Today we gathered for a special service, a very different kind of get-together. There were packs of Kleenex in all the pews, a basket to drop notes into at the door, and candles around the space. The communion table was left conspicuously open, the cup and platter in one back corner, a couple of candles in the other. In the center of the space was a big, soft chair, with a homemade quilt over it and a puffy footrest. It was flanked by rocking chairs and pews extending from there – forming an intimate circle, bracketed on either end by the baptismal font and the communion table.
People came in with more tissues in their pockets or purses; some couldn’t bring themselves to come at all. They mostly entered timidly, quietly, apprehensively. Then she came in, walker slowly pushed in front of her. She was guided to the special seat, her feet propped up on the plush cushion.
“Welcome to our ‘Keeping the Faith Ceremony’” I said. And we proceeded to acknowledge that our dear sister is dying, that her life is coming to an end, and we have been blessed beyond measure to share it with her.
We read scripture and sang a hymn, we prayed and then the time came for us to fill the table. And we did. People brought items up that had stories attached to them, sharing memories of her. Trinkets, symbols, laughter and tears. One person brought a film clip, from old 8 mm footage of a family celebration at the lake, ending with our guest of honor 40 years earlier cheekily dancing at the camera. Some brought flowers; a few brought “just myself and my words” and shared with her what she had meant to them in their life, what she had been in this community. Some merely stood and said how deeply they loved her, and that she could read the rest of what they had to say in the note they had left in the basket.
When the sharing was finished we gathered around her and laid our hands on her. We prayed for peace and God’s presence, we poured out our gratitude for her life and our sadness to be losing her. We anointed her with oil and blessed her, just as she was anointed at her baptism, claimed by God and marked as Christ’s own forever. We hugged her and returned to our seats to listen to sweet sopranos sing a song of blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”
And then it was over. Except nobody wanted to go. We lingered nearly an hour. Someone rustled up some cookies and someone else made coffee. We placed them with a jug of cider and some paper cups on the communion table, and lingered in the sacramental fellowship of love, the sacred space held by the Spirit of God. In the shadow of death, we will fear no evil. For Thou art with us.