Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.

Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.

Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.

Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
  • “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
  • “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).

This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.

Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.

The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.

Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”

The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.

“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.

“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”

Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”

An Incidental Monastery and Other Siblings from the Community of Mystery

Blogger’s Note: This post is nearly 2000 words long. I’ll understand if you can’t spare the time. Peace and love, John

I try to nap an hour each afternoon and pray so often lots of people would consider me lazy. Breathe in, breathe out. Be mindful. Let go, John. Let go. I’m coming up on twenty-five years of practicing contemplative prayer. When I started I was in terrible shape: depression, panic attacks, and a constant buzz of anxiety in my body. In contemplative prayer, I sit in the quiet dark with the Loving Mystery, who saves me. Not saves as in are you saved? I mean saves me from despair and gives me hope and just enough sanity to get by. Just.

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Axentowicz the Anchorite. I look nothing like him when I pray, except maybe in heart and spirit. (Artist: Teodor Axentowicz. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Contemplative prayer has also birthed in me a paradoxical spirit, which songwriter Don Henley describes pretty well in “Heart of the Matter”:

The more I know, the less I understand.

All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again.

The truth is, I don’t know or understand much, nor have I figured out much. The wonderful Lutheran folks I serve as pastor might find this confession troubling. Sorry about that. Each day begins with a foundational proposal: Okay, let’s try this again. This, of course, is life. I often feel embarrassingly inadequate to its great gift. I’m driftwood in the presence of Gracious Light. What little I have figured out, I have to keep learning again. I say a constant, wordless prayer: Have mercy. Teach me one more time.

Last Wednesday was a case study in all that I’m haltingly articulating here. The day proper began at Starbucks with me sipping my summer usual, an iced decaf coffee with a decaf shot of espresso (a.k.a. a redeye or a tall iced what’s the point?). The agenda was light, no troubles on the horizon, no stressful deadlines lurking, but I had a surplus of nervous energy. I was either going to blow soothing kisses to my adrenal glands or spend the hours ahead rushing toward no place in particular.

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Hope for the day: identify the sparking nerves and make them behave. (Artist: Bartolomeo Eustachi. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A chance chat with Starbucks regulars Rick and Noreen helped. They had just returned from a cruise—their destination escapes me at the moment—still tan and fresh. Noreen wore a fedora, a stylish cancer accessory. She looked great, but was in the midst of treatments, sixteen or eighteen more to go. “But who’s counting?” they said. I told them Abiding Hope, the congregation I serve as pastor, would pray for them. (After thirteen years in a collar, you’d think I would have some understanding of how prayer works, but I’m as clueless as a toddler trying to figure out a good reason for kale. If nothing else, I think it must please God to hear “touch Noreen with your healing hand” rather than “grant me a true aim as I launch a missile at that 777.”) Be welcome to join me in a loving word to the Creator for Noreen and Rick.

The determined, vulnerable eyes of people looking into the mortal abyss made me slow down. I can think of no better way to honor what fellow human beings are going through than to sit still with them, receive as much of their reality as possible, walk mindfully across the parking lot to my crappy truck—watching along the way for traffic and appreciating the pilgrimage of clouds—and dance and bicker with my path and what lines it.

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A gaggle of geese was on my path. They took over five minutes to cross from their morning bath to the sunning yard. They taught me patience on my way to run clean socks to painter son Micah, who had spilled bleach on his shoe, sock, and athlete’s foot. Ouch!

At the church, before settling in at the standing desk, I made a trip to the mailbox, and that’s when I really began learning again what I had already figured out. The lesson, of course, was (and is) to live in the moment. The cliché is “stop and smell the roses.” The blessings as morning turned to afternoon and to evening reminded me of such wisdom, but also granted me joyful humility. Each time I encountered another wonder, I was convinced anew that I have no idea where I’m going in this life and why. I’m vertical, ambulatory, taking nourishment, blah-blah-blahing, and gaining weight, but somehow or other I don’t feel in charge of my travels. It’s as if a great community of mystery appears one lovely sister or brother at a time to greet me: “You thought you were going to the mailbox, but you were also sent out to meet me, to hear my teaching, to receive my anointing.”

On the way to the mailbox and back:

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Delicate, almost the size of a Canadian dime

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Right by the church door: I don’t know their name, but they seemed to know mine

After work I went to Radio Shack.

 

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Okay, John, go ahead and think you were after a power cable. You came to see me, a nest above a beauty shop sign. I’m glad my birds sang to you.

On the way home from Sally’s nest, an old powder blue Mustang was riding my tail, and annoyance almost blinded me. When I pulled over to let the guy pass, a sibling greeted me.

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Thank you, brother from the community of mystery, for walking a block with me! Live well and long.

Late in the afternoon I went for a run on the sidewalk trail at Presque Isle, northwestern Pennsylvania’s treasure which juts out into Lake Erie.

