Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Wife Kathy is early girl this week at the Regional Cancer Center, so my kiss goodbye came this morning at 5:30 with this question: “Hey, did you clean the litter box last night?”

The trouble is, our cat, Baby Crash, is such a dainty soul that her ladies’ room doesn’t get nasty. The trouble also is, I always forget. If only I could remember on Tuesday evening before trash pick up, there would be no problem. I mean, yes, of course, an everyday scooping routine would be optimal, but a slight effort on my part would keep Kathy from saying, “I feel like a broken record.”

And another “if only.” If only the late Alan Dugan hadn’t hit the nail on the head in “Love Song: I and Thou.” “Nothing is plumb, level, or square,” he writes of a house he built for himself. The poem is angry and mournful, with the speaker clearly as flawed as his construction. Love enters the picture only at the end, when we learn that all along he has been addressing his wife.

My Oniontown mantra: “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

Dugan’s vision is darker than my own, but that line has persisted with me since my college days. The prosaic translation I constantly offer my St. John’s brothers and sisters is, “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

We laugh and nod together. One tire is always low on air. Your neck has a crick in it from sleeping weird. Your parent / child / spouse / best friend / neighbor (circle one) has shingles / might be laid off / is being a monumental pain in the rumpus (circle one).

Or today everything is fine, but your insides wonder what is misplaced, unfinished or damaged. You can’t figure it out. “Tell me, John,” you say, “why am I looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sensing that the phone is about to ring with terrible news or another fire to put out?”

I’ll tell you why. Because “nothing is plumb, level, or square.” If something isn’t crackers at present, experience has taught us that a sliver, sprained ankle or broken heart can’t be far off. When troubles arrive in rapid succession, rhetorical questions come to mind. What did I do to deserve this? Is God testing me or what?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The answer is generally clear, for me at least. When my thumb smarts, I know exactly who swung the hammer. And the only thing worse than swearing and hopping around on one foot is knowing I’ll repeat this performance in perpetuity. A dirty litter box is easily remedied, but the fact is, if I remember to clean it, I’m sure to forget something else. It’s not like patching one crack in the drywall makes a whole room smooth. The Tower of Pisa leans by name. Bowling lanes are defined by gutters. Pencils live under erasers.

People, on the other hand, are both upright and crooked, and the only way not to stay bent over is to speak. “I messed up.” “Please forgive me.” “I’ll try to do better.” Each of the three is an implied question. In the sanctuary, corporate confessions receive immediate absolution, but in most other buildings, silence and waiting are customary. When answers come, the language is commonplace. “No worries.” “We’re good.” “That’s OK.” The relief is a blessing.

Baby Crash

So the human pendulum always swings between injury and pardon. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or even a believer to recognize yourself in St. Paul’s quandary: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In case you didn’t catch that the first time, he writes two verses later, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” And to be positive, he serves up the next verse: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Ten years ago I read this humbling Romans passage at a parishioner’s funeral. A grizzly soul who wrestled with himself constantly, John was comforted to know that St. Paul understood his predicament.

I lean on the apostle, too, but the poet’s raw testimony blesses me like scripture. “Nothing is plumb, level, or square”—not that anything is really wrong. At any given moment, if I’m not apologizing, circumstance is preparing an ambush.

In my fifty-seventh year, I’ve found an ideal name for this phenomenon: “Life.”

A Meditation on God’s Will

A Meditation on God’s Will

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (From a prayer by Thomas Merton)

A reflection with Buddha keeping me company

These opening words of a prayer written by Trappist monk Thomas Merton evoke in me a mirror moment. Yes, the mirror is a cliché worn threadbare, but stay with me. I’ll wager most thoughtful people occasionally stare at their reflections—not out of vanity, but ontological wonder.

If you’re my age, your skin is slowly disappearing behind crow’s feet and spots. Maybe a spare chin is descending. Or you have half-moons like pale bruises under your eyes.

