By Debie Thomas
One of the ironies of my spiritual life is that I have a hard time seeing the Jesus of the Gospels as tender and vulnerable. Have I always professed belief in a tenderhearted Jesus? Yes. Have I always understood intellectually that Jesus was an empathetic man? Yes. But I’ve also spent much of my life reading the New Testament and finding the Jesus in its pages austere and dispassionate.
Though I try to read between the lines and see Jesus’s full humanity in the Gospel accounts, he often strikes me as disturbingly single-minded. So sure of himself, his God, and his mission that he doesn’t seem to experience the vulnerable-making emotions that follow from love — uncertainty, anxiety, dread, and helplessness. Did Jesus ever fear for his loved ones? Did he ever doubt or backtrack on their behalf? When he asked his closest friends to take up their crosses and follow him, did he shudder at the thought of what those crosses would cost them?
The answer to each of these questions is surely yes. But the distance from my brain to my heart — the journey from knowing cognitively to trusting spiritually — is a long one. So I’m always grateful when a Gospel passage bridges that distance. When both Scripture’s familiarity and my jadedness fall away, and the Good News of who Jesus actually is catches me by surprise.
This week’s reading from John’s Gospel did that with just three words: “I am asking.” For the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a portion of Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer,” the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples. The setting is the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, foreseen Judas’s betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, and taught them as if time is running out. Which it is.
In the final moments before his arrest, he “looks toward heaven and prays.” I’ve heard some people call the high priestly prayer the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we don’t memorize and recite on Sunday mornings. It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the “Our Father.” It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases with anything like efficiency — it’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow. And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion to it that is achingly private. Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Lord’s Prayer; he’s rending his heart.
In preparation for writing this essay, I sat with the words of the lection for a long time, waiting to see what words or phrases would stand out. I didn’t expect the magic words to be, “I am asking.” But those are the words that stopped me short and brought tears to my eyes. Suddenly, I heard them. The strange and heartbreaking vulnerability of them. Jesus spends his final moments with his friends in humble, anxious supplication. Jesus ends his ministry by asking into uncertainty. Hoping into doubt. Trusting into danger.
In an outpouring of words and emotions, Jesus asks God to do for his friends what he himself can no longer do. To be for them in spirit what he can no longer be for them in body. “Protect them,” Jesus prays. “Protect them by your name.” “Protect them from the evil one.” Protect them so that they can know unity, joy, and truth. Protect them.
Do I know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly? I think I know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds. But do I know this one? This vulnerable one who in this passage does the single hardest thing a friend, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child, a teacher, a pastor ever does? Sends his cherished ones into a treacherous world on nothing but a hope and a prayer? Entrusts the treasures of her heart to the vast mystery that is intercession?
I am asking. As if to say: I don’t know what you will do with my asking. I don’t know how or when or if you will answer this prayer. I can’t force your hand. But I am staking my life and the lives of my loved ones on your goodness, because there’s literally nothing more I can do on my own. I have come to the end of what this aching love of mine can hold and guard and save. I am asking.
To wonder what role prayer plays in our world, a world rife with tragedy, injustice, and oppression, is to raise the hardest questions I can think of about God — questions I don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does his intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Can prayer “change” God?
As has been the case in many areas of my faith life, my beliefs about prayer have changed a lot over the years. I was raised to believe that God intervenes very directly in human affairs, and that intercessory prayer has powerful and undeniable “real world” effects. As a child, I believed with all my heart that prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and “stops the bad guys.” As a teen and young adult, much of that certainty collapsed under the weight of life experience — some diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, I had nightmares, babies starved, young people died, and “bad guys” won the day. When I asked my elders to explain these discrepancies, they gave me two answers: 1) You need to pray with more faith, and 2) Sometimes God’s answer is no. Both answers struck me then — and strike me now — as lame.
Today, I live along the borders of a more complicated world. I have friends and family members who pray for parking spots, lost house keys, Little League victories, and Ivy League admissions for their children. But I also have friends who avoid intercessory prayer on principle, convinced that the true purpose of prayer has nothing to do with asking God “for stuff.” In their words: “He’s God. Not Santa Claus.”
The challenge of intercessory prayer is that it’s subjective. What looks like God’s “yes” in my eyes might easily look like his “no,” his silence, or even his non-existence in yours. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom.” When is an “answer to prayer” really an answer? When is it coincidence? Randomness? A trick of the light? The cost of our liberty — a cost God daily chooses to endure — is that we can’t say for sure. Not in this lifetime.
So why do I pray? One answer is that I pray because I am compelled to do so. Because something in me cries out for engagement, relationship, attentiveness, and worship. I pray because my soul yearns for connection with an Other who is God, and that connection is best forged in prayer. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, prayer holds open the possibility that I am not alone, and that this broken, aching world isn’t alone, either. I pray, as C.S Lewis writes, “because I can’t help myself.” Because “the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping.”
That’s a reasonable answer. But maybe this week’s Gospel reading offers me another one: I pray because Jesus did. I ask because Jesus asked. Asking is the last thing he did before his arrest. The last tender memory he gave his friends. He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles. Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair. He looked up to heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God.
Jesus asked because he loved. May we always do likewise.
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