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.

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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?

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

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The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.

The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?

I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”

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Lovely field . . . could use a few cows

With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?

No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.

And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.

This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.

Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”

A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”

Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.

This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.

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Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Wikimedia Commons

Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.

How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.

What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.

This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.

Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.

On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.

Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.

Oniontown Pastoral #4: The Late Imposition of Ashes

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Part 1: Holy Saturday Evening

Chopped pears bubbled with white raisins and honey—an improvisation to anoint vanilla ice cream for Easter dessert.

Morning would come early. Before wife Kathy and I headed out for the hour drive from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, bacon and congealed fat, soaking potatoes and sliced onions had to get from refrigerator to crock pot, along with whatever else Grandma Coleman included in her German potato salad recipe.

While I cooked, Kathy went to the Vigil of Easter at Abiding Hope, the congregation I served for fourteen years and said Godspeed to five months ago. The gracious interim pastor invited me to come, too, but it was too soon to go back.

Ash Wednesday arrived at an awkward time for this pastor’s heart. The last fifteen years have been disproportionately penitential, my topography rich with Gethsemanes. These forty days being mostly unburdened, I haven’t felt like sweating in the garden or walking the lonesome valley.

My ingredients for happiness aren’t exotic. A couple of untroubled hours at home suffice. With clove and cinnamon taking over the smell of bacon and guitar solos leaning into the dark, I pulled up the footrest and closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, without warning, a suggestion of Lent rose into my throat.

How many times over the decades have I refused to cry? I’m not sure why deferred tears surface on warm spring days, when each breeze is the Sacred One cupping my face. Or on quiet evenings, when the moon passes through living room windows, when failure and regret are subjects of past calendars and my lungs fill with the air of glad memory.

Part 2: Easter Sunday

7:00 a.m.: Why the mess? Everything everywhere, owner’s manual and insurance card on the floor, napkins and dry pens by the gas pedal.

Some little expletive had rifled through our unlocked car overnight. Since nothing was missing, Kathy and I agreed drug money was the goal. But lesson learned.

Dinner on low, we left for Oniontown: breakfast at 9:00, worship at 10:00. All was in readiness. The tomb was empty; “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . [was] rolled up in a place by itself.”

As Kathy sipped coffee, I thought through the sermon story. Notes wouldn’t be necessary. I can never get far from my dad’s last trip to see wife Mary in her nursing home.

They kissed. He rested his lips on her hand. “Come on,” he finally said. “Let’s get out of here.”

In spite of shared dementia, they both realized the impossibility. Mary’s legs were dead. The only place Dad was going was back to assisted living.

“Well, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad searched his evaporating vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step out on a cloud?” Mary said. “But that can’t be.”

Dad’s eyebrows gathered down—his standard incredulous look. “Why not?”

Dad, who didn’t have one church-going hair in his wavy gray compliment, was proposing heaven: the other post.

My sermon, falling on the ears of many parishioners who had endured loss after loss, wouldn’t be buoyant with resurrection, but hushed with hope. The other post: oh, that we could all gather there, offenses forgiven, injuries healed, fears rocked to sleep like colicky babies.

We were making good time, and my sermon was rehearsed. I can’t remember a more fair Easter morning. The sun was waking up the pale land, telling it to live.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something that placed the fullness of Lent on my lap. Half an hour away from church, the betrayal and nails and the sponge soaked in sour wine lifted on a hyssop branch all caught up with me. If I had consented to tears at that point I might not have been able to recover in time for a triumphant Easter shout.

What I remembered was four years ago. My own beloved expletive—son Micah—was hooked on heroin and owed a dealer $200. Desperate, expecting to be flogged, he rifled through a couple of cars for stuff to sell and scored a laptop and something else that escapes me.

He got arrested, spent a couple hours in jail, then went out and injected melted down fentanyl patches with a friend, who overdosed and nearly died. Micah earned a felony for his trouble.

My son got clean shortly after his one-day crime spree and is now a joy. Anyone who dismisses the earthly poetry of death and resurrection can talk to me.

My teenage junkie once knelt in the middle of West 8th Street, waiting for a minivan to run him over. I have seen with my own eyes the junkie stand and reach honorable adulthood. On the way to Oniontown, though, a wadded Kleenex still next to the clutch, I imagined the punk who chanced upon the car in the Coleman driveway and made a frenzied search.

