American Pastoral

Dear Friend:

If you came here looking for “American Pastoral,” I’ve moved it to my new blog, Matters of Conscience. Please follow the link to get there.

Peace and best,

John

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A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (Credit: Wikipedia)

I was settling in for my Sunday afternoon ministerial nap with a little channel surfing, and there it was on CNN: Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his bathroom; heroin in apartment; needle in his arm. I hollered downstairs for son Micah, a former addict. He sat on the bed at my feet, said, “Oh, no!” and put his face in his hands.

I let a minute pass. “Would he have known what was happening to him?”

“No,” Micah said. “He would’ve passed out right away. He died in a couple minutes.” Clean for over eighteen months, Micah would know.

Heroin has been in the news in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio lately—maybe beyond, I don’t know. Some sinister entrepreneurs came up with the idea of mixing fentanyl with heroin. The problem: fentanyl is 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin. One recent batch from Allegheny County in southwest Pennsylvania contained 50% fentanyl. Good night!

People are dying, and Hoffman himself appears to have overdosed on that sketchy brew. Maybe because Micah’s a fan, this average-looking-at-best actor is taking up spiritual room in me today. He was at the top of his game, most likely in great shape financially, but there was an ache in him somewhere. At least I imagine this was so. I bet most of us have pain burrowed down so far inside that nothing much can reach it.

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Justin Bieber (Credit: Wikipedia)

Without knowing it, Hoffman foreshadowed the difficulties of another troubled celebrity in a 2006 60 Minutes interview. He may as well have been talking about Justin Bieber, who at that time was probably up close to the mirror, searching for his first whisker. Hoffman said,

I always think, God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich — I’m like, ‘My God, I’d be dead’ — 19, beautiful, famous and rich, that would be it, you know … I think back at that time and think if I had the money, that kind of money.

Ironic, of course: Hoffman’s dead anyway. During Micah’s first months of sobriety, he mentioned that eventually shooting up wasn’t any fun. Life was just about getting ahold of drugs so he wouldn’t feel like crap. I wonder if that’s how it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And what’s Justin Bieber thinking? Beautiful and famous and rich, he’s apparently shaking his groove thing at the edge of the abyss; that is if the news is accurate. Fast cars, booze, some weed. Who knows? Is Bieber going through too much, too fast, too young? Nineteen year olds can be explosive to start with. Whatever his deal, I’d say from my spectator’s distance that inner-peace isn’t part of the package.

What must it be like to have over 200,000 citizens sign a petition calling for you to be deported? My friend Mark posted an insightful defense of the Canadian heartthrob on Facebook a couple days ago:

I’m about tired of people crushing Justin Beiber. Get all your jokes out now. Ha ha ha. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage boys. Are you done? Good. I may be over sensitive to the abuse put on the kid because one of my girls loves him. She is crestfallen every time she hears bad press and even more devastated with the ensuing public dismantling. I love her. So when she hurts, I hurt. I don’t like his music and he’s made some absolutely stupid decisions. HE’S 19! Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff at 19? Okay, take 19 year old you and add, say, 10 million dollars. Holy Crap! Now factor in that everybody with a camera wants to take a picture of you. If you’re doing something wrong, even better. Multiply that by the fact that nobody ever told the kid “no”. He was their meal ticket. They had to keep him happy, no supervision makes a happy teen. All this, and he has screaming hoards of women of all ages wanting to, um, get with him. It’s just math people. He’s going to be a little screwed up.

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Daughter Elena holding grandson Cole. Proposal: What if I try to hold the world and everybody in it with this tenderness and joy? I want to try.

I don’t know if Bieber was never told “no,” but Mark’s got it right. If anything, the kid deserves our understanding. It’s easy to condemn Philip Seymour Hoffman’s junkie death and Justin Bieber’s dumb-ass choices, but only if addiction’s never had you by the throat or your post-pubescent brain has never told you the evil-twin lies: “You’re always right, and you’re invincible.”

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Credit: corbisimages.com

The last thing Hoffman and Bieber need is my judgment. What they need is all the compassion I can muster. (And it ain’t easy with the latter’s chronically raised eyebrows and extravagant fitteds.) In fact, that’s what every corner of creation needs: my compassion.

Each week I spend hours in contemplative prayer, and you’d think heroin addicts and crazy kids would barge in on my silence and demand my attention. Sometimes this happens, but Hoffman, Bieber, and company are more likely to visit me at an inconvenient moment. On Sunday mornings, just before the congregation receives Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The last words are “grant us peace.” We sing it three sweet times: “Grant us peace. Grant us peace. Grant us peace.”

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Grant us peace! (Credit: Lew Robertson / Corbis)

I stand still and pray quietly: “Grant us peace!” I have just a few seconds; if I don’t start distributing the bread, people will think I’ve fallen asleep on my feet. Ah well. Philip Seymour Hoffman will arrive next Sunday, and I’ll sing, “Grant him peace.” Justin Bieber, too: “Grant him peace.” The four-year-old Erie girl who died in a house fire yesterday will appear: “Grant her peace.” And the firefighters who tried to save her: “Grant them peace.”

“Grant us peace.” Part of me wants to stand still in my alb and stole long after the congregation has gone home and sing: “Peace!” Peace for the wealthy and poor with needles stuck in their veins. Peace for the invincible. Peace for saints and sinners everywhere. Peace and healing to that hidden place in all of us, that dark corner where tears reside.

All are welcome in this prayer. Are you suffering? Are you alone to blame? Are you dead, gone into Mystery? Can you hear me? Show up in my spirit. I’ll sing your lovely name to God.

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.