A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again

“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”

My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.

One of my many places for prayer over the years. I think of Ray and plenty of others and sit with what is.

Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.

Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.

“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.

Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.

The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.

Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.

Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.

But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.

Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”

At the dog park with one of my friends, Alpine.

After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.

Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.

I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.

I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”

Sherlock Holmes with grandson Cole. And while I’m on a roll, I not a fan of asking children to be something that they’re not, either.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill

A dining room I left behind

Have you ever moved out of a home you loved? Before closing the door, you walked through the empty rooms. Your footsteps echoed. You could hear yourself breathe. Floating from space to space, you knew that you would never leave. Part of you must abide under the ceiling you stared at before getting up each morning and beside the wall you slid down to sit on the floor, crying over terrible news.

You finally drove away, though the weeks were off kilter until new walls became home again.

I find myself on such a road right now. In fact, I’m not going anywhere. St. John’s in Oniontown will be my pastoral perch for years to come—God willing and the creek don’t rise. A small house in Erie will remain the Coleman’s nest.

No, I’m talking about change. Hemispheres of my world are like the hollow home I once stood in, letting all it held and witnessed work joy and sorrow in me by turns.

It’s impossible to explain why certain passings bring on tears while others drift by like wispy clouds. Maybe the best we can do is acknowledge this reality and listen to each other.

Godspeed, Onslow.

What I want to tell you first is trivial to the universe. The blonde horse I named Onslow is missing in action. For a few years he occupied a yard along Route 19 all by his lonesome. He shared space with a comrade named Sandy for a while, then suddenly was gone, along with eight or ten other horses in an adjoining pasture. Two horses still roam the field, but Onslow and the others belonged to a person who took them to another location.

The fenced-in half acre or so my friend haunted is forlorn, especially in March, when the landscape sleeps. I visited him once and couldn’t get him to come close. Will I ever run my hand between his eyes and down his nose? Probably not.

At the same time Onslow departed, a parishioner died, leaving a deserted room in many Oniontown hearts. His name was Bill, and he was my buddy. I’ve never met a man who had such a huge presence and yet expected so little attention or recognition. He liked my “Report from Oniontown” and even watched for Onslow when his travels took him down Route 19. He said Onslow out of the corner of his mouth, then busted out that great smile. His belly laugh, it was the best sauce ever.

But the last thing Bill would want me to do is pace the bare floors, my footfall a sad tick tock. He was about moving on in good time and taking hold of each day’s possibilities.

Bill’s wife Connie passed in 2017 after a long illness. He grieved as his St. John’s family expected, but kept active. “The evenings are tough,” he told me.

“Well, sure, Bill,” I said. The house was quiet.

Then one afternoon he showed up at church and told me that he had a lady friend. I was overjoyed. As anybody who has lost a beloved and found another knows, it wasn’t that Bill was forgetting about Connie. He just had more living to do.

“Her name is Tye,” he said, “and she’s a great lady.”

What a joy it was to watch St. John’s and Bill’s family welcome Tye into the fold.

Those two did everything together, but as I learned after Bill’s death, they were cleared eyed. He was 80 and had all kinds of systems breaking down.

“I was hoping for a year, but we got a year and a half,” Tye said with a smile. It wasn’t enough, though. It never is.

Early on, Bill told her, “I don’t know how long we have, but we’re gonna give ‘er hell.”

I trust God knew what he meant. What they got was 18 months of heaven.

May God rest you, Bill. (Credit: Sherry Lesnett)

When I go by Bill’s house on Mercer Road, I remember that he’ll never again show up at my office for some chin wagging.

He would tell me not to fuss, so I’ll move on. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, especially given how the world is spinning today. Onslow sure didn’t receive notice of his relocation.

So I mean to be like Bill, to give ‘er hell until the last moment, to close the door of the empty house behind me and light out for a new one, my spirit of good cheer and heart ready for more portions of love.

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?

My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.

My phone messages

Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.

I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”

Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.

“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.

“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.

Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.

And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.

Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.

To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.

As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.

At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”

Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.

But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”

And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”

A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.

“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”

“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.

Lord, please grant Ray a full deck. (Credit: Wikipedia)

He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.

Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.

When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”

If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.

Faith is answering my phone.

Warren State Hospital, 1886. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

Oniontown Pastoral: Old Floyd and New Floyd

In Memory of Warren Redfoot

Three of us sat around the hospital bed in Warren’s living room: his wife Nancy, daughter Barb, and me. Under the covers was Warren, all 90 pounds of him. Sticking out were his head, shoulders and left arm, which rose and fell throughout our conversation, as if carried on a breeze.

