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.
Books I'm currently reading:
The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation