Not too far from downtown on the banks of a popular in-town lake there’s an urban oasis, The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, that’s situated on 66 acres, once two former estates. The original old houses are still there, but the gardens are relatively new, their cultivation and expansion an ongoing work in progress. It’s a place of indescribable natural beauty enhanced by the imagination and creativity of man-made installations.
My husband Leighton and I enjoyed going there in every season until a few weeks before he died. While he was in the hospital, we received our annual membership renewal statement. My impulse was to cancel it – I couldn’t imagine that we would ever go there together again. From his bed he said with assurance and implied confidence in the future, “Oh, no, renew the Arboretum.” He could not know it would become my grieving place after he died.
For many months, I went there alone to journal and grieve. For me it was a sanctuary of tranquility. In that place of peace and solace I felt especially connected to Leighton’s spirit. I found a bench - my grieving bench – that probably still bears the stain of my many tears. The Arboretum was a refuge, a retreat, a place to escape the chaos of the world and my grief, if only for a while. In fact it became my personal place “beside still waters”. It was for me a sacred space where I could be at one with nature and commune with God from the depths of my pain and sorrow.
The psalmist beautifully describes God’s presence to us, especially when we grieve, “He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:2 RSV). It’s personal, you and me. God leads, we follow – or not. God doesn’t tug at us or pull us along in the wake of God’s divine love and care. Rather, God is alongside us as we grieve. We have only to put our hand in God's hand and be led – gently - to this place of comfort and respite “beside still waters”. And even if we resist being led, at some time, in some way God usually insists that we rest because still waters refresh and enliven our soul.
This place in life can be anywhere that gives us even momentary relief from our grief - anywhere there’s peace. Often I experience this, certainly rather counter intuitively, amid the energy, noise, and crowds of New York where I can be an anonymous observer and think beyond the confines of my limited self. And when we’re at our place “beside still waters” - a glassy lake, a seaside retreat, a reflecting pool, a roaring ocean, a burbling fountain - we pause, we take a breath, we look around to see where we’ve been and assess where we are. Perhaps from there we have a view to what lies ahead, a future with hope. Ask yourself where this place is for you – the answer may surprise you…
Sometimes on our grief journey we’re forced to lie down to enjoy God’s unexpected oases of quiet – we’re tired, we’re sick, we’re heartbroken. And when we stop and listen, think and reflect, we allow our heart and mind the space to be restored, “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction” (Psalm 23:1-3 MSG).
You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away.
Job 11:16 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the place of your peace. Amen.