May 25th, 2017
What would you say to someone who might die in days? What wisdom or comfort might you offer them? Could you offer such?
In this week’s Backstory, these three: a testimony, a poem, and a song. Together they form a preface and postscript for our short series on the doctrine of resurrection from chapter 15 of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.
First, the testimony (which will essentially stand as the introduction to Sunday’s sermon.)
You may remember our mention last September of Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel was raised in a Muslim home, was trained as a Muslim apologist only later to be befriended by an atheist-turned-Christian, who was instrumental in persuading him of Jesus. In time Nabeel became an apologist for Christianity.
But last fall he disclosed his recent diagnosis of an aggressive stomach cancer. At that point, chemotherapy and radiation were prescribed in hopes of adequately shrinking his tumors to facilitate their surgical removal. He invited his friends and colleagues to pray unto that end.
Just a few weeks ago, Nabeel recorded another announcement, this time to explain how the treatments had proven unsuccessful, and that his doctors had no more to offer him. Here is that disclosure:
Just last month, Nabeel made one last journey to be with all those who served alongside him in the ministry of Ravi Zacharias. It was there he had his parting words for his colleagues and friends.
The passage we’ll conclude the series with this Sunday is essentially Paul’s parting words to that fledgling church. But they are just the kind of parting words one might share with someone like Nabeel. The kind of words you might prefer someone to whisper in your ears when you, too, are facing a final hour.
Those words you’ll hear from Paul on Sunday will sound at times less like prose and more like poetry. The cadence, the sense of movement toward a climactic thought–Paul knows, as we all do, how often it becomes necessary to employ a different kind of rhetoric to make a point. The poetic speaks in a register the purely prosaic sometimes can’t rise to.
So, next, we offer you a poem from Dana Gioia, presently the Poet Laureate of California (and one to grace these pages previously). The poem is entitled “Prayer,” and it was inspired by the death of his own child.
Finally, a song. Today, according to the Christian Calendar, is the Day of Ascension–the 40th day since Resurrection Sunday. On this day in 735 the english monk named Bede, to which history assigned the prefacing “Venerable,” died after an illness that had arisen only weeks earlier.
The liturgy for that day of observance included the text from John’s Gospel when Jesus promises not to leave his disciples–his friends–as orphans, though He goes away to prepare a place for them. That text was also set to song–an “antiphon”–to which Bede gave himself to singing even in his weakened condition. Cuthbert recalled, “And when he reached the words ‘do not leave us orphaned’, he broke into tears and wept much. An hour later he began to repeat what he had begun and so continued all day, so that we who heard him sorrowed and wept with him.”
The antiphon which both brought Bede to tears and which bore him up in his final hours can be heard here. It’s an arrangement by William Byrd from the early 16th century which invites singing as much as it does reflection (which is why we translated it for you below).
O Rex gloriae, Domine virtutum,
qui triumphator hodie super omnes coelos ascendisti;
ne derelinquas nos orphanos,
sed mitte promissum Patris in nos,
O King of glory, Lord of all power,
Who ascended to heaven on this day triumphant over all;
Do not leave us as orphans,
But send us the Father’s promise,
The spirit of truth.
What the testimony, the poem, and the song all attest to is perhaps this.
In the presence of death and in the hope of resurrection, silence is often called for; our fears and doubts too easily seduce us into filling the space with unholy and unhelpful noise.
But words are no enemy to our grappling and hoping. They surface the tumult beneath that otherwise overwhelms. They understandably and properly reach for the longing for renewal evinced also by our tears.
Insofar then that faith, not fear, prevails, do not go wordless into that good night. There are too many good words worth saying, and hearing, and praying.