Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Wife Kathy is early girl this week at the Regional Cancer Center, so my kiss goodbye came this morning at 5:30 with this question: “Hey, did you clean the litter box last night?”

The trouble is, our cat, Baby Crash, is such a dainty soul that her ladies’ room doesn’t get nasty. The trouble also is, I always forget. If only I could remember on Tuesday evening before trash pick up, there would be no problem. I mean, yes, of course, an everyday scooping routine would be optimal, but a slight effort on my part would keep Kathy from saying, “I feel like a broken record.”

And another “if only.” If only the late Alan Dugan hadn’t hit the nail on the head in “Love Song: I and Thou.” “Nothing is plumb, level, or square,” he writes of a house he built for himself. The poem is angry and mournful, with the speaker clearly as flawed as his construction. Love enters the picture only at the end, when we learn that all along he has been addressing his wife.

My Oniontown mantra: “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

Dugan’s vision is darker than my own, but that line has persisted with me since my college days. The prosaic translation I constantly offer my St. John’s brothers and sisters is, “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

We laugh and nod together. One tire is always low on air. Your neck has a crick in it from sleeping weird. Your parent / child / spouse / best friend / neighbor (circle one) has shingles / might be laid off / is being a monumental pain in the rumpus (circle one).

Or today everything is fine, but your insides wonder what is misplaced, unfinished or damaged. You can’t figure it out. “Tell me, John,” you say, “why am I looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sensing that the phone is about to ring with terrible news or another fire to put out?”

I’ll tell you why. Because “nothing is plumb, level, or square.” If something isn’t crackers at present, experience has taught us that a sliver, sprained ankle or broken heart can’t be far off. When troubles arrive in rapid succession, rhetorical questions come to mind. What did I do to deserve this? Is God testing me or what?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The answer is generally clear, for me at least. When my thumb smarts, I know exactly who swung the hammer. And the only thing worse than swearing and hopping around on one foot is knowing I’ll repeat this performance in perpetuity. A dirty litter box is easily remedied, but the fact is, if I remember to clean it, I’m sure to forget something else. It’s not like patching one crack in the drywall makes a whole room smooth. The Tower of Pisa leans by name. Bowling lanes are defined by gutters. Pencils live under erasers.

People, on the other hand, are both upright and crooked, and the only way not to stay bent over is to speak. “I messed up.” “Please forgive me.” “I’ll try to do better.” Each of the three is an implied question. In the sanctuary, corporate confessions receive immediate absolution, but in most other buildings, silence and waiting are customary. When answers come, the language is commonplace. “No worries.” “We’re good.” “That’s OK.” The relief is a blessing.

Baby Crash

So the human pendulum always swings between injury and pardon. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or even a believer to recognize yourself in St. Paul’s quandary: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In case you didn’t catch that the first time, he writes two verses later, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” And to be positive, he serves up the next verse: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Ten years ago I read this humbling Romans passage at a parishioner’s funeral. A grizzly soul who wrestled with himself constantly, John was comforted to know that St. Paul understood his predicament.

I lean on the apostle, too, but the poet’s raw testimony blesses me like scripture. “Nothing is plumb, level, or square”—not that anything is really wrong. At any given moment, if I’m not apologizing, circumstance is preparing an ambush.

In my fifty-seventh year, I’ve found an ideal name for this phenomenon: “Life.”

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Confessional Prayer of a Napping Pastor

Dear God:

Naps lately haven’t been as long and lovely as in the past, which is a good thing, I suppose. For years one worry after another choked my spirit, but now I’ve caught my breath. Kathy is in a good space, even though I constantly test her patience. Our children seem to have outgrown their respective insanities. Former Goth girl Elena married wise, gentle Matt, and they’ve come up with our grandson Cole. And Micah hasn’t shot up for over eighteen months. When I lie down these days, siestas aren’t for escape, but refreshment.

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6:00 p.m. Fewer pancakes, same amount of syrup. Forgive me, Lord. (Credit: Dieter  Heinemann / Westend61 / Corbis)

Tonight all of us will meet at the church for Shrove Tuesday pancakes and sausage. I’m having real syrup, but promise to take extra insulin. The food will be delicious, but all of us together fussing over Cole will be the main course. Then, back at home, I’ll enjoy the fruit of the vine—for medicinal purposes.

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Just a splash, Lord. (Credit: Walter Zerla / Blend Images / Corbis)

At the moment I’m sipping strong, sweet coffee at Starbucks with the regulars. Alan showed up a few minutes ago. As always, my hands said namaste, and he bowed. Breathing in. Breathing out. I’m not suffering.

God, you probably already know what’s on my mind, but just in case, I have a confession:

I’m grateful for this day: for the stubborn solo digit Fahrenheit air, for my 6:45 silence with you, for this coffee, for hours ahead that don’t threaten me, for more love and mercy than I deserve. But I still look over my shoulder, still twitch when the undergrowth rustles with one more emotional ambush. A Paul Simon song states the truth:

When something goes right

Well it’s likely to lose me

It’s apt to confuse me

It’s such an unusual sight

Oh, I swear, I can’t get used to something so right

Something so right.

The deal is, Lord, I’m trying to get used to not constantly feeling anxious and shitty. When we sit together, I think you whisper into the ear of my heart: “Relax, John, and live. Relax and live.”

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I hear your Saint Benedict’s instruction, Lord: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” (Credit: icon by Clarisse Jaegar; photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; on Wikimedia Commons)

If I started saying thank you right now and gave the rest of my days to repeating it, I couldn’t pile up enough thank you’s to cover my present gratitude. At the same time, I have to pray the truth. I don’t believe you dispense today’s blessings any more than you orchestrated yesterday’s despair. I might be wrong on this, but these assumptions aren’t behind my thank you’s.

Some of my brothers and sisters talk about having a personal relationship with you, but I can’t make us work that way. You know! I don’t ask for favors. I roll around in you. Your wind-song moves over my skin. You don’t “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” You are my green pastures and still waters. I breathe you in. I breathe you out. And when I do pray that you grant me something concrete, it’s a desperate beggar talking. Oh, Lord, you know.

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Hi, Lord. (Credit: Yi  Lu / Viewstock / Corbis)

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t understand myself. Maybe a crevasse in my soul finds warmth in being honest with you. When Micah was a junkie, I never blamed you. I did wonder—within the cosmic economy—why such a demanding son ended up with such a fragile father, but not once did I say, “God, why did you do this to me?” And as I sit here today, my gratitude for how well that man-boy is doing doesn’t mean that I think you said, “Okay, John’s suffered enough. I’ll make his son clean.”

I say thank you not because you guide me to lost keys and make my diabetes go away, though I’m fine with any help in such arenas. I say thank you because I feel you near. When I close my eyes, as I do now, and calm myself, a wordless voice speaks–yours, I suspect: “John, John. I’m here. Don’t look up. My hands hold the stone of grief in your chest. My lips kiss your face, creased with joy.”

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Is that you, God, breathing? (Credit: Gary Weathers / Tetra Images / Corbis)

Another truth: moments pass now and then when I’m afraid I’ve made you up, and the Milky Way’s swirl is nothing but dust and light. So I’ve got no choice, God, but to give myself and all I love to you, even my belief. I’m your grateful, confused son, liking this coffee, planning on a light nap at 2:00, looking forward to cradling our grandson over pancakes tonight, and doing my best to let you be my close Mystery, my green pasture in tears and gladness.

Amen