Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

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From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

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Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life

Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life

IMG_4286“What’s the story?” Whether driving the roads near Oniontown or enjoying a pricy coffee at Erie’s State Street Starbucks, I’m constantly asking that question.

For the year I’ve been serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, a row of fifteen or twenty round bales has sat rotting along District Road. Seems like a waste, but there must be a reason. What’s the story?

As I shoved quarters in the parking meter this morning, a decently dressed man crouched behind a bus stop, shielding himself from the chilly wind and drizzle. Nike running shoes look new. Parka with fur hood is unstained. But huddling on the sidewalk is, well, odd. What’s the story?

And there is always a story. It might be disappointing or anticlimactic, but when one human being listens to another for a few minutes, questions can get answered. Maybe a crisis in the farmer’s family put everything on hold, including hay. A plastic tote bag from a local hospital sat beside the crouching man. Was he released an hour ago, still sick or confused?

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The round bales a year ago. What’s their story?

I can only speculate. Answers would require conversations, and I’m not about to start one by knocking on a stranger’s door or tapping a shivering guy on the shoulder. I can live with mysteries.

In fact, I welcome them. Seldom understanding why the world chugs along in its haphazard fashion and why human beings behave inexplicably is a way of life, a spiritual posture.

“Shave and a haircut . . . .” I’m content with no ending.

My favorite mystery near Oniontown has to do with a dirty blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. I pass him on Route 19 and wonder why he has his own modest yard—room for a round-bale feeder, a couple of trailers, a shed and a short stroll. On the other side of the barn, a dozen or so other horses wander a generous pasture.

So why is Onslow in solitary? Does he have issues? Is he a grouch? A biter? I know nothing, not even if I should call him Hyacinth, but the way his forelock blows across his right eye makes him endearing. He’s probably a real pain in the neck, but I care about him.

Why? Because even beasts of the field have stories. I don’t stand in winter gusts and munch my breakfast for a good hunk of the year. Maybe being a horse is no picnic.

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Rain clouds over State Street Starbucks

“Boy, John,” you might say, “this is some life you’ve got going, praying in an urban coffee shop for a lonely horse.”

The truth is, I don’t have much choice. Some creatures have fangs made for tearing down, and others have eyes prone to tearing up. I belong to the latter species.

I’ve never cried for Onslow, but I’ve come close for patrons in the neighboring stalls here at Starbucks. Some stare into space as they sip and leave with weary faces, as if nothing much awaits their return. I’ve never met them, but imagine a great, invisible hand has rubbed their faces into the ground. Are they lost souls?

Behind me, a fixture I’ll call Clyde is giving his imaginary friend what for. They fight a lot. As far as I can tell this is his only companion, other than a five-foot duffle bag stuffed solid.

What would its contents say about Clyde? In lucid moments, what story might he piece together? Grinding mental illness, probably unmedicated, must drive the plot. Though he lives in solitary, one character visits him, if only as an antagonist.

“You apologize every month!” Clyde just grunted.

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God bless you, Onslow. May you find sure places to turn and loving destinations.

I’ll never know the trespass that has so infuriated him, but that’s okay. It’s enough for me to remember that he is tormented by red herrings and complications that never resolve. Anyway, something about the way his burden bends his back makes me love him.

Yes, I know, deep down Clyde is probably a bigger nuisance than Onslow. But they both have manes, one blonde, the other greasy gray.

And they both have unknown stories. We all do. The day I forget this is the day I will have lost myself. You’ll find me in solitary, singing, “Two bits. Two bits. Two bits.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

(Note: Here’s a summer re-run for your enjoyment or consternation. I originally posted this in slightly different form in July of 2013, when not many folks knew about A Napper’s Companion.)

5:28 a.m.: Birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that responded to some threat. Ugh.

There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.

I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.

Since an out-of-town visit with a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.

The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.

With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.

Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.

I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)

Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:

  • “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
  • “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
  • “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
  • And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).

Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.

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Sign hanging over my dresser–$3.00 at an estate sale

 

Napping at Church Camp

Napping at Church Camp

Dear Friends:

The shelter for my naps this week has been the Ark, though nap is too humble a word for what I’ve been up to. Occasionally what Winston Churchill called the blessed oblivion of midday is luxurious. Your body lets you know that something sacred is happening. Muscles are slack, breaths are leisurely and full, the mind is gloriously untroubled.

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Naps of biblical proportions rarely unfurl before me at home. Most often I’m on retreat at a monastery or, as is the case now, at summer church camp with teenagers. My cabin is named after Noah’s eccentric craft, and I lucked into a room by myself.

“You don’t need to get up,” I’ve thought four out of the past five days. “You’ve no place to be. Rest. Just rest.” So I have. Waking slowly after two hours, my soul feels like it has received a massage.

My fellow pastors and I have chatted here and there about naps. Some of us indulge only with guilt. My own second thoughts are years in the rearview mirror, but I understand the reservations. Time is costly, lists are long. Besides, we’ll all get plenty of sleep post-mortem.

Pastor Erik has a Jewish friend who once gave him two syllables of wise instruction on taking a siesta: mitzvah, which is, in the generic words of Google, “a good deed done from religious duty.” Millions the world over can’t take naps, their burdens being onerous, or bombs and bullets firing adrenaline through their veins. Receiving a taste of Shabbat each day does less fortunate brothers and sisters an honor. So nap gratefully. Take the oppressed and weary with you in spirit.

For a decade or so I napped not out of devotion, but necessity. Unable to cope with troubles keenly targeted at my neuroses and vulnerabilities, I slid under the covers each afternoon and disappeared for as long as possible. Siestas were my salvation.

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Path to the Ark

Thank God, the rest awaiting me soon won’t be urgent. The Ark may be silent, or clergy friends might be on the porch, their tales and repartee floating through my open window. I might nod off or not–whatever.

Actually, a couple of times during oblivion, my consciousness has risen to the surface for prayer. Love may be the reason.

Not every kid who attends church camp frolics in the woods, eagerly sings around the fire, and flops into a squeaky bunk and immediately gathers REMs. Each summer a few troubled hearts sulk on the periphery, their eyes tired, far away. I have fifteen summers of them gathered up in my memory.

When the Fourth Commandment comes along, at least one kid’s eyes water up—never fails. “Will God forgive me if I can’t honor my father and mother?” A few years ago I took the liberty of giving a silly-hearted girl a new commandment: “Kiddo, I bet God would be happy if you just loved yourself. How about if you honor yourself for now?” Then I said I would take her as my daughter any day.

Outside the window by my cafeteria table, campers line up to get their medications. Seems like our world practically insists that all of us, young and old, fret and obsess ad infinitum. One chunky boy from a dozen years ago comes to mind. His days were fine, with counselors keeping the teens in constant motion, but dusk thundered with the approach of homesickness and insomnia.

And camp week never passes without some half-pints walking alone, sitting alone, directing praise and blame to the empty space around them.

But I listen—to the lovely runts of our church camp litter, to those who think of nothing but home, especially to those who lug heartbreaking secrets in their knapsacks.

I love all the kids, but the ones whose tears are always close to the surface look at me as I pray, and I look back.

Not so long ago each mid-day I slept in a nave built for one, but this week guests have arrived. Their presence has been a duty-free mitzvah.

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For some of us runts, life can include lots of swimming upstream. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Thirty years ago panic attacks brought me to my knees. And I still remember the day in fifth grade when my mother met me at the door after school to say that my father was at the courthouse applying for a divorce. As a teenager, surrounded by love, I fell asleep aching with confusion. In other words, I’ve been a runt myself off and on from the beginning. I relate.

So this summer’s campers are welcome to join those from years past and visit my spirit at nap time. My sanctuary has room for them now. I ask God to dry their tears, make them feel at home, and say into the ear of their hearts, “You are loved. Don’t forget.”

Love . . . to you, friends, and to my whole litter of kids,

John (a.k.a. Pastor John, PJ, or Johnny-Boy)

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

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The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.

The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?

I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”

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Lovely field . . . could use a few cows

With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?

No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.

And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.

This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.

Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”

A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”

Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.

This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.

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Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Wikimedia Commons

Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.

How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.

What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.

This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.

Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.

On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.

Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.

Oniontown Pastoral #4: The Late Imposition of Ashes

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Part 1: Holy Saturday Evening

Chopped pears bubbled with white raisins and honey—an improvisation to anoint vanilla ice cream for Easter dessert.

Morning would come early. Before wife Kathy and I headed out for the hour drive from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, bacon and congealed fat, soaking potatoes and sliced onions had to get from refrigerator to crock pot, along with whatever else Grandma Coleman included in her German potato salad recipe.

While I cooked, Kathy went to the Vigil of Easter at Abiding Hope, the congregation I served for fourteen years and said Godspeed to five months ago. The gracious interim pastor invited me to come, too, but it was too soon to go back.

Ash Wednesday arrived at an awkward time for this pastor’s heart. The last fifteen years have been disproportionately penitential, my topography rich with Gethsemanes. These forty days being mostly unburdened, I haven’t felt like sweating in the garden or walking the lonesome valley.

My ingredients for happiness aren’t exotic. A couple of untroubled hours at home suffice. With clove and cinnamon taking over the smell of bacon and guitar solos leaning into the dark, I pulled up the footrest and closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, without warning, a suggestion of Lent rose into my throat.

How many times over the decades have I refused to cry? I’m not sure why deferred tears surface on warm spring days, when each breeze is the Sacred One cupping my face. Or on quiet evenings, when the moon passes through living room windows, when failure and regret are subjects of past calendars and my lungs fill with the air of glad memory.

Part 2: Easter Sunday

7:00 a.m.: Why the mess? Everything everywhere, owner’s manual and insurance card on the floor, napkins and dry pens by the gas pedal.

Some little expletive had rifled through our unlocked car overnight. Since nothing was missing, Kathy and I agreed drug money was the goal. But lesson learned.

Dinner on low, we left for Oniontown: breakfast at 9:00, worship at 10:00. All was in readiness. The tomb was empty; “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . [was] rolled up in a place by itself.”

As Kathy sipped coffee, I thought through the sermon story. Notes wouldn’t be necessary. I can never get far from my dad’s last trip to see wife Mary in her nursing home.

They kissed. He rested his lips on her hand. “Come on,” he finally said. “Let’s get out of here.”

In spite of shared dementia, they both realized the impossibility. Mary’s legs were dead. The only place Dad was going was back to assisted living.

“Well, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad searched his evaporating vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step out on a cloud?” Mary said. “But that can’t be.”

Dad’s eyebrows gathered down—his standard incredulous look. “Why not?”

Dad, who didn’t have one church-going hair in his wavy gray compliment, was proposing heaven: the other post.

My sermon, falling on the ears of many parishioners who had endured loss after loss, wouldn’t be buoyant with resurrection, but hushed with hope. The other post: oh, that we could all gather there, offenses forgiven, injuries healed, fears rocked to sleep like colicky babies.

We were making good time, and my sermon was rehearsed. I can’t remember a more fair Easter morning. The sun was waking up the pale land, telling it to live.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something that placed the fullness of Lent on my lap. Half an hour away from church, the betrayal and nails and the sponge soaked in sour wine lifted on a hyssop branch all caught up with me. If I had consented to tears at that point I might not have been able to recover in time for a triumphant Easter shout.

What I remembered was four years ago. My own beloved expletive—son Micah—was hooked on heroin and owed a dealer $200. Desperate, expecting to be flogged, he rifled through a couple of cars for stuff to sell and scored a laptop and something else that escapes me.

He got arrested, spent a couple hours in jail, then went out and injected melted down fentanyl patches with a friend, who overdosed and nearly died. Micah earned a felony for his trouble.

My son got clean shortly after his one-day crime spree and is now a joy. Anyone who dismisses the earthly poetry of death and resurrection can talk to me.

My teenage junkie once knelt in the middle of West 8th Street, waiting for a minivan to run him over. I have seen with my own eyes the junkie stand and reach honorable adulthood. On the way to Oniontown, though, a wadded Kleenex still next to the clutch, I imagined the punk who chanced upon the car in the Coleman driveway and made a frenzied search.

My boy came to such a place, and it occurred to me that Easter morning’s little expletive was probably loved by somebody. Maybe he or she was a boilerplate creep, but did a parent pray—with face buried in hands, as I did—for a miraculous healing, a decent path, anything?

Familiar landmarks on District Road were a private blur. I couldn’t afford to have Lent—creation aching with needles, wounds, and rancor, lost pilgrims wandering the lonesome valley—crack me open a couple miles away from St. John’s.

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District Road landmarks were a blur.

Breakfast was five-diamond Lutheran. We shouted and sang. When I talked about the other post, my tears behaved, but some of the folks cried on my behalf. I appreciated their help and knew unfinished ashes would rise in my throat again on a still evening of their own choosing.

Under the Clock

Getting out of bed this morning was like lifting an anvil. Both wife Kathy and I lay slack-jawed through alarm after alarm. I’m not sure choosing Bach’s Goldberg Variations as my iPhone wake up call was a good idea. Such a gentle, thoughtful melody, but I now associate the first few measures with the shared human struggle of starting a day.

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Six already? Come on!

We tried to hold each other the way some wives and husbands do, with Kathy’s head on my chest and my arm around her. That worked for five seconds, thanks to bursitis in my left shoulder. So, we adapted. I put my arm down, she slung her arm across my belly, and we listened to the morning household. Son Micah’s obnoxious alarm nagged him—he was tired, too. Watson made old-dog dozing huffs and grumbles. Baby Crash, the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen, played drumrolls by dashing around the hardwood floors.

“How old is Baby now,” I said out of nowhere, “four?”

“Six,” Kathy said.

“Six! How is she six?” I was only off by two years, but still, 1/3 of her life. The passing of time weighed in on my chest like a second anvil.

My God, where are the decades going? Next week I’ll turn fifty-four. How can that be, when I walk tentatively through the world, shaking just like I did trying to summon teenage bravery to ask a girl out on a date? Gray hair sticks out of my shirt collar. So why do I feel the same as I did when Kathy and I were dating, thirty-five years ago? Hot summer day. We were watching television, and I had one long, pathetic hair sprouting from my left nipple.

Innocently, Kathy spoke and acted in the same instant: 1.) “What’s that?” 2.) Reach toward hair. 3.) Grab ahold. 4.) Yank.

I screamed. Carbon dioxide hissed from the pinhole in my areola.

Kathy laughed, hard. “Oh, was that attached?”

“Yes.”

I now have hundreds, maybe thousands of chest hairs, but I still remember that first, overachieving pilgrim, its lilt to the left, a jaunty kink 2/3 of the way to top, not a suggestion of gray. My Precious.

I’m still that kid. My God, where is life going?

Mountainous questions are on my mind lately because I’m leaving the folks I’ve served as pastor for the last fourteen years, moving on to a small congregation. There isn’t any dishonor in my departure, but it’s not quite the way I wanted to go. I expect my exit on October 25th will be loving, but probably not celebratory.

Yesterday afternoon I went to an art show in downtown Erie. A couple of friends have work displayed, and I figured abandoning myself in shape, color, texture, whatever would be therapeutic.

IMG_3878When I arrived at the old Boston Store, a spacious building that used to be home of one of Erie’s proudest establishments, my first priority was to find the men’s room. It’s tough to get lost in art when your Kegel is clenched. The show would wait a few minutes.

I walked mindfully past a cluster of radio stations that now squat where women’s shoes or sheets and comforters used to be displayed. When my eyes fixed on the great clock hanging at the center of the place, I remembered that my mother, dead seventeen years now, worked at the Boston Store.

After confirming my suspicion that in all the acreage of the grand department store there was no obvious place for a middle-aged man to pee, I returned to the clock. “I’ll meet you under the clock,” Erie-ites used to say. For a while, a restaurant used that name and location. Now, all that’s left is an expanse of tan tile floor.

I looked up, checked the time, and missed my mother. In my mind she walked under the clock, no hint of arthritis yet, tastefully dressed, mascara and lipstick perfect.

The silence was of a comforting dream. I’m not too proud to admit that when I’m going through changes, trying to keep my footing, I want to be with my mom, to connect with the love that held my head when I puked and endured my adolescent travail.

Could Mom still abide in a great cradle of Eternal Love—the Love I invite each day to take hold of me, still the crazy waters, lift my anvils, and use me for Love’s sake in this wonderful, stressed world? I couldn’t feel her presence, but as I breathed in and out under the clock and received the quiet of deserted space, she seemed to live.

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Wrong

My God, where are we all headed? And how much time is left? The great clock was no help—four clocks, actually, one on each side. Only one was correct. Two others agreed but were wrong, as was another that lagged two hours behind, or rushed ten hours ahead, depending on how you figure.

The art show, when I got there, was as good as any collection can be when a guy is pressed at his equator. My friends’ works were so compelling that I’m looking at them again now, behind closed eyes. (Thanks, Mary and Mike.)

In today’s sky, wisps up high seem fixed, while full white clouds just above me ease to the southwest. Over Lake Erie, a long gray assembly floats in the same direction.

Where has the time gone? I may as well ask, “Where are the clouds going?” Rhetorical questions, sighs of the soul.

I didn’t make it to the church this morning. There’s much to do before I leave, but this week of telling loved ones that I won’t be their pastor for much longer has me feeling like the tender, gentle, awful sentimental Tin Man after Dorothy kisses him goodbye: “Now I know I’ve got a heart ‘cause it’s breaking.”

Always breaking, always healing back up, I suppose. In the end, I’m content to ask questions without earthly answers, breathe them up to the sky and let the wind blow them from sight. I’ve built my life on the promise that clouds, souls, and mysteries find their way to a loving place.

Now, the promise tells me to go home, take a nap, do dishes, and pick up Kathy from work. In other words, the Promise says, “Go, now, and join the day you’re given.”

P. S. A note to blogging friends: For the last couple of months, I’ve been guilty of what I call selfish blogging; that is, posting without reading much. Please forgive me. I’ll try to catch up soon.

Report from California

Off and on over the years, I’ve thought travel writing would be a great gig: get expenses covered, see what’s on everybody’s bucket list, flirt with unfamiliar cuisine, generally live it up, and report on the whole experience.

As I sip an iced Americano at Starbucks, the truth is finally setting in that I wouldn’t make a good travel writer. First, I dislike flying. Xanax keeps my anxiety almost tolerable, but the only time I’m at ease on a plane is when I’m picking up my bags to disembark.

Second, adventure isn’t really my thing. Ah, to be a man’s man, to dig white-water rafting and wear t-shirts saying something like, “I kicked the OMG Rapids in the ass!” To own sinewy, tan, muscular arms sticking out from short sleeves, my whole image punctuated by a forearm tattoo that roars, “Testosterone!” Alas. Enjoying the burble of my immersion blender in an Alfredo sauce while kibitzing with friends, lifting a bit of wine, that’s my speed.

And third, the sites that stir this homebody’s heart don’t have much to do with popular vistas. For the most part, the views that make me say “ooh, ahh, wow” don’t depend on geography. The point: what follows is the least useful travel essay ever.

Wife Kathy and I are bunking at generous friends Karl and Jennifer’s place in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Their daughter Claire, coming up on three, is the blessed home’s center of gravity. After a couple of days at their place, we left for four days in San Francisco, a look at the ocean, a stroll through the redwoods, and now have returned to our friends’ base camp. Tomorrow we’ll fly home to Erie, Pennsylvania. This trip, funded mostly by a travel voucher we won at a fundraising Vegas night, has been more than worth our time and outlay of cash.

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I asked this guy at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf if I could take his picture. He nodded at a sign to his right indicating he just got married and was charging $2. I felt both suckered and obliged.

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One of the senior sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. They fill the floating docks by the dozens, nap packed in cheek-to-jowl, crawl all over each other for no apparent reason, and constantly snort, bark, bare their teeth, and posture. Kathy stared at them for forty-five minutes. Five was enough for me.

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What’s a tour of San Francisco without paying homage to the Summer of Love? Strolling the streets, Kathy and I probably inhaled a joint just in second-hand smoke.

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Kathy ready to bike the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

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Kathy in the hollow of a redwood.

No, we didn’t ride a trolley car or catch the ferry to Alcatraz, but we took in our fill of destinations. I have to confess, though, that none of them grabbed me by the lapels as much as several inconspicuous moments did–nonchalant and passing as a breeze.

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Light art on the ceiling of our room at the La Rose Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Moment: After a long last day in San Francisco, Kathy and I landed at a hotel in Santa Rosa. We had biked the Golden Gate Bridge and walked the city’s famous hills, so we were glad to flop for a while. As I dozed, Kathy talked to our son Micah, who was back home tending dog, cats, and a chrysalis nearly ready to unfold and make for Mexico. What Kathy said was obvious, but I could hear only Micah’s voice, not his words. But that was enough. Surrounded by West Coast walls, I took in a distinctive sound of home: my boy’s enthusiasm in telling a story, some humor or absurdity of his day. I wasn’t sad, but filled with gratitude that I look forward to being home, to seeing all of our beloved faces in one space.

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Claire

Moment: Karl and Jennifer took us horseback riding near Lake Tahoe, followed by chili and a walk around town and down by the water. When we returned to Citrus Heights, I was fit for red Zinfandel, a couch, and nothing else. But young Claire was ten kinds of psyched to have us back–spinning, sprinting, squealing psyched. Through my fog of fatigue I heard Kathy say, “Do you want to read, Claire?” I couldn’t muster the energy to burp, but my wife was game. In the middle of one book, Claire looked at Kathy with a grateful smile, full of peace and wonder. The big bridge is cool, but that kid’s face, shining and sacred, is eternal.

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Far from home and yet, suddenly, right at home.

Moment: Kathy made it clear weeks ago that come what may on this vacation, she was going to put her feet in the Pacific. We wove along Route 1, found steps to the beach, and headed for the water. Cold. She was excited and giggly. Our stop was no more than fifteen minutes. My blessing came when I was facing away from the ocean with my eyes closed–kiss of the long-married, ahh of the soul’s landscape.

Moment: Anybody who loves me knows that I’m often struggling, even when there’s no particular stressor at hand. Joyful as recent days have been, waves of worry and sadness have also rolled over me. Always something, I guess. In response to particularly rough water yesterday, I took in a long draught of prayer and meditation, which I finished off with a contemplative walk in Karl and Jennifer’s backyard. For twenty minutes I looked closely and stopped often: lemon trees, herb garden, ripening tomatoes, trumpet vine, flowers with names I don’t know. Breathing, breathing. The place in my chest that fills up when I kiss Kathy’s graying hair is also a bilge for angst.

But the walk was healing, the air, the sage and oregano scent on my fingers. As I stood still behind a circle of flowers, a hummingbird hovered at my feet, inches away. It sipped nectar, then flew off to a pine branch. “You can come back,” I said. Apparently, I’m not a bird whisperer, but one visit, so kind and close, was plenty.

A friendly hummingbird, a kiss, a sweet young face: not content that makes readers restless for new journeys. With middle-age stretching out in front of me, my modest travels aren’t about a blood rush or a stunning expanse. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the lookout for peace. Always peace. The peace that passes all understanding.

All other attractions are incidental. For good or ill, I’m always moving toward spiritual destinations.

An Unorthodox Peace

IMG_3646This past Sunday the church I serve, Abiding Hope Lutheran in Erie, Pennsylvania, held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of our new church building, the foundation of which is already well underway. After morning worship at the old place, we all got into our cars and headed the mile or so to our future home.

For mundane reasons I had to drive son Micah’s car, which is always in unapologetic squalor. Almost to the end of the parking lot, I had to double back: the processional cross was still on its perch in the sanctuary. After fetching it, I looked at the backseat and paused: Should I put the cross down on that mess? Because I realized that entirely different questions were on my mind—ones I could answer right away—I rested the cross on my son’s work clipboard, toilet paper, hoody, etc., no food debris, thankfully.

The groundbreaking was meaningful and fun and didn’t seem at all redundant. No silver shovels for us. Everybody who wanted to turn some dirt brought a shovel from home, especially our kids. The ground was packed down by construction vehicle traffic and hard as the cinderblock foundation. We found a soft patch for the young ones with sandbox shovels and let them have at it, sang with gusto, and said our prayers and good intentions. The adults chipped loose teaspoons of gray crust.

When we finished, I lay the cross over the chaos for its ride to the Coleman house, where it leaned overnight in the dining room.

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Processional cross

“Ooh,” Micah said, spotting what he actually carried years ago as an acolyte. His question was implicit: “What’s the deal with the cross here?”

I explained.

He held it like a shovel—Christ at the top—and pretended to chip at the floor: “So did you dig with it?”

“It would have been fitting,” I said, “but, no, a couple of kids held it for the ceremony.”

As Micah has grown, we’ve developed an understanding. He gently teases me, but knows that my faith is spacious and merciful, blinding white with Mystery. And I take his searching seriously and don’t meddle with his atheism.

The purest image of my spirit’s posture is this: I don’t fear for my son. I don’t fear for anybody.

My Creator isn’t abstract. Often when I close my eyes and breathe, a love that feels bestowed rises in my throat—as when a parent watches a child disappear through the school doors. My chest is drawn toward a planetary embrace. The longing is physical.

It may be nothing more than my own middle-aged chemicals inducing some weird prayer-meditation high. I’m probably bat-crap crazy. I can’t offer a defense, only a description of the love that I bet my life on. God is what I call this love, but the older I get, the more I’m drawn to the ancient Jewish tradition of not vocalizing Yahweh. Shh. Only know and breathe compassion—for all, for self. I want to name the Holy One with my flawed heart and hands. My voice can’t be trusted entirely.

How far is the reach of Sacred Love? Whom and what does it rest upon? On Sunday, when I lay the cross on Micah’s slop in the backseat—nothing compared to the past squalor of heroin, arrest, and rage—I spoke my Christian answers to the questions behind my question. The universe is composed of beloved daughters and sons. Who am I to send anyone into exile? Helpless before grace as I am, how can I presume to stand in the way of Love?

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Christ’s metal blessing upon the chaos

This might not be the most convenient parking place for a pastor. Love’s current in the Bible is strong, but troubling blood flows there, too. I will only say that I’ve made an unorthodox peace with Egypt’s firstborn and Israel’s young women lacking evidence of their virginity, stoned to death on their family’s doorstep—we have a private understanding.

It’s enough, I guess, to admit that in resting a processional cross on the backseat of tired old Mazda sedan, I was confessing my belief: the risen Christ bestows a metal blessing on every mess in every land, on every soul aching with belief and disbelief.