An old friend of mine, Scott Stienkirchner, surprised me with a visit last week (we hadn’t seen each other in 10 years). Scott is a member of the Dominican Order and was passing through Burlington on his way to Madison. We sat in the church office at Zion catching up on news about mutual friends, life in the Church, and most interestingly, discussing our fairly diverse theology. Scott and I went back and forth comparing the UCC with Catholicism, especially the Dominicans. Then he asked me a question that caught me off guard. He said, “Do you pray for the dead?” I felt a little incredulous and said something like “Of course not–why would I? They’re dead, after all.” Not the most sensitive response, I’ll admit. Scott, being Catholic, explained that maybe being in community with God in heaven isn’t instantaneous (my word, not his). Perhaps it happens later and prayers would be helpful.
A new thought to my UCC mind. As a progressive-to-the-left Protestant, I don’t feel that my prayers are needed to help anyone enter heaven. The after life is entirely left up to God and I trust that a loving God is in relationship with each of us into eternity. So the answer is “no. I don’t pray for the dead.”
But today, thinking about the conversation with Scott, I thought I’d give it a try. I prayed for the dead. And I was surprised at the result. The result wasn’t a transformation of their relationship with God (at least as far as I know) but rather a transformation of mine.
First, I prayed for my Great-Aunt Veda who died nearly twenty years ago. I thanked God for all she had given me–from clothes to bags of food when our family needed it to a weekly letter through my years as an undergraduate. I felt myself remembering things about Veda that I had forgotten: her laugh, the safe feeling I had sitting at her kitchen table, the camping trips she took my sister and I on. I felt a rare connection to Veda as I asked God to be with her. For the first time in all these years, I felt her presence as I brought her name into the presence of God.
My plan had been to pray for several other people but the experience of praying for Veda was a bit overwhelming; I hadn’t expected to be so moved by a prayer.
I think I will pray for the dead everyday; not because they need my help getting into heaven, but because I need God’s help in reconnecting with them. Thank you, Veda. And thank you, God.