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.”

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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.

Shenley maples, with only tops visible from our bedroom window

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.

My St. John’s window in spring

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.

Ice Cream Woods set Cole’s mind to dreaming. Round bales do the same for me.

 

My Favorite Color Revisited

My Favorite Color Revisited

Blogger’s Note: Here’s another post with an excess of marital and family love. Please take a pass if you’ve had your fill of my gush. Peace, John

Wife Kathy’s paisley pop ottoman

Just so you’ll give me a little leeway in the matter of color preferences, please bear in mind that my father was a Navy man with simple tastes.

“What’s your favorite color, Dad?” I asked him going on fifty years ago.

“Oh, battleship gray, I guess.”

Not merely gray, which I like, but a shade that can lead over time to melancholy. Get up close to a battleship some time and stare at it. “Why am I so sad?” you’ll wonder eventually. That’s battleship gray for you.

In fairness, Dad may have been telling me that he didn’t have a favorite color. Some people don’t care, can’t decide or refuse to commit. I once told inquiring grandson Cole that his red hair was my pick. Of course, I wouldn’t paint my house or buy a suit that color, which suggests that ginger’s appeal has everything to do with it curling around on my buddy’s head.

Cole, Pop and Killian. When the youngest asks about my favorite color, I’ll add sandy brown to the list.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t normally fritter away a morning musing about why Dad decided my childhood home should be battleship gray. No, on this overcast, drizzly day in Erie, Pennsylvania, I’m contemplating marriage, especially ones that have lasted a while.

Here’s the situation. Other than Cole-orange, my favorite color is negotiable within the palate of muted earth tones. I want to look upon whatever gives my heart peace. None of you, I’ll wager, has ever worn a fluorescent beige jacket. Why? Because God decided—on what day of creation I don’t know—that some colors shouldn’t make human beings squint. Soothing, that’s what I like, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Wife Kathy, on the other hand, goes in the direction my late mother would have called “loud.” Here’s an example. In 2015 Kathy and I moved out of a big house with a “loud” kitchen: fluorescent orange, lime green and a sassy yellow with mustard tendencies. It was not possible to cook in that room without the awareness of radioactive levels of brightness.

Micah smoking an e-cig in our old house’s lime green breakfast nook.

But seriously, the paint job was an expression of Kathy’s exuberant spirit, which made the blinding ambiance endearing to me. She wanted a fun space and didn’t ask me to pick up a brush or roller. The deal was more than fair.

The kitchen of our current small home is characterized by Pastor John’s restraint: light gray walls, cherry-stained cupboards and floor tiles blessed with an abstract smudging of earth tones. It is well with my soul.

So imagine my alarm last week when Kathy said we should paint the boring wooden bench in the mudroom, not eight feet away from the stove. “The space needs a little pop.”

I said nothing at first, but thought, “And so it begins.” The only Pop I want at 402 Parkway is yours truly.

“OK, what were you thinking?” I finally managed.

“Well, how about purple?” she said with a few blinks and a come-hither smile.

What I said in my head: “Oh dear.” What I said with my mouth, already surrendering with the talks barely underway: “Could we go with a pale purple, kind of flat, sort of like mauve?” My goal, in case you can’t tell, was to drag this purple as close to gray as I could get it.

My beloved is taken with spray-paint these days, so we looked at rows of cans and she granted me an honest vote. Now, what has turned out to be a lavender bench sits by the back door. It’s a tad pastel for me, but I can live with it. Before long, I’ll probably like it.

The same thing happened when the barn behind the cornfield bordering St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown was covered with fire engine red siding. At first I missed gazing out my office window at the weathered white and gray, but over time the change has found favor in my eyes. When you look through love’s glasses, even battleship gray can grow on you.

A little pop in Oniontown

The other day I watched through the screen door as Kathy sat on the back steps and sipped tea. The wind lifted her gray hair and set it back down again. At my feet was the bench that makes her happy.

This July will mark thirty-five years for us. Luck keeps us afloat, as does an understanding our marriage would die without. Kathy’s fluorescent soul pops as her creator intended, and my pale palate is right and salutary just the way it is.

I’m pointing toward love, of course. The Greek word for it is not “eros” or “philos,” but “agape.” You pick the paint, if it matters to you,” such unconditional love says. “Maybe next time I’ll choose.”

After “I do,” precious little really matters. In the end (and I’m not making this up), I have three favorite colors: Cole-orange, the gray of Kathy’s hair and the auburn of her eyes.

Oniontown Pastoral: Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

Oniontown Pastoral:

Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw

The last thing I expected to enjoy two years ago when I started serving as St. John’s Lutheran Church’s part-time pastor was my seventy-mile commute from Erie to Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

I was smitten immediately. The scenery calms me down, and the livestock munching their breakfast as I speed by now seem like distant relatives. One blonde horse on Route 19 is on my mind so often that I may request a meeting. I call him Onslow. What would the farmer say when I knock and ask, “Do you mind if I make your horse’s acquaintance”? Hopefully he suffers fools well.

I’m not altogether surprised to discover that my time behind the wheel is joyful. Experience has proven that gladness finds me and not the other way around. Beauty, wisdom and bliss don’t yield to force or expectation. They obey their own fancies.

I received such lessons anew in October when Kathy and I traveled to Ireland, a country aptly called the “Emerald Isle.” Everywhere you look, intoxicating greens and ancient grays cast a reverent spell.

Reverence

Leave it to me, though, to be delighted most by chance human encounters. One beer into my first pub visit, a lean, leathery-faced old stranger took a look at my gut, leaned in close and asked, “When’s the last time you saw your own feet, mate?” Tipsy Irishmen say the darndest things.

Gladness also showed up in the commonplace, especially along the island’s narrow, harrowing roads. My brother Ed drove, his wife Debby navigated, and Kathy and I sat in the back seat and let our eyes wander.

I never tired of watching livestock grazing in fields framed by stone walls. It was as if a painter arranged the cows for the greatest artistic affect.

“Why,” I later asked St. John’s friend and cow-whisperer Dave, “do Irish cows stand together and strike the same gracious pose while ours are scattered hither and yon?”

“That’s because,” Dave shot back, “American cows are free spirits.” Well played!

Two acquaintances in the mist at the Cliffs of Moher

Almost as numerous as cows, the sheep had an attitude, and with good reason. I would smirk, too, if somebody had branded my wool with fluorescent spray paint. One looked me right in the eyes. “Well,” his expression said, “are we going to stare at each other or go lift a Guinness?”

Must say, I’d be a little put out, too. (Credit: Dave Fergusson on Wikimedia Commons. A Scottish sheep.)

My keenest, most unlikely pleasure was granted by a crow, or so I assumed. Birder friend Mary saw a photograph I had posted on ANappersCompanion.com weeks later and informed me that my bird was a Jackdaw.

So it was “Jack”—or “Jackie,” I don’t know—who met me outside a pub in Blarney. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, this corvid had me under surveillance. Townsfolk and tourists were seated all around, but Jack was most enamored of me.

The feeling was mutual. He landed one table over and hopped about. What was he up to?

Since my glass was empty, I got a refill for me and a scone for Jack. After kissing Blarney’s famous stone and wandering the castle’s gardens, I wasn’t hungry myself, but content to rest, gladden my heart and treat a fellow planetary citizen to lunch.

A fellow planetary citizen

I set a few chunks of scone on Jack’s table and waited for him to return. He took my offerings one by one, flew away, then came back for more.

Hoping he would join me, I put pieces on my table. He came and went, several times staking me out from the roof of Blarney Woolen Mills. Alas, the closest he got was the chair opposite me.

Jack considers my invitation.

