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.

The God I Love: A Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends:

A little after 9:00 this morning I called Denise at church and told her I’d be laying low today. Low happens to be my usual perch at Starbucks with an iced decaf coffee deepened by a shot of espresso and lifted by cream and Splenda. Bittersweet.

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Out on the boulevard, a maple with buds smaller than capers.

This Easter Monday, which we pastors often take off, looks and feels like spring—bright, but with enough chill in the air that you’d never mistake it for July. After a confounding winter, the trees might actually get around to budding, provided we can string some gentle days together.

April 21, 2014, is the kind of day you’d walk out your front door, take in a breath that makes your lungs unfurl, and believe for a second that joy might carry you away.

My watch says 10:23; its hands ask in their dying language, “What’s wrong with you? A sweet sky is being wasted.” I close my eyes, keep company with the mud in my chest and the catch in my throat. Then the Eternal Voice whispers, “Don’t worry, John. I’ll keep you.” (Some of you think I’m listening to nothing but my own desperate hope. And I’m fine with that. Honest. You might be right.)

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Gladness has its own hands, I guess.

To all of you taking five minutes to read this letter, please consider this an offering. I believe in God because of mornings like this, when nothing more could be asked of weather and circumstance, but when sorrow still throbs like a toothache in the soul.

Sorrow. Okay, sorrow about what? That’s the rub. Who knows? I’m convinced the sadness I’ve experienced over the years regards itself as family that is obligated to visit when my calendar clears and my emotional doors are ajar. So which blue relative is reclining in my spirit, looking at me with watery eyes?

June of 1998? Mom’s hand was purple, swollen three times normal. I held it, cold and taut. “If you want to go, Mom,” I said, “I understand. But I want you to know I love how gentle you are, how you’ve loved Elena and Micah, how you always tried to help me. And if there’s anything you feel bad about, I love you and believe you always tried as hard as you could to do what was right. And if you can get better and live, that would be really great.” I should have stayed until she died two days later, but I went back to seminary in Columbus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry, Mom.”

January of 2012? Pleasant Ridge. Nothing against the place, but what an insulting name! Two physical therapists tried to get loopy Dad out of his wheelchair for a walk. They held him up by his waistband, but his knees wobbled and a diaper sagged from his boney ass. Why? What for? “I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell them to let you be, Dad. I’m sorry.” A couple days later, he lay in bed, howling and grabbing at the air. For what? More time? Another chance? “I left after an hour because my loving voice made you thrash like a drowning man, so I’m not sorry, Dad. Just haunted.”

A thousand other losses, failures, injuries? Who knows? They refuse to identify themselves, and I’m terrible with their faces and names. Still, they are relatives. More than that, I have the feeling God is holding their hand when they show up.

Sure, I believe in God because of this day’s wonder and my current nave full of blessings, especially grandson Cole. But sorrow—inconvenient kin—is my faith’s mast, at least on these present existential breakers. Without sorrow, my sails have nothing to hang from.

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My Wagnerian Cole. You fill my sails, chubby cheeks, but I’m also trusting God not to forget your first week of life in the ICU.

Here’s my confession: a God who can blossom as healthy babies, Grand Canyons, and love-making deserves worship. But a God who cradles misery and refuses to let it slip away into denial or insignificance deserves love. This is the God I believe in.

I often sit with people who are being sucked under by worry and turmoil. As I join them in ashes, a quiet joy rises up in the sacred conversation. Just as nothing tangible in creation is wasted, so I think God takes hold of everything. Everything! No waste.

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Ashes. One of the many homes God makes with us?

When Cole was born, Micah looked at him and cried. What a great belief moment. How could God waste the grace of those tears? If the fluid and chemicals I haul around as whiskers and cellulite will change form for eternity but never disappear, why shouldn’t I also assume that the fullness of human experience is in its own way cosmically material, never to be lost?

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Spring flowers. Autumn’s fallen leaves. Love. Disappointment. All cosmic matter?

And I mean all experience, an idea that demands a dark, holy logic. When I was in fifth grade, Mom met me at the door after school. “John, you knew your father and I would split up someday,” she said. “He is down at the courthouse now filing the papers.” I think I cried for a minute as she held me. I’m not sure. Then I ran to Eddie’s house. “Holy hell,” he kept saying. “Holy hell.” We climbed our usual tree in his backyard and sat in silence. “No, Mom, I didn’t know.” And, my friends, this memory still has me longing for a hug I don’t expect to enjoy this side of glory. (Don’t feel sad for me. We all have our pockets stuffed with scraps of life we figured were in the waste basket or attic. Right?)

