Together, Apart

Eight weeks into a pandemic that has us quarantined at home, I know I am one of the lucky ones. Where I work is just a walk through a door of the place where I live. Keeping away from people – in the physical distance sense of away – is easy. My circle of safety at home is Steve and Jana and I. At work in the family printing business, now so much smaller than when I started there after high school, the circle is of similar size: Mike, Kirk, Adrienne on some days, and sometimes Barb. Jana joins us as well, and Steve, now working from home next door, comes for lunch at least once a week. He is our hunter/gatherer as he searches for elusive items like toilet paper and now, meat.

My social needs have been met by Facebook connections, texts and phone calls, and even a Zoom meeting for a church committee on which I serve. Four glorious times I have been called to church to participate on the worship team, singing in harmony with good friends for the recorded services we have attended since the second Sunday of March.

This is life in the pandemic for my family in Omaha. Maybe some day we will all sit around and reminisce about how we stayed together while apart. I know, we all hope that day comes sooner than later!

I did manage to carve out some special time this week from the routine of life lived inside for these past eight weeks. Facebook provided the opportunity to join a Zoom gathering called “Singing Our Way Back Home.” It was led by a woman I know from Facebook, Ana Hernandez, who is a mystic, spiritual musician and singer. I don’t have a better way to explain her multitude of gifts other than those words. We did sing a bit with her, and we all voiced a mantra as well. I found myself finding the note that would harmonize with the other voices, creating peaceful and moving chords that were healing.

Ana has a great knowledge of sacred music from many traditions and shared about a number of pieces. One of the ones that really struck me was this hymn based on a scripture from Luke:

A Christmas Hymn by Richard Wilbur

“And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”—St. Luke XIX, 39-40

A stable-lamp is lighted Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

Ana gave us homework to do that reflected on this hymn, especially that doubled line at the middle of each stanza: “And every stone shall cry.” Amazingly enough, the creator who gave us voice has connected us to the rest of his creation. “Walk outside,” she told us. “Look around at the inanimate objects as simple as rocks, and know that they sing, too.” We are all in this together, animate and inanimate, even though apart.

She told us to find the object that revealed this connection in a personal way. And I knew just what I would choose as I ended the meeting. Being me, it couldn’t be just one, as I have a hard time choosing; indeed, there were two things I chose.

I have written about that little Roo before. In a trip to Syria in January, 2017, my group had the chance to sit with about thirty women who had all been displaced by ISIS from their homes in Homs. I was drawn to a beautiful woman with dark curly hair named Mahassen as she told her story. It was very much like the others, but her English was so good I really was able to capture the depth of loss.

Her family had mere minutes to get out as extremists came calling; there was no time to pack or gather what they would need to set up in a new place. Other than the clothes on her back, her husband and her children, all she took was that little Roo. I don’t know the meaning of the Roo to her, but it must have been special. It was the only thing she took.

After sitting with her at lunch, and spending time head-to-head and heart-to-heart, our time of parting was upon us. She took that little stuffed animal and placed it in my hands. “Oh, no! I can’t take it. It is too precious.” She would not leave until I accepted this gift.

It was all she had, and she gave it to me. Everything. She gave me everything.

The other item in the photo is a piece of broken blue glass. It was once part of a stained glass window in the Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria. I had the opportunity to worship there in August, 2010, before the war, in community with that congregation. Like many churches, the sun shines through those colored windows and glows in different colors. That church was destroyed by extremists in November, 2012. Only rubble remained. The glow disappeared.

Returning to Aleppo in 2018, we had the opportunity to walk around the rubble with those same congregation members who still live and worship in Aleppo. Bits of Sunday school lessons littered the piles of stones, piled up for safekeeping and rebuilding. And there, winking at me as the sun caught its plane, was the piece of glass. Assis Ibrahim said I could take it as a reminder of what was, what is and what will be.

Those two objects, for me, define the idea of being connected in this time of being together, apart. As far as I am from Mahassen, Roo connects me to her and her story of losing everything, but still being able to give everything. We all have too much, really too, too much. But this little thing, this Roo, is enough. And what we have, we share. It may be the kind word on the phone, the personal card to a family suffering death, or the uplifting blending of voices in song. It is a little thing, yet it is everything, and it is enough.

That piece of glass reminds me that in the brokenness of pandemic and quarantine and isolation and social distancing, the light still shines through. Brokenness does not keep the light from shining through, and I see that in those same simple gestures of love, the drive-by birthday parties, the cheering for health care workers, a Kansas farmer sending his one extra N95 mask to the governor of New York.

Together, apart. The rocks sing out, and so do we. Let us join together in this song of love. Let the light shine through us and in us, and let that be enough.