Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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Oniontown Pastoral: A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

“If you could go back,” I asked Ray, “would you change anything?”

I can’t remember where the question came from or how the conversation started. We were driving to Dollar General, where he was going to pick up five bags of starlight peppermints.

“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I would never have started with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. I would have paid attention in school and graduated.”

I chipped in: “Oh, and you wouldn’t have gotten married that first time, right?”

“No, I would’ve run all the way to Oklahoma in the same pair of sneakers.”

Ray comes out with great lines like this, but his flat affect can make you forget his brain has zip. He is a trippy character. Years ago I mentioned that I would like to write about him.

“Write whatever you want,” he said. He hopes his story can speak to others, as it does to me.

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

Ray’s life is short on plot, but long on complication. Mental illness and heavy-duty meds blur his days. He could be content with a routine built on filterless roll-your-owns, plugs of wintergreen snuff and old Pink Floyd albums, but tobacco fills him with guilt. For decades he figured God would send him to hell, but not anymore. What remains is a soul scarred by damnation’s abuse.

Ray’s latest trouble is a persistent cough, so this morning after the peppermint run I took him to the doctor.

In the waiting room, as we engaged in our usual salty repartee, he sagged in his chair.

“Pastor,” he said out of the blue, “I wish somebody would tell me I’m going to die.”

No cause for alarm. Ray has been ready to die for years, but his belief that suicide is unforgivable keeps him alive.

“Really,” I said, inviting him into the valley we’ve walked before. “Why do you want to die?”

Ray knows my truth. I’ve never been suicidal, but a few times I’ve been miserable enough that if God had called me home, I would have gone without an argument.

My old friend confessed his truth: “I’m so tired of being tired and afraid.”

Ray’s medicine causes crushing fatigue, but it’s also supposed to keep him ahead of paranoia and panic. In fact, few days pass without him choking on their dust.

He calls constantly to ask for prayer. I take him to the doctor’s office, Smoker Friendly and the used record store. We get coffee. Wherever we are, he’s apt to say, “Lord, I’m so tired,” and he’s not talking to me.

I have no solutions, but figure that the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.

A few months ago Kathy and I traveled to Ireland and visited attractions both popular and inconspicuous. Of course, we toured Saint Colman’s Cathedral, whose spire keeps watch over the city of Cobh.

Prayer room at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland

My last stop was quiet room off the narthex, which glowed with votive candles. Kneelers waited below a towering poster of Jesus for believers with intercessions. I slipped a few Euros into the offering box, knelt and prayed for family, friends and my folks at St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown.

Ray got his own candle. I imagined him dozing in his recliner, obsessing about somebody breaking into his house and stealing his things.

“Peace,” was all I said, “give him some peace.” Then I snapped a photograph to show my friend where I remembered him to God.

This morning before taking Ray to the doctor, I finally got around to having the print framed. On the back I taped a prayer, the one that I offered in abbreviated form in Ireland: “Dear Lord, please fill Ray’s heart with peace about his salvation, compassion toward himself and love for you. Amen.”

The day is not yet over, and he has called me several times, twice to say how much he loves the picture. And moments ago, this update: “I just wanted to let you know I woke up from a nap and don’t feel sick.”

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

“No, Pastor, I feel normal,” he said with a chuckle.

A normal day—no panic, sorrow or tragedy—deserves a celebration, maybe a phone call to a friend. Now there’s a lesson I can stand to remember.

Folks assume I take of Ray, but I add this confession to my personal story: If I keep my heart open, sometimes Ray takes care of me.

Bike outside sidewalk cafe in Cobh, Ireland–after prayers for Ray and all the rest of us

 

Oniontown Pastoral #2: Visitation

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I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.

(“The Geese” by E. B. White)

Who doesn’t love summer? Millions of northerners flock south each year in hopes of denying winter its due.

I accept the migration’s logic, but my attraction to summer or any mild weather is complicated. If the sky is flawless blue, I remember that for some folks, clouds block the light.

E. B. White’s summer sadness descended as he watched an old gander on his farm defeated by a young male. The Charlotte’s Web author, in his early seventies, sympathized with the displaced bird.

My ambivalence toward nice weather has its own causes. When I was a teenager my grandparents tried to outrun Gram’s arthritis by moving to Sun City, Arizona. While the dry climate was physically medicinal, the miles from children and grandchildren punished her heart.

My mother died in June of 1998 while I was doing chaplaincy training. At the end of each day of caring for others, I floated a city block to my car through a hot haze of grief.

So memories and disposition keep the unbridled joy of a beautiful day in check. I wouldn’t call my mood sad, though. Mindful is more accurate. I pray for people for whom getting from stoop to car is herculean or impossible. I dream them with me into the light.

Last week I visited homebound parishioners. Ah, the weather! Driving was a pleasure, windows down a couple of inches. Walking across parking lots was all Julie Andrews spinning and singing from the lively hills.

But it never takes long to recall that beauty depends on your perch. If walls and a non-compliant body keep you from taking in deep draughts of outside air and picking tomatoes with your own two hands, then whatever breeze sneaks in through the screen might bring out a sigh of resignation rather than delight.

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Bulletin board in an old folks’ home near Oniontown

This evening while enduring the television news, I’ll have a splash of pinot noir—just to gladden my human heart. What does a long-stem wine glass look like to an elderly child of God who shakes unpredictably? Or a chalice full of Sacred Presence? Spills waiting to happen?

Such questions should depress me, but they don’t. Seeing through homebound eyes is a lighter prayer than you might think. Anyway, I won’t dishonor them with sorrow. Maybe God can use my gratitude—for the filling of lungs, lifting a spoonful of broth, finding the Big Dipper—to bless my friends, to grant them an hour’s gladness.

My own joy is tender to the touch—only selfish joy isn’t bruised. I miss Mom now more than eighteen years ago when summer hung on me like wool.

But this March day is stunning, brilliant, 60 degrees. Chores are next on the list, then a walk. I’ll bring Mom and gather everyone I can remember as I go.

Dear God, please take the saints I forget by the hand and lead the way.

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

IMG_4284I’ve been going to bed by 9:00 p.m. lately and waking up several times during the night–changes in established rhythms. Wife Kathy and I have pruned home to 1000 square feet. My pastor work has slimmed to part-time to make room for writing. And Kathy cries out whenever she rolls over.

As our friends know, Kathy climbed to unfurl the royals on Brig Niagara. She put a new roof on our old house, remodeled the bathroom, fashioned a patio out of salvaged brick, and planted flowers I could never name.

When we bought our little house, which I call the hermitage, Kathy willed the dingy place into fresh order with elbow grease and doggedness. She has big plans: a vegetable and herb garden with raised beds; a deck cobbled together with wood from a backdoor ramp she will saw into pieces; and, of course, flowers.

Kathy has plans, but as we found out a few weeks ago, she also has rheumatoid arthritis. Questions still outnumber answers. Will medication help? Diet? Exercise? Can the condition be coaxed into remission?

She has swollen joints, particularly at the fingers and wrists, and pain all around. A steroid helps for now, but it’s not a long-term solution. Her spirit still sings. Just now she sent me this message: “I hope you are enjoying your morning writing time. You should try to get out for a walk today. What a lovely day. Love you.”

Lovely day, indeed. Lovely human being!

This morning at 1:48 I woke up, sipped some water, and watched Kathy sleep. She should win awards for the dexterity and variety of her snoring. A couple of exhales in a row, her throat sounded like a playing card being flip-flip-flipped by bicycle spokes.

When I smoothed hair away from her forehead, she started. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. For the first time in my life, I heard a complete, discernible sentence uttered in mmms. Cadence alone provided the words: “Oh, that’s okay. You can put your hand on my head.”

So I held her hair between the fingers of one hand, rested the other on her puffed out knuckles, and prayed—sort of. If wanting to draw pain out of my wife by touch, to take it upon myself, counts as prayer, then I prayed.

And if “Oh, my dear” counts, then I prayed without ceasing. How many times did moving a little bring rapid breaths and four or five ows out of her sleep?

“Your hands?” I asked.

“My leg,” she answered.

“Oh, my dear.”

