Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

My buddy Ray called last night. “Hey, Pastor, could you drop off my tobacco on your way to church tomorrow? Would it be out of your way?”

Actually, the detour cost me fifteen minutes, but no worries. We have an arrangement: Ray is constantly trying to quit smoking, but he always goes back. To keep temptation at bay, he tosses a bag full of loose tobacco and rolling papers in my trunk, where it keeps my lawn chair and fleece blanket company.

For a couple years I silently stewed about babysitting Ray’s tobacco. Our little routine is exquisitely stupid, but not as bonkers as throwing away thousands of dollars worth of tar and nicotine, only to show up sagging and defeated at Smoker Friendly to buy some more. And that’s exactly what Ray did for years.

So I hang onto what I’m sure is the crummiest of crummy tobacco, $11 a bag. The label says, “Pipe tobacco,” but Ray insists it’s for cigarettes.

“Brother,” I tease him, “you’re smoking shaved, dried out cabbage.”

Whether it ought to be tamped into a pipe or stirred into coleslaw, I’ve driven tobacco to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown and back home to Erie, to hospitals in Greenville, Farrell and Sharon, to McCartney’s to pick up birdseed and along Route 19 to the check on a horse I’ve named Onslow. I bet Ray’s smokes have traveled more than he has.

Within a week or two, my friend “yields”—that’s what he calls it—and I swing by his house. This morning I left the goods on his pack porch. He called later and thanked me for the delivery.

Ray is nothing if not grateful, which is one reason I’m not frustrated over my babysitting duties anymore. Of course, I could tell him this foolishness has gone on long enough, and I should never have signed on for such a lost cause in the first place.

Anyway, ire on my part is far less important than this truth: Ray’s smoking cause is probably lost, but my buddy is not. The trouble is, the man’s soul and his addiction are tangled together.

For most smokers, quitting is about trying to stay alive. Ray, whose health has been distressing for years, says, “I love tobacco. I don’t care if I get cancer. I have to die of something.” Snuff, long-cut chew, pipe, cigars, cigarettes, he does them all by turns. These days, he and his old Laredo cigarette roller are fast friends.

Be this happy, Ray. (Credit: Hedwig Ohring on Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fan of tobacco, but I wish Ray could indulge his addiction in peace. Unfortunately, the vice he adores also torments him. He was raised to believe in a wrathful God who keeps a long list of damnable offenses. Now in his sixties, he can’t stop believing that smoking in this life guarantees burning in the next.

Ray’s many medications leave his body depleted, but what really saps his strength is the withering sense of condemnation he carries around.

My Lord, how we’ve talked. If addictions earn people eternal punishment, then the line into hell is going to reach almost to heaven.

“If you want to improve your health,” I say, “quit tobacco. But if you’re trying to earn God’s love, my advice would be to roll yourself another.” I also tell Ray, “But what do I know?”

Lost cause on my way to Oniontown: an old thresher.

I don’t know the mind of God or claim any particular wisdom. In many ways I’m a lost cause myself. At least I have a nice collection of them. And I spend increasing amounts of time holding hands with folks whose lost causes bring them to their knees or knock them flat.

Does this sound hopeless? Not to me. Sitting cheek to jowl with the unsolvable, inescapable and terminal isn’t about hoping for miracles, but making sure that when a cause is lost, its owner is safe and sound.

So I tell Ray that I’m pretty sure God loves him just the way he is, right down to his smoke-stained fingertips. If he and you and I can believe this, then plenty of causes don’t matter much as long as we remember that our souls can never be lost.

An old, stained, torn message from the Coleman family refrigerator. Only believe, Ray.

Author’s Notes: This post originally appeared in slightly different form in Greenville’s newspaper, the Record Argus. And Ray says I can write about him any time I want.

Advertisements

Napping at Church Camp

Napping at Church Camp

Dear Friends:

The shelter for my naps this week has been the Ark, though nap is too humble a word for what I’ve been up to. Occasionally what Winston Churchill called the blessed oblivion of midday is luxurious. Your body lets you know that something sacred is happening. Muscles are slack, breaths are leisurely and full, the mind is gloriously untroubled.

IMG_0800

Naps of biblical proportions rarely unfurl before me at home. Most often I’m on retreat at a monastery or, as is the case now, at summer church camp with teenagers. My cabin is named after Noah’s eccentric craft, and I lucked into a room by myself.

“You don’t need to get up,” I’ve thought four out of the past five days. “You’ve no place to be. Rest. Just rest.” So I have. Waking slowly after two hours, my soul feels like it has received a massage.

My fellow pastors and I have chatted here and there about naps. Some of us indulge only with guilt. My own second thoughts are years in the rearview mirror, but I understand the reservations. Time is costly, lists are long. Besides, we’ll all get plenty of sleep post-mortem.

Pastor Erik has a Jewish friend who once gave him two syllables of wise instruction on taking a siesta: mitzvah, which is, in the generic words of Google, “a good deed done from religious duty.” Millions the world over can’t take naps, their burdens being onerous, or bombs and bullets firing adrenaline through their veins. Receiving a taste of Shabbat each day does less fortunate brothers and sisters an honor. So nap gratefully. Take the oppressed and weary with you in spirit.

For a decade or so I napped not out of devotion, but necessity. Unable to cope with troubles keenly targeted at my neuroses and vulnerabilities, I slid under the covers each afternoon and disappeared for as long as possible. Siestas were my salvation.

IMG_0822

Path to the Ark

Thank God, the rest awaiting me soon won’t be urgent. The Ark may be silent, or clergy friends might be on the porch, their tales and repartee floating through my open window. I might nod off or not–whatever.

Actually, a couple of times during oblivion, my consciousness has risen to the surface for prayer. Love may be the reason.

Not every kid who attends church camp frolics in the woods, eagerly sings around the fire, and flops into a squeaky bunk and immediately gathers REMs. Each summer a few troubled hearts sulk on the periphery, their eyes tired, far away. I have fifteen summers of them gathered up in my memory.

When the Fourth Commandment comes along, at least one kid’s eyes water up—never fails. “Will God forgive me if I can’t honor my father and mother?” A few years ago I took the liberty of giving a silly-hearted girl a new commandment: “Kiddo, I bet God would be happy if you just loved yourself. How about if you honor yourself for now?” Then I said I would take her as my daughter any day.

Outside the window by my cafeteria table, campers line up to get their medications. Seems like our world practically insists that all of us, young and old, fret and obsess ad infinitum. One chunky boy from a dozen years ago comes to mind. His days were fine, with counselors keeping the teens in constant motion, but dusk thundered with the approach of homesickness and insomnia.

And camp week never passes without some half-pints walking alone, sitting alone, directing praise and blame to the empty space around them.

But I listen—to the lovely runts of our church camp litter, to those who think of nothing but home, especially to those who lug heartbreaking secrets in their knapsacks.

I love all the kids, but the ones whose tears are always close to the surface look at me as I pray, and I look back.

Not so long ago each mid-day I slept in a nave built for one, but this week guests have arrived. Their presence has been a duty-free mitzvah.

IMG_3604

For some of us runts, life can include lots of swimming upstream. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Thirty years ago panic attacks brought me to my knees. And I still remember the day in fifth grade when my mother met me at the door after school to say that my father was at the courthouse applying for a divorce. As a teenager, surrounded by love, I fell asleep aching with confusion. In other words, I’ve been a runt myself off and on from the beginning. I relate.

So this summer’s campers are welcome to join those from years past and visit my spirit at nap time. My sanctuary has room for them now. I ask God to dry their tears, make them feel at home, and say into the ear of their hearts, “You are loved. Don’t forget.”

Love . . . to you, friends, and to my whole litter of kids,

John (a.k.a. Pastor John, PJ, or Johnny-Boy)

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

IMG_3021

Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

A.Cortina_El_sueño

“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

800px-Andrea_Mantegna_022

Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

Nap-Strydonck

“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

the-siesta_med

Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

Mindfulness in a Driving Rain

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)

unnamed-1

Baby Crash watching common rain, the Buddha looking in

Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.

Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.

Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.

Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.

Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.

“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”

Here’s a summary of our negotiations:

1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]

2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]

3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]

4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]

We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.

After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.

IMG_4014

Cole likes coffee and spicy food

Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.

So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”

“Pop!”

Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.

“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.

“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”

I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.

“You okay, pal?” I said.

“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.

Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.

In Gratitude for Annoyance

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

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

220px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

Narcissus by Caravaggio (Credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3016

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

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

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

459px-Skelton_clem_1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10923211_815321731871350_4158983250869382664_n

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

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

Humility Needed as the New Millennium Clears Its Throat

800px-Chili_con_carne_1234

It’s chili. You eat it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”

This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.

IMG_2704

Ahhh. In the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.

In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.

The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:

In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.

IMG_2722

Beloved wife Kathy is still in touch with the power of play. This is our front yard on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters were slack-jawed with wonder.

I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.

One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.

IMG_2787

Micah in, what, kindergarten? His first grade teacher didn’t have much use for him, with his silly heart.

It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.

I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.

We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.

I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)

200px-Harland_Sanders

How sad: a “really inhumane” recipe. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .

a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building. 

Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.

Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.

I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.

IMG_0846

A painting by the late, self-educated Milton Sontheimer, whose work helps me to center myself

As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.

We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.

Birnau_Uhr_Sonnenzeituhr

Our opulent enemy? Why? (Credit: Saberhagen on Wikimedia Commons)

We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:

His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”

My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.

IMG_2699

A three-hour nap in a monastery guest room–a remarkable blessing

Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.

Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.

Coming to Myself from a Distant Country

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)

220px-Pompeo_Batoni_003

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (Credit: Wikipedia)

Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”

I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.

800px-Johann_Wolfgang_Baumgartner_-_The_Prodigal_Son_Living_with_Harlots_-_Google_Art_Project

The Prodigal Son Living with Harlots by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (1712-1761) (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.

Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.

Anxiety

If I looked this good anxious, I might not complain. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.

The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.

Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.

2011-03-03-pano

Ah, still waters! Might be Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Vesuvius underneath, but as long as there aren’t any whitecaps, we’re solid. (Credit: Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)

Live_in_an_ivy_tower_(8059746783)_(2)

Sometimes ivy takes over so it seems like there’s more plant than stone. (Credit: Psyberartist on Wikimedia Commons)

So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.

800px-Ceratonia_siliqua_MHNT.BOT.2011.3.89

Mmm! An overripe, dehydrated banana? A used, sunbaked . . . ? Oh, never mind? Carob pods. (Credit: Roger Culos on Wikimedia Commons)

A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?

Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.

Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”

IMG_2610

Son Micah working on a two-pound Rice Crispy Treat after a hard day of painting. Laughter comes more easily after I find myself

I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.

In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.

This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.

IMG_2564

My soul’s arms hold Cole when I come to myself

An Overcast Sky Sings My Revelation

Note: All photographs in this post appear courtesy of Giuseppe Colarusso. Mr. Colarusso, I’m in your debt. Thank you.

395-074

Have you ever had a morning when the environment collaborated with your spirit to yield a revelation?

A gentle rain persists out Starbucks’ window—looks like all-day. The Neil Young songs playing are mostly unfamiliar, but his voice, mournful and easy, soothes me. Milan, the manager of a tuxedo store in the Millcreek Mall, just showed me some absurd photographs by Giuseppe Colarusso, and laughs poured out of my tears reservoir. Damn, it felt good! (I’m convinced, by the way, that sorrow and joy swim in the same waters.)

253-040

Inside my fifty-two-year-old soul, rain also falls, a voice that sounds a bit like crying sings, and here and there, cleansing laughter comes out, inappropriately loud, and turns heads toward me. I’m having a revelation, at once comforting, sad, and playful.

There’s a popular saying these days: It is what it is. Like all maxims it will fall out of favor soon enough, but I plan to appreciate It is what it is (IIWII: pronounced eye-why) while it’s around. IIWII says, “Okay, everybody, the time for acceptance has arrived. We can talk lots more about the situation at hand, complain, dissect, laugh, kvetch, wrestle, curse, and so on. But we should understand that, despite our best efforts, some things aren’t going to change. So let’s just deal. Let’s move on.”

264-051

In this same spirit, a voice like Neil Young’s sings loving words into the ear of my heart. They sound like this overcast sky looks—pale gray pillows: “John, you are who you are.”

Has your life run like mine? Do you struggle to change characteristics that seem, as the years unfold, like matters of wiring? Do you promise yourself that the next time such and so happens, you’ll do better? You’ll be stronger, calmer, smarter, more centered, less sensitive, or whatever more or less you need to be? If your life hasn’t gone this way, you may want to escape and read something more in line with your reality. But if my questions resonate with you, I have one more for the list: At what point in the progression of decades is it best to say, “I am who I am. It’s time to make decisions based on the person I am, not on the person I would like to be”?

191-031

In March of 2006, I wrote in my book Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs to my future children’s—Elena’s and Micah’s—children about identity:

Be warned: the blood in your veins will predispose you to Coleman attributes, some of which you’ll like, and some you won’t. I would like to pick which of my qualities you’ll inherit and which ones will pass you by, but we both know fate doesn’t work that way.

