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.

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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.

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

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The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.

The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?

I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”

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Lovely field . . . could use a few cows

With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?

No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.

And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.

This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.

Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”

A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”

Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.

This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.

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Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Wikimedia Commons

Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.

How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.

What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.

This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.

Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.

On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.

Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor*

A few Mondays ago my friend’s son, forty-four, overdosed on heroin. The next day I took her stunned grief with me to the pastor’s study at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

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Farm art near Oniontown

My commute from Erie has four legs: I-79 South to US-19 South to District Road to Mercer Road. For seventy minutes gray trees and rolling fields heal me, but on this day my mind was on iffy roads and my friend. She and her husband had long anticipated the knock at the door and the crushing news. My wife and I used to have the same nightmares about our son, now thankfully clean.

As I thought about the numb terror of fresh loss, a line from Philippians visited me: “Your citizenship is in heaven.” Good sermon theme! I started to flesh it out. When political candidates carpet bomb each other, when explosive vests cut down the innocent, when El Nino and Zika lead the news, and when nasty heroin is as cheap as beer, then heavenly citizenship sounds, well, heavenly. My point, of course, wouldn’t be to reject this life, but to remember that we have a home over the horizon. Not particularly uplifting, but not all sermons can be sunbeams and dandelions.

I looked forward to getting to church and putting the ideas on paper. Alas, a snowy parking lot stood in my way. But since secretary Jodi’s truck was in its spot, I bravely punched the accelerator. Turns out my burnt-orange, bulbous Chevy HHR can’t compete with four-wheel drive.

“Man, am I stuck,” I reported to Jodi, who didn’t know when the plow guy would get to St. John’s. Might be evening. “We’ll get you out somehow,” she assured me.

I sulked at my desk. Wait-and-see isn’t my best mode. The sermon I pecked away at would sound whiny, I could tell.

Within half-an-hour Jodi said, “Do I hear a tractor?”

“I hear something,” I said. “Don’t know what.” Then out my window passed a bundled up man with a long beard pushing snow with an old tractor. The blade was behind the driver, a configuration I had never seen, but he was blazing me a trail.

“He lives over there,” Jodi pointed. He had seen my problem and arrived unbidden. Shoving snow this way and that, he kept at it, like a man subduing a wooly mammoth with a straight razor.

Watching him ride into and out of view, I came to love that tractor, pale red, faded by decades of sun and squalls. It must have been shiny once, but endurance gave it a different beauty. Hope, I think, is the color of my Samaritan’s tractor.

I finally understood why Jodi wasn’t concerned. And the sermon in process took on a glad color. “Our citizenship may be heavenly,” I now plan to say, “but God resides in Oniontown, too.” Then I’ll tell the folks about our neighbor and his tractor. And I’ll tell them about hope.

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*This essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s, newspaper, the Record-Argus. 

A Witness for Richard

I’m used to burying strangers. Plenty of deceased and their families believe in God, but the church not so much. That’s when pastors get a call from a funeral director. Not much explanation is necessary: “Are you available to do a service on such and such a date and time?”

If nothing is going, I’m in. Details are provided, name, next of kin, a phone number. From there I watch for an obituary and make the visitation if possible, talk to loved ones, gather some sense of the departed.

But my latest burial was a first: no name, no contacts, just when and where. I did reconnaissance in Section B of the paper and found one possibility, a man with a brother and a couple of nieces. Maybe the brother wanted a prayer and “ashes to ashes” at the grave. No fuss, just a man of the cloth and a few words. At the appointed hour I fishtailed to my commitment, confident I would find a seventy-something man in the casket.

Instead I found Richard, a fifty-something resident of a group home, where he lived with other adults in need of supervision and care. Some of them were sitting with their caregivers, waiting for an unfamiliar face to bring comfort and hope.

The funeral director pointed me toward Richard’s primary caregiver, who didn’t quite know what to tell me. Richard didn’t speak. He loved to look at artwork. “He loved to eat,” she said, raising her eyebrows and drawing out loved, making the vowel sound delicious. He expressed disapproval by screaming.

Others told me that he insisted on being called Richard and looked forward to his morning routine of chocolate milk.

Twenty minutes before the service, I stood with Richard: African-American guy about my age; chin drawn in; fingers showing some atrophy, I believe; passable suit jacket and tie; favorite afghan across his legs.

In certain situations I take it as my responsibility to witness, to pay attention and make a silent announcement to creation. Or maybe my job is to confess a belief consisting of equal parts tears, hope, and wonder. I don’t know.

But staring at an embalmed man whose life was nearly invisible, I put words in God’s mouth. Doing this has always felt dangerous. I don’t know the mind of God. I can’t even put together a sound argument that God exists. Anyway, words were in my mouth. I didn’t invite them. I heard them in my head as true beyond debate. It was as if I were not their author:

You’re as important as anybody in the world, Richard. Nobody is more loved than you are.

I imagined that Richard’s face, the lip puffed out over teeth that never got braces and his fingers bent at the last knuckle, were dear to God—as when a parent watches an infant sleep, each feature counted as a miracle. And to God’s ear, were Richard’s screams music?

I did my best with the service. Some lives make for scant eulogies, but that’s only if you forget that one person’s chocolate milk in the morning deserves mention as much as another’s Fulbright. “Richard was a charming, and funny man,” his obituary read. “He had a loving, caring soul and his smile would light up a room.” His friends, a dozen or so, cried for him. They wiped away tears, too, at the suggestion that God beheld Richard loving food and in him was well pleased.

A soul’s resume lists sacred trivia: knowing how to taste chocolate milk, getting lost in a painting, demanding to be called by name, caring for others with a smile or a scream. Richard’s accomplishments don’t shine up very well, but those who loved him in the world appreciated them and loved him to the end—from the group home to the funeral home to the cutting cold of the cemetery.

In under ten minutes, we had spoken the final amen and were back into our warm vehicles. Not many days later now, I sip routine coffee. Richard reminds me to taste it. His face, as clear in my eyes as when I stood by his body, doesn’t belong to a stranger. His features are fine the way they are. May God and all the quick and the dead remember to call him Richard.