In the last newsletter, I reviewed the unusual world of online worship that many of us have joined. It seems much longer than a month ago, no doubt because of our changed living conditions and coping with stress. (That is what happened to the option of having special issues of this newsletter.)
More than fifty thousand people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, and about two hundred thousand worldwide. If you are reading this, you may only be one or two degrees removed from someone who has died of this disease, or will be. I also mentioned last time I would work up a short memorial office to be used at home, even alone. With social distancing, we will not likely attend funerals, even if they take can place. Of course, people die from other causes, and their funerals will be just as remote. It hurts to think we will be kept apart when the need for the comfort of family and friends is the greatest. We can call (not for too long) or send notes or order food, of course. But there’s a spiritual dimension we need to recognize and address.
Many people say “I will pray for you” and do, and we ought to I take the ministry of intercession as a serious responsibility. But it is easier to fulfill a responsibility with a plan. Naturally, I take my prayers to church on Sunday. If there’s something urgent, I’ll recite a collect, either previously composed or extempore, and the Lord’s Prayer. Having a plan when asked to pray means it’s much more likely to happen. The same is true when we consider the dead and their survivors.
As it happened, a close friend recently lost a family member and instinct kicked in. Here’s what I did. I grabbed my 1963 copy of the Church of South India’s The Book of Common Worship, one of the first modern ecumenical liturgies: a careful balance of the new and old that fits in the hand. I turned to the burial service, read a psalm (90), skipped ahead and said the Lord’s Prayer, with the brief commendation (“Let us commend our brother departed to God.”) and the sentences from the Wisdom of Solomon following (3:1). Then I thought a moment about the deceased and my friend, pondered their mutual loss and asked God for help. I finished with appointed collect for the deceased and one for mourners. Had I been been leading this with a small group, I would have ended with the prayer of St. John Chrysostom (“Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time…”) and the grace, like at the end of morning prayer in the 1894 Universalist prayer book.
Having prayed that way, I sensed this was right, and thought I would appreciate someone praying the same for me when my time comes. Of course, you need not use that psalm or those prayers but I suggest you make a plan and then pray, if not for particular deceased persons, then remembering those who die alone and nameless. Commend these people to God, who will make them heirs in eternity. Respond to terrible news with your faith.
Which brings up an issue with going back to older Protestant liturgies to construct such a funeral office. Before the twentieth century, the services treated the deceased in the distant third person, as if to say the destiny of those souls were fixed at death and that no amount of prayers or pleading would alter that. So no commendations. Of course, another way to look at the commendation is an act of trust in God, and as Universalists that means trusting in God “whose nature is Love” and who will “will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” We commend the dead into God’s care, and trust that God keeps promises. But since even Universalists in 1894 did not have a commendation in their funeral office, we can borrow and adapt one from the visitation of the sick.
¶ A Commendatory Prayer for a Sick Person at the Point of Departure.
O almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after their departure from this world; We humbly commend the soul of this thy servant, our dear brother, into thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful heavenly Father; most humbly beseeching thee of thy great love to receive him into that better country which thou hast revealed to us by thy Son Jesus Christ. Teach us who survive to see in this and other like instances of mortality, how frail and uncertain our own condition is; and so to number our days, that we may seriously apply our hearts to that holy and heavenly wisdom, which may in the end bring us to life everlasting. Amen.
May God give you strength in your times of sorrow, whenever they come, and grace to intercede for those who mourn.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells