Breathing Together

I was just slipping into my night-time ritual of reading in bed before lights out when I heard a commotion out on the street and the cry, “I can’t breathe!” We live on one of the main streets in a small mountain town in the Smokies. Pulling my robe on, I went to the front door in time to see the flashing lights of one of our police cars leading a line of young people and their placards  through the street in the direction of the town center. Flashing lights brought up the rear ahead of a line of patient, but probably irritated drivers. The impromptu demonstration did indeed end at the old Courthouse for some speeches and laments before quietly dispersing. What was a tear-gassed assembly a few hundred miles north was a spontaneous walk shepherded by our police cruisers.

Our community is underlain by a mushroom mycelium of old lineages stretching back to the Scotch-Irish and German settlers of these lands. In the words of a now-deceased friend “We don’t say anything unkind about anyone, because we’re all related.” But we also have descendants of enslaved Africans as well as people who came here to work in the tourist and hotel industry. Hispanic newcomers have also settled in. Everyone knows someone or is someone who can trace some lineage back to the Cherokee whose descendants still live in these mountains. A wide array of clergy, academics and professional folks have retired here as well. They, too, begin to take root with the other mushrooms in this woods.

What appears at first to be a racial monotony is peppered with diversity. The supposed last shot of the Civil War took place a few blocks from our home. The World Methodist Council is headquartered a few miles away. Someone has a rooster nearby, but we can walk to church, the post office, the bookstore, and the library, not to mention the coffee roaster. Like everyone else, we are trying to recapture some of our precious community life without exposing ourselves to the onslaught of the Covid virus. We haven’t had any deaths yet, but we now have had over 50 cases in a county of 60,000. Our health department has done a great job of public education.

But in the midst of a pandemic in which people end their life by not breathing, one breathless death has ignited our nation. Yesterday our local chapter of the NAACP hosted a gathering at a pavilion to honor the memory of George Floyd, whose inexplicable and savage death has unlocked the frustrated rage of centuries. It is an energy that can rip us apart or one that can lead us to a time of greater justice and reconciliation.

About fifty of us showed up and gathered around the pavilion: the leadership and some of us regulars from the NAACP, friends of friends of friends, our brand new police chief, and members of the police and sheriff’s departments, some pastors, old folks and young.  Everyone wore a mask with the exception of our police officers. I surmise that they don’t want to be hidden behind some anonymous shield, but I’m not sure about that. Transparency is important, even in this pandemic.  Before an impromptu altar of flowers and candles, our president, Pastor Walter Bryson, invited people to share their concerns. Dorothea, with traces of her German birth in her speech, spoke of the importance of teaching ALL of American history to her middle school students. Carolyn, at 81, our senior and still very dynamic core leader in the African-American community, spoke in profound gestures of living her entire life trying to breathe, asking for just one year without the sense of someone’s knee on her neck. Chief Adams asked people to call him any time, offering his cell-phone number, so they could share their concerns directly with him. Walter and several others expressed gratitude for our law enforcement men and women, who are deeply involved in all aspects of the community to enable us to continue sharing a rich community life together. A woman I don’t know read a prayer from Father Richard Rohr. Philip Gibbs, our vice-president, implored us to involve more and more young people in picking up the baton.

Many of us there had been seared in the sixties and felt like nothing had changed, even with Barack Obama’s election. But something has changed. It has been the slow accretion and solidification of a cultural and civic commitment to equal justice for ALL. It is a renewed sense, partly driven by the pandemic, that we are all bound together in the single garment of our destiny, to restate King’s memorable line. The legitimacy of our white nationalist president is dissolving in the tear gas, the blasphemous attempts to manipulate our religious devotion, and the sheer incompetence of its response to our global pandemic.  We are living in that kind of end-time when new possibilities emerge in the flames of destruction.

And then we stood in silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, breathing as George Floyd had tried to breathe, his words to us and to his mother resounding in our ears. We breathed in a quiet resolution that he should not have died in vain. With a brief prayer from Philip, we slowly departed in a light rain, breathing the moist air, seeing through the clouds the mountains greening up around us.

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Public Life, Restorative Justice | 1 Comment

Memorial Day—A Day of Reconciliation?

It is Memorial Day in America—a time to grieve and honor those who have died in all America’s wars, including those who fought on both sides in our Civil War. Most accounts claim the day’s origin in an effort to honor those dead as well as those whose lives were gutted in body and spirit by war’s effects. So it is better a time for grief and lament than for vainglory and jingoistic militarism. This year it is overlain by grief and lament for the losses sustained in this pandemic, not only the loss in lives and treasure but the loss of faith that our institutions and leaders can meet the challenges thrust upon us. So we celebrate not only soldiers, but medical and sanitation workers, police and firefighters, truckers and grocery clerks—the everyday, essential sinews of our life together.

As I have been staying close to home in the regimen of elder care this pandemic requires, I have been translating into English an essay I wrote some fifteen years ago in German for a seminar and book on reconciliation and public life. It was an examination of and reflection on the Memorial in Washington DC to what we call the Vietnam War. Erected entirely with voluntary contributions, it was, in the words of Robert Doubek, one of its principal sponsors, “…conceived as a means to promote the healing and reconciliation of the country after the divisions caused by the war….” “The Memorial will make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct. It will transcend those issues. The hope is that the creation of the Memorial will begin a healing process.”

Like Memorial Day at its most poignant, it lifted up the individual lives of the fallen. Regardless of the motives and policies that drove America’s leaders to war, it grieved the loss of life that ripped at the fabric of existence for so many. But more than being a time of grief, as Scruggs and others hoped, it was to be one step in a greater purpose of laying the seeds for reconciliation.

And in that light I ask today, what if Memorial Day were renamed and re-imagined as Reconciliation Day? What if the lament for the lost was only the first step in the work of reconciliation, not merely among those who supported or opposed a war, such as that in Vietnam, but between those who died on all sides of a war—Russians and Americans, Germans and Japanese, Italians and French, British and Chinese? Rather than laying an American flag over the coffin of our losses, what if our eyes were drawn to see the rainbow of a new covenant within a wider world of all humanity? What if the cords of compassion for our own loss drew us wider, into a thick tapestry of common aspirations for a more just and peaceful world?

This is the kind of haunting melody that has often echoed quietly in the shadows of our laments, especially in the Armistice Day of 1918 that held out the hope for a world without war.  But over and over again, the false hope of conducting a “war to end all wars” leads only to more war. And so we return to the graves each year.

In our memorialization of this pandemic, however, we are drawn to another way, the way of mutual service. It is the heroism of healing, of compassion, of mutual respect, of the longing for the dignity of each life lived and each death endured. It is simply the way of love. Nothing glamorous here. It is the daily lifeblood of human flourishing. It is so natural and yet so unnatural that we are always amazed when it bursts forth before us. Like flowers on a forgotten grave. Remember and be reconciled. That’s enough.


Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Virtual Communion

In this time of self-isolation we are increasingly starved for face-to-face meetings with others. No internet connection can replace the rich encounter of the club, the church, the tavern, or the assemblies of school, town, or church. No clipped talking head can convey the subtle movements of the body, the positioning of arms, and legs, the handshake, the touch at the elbow, the light clap on the shoulder, the hug of greeting and farewell.

Churches are debating whether to have “on-line communion,” while their sanctuaries stand empty.  Communion (or Eucharist, or the Last Supper) is a coming to the table. It stands at the heart of the fellowship of eating, drinking, singing, praying, speaking, and listening that constitutes the “ecclesia,” the assembly we call church. If we engage in some actions typical of communion while watching a screen that displays the presider of our assembly and maybe some head shots of others in our congregation, are we having “real” communion?

This isn’t just a question for Christians. It’s a question about the true nature of our life together in our towns, cities, counties, states, nations, and planet. What is really essential about our life as human beings who have always lived together in social groups? As I’ve thought about this (it’s a great time for introverts and thinkers, not so good for the gregarious), I have also been preparing my significant essays of the past fifty years for publication in a single volume. Running through them has been a constant reflection on the idea of “publicity” and “covenant.”

Drawing from Hannah Arendt, I developed a concept of our drive for being public beings who find their confirmation in actions, speech, and works lifted up among others. Without this publicity (the only word I’ve been able to settle on), we sink into the isolation where we no longer have a “self” at all. This is why solitary confinement is one of the cruelest tortures we perpetrate on one another. The life of publicity lies at the heart of what it is to live in a republic. Constitutions exist to protect this public world in which we can find a better life and sustain the common world that enables us to appear before each other. Constitutions are the covenants we form to preserve and expand this common life.

The peril that confronts every public is that our longing for publicity can degenerate into a cult of “celebrity.” Our relation to a celebrity is not face-to-face. It involves no conversation, no reciprocity, no service to a common good outside the need of the celebrity for adoration and the needs of individuals to live vicariously through the celebrity’s fictionalized life. The celebrity is driven not by commitment to a common cause but to the confirmation of his or her own ego. Rather than political leaders arising out of the debates, discussions, and myriad relationships of political assemblies, they emerge full-blown from the TV screen with acute demagogic power. This is what has happened in our politics over the past forty years, and in its deformation of our public life it is allowing the death of tens of thousands.

In the wake (and now we can’t even have wakes!) of this pandemic, however, we see a sudden and fundamental regrouping in small communities to enable their members to take care of each other as best they can. People are confirming each others’ existence with “How are you?” and “thank you.” “Let me know if I can help.” Even as we have to wear our cloth masks we see each other face-to-face in a new way. In its absence, we prize the small assemblies and publics of our lives even more than we could when we were awash in shopping, entertainment, and mass spectatorship.

Which brings me back to communion. On-line communion is a symbol of a symbol. It is a longing for the true assembly when we actually gather at table, confirm each other’s presence, and lament the absence of the sick, the dying, and the dead. And that assembly itself is the way we anticipate a future of more perfect love in which the whole body of humanity and of the earth experiences a resurrection we cannot imagine. And so it might be with all our publics. In our acute sense of longing for face-to-face engagement we renew our commitment to our common life on a globe we hold in common. In the struggle for our health we may experience a privation that drives us to the struggle for the healing of our planet.

Communion, indeed. Set before your computer screen is just a taste of bread and drink. In your future assemblies, a bigger taste of a more abundant common life to come, a hoped-for time of re-embrace of all you love. At the end of their communion the ancient Christians exclaimed “Maranatha”—”O Lord, come.” Maybe now we can feel a little closer to the way a little taste of table fellowship can open up a world of difference yet to come.



Posted in Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Masked and Virtual Easter

From the isolation of our fears

            you lead us out with everlasting arms of love.

In the mask that shrouds you in death’s mystery

            we see the revelation of redemptive care.

The body wracked with pain and gasping for its breath

            becomes a child now born anew into eternal life.

The door slammed shut on vain illusions

            bursts before the power of a love come back to claim its own.

The tomb of dark despair

            transforms into a garden of resplendent beauty.

Death’s black hole

            becomes the pathway to a new creation.

The night in which we lost our way

            becomes our life’s bright morning star.

Amen. Hallalujah. Amen.


Like many, many churches around the world, our own church has been producing videos services and presentations to keep our congregation connected in a public way during this shutdown of ordinary activity. I wrote these words to accompany this morning’s Easter Service prelude, Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” from his Enigma Variations, played by Kathy McNeil, whose organ performances have accompanied us through the week. At the end of the prelude, we then took in the pieces that Sylvia constructed two years ago, entitled “Bright Morning Star.”  You can catch this and all our services, including more of Kathy’s organ pieces, at our channel, FUMC-Waynesville.

Unlike most churches, our location at the gateway to the Great Smokies National Park and its adjoining National Forests gives us plenty of marvelous venues outside of the church building. This morning’s service was photographed in part against the sunrise at nearby Waterrock Knob (5700 feet), while the earlier Maundy Thursday service took place at the waterfall adjacent to our former home near Waynesville. To be homeless, in part, can mean the opportunity to find other spaces that can be revelatory, embracing, even a sign of home. May this unfold in the lives of so many of our fellow humans, who are in anguished loneliness facing death, pain, suffering, and physical and financial loss. Our awareness of death and resurrection has a real bite this year. There is the possibility of real transformation in the air. Having lost our way, we might find a New Way to a better place for our world. May the care in our distancing become a new solidarity.

Posted in Arts, Poetry and Songs, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 1 Comment