I just came from a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Yes, I was quite cold, in spite of the many layers under my pastor’s robe. Thanks for asking! Duh! Should’ve worn gloves! Even the Air Force guys there for the military honors wore gloves!
I stood there, graveside, flanked by two military men (one of whom – the chaplain – kept hugging me, but that’s a different subject.) I was cold. I was waiting my turn – First there were 3 gunshots, and I told myself not to jump, not to jump, and not to jump; and then the flag was walked up, then 6 men, three to a side, unfolded it over the urn, then taps were played, then the flag was refolded, with yes, military precision. I had a lot of time to think, as I tried not to think about my thumbs going numb.
Now as a parish minister, I’m a fan of ritual. Rituals shape our brains – which shape our minds. Rituals comfort us and guide us in hard times. But there’s a downside to rituals. They can focus our attention so narrowly, we’re detached from why we’re doing this in the first place.
I imagined how many hours, how many times, those 6 men practiced unfolding and refolding the flag. Where to put their hands. How long it took them to get the timing down – they move very, very, very slowly. I wondered if that is what the drill – flag folding at funerals – they thought they’d’ be practicing when they signed up. And I looked at all those white grave markers. Row after row after row.
That ritual – flag folding and unfolding with precise movements – Practicing that drill – does it take their minds off death? Do they think about the day that flag will be folded and handed to their next of kin? After the 613th funereal flag folding, do they question what they are doing there? What about after the 3139th time? Does it take their minds off killing?
There are many, many ways to lose sight of our lives, our purpose, our effect on other human beings and creatures, our calling. Some days, lots of days, I suspect we are like those young Air Force men who unfolded and refolded the funeral flag today: We’re mired in the details, keeping the trees alive, and we’ve lost sight of the forest, the bigger picture, why we’re here. It’s the tiny little steps we take that on their own seem like nothing, but add up to life.
And left to its own devices, our brain isn’t much help. Our wiring is to keep us alive this second – and the next – But take a look around you right now: See anything life threatening? No? So take a breath. Now take another.
Because what if we stopped letting the alligator run the show – We’ve also been given introspective, mindful, compassionate wiring. Sure, it needs more practice, but it’s there. When you wake up, ask yourself, “How shall I live today?” At breakfast, during your commute, checking email, checking Facebook, eating lunch, coming home, making dinner, getting kids to bed, doing laundry: How shall you live this day? Will the details of life keep you from living your one wild and precious life? as Mary Oliver puts it.