Naps and Prayers in Ash

Church camp with forty-five teenagers and four fellow pastors is now a couple weeks in the rearview mirror. Every summer we spend six days together at Camp Lutherlyn (near Butler, Pennsylvania) covering Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastor Jeff and I teach first year kids the Ten Commandments, which is an exercise I appreciate more as the summers pile up.

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I’ve come to know the Ten Commandments not as scolding stares (as from this owl in the Lutherlyn Environmental Education Center) but as ways to love neighbor and world.

Spending a couple of hours per day talking about taking the Lord’s name in vain and multiple shalt nots probably sounds depressing, but not with Martin Luther’s explanations of what the commandments mean. Take number seven: “You shall not steal.” As long as you don’t break into a car and run off with somebody’s purse, you’re good, right? Luther pushes the idea open: “We should fear and love God that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get it by dishonest dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of income.” Carry this too far, and you’ll be labeled a pinko radical.

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Martin Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarethe: Severe looking folk! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

With every prohibition Luther tacks on an exhortation. So not bearing false witness against your neighbor comes with the instruction to “defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If you’ll forgive the gender specific language, Luther’s explanations blow the dust off of Moses’ tablets and shine justice’s light on them.

Peeling back the layers was joyful. It’s not enough to avoid strangling our neighbors; we are to “help and befriend” them. And not coveting your neighbor’s possessions includes actually helping her to keep them.

Beyond the classroom time, during which I gratefully hang on to master-teacher Jeff’s coattails, each installment of Camp Lutherlyn has its own personality and unveils its own lessons before this middle-aged novice.

June 14th through 19th had a trippy groove—trippy and drippy. This was certainly the rainiest week on record. My sneakers went into the trash as soon as I got home. But the weather was just a backdrop to the funkiness.

Photographs tell part of the story:

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Lutherlyn’s Environmental Education Center has plenty of curiosities and stuffed animals that appear bemused.

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You’re welcome to pet this porcupine, but, as the signage suggests, go “from the head toward the tail only.” Copy that!

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Pastor Jeff examines a boa skin. If I ever see one of these in the Pennsylvania woods, I’m going home.

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A kid standing beside me said, “Is that poop on a stick?” Not poop, but “galls.” Check out the next slide.

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Church camp’s Harmonic Convergence shone on the next-to-last evening during the annual Snake Pit, when kids get to ask pastors any questions they want. One young lady said, “If you could add another commandment to the ten, what would it be?” I knew my answer right away, but let the other pastors go first while mulling over the risk. “Oh, damn the torpedoes,” I thought, then spoke: “I’d add a commandment that Anne Lamott included in one of her books [Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith]. She said, “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” Gasp. Giggle. “I’d add that second rule.”

That was the message of camp writ coarsely: “For the love of God, be nice. Don’t be a jerk. Keep your promises. Share the buckets in the sandbox.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I haven’t received any complaints yet, so maybe the colorful language was received as intended.

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The week’s oddest moment came on Wednesday evening, when the pastors usually go off campus for supper. This urinal was in an otherwise nice and tasteful brew pub. I’m still can’t figure out how this is supposed to be funny. “Thou shalt not piss on thy neighbors, regardless of their race, nation, creed, etc.”

Photographing a urinal with what looks like a 1970s funk band painted on the porcelain and saying asshole in front of a bunch of kids would have made any week at camp a stunner, but the way my spiritual doors got blown open by the slanting rain was a bigger surprise. Ten years ago Lutherlyn was all about running and writing. Between classes, while the kids were off mud whomping and zip-lining, I got in some great hill work and wrote a thousand words a day.

This time around I hadn’t planned on exercise, but did look forward to wide fields of writing. Last year yielded three blog posts, but from the moment I put my pillows and bags in Ash, the cabin I shared with the guys, naps and prayers were the rule. Sometimes the two wove themselves together, with quiet abiding trailing off into healing sleep. In the forty-five minutes between morning class and lunch, I returned to Ash and lay down for half an hour of breathing and letting go. Then when afternoon class wrapped up, I took a siesta with wise and loving arms—ninety minutes, two hours.

It didn’t take long to figure out the lesson church camp had in store for me: I was weary deep down in a place sleep only begins to refresh. In the past I would have denied myself the rest, the old mile- and word-counting impulses pressing harder than compassion for self. But for six days in June of 2015, I surrendered. Of course, the learning was about more than fatigue.

