A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

A Girl Named Al and the Other Regulars

I can’t decide whether to feel guilty about a quirky, not-very-important dynamic having to do with the family dog’s routine.

About five times each week, the Coleman’s foxhound, Sherlock Holmes, goes to a dog park on Erie’s east side, several acres of fenced-in grass and trees.

Not to brag, but my lanky detective is a conversation piece among the regulars. He lustily announces his arrival with hoops and hollers as we pull into our parking spot. When I swing the gate open, he barrels toward the biggest cluster of dogs and skids to a miraculous stop in their midst without crashing into anybody. A session of chase quickly ensues, with Sherlock leading takers in a Rorschach pattern until by mutual consent they stop for a panting break, spittle flipping off of their tongues.

Thus loosened up, Mr. Holmes heads to a far corner for his daily constitutional. Yesterday the game was furiously afoot, such that four participants got nature’s memorandum at the same instant and dropped into the telltale crouch that, frankly, makes them look silly. (We might all learn from dogs the practical lesson that exercise can keep us regular.) Their communal bathroom break was no big surprise, as dogs tend to follow suit.

The shape of one of Sherlock’s chase routes (Wikimedia Commons)

For example, wherever snouts assemble, sniff tests are sure to be conducted. Some days, however, they can’t get enough of each other, which has me shouting, “All right, knock it off already!” In fact, our best friends have a policy akin to Murphy’s Law: “Awkward behaviors increase in proportion to the embarrassment they cause.”

This principle holds true with the most cringe-worthy, bawdy demonstration of dominance. One afternoon this summer, some human must have slipped steroids into the communal water bowls—that and/or Spanish Fly—as both males and females did nothing else for half hour other than show each other who was boss in the most sophomoric way possible. After dozens of protests, we moms and dads shrugged and actually resorted to chatting with each other.

Sherlock Holmes resting after a trip to the dog park

I exaggerate here only slightly. A fair amount of kibitzing does take place at the park, but for wife Kathy and me, the primary relationships are between ourselves and the dogs.

Which brings me to the dynamic on my mind: I can rattle off a baker’s dozen of dogs, but need only two fingers for the human names I recall. What does this say about me? People are more important than their pets, right?

I know Zero, Milo, Onyx, Titan, Max, Dexter, Gracie, Buck, Bailey, Prince, Zeus, Evy, Lego, Luna and Willow. And then there’s one of my favorites, Al, a female Rhodesian Ridgeback whose proper name is Alpine. The friendliest and least rambunctious regular, she was bred to hunt lions and other large game.

Used to be she would trot up as soon as I arrived and let me scratch the short Mohawk on her back. This was a thing, a ritual I came to love. Then she disappeared for a couple of months. There had been some dustups between dogs and spats between people, with the former acting more civilized than the latter. Anyway, I figured Al’s dad thought, “Forget this noise. We’re out of here.”

Al’s Mohawk, the ridge in the ridgeback

Turns out Al might have had ringworm and her dad kept her away out of consideration. But yesterday she strode into the place. I gave her time to renew old acquaintances before hollering from a good 50 yards away. “Alpine! Hey, Alpine, come here!”

To my delight, she made for me with steam in her stride. Holy cow! I’m not a huge presence in her life, just a park buddy. Still, once you’ve employed scratches, pats and sweet nothings to ask, “Can we be friends?” your heart’s doors swing open to let in a love as profound as that bandied about by humans. A dog’s affection is pure, no hidden agenda to rouse suspicion, no axe to grind.

Al, Gracie and the rest give me an infusion of uncomplicated joy, like a serum that cures scurvy of the soul.

So my mind is made up. Sherlock goes to the park to run off surplus energy, but I need to get there as much as he does. When I call my pals by name and they come to visit, something inside me feels right—hopeful, light, calm. For now I’ll grant myself special dispensation. Once the dogs make my heart big enough, I’ll ask what their moms and dads go by.

John and Al, dog park pals

Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World

Oniontown Pastoral: The Hope of the World

Events have conspired lately to make me emotional. In addition to the world’s brutish, rude, ignorant disposition, several situations have left my heartstrings frayed—and given me hope.

First of all, grandson Cole started kindergarten after Labor Day. Most went well, but one factor has befouled his new adventure. His bus driver has been—Lord, preserve me from cursing—insensitive. The maiden voyage was great, but on the second day, Cole cried on the bus, upset about not being with his mother and brother. The driver said that he needed to stop crying, that hers wasn’t a sad bus but a happy bus. Whether she elaborated I don’t know, but the rookie student thought that she was going to pull over and kick him off the bus. He was terrified. How would he get home? He would be lost.

Leaving for school, Cole said, “I have to get on the bus. Bye!”

Who knows what really happened? The point is, any adult with a splash of empathy can imagine a beloved five-year-old in such an inexcusable situation. Something in the bus driver’s delivery or manner conveyed the opposite of comfort and encouragement. Thankfully embarking this morning was more calm. A fifth grade girl has buddied up with him. Also, as he explained to Mom, “If I don’t cry, the driver won’t holler at me.” There must be a growth lesson somewhere in this kerfuffle, but at the moment I can’t help wanting to fix a wagon or two.

Cole’s bus woes have nothing to do with hope, except for that sport of a fifth-grader who took my little Red under wing. No, aches, pains and bullies come along, and we have to learn to shuck, jive and endure even as we dab our cheeks.

But two other vignettes soothe my spirit and speak of possibilities. The first is a picture of—surprise—Cole, who heard his mother’s smartphone chime with an Amber alert. She explained that a child in northwestern Pennsylvania was missing and in danger. Son Micah, who was visiting at the time, sent me a photograph of Cole’s response. He headed to the backyard, climbed his fort and scanned the landscape for any sign of a lost girl. Looking in one direction, then another, he believed the kid might be nearby, within reach. Maybe he could find her. Maybe he could help.

Scanning the landscape for a lost girl. (Credit: Micah Coleman)

And so he did! My kindergartener’s chances were slim, but from my perch his effort was in the service of hope. What if we all ascended our forts and glanced around? Who knows? Anyway, my grandson’s odds of succeeding were certainly greater than mine of hitting the Powerball Jackpot, which wife Kathy and I give an occasional go.

I thought of Cole this past week while visiting one of St. John’s eldest members in a nursing home. Lloyd is in his nineties and all but deaf. Conversation requires nose to nose shouting, and even then he is often lost. Each time I show up, more time passes before he recognizes me.

“Lloyd has a great story,” I hollered, looking back at wife Kathy, who had come to Oniontown with me that day. “He actually saw the flag go up on Iwo Jima.”

The flag goes up on Iwo Jima. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

His expression was blank. Then, as I stood to leave, he said, “I’ve got a story.”

Ahoy! I sat back down and leaned in, anticipating his beloved World War II tale. But for the first time ever, he needed my help. As we looked into each other’s eyes, I wished the old plot out of him. Boatswain on a landing craft, he conveyed soldiers to that costly assault. When Lloyd faded, I drew close and fixed on his pupils, as if to say, “Push, brother! I’m listening.” And it was a birthing of sorts.

He stared back at me and rummaged for the essentials: soldiers getting shot in the water; the captain telling everyone back on the staging ship to point binoculars toward Mount Suribachi; Marines putting shoulders to the flagpole; the stars and stripes snapping out into the wind.

Then and there I remembered that Cole also searched for a lost soul. His was young, mine was old and full of days, both were adrift.

Hope makes its home on perilous seas, where the mere prospect of safe harbor is enough to give a tenderhearted kindergartener and his grandfather cause to cry. In fact, wherever one set of eyes looks out for others desperate for rescue and communion, hope survives.

Nothing can drown hope, and honest to God, that brings me to tears.

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I Kiss My Wife’s Hand

I know what you’re expecting: Here comes another edition of “Now, Pastor John Will Warm the Cockles of My Heart.” Well, sisters and brothers, think again.

This morning as I drove Kathy to work, I did, indeed, kiss her hand, but what were once pecks meant to say, “Sure do love you” have evolved into lips reluctant to pull away, lips that would say, “Sure do need you.” My gesture used to be mostly an offering, a reminder, but in this season of civilization, I’m drawing succor and forbearance from the woman who has tried to understand and abide me for 36 years.

So, to the kiss in question: at a red light, I held her hand to my lips, closed my eyes and breathed in and out. A woman driving by apparently saw and smiled. An hour ago Kathy sent me a message: “You made her day.”

Maybe so, but I’d like to explain to this stranger that I am romantic, a real sweetie pie, but what she witnessed was much less an amorous husband and more a man crouched on his roof during a flash flood, tree branches and neighborhood “disjecta membra” swept away by the current.

The water punishing my home’s foundation at present is not only the erosion of the societal expectations Americans have historically honored—imperfectly and inconsistently, to be sure—but also the delight some of my fellow citizens seem to take in dancing on the grave of noble behavior.

I’m not talking about high-minded philosophy or fervent religious belief, but about the simple words that rolled off the tongues of my elders:

  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Mind your manners.
  • How would you feel if somebody did that to you?
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • You can run, but you can’t hide.
  • Don’t hit below the belt.
  • Don’t pee on my foot and tell me it’s raining.
  • Play by the rules.

You can add dozens of sayings to my list, and, of course, there are exceptions to any adage. For example, some situations demand an unvarnished truth that isn’t nice, maybe quite stern, but no provocation warrants cruelty.

I’ve long ago stopped harrumphing about folks chewing with their mouths open and yawning with noisy abandon in public, two trifles that drove my father to distraction. Why bother fishing a plastic straw out of a tsunami?

What I can’t stop mourning, however, are the standards of thought, speech and conduct that I grew up with being moment by moment trodden under foot. Worse, when I see one person rejoicing in the misfortune of another or insisting that a clearly documented fact is actually false or constantly and proudly acting out in ways that would put a preschooler in timeout, I’m both pained and drained.

If you think I’ve got one public figure in mind, you can relax—or clench up, as you please. My scolding finger is pointed at millions, and I’m done apologizing for it. When our mothers told us to behave ourselves, who among them would have overlooked sucker punching a friend on the playground or equivocating with one arm elbow-deep in the cookie jar? Not mine, God rest her, that’s for sure. In her generation, actions that now don’t even raise an eyebrow might send children to bed without dinner.

Much merriment is had these days at the expense of sensitive souls like myself who aren’t ashamed of tears shed because the beliefs we embrace are sailing into the horizon of this flat earth.

Last night’s news reported that binge drinking among senior citizens is on the rise. Why? Nestled in the list of feeble theories was “social change.” Yeah, no kidding. Millions of people over 65—and many considerably under—no longer recognize their native land. I’m not referring to hot button issues, but simply the scurvy, sinister way folks treat and address each other.

Forgive me. I realize not a single heart cockle has been warmed, but an amiable Oniontown pastor must on rare occasion be given leave to share thoughts that let a chilly draft into the bed chamber.

Most days, kissing Kathy’s hand provides all the solace I need. Her skin, so familiar and dear after nearly 40 years as a couple, reminds me of how much grace and blessing crowd around me in this life.

Once in a great while, though, I have to pull my lips away and speak. Today is thus.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.

Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.

My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.

Credit: Michael McCartney

My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.

As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.

I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.

“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.

Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.

“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”

They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.

I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.

I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.

“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”

Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.

Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.

Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.

Lovely valley, kind of lonesome (Credit: Dreamy Pixel on Wikimedia Commons)

My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.

Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.

I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.

Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”

No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.

So I receive Omran and the bride as both package deal and personal obligation. The foreign boy and domestic woman and the McCartney guys and wincing stranger abide under my watch.

That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.

Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home

Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home

The scene played out in real time, but I watch it again in slow motion.

I started my Tuesday by voting at Edison Elementary School in Erie and afterwards in the parking lot happened upon a man my age—a campaign volunteer—saying to a boy, perhaps seven, “Didn’t you know there’s no school today?”

The boy’s face pinched and widened in the universal prelude to tears, which instantly washed down his cheeks. Looking up at the cinderblock sky, he cried, “I’m lost!”

Cinderblock sky

The situation was obvious. He had been dropped off by a parent—his mother, I later learned—who didn’t know that school was closed on Election Day. When he found the doors locked, she had already driven away.

As I approached the boy, he said again, “I’m lost!”

His circumstance was not dire. The campaign guy and I realized this, but the little man understood only that he was adrift. He was skinny, cropped black hair fortified with gel and half-pint knapsack snug against his back. English wasn’t coming easy.

Surely somebody would be in the school office. The three of us headed toward the building—imposing brick, the kind that scrapes off skin when you brush up against it.

“You’re not alone,” I said, my hand on his shoulder. “We’re with you, and I’ll stay here all day if I have to, until your mom comes to pick you up.” I was telling the truth, certain that the St. John’s Lutheran family would excuse my tardiness.

Understanding folks worship under this cross

Long story short, we tracked down the kid’s older brother, also a student. They were from Nepal, he explained, and lived in the Horan Apartments, rough projects a couple blocks away.

“Namaste,” the campaign guy said in a nod to their native country. Meaning: “I bow to the sacred within you.”

The boys returned the greeting and added the customary sign of hands pressed together before their chests. I joined in.

Namaste. (Credit: Anandajoti on Wikimedia Commons)

Just then, a woman supervising a youth program in the school passed by and recognized at once the quandary: neighborhood children who unexpectedly need minding. “Happens all the time,” she said, whisking the boys away with her. And that was that.

“All shall be well,” early Renaissance mystic Julian of Norwich said, “and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This from a survivor of the Black Death! In fact, I agree with her, in the long run.

The trouble is, perspective comes with age. For a Nepalese kid dropped off in a parking lot a hemisphere away from home, there is only the short run. Even for adults, fear answers aphorisms by running its nails on a chalkboard.

In my early teens I got turned around briefly in the Pennsylvania woods on a mountain called Baldy, and the panic was exquisite. “All manner of thing shall be well,” indeed, but my chest still echoes with shouts for help into treetops.

So the Nepalese boy’s wet face stays with me along with his skyward glance and words: “I’m lost.”

Strange thing, I’m in no rush to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, his abiding presence is far more valuable to me than my assurance and assistance were to him.

Seriously, he got some comfort from this Oniontown pastor, but the campaign guy could have handled the trouble with ease. On the other hand, what I got from the boy has ended up being wisdom masquerading as bother. (Hanging around all day with a trembling kid would have gotten old in a hurry.)

Of course, not all truth goes down smooth. Sometimes edification burns like a shot of bourbon.

The Nepalese boy speaks for half the world, if you ask me. In my line of work, folks often say in a thousand different ways, “I’m lost.”

Somehow or other I let them know, “Me, too.”

Whether in Oniontown or Erie or across the Atlantic Ocean, I assume that everybody is lost or knows full well what it feels like. Who among us hasn’t been suddenly deserted outside our own rough brick school or atop a Baldy or, worst of all, in our hearts? Tears wait patiently, one memory below the surface.

For this reason, the finally-found boy is my companion, reminding me of how lost plenty of us are. Maybe I’m wrong, but there can be no harm in having three good words at the ready: “You’re not alone.”

I’m telling the truth.

Not alone–two trees in Oniontown.

Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time

Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time

If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t say, “Now there’s a guy who values time and uses it wisely.” No, you’d say, “Gosh, he’s pudgy and rumpled. I’ll bet he’s lazy.”

A gumshoe hired to investigate me would report that I’m “bone idle” and “lackadaisical,” but he would be wrong.I prefer “unconventional.” One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Andrew Marvel: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And two expressions that annoy me are “killing time” and “wasting time.” Henry David Thoreau was right when he mused, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Frittered hours can never be recovered, but I must add that one highly organized, go-getter’s waste is this Lutheran pastor’s treasure.