My boy came to such a place, and it occurred to me that Easter morning’s little expletive was probably loved by somebody. Maybe he or she was a boilerplate creep, but did a parent pray—with face buried in hands, as I did—for a miraculous healing, a decent path, anything?

Familiar landmarks on District Road were a private blur. I couldn’t afford to have Lent—creation aching with needles, wounds, and rancor, lost pilgrims wandering the lonesome valley—crack me open a couple miles away from St. John’s.

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District Road landmarks were a blur.

Breakfast was five-diamond Lutheran. We shouted and sang. When I talked about the other post, my tears behaved, but some of the folks cried on my behalf. I appreciated their help and knew unfinished ashes would rise in my throat again on a still evening of their own choosing.

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.

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Dear Dr. Quraishi-Landes:

My hometown newspaper, the Erie Times-News, trumpets harsh headlines today: Muslims face threats: U.S. WOMEN WARNED TO STOP WEARING SCARVES, VEILS. “On the night of the California shootings,” the Associated Press article begins, “Asiha Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.”

Although I read on, the image of you in your home, troubled at the prospect of you and your Muslim sisters being harassed or worse will be plenty to think about for one day.

I know what it’s like to sit with my face in my hands, but not out of fear for my safety. As a white man in the United States, I’m mostly to blame for my own bouts of suffering—poor decisions, personal weakness. I didn’t think twice about heading out the front door this morning and relaxing here at Starbucks with a tall Americano. Nobody cares what is on my head.

But you do have to consider scarfs and veils. “To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” you wrote on Facebook, “If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.”

The compassion of that last sentence is the fragrance of my Christian-Lutheran faith. In the end, I have to look up from my sacred pages and into the eyes of fellow pilgrims, whose lives call me to study with my heart. As a parish pastor I’ve taught for years that I can’t obey God with rancor strangling my mind and fear torching my soul. The letter of any law is brittle without mercy.

Do we speak these same thoughts in our own ways? I’m guessing we do. And we’ve felt the rancor, fear, and merciless convictions of our most troubled brothers and sisters take our breath away. These are jolting times. Like you, I hold my face and read sadness behind closed eyes.

But you looked up and wrote mindful words to an anxious world. Thank you. I look up with you and remember what the Gospel of John says about losing hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A few weeks ago at another Starbucks I caught some light, and it had to do with hijab. A young woman was waiting for her companion to doctor his coffee. Holding her scarf in place was a pin, a striking burst of gold. I thought at once of a monstrance, which holds the host in Roman Catholic practice.

I walked over to her and said, “I’m not a creep, I promise. I just wanted to say I love that pin you’re wearing.”

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I can’t tell you how much the woman’s pin resembled this monstrance. (Credit: Wikipedia)

She responded with an oh, thank you and a smile. I probably could have skipped the creep preface, since I was sitting with my wife. Anyway, I returned to my table, where I looked up after a few seconds. She was still offering me her smile. I gave her another one of mine for the road. In our small pocket of the United States, two believers exchanged mercy.

This is my reason for writing, actually: I wanted to return to you a mercy. You told your sisters, “Your life is more important than your dress.” I say to you, “Your life is important to me, yours and those in your Muslim family, no matter what you wear. If we should happen to meet, I’ll recognize in your eyes my own spirit, longing for a world of welcoming arms and kind voices.”

Your brother,

John Coleman

An Unorthodox Peace

IMG_3646This past Sunday the church I serve, Abiding Hope Lutheran in Erie, Pennsylvania, held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of our new church building, the foundation of which is already well underway. After morning worship at the old place, we all got into our cars and headed the mile or so to our future home.

For mundane reasons I had to drive son Micah’s car, which is always in unapologetic squalor. Almost to the end of the parking lot, I had to double back: the processional cross was still on its perch in the sanctuary. After fetching it, I looked at the backseat and paused: Should I put the cross down on that mess? Because I realized that entirely different questions were on my mind—ones I could answer right away—I rested the cross on my son’s work clipboard, toilet paper, hoody, etc., no food debris, thankfully.

The groundbreaking was meaningful and fun and didn’t seem at all redundant. No silver shovels for us. Everybody who wanted to turn some dirt brought a shovel from home, especially our kids. The ground was packed down by construction vehicle traffic and hard as the cinderblock foundation. We found a soft patch for the young ones with sandbox shovels and let them have at it, sang with gusto, and said our prayers and good intentions. The adults chipped loose teaspoons of gray crust.

