Pete’s memorial ended with a Dixieland band leading us out to the cemetery across the street playing Just a Closer Walk with Thee. The sad drawl of the trumpet and trombone. The constant beat of the tuba. When we arrived at the farthest part of the cemetery, the band leader stopped to let us know a bit of the New Orleans history of the funeral parade. When a musician had died, the band heads into the grave somber and leaves their friend among the dead. But in honor of the music that they made together, they march out dancing. This is called the second line. The second line was what I promised Pete before he died. In the second line, the trumpet transforms leads a new tune, confident and strong. The trombone dances through the bass line as if grabbing hold of our waist, twisting and twirling us as a skilled dance partner.
The most common song associated with the second line is - Oh when the Saints, Go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.
We left death behind us that day and we danced on the graves of the saints who have gone before us. It’s powerful to dance on death. Death will certainty have its say in each of our lives but death is only one moment. Death is the moment the breath leaves the body. But who is to say that the breath itself dies?
I have experienced what perhaps is the “breath” of Pete several times since his death. Or speaking theologically, I have been in the presence of the unique breath of God that enlivened Pete Scibienski. In the second version of the creation story, God breathes life into the first earthling, enlivening it with the ruach – the wind, the breath, the spirit of God. Take a breath. Seriously, stop and take a breath. You have it too. The wind, the breath, the spirit of God animates you.
Our breath is a powerful force. With each inhale we are created. At the top of the inhale there is sacred moment of pause before the exhale. With every exhale we let go, clean out, release what was. And again at the bottom of the release, there is another pause where our bodies put to rest the most recent moment and then our next breath resurrects us. Our breath is automated; we don’t have to think about breathing. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that we are being breathed. This is why I tend to believe the breath expire with our bodies. The breath, our unique breath continues – but where? What does the breath animate if not the body?
When I have been in the presence of Pete’s disembodied breath it has felt intact, held together by meaning and purpose. Like last week in church when I imagined him coming to church to share in the communion table with us. His unique breath was still very much him. Even in death, his “life” animated by the Spirit has purpose, a calling. Who is to say that the Spirit that animated Pete in his bodily life does not continue to animate Pete in his death?
This is most certainly an exercise in theological imagination. But let me tell you a secret – all theology is an exercise in imagination. Theology is imagination fueled by ancient words, personal experience, and communal understanding. Theology is not a science. Theology is idea in conversation with others ideas, stirred with hope… lots of hope. And right now, in month six without him, the hope that is stirring my current ideas imagines Pete having work to do even after his body is gone. I am so comforted to think that Pete continues his calling to encourage and love others, something at which he excelled. I am so deeply comforted by this possibility.
Yesterday was the first day that I can remember not crying. I don’t think it was the first day I went without crying but it was the first day that I can remember where my grief was not crowding me. I wonder if this has any correlation to the the imagination of Pete having a “life” to lead after death. By releasing him to the work of the Saints, have I released some of my grief as well?
Oh when the saints… go marching in… it is a dance. It is a stomp your way out of death dance. It is a let yourself loose, swing around with your neighbor, let it go kind of dance. It is the kind of dance enlivened by the breath of God – in life and in death.
Last week was Halloween, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The Christian tradition has often celebrated these three days together, creating a festival of sorts. In my current context, Presbyterians in central NJ, we typically honor the folks who have gone before us on the Sunday after by pausing to name them during worship. There is a connection between the living and the dead that is worth remembering, celebrating, honoring.
This was the first year Pete was among those saints to be honored. I honestly hadn’t made that connection before Sunday and even while we were naming the saints who had been meaningful to our spiritual journey, I didn’t think of Pete. I thought of my grandmother and the first pastor I remembered from my childhood. I thought of a few of the folks whose funerals I had led. It wasn’t until we were celebrating communion later in the service that I thought of Pete.
You see, I have a friend, who is also a pastor; he has been a widower now for 15 years. He remembers looking desperately for his wife to appear during communion, perhaps now appear physically but in the way that Pete has been present for me so many times. Communion seems like it is the most likely place for us to experience togetherness with the dead.
When Christians gather at the communion table, we believe we are seated with all who have gone before us and all who have gone after us. The table extends beyond the barriers of this world. In fact the table resides in another realm. John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation (that has just celebrated its 500th year), believed that we are transported from our current space and time to God’s space and time. It is not that God meets us where we are at the table; we meet God where God is at the table.