Miracles were coming out of the man’s mouth. Not that all his words made sense, but never mind sense. Warren was speaking in poetry, which takes inscrutable turns and isn’t obliged to be linear.

“I wish I could make myself understood,” he said somewhere in the midst of the quirky grace he was bestowing on us. We assured him that he was doing fine.

What got Warren rolling was this. Barb said, “Dad, do you want to tell Pastor John about Old Floyd and New Floyd?”

He was game. The story, which had been birthed in his imagination the night before, evades transcription, but the gist is simple. The Floyds are either tractors or men, depending on Warren’s memory at the moment. Old Floyd is doing farm work, but eventually breaks down. Then New Floyd shows up and takes over.

As in the mysterious possibilities of dreams, however, the Old Floyd is, in fact, the New Floyd. “Not the same body,” Warren explained, “but the same.”

He was talking—for the love of God!—about resurrection.

Closing his parable with a flourish, Warren pushed aside imaginary clouds and said, “Then the sun came out.”

Then the sun came out.

“Boy,” I managed through a tight throat, “you could add another chapter to that story if you wanted.”

“Another chapter?” he replied, almost incredulous. “Another paragraph. Another sentence!”

I caught his meaning. This fragile man was schooling his pastor about life, death and everlasting hope. Sooner or later, life boils down to finding a good word, taking a single breath, or touching the cheek of your beloved, as Warren did to Nancy. All that this husband knew of tenderness shone forth as he reached for his wife, to ease her sorrow.

Old Floyd—Warren’s father’s name, incidentally—can see New Floyd coming. Time grows short. One more sentence means everything. One more hour. Another kiss.

These thoughts swept me away. My left hand held Warren’s while the right clamped over my mouth. Barb touched my shoulder. For the first time I was nearly undone at a bedside and thought I might have to excuse myself.

Can you understand? If God leads us to each other to give or receive what we need most, then God, indeed, sent me to Warren and Nancy’s house to receive the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Once I regained myself, we shared Holy Communion. Warren’s eyes locked on mine as I held up the bread and cup. No bashful glancing away for either of us, not with eternity so near.

Afterwards Warren asked for a decent swallow of wine to supplement the sliver of bread I had dipped in the chalice and rested on his tongue.

Even though his throat was constricted, I poured him a tiny portion. Never have I seen a believer drink more eagerly. He held the thimble-sized glass above his mouth, the last drop falling on his tongue.

Then Warren said, “I have an urge.”

“An urge?” Barb asked. “An urge for what, Dad?”

“For another Communion,” he said. “Not this one. Another Communion. The next one.”

And then he went on and on about how delicious that wine was. I couldn’t argue.

When Warren seemed to be flagging, I said my goodbyes, but as I reached the door, he called my name. Not “Pastor John” or “Pastor,” only “John,” the name I pray one day to hear God whisper into my ear.

I turned around to face Warren reaching skyward, like Atlas holding up the planet.

I did the same. We kept the silence together.

“Peace?” I finally asked.

He nodded, mighty under the weight of the world: “Peace.”

Driving home, I sighed to hold off tears. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I remembered, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Old and new.

Warren was every bit the Spirit to me. Maybe for a moment, like those Floyds, they were the same. I don’t know. But what I can say for sure is this: When my skinny old friend gave me a foretaste of the feast to come, the beauty almost made me go to pieces.

Oniontown Pastoral: Morning with the Colemans

Oniontown Pastoral: Morning with the Colemans

So, what sounds like a Lilliputian giving the raspberries to Gulliver mixed up with a playing card flapping against bicycle spokes? Give up? It’s my wife Kathy’s electric toothbrush at 6:30 a.m. She adds virtuosity to her performances by opening and closing her mouth, as we are all wont to do when brushing our teeth. Imagine, then, the melody I’ve described modulated by “wow ooh wow ooh wow.”

Welcome to my morning routine, which may be of interest because life with the Colemans consists of the unremarkable interrupted by outbursts of the curious. See, the man who descends upon Oniontown thrice weekly packs in a full day of observation and contemplation before he is fully conscious. If you happen upon St. John’s Lutheran Church—and by all means, please do—the pastor occasionally rubbing his temples may appear amiable, but a little odd. If you squander five minutes reading what follows, you’ll understand why.

Kathy’s Crest-with-flouride recital comes after her alarm goes off. The enthusiastic beeps don’t bother me. What does give me pause is my wife’s violent start every time the snooze expires. I’m not exaggerating. It’s like the darling beside me—both of us savoring the warm haze of waking—is being suddenly tased or jolted by a cattle prod. “But honey,” I don’t say, “you know those beeps are coming. What’s the deal?” I’ve resigned myself to this quirk, but one of these days I’m due for an elbow to the chops.