When we finished, I lay the cross over the chaos for its ride to the Coleman house, where it leaned overnight in the dining room.

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Processional cross

“Ooh,” Micah said, spotting what he actually carried years ago as an acolyte. His question was implicit: “What’s the deal with the cross here?”

I explained.

He held it like a shovel—Christ at the top—and pretended to chip at the floor: “So did you dig with it?”

“It would have been fitting,” I said, “but, no, a couple of kids held it for the ceremony.”

As Micah has grown, we’ve developed an understanding. He gently teases me, but knows that my faith is spacious and merciful, blinding white with Mystery. And I take his searching seriously and don’t meddle with his atheism.

The purest image of my spirit’s posture is this: I don’t fear for my son. I don’t fear for anybody.

My Creator isn’t abstract. Often when I close my eyes and breathe, a love that feels bestowed rises in my throat—as when a parent watches a child disappear through the school doors. My chest is drawn toward a planetary embrace. The longing is physical.

It may be nothing more than my own middle-aged chemicals inducing some weird prayer-meditation high. I’m probably bat-crap crazy. I can’t offer a defense, only a description of the love that I bet my life on. God is what I call this love, but the older I get, the more I’m drawn to the ancient Jewish tradition of not vocalizing Yahweh. Shh. Only know and breathe compassion—for all, for self. I want to name the Holy One with my flawed heart and hands. My voice can’t be trusted entirely.

How far is the reach of Sacred Love? Whom and what does it rest upon? On Sunday, when I lay the cross on Micah’s slop in the backseat—nothing compared to the past squalor of heroin, arrest, and rage—I spoke my Christian answers to the questions behind my question. The universe is composed of beloved daughters and sons. Who am I to send anyone into exile? Helpless before grace as I am, how can I presume to stand in the way of Love?

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Christ’s metal blessing upon the chaos

This might not be the most convenient parking place for a pastor. Love’s current in the Bible is strong, but troubling blood flows there, too. I will only say that I’ve made an unorthodox peace with Egypt’s firstborn and Israel’s young women lacking evidence of their virginity, stoned to death on their family’s doorstep—we have a private understanding.

It’s enough, I guess, to admit that in resting a processional cross on the backseat of tired old Mazda sedan, I was confessing my belief: the risen Christ bestows a metal blessing on every mess in every land, on every soul aching with belief and disbelief.

Naps and Prayers in Ash

Church camp with forty-five teenagers and four fellow pastors is now a couple weeks in the rearview mirror. Every summer we spend six days together at Camp Lutherlyn (near Butler, Pennsylvania) covering Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastor Jeff and I teach first year kids the Ten Commandments, which is an exercise I appreciate more as the summers pile up.

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I’ve come to know the Ten Commandments not as scolding stares (as from this owl in the Lutherlyn Environmental Education Center) but as ways to love neighbor and world.

Spending a couple of hours per day talking about taking the Lord’s name in vain and multiple shalt nots probably sounds depressing, but not with Martin Luther’s explanations of what the commandments mean. Take number seven: “You shall not steal.” As long as you don’t break into a car and run off with somebody’s purse, you’re good, right? Luther pushes the idea open: “We should fear and love God that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get it by dishonest dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of income.” Carry this too far, and you’ll be labeled a pinko radical.

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Martin Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarethe: Severe looking folk! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

With every prohibition Luther tacks on an exhortation. So not bearing false witness against your neighbor comes with the instruction to “defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If you’ll forgive the gender specific language, Luther’s explanations blow the dust off of Moses’ tablets and shine justice’s light on them.

Peeling back the layers was joyful. It’s not enough to avoid strangling our neighbors; we are to “help and befriend” them. And not coveting your neighbor’s possessions includes actually helping her to keep them.

Beyond the classroom time, during which I gratefully hang on to master-teacher Jeff’s coattails, each installment of Camp Lutherlyn has its own personality and unveils its own lessons before this middle-aged novice.

June 14th through 19th had a trippy groove—trippy and drippy. This was certainly the rainiest week on record. My sneakers went into the trash as soon as I got home. But the weather was just a backdrop to the funkiness.

Photographs tell part of the story:

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Lutherlyn’s Environmental Education Center has plenty of curiosities and stuffed animals that appear bemused.

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You’re welcome to pet this porcupine, but, as the signage suggests, go “from the head toward the tail only.” Copy that!

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Pastor Jeff examines a boa skin. If I ever see one of these in the Pennsylvania woods, I’m going home.

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A kid standing beside me said, “Is that poop on a stick?” Not poop, but “galls.” Check out the next slide.

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Church camp’s Harmonic Convergence shone on the next-to-last evening during the annual Snake Pit, when kids get to ask pastors any questions they want. One young lady said, “If you could add another commandment to the ten, what would it be?” I knew my answer right away, but let the other pastors go first while mulling over the risk. “Oh, damn the torpedoes,” I thought, then spoke: “I’d add a commandment that Anne Lamott included in one of her books [Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith]. She said, “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” Gasp. Giggle. “I’d add that second rule.”

That was the message of camp writ coarsely: “For the love of God, be nice. Don’t be a jerk. Keep your promises. Share the buckets in the sandbox.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I haven’t received any complaints yet, so maybe the colorful language was received as intended.

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The week’s oddest moment came on Wednesday evening, when the pastors usually go off campus for supper. This urinal was in an otherwise nice and tasteful brew pub. I’m still can’t figure out how this is supposed to be funny. “Thou shalt not piss on thy neighbors, regardless of their race, nation, creed, etc.”

Photographing a urinal with what looks like a 1970s funk band painted on the porcelain and saying asshole in front of a bunch of kids would have made any week at camp a stunner, but the way my spiritual doors got blown open by the slanting rain was a bigger surprise. Ten years ago Lutherlyn was all about running and writing. Between classes, while the kids were off mud whomping and zip-lining, I got in some great hill work and wrote a thousand words a day.

This time around I hadn’t planned on exercise, but did look forward to wide fields of writing. Last year yielded three blog posts, but from the moment I put my pillows and bags in Ash, the cabin I shared with the guys, naps and prayers were the rule. Sometimes the two wove themselves together, with quiet abiding trailing off into healing sleep. In the forty-five minutes between morning class and lunch, I returned to Ash and lay down for half an hour of breathing and letting go. Then when afternoon class wrapped up, I took a siesta with wise and loving arms—ninety minutes, two hours.

It didn’t take long to figure out the lesson church camp had in store for me: I was weary deep down in a place sleep only begins to refresh. In the past I would have denied myself the rest, the old mile- and word-counting impulses pressing harder than compassion for self. But for six days in June of 2015, I surrendered. Of course, the learning was about more than fatigue.

In May of 2013 I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The plan was to write, which is a pleasure, share a few meals with Brother John, and rest in the monks’ peace. Turned out I had more grieving to do over the ugliness of my father’s death. If I hadn’t known before I certainly discovered then that silence is an astute therapist. Wounded and injured parts of myself, often in hiding for months and years, visit and have their say.

Words are optional. In Kentucky I watched Dad obey Dylan Thomas’ villanelle. At Camp Lutherlyn my visitors didn’t need to speak. I know these injuries well and long ago accepted their teaching that forgiveness doesn’t cure everything. Absolution doesn’t get rid of a limp.

So I slept in Ash and took in long draughts of the Sacred Presence. And here what could have been nothing more than days overcast with ache was redeemed by hope. I’ve built my life on the probably foolish premise that interior silence is both invocation and petition. Come, Jesus. Welcome, Buddha. Heal and teach, Mysterious Love. There’s no proof that Holiness exists, let alone that it takes up residence in me when I put aside the smart phone, breathe, and wait. Still, I would hate to think of the person I would be today without the grace and mercy that have found me when I close my eyes and come to rest.

Though my visitors were tossing and turning on the next bunk, I understood that their paralyzing power was giving way to the creation of a new man—or the reclamation of an old one, I’m not sure which.

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Steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. News of the murders there reached me toward the end of camp week–the saddest moment. The shooter, it turns out, is a Lutheran who went to church camp as a kid. (Credit: Spencer Means on Wikimedia Commons)

We’re always becoming, aren’t we? Every last one of us. Refurbished souls with sutured hearts, crooked legs, and bruised skin. (Maybe this explains my weight gain and stretch marks! I’m new wine in an old wineskin.)

I’m grateful for a peculiar week at church camp, a crude commandment added to the usual Ten, and holy naps and prayers in Ash. At 9:05 a.m. on July 6th I’m a fifty-three-year-old novice with an inexplicable smile.

