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.


It Is a Wonderful Life

It Is a Wonderful Life

Clarance and George (Credit: Wikipedia)

Jimmy Stewart made his annual visit to the Coleman house this past week. “I’m maxed out on Christmas music,” wife Kathy said. “Let’s put on It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Funny thing, she intended to sew at the dining room table and wouldn’t actually be watching. No matter. Like millions of Americans, she has the movie memorized.

As my official evening hour of loafing had arrived, I hit the play button, planning to watch for a while then move on to another diversion.

Alas, the sewing machine added its voice to George Bailey’s dreams of adventure and achievement, and I fell under a joyful spell. Some might call the fullness in my chest “the Christmas spirit.”

Although George and Clarence’s story always brings tears, the sewing machine’s song, with its long hums and short rests, was mostly responsible for my heart finding its Advent sweet spot.

Kathy owns a twenty-year-old Necchi, which she refuses to part with because it’s made out of metal and, unlike the newer plastic models, doesn’t slide all over the dining room table when running. My late mother used a Singer that emerged from a wooden table with wings. My wife steps on a floor peddle, while Mom sent the needle into motion by leaning her knee against a bar that swung down.

What I wouldn’t give to have that old cherry-stained warhorse close by. (I refer to the Singer, of course, not Mom.)

How many nights have I fallen asleep to the low vibrato of Kathy making a baby blanket or Mom churning out one of her scooter skirts? Why do I find such comfort in the music of a sewing machine?

Kathy’s handiwork

Probably for the same reason that breathing in the scent of pizzelles polishes smooth a day’s rough edges. The same reason a square of Mom’s homemade cinnamon candy forty years ago could make me forget how awkward I was with girls. Or running my fingers over the Christmas pillows Kathy made for a coworker just last night reminded me that light shines in the darkness.

I still can’t hold a sheet of red or green construction paper without seeing “MERRY CHRISTMAS” cutout letters taped to the balusters at 2225 Wagner Avenue. Nor can I look at a decorated mantle without finding myself sitting beside sister Cindy on one of our beds in the small hours of Christmas morning and pulling balled-up socks and Tootsie Rolls out of our knit stockings.

The sound of a sewing machine on a December evening—the Frazier fir’s scent a blessing—retrieves from memory’s attic a box of scratched and smudged albums: Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Oh, and Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.

Christmases past and the timeless sewing machine, together with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the whole cast singing “Auld Lang Syne,” even brought a generous snow on Christmas Eve from the sky of my imagination.

I won’t lie, Bedford Falls showering George Bailey with affection and cash got me choked up—never fails.

“It is a wonderful life,” I thought, winking toward heaven with George to congratulate Clarence on his wings.

Plenty of light for a living room in the evening

From my chair in the living room, lit only by tree lights and movie credits, I watched my beautiful wife making presents out of fabric and thread and could honestly say that life is wonderful.

Still, 2017 marks my fifty-seventh winter, and I’ve heard over the decades a dark carol that I ought to sing right now. Wonderful doesn’t mean perfect. Wonderful has no choice but to harmonize with sorrowful.

I miss my folks more each year. My family is far flung. In my work, some loved one is always $8000 short or far worse. And much of what I hold most dear about humanity is up against a legion of Mr. Potters.

It is a wonderful life–not easy, though. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But if you ask me, any Christmas Spirit worth listening for has a bass line heavy with hurt. Saying “it’s a wonderful life” without longing in your heart sounds thin and contrived.

This is why every “Merry Christmas” I say is both a greeting and a prayer. Merriment is scarce for some folks—maybe even for you this year.

If the season is a burden or your grief is raw, this “Merry Christmas” is for you: “God, please lay the Christ Child in a manger under my troubled friend’s tree.”

Reconsidering 2014

“You humans. When’re you gonna learn that size doesn’t matter? Just ’cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small” (Frank the Pug in the movie Men in Black).

