Oniontown Pastoral: Why We Spoil Sherlock Holmes

Kathy makes Holmes—that’s what my wife calls him—liver treats. Mmm. Our house smells scrumptious when she makes the slurry of cow-organ and grain, spreads it on a baking sheet, and slides it into the oven. But you love a dog, and this is where you wind up: wrecking your kitchen in exchange for a few wags of a boney tail. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Trifles

Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Trifles

This post is dedicated to my colleagues in ministry.

Just now, I finally got it. I understand why those of us long in the tooth are loath to part with our treasures. The matter is clouded by television programs about hoarders who clutch last week’s pizza box to their chest because the cardboard might come in handy. Also fogging up the conversation are youngsters with hearts of flint who categorize objects without a practical purpose as “all that junk.” Well, I keep trifles, and the reason has become clear.

I feel low this Friday, which promises rain later on. Its wispy sound will be welcome, as I have work to do and will be sitting where I am now when it falls—this report has to get written along with a sermon. The tasks are agreeable, though melancholy leans against my chest, in the hollow where tears come from.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is like many mainline Christian congregations. We’re aging quickly, and the faithful whose sturdy souls and frames gave richly to the church are disappearing one by one, over the horizon and into glory. Neal’s funeral was this past Wednesday. Bill’s was in late January.

Friend Ray’s cigar resting on wise words

Please know, I’m neither crying in my morning tea nor looking for sympathy. A pastor’s call involves baptizing, marrying and burying. Like my colleagues, I put shoulder to wheel. Pastors do love their folks, however, not theoretically or by obligation, but with plain old human love. This reality makes the vocation by turns buoyant and weighty. Downstream from baptismal waters are ashes and dust. This is life, right?

But just now, sighing and imagining light perpetual, I looked at the bicycle pump needle on my windowsill. Fred, who died two years ago come June, gave it to me. One afternoon I tried to inflate his car tire with some electronic device. It should have been cake, but I floundered. My next visit he handed me the needle and went on a laughing jag. I pick it up, close my eyes and listen to Fred’s joy. He had the greatest laugh. I see him there across from me, and in my mind, dry bones rise and dance.

Fred’s needle

The needle helps me keep Fred close by. It occurs to me that both here in my writing hut in Erie and in the pastor’s study in Oniontown, I’ve surrounded myself with relics of a sort.

The tin my mother packed full of sewing machine bobbins now contains quarters, dimes and nickels. I run my fingers over the lid faded by decades and hear her mighty Singer hum again downstairs as I fall asleep.

Mom’s bobbin tin

Dad’s Hall’s Excelsior Bank—a small iron piece—holds pennies, which my grandsons shake out on the floor now and then. His father’s pocket watch resides to my left and can be coaxed briefly to life with tender winding. The cigar friend Ray gave me sheds its leaf, kept together only by a glass tube. As before, he and his sagging jeans flop into my passenger seat for an afternoon of errands. “Ah shucks, Pastor,” he says, “I’m tired.”

Dad’s bank

Me, too, Ray. In my case, I’m tired of goodbyes. When at St. John’s I scan the study’s landscape. Deanie’s cardboard Vacation Bible School giraffe peaks out from behind the filing cabinet. In my top desk drawer reclines a pack of matches that says, “If there’s an umbrella in my drink, it better be raining.” My hunch is this was left behind by a pastor or two ago, and I’d like nothing more than to clink mugs with that guy. And Sadie’s portrait from early in the past century suns itself near the window. For a time, she will remind me of Bill, whom I mentioned earlier. They were related. Bill was the purveyor of much St. John’s mischief. His passing is still fresh, as is his memory. I’ll work my way to laughing soon enough, but for now, I just miss him.

Are the holy trifles I keep at hand my way of coping? Ah well, so be it. My mother’s red Paper Mate pen rides in my shirt pocket. Putting down a signature, I say something like, “You’re dead, Mom, but not entirely. Not to me.” Her cursive was lovely.

Mom’s Paper Mate and John’s pencil

Behold, I’ve taken my appreciation of objects with a negligible purpose to a new level. Last week I received a shipment of 100 mechanical pencils from a retired man who tells me he has a couple hundred more to sell, along with a handful of fountain pens.

Beside Mom’s Paper Mate I carry a pencil from John K. Denlinger Service Station in Lancaster, Pa. The proprietor may well have been looking over my shoulder as I wrote down today’s duties. I never met John, but I hereby take the liberty of calling him my brother.

Oniontown Pastoral: Not One Sparrow Shall Fall to the Ground

Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage. Continue reading

A Sable Cloud Turns Forth Her Silver Lining

A Sable Cloud Turns Forth Her Silver Lining

U-turn and detour. Limbo and leap. Bob and weave. This is my life, and the seasons ahead may bring shrug and chuckle as well as shimmy and shuffle. The joyful dynamic I sway to is occasioned by two realities: family and writing. As a husband, father and grandfather, I embrace delays, entreaties and ambushes as opportunities to help, love and be a good sport. As a writer I know that most of my worthy subjects resemble stumbling blocks.

I say resemble because one man’s annoyance is another’s delight and stumbling blocks because my truth is partly physical. My wife of 39 years is a purveyor of beauty. It’s out my window overlooking the backyard: sunflowers, young spaghetti squash hanging from improvised latticework, wildflowers planted just for me, other splashes of color I can’t name. Eye pleasing, yes, but it’s also an obstacle course. I can’t walk in any direction on our humble estate without maneuvering around, over or under something.

Robust leaves shining with dew bow across the path between me and my writing hut. Frequently I belly up to the desk with my person and clothing damp.

Sunflower leaves on the way to my writing hut

On days I drive to Oniontown for church work, climbing into the car reminds me to lose weight. Coneflowers and daisies tap my hamstrings as I suck in my torso to skirt the side-view mirror.

I’m not a slight man, but there’s not as much room to maneuver as it seems.

Oh, but before reaching the car, I hum “Limbo Rock” and duck the clothesline. Then to open our underachieving gate, two carabiners must be released. The mechanism still works, but not well enough to keep foxhound Sherlock Holmes from escaping.

Duck the clothesline or bite it. Take your pick.
Our carabiner security system

Which reminds me, the K-9 has taken to joining Kathy and me in bed after years of occupying the living room couch. Seldom does he curl into a ball, though. To find a comfortable position I have to accommodate his lanky legs—four furry baseball bats. He’s a nocturnal real estate hog.

In a king-size bed, I get whatever Mr. Holmes can spare.

In short, if you see me crossing the backyard or trying to sleep, I’ll be moving like Carmen Miranda, minus the fruit basket turban.

Some turban! The way she dances is the way my life feels. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, I have myriad errands. About every other week, Kathy will call shortly after I’ve dropped her off at work. My beloved is a virtuoso of forgetting necessities: briefcase, purse, satchel, glasses, cell phone, approved nursing shoes, etc. I drive 15 minutes home, park, shimmy past flowers, disengage carabiners, low-bridge the clothesline, secure the vital item, then do the whole business in reverse. Not infrequently, what Kathy requires is not where she says it is. This is where “good sport” comes in. No God in heaven or on earth can divine the object’s hiding place. When we downsized residences eight years ago, the remote garage door opener at the new place promptly disappeared. Of course, there was only one. Eighteen months later, a bemused yelp from the basement heralded its return. Kathy had slipped the remote into one of her gardening boots, where the poor innocent endured exile.

Kathy and Sherlock Holmes. They can take up all the space they want in my life.

When Kathy does remember her wares, daughter Elena may well have designs on my agenda—like this morning. Back in 1634 John Milton prophesied my 8:45 to 9:30 in his poem “Comus”: “Was I deceived? Or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining in the night?” Whether by genetics or conditioning, I fly directly through clouds to claim silver linings. Elena’s plea would not be ignored. Was I by chance in the car? Could I watch the boys (Cole, 8; Killian, 6; Gavin, 2) while she hurried to the store? If so, her errand would take 20 minutes. If not, an hour or so—sneakers, car seats, selective listening, attitudes, armed rebellion, etc.

Recognizing the blessed intersection of family and writing, I made a U-turn. “Be there in a few.” A moment’s backstory explains my motivation. When Cole and Killian were born, they came to my rescue. They brought me a love I didn’t know existed during a dark stretch of road. Kathy’s love for me abides, patient and kind, more generous than St. Paul would dare to describe. And now Gavin smiles and reaches out, rests his head against my gray chest. As Abraham said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Gavin. Worth a U-turn every last time.

I’m not one for self-flagellation, but truth is truth. I never deserved two boys chattering and climbing into my lap. My gladness had runneth over before the third, Gavin, arrived, but now I see that goodness and mercy sometimes follow those who have no right to their ministrations.