Years, of course, are beside the point. Your pupils and mine are curious. “Who am I?” we sigh. “What am I about?”

We don’t linger for long, though. No answers are forthcoming. Our questions retire with us each night, but never leave.

In my case, they’re light sleepers. Where am I going? What does the road ahead look like? When will it all end? And am I doing good in this world, helping more than hurting?

“Boy,” you’re thinking, “keeping company with Coleman sounds as pleasant as a picnic in a sleet storm.”

You’d be surprised. For me, Merton—known to his fellow monks as “Father Louis”—has liberated humanity by admitting truths about our earthly residency. “I have no idea.” “I do not see.” “I cannot know.”

Precisely. We know precious little. I’m barely fluent in the language of my own soul. Where am I headed? Why was I scheduled for an appointment on this planet?

Thomas Merton in his hermitage. He was younger than I am now when he died. (Credit: Wikipedia)

And where will my road end? Thomas Merton died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, after giving a lecture—twenty-seven years to the day after he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Clumsy with all manner of devices, he was electrocuted by a defective fan.

God could be accused of calling Father Louis to his eternal reward in a grim fashion, but you won’t hear the accusation coming from me. After the oddities, injustices and monstrosities I’ve witnessed, my chin simply won’t wag over matters far beyond my station. And whenever anybody so much as hints at discerning the Lord’s motives, I call “bullshit.”

Still, I’m not without sympathy. Folks who turn everything from finding lost keys to perishing in a flood to surviving a house fire into an act of God need patience, not criticism.

Existence is as frightening as it is beautiful. “God’s will,” for those who claim to understand it, is a nerve pill. To explain how life works is to solve the Divine Mystery and anesthetize our fears.

Sorry, the collective force of human anxiety and hubris can never tame the universe or peek behind God’s veil. Words like “faith” and “belief” are used in religious conversations for a reason. We “do not see.” We “cannot know.”

But Merton’s prayer doesn’t end with resignation. After admitting that he doesn’t know God’s will, he says, “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

So what exactly does the monk know? That God will lead him “along right pathways,” but every how and why remain resolute secrets.

A cross made from branches along a trail in Michigan.

I’ve learned to receive such mysteries as blessings. The yoke of interpreting the inscrutable is broken. I “know nothing about” how God figures into each day’s hairpin curves. I don’t have to speculate about divine appearances along any wayfarer’s road, not even my own. Maybe most liberating of all, I’m under no obligation to prove that God exists or to justify the cross that has kept vigil over my prayers for going on twenty years.

I do pray an awful lot, sometimes with words, mostly with silence. More than anything else I’m an unfurled sail, waiting for a breeze of wisdom and compassion to set me on the right course.

Clouds Over Peach Street Starbucks

Erie, Pennsylvania, 9:05 a.m. This June 8, 2015, is gray, drizzly, close, still. If I accomplish anything worthy, it will come from without–a descending muse, a cloudburst of grace.


Clouds over Peach Street Starbucks

When I looked at my watch just now to check the date, I remembered: my mom died seventeen years ago today. Another layer of humidity touches my skin. (I miss you as much as ever, Mom, but these waking hours are unfolding, and you would want me to do more than cradle the sadness pushing inside my chest.) Crying is therapeutic, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns.

I want to let wife Kathy’s words be my weather. Early this morning she borrowed a line from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” He was talking about a species of dinosaurs reproducing, even though they were all engineered to be females. Kathy had in mind a neglected amaryllis bulb. During the flurry of our recent move, it slept in a pot by our dining room window without soil or water.


“You won’t plant me, so I’ll show you,” Kathy heard the flowers say.

Life finds a way. So does hope. At about the time I was recalling Mom’s face, a woman bought a tired, weathered guy coffee and a bagel. They were strangers. No fanfare. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome, sir.” Quiet hope, almost invisible. Not all flowers are stunning. Some just sigh.