Elena and Micah got your grandmother’s strong, crooked teeth rather than my straight, weak ones, which is to their advantage. Braces can align smiles, but the only cure for rotten teeth is pliers. Micah, who at fourteen brushes his teeth only when I remind him, had zero cavities at his checkup a couple weeks ago. Elena, who at seventeen brushes like a grown up, had two puny cavities. By the time I was their age, I had a couple dozen fillings. If your teeth fall apart, blame me.

Elena inherited my hips, which were wide even when I was running forty miles a week, but Micah got a skinny frame. If you carry extra pounds from the waist down and end up with pants tight at the hips but baggy at the waist, blame me.

When you glance at your reflection in a storefront window and wonder how you got to be who you are, you’ll have plenty to blame me for.

254-041

Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “I’ve had lots of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” If you squander days fretting about problems that never materialize, blame me. If you have bottomless patience, too much patience, occasionally stupid patience, blame me. If you’re smart enough to spot brilliance in others, but aren’t brilliant yourself, blame me. If you endure inexplicable anxiety and depression, blame me. If arguments leave you weary and shaken, blame me. If anything gorgeous makes your spirit ache, blame me. Blame me and forgive me.

506-04

In the eight years that have passed, little has changed. If anything, I may have lost ground where inner-strength and tranquility are concerned, and I’m just as vulnerable in relationships as ever. I am what I am. So, in this moment, Neil Young sings me a question: “Is it time shape your circumstances around the person you are rather than force the person you are to strain and stretch around your circumstances?”

212-001

Does that make any sense? Does there come a point in the maturation process at which you decide to stop trying to muscle your way again and again through situations you weren’t designed to endure? Can there come a revelation when you see clearly that loving and embracing the person you know yourself to be requires that you say goodbye to the person you would prefer to be?

271-059

Such a moment descended on me with this morning’s precipitation. For most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to transcend troubles like a levitating bodhisattva or Jesus asleep in the stern during the storm. Turns out I’m as loving and compassionate as they come, but I’m in equal measure fragile and nervous. I’m not enlightened. And a mustard seed is a boulder next to my faith—if, indeed, faith means an abiding sense of peaceful trust.

I’m a guy sitting in a coffee shop full of pilgrims on a gray day—a guy with more years behind than ahead who has finally, mercifully, gently realized that I am who I am needs to prune IIWII, plant fresh manure around its roots, and dance prayers for rain and sunlight.

267-055

This damp Monday is nurse-wife Kathy’s day off from trying to kick cancer’s butt. Obituaries of her patients say day-by-day, “IIWII.” She loves me in spite of my snoring, recognizes that IIWII is spanking me good, and agrees that it’s time to dance and pray. We’ve made an offer on a fixer-upper, 854 square feet, on the other side of town. Maybe we’ll hear something this week. Boy oh boy, will we have to trim away at what our present 2,100-square-foot house holds—if our bid tops the flipper we’re up against.

282-070

No matter. Who cares if the clouds sprinkle me on the way to the truck? I’ll head for church work, knowing that IIWII often has the last word, but not today. (Does IIWII have you by the throat? I’m thinking strength your way!) Lovely Kathy and I may move into a puny house–or not. Either way, I will toast the bodhisattva Jesus I would prefer to be, give him a kiss, and tell him it’s time to move along.

P.S. The flipper won this round.

1-immagine-02-b

Giuseppe Colarusso

An Incidental Monastery and Other Siblings from the Community of Mystery

Blogger’s Note: This post is nearly 2000 words long. I’ll understand if you can’t spare the time. Peace and love, John

I try to nap an hour each afternoon and pray so often lots of people would consider me lazy. Breathe in, breathe out. Be mindful. Let go, John. Let go. I’m coming up on twenty-five years of practicing contemplative prayer. When I started I was in terrible shape: depression, panic attacks, and a constant buzz of anxiety in my body. In contemplative prayer, I sit in the quiet dark with the Loving Mystery, who saves me. Not saves as in are you saved? I mean saves me from despair and gives me hope and just enough sanity to get by. Just.

Axentowicz_The_Anchorite

Axentowicz the Anchorite. I look nothing like him when I pray, except maybe in heart and spirit. (Artist: Teodor Axentowicz. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Contemplative prayer has also birthed in me a paradoxical spirit, which songwriter Don Henley describes pretty well in “Heart of the Matter”:

The more I know, the less I understand.

All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again.

The truth is, I don’t know or understand much, nor have I figured out much. The wonderful Lutheran folks I serve as pastor might find this confession troubling. Sorry about that. Each day begins with a foundational proposal: Okay, let’s try this again. This, of course, is life. I often feel embarrassingly inadequate to its great gift. I’m driftwood in the presence of Gracious Light. What little I have figured out, I have to keep learning again. I say a constant, wordless prayer: Have mercy. Teach me one more time.

Last Wednesday was a case study in all that I’m haltingly articulating here. The day proper began at Starbucks with me sipping my summer usual, an iced decaf coffee with a decaf shot of espresso (a.k.a. a redeye or a tall iced what’s the point?). The agenda was light, no troubles on the horizon, no stressful deadlines lurking, but I had a surplus of nervous energy. I was either going to blow soothing kisses to my adrenal glands or spend the hours ahead rushing toward no place in particular.

379px-Eustachi_nervous_system

Hope for the day: identify the sparking nerves and make them behave. (Artist: Bartolomeo Eustachi. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A chance chat with Starbucks regulars Rick and Noreen helped. They had just returned from a cruise—their destination escapes me at the moment—still tan and fresh. Noreen wore a fedora, a stylish cancer accessory. She looked great, but was in the midst of treatments, sixteen or eighteen more to go. “But who’s counting?” they said. I told them Abiding Hope, the congregation I serve as pastor, would pray for them. (After thirteen years in a collar, you’d think I would have some understanding of how prayer works, but I’m as clueless as a toddler trying to figure out a good reason for kale. If nothing else, I think it must please God to hear “touch Noreen with your healing hand” rather than “grant me a true aim as I launch a missile at that 777.”) Be welcome to join me in a loving word to the Creator for Noreen and Rick.

The determined, vulnerable eyes of people looking into the mortal abyss made me slow down. I can think of no better way to honor what fellow human beings are going through than to sit still with them, receive as much of their reality as possible, walk mindfully across the parking lot to my crappy truck—watching along the way for traffic and appreciating the pilgrimage of clouds—and dance and bicker with my path and what lines it.

IMG_2250

A gaggle of geese was on my path. They took over five minutes to cross from their morning bath to the sunning yard. They taught me patience on my way to run clean socks to painter son Micah, who had spilled bleach on his shoe, sock, and athlete’s foot. Ouch!

At the church, before settling in at the standing desk, I made a trip to the mailbox, and that’s when I really began learning again what I had already figured out. The lesson, of course, was (and is) to live in the moment. The cliché is “stop and smell the roses.” The blessings as morning turned to afternoon and to evening reminded me of such wisdom, but also granted me joyful humility. Each time I encountered another wonder, I was convinced anew that I have no idea where I’m going in this life and why. I’m vertical, ambulatory, taking nourishment, blah-blah-blahing, and gaining weight, but somehow or other I don’t feel in charge of my travels. It’s as if a great community of mystery appears one lovely sister or brother at a time to greet me: “You thought you were going to the mailbox, but you were also sent out to meet me, to hear my teaching, to receive my anointing.”

On the way to the mailbox and back:

IMG_2200

Delicate, almost the size of a Canadian dime

IMG_2196

Right by the church door: I don’t know their name, but they seemed to know mine

After work I went to Radio Shack.

 

IMG_2201

Okay, John, go ahead and think you were after a power cable. You came to see me, a nest above a beauty shop sign. I’m glad my birds sang to you.

On the way home from Sally’s nest, an old powder blue Mustang was riding my tail, and annoyance almost blinded me. When I pulled over to let the guy pass, a sibling greeted me.

IMG_2214

Thank you, brother from the community of mystery, for walking a block with me! Live well and long.

Late in the afternoon I went for a run on the sidewalk trail at Presque Isle, northwestern Pennsylvania’s treasure which juts out into Lake Erie.

800px-Agelaius_phoeniceus_-standing_on_wood-8

Was I exercising, or did I put my running shoes on to go see a red-winged blackbird swoop across my path? (Credit: Bob Jagendorf. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday’s spirit has continued to give me blessings beyond its allotted hours. On Friday I went to the bank to pour what turned out to be $138 into a coin counter. At least that’s what I thought. Turns out my mission wasn’t about turning change into bills, but something else.

