I continue to reflect on prayers that carried me through recent losses and that I find carry others in my work as a chaplain and a pastor.
I continue today looking at the prayer at the time of death in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship which I use often with individuals about to pass from this life in my ministry, but which my pastors used a variant of to bless my late wife’s body before it was carried to the coroner’s office.
The prayer is:
“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.”
The image that most stands out to me this morning is the line “by your gentle power”. To me this description of God’s working in illness and death is so brilliant. When my late wife passed, one of the heart-wrenching realizations was that God answered her prayer, not mine. My long held prayer was for God either to remove her debilitating condition of Arnold Chiari malformation or at least to ease its symptoms so we could continue to have a long beautiful life together. My late wife was perhaps more realistic. She prayed “When the next neurological event from Arnold Chiari strikes, if it will debilitate me so I can’t care for myself, just let it happen in my sleep and Lord, take me home”. This is exactly what happened to her.
On one hand, that was a great comfort. She asked of God and received her answer, just as she prayed for it. That is so rare, so precious, and so beautiful. And yet… I am left here alone. And my heart breaks. I rage against it all, and have had nights especially right afterwards when I cried out “why? Why did you answer her prayer and not mine? Why could you not heal her instead?”
I haven’t got answers, nor am I sure that they can come in the way I would like. But the closest I have gotten has come from my own version of this line – “by your gentle power”. You know, we want to imagine God’s being all-powerful as if God can do anything God wants. As if God has some magic wand which They can wave over our lives and *poof* magically things are as we wish they could be. In truth, I have never seen this be how God has worked in any of the situations I have supported people as friend, as pastor, as chaplain, as family member, as neighbor, and now as lover & spouse. I have seen what I can only describe as God working, beautifully, powerfully, lovingly, in so many situations where a way came where there was no way. But it was never the coercive magic in which the Divine snapped Their fingers and voila everything was better.
Instead I have seen God work through what God has made. Through doctors, social workers, caregivers, family members, friends, even through lowly chaplains like me! I have seen God work within people’s own bodies, hearts, and minds. I have seen comfort come unexpected. I have seen folks health improve, or their crushing isolation broken in unexpected companionship. I have seen beautiful miraculous things. But no wand-waving magic.
I wonder – could it be? Could it be that God only works in our lives by gentle power, not by coercive force? Could the God we see made known in the Jesus who challenges us to use love, compassion, care, not coercion, violence, or retribution be more like that Jesus than some magic Merlin in the sky? If so, then as process theologians suggest, it may just be that God has put limits on what God can do. It may be that God cannot truly make everything happen that not only we wish but God wishes too, for God in making a world as wild, beautiful, and free as our own necessarily limited God’s own self in ways we cannot conceive.
I like to think of this in the moments its helpful to me like Jurgen Moltmann talks about God in his The Source of Life and God in Creation. There Moltmann envisions God less as a clock-maker creating the clock of time, space, and the universe which acts with immutable law and more as a woman who becomes pregnant with life. Moltmann envisions the work of God that creates and sustains us like a woman choosing to become a mother. In doing so, a life enters into her own life, growing in her own body. That life is ever, always surrounding by Mother, nourished by Mother’s own life. Yet the woman in choosing to become mother has necessarily chosen to limit herself. Some things she could freely do before now if done would do violence to the life growing within her womb. She must now act in gentle power, not coercive, for that life to flourish, grow, and eventually be ready for the next world that lies ahead for it beyond the all-embracing womb in which it dwells.
This helps me deal with not just the situation I faced in losing dear Katharine but those situations I see very day where people cry out for healing that does not come, for relationships to be reunited that are not, for so many things which no “yes” comes in answer to. We only see within the womb or our own lives, only feel the amniotic fluid surrounding us as we are walled in safely by our Loving Creator, and we only feel the pressure and pain of our share in God’s labor for our new birth. We cannot know in what ways our requests if answered would cause God do to violence to our lives, to the lives of others, by causing a magic coercion of the universe, of people, of life itself that God cannot do if, like a Mother, She is to preserve life and make it thrive.
I envision God like me — in some sense powerless to do what I asked on that October night, powerless to do exactly what people are crying out for by many a sick bed. I imagine God as may friends did with me sitting beside me, holding me close, Her tears mingling with my own, and saying “If Only I could, I would…” And I see God present in the gentle power that sustained me, helped me not give into despair, surrounding me in the presence of others so that I was not crushingly alone.
I see this gentle power too in those moments of reassurance I had, as the disciples had toward Jesus after his death, which make real to me the fact that my dear late wife and many others I have seen passed are not just dead but in some mysterious way, like Jesus, they have been risen to new life. Being a gentle power, such resurrection does not need a change in their bodies of this world – as such change in Jesus was not needed for Him but only for his disciples that they may understand – but simply comes with comfort and peace. I have those moments of them brushing up to me, which reassure me that as Christ somehow lives beyond the pain of cross and tomb, so they too are alive even more so than in their passing.
Even now, this gentle power sustains me. I am very clear that God offers no magic wand to wave and fix the life that lies before me, a life that though very good in many ways is not the life I would have chosen – for the life I would have chosen would still be shared even now with my now late wife. But that gentle power is with me, wooing me on to goodness, inspiring me to realize there is yet hope, there are yet dreams to discover and futures to build, there are those I may love and be loved by, and beauty to born yet in this world. Without that gentle wooing and the strength it gives, there are days despair would overtake me.
As I care for the grieving as chaplain, pastor, friend, neighbor, I see this too. Sometimes all I must do is help people listen beyond the roar of the noise of their own pain to find that gentle whisper which gives them strength. When people do so, they find their lives open again.
I pray for each of you that you both learn to hear and cooperate with that gentle power which guides and partners with us but never coerces, and also help bring that gentleness into the lives of others whose pain may be too deep to face it.
Your progressive redneck preacher,