[Note: I wrote this piece yesterday (Thursday) evening but didn’t get it sent out. A pre-dawn trip to the hospital ER today changed my schedule, but also added a gut-check to the theme. More below…]
One of my delights each quarter is reading each entry in the Frederick Buechner Narrative Writing Contest in The Christian Century magazine. Each collection is based on a one-word theme, and the most recent was “Promise.” Laura Besley of Madison, WI told a sweet story of her son, Sam. When Sam was a toddler, his drawn-out bedtime routine always ended with the two of them in his bed, his head nestled under her arm.
“Only his face remained visible, his large brown eyes peering up at the ceiling in the darkness. ‘Keep you safe, Mama, keep you safe,’ he’d whisper earnestly, with his toddler grammar. This meant it was time for me to pull him in close, with my arm securing him like a seatbelt for the journey ahead.
“…As I lay in the darkness with Sam’s warm body tucked in next to mine, I reflected on the promise of my tight embrace–‘Keep you safe, Mama, keep you safe’–and felt the encroaching terror of realizing that this was something I could not give my children. I cannot promise to keep you safe, Sam.”
It’s a lovely essay. Every parent knows this lament and can relate to that ‘encroaching terror’ of having to recognize our limited powers to protect our loved ones from harm. She even presses the point with a bold honesty most of us only permit ourselves to consider in our private hearts: “…I try to pray. I pray even though I know God does not, maybe even cannot, keep them safe.”
We each have to parse this dilemma that human tragedies do happen despite our best efforts and fervent prayers. Tomorrow will be the memorial service for a healthy 41-year-old friend and former colleague, the father of four children, who suddenly died while on a hiking trip. The senseless El Paso, Gilroy, and Dayton killings remind us that no one is immune from harm at any moment.
At the same time, after reading Laura’s essay, I was struck by how we in America define “safe” these days. I can personally vouch for the fact that this definition–this expectation–has changed in just my own lifetime. As a child, every night I prayed the old prayer that reflected the expectations of a different era:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Implicit in this prayer is the idea that God can keep me safe whether I live or die, survive the night ahead or don’t. Today, we have omitted the second half of that prayer. This is no longer an option we deem acceptable for God to choose or allow. “Safe” today has only one definition–that I and my loved ones would wake up again tomorrow, and every day, and that nothing would befall. Nowadays, in bed with Janet, we will usually pray “…and watch over our family and loved ones and keep them in your care;” what we really mean is please keep them from harm.
How did we come to the idea that the only way to be safe is to be kept alive? This is clearly a first-world interpretation. Those living in countries where child mortality is a far more common heartbreak think differently about this… much the same way I grew up thinking about it. I remember lying in bed in the dark as a child and thinking about this prayer. It was disturbing to consider what I’d just heard myself say. Yet, I’d said it. I would say it again the next night, and the next. At some point, it became a comfort. It reminded me that both my life and my death are under God’s watch-care. My prayer didn’t demand things that even God could not promise. And it didn’t foist those expectations on my parents or on my God.
I started chemotherapy yesterday. It’s no fun. But the odds the cure will kill me are extremely low. And the odds of ‘permanently’ vanquishing this cancer are very high for me–about 90% with chemo.
But that prayer I learned by probably the age of two is still the prayer of my heart, as it is the expectation for most of our global neighbors today. We in America have gotten out of phase… with most of the world’s Jesus-followers, with our own society a mere half-century ago, and with historical Christianity. Some popular preacher somewhere must have misinterpreted and misapplied Jesus’ answer about heaven to the Sadducees (Luke 20-38) “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…” The verse doesn’t end there, but continues, “for to him all are alive.”
Therefore, whatever happens to me, I will be safe.
PS: For those interested in a more personal cancer update, I began both treatments this Wednesday: an IV drip every three weeks and 8 large pills to swallow daily for 14 days, followed by 7 days of recovery. Then the cycle repeats for a total of four cycles. “Flu-like symptoms” doesn’t tell the whole story but that’s the idea… lethargy, queasiness, some sweats, some insomnia. Some symptoms should get better; some probably get worse. But of maybe 20 listed side effects, I hope to only have 5-6 of the milder ones. Notes, calls, prayers are all much appreciated even if I can’t find the energy to let you know.
PPS: I awoke at 4:30 this morning, wondering if I’d slept in a poor position, but the tingling in my left arm wasn’t going away. Remembering a friend who had a a mild stroke that caused permanent damage because it wasn’t treated in time, and knowing that I’d launched the double-assault of chemo less than 48 hours earlier, it seemed prudent to head to ER. That pre-dawn drive was pretty quiet for us. I think we each silently wondered if I’d written the above piece prophetically and Janet would be sending it out posthumously. We were both quite relieved that everything checked out just fine, and later today I bought myself a new pillow.