In the beginning the faithful arrived by horse and buggy. Staring out again at the waving stalks—in a daze almost—I imagine sloppy dirt roads, driving rain, wind chills calculated only by stinging cheeks. If not for these hearty souls, there would be no pastor’s study, snug in winter and cool in summer. There would be an Oniontown, but no “Oniontown Pastoral.” Continue reading
Tag Archives: Pastoral Ministry
Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd
Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd
In Memory of Warren Redfoot
Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.
Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.
“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.
What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”
He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.
As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”
He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.
Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”
“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”
“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”
I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.
Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.
These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.
Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.
Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.
Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.
Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”
“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”
“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”
And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.
When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.
I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.
I did the same. We kept the silence together.
“Peace?” I finally asked.
He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”
Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.
Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat
Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat
(May 30, 2019)
And if I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat.
Lyle Lovett, whose frizzy pompadour was once a natural wonder, wrote “If I Had a Boat” while skipping a college class. Unable to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “It’s a song about possibility . . . a song about being a cowboy out west and the captain of a great ship.”
Well, it’s Lovett’s song to explain, but I hear in its whimsy an impulse to leave behind the stifling and disappointing. In one verse, the country crooner has Tonto, who does the Lone Ranger’s “dirty work for free,” saying, “Kemo Sabe, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea.” The delicious hutzpah elicits whoops and applause.
Lately the song has become a hymn to me, in part because of the legendary sidekick’s impertinence. From time to time—and I ask this in a sincere pastoral tone—don’t you want to bare your bum to civilization and “go out on the ocean”? To ride a pony toward a horizon of possibilities? I sure do, and saying so constitutes a confession that the good Lord would probably understand.
I’m not indulging in a rant or snivel here. The truth is, we’ve all had weeks that deserve to be hauled out into open air and shared, for the sake of commiseration if nothing else. The truth also is, a village preacher can either succumb to despair or maintain a cargo hold stocked with hope. The latter has stood me in good stead, and I’m not about to change course now.
So, about this past week.
For starters, I visited an old friend who has been in declining health. He couldn’t rouse himself from an awful dream, the highlights of which he narrated between groans and shouts. “I want to get the hell out of here.” “I need a place.” “There’s nothing I can do.” “Help me.” His manner was delirious, but, in fact, he captured the plot perfectly.
A woman in the next wheelchair patted my friend’s arm, mouthed a prayer, then pulled her fleece sweater up over her head in turtle fashion.
So I prayed them both a boat out on the ocean. This was their fervent wish. Why should they be moored for one minute longer in such troubled waters?
This painful visit was followed by news that hit like a rogue wave. Wife Kathy and I were settling into bed for a bout of reading when she learned that a dear friend’s ex-husband had died in a tragic accident.
I first heard Lyle Lovett’s playful song on a recording this friend had made for Kathy and me. I wish we lived on the same continent so that we could shoot misery the moon and sing a hymn about riding a pony on deck.
I never met our friend’s ex, but did get to know recently one of their adult children. And, of course, a divorce doesn’t sever all ties of affection. There’s plenty of pain to go around. In this moment, the hope in my cargo hold looks meager next to unexpected death. I have little to offer. But what else is there besides hope that a capsized vessel–or a life overturned–will right itself and remain seaworthy?
In the week’s final glancing blow, The New York Times notes this morning the death of Leon Redbone at age 69. According to his death announcement, the quirky, secretive troubadour “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at age 127.”
“Oh behave yourselves,” he said in a prepared sign off. “Thank you . . . and good evening everybody.”
No doubt Redbone wanted fans like me to keep our chins up, which is wise counsel. (Of course, when death has stolen a loved one, your chin and all the rest of you can certainly droop for a while.)
I still haven’t grown up yet, but as my collection of bad weeks becomes a flotilla, singing helps me to gaze across the delta at that beautiful shore.
One day we will “all together go out on the ocean,” not to give Kemo Sabe what for, but to point our pony’s face into the spray and gallop for joy.
Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows
Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows
Though not much of a collector myself, I admire those who are. Parishioner Bill has been a Cub Cadet enthusiast for years, at one point owning over a dozen of them. My barber hoards sneakers but plays coy about revealing numbers. Retired Limerick plumber Michael Kelly’s ever-expanding model aircraft collection finally had to find a home at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.
I used to collect baseball cards and comic books, but these were passing endeavors. Boxes jammed with Sudden Sam MacDowell and Johnny Bench cards and Jonah Hex and Iron Man comics have journeyed from attic to crawl space to closet, their whereabouts now known only to wife Kathy, the household storage maven.
Only recently have I tripped over a collection that has been quietly amassing not in cardboard boxes or curio cabinets, but between my ears. Turns out I’ve been accumulating windows.
When wife Kathy and I lived in South Haven, Michigan, only treetops were visible as we lay in bed and looked out our window. Why were we soothed by gusts making branches bend and sway? Was it that the leaves, waving and trembling, had no choice but to surrender to the weather? Our yearlong stay in that small town on Lake Michigan was blessed, but also challenging and unpredictable. Our heads on the pillows and hands clasped, we enjoyed the solace of treetops, straining like us not to snap when tempest tossed.
In 2001, following seminary studies, Kathy and I moved home to Erie, where Shenley Drive gave us a boulevard of maples. Once again, for over a decade, waking up in the morning and napping involved trees. As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Way leads on to way.” My forties led on to fifties. Seasons used high branches as an excuse to sing, and I could no longer pretend to be young. The trees helped me to whisper to myself: “If I die on this bed, hopefully ages and ages hence, that will be fine.” The message was freeing. Forever, it seemed, I longed to be in a place more cultured, more interesting and exciting. But truth had its say: “Move as much as you like, John, you’ll always have to accept four walls and the certainty of your own end.” At 322 Shenley I was finally home.
I had also developed the habit of finding joy buried under adversity and mortality. The first time I saw an oriole up close, parishioner Tom and I were standing at his kitchen window. His daughter Nadeana, only forty-seven, had died that very morning of cancer, which afflicted Tom as well. Shoulder to shoulder with a devastated father, I wondered what nerve lovely wings had visiting on such a wretched day. There they were though, reminding us both that even on Golgotha, life has the last word.
Another of my windows is beside Fred and Marilyn’s backdoor. When I visit, we chat and keep track of birds that share seeds and nuts with the squirrels. Last week while saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I noticed the yard was deserted. Then, when I said, “Shed for you,” a red-bellied woodpecker, titmice, and squirrels had returned, as if to attend our meal. Fred’s condition makes holding a cup difficult, but as he persevered, a conviction alighted on me: While we birds, beasts and siblings struggle wing-to-hoof-to-elbow, God is mindful of us all.
The pastor’s study window at St. John’s holds an honored place in my collection. Just as the Shenley Drive maples calmed a restless middle-aged man, a line of pines, a field in which corn and soybeans take turns, and one grand red barn compose a landscape that means: “You love St. John’s. They put up with you. You’re fortunate, you small church pastor, you.”
And now, to my delight, Grandson Cole shows signs of inheriting his Pop’s unusual tastes. Some weeks ago on the way to Oniontown, Cole gazed out his car window and said to Grandma Kathy, “Do you know what kind of woods those are?”
“No, best buddy,” she said, “what kind are they?”
“They’re ‘Ice Cream Woods,’” he said.
“Ice Cream Woods? Why?”
“Because you could go in there and eat ice cream.”
“Oh,” Kathy played along, “so could you sit under a tree and eat ice cream?”
“No, Grandma, ants would get on you,” he explained. “You’d have to stand.”
Okay, I’m not sure what Pop has passed down to Cole, an interest in windows or a fanciful way of seeing the world. Either way, I’m glad to have his company.
Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day
Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*
Have you ever spent hours on roller skates, then put on your shoes and felt as though your feet belonged to somebody else?
Have you ever gone to a matinee and walked from the darkened theater out into a shock of summer day?
If so, you can imagine my reaction to a message I received last Thursday: “Jack just passed.”
He was thirty-five, and a ravenous cancer was the thief. He had little kids. Jack and my friend Birdy had been married a few short months—I never even had the chance to meet the man.
What knocked the wind out of me was this: Birdy’s father, Fran, succumbed to cancer on Monday. So the father of the bride and her groom passed away three days apart on the same hospice hallway.
I learned of Jack’s death after a lunch of beef noodle soup at Cathy and Ed’s house. I savored buttered croissants dipped in broth, cheesecake for dessert, and stories with twists and turns. The visit refreshed and blessed me.
Then came the matinee moment. As I walked outside, a stunning afternoon was waiting. The chilly morning air had warmed. The sky was cloudless and impossibly blue, a color created for welcoming souls.
I paused in the driveway, looked up and took in a draught of fine air. If Cathy and Ed were watching, they probably wondered what in the heck their pastor was doing.
Pastor John was thinking, “My God, what a perfect day” and at the same time, “Oh, Birdy.” Heading over Methodist and Mercer Roads to the church, I couldn’t get the beauty around me to harmonize with what my friend must have been feeling.
Under normal circumstances Birdy’s smile ought to be shipped in bubble wrap to sad folks everywhere. Her laugh is medicinal, but recent years have delivered more than her share of trouble. Thinking of her shining spirit, I’ve often said to myself, “All right, Life! Birdy has endured enough, okay?”
Last week wasn’t my first time traveling through light while contemplating darkness. Back in seminary I spent one summer as a hospital chaplain. Most days, the trip from the revolving doors to the parking lot after work was five weary minutes of humidity and dissonance.
As citizens zoomed around Columbus on their errands, scores with IVs in their veins either got well enough to go home or prepared for the move everyone is required to make eventually. The sidewalk outside belonged to a different universe from the one with tile floors and elevators.
On day one as a chaplain, I should add, my mother died of sepsis in Erie, Pennsylvania. That thirty-six-year-old future pastor who prayed with the ailing and comforted the fearful was grieving hard, falling apart himself.
In worse shape than me was Lou, whose best and only friend Sally—my chaplaincy patient—had fallen backward while carrying groceries up slippery steps. He had no family.
“Come on, Sal,” Lou said over and over, patting her clammy forearm. “Wake up. Don’t leave me all alone.”
“Did you see that?” he would say. “She moved! Did you see?” Each incidental twitch held the hope of Sally getting well so they could pass evenings watching Jeopardy and playing Gin Rummy.
Lou came up to my nose and wore a confused expression, eyes squinting, lips forming the tail end of “why.” The world was an inside joke he didn’t get.
A couple of weeks into Sally’s coma, the end was inevitable. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “thy will be done,” and Lou sagged in surrender. With his forehead resting on the bedrail, his shoulders rose and fell with hoarse sobs.
(For the record, I don’t believe Sally hit her head on concrete because God willed it, but we’ll save that distinction for sometime later.)
Lou told Sally goodbye in 1998. That July, with my mother’s passing still fresh and patients’ worries following me home, I understood why E. B. White once wrote, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”
“When you roll down the window,” you might say, “why not just enjoy the air rushing across your arm? Why not put Lou on God’s bus and rather than having him ride with you?”
Because I still care about Lou. And I love Birdy.
“Dude,” she said as we hugged at her father’s wake. That one word was plenty to say, “I’m in pieces” or “What am I supposed to do now?”
I’m not about to forget friends so my spirit can sing along with blue skies. Besides, I would rather trudge through sleet with them than lounge at sunset and lift a champagne toast without them.
There’s no such thing as a perfect day, I suppose. Give me a truthful day instead, with joy and sorrow rubbing elbows. Best of all, give me a glorious afternoon with Fran, Jack and Sally sitting in the back seat and Birdy and Lou up front with me. Let my car be a convertible with enough room for my mother to come along, too.
The wind will blow on our faces and dry our tears.
*Lou and Sally are not real names.
Oniontown Pastoral #4: The Late Imposition of Ashes
Part 1: Holy Saturday Evening
Chopped pears bubbled with white raisins and honey—an improvisation to anoint vanilla ice cream for Easter dessert.
Morning would come early. Before wife Kathy and I headed out for the hour drive from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, bacon and congealed fat, soaking potatoes and sliced onions had to get from refrigerator to crock pot, along with whatever else Grandma Coleman included in her German potato salad recipe.
While I cooked, Kathy went to the Vigil of Easter at Abiding Hope, the congregation I served for fourteen years and said Godspeed to five months ago. The gracious interim pastor invited me to come, too, but it was too soon to go back.
