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.

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Mean: the New Normal

Begin with this: I’m no better than anyone else. Pick whomever you like: the haggard, rotten-toothed crack head; the Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not 1000-pounder who eats four rotisserie chickens for lunch; parents who treat their kids like dog crap. One environmental variable; one chromosomal kink; one impulsive, destructive choice: slip one of these into my row of biographical Dominos, and I’m not a marginally respectful fifty-one-year-old blogger and Lutheran pastor. I’m a vagrant, letch, junkie, inmate, whatever. Because of this truth, what follows is a peek at a sad sore on my spirit. Don’t picture my hands as fists.

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One mishap here, and I could be living under a bridge. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes midday oblivion is joyful. Imagine finishing a swim in warm water. Your blanket and towel are in the shade. When you lie down, the sand cradles your body. The breeze is so perfect it seems like part of your skin. Sliding into sleep, you think for a moment your head is resting against the chest of Merciful Eternity. Yeah.

Other times, midday oblivion is the bird—not a bird, but the bird. It’s weary, though reptilian, repartee with the world. It’s a mumbled f-bomb. It’s a wet Bronx cheer. It’s what you say as you shoot the moon. It’s your way of grunting, “Go pound sand.” Or it’s a sighed, “Enough already. You win. I’m taking a nap.”

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Credit: openclipart.org

Today’s oblivion won’t be the beach kind, and before a glorious siesta, I’m wagging my flaccid bird at meanness, which is epidemic. Unless I go to a monastery, I can’t seem to escape it—probably because my eye is now hypersensitive. Mean is everywhere.

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Even canned coffee is mean these days.

The other day my son Micah asked me to run him to the Exchange, a great used media store with friendly, helpful clerks. As he looked around, an ad for some World Wrestling Federation video played over and over on a flat screen in a corner near the ceiling. I stared up, slack-jawed. So many means to celebrate: sweaty, snarling, barking, slamming, glistening, hollering. And that’s just the gladiators. The crowd is in a constant, lathery rage.

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Amasis the Wrestler–grrrrr. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When an aching neck forced me to look down, I noticed that at eye level and below, no square inch of the Exchange goes unexploited. There’s junk for sale everywhere. Check out the gallery of confrontational action figures and other curiosities.

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Ew.

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Not one of Al Pacino’s finer moments, if you ask me.

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Sorry for the glare. What will scare a monster? Tell him Chuck Norris is hiding under his bed!

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Grrrr. Hulk pants too tight!

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At least the Joker laughs as he blows a puff of poison gas in your face.

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Bobble-heady Freddy. Needs dental work.

In fairness to the Exchange (did I mention the help is genuinely nice there?), not all items are angry.

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Most colorful of the Rolling Stones coaster set.

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$9.00? Seriously?

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Love M&M’s. Need ear buds. Not tempted.

The common denominator here? If an item isn’t quirky, it must be baring its teeth. Who would buy somebody under eighteen a psychopathic action figure? Only Chuck Norris isn’t a physiological aberration or demented killer. And what adult would collect such diabolical kitsch? The absurdity and ugliness are draining.

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Ah, that would be a “no” vote from Simon. (Credit: newsbiscuit.com)

Of course, the face of mean isn’t always ugly. Often it’s stylish and witty. Back when “American Idol” was hot I didn’t watch it. Not only was it excruciating to witness performances by kids whose parents had lied to them about their talent, but I also couldn’t hack Simon Cowell’s delight in explicating their failure. I don’t blame Simon—he’s probably a great guy—but he has certainly contributed to the evolution of a television menu that’s riddled with mean. If you want to watch a cooking program, one of your options provides chefs with bizarre ingredients—pork tenderloin, Oreos, arugula, merlot-infused goat cheese, and honeydew melon—then puts their concoctions before restaurateurs, one of whom cowells them over the head for creating gunk. Throw a cluster of narcissistic brats on an island or into a mansion and you’ve got reality television: look how rotten these characters can be to each other, how many ways they can lie to and betray each other. And now home improvement and remodeling shows are caught in mean’s gravitational pull. What’s-their-names, those handsome twin brothers, are now leading teams of competing remodelers, and the underachievers are going to be thrown onto the scrap heap. I can’t tell you the names of these shows, since I watch for a minute, then catch another wave. (By the way, is “Survivor” on anymore? I honestly don’t know.)

I wonder what lesson all this mean entertainment teaches us—and don’t even get me started on “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Human Centipede,” diversions that are beyond mean. If nothing else, I’d argue that the stimulation I’ve mentioned contributes to the normalization of mean.

After watching a movie in which humans are sewn together in the most unsavory way possible, what’s the big deal about posting an embarrassing picture of a friend on Facebook? When housemates shout bleeps and stab fingers in each other’s faces during primetime, a nasty text message seems benign, arriving as it does without eye contact.

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I imagine she’s actually very nice. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what’s got me looking napward at the moment is more basic than cinema, games, Facebook, and cell phones. I’m tired out by good, old fashioned, face-to-face mean, mean tendered for no good reason, mean delivered because—ah, what the hell!—mean is normal, even hip. (I’ve no empirical evidence to support any of this preachiness—sorry.) My impression is this: contemporary snarl and snark, far from being frowned upon, is now a compelling fashion statement. Wrestling gladiators and movie action figures, with their teeth bared, are only the new normal reduced to caricature.

In this regrettable landscape, simple unfriendliness doesn’t register on the interpersonal Richter scale. Even those who claim to be religious can treat fellow human beings shabbily without any fallout of conscience. Lately a dear friend has shared news that those around her are repeatedly breaking author Anne Lamott’s Rule #2, which I paraphrase here: “Don’t be a [schmutz].” My friend’s been hurt, worn down by cold shoulders and passive aggression.

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Come here, kid. You’ve got schmutz on your face. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Truth be told, it’s actually my friend’s pain that’s tiring me out—a cordial, hard worker being pummeled by schmutzes. There’s no remedy for what’s certainly longstanding bad behavior that I’m stung by now only because I’m thin-skinned. All I can do is follow Voltaire’s advice that I cultivate my own flawed garden. And I can give loving, juicy raspberries to a world that seems extra mean today, then lie down. My hope: in sleep the only teeth I dream will be framed by smiles.

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Make a bobble-head Thich Nhat Hanh smiling at me, and I’ll buy one. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

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Good morning! (Credit: Royalty-Free/Corbis)

5:28 a.m.: birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that harrumphed at some threat. Ugh.

There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.

I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.

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Inspiring photograph of sardine can

Since an out-of-town visit to a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.

The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.

With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.

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Not me, but I covet those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.

I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)

Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:

  • “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
  • “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
  • “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
  • And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).

Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.

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Sign hanging over my dresser; $3.00 at an estate sale