Wanting to Write about the Martyrs of Charleston

Dear Napper’s Companions,

Toward the end of May, kind and thoughtful Mary sent me an email that has stayed with me. I had posted a newspaper column I wrote over a decade ago about the prospect of the United States bombing Iraq. Here’s most of Mary’s response:

I came home from my job . . . here in Asheville where you and I briefly met and realized that I have not read A Napper’s Companion in a while. It was a treat to read your posts all at once in the silence of my living room while my husband flipped through The Mountain Express and my Pug snored contentedly.

I enjoyed all of them except the political one, but it got me thinking. I think the political system is broken, because we are. I think we should all step back and let go of our identifying with political parties so strongly and begin to really, actually listen to each other. Perhaps more healing could take place. Hmm. More for me to think about and try to do.

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The first words of Benedict’s Rule for monastic life: “Listen to the ear of your heart.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

First, Mary’s setting for reading is enchanting. Would that we all could relax in living rooms with a spouse honoring the silence and a dog snoring to provide the necessary punctuation.

But “I enjoyed all of them except . . .” made me pull up short. A baseball player who bats .300 has reason to celebrate. Thin-skinned writers, on the other hand, get moody over a .900 average. A single clunker can make us sulk and whine, “Aw, to bloody hell with the whole writing thing!”

In fact, I don’t bruise so easily. My stay at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars thirty years ago gave me callouses, as did the fat file of rejection letters I’ve received from hundreds of magazines and book publishers. Mary’s except stung for an instant—a flu shot, a plucked eyebrow. The pinch was immediately followed by gratitude.

I wrote back, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m really grateful for your note because you’ve taught me something important.” Her lesson takes some explaining.

A week ago I savored the free Wi-Fi at a Panera Bread in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, and started a report about my week with kids and pastors at church camp. (You’ll get to read that soon enough if you want to.) Unfortunately, the joys of hanging out with fresh-faced teenagers and clergy friends intersected with receiving news of the nine martyrs of Charleston, South Carolina.

As I sipped mango iced tea and sighed, my intended report buckled under Dylann Roof’s scowl. Rather than staying in the woods of Camp Lutherlyn, I followed the thruway to Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Soon I was dissecting the latest installment in our national shame, and the kiddos and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism were hundreds of miles behind me.

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I should have stayed at camp, where a butterfly rested on my sneaker.

I had a morning after experience when reviewing what I had written: “What did I do?” Even as I was droning on about a racist, terrorist attack, Mary’s except cautioned me. I should have known. Sampling around 1500 words, I felt like a cook who had spent hours on a dish that turned out bland. Eh!

The fact is, writers need to be open to learning their gifts and limitations. At fifty-three I would have hoped to be confident in my wheelhouse, but since most days I squeeze in at most an hour at the writing table, awareness has been delayed.

Ah well, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” Did you know that both William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot covered Bob Dylan? “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” respectively, and others, too. The results, spoken rather than sung, were embarrassing and have been justly consigned to, well, camp. Captain Kirk seems to have embraced his inner pink flamingo. I don’t know about Mr. French.

There’s nothing much sadder than writers and artists who are under the impression that their stuff screams when, in fact, it’s eh or worse, ridiculous. (Lack of self-awareness is hardly sadness at all, of course, compared to getting murdered in a Bible study.)

I’ve written a fair amount about societal cancers and governmental rancor and absurdity because of the effort’s therapeutic purging. But in sharing such work, I may sound like a baritone trying to tackle “Nessun Dorma.” Some measures work, but the entirety doesn’t sing.

The point: Mary’s except, so gently rendered, invited me to recognize my voice, which has more to do with singing about my wife, children, grandson, and dog–close to the end, I’m afraid–than with spelling out what we humans can do to keep our species from imploding. More to do with celebration and lamentation than explanation. I enjoy having my say, but folks don’t stop by A Napper’s Companion to pick up ways to save the world.

I imagine if you’ve hung around here for long, you’re like Mary from Asheville, reclined in a quiet room with a sleeping Pug. You’re looking for a few minutes of hope, a port of joy or comfort in all kinds of weather, or a love letter.

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Like you, friend, I don’t have much other than questions? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe a song and a prayer, which are good places to end. As I hold our family members who welcomed in a young man concealing bullets and rage, I’ve got no answers, no fix. But I do have a song, not from church camp, but verses from an old hymn:

From ev’ry ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

And I have a prayer:

Let there be a cure, Eternal Love,

and lead us to it.

A song and a prayer aren’t much, I know, but they’re all I’ve got.

Peace and love,

John