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Sacred Watching

Sacred watching

by David Engelstad

Abiding (or vigiling) with the dying is an ancient practice.

Rizpah is remembered for her vigil with the bodies of her two sons and another five sons of Saul. Jesus in the garden, on the eve of his death, invites his disciples to abide with him as he prays. And many are those who have sung “Abide with Me” at a funeral—a request for God to vigil with us as we grieve.

It is possible for a person to die alone. Many do. Their life is no less profound. Their loved ones are no less sad. Their legacy is no less important. If Jesus’ disciples had not been allowed to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, his story would still be told today. So what happens when we vigil that makes it seem like such a necessity? What compelled Rizpah to show such determined and abiding commitment to her sons and their step-brothers?

We believe that every life is precious. In the birth of a baby, our words and deeds declare it to be so. We sometimes laugh at the way new parents unashamedly describe in detail every act of their newborn—from smiles to burps to diapers—as if this all was front-page news. Yet we are touched by the way these parents are lost in wonder over the child that is God’s clearly precious gift to them.

Then something happens along the way. The diapers lose their charm. The smiles become ordinary. The newborn-become-toddler is no less precious, but our attention to that detail gets sidetracked. Wonder gets mixed in with weariness, discipline, even annoyance. And so it goes. The child ages. Maybe has children. Grows old. And eventually, faces the end of life.

The Rev. David Engelstad is the lead chaplain at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minn. His wife, the Rev. Catherine Malotky, writes the monthly “Amen” column in Gather, and together they tend to their daughters and Brittany Spaniel, hike, cook, and enjoy exploring the world around them. Cathy and David wrote Gather’s 2011 summer Bible study, “Renew, Respond, Rejoice.”

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