Death’s dress rehearsal
The call came in the middle of the night.
I was a brand new pastor, just a couple weeks removed from ordination. It was Ron calling. I’d heard about his middle-aged daughter who was battling cancer, Suzy, but hadn’t yet visited her. Now, I needed to. Stat.
I entered the hospital room to find Ron and his wife, Debbie, at their daughter’s bedside. Suzy looked confused, shaken, frightened. “H-hi Suzy,” I said, my shaky voice betraying my nerves. “I’m the new pastor at Faith.” She couldn’t speak, but just turned her eyes to look at her dad—as if to say, “This is the best you could do?”
I felt out of my depth. I was out of my depth. In my first few days of ministry I hadn’t made a hospital call, much less to someone in such dire straits. What could I possibly say? I felt at a total and utter loss.
But then some music wafted into my mind, like a carrier pigeon alighting on a windowsill:
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
I intoned the words of the psalm as I had sung them countless times before in the service of Compline. They were a lifeline in the midst of uncertain waters. I suddenly found myself back on solid ground, and Suzy was put at ease. She passed away not long thereafter.
Compline is the service of sleep.
I have been pondering its significance because we’ll be singing it, as we have the last two years, during our Wednesday evening services in Lent. Compline’s alternate title is “Prayer at the Close of the Day.” Fitting, then, that the words and images of the service are those connected with death:
- the aforementioned Psalm 31, which was on Jesus’ lips in His dying woes;
- Psalm 17, which looks forward to awaking in God’s eternal presence;
- and most poignantly, a versification of the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s song, which concludes thusly:
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping
that awake we may watch with Christ
and asleep we may rest in peace.
This is fitting, I say, for sleep is death’s dress rehearsal. It is a daily dying. Each night as we lay ourselves down to rest, we’re preparing for that final rest when we shall “rest in peace.” As with the grave, so also with the bed: no one can avoid it—”both low and high, rich and poor together” (Psalm 49).
Pastor Paul Gregory Alms suggests this might explain our culture’s strained relationship with sleep:
The present day avalanche of insomnia, the ubiquity of sleeping aids and the bright, middle of the night glow of televisions and computer screens and electric lights all betray the primeval terror of sinful man toward death. The electric light bulb and all its more advanced kin is a technological substitute for Easter. All of it tries in vain to transform the nighttime into the day, to rid the world, or at least the mind, of the ultimate monster under the bed, the grave.
Our world is largely unready, and unable, to enter its rest.
Compline, however, prepares us to enter our rest well.
It prepares us for both the temporal rest of sleep, and the eternal rest of death. It encourages us to pray like the psalmist: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4). Then, when the day inevitably comes that our dress rehearsals are done, may the words of our Lord come wafting in…
Into your hands I commit my spirit.