March 17, 2019
When I was a small child, getting ready for bed was a fixed ritual. At eight o’clock, until I finished elementary school, (not until junior high was I allowed to stay up until nine o’clock) my mother announced that it was time for bed. She herded us into the bathroom, where we had to pass inspection before we could leave. Did we scour the dirt off our elbows? Wash behind our ears? Put the washcloths and towels back on the racks neatly? Brush our teeth and rinse out the sink? Once we passed inspection, she marched us to our bedrooms. As soon as we donned our pajamas, we were escorted to our beds. We quickly learned that it was useless to ask for another cookie or a drink of water; our drill sergeant had no sympathy for last minute diversions.
Next Mom tucked us into our beds, actually she sealed us underneath the covers, the same way she sealed the top of a zip-lock storage bag. She tucked the edges of the sheet and blankets so tightly that we were straitjacketed into a prone position; there was no way we could escape until daybreak.
Then Mom sat at the edge of the bed and recited a prayer. She said the same bedtime prayer every night, until its words were engraved in my mind and on my soul. Some of you may even know the words:
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.
Christian children have been ending their bedtime routine with this prayer for over eight hundred years. Christian parents have taught that prayer to children, and in turn they to their children since the twelfth century. We, who could recite it, are showing our age. Not that you were born eight centuries ago. We are showing our advanced age, because newer versions of this prayer have come into vogue in recent years. To shelter young children from the frightening mention of death, some versions have softened the reference to death. For example, one contemporary edition has revised the last line to read: “If I should live another day / I pray the Lord to guide my way.”
Oh, I admit that as a child I sometimes felt alarmed that I might “die before I wake.” The prospect was unpleasant, but I confess that I never lost any sleep over the possibility. Ten seconds was, and thankfully still is, the time lapse between closing my eyes and falling asleep.
After I became a parent, I followed a similar bed-time routine. We added reading a book into the routine, but included washing up, brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, nestling into bed, and finally saying prayers. Releasing my son or daughter to sleep was a “letting go.” For I was letting them go out of my sight and supervision. I was letting them go alone to face the shadows that go bump in the dark. Letting them go to face alone the nightmares that come without parental permission. Hence, I actually found the prayer to be reassuring.
Even if the least expected and least welcome intruder came during the night, we had taken some precautions. We had asked the Lord to watch over them in their rooms while we likewise went to sleep in ours. From my vantage as a parent, I gained an appreciation for why my mother every night expected me to pray with her: “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.”
Long, long before Christian parents settled on this prayer some eight hundred years ago, devout Jewish parents earnestly prayed for the Lord to watch over their children when they fell asleep. Some scholars suggest that some twenty centuries ago the young child Jesus learned a bedtime prayer from his mother and father. In addition to teaching their children to pray in the morning, at noontime, and again before meals, devout Jewish parents taught their children to pray as part of their bedtime routine. Nestled in their bedrolls, night after night, before they dozed off, Jewish children recited, among other requests, a line from Psalm 31:5: “Into your hands I commit my spirit, [O God].” In the last moments of consciousness, before dozing off, the young boy Jesus closed his eyes with a simple statement entrusting himself to God’s care.
Thirty-some years later, in his last moments of consciousness, before succumbing to the darkness of death’s sleep, Jesus uttered virtually these same words a final time: “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The prayer he had heard at his bedside while he was a child, Jesus spoke upon his deathbed as an adult. Letting go for the final time, he recited part of his childhood bedtime prayer. How curious that the words Jesus learned at life’s start, he repeated at his life’s end. While learning to pray as a child, he had been learning how to prepare to die at his end.
Since this life-long learning process was true for Jesus, it causes me to see even more value in the prayer my mother taught me, and the prayer that many of your mothers or fathers taught you: “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.” I can see the same value in learning the other version that ends: “If I should live another day/ I pray the Lord to guide my way.”
I see value in the prayer for me as a parent and a grandparent and simply as an adult. The prayer reflects an outlook toward life and toward God that, as a grown-up, I overlooked. As a self-reliant, independent, hopefully mature adult, I often lose sight of trusting the Lord’s love so I can let go. And letting go of my beloved child, or my loved ones, or even myself into God’s care does not excuse me from responsibility; it empowers me to face responsibilities I would prefer to avoid.
Dr. Diane Komp was the Professor of Pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine, and Attending Physician at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. In a series of articles, she shared some of her personal struggles with the mystery of death and her journey to faith, reborn with the help of children with cancer.[i]Among her struggles, she told a story about Henry, a three-month old baby and his parents, Naomi and Jim.
When Dr. Komp initially met Naomi, she had few encouraging words for Naomi and Henry, about their firstborn, a three-month old baby. The child had been admitted to the hospital with a cancer that began in the adrenal gland and spread to the liver. When the doctor approached Naomi, she asked Naomi, “Do you believe in healing?”
Naomi and her husband had been raised in a mainline Protestant church and had not returned to worship since their wedding. From the beginning of their marriage, life had been busy and happy, but their son’s desperate situation prompted the doctor to ask if they had missed something.
Naomi was acquainted with a friend whose life was changed by a profoundly religious experience. But the friend’s zealous devotion to her newfound faith had alienated her husband, who did not share her beliefs and practices. Based on this acquaintance’s experiences, Naomi was not sure if asking God for a miraculous cure and absorbing the consequences of such newfound faith could damage her marriage. From her sorrowful heart and based on that confused logic, Naomi was not sure how to answer the doctor’s question about healing.
The doctor wisely shared with Naomi some of the struggles others had faced with the desire and consequences of faith healing. She told Naomi that she hoped that if Naomi prayed for her child to be healed, she would also be willing to ask her husband to join her in putting their lives in God’s hands, whether or not Henry lived.
A few days later, Naomi and her husband asked a hospital chaplain to baptize their son and pray for his healing. On Monday, the child’s condition was a little improved, and Naomi appeared markedly better. She told Dr. Komp what had happened, and then added, “I don’t know if Henry will be healed, but I feel as if I’ve been healed.”
Since near death conversions can be short lived, Dr. Komp was concerned when later the baby died. She wondered what became of Naomi’s sense of healing after their prayers failed to secure any healing for their baby son.
Some years later Komp’s concerns were answered when she received from Naomi a letter, in which the mother described a dream she had.
Naomi dreamed that she and baby Henry were in a kitchen of the church where she had grown up. The baby was crawling around on the floor and every time he came to the center of the room, he would look up and say, “God.” It was as though from that spot the child, and only the child, could see God. Then one last time he crawled to the spot, when suddenly his knees buckled underneath him. Naomi rushed to pick him up, but it was too late, his eyes were blank.
As Naomi recounted the dream, God swiftly came into the room, scooped up the little one into his arms, and perched him on his arm. The revived child sat on God’s arm laughing and chattering with God. Naomi was relieved to see her baby so happy, but she felt sad that she could not hold him anymore.
God evidently saw how sad she was, so he handed the baby to her, and said she could hold him for a while. The baby responded as though he had been handed from a parent to a familiar babysitter. He was in his mother’s arms, but his eyes were focused on God.
Naomi then asked God, “Will I have other children I can keep?”
God turned and looked at her with intense feeling, and said in an overwhelmingly loving manner, “Everybody’s life has a plan.”
As Naomi reflected on her dream, she tried to figure out if God’s face had indicated any sorrow, from which she could infer that she would not get what she wished, or if God’s look revealed pleasure, suggesting that she would have more children. “But,” as Naomi wrote, “there was neither, just love, overwhelming love. That was what mattered and that was what the answer was—not yes or no, but God’s love.”
Trusting the Lord’s love with who we are, with those whom we love, is a lesson we rarely acquire even in the latter stages of life. Naomi was an exception. In our cases we start impressing the lesson to trust in God’s love upon our children when they are young, and as importantly, upon ourselves when we are new in caring for someone whom we are learning to love.
Therefore, before babies can even mouth or understand the words, we pray aloud with them, “Now I lay me down to sleep. Pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Before toddlers understand what dying means, we pray aloud with them, “If I should die before I wake.” Or, if you prefer, before a child can fathom that life can stop, we can pray aloud with them: “If I should live another day/ I pray the Lord to guide my way.”
We start with them when they are young because they, as much as we, need lots of practice letting go — whether sending children to school, or sending them away to college, or watching them move away to be with someone they love. When we are young we need to practice letting go into God’s hands every night, because letting go only gets harder. We need lots of practice for eventually letting go of ambitions or independence or health or an aging parent or an infirmed spouse, not to mention letting go of shame and guilt or anger or regrets. Our parents wisely rehearsed with us letting go every night in our prayers long before we could imagine letting God take over later in big ways. So, while we were infants, our parents taught us to trust God through a simple prayer before we fell asleep at night.
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.
Long before Christian parents used that prayer, Mary and Joseph likewise taught their little boy Jesus to pray a simple prayer before falling asleep: “[O God] into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Parents should start praying with children when they are very young, because they, like we, need lots of practice letting go so we later trust God’s love to take care in big ways.
Permit me to close with another bedtime prayer, a much longer prayer, this one from an old prayer book used in the Episcopal Church. This prayer is entitled: Prayer for God’s Protection through the Night.
In particular, we beseech thee to continue thy gracious protection to us this night. Defend us from all dangers and mischiefs, and from the fear of them; that we may enjoy such refreshing sleep as may fit us for the duties of the coming day. And grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be thine, through the merits and satisfaction of thy Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we offer up these our imperfect prayers. Amen.