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)

 

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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.

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Micah, around the time he figured out his old man

When son Micah was a boy, he sized me up better than the therapists of my troubled twenties and forties ever did.

“Oh, Dad,” he said with a loving lilt, “you’re such a relationship.” I can’t remember the context or his exact age, but could never forget such a quirky turn of phrase.

I’ve kept his insight in my “Kids Say the Darndest Things” file until a recent development in my daily routine—more on that later—proved Micah prophetic.

Of course, I go by “John,” “Dad,” “Pop” and “Pastor.” You can call me a “writer” if you’re brave enough. On my best days I’ve been accused of being a decent “cook.” I used to consider myself a “runner,” though “jogger” is more accurate.

But as a man who has spent extravagant hours navel-gazing, I admit that “relationship” is closest to the truth. (Please imagine Barbra Streisand singing, “People, people who need people.”)

This pastor’s life is one great tome with many chapters of relationships. My daily planner is thicker with names than tasks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Friday morning writer friends Mary and Jennie and I will get together for our monthly coffee, commiseration and guffaw session. When we get laughing other patrons turn toward us and stare.

About an hour ago I took friend Ray for a haircut and beard trim. I started out as his pastor, then became his chauffeur and finally decided to be his friend. He is on heavy psychotropic meds and goes in-patient every now and then to deal with paranoia. His flat affect makes our witty repartee all the more hilarious. I love the guy.

And I love people. The best part of serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is when parishioners come to the church on an errand and stop for a chat.

Church secretary Jodi recently recounted to me her family’s efforts to rehabilitate an aptly named chicken. Somehow or other, Chicky Chick acquired a bum leg. The stakes were high, as a gimpy chicken stands a good chance of being pecked into pate by the other birds. That’s how they roll, Jodi explained, adding the tidbit that egg-laying hens are poor candidates for dinner, so the chopping block wasn’t the best answer.

More than anything else, she had a soft spot for the old thing, so St. John’s church secretary went into crisis mode and pieced together an isolation pen.

Once a day, Chicky Chick received therapy, which consisted of Jodi pulling and pushing on the compromised limb and her husband or son hanging onto the flummoxed patient. Thanks to the ministrations, the hen has moved back in with her peeps.

Can you imagine my good fortune of having a paying job that includes listening to amiable people tell stories that you just can’t make up?

In addition to great stories and fun nicknames, I have this view out my office window. Not a bad deal.

And the nicknames! Maybe it takes a relationship like me to adore the handles mentioned with a straight face in my Pastor’s Study. My three favorites are “Cucumber,” “Squeak” and “Fuzzy.” I’ve also picked up on an understated Oniontown way of communicating love for somebody without actually speaking the three words. Just attach an “e” sound to the end of the person’s name. Adjustments are often necessary. You’d never say “William-ee,” for example, but “Billy” gushes with affection.

Outside my office door, a weaving by wife Kathy. People can come in for peace (pax) and a couple of laughs. And I always try to take the peace of Oniontown home with me.

On days I’m not at St. Johnny’s, Pop tends to connections at home in Erie. Most mornings I sit silently with God, whom I pray to behold and hold according to a schedule beyond calendars. I trust that at the end of days, this mysterious relationship will take all others unto itself.

Most Sundays the Colemans have family dinner, a practice daughter Elena insisted on back when Micah was recovering from drug addiction. Our house is noisy and joyful with people who need each other and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

And now my wife and I have stumbled into the routine that has quickly become blessed. After both of us finish work, we face each other on an aptly named piece of furniture, a “loveseat,” and talk. No music or television.

We refer to this new habit as “our time.” Who but a hopeless relationship could savor two such commonplace words? Micah was wiser than his years.

My wife’s proper name, incidentally, is “Kathleen,” but “Kathy” works better. I also say “I love you” an awful lot to be sure she never forgets.

After “our time,” Kathy and I sometimes go for a walk in the neighborhood and check out beauty hiding in plain sight.

Oniontown Pastoral: Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

Oniontown Pastoral:

Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

March 31, 2018

I’ve never worn a compulsory smile, so I thanked a Starbucks barista a few minutes ago for the perky expression she is no doubt required to sport. “I know looking happy must be tiring,” I said, “but it really matters. I appreciate it.”

You should have seen the young lady’s wide eyes and pearly whites. No kidding, she parted the clouds on this drizzly day before Easter.

I now have in front of me another dear face, one that I have not seen for fifty years and figured never to see again. I often wear a leather bracelet bearing his name:

SP4 MARC E. SNELL

USA 03 SEP 68 SVN

This soldier, who was killed in Vietnam soon after his nineteenth birthday and a month before I turned seven, accompanies my comings and goings—not as a dark cloud, but as a ray of truth.

Marc E. Snell

The Snells lived two doors down from the Colemans for decades, and the memory of standing on our front porch when word came of Marc’s death still has ahold of me. Even at my young age, I felt all the houses across the street tilt to one side. The fair weather turned surreal, as if warmth and normalcy had no business on Wagner Avenue that day.

