December 27, 2023•674 words
I had an interesting and intense experience last week when I attended a small church service at my mother-in-law's retirement village. One of the other residents had organised a service for people who were suffering grief or unhappiness in the lead in to Christmas. In a retirement village, with aged people, and many family members to worry about, especially those who are getting older, there are many opportunities for sadness and grief.
My mother-in-law asked the organiser and minister whether I could attend, along with my wife and her sister. They were both happy for us to do that, so when we arrived we found we were the only people there under 75 years old, apart from the minister. It turned out that the minister was the daughter of my wife's family's favourite minister when they lived in Levin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was a couple of years older than my wife, who greatly admired her as a child. So, that was a good start.
When we arrived, the minister asked whether I would be happy to have annointing oil applied to me as part of the service. I did not know what this involved, but thought 'why not' and told her I was happy to do this. My mother-in-law had told her what my situation was and the minister was very happy for a terminally-ill, card-carrying Buddhist to be there and take part in a Christian service.
The service (Anglican) was a version specially for people to hold in their homes, and there were about a dozen of us sitting in arm chairs around an occasional table in the middle of the room. All very casual.
There were a few prayers at the start, then a Bible reading, and an interesting discussion about the reading. The ideas in the discussion from a group of elderly women are certainly different to what you would get from younger people. The minister reminded me a lot of one of the nuns at our Buddhist centre: kind, compassionate, knowledgeable, friendly and light-hearted.
Then out came the anointing oil. The minister came straight to me (I was about the closest person to her), put some oil on her thumbs, and made the mark of the cross on my forehead and spread some oil on the backs of my hands. It smelled of cloves. Then she prayed for me. I can't remember what she said, and although it might have included the words "the healing power of Christ" at some point, it was not what I would have called a 'holy roller' type of prayer. The prayer was quiet, direct to me and personal to my situation. I found it deeply moving, and the overwhelming emotion I felt was love and compassion towards me. I had to get my hankie out and wipe my eyes and blow my nose when she finished.
She moved around the group and about half of the women there explained why they were suffering and asked for a prayer, all of which were also personal, kind and loving. There was also Communion, which I did not take; I was never confirmed in church as a child so I've never done it. And it wouldn't have been appropriate as a Buddhist.
My sister-in-law told me as we were finishing that she had had a dream the previous night about me dying and there were hugs and tears from that.
I found the whole thing very moving, but it wasn't until later that I realised how important it was for my wife, sister-in-law and mother-in-law. I thought we were doing it for me, but it was actually to help them deal with their grief at my impending death. As Christians, it gave them an opportunity to take part in a service with me present and to be able to pray with other people for me. It hadn't occurred to me that would be so important (I guess that was my self-centredness), but I am very glad we were able to do it.