Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands

Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands

Dear Mom:

It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.

The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.

My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.

One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.

What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.

Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.

Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?

“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”

He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.

And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.

Your Christmas cactus lives, Mom.

Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?

When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.

Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”

Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.

In heaven unfinished business has to be checked at the gate. Right? Even so, I’m really sorry.

You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.

Love,

John

Oniontown Pastoral: The Darkness Comprehended It Not

Oniontown Pastoral: The Darkness Comprehended It Not

If I had to pick a favorite Scripture verse, John 1:5 might be it: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” As a rookie pastor, I printed these words and handed them out to folks on a Sunday morning. I can’t remember why, but did keep a copy for myself. For a decade it lived on the Coleman’s refrigerator, growing smoky blonde from taking in the mist of Thanksgiving turkeys, stir-fried chicken and vegetables and summers of boiled corn on the cob.

Actually, the King James Version puts it better: “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” “Overcome” is fine, but “comprehend” goes further. I speak poetically here. What is dark in the world can’t snuff out what is light. What’s more, the painful and unjust and sinister so wretchedly obvious to us all can’t understand—let alone suffocate—the compassionate, loving and hopeful. My peace depends on John 1:5.

I hadn’t given any thought of where our slip of paper had gone after we moved four years ago. Then, last week wife Kathy walked into the living room with a smile and handed me those beloved old words, stained and torn as I had remembered them—asleep in the attic, they were. Now they’re in a frame, which hangs above a chest of drawers by my writing table. I’m looking right at them.

Close to my writing table: holy words, light, refreshment.

On Tuesday evening I found myself thinking about light and darkness and believing against all odds that the first prevails over the second.

What happened was just this. After a day at St. John’s I was nearly back home to Erie when the phone rang. My fancy car does hands-free calling, so I answered. A kind sister from church told me that one of our members wasn’t doing well and wanted to see me.

There was never a question about turning around. In 2015, when I signed on for a thrice-weekly, 70 mile commute, the first rule was that when anybody needed me, distance wouldn’t stand in the way.

License plate, courtesy of friend Bill

By 6:oo p.m. my hybrid was back on Route 19 and heading for District Road. You might suppose the journey was depressing, but I’ve held many frightened hands, asked God for many favors and said “given for you” and “shed for you” so many times that pilgrims whose eyes are fixed on the Great Mystery and praying to find grace there don’t come close to filling me with gloom.

But there is darkness longing for light in a person’s final hours. In the most blessed cases it’s the denouement of a bright day—those thin moments between sunset and nightfall. There is love at the bedside, laughter and crying, gratitude for what has been and, of course, a clutching in the throat. Goodbyes are hard. Endings hurt.

As I passed through Sheakleyville and waved at Wagler’s Camp Perry, I invited the light and darkness in my chest to lean into each other. One suffers when you deny the other.

The sign was there, but I don’t remember seeing it in darkness.

And you better believe that pitch-black can set the noonday sun back on its heals. Kathy loves District Road as much as I do, and the recent passing of a 14-year-old boy who lived along those lovely miles haunts us. Dear God, 70 pounds, tortured, blasted by his father with a hose and dropped on the floor. Death came, merciful death, it sounds like.

Old farm machinery along my dear District Road

The roads around Oniontown get dark at night for this Erie boy, and I was glad not to be able to peer into the woods and spot the mobile home where this boy met his end.

“Pastor John,” you might be thinking, “why did you go and bring up that terrible story?”

Because if I hold this boy’s truth back, keep this reflection tidy, then it’s not worth a tinker’s damn. It would be a lie.

Depend on me to tell you the truth. The woman who wanted to see me and the family enfolding her with gentleness were shining as we surrounded her bed, rested our hands on her and talked to God.

You can believe that I cried afterwards—some tears of sorrow, but mostly joy. Now, does that make sense? Maybe not, but that’s how the light I’m talking about works. It can’t be comprehended.

Nor can a possibility that occurs to me now. When my faithful St. John’s friend closes her eyes, maybe a boy who once lived on District Road will be one of those souls singing her into glory.

A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

I can’t decide whether to feel guilty about a quirky, not-very-important dynamic having to do with the family dog’s routine.

About five times each week, the Coleman’s foxhound, Sherlock Holmes, goes to a dog park on Erie’s east side, several acres of fenced-in grass and trees.

Not to brag, but my lanky detective is a conversation piece among the regulars. He lustily announces his arrival with hoops and hollers as we pull into our parking spot. When I swing the gate open, he barrels toward the biggest cluster of dogs and skids to a miraculous stop in their midst without crashing into anybody. A session of chase quickly ensues, with Sherlock leading takers in a Rorschach pattern until by mutual consent they stop for a panting break, spittle flipping off of their tongues.

Thus loosened up, Mr. Holmes heads to a far corner for his daily constitutional. Yesterday the game was furiously afoot, such that four participants got nature’s memorandum at the same instant and dropped into the telltale crouch that, frankly, makes them look silly. (We might all learn from dogs the practical lesson that exercise can keep us regular.) Their communal bathroom break was no big surprise, as dogs tend to follow suit.

The shape of one of Sherlock’s chase routes (Wikimedia Commons)

For example, wherever snouts assemble, sniff tests are sure to be conducted. Some days, however, they can’t get enough of each other, which has me shouting, “All right, knock it off already!” In fact, our best friends have a policy akin to Murphy’s Law: “Awkward behaviors increase in proportion to the embarrassment they cause.”

This principle holds true with the most cringe-worthy, bawdy demonstration of dominance. One afternoon this summer, some human must have slipped steroids into the communal water bowls—that and/or Spanish Fly—as both males and females did nothing else for half hour other than show each other who was boss in the most sophomoric way possible. After dozens of protests, we moms and dads shrugged and actually resorted to chatting with each other.

Sherlock Holmes resting after a trip to the dog park

I exaggerate here only slightly. A fair amount of kibitzing does take place at the park, but for wife Kathy and me, the primary relationships are between ourselves and the dogs.

Which brings me to the dynamic on my mind: I can rattle off a baker’s dozen of dogs, but need only two fingers for the human names I recall. What does this say about me? People are more important than their pets, right?

I know Zero, Milo, Onyx, Titan, Max, Dexter, Gracie, Buck, Bailey, Prince, Zeus, Evy, Lego, Luna and Willow. And then there’s one of my favorites, Al, a female Rhodesian Ridgeback whose proper name is Alpine. The friendliest and least rambunctious regular, she was bred to hunt lions and other large game.

Used to be she would trot up as soon as I arrived and let me scratch the short Mohawk on her back. This was a thing, a ritual I came to love. Then she disappeared for a couple of months. There had been some dustups between dogs and spats between people, with the former acting more civilized than the latter. Anyway, I figured Al’s dad thought, “Forget this noise. We’re out of here.”

Al’s Mohawk, the ridge in the ridgeback

Turns out Al might have had ringworm and her dad kept her away out of consideration. But yesterday she strode into the place. I gave her time to renew old acquaintances before hollering from a good 50 yards away. “Alpine! Hey, Alpine, come here!”

To my delight, she made for me with steam in her stride. Holy cow! I’m not a huge presence in her life, just a park buddy. Still, once you’ve employed scratches, pats and sweet nothings to ask, “Can we be friends?” your heart’s doors swing open to let in a love as profound as that bandied about by humans. A dog’s affection is pure, no hidden agenda to rouse suspicion, no axe to grind.

Al, Gracie and the rest give me an infusion of uncomplicated joy, like a serum that cures scurvy of the soul.

So my mind is made up. Sherlock goes to the park to run off surplus energy, but I need to get there as much as he does. When I call my pals by name and they come to visit, something inside me feels right—hopeful, light, calm. For now I’ll grant myself special dispensation. Once the dogs make my heart big enough, I’ll ask what their moms and dads go by.

John and Al, dog park pals

Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Friend with a New Name

Oniontown Pastoral: An Old Friend with a New Name

Over two years ago I decided to call the blonde stallion on Route 19 Onslow. Each time I drove by, he seemed disheveled, like maybe he had recently enjoyed a roll in the dirt.

The late actor Geoffrey Hughes, who played Onslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

His namesake was from the old British comedy television show “Keeping Up Appearances.” This Onslow wore a sleeveless woolen vest with nothing underneath and a baseball cap. Other characters described him as bone idle, but he was amiable, if lazy, neither judging others nor doing much other than swilling beer and eating crisps. The fictional Onslow and his equestrian counterpart seemed to be kindred spirits, easy in their own hides and tranquil about their lot in life.

I figured that one day I would stop and meet Onslow. But what reason could I give for knocking on a stranger’s door and asking permission to introduce myself to one of the barnyard horses? If a good excuse ever came along, I would find the hutzpah necessary to make my request.

Last week Garage Sale signs in front of Onslow’s house gave me an opening. Even then I drove a quarter mile past before turning around. “Dog gone it, Coleman,” I thought, “get back there.”

The St. John’s Lutheran folks and I once laughed it up when I confessed that I was trying to muster the courage to make a cold call not on a man but a beast. No doubt about it, Pastor John was going to look silly.

A one-buck electric can opener in the drab olive green of the 1970s caught my eye. I carried it to the card-table sales counter and introduced myself: John Coleman, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran over on Mercer Road.

The friendly proprietor was Darlene, and as soon as I mentioned writing about her horse in The Record Argus, she had me. A friend had put one of my Oniontown reports under her nose and said, “Hey, is this about you?”

“What was it you called my horse?” she asked.

“Onslow,” I answered. “I made up the name.”

“That’s right, Onslow.”

“But what’s his name really?”

“Trigger.”

Trigger? Trigger. I tried to take it in. Sure, the name had a fine pedigree, pared as it was with Roy Rogers, but it would require effort to let go of Onslow. The name glowed in my imagination, and no kidding, when wife Kathy and I brought our grandsons to church, we would all wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.”

“Would it be OK if I said hi to Trigger?”

“Sure,” Darlene said. “He’s the friendliest horse in the world. He might even come over to you.” Every morning, she explained, she goes outside to feed a duck named Clyde and says hello to Trigger.

So my old friend with a new name isn’t a grouch. He occupies his own yard because—and I was the last to figure this out—impure masculine thoughts and impulses take possession of him when he spends too much time with the ladies.

My loafers got covered with dew on my way across the yard. In a modest stall beside the stallion formerly known as Onslow was Sandy, a mare who by genetics or modification doesn’t awaken his inner Don Juan. I still don’t quite understand this wrinkle.

“Trigger,” I said, holding out my hand, palm up, “I want to say hi. Come here.”

He stomped a few times, shook his head to shoo away flies, but didn’t budge. Sandy arrived for tufts of grass and strokes on her nose.

Trigger (the stallion formerly known as Onslow)

To folks who live in Oniontown and thereabouts, getting close to horses might be commonplace, but to me, magnificent is not too strong a word to describe the experience of running fingers between those flaring nostrils, watching those great lips open to receive grass and listening to the deep, guttural crunch as they chew.

I stayed for half an hour, communing with Sandy and calling out to Trigger, but finally had to leave for another day in the pastor’s saddle at St. John’s.

So now I know Trigger’s real name and must say godspeed to Onslow. On Sunday mornings we grandparents and grandkids will say, “Hi, Trigger! Hi, Sandy!” I’ll keep an eye open for Clyde.

And I’ll check with Darlene to make sure it’s OK to visit Trigger again. He’ll come to me eventually. I’ll brush away flies and offer him grass or an apple if I’m allowed. Hopefully he’ll know I’m perfectly serious when I call him my friend.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.

Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.

My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.

Credit: Michael McCartney

My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.

As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.

I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.

“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.

Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.

“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”

They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.

I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.

I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.

“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”

Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.

Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.

Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.

Lovely valley, kind of lonesome (Credit: Dreamy Pixel on Wikimedia Commons)

My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.

Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.

I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.

Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”

No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.

So I receive Omran and the bride as both package deal and personal obligation. The foreign boy and domestic woman and the McCartney guys and wincing stranger abide under my watch.

That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

(May 30, 2019)

And if I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat.

(Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, whose frizzy pompadour was once a natural wonder, wrote “If I Had a Boat” while skipping a college class. Unable to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “It’s a song about possibility . . . a song about being a cowboy out west and the captain of a great ship.”

Lyle Lovett, whose pompadour used to be twice this high. (Credit: Forest L. Smith, III, on Wikimedia Commons)

Well, it’s Lovett’s song to explain, but I hear in its whimsy an impulse to leave behind the stifling and disappointing. In one verse, the country crooner has Tonto, who does the Lone Ranger’s “dirty work for free,” saying, “Kemo Sabe, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea.” The delicious hutzpah elicits whoops and applause.

Lately the song has become a hymn to me, in part because of the legendary sidekick’s impertinence. From time to time—and I ask this in a sincere pastoral tone—don’t you want to bare your bum to civilization and “go out on the ocean”? To ride a pony toward a horizon of possibilities? I sure do, and saying so constitutes a confession that the good Lord would probably understand.

I’m not indulging in a rant or snivel here. The truth is, we’ve all had weeks that deserve to be hauled out into open air and shared, for the sake of commiseration if nothing else. The truth also is, a village preacher can either succumb to despair or maintain a cargo hold stocked with hope. The latter has stood me in good stead, and I’m not about to change course now.

So, about this past week.

For starters, I visited an old friend who has been in declining health. He couldn’t rouse himself from an awful dream, the highlights of which he narrated between groans and shouts. “I want to get the hell out of here.” “I need a place.” “There’s nothing I can do.” “Help me.” His manner was delirious, but, in fact, he captured the plot perfectly.

A woman in the next wheelchair patted my friend’s arm, mouthed a prayer, then pulled her fleece sweater up over her head in turtle fashion.

So I prayed them both a boat out on the ocean. This was their fervent wish. Why should they be moored for one minute longer in such troubled waters?

This painful visit was followed by news that hit like a rogue wave. Wife Kathy and I were settling into bed for a bout of reading when she learned that a dear friend’s ex-husband had died in a tragic accident.

I first heard Lyle Lovett’s playful song on a recording this friend had made for Kathy and me. I wish we lived on the same continent so that we could shoot misery the moon and sing a hymn about riding a pony on deck.

A sail boat just big enough for a pony ride. (Credit: Serge Melki on Wikimedia Commons)

I never met our friend’s ex, but did get to know recently one of their adult children. And, of course, a divorce doesn’t sever all ties of affection. There’s plenty of pain to go around. In this moment, the hope in my cargo hold looks meager next to unexpected death. I have little to offer. But what else is there besides hope that a capsized vessel–or a life overturned–will right itself and remain seaworthy?

In the week’s final glancing blow, The New York Times notes this morning the death of Leon Redbone at age 69. According to his death announcement, the quirky, secretive troubadour “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at age 127.”

Leon Redbone in 2010. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Oh behave yourselves,” he said in a prepared sign off. “Thank you . . . and good evening everybody.”

No doubt Redbone wanted fans like me to keep our chins up, which is wise counsel. (Of course, when death has stolen a loved one, your chin and all the rest of you can certainly droop for a while.)

I still haven’t grown up yet, but as my collection of bad weeks becomes a flotilla, singing helps me to gaze across the delta at that beautiful shore.

One day we will “all together go out on the ocean,” not to give Kemo Sabe what for, but to point our pony’s face into the spray and gallop for joy.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany

Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany

When wife Kathy and I traveled to Berlin in March, my old wristwatch went with us. This was risky, as the second hand had broken free from its post. My digital Timex Ironman would have been the logical choice, but there was something poetic about a second hand napping as if in a hammock slung between 5 and 7. Anyway, it served faithfully for decades and deserved one cushy foreign assignment before its retirement.

Kathy and I had been in the land of oompah bands and lederhosen—we encountered neither—for less than a week when I determined that Deutschland was more foreign to my watch than to me, the greatest distance between Germany and Pennsylvania being Central European Time’s five-hour lead on Eastern Standard Time. The human condition “auf Deutsch” and “in English” is about the same.

German round bales, looking like those in Oniontown, though stacked differently

Bare branches against a German sky

Bare branches against a Pennsylvania sky

Of course, appearances insist otherwise. For example, scads of Berliners dress in solid black: fedoras, scarves, leather jackets, dungarees and boots, all black. A citizen strolling down Oniontown Road so attired would draw glances, while in the German capital you could go a whole afternoon without seeing America’s color “du jour,” pink.

And holy skinny cow! The percentage of Germans who look undernourished roughly corresponds to Americans like me who ought to give their forks a rest.

Other trifles jump out. Unsweetened iced tea, my go-to beverage, is practically anathema. Pharmacies sell medicine, never cosmetics and school supplies.

The most curious difference between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America may be each country’s cemeteries. In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported what our friend and host Claudia explained to us: “Under German law families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused.”

Tombstones over a century old are rare—which was disappointing news. Kathy and I wanted to visit the grave of Johann Specht, my great-great-great-great grandfather who was born in 1767, but contented ourselves with following narrow roads to Gross Köthel, the village where he abided his 66 years. We also checked out Schröedershof, birthplace of my great-great-great grandmother Magdalena Peters Specht in 1816. She immigrated to the U.S. and died in North East, Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from my front stoop.

Out looking for Magdalena

Soon I’ll look for Magdalena’s resting place, but I won’t be wearing my old watch. The minute hand has now fallen off, which doesn’t count for much when you’re musing about ancestors, but here in the present, a quarter of an hour either way matters.

I’ve decided to hang the languishing timepiece on the wall beside my desk as a reminder of Germany.

Standing in the places my great-greats called home and wondering at crumbling stone buildings that they might have known, I didn’t cry or even get choked up. Still, these villages felt vaguely familiar, as if presences who have always loved me patted my hand, like my mother did when I was worried.

There would be no passing my fingers over Johann’s name carved in stone, but I still hoped to touch the font in which my great-great-great grandfather, also Johann, was baptized in 1811. No such luck. The church was locked, and worship was being held down the cobblestone street in an auxiliary building. Peeking in the window, Claudia, Kathy and I saw the pastor in a black suit preaching to a handful of elderly congregants. (America isn’t the only country with empty pews.)

Church where Johann Specht was baptized

You might think our trip was a letdown, but Kathy and I loved Germany and most of all commiserating with Claudia. The thing is, joy and disappointment travel hand in hand.

We saw the villages, but not the graves. We saw the church, but not the font. We saw the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin and Katie Luther’s home and other sites, but dragged along with us tickling coughs that persist to this very moment.

Pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg–visiting clergy may not ascend!

Table at Luther’s house, where he talked many a long hour

The world is thus, here and abroad. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of wonderful. Yesterday and today are at once poetic and broken, like my old watch, now able to remind me only that hours are passing away.

It’s still right twice a day, but the third hand must eventually lose its grip. When it does I’ll pray to visit Johann and Magdalena in glory and hope that great-great-great-great grandchildren searching for my grave will feel me pat them on the hand.

A retired watch

Hanging on and Letting Go

Hanging on and Letting Go

The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.

Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.

When I had hair to tuck behind an ear.

Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.

Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.

But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.

Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.

Gone on to glory. Nameless. Not pleased.

After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.

This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.

Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture. 

Mom and Dad

One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.

It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.

Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.

Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.

I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

(8 minute read)

As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.

But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.

In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”

Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.

“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.

“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”

Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.

But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?

Two of my grandchildren. I have millions.

I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”

The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.

I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.

But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?

Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.

One of my boys named Jesse. Sweet face! Soul full of music.

Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.

The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.

If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.

A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.

If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?

  • When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
  • The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
  • Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
  • I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.

Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.

Dear Lord, Let all children feel this safe and peaceful in my presence. Amen

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

The truth arrived at dawn as I enjoyed the calm before facing another day: I see myself in a horse on the way to Oniontown.

My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.

Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.

I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.

But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.

I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.

Ah, Oniontown! Your fields bring me the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”

I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.

I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.

“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.

“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”

When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.

Still on the refrigerator in the Coleman house

Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.

Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.