Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage. Continue reading
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
One More for the Road, Raymond
Note: My friend Ray died suddenly on January 16, 2021. As you may remember, Ray showed up here at A Napper’s Companion from time to time. Odds are, this will be his last appearance.
I never did ask why your phone messages always started with, “Hi, Pastor, this is Raymond.” I couldn’t have mistaken you for anyone else. Over the last 10 years, I talked to you or listened to voicemail or chose not to answer more times than I yawned and sneezed put together. No doubt about it.
A confession, old friend: I’ve come close to tears about your passing only once. I mentioned in a sermon that you couldn’t believe in a gracious God. Then, “But I think Ray knows about grace now.” After the hell you lived, the idea that you might finally be at peace moves me. No more damnation, condemnation and temptation. No more depression, anxiety and paranoia.
Now your burden is lifted, but I’ve got a problem. You died without warning, and I’m left with thoughts that you ought to hear. On the off chance you’re listening, let’s close out the account of our earthly friendship like this.
There’s hardly an errand in Erie that doesn’t remind me of you. Each Smoker Friendly or Dollar General I pass says, “Oh, yeah, Ray,” as do the Holiness Church on Liberty and Safe Harbor on West 26th. Lately your Longhorn wintergreen snuff has been on sale at Country Fair—you’d be stocking up. On the bookcase here in my writing hut, the bargain cigar you passed along keeps me company. The family cat gnawed little holes in the pure leaf wrapper, but flawed keepsakes are treasures just the same.
That’s true of people, too, I guess. More than anybody I’ve ever known, you were up front about your mental illness. My own battles were nothing compared to yours, but you taught me a lot about candor. “It’s hell being nuts,” you once said. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” And, “Remember, Pastor, I’m not playing with a full deck.” Thanks for giving me permission to share your story. “If it can help somebody, tell them everything,” you also said. Well, you’ve helped. Take my word for it.
Of course, no obituary would begin, “Raymond was nuts, but gave of himself generously.” When I heard that you died, I was afraid nobody would take notice. Fortunately, a relative of yours put a little write up in the newspaper. “Ray was an avid antique hunter,” it said, “and very knowledgeable about cigars, tobacco products and humidors, but above all, Ray was a very godly man.”
That last part says a lot, but a couple of paragraphs can’t cover everything. You didn’t get a funeral. The COVID pandemic saw to that. My eulogy would have dressed you in the tuxedo you deserve. I would have told folks how you made me proud. Sober for over 20 years. Beat gambling and some other addictions. Found ways to keep living, though every hour for days on end might bring fresh misery. Within your storm of turmoil and psychotropic medication, you managed to think of others. I would have said all this and more.
I would have skipped what you normally said as you slid into my passenger seat. “Oh, shit, Pastor, “I’m so tired.”
“I know, old buddy,” was my only reply in the moment.
But now I have more to say. Look, you were an inspiration. In the middle of a case of the blues, I’d picture you in that busted recliner of yours, either pooped out or afraid a thug would break into your house or terrified of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God. “If Ray can keep plugging away,” I’d think. “I can, too.” Honest, you were a hero.
Bottom line, Ray: I love you. Our friendship wasn’t very emotive. Still, when I said, “You old codger, you,” or “You’re a real piece of work, you are,” love was what I was trying to get across. But you probably knew that.
I miss our salty laughter.
OK, amigo, you can get back to your bliss now. Please put in a good word for me. All of us on this side of glory are at least a little afraid.
Your friend and partner in neurosis,
P. S. I suppose God calls you Raymond.
Intercessory Prayer in an Age of Malice by John Coleman “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute … Continue reading
Farewell and Godspeed, Ray If I know what something means to me, if I have already come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems a twice-told tale. (Arthur Miller) You may already know … Continue reading
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?
My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.
Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.
I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”
Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.
“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.
“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.
Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.
And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.
Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.
To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.
As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.
At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”
Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.
But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”
And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”
A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.
“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”
“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.
He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.
Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.
When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”
If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.
Faith is answering my phone.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands
It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.
The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.
My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.
One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.
What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.
Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.
Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?
“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”
He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.
And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.
Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?
When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.
Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”
Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.
You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.
Oniontown Pastoral: The Darkness Comprehended It Not
If I had to pick a favorite Scripture verse, John 1:5 might be it: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” As a rookie pastor, I printed these words and handed them out to folks on a Sunday morning. I can’t remember why, but did keep a copy for myself. For a decade it lived on the Coleman’s refrigerator, growing smoky blonde from taking in the mist of Thanksgiving turkeys, stir-fried chicken and vegetables and summers of boiled corn on the cob.
Actually, the King James Version puts it better: “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” “Overcome” is fine, but “comprehend” goes further. I speak poetically here. What is dark in the world can’t snuff out what is light. What’s more, the painful and unjust and sinister so wretchedly obvious to us all can’t understand—let alone suffocate—the compassionate, loving and hopeful. My peace depends on John 1:5.
I hadn’t given any thought of where our slip of paper had gone after we moved four years ago. Then, last week wife Kathy walked into the living room with a smile and handed me those beloved old words, stained and torn as I had remembered them—asleep in the attic, they were. Now they’re in a frame, which hangs above a chest of drawers by my writing table. I’m looking right at them.
On Tuesday evening I found myself thinking about light and darkness and believing against all odds that the first prevails over the second.
What happened was just this. After a day at St. John’s I was nearly back home to Erie when the phone rang. My fancy car does hands-free calling, so I answered. A kind sister from church told me that one of our members wasn’t doing well and wanted to see me.
There was never a question about turning around. In 2015, when I signed on for a thrice-weekly, 70 mile commute, the first rule was that when anybody needed me, distance wouldn’t stand in the way.
By 6:oo p.m. my hybrid was back on Route 19 and heading for District Road. You might suppose the journey was depressing, but I’ve held many frightened hands, asked God for many favors and said “given for you” and “shed for you” so many times that pilgrims whose eyes are fixed on the Great Mystery and praying to find grace there don’t come close to filling me with gloom.
But there is darkness longing for light in a person’s final hours. In the most blessed cases it’s the denouement of a bright day—those thin moments between sunset and nightfall. There is love at the bedside, laughter and crying, gratitude for what has been and, of course, a clutching in the throat. Goodbyes are hard. Endings hurt.
As I passed through Sheakleyville and waved at Wagler’s Camp Perry, I invited the light and darkness in my chest to lean into each other. One suffers when you deny the other.
And you better believe that pitch-black can set the noonday sun back on its heals. Kathy loves District Road as much as I do, and the recent passing of a 14-year-old boy who lived along those lovely miles haunts us. Dear God, 70 pounds, tortured, blasted by his father with a hose and dropped on the floor. Death came, merciful death, it sounds like.
The roads around Oniontown get dark at night for this Erie boy, and I was glad not to be able to peer into the woods and spot the mobile home where this boy met his end.
“Pastor John,” you might be thinking, “why did you go and bring up that terrible story?”
Because if I hold this boy’s truth back, keep this reflection tidy, then it’s not worth a tinker’s damn. It would be a lie.
Depend on me to tell you the truth. The woman who wanted to see me and the family enfolding her with gentleness were shining as we surrounded her bed, rested our hands on her and talked to God.
You can believe that I cried afterwards—some tears of sorrow, but mostly joy. Now, does that make sense? Maybe not, but that’s how the light I’m talking about works. It can’t be comprehended.
Nor can a possibility that occurs to me now. When my faithful St. John’s friend closes her eyes, maybe a boy who once lived on District Road will be one of those souls singing her into glory.
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.