Oniontown Pastoral: Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

Oniontown Pastoral:

Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

The last thing I expected to enjoy two years ago when I started serving as St. John’s Lutheran Church’s part-time pastor was my seventy-mile commute from Erie to Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

I was smitten immediately. The scenery calms me down, and the livestock munching their breakfast as I speed by now seem like distant relatives. One blonde horse on Route 19 is on my mind so often that I may request a meeting. I call him Onslow. What would the farmer say when I knock and ask, “Do you mind if I make your horse’s acquaintance”? Hopefully he suffers fools well.

I’m not altogether surprised to discover that my time behind the wheel is joyful. Experience has proven that gladness finds me and not the other way around. Beauty, wisdom and bliss don’t yield to force or expectation. They obey their own fancies.

I received such lessons anew in October when Kathy and I traveled to Ireland, a country aptly called the “Emerald Isle.” Everywhere you look, intoxicating greens and ancient grays cast a reverent spell.

Reverence

Leave it to me, though, to be delighted most by chance human encounters. One beer into my first pub visit, a lean, leathery-faced old stranger took a look at my gut, leaned in close and asked, “When’s the last time you saw your own feet, mate?” Tipsy Irishmen say the darndest things.

Gladness also showed up in the commonplace, especially along the island’s narrow, harrowing roads. My brother Ed drove, his wife Debby navigated, and Kathy and I sat in the back seat and let our eyes wander.

I never tired of watching livestock grazing in fields framed by stone walls. It was as if a painter arranged the cows for the greatest artistic affect.

“Why,” I later asked St. John’s friend and cow-whisperer Dave, “do Irish cows stand together and strike the same gracious pose while ours are scattered hither and yon?”

“That’s because,” Dave shot back, “American cows are free spirits.” Well played!

Two acquaintances in the mist at the Cliffs of Moher

Almost as numerous as cows, the sheep had an attitude, and with good reason. I would smirk, too, if somebody had branded my wool with fluorescent spray paint. One looked me right in the eyes. “Well,” his expression said, “are we going to stare at each other or go lift a Guinness?”

Must say, I’d be a little put out, too. (Credit: Dave Fergusson on Wikimedia Commons. A Scottish sheep.)

My keenest, most unlikely pleasure was granted by a crow, or so I assumed. Birder friend Mary saw a photograph I had posted on ANappersCompanion.com weeks later and informed me that my bird was a Jackdaw.

So it was “Jack”—or “Jackie,” I don’t know—who met me outside a pub in Blarney. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, this corvid had me under surveillance. Townsfolk and tourists were seated all around, but Jack was most enamored of me.

The feeling was mutual. He landed one table over and hopped about. What was he up to?

Since my glass was empty, I got a refill for me and a scone for Jack. After kissing Blarney’s famous stone and wandering the castle’s gardens, I wasn’t hungry myself, but content to rest, gladden my heart and treat a fellow planetary citizen to lunch.

A fellow planetary citizen

I set a few chunks of scone on Jack’s table and waited for him to return. He took my offerings one by one, flew away, then came back for more.

Hoping he would join me, I put pieces on my table. He came and went, several times staking me out from the roof of Blarney Woolen Mills. Alas, the closest he got was the chair opposite me.

Jack considers my invitation.

When I returned from getting a last refill, Jack and his friends had cleaned up the portions I’d left behind. Before long I ripped up the sad remnants and headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

Walking along, I wondered why I had spent the better part of an afternoon in the company of an understandably skittish bird. (Lord knows why such conundrums interest me.)

My only intention was to call Jack “brother,” but how could he (or she) have known? Two creatures crossing paths, that’s what we were. Yes, I know Jack was all about the scone, but I’m eccentric enough to believe we connected in a mysterious, elemental way.

The possibility alone makes me glad. When humans, corvids, cows and sheep of good will trust each other, a silent language is spoken. Its name is Hope.

Jackdaw about to take flight at the Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden

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Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Every year Erie, Pennsylvania, hosts Roar on the Shore, a gathering of approximately 165,000 motorcycle enthusiasts that makes my hometown rumble for a few days. According to the Roar’s website, its mission is “to raise money for a worthwhile charity while encouraging motorcycle riding, safety and fellowship.”

I’ll state directly that motorcycles aren’t my thing. Harley-Davidsons and their many cousins are like rollercoasters, lime Jell-o with chopped celery and carrots, romance novels and turtleneck sweaters. You can like them. I’m not against them, just parked in the eh category.

But hope and joy are my things, and generally they find me by surprise.

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Hi, kind of blurry Santa and Mrs. Claus

I was minding my own business, standing along Glenwood Park Avenue with wife Kathy and grandson Cole. The Roar’s parade of motorcycles was going by, the riders vroom vrooming—such delight in engine flexing.

Cole needed to get used to the volume, so he sat in the car, peering out the open window. My body fat, from arm bingo to wine gut to muffin tops to saddlebags, trembled in the racket. The bikes were interesting, a smorgasbord of shiny eccentricity and plain weirdness. The air was a brew of exhaust and grilled hot dogs from nearby picnic shelters.

Such sensory overload would normally have me looking for an escape route, but this loud, funky scene was rendered gorgeous—every smell, sound, and sight, I swear—by human faces.

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Happy dudes in a happy brood: one of these guys let out a vroom that sent Cole diving for cover.

Watching them rev by, I felt like crying. I should have cried. (Yes, I’m way too in touch with my tear ducts. Guilty as charged.) Face after face saw my face, and we waved at each other, human beings exchanging something pretty modest, if you stop and think about it.

What does a wave between strangers mean, after all? “You’re a person. Hey, I’m a person, too. And I see you.” That’s it.

But it wasn’t the waves alone that moved my old soul. The bikers’ dear faces were blissed out. And what an assortment: grizzly, metrosexual, young and fair, toothless, weathered, cherubic and gaunt; skin colors, check; genders, check; ages, check; orientations, check.

In other words, motorcycles marching to their guttural tunes presented me with a nice collection of humanity that, as near as I could tell, found a few miles of heaven rolling along together as a tribe.

“Why are you so choked up?” I asked myself.

“They’re so happy,” I said, out loud a couple times, almost in disbelief. “For as long as this ride lasts, they get to be happy.”

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Cole, the recipient of scores of smiles and waves

On the way home, Cole said, in as clear a sentence as his toddler tongue has yet uttered, “That was so much fun”—a perfect little word for what I’ve decided is a saving truth.

Why did 5000 bikers wave to over 20,000 spectators? Why did the eyes of those in motion shine like the sun? Why were those standing still so often laughing? Because when human beings see each other, smile and wave, some of the gladness each of us keeps inside comes out of hiding.

Lest you accuse me floating off into rosy clouds, I’ll acknowledge that a few beers and a conversation about politics and religion might ugly up lots of those silly parade grins. But then, Old Milwaukee and opinions can furrow brows in my very own family. Rancor and ridicule are always as close as our elbows.

But the joy of a smile and a wave lies in the truth that we are all more than our passions, righteous though they may be. My personhood begins with roots: I love; with luck, I am loved back; a woman gave birth to me; I can never put down my life, a heavy satchel of stories that could make you dance and cry; I’m afraid; I suffer; I have dreams.

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Tell me your dreams and stories.

I chatted this morning with Stacey, a Starbucks friend who rode and roared. She was moved, she said, by the flags and folks sometimes a dozen deep lining the route. Words couldn’t quite get at the power she felt in thousands waving.

I actually spotted Stacey and her wife in the procession and recognized their awe, which may be the best word to describe the simple, elusive hope I found in Roar on the Shore.

If only we could see each other! Not what we believe or whom we love or how genetics sculpt our bodies and color our skin.

Imagine the fragile world if our smiles and waves meant, “Hey, there, fellow person. I won’t hurt you. Let me hear all about your mother. Tell me a story to make me dance.”

Okay, I am in the clouds. But I believe in awe. Would you help me bring some clouds to earth, to where we’re standing?

Or maybe we can just look each other in the eyes. That’s not too much to ask. Good Lord, we can do that much, right?

The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

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Amen

Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.

A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.

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Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.

After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.

The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.

I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.

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Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”

Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.

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You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.