As I continue to turn to prayers that sustain me found in Scripture and in the life of the church, I want to turn to prayers I use regularly from the Book of Worship for the United Church of Christ in my chaplain ministry. When I first started working as a chaplain, I felt the great need to personalize my prayers and find a set Scripture for each person to read when they request Scripture. But I am finding that what happens when I do this is I end up simply saying my own words but the same ones, albeit kind of empty as repeated. There are moments I make a real connection and something deeper comes out of my mouth, but I find that the old words of God’s people are just as life-giving.
In talking with a friend who has some neat and innovative things in mind for worship, ministry, and the church, I found myself recoiling. What I said to him to explain this, since his ideas were good and not deserving of my recoil, was this:
“Please forgive me for being less enthused with new ways to connect. . . I’ve just seen so many new things emerge as the so-called new way to reach people for Jesus. So many fads. So much energy poured into reinventing the wheel. The outcomes? Not much different. I wore out on it. I relate with Rachel Held Evans and her move to Episcopalism. After awhile you wear out on trying new things and long for rich tradition, groundedness. After so much trying to make one’s spirituality palatable to the noise of this world, I feel the pull to say wait! Let’s just say forget it to the busyness and noise of the techno industrial machine. Let’s just say, maybe that’s not what it’s about.
“To me my leaving both evangelicalism and the emergent movement and going mainline is about that in my life. As a Congregationalist I have room to explore, adapt, and do as you are doing by translating faith into new terms. It is in fact part our tradition in the United Church of Christ. But it is tradition.
“I value tradition more than I ever have. As I sit with the dying and the dead every day in my job as a chaplain, I have come to notice it is the liturgy, the tried old ways, which people cling to in their liminal
moments, in those time in which the barriers between life, death, and rebirth fade thin. Liturgy, whether it be the prayers of the daily office in all its glory or familiar old Gospel hymns like Amazing Grace, give us places to stand in storms unimaginable. It helps people stand up under the soul crush of the world.
“These new measures are not bad, but as Evans reminds us, despite all the press to the contrary in American religion, it is not actually the new thing that keeps the church going forward and relevant if you really look at her history. It is the ancient sacred dance, the rhythm that flows out of joint with our world but at its best moments calls us into sync with the very heart of life where beats the life that births and renews all things. It is from that life, that love, that we emerge. It is to it we return. And it is while in it that we are fully alive.
“In my deep disorientation with the world as I grieve not just wife but many dear friends who have passed and find myself as one in a liminal time myself while still working as a chaplain in these liminal spaces where life and death unravel and knit together in new ways I lean more everyday on the ancient. I lean on the tried. I am held up by the same structure of faith which, however shoddy and shaken, has held up people of faith in the tribe of faith I was baptized, the tribe of Christian, for many a long night.”
Today I will highlight a prayer taken from Job 19:25-27. The way in which my Book of Worship renders it is:
“I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at last will stand upon the earth;
And after my body has wasted away,
Then without my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger”.
Sometimes when I have prayed this prayer with patients who lie unable to speak, bodies only not wracked with pain because of the good hospice medicines flowing through their veins, my voice cracks. I hate to admit it, because we are supposed to keep a bit of distance between our lives and the lives of our patients, but there have been many times a single tear lit by the fluorescent lights above, has glistened rolling down my cheek — at least since my own late wife passed.
I saw her begin to have her flesh no longer be a place she could be at home. I remember far too many a morning that she said “let me lay in bed a little longer. It hurts too much” or “I can’t see yet. The pain is too bad.”
You know I’ve moved from despair to joy and happiness in my life since losing her far more quickly than I thought possible. In talking with a friend, they said to me, “Well, how long has she been sick? Maybe you’ve been grieving a very long time and didn’t know it until now”. It hurt to hear that, but I think it is true. I lost her by inches every day, not by miles. When her death came it was a sudden push to the bottom of the hill. But it was not as a far a push as I thought it would be. For I had already lost parts of her.
I think that is one of the hardest things about watching someone you love die of debilitating illness. You know them as the person they were to you when you met – vibrant and full of energy, full of love and life. They never fully lose it. For God’s sake, my wife was still loving, serving, organizing to help heal this world and bless others up to the very night she laid down for her last evening rest, from which she did not awake.
