Archive for death

A little lectio

Deliver me, O Lord, by your hand 
from those whose portion in life is this world;

Whose bellies you fill with your treasure, 
who are well supplied with children
and leave their wealth to their little ones.

But at my vindication I shall see your face; 
when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding
your likeness.

Psalm 17: 14-16


These three verses spoke to me today. “Deliver me…from those whose portion in life is this world.”  It’s a striking description of the dynasties of wealth and power that control the earth and fill the news. It sums up their reach through time and the limits of that reach. And I love the way that vindication–satisfaction–comes on the other side of death. Are the wicked destroyed? Did they ever suffer? It doesn’t matter. The powerful have had their time, and we wake to behold the face of God.


A New Testament verse also struck me, and it felt like a sort of defiant acceptance of self–a sentiment with which I am familiar.  Perhaps, if you’ve ever felt out of step with the rest of humanity, you’ll know what I mean.


…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.

I Corinthians 15: 10a

The land of Wandering, east of Eden

Cain and Abel, Ivory, c.1084 Louvre OA 4052 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Cain and Abel, Ivory, c.1084
Louvre OA 4052
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Click to enlarge image


Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.  Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Genesis 4:1-16

Have you ever heard a sermon preached on this scripture? I’m not sure I have, but I’d like to. The more I look at this passage the more complicated and interesting it becomes. I know I’m not alone in this fascination. John Steinbeck and many rabbis have spent time thinking about it. Bruce Springsteen points to it. There’s even a reference in the game Batman: Arkham City. Perhaps we should take a look. There’s more to Cain and Abel than “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Much of what interests me about this story has to do with language and double meanings. Before we dig in, you need to know that a few chapters back in Genesis, Adam (whose name carries linguistic associations with the words “man” and “red” is created from the red earth (adamah). Man and earth are interdependent. Adam and Eve care for the garden and live on its produce, but after the Fall, the earth is cursed and Adam’s relationship with it becomes a struggle. The consequences of sin are not borne by Adam and Eve alone. God says to Adam:

…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.

from Genesis 3


When we come to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, Cain, the tiller of the soil, becomes angry when God rejects his offering in favor of his younger brother’s firstlings. Cain lures Abel out to a field, where he kills his brother. The ground opens its mouth and receives Abel’s blood from Cain’s hand, but the earth cannot conceal the crime. God asks, “Where’s Abel?” and receives Cain’s insolent answer. Abel’s blood cries out, and the earth also speaks in a manner, with a curse. Having opened its mouth to take in blood, the ground will no longer produce food:

you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. 

Cain’s sin and his curse are built on his father’s. Cain’s relationship with the earth becomes so broken that he must wander, a fugitive from Eden. He is separated from the land of his birth, and he must leave God’s presence. Yet, even in exile, Cain is under God’s protection. God’s reach, his mercy, extends beyond Eden, into the land of Wandering (Nod).

There’s much more to tease out of this story. So much we could talk about. I wonder why some translations say sin is “crouching” at the door (which sounds like it is ready to spring) while the KJV and RSV say sin “lieth at the door” or is “couching” (which sounds less like an attack and more like sin has taken up residence). And what about after Cain leaves Eden? The Bible says he gets married and has a son, and then he and his wife build the first city, Enoch. How are we to think about cities, if they came into being because sinful Cain can no longer farm the earth? And why then do we long for Zion, the heavenly city, and not for a return to the Garden? What happens when we return to the dust from which we were taken?


Zion alt

Spring and Fall


Photo: Famartini

Photo: Famartini


Spring and Fall: to a Young Child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


—Gerard Manley Hopkins

And am I born to die


Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die;
that men may declare in Zion the name of the Lord,
and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

Psalm 102: 18-22


When we read this psalm or the passage in Isaiah, we tend to imagine a modern justice system, where prisoners serve their time, pay their debt to society, and are eventually released. We think about justice and mercy. We think about getting out on appeal and catching a break.

We would do better to remember a time when, if they threw you in the dungeon, the powers that be were done thinking about you. You were doomed. Unless someone on the outside could bring your case to mind again, your cries of pain or protestations of injustice were useless. No wonder some darkly creative mind named the oubliette, a place for the forgotten.

We are all, in a sense, prisoners doomed to die.  No one escapes. We don’t know how long we have. We wonder if we’ll be forgotten. We look around and ask God “…and am I born to die?”

The darkness and suffering are real, but the Lord does not forget. We shall again praise him.


“And am I born to die” words by Charles Wesley.

Doc Watson sings accompanied by his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, on fiddle.



And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown –
A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot?

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be;
Waked by the trumpet’s sound,
I from my grave shall rise,
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies.

How shall I leave my tomb?
With triumph or regret?
A fearful or a joyful doom,
A curse or blessing meet?
Will angel-bands convey
Their brother to the bar?
Or devils drag my soul away,
To meet its sentence there?

Who can resolve the doubt
That tears my anxious breast?
Shall I be with the damned cast out,
Or numbered with the blest?
I must from God be driven,
Or with my Saviour dwell;
Must come at his command to heaven,
Or else – depart to hell.

O thou that wouldst not have
One wretched sinner die,
Who died’st thyself; my soul to save
From endless misery!
Show me the way to shun
Thy dreadful wrath severe,
That when thou comest on thy throne
I may with joy appear.

Thou art thyself the Way;
Thyself in me reveal;
So shall I spend my life’s short day
Obedient to thy will;
So shall I love my God,
Because he first loved me,
And praise thee in thy bright abode,
To all eternity.

Felix Randal


Felix Randal
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!



Photo credit:  reway2007, Creative Commons: A, N-C, SA

Life and death at the extremes of faith

Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford
photo by Lauren Pond for The Washington Post


A while back, when GraceisEverywhere was only a tickle in my brain, I came across an article in The Washington Post about a snake-handling pastor.  It’s a good, thoughtful article that doesn’t try to sensationalize or ridicule its subject, and, as I often do, I filed it away in memory.  Six months later I read that the pastor in that article, Randy “Mack” Wolford, had been bitten during the outdoor service he’d been planning and died an agonizing death. As the photographer noted, Wolford was “a victim of his unwavering faith, but also a testament to it.”

It can be easy to dismiss the people who occupy the extremes of Christian faith.  To think they’re crazy.  To shake our heads and say, “I can’t go there.”  But a more interesting and complicated question to my mind, is not why are these Christians so different, but how are we alike?  What part of the Christian message is so important to someone that they would handle snakes? How do they see God?  Why do they adopt this practice and not any one of the many other available options?  What do they believe about God that makes this possible, desirable?

People like Mack Wolford believe that God is powerful–that He makes promises and keeps them.  I suspect that a lot of you reading this would agree.  I also sense that people in Pastor Wolford’s tradition believe that we can compel God to do things when we act on His promises.  I’m not so sure it works that way.  But how different is this approach from what Elijah was doing with the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18?.  Are we ready to condemn Elijah for his audacity? Are we ready to say that tests of faith never come from God? Should we never remind God of his part in our covenantal relationship–never make demands of the Almighty?

Perhaps we need to ask these sorts of questions from time to time, so we don’t grow too comfortable in our own practices and forget how strange most of them are to anyone who is not a believer.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What do I believe about God that makes me do what I do?”  Are the extremes of faith so far from where I stand?


In addition to the two articles already mentioned, I commend to your attention “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith” by the Post photographer who stayed until the end.



Free from every bond


On Sunday morning a young member of our congregation ended his struggle with illness. On Sunday evening we gathered at the church to say The Litany at the Time of Death (Book of Common Prayer, p.462).

It is an extraordinary thing to speak these words on the day of someone’s passing–when shock and grief are all you know, and daily life has not yet massaged the pain into something manageable.  For me, it was the ritual that allowed me to do the thing that I could not do of my own volition, but needed most to do.  As a congregation, it was a first painful step forward, hand in hand.


Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.