Keeping Time/Life Passages
ISM and YDS students attended the sessions of the Congregations Project Summer Seminar in June. Some were designated student reporters, and have contributed their reflections on their experience with particular congregations, and aspects of the theme.
Part III: Liturgy for the Dying
Life Passages: "If we life, we live to the Lord"
By Anna Rohde Schwehn
If we live, we live to the Lord.
If we die, we die to the Lord;
So then whether we live
Or whether we die,
We are the Lord’s.
(Romans 14:8; Set to music by Rolf Vegdahl)
Amidst the gray mountains and clear waters of the Lake Chelan Valley, beside parks and single-family homes is Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. Chelan, Washington is a small town of 3,800, but the population swells each summer as its lakeshore crowds with tourists and its vineyards fill with migrant workers. Lake Chelan Lutheran is a worshipping home to dancing children, farmers and orchardists, hecklers and talkers, grandparents raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren, contemplatives, intellectuals, people speaking languages other than English, medical marijuana users, and people struggling with mental illnesses. The church supports many ministries, including a local food bank; “Welcome Home,” a ministry for veterans; a teen tutoring center; Bible studies in the style of Lexio Divina; a weekly peace vigil since 1991; an art studio for weaving, painting, and batik; and a weekly visitation choir to a convalescent home.
Beautiful Lake Chelan Valley provides the setting for Lake Chelan Lutheran Church.
Photo courtesy of the church.
The pastor of Lake Chelan Lutheran, Paul Palumbo, maintains a strong commitment to the catechumenate process. This ancient practice has been reclaimed in the 20th century as a process—not a program—by which lay leaders and clergy accompany people who have little or no experience with the Christian faith, using spiritual direction and faith formation. Paul guides catechumens along a spiritual journey, including each person’s faith story and discussion about baptismal living and theology of the cross. One catechumen suffering from cancer said, “It’s always life and death,” as her way of describing Christ’s presence in suffering and new life. The cross becomes the lens through which we see life. We are baptized into this promise. This woman’s struggle was one in a series of deaths that the congregation experienced. These experiences led them to begin weekly visitations to people nearing death.
The interior of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. Photo courtesy of the church.
Through these visitations, the faithful people of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church sensed a call to this ministry. They have identified a need for resources to help themselves—and others—pray with those near death. Their church seeks to recognize and ritualize the rhythms of dying and rising in their community. Pastor Paul Palumbo, musician Rolf Vegdahl, and artist Wendy Schramm are creating a liturgy for the dying grounded in Word, Eucharist, and Baptism. In baptism, their congregation enters into the life and death of Jesus Christ. Living out the promises of baptism, they are sustained by the presence of the family of God and by the knowledge that Christ is present in suffering. Grounded in these promises, Lake Chelan Lutheran will continue accompanying people through the dying process.
The liturgy will contain accessible, flexible songs, to be sung by two or three gathered at a bedside or by a 50-person choir. Some of the songs will be original music written by Rolf, while others will be simple hymns or chants. Text will fill many pages, including prayers, litanies, healing rituals, and Bible passages. Beauty and artistry will illuminate the texts and permeate each page, including images of the trees, hills, waters, and people of Chelan, Washington. The artwork will be done in a variety of media—calligraphy, gold leaf, watercolor paint, oil paint, fabric arts—and will incorporate images used at baptisms, funerals, and weekly worship services. Ideally, the book will be printed locally, using quality paper that maintains the integrity of the artwork.
Rolf Vegdahl leads Congregations Project participants in a Taize reflection on life and death.
Photo credit: Amanda Weber
On a practical level, this liturgy will give people something to say, sing, and do during the dying process. It will serve as a tool for us who are hesitant or fearful of practicing a ministry of presence to both caretakers and the dying. It will provide us with words when we have no words, songs when we cannot sing, images when beauty seems lost. This book will guide the Lake Chelan Lutheran community into suffering and death, where Christ is present and alive. The words, songs, and images will symbolize support, presence, life, and something to hold onto in times of grief and death. The book will be a tactile treasure, the physical beauty and texture of art representing and honoring the treasure that is a suffering body.
Complex dimensions of this project are revealed by the many questions generated during the Congregations Project: Who is dying? Who is the liturgy for? Could it be a tool for those experiencing the grief that comes with divorce, the pain of the terminally ill, the joy of recovery, the struggle of mental illness, the terror of suicide, the dying of a church, or the daily dying and living of a people bound to Christ? In the words of ISM professor Tom Troeger: “How do you provide order to the unordered, messiness of dying: from slow dying to unexpected death to death fervently prayed for and to death self-inflicted?” These questions about the meaning and the audience of the book meet other practical concerns: Should the book be copyrighted or sold, even though commercialism may rob the book of some of its local character? How will the printing of the book be funded? Will the funds be sufficient to print it locally? Can the artwork be printed economically without sacrificing beauty? Many of these questions will be explored in the coming months as compiling and constructing begin.
Pastor Paul Palumbo, artist Wendy Schramm, and musician Rolf Vegdahl sing Romans 14:8: "If we live, we live to the Lord..." duing their plenary session. Photo credit: Amanda Weber
The liturgy for the dying proclaims that what we taste, hear, smell, touch, see, and sing in life matters also in death. The words, images, and songs of the liturgy will acknowledge death as a symbol of the temporality of human time and as a part of the transitions of everyday life. These words, images, and songs will “clothe our experience of time with meaning” (Dorothy Bass). Gathered in a beautiful and portable form, they will help Christians to visit those who are dying, assuring them that “whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Institute of Sacred Music