Merry Christmas, 2014! Happy New Year, 2015! For months I’ve been stuck in sleep. The last time I felt this way was Christmas of 1998, six months after my mother died. I had no idea that my soul had been smothering until my lungs snapped full in late December, and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what grief is.” Mom had passed, but she would have asked me to keep living. And now, I’m granted an epiphany, something probably obvious to everybody else, but hidden from me.


Grandson Cole: my expression for way too much of 2014. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

After a tough year, the Christmas story has awakened me, but not because it can be historically proven. Haggling over facts makes me want to take a nap. It’s the truth of a story that has roused me from sleep. If you’re not a Christian, please listen anyway. Play along. The Creator of All visits humanity as an infant, absolutely defenseless, not as a warrior and not majestic. “And so it was, that, while [Mary and Joseph] were [in Bethlehem], the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” These familiar details from the Gospel of Luke are small, so very, very small that they’re heartbreaking–a baby wrapped in rags and laid in a feed box. No room for him, except with the animals.

But Frank the Pug’s gravelly voice grabs the scruff of my neck and carries me away from sadness. “When’re you humans going to learn that size doesn’t matter?” (Yes, yes, go ahead and chuckle.) Size not only doesn’t matter, but it can be deceiving. Example: ants weigh as much as humans do. I can’t recall when I first learned this, but son Micah verified it for me: “When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” And so, wake up, John! Sure, lousy, big, heavy stories have lots of us making Cole’s crying face, but when you place all the flecks of grace and good spirits on the scales, the world doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it shines.

Thank you, Infant Lowly, for restoring my hope, putting a little steam back in my stride, and updating the prescription for my spiritual glasses. Rubbing the bad news out of my waking eyes, I see beauty and fun clearly now.

Dear loved ones, please accept these holy, lowly flecks from my 2014. May they help you and me receive 2015’s ants of grace and good spirits.


Wife Kathy and neighbor Patrick–a wise, Down’s boy who said, without even lifting his head, “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”


My late mother’s Christmas cactus now blooms in early November, so I figured it would be bare come December 25th. Not so. A couple of flowers opened late, but they’re no less lovely for that.


This one is probably an over-share: Over twenty years ago dentist friend Tom built a tooth for me out of filling material. Money was scarce at the time, so Tom worked his magic, which lasted until Advent of 2014. When I was in seminary, a dentist in Columbus said, “This one was made by a master.” Thanks for two decades of good service.


In downtown Erie, an old gas street lamp still burns in front of Gannon University’s Gitnik Manse on West 6th Street. I have no idea why this gave me a sip of joy, but it did.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 8.55.58 AM

My book came out in 2014 as an indie publication. People seem to find out about it a person at a time–kind of like A Napper’s Companion. No thousands of readers, but a kindred spirit here and there.


Oddball that I am, I sent a copy of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” to the President and First Lady. What the hell? They sent a thank you note, though I’m sure the book itself was ground into a fine powder to be sure it wasn’t laced with anthrax.

I call myself a writer, yet my vocabulary is embarrassingly slim. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I look it up. In 2014, I read carbuncle, which I knew is a precious stone from reading Sherlock Holmes stories, but the context told me there must be another meaning. A carbuncle, it turns out, “is [also] a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin.” Why, thank you for that update. I also stumbled on sycophant, who is a “servile self-seeking flatterer.” The synonyms tickle my teenage sense of humor: “apple-polisher, bootlicker, brownnoser, fawner, flunky, lickspittle, suckup, toady.” Lickspittle! I can’t wait to toss that one out in a conversation. I love words and consider them a blessing, though I don’t retain them very well.

I also love quotations, in part because I compiled 365 of them for a collection of daily meditations, Questions from Your Cosmic Dance, which came out in 1997. I jotted down one of my favorites from the past year on a scrap of paper and still have it. It voices wisdom I need to hear and follow.


This quote comes courtesy of Belief.net’s “Jewish Wisdom,” which lands in my email-box each day. The older I get, the more I choose not to say. Thank you, Solomon Ibn Gabirol.


