Oniontown Pastoral: Holy Trifles
This post is dedicated to my colleagues in ministry.
Just now, I finally got it. I understand why those of us long in the tooth are loath to part with our treasures. The matter is clouded by television programs about hoarders who clutch last week’s pizza box to their chest because the cardboard might come in handy. Also fogging up the conversation are youngsters with hearts of flint who categorize objects without a practical purpose as “all that junk.” Well, I keep trifles, and the reason has become clear.
I feel low this Friday, which promises rain later on. Its wispy sound will be welcome, as I have work to do and will be sitting where I am now when it falls—this report has to get written along with a sermon. The tasks are agreeable, though melancholy leans against my chest, in the hollow where tears come from.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is like many mainline Christian congregations. We’re aging quickly, and the faithful whose sturdy souls and frames gave richly to the church are disappearing one by one, over the horizon and into glory. Neal’s funeral was this past Wednesday. Bill’s was in late January.
Please know, I’m neither crying in my morning tea nor looking for sympathy. A pastor’s call involves baptizing, marrying and burying. Like my colleagues, I put shoulder to wheel. Pastors do love their folks, however, not theoretically or by obligation, but with plain old human love. This reality makes the vocation by turns buoyant and weighty. Downstream from baptismal waters are ashes and dust. This is life, right?
But just now, sighing and imagining light perpetual, I looked at the bicycle pump needle on my windowsill. Fred, who died two years ago come June, gave it to me. One afternoon I tried to inflate his car tire with some electronic device. It should have been cake, but I floundered. My next visit he handed me the needle and went on a laughing jag. I pick it up, close my eyes and listen to Fred’s joy. He had the greatest laugh. I see him there across from me, and in my mind, dry bones rise and dance.
The needle helps me keep Fred close by. It occurs to me that both here in my writing hut in Erie and in the pastor’s study in Oniontown, I’ve surrounded myself with relics of a sort.
The tin my mother packed full of sewing machine bobbins now contains quarters, dimes and nickels. I run my fingers over the lid faded by decades and hear her mighty Singer hum again downstairs as I fall asleep.
Dad’s Hall’s Excelsior Bank—a small iron piece—holds pennies, which my grandsons shake out on the floor now and then. His father’s pocket watch resides to my left and can be coaxed briefly to life with tender winding. The cigar friend Ray gave me sheds its leaf, kept together only by a glass tube. As before, he and his sagging jeans flop into my passenger seat for an afternoon of errands. “Ah shucks, Pastor,” he says, “I’m tired.”
Me, too, Ray. In my case, I’m tired of goodbyes. When at St. John’s I scan the study’s landscape. Deanie’s cardboard Vacation Bible School giraffe peaks out from behind the filing cabinet. In my top desk drawer reclines a pack of matches that says, “If there’s an umbrella in my drink, it better be raining.” My hunch is this was left behind by a pastor or two ago, and I’d like nothing more than to clink mugs with that guy. And Sadie’s portrait from early in the past century suns itself near the window. For a time, she will remind me of Bill, whom I mentioned earlier. They were related. Bill was the purveyor of much St. John’s mischief. His passing is still fresh, as is his memory. I’ll work my way to laughing soon enough, but for now, I just miss him.
Are the holy trifles I keep at hand my way of coping? Ah well, so be it. My mother’s red Paper Mate pen rides in my shirt pocket. Putting down a signature, I say something like, “You’re dead, Mom, but not entirely. Not to me.” Her cursive was lovely.
Behold, I’ve taken my appreciation of objects with a negligible purpose to a new level. Last week I received a shipment of 100 mechanical pencils from a retired man who tells me he has a couple hundred more to sell, along with a handful of fountain pens.
Beside Mom’s Paper Mate I carry a pencil from John K. Denlinger Service Station in Lancaster, Pa. The proprietor may well have been looking over my shoulder as I wrote down today’s duties. I never met John, but I hereby take the liberty of calling him my brother.