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

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A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

Dear Parents (Especially New Ones):

I’m a Christian-Buddhist-pastor mutt in my mid-fifties, married to Kathy for thirty-two years. Daughter Elena and son Micah are grown, the former and her husband Matt having given us grandson Cole and promising us another grand-someone in the spring.

Yesterday Elena, Cole, and I (Pop) went to a nature center for a toddle in the woods. Nearly two, the boy is steady, but the path was strewn with branches and limbs from a recent windstorm. I kept close, spotting his steps, saying in my head, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” My mother did this with me, too, so the anxious parent-grandparent impulse has genetic force behind it.

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Watch out! Don’t get poked in the eye.

Or is the force my childhood home, which was loving and attentive but nerved up? I’m certainly not the first to observe that children take family vibes along when they grow up and move out. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to love in healthy ways and navigate through anxiety. In my late twenties it was full-blown panic attacks. In middle-age, it’s mostly trying to distinguish love from appeasement and not to turn every emotional speck of stardust into a blackhole. I pray-meditate a lot.

Lately my spiritual practice has drawn me to Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron, whose teachings are weaving themselves into my thoughts and actions. In a recent post, Writing and the Narrative of Suffering, I offer a brief summary of my novice understanding of some key concepts Ani Pema works with. If what follows is interesting, I invite you to have a look.

I was watching one of Pema’s videos this morning when I was grabbed by her flawless diagnosis of my parenting experience:

Trungpa Rimpoche coined the phrase idiot compassion, or you could say idiot loving-kindness. Some of you may have tried raising your children this way and you’re wishing you hadn’t. You can’t bear to see them in any kind of pain, so you give them whatever they want. [Doing this] is like trying to assuage someone’s thirst by giving them saltwater.

I’m overjoyed to report that Elena (27) and Micah (23) are doing well these days, but my unintended lesson about suffering sometimes made their journey a walk on glowing coals. By regularly showing them idiot compassion, I taught them that pain can be eliminated.

Let’s be clear about my motivation. I could claim that I wanted to spare them disappointment, sadness, frustration, whatever, but that was only 25% true. More pressing, say 75% true, was my need to overcome a father’s discomfort. This is idiot compassion, idiot loving-kindness. It could also be called selfish compassion or artificial loving-kindness. I try to make myself better by denying my child the reality every human being has to confront sooner or later: Life is sweet, but it also slaps your heart and punches your spirit.

Years ago in seminary, my Enneagram results indicated that conflict in close proximity could be crippling. Conflict, pissing and moaning kids, discipline and tough calls: It was all crippling, so much so that to find relief I undercut wife Kathy’s strength, wisdom, and wishes.

So Elena wore black makeup, dated guys I should have shown the door, and watched and listened to what she damn-well pleased. And Micah bought weed with money I gave him, dropped out of high school, and put less effort into my feeble attempt at home schooling than I did.

There’s more, some of it worse, but you get the idea. All my reasoning sounded convincing at the time, but now I look back at myself. That younger man was doubled over, rendered frantic and sick by the need to steady the ship, to calm the waters. If you think I was stupid, you’re right.

Given this scathing review of my parenting skills, you might imagine me constantly ripping myself a new one. Other than sighing, I don’t do much self-reproach. What compassion I possess also extends to myself. I mistook indulgence for insight. The glasses I saw through were, in fact, blinders.

So I put down these ideas. I’m not telling you what to do, but mistakes are great teachers. What I believe now is this: Allowing children to experience necessary suffering may well be the highest form of love.

And I’m glad that it’s not too late for me to learn. Cole fell three times on one patch of slick leaves–two near-splits and one averted face plant. I stayed back. He was fine, of course. Someday he’ll get a fat lip or a bruised soul. When he does, I’ll pick him up and tell him the truth: “I know you’re hurt. Sorry I couldn’t stop it. The best Pop can do is stay close and hurt with you.”

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Elena and Cole–three spills later and belly laughing

Peace and love,

John Coleman

A Pastor’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Abiding Hope Family:

If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.

And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.

I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.

My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.

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Baby Jesus, bless it all: the old candy canes, the banner, books I’ve never read, the mirror Elena looked into as she put on her wedding gown before I walked her down the aisle, then turned around and did the wedding.

Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.

I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.

I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.

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The little key is for the thermostat.

On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.

I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.

When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.

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“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” I’ve had this photograph taped on my office door. These kiddos go with me.

Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.

Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.

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Your chair, holding a box of keepers. It will still be waiting for you when the next pastor arrives.

Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.

At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”

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Beloved Abiding Hope faces, the quick and the dead. Old brother Earl (front row) has gone on to blessed rest.

Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.

During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.

One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.

Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”

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All are welcome at the Table of the Lord! This is Abiding Hope.

My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.

But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.

Love, peace, thanks, and so long,

Pastor John

A Soul Message to My Regulars

Dear Regulars:

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Elena’s old teacher notes that some students can’t find Europe on a map. You never know what the Starbucks regulars will kibitz about. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So what else would I be doing at 8:21 on a Monday morning? I’m at Starbucks, surrounded by regulars: a couple of lawyers dressed for court; a retiree who by coincidence was daughter Elena’s social studies teacher; a young artist who sketches fairies and dragons and buzzes half her skull down to stubble; an engineer numbed by an online meeting; and a woman who pours out her life for children and grandchildren. I’ve talked to all of them, some more than others. They feel like beloved cousins. Such goodness in these folks.

All tables are taken. The guy in my seat tries to pull the reigns on aging and negotiates with a temporarily bum shoulder. “Shoveling snow really did this to you? Do you need three ibuprofen or four?” “Make it four.”

As I sip a refill, the sun shines, then hides, then shines again. Breathing in and out, I think of you, whenever and wherever we inhabited each others’ days:

childhood

high school

college

graduate schools

seminary

old neighborhoods

and

jobs

grocery stores

coffee houses no longer

offices and waiting rooms

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Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins: it’s been thirty years. Herb and Rosemary, hi! Armand and Lynda, I’ll see you on the other side, right? (Credit: Wikipedia)

You aren’t showing up all at once. No, I receive you one-by-one, gratefully. Caroline. Bill. Jeff. Nancy. A procession of Garys. Because I know others by your names, namesakes straggle in. Welcome, everyone.

Hello, Becky, sister of Steven from Diehl Elementary School. (She had her leg amputated below the knee, then later—I don’t remember how long—she died, ten or twelve. Cancer.) Look into the eyes of glory, Becky. Belly laugh with the other children.

You don’t have to walk among the quick to be one of my regulars.

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Hyacinths always remind me of you, Gram–the curls of your wig.

Grandma Miller, your fingers are folded back into knuckled wings! I see your hair curled like hyacinths and your swollen face, but I can’t hear your voice anymore. I was sixteen. If it is permitted, Gram, please be there to receive me.

Hi, Alice, a wealth of Johns (that sounds wrong in a couple of ways), an embarrassment of Marys, more Kathys than I know what to do with. Matthews and Marks.

Now a tangible Patty shows up to share my table. That’s fine. She brings other Ps with her. Pauls, Pegs, Phils, one Penelope, and a lone Poopsie.

So many Richards and Elizabeths!

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Why have you arrived here, Anne Frank? No matter. All kids’ faces are sweet in my eyes. All are welcome. (Credit: Wikimedia)

What’s this? Jesse? I never knew you, but here you are, a sweet obituary face. Those who love you still dream you in their arms–your dear smile alone tells me this. I wasn’t expecting to welcome strangers to this gathering, but my plans seldom work out. So come in, Jesse. Stand glad with me in this warm light. Thich Nhat Hanh, wake up and bow to me. I’m listening. Rise, Ann Frank. Find your way home, Nigerian school girls. All of you, join Patty and me at this table.

Oh, my Lord, friends I’ve never seen or held are asking to join me in this public grace–names beginning with S, N, R, D, K, C, M. The alphabet isn’t long enough, though, miraculously, there’s room at this table, in this column of sun, for all of you, my regulars of many initials.

I don’t want to pretend. During these coffees in this now constant light, you haven’t all arrived. But wherever you are, I’m waiting. If mornings and afternoons are bitter and twilight is fretful, I’ll sit with you in safety. And if you have too many blessings to carry, hand me a few. We’ll give thanks together and I’ll share what you’ve given with others and probably hang on to one for myself.

I love you, friends. Your faces—skin creased by decades or still fair, eyebrows raised in surprise, or cheeks flushed with excitement or trouble—are dear to me.

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This face, such as it is, welcomes you. Come share the light, rest a while.

If you haven’t visited today, don’t worry. You will soon. Meanwhile, know that whether this day is good enough to travel by its own steam or so lousy it refuses to budge, call on me for a visit. The shoulder pain has eased enough for me to put an arm around you.

We’ll be calm and glad. If clouds take over, so be it. Present to each other–just two or three gathered–we can shine anyway.

Peace and love,

John