Friday, January 19, 2018

Pastoral Care at Death: Lessons from Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish Practices

This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Death and the Liturgy” is by Raggs Ragan, Canon Pastor of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, whose excerpt here explores the valuable insights from people of several faiths in her pastoral care with those who are dying.

Liturgy and ritual are important to humans, regardless of their belief systems. Christians are called to address the reality of dying through liturgical practices of our own particular traditions, but we also can learn about our own traditions vis-à-vis other traditions to shed light on how we might better facilitate companionship and dying for our own members. I employed the discipline of comparative theology to learn from contemporary Buddhist and Jewish colleagues. I expected to learn different things from these two very different traditions, one sharing our Abrahamic roots, the other from a very different root but influential in the development of hospice practice. What I learned from extensive reading and interviews of lay and ordained practitioners was that the two traditions (in their myriad variations) share some common perceptions which I found of great potential value to our Christian practice today.
 Comparative theology does not encourage one tradition to appropriate what belongs to another, but by its light to better appreciate one’s own tradition asking the question: What do people in traditions other than mine do on the journey to and through death? The discipline of comparative theology is a respectful way to learn from one another without judgment, discovering ideas and practices that illuminate one’s home tradition. Francis Clooney describes comparative theology as “learning across religious borders in a way that discloses the truth of my faith, in the light of their faith.” [Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 16]. 
 This deepens appreciation of one’s own practices in light of the other; it is not a contest. Comparative theology is not intellectual or spiritual tourism. The practice involves looking at specific values and ideas that are important in both the home tradition and the one “visited” in order to find new ways to use, have, or live them now.
 Daniel Sheridan underscores the gifts of comparative theology by using the chemical model of a catalyst: “The catalyst ennobles and enhances the interaction of the two other substances, chemically, yet when the reaction is completed, the catalyst reemerges with its original state intact.” [Daniel P. Sheridan, Loving God: Krsna and Christ (Eerdmans, 2007)]. The catalyst sparks new images and understandings. He speaks of regarding the piece we study from the other as a beautiful gift, which we appreciate and return intact, making it clear that one intends not to appropriate what belongs to another, but to place it in relationship to oneself and one’s own tradition in such a way that it enhances their interaction, but itself remains unchanged.
 My approach to this application of comparative theology was both through reading the pertinent literature and interviewing a number of lay and ordained Jewish and Buddhist practitioners about their experience and practice. The journey proved inspiring and enlightening, contributing to a long doctoral thesis. Here I hope to share some of the key observations as they have shaped my own thoughts on liturgies for use with dying people and their companions. Despite the great variety of belief and practice in both faith traditions, there were obvious common threads.
The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 1 available by personal subscription and through many libraries.


Raggs Ragan, “Comparative Theology Learnings for Deathbed Liturgies,” Liturgy 33, no. 1 (2017): 41-48.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Following the Call – 21 January 2018 – Third Sunday after Epiphany/ Lectionary 3

Jonah was called to preach to those he did not think worthy of God's love. It is no wonder he tried to flee, escape God's word. It is a step of faith to respond to Jesus' call and follow as did the disciples. It is another step to become a Jonah, stepping into enemy territory with a message we fear no one will want to hear. But we, the church, are continually called to do the difficult, the seemingly impossible, even the unpleasant. –– Hilda Parks

Mark 1:14-20

Mark has set the stage. John the Baptist has pronounced his prophecies. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan and has resisted the temptation of Satan in the wilderness. Now, Jesus comes to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God and calling for repentance. He continues with the calling of the first disciples.

. . .  Jesus calls for a radical reshaping of how one lives in response to the call of Jesus. The scene closes as Zebedee, the father of the newly called James and John, is seen sitting in the boat. –– Eric T. Myers

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The book of Jonah is about God's persistence. It is about God's call to repentance. But it is also about God's mercy. Jonah knew God was a merciful God, that God both judged and forgave. However, he wasn't completely comfortable with the God who would repent. “God changed his mind” says the tenth verse. What a powerful word. Does it give you hope, or does it make you uncomfortable? God as judge, especially if it's your neighbor who is being judged, is fine. But a God who forgives, that is another matter. –– Hilda Parks

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

There is an eschatological intensity to Paul's statements about the “present form of the world” in 1 Corinthians 7. Most Christians choose to live as if the “appointed time” is a mysterious, distant possibility that does not concern us. And yet, even though we choose to marry and mourn and rejoice and participate in commerce, it is perhaps spiritually appropriate to live as if the “present form of the world is passing away.” All mystical portions of the great spiritual traditions connect with this concept of living as if there is no time, of living as if there is no time to waste.

Annie Dillard, a modern-day mystic, struggles to understand tragedy and God's presence in Holy the Firm (Harper and Row, 1977.) Thinking about a baptism she happened upon while walking near the ocean, she writes: “The surface of things outside the drops has fused. Christ himself and the others, and the brown warm wind, and hair, sky, the beach, the shattered water—all this has fused. It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time. There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise…. You must rest now. I cannot rest you. For me there is, I am trying to tell you, no time.” [contributor unfortunately not cited]

Eric T. Myers, a former church musician, is pastor of Frederick Presbyterian Church in Frederick, Maryland, and adjunct professor of worship at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Hilda A. Parks, ordained in the United Methodist Church, also holds a PhD in Liturgical Studies from Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.

Homily Service 40, no. 2 (2006): 39-47.

Monday, January 8, 2018

What God Does in Baptism – 14 January 2018 – Baptism of our Lord

The word Epiphany means manifestation or appearance. It is during this season that we celebrate the many manifestations of Jesus as Messiah. Clearly, what occurred at his baptism is one such manifestation. A voice from on high claiming him to be the Beloved could be inferred as proof positive. Yet the very fact that Jesus was baptized in the first place has perplexed many since the day of its occurrence. –– Ruth Harper Stevens

Ruth Stevens offers an illustration to help expand our understanding of the import of baptism:

. . . A ten-year-old boy was standing along a riverbank waiting his turn to be baptized. He observed intently as each person waded out into the river. He held his breath, watched the preacher dunk them, hold them under the water, and then lift them back up.

Finally, he commented, “You know, somebody could get hurt doing that!” He was right. Somebody did. Jesus! However, somebody could also be saved doing that. Now here’s the heart of the matter. Through his baptism, Jesus took responsibility upon himself for the sins of the world.

Through our baptism, we also share in taking upon ourselves the sins of the world. Of course, this does not mean that we become one with sin. –– Ruth Harper Stevens

Mark 1:4-11

In baptism we are sealed with a promise that it is God who tears the heavens to save us; God who claims us as beloved; God who welcomes and blesses us, transforming us from people who toddle around the edge [of the deep water, of the world’s dangers] in anxious oblivion to courageous, beloved sisters and brothers of Christ who swim out to the deep end, trusting that God will indeed jump in [when we need a hand]. –– Denise Thorpe

Genesis 1:1-5

Out of the dark, empty void, we are presented with the creative Creator who ushers in light, and whose very present presence is one that is not indifferent or one that exhibits raw power. Instead, the God of heaven and earth is one who acts with purpose, creativity, and beauty. These lines provide a frame of reference for all that follows in holy Scripture, tethering us to God’s creative witness and to the God who effected that witness. –– Neal D. Presa

Acts 19:1-7

Here, on Paul’s third missionary journey, we see the apostle bringing the Gospel to Ephesus, where “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (v 20). Paul meets followers of John the Baptist and is introduced to the apostolic baptism that grants them the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We immediately get the sense that baptism was the rite for initiation as Paul identifies these disciples as believers in his first question, and then proceeds to ask about their baptism when they respond negatively to the question of reception of the Holy Spirit, whereas the preparatory baptism of John the Baptist was to lead people to repentance.

Paul baptizes these Ephesian disciples with the baptism sanctioned by Jesus Christ and entrusted to the apostolic witness—a baptism that when given aligned the Ephesian disciples to the Christ, connected them to that tradition and to the apostles performing that rite, and enlightened them to the presence (and existence) of God’s Spirit. –– Neal D. Presa

Ruth Harper Stevens is retired after 30 years of ministry in the United Methodist North Carolina Conference.
Denise Thorpe is a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) who served a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in 2014 worked with a Louisville Institute team focused on Race, Church, and Theological Practices.
Neal D. Presa, pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Presbytery, New Jersey, was the Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).

Homily Service 42, no. 1 (2008): 87-96.