She returned to snoring. I looked at her face and longed for a miracle, but I’m eccentric, a pastoral black sheep. You would expect articulate petitions from a trained theologian, but I pray best by breathing.

Each time Kathy resumed snoring, I drew close again and kept vigil. In our shadowy bedroom, we lay bathed in holy light.

One belief granted me sleep: every cry ripples in the waters of Eternal Love.

P. S. Please stay tuned for further Oniontown Pastoral posts and other explanations and solutions.

Lament for Aylan Kurdi

Sadness Alert! This post will be painful to read. 

He stood there biting his lower lip. “It is very difficult,” he said. “I cannot resign myself.”

He looked straight past me and out through the window. Then he began to cry. “I am utterly unable to resign myself.”

(from “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway)

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Citrus Photobomb of Pinot Noir

Close day in Erie, Pennsylvania, but central air pacifies me. So does a Smoking Loon pinot noir. A soprano (Callas, Sutherland, Caballe?) sings something from Madame Butterfly—I think. When hunger intrudes, I’ll walk a few feet to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and decide what not to eat. That’s how stifling my life is. I have to eliminate meal options.

I’m inexcusably comfortable but for one trifle: Aylan Kurdi drowned. A photograph of a police officer carrying him from a Turkish beach appeared on the evening news. I recognized the boy immediately, his toddler legs. He was my grandson Cole. The tender calves, the tiny sneakers!

Two hours ago, he said, “Pop, come.” He had a tennis ball that he wanted me to toss high into the air. Into the humidity, above the young tree in his front yard, the yellow globe flew, then fell to the grass. Cole bounced. Or was it Aylan?

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Aylan Kurdi. Forgive me, friends, but can you make out your child here? Do you recognize the sneakers? (Credit: Reuters)

Now, as Jussi Bjorling kills some high notes from La Boheme, I comprehend: Aylan = Cole.

If my son-in-law fled bombs with my daughter and grandchildren and lost them to water, I would want nothing more than to join him, to sit beside their graves until merciful death arrived.

I cannot resign myself. I am utterly unable to resign myself.

Or as Aylan’s father Abdullah said, “I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

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Cole with Pop. Do you see Aylan’s hands? His little legs?

Hemingway’s Senior Maggiore grieved the unexpected death of his young wife from pneumonia after he had survived war, hand maimed but otherwise viable—the absurdity, the affront.

Syria is a hemisphere away, but geography is a rationalization. Aylan in the wet sand is Cole in the wet sand. To hell with similes. Any other conclusion is bullshit, for me and for the world. Our best hope is for Aylan to be my own grandson–and your very own, too. You feel this with me, don’t you?

I want to pick that boy up off the beach and love him back to life so badly my throat burns. You, too?

The Smoking Loon is gone, and I’m hungry.

Damn it!

“Talking to God about Jim Foley and the World” on YouTube

Hello, Friends:

Here’s another installment on my very slowly developing vlog (video blog). It’s kind of a bummer, so pass on this if you want to focus on sunny thoughts today. And faithful blogging friends, chances are you’ve already read this, so don’t feel obligated.

Peace and love,

John

 

A Prayer for God’s Children Falling from the Sky

Dear God,

I heard first that 295 of your daughters and sons were killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine today. Now the number is 298. Ah well, three more souls, no big deal.

Gracious One, what’s happening to us? We can’t seem to stop blowing each other up. Let’s see: Amish school girls, Connecticut first graders and teachers, Colorado folks out to catch a movie, and just yesterday, four boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach.

And now, almost three hundred of your children fall from the sky. I confess, their descent haunts me. You know, I hate flying. While in flight, I imagine the plane nose down, spiraling toward the earth. On impact, my face and chest smash into the seat in front of me. It would happen so fast I wouldn’t experience any pain, but in my nightmare I feel it all.

And I’ve dreamed—many times, even safe on the ground—something like what happened today in Ukraine: the plane in pieces and me stunned in the frigid air, the ground rushing toward me. At 33,000 feet, would you pass out on your way down and die before landing? It doesn’t matter, God, I’m awake for everything, including the instant crush of death.

