Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
What a job the writer of John is faced with, in today's reading! Capturing any prayer of Jesus has to be a little like describing a sunset in words: impossible. This prayer goes beyond a beautiful sunset. In this prayer we get a front row seat to the deepest reflections of Jesus as he looks back over his life and faces what is to come. Soon, he will be arrested, tried, and crucified. Here, he stops to pray about what has been accomplished and the relationships that have made up his life.
To begin, Jesus takes all he has done and hands it to God. A humble prayer, its format acknowledges the limits of a human life. It begins with a brief mention of 'the hour' that has come, suggesting perhaps that he is contemplating what is about to happen. Next, it focuses on his life's work, as though he is saying something along the lines of Look, I did the best I could with this, and I am counting on you to make good come from it. Then he considers the people in his life, commending them to God's care, and stepping back as he sees he will no longer be with them.
Ever so gently, the reading suggests that we might step up, considering our own lives and our own deaths as well. Following the example of Jesus, looking back over one's own work and relationships can be more than an obligation to get one's affairs in order. Remembering that one's life is ending can be the beginning of a sacred prayer.
An example from my family's story comes from my grandmother, Hannah. Born in 1905, she came to the U.S. through Ellis Island as a child, growing up in a family of tenant farmers in rural Illinois. Married at age 16, she had my mother – her fourth child – in 1929. The delivery was botched, though, with unclean forceps leading to an infection that would not heal. She spent her last days in the hospital, asking for the baby, and then too weak to hold her or nurse her. Many years later, her younger sister, Seena, told me about going to see her in the hospital one day. As they talked about their childhood, Hannah said, "We sure did fight a lot as kids, didn't we? But we sure did have a good time."
I'm guessing that Hannah - a devout person raised in a home where prayers were said both before and after each meal! – had spent some of her time in the hospital praying about her death. She had thought about her relationships and how she wanted to leave them. And this conversation with her sister was not only an answer to her prayers about her relationships, it was an extension of those prayers, bringing peace, acceptance, and even amusement in a look back at their sibling battles.
Although death itself is far from amusing, in my experience, humor is present in the days leading up to the death of a loved one. For my grandmother and her sister, the ability to look at their relationship more lightly, with a little less intensity, brought an ability to see things differently. It was not about blaming, or fault-finding, or who should apologize. It was about understanding what they had been up against as children set within the bigger challenges of their family: seeing the blessing of the relationship rather than its difficulties.
Two chapters later in John, after horrific injustice and cruelty, Jesus proclaimed from the cross that It is finished (John 19:30). His life was ending, his work was over, and his prayer was already being fulfilled. He had made it through the ordeal in faithfulness to what he had stood for in his life. In her own way, my grandmother did the same.
Morning: What is important for me to focus on in my work today? What relationship do I want to tend to? How can I bring humor and light to bear?
Evening: When did I get distracted today? In what ways does thinking about dying bring clarity to how I want to live my life?
Psalm 68:5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.