Parked by my truck, these say, “Shh. I’m only slightly lovely.”

All hope asks of me is that I watch for it–amazing how often I can’t even do that. But maybe I should honor Mom’s memory by opening my eyes.


I come home regularly now to find that old gimp Watson has willed himself up on the bed. Here he joins cat Baby Crash for a siesta. For me, hope requires a climb.


A couple blocks from our new house: this mutt clawed a window air conditioner out of the way and kept watch on the porch roof. On bad days, I also have to push some shit out of the way to get into open air, where hope resides.


Then again, sometimes gorgeous life is hiding in what I consider inconvenience. A downpour delays my leaving Starbucks, but the splash invites me to look.


Yeah, yeah, yeah, rainbows are cliches. So what. This one, outside of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church, had Kathy and me standing in the rain. Sing us a song, Kermit the Frog.

I can leave my Starbucks perch now without getting drenched, so off I go. Thanks for the good words, Kathy. And stay with me, Mom. Help me to find life and hope and to remember you with joy.

P.S. A note to friends: Please forgive me for falling behind on blog reading, commenting, and posting. In a few days I’ll be taking A Napper’s Companion on the road for a presentation at a regional church gathering. Combined with usual duties and moving the Coleman household, preparing for this talk has had me busy up to my nose. Hang in there with me and send some loving energy my way. I’ll see you again soon. Peace, John

Looking at the Back of the Lord

Then the Lord said [to Moses], “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

(Genesis 33:21-23)


Moses and the Burning Bush (Credit: Eugene Plushart. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve spent my adult life trying to be at peace with this arrangement: Sacred Glory may pass by, but, like Moses, I’m permitted only a glimpse of it. Were I to take in the face of Eternal Love, I would probably die from beauty—or to borrow from the poet James Wright, “My bones [would] turn to dark emeralds.”

Acceptance is coming slowly. I can spend my days frustrated and anxious about the earthly deal—I don’t get answers until I’m dead, and maybe not even then—or I can keep watch for the back of Yahweh. I’m going with the latter. Standing in the cleft of the rock, I want to let this world be this world and receive whatever it offers. Lately, my trifocal eyes are catching sacred glimpses that bring my fragile soul to tears, and I’m grateful. God’s glory passes by as if on a loop. My calling is to breathe, keep vigil, and give thanks.

Julie was frustrated because her six-year-old daughter Cora was doodling during a baptism, but because her hands were full with little peanut Lena, she let it go. On the way out of church, Cora crumpled up the doodle and tossed it in the trash. Julie fished it out and stuffed it in her purse. The next day she smoothed out the little ball of paper and read this:


Author of the baptismal account below (left) comforting Great-Grandma with the help of her little sister.

A little kid and a toddler got baptized. The little kid was four I think and the baby is two maybe. The kid weared a tie and the tie was tucked in his shirt. His pants had red scribbles and the rest was black. The little toddler dipped his hand in the little bowl full of water after he got baptized. Everyone laughed hysterically. Then it was time for them to sit back and while they were getting baptized we had to say a prayer.

“Do you sing in honor and caring to your family and pray?” Asked Pastor John.

“I do” answered the boy.

“Are you care and love about your friendships love?”

“I do”

“Do you love have sins of you?”

“I do” the prayer was.

“I thought that the boy was proud of himself and happy and free. Now what could be happier than love?”

Julie ended: “I have so much to learn from her.” I say: Cora’s words doodled here and there, but she understood the moment. A boy proud of himself, happy and free. What could be happier than love? And would that we all sing in honor and caring to our family.

Glory: a sweet, sensitive girl and a scrap of paper.


Cora’s doodle

Next-door neighbor Patrick abides in a relentless now. The twelve-year-old sage of Shenley Drive, he happens to have Down’s syndrome. No kidding, the boy is my teacher. I watch him navigate the world and learn to get outside my own squirrelly head and—for the love of God—live! When Patrick is playing, he’s playing. When he’s eating, he’s eating. And, as was the case last week, when he’s sad, he’s sad. He’ll go to a new school next year, and when it came time to say goodbye to the teachers and friends he loves, he did so with all of himself.

Glory: a boy cries holy tears.


Time for Patrick to say goodbye. Not all glory is glad.

A few days ago I received a text message from son Micah. “Can u email mom for me?

“Sure,” I said. “Message?”

“Ask if she wud help me make another sock puppet tnight?”

This hardly seems like a glimpse of Yahweh, unless you know that Micah, who’s twenty-two, has quite a history: heroin addiction, felony conviction, teenage years filled with rage. But he’s been clean for almost two years and gainfully employed for about one. And he loves being Uncle Micah to six-month-old Cole. This is where the sock puppet comes in. One day he got the idea of making one for his nephew. When he showed me what he came up with, I saw it from the cleft of Moses’ rock.

Glory: when goodness crawls out from a rancid cave and “stand[s] upright in the wind,” the universe blinks back tears.


Micah’s sock puppet. I suggested the name “Mr. Miggles.” Notice the necktie.

Last week I drove south on I-79 in Pennsylvania, windows down and the Beatles up loud. A couple lines into “I Want to Hold Your Hand” the road got blurry. I thought of wife Kathy, of course, and how as years pass, nonsense and clutter wear away to reveal the deep emerald green of joy—in this case, the simple joy of holding Kathy’s hand. When we both land at home in the early evening, we walk gimpy dog Watson and hold hands off and on. Driving wherever, I take her hand and kiss it.

Glory: there’s room for two in the cleft of Moses’ rock, especially when they stand close together and watch for the back of God . . .

which sometimes looks like a girl’s crumpled up doodle, a boy’s goodbye tears, a healing uncle’s puppet, and a middle-aged woman and man who still hold hands.


Kathy with Watson. I still want to hold her hand.

Confessional Prayer of a Napping Pastor

Dear God:

Naps lately haven’t been as long and lovely as in the past, which is a good thing, I suppose. For years one worry after another choked my spirit, but now I’ve caught my breath. Kathy is in a good space, even though I constantly test her patience. Our children seem to have outgrown their respective insanities. Former Goth girl Elena married wise, gentle Matt, and they’ve come up with our grandson Cole. And Micah hasn’t shot up for over eighteen months. When I lie down these days, siestas aren’t for escape, but refreshment.


6:00 p.m. Fewer pancakes, same amount of syrup. Forgive me, Lord. (Credit: Dieter  Heinemann / Westend61 / Corbis)

Tonight all of us will meet at the church for Shrove Tuesday pancakes and sausage. I’m having real syrup, but promise to take extra insulin. The food will be delicious, but all of us together fussing over Cole will be the main course. Then, back at home, I’ll enjoy the fruit of the vine—for medicinal purposes.


Just a splash, Lord. (Credit: Walter Zerla / Blend Images / Corbis)

At the moment I’m sipping strong, sweet coffee at Starbucks with the regulars. Alan showed up a few minutes ago. As always, my hands said namaste, and he bowed. Breathing in. Breathing out. I’m not suffering.

God, you probably already know what’s on my mind, but just in case, I have a confession:

I’m grateful for this day: for the stubborn solo digit Fahrenheit air, for my 6:45 silence with you, for this coffee, for hours ahead that don’t threaten me, for more love and mercy than I deserve. But I still look over my shoulder, still twitch when the undergrowth rustles with one more emotional ambush. A Paul Simon song states the truth:

When something goes right

Well it’s likely to lose me

It’s apt to confuse me

It’s such an unusual sight

Oh, I swear, I can’t get used to something so right

Something so right.

The deal is, Lord, I’m trying to get used to not constantly feeling anxious and shitty. When we sit together, I think you whisper into the ear of my heart: “Relax, John, and live. Relax and live.”


