by Swiss painter Albert Anker (1831-1910)
This past spring, my brother Lynn's wife Sue was placed in a nursing home near their home in Florida. Several brain tumors and other issues had made continued living at home impossible. Lynn reported that treatment was not a reasonable option, and doctors were saying she could live six days, six weeks, or six months. Lynn and my cousin Becky, who lives nearby, both said that Sue was ready for the end.
One Sunday during this long period, I called my brother who was at the nursing home. I asked if Sue was up to talking. It was difficult to understand her weak voice and slurred speech; but, we did communicate. I said we were praying for her. Always one to want to sing, Sue said she wanted to sing her prayer to me. She started singing, "Precious Lord, take my hand ..." She didn't get too far, with weakness and some crying taking over; Lynn took the phone, and we said our goodbyes. I wished I had been there to pray together
This was around Easter time and also a period when it seemed our church had at least one or two funeral services a week during the month. Each service, whether in the small chapel or in the big church, was from the Book of Common Prayer's funeral liturgy. I have always thought many of the phrases in the liturgy most meaningful, and this season, because of the frequency of hearing them and thinking of my dying sister-in-law, they struck me as even more meaningful.
And then I thought: Such comforting words. Why save them for only the funeral? If I were dying, I think they would be special for me. I thought of Sue and my desire to pray with her.
I re-read the funeral liturgy and, changing only couple words to make it more appropriate for the living, wrote my "Liturgical Pray for the Living" and sent it to my cousin Becky. I asked her if she thought it appropriate, the next time she visited with Sue to ask if she'd like listen to a prayer Keith wanted to share. Becky did ask, and Sue nodded a "yes". Then Becky, along with her husband Frank and a nurse who asked if she could join, held hands with Sue, and Becky prayed this prayer: (Please read as a prayer rather than simply as text.)
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.
And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
And in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.
Happy from now on are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.
You, God, created me, saying "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
All of us go to the dust; yet even then at the end, we make our song: "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."First four sections from the introductory anthems of "The Burial of the Dead (Rite Two)" in The Book of Common Prayer page491; last section from "The Commendation", same service, page 499.
1947 - 2017
That was on Easter Sunday, and later that day, I received an email from Becky that they had done the prayer that morning with all holding hands. "It was very moving and Sue had a contented look. Frank said he felt chills as the nurse added a few 'amens' of her own throughout. It was a wonderful experience." Becky added, "Sue isn't doing so well, but isn't in pain. She loves to have her favorite hymns played ... sometimes it doesn't seem easy getting out of this world."
"Getting out" for Sue and for Lynn and family did prove to be a difficult — and long — process. The prayer described was on Easter Sunday, and months later ending with a couple final weeks of almost total unresponsiveness, Sue died Sunday, September 3, 2017.
Obviously, I know nothing of Sue's state of mind or spirit nor that of anyone's at the time of death, but I like to imagine that at that final moment, Sue's mind was singing, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand ..." and her soul was saying "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
Sometimes people from non-liturgical-church backgrounds wonder how the oft-repeated liturgy can be meaningful. Doesn't hearing and saying the same words each Sunday (or at every funeral) get stale? Doesn't it seem just rote repetition? Unauthentic? I can understand the questions ... it might seem that way. But, at least in my experience, such is far from the case. The repeated words — some from antiquity — can become a part of one's worship and meditative experiences. Read again, one or two times, in a mood of meditation, the liturgical portion above. I think you might gain a sense of this lasting comfort.
I have a small version of the Book of Common Prayer next to my favorite chair in the living room. Often, I will read a portion, sometimes from the weekly service, sometimes from something like the Ash Wednesday liturgy, and frequently — some might think me a bit morbid! — from the above funeral liturgy.
In the picture at the top, the young child is reading to his grandfather. I like to think that just maybe he is reading the quoted funeral liturgy. I can imagine the warm feeling that might fill the old man as his grandson reads, "For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we are in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession."
How comforting it must feel knowing that at the end, "we are [still] the Lord's possession." Believing this at one's core, so much that as the dust appears, we still want to sing, "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!" Amen.