Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?

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

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

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

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

“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The St. John’s sanctuary

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

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

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

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


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

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Andrew Magill on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.

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

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

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

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


Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

Oniontown Pastoral: Babysitting Ray’s Tobacco

My buddy Ray called last night. “Hey, Pastor, could you drop off my tobacco on your way to church tomorrow? Would it be out of your way?”

Actually, the detour cost me fifteen minutes, but no worries. We have an arrangement: Ray is constantly trying to quit smoking, but he always goes back. To keep temptation at bay, he tosses a bag full of loose tobacco and rolling papers in my trunk, where it keeps my lawn chair and fleece blanket company.

For a couple years I silently stewed about babysitting Ray’s tobacco. Our little routine is exquisitely stupid, but not as bonkers as throwing away thousands of dollars worth of tar and nicotine, only to show up sagging and defeated at Smoker Friendly to buy some more. And that’s exactly what Ray did for years.

So I hang onto what I’m sure is the crummiest of crummy tobacco, $11 a bag. The label says, “Pipe tobacco,” but Ray insists it’s for cigarettes.

“Brother,” I tease him, “you’re smoking shaved, dried out cabbage.”

Whether it ought to be tamped into a pipe or stirred into coleslaw, I’ve driven tobacco to St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown and back home to Erie, to hospitals in Greenville, Farrell and Sharon, to McCartney’s to pick up birdseed and along Route 19 to the check on a horse I’ve named Onslow. I bet Ray’s smokes have traveled more than he has.

Within a week or two, my friend “yields”—that’s what he calls it—and I swing by his house. This morning I left the goods on his pack porch. He called later and thanked me for the delivery.

Ray is nothing if not grateful, which is one reason I’m not frustrated over my babysitting duties anymore. Of course, I could tell him this foolishness has gone on long enough, and I should never have signed on for such a lost cause in the first place.

Anyway, ire on my part is far less important than this truth: Ray’s smoking cause is probably lost, but my buddy is not. The trouble is, the man’s soul and his addiction are tangled together.

For most smokers, quitting is about trying to stay alive. Ray, whose health has been distressing for years, says, “I love tobacco. I don’t care if I get cancer. I have to die of something.” Snuff, long-cut chew, pipe, cigars, cigarettes, he does them all by turns. These days, he and his old Laredo cigarette roller are fast friends.

Be this happy, Ray. (Credit: Hedwig Ohring on Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fan of tobacco, but I wish Ray could indulge his addiction in peace. Unfortunately, the vice he adores also torments him. He was raised to believe in a wrathful God who keeps a long list of damnable offenses. Now in his sixties, he can’t stop believing that smoking in this life guarantees burning in the next.

Ray’s many medications leave his body depleted, but what really saps his strength is the withering sense of condemnation he carries around.

My Lord, how we’ve talked. If addictions earn people eternal punishment, then the line into hell is going to reach almost to heaven.

“If you want to improve your health,” I say, “quit tobacco. But if you’re trying to earn God’s love, my advice would be to roll yourself another.” I also tell Ray, “But what do I know?”

Lost cause on my way to Oniontown: an old thresher.

I don’t know the mind of God or claim any particular wisdom. In many ways I’m a lost cause myself. At least I have a nice collection of them. And I spend increasing amounts of time holding hands with folks whose lost causes bring them to their knees or knock them flat.

Does this sound hopeless? Not to me. Sitting cheek to jowl with the unsolvable, inescapable and terminal isn’t about hoping for miracles, but making sure that when a cause is lost, its owner is safe and sound.

So I tell Ray that I’m pretty sure God loves him just the way he is, right down to his smoke-stained fingertips. If he and you and I can believe this, then plenty of causes don’t matter much as long as we remember that our souls can never be lost.

An old, stained, torn message from the Coleman family refrigerator. Only believe, Ray.

Author’s Notes: This post originally appeared in slightly different form in Greenville’s newspaper, the Record Argus. And Ray says I can write about him any time I want.

