Monday, August 1, 2011

Then at last Thine angels come...

Though I had no idea what to do or what was expected of me, early on in my ministry I was asked to give "Last Rites" to someone near death.  I thought about beginning a long discussion with the husband about how Lutherans don't have "Last Rites" but given the urgency and the wound of the impending death of his wife, I figured this was not the time or the place to launch into such a discussion of theology. Without much to go on, I began pouring through resources to find something that might do.  The Pastor's Companion that I received upon successful completion of Seminary did not have much more than a prayer, some suggested Scripture references, and a few hymn stanzas.  Then I went to The Occasional Services volume published by Fortress in 1962 to accompany the then rather new Service Book and Hymnal.  It had a small rite entitled "Order for the Commendation of the Dying" and I added a few hymn stanzas and the Scripture passages from TPC and headed to the Albany Medical Center to do my pastoral duty.

That was the first of so many occasions when I provided "Last Rites."  Some years later, the LCMS published The Little Agenda which included a nice little rite, not all that different from what I had cobbled together years earlier.  When a member of the Church is near death, the Pastor should be called... says the rubric.  And call they do.

Not all the "Last Rites" were near the end.  In one particular case, the one near death refused to die.  Della Lohmeyer had grown increasingly ill.  Her only sister, known as Chicky, had arrived from Belleville, Illinois, to see her through the end.  Chicky called me, told me it was time, and I drove up to the Albany Medical Center to give "Last Rites" to Della.  Her kidneys had shut down, she was laying comatose in the bed, and her sister prayed that God would relieve her sufferings and let her go home.  I figured that the last words I would say to her on earth would be the final stanza of Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart and the benediction, The Lord bless us, defend us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  But Della was not ready to die.  Eventually her kidneys began functioning again (much to the shock of her nephrologist) and she left the hospital and moved to Illinois with Chicky and lived for many years.

For many of those folks, the very last words they heard were that hymn stanza:

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
    That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
    Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
    My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

I cannot forget the great sighs of some who breathed out their last while my hand lie upon their forehead and my lips spoke those words.  I cannot forget those who simply departed this life in a second without hardly anything to let us know they were gone.  I cannot forget those whose labored breaths and long, slow, quiet moans finally faded into silence at that time.  My wife has seen it all countless more times than I have -- a nurse who attends the sickest of patients she has stayed with those who had no one and stood with the family who did not know what to do and even waited off the clock for death to come to someone who begged not to die alone.  But a few dozen times, I have been there in the last hours, hour, minutes, and seconds of a Christian's life here on earth and bid them go to the place which Christ has prepared for them with the angels as their companions and guides, to the refuge of the weary, the bosom of Abraham, the reunion with those who have gone before...  It is not always easy or edifying to be there.... But what a privilege...

When a member of the Church is near death, the Pastor should be called... says the rubric.  Call... and we will sing and pray the dying from this life to the life that God has appointed for them through the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ....


Janis Williams said...

May all of Christ's children have such a minister in the hour of their death.

Rev. Weinkauf said...


Anonymous said...

Last Rites is a much better term, commonly used by laymen and pastors in our churches, and in the community. Pastoral Care Companion provides an excellent service. The silly thing is that there is a rite provided when a pastor is not present, but who will have access to this rite? It should be printed and given to the family and those who attend the dying soul. Thanks for your post and let's hope our seminaries are providing good training in this area.

Timothy Buelow said...

Our congregation sang "lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart" yesterday. And they sang it as always, with all their heart. Selig sind die da singen.

Anonymous said...

I give you credit for putting something together and now something is in a book to give comfort to those that are dying. I don't understand why reading Scripture verses isn't enough when someone is dying?

Anonymous said...

To read the promises of God as they
relate to eternal life from Holy
Scriptures is the greatest blessing
we can give to a dying Christian.

Terry Maher said...

Last Rites is in the plural because the term derives from its original usage, three of the seven sacraments that are given, though not exclusively except in this combination, to those about to die. The three rites are: Confession, or the Sacrament of Penance; Communion, which being the last one for the way is called Viaticum, and Extreme Unction aka Holy Unction in the EO.

Confession, or Penance, is first in part so the dying hear the words of absolution before they die and in part because it may not be possible for an interactive Confession to happen. Second is the Unction, which the Roman church now calls the anointing of the Sick, and was once called (first by Peter Lombard) Extreme Unction because what is anointed is the extremities, eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet, with prayer for forgiveness for any sins committed through misuse of these senses. Finally is Communion, which being the last one, to go with then on the journey is called Viaticum which is what the Latin literally means.

Confession, Holy Unction, and Communion are not in themselves for the dying, a misunderstanding which mostly applied to the Unction but which is actually for anyone seriously ill whether death is an immediate danger or not, coming from James "Is any of you sick? Let them call for the elders ...".

A Commendation of the Dying is not "Last Rites" but follows them. This is not to diminish the commendation -- I have certain experiences with death myself -- but to identify as distinct from "Last Rites" which is something different.

Judy said...

Anonymous #2. That is exactly what I did. My Aunt was in her last stages of life. I sat beside her by her bed and asked God what to do. I knew she could still hear. So I picked up her Bible and started to read the verses she had underlined in Psalms.