Is this my visitor now, as morning bleeds into afternoon? A day when I was a lost boy? Maybe so. In an hour, odds are decent I’ll walk outside and be light enough for the warm wind to shock me with new life. Whatever happens, I believe in the God who remembers a kid sitting shaken and afraid forty years ago up a tree. A God who remembers how I couldn’t stop crying at Mom’s funeral when we sang, “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.”

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Elena and Micah in 2006, as the rough years were starting up. They’re both great now, a fact I celebrate daily. But I believe our struggles add compost to the flowering universe.

“God,” I pray right now, “remember your creation’s joy, but especially how spring shines on our grieving hearts. You do remember, right? That day in 1990 when Kathy and I buried mutt Bandit’s ashes at Wintergreen Gorge? Just a dog, but we were hurting. Amazing how we still miss him. I trust that you recall Bandit’s hundreds of seizures and step out of time with me and watch the way Kathy holds his head and wipes away drool. I love how you remember. Amen.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. I hear silence in my chest, which is a good answer. Until we find out the Great Mystery, stay with me: join in all of my comforting embraces; sit with me in a tree when I am a stunned boy; hold my hand as my father howls.

Love,

John

A Declaration of Light

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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The light: often nothing but a ribbon on the horizon. It is enough. (Credit: Niels Busch / Corbis)

Thursday at work, son Micah helped patch up the ceiling in an apartment occupied by a pregnant–any day now!–Chinese woman conversant in English and her father, who relied entirely on her as translator. Sensitive to her condition, Micah took extra care plastering and sanding, going so far as to bundle the messy tarps up, load them in his trunk, and take them to the company dumpster for shaking out. He didn’t want any dust in the mother’s and baby’s lungs.

The woman’s father noticed Micah’s consideration and repeated three times: “Xeixei.” Thank you.

Knowing what the father was saying, Micah nodded, smiling politely, kind of bowing.

I learned all this when I got home at 9:00 that night. Micah had spent a couple of hours researching and practicing. He would finish the patching job Friday, and he wanted to give the Chinese man a proper reply.

As I sipped a red blend and warmed up leftover pizza, Micah told me the story and practiced: “Bu yong xei.” Over and over. We even said it together. “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Dad,” he said. “Does this sound right to you?”

The syllables passed for “don’t mention it” or “you’re welcome.” “I don’t know,” I said. “But I think all you have to do is mean it and you’ll be fine.”

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Hanging in my study. Micah’s elementary school handiwork.

All day I wondered how he made out. Actually, my son had already made me proud. It’s the thought that counts and all that. When he got home, though, I was waiting. “So how’d it go?”

The man’s pregnant daughter was present when Micah finished the job.

“Thank you,” she said.

He had cribbed the words on his wrist: “Bu yong xei.”

“Oh!” she said, “Your Chinese is very good.”

Micah headed out the door, but before he got to his car, the father leaned out and called to him: “Xeixei.”

My son’s spirit blossomed in the gray afternoon: “Bu yong xei,” he said, without reading this time.

The Chinese father’s smile dispersed the clouds. He bowed and made prayer hands.

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Light has its way with darkness on Presque Isle.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Five years ago I would have agreed, but the words would have caught like a lump of doubt in my throat. Micah was covered over in what is now his rich compost of consequences. But on Friday, “Bu yong xei.” A stargazer lily grows out of the rot. A shaft of sun persists in a thunder storm.

I bet my life on light. Its promise to confuse and overcome darkness fills my chest and speaks a truth I share with another Father: “This is my son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

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Some blossoms take years. That’s all right.

 

Confessional Prayer of a Napping Pastor

Dear God:

Naps lately haven’t been as long and lovely as in the past, which is a good thing, I suppose. For years one worry after another choked my spirit, but now I’ve caught my breath. Kathy is in a good space, even though I constantly test her patience. Our children seem to have outgrown their respective insanities. Former Goth girl Elena married wise, gentle Matt, and they’ve come up with our grandson Cole. And Micah hasn’t shot up for over eighteen months. When I lie down these days, siestas aren’t for escape, but refreshment.

