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 hope today to conclude looking at the prayer at the time of death in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship which I use often in my ministry with individuals about to pass from this life, and 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.”
One of the interesting things about this prayer for me is it pictures death in such liberating terms. It is a going to a home within God’s love. It can comes gentle as nightfall and transform our tears, pain grief, sighs, and sorrow into songs of joy.
Death is not the end in this prayer, but a great home-going. Death is not the destruction of a person but their passing into the next world, into the presence of God, and into new home in God’s presence.
Such language is found throughout the Scriptures.
2 Corinthians 5, which we discussed earlier, uses just such language:
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
This imagery also appears in John 14 and in Philippians 1:
““Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14)
“21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Phillippians 1)
To people in the grip of suffering as illnesses wrack their body with pain, such language reflects their experience. They no longer feel at home in their bodies or their lives. The understanding that this life with its illnesses and pain is not the only reality or the ultimate word on their lives is a great comfort. I remember when my Baptist grand-mother, Myrtie Barefoot, lived with us after a stroke and even later when she was in a nursing home as her dementia and various illnesses made her need around the clock care, my parents telling me how each night she would pray “Lord give me strength for one more day”. The night before she passed, they told me she prayed “Lord, take me home”. That prayer – or at least versions of it – “Lord, take me home” – is one I have heard many pray in my work as a hospice.
Death as entrance into a new life, a new world, which some pray for, is beautifully pictured by another recommended prayer in the face of death suggested in my book of worship which, at times, I use to give words to the prayerful longings of my patients:
“God, in the struggle of my life,
Be merciful to me and take me unto yourself.
When I am unable to speak in my pain,
And my face expresses my torment,
Please come to my help.
When I am unable to hear anymore,
And the beating of my heart ceases,
Let the Holy Spirit prepare me to receive your Word.
When death closes my eyelids
Let the beams of eternal light shine before me.
I believe in you, the only hope of my soul
And the leading torch on the way to salvation.
Do not permit my faith to fail
When all my strength is exhausted and comes to nothing.
You are the gate to salvation; in you do I hope,
Your life was proof of it.
Call me when it please you.
In my life and in my death I belong to you.
Come, my Christ, as soon as possible. Amen.”
Death imagined as Christ calling us as ones loved and beloved to Himself, into the Divine embrace, is beautifully pictured in the New Testament in images of the Groom coming to call his Bride to enter their new life in marriage. I remember my wedding day and how both my late wife and I were excited at the thought of leaving behind our two separate lives including a whole different way of relating to family, friends, work, and home and entering the life we could not anticipate yet were eager to enter of a shared life together. Couples of all types discover this excitement and joy of entering a new life together, a new world.
Similarly death as entrance into new life through being called beyond is pictured in one popular story when a doctor is comforting a patient afraid of dying on the operating table. Unbeknownst to the man in another room the doctor’s dog is waiting. The man is worried about what death is like and what it might mean for him. The doctor calls the dog’s name and there is scratching at the door. The doctor says he views death like this: His dog has never been in the room the doctor meets with his patents. He does not know what it is like. But he hears his master’s voice and knows he is safe. The doctor said he imagines death is like us hearing our master’s voice, calling us into a new place we cannot imagine prepared for us.
As a progressive Christian these two images are so helpful for me. I think there was a part of me in my days first as an Adventist and then later as an evangelical that believed from the Bible’s diverse and contradictory images of what comes after this life I could construct some clear picture of what lies for us after death. The more I have walked on my own faith journey, the more I have realized the Bible’s images for what comes after this life are contradictory for the clear reason they are metaphoric. As 1 Corinthians says, eye has not seen nor ear heard what lies ahead of us. All we have are like children’s crayon drawings of the next world. Evocative, beautiful, and moving – but not a clear picture of what lies ahead.
But there is something clear about what lies ahead of us – it is our Beloved, it is our Caring Protector. As I often pray over patients in my work as a chaplain – “It is from love we come, born into this world, and to love we return. For your love, Oh God, is what gives us strength to stand in the midst of overwhelming wonder and joy as well as crushing pain. And when we cannot stand, it is your love that carries us as a mother or father carries their child in their arms”.
This prayer invites us to encounter death as just such a transition, a return to love. Or perhaps not a return at all. For if we are open, we can see this love everywhere present at work in friends who hold us up with their support in hard times, in neighbors who come by to check in on us, in family who do their best to make sure we are not forgotten, even in this good earth which greens and brings new life each spring. Instead of a return to love perhaps it is an entering even more deeply into the mystery of love at the center of the universe, the mystery in which we become more truly ourselves and find every pain and trauma we face transfigured, made new, into experiences that when known through this love enable us to become ever more deeply ourselves.
This past year has been a year of deaths for me. I lost my wife of twelve years this fall, two dear friends last spring, and a number of others in the months preceding that. For me on those moments I can truly believe the promise of this prayer, truly join its invitation by envisioning our deaths as not ends but entrances more fully into the love that embraces us in each moment and makes us more truly ourselves, I find peace. I find peace in knowing that in some mysterious ways these individuals so wracked by illness that at times they struggled to truly be who they were at core, struggle no longer. In the fullness of Divine Love, they are whole. They are well. Somewhere, mysteriously, in our great universe, they shine like the sun, more fully themselves than ever. And they are not lost to me or you. There are moments when their ongoing presence brushes up against my own, when I feel they yet are caring for and rooting me on. When I also am reminded that you and me are both en route to this same all-embracing love and that, when we too transition to this depth of beauty and grace, we will be reunited with them.
This gives me hope, hope to continue on this pilgrim path. To not let pain overwhelm me, nor let loss alone define me, but to remember to be open to love and life as it comes ahead of me. For it is to such love and life we are headed ultimately, even in the ultimate loss of all. So if that is our destination, we must embrace such love and life, drinking deep of what is available here and now. Such is not a dishonoring of those who have gone before, but instead preparation for our joining them is not abandoning such joy but an even deeper immersion in it.
Let us then choose life that we might be more ready to join such beloved ones when our day to pass through death into deeper life comes.
Your progressive redneck preacher,