I’ve also gotten used to Kathy kibitzing with herself as she finishes getting ready for eight hours of oncology nurse work. Half the time I can only surmise the conversation from inflection. Example: “Where are my glasses?” “But you put them right here.” (This, by the way, is preposterous, as she never sets things down where she thinks. I know this from having chased many a wild goose from room to room, only to hear, “Oh, never mind, it’s right here in my purse,” followed by laughter. She can explain in epic length and exhaustive detail why her, say, nail clippers should have been on the arm of the couch. What can I say? “Hmm.”)

It’s also obvious when she is kissing foxhound Sherlock Holmes on the snout and whispering sweet nothings. “How’s my boy? Is he my good little boy?”

In thin light, Sherlock looks like bagpipes in disarray.

Adult son Micah stirs at about the same time as his mother. Here you might picture a sloth creeping across a tree branch, except without that dopey grin. His fifteen minutes from feet on the floor to banging the backdoor shut wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for a recent addition to his musical repertoire, measures of which crawl under his door and reach my head, still on the pillow.

“Mongolian throat singing.” I’m not kidding. Briefly, then: a Mongolian guy runs a bow across the two strings of a rustic cello and, in the case of the recording Micah shared with me, croons a toe-tapping number called “Praise of Genghis Khan.” I’m sorry. I want to be and generally am artistically adventurous. My boy is besoothed by Batzorig Vaanchig’s mellifluence, but what I hear is a man trying to clear his respiratory system from sinus to glottis to lung. Think a human being waking up to discover himself turned into a didgeridoo.

Batzorig Vaanchig, whose talent is genuine and considerable. My tastes in his case are clearly deficient. (Credit: Batzorig Vaanchig’s Facebook page)

One sunrise last week I heard the exotic singing and sent Micah this text message, and I quote: “Ommmm weee weeee ommmmm.”

His response: “Oooooooaaahhhhhaaawewoooyayaya.”

How could I not be moved?

Once Kathy and Micah are gone, I listen to the neighborhood out my window, opened a crack even in cold weather. My favorite sound is rainfall, best of all accompanied by God’s throat clearing thunder. At such moments gratitude visits. Life is not too shabby at present. I appreciate that.

One challenge awaits me before I head to my writing perch or to Oniontown. Sherlock Holmes must get out—absolutely must. He sleeps on the living room couch and looks in the dim light like bagpipes in disarray. Most dogs are eager to get outside and sniff for anything that has transpired overnight, but not our sleuth. He grumbles his own style of throat singing to register his displeasure.

If you see me massaging my temples, as I mentioned, it’s probably because the Coleman’s spindly-legged pal has been obstinate. Like lots of you, my days are wondrous and fascinating, right up until I get out of bed. Even then, more often than not, I find myself singing to God, over and over: “Wow ooh wow ooh wow.”

St. John’s sanctuary, where I sing to God each Sunday

 

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: 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

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

Wife Kathy is early girl this week at the Regional Cancer Center, so my kiss goodbye came this morning at 5:30 with this question: “Hey, did you clean the litter box last night?”

The trouble is, our cat, Baby Crash, is such a dainty soul that her ladies’ room doesn’t get nasty. The trouble also is, I always forget. If only I could remember on Tuesday evening before trash pick up, there would be no problem. I mean, yes, of course, an everyday scooping routine would be optimal, but a slight effort on my part would keep Kathy from saying, “I feel like a broken record.”

And another “if only.” If only the late Alan Dugan hadn’t hit the nail on the head in “Love Song: I and Thou.” “Nothing is plumb, level, or square,” he writes of a house he built for himself. The poem is angry and mournful, with the speaker clearly as flawed as his construction. Love enters the picture only at the end, when we learn that all along he has been addressing his wife.

My Oniontown mantra: “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

Dugan’s vision is darker than my own, but that line has persisted with me since my college days. The prosaic translation I constantly offer my St. John’s brothers and sisters is, “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

We laugh and nod together. One tire is always low on air. Your neck has a crick in it from sleeping weird. Your parent / child / spouse / best friend / neighbor (circle one) has shingles / might be laid off / is being a monumental pain in the rumpus (circle one).

Or today everything is fine, but your insides wonder what is misplaced, unfinished or damaged. You can’t figure it out. “Tell me, John,” you say, “why am I looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sensing that the phone is about to ring with terrible news or another fire to put out?”

I’ll tell you why. Because “nothing is plumb, level, or square.” If something isn’t crackers at present, experience has taught us that a sliver, sprained ankle or broken heart can’t be far off. When troubles arrive in rapid succession, rhetorical questions come to mind. What did I do to deserve this? Is God testing me or what?

The Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The answer is generally clear, for me at least. When my thumb smarts, I know exactly who swung the hammer. And the only thing worse than swearing and hopping around on one foot is knowing I’ll repeat this performance in perpetuity. A dirty litter box is easily remedied, but the fact is, if I remember to clean it, I’m sure to forget something else. It’s not like patching one crack in the drywall makes a whole room smooth. The Tower of Pisa leans by name. Bowling lanes are defined by gutters. Pencils live under erasers.

People, on the other hand, are both upright and crooked, and the only way not to stay bent over is to speak. “I messed up.” “Please forgive me.” “I’ll try to do better.” Each of the three is an implied question. In the sanctuary, corporate confessions receive immediate absolution, but in most other buildings, silence and waiting are customary. When answers come, the language is commonplace. “No worries.” “We’re good.” “That’s OK.” The relief is a blessing.

Baby Crash

So the human pendulum always swings between injury and pardon. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or even a believer to recognize yourself in St. Paul’s quandary: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In case you didn’t catch that the first time, he writes two verses later, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” And to be positive, he serves up the next verse: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Ten years ago I read this humbling Romans passage at a parishioner’s funeral. A grizzly soul who wrestled with himself constantly, John was comforted to know that St. Paul understood his predicament.

I lean on the apostle, too, but the poet’s raw testimony blesses me like scripture. “Nothing is plumb, level, or square”—not that anything is really wrong. At any given moment, if I’m not apologizing, circumstance is preparing an ambush.

In my fifty-seventh year, I’ve found an ideal name for this phenomenon: “Life.”

Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows

Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows

Though not much of a collector myself, I admire those who are. Parishioner Bill has been a Cub Cadet enthusiast for years, at one point owning over a dozen of them. My barber hoards sneakers but plays coy about revealing numbers. Retired Limerick plumber Michael Kelly’s ever-expanding model aircraft collection finally had to find a home at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.

I used to collect baseball cards and comic books, but these were passing endeavors. Boxes jammed with Sudden Sam MacDowell and Johnny Bench cards and Jonah Hex and Iron Man comics have journeyed from attic to crawl space to closet, their whereabouts now known only to wife Kathy, the household storage maven.

Only recently have I tripped over a collection that has been quietly amassing not in cardboard boxes or curio cabinets, but between my ears. Turns out I’ve been accumulating windows.

When wife Kathy and I lived in South Haven, Michigan, only treetops were visible as we lay in bed and looked out our window. Why were we soothed by gusts making branches bend and sway? Was it that the leaves, waving and trembling, had no choice but to surrender to the weather? Our yearlong stay in that small town on Lake Michigan was blessed, but also challenging and unpredictable. Our heads on the pillows and hands clasped, we enjoyed the solace of treetops, straining like us not to snap when tempest tossed.

Shenley maples, with only tops visible from our bedroom window

In 2001, following seminary studies, Kathy and I moved home to Erie, where Shenley Drive gave us a boulevard of maples. Once again, for over a decade, waking up in the morning and napping involved trees. As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Way leads on to way.” My forties led on to fifties. Seasons used high branches as an excuse to sing, and I could no longer pretend to be young. The trees helped me to whisper to myself: “If I die on this bed, hopefully ages and ages hence, that will be fine.” The message was freeing. Forever, it seemed, I longed to be in a place more cultured, more interesting and exciting. But truth had its say: “Move as much as you like, John, you’ll always have to accept four walls and the certainty of your own end.” At 322 Shenley I was finally home.

I had also developed the habit of finding joy buried under adversity and mortality. The first time I saw an oriole up close, parishioner Tom and I were standing at his kitchen window. His daughter Nadeana, only forty-seven, had died that very morning of cancer, which afflicted Tom as well. Shoulder to shoulder with a devastated father, I wondered what nerve lovely wings had visiting on such a wretched day. There they were though, reminding us both that even on Golgotha, life has the last word.

Another of my windows is beside Fred and Marilyn’s backdoor. When I visit, we chat and keep track of birds that share seeds and nuts with the squirrels. Last week while saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I noticed the yard was deserted. Then, when I said, “Shed for you,” a red-bellied woodpecker, titmice, and squirrels had returned, as if to attend our meal. Fred’s condition makes holding a cup difficult, but as he persevered, a conviction alighted on me: While we birds, beasts and siblings struggle wing-to-hoof-to-elbow, God is mindful of us all.