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?


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.


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.


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: 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.


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.

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert


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.


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.”


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.

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor*

A few Mondays ago my friend’s son, forty-four, overdosed on heroin. The next day I took her stunned grief with me to the pastor’s study at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.


Farm art near Oniontown

My commute from Erie has four legs: I-79 South to US-19 South to District Road to Mercer Road. For seventy minutes gray trees and rolling fields heal me, but on this day my mind was on iffy roads and my friend. She and her husband had long anticipated the knock at the door and the crushing news. My wife and I used to have the same nightmares about our son, now thankfully clean.

As I thought about the numb terror of fresh loss, a line from Philippians visited me: “Your citizenship is in heaven.” Good sermon theme! I started to flesh it out. When political candidates carpet bomb each other, when explosive vests cut down the innocent, when El Nino and Zika lead the news, and when nasty heroin is as cheap as beer, then heavenly citizenship sounds, well, heavenly. My point, of course, wouldn’t be to reject this life, but to remember that we have a home over the horizon. Not particularly uplifting, but not all sermons can be sunbeams and dandelions.

I looked forward to getting to church and putting the ideas on paper. Alas, a snowy parking lot stood in my way. But since secretary Jodi’s truck was in its spot, I bravely punched the accelerator. Turns out my burnt-orange, bulbous Chevy HHR can’t compete with four-wheel drive.

“Man, am I stuck,” I reported to Jodi, who didn’t know when the plow guy would get to St. John’s. Might be evening. “We’ll get you out somehow,” she assured me.

I sulked at my desk. Wait-and-see isn’t my best mode. The sermon I pecked away at would sound whiny, I could tell.

Within half-an-hour Jodi said, “Do I hear a tractor?”

“I hear something,” I said. “Don’t know what.” Then out my window passed a bundled up man with a long beard pushing snow with an old tractor. The blade was behind the driver, a configuration I had never seen, but he was blazing me a trail.

“He lives over there,” Jodi pointed. He had seen my problem and arrived unbidden. Shoving snow this way and that, he kept at it, like a man subduing a wooly mammoth with a straight razor.

Watching him ride into and out of view, I came to love that tractor, pale red, faded by decades of sun and squalls. It must have been shiny once, but endurance gave it a different beauty. Hope, I think, is the color of my Samaritan’s tractor.

I finally understood why Jodi wasn’t concerned. And the sermon in process took on a glad color. “Our citizenship may be heavenly,” I now plan to say, “but God resides in Oniontown, too.” Then I’ll tell the folks about our neighbor and his tractor. And I’ll tell them about hope.


*This essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s, newspaper, the Record-Argus. 

A Witness for Richard

I’m used to burying strangers. Plenty of deceased and their families believe in God, but the church not so much. That’s when pastors get a call from a funeral director. Not much explanation is necessary: “Are you available to do a service on such and such a date and time?”

If nothing is going, I’m in. Details are provided, name, next of kin, a phone number. From there I watch for an obituary and make the visitation if possible, talk to loved ones, gather some sense of the departed.

But my latest burial was a first: no name, no contacts, just when and where. I did reconnaissance in Section B of the paper and found one possibility, a man with a brother and a couple of nieces. Maybe the brother wanted a prayer and “ashes to ashes” at the grave. No fuss, just a man of the cloth and a few words. At the appointed hour I fishtailed to my commitment, confident I would find a seventy-something man in the casket.

Instead I found Richard, a fifty-something resident of a group home, where he lived with other adults in need of supervision and care. Some of them were sitting with their caregivers, waiting for an unfamiliar face to bring comfort and hope.

The funeral director pointed me toward Richard’s primary caregiver, who didn’t quite know what to tell me. Richard didn’t speak. He loved to look at artwork. “He loved to eat,” she said, raising her eyebrows and drawing out loved, making the vowel sound delicious. He expressed disapproval by screaming.