Words are flecks of goodness, as are quotations. Laughter also places weight on the scale to counter despair. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt gave me a Jesus Pan for Christmas. Little do they know they’ll be eating Jesus French toast someday soon.


No other small gift from 2014 comes close to my grandson Cole, shown here in his Wagnerian knit cap. He helps me to understand the Christmas story. Why would the Great Mystery visit humanity as a child? Behold! (Credit: Elena Thompson)


What does 2015 hold for you, me, and planet Earth? Cole looks at the horizon with wonder as do we all. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

One thing I know about the months ahead: unless I get lost completely, don’t expect me to repeat the tired grief of 2014. Sure, I’ll get sad and discouraged, but nothing can change the fact that ants weigh as much as humans. You have to look closely for very, very small flecks of grace and good spirits, but once your eyes learn to spot them, the size of the bad news doesn’t matter so much anymore.


May this fortune be so for you in 2015, my loved ones.













World News: A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter

Dear Loved Ones:

Here’s a bulletin! Over the last few years I’ve been discouraged about the state of the world. World: language doesn’t get much bigger. Solar system, galaxy, universe, and eternity all out rank world. In addition to a couple of newspapers and websites, my source for Earth’s latest information is ABC’s World News with David Muir. On the surface, this makes sense. If I want the most important updates available, why not depend on one of the big three television networks still broadcasting free of charge?

On the other hand, what makes the American Broadcast Company so wise? A few days ago after prayer-meditation, I beat Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi to the stable in Bethlehem and had an epiphany, joyous and liberating. The various media have much to report, but they can’t cover everything. This one man’s Teletype constantly receives breaking news deserving of airtime and headlines. World News isn’t only the latest financial collapse, governmental absurdity, or breathtaking slaughter. It’s also unseen sacrifice, modest dreams fulfilled, or simple tenderness.


I beat the rush ahead of the Magi and received my Epiphany. (Credit: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy; on Wikimedia Commons)

As sickly as things seem these days, grace is everywhere, and probably more abundant than evil. But because I consume so much distressing information, I’m conned into believing that humanity is circling the drain. How foolish! My personal sources have told glad tidings of great joy lately. With love and hope, then, I offer A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter made up of stories not covered by the mainstream media.


My buddy Ray put up a Christmas tree for his eighty-six-year-old mother, who stopped decorating after her husband died around twenty years ago. No media outlet picked up this story.

For Coleman family dinner, I was working so hard to perfect a chicken in a spirited mustard sauce that I neglected the corn chowder. I said to daughter Elena, “Hey, Len, would you mind trying to fix the chowder?” She hit it with nutmeg, salt, white pepper, a splash of hot sauce, and coriander ground with a new mortar and pestle from friend Mary. I contributed a stick of butter, and together we reached savory. Best of all, before we sat down to eat I hugged Elena and kissed her on top of the head. She said, “I love you, Daddy.”

In millions of kitchens, we help each other out with joy and speak of love. Snark and bicker visit, but I’ll wager overall we’re more kind than cranky.


Elena, one of my favorite chefs, with her baby bump. Families everywhere embrace, coddle kiddos, and create masterpieces together. I now consider this reality “world news.”

At a party last week, I sipped wine in the kitchen with friends Karri and Joe and kibitzed. Two of their daughters sat off to the side talking. Lauren is about to graduate from college, and Emily is in high school. Rarely would I tell anybody to freeze for a picture, but I figured this one might win a Pulitzer. Yes, Virginia, siblings can get along and do better than that: they can take care of each other.


Lauren and Emily . . . unposed. (My Pulitzer, please!)

I recently visited a severely ill man and his family. He sat on the couch with feet up on an ottoman. His wife patted his leg, spoke words of comfort, and kept his morphine ahead of pain and distress. The man’s brother wrote a prayer, which he asked me to read—no way he could get the words out. It was simple, humble, fervent. We sat in silence afterwards, passing around Kleenex.

“You’re a good man,” I said. “You know that right?”

A slight tear ran from the corner of his eye. “I’ve tried.”

We all put a hand on the man and entrusted him to God’s care. When I stood to leave, his wife said, “John, wait. He wants to give you a hug.”

For over thirteen years I’ve watched death. Driving away from this visit, I took an unexpected gift with me. What a loving, attentive end, as gentle as any I’ve been blessed to witness.

And I know that this day, in lands everywhere and all fifty states, the living hold the hands of the dying and whisper, “You can let go. We love you. We’ll be okay.”


Let go. (Credit: Simon Eugster on Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve received a couple of gifts lately that are particularly moving. Both made and bought, they remind me that people who celebrate Christmas are thinking of each other, finding a present that will be received like a kiss on the cheek and a moment’s cheer to the heart.

No doubt, Christmas is awfully commercial, but we’re trying, aren’t we? Most of us? We do want to bring joy. On the news you see Black Friday stampedes, but not the man standing alone in the store aisle, praying to find his beloved something pleasing.


A handmade ornament–thanks, Barb!


Bread and butter pickles and a mortar and pestle–thanks, Mary!

A young guy with low-slung jeans was waiting to cross the street as I drove up to the intersection. He started out, saw me, then held up. I motioned him on. At the curb he glanced back, smiled, and waved. I smiled back and shot him the peace sign.

Human by human, peace is sent out, received, and returned. I see it all around me.


Iraqi boys giving the peace sign. Most of us human beings want peace, don’t we? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I know an astute, witty, practical nine-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus. She leaves him a letter each Christmas Eve by the candy jar.

“What do you write him?” I asked.

“Things like ‘I hope you like bringing everybody presents.’”

Her father says, “She still believes in magic.”

I’m sure she is not alone.


I believe in Santa, too, especially if he looks a little like Robin Williams. (Credit:Jacob Windham on Wikimedia Commons)

Starbucks friend John and I talk about our dogs. In decent weather he brings his boxer Harley and has coffee outside. John and I both aspire to live like a dog—in the moment, not self-absorbed, often overjoyed.

John loves Harley and shows it. Every once in a while I see a news story about horses starving in barns, but, you know, I bet most pet owners are like John. Most of us are this way, right? We make sure our dogs and cats have enough to eat and drink, gush over their eccentricities, and treat them like our children?


Starbucks friend John and his guru Harley

I know I love my dog. This morning old gimpy Watson hopped up on the bed with me as I was getting propped up for prayer-meditation. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with us. Like our two cats, Watson came to us as a stray. A clumsy soul, he tore both ACLs years ago. We fixed one, but couldn’t afford surgery for the other. He has fatty tumors on his flank, one the size of a tennis ball. We chase pills down his throat with treats. (I bet lots of you have stories just like this one.)


Not my dog or John’s. A random pooch with an endearing fang I photographed at Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. Certainly the apple of some dog owner’s eye.

I set my Zen bell for twenty minutes, unpropped myself, lay down, and rested my face on Watson’s side. “I love you, buddy,” I said. He huffed and made the old mutt smacking sounds with his mouth I’ve come to love. “I’m glad you stopped by.” I rubbed his soft ear between my fingers. “You’re a good old pal.”


My favorite picture of my old buddy, Watson. Do you have a buddy, too?

The world news tells us our home is in peril, with all of its explosions and arguments. This Christmas, sisters and brothers, I claim for us another world, one I recognize every way I turn. Join me. Everywhere I see souls unable to contain their love and sacred wishes.



An Advent Descant

Starbucks, 6:27 p.m.: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” keeps playing in my brain. His whistling descant during the second chorus always makes me think of Dad, God rest him, an All-American whistler with a spry warble. The only song more blue is “Christmas Time Is Here.”

In the 1954 film White Christmas, Crosby sings to soldiers far from home, and by the time he gets to “may your days be merry and bright,” their heads are sagging. About twenty years later in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “snowflakes [are] in the air” and “carols [are] everywhere.” As kids skate on a frozen pond, Linus tells a depressed Charlie Brown, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-iest.”


Opinion: Charlie Brown understands Advent. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Both of these Christmas favorites sing about a complicated season. The lyrics are glad and wistful, but the music is melancholy, maybe for good reason. Does your Christmas spirit ever reach your mountaintop of expectation? As December 25th approaches, do you find yourself waiting for the doors of your soul to fly open and unfettered joy to blow in with snowflakes and sleigh bells? Never happens that way, right? (If your Christmas bliss is unbridled, I’m happy for you—honest.)

My Advent and Christmas moods follow the Buddy System. No emotion goes even to the lavatory alone. I’ve worn Khalil Gibran’s words from The Prophet thin because they fit:

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 


When sorrow sits alone with me at my dining room table, remembering that joy sleeps on my sofa saves me.

Last night at church, kids sang and made popsicle-stick Christmas trees. Cookies were everywhere. In my imagination Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies joined the abundance. I could smell them. As children had fun, the beloved dead stirred in my soul.

Trees in the distance, snowless this December 5th, are bloodshot-gray veins against the Lake Erie sky—tender, lovely. A few hundred miles to my east, citizens under the Hudson River sky protest a guy choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. I receive the nonchalant blessing of an in-breath and an out-breath. Still, a cry echoes, “I can’t breathe!”

I’m stubborn enough to believe that joy will have the last cosmic word, but, man, is sorrow injecting anabolic steroids this Advent of 2014. (Blogger’s note: If you already know that creation is groaning in labor pains and don’t want details, skip to #4, which is a benign kvetch.) To wit . . .

1.) “Don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” What will the next mantra be? How many wrongs can be packed into one historical narrative? Let’s see.


Birmingham high school students being hosed while on a peaceful walk, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore on Wikipedia)

a.) No argument: throughout American history, blacks have been shat upon. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, abuses were not only unapologetic, but lusty. Since then, slow progress has been lacerated in ways obvious to blacks and unconvincing to some whites. Most blacks, I gather, have misgivings about the police. They have either experienced unfair treatment (e.g. profiling) or know somebody who has. Or maybe they have been regarded by a cop with unwarranted suspicion. Or maybe they have been on the wrong end of a fire hose in Birmingham. Whatever the case, blacks of all levels of education and income aren’t feeling the love. Their convictions, of course, aren’t based solely on encounters with law enforcement. I bet every black citizen has absorbed the unprovoked disdain of a white stranger at least once. Such experiences must freezer-burn one’s DNA permanently.

b.) The news coverage of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland is muddy. The excerpt of George Stephanopoulos’ November 25, 2014, interview with Darren Wilson that ran on ABC Evening News was a slam-dunk for the Ferguson cop, at least to this viewer’s eyes. Some days later on PBS’s Democracy Now, which leans decidedly to the left, an interviewee noted that sixteen of eighteen eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s shooting claimed the kid clearly had his hands up. In this case, a grand jury saw things Wilson’s way. But the treatment of Staten Island’s Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is on YouTube for all to see, as is John Stewart’s rant about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who administered what looks for all the world like a forbidden chokehold. (I’ll toss in that flattening Garner’s head into the sidewalk seems excessive, too.) So blacks who were pissed after Ferguson went berserk after Staten Island. Any white folks paying attention should start, well, paying attention.


Police Officer Ray Albers, who was captured on video pointing his weapon at peaceful protestors and cursing. Before he was identified, he was known on social media as “Officer Go Fuck Yourself.” He resigned soon thereafter. (Credit: Wikipedia)

c.) Speaking of understandabilities, looting businesses and torching real estate are perhaps predictable mob responses to injustice, but thievery and flames are self-mutilation taken to a community level. Innocents on the home team have lost much in what television news calls “protests.”

d.) I won’t parse the shooting of Cleveland twelve-year-old Tamir Rice other than to point out something I’ve not heard mentioned in the conversation. Why is it okay for manufacturers to make toy guns that look unmistakably like the real thing? All you have to do is cut the impotent little orange tip off and you’ve got a weapon. In the dark a squirt gun could look convincing, I suppose, but are realistic airsoft guns necessary? Don’t bother citing the First or Second Amendments. I’m tired of clever folks lining their pockets by exploiting the noble intentions of the Constitution.

e.) A-whole-nother side of wrong is the untenable situation police officers face each day. Nothing less than perfection is tolerable in the new millennium. Never mind that human beings are increasingly expected to maintain sparkling performance with dwindling resources. Punishment is an imposing presence. A teacher makes a knee-jerk, cruel remark to a student. A nurse administers the wrong medication. And, yes, a cop who has dealt on his shift with three noncompliant citizens pops his cork in subduing the fourth. I don’t mean to excuse any behavior, but to acknowledge what I see as a reality. In all professions, the margin for error is literally razor thin, and forgiveness is in short supply.


Bill Cosby in 1969. (Credit: Wikipedia)

2.) Oh, Bill Cosby! Oh, Dr. Huxtable, who wore Christmas sweaters so well! If he drugged and raped women, then, in the words of Queen, “Another one bites the dust.” If Cosby harmed any woman in one of the most profound ways possible, then who was he channeling when he complained about blacks “with pants down around the crack”? But if twenty-six women are out to lynch an entirely innocent Cosby–how likely is that?–then we have another lousy statement about the human condition. Whatever the case, there are no winners; only ugliness all around.

3.) Here’s an odd thought for the list. In an April 12, 2012 Washington Post editorial, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein—left and right, respectively, and both well respected—claim that the current G.O.P. is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; [and] unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” More and more I get the feeling that Mann and Ornstein have their fingers on our collective pulse. I would love to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that lots of us have our rancorous heels dug in. We mistake our fancies and hunches for certainties. Actual facts are greased pigs, but if you manage to secure one, expect to be dismissed with a sniff and a Bronx cheer. The point: our foundation for societal negotiation is cracked, our collection of shared assumptions depleted.

4.) Finally, on an irrelevant, purely selfish front, I’m filing a complaint against restroom hand dryers. How can machine blow hot air at a velocity that makes your skin ripple and still not dry your hands? When deprived of the paper towel option, I always exit feeling unkempt. Yes, a few extra seconds of vigorous hand rubbing would finish the drying job, but I reserve the right to be petty in this small matter. The head gets enough of my time as it is.


If this were a decent photograph of a hand dryer, you could see that the little arrow at the bottom says, “FEEL THE POWER.” I want to get a Dymowriter and cover “POWER” with “FRUSTRATION.” (Crappy Credit: John Coleman)

My last grievance notwithstanding, sorrow has one advantage over joy: sorrow tends to arrive like a freight train blasting its horn, whereas joy springs like a chocolate lab puppy from a Christmas box and quietly sniffs and licks your face. Sorrow carries a big stick; joy walks softly.


Joy happens by like this guy named Brownie. Yes, I, John Coleman, am trite! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Consider twelve-year-old Devonte Hart of Portland, Oregon. At a protest about the death of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the boy held a sign that said, “Free hugs.” The photograph of Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Hart hugging went viral.

Of course, as many an Internet cynic has claimed, the hug may have been staged. (I fell for a YouTube video showing a bicyclist being chased by a bear, so I’m not the most astute viewer.) Even so, I object to Jonathan Jones, a Brit who, writing in The Guardian, takes Facebook subscribers to the woodshed for their over 400,000 shares of the hug photograph: “Each one of those shares is a choice of what to see and what not to see. In the context of the completely unresolved and immensely troubling situation, not just in Ferguson but across the United States, where Ferguson has opened wounds that go back centuries, this picture is a blatant lie.”

