Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

I am pleased to report that two horses have recently joined the faculty of animals in the fields surrounding Oniontown. They have signed on with those who endure the frustrating job of teaching the Reverend John Coleman a remedial course, Life 101.

I’m as eager a student as you’ll find in the great class of spiritual seekers in northwestern Pennsylvania and beyond, but one thorn sticks in my flesh: forgetfulness.

The same lessons present themselves to me “ad nauseam,” and each time a bashful idea arises: “Oh yeah, I used to know that.”

By way of set up for my latest epiphany, I should note that some little spitballs stick to my mental chalkboard. In 1956, before my time, E. B. White considered old versus new in his essay “Coon Tree”: “We have two stoves in our kitchen here in Maine–a big black iron stove that burns wood and a small white electric stove that draws its strength from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. We use both. One represents the past, the other represents the future. If we had to give up one in favor of the other and cook on just one, there isn’t the slightest question in anybody’s mind in my household which one we’d keep. It would be the big black Home Crawford 8-20, made by Walker & Pratt, with its woodbox that has to be filled with wood, its ashpan that has to be emptied of ashes, its flue pipe that has to be renewed when it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing when they get clogged, and all its other foibles and deficiencies.”

White’s dedication to the old and simple and tried and tested has made a lasting impression on me. His reservations about progress–everything from nuclear power to telephone systems unsupervised by operators–might seem curmudgeonly to contemporary eyes, but current research is rising up to prove how right he was in many of his disputations. (More on that another time.)

His words have never been wasted on me. I’ve been guided, for example, by his devotion to simplicity and common sense. Wife Kathy and I have lately cut our square footage in half and relieved ourselves of possessions by the hundreds. Thanks in part to the writer his friends knew as “Andy,” I’m not defeated by a big house to clean or smothered by what Kathy loves to call “items.”

And now, thanks to two lovely horses on District Road near St. John’s, a joyful thought has returned, something I used to know and hope never to forget again.

Round bales disappearing into a cold, damp field on District Road

Those horses, then, were up to nothing whatsoever. As I drove past, they stood close together, noses almost touching as they bent to meager fare on the winter ground. An impression came to me immediately like a kiss on the cheek: “They look happy.”

If you know me personally or by words alone, you know that it doesn’t take much wind to set my soul sailing. As I imagined over and over that pair of professors grazing, a glad possibility stayed with me for the rest of that day and hasn’t disappeared yet.

In the midst of delightful travels on Route 19 and District Road, one cloud has darkened my sky. “What a boring life those animals must lead,” I’ve speculated. Through no neglect or fault of their owners, the hours and afternoons must stretch out in front of the cows and horses—cold, snowy, damp, muddy and endless.

Go ahead, have a good laugh at my foolishness, but I’m telling the truth. Pastor John has been nursing a genuine, though ignorant, pity for Oniontown’s teachers of Life 101.

It’s a relief to realize that animals don’t need entertainment or diversions. Neither do they speak in sentences or contemplate mortality. They’re fine—thank you very much—just being together, breathing, dining on corral salad and rubbing noses now and then.

They don’t obsess over ambitions and failures or fret about risky investments or an oncologist’s diagnosis. In the end, animals probably don’t require a neurotic fifty-something’s sympathy.

Funny thing, I have a ceramic plaque hanging under a cross at home in the den. The words from Abraham Joshua Heschel are three feet from my nose: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

In their own way, cows and horses understand the great rabbi’s philosophy. So did I, not too long ago. I’m indebted to them for the gentle reminder.


Writing Days

Writing Days

The feeders during a lull in the snow, waiting to receive their fill

The house is calm. A wind chill of 13° has wispy snow swirling on Parkway Drive. The bird feeders look at me, wondering when they’ll get their fill. Soon, I promise.

Now the furnace kicks on, joining the weather and passing cars in a chorus of groans and sighs.

Now Baby Crash appears on the desk, offended that I’m not than cradling her, whispering sweet nothings—“Are you Pop’s good kitty cat?”— and feeding her treats. She licks my knuckle and considers taking a pinch of skin between her fangs. Her eyes are calculating.

But who can write while anticipating a nip from those needles a cat puts on display with each yawn? I set her on the floor and return to my dream.

Yes, my dream. Its elements are silence, bitter coffee, a view, a desk and something to say. For most of this March day, I’ll abstain from television and music and mute the smartphone (the mother of all misnomers).

No dashing around the house, yanking the silverware drawer open and shutting it with a thud and rattle. I once read that you can tell a lot about people by the way they close doors. The principle occurs to me often when, as May Sarton once said, “The house and I resume old conversations.” Let meditations be gentle. Hold the hours with a light grip. Listen to my own footfall on the wooden floor. Take it easy on the doors. Take it easy on my neighbor, as I should on myself.

A lot happens slowly on what I call “writing days”: prayer, chores, errands, coffee with friends, babysitting now and then.

Building permit for a den

And writing happens, especially writing. This is warp and woof of my dream: long draughts of time and space to play with words. Sometimes I write at Starbucks, but increasingly these days sentences get woven on this enclosed front porch, termed a “den” on a building permit from 9-7-65. While moving in, I found the form tacked to pegboard in the basement and framed it—something resonant about our home’s sanctum being four years my junior.

Wife Kathy and I have always called the room in our abodes set aside for contemplation and creation the “study.” Here on Parkway we feel obligated to use the space’s given name, though “den” fits a smartly dressed world beater who exudes confidence and authority—hardly yours truly.

“Study,” on the other hand, connotes humility, since one who labors there is a student at heart. That’s me, chronically rumpled and staring up slack jawed at some vertical learning curve.

First thing this morning I sat here in prayer, reckoning my good fortune. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, writing is limited primarily by stamina. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the pen sleeps as I head for Oniontown. The hour commute during winter is rich with the pale gray of leafless trees, and my reward is arriving to work with the sweet brothers and sisters at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“Living the dream,” some folks joke when asked how they’re doing. For me this is actually true, which is not to say that dreams come without complications.

Don’t be deceived. She bites.

Baby Crash’s teeth occasionally draw specks of blood.

Following an evening church meeting recently, I crawled through a freakish whiteout on Route 19 coming down the hill toward the Rainbow Valley Restaurant. The view cleared within a few miles, but the brief ordeal reminded me that troubles relish showing up unannounced.

My dream of writing days—the whole enterprise, I mean—has witnessed two squalls.

First, when dreams come even partially true, the spirit is tricked into believing that it has finally arrived in paradise. Nice try. Postponed grief and old upset hushed by stoicism never hesitate to drop in when I’m savoring solitude. In fact, gladness practically whispers to decades of unresolved life junk, “Hey, John’s defenses are down. Hurry, he’ll never see you coming.”

Second, a dream fulfilled does not—I repeat, does not—guarantee happiness, which is a stand-alone project. Am I alone in this experience? Circumstances are agreeable, better than could be expected, in fact, yet the throat is tight with sadness, the chest bruised with longing.


Writing days have highlighted the truth that happiness lives under no obligations. Now and then it appears unbidden and licks my hand. Mostly, though, my dream fulfilled leaves a spot open at the table, but joy doesn’t show up unless I send her an invitation.

This arrangement seems more than fair to me.

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.

The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.

Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”

How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.

“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.

“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.

If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.

Our four-year-old ginger with his little brother Killian playing in the wings

I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.

I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.

Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.

I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.

If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.

The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.

Route 19 South leads to a borough that gives us a laugh. We count one-two-three at the “Sheakleyville” road sign, wiggle our bodies and turn three syllables into six: “Shay-ay-ay-ake-lee-ville.”

A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)

On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.

The St. John’s sanctuary

Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.

Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.

Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”

In Praise of Napping

In Praise of Napping

I should say in advance that if you turn your nose up at napping, you take issue with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Jackie, and Ronald Reagan. You also question geniuses like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Credit: Wikmedia Commons)

With such an illustrious list of practitioners, you’d think that what the Spanish call a “siesta” would be beyond reproach. Not so. Back in 2011, when fatigue in airport control towers caused a series of near misses, Federal Aviation Administration chief Ray LaHood said, “We’re not going to pay controllers to nap.” Even when presented with proof that sleep breaks would be beneficial, the chief remained humbug on the idea.

For LaHood and millions of Americans, the phrase “caught napping” conveys what we really think. The first word all but accuses the second of laziness, lack of ambition, even delinquency.

Home economics guru Martha Stewart damned naps with faint praise when she said, “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”

As an armchair expert and connoisseur, I can assure Stewart and all novices of the simple arithmetic. Reclining + Cogitating = Insomnia. And Insomnia ≠ Napping (feline or otherwise).

Margaret Thatcher, who got “zizz” from her personal assistant, Cynthia “Crawfie” Crawford. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I have too much empirical evidence on my side to be swayed by detractors. Still, why does lying down on the couch in St. John’s pastor’s study for what Margaret Thatcher called a “zizz” embarrass me a little? The short blasts of rest that kept Thatcher sharp during the Falkland Islands War should embolden me.

As should her legendary predecessor, Winston Churchill, who actually put on pajamas and slid between the covers for at least an hour, usually longer. He claimed the rest helped him squeeze 1.5 workdays into 1.

His rationale was almost poetic: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”

Winston Churchill in 1941: imagine his scowl without a nap. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He was arguably the world leader most responsible for defeating Hitler. In retirement, between midday oblivion and glasses of Johnny Walker Red with a splash of water, Churchill wrote a 1,600,000-word history of World War II that earned him the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.

If you’ll admit that I’ve built a solid case thus far, I’ll return the favor with my own concession. Some recent studies have indicated a connection between long naps and premature death as well as the eventual onset of diabetes and heart disease. If you want to follow up on these leads, be my guest. I can’t help but wonder if some folks whose siestas drag on until dusk are dealing with major, health damaging stressors.

If you don’t think stress can plunge you into full-drooling REM sleep every afternoon, let me bend your ear. I first acquired my taste for naps thirty years ago when a series of challenges pointed out my limitations in every theater of life.

When some situations demanded emotional chops, I had a glass jaw. When others called for firmness and discernment, I employed what one Buddhist teacher calls “idiot compassion.” As a young father, for example, I mistook permissiveness for easy-going wisdom.

Yogi Berra in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In short, for a good thirty years I lay my beleaguered self down, as did baseball great Yogi Berra, who took “a two hour nap from 1:00 to 4:00.”

Thankfully, realities that used to sap my spirit have mostly gone on hiatus, and looking a full day in the eye no longer requires hiding my head under the covers halfway through.

Rest at midday has become a sweet blessing. A few weeks back I had a late lunch at daughter Elena’s house. Grandsons Cole and Killian were deep in their usual dramas of make believe, so it was a surprise when the former said he would join me for a nap.

One of my favorite nappers, Cole, three years ago

We sprawled on his single bed, my eyes closed and his fixed on a Magic School Bus cartoon. Occasionally I watched his features in profile, his delicate eyelashes and waves of red hair.

After fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m getting up, Pop,” and headed to the living room.

Ms. Frizzle and her students talked on the bus. My loved ones laughed and chattered down the hall. I wasn’t tired at all, but kept still in gratitude for an old habit begun out of desperation and aged into surprising joy.

And I saw that it was good.

Killian, napper in training

Oniontown Pastoral: A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

“If you could go back,” I asked Ray, “would you change anything?”

I can’t remember where the question came from or how the conversation started. We were driving to Dollar General, where he was going to pick up five bags of starlight peppermints.

“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I would never have started with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. I would have paid attention in school and graduated.”

I chipped in: “Oh, and you wouldn’t have gotten married that first time, right?”

“No, I would’ve run all the way to Oklahoma in the same pair of sneakers.”

Ray comes out with great lines like this, but his flat affect can make you forget his brain has zip. He is a trippy character. Years ago I mentioned that I would like to write about him.

“Write whatever you want,” he said. He hopes his story can speak to others, as it does to me.

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

Ray’s life is short on plot, but long on complication. Mental illness and heavy-duty meds blur his days. He could be content with a routine built on filterless roll-your-owns, plugs of wintergreen snuff and old Pink Floyd albums, but tobacco fills him with guilt. For decades he figured God would send him to hell, but not anymore. What remains is a soul scarred by damnation’s abuse.

Ray’s latest trouble is a persistent cough, so this morning after the peppermint run I took him to the doctor.

In the waiting room, as we engaged in our usual salty repartee, he sagged in his chair.

“Pastor,” he said out of the blue, “I wish somebody would tell me I’m going to die.”

No cause for alarm. Ray has been ready to die for years, but his belief that suicide is unforgivable keeps him alive.

“Really,” I said, inviting him into the valley we’ve walked before. “Why do you want to die?”

Ray knows my truth. I’ve never been suicidal, but a few times I’ve been miserable enough that if God had called me home, I would have gone without an argument.

My old friend confessed his truth: “I’m so tired of being tired and afraid.”

Ray’s medicine causes crushing fatigue, but it’s also supposed to keep him ahead of paranoia and panic. In fact, few days pass without him choking on their dust.

He calls constantly to ask for prayer. I take him to the doctor’s office, Smoker Friendly and the used record store. We get coffee. Wherever we are, he’s apt to say, “Lord, I’m so tired,” and he’s not talking to me.

I have no solutions, but figure that the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.

A few months ago Kathy and I traveled to Ireland and visited attractions both popular and inconspicuous. Of course, we toured Saint Colman’s Cathedral, whose spire keeps watch over the city of Cobh.

Prayer room at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland

My last stop was quiet room off the narthex, which glowed with votive candles. Kneelers waited below a towering poster of Jesus for believers with intercessions. I slipped a few Euros into the offering box, knelt and prayed for family, friends and my folks at St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown.

Ray got his own candle. I imagined him dozing in his recliner, obsessing about somebody breaking into his house and stealing his things.

“Peace,” was all I said, “give him some peace.” Then I snapped a photograph to show my friend where I remembered him to God.

This morning before taking Ray to the doctor, I finally got around to having the print framed. On the back I taped a prayer, the one that I offered in abbreviated form in Ireland: “Dear Lord, please fill Ray’s heart with peace about his salvation, compassion toward himself and love for you. Amen.”

The day is not yet over, and he has called me several times, twice to say how much he loves the picture. And moments ago, this update: “I just wanted to let you know I woke up from a nap and don’t feel sick.”

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

“No, Pastor, I feel normal,” he said with a chuckle.

A normal day—no panic, sorrow or tragedy—deserves a celebration, maybe a phone call to a friend. Now there’s a lesson I can stand to remember.

Folks assume I take of Ray, but I add this confession to my personal story: If I keep my heart open, sometimes Ray takes care of me.

Bike outside sidewalk cafe in Cobh, Ireland–after prayers for Ray and all the rest of us


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.

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*

For Birdy

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.

An impossibly blue sky in Oniontown

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.

Author’s confession: I was a mama’s boy.

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.)

Nothing sadder than round bales on a summer day.

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?”

A blue worthy of singing

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: A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.

“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.

We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.

I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.

No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.

The author with two new friends at the Cliffs of Moher. No, I don’t normally wear a scarf with a cardigan. There was a chilly mist coming off the ocean.

Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”

Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.

The inexorable passing of time

You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.

Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.

Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.

My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.

Stones, everywhere stones. Church ruins next door to apartments. Stone shape the landscape.

A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.

Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”

Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.

Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.

Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.

A gleeful Kathy peeking out of the Witch’s Kitchen on the grounds of the Blarney Castle.

Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.

If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.

