Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.

My phone messages

Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.

I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.

“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.

“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.

Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.

And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.

Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.

To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.

As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.

At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”

Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.

But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”

And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”

A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.

“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”

“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.

Lord, please grant Ray a full deck. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.

Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.

When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”

If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.

Faith is answering my phone.

Warren State Hospital, 1886. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

In Memory of Warren Redfoot

Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.

Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.

“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.

What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”

He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.

As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”

He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.

Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”

Then the sun came out.

“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”

“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”

I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.

Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.

These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.

Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.

Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.

Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.

Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”

“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”

“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”

And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.

When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.

I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.

I did the same. We kept the silence together.

“Peace?” I finally asked.

He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”

Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Old and new.

Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands

Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands

Dear Mom:

It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.

The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.

My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.

One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.

What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.

Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.

Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?

“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”

He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.

And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.

Your Christmas cactus lives, Mom.

Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?

When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.

Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”

Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.

In heaven unfinished business has to be checked at the gate. Right? Even so, I’m really sorry.

You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.

Love,

John

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

I know what you’re expecting: Here comes another edition of “Now, Pastor John Will Warm the Cockles of My Heart.” Well, sisters and brothers, think again.

This morning as I drove Kathy to work, I did, indeed, kiss her hand, but what were once pecks meant to say, “Sure do love you” have evolved into lips reluctant to pull away, lips that would say, “Sure do need you.” My gesture used to be mostly an offering, a reminder, but in this season of civilization, I’m drawing succor and forbearance from the woman who has tried to understand and abide me for 36 years.

So, to the kiss in question: at a red light, I held her hand to my lips, closed my eyes and breathed in and out. A woman driving by apparently saw and smiled. An hour ago Kathy sent me a message: “You made her day.”

Maybe so, but I’d like to explain to this stranger that I am romantic, a real sweetie pie, but what she witnessed was much less an amorous husband and more a man crouched on his roof during a flash flood, tree branches and neighborhood “disjecta membra” swept away by the current.

The water punishing my home’s foundation at present is not only the erosion of the societal expectations Americans have historically honored—imperfectly and inconsistently, to be sure—but also the delight some of my fellow citizens seem to take in dancing on the grave of noble behavior.

I’m not talking about high-minded philosophy or fervent religious belief, but about the simple words that rolled off the tongues of my elders:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Mind your manners.
  • How would you feel if somebody did that to you?
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • You can run, but you can’t hide.
  • Don’t hit below the belt.
  • Don’t pee on my foot and tell me it’s raining.
  • Play by the rules.

You can add dozens of sayings to my list, and, of course, there are exceptions to any adage. For example, some situations demand an unvarnished truth that isn’t nice, maybe quite stern, but no provocation warrants cruelty.

I’ve long ago stopped harrumphing about folks chewing with their mouths open and yawning with noisy abandon in public, two trifles that drove my father to distraction. Why bother fishing a plastic straw out of a tsunami?

What I can’t stop mourning, however, are the standards of thought, speech and conduct that I grew up with being moment by moment trodden under foot. Worse, when I see one person rejoicing in the misfortune of another or insisting that a clearly documented fact is actually false or constantly and proudly acting out in ways that would put a preschooler in timeout, I’m both pained and drained.

If you think I’ve got one public figure in mind, you can relax—or clench up, as you please. My scolding finger is pointed at millions, and I’m done apologizing for it. When our mothers told us to behave ourselves, who among them would have overlooked sucker punching a friend on the playground or equivocating with one arm elbow-deep in the cookie jar? Not mine, God rest her, that’s for sure. In her generation, actions that now don’t even raise an eyebrow might send children to bed without dinner.

Much merriment is had these days at the expense of sensitive souls like myself who aren’t ashamed of tears shed because the beliefs we embrace are sailing into the horizon of this flat earth.

Last night’s news reported that binge drinking among senior citizens is on the rise. Why? Nestled in the list of feeble theories was “social change.” Yeah, no kidding. Millions of people over 65—and many considerably under—no longer recognize their native land. I’m not referring to hot button issues, but simply the scurvy, sinister way folks treat and address each other.

Forgive me. I realize not a single heart cockle has been warmed, but an amiable Oniontown pastor must on rare occasion be given leave to share thoughts that let a chilly draft into the bed chamber.

Most days, kissing Kathy’s hand provides all the solace I need. Her skin, so familiar and dear after nearly 40 years as a couple, reminds me of how much grace and blessing crowd around me in this life.

Once in a great while, though, I have to pull my lips away and speak. Today is thus.

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

(May 30, 2019)

And if I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat.

(Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, whose frizzy pompadour was once a natural wonder, wrote “If I Had a Boat” while skipping a college class. Unable to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “It’s a song about possibility . . . a song about being a cowboy out west and the captain of a great ship.”

Lyle Lovett, whose pompadour used to be twice this high. (Credit: Forest L. Smith, III, on Wikimedia Commons)

Well, it’s Lovett’s song to explain, but I hear in its whimsy an impulse to leave behind the stifling and disappointing. In one verse, the country crooner has Tonto, who does the Lone Ranger’s “dirty work for free,” saying, “Kemo Sabe, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea.” The delicious hutzpah elicits whoops and applause.

Lately the song has become a hymn to me, in part because of the legendary sidekick’s impertinence. From time to time—and I ask this in a sincere pastoral tone—don’t you want to bare your bum to civilization and “go out on the ocean”? To ride a pony toward a horizon of possibilities? I sure do, and saying so constitutes a confession that the good Lord would probably understand.

I’m not indulging in a rant or snivel here. The truth is, we’ve all had weeks that deserve to be hauled out into open air and shared, for the sake of commiseration if nothing else. The truth also is, a village preacher can either succumb to despair or maintain a cargo hold stocked with hope. The latter has stood me in good stead, and I’m not about to change course now.

So, about this past week.

For starters, I visited an old friend who has been in declining health. He couldn’t rouse himself from an awful dream, the highlights of which he narrated between groans and shouts. “I want to get the hell out of here.” “I need a place.” “There’s nothing I can do.” “Help me.” His manner was delirious, but, in fact, he captured the plot perfectly.

A woman in the next wheelchair patted my friend’s arm, mouthed a prayer, then pulled her fleece sweater up over her head in turtle fashion.

So I prayed them both a boat out on the ocean. This was their fervent wish. Why should they be moored for one minute longer in such troubled waters?

This painful visit was followed by news that hit like a rogue wave. Wife Kathy and I were settling into bed for a bout of reading when she learned that a dear friend’s ex-husband had died in a tragic accident.

I first heard Lyle Lovett’s playful song on a recording this friend had made for Kathy and me. I wish we lived on the same continent so that we could shoot misery the moon and sing a hymn about riding a pony on deck.

A sail boat just big enough for a pony ride. (Credit: Serge Melki on Wikimedia Commons)

I never met our friend’s ex, but did get to know recently one of their adult children. And, of course, a divorce doesn’t sever all ties of affection. There’s plenty of pain to go around. In this moment, the hope in my cargo hold looks meager next to unexpected death. I have little to offer. But what else is there besides hope that a capsized vessel–or a life overturned–will right itself and remain seaworthy?

In the week’s final glancing blow, The New York Times notes this morning the death of Leon Redbone at age 69. According to his death announcement, the quirky, secretive troubadour “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at age 127.”

Leon Redbone in 2010. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Oh behave yourselves,” he said in a prepared sign off. “Thank you . . . and good evening everybody.”

No doubt Redbone wanted fans like me to keep our chins up, which is wise counsel. (Of course, when death has stolen a loved one, your chin and all the rest of you can certainly droop for a while.)

I still haven’t grown up yet, but as my collection of bad weeks becomes a flotilla, singing helps me to gaze across the delta at that beautiful shore.

One day we will “all together go out on the ocean,” not to give Kemo Sabe what for, but to point our pony’s face into the spray and gallop for joy.

The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

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)

I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love

I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love

The 1993 movie Philadelphia teaches the powerful lesson that love is something to be proud of, even though folks may find certain expressions of it hard to honor at first. On the soundtrack, a Neil Young song, also named after the City of Brotherly Love, resonates with me, especially the line “I won’t be ashamed of love.” The protagonist is a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. My sister Cathy is married to Betsy Ann, and sister Cindy is married to Linda. Far from feeling shame, these kind and upright women ought to be proud.

One of my favorite photographs of all time: Cathy and Betsy Ann

But as moving as Neil Young’s words are in context, their message begs to be taken down from the screen and worn like a wedding ring. Love isn’t something you put on when it feels good and take off when it proves inconvenient.

Here in 2018 the temptation to compartmentalize love and all the rest of our emotions is great. Our tear ducts, for example, work overtime for YouTube videos of Christmas puppies and soldiers returning home to surprise loved ones, but an emotional voice in a political debate is often persona non grata. Two Facebook comments show what I’m getting at:

Awww did the bad man hurt ur feewings again

and

You need a safe pwace with a blanky

These responses landed in a sparring match over recent news developments, with one side expressing genuine concern and the other sticking with locker room towel snapping.

I don’t mention specifics here because I’m not looking for a fight. My point is directed to the whole sociopolitical spectrum. Not only won’t I be ashamed of love, I want to be its champion. Americans from many quarters insist that something essential to their identity is under attack, which may explain why we’re always putting up our dukes.

While my own rhetorical fists aren’t raised, my arms are crossed. I admit it, I need a safe pwace with a blanky. Some folks take pleasure in calling people like me a “snowflake.” Nothing new here. Those who drag kindness and compassion into the debate hall used be “pinkos” and “bleeding hearts.” Today, a merely descriptive term, “liberal,” is being wielded as a slur.

Such language is weaponry in what I believe is a war on love. Emotions, the reasoning goes, have no place in policy formation, and those who suggest otherwise deserve a good mansplaining.

I disagree, so with a blanky on my lap, I’ll speak only for myself. Tease the worried and teary-eyed if you like, but you’ll not shame this old softy for a few love-inspired convictions:

  • Being proudly American doesn’t require that I think ill of other nations or view them as opponents. My faith calls me to welcome and assist foreigners and strangers, even when sacrifices are likely.
  • Saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem are two ways of demonstrating love for America, but they aren’t the only ways. When fully understood, peaceful protest can be a profound sign of patriotism. And insisting on a couple of core values amounts to taking up our country in a strong and lasting embrace: 1.) Misleading others is wrong, and “well, that’s politics for you,” is no defense. Cases can be made for lying in extreme circumstances, as when Oscar Schindler did so to save Jews during World War II, but when falsehoods are deployed to protect the powerful, line their pockets or advance their agendas, the results may be rightly called “evil.” 2.) Knowledge is good, so precious, in fact, that it is the duty of citizens to seek out reliable sources of information, not just ones that confirm previously held opinions. Loving America requires homework. Facts exist, and they do matter.
  • The first priority of any government should be the wellbeing of children and those unable to care for themselves. Scripture could easily support this claim, but love alone is my defense—messy, counter-intuitive, vulnerable love. In the recent instance of immigrant families being separated at America’s southern border, simple human empathy makes an unapologetic case against such a practice. Might some undesirables slip into the country along with innocent children? Of course, but philos allows that the presence of bad actors among law abiding citizens may be collateral damage in the campaign to protect children—and not the other way around! Always err on the side of aiding the innocent rather than punishing the guilty. Might the guilty cause trouble? Absolutely, but love devoid of risk is just another four-letter word.

As you can imagine, my commitment to love reaches beyond the controversial issues of a given season. Love means putting my iPhone away when somebody is talking to me. It means thanking police officers and soldiers for their service. It means remembering that nothing makes me better than the guy at Erie’s State Street Starbucks who has loud arguments with himself. Nothing. I’m one chromosomal kink, chemical hiccup or bad decision from being in his shoes.

Come to think of it, he hasn’t been around in quite a while. I hope he is OK. He might not understand my concern for him, but I’m sure you can. I’m not ashamed to say that he is worthy of my love.

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop

What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.