“How to be a Poet” (to remind myself) - Wendell Berry Given
i Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity…
ii Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
iii Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”
Psalm 104:24-24, 35b
Breath plays a vital role in our Scriptures. The word is mentioned nearly 100 times in its original Hebrew and Greek. In the beginning, Adam was made out of dirt but did not have life until God breathed life into him. The Psalmist exhorts “everything that has breath” to praise God. The author 2 Timothy describes Scriptures as “God-breathed,” and in the gospel of John, Jesus breathed on his disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit, a precursor to Pentecost.
Psalm 104 is, for my money, as good as Scripture gets. It places human beings in the proper context of a vast and wonderful cosmos. There, humans are neither inconsequential nor dominators of their surroundings. Instead, humans are creaturely, part of a web of creation that God loves and sustains through wisdom, power, and love.
For the writer of this Psalm, breath is part of God’s provision, a type of short-hand for life itself. It is God’s to give and take away, a way to describe the mystery of human existence and its many natural variations and durations. The point, though, is that the breath is God’s, and when creatures are given life, they carry part of God’s very presence with them.
When the last breath left George Floyd’s body on May 25th, it was stolen by people and a system that had no right to take it. The videos of his encounter with Minneapolis police are horrific (Here is the New York Times video that provides valuable context, but understand, this is graphic: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html). At this moment, we are reminded once again, that our nation’s unconfronted racism has real-life consequences in the lives and death of black and brown people.
My faith tells me that George Floyd was sacred. He was given breath by God and carried with him part of God’s very presence. But violence desecrates what God has made sacred. It takes control over something that was not meant to be ours to control. Through force, coercion, abuse, and manipulation, we have robbed black and brown people of their lives and livelihoods in this country. We are not right with one another, and we are not right with our God.
Maybe words of hope will come another day. I’m afraid I don’t have them now. I feel sad and ashamed and angry. I know that I am complicit in racism and white supremacy, what Jim Wallis calls “America’s Original Sin,” and that there are no more excuses for this. It no longer matters how I was raised or to what degree it affects me tucked away in rural Vermont. None of us can carry our excuses with us anymore.
Please consider what’s taking place right now and keep those in danger close in prayer. Pray also that our leaders will do better and making lasting change and stop issuing threats. But don’t consider it for too long. We probably already know what we need to do. The question our faith poses is, “will we finally have the courage to act?”