My St. John’s window in spring

The pastor’s study window at St. John’s holds an honored place in my collection. Just as the Shenley Drive maples calmed a restless middle-aged man, a line of pines, a field in which corn and soybeans take turns, and one grand red barn compose a landscape that means: “You love St. John’s. They put up with you. You’re fortunate, you small church pastor, you.”

And now, to my delight, Grandson Cole shows signs of inheriting his Pop’s unusual tastes. Some weeks ago on the way to Oniontown, Cole gazed out his car window and said to Grandma Kathy, “Do you know what kind of woods those are?”

“No, best buddy,” she said, “what kind are they?”

“They’re ‘Ice Cream Woods,’” he said.

“Ice Cream Woods? Why?”

“Because you could go in there and eat ice cream.”

“Oh,” Kathy played along, “so could you sit under a tree and eat ice cream?”

“No, Grandma, ants would get on you,” he explained. “You’d have to stand.”

Okay, I’m not sure what Pop has passed down to Cole, an interest in windows or a fanciful way of seeing the world. Either way, I’m glad to have his company.

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

 

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Letter to My Grandson, Who Is Afraid to Die

Dear Cole:

Your wild red hair before waking on Sunday morning and heading to St. John’s in Oniontown

You’re only four and a half years old now, but I’m writing to preserve the thoughts under your wild red hair until the day comes for you to retrieve them. Of course, nobody really knows what another person thinks. Let’s call this letter a gift of love, then, flawed like everything else in the world.

A few months ago you said something curious to your Grandma Kathy: “I don’t want to grow up. I’ll miss my beautiful voice.” She and I tell our friends about your words, which we find funny, but also haunting and sad. Kids like you say things so fresh and insightful that adults laugh through their tears.

Saint John’s Lutheran Church, where you are loved

Your voice is beautiful, Cole. In fact, everything about you is so beautiful that, truth be told, your parents, grandparents, relatives and dozens of other folks, like your church family at St. John’s in Oniontown, wish time would stop here and now. How could you ever be more beautiful than you are today?

Clocks break, though, and watches stop, but the present hour leads to the next, and no prayer can change this fact. It’s incredible to us—the grown ups who love you—that you have reckoned so young the relentless passing of life. Good Lord, pal, I wish you wouldn’t rush that pretty head of yours into eternal mysteries.

But here you are, telling your mom and dad that you don’t want to grow up because if you grow up you’re going to die. You’re asking if dinner is healthy because food that’s good for you will make you grow up. You want junk food instead, which won’t make your body big and strong. Your parents have explained that eating crap will only make you a sickly adult, but this logic hasn’t helped.

“What happens when I die?” you’ve been asking. We ache with longing to ease your mind. Your mom said, “We believe you go to be with Jesus,” and she was speaking our truth.

The trouble is, Cole, we say “believe” for good reasons. We also say “faith” and “hope” a lot, too. The word we shouldn’t say is “know,” and even though I’m a Lutheran pastor, you should ignore anybody who presumes to understand the mind of God and the terms and conditions of eternity.

The last time we had family dinner, your fear and suffering was overwhelming. You had already cried a couple of times that day and picked at your food, though we had a couple of unhealthy options for you. After clearing the table, we sat in the living room.

A cute little cry before you grew hair, Cole.

I’ll never forget what happened next. You stood in front of your father, your hands on his knees, and suddenly sobbed. These weren’t normal little boy tears, like the ones that fall when you don’t get your way or you smash your toe. These were “save me” tears, “I can’t breathe” tears. I recognized the terror washing over you. It happened to your Pop when he was about twice your age.

This fear has a couple of fancy names, “ontological shock” and “mortal dread” among them. They all mean the same thing: You understand the possibility that long ago you didn’t exist and someday you might not exist anymore. Notice I used another flimsy word, “possibility.” I’m sorry. We just don’t know.

You probably won’t remember that on a Sunday evening years ago when you were terrified, your mom and dad comforted you. Nobody denied the abyss you were staring into or dismissed your fear or told you to hush.

“Cole,” I said, “I believe that when we die we’ll all be together and safe.” That’s my sustaining truth, but much as I would like to plant certainty into your soul, you’ve started the spiritual work of a lifetime early. Nobody can do this job for you or say anything to make it easy.

I’m still doing my work and remember well waking up in the dark in a panic about what must happen to you, me and everyone else. We all die, and I no longer wish to be an exception to this rule. I’m less afraid than I used to be.

When you read this letter, please think back. If your Pop ever saw you crying “save me” tears, I hope you remember me saying, “I’m scared, too, Cole. We all are. Let’s hold each other and imagine this is what it feels like to rest in God’s arms. ”

Love,

Pop