Waiting in a grocery store line, for example, can be a respite if I keep my billfold full of compassion. The customer fiddling with change or rummaging for a coupon is stumbling through life just like I am. Giving the cashier the skunk eye and snorting loudly: now that’s wasting time.

Years ago I put checkout time to use by monitoring tabloids. Rather than glower at my provisions stranded on the conveyor belt, I got updates on Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to a Martian and the cellulite epidemic among aging actors and actresses. These days I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and give thanks for food, clothing, shelter and love.

Wall light outside the bedroom: I turn it on and off gently, hoping it will last as long as I do.

Any still, mindful moment is never an assault on time, nor for that matter is a nap. I could offer here a brigade of scientific support for what history’s most prolific napper, Winston Churchill, described as “the refreshment of blessed oblivion.”

The stigma associated with napping persists, but I remain defiant. In my experience, much of what gives each day its shine takes place in inconspicuous pockets of time. My thrice-weekly commute to and from Oniontown is a perfect example. Folks ask how I like the drive and are occasionally flummoxed to hear me rhapsodize about it.

Rhapsody by Abraham Joshua Heschel

You readers of A Napper’s Companion may suspect me of blowing sunshine, but I’m on the level. Last Thursday provides a good case study.

En route to St. John’s Lutheran Church I had just finished an audiobook biography of President Lyndon Johnson and was still recovering from the revelation that he fancied interrupting meetings with male staffers to go skinny-dipping in the White House pool—and cajoled them into joining him. No funny business, only matters of state being discussed by awkward faces bobbing up and down in the water. (I’m not making this up, and, sorry, there’s no way you can un-know this piece of historical trivia.)

As the scenery on I-79 slipped by, I took my mind off of unfortunate LBJ visuals by listening to a podcast (basically a radio program over the Internet) called Milk Street, which is about gourmet cooking.

Far from killing time, I rescued it by listening as legendary foodie Christopher Kimball preached the glory of pomegranate molasses drizzled over crispy baked chicken and the foresight of freezing pots of intensely darkened roux for convenient and flavorful sauce thickening.

“But, John,” you’re wondering, “do you really need to consume more crispy chicken and gravy?”

Not really, but even if I never track down pomegranate molasses or freeze roux, knowing that I could makes life itself savory.

The same goes for wandering the expansive antique shop in Sheakleyville, where I stopped on my way to Oniontown not last Thursday but a couple of weeks ago. It feels like prayer to behold objects once commonplace but now replaced by the “new and improved”—alarm clocks that wind up, communicate with hands and measure time with ticks and tocks; blue and white Currier and Ives plates adorned with horse drawn wagons taking bundled up families home for Christmas.

Am I unconventional? So be it. The old suitcase I bought from the friendly proprietor and polished back to life has given me inexplicable pleasure. It was a treasure hiding in a pocket of time.

I have plans for this old mule.

Whether at church in Oniontown or at home in Erie or shuttling in between, I try to honor each second by harvesting the wonder around me.

Do you understand? Zooming down Route 19 without saying hello to dirty blonde horse Onslow is an injury to eternity. Likewise, noticing son Micah bending down right now in the dining room to kiss our foxhound Sherlock Holmes right between the eyes is a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this present hour.”

The ever-kissable Sherlock Holmes

 

The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

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Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

Sowing What Our Children Will Reap

(8 minute read)

As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.

But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.

In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”

Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.

“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.

“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”

Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.

But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?

Two of my grandchildren. I have millions.

I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”

The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.

I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.

But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?

Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.

One of my boys named Jesse. Sweet face! Soul full of music.

Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.

The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.

If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.

A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.

If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?

  • When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
  • The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
  • Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
  • I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.

Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.

Dear Lord, Let all children feel this safe and peaceful in my presence. Amen

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

The truth arrived at dawn as I enjoyed the calm before facing another day: I see myself in a horse on the way to Oniontown.

My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.

Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.

I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.

But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.

I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.

Ah, Oniontown! Your fields bring me the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”

I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.

I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.

“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.

“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”

When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.

Still on the refrigerator in the Coleman house

Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.

Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.