This Tuesday we are discussing Chapter 9 “Bless the Dying: Ashes” of the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. In reading through this chapter, please find a quiet space and a quiet time to allow for self-reflection.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
1979 BCP 134
Prayers near Death:
Death. Rev. Warren begins her discussion of death with the understanding that no one wants to die. In the Pastoral Offices of the Book of Common Prayer, we pray for healing and that those who are sick or injured may be made whole. However, the Office of the “Ministration to the Sick” is followed by the “Ministration at the Time of Death” and by the “Burial of the Dead.” We pray for the sick, but we know that death comes for everyone. As she writes, the Church’s collective theological instruction is to pray for miraculous healing but also to get the will ready. p.114.
As she relates, Jesus’s answer to our prayers near death is that Jesus also experienced death. Jesus knows what it is like to die. Jesus knows what death means for human beings. Rev. Warren asks us to consider the conclusion of a Maundy Thursday service where the altar is stripped and the priest reads Psalm 22. The stripping of the altar transitions the church from the beauty of the Last Supper to the obscene cruelty of Good Friday. As writes when we strip the altar we are not simply removing the liturgical accouterments rather we are taking that which is sacred and ripping out its holiness. See, Matt. 27:27-31. She says that the stripping of the altar is almost performed solemnly, but probably should rather be performed violently and irreverently like a teenager being told to make his bed or a fired employee being told to clean out his desk.
She also asks us to consider Psalm 22. Jesus did not go to a “good” death, but then no one does. The psalmist describes the humiliation of death – despised, mocked, and with his humanity destroyed. And death comes not from God, to whom the psalmist cries out, but from the “bulls of Bashan” and the “dogs” who surround him. One of the most vivid cinematic representations of Jesus’ death (and ours) is Aslan’s Death in the 2005 adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This scene captures the brutality of Psalm 22 quite well.
A Perfect Hatred:
“The Christian faith never asks us to be okay with death.” p.117. Death is our enemy. On pages 116-17, she cites David Bentley Hart’s book Doors of the Sea. (Hart is my favorite living Christian thinker.) Hart’s book grew out of an article he wrote in the March 2005 edition of First Things. (I have attached my highlighted version of the article or you may find it Here.) Hart wrote the article in response to the Indonesian tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day 2004.
The purpose of his article was to criticize those attempts by some Christian writers to somehow rationalize the catastrophe. For example, certain writers stated that the tsunami demonstrated God’s power and sovereignty, or that it allowed us to share in the suffering of Christ, or that we must suppose that the suffering of the victims will bear “‘spiritual fruit for themselves and for all mankind.’”
In the article, Hart rejects any attempt to make the tsunami (or death and suffering in general) morally intelligible or as in any way originating in God. As he says, to see the tsunami or the black death or the Holocaust as being from God necessarily renders God morally loathsome or evil. According to Hart, “no ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery.”
Rather, as Christians, “our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had any need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.” (emphasis added)
If you do have time before Tuesday, please read through Hart’s article on the absurdity and meaninglessness of death. I think that the article is a good corrective to those of us who try to find some divine cause or meaning in suffering and death.
Questions and Practices:
Rev. Warren’s suggested questions and practices for chapter 8 are:
1. Have you ever prayed for healing for someone who nevertheless died or who remains sick? How did that experience affect your prayer life?
2. Are there ways you have observed sentimentality or resistance to death in the church? The author quotes David Bentley Hart, who says, “Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces-whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance-that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.” How does it change our spiritual life that we are permitted to hate death and suffering with the hatred that God feels for these enemies?
3. How have you experienced blessing in your own life? How do you reconcile blessing with suffering and death in your own experience?
1. Work on your sleep hygiene. Create a routine for bedtime that includes a consistent bedtime, comfort activities, and asking God to protect you with his angels, and follow it for a week (or more).
2. Write a letter to your body. Thank your body for the ways in to which it has given you life and joy. Express frustration for the ways you have experienced the fall and limitations in your body. Describe what you’ve learned from your embodiment.
3. Practice silent prayer. Tum off your phone and put away any distractions. Sit in God’s presence. As thoughts occur to you, acknowledge them and then let them go. Keep returning again to mental and verbal stillness before God. If this is the first time you’ve tried this, set a timer for five minutes. It can sometimes help to light a candle and to keep your eyes focused on it during the time of silence.
4. Read the story of Lazarus in John 11. Meditate on Jesus’ “great distress” when he stands before the tomb. What do you think his face looked like? What did his body posture look like? How was he interacting with those around him?
5. Take up the Benedictine practice of remembering your death. Here are a few ways to do that: (A) Attend an Ash Wednesday service. (B) Journal about what you would want people to say about you at your eulogy, and what you would need to do now to become that person. (C) Journal about how physical limitations-sickness, sleep, and grief remind you of death and cause you to experience death in doses over the course of your life.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is St. Patrick’s Day. Discussion about 6:45. Compline at 8.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”1 Corinthians 15:54b-57 (quoting Isa. 25:8, Hos. 13:14)
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
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