What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
Wearing Another’s Skin
I’ve seen him before: a hulking man probably younger than he looks, dressed in stained layers, even in the summer. He paces outside a convenience store, stops and turns as if a shadow has called his name. His countenance is rage, barely mastered.
I always figure he is going to roar at me or ask for spare change. His base is in one of Erie’s rough areas, so being panhandled or hassled wouldn’t be unexpected. His bench is at the intersection 30 yards away. He sleeps on his side.
My mother raised me to avoid such neighborhoods. In fact, there’s one street in Erie that she refused to travel, and that’s where I was this morning, buying my newspaper and iced tea.
Getting back in my car, I glanced his way and thought, “Just like me.” Not the homelessness, thankfully. Not the dirty clothes, not what I take to be the fury on simmer. I’ve lost some weight recently, but remain hulking.
Still, I’m a lot like this guy. I want to be loved and understood. I want to be comfortable, sheltered, clothed and fed. I want a mind that functions, friends to laugh with and a decent portion of gladness.
The American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron deserves credit for “just like me.” She told Oprah Winfrey about it, and I overheard. Admittedly, you probably don’t need to engage in this contemplative practice with folks you love, though it can’t hurt. No, realistically, Chodron’s phrase has to do with those you find objectionable, often strangers.
But even the first woman ordained a Buddhist monk in the United States didn’t come up with “just like me.” In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee famously put an echo of the notion into Atticus Finch’s mouth. His daughter has had a rough first day of elementary school and disapproves of her teacher. “Well, maybe she was just nervous,” Gregory Peck explains in the film adaptation. “After all, it’s her first day, too, teaching school and being new here.” Then comes Lee’s gem: “Just learn a single trick, Scout, and you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In the novel’s last chapter, Scout recalls the lesson: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Delivered in Peck’s legendary baritone, empathy comes across as warm and folksy, but American poet Walt Whitman knew better. Of his experience nursing Civil War soldiers, he writes in Leaves of Grass, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
All of this imagery points toward pain. Saying “just like me” demands that I set aside the fine appointments of my days and recognize that but for bad luck, an unfortunate decision or the curse of mental illness, I might have no roof to call my own. Climbing into another person’s skin implies that I first peel off my own. To become the wounded soldier—or the person I’m inclined to hate—means that I receive another’s gut shot, that I dare to trade places with a broken soul, that I claim a sister or brother’s graceless desert as my own.
Empathy is easy on occasion, but most often it’s exasperating, like a riddle that’s beyond my patience or capacity. Anyway, stewing in ill will is easier than reflection and over time gets to be addictive. And prior to my self-explication, the person who has triggered my brain stem is nothing like me, damn it.
Northern Mockingbird (Credit: Wikipedia)
Walking ￼for a time in someone’s stilettos or loafers doesn’t mean that I condone a single chapter of her or his story. On the other hand, until I put into practice the raw, chafing wisdom of Chodron, Lee and Whitman, I’ve no business peddling criticism. In fact, if I review other people’s lives while still abiding in my own skin, I’m apt to kill a mockingbird.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Atticus Finch says. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that most people just want to be mockingbirds, in a fashion: To do no harm and sing their hearts out. Of course, if my supposition is true only of folks I love, then it isn’t true at all.
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Ground
The real question is, “Why don’t I get up and go some place else?”
My morning at Starbucks in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania, began with a man shouting into his smartphone. Every word in The Drunken Sailor’s Handbook was deployed with such speed and spittle that the manager—courageous woman!—went over and told him to quiet down.
I thought we patrons might end up on the local news, but he apologized and soon walked calmly outside.
And is it ever cold out there, with the wind chill at 14 degrees. Sure, the weather could be worse, could be a blizzard stinging faces. Even in the still air, though, if you have nowhere in particular to be, the situation gets serious in a New York minute.
Erie is no Big Apple, but this is the urban scene playing out before me. In addition to students staring at their laptops, business types picking up their café whatevers, and readers and writers like me lost in words and white noise, there are folks who are homeless and/or mentally ill. Some seem like lost souls.
Of course, I’m doing guesswork. “All those who wander are not lost,” a popular saying goes. The pilgrim wearing a torn, mustard smeared parka might be a college professor for all I know. The guy who gets into heated discussions with his duffle bag and repeatedly sorts scraps of paper into stacks might have a cozy loft nearby. Clearly some live on the streets or in shelters.
A controversial Starbucks policy adopted in 2018 has made possible the spectacle I’ve described. A Philadelphia barista wrongly kicked out a couple of customers who hadn’t yet made a purchase, and the whole ugly episode played on TV. In response Starbucks wrote to employees, “Any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”
The company obviously has protocols to deal with people who act up, but the intent here is otherwise. First, Starbucks wants to avoid further bad press—I’m not naive. But second, I do believe there’s some genuine hospitality in what is a risky business decision. As Gene Marks wrote on entrepreneur.com, “Do you sympathize so much [with the homeless] that you would sit next to someone who’s been living rough (and smells like it) after spending six bucks on a Frappuccino?”
Yeah, I hear him. I’ll even confess to a similar frustration an hour ago when a drunk man staggered in to use the rest room, but couldn’t resist working the room and making like a mime while checking out the pricey travel cups. The same annoyance takes hold, too, when guys who—doggone it—look sketchy slouch for hours at prime tables and thumb out text messages.
“Why don’t I get up and go some place else?” Well, I certainly could leave and not be kept awake tonight by guilt. In fact, I wouldn’t think ill of anyone who said, “This is nuts. I’ve got to get out of here.”
As it happens, the man who was railing away on his smartphone when I first arrived has returned with several companions in tow. Meanwhile, traffic through the front door, down the hallway to the rest room and back outside again has been steady.
I’ll mention one thing more. I’m no superhero, but my spidey sense—or is it my prejudice?—tells me that this person or that is up to no good.
By now you must be screaming, “Hey, Oniontown Pastor, so leave already.”
I’ll respond first with a request. Go ahead and consider me a fool, but don’t call me “holier than thou.” My duffle bag of sin often has me weak in the knees.
What also weighs on me is a truth that I’ve given my life to: The people here—from the unfailingly friendly baristas to the studious young ladies beside me to the pale, tattered procession that needs only to pee and warm up—are God’s children, equals in the ways that matter most.
A whisper tells me to abide with these sisters and brothers. It may well be that in eternity’s eyes, this Starbucks isn’t here so much to sell me beverages as it is to comfort those with no particular place to be.
In fact, as the arguing man paces around, making proclamations non-stop and itching for more trouble, that same whisper both shames and edifies me: “John,” I hear in the ear of my heart, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment
I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.
Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.
My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.
My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.
As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.
I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.
“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.
Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.
“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”
They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.
I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.
I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.
“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”
Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.
Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.
Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.
My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.
Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.
I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.
Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”
No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.
That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.
Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home
The scene played out in real time, but I watch it again in slow motion.
I started my Tuesday by voting at Edison Elementary School in Erie and afterwards in the parking lot happened upon a man my age—a campaign volunteer—saying to a boy, perhaps seven, “Didn’t you know there’s no school today?”
The boy’s face pinched and widened in the universal prelude to tears, which instantly washed down his cheeks. Looking up at the cinderblock sky, he cried, “I’m lost!”
The situation was obvious. He had been dropped off by a parent—his mother, I later learned—who didn’t know that school was closed on Election Day. When he found the doors locked, she had already driven away.
As I approached the boy, he said again, “I’m lost!”
His circumstance was not dire. The campaign guy and I realized this, but the little man understood only that he was adrift. He was skinny, cropped black hair fortified with gel and half-pint knapsack snug against his back. English wasn’t coming easy.
Surely somebody would be in the school office. The three of us headed toward the building—imposing brick, the kind that scrapes off skin when you brush up against it.
“You’re not alone,” I said, my hand on his shoulder. “We’re with you, and I’ll stay here all day if I have to, until your mom comes to pick you up.” I was telling the truth, certain that the St. John’s Lutheran family would excuse my tardiness.
Long story short, we tracked down the kid’s older brother, also a student. They were from Nepal, he explained, and lived in the Horan Apartments, rough projects a couple blocks away.
“Namaste,” the campaign guy said in a nod to their native country. Meaning: “I bow to the sacred within you.”
The boys returned the greeting and added the customary sign of hands pressed together before their chests. I joined in.
Just then, a woman supervising a youth program in the school passed by and recognized at once the quandary: neighborhood children who unexpectedly need minding. “Happens all the time,” she said, whisking the boys away with her. And that was that.
“All shall be well,” early Renaissance mystic Julian of Norwich said, “and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This from a survivor of the Black Death! In fact, I agree with her, in the long run.
The trouble is, perspective comes with age. For a Nepalese kid dropped off in a parking lot a hemisphere away from home, there is only the short run. Even for adults, fear answers aphorisms by running its nails on a chalkboard.
In my early teens I got turned around briefly in the Pennsylvania woods on a mountain called Baldy, and the panic was exquisite. “All manner of thing shall be well,” indeed, but my chest still echoes with shouts for help into treetops.
So the Nepalese boy’s wet face stays with me along with his skyward glance and words: “I’m lost.”
Strange thing, I’m in no rush to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, his abiding presence is far more valuable to me than my assurance and assistance were to him.
Seriously, he got some comfort from this Oniontown pastor, but the campaign guy could have handled the trouble with ease. On the other hand, what I got from the boy has ended up being wisdom masquerading as bother. (Hanging around all day with a trembling kid would have gotten old in a hurry.)
Of course, not all truth goes down smooth. Sometimes edification burns like a shot of bourbon.
The Nepalese boy speaks for half the world, if you ask me. In my line of work, folks often say in a thousand different ways, “I’m lost.”
Somehow or other I let them know, “Me, too.”
Whether in Oniontown or Erie or across the Atlantic Ocean, I assume that everybody is lost or knows full well what it feels like. Who among us hasn’t been suddenly deserted outside our own rough brick school or atop a Baldy or, worst of all, in our hearts? Tears wait patiently, one memory below the surface.
For this reason, the finally-found boy is my companion, reminding me of how lost plenty of us are. Maybe I’m wrong, but there can be no harm in having three good words at the ready: “You’re not alone.”
I’m telling the truth.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex
The Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes didn’t care much for the polar vortex that punched millions of Americans in the throat recently. I’ll get to his complaints shortly, but first the national news, which was no laughing matter.
ABC’s David Muir put the weather’s death toll at 26. Among them was University of Iowa freshman Gerald Belz, who was found unconscious not far from his dormitory in the middle of the night and later passed in the hospital.
A simple walk to my car the other day now makes my heart break for the kid. I was underdressed, shame on me. Panic rushed through my chest when I thought for an instant that my keys were on the kitchen table in the locked house. Imagine Gerald’s fear.
Of course, America’s unwelcomed guest punished most folks less severely. Cameron, Wisconsin, Fire Department Chief Mitch Hansen’s face was all over the media, his beard sporting icicles from fighting a house fire in winds that felt like minus 50. God bless all professions that demand such grit as well as unfortunates who lack a permanent address.
Before starting pastoral work in Oniontown three-plus years ago I wouldn’t have given much thought to how farmers fare in sub-zero temperatures. Now I have parishioners who have no choice but to bundle up and stride into the gale. Dave, for example, spends many hours out in the elements tending his cattle and got knocked flat during the cold spell by an overprotective cow for trying to put a coat on her newborn calf—some thanks! St. John’s members also include a dairy farmer and a handful of others whose horses and chickens don’t distinguish between shirtsleeve and Carhartt seasons.
The animals themselves appear stoic enough as I drive past their fields, but not so my dog, whose temperature-related grievances are trifles compared to loss of life. Still, I’ve long believed that any undeserved pain merits loving regard. And Sherlock, after all, can’t be comforted by the knowledge that some humans and beasts have it worse than he does.
- The Coleman foxhound’s overarching problem is his breeding. Functionally, Sherlock is a lean, 70-pound snout with heart and lungs. He is engineered to dash about maniacally, registering all comings and goings—especially the goings—of the local animal population.
- Sadly, the polar vortex complicates giving his nature free reign. Turns out Sherlock’s paws are sensitive to the cold. Within a minute of stomping about in the snow, he is on eggshells, favoring first one paw, then another. He looks around, flummoxed and defeated. Sniffing expeditions and mad dashes at the two-acre dog park near our house are out of the question.
- Even if Mr. Holmes’ podiatric constitution were rugged, his humans would be idiotic to go hypothermic just so he can receive communiqués from the neighborhood’s critters and run off surplus energy. In any case, he howls and flings himself about when wife Kathy tries to put numbing salve on his paws. His brilliance in olfactory matters is cancelled out by his anemic powers of deduction. “Mother loves me,” Sherlock doesn’t stop to think. “Mother is taking me outside. Mother wants to put goop on my paws. The goop will probably help. I should sit still.” Oh well.
I’m giving my dog’s burdens light-hearted treatment here, but his breed combined with his weakness may have led to his arrival in the Coleman house.
He and I were out for a walk some weeks ago when a man in a pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window: “Is that a foxhound?”
“Yes,” I said, “he sure is.”
“He looks really good,” he said, “I have 25 of them. Where did you get him? A shelter?”
“Right. He was a stray, but somebody worked with him. He can sit, stay, all that.”
“You know,” the guy speculated, “he might not have been a good hunter. The owner might have just dumped him at the side of the road.”
I’ve returned to the stranger’s words again and again ever since, my heart breaking each time, even at the possibility.
My pal is a great hunter, he just can’t stand the cold: Bred for a great purpose, but foiled by one flaw. Throw in human cruelty, and you’ve got tragedy.
Yes, somebody is always lost in the cold. Some perish. The only remedy is to throw open our doors when we can for love’s sake and say, “Come on in. It’s warm in here. You can call this place ‘home.’”
Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse
My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.
Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.
I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.
But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.
I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.
Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”
I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.
I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.
“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.
“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”
When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.
Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.
Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.
I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love
The 1993 movie Philadelphia teaches the powerful lesson that love is something to be proud of, even though folks may find certain expressions of it hard to honor at first. On the soundtrack, a Neil Young song, also named after the City of Brotherly Love, resonates with me, especially the line “I won’t be ashamed of love.” The protagonist is a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. My sister Cathy is married to Betsy Ann, and sister Cindy is married to Linda. Far from feeling shame, these kind and upright women ought to be proud.
But as moving as Neil Young’s words are in context, their message begs to be taken down from the screen and worn like a wedding ring. Love isn’t something you put on when it feels good and take off when it proves inconvenient.
Here in 2018 the temptation to compartmentalize love and all the rest of our emotions is great. Our tear ducts, for example, work overtime for YouTube videos of Christmas puppies and soldiers returning home to surprise loved ones, but an emotional voice in a political debate is often persona non grata. Two Facebook comments show what I’m getting at:
Awww did the bad man hurt ur feewings again
You need a safe pwace with a blanky
These responses landed in a sparring match over recent news developments, with one side expressing genuine concern and the other sticking with locker room towel snapping.
I don’t mention specifics here because I’m not looking for a fight. My point is directed to the whole sociopolitical spectrum. Not only won’t I be ashamed of love, I want to be its champion. Americans from many quarters insist that something essential to their identity is under attack, which may explain why we’re always putting up our dukes.
While my own rhetorical fists aren’t raised, my arms are crossed. I admit it, I need a safe pwace with a blanky. Some folks take pleasure in calling people like me a “snowflake.” Nothing new here. Those who drag kindness and compassion into the debate hall used be “pinkos” and “bleeding hearts.” Today, a merely descriptive term, “liberal,” is being wielded as a slur.
Such language is weaponry in what I believe is a war on love. Emotions, the reasoning goes, have no place in policy formation, and those who suggest otherwise deserve a good mansplaining.
I disagree, so with a blanky on my lap, I’ll speak only for myself. Tease the worried and teary-eyed if you like, but you’ll not shame this old softy for a few love-inspired convictions:
- Being proudly American doesn’t require that I think ill of other nations or view them as opponents. My faith calls me to welcome and assist foreigners and strangers, even when sacrifices are likely.
- Saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem are two ways of demonstrating love for America, but they aren’t the only ways. When fully understood, peaceful protest can be a profound sign of patriotism. And insisting on a couple of core values amounts to taking up our country in a strong and lasting embrace: 1.) Misleading others is wrong, and “well, that’s politics for you,” is no defense. Cases can be made for lying in extreme circumstances, as when Oscar Schindler did so to save Jews during World War II, but when falsehoods are deployed to protect the powerful, line their pockets or advance their agendas, the results may be rightly called “evil.” 2.) Knowledge is good, so precious, in fact, that it is the duty of citizens to seek out reliable sources of information, not just ones that confirm previously held opinions. Loving America requires homework. Facts exist, and they do matter.
- The first priority of any government should be the wellbeing of children and those unable to care for themselves. Scripture could easily support this claim, but love alone is my defense—messy, counter-intuitive, vulnerable love. In the recent instance of immigrant families being separated at America’s southern border, simple human empathy makes an unapologetic case against such a practice. Might some undesirables slip into the country along with innocent children? Of course, but philos allows that the presence of bad actors among law abiding citizens may be collateral damage in the campaign to protect children—and not the other way around! Always err on the side of aiding the innocent rather than punishing the guilty. Might the guilty cause trouble? Absolutely, but love devoid of risk is just another four-letter word.
As you can imagine, my commitment to love reaches beyond the controversial issues of a given season. Love means putting my iPhone away when somebody is talking to me. It means thanking police officers and soldiers for their service. It means remembering that nothing makes me better than the guy at Erie’s State Street Starbucks who has loud arguments with himself. Nothing. I’m one chromosomal kink, chemical hiccup or bad decision from being in his shoes.
Come to think of it, he hasn’t been around in quite a while. I hope he is OK. He might not understand my concern for him, but I’m sure you can. I’m not ashamed to say that he is worthy of my love.
Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life
For the year I’ve been serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, a row of fifteen or twenty round bales has sat rotting along District Road. Seems like a waste, but there must be a reason. What’s the story?
As I shoved quarters in the parking meter this morning, a decently dressed man crouched behind a bus stop, shielding himself from the chilly wind and drizzle. Nike running shoes look new. Parka with fur hood is unstained. But huddling on the sidewalk is, well, odd. What’s the story?
And there is always a story. It might be disappointing or anticlimactic, but when one human being listens to another for a few minutes, questions can get answered. Maybe a crisis in the farmer’s family put everything on hold, including hay. A plastic tote bag from a local hospital sat beside the crouching man. Was he released an hour ago, still sick or confused?
I can only speculate. Answers would require conversations, and I’m not about to start one by knocking on a stranger’s door or tapping a shivering guy on the shoulder. I can live with mysteries.
In fact, I welcome them. Seldom understanding why the world chugs along in its haphazard fashion and why human beings behave inexplicably is a way of life, a spiritual posture.
“Shave and a haircut . . . .” I’m content with no ending.
My favorite mystery near Oniontown has to do with a dirty blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. I pass him on Route 19 and wonder why he has his own modest yard—room for a round-bale feeder, a couple of trailers, a shed and a short stroll. On the other side of the barn, a dozen or so other horses wander a generous pasture.
So why is Onslow in solitary? Does he have issues? Is he a grouch? A biter? I know nothing, not even if I should call him Hyacinth, but the way his forelock blows across his right eye makes him endearing. He’s probably a real pain in the neck, but I care about him.
Why? Because even beasts of the field have stories. I don’t stand in winter gusts and munch my breakfast for a good hunk of the year. Maybe being a horse is no picnic.
“Boy, John,” you might say, “this is some life you’ve got going, praying in an urban coffee shop for a lonely horse.”
The truth is, I don’t have much choice. Some creatures have fangs made for tearing down, and others have eyes prone to tearing up. I belong to the latter species.
I’ve never cried for Onslow, but I’ve come close for patrons in the neighboring stalls here at Starbucks. Some stare into space as they sip and leave with weary faces, as if nothing much awaits their return. I’ve never met them, but imagine a great, invisible hand has rubbed their faces into the ground. Are they lost souls?
Behind me, a fixture I’ll call Clyde is giving his imaginary friend what for. They fight a lot. As far as I can tell this is his only companion, other than a five-foot duffle bag stuffed solid.
What would its contents say about Clyde? In lucid moments, what story might he piece together? Grinding mental illness, probably unmedicated, must drive the plot. Though he lives in solitary, one character visits him, if only as an antagonist.
“You apologize every month!” Clyde just grunted.
I’ll never know the trespass that has so infuriated him, but that’s okay. It’s enough for me to remember that he is tormented by red herrings and complications that never resolve. Anyway, something about the way his burden bends his back makes me love him.
Yes, I know, deep down Clyde is probably a bigger nuisance than Onslow. But they both have manes, one blonde, the other greasy gray.
And they both have unknown stories. We all do. The day I forget this is the day I will have lost myself. You’ll find me in solitary, singing, “Two bits. Two bits. Two bits.”