I hear your Saint Benedict’s instruction, Lord: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” (Credit: icon by Clarisse Jaegar; photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; on Wikimedia Commons)

If I started saying thank you right now and gave the rest of my days to repeating it, I couldn’t pile up enough thank you’s to cover my present gratitude. At the same time, I have to pray the truth. I don’t believe you dispense today’s blessings any more than you orchestrated yesterday’s despair. I might be wrong on this, but these assumptions aren’t behind my thank you’s.

Some of my brothers and sisters talk about having a personal relationship with you, but I can’t make us work that way. You know! I don’t ask for favors. I roll around in you. Your wind-song moves over my skin. You don’t “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” You are my green pastures and still waters. I breathe you in. I breathe you out. And when I do pray that you grant me something concrete, it’s a desperate beggar talking. Oh, Lord, you know.


Hi, Lord. (Credit: Yi  Lu / Viewstock / Corbis)

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t understand myself. Maybe a crevasse in my soul finds warmth in being honest with you. When Micah was a junkie, I never blamed you. I did wonder—within the cosmic economy—why such a demanding son ended up with such a fragile father, but not once did I say, “God, why did you do this to me?” And as I sit here today, my gratitude for how well that man-boy is doing doesn’t mean that I think you said, “Okay, John’s suffered enough. I’ll make his son clean.”

I say thank you not because you guide me to lost keys and make my diabetes go away, though I’m fine with any help in such arenas. I say thank you because I feel you near. When I close my eyes, as I do now, and calm myself, a wordless voice speaks–yours, I suspect: “John, John. I’m here. Don’t look up. My hands hold the stone of grief in your chest. My lips kiss your face, creased with joy.”


Is that you, God, breathing? (Credit: Gary Weathers / Tetra Images / Corbis)

Another truth: moments pass now and then when I’m afraid I’ve made you up, and the Milky Way’s swirl is nothing but dust and light. So I’ve got no choice, God, but to give myself and all I love to you, even my belief. I’m your grateful, confused son, liking this coffee, planning on a light nap at 2:00, looking forward to cradling our grandson over pancakes tonight, and doing my best to let you be my close Mystery, my green pasture in tears and gladness.


Whispering Gratitude for a Dancing Yam and a Cursing Son

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for twelve years now: 624 weeks of sermons, give or take; hundreds of teaching moments, hospital visits, and pastoral counseling sessions; scores of babies baptized, couples married (“let no one put asunder”), and brothers and sisters buried; thousands of hours in prayer; Lord knows how many books read and Bible studies led. I’ve looked into dying eyes and held dying hands.

After all this and more, you’d think I’d have a handle on what exactly I believe in the God department. The truth is, when I pray these days, I feel as though I’m standing at the edge of a Grand Canyon. I’ve no clue how this world is put together and how it works. Some folks I love and respect believe that God has a plan for each of us; they may well be right. The problem is, I grew exhausted years ago trying to figure out what kind of divine plans could include teenagers taking their own lives when old people pray for death’s relief. If God does have plans, I’m content for now to be ignorant of them.


“Whatever You say.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

What I am interested in is letting go. My prayers leap into Grand Canyons, trusting that the Eternal Loving Now will see to both flight and landing. I open my mouth, but not much comes out. Lately, I’ve spoken three sincere words: “Whatever You say”—now and forever. I keep a framed photograph of Mister Rogers on my office wall. Yes, Mister Rogers. I tore it out of a magazine. At the bottom of the photograph is a quote: “Frankly, I think that after we die, we have this wide understanding of what’s real. And we’ll probably say, ‘Ah, so that’s what it was all about.’” Amen.


Crappy Fred Rogers photograph on my office wall. (Original credit: Pittsburgh Magazine)

I also pray “thank you” a lot, but it’s no easy gratitude. I don’t believe that God looks at one father and says, “You know, I think John could use a break. I’m going to cure his son’s heroin addiction” and looks at one mother and says, “You know, I think Mary could use a good soul smashing. I’m going to give her son brain cancer and take him slowly.” My current narrow understanding can’t abide this brand of lordship. Each “thank you” I pray is whispered out of my chest and clutched throat into an extravagant, Grand Canyon Mystery. I cry the same way.