In an odd way, this prayer is selfish. Not everybody on that plane out of Amsterdam was blessed to die when the missile hit the plane, blessed to pass from this world to you as they slept, one head resting on a beloved shoulder or held hands or said, “You know, in Kuala Lumpur we’ll have to . . . .” Some must have shot out into the open air and at least for a couple of seconds reckoned, traveling through cloud-blindness to the sight of green fields, the immediate future.

It’s these brothers and sisters I’m praying for. I have no clue how you work and whether it’s possible to ask you for a grace whose time has already passed. Well, I’m asking anyway. This is crazy, but may it be so that you touched the wicked shock of your children’s last moments. I dream this prayer:

They soared above oxygen, but you gave them the breath of peace. They spun and somersaulted, but you spoke into the ear of their hearts: “Laugh and love the view. I’ll catch you on the ground.” They didn’t grieve what they never said to those they loved because you comforted them: “I’ve prepared a place for you—all of you.” Most of all, you helped them stay awake, free from fear, and they said, “Mercy, so this is what it’s like to fly!” Then they woke up, and you were cradling them, looking into their eyes.

“What was that place?” they asked you. “I remember loving and crying. Why were we always hurting each other?”

But since you were holding them, they forgot the question. They had flown, and you had caught them. What bomb or bullet could touch them now?

In eternity, God, may needful answers descend slowly upon all of us. And may our arms be used only for embracing.

Amen

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.

A Prayer for Martin Cobb and Nigerian School Girls

A Prayer for Martin Cobb, His Sister, All Who Love Them, and for the Abducted School Girls in Nigeria

“Richmond, Va. — The family of an 8-year-old boy beaten to death as he tried to defend his 12-year-old sister from a brutal rape gathered outside their home Friday, grappling with the details of the vicious attack. They leaned on one another, crying, shaking and struggling to understand the loss of little Martin Cobb” (nbcnews.com).

Dear God:

Behind my eyes and in my throat and chest: I can’t decide if it’s a roar or a sob. Maybe both.

I believe what your servant Paul wrote centuries ago about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens,” but I’m not sure how much longer I can comply. Tired, Lord, so tired. But don’t worry. I’m not giving up, not about to fall on a sword. The problem is, my spirit can’t catch its breath. Where does ferocious evil come from? Why won’t it stop crushing your children?

I don’t mean your children poetically. I’m talking about your literal children. You know what happened days ago in Nigeria, so I say this not for you, but for those who pray with me:

A “tragedy is unfolding in Nigeria, where members of the ultra-radical Islamist group Boko Haram grabbed . . . [school] girls, most believed to be between 16 and 18, from their dormitories in the middle of the night in mid-April and took them deep into the jungle. A few dozen of the students managed to escape and tell their story. The others have vanished. (Roughly 200 girls remain missing.) The latest reports from people living in the forest say Boko Haram fighters are sharing the girls, conducting mass marriages, selling them each for $12.”

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Don’t you care? Where is my daughter? (Credit: the guardian.com)

Your creation is kind of strolling along like this is no big deal. Hear my blasphemous prayer: “God damn it! God damn it! God damn it!” As you can see, I’ve no idea what to do with your priceless girls being shared and/or sold for the price of bottle of wine, so my soul sits in ancient Jerusalem’s town dump under a cross, with blood staining my trousers. Sometimes the only sane response is rage.

Of course, I’m actually drinking beer at my dining room table and feeling guilty. A restaurant messed up my order this afternoon, and I was pissed. I’m still pissed, but it wasn’t until that I sat down here and learned the news of Martin Cobb that my vision cleared. Forgive my pettiness.

Martin. My God, my God! And his sister and mother and loved ones. Just playing by the railroad tracks, Lord—a sister and brother who loved each other. The news doesn’t say whether Martin’s sister got raped, but it sounds like maybe not. I’m grateful for that, but not for the brick that smashed Martin’s head. They didn’t even have to take him to the hospital.

So, God I love, what should I pray for? Take machetes and bricks out of the world? Bring all people to their senses? Protect the vulnerable? Obviously you and prayer don’t work that way. I still love you, but I sure don’t understand.

I would like to ask that the ultra-radical Islamists’ penises catch fire, that Martin Cobb’s killer / sister’s assailant get ripped up in jail. But that’s the reptile in me praying. Rapists and murderers are your children, too—the subject for another prayer.

For your Nigerian girls who are now getting married or shared in the jungle: if nothing else, give them a sign. Something! Let them know that they are your beloved, that not everybody in the world has forgotten them.

For Martin Cobb’s sister: let it all be a blur; let her eyes have been turned away from her brother’s end; let her body and soul be well in time.

For Martin: you caught in your hand of grace the brick that smashed his skull, right? He felt nothing, right? He rests now in your lap of pure mercy, right?

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Martin Cobb: “A flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (Credit: nbcnews.com)

For Martin’s mother and loved ones: shit, how can they continue? Martin must have been really something. Give them what they need to remember him with joy.

It’s time to close, Lord. The beer is gone, and I’m sipping an affordable red Zinfandel. Your creation is shredding itself bloody. I trust you, but just don’t know what to think anymore.

Amen

The Dulcimers Hoped to Change Me

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“Change me!” (Credit: Ocean / Corbis)

In one of my favorite poems, Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” a plain woman dressed in “dull, null navy” grieves her loneliness and observes the animals, “these beings trapped / “As I am trapped, but not, themselves, the trap, / Aging but without knowledge of their age.” She ends her monologue with something like a prayer to a vulture. “Step to me as a man,” she begs. “You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!”

Jarrell isn’t an exclamation point junkie. At least in her mind, the woman is shouting. I can’t sit with this poem without being close to tears. The woman at the Washington Zoo, with her common clothing and numbing existence, speaks for me in those moments when I understand that some of my flaws are probably life sentences. Her plea is my prayer: “You know what I was. You see what I am. Change me. Change me!”

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Credit: Wikipedia

A couple weeks ago knowledge of flaw gave itself to me not at a zoo, but in a small sanctuary, and not during a liturgy, but during a concert. The Misery Bay Dulcimers were playing at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I serve as pastor. Wife Kathy and daughter Elena were with me in the back row, which is like a ringside seat in large churches. Gentle music from sixteen or so dulcimers graced my ears and touched my closed eyes. Was it “Danny Boy”? Or “Wild Irish Rose”? I don’t remember what song brought me to myself, like Jarrell’s woman, like Luke’s Prodigal Son.

“You’re not really here, John,” the dulcimers sang. “You’re off to Next, and you don’t even know what’s Next. Stay with us, brother. We’ll take care of you.”

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You promised to wait for me, Next. Where are you, you creep? (Credit: Corbis)

I’ve spent embarrassing energy in recent years staring at my own reflection, greeting age spots, explicating crow’s feet beside my spirit’s eyes. And wondering: “At fifty-two can I learn to be where I am, when I am, how I am, who I am? Can I mute the restless gravity that pulls me away from now and pushes me toward Next—without more medication, that is?

Hell, Next could be scooping litter boxes or scouring neglected dishes, but his rasp is relentless: “Let’s go. It’s time to go. You’ll be at peace only when you’re facing my way, taking the first steps in my direction. Never mind that when you get to me, I’ll be gone, laughing at your sorry ass and limping into the distance.”

As the dulcimers offered love, Elena leaned into me. I put my arm around her and rested my hand on Kathy’s shoulder. What better place to be? Ah, but Next. Stubborn shithead Next, with his tobacco-stained fingers and dank breath. I always hear him in my chest. His commentary translates into anxiety, like static electricity in the spot where you get choked up.

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Grandson Cole. Hope 1, Next 0. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But hope lives. My days aren’t enslaved by Next. I’m often fully present, though sometimes in peaceful, sacred moments, the old deceiver nags: “Listen to me, small man! Fragile man!”

“You know what I was,” I prayed to the God breathing on me through strings and fingers. “You see what I am. Change me. Change me!”

Sweet dulcimers. They persisted. A woman made a little wooden puppet do the jig on an oar. And minute by minute, they sang and danced Next mostly silent. “Dear one,” they said, “you still have time to find peace. Hear us. Be still. The Loving Mystery is always trying to kiss you.”