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.”

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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?

A Pastor’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Abiding Hope Family:

If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.

And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.

I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.

My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.

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Baby Jesus, bless it all: the old candy canes, the banner, books I’ve never read, the mirror Elena looked into as she put on her wedding gown before I walked her down the aisle, then turned around and did the wedding.

Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.

I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.

I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.

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The little key is for the thermostat.

On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.

I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.

When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.

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“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” I’ve had this photograph taped on my office door. These kiddos go with me.

Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.

Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.

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Your chair, holding a box of keepers. It will still be waiting for you when the next pastor arrives.

Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.

At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”

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Beloved Abiding Hope faces, the quick and the dead. Old brother Earl (front row) has gone on to blessed rest.

Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.

During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.

One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.

Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”

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All are welcome at the Table of the Lord! This is Abiding Hope.

My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.

But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.

Love, peace, thanks, and so long,

Pastor John