And this is what I’ve been weaving toward. Elena thanked me for babysitting, but neither she nor the boys realized it was they who cared for me, they who made straight my path by asking me to swerve. Therefore, foliage standing in the way brings flowers close to my eyes. Changed itineraries take me to my boys and give me a chance to kiss Kathy goodbye again. And I write the whole business over and over, often forgetting that where I’m heading is almost never where I need most to go.

The hose always across my path–a stray comma.

Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old

Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old

Driving from Erie to Oniontown and back a few times per week, I have lots of time on my hands. I listen to podcasts that help me prepare sermons. Over my nearly seven years as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, I’ve spent hundreds of hours on audiobooks, mostly biographies of United States Presidents. A month ago I met my goal of covering all of them—provided they are safely under the sod. When my brain needs to rest, Jussi Bjorling or Bach or Elizabeth Cotton takes the dashboard stage. Now and then, it’s just silence.

The common denominator is listening, which leads to thinking, even when James Buchanan is messing the country up before Lincoln takes the oath or Cotton strums her gentle guitar left-handed, upside down. My ears are open, mouth is usually shut, mind flirts with this idea or that and heart often migrates to my sleeve.

The other day, when the only sounds were the engine’s mumble and tires sighing on the road, longing came over me. Of all the exegesis, literature and music I take in and treasure, what I want to hear most is silent as soil.

I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. Grandparents and aunts and uncles, too. But miss is a milquetoast word. My belly had the blues and my eyeballs were heavy. Dear God, let me ask them questions and receive their stories.

My dad: Nice look.

When folks say they have no regrets, I keep my own counsel. Regrets? You better believe I have them. A full accounting will have to wait for another day.

As retirement inches toward me, I realize in my blood, bones and tears how much I love my late elders and how starved I am for their company. Three or four decades ago it never occurred to me what a sacred use of time it would have been to sit close to, say, my mother or my Aunt Mart in their last years and gather the fullness of their lives up into embrace. But something always seemed pressing—a pleasure to chase down, a duty to meet. If only I had known that the biographies I needed far more than Andrews Jackson or Johnson were Grandmas Miller and Coleman. And if Uncle Kenny were alive, I’d have bottles of Koehler Lager on ice and a pack of Lucky Strikes at the ready. He and I would clink those glass bombers, and I’d gladly sit still for what he’d have to say.

Grandpa Miller: I’d like to ask him, “Um, Gramp, what were you thinking?”

Fortunately, my regret comes without recrimination. A parishioner of mine passed along to me a great saying one of his elders told him: “Too late smart. Too soon old.” Back when the voices I incline my ear toward in memory were talking, I had better things to do. That’s the sad truth. I know too much about human frailty and foolishness to punish myself. Anyway, those lovely faces—all the more dear to me for their wrinkles and jowls—would say, “Oh, John, don’t you worry.”

Aunt Mart: Does this look like an elder who would have you worry?

They’d probably also encourage me to relax, for heaven’s sake. I’m trying. For one thing, wise and vigilant advice from childhood no longer works for me: I now talk to strangers.

People asking, “How you doing?” don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. My recent responses are as follows: “Vertical,” “I think I’ll pull through,” or “Any better I’d be twins.” That last one is stolen, but I can’t remember from where.

Strangers having a casual conversation in public had better keep their voices down when I’m near. Just yesterday wife Kathy and I were in a toiletries store, and two young women were teasing a third that she thrusts her hip to one side when shifting her weight—like she was trying to look glamorous or cool or whatever. It was all in fun. After paying, I stopped and said to the glam girl, “You know, they’re just jealous because they didn’t go to finishing school.” A moment’s repartee ensued, which granted us the healthy exercise of laughter.

My mother: Speaking of glam.

Best of all, during a recent heat wave, the dew point was 73 degrees, which is considered miserable. I was walking to my car and spotted a couple older than I making slow progress toward the store. They looked to be slogging under water, the man leaning hard on his walker.

“So, is it hot enough for you?” I said. Not exactly original but it earned a response.

The guy kept on walking, but looked over his shoulder at me: “No! In fact, I’m going home to put on a sweater.”

I thought immediately, “Lord, he sounds just like Dad.” For a minute the late Denny Coleman was near, and my soul felt light all the way home.   

Oniontown Pastoral: One Morning Before Heading South

A guy who seems always to be at Country Fair didn’t look himself. He had lost a lot of weight and kept hiking up his drooping sweatpants. On this chilly morning, a red fleece blanket tied around his neck in cape fashion and a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap were his only warmth. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Trip to El Salvador, Part One

My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading