A Litany for the Sick or Dying

Using Psalm 102 in a Pastoral Setting

The biblical heading for Psalm 102 is “The prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.” In the honest and vivid language typical of the psalms, the writer expresses a cry of pain and desolation, coupled with a poetic and, strangely, almost clinical description of the emotions, thoughts, and physical symptoms of a dying person. So how might we use this psalm in pastoral ministry and worship?

I suggest using the adaptation of Psalm 102, found on the next page, in at least two pastoral settings.

With Someone Who Is Approaching Death

First, this psalm could be used in a hospital room, hospice facility, or at the bedside of a person who is suffering or approaching death. In this case, “Voice 1” would be an elder, pastor, or other representative of the church. “Voice 2” would be the person who is being prayed for, if she is able. If the person being prayed for is unable to participate, a friend or family member could be designated to speak the words on her behalf, preferably while making some kind of physical contact with her.

Ideally the prayer would also include family members, friends, and other members of the congregation, who would speak the lines designated as “All.”

This kind of setting cries out for some kind of ritual voice, words directly from the psalm, alongside some well-crafted and time-tested words from the Christian tradition that give honest and eloquent expression to both the suffering of the dying person and his or her God-centered faith.

Although pastors may find their spontaneous prayers falling flat when someone is suffering or near death, they often ignore the very words the Bible gives us for precisely this time and place.

Some pastors may feel that it’s incongruous to import a “formal” prayer into the intimate setting of a deathbed. My own experience has taught me just the opposite. Such prayer has the capacity to frame this setting and to respect its significance. By bringing in the soaring and searing language of the psalms we avoid being banal in a situation that cries out for depth of meaning.

In a Congregational Setting

This psalm litany could also be used in a congregational setting, either in a regular worship service or a “healing service.” In this case, the person being prayed for would not likely be in attendance, and a member of the congregation would be asked to speak “Voice 2” on her behalf. Subsequently, the pastor and elders could bring the litany to the bedside of the sufferer.

It may seem incongruous to pray such a prayer in a congregational setting. However, a litany like this offers the opportunity for the dying person to be “present” as Voice 2, as congregation members symbolically take their place at the bedside and enter into the prayers offered there in a direct and personal way.

Notice that the litany contains a portion from the psalm that relates to circumstances of an untimely serious illness. If this is the case, include the indented portion of the litany.

The family and church community surround the sufferer
Refrain: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” (Taizé) SNC 203
Voice 1: Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you.
All: Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.
Voice 2: For my days vanish like smoke, my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.

For those struck down or dying at a younger age:
Voice 2: In the course of my life he broke my strength; he cut short my days. I said, “Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days, you whose years go on through all generations.”
All: In the beginning you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them, and they will be discarded; but you remain the same, and your years will never end.

All: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” stanza 1
Voice 1: Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you.
All: Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.

One or more of the following prayers and other appropriate prayers may be used, either spoken by All or by Voice 1.
Lord Jesus Christ,
by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain
and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will.
Be near to [name] in his/her time of weakness and pain;
sustain him/her by your grace,
that his/her strength and courage may not fail;
heal him/her according to your will;
and fill him/her with the hope of eternal life
when tears and pain will be no more. Amen.
—adapted from The Book of Common Prayer 1973, p. 461

And/or
Almighty God,
by your power Jesus Christ was raised from death.
Watch over [name].
Fill his/her eyes with your vision
to see, beyond human sight, a home within your love,
where pain is gone and frail flesh turns to glory.
Banish fear.
Brush tears away.
Let death be gentle as nightfall,
promising a day when songs of joy
shall make us glad to be together with Jesus Christ,
who lives in triumph,
the Lord of life eternal. Amen.
—from In Life and In Death by Leonard VanderZee, Faith Alive Christian Resources

And/or
O Lord, support us all the day
until the shadows lengthen and evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest
and peace at last. Amen.
—attributed to John Henry Newman

After a period of silence, the psalm continues:
Voice 2: My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
All: But you, LORD, sit enthroned for ever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come.
Voice 1: The nations will fear the name of the Lord, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.
All: For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.
All: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” stanzas 1 and 2
Voice 2: Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.
All: The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heavens he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, and release those condemned to death; so that the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem, when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the Lord. Amen.

Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.