Others told me that he insisted on being called Richard and looked forward to his morning routine of chocolate milk.

Twenty minutes before the service, I stood with Richard: African-American guy about my age; chin drawn in; fingers showing some atrophy, I believe; passable suit jacket and tie; favorite afghan across his legs.

In certain situations I take it as my responsibility to witness, to pay attention and make a silent announcement to creation. Or maybe my job is to confess a belief consisting of equal parts tears, hope, and wonder. I don’t know.

But staring at an embalmed man whose life was nearly invisible, I put words in God’s mouth. Doing this has always felt dangerous. I don’t know the mind of God. I can’t even put together a sound argument that God exists. Anyway, words were in my mouth. I didn’t invite them. I heard them in my head as true beyond debate. It was as if I were not their author:

You’re as important as anybody in the world, Richard. Nobody is more loved than you are.

I imagined that Richard’s face, the lip puffed out over teeth that never got braces and his fingers bent at the last knuckle, were dear to God—as when a parent watches an infant sleep, each feature counted as a miracle. And to God’s ear, were Richard’s screams music?

I did my best with the service. Some lives make for scant eulogies, but that’s only if you forget that one person’s chocolate milk in the morning deserves mention as much as another’s Fulbright. “Richard was a charming, and funny man,” his obituary read. “He had a loving, caring soul and his smile would light up a room.” His friends, a dozen or so, cried for him. They wiped away tears, too, at the suggestion that God beheld Richard loving food and in him was well pleased.

A soul’s resume lists sacred trivia: knowing how to taste chocolate milk, getting lost in a painting, demanding to be called by name, caring for others with a smile or a scream. Richard’s accomplishments don’t shine up very well, but those who loved him in the world appreciated them and loved him to the end—from the group home to the funeral home to the cutting cold of the cemetery.

In under ten minutes, we had spoken the final amen and were back into our warm vehicles. Not many days later now, I sip routine coffee. Richard reminds me to taste it. His face, as clear in my eyes as when I stood by his body, doesn’t belong to a stranger. His features are fine the way they are. May God and all the quick and the dead remember to call him Richard.

A Dream Yields, A Blessing Takes Hold


Field near Prospect, Pennsylvania: a dream view

Solitude, unmasked stars and planets, the shocking cold before dawn, generous draughts of silence: decades ago I wanted this world. Someday, for sure, I would own a house in the sticks with some acres. But—one season following another—age can plow old dreams under, let longing lay fallow, and call a soul to entertain wishes again at the right time or to give them up all together.

The catch is, living more than a holler away from the nearest neighbor is perfect for me. I should want to wind up in the country. I’ve had plenty of great neighbors, some of them like family, but population-density can be a nuisance, right? One former neighbor always fired up her leaf blower whenever I lay down for a nap. It sounded like Carol Channing trying to clear her sinuses. Another neighbor enhanced home security with a nuclear front-yard lamp—impossibly bright. In a step of first-string, All American effrontery, he installed a black shield on the panel facing his house. Why sear every retina on the boulevard, after all? One guy tried to save us by covering the light with a sombrero, only to find it returned to his stoop the next morning.

But such annoyances never drove me from Erie, Pennsylvania, with its 99,542 residents. Columbus and Baltimore, two real cities I’ve called home, were fantastic. So why the persistent sense that I should hear a creek running outside my window? I’ve been thinking in recent years that my dream of rural living was not, in fact, stirred by desire, but by obligation. As a writer who prays a lot, I should want to live a couple hours to the east in Potter County, where deer outnumber humans. Why wouldn’t I want the Coleman home to breathe like the hermitages of my many spiritual retreats in the woods?

This question has occupied me ever since I accepted a call to serve a rural congregation a couple of months ago. The hour’s drive from Erie, where I continue to live, to St. John’s Lutheran Church outside Greenville, Pennsylvania, provides time to sort things out. I listen to tenor arias or fingerstyle guitar or nothing, watch the gray land roll toward the horizon, and let my mind do anything but worry—its default mode.

Wouldn’t the horses I pass on Route 19 be a better routine for my eyes than the strip mall before me at the moment? Shouldn’t I want to move close to the Amish, whose black buggies on District Road tell me to slow down?

I don’t know where “Don’t should on yourself” came from, but the earthy advice points my way. Maybe my closest neighbors should be black bears, but my fifty-four-year-old joys and aches rest easy in a neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of a lady who uses electricity to herd leaves and a better-safe-than-sorry man whose light insults the stars. Being a few minutes away from a ripe avocado, a bottle of cheap red wine, and coffee in a clean, well-lighted place fits me.

Truth: As the days flow by, my old dream yields to a small house in Erie, where I regularly smack my head on the basement ductwork. Less than half the size of the house Kathy and I raised Elena and Micah in, this blue-collar hermitage a mile from my high school feels just right. I don’t want to be anywhere else.


Out the Pastor’s Study window at St. John’s

But the story doesn’t end here. Even as Parkway Drive becomes home, a blessing takes hold when I head south to St. John’s. It fills me as I wonder why some horses wear blankets and others don’t. It abides with me as I work in the pastor’s study, try to offer the folks a good word on Sunday morning, and eat chicken pie with the seniors at the Stone Arch Restaurant: The land and its stewards reach out and pull me in, as if to rest against the bosom of the Lord.

Winter is being coy with us in northwestern Pennsylvania, but my view of the blonde corn stubble out my study window calms my heart. And the parishioners I’ve gotten to know wear their goodness without pretense.

The other day Parish Secretary Jodi got a call reporting that we have roof leaks dripping into the church lounge. She hadn’t finished passing along the news when Anne and Dave’s car pulled up in the parking lot. They had also received word and were coming to check things out.

The problem and temporary fix were quickly settled, but in a fifteen-minute crevice of the morning, Dave and I talked. More importantly, I listened. Amazing what you can learn in a quarter of an hour.

Dave is a retired veterinarian who restricted his practice to cows. He still has twenty of them, three of which are calving. You can take the veterinarian out of the cattle, but apparently you can’t take the cattle out of the veterinarian. I mention this detail because Dave had been overseeing developments before showing up at church and had work clothes on: think dusty Carhartt-type coat and a long-punished hat with earflaps aspiring to be wings. Anne tried unsuccessfully to smooth those flaps, but Dave said, “I like it this way.”

Confession #1: I want to be like this guy. If his hat looks poised for flight, so what. It feels right on his head. And, really, isn’t that what counts when you’re making sure cows get off to a good start in life?

Confession #2: It took me a few seconds to open up my ears. How long have I known that wisdom isn’t restricted to the monk’s cell or the desert hermit’s cave or the scholar’s podium? Riches for mind and soul can also germinate under a quirky lid. Fortunately, I forget easily, but remember with light speed.

Confession #3: The instructions I gave myself wouldn’t suit a sermon, so I’ll give the G (all ages admitted) version: “Listen up, pal,” I thought, “this man has something to teach you.” I caught two lessons in five minutes, not a bad return on the time investment.

Lesson #1: Dave said, “Everything is born to die.” I recalled at once some years ago asking farmer and author Joel Salatin about vegetarianism, and his response was similar. Dave brought me back again to the possibility that death’s inevitability is less important than how it’s attended. He described slaughterhouses he had visited where the cows walked a curved chute toward a pitch-black elevator. Cows will hug an outside wall following a curve—natural to them, I guess. And when they emerge from the darkness, their end comes immediately. No fear or trauma, no months of anxiety about diagnoses and treatments and the dying of the light.

Everything is born to die: not a callous statement or lazy rationalization, but a confession. Salatin pointed out to me the arrogant assumption that the death of a pig is necessarily more noteworthy than the cooking of a carrot. Sounds silly until you understand that the observation lies far down the anthropocentric path. Salatin didn’t use that fancy word, but that’s what he meant. Parishioner Dave can speak for himself, but I bet he knows more about life and death than I do. His days involve walking land I only visit and touching animals I know from a distance. Best to learn from him with an open, humble spirit.

