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

 

 

 

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

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

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Joe Burgert

Organist and devout Christian Joe Burgert died in his sleep on June 25th at the Lay School of Theology, which was held at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. His friends, my wife Kathy included, were devastated and knew they wouldn’t be able to continue attending class sessions, so they headed for Erie. Since Kathy had hitched a ride with Joe, she drove his car, the hatch filled with his luggage and laundry.

Traveling east on Route 322, the women in the two-car caravan had just started to grieve. Joe was a big presence, but sensitive and thoughtful. His laughter was thunderous and infective. Although health issues tired him out, he always seemed to be overflowing with life. How could he be gone so suddenly?

Kathy was hit particularly hard by Joe’s passing. They rode together, sat side by side at dinner, worshiped together, and then, pow, he was gone. But there was something else: I don’t think Kathy realized how much she loved Joe until he died. That was my experience, too. Let’s just say, Joe Burgert was a great soul.

So great, in fact, that he has helped a skeptic like me to believe in signs. For good or ill, much as I embrace miracles and the workings of the Holy Spirit, I resist explaining mysteries. “Leave them be” is my approach.

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Joe! (Credit: NASA/Gary Rothstein on Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s hard not to think that Joe reached out to his stunned friends on the highway. A bald eagle flew right at them, down the middle of the road, just at the treetops. The way Kathy tells it, they all saw the wings spread wide, almost close enough to touch, and thought the same thing: “Joe!”

He was considerate that way. If, in the governance of eternity, the dead can reach out to the bereaved, Joe would have put in a request for an eagle flyover. For days Kathy couldn’t share the story without crying. She loves eagles, scans the sky for them all the time.

Joe gave me a sign, too, I think, but to appreciate this, you have to know that I drove him crazy. He was meticulous and, even he would have admitted, kind of fussy. I’m more improvisational theater, as pastors go. We loved each other, but I tested the poor man’s patience.

A few days after Joe passed, I was running errands, my mind doing its normal noodling. Walking across a parking lot, I remembered that eagle and thought, “Hey, Joe, how about a sign for me.” No misty eyes were involved here at all. I might as well have been musing, “Boy, an ice cream cone would sure be good right now.”

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Good one, Joe. (Credit: Niceckhart on Wikimedia Commons)

Then I looked up at the storefront: GIANT EAGLE. There was my sign, and it was vintage Joe Burgert—exactly his sense of humor and sharp mind.

“Here’s your eagle, Pastor,” I imagined him saying, followed by his great laugh.

In Joe Burgert’s memory and honor, I’m choosing to believe not only that he staged my sign, but that the Communion of Saints conspired with him, joyful to the point of tears.

Oniontown Pastoral #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear

Oniontown Pastoral #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear

My title here is widely attributed to the Buddha, but Bodhipaksa, host of the blog Fake Buddha Quotes, traces the idea to the 1886 book Light on the Path by Mabel Collins: “For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.”

IMG_4284Like any writer I want to be accurate, but in this case I’m busy learning and can’t afford to dwell on scholarship. In recent months, calmed and awakened by the pastures of Oniontown, I’ve found unexpected teachers, probably because I’m finally ready to receive their wisdom.

My teachers—the homebound, mostly—don’t recognize the lessons they’re lavishing upon me. I’m their pastor, after all, with a direct line to the Man Upstairs. When I pay them a visit, they expect to be on the receiving end of whatever insight and solace our time together yields. If only they could see how their fortitude blesses me.

Hopefully I have plenty of vitality ahead, but my teachers make me wonder if I will be strong in my final seasons, when the world grows painfully small. Afternoons bleed into evenings within the same four walls. Aches and frailties invite despair. Boredom and loneliness blanket even those blessed with visitors.

Wallowing would be understandable, but my teachers joke and ask after me and the St. John’s family. “It’s got to get discouraging,” I said to one man. “Well, sure,” he smiled, shifting in his recliner to ease a stab of hip pain, “but once you head down that road you’re done for.”

“What did you have for lunch today?” a parishioner with declining short-term memory often gets asked. “I don’t know,” he answers, “but it was good!”

Caregivers lift and wash and soothe hour after weary hour, unaware that they’re instructing my spirit in grace. How would I roll out of bed each morning with the knowledge that today will be just like yesterday? My teachers are heroic, their faces cleansing breaths of gentleness.

If my beloved Kathy no longer remembered our lives together, how would I cope? “You’re a hero,” I told a man who shows up at a nursing home every day to visit and eat dinner with his wife. “It’s what you sign up for,” he answered. For better or worse, indeed.

