Living in East Harlem, one of the hotspots for the Covid-19 virus, we don’t venture out often, but when we do - it’s to the park we go. It’s where God meets me, where God whispers words I need to hear. In the park I know nature’s insistence on life. Its demand for spring, after a long winter, is evidenced in the stubborn and glorious emergence of the bud turned blossom. The explosive energy and activity of a new season are nature’s way of telling me life goes on. Lush green foliage and stately trees reaching toward the sky are the sermon song I need to hear when I feel fatigued and overburdened. In a life sheltered in place - knowing the park as sanctuary and refuge is a grace, a sweet and meaningful gift. In so many ways, the park tells me what I need to know. Nature speaks boldly of shifts and turns - of movement and change. It's the message I need to hear again and again - this too shall pass … this too shall pass.
Central Park holds personal significance for my family. Rodney and I were married under a crabapple tree in the South Garden of the Conservatory Garden in 1996. In Central Park, I played with the children of friends when I desperately wanted to be a mother myself. It’s there I found a quiet bench to cry after the news of yet another friend's pregnancy. After making it to the mother hood, I had the pleasure of taking my children for their first swimming lessons at Lasker Pool and the Great Hill near 108th Street, is a fondly remembered meeting place for day-long gatherings with fellow homeschoolers. I trained for my first and only 5k race on the bridle path of the reservoir and in summer, a shady spot on the East Meadow is still our preferred location for early evening dinners. Rodney and I make our way back to that tree regularly, to tune our hearts and minds to a higher frequency when the work of marriage feels too much. It seems I’ve walked out my prayers in Central Park. In the park, God is my companion.
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.
This is perhaps the very first prayer I’d ever learned as a child, kneeling beside my bed, aged six or seven or so. This evening prayer, a Vespers of sorts, was meant to instill a habit of reflecting on the events of the day and building my personal relationship with God. All of this was fine until the one evening I dwelled a little too long on the third line of the rhyming prayer: “If I should die before I ‘wake.” Yikes! All of a sudden the temporary nature of life became a heavy thought for my young brain to process. Understandably, I then had nights of insomnia, afraid to fall asleep for fear that perhaps that night would be the night I die during my slumber. I’m sure at that time I asked mom or dad about death and dying. I’m sure my young brain couldn’t comprehend whatever explanation was given to me. Thankfully that phase of fear passed. Perhaps that’s when I first learned to trust that God would do what’s best to take care of me in both life and death. Perhaps that was what the prayer was meant to do in the first place; comfort my soul, then startle my senses, then reassure me that prayer is a helpful way to grow in spirit and connect with God.
Today, in this uncertain time of quarantine, isolation, and staying home, I’ve had a little too much time to think about that startling childhood question; what if I die? Will I be ready to meet Jesus? What would happen to the people and things I would leave behind? It’s a time of universal uncertainty and I find myself looking for a connection with God in everyday activities like preparing meals, reading or research, spending time with my spouse, learning a new hobby or walking our dog. I’ll admit, around bedtime, my heart has a subtle ache for those in the world who suffer, either from a lack of health, a lack of home, or a lack of happiness. As an adult I rely on that basic childhood evening prayer, (and the improvised “God bless” prayer list that always follows) to help me contemplate the events of the day, give a moment of gratitude, and comfort me for a good night’s sleep.
In researching this traditional bedtime prayer I learned of an additional stanza of the prayer:
If I should live for other days,
I pray thee, Lord, will guide my ways.