Ash Wednesday arrived at an awkward time for this pastor’s heart. The last fifteen years have been disproportionately penitential, my topography rich with Gethsemanes. These forty days being mostly unburdened, I haven’t felt like sweating in the garden or walking the lonesome valley.
My ingredients for happiness aren’t exotic. A couple of untroubled hours at home suffice. With clove and cinnamon taking over the smell of bacon and guitar solos leaning into the dark, I pulled up the footrest and closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, without warning, a suggestion of Lent rose into my throat.
How many times over the decades have I refused to cry? I’m not sure why deferred tears surface on warm spring days, when each breeze is the Sacred One cupping my face. Or on quiet evenings, when the moon passes through living room windows, when failure and regret are subjects of past calendars and my lungs fill with the air of glad memory.
Part 2: Easter Sunday
7:00 a.m.: Why the mess? Everything everywhere, owner’s manual and insurance card on the floor, napkins and dry pens by the gas pedal.
Some little expletive had rifled through our unlocked car overnight. Since nothing was missing, Kathy and I agreed drug money was the goal. But lesson learned.
Dinner on low, we left for Oniontown: breakfast at 9:00, worship at 10:00. All was in readiness. The tomb was empty; “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . [was] rolled up in a place by itself.”
As Kathy sipped coffee, I thought through the sermon story. Notes wouldn’t be necessary. I can never get far from my dad’s last trip to see wife Mary in her nursing home.
They kissed. He rested his lips on her hand. “Come on,” he finally said. “Let’s get out of here.”
In spite of shared dementia, they both realized the impossibility. Mary’s legs were dead. The only place Dad was going was back to assisted living.
“Well, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad searched his evaporating vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to step out on a cloud?” Mary said. “But that can’t be.”
Dad’s eyebrows gathered down—his standard incredulous look. “Why not?”
Dad, who didn’t have one church-going hair in his wavy gray compliment, was proposing heaven: the other post.
My sermon, falling on the ears of many parishioners who had endured loss after loss, wouldn’t be buoyant with resurrection, but hushed with hope. The other post: oh, that we could all gather there, offenses forgiven, injuries healed, fears rocked to sleep like colicky babies.
We were making good time, and my sermon was rehearsed. I can’t remember a more fair Easter morning. The sun was waking up the pale land, telling it to live.
Then, suddenly, I remembered something that placed the fullness of Lent on my lap. Half an hour away from church, the betrayal and nails and the sponge soaked in sour wine lifted on a hyssop branch all caught up with me. If I had consented to tears at that point I might not have been able to recover in time for a triumphant Easter shout.
What I remembered was four years ago. My own beloved expletive—son Micah—was hooked on heroin and owed a dealer $200. Desperate, expecting to be flogged, he rifled through a couple of cars for stuff to sell and scored a laptop and something else that escapes me.
He got arrested, spent a couple hours in jail, then went out and injected melted down fentanyl patches with a friend, who overdosed and nearly died. Micah earned a felony for his trouble.
My son got clean shortly after his one-day crime spree and is now a joy. Anyone who dismisses the earthly poetry of death and resurrection can talk to me.
My teenage junkie once knelt in the middle of West 8th Street, waiting for a minivan to run him over. I have seen with my own eyes the junkie stand and reach honorable adulthood. On the way to Oniontown, though, a wadded Kleenex still next to the clutch, I imagined the punk who chanced upon the car in the Coleman driveway and made a frenzied search.
My boy came to such a place, and it occurred to me that Easter morning’s little expletive was probably loved by somebody. Maybe he or she was a boilerplate creep, but did a parent pray—with face buried in hands, as I did—for a miraculous healing, a decent path, anything?
Familiar landmarks on District Road were a private blur. I couldn’t afford to have Lent—creation aching with needles, wounds, and rancor, lost pilgrims wandering the lonesome valley—crack me open a couple miles away from St. John’s.
Breakfast was five-diamond Lutheran. We shouted and sang. When I talked about the other post, my tears behaved, but some of the folks cried on my behalf. I appreciated their help and knew unfinished ashes would rise in my throat again on a still evening of their own choosing.