For a long time, sadness had the upper hand, but lately, gratitude has been winning. While gladness is hanging around, I’m wallowing in it.

This morning during yogurt and applesauce, I looked out at the backyard. Wife Kathy grows flowers, food, and foliage. Days go by when I forget to notice. Occasionally she takes me by the ear for a tour—that was yesterday, in fact, immediately after we got home from her colonoscopy and EGD. Who would want to assess begonias after taking such a plunging? That’s my wife.


Breakfast view.


Kathy’s foliage, neighbor’s shabby-chic garage.


What Kathy calls her puddle. What dog Watson calls his drinking fountain.


Garage ferns, etc. End of tour.


Kathy after the procedure and yard tour, cat and old K-Mart box fan looking on.

This afternoon I met with several church families and was struck by their goodness. These mothers and fathers treat their kids with love and tenderness and try hard to raise them with wisdom. As a father who’s messed up in the past with great intentions, I’m moved by parents who do their best. The hosts also served pesto-jack cheese, mango salsa, a great Southern Tier wheat ale, and brownies Mom thought were a bust—I ate three on my way out the door and could have taken out more had I not been worried about a diabetic coma.

I followed the brownies with a forty-five minute siesta on the old pre-school mats in my church office. Gracious! I slept for fifteen minutes at most, but woke feeling as if my whole body had a cleansing breath.

Back to this morning: I read a great quote by Charles Kuralt in Booknotes by Brian Lamb. Nappers everywhere should put this on the refrigerator:

I met a fellow in Key West, which is undoubtedly our most laid-back American community. [His name was] Clyde Hensley. Clyde says human beings were not made to labor from dawn until dusk. Human beings were just made to hang out. . . . Human beings were just intended to be on this earth to enjoy themselves a bit. It’s a philosophy you don’t hear much in this intense, work-oriented society of ours. But to the extent that one can survive without working from dawn to dusk, I’ve about decided Clyde is right.


Charles Kuralt (Credit: Wikipedia)

My future grandchild, presently the size of a yam, has rhythm. Sparkling daughter Elena reports that her virtuoso husband Matt was strumming his guitar by her belly, and little tater started to dance. I suggested they play Marvin Gaye and see if the kid’s got soul.


Elena with dancing yam bump.

A fellow blogger responded to one of my recent posts with a great quote by Calvin Coolidge, which will go in my worrier’s file (nice blog, by the way, and worth checking out: unexpectedincommonhours).

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.

Another fellow blogger lives one block west of my house. Her dachshund Sophie tools around the neighborhood in a doggie wheelchair. (Her blog, Our Dachshund Sophie, is also a winner.) All this dog has to do is roll by, and my mood’s improved for an hour.


Neighbor Sophie

One last thank you: as Kathy and I relaxed at Starbucks this evening, son Micah texted to ask if I’d bring him home a coffee. “Ur order, sir?” I answered. (If you’re easily offended, skip his response.)

A decaf venti vanilla latte with 5 shots v[anilla syrup]. And can u poor the amount of vanilla powder in that an asshole would do? Just unscrew the cap and dump a shit ton in.

Why does this toilet-mouth text merit thanks? Because this is reality. I’ve got my son, and he’s clean, working full time, and a joy to be around. So I’ll bring him a disgustingly sweet latte. Bawdy heretic that I am, I chuckled at his two shots of vulgarity. My answer to his request? “Ok, rumphole.”


A clean Micah in good spirits, modeling a new sunhat.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s dark out now. Lying in bed soon, I’ll be leaping into a Grand Canyon, whispering gratitude to the Eternal Loving Now and trusting in a safe landing.