I ordered Marc’s bracelet a couple years back and wear him to remind me that a person can be doing nothing much, like consuming C Rations, when an explosion changes everything—fade to black.

That was the story I heard. Marc was eating lunch. I’ve always imagined him still sitting alone, leaning against a tree. His Casualty Data Report doesn’t help much:

Start Tour: Tuesday, 07/23/1968

Cas Date: Tuesday, 09/03/1968

Age at Loss: 19

Remains: Body Recovered

Location: Long An, South Vietnam

Type: Hostile, Died

Reason: Artillery, Rocket, Mortar – Ground Casualty

Strange, I can’t bring into focus a single image of the living Marc Snell. What I do recall is paying respects at Duscas Funeral Home with my family.

“Johnny,” Mr. Snell said. “Come up and see my boy.” He took my hand.

I was terrified. Marc died of a head wound—or so I believed. Would I have to look at something ghastly?

Of course, the casket was closed, and Marc’s military portrait—the very one I tracked down on the Internet—sat on top of it.

“Come up and see my boy.” Decades have passed, yet I never again expect to hear an invitation spoken so proudly. His voice was hoarse from unfiltered Pall Malls and devastation. Nineteen year olds have no business dying.

Only now, with Marc’s portrait in front of me, can I tell how much the son took after the father. In the many Septembers since the Snell’s heartbreak, I’ve held a morbid, though loving, question: “Did Mr. and Mrs. Snell have to look at their boy’s body?” The answer, either way, is too much to bear.

I shot hoops as a teenager in the Snell’s driveway and can name each member of the family: Fred (father), Lillian (mother), Marc, Alan, Mary, Earl and Jane.

Earl and I palled around some. We bought gold Stingray bikes with banana seats on the same day from Kmart. The shimmering memory of riding around the neighborhood together bumps into the wretchedness of a boy’s violent end after only forty-eight days in action. Did Marc have enough time to be afraid?

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, when “alleluias” will ring out from Christian churches everywhere, including St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown. You can bet I’ll be wearing Marc’s bracelet. No celebration of mine will leave Marc out in the cold. Inspired by his father’s WWII service, Marc voluntarily enlisted.

Alleluias at St. John’s Lutheran Church

Understand, I’m not gloomy. If you hear a person laughing like a buffoon in public, even-money it’s me, and I make friendly eye contact with strangers, at the risk of being called “creepy.”

The thing is, my joy doesn’t ignore artillery. In the here and now, tombs are overflowing. Marc Snell is in the ground. So, by the way, are his parents and mine.

If I forget Gethsemane and Golgotha, Easter’s “alleluia” is nothing but smoke.

So what have I got to smile about? I believe in wide eyes and pearly whites. I believe that every kid killed in Long An and every other province of Vietnam has been recovered, indeed, once and for all.

I believe that the clouds will part tomorrow morning.

Sunny in Oniontown

 

 

 

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

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

A Meditation on God’s Will

A Meditation on God’s Will

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (From a prayer by Thomas Merton)

A reflection with Buddha keeping me company

These opening words of a prayer written by Trappist monk Thomas Merton evoke in me a mirror moment. Yes, the mirror is a cliché worn threadbare, but stay with me. I’ll wager most thoughtful people occasionally stare at their reflections—not out of vanity, but ontological wonder.

If you’re my age, your skin is slowly disappearing behind crow’s feet and spots. Maybe a spare chin is descending. Or you have half-moons like pale bruises under your eyes.

Years, of course, are beside the point. Your pupils and mine are curious. “Who am I?” we sigh. “What am I about?”

We don’t linger for long, though. No answers are forthcoming. Our questions retire with us each night, but never leave.

In my case, they’re light sleepers. Where am I going? What does the road ahead look like? When will it all end? And am I doing good in this world, helping more than hurting?

“Boy,” you’re thinking, “keeping company with Coleman sounds as pleasant as a picnic in a sleet storm.”

You’d be surprised. For me, Merton—known to his fellow monks as “Father Louis”—has liberated humanity by admitting truths about our earthly residency. “I have no idea.” “I do not see.” “I cannot know.”

Precisely. We know precious little. I’m barely fluent in the language of my own soul. Where am I headed? Why was I scheduled for an appointment on this planet?

Thomas Merton in his hermitage. He was younger than I am now when he died. (Credit: Wikipedia)

And where will my road end? Thomas Merton died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, after giving a lecture—twenty-seven years to the day after he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Clumsy with all manner of devices, he was electrocuted by a defective fan.

God could be accused of calling Father Louis to his eternal reward in a grim fashion, but you won’t hear the accusation coming from me. After the oddities, injustices and monstrosities I’ve witnessed, my chin simply won’t wag over matters far beyond my station. And whenever anybody so much as hints at discerning the Lord’s motives, I call “bullshit.”

Still, I’m not without sympathy. Folks who turn everything from finding lost keys to perishing in a flood to surviving a house fire into an act of God need patience, not criticism.