In May of 2013 I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The plan was to write, which is a pleasure, share a few meals with Brother John, and rest in the monks’ peace. Turned out I had more grieving to do over the ugliness of my father’s death. If I hadn’t known before I certainly discovered then that silence is an astute therapist. Wounded and injured parts of myself, often in hiding for months and years, visit and have their say.

Words are optional. In Kentucky I watched Dad obey Dylan Thomas’ villanelle. At Camp Lutherlyn my visitors didn’t need to speak. I know these injuries well and long ago accepted their teaching that forgiveness doesn’t cure everything. Absolution doesn’t get rid of a limp.

So I slept in Ash and took in long draughts of the Sacred Presence. And here what could have been nothing more than days overcast with ache was redeemed by hope. I’ve built my life on the probably foolish premise that interior silence is both invocation and petition. Come, Jesus. Welcome, Buddha. Heal and teach, Mysterious Love. There’s no proof that Holiness exists, let alone that it takes up residence in me when I put aside the smart phone, breathe, and wait. Still, I would hate to think of the person I would be today without the grace and mercy that have found me when I close my eyes and come to rest.

Though my visitors were tossing and turning on the next bunk, I understood that their paralyzing power was giving way to the creation of a new man—or the reclamation of an old one, I’m not sure which.

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Steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. News of the murders there reached me toward the end of camp week–the saddest moment. The shooter, it turns out, is a Lutheran who went to church camp as a kid. (Credit: Spencer Means on Wikimedia Commons)

We’re always becoming, aren’t we? Every last one of us. Refurbished souls with sutured hearts, crooked legs, and bruised skin. (Maybe this explains my weight gain and stretch marks! I’m new wine in an old wineskin.)

I’m grateful for a peculiar week at church camp, a crude commandment added to the usual Ten, and holy naps and prayers in Ash. At 9:05 a.m. on July 6th I’m a fifty-three-year-old novice with an inexplicable smile.

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In Gratitude for Annoyance

There’s no denying, over the last two years I’ve been out of sorts. A Napper’s Companion has often been a long-suffering sounding board as I’ve droned, waxed, and howled. Sure, joy has visited for long spells, but if life were a bar graph measuring months, more than a few of them would dip below emotional zero.

When feeling sorry for yourself becomes a habit, it’s actually refreshing to find yourself merely annoyed rather than crestfallen. Narcissus stared into a pool of water and beheld his beauty. I’ve only recently pulled my gaze away from my navel, which is a deepening pool of the unspeakable—I speak literally here. Weight loss is in my future. Anyway, events that would have reduced me to curses and sighs a few months ago now hardly register on my graph. In fact, I’ve been laughing.

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Narcissus by Caravaggio (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Laughing? The hell you say, John!” Yes, from the belly right into the crevasses of existential paper cuts. Feels good.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that wife Kathy and I bought a 1000 square foot house. Downsize and all that. Kathy loves me, but doesn’t fully trust me to do grown-up quality work on the new place. So far I’ve been cleared to wipe down shelves and cabinets with Murphy’s Oil Soap, prime old thirsty walls and our bedroom closet, and scrub and sweep the basement. Fans of physical comedy would pay up if I could produce a video of my efforts.

Painting a closet is like doing calisthenics in a phone booth. I got flat white prints everywhere on my person, not from my brush, but from bumping into what I just painted. The language was mild but repetitive, damn it after damn it plunking as if from a leaky faucet. The worst part was tapping all quarters of my head against wet shelves. (Former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, God rest them, were a shelf- and hook-happy Depression-era couple. Random hooks and shelves stick out from walls, woodwork, and crannies like Betty White flipping me the bird. How many items can you actually hang up? Used and washed Saran Wrap to dry? Lonely socks?)

When the job was finished, I expected to see in the mirror a balding man with ridiculous blotches of paint all over his head. The sad fact was, aside from an Ash Wednesday-level smudge on my forehead, nothing much had changed. Turns out flat-white primer is a good match for my hair. I can apply Just for Men Touch of Gray, paint another closet, or go natural? It’s good to have options. My policy is to refrain from laughing at my reflection, but in this case I gave in.