Bret Barnum, Devonte Hart

Officer Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart in “the Hug” (Credit: Johnny Nguyen / AP Photograph in The Guardian)

One can’t help but envy Jones’ clairvoyance and nimble reasoning! As if he can see into my heart and mind and understand the meaning I assign to any photograph! As if sharing a photograph means that any Facebook viewer is in denial about what troubles America. As if—just one more—any roundhouse-throwing art critic gets to decide what muse speaks a helpful word to suffering citizens. I didn’t share the photograph on Facebook, but I’ll bet most of the 400,000 who did took the kid’s and the cop’s embrace not as a reflection of where American race relations now stand, but as a vision of where they ought to be. To me, the image doesn’t scream from atop a phony soapbox. It whispers hope into the patriotic dreamer’s ear. It’s the lab’s cold little nose brushed against America’s cheek. It’s a whistle over a familiar melody.

And consider Lori Burke. I mentioned a while back kids having cookies at church. The reason kids and adults showed up was to join in a sing-along led by Lori, which the latter enjoyed as much as the former. During snacks and crafts, she shared with me an idea in gestation. She already has a couple of CDs out as well as a popular parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” on YouTube.


Lori Burke . . . sing it, sister! (Credit: loriburke.com)

Now, Lori would love to start a movement of sorts. She has got a name—For the Love—and is now fussing with how best to communicate it. For the Love is Lori’s developing vision for helping us all to grow into the habit of showing kindness and generosity to strangers. She mentioned a couple of possible For the Love logos and at one point said “hashtag,” which means she has Twitter thoughts. I’ve never quite understood hashtags, but I’m rooting for this sacred sister.

This is how joy happens: two people kibitz and think out loud. “What can I do?” Lori wonders, then decides to trying something. Maybe. We’ll see. No matter what happens, the impulse to encourage sisters and brothers to love each other is just a crumb. A mustard seed. A widow’s mite. In other words, Lori’s impulse is everything—a fragile wish, a helpless mutt, the Indwelling hope of the world. Salvation depends on crumbs.


In recent days “White Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” have been replaced by Dean “Dino” Martin’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in which he calls the hero “Rudy.” In the last stanza, all the reindeer “shouted out with glee, Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.” Oh, Dino, you casual fellow! Your song goes into the complaint file with those hand dryers.


Don’t even think of calling me Rudy. And I can’t breathe out of my beak. What the hey? (Credit: aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)


Epiphany on a Planet of Cautionary Dreams


Mary and Joseph still adoring Jesus on January 10th at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s January 23rd: the magi have come from the East; knelt before the Christ child; offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and were granted their epiphany. Then, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” By January 6th, the Epiphany of Our Lord, I imagine most crèches had already been wrapped in old newspaper and set in a dark place for eleven and a half months of hibernation.


Baby Crash enjoying the extended Epiphany.

The Coleman household has the strange habit of allowing the Christmas/Epiphany celebration to linger. It was only a week ago that Kathy put the ornaments, decorations, and snowmen in Totes, which now wait for me to lug them upstairs to storage. We’ve stretched the season into early February, but don’t have a set date for pulling the plug. When an afternoon or evening opens up in mid- to late-January, Kathy intuitively knows it’s time to go back home to our normal country.


Stop and breathe, John.

I know Christmas/Epiphany has to move on, but I miss the spell our living room casts on me in December and January. Give me reds and greens. Give me lights that hold me back like a mother putting out her hand to keep her child safe when she brakes hard. Give me “good tidings of great joy,” even if the tidings are inconspicuous: You have a warm, dry, lovely house on a planet of cautionary dreams. Stop and breathe. Pay homage.


Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents,” 1636-1638 (Credit: Wikipedia)

There is one jab to the solar plexus between Christmas and Epiphany. On December 28th, many Christian churches commemorate the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts Herod’s indiscriminate attempt to kill Jesus, the promised King: “[Herod] sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” No historical evidence of this slaughter exists, but current events keep proving that Matthew’s account may not be factual, but it’s true.