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Was I exercising, or did I put my running shoes on to go see a red-winged blackbird swoop across my path? (Credit: Bob Jagendorf. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday’s spirit has continued to give me blessings beyond its allotted hours. On Friday I went to the bank to pour what turned out to be $138 into a coin counter. At least that’s what I thought. Turns out my mission wasn’t about turning change into bills, but something else.

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I had forgotten how to wash my hands. Thank goodness for PNC’s foresight. (Heavens, what have we come to?)

On Saturday wife Kathy and I had a yard sale presumably to get rid of some excess and make a few bucks. As a steady rain splashed our event, two surprises taught me again what I thought I had learned:

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Kathy found in a dark closet corner the keys to my late mother’s Mercury Lynx on the leather Jesus fish keychain I made as a kid at summer camp. I drove the Lynx after Mom died and used that keychain into my thirties. “Hi, Mom!” “Hi, Camp Lutherlyn!”

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I met a woman–the only person I’ve seen–who wears my round John Lennon glasses. “Blessings, sister!”

Actually, I confess that literal brothers prepared my heart a couple weeks ago to receive Wednesday’s wisdom. I had driven two hours to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, to officiate at Caity and Ian’s wedding, and lovely Kathy was kind enough to come along. A few hours before the nuptials we saw a small sign along Route 8: Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery. I drove past the turn off, but Kathy said, “John, you know you want to go see it.” So we did a u-ey, wound through four or five rolling miles of corn fields, saw that the monastery had a book and icon store, and decided to ring the bell.

Father Leo and sweet incense greeted us. I asked about the store hours. “Oh, we don’t have any hours,” Father Leo said. “Whenever anybody rings, we open up.”

We followed him down a hall to a 15′ x 20′ room which looked like it hadn’t seen business for some time. He turned on the lights and said, “Father Michael will be here in a minute. He’s just finishing lunch.”

Father Michael showed up immediately–he must have run. Gentle voice, gentle man–lonely man. After ten minutes of back and forth, he laughed: “I love to talk. We don’t get many visitors.”

Showing us shelves of icons, he wiped the dust off of one with a fingertip: “Father James took care of the store. He worked on this almost full time. He died in . . . ,” Michael said, looking somewhere past us for the year, “. . . in 2012. Abbot Leo and I are the last ones left.”

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Kathy and I brought this icon home. It will hang in my little chapel to remind me of my brothers near Butler, Pennsylvania, and of the joyful humility in never being sure where I’m going.

I knew at once that Kathy and I had driven nearly to Pittsburgh for two reasons: to join a hundred people at a wedding and to bear witness to Father Leo and Father Michael. If you’ve never visited a monastery, you might not be able to imagine the love, kindness, wholeness, and warmth of a place where silence and patience are profound.

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I wish I had met you, Father James. I’m told you loved animals. So do I. (Credit: The Byzantine Catholic World)

“I don’t know if your abbot would permit it,” I said to Michael, “but could I take a picture of the two of you?”

After another twenty minutes of talk, Leo and Michael lead Kathy and me to their chapel and, in a gesture of hospitality that nearly moved me to tears, Leo opened the gate to the Holy of Holies. And, of course, we talked some more: about the celebrant facing away from the congregation not to disregard them, but to lead them to heaven; about the hand-carved wooden tabernacle that took seven years to make. Eventually, Leo closed the gates, and I took their picture.

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The last two monks of Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery: Father Leo (Abbot) and Father Michael.

I plan to write Michael soon. He told me earlier in the store that he is beyond ecumenical. “We’re all one,” he said. I bet he and Abbot Leo would welcome me to enter their quiet sometime soon, for a couple of days. In my letter I’ll ask. And I have a feeling my friend Mark would like to join me and meet these two monks with long beards and agape hearts.

Two nights ago I sat in the Coleman front yard in my favorite lawn chair, stared at the sky, and thought of Michael, seventy-six years old, and Leo, six years his senior. I toasted them, thought of them alone in the corn fields, wondered how much longer quiet and sacrificial welcome will call this planet home, and asked God to remind Michael and Leo that they’re not forgotten.

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My observatory, from which I saw one speck of light. That was plenty.

Dead overhead I saw a single star. The glow of Erie, Pennsylvania, dimmed all but one. How many lifetimes would it take to get there? And was it even a star? Maybe it was a planet. No matter. As it happened, I hadn’t sipped wine in the darkness only to sing the day’s fuss to sleep. I had sat still and looked heavenward to receive a slight kiss of light and an invitation: Let go, John. Let go. The community of mystery will save you. Amen

Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter: A Summer Rerun

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The key in question–honest!

(Note: the following post originally appeared in slightly different form on May 17, 2013, back when A Napper’s Companion had a dozen readers–give or take six. If you’ve already read this, forgive the clutter. If not, enjoy. Peace, John)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I had just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I had intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I would be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s key either.)

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Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.

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Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles, he would have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16, 2013, to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the driveway