Psalm 16:8 I have set God always before me – I shall not be moved. v. 11 You show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.
Prayer based on Dt 30-Choose Life that you too may live. Find a way to overcome adversity. That is the best life we can live. Indeed faithful God, you have shown us the path of life and given us a heritage of unspeakable richness. You call us now into the joyful trust of the future you bring. We abide in you. Amen.
Some of you are aware that I am attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation. One of our speakers this past week was Marjorie Thompson (who wrote the book Soul Feast on Spiritual Disciplines). In her last lecture on Friday morning, she talked about how our prayer life and spiritual practices can change when life circumstances take you in a different direction than what you planned. When her husband died a few years ago, Marjorie said her emotional trust in God disappeared. This spiritual giant who wrote the book on prayer, and spiritual practices, and entering into the heart of God, could no longer access intercessory prayer – praying for healing on behalf of others. She was paralyzed and terrified to pray because her prayers didn’t bring the desired outcome for her husband and the cancer in his body that became known only 5 weeks before he died.
When Marjorie recently discovered that her brother was diagnosed with cancer at age 67, the same age her husband died, she again had difficulty with intercessory prayer, feeling that it perhaps wouldn’t be enough, that her prayers would fail to bring about a desired outcome. What she discovered is that even though her emotional trust in God was shattered, a deeper spiritual bedrock of trust emerged. Even though she had no energy for her prayer life, she entered into the spiritual practice of grieving, of recognizing the need to allow herself to grieve – to shout and protest the unfairness. To recognize that there would be no humanly emotionally satisfying answers. She talked about expressing grief. To express – is literally, to press out. Then to release.
Her lecture then turned to entering a situation based spiritual practice of blessing. She talks about the biochemical stew that flares up when we are in a fight or flight situation. Those moments when curse words and anger come to mind and fly out of our mouths more quickly than words of blessing. She used the example of a clergy friend who was late to a meeting, and as he ran up a flight of stairs, he stubbed his toe…his first words were, “Oh God!” And then he listened to himself. “Oh God? Am I praying?” In that moment, he turned it into a full fledged prayer of blessing instead of continuing to curse. He prayed blessing onto his wounded toe, he prayed a blessing for the meeting for which he was late, he prayed a blessing for the gift of life around him. Marjorie said: “The state in which we arrive to a meeting, or into the lives of people around us – our relationships, is as important or more important, as whether we arrive on time.” She said to have a breath prayer in our back pocket such as: “Give me compassion & Patience”. To pray blessing rather than curses, even when all we are feeling is impatience and dread, or life’s disappointment, or deep grief.
Rabbi David Horowitz had taught us earlier in the week a few Hebrew words and the significant meaning conveyed by these words about a Jewish life of faith. He taught us about the spiritual practice of the Mourner’s Kaddish – an ancient 2,000-year-old Aramaic prayer, recited in memory of the dead. The prayer had its origins during a time of persecution after the destruction of temple in Jerusalem. Kaddish literally means “sanctified” making a moment of memory significant by bringing a sense of holiness to it. It is related to the Hebrew term kadosh, meaning “holy” or “special”, to imbue spiritual significance and holiness into various aspects of life. Everything we do in life can be made significant by offering a B’racha, a blessing. After a loved one dies a mourner is asked to affirm life in the midst of death and mourning. A lived Life becomes part of history. So Memory becomes vitally important. Remember a life lived. Praise God because they lived, not because they’re dead. Out of this understanding came the tradition of inviting those who are in mourning to stand in the Synagogue or at the Graveside to affirm life in the the midst of death, to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer. Imagine what a profound moment that must be – before God & all those present & in the midst of one’s grief – to stand publicly to reiterate this prayer of praise. To remember those who came before and pass on their qualities to the next generation. And it is also a reminder to Live a life worthy of memory so the memory will be a blessing.
Oddly, this prayer does not mention death or consolation- It does not speak of loss, sadness, or bereavement. Instead, it is a prayer dedicated to praising God as the Source of eternal life affirming the importance of life and living. To praise God in times of joy is easy. To praise God in times of sorrow is harder. It teaches one to continue the tasks of the living in the midst of loss and to carry on the values of those who have died.
The prayer is a doxology of Kodesh listing God’s holy attributes: Blessed, praised, honored, extolled, glorified, adored & exalted. These are hard words for mourners. It is hard to praise the God who permitted the death of a loved one. Yet for centuries Jewish tradition has placed this prayer in the midst of grief. Its purpose is to turn thoughts from death & loss to focus on the attributes of God. For God created the world and called it all good. And death is a part of life. Psalm 89:848 “Who can live and never see death?” Judaism & Christianity share a faith that leads us through moments of joy and guides us through terrible moments of grief, holding us in the complex emotions of mourning and inviting us to choose life in the midst of death. To take notice of the love of God that guides and preserves our innermost being in this life and the next. Listen to the Mourner’s Kaddish:
Let the glory of God be extolled, God’s great name be hallowed in the world whose creation God willed. May God rule in our own day, in our own lives, and in the life of all Israel. Let us say, Amen.
Let God’s great name be blessed for ever & ever. Beyond all the praises, songs, & adorations that we can utter is the Holy One, the Blessed One, whom yet we glorify, honor, & exalt. Let us say: Amen.
For us & for all Israel, may the blessing of peace and the promise of life come true. Let us say: Amen. May the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens, cause peace to reign among us, all Israel, and all the world, and let us say: Amen.
Saying these affirming words of God and of life in the face of death may seem incongruous, incompatible for one who carries deep grief, perhaps even cruel, but the point of Jewish tradition is to keep saying them. Through the Kaddish, one is pointed to your own future, to the belief that the sorrow WILL lift in time, that life will be renewed, and that the world, both heaven and earth, will someday be redeemed.
When someone is mourning, it can be a comfort to affirm connection to God, to remind oneself that God is with them, even during a difficult time of grief. The Mourner’s Kaddish gives the mourner a concrete task to regularly perform for the next year. After a loss, it’s natural to ask: “What now?” And a person in grief might admonishing oneself to “move on” or “get over it.” Saying Kaddish provides a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity that focuses the mourner on his or her loss, providing an anchor that grounds the mourning process. Psychology has shown that routines can be beneficial to one’s mental state. By having a structured daily time to think about a loved one and reflect on the loss, it can help in processing this journey. Expressing emotions, as Marjorie shared with us, rather than suppressing them. Once you’ve encountered death, you are never quite the same. You stand somewhere between the realms of death & life, loss & renewal, sorrow & hope. The obligation of Kaddish can help create social outlets that offer a measure of companionship and solace with others who are mourning.
In Chrisitianity, we do not share this practice of saying Kadish, but once a year, the liturgical calendar brings us to the season of All Saints & All Souls day, that we celebrate in worship, where we remember those who have gone before us, give thanks for their lives, say their names aloud, light candles in memory, and join at the table with all the Communion of Saints.
We give thanks for this table we are about to gather around – a foretaste of the heavenly banquet around which the saints are already gathered. We give thanks that around this table we are tied to the whole Communion of Saints – united with all who have ever received bread and wine and told it was Jesus and it was for them. We are joined here with angels and arch angels cherubim and seraphim – we are joined with the church on earth and the church in heaven and all who have called on the name of God. And we are connected to God.
We remember that in the midst of life, we are in death. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it. But All Souls and All Saints Worship remind us of a deeper truth: in the midst of death, we are promised life.
We give thanks for all those who have come before us handing on the faith and being used by God for simple acts of love.
Our memory honors the beloved ones we have lost and allows their lives to continue to impact our own. Grow in wisdom by imitating the ways that they walked through the world, or learn compassion through our struggles to mend the broken pieces they left us. This practice of remembrance is akin to kaddish. Kaddish speaks to the hope that God’s name, God’s healing, God’s peace will become more fully known in the world.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[b] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.