Video of basement duty would appeal to folks comfortable laughing at actual pain. The space is clean, dry, and stand-up-friendly, mostly. A couple of fixtures make this six-foot man dip, and one run of ductwork can be cleared only by a hobbit. Of course, units of especially dusty shelves ran parallel to the damn it ductwork. During the three hours I spent bobbing, weaving, push-brooming, scrubbing, and absorbing the perfume of Murphy’s Oil Soap, I forgot to limbo ten times. Ten matches of fathead versus galvanized steel. Two knocks resulted in language. A few got harrumphs, and the rest snorts. A week later, my head still looks like a wounded cantaloupe.

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Yes, this is my scalp. God help me. And, heck, why not an age spot or two?

Fortunately, I don’t have any goose eggs as big as our black Lab-terrier mix Watson’s. The fatty tumor on his left flank is so ridiculous we finally took him thirty minutes from Erie to a veterinarian who specializes in animal homeopathy and chiropractic. As I wrote recently, the old mutt is gimpy, and the present steroids and NSAIDs don’t seem to be helping much.

When the veterinarian entered the examination room, I liked him before he said a word—a skinny old guy wearing jeans, a craze of wiry gray hair, and a bushy mustache. He could have been Clem Kadiddlehopper’s brother. (I mean that as a compliment.)

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Red Skelton (center) as Clem Kadiddlehopper. (Credit: NBC TV on Wikimedia Commons)

He talked rapidly and passionately, flitted in and out of the room to mix potions, and finally poured out on the counter bottles, an envelope, and a medicine dropper. With no other social segue than “okay, bye” he was back into his homeopathic sanctum. We paid, hoisted Watson into the truck, and headed for home.

On the way down, in the vet’s office, and on the way back to Erie, Watson was calm. As soon as we were in the door, Kathy administered the first dropper full of homeopathic pain relief. Did the new experience send a ripple along Watson’s bowel? Make him feel momentarily tipsy? I’m not sure what he felt, but I know squirtle when I smell it. That’s what we call doggy fear fluid in the Coleman household. I’m used to dogs squirtling in the car or at the vet’s office, but safe at home, the ordeal passed?

He lay beside me at the dining room table, dazed and wretched. His eyes said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry.”

Dear blogging friend naptimethoughts explained to me in a generous comment the anatomical cause for squirtle and described how the sacs in question sometimes have to be manually expressed. My grand-dog Layla occasionally gets plugged up, and her vet offered to show daughter Elena how to glove up and give relief right at home for free. “Ah, no.”

Last evening Kathy and I made a run to the new house and took Watson along. Was it that my lift into the truck squeezed his belly? Or has he acquired a hair trigger? Whatever the case, the cab hazed over with Eau de Sacs. Today in frigid Erie, Pennsylvania, the sun warmed the truck seats, normally a bonus. Obviously, nature toasted the spots where my old pal pressed his rumpus against the fabric, freeing up the squirtle for continued enjoyment.

Ah, if the day’s worst ambush is a dropper-full of Watson’s anxiety juice, I’m golden. Is it possible to find an elderly dog’s harmless infirmity endearing? I think so.

It’s at least as possible as enjoying the supreme annoyance that is football’s Super Bowl. The family was over, and we took in the Seattle Seahawks’ last offensive play, when team strategists squirtled away the game by passing from the one yard line rather than handing the ball to Media Day wag Marshawn Lynch.

The highlight of the game for me was halftime. Katy Perry rode a twinkling gold behemoth and ascended into artificial fog, but grandson Cole stole the show. Sitting in Kathy’s lap, he made the best possible use of the spectacle: his fine eyelids slipped, slipped, slipped.

As I watched Cole’s commentary, I thought something that might seem dark at first: if somehow we humans aren’t suited for eternity, if an arbitrary sac of years in the here and now is all we get, then I might be okay with that. I hope for forever, but I got to watch this boy in his grandmother’s lap, as treasured and lovely as can be. Katy Perry fell quiet, or may as well have, and I figured that witnessing such love was more than enough justification for a lifetime.

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My grandson in his wagon: take that, Katy Perry! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

In the annoyance and blessing of recent days, I’m starting to feel whole again. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to say. I could learn to like this.

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.