And could I endure infirmity, eyes dead to novels, ears deaf to sonatas, muscles slack, lungs spent?

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Faded-red castaway

Some of my teachers, their bodies like the elderly farm equipment castaways in the fields surrounding Oniontown, find ways to move forward without traveling anywhere at all.

One has model train tracks on a table in front of a window overlooking squirrels stealing from bird feeders. Imagine finding life in a locomotive with no destination!

Or how about turning old, brittle pedal sewing machines into shining end tables? One of my sweetest teachers did just this. On the morning his young daughter died recently, he and I sat at his kitchen table. Cancer and grief had knocked the wind out of him, but he mustered the stamina to look with me out a window.

“My God,” I said, “is that a Baltimore oriole?” I had never seen one up close before.

“They’re only here a couple weeks,” he explained, “and then they’re gone. They like jelly.”

Every time I drive to the church I see this man’s house. Less than a month after his daughter passed, he got his wish and followed her into the rest of everlasting peace.

Can I be like him and my other teachers? Can I witness beauty until my last breath? Can I endure and soothe, laugh and learn even when the future is four walls?

And when death is near, can I remember that someone may visit my small world—a student who is finally ready to receive the quiet treasure I have left to share?

Words from the Dead in a Frightening Season

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Our beautiful country . . . out my office window.

Voting seasons are generally a drag, but the 2016 presidential primaries in advance of this fall’s general election are scary. In response to a long, humorless essay on the subject I posted on A Napper’s Companion a few days ago, friend Mary wrote, “I am sick and frightened and don’t know where our beautiful country is going.”

To her excellent words, I would add powerless. Today is Super Tuesday, and millions of Americans are looking around wildly for a pause button that doesn’t exist. Will our next president’s greatest gift be barroom brawling? And will the spectacle that is United States government morph from paralysis to legislative deliberations dominated by bellowing, spittle, and locker room insults?

I’m not the only citizen asking these questions and fearing these fears. Friend Judie wrote to me, “I am so ashamed of what we have become in politics.” Mary and Judie speak for thoughtful Americans and, obviously, for me. I’m weary with sick and frightened and ashamed.

As the first votes are being cast, I’m taking this moment to up my personal ante: Shame for others’ conduct is bad, but shame for my own thoughts and actions is worse.

When hitting below the belt is the order of the day, the temptation to counterpunch in like fashion is acute. If you call me a loser, I can call you whatever I please—and think even worse. But this way is neither Christian nor mindful. It’s the way of the lowest common denominator and the reptile brain.

Frightening times can bring out the worst in us, myself included. We’ve been scared before, though. I’m too young to recall vividly 1968, another year that America felt itself cracking to pieces. Think the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

In April of that year, monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal while on the road: “So the murder of M. L. King—it lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. And it finally confirmed all the apprehensions—the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year. That the things are finally, inexorably, spelling themselves out. Why? Are things happening because people in desperation want them to happen? Or do they have to happen? Is the human race self-destructive? Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one just “love” in an impossible situation?”

Anyone familiar with Merton’s life and work knows how he would have answered his own questions. One must love. In beastly times, love is the mindful person’s center of gravity. Such love is sometimes obliged to fight, but its arsenal is selective. Cruel or dehumanizing weapons, for example, are out. Such love is also sacrificial and can appear not only risky, but reckless.

How difficult to remember in an alarming season that assaulting my neighbor ends in wounding myself. In an informal address in Calcutta in October of 1968, Merton spoke indirectly of love: “And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

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Flower Power, 1967 (Credit: Bernie Boston on Wikipedia)

Monks from various spiritual traditions, Western and Eastern, heard these words. In the context of what feels like a contemporary planetary crack up—campaign explosions, not to mention real bombs and climate change—Merton probably seems flighty, like a hippie sticking a flower in a rifle barrel. (And the monk himself added a tragic explanation point to 1968 on December 15th when he died of an accidental electrocution in Bangkok.)

If the human race is self-destructive, I want to be the weirdo holding out a daisy. If Christian love and human unity are pitiful delusions, nobody wake me up.

Wherever our beautiful country is going, history has taught us where hatred and fear lead. Call me a flake if I refuse to take the beastly path.

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Dear Dr. Quraishi-Landes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your brother,

John Coleman

A Pastor’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Abiding Hope Family:

If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.

And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.

I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.

My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.

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Baby Jesus, bless it all: the old candy canes, the banner, books I’ve never read, the mirror Elena looked into as she put on her wedding gown before I walked her down the aisle, then turned around and did the wedding.

Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.

I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.

I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.

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The little key is for the thermostat.

On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.

I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.

When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.

