Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?

In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.

During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.

Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.

Sometimes the strong one, sometimes the one leaning. You, too?

We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.

I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.

And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”

I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.

Grace–all golf aside

My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.

Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.

Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”

Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”

Perfect place to get together

Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?

Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.

 

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Oniontown Pastoral: Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

Oniontown Pastoral:

Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

March 31, 2018

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

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

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

SP4 MARC E. SNELL

USA 03 SEP 68 SVN

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

Marc E. Snell

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

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

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

Start Tour: Tuesday, 07/23/1968

Cas Date: Tuesday, 09/03/1968

Age at Loss: 19

Remains: Body Recovered

Location: Long An, South Vietnam

Type: Hostile, Died

Reason: Artillery, Rocket, Mortar – Ground Casualty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluias at St. John’s Lutheran Church

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

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

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

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

I believe that the clouds will part tomorrow morning.

Sunny in Oniontown

 

 

 

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

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

A Meditation on God’s Will

A Meditation on God’s Will

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

A reflection with Buddha keeping me company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cross made from branches along a trail in Michigan.

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

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

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*

For Birdy

Have you ever spent hours on roller skates, then put on your shoes and felt as though your feet belonged to somebody else?

Have you ever gone to a matinee and walked from the darkened theater out into a shock of summer day?

If so, you can imagine my reaction to a message I received last Thursday: “Jack just passed.”

He was thirty-five, and a ravenous cancer was the thief. He had little kids. Jack and my friend Birdy had been married a few short months—I never even had the chance to meet the man.

What knocked the wind out of me was this: Birdy’s father, Fran, succumbed to cancer on Monday. So the father of the bride and her groom passed away three days apart on the same hospice hallway.

I learned of Jack’s death after a lunch of beef noodle soup at Cathy and Ed’s house. I savored buttered croissants dipped in broth, cheesecake for dessert, and stories with twists and turns. The visit refreshed and blessed me.

An impossibly blue sky in Oniontown

Then came the matinee moment. As I walked outside, a stunning afternoon was waiting. The chilly morning air had warmed. The sky was cloudless and impossibly blue, a color created for welcoming souls.

I paused in the driveway, looked up and took in a draught of fine air. If Cathy and Ed were watching, they probably wondered what in the heck their pastor was doing.

Pastor John was thinking, “My God, what a perfect day” and at the same time, “Oh, Birdy.” Heading over Methodist and Mercer Roads to the church, I couldn’t get the beauty around me to harmonize with what my friend must have been feeling.

Under normal circumstances Birdy’s smile ought to be shipped in bubble wrap to sad folks everywhere. Her laugh is medicinal, but recent years have delivered more than her share of trouble. Thinking of her shining spirit, I’ve often said to myself, “All right, Life! Birdy has endured enough, okay?”

Last week wasn’t my first time traveling through light while contemplating darkness. Back in seminary I spent one summer as a hospital chaplain. Most days, the trip from the revolving doors to the parking lot after work was five weary minutes of humidity and dissonance.

As citizens zoomed around Columbus on their errands, scores with IVs in their veins either got well enough to go home or prepared for the move everyone is required to make eventually. The sidewalk outside belonged to a different universe from the one with tile floors and elevators.

Author’s confession: I was a mama’s boy.

On day one as a chaplain, I should add, my mother died of sepsis in Erie, Pennsylvania. That thirty-six-year-old future pastor who prayed with the ailing and comforted the fearful was grieving hard, falling apart himself.

In worse shape than me was Lou, whose best and only friend Sally—my chaplaincy patient—had fallen backward while carrying groceries up slippery steps. He had no family.

“Come on, Sal,” Lou said over and over, patting her clammy forearm. “Wake up. Don’t leave me all alone.”

“Did you see that?” he would say. “She moved! Did you see?” Each incidental twitch held the hope of Sally getting well so they could pass evenings watching Jeopardy and playing Gin Rummy.

Lou came up to my nose and wore a confused expression, eyes squinting, lips forming the tail end of “why.” The world was an inside joke he didn’t get.

A couple of weeks into Sally’s coma, the end was inevitable. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “thy will be done,” and Lou sagged in surrender. With his forehead resting on the bedrail, his shoulders rose and fell with hoarse sobs.

(For the record, I don’t believe Sally hit her head on concrete because God willed it, but we’ll save that distinction for sometime later.)

Nothing sadder than round bales on a summer day.

Lou told Sally goodbye in 1998. That July, with my mother’s passing still fresh and patients’ worries following me home, I understood why E. B. White once wrote, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”

“When you roll down the window,” you might say, “why not just enjoy the air rushing across your arm? Why not put Lou on God’s bus and rather than having him ride with you?”