When I returned from getting a last refill, Jack and his friends had cleaned up the portions I’d left behind. Before long I ripped up the sad remnants and headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

Walking along, I wondered why I had spent the better part of an afternoon in the company of an understandably skittish bird. (Lord knows why such conundrums interest me.)

My only intention was to call Jack “brother,” but how could he (or she) have known? Two creatures crossing paths, that’s what we were. Yes, I know Jack was all about the scone, but I’m eccentric enough to believe we connected in a mysterious, elemental way.

The possibility alone makes me glad. When humans, corvids, cows and sheep of good will trust each other, a silent language is spoken. Its name is Hope.

Jackdaw about to take flight at the Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

This past Sunday evening I sat with wife Kathy in the emergency room as the kind professionals there tested her blood and prescribed a legion of pills. “Viral bronchitis” was their diagnosis, but they clearly meant, “Yeah, you caught that nasty thing going around.”

I’m just now getting over the same scourge, which the family acquired from grandson Cole, who brought it home from pre-school.

But who really knows where it came from? A virus bloweth where it listeth, and thou heareth the cough and sniffle thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.

My mind has been swirling with questions lately, frivolous and profound. What gives a cough the nerve to linger for weeks? Why do some souls suffer more than others? And what do animals think about snow?

I asked retired cow veterinarian Dave that last question after worship recently: “So, Dave, when I see a horse with snow on its back, should I feel sorry for it?”

The gentle, loving laughter that came from those gathered round was fully expected. This city boy is a willing source of amusement at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (It took six months for “round bale” to sink in. I had to get “rolled bale” and “round hay” out of my system first.)

Dave explained that most cows and horses would choose to be outside, even if you offered them a heated barn.

Karen knows horses and added, “You know, horses can sleep standing up?”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I see so many lying down. Why is that?”

“Because horses are all different,” she said. “Some like to lie down.”

Karen’s husband Ron’s eyes were tearing up, his face pink, which suited me fine, since I love to laugh at myself and watch others join in.

After the fun, though, the germ of my question remained. What started me thinking was a blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. He abides in a fenced-in yard, munching from his private round bale. Another dozen or so horses have run of the place. (I trust that the farmer has good reasons for this arrangement. People who live near Oniontown tend to have wise hearts.)

Onslow, whom I see but a few times per week on my commute, takes up a disproportionate amount of my spiritual space. He was the animal who had snow on his back.

Is it foolish to wonder what a horse is thinking? I can still see him standing there motionless, a white dusting settled where his saddle would be.

Days ago on the way to St. John’s I looked for Onslow in his usual digs. A tarp covered his hay. I felt a twinge of concern. Where was he?

The answer came immediately and, to these city eyes, joyfully. Grazing in the same field with the other horses was my old buddy.

The dear folks at Wagler’s figured I’d be stopping by for my farmers cheese, so they set aside a few slices. God bless them.

When I got to the church, I enjoyed farmers cheese from Wagler’s Camp Perry store and savored Onslow’s freedom.

Since the morning was quiet, I looked out at the pine trees and took stock of how little I know for sure. Maybe I caught my virus from a dirty doorknob. Maybe Onslow didn’t appreciate being moved from his solitude. Maybe napping on his feet as snow covers him is bliss.

Who knows? Certainly not me. But I bet my life that God is mindful of Onslow. Making that wager while chewing farmers cheese, I felt sweet hope settle upon me.

I received it for St. John’s, Oniontown and beyond—the way a child’s open hand welcomes falling snowflakes. The goodbyes we’ve said in the last year, many hard to bear, have left us raw. Hope is our salve.

A penny for your thoughts.

So I’ll keep asking questions, especially the one greeted only with silence this side of glory: “Why?” If I get exposed to a few answers, I might catch wisdom.

Last Sunday I told Dave, “We need to have lunch. You need to tell me more about cows.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can tell you all about cows.”

I’ll listen eagerly. Whatever is on their minds, I want to know they’re well. And I want Onslow to be glad.

What Makes Most Sense

What Makes Most Sense

Seeing as how wife Kathy and I are in our mid-fifties, we should probably each have our own car. I would feel a little more grown up that way. Performing scheduling gymnastics to get us both from point J to point K reminds me of childhood, when transportation required negotiations and occasional groveling.

Autonomy also makes good sense for us. My pastor job takes me an hour from the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania, to the village of Oniontown, and, as Mapquest.com informs me, Kathy works 6.3 miles from home—an estimated $0.64 gulp of gasoline and 16 minutes on the road.

So, if I drive Kathy to and from work five days per week, let’s say fifty weeks per year, the ka-ching is 133.33 hours—that’s over three standard workweeks—and $320 per annum. If time is, indeed, money, then when I pick my weary beloved up at 4:30 today, we should head to the nearest used car lot and purchase at the very least a clunker. One call to our insurance agent requesting a collision policy, and hours of unfettered time would snap open before me like sails caught in a gust.

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1899 Horsey Horseless (Credit: http://www.allcarindex.com)

To tell the truth, even an 1899 Horsey Horseless, named by Time Magazine as one of the fifty worst cars ever manufactured, would hold a certain attraction. (In those days of horse and buggy, this design sported a clever hood ornament, a life-sized, wooden horse head, so that the real animals wouldn’t get spooked when a HH roared by. By the time a horse realized it had been fooled, it was some distance down the road. The moment of danger had passed.)

At the moment, Pastor and Mrs. Coleman share a 2006 Chevy HHR called Bubba. (Those initials stand for Heritage High Roof, which is bullpucky. The roof is actually stunted, and the claim of nostalgia is cover for an appearance that suggests it needs to push away from the dinner table and hit the gym.)

We don’t normally name our vehicles, but its bulbous shape and sick orange color deserved more than Chevy. Bubbles struck us as demeaning, so Bubba was a fitting, folksy compromise.

Kathy and Bubba have never been close. Her grievances against our car gather around a single complaint: Bubba annoys her, as would a scratchy collar or a companion applying a migraine-inducing amount of fragrance. The headrests make her neck ache. The windshield is crouched so that she has to do a forward limbo to see if the traffic light has changed. The list goes on.

Poor Bubba also suffers from guilt by association. Kathy understands that our marriage can stay peaceful if my untidy habits can be blamed on an object—say a littered car so pathetic that it’s no longer being manufactured. Although I’ve slowly mended my ways, Kathy still holds a grudge.

All factors indicate that my wife and I should be a his-and-hers couple. For mundane reasons, we had the chance to take a two-vehicle arrangement for a test drive this past week. She got to work in our son-in-law Matt’s truck, and I took Bubba.

The Born Free movie theme didn’t fill my spirit, as I had expected. Something close to the opposite happened, in fact. From behind my desk at the church, I watched Bubba nap alone in the parking lot and accepted the truth: I missed driving Kathy to work and picking her up for the sixteen-minute slog home afterward.

Spending thirty-plus minutes each day with somebody you love isn’t a burden, but a gift. How did I overlook this fact? Terminally sentimental guys like me are usually in tune with love’s minutia, but this half-hour of nonchalant blessing snuck past me.

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Bubba in the driveway of our old house. He didn’t ask to be painted burnt orange.

That said, we will buy a second car. Kathy’s relationship with Bubba has grown increasingly strained. He is no longer cluttered with my empty coffee cups, but his many shortcomings test her patience—nowhere to put anything, a couple of dumb blind spots. Still, as long as I’m behind the wheel, my wife and our car are civil, which is fortunate for me.

Transitioning to hers-and-his transportation doesn’t mean that I won’t get to drive Kathy to work anymore. After all, she enjoys the ride, too. She does something that lets me know.