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“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” I’ve had this photograph taped on my office door. These kiddos go with me.

Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.

Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.

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Your chair, holding a box of keepers. It will still be waiting for you when the next pastor arrives.

Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.

At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”

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Beloved Abiding Hope faces, the quick and the dead. Old brother Earl (front row) has gone on to blessed rest.

Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.

During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.

One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.

Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”

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All are welcome at the Table of the Lord! This is Abiding Hope.

My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.

But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.

Love, peace, thanks, and so long,

Pastor John

Wanting to Write about the Martyrs of Charleston

Dear Napper’s Companions,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From ev’ry ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

And I have a prayer:

Let there be a cure, Eternal Love,

and lead us to it.

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

Peace and love,

John

TBT: So . . . Was I Right about Iraq?

I’m often slow on the uptake. Facebook friends keep posting photographs with the comment “TBT.” What the hey? Since my policy is not to put much thought into cryptic messages, ignorance has enjoyed its long day. I finally broke the code, but can’t remember how. If ever a brain needed a laxative, it’s mine. A cheap Cabernet may have cleared enough obstructions for the obvious to snap into focus, the way the Eiffel Tower or Sebastian Cabot appear in 3D glory after you zone out looking at one of those dizzying posters that used to populate restaurant waiting areas. (Mr. French may be available only through special order.)

Throwback Thursday! Of course. UrbanDictionary.com updates my revelation by noting that TBT may also indicate Throwback To . . . . So every day of the week we can gorge ourselves with impunity on grainy images of our unfortunate 1980s hairstyles. I love it.

Since I got my hair cut roughly the same way today as I did thirty years ago, I don’t have much to add to TBT in the way of embarrassing photographs. In the process of junk sorting, however, I found an opinion piece I wrote for the Erie Times-News between 9/11/2001 and the U.S. attack on Iraq on 3/19/2003.

This particular TBT is short on humor, but it is interesting to revisit old convictions.

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Sad when your throwback photograph from a dozen years ago makes people say, “Geez, he’s let himself go.”

What would Jesus say about Iraq? (This title and the paragraphing are not mine.)

For the United States, September 11, 2001, was a series of unimaginable sucker punches. In a few hours, terrorists placed on our country’s hearthrug a new reality: the “gentleman’s agreement” as to the rules of war had been altered.

The “enemy” isn’t necessarily a specific country anymore, and rather than sticking their chins out for a retaliatory punch, attackers blow themselves up.

The question is, how should we respond to this new set of rules—or lack thereof? Or more to the point for me, what is a faithful way of responding to terrorism within our borders?

President Bush isn’t hiding his take on the matter. He thinks that the United States, either alone or in cooperation with other nations, should bomb Iraq with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t heard any of television’s talking heads dispute the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq supports terrorism, so I guess if we’re going to wage war on terrorism, Iraq is as good a place to start as any.

My concern isn’t where the bombing should begin, but when it will (or won’t) end.

I don’t pretend to know what course of action will best protect our national interests or rid the world of the fanatical inclination to fly jets into skyscrapers.

Even as a pastor, I don’t know that I could win a theological argument for peace. Many intelligent, scripturally literate people believe that the time for seeking peace with terrorists has passed.

But I do feel increasingly sure about the voice of my own conscience, and the word I’ve been hearing lately is enough.

As I write this, my kids are close by. One is tying up the phone lines by gabbing on AOL, and the other is wearing a pair of goggles and pretending to swim across my study floor. My wife is at a class on home repair. I love these three.

Here’s the deal. If we start down the wrenching, potentially endless path of incinerating the world’s sucker punchers, people every bit as dear as my beloved three would also burn because they happen to be in the way.

Enough! Enough lives lost. Enough grieving. Enough violence.

Like I said, these are only the words of my own conscience. I’m probably wrong and simplistic, but I try to imagine Jesus standing beside me. What would he say? I can’t hear “bomb ‘em” or “acceptable collateral damage” coming from his lips.

What I hear is more like “figure out something else.”

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Grizzled and pudgy, I imagine my beloved grandson under the bomb. I guess I’m parked in the same spot I was years ago.

I Found the Holy Ghost in Asheville

Were I to subscribe to omens, the family drive from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Candler, North Carolina, last week would have put me in a black mood. I’m not sure what formula Google Maps uses to estimate travel time, but I doubt it includes weather, bodily functions, and babies, all of which can add decades. My spunky iPhone 6 (not Plus!) predicted 9 hours and 49 minutes, or some such crap. When wife Kathy, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, grandson Cole, and I rolled up my sister Cindy’s long driveway, our constitutions were too battered for math. We squinted at each other and said, “Huh? Yeah, maybe like 17 hours?” Blowing snow, freezing rain, and West Virginia mountains occasionally had us down to 30 mph. Good thing I sit still and pray-meditate a lot. When I was younger, such a drive would have set my bowels into angry, claustrophobic spasms. Are we there yet?

The presumed reason for renting a Town and Country van and heading south was my sister-in-law Betsy Ann’s 80th birthday party. I should have known better. The actual purpose of travel, across town or to another hemisphere, doesn’t reveal itself unless I leave my soul’s door ajar and pay attention. Somewhere in the midst of eating spaghetti or getting lost in a Louis Armstrong song or walking into a coffee shop, I think, “Ah, so this is why I came here.” Tears are often involved.

As soon as Kathy and I put our bags in Cindy and her spouse Linda’s guest room, I began to suspect the days ahead would be about love or life or wonder–something wide-eyed. On the dresser was a photograph of Kathy and me from close to thirty years ago in a frame that said, “Welcome, Kathy and John.”

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A pathetic attempt at a photograph of a photograph. Ah well. Blurriness and flecks don’t diminish my young Kathy’s beauty one bit, nor do they provide cover for those ridiculously large glasses of the mid 1980s.

Thoughtful, this gesture. Along with the photograph went a bag of on-the-road stuff, like toothpaste, shampoo, and travel guides. That’s Cindy for you. Goodness pours out of the woman. She made our mother’s spaghetti sauce for dinner the first evening because she knows it was one of my favorites. But that’s a small detail. Cindy and Linda’s whole household hums with joyful, affectionate chaos. Pets are always making a ruckus, and their grandson Liam’s toys constantly chirp out music.

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Destined to be paesanos from the start: Cole and Liam, the latter the son of Tina and Rebecca.

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Friendly old Harriet, named after my spirited grandmother. Notice the bent left foreleg? When she was a pup, Harriet’s, owner smacked her with a two-by-four, resulting in a permanent . . . well . . . dogleg. She was supposed to be beyond hope, but not so with Cindy and Linda, who took the girl in and loved her into gentleness.

As if the blessings I’ve mentioned weren’t enough, we energetic travelers got to sample Asheville. A couple of moments there tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Soul, awake!” Asheville! Man, what a town! What I saw moved me, softened me up, cleared my vision. Behold Asheville:

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“Can I take your picture?” I said. He smiled and raised his left thumb to the sky. The Holy Ghost is all about conserving energy.

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Pippa and Brody greeting admirers. I chatted with owner Mary Ann as if we were old buddies.

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The Flat Pennies busking. Old Appalachian music. Great stuff.

Ah, to wander from beauty to beauty as a fiddle and banjo converse. The buoyant music made me buzz with gladness, and I wasn’t alone. Was I seeing the Holy Ghost in eyes of strangers, somehow no longer strangers? That’s how I felt.

But the moment, my harmonic convergence, arrived at Betsy Ann’s party. Taking advantage of free flowing pinot noir, I watched a photographic loop of the birthday girl’s life. One shot was an epiphany. I don’t consult omens, but do welcome a wave of inspiration, the sight, sound, or word that bestows an ah of recognition, a truth received.

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My sister Cathy with her arm around Betsy Ann. Two pilgrims in love, come to a place of grace and peace.

As you can tell, both of my sisters are lesbians joined in marriage. For decades I’ve been fine with homosexuality–as if what I think matters anyway. But when I saw this photograph, all I knew was joy. Oh that everyone who wants to join hands and hearts with another could do so. The human race is doubled over by body blows. Venom is the new norm. And don’t even mention manners.

But look! An 80-year-old woman puts her head on my sister’s 66-year-old shoulder–my sister Cathy, one of the most kind and decent souls in circulation. Don’t most of us want to rest in the arms of a beloved? To lean into another, share the view of a bright land, and think, “I’m home, yes. My home is here, yes. With this one person, yes“?

I’m all about love: guilty as charged. Sentimental, too, I guess. We all have to be about something. I pick this: it’s a wish. If only we could all find love in the measure we need and have the inner freedom to make our way there without fear or shame, however we find ourselves bidden. For some folks, days are weary, desperate, lonely. Love can turn the walk into a jig. If only we could all reach old age and sing to our beloved, as Betsy Ann did.

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“I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'” Betsy Ann looked at Cathy. I wiped away tears and hid my sniffles by sipping wine. And I knew why I had made the trip to North Carolina.

Turns out the Holy Ghost wasn’t only in Asheville. She was also in Candler, at a birthday party, and in every other place of tenderness and care. What is the Holy Ghost, after all, if not love?