Unicef reported last December that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution regarding the Central African Republic: “Action must be impartial and swift to stop the targeting of children, to protect schools, health facilities and transit centres, and to provide care and support to victims—with no impunity for the perpetrators of these outrages against children.” So suits pass edicts, and mothers weep for their children and refuse “to be consoled, because they are no more”—in Newtown, Damascus, and Bethlehem.


Homage at Abiding Hope on January 23rd. The magi have come so far, and I’m putting off asking them to leave.

The whole Christmas/Epiphany story, with the shepherds “sore afraid” and the star “at its rising” and Mary wrapping her son “in swaddling clothes,” conflates with Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation” and leads me to shamatha in Erie, Pennsylvania. Cultures and centuries away from a child lying in a manger in the city of David, I keep epiphanies coming with calm abiding and leave a tree and crèche standing in my soul.

This practice is more about disposition than decoration. If only I could receive the simple, moving, miraculous story of Jesus’ birth without qualifications: Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a stupid census; Jesus was born alongside manure and slept in a feedbox; an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with wife and son to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat; and—like I said, more truth than fact—a king slaughters pretty ones to fulfill a prophesy.


Come, dry bones of Rwanda, rise and dance in my soul. (Credit: Sascha Grabow)

The problem is, I can’t tolerate sanitized stories. Edit out or ignore the darkness and danger, and Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives are insulting, and the Coleman family’s celebration is ignorant and selfish. What does it say when I tear open presents on Christmas morning while at least one arm of my spirit isn’t cradling Rwanda and Littleton? How comforting is the artificial tree beside the fireplace if it withholds its glow from distended bellies and limbs abbreviated by machetes?

The point: I’m in no hurry to get the living room back to its usual arrangement. If nothing else, a nap on the couch with a fire going and the tree lit is a rare blessing. Sleep isn’t required. It’s enough to doze, let the colors blur through half-opened eyes, and listen to the wood’s snap and crackle.

I’m a challenging person to live with. The Christmas/Epiphany living room needs no excuses; it’s beautiful and that’s enough. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t be an embracing escape from planetary absurdity and rage, from each day’s disappointments and injuries–this and no more. So why do I insist on complicating a peaceful sanctum? Because my Epiphany shamatha whispers, “Invite everybody in. Let them have a safe place, even if that place is your soul.”


A lone snowman remains on the mantle: “Welcome. Come in from the cold.”

This morning in the car, Micah and I learned on National Public Radio of an innocent who will visit my spirit tonight as I sit by the fire. Reuters reports that “a 20-year-old woman in eastern India was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police officer said on Thursday . . . . Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house.”As we rode in silence, I looked over at my son. He was shaking his head, eyes closed—momentary curtains drawn against evil.


It’s warm here, distant daughter. I’ll put a blanket down for you. Rest. You’ll be safe.

The father in me speaks words that will never reach the young survivor in her hospital bed: “Holy Child, come sit on the hearth. Bring your forbidden lover. I’ll put lights back on the tree. Cry and scream if you want. I’ll keep the fire going, bring tea for your aching throat, warm bread to feed your broken body.”

My Indian daughter will be staying indefinitely. In my spirit inn that sings and sighs, where the tree and crèche live a seamless Epiphany, joy is sacred only if there’s room for every traveler’s wounds and tears.

A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.


Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.


I’d stop so you could have a long look, Mom. (Credit: Carson Ganci)

Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.


Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.

Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.

While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.


Your amazing daughter-in-law with a swaddled Cole. In your absence, science has discovered that the best way to quiet infants is to wrap them close to the point of suffocation and make loud shhhhh sounds in their ears. Who knew?

I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.


What hair I’ve got left is going gray, Mom.

But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.


If you were here, I’m sure Elena would peel grapes for you.

It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.


Your grand-daughter married a good man.

It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.


Micah’s got a funny haircut, but he’s also got all your gentleness.

I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.

Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.


We figured you’d want something simple, like this.

And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.

For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.


What do you say, Mom? Let’s all go get ice cream.