Lesson #2: Dave cares about those twenty cows. His words, voice and manner had a tenderness about them. An animal’s suffering or an injury to the land would pain him. He doesn’t emote as I do, but I know love when I see it—not the love shown in a photograph of an infant in a boot, but the love visible in a retired veterinarian keeping vigil to be sure a calf gets on its feet. The calf will grow and be sold someday, but it’s loved no less for that.

I gathered all this from a man wearing a hat with wings and speaking softly. Acreage in counties close to St. John’s wouldn’t suit me, but traveling there a few times a week is healing my spirit in ways I’m only beginning to understand. And I didn’t count on being edified by folks like Dave and Anne, who would read this and probably tell me to quit fussing.


Rooftops and bare trees on Parkway Drive

But I’m going to fuss. Tonight I’ll fall asleep next to beloved Kathy in a blue-collar hermitage. And tomorrow morning I’ll drive an hour to tend my flock in a place where you can see the stars.

Right now, across Parkway Drive, a neighbor puts away fake garland. Kathy just lay down on the couch and mentioned that from her angle, all you can see is rooftops and bare trees.

I thought, “You could almost be in the country.”

Letter to a Man on a Motorized Bicycle

Dear John:

I don’t know your name, so we may as well both use mine.

The first time I saw you, my wife Kathy was with me, and I confess, you gave us a laugh. We didn’t object to your chosen transportation, but you’re not a small man, and your bike is low slung. It reminded me of an old motorcycle with a sidecar. Bundled against November, you were out of proportion to your ride, like President Lincoln on the back of a Shetland pony.

I saw you again yesterday on the way home from picking up a bottle of Crane Lake Petite Sirah. The temperature was stuck in the thirties, cold weather for buzzing around Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, with your face uncovered. Still, maybe you like the wind against your skin. Maybe you’re wisdom in disguise, your one lonely horsepower a choice rather than a consequence. What the hell do I know?


Your bike reminds me of this old 4.5 horsepower, John. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is the short answer. I’ve already laid out my total knowledge of you. Everything else is a guess. I guess you would prefer a car to bike powered by, what, a lawn mower engine? I guess you made mistakes or ran up against bad luck or both. You have what I’ll euphemistically call some issues? You’re on meds or not. And you’re mostly alone, right?

It seems like I’m trying to excuse you and your ride, but if we were shooting the breeze over coffee, I would tell you about myself. Then you would know that I’m in no position to defend, explain, condemn, or absolve anybody. I’m on meds. My years are punctuated by silly choices. And like lots of citizens we both pass on Buffalo Road, I’m not far from needing dirt-cheap wheels.

I would explain, too, that as you disappeared from my rear view mirror yesterday, I didn’t say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The sentiment is humble, but I’m not sipping an overpriced Americano because God has been gracious to me. And it makes me nauseous to think that your knuckles get raw when you ride in the rain because God has denied you grace.

If we were together I would laugh and say, “Boy, John, shit happens, doesn’t it?” That’s as much explanation as I have.

There’s a lot I couldn’t share, at least not until cup three or four. I live on God’s grace, but that has nothing to do with my pudgy Chevy or your bike, my excess or your need. I bet neither one of us merits much in the way of blessing or curse. “It is what it is” would have to be enough from me for today.


Are my wheels better than yours? I’m not at all sure, John.

Down the line, if we got to be friends, I would ask if you’re okay. The truth is, you might be way more okay than I am. A man who doesn’t mind being seen traveling on a contraption when snow is forecast probably has a thing or two to teach me.

Better still, I would say that sharing my name with you would be a privilege. And maybe you would look into my eyes, past the dark circles, and understand I was guessing about you not because you need my approval, but because you already have all the grace that’s mine to give.