Bonus Photographs

One of the best parts of Ireland was hanging out with Ed and Debby in interesting places, like this pub originally built in the thirteen century.

A crow perched on a stone wall in Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden. Stay tuned for a future post on the crows of Ireland.

Mummies in a crypt at St. Michan’s Church. Again, stay tuned.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

This past Tuesday was one for the books. The morning was fine. I worked in the church office until 12:30, then headed to the Stone Arch to pick up a lemon meringue pie I had ordered for an Erie neighbor who kept our sidewalk clear all winter while our own snow blower was laid up.

Since I was on that errand, it seemed foolish not to slide into a booth for a Reuben with extra thousand island and fries. On the way back to St. John’s Lutheran, wife Kathy’s 2006 Chevy HHR that goes by Bubba gradually lost steam and finally clattered to a halt right across Mercer Road from Frank Crash Auto Wrecking—one day after a new inspection.

The 89 degree humidity made sure I didn’t grin at the great gobs of irony. Friend Jodi was kind enough to fetch me back to church, where I chucked the pie in the refrigerator, waited for wife Kathy to return my call and sulked about every vehicle in my life betraying me. I had driven Bubba to Oniontown, after all, because my own 2006 Hyundai has the croup thanks to a failing fuel pump.

Long story short: Kathy’s work as a radiation therapy nurse and a sundry or two kept her in Erie until 7:00 p.m., which means she picked me up after dark, which also means she and I slouched in a borrowed mini-van with our lights shining on poor, comatose Bubba and beleaguered spirits waiting on word from AAA.

Actually I was managing okay. Kathy’s already challenging workday went an hour over, after which she had to scrounge a trustworthy vehicle and slog seventy miles south to schlep her husband home. My afternoon consisted of tasks handled at a stately pace in an air conditioned pastor’s study, a siesta and thirty minutes of silent prayer.

By the time Kathy picked me up and we reached Bubba, the quiet had reminded me that broken cars and endangered meringue are mosquitos hovering over a lifetime’s standing water. Most inconveniences are reduced to laughing matters, somewhere ages and ages hence.

Still, something about waiting on a berm, headlights glowing and darkness beyond, opens up your heart, if nothing else out of reverence for the hush of night accompanied only by gravel crunching under foot.

My heart received a blessing. I won’t lie, it wasn’t at the roadside, but as Kathy and I were at last rolling on Mercer Road toward Greenville.

The hand I kiss also raises up flowers

The words came out without my having to decide on them first. Glancing over at my wife, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, whose eyes were glazed with the enough-ness of the day, I said, “You know, I’d rather be with you right now than with any other wife on the best evening ever.” Then I took her hand—which comforts those staring down their mortality—and kissed it, as I always do.

Was I speaking the truth or just trying to be romantic? At 3:27 this morning, I lay awake on purpose, listened to Kathy breathe, and knew that my Mercer Road love story was honest to goodness.

When days are burdened by soul-testing challenges and generic bother, sleep is oasis and balm. Kathy’s slow, deep breaths, even the odd snuffle or two, gave me joy.

Kathy, with unapologetic gray hair, and our daughter Elena

As always the morning would bring us fresh gladness and upset, but in the familiar darkness of home, I touched my wife’s hair, now unapologetically gray, kept glad vigil and reckoned blessings that turn a cracked engine block and a brand-spanking new car payment into trifles.

This evening we’ll start in on that lemon meringue pie that we couldn’t give to our neighbor, who, it turns out, is away on vacation.

As long as Kathy and I are together, that pie will taste great.


Oniontown Pastoral: Wondering Where All the Places Are

Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Gibran’s words visit me every time I’m wandering the valley between gladness and grief—which is to say, much of the time. I should probably give the late Lebanese poet his own loft in my soul.

Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.

Killian and Cole (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.

But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.

Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.

I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”

Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”

Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.

Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.

I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.

Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”

Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?

Dear World, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you please take it easy on this dreamer. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.

The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.

“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”

Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.

Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.

As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.

Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.