’ll receive Constance and me and every dog, druggie, and run-of-the-mill spirit into your grace. But I do believe–can’t help it.

And the guy who was in here an hour ago with a ponytail and booze-red face, you know, the guy with no ass to hold up his jeans: someday you’ll fill his pockets with peace more lasting than the money he was trying to pester out of his frustrated, broke friend. You will, right? Please.

Of course, there’s plenty of joy here at Starbucks, too, God. Jesse and Ricardo, our beloved Erie couple who dress as wild twins and ride a tandem bike everywhere, even in winter, were here. Thank you for them, God. Thanks for the hats they wore this morning: Jesse in a white one the Queen of England would prize, Ricardo also in a white one that reminded me of a Hostess Sno Ball. They refuse to be other than what they are, and I’m grateful for that. I find them holy.

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Like Ricardo’s hat, God, except make it white and top it with coconut. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Well, Constance finally headed out and slogged across State Street, his duffle bag bouncing against his back—a light burden, I imagine, compared to the voices. I can’t see him anymore, but until his new birth or the inevitable last dance of the Milky Way, whichever comes first, I’ll keep an eye on Constance for as long as I can. Receive my offering: I won’t think any less of him than I do myself. It’s not much, I know.

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I can’t quite spot Constance from this view, but I believe you can. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lovely day, God. Ribs Fest is rocking downtown Erie, Pennsylvania. The volume swells every time somebody comes in. A couple of teenagers just entered. From the way they smell, I’m guessing a case of the munchies will drive them toward a vendor who will smile and gladly take their money.

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I’ll take this opportunity to ask you, God, about your stance on legalization. (Credit: Chmee2. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a good day; it really is. Soon I’ll head out myself into the gorgeous light, the comfortable air. My meter is long spent, so I’ll probably get a $10 ticket. Anyway, please hear my thanks. It’s just that Constance was here, suffering and lost, and seeing him got into the place in my chest you have created to hold tears.

I needed to talk to you. Please help us. And if nothing else, let Constance sleep well tonight. Give him a dream that feels like your embrace.

Love,

John

*Not his real name.