Because I still care about Lou. And I love Birdy.

“Dude,” she said as we hugged at her father’s wake. That one word was plenty to say, “I’m in pieces” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A blue worthy of singing

I’m not about to forget friends so my spirit can sing along with blue skies. Besides, I would rather trudge through sleet with them than lounge at sunset and lift a champagne toast without them.

There’s no such thing as a perfect day, I suppose. Give me a truthful day instead, with joy and sorrow rubbing elbows. Best of all, give me a glorious afternoon with Fran, Jack and Sally sitting in the back seat and Birdy and Lou up front with me. Let my car be a convertible with enough room for my mother to come along, too.

The wind will blow on our faces and dry our tears.

*Lou and Sally are not real names.

Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

This past Sunday evening I sat with wife Kathy in the emergency room as the kind professionals there tested her blood and prescribed a legion of pills. “Viral bronchitis” was their diagnosis, but they clearly meant, “Yeah, you caught that nasty thing going around.”

I’m just now getting over the same scourge, which the family acquired from grandson Cole, who brought it home from pre-school.

But who really knows where it came from? A virus bloweth where it listeth, and thou heareth the cough and sniffle thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.

My mind has been swirling with questions lately, frivolous and profound. What gives a cough the nerve to linger for weeks? Why do some souls suffer more than others? And what do animals think about snow?

I asked retired cow veterinarian Dave that last question after worship recently: “So, Dave, when I see a horse with snow on its back, should I feel sorry for it?”

The gentle, loving laughter that came from those gathered round was fully expected. This city boy is a willing source of amusement at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (It took six months for “round bale” to sink in. I had to get “rolled bale” and “round hay” out of my system first.)

Dave explained that most cows and horses would choose to be outside, even if you offered them a heated barn.

Karen knows horses and added, “You know, horses can sleep standing up?”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I see so many lying down. Why is that?”

“Because horses are all different,” she said. “Some like to lie down.”

Karen’s husband Ron’s eyes were tearing up, his face pink, which suited me fine, since I love to laugh at myself and watch others join in.

After the fun, though, the germ of my question remained. What started me thinking was a blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. He abides in a fenced-in yard, munching from his private round bale. Another dozen or so horses have run of the place. (I trust that the farmer has good reasons for this arrangement. People who live near Oniontown tend to have wise hearts.)

Onslow, whom I see but a few times per week on my commute, takes up a disproportionate amount of my spiritual space. He was the animal who had snow on his back.

Is it foolish to wonder what a horse is thinking? I can still see him standing there motionless, a white dusting settled where his saddle would be.

Days ago on the way to St. John’s I looked for Onslow in his usual digs. A tarp covered his hay. I felt a twinge of concern. Where was he?

The answer came immediately and, to these city eyes, joyfully. Grazing in the same field with the other horses was my old buddy.

The dear folks at Wagler’s figured I’d be stopping by for my farmers cheese, so they set aside a few slices. God bless them.

When I got to the church, I enjoyed farmers cheese from Wagler’s Camp Perry store and savored Onslow’s freedom.

Since the morning was quiet, I looked out at the pine trees and took stock of how little I know for sure. Maybe I caught my virus from a dirty doorknob. Maybe Onslow didn’t appreciate being moved from his solitude. Maybe napping on his feet as snow covers him is bliss.

Who knows? Certainly not me. But I bet my life that God is mindful of Onslow. Making that wager while chewing farmers cheese, I felt sweet hope settle upon me.

I received it for St. John’s, Oniontown and beyond—the way a child’s open hand welcomes falling snowflakes. The goodbyes we’ve said in the last year, many hard to bear, have left us raw. Hope is our salve.

A penny for your thoughts.

So I’ll keep asking questions, especially the one greeted only with silence this side of glory: “Why?” If I get exposed to a few answers, I might catch wisdom.

Last Sunday I told Dave, “We need to have lunch. You need to tell me more about cows.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can tell you all about cows.”

I’ll listen eagerly. Whatever is on their minds, I want to know they’re well. And I want Onslow to be glad.

Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

Post-Election Letter to My Daughter

Dear Friends,

I’ve written a letter to my daughter that some of you might appreciate and posted it on my other blog, Matters of Conscience. Although what I have to say is ultimately hopeful–I think!–it’s dark enough that I don’t want it casting gloom here on A Napper’s Companion.

Please click here if you would like to read the letter.

Peace, love and best,

John

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Elena and Killian–in his Halloween viking fur!

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

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Joe Burgert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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