So back to Sunday, I’m sitting in one of our fancy wooden chairs up on the chancel, presiding over the celebration of communion. The piano is playing. The servers are passing out morsels of homemade bread and tiny shot glasses of grape juice. I closed my eyes as I was breathing and praying for those in my congregation. And then I had a thought, “I wonder if Pete is here.” And then as quick as that thought came to mind another followed. “Well if you’re here, you better not have come without...”
I opened my eyes in surprise. I looked around the room. Was he here? Were they here together?
I had this interesting notion that Pete had not stopped being my wing man at all… he was just given a different job. He was part of the “church triumphant” - the church that exists above, beyond and outside of the church that exists for us.
I didn’t “sense” Pete’s presence when I had these thoughts as I have at other times. But I believed in Pete’s presence in a way I had before.
I have another story of Pete’s presence beyond this realm that I have held to mostly to myself. Months ago the friend of a deceased friend messaged me about an encounter with a psychic. “I’m not sure if you believe in this but...” someone she knew had gone to a psychic and this deceased friend of mine “visited.” During the visit he said, “I’m hanging out with my good friend Pete.” Nothing was mentioned of Pete during the session with the psychic. The psychic would not have known of the important friendship Pete had with this friend.
I sat with this for a day or two and then I remembered that during this friend’s memorial service, Pete shared about how they had met.
Thirty years ago, Pete had begun to reengage his faith with some neighbors who attended a Presbyterian Church. They invited him to attend when and if he wanted. They kept telling him the church was casual; he could even wear jeans. He took them up on the offer on Easter Sunday, not knowing that this Sunday is the one Sunday of the year where everyone dresses up. Pete would tell the story by saying, “I had one eye on the sanctuary and one eye on the door when someone walked up to me, put one hand on my shoulder and reached to shake my hand with the other.”
When Pete told the story that day at his memorial, he added, “I hope he was greeted in heaven the way he greeted me that day in church.”
For our deceased friend to say, “I’m hanging with my good friend Pete,” speaks to me of this space above, beyond and outside the church that exists for me, for us.
Was Pete in church on Sunday? Did he bring our friend? Were they all there, all the folks who had gone before us? What about all those who will go after us? I don’t know; we can't know yet. That’s what faith is – trusting when we are not sure.
I study and practice Reiki, a Japanese healing art. Through my studies, I have learned to listen to my body, to notice how various places in my body feels, inside and outside. By placing my hands lightly on my own body and turning my attention inward, I can feel the pulsing within myself. Sometimes the pulse feels more like a hum. Sometimes the hum is shaky, even frenetic. Sometimes the hum is shallow, sometimes deep.
The place I am most drawn to lately is the section right above my navel and beneath my breast bone. This section of the body covers digestion, the pancreas and kidney function along with adrenal glands. But it also is where we keep our will power, or personal control. It is in this area where we form our opinions and beliefs and make decisions. This is our gut. And when our gut disagrees or doesn’t feel settled, our confidence, identity and independence falters.
My body feels so good, soothed, comforted simply by placing one hand in the middle of my belly and taking a few minutes to be mindful of myself, inside and outside.
I’m having to learn about myself again, my opinions, beliefs. I’m having to make decisions, be independent. I’m having to find my own confidence and reassure myself in ways I have not had to in two decades. I’m having to set directions, create new disciplines.
My belly, my gut, my middle, also known as our solar plexis is unbalanced and overtaxed. But I am listening to it, being mindful of it, of me.
I was reminded yesterday of a belief that the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth held about the Holy Spirit. He says we are less rooted or standing firm and more like we are being upheld by the winds of the Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of myself or trying to make myself “rooted.” Rooted feels secure. But this image of being upheld by the Spirit captured me three years ago after Superstorm Sandy.
Trees were uprooted everywhere. But round masses standing on their side with their trees lying beside them. The roots seemed to be mocking us saying, “the world is not near as sturdy or reliable as you thought.”
Perhaps we are not nearly as “rooted” as we think. But rooted feels more solid and being upheld feels like relinquishing control to the wind.
I want to say, put me down. Let me stand on my own. Let me make my own way. Live my own life. Set down some roots. But the wind says, “let go, I’ve got you. I’m holding you, firm. You are much more buoyant than you think. Sway with me.”
And so I place my hand on my belly and I breath, slowly allowing my breath to meet the rhythm of the Spirit’s swaying.
Books I'm currently reading:
The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation