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A Bedtime Story

Anne Lamott, Presbyterian ruling elder, novelist, and remarkably free spirit grew up in anything but a religious home. That sets the stage for when she writes:

Some of you were taught to pray at bedtime with your parents, and when I spent the night at your houses, I heard all of you saying these terrifying words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . .” Wait, what? What did you say? I could die in my sleep? I’m only seven years old. . . . “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” That so, so did not work for me, especially in the dark in a strange home. Don’t be taking my soul. You leave my soul right here, in my fifty-pound body. Help. (from Help, Thanks, Wow)

Unlike Anne, my brother and I were raised in a home where prayer happened each day. Dale and I were separated by five years, and he was way too cool to hang out with his baby brother. We did, though, share a tiny room and each night one or both parents came into the room; we knelt by our beds and prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It was late into my teens that I first looked back like Anne, a bit aghast at how that prayer ends. Ironically, though, as a child, I found those words strangely reassuring.

Fast forward to college and my friendship with a fascinating Jewish boy. He knew next to nothing about Southern, Christian boys and I knew even less about his Midwest world of Judaism. After one of those long into-the-night “getting to know you” conversations, I discovered that he too had learned a bedtime prayer taken from Psalm 31:5: “[O God,] Into your hands, I commit my spirit.” When I first heard his bedtime prayer, I thought, “Much better. That’s a much more palatable prayer than the one from my childhood. I continued to think that until I realized that his bedtime prayer is also the final prayer that Jesus utters from the cross in Luke’s Gospel.

Fast forward again to seminary and Hebrew class. I learned that many biblical scholars replace the word “life” for “spirit” in Psalm 31:5, because in the Hebrew Old Testament humans are not seen as one-part body and one-part separate “spirit” or “soul.” So, what Psalm 31 really prays is: “O God, into your hands, I commit my life – the totality of all that I am and all that I do, all the good and all the works in progress, all my wildest dreams and all my darkest fears. O God, into your hands, I commit my life.”

As a good Jewish boy, I suspect Jesus learned to pray, “[O God,] Into your hands, I commit my life” from the time he was still in diapers. I suspect he prayed those words when he was tempted in the wilderness and when the loud “Hosanna” cheer of Palm Sunday morphed into the deadly jeer of, “Crucify Him” on Good Friday.

At whatever his age, or ours, “[O God,] Into your hands, I commit my life” is perhaps the most aspirational prayer that will ever leave our lips. It is the ultimate prayer of trust. Stephen Shoemaker calls it the prayer of “letting go.” He writes: “We say, ‘O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life in better hands than mine’.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, 183)

Old Testament scholar, Clint McCann, captures the power of this prayer when he writes: “To entrust our lives and futures to God, to belong to God in living and dying means ultimately that we derive our identity not from the worthless idols of our culture but from the character of God, to whom we entrust ourselves” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, p. 803).

This bedtime prayer spoken from the cross by Jesus reminds me of the favorite person I meet in reading the sermons of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Whenever I think of Dr. King, I think of someone standing tall, with unflagging courage, unflappable even in the face of devastating odds and tangible evil. Most of the time, I think that is a fair assessment of King.

Even so, like all of us, Dr. King admits that he too faced periods of profound doubt, asking himself if he was in step with God, fearing for his own life and the life of his family.

In one of his sermons, King introduces us to Mother Pollard, a woman he came to know in the times of the Montgomery bus boycott. She was an aging, but loyal supporter of the bus boycott, which meant that she had to walk miles back and forth to work each day. About this memorable saint, King writes: “On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week which included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening telephone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-stricken. At the end of the meeting Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son’. I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately.

“‘Something is wrong with you’, she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight’. Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘Oh, no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever’.

“But her insight was discerning. ‘Now you can’t fool me’, she said, ‘I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks are bothering you?’ Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I done told you we is with you all the way’. Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, ‘but even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you’.” (Strength of Love). To a young, frightened, brilliant, and overwhelmed pastor and Civil Rights leader, Mother Pollard prayed Dr. King a bedtime prayer, “Martin, God’s gonna take care of you.”

Mother Pollard did not tell King, “Now, son, stop worrying, everything is gonna be just fine.” She had lived a long life and she knew better. She also knew something far more important. She reminded the flagging Civil Rights leader to whom he had committed his life and from whom all life comes. So she told King, “God’s gonna take care of you.”

I have been blessed in my ministry by the Mother Pollards among us – some young, some not so young, but all truth tellers, spirit builders, people who believed in my call to ministry when I was just putting on a good face, people who told me not what I wanted to hear but what I needed to hear, people who believed in me and sometimes believed for me when my faith was flagging. I hope you too have been blessed by such faithful voices of truth tellers and spirit builders or that you will be soon. “Gary, Beth Neville, Heather, Linda, Annie, Jordan, Fran, Estelle, Jeanne, add your name to the list, God’s gonna take care of you.”

Maybe this is not only a bedtime prayer for our Jewish sisters and brothers or the end-of-life prayer from Jesus, maybe it is the bedtime prayer for Palm Sunday, a prayer to lead us into Holy Week with all its disappointment, betrayal, denial, violence, and pain. Maybe it is the bedtime prayer for every night of Holy Week, a prayer that will lead us back here next Sunday to sing our unimpeded alleluias—even at home. Maybe it is the bedtime prayer for every night of our lives that gives us the voice to pray to God: “Into your hands, I commit my life.”

Let us pray:

Into your hands, we commit our lives, O God, Our Lord and Redeemer. Where we fall short of faith and fail to live into your calling for our lives, forgive us. Where we lack the imagination to be your ambassadors of healing and hope, free us from our anxiety and fear. Where we succumb to the dreadful narrative that there is nothing new under the sun, remind us that in the Risen Christ, you are making all things new – even us.

Trusting that you are a God who does not desert us, we pray for those brave caregivers on the frontline of this war on a deadly virus, for those infected by the virus who know it and for the thousands who do not know it that they may find health and wholeness, for those who are struggling to make ends meet in such turbulent economic times, increase in all a generosity of spirt and giving.

Loving God, as we enter this Holy Week, slow our steps, order our steps, that our lives may be lived to your glory. All this we pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who teaches his disciples in every time and place to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, from Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”


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