Where the Wild Things Are

Ash Wednesday

 Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

Text: Matthew 6:6

O.T.: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

N.T.: Matthew 6:1-6


                One of the fondest memories from my childhood is of my mother putting me to bed.  Each night she tucked me in and she prayed with me, “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 the old Puritan prayer that was handed down from generation to generation in my mother’s family – from the time the Hoyts first landed in America, in 1628.

                Night after night, year after year, she prayed with me the Puritan prayer.  I am not aware of those earliest days when I was placed in my crib for the night.  My mother’s devotion to this prayer leads me to conclude that long before I knew she was praying for me, she was praying for me.

Eventually, I learned the prayer and we prayed together.  The prayer expanded.  We added additional requests to it.  We asked God’s blessing on each member of our family.  From my father’s extensive Roman Catholic family to my mother’s smaller Puritan family, each living grandparent, each aunt and uncle, each of my cousins was remembered in prayer.

                No one else knew we prayed at night.  It was our secret time.  Through those early years this prayer time comforted me.  This nightly ritual embedded in me a deep sense of God’s loving providence and watchfulness.  Fear was far from me.  I knew in the depths of my heart that God was with me and my family.  The dark of night was a time of comfort.  God’s presence was in my bedroom – caring for me.

                As the years went on, my innocence in the secrecy of prayer was invaded.  Dark shadows in my bedroom became places where sinister creatures hid.  My closet was the scariest place. I learned from watching television that evil lurks at night.  I prayed more fervently as I entered elementary school.  Mom didn’t come upstairs to put me to bed so often.  I was now on my own where the wild things are in the dark.

                The war for my soul commenced.  I remember one night being terrified that something was in my room.  I peeked out from under my covers to see a shadow on the wall above me that looked like a person.  I turned to prayer.  “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.”

                All I asked was God to watch over me and protect me another night.  I didn’t know what that was out there in the dark.  But if God would stay with me one more night, I would be safe.  I fell asleep and awakened the next morning to hear the birds singing and the sunlight shining through the window.  God had miraculously protected me another night.

                Through the years into junior high, I continued praying the prayer before I fell asleep.  I was thankful for God’s watchfulness.  He was my guardian angel.  In later years, though, I abandoned nightly prayer.  Still, God protected me from ill-considered decisions that put me in danger.  God saved me from losing my life when I was so preoccupied with myself that I wasn’t watching the wild things creeping up behind me in life’s shadows.

                I quit the spiritual discipline of praying in secret as I left my mother’s side for college and beyond.  I lost confidence in God.  I became vulnerable to anxiety and fear.   I was alone, wandering in a wilderness.  The world was a place of darkness where evil lurks.  Life became hard and difficult.  The closet where wild things are morphed from my bedroom into life.  I made poor decisions, allowed the darkness to overwhelm me.  I was reversing the ending of I Corinthians 13.   Once I was a child, I thought like a child, I acted like a child.  Now that I have matured, I gave up childish ways.

                 There’s nothing childish about nightly prayer.  Nightly prayer is what adults need, near the closet if not in it, carrying on a private conversation with our guardian angel – Almighty God.

Without God, the closet is where the wild things are.  Without God, life is where the wild things stalk us.  When you secretly talk with God in prayer, the closet isn’t feared.  Nor is life.  God’s in the closet.  God’s in life.

                Often young adults believe prayer is childish.  We remember our mother’s prayers for us as children with fondness.  But young adults walk away from the spiritual discipline of nightly prayers, like they walk away from their mother’s side to seek life’s adventure. 

Young adults brim with confidence that life will go well because of their ambition and achievement.  They don’t need God. They don’t need prayer.  Their misplaced self-confidence to master life doesn’t need help.

Life doesn’t work that way – really.  Ambition doesn’t protect us from the existence of evil where the wild things are.  Achievement is often built with shadowy forces where the wild things are.  So when you stand at the pinnacle of success without God’s presence, bereft of seeking counsel from your Savior each day, you’re surrounded by wild things in the dark that crave your life today, your soul tomorrow, your eternity with God.

Praying in secret shields you from the wild things, and where they lurk.  Prayerful conversation with God builds your respect for God’s protection even when you’re unaware of His presence.   Private prayer clears your mind of fear so dark forces can’t invade your security with God.  Prayer shows you evidence of His daily protection.   Through private prayer, the conversation you conduct with God frees you to receive His guidance, and to live with His security.

Praying in secret builds your daily confidence in God’s providence that gives you peace and security.  No longer is your life’s goal personal success.  No longer is experiencing life’s adventure the driving force that dominates your thoughts.  Praying in secret plants inside you knowledge of God’s companionship.  Each day is a gift to be shared with your life-long friend.  Private prayer helps you experience God’s presence on the pathway of life.  No longer do you walk in fear and loneliness.  All is well on the journey, regardless of what you face.  No matter how deep the darkness around you, the Lord is with you.  His steadfast love endures forever.

When you’re aware of God’s presence, you don’t live for yourself.  You live for those you love.  You gather your children around you in their beds, and teach them to pray.  You’re no longer consumed by your own schedule, your own plans that extend endlessly into the night.   You live for your family and you live for Jesus Christ.

You plant comfort in your family from knowing Jesus Christ is with them through private and secret prayer.  They learn life is a daily conversation with Jesus – who loves you.  They learn about God’s life-long gift so they sleep peacefully in the dark – where the wild things are.  Amen.