It’s the middle of the night, and you’re awake, and you don’t know why. Or maybe you do know why, but knowing why doesn’t help you get back to seep.
Maybe it’s worry – worry over the pandemic, over the health of a loved one, over politics, over work, or lack of work, over a difficult decision, or a difficult person. Maybe it’s frustration about something that’s gone wrong or something you did wrong or you are afraid of doing wrong.
Maybe it’s nothing that you can think of at all. Whatever it is, it’s 2 a.m., and you’re wide awake. What do you do now?
I suspect that you already know what I’m going to say. Pray or read the Bible. Yeah, reading Leviticus will put anybody to sleep. And some people can get really drowsy trying to pray for more than a few minutes at a time. Sometimes I’m one of them.
But I’m not suggesting prayer or Bible reading as a way to put yourself to sleep. I’m suggesting them as a way to move closer to God. If you’re awake, you might as well do something worthwhile, right? Who knows? Maybe God wants to talk to you about something. Maybe it was God who woke you, just to have this time together.
So think of this restless time as an opportunity to converse with God about life, love and anything else that comes to mind. Now is a good time to let your requests be few and your listening be sharp.
It’s often hard to hear the voice of God over the clamor of the day, so take advantage of this very quiet time to listen for a soft inner voice to assure you of God’s care, and possibly to poke you about something that you’ve neglected in your care for others.
To sleep soundly through the night, it always helps to set the stage properly.
Do you end your day with a prayer? It’s a good practice, and I highly recommend it. Most often I do a very simplified version of the Ignatian Daily Examen. What went well today? What didn’t go so well? Where was God in all this?
The idea is to pray with gratitude for what worked as well as for what you learned from what didn’t work. On really bad days, though, you may find that reviewing the bad stuff only refreshes it in your mind, and it doesn’t help you sleep at all.
I have always disliked the traditional version of the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep.” That talk about dying before you wake does not prepare a soul for sound slumber. Here’s a better version: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Watch and guard me through the night, and wake me with the morning light.”
I one spent a week at a Trappist monastery, where the monks pray the daily hours, meeting in the chapel for prayer six times a day. I was especially impressed by compline, the last service before bedtime. It brings the day to a close with a thankful remembrance of the day and prayers for forgiveness for failures to express your devotion to God through love for others.
It concludes with the monks singing the ancient song “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen.” As a Catholic priest who was one of my spiritual mentors once said, here we have a bunch of confirmed bachelors, and the last thing they do every night is sing a love song to the Virgin Mary. Then they close their eyes and sleep like babes.
The idea is to give yourself up to God’s keeping, confident that you will sleep well with the assurance of God’s grace. Psalm 4:8 says: “I will lie down and fall asleep in peace because you alone, Lord, let me live in safety” (CEB).
For some, it’s 2 a.m. For me, it’s more often 3 a.m. That’s when you find yourself awake, unable to make your body comfortable, unable to quiet your mind, unable to sleep. Psalm 91 calls it the “terror of the night.” Here’s part of it (Psalm 91:1-6, 9, 11 NRSV).
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
Night terror should not threaten us, Psalm 77 says, but instead drive us to God, “You keep my eyelids from closing. I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I commune with my heart in the night. I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:4, 6 NRSV).
Psalm 116: “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (Psalm 116:7, NIV).
Psalm 63: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night, for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” (Psalm 63:5-7 (NRSV).
You might find it helpful to rehearse some of the ways the Lord has been good to you – counting your blessings instead of counting sheep, as it were.
Or simply repeat again and again this short prayer: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.”
If you’re still awake, maybe it’s time to get out of bed, flip on a small light and open your Bible. As I’ve already hinted, the psalms are a great resource for prayer anytime, but maybe especially in the deep of the night. Psalm 23 is always comforting: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage, when the mountains shake because of its surging waves” (Psalm 46:1-3 CEB).
Psalm 96: “O sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:1-4a NRSV).
See what you’ve done? You’ve turned a restless night into a time of praise!
If you’re still feeling lost or down, turn to Psalm 77, a Psalm of lament that I quoted from briefly before. Here’s more of it: (Psalm 77: 1-3, 7-9, 11-13)
I cry aloud to God, out loud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord. In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying. My soul refuses to be comforted.
Will the Lord spurn me forever, and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Yet even in his desolation, the Psalmist does not forget God’s graciousness, and he uses this memory to help pull himself out the pit of despair.
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord. I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
Still awake? Try the Gradual Psalms, also called the Psalms of Ascent. There are 15 of them, Psalms 120 to 134. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, pilgrims recited these psalms one by one as they ascended the steep road to the Temple Mount, or as they ascended the last 15 steps from the lower level of the Temple to the main level. Here are snippets from some of them.
120: I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me (Psalm 120:1 NIV).
121: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2 NRSV).
122: I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1 NRSV).
125: Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever (Psalm 125:1 NRSV)
126: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy (Psalm 126:3 NIV).
128: Happy are those who honor the Lord and walk in God’s ways (Psalm 128:1 CEB adapted).
The Psalms of Ascent take you higher and higher. Think of them as climbing the rungs of Jacob’s Ladder from earth to heaven. In fact, you might softly sing the song or hum the tune to yourself between psalms.
If you’re up for a real marathon, turn to Psalm 119. It is the longest of the psalms, 176 verses. It’s an acrostic, meaning that it follows the alphabet from start to finish. It has 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and eight verses in each stanza. You can’t see it in English, but within each stanza, each verse begins with the same letter.
The psalm begins: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the Lord (Psalm 119:1 NRSV adapted).
We live in difficult times. It’s hard to stay focused on anything. It’s hard to get anything done. It’s easy to feel guilty about lots of things over which we actually have little control. It’s easy to wake up in the middle of the night with a vague feeling of being worthless and not knowing what to do about it.
Here’s one thing you can do. Remember these words from Psalm 42:8: Through each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to the God who gives me life (Psalm 42: 8 NLT)
May you sleep well in coming days, but if not, may you view the time as an opportunity to reconnect with the God who loves you and gives you life. Amen.
This message was delivered July 19, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, in Edgerton, Kansas, on the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost.