In the Baptist church where I grew up, Deacon Bob taught our Sunday school class that rites and rituals were of Catholic origin and therefore had no place in the Baptist faith.
Deacon Bob was wrong, and the evidence of that was as close as our own Sunday services:
The worship service always began with a prayer, followed by three songs. The congregation usually stood during the first and the third songs, and a soloist or choir anthem transitioned us into the offering. Then our pastor delivered a three-point, 25-minute sermon that concluded with an altar call hymn.
Rituals and rites are intrinsic parts of life. As a hospital chaplain, I have found this especially true in the death and dying process.
I’ve helped deliver rites and rituals to people of all faiths. While these rites would mean very little to mainstream Christians, they still demonstrate the power of rituals and rites in the moment of death.
They include helping bedridden patients do such things as tape a crystal to their wrist, turn their bed into a Feng Shui position, put a healing blanket over their bed or garlic underneath it. I’ve collected bones of the dead, feathers for the living, and even the placenta of a deceased baby.
Of course these rites don’t represent mainstream patients. The majority of the patients I visit are exemplified in someone I’ll call Mr. Stanley; a 76-year-old Korean veteran I met in the VA hospital three years ago.
Stanley’s heart was failing, and he was struggling to find breath as his tearful wife of 50 years kept trading glances between him and his heart monitor. At some point, she asked me to bless him. I thought back to my Baptist upbringing. We usually only prayed for the sick; blessing someone was not a rite we practiced.
However, because I work hard to bring a nonjudgmental presence and deliver what people need in their moment of crisis, I wrote a blessing for him. I began by placing one hand on Stanley’s shoulder and holding the other open before me, as if I was expecting something to be placed in it.
“May God place you in his hand and hold you there.
May he pull you close to his heart.”
Cupping my outstretched hand over my own heart, I added:
“May you know the beating of God’s heart.
May your heart match the rhythm of his heart.
May his spirit fill your lungs with the healing breath of life.
May you know the calling of his direction.
May you hear his voice and find a peace that passes all understanding.
I pronounce this blessing on you in the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.”
As I looked across at Mrs. Stanley, I saw a certainty forming on her face that wasn’t previously there. She knew and I both knew that God had brought some dignity of purpose to the moment.
My blessing wasn’t terribly creative, and it might not have been BC (Baptist correct), but its power in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley shouldn’t be disputed – even by Deacon Bob.