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6:00 p.m. Fewer pancakes, same amount of syrup. Forgive me, Lord. (Credit: Dieter  Heinemann / Westend61 / Corbis)

Tonight all of us will meet at the church for Shrove Tuesday pancakes and sausage. I’m having real syrup, but promise to take extra insulin. The food will be delicious, but all of us together fussing over Cole will be the main course. Then, back at home, I’ll enjoy the fruit of the vine—for medicinal purposes.

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Just a splash, Lord. (Credit: Walter Zerla / Blend Images / Corbis)

At the moment I’m sipping strong, sweet coffee at Starbucks with the regulars. Alan showed up a few minutes ago. As always, my hands said namaste, and he bowed. Breathing in. Breathing out. I’m not suffering.

God, you probably already know what’s on my mind, but just in case, I have a confession:

I’m grateful for this day: for the stubborn solo digit Fahrenheit air, for my 6:45 silence with you, for this coffee, for hours ahead that don’t threaten me, for more love and mercy than I deserve. But I still look over my shoulder, still twitch when the undergrowth rustles with one more emotional ambush. A Paul Simon song states the truth:

When something goes right

Well it’s likely to lose me

It’s apt to confuse me

It’s such an unusual sight

Oh, I swear, I can’t get used to something so right

Something so right.

The deal is, Lord, I’m trying to get used to not constantly feeling anxious and shitty. When we sit together, I think you whisper into the ear of my heart: “Relax, John, and live. Relax and live.”

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I hear your Saint Benedict’s instruction, Lord: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” (Credit: icon by Clarisse Jaegar; photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; on Wikimedia Commons)

If I started saying thank you right now and gave the rest of my days to repeating it, I couldn’t pile up enough thank you’s to cover my present gratitude. At the same time, I have to pray the truth. I don’t believe you dispense today’s blessings any more than you orchestrated yesterday’s despair. I might be wrong on this, but these assumptions aren’t behind my thank you’s.

Some of my brothers and sisters talk about having a personal relationship with you, but I can’t make us work that way. You know! I don’t ask for favors. I roll around in you. Your wind-song moves over my skin. You don’t “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” You are my green pastures and still waters. I breathe you in. I breathe you out. And when I do pray that you grant me something concrete, it’s a desperate beggar talking. Oh, Lord, you know.

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Hi, Lord. (Credit: Yi  Lu / Viewstock / Corbis)

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t understand myself. Maybe a crevasse in my soul finds warmth in being honest with you. When Micah was a junkie, I never blamed you. I did wonder—within the cosmic economy—why such a demanding son ended up with such a fragile father, but not once did I say, “God, why did you do this to me?” And as I sit here today, my gratitude for how well that man-boy is doing doesn’t mean that I think you said, “Okay, John’s suffered enough. I’ll make his son clean.”

I say thank you not because you guide me to lost keys and make my diabetes go away, though I’m fine with any help in such arenas. I say thank you because I feel you near. When I close my eyes, as I do now, and calm myself, a wordless voice speaks–yours, I suspect: “John, John. I’m here. Don’t look up. My hands hold the stone of grief in your chest. My lips kiss your face, creased with joy.”

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Is that you, God, breathing? (Credit: Gary Weathers / Tetra Images / Corbis)

Another truth: moments pass now and then when I’m afraid I’ve made you up, and the Milky Way’s swirl is nothing but dust and light. So I’ve got no choice, God, but to give myself and all I love to you, even my belief. I’m your grateful, confused son, liking this coffee, planning on a light nap at 2:00, looking forward to cradling our grandson over pancakes tonight, and doing my best to let you be my close Mystery, my green pasture in tears and gladness.

Amen

Epiphany on a Planet of Cautionary Dreams

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Mary and Joseph still adoring Jesus on January 10th at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s January 23rd: the magi have come from the East; knelt before the Christ child; offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and were granted their epiphany. Then, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” By January 6th, the Epiphany of Our Lord, I imagine most crèches had already been wrapped in old newspaper and set in a dark place for eleven and a half months of hibernation.

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Baby Crash enjoying the extended Epiphany.

The Coleman household has the strange habit of allowing the Christmas/Epiphany celebration to linger. It was only a week ago that Kathy put the ornaments, decorations, and snowmen in Totes, which now wait for me to lug them upstairs to storage. We’ve stretched the season into early February, but don’t have a set date for pulling the plug. When an afternoon or evening opens up in mid- to late-January, Kathy intuitively knows it’s time to go back home to our normal country.

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Stop and breathe, John.

I know Christmas/Epiphany has to move on, but I miss the spell our living room casts on me in December and January. Give me reds and greens. Give me lights that hold me back like a mother putting out her hand to keep her child safe when she brakes hard. Give me “good tidings of great joy,” even if the tidings are inconspicuous: You have a warm, dry, lovely house on a planet of cautionary dreams. Stop and breathe. Pay homage.

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Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents,” 1636-1638 (Credit: Wikipedia)

There is one jab to the solar plexus between Christmas and Epiphany. On December 28th, many Christian churches commemorate the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts Herod’s indiscriminate attempt to kill Jesus, the promised King: “[Herod] sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” No historical evidence of this slaughter exists, but current events keep proving that Matthew’s account may not be factual, but it’s true.

Unicef reported last December that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution regarding the Central African Republic: “Action must be impartial and swift to stop the targeting of children, to protect schools, health facilities and transit centres, and to provide care and support to victims—with no impunity for the perpetrators of these outrages against children.” So suits pass edicts, and mothers weep for their children and refuse “to be consoled, because they are no more”—in Newtown, Damascus, and Bethlehem.

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Homage at Abiding Hope on January 23rd. The magi have come so far, and I’m putting off asking them to leave.

The whole Christmas/Epiphany story, with the shepherds “sore afraid” and the star “at its rising” and Mary wrapping her son “in swaddling clothes,” conflates with Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation” and leads me to shamatha in Erie, Pennsylvania. Cultures and centuries away from a child lying in a manger in the city of David, I keep epiphanies coming with calm abiding and leave a tree and crèche standing in my soul.

This practice is more about disposition than decoration. If only I could receive the simple, moving, miraculous story of Jesus’ birth without qualifications: Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a stupid census; Jesus was born alongside manure and slept in a feedbox; an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with wife and son to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat; and—like I said, more truth than fact—a king slaughters pretty ones to fulfill a prophesy.

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Come, dry bones of Rwanda, rise and dance in my soul. (Credit: Sascha Grabow)

The problem is, I can’t tolerate sanitized stories. Edit out or ignore the darkness and danger, and Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives are insulting, and the Coleman family’s celebration is ignorant and selfish. What does it say when I tear open presents on Christmas morning while at least one arm of my spirit isn’t cradling Rwanda and Littleton? How comforting is the artificial tree beside the fireplace if it withholds its glow from distended bellies and limbs abbreviated by machetes?

The point: I’m in no hurry to get the living room back to its usual arrangement. If nothing else, a nap on the couch with a fire going and the tree lit is a rare blessing. Sleep isn’t required. It’s enough to doze, let the colors blur through half-opened eyes, and listen to the wood’s snap and crackle.

I’m a challenging person to live with. The Christmas/Epiphany living room needs no excuses; it’s beautiful and that’s enough. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t be an embracing escape from planetary absurdity and rage, from each day’s disappointments and injuries–this and no more. So why do I insist on complicating a peaceful sanctum? Because my Epiphany shamatha whispers, “Invite everybody in. Let them have a safe place, even if that place is your soul.”

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A lone snowman remains on the mantle: “Welcome. Come in from the cold.”

This morning in the car, Micah and I learned on National Public Radio of an innocent who will visit my spirit tonight as I sit by the fire. Reuters reports that “a 20-year-old woman in eastern India was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police officer said on Thursday . . . . Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house.”As we rode in silence, I looked over at my son. He was shaking his head, eyes closed—momentary curtains drawn against evil.

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It’s warm here, distant daughter. I’ll put a blanket down for you. Rest. You’ll be safe.

The father in me speaks words that will never reach the young survivor in her hospital bed: “Holy Child, come sit on the hearth. Bring your forbidden lover. I’ll put lights back on the tree. Cry and scream if you want. I’ll keep the fire going, bring tea for your aching throat, warm bread to feed your broken body.”

My Indian daughter will be staying indefinitely. In my spirit inn that sings and sighs, where the tree and crèche live a seamless Epiphany, joy is sacred only if there’s room for every traveler’s wounds and tears.