I continue looking at prayers that have pulled either me through in difficult times or help others through in my work as a pastor and chaplain. I have been using prayers found in my United Church of Christ tradition since I have found that, in death, trial, and crisis, that I need more than my own spirituality to get through but to be lifted by other’s hands, voices, and care.
Today I want to look at the prayer at the time of death the UCC prayer book gives, a prayer I give quite often in my work as a chaplain. As a Protestant minister, we don’t really have last rites but families without fail want words of prayer and blessing spoken as one approaches death.
Here are the words of this prayer:
“Almighty God, by your gentle power you raised Jesus Christ from death.
Watch over this child of yours, our brother or sister, (name).
Fill his or her eyes with light that he or she may see, beyond human sight,
A home within your love, where pain is gone and physical frailty becomes glory.
Banish fear. Brush away tears.
Let death be gentle as nightfall, promising a new day when sighs of grief turn to songs of joy,
And we are joined again in the presence of Jesus Christ in our heavenly reunion. Amen.”
Whenever I pray this prayer, there are folks whose eyes fill with tears.
I learned the significance of such acts when I woke to find my wife of 12 years, Katharine Leigh, lying breathless. The preachers at my church were on their day off. They were boating with a friend and got word through the church prayer chain, got out of the boat and came. My wife’s body was still being investigated by the paramedics. I remember my dear pastor, Rev. Dr. Jill Edens standing up as tall as she could as they prepared to carry my wife’s body to the coroner, raising her hand like some cop on the walk, and saying “stop. No. You can’t just carry his wife out”. She insisted to lay her hand on the body of my late wife, to say words like these. To bless the body that I had kissed the lips of on a mountain in California when I said I do, to bless the body I embraced many nights, the body I took care of when my wife could not care for herself for two months, the body I saw decline day after day for three years. She honored the life of one so dear and said “no. This isn’t just facts and figures. This isn’t just diagnoses and prognoses. This isn’t just death in all its pain. This is a life. This is a love. This is someone we must honor if we are to be holy people”.
For the life of me I can’t remember if Jill spoke these words or another, but I will always remember her stopping the police, paramedics, and coroners and insisting we must pray. We must remember. We must honor.
One might not believe anything happens in the last moment’s of one’s life, as I do as one who stands beside and witnesses so many deaths, but even if it is not the case that there is a passing from death to life, to pray words like this with an individual at their bedside is to recognize they matter. Their life is unrepeatable. They are of infinite worth, irreplaceable. I hope in further posts to look at some of the rich imagery and theology here, but I wanted to focus in on how such prayers honor the life and relationships of those that matter.
To me praying this prayer at time of death calls me to recognize the holiness of every life, even my own. So often we become busy with so many things, not prioritizing just being with and connecting with people in our lives that matter. In death we feel drawn like iron to a lodestone to honor all aspects of the people that count. Yet it is here, in this life, while they have breath and we do too that we can honor them. We can connect. We can show them in small and large ways that matter.
After passing through this time of grief at my late wife’s passing, this perspective looms heavy for me. I notice those I need to reach out to, connect with, and so honor. I notice those who don’t do that with me and even more those who do. Death and loss awaken us, if we let them, to the beauty and preciousness of each moment and each person. Let us take the time we have to embrace each one.
Your progressive redneck preacher,