They track me down; now they surround me; they set their eyes to cast me to the ground. They are like a lion eager to tear, as a young lion lurking ambush. Arise, O Lord! confront them, overthrow them! (Psalm 17:11-13)
Psalm 17 is familiar to anyone who comes to church in time to hear the Third Hour being read before Liturgy (the Hours rather than matins are the norm in Slavic liturgical custom). Here again, as so often in the psalms, the prayer is about deliverance from enemies. When we hear the word “enemy” a wide range of images come to mind, from the faces of personal enemies, to enemies of our state, nationality, religion, church, to the spiritual enemies: evil, suffering, Satan, sin. The psalms are multi-purpose prayers and can therefore embrace all these threats, but for Christians “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). The destruction of death as our enemy is reinforced when we hear “Arise” in this psalm, from the Greek anastasis, because we hear also an echo from the empty tomb of Holy Saturday and Pascha.
For years on Saturday evenings, after vespers or vigil I’ve tried to catch at least some of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. This past Saturday I was deeply moved by his song speaking for the grandfather he never knew, born in 1860, a farmer who married late, buried in a Minnesota cemetery, and “though gone, more real to me than ever.”
“I was a loving husband and father, we raised a family there on the farm. We had eight children, and they rode on my shoulders, they sat on my lap, they were held in my arms. I died, I was buried in Trout Brook Cemetery. And there I wait for the Savior to come. We’ll be reunited, there in the valley, in the green pastures that shine in the sun.
Farther along we’ll come to a valley
And a green meadow that shines in the sun
Fields of gold flowers blooming around us,
Won’t it be glorious when the journey is done.
I like walking through cemeteries, and there’s an old one close by to where we live in Huntington. Family groups, young, old, infants, mothers in childbirth…I wonder about the stories buried there. A cemetery is the place where Christ’s overthrow of death rings most defiantly. I think of beloved family members who have departed this life. I think of my own death and leaving loved ones behind. There’s a pang of sorrow, and I miss them, but that is being overtaken by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the mysterious, indestructible, painfully beautiful and real hope of restored life together.
If you’d like to listen to the whole Garrison Keillor song, go to the 26-minute mark here.
Coincidentally, yesterday NPR started a series on how Americans view the afterlife.
In Moscow recently Father Alexander Pihach and the community of Saint Catherine’s Church began again to celebrate the Liturgy in English on the last Sunday of month at 9 am, followed by a Slavonic Liturgy at 10:30 am. The choir was a quartet of one American and three Russians.
At the end of September Father Alexander also welcomed a group of about twenty Presbyterian clergy and parishioners from the New York and Connecticut. In a “thank you” message one of the pastors said, “I am preaching this Sunday on the power of cherishing what we treasure (MT 6.21, 2 Tim1:14), and will incorporate many of your thoughts about the salvation of your church and others we saw afterwards. I was moved by this power of renewal and salvation that runs through Russian history.
Our trip exceeded my expectations, and I hope to return one day.
May you and your church continue to know God’s blessings.”