IMG_2226

I had forgotten how to wash my hands. Thank goodness for PNC’s foresight. (Heavens, what have we come to?)

On Saturday wife Kathy and I had a yard sale presumably to get rid of some excess and make a few bucks. As a steady rain splashed our event, two surprises taught me again what I thought I had learned:

IMG_2239

Kathy found in a dark closet corner the keys to my late mother’s Mercury Lynx on the leather Jesus fish keychain I made as a kid at summer camp. I drove the Lynx after Mom died and used that keychain into my thirties. “Hi, Mom!” “Hi, Camp Lutherlyn!”

IMG_2227

I met a woman–the only person I’ve seen–who wears my round John Lennon glasses. “Blessings, sister!”

Actually, I confess that literal brothers prepared my heart a couple weeks ago to receive Wednesday’s wisdom. I had driven two hours to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, to officiate at Caity and Ian’s wedding, and lovely Kathy was kind enough to come along. A few hours before the nuptials we saw a small sign along Route 8: Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery. I drove past the turn off, but Kathy said, “John, you know you want to go see it.” So we did a u-ey, wound through four or five rolling miles of corn fields, saw that the monastery had a book and icon store, and decided to ring the bell.

Father Leo and sweet incense greeted us. I asked about the store hours. “Oh, we don’t have any hours,” Father Leo said. “Whenever anybody rings, we open up.”

We followed him down a hall to a 15′ x 20′ room which looked like it hadn’t seen business for some time. He turned on the lights and said, “Father Michael will be here in a minute. He’s just finishing lunch.”

Father Michael showed up immediately–he must have run. Gentle voice, gentle man–lonely man. After ten minutes of back and forth, he laughed: “I love to talk. We don’t get many visitors.”

Showing us shelves of icons, he wiped the dust off of one with a fingertip: “Father James took care of the store. He worked on this almost full time. He died in . . . ,” Michael said, looking somewhere past us for the year, “. . . in 2012. Abbot Leo and I are the last ones left.”

IMG_2218

Kathy and I brought this icon home. It will hang in my little chapel to remind me of my brothers near Butler, Pennsylvania, and of the joyful humility in never being sure where I’m going.

I knew at once that Kathy and I had driven nearly to Pittsburgh for two reasons: to join a hundred people at a wedding and to bear witness to Father Leo and Father Michael. If you’ve never visited a monastery, you might not be able to imagine the love, kindness, wholeness, and warmth of a place where silence and patience are profound.

Untitled

I wish I had met you, Father James. I’m told you loved animals. So do I. (Credit: The Byzantine Catholic World)

“I don’t know if your abbot would permit it,” I said to Michael, “but could I take a picture of the two of you?”

After another twenty minutes of talk, Leo and Michael lead Kathy and me to their chapel and, in a gesture of hospitality that nearly moved me to tears, Leo opened the gate to the Holy of Holies. And, of course, we talked some more: about the celebrant facing away from the congregation not to disregard them, but to lead them to heaven; about the hand-carved wooden tabernacle that took seven years to make. Eventually, Leo closed the gates, and I took their picture.

IMG_2131

The last two monks of Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery: Father Leo (Abbot) and Father Michael.

I plan to write Michael soon. He told me earlier in the store that he is beyond ecumenical. “We’re all one,” he said. I bet he and Abbot Leo would welcome me to enter their quiet sometime soon, for a couple of days. In my letter I’ll ask. And I have a feeling my friend Mark would like to join me and meet these two monks with long beards and agape hearts.

Two nights ago I sat in the Coleman front yard in my favorite lawn chair, stared at the sky, and thought of Michael, seventy-six years old, and Leo, six years his senior. I toasted them, thought of them alone in the corn fields, wondered how much longer quiet and sacrificial welcome will call this planet home, and asked God to remind Michael and Leo that they’re not forgotten.

IMG_2238

My observatory, from which I saw one speck of light. That was plenty.

Dead overhead I saw a single star. The glow of Erie, Pennsylvania, dimmed all but one. How many lifetimes would it take to get there? And was it even a star? Maybe it was a planet. No matter. As it happened, I hadn’t sipped wine in the darkness only to sing the day’s fuss to sleep. I had sat still and looked heavenward to receive a slight kiss of light and an invitation: Let go, John. Let go. The community of mystery will save you. Amen

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.

220px-MotherTeresa_094

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.”

IMG_1172

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.

IMG_1162

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.

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

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.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

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.