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 #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. 

Letter to a Man on a Motorized Bicycle

Dear John:

I don’t know your name, so we may as well both use mine.

The first time I saw you, my wife Kathy was with me, and I confess, you gave us a laugh. We didn’t object to your chosen transportation, but you’re not a small man, and your bike is low slung. It reminded me of an old motorcycle with a sidecar. Bundled against November, you were out of proportion to your ride, like President Lincoln on the back of a Shetland pony.

I saw you again yesterday on the way home from picking up a bottle of Crane Lake Petite Sirah. The temperature was stuck in the thirties, cold weather for buzzing around Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, with your face uncovered. Still, maybe you like the wind against your skin. Maybe you’re wisdom in disguise, your one lonely horsepower a choice rather than a consequence. What the hell do I know?

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Your bike reminds me of this old 4.5 horsepower, John. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is the short answer. I’ve already laid out my total knowledge of you. Everything else is a guess. I guess you would prefer a car to bike powered by, what, a lawn mower engine? I guess you made mistakes or ran up against bad luck or both. You have what I’ll euphemistically call some issues? You’re on meds or not. And you’re mostly alone, right?

It seems like I’m trying to excuse you and your ride, but if we were shooting the breeze over coffee, I would tell you about myself. Then you would know that I’m in no position to defend, explain, condemn, or absolve anybody. I’m on meds. My years are punctuated by silly choices. And like lots of citizens we both pass on Buffalo Road, I’m not far from needing dirt-cheap wheels.

I would explain, too, that as you disappeared from my rear view mirror yesterday, I didn’t say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The sentiment is humble, but I’m not sipping an overpriced Americano because God has been gracious to me. And it makes me nauseous to think that your knuckles get raw when you ride in the rain because God has denied you grace.

If we were together I would laugh and say, “Boy, John, shit happens, doesn’t it?” That’s as much explanation as I have.

There’s a lot I couldn’t share, at least not until cup three or four. I live on God’s grace, but that has nothing to do with my pudgy Chevy or your bike, my excess or your need. I bet neither one of us merits much in the way of blessing or curse. “It is what it is” would have to be enough from me for today.

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Are my wheels better than yours? I’m not at all sure, John.

Down the line, if we got to be friends, I would ask if you’re okay. The truth is, you might be way more okay than I am. A man who doesn’t mind being seen traveling on a contraption when snow is forecast probably has a thing or two to teach me.

Better still, I would say that sharing my name with you would be a privilege. And maybe you would look into my eyes, past the dark circles, and understand I was guessing about you not because you need my approval, but because you already have all the grace that’s mine to give.

Peace,

John

An Unorthodox Peace

IMG_3646This past Sunday the church I serve, Abiding Hope Lutheran in Erie, Pennsylvania, held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of our new church building, the foundation of which is already well underway. After morning worship at the old place, we all got into our cars and headed the mile or so to our future home.

For mundane reasons I had to drive son Micah’s car, which is always in unapologetic squalor. Almost to the end of the parking lot, I had to double back: the processional cross was still on its perch in the sanctuary. After fetching it, I looked at the backseat and paused: Should I put the cross down on that mess? Because I realized that entirely different questions were on my mind—ones I could answer right away—I rested the cross on my son’s work clipboard, toilet paper, hoody, etc., no food debris, thankfully.

The groundbreaking was meaningful and fun and didn’t seem at all redundant. No silver shovels for us. Everybody who wanted to turn some dirt brought a shovel from home, especially our kids. The ground was packed down by construction vehicle traffic and hard as the cinderblock foundation. We found a soft patch for the young ones with sandbox shovels and let them have at it, sang with gusto, and said our prayers and good intentions. The adults chipped loose teaspoons of gray crust.

When we finished, I lay the cross over the chaos for its ride to the Coleman house, where it leaned overnight in the dining room.

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Processional cross

“Ooh,” Micah said, spotting what he actually carried years ago as an acolyte. His question was implicit: “What’s the deal with the cross here?”

I explained.

He held it like a shovel—Christ at the top—and pretended to chip at the floor: “So did you dig with it?”

“It would have been fitting,” I said, “but, no, a couple of kids held it for the ceremony.”

As Micah has grown, we’ve developed an understanding. He gently teases me, but knows that my faith is spacious and merciful, blinding white with Mystery. And I take his searching seriously and don’t meddle with his atheism.

The purest image of my spirit’s posture is this: I don’t fear for my son. I don’t fear for anybody.

My Creator isn’t abstract. Often when I close my eyes and breathe, a love that feels bestowed rises in my throat—as when a parent watches a child disappear through the school doors. My chest is drawn toward a planetary embrace. The longing is physical.

It may be nothing more than my own middle-aged chemicals inducing some weird prayer-meditation high. I’m probably bat-crap crazy. I can’t offer a defense, only a description of the love that I bet my life on. God is what I call this love, but the older I get, the more I’m drawn to the ancient Jewish tradition of not vocalizing Yahweh. Shh. Only know and breathe compassion—for all, for self. I want to name the Holy One with my flawed heart and hands. My voice can’t be trusted entirely.

How far is the reach of Sacred Love? Whom and what does it rest upon? On Sunday, when I lay the cross on Micah’s slop in the backseat—nothing compared to the past squalor of heroin, arrest, and rage—I spoke my Christian answers to the questions behind my question. The universe is composed of beloved daughters and sons. Who am I to send anyone into exile? Helpless before grace as I am, how can I presume to stand in the way of Love?

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Christ’s metal blessing upon the chaos

This might not be the most convenient parking place for a pastor. Love’s current in the Bible is strong, but troubling blood flows there, too. I will only say that I’ve made an unorthodox peace with Egypt’s firstborn and Israel’s young women lacking evidence of their virginity, stoned to death on their family’s doorstep—we have a private understanding.

It’s enough, I guess, to admit that in resting a processional cross on the backseat of tired old Mazda sedan, I was confessing my belief: the risen Christ bestows a metal blessing on every mess in every land, on every soul aching with belief and disbelief.