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.

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A Witness for Richard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to Myself from a Distant Country

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (Credit: Wikipedia)

Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”

I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.

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The Prodigal Son Living with Harlots by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (1712-1761) (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.

Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.

Anxiety

If I looked this good anxious, I might not complain. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.

The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.

Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.

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Ah, still waters! Might be Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Vesuvius underneath, but as long as there aren’t any whitecaps, we’re solid. (Credit: Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)

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Sometimes ivy takes over so it seems like there’s more plant than stone. (Credit: Psyberartist on Wikimedia Commons)

So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.

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Mmm! An overripe, dehydrated banana? A used, sunbaked . . . ? Oh, never mind? Carob pods. (Credit: Roger Culos on Wikimedia Commons)

A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?

Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.

Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”

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Son Micah working on a two-pound Rice Crispy Treat after a hard day of painting. Laughter comes more easily after I find myself

I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.

In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.

This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.

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My soul’s arms hold Cole when I come to myself