But this year I have seen four people dear to me die, three of whom died of illnesses that were debilitating and which I was powerless to stop.
You see them begin to fade, fade out of this world, and either into the abyss that some non-religious peoples and some religions believes extinguishes the candle of our lives or, as I believe and many faiths teach, to fade by inches from this world into the next.
Believing that when the body wastes away, when the flesh falls aside, it is not the end but entrance into that place where without a faith need for faith any longer, we stand. And in standing, see God — not in the veiled, faded ways we do in this world. But as God is.
I feel that in my chaplain work I am like a midwife. The wasting away people face is like the labor pains a mother goes through while she prepares for long hours to birth a new life from the old world within her to the next world for that child, ours. I have never been through that either as a supportive husband and father to be or, being a cisgender male, as a mother. I may never get to be that husband or father through a child from my body, born of another’s who is conceived in our shared love, though I intend at least through adoption to be a father myself. But I have heard through mothers I know this process is painful. It is messy. It is dangerous. It is complicated. Yet, oh yet, if you ever get to see a mother hold that baby for the first time as I got many times to do as a hospice chaplain, well friend let me tell you: you know all the pain and mess was worth it. Every single bit.
I feel that in these times of wasting we fall back into a womb of sorts, the womb of Mother Spirit. In Scripture, the name “Spirit” at least in Hebrew is feminine. And repeatedly feminine imagery is applied to all persons of God in Scripture but most explicitly for Holy Spirit, who we read in Isaiah likened to the mother who holds at her breast and is unable to forget. Spirit is likened to that dove hovering over Jesus, an allusion to the Psalms’ picture of Spirit as the mother bird under whose wings each of us like baby chicks can find safe love & protection.
This image of Spirit as mother is extended in the language of Paul in Romans 8, when he writes:
“18 I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20 Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 23 And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24 We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25 But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. 26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.”
In the Spirit, in our wasting times and the wasting times of those we love, oh how we groan with mother Spirit. We groan, agonize, despair. But we are told it is a womb time, a time in which, as Jesus readies us to dowhen he says in John 3 we must be born again of Spirit not just water, we return to the mother’s womb. Not the womb of an earthly mother, but of the Mother of all living, the Holy Spirit Herself.
And so I see myself as a chaplain as a midwife, helping my patients prepare for the ushering out of this womb into the new life awaiting them in the next world, where their adoption as God’s children becomes final and total.
I saw my wife go through each of these steps in her passing. I saw it in the closing in of her world, as one capacity after another fell away. I saw it too in a process that troubled dear Christian friends of ours who do not, like me, sit with the dying and sing with the dead: she began to deconstruct her own system of beliefs. In fact she live-blogged it for us at her site, https://questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/
But I see this in almost every patient I work with. I truly believe it is holy, although family members and friends do get vexed to see ones whose faith sustained them begin to question all they believe. But I think it is too a preparation.
The fetus needs the ambiotic fluid. It needs the umbilical cord. But a part of childbirth is the fetus beginning to squirm, to move, to become uncomfortable in the safe enclosure of the mother’s womb. A part is the water breaking. And it must lose its cord to enter life in the next world after childbirth.
So too we like to think our religion, whatever it is, with its beautiful imagery, deep stories, challenging teachings, robust doctrines, and inspiring ceremonies, are what is true. But they are not. They point beyond themselves to the One before whom all words fail and before whom every image or description is but a shadow-puppet play done for children.
In the dying process, I have seen so many lay aside those worn and helpful images for God, beliefs they held dearly, not because they were losing their connection to God. No, it is because those sustained their faith. And they are preparing to go where faith is not necessary. Where faith fades away like night shadows in the dawn for now sight is possible: seeing God for what and who God is; and seeing ourselves fully as God sees us.
As I prayed this prayer grieving my wife, as I pray it grieving my losses of this year, and as I pray it with the dying and over the dead, it may bring tears but there is joy mixed with that sadness. For I know my Redeemer Liveth.
Your progressive redneck preacher,