Existence is as frightening as it is beautiful. “God’s will,” for those who claim to understand it, is a nerve pill. To explain how life works is to solve the Divine Mystery and anesthetize our fears.

Sorry, the collective force of human anxiety and hubris can never tame the universe or peek behind God’s veil. Words like “faith” and “belief” are used in religious conversations for a reason. We “do not see.” We “cannot know.”

But Merton’s prayer doesn’t end with resignation. After admitting that he doesn’t know God’s will, he says, “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

So what exactly does the monk know? That God will lead him “along right pathways,” but every how and why remain resolute secrets.

A cross made from branches along a trail in Michigan.

I’ve learned to receive such mysteries as blessings. The yoke of interpreting the inscrutable is broken. I “know nothing about” how God figures into each day’s hairpin curves. I don’t have to speculate about divine appearances along any wayfarer’s road, not even my own. Maybe most liberating of all, I’m under no obligation to prove that God exists or to justify the cross that has kept vigil over my prayers for going on twenty years.

I do pray an awful lot, sometimes with words, mostly with silence. More than anything else I’m an unfurled sail, waiting for a breeze of wisdom and compassion to set me on the right course.

Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Bird feeders out my front window

As anybody with a television knows, Erie, Pennsylvania, has made the national news in recent days. Apparently, the sentimental souls who asked God for a winter wonderland on December 25th earned a pray-one, get-one-free coupon. The National Weather Service promises that Erie County can count on 12-18 inches of snow in addition to the 60+ we have already.

Of course, fans of Christmas flurries didn’t say to the Lord, “Thank you, sir, may we have another.” I bear no grudges.

Nor am I complaining. The YMCAs in Erie closed, so I was spared the effort of getting on the treadmill and starting to sweat off my holiday lard.

I’ve had the walk shoveled, but we still haven’t received mail in three days. As a result, we haven’t opened up a bill since December 23rd, which is a victory. The longer money stays in my wallet the better.

Portrait of an antenna. Is my 2006 Hyundai Elantra grinning?

The only part of my 2006 Hyundai Elantra visible now is the antenna, but wife Kathy’s new Kia Forte is getting us around great. In typical Coleman fashion, I had studded tires put on two days after the worst of the squalls, but we never did get stuck.

Actually, far from being put upon, me, mine and my hometown have cause to give thanks. Severe weather presents logistical hassles, but a festive spirit tags along with a blizzard’s wind chills.

We Americans are trapped in an age of cruel, shabby behavior that has put millions in a stupor. We’re tired of being aghast and offended at every turn. Our alarm and worry has morphed into a weary nausea. But relentless snow is a variation in the routine. Marching into blinding swirls and getting a thousand tiny, frigid slaps in the face reminds human beings that life has a diverse, engaging menu.

A blizzard is the meteorological equivalent of devouring an ox roast sandwich with a snappy horseradish mayo and a tidal wave of jus after living for a year on bargain baloney between stale white bread, no ketchup, no mustard, no milk.

Brief case study: I’m writing this report at Starbucks, where minutes ago a middle-aged husband and wife danced to the 1976 Abba hit, “Dancing Queen.” (Note: patrons don’t dance at Starbucks.) Their teenage daughter and son were mortified.

The woman had groovy moves. The guy, who had a shaved head and soul patch, was no slouch. Suddenly, by impulse alone, I joined them.

“You kids should get up and move,” I said. “When you get old you’ll wish you had.”

The boy pulled his stocking cap down over his nose and slumped in his chair. We three oldsters laughed from our bellies.

Now tell me, when but during a historic snow event would a rhythmically challenged clergyman find the mojo to dance in Starbucks? Something primal simply gets released in a fellow.

Erie-ites will be waxing about the Christmas Blizzard of 2017 for decades. Even now we’re basking in the sympathy of a nation.

I’m already having a grand time telling out-of-town friends about our poor streets. Unlucky drivers get stuck and spin like mad until they fishtail away, leaving behind ruts. Wherever you go, you’re in for a rough ride that feels like Charles Atlas has seized you by the lapels and shaken you wildly.

The day after Christmas took me to my beloved Oniontown, where the roads were clear and the driving non-violent. On the way, I stopped at the hospital in Greenville to see Rosellen, who was nearing the end, and her kind, gentle husband Dale. We prayed, and I got to say, “I’ll see you soon. Love you. I’m going to miss you.”

Rosellen could double me over by raising an eyebrow or shaking her fist at me. Never do the fields near St. John’s Lutheran Church look bleak, but they did on December 26th. A helping of Erie’s snow might have dressed them up. Or maybe I was sad about telling a friend goodbye.

The next morning, I learned that Rosellen passed. Am I askew in believing that her steps are now steady, her memory clear and sure? Am I strange to grieve her death and be excited for her in the same breath? And am I crazy to find joy in foul weather?

Yes. Crazy enough to dance—in celebration of a blizzard and in gratitude for Rosellen made whole again and embraced by Eternal Love.