Our route takes us along the Bayfront Parkway, which looks out on Lake Erie. Kathy loves the water, and as she stares out at it, I take her hand and kiss it. Apologies to those of you who squirm at such sharing of the Coleman’s darling little rituals, but the fact is, that kiss is one of the most joyful parts of my middle-aged day.

And Kathy likes it because when I forget, suddenly her hand appears before my face: “Ahem.” The smooch is well deserved. She works at The Regional Cancer Center, where folks have the troubling habit of dying. Over the years her touch has given comfort and hope that lives beyond the few calendar pages a patient may survive to turn.

Now rheumatoid arthritis is settling into my wife’s hands, which at the moment cut fabric for her mother’s new handbag. My kiss often lingers, so great is the kindness and generosity it has to honor.

At pick up time, Kathy and I have another ritual she knows nothing about. When she gets into the car, I can tell what kind of day it’s been: energizing, easy, stressful, disappointing. She looks at me with a smile or goes “whew” or makes one of another dozen faces. Her expression is rewarded by—you guessed it—a kiss.

Then she tells the story, complete with triumphs and embarrassments reserved for one who is steadfastly on your side, one who knows that your victories aren’t boastful and your defeats aren’t woe-is-me.

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A husband and wife for whom life has never made much sense.

We talk about dinner, children and grandsons, and anything else that floats by in the dazzling, silty river of a long marriage. Decades of grace and grief visit and depart.

When all Kathy has left is fatigue, we listen to the engine go from first to fourth or the windshield wipers glide rain away. “If you’re out of words,” my silence means, “I’m here anyway.” Occasionally, the best way to show love is to keep quiet.

When Bubba’s sibling vehicle comes along, it may not get a name. Nor will Kathy and I leave home separately each morning just because of the number of cars we own. The way a workday starts and ends matters. A kiss on the hand and another on the lips don’t stand up to good sense as do the price of gasoline and the cost of time, but that’s okay. My life has never made much sense.

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

IMG_4286Cashiers at Wine and Spirits Stores always ask the same question before scanning my bottle: “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

I say a lazy “yes, thanks” because an honest answer requires a treatise. Rarely, when nobody else is in line, the thesis comes out: “Well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’m good.”

After a polite chuckle, the cashier carries on with no idea that a confessional transaction has also taken place.

I seldom know what I’m looking for. Call me slack, but purposeful searching generally yields frustration. The quotation residing warmly in memory is elusive, impossible to verify. And never go hunting for epiphanies. Those gems hide in desert caves until the seeker has forgotten that they exist.

But when I look for nothing, wonder ends up finding me. Of course, sometimes we’re all assigned a specific mission. There’s no avoiding, for example, the Thanksgiving curse of tracking down nomadic French fried onions in the grocery store for the sake of green bean casserole.

Obligations aside, though, I live like my late dog Watson, who was clueless as to what he was sniffing for, but overjoyed to discover it. What am I after? I’ll know when I find it.

Case study: Parishioner Barb invited me to her neighborhood. About twenty minutes from Oniontown, her neighbors are Amish. She introduced me to a couple of young guys working in their family’s lumber mill and walked me to points of interest, which on dirt roads can be beautiful, but nonchalant: houses with curtains pulled to one side, a sugar shack tucked back in the woods, a one-room school house, and one thing I wasn’t expecting.

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Amish phone booth

A phone booth. The Amish, it turns out, have a nuanced relationship with telephones. They can use them, but they can’t own them. So in her front yard, Barb collaborates to provide them with phone service. The booth, built with their wood and running off of her lines, gets used six or eight times each day.

An obvious question occurred to me: “What sense does it make to use a phone, but be forbidden to own one?” But hush. My faith can’t stand up to logic, either.

When Barb and I returned from our walk, a horse and buggy was parked by the phone booth. The father indulged in technology while his kids waited. The horse worried its bit and nodded as we rubbed its long face.

Since the Amish don’t allow photographs, I snapped only a shot of the booth. It says something about caring for people you don’t quite understand and keeping a spare room open in your heart for guests.

This is why I love Oniontown so much: it always teaches me. A village an hour south of Erie has even helped me to look at home and everything nearby with fresh eyes.

Days ago at Starbucks, I chatted with a boy, maybe six or seven, and his mother. The kid was a whip, his mom cheerfully resigned to having a child able to talk the bark off a tree. His segue between topics was “by the way.”

Our conversation ballooned to ninety minutes and included his Gentleman Claptrap toy, requests for the family shopping list, and some kiddie movie. I was weary, but sensed the approach of wisdom.

As Mom loaded her purse, I said, “I’ve never heard of that movie before.”

He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You have a lot to learn.”

Mom gave him a tame rebuke, but I interrupted: “Well, actually, he’s right.”

And he was. As a lifelong novice, I learn best by opening my eyes and holding out my hands.

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

IMG_4284My drive from Erie to St. John’s in Oniontown is never wasted. If nothing else, thoughts wander, graze and lie around with other sympathetic thoughts.

Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.

I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”

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Dolores Miller

“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.

In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?

Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.

“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”

“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”

I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.

But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.

I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”

“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”

Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?

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Good questions

The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.

I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.

“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?

“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”

“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

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Joe Burgert

Organist and devout Christian Joe Burgert died in his sleep on June 25th at the Lay School of Theology, which was held at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. His friends, my wife Kathy included, were devastated and knew they wouldn’t be able to continue attending class sessions, so they headed for Erie. Since Kathy had hitched a ride with Joe, she drove his car, the hatch filled with his luggage and laundry.

Traveling east on Route 322, the women in the two-car caravan had just started to grieve. Joe was a big presence, but sensitive and thoughtful. His laughter was thunderous and infective. Although health issues tired him out, he always seemed to be overflowing with life. How could he be gone so suddenly?

Kathy was hit particularly hard by Joe’s passing. They rode together, sat side by side at dinner, worshiped together, and then, pow, he was gone. But there was something else: I don’t think Kathy realized how much she loved Joe until he died. That was my experience, too. Let’s just say, Joe Burgert was a great soul.

So great, in fact, that he has helped a skeptic like me to believe in signs. For good or ill, much as I embrace miracles and the workings of the Holy Spirit, I resist explaining mysteries. “Leave them be” is my approach.

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Joe! (Credit: NASA/Gary Rothstein on Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s hard not to think that Joe reached out to his stunned friends on the highway. A bald eagle flew right at them, down the middle of the road, just at the treetops. The way Kathy tells it, they all saw the wings spread wide, almost close enough to touch, and thought the same thing: “Joe!”

He was considerate that way. If, in the governance of eternity, the dead can reach out to the bereaved, Joe would have put in a request for an eagle flyover. For days Kathy couldn’t share the story without crying. She loves eagles, scans the sky for them all the time.

Joe gave me a sign, too, I think, but to appreciate this, you have to know that I drove him crazy. He was meticulous and, even he would have admitted, kind of fussy. I’m more improvisational theater, as pastors go. We loved each other, but I tested the poor man’s patience.

A few days after Joe passed, I was running errands, my mind doing its normal noodling. Walking across a parking lot, I remembered that eagle and thought, “Hey, Joe, how about a sign for me.” No misty eyes were involved here at all. I might as well have been musing, “Boy, an ice cream cone would sure be good right now.”

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Good one, Joe. (Credit: Niceckhart on Wikimedia Commons)

Then I looked up at the storefront: GIANT EAGLE. There was my sign, and it was vintage Joe Burgert—exactly his sense of humor and sharp mind.

“Here’s your eagle, Pastor,” I imagined him saying, followed by his great laugh.

In Joe Burgert’s memory and honor, I’m choosing to believe not only that he staged my sign, but that the Communion of Saints conspired with him, joyful to the point of tears.