In November of last year, the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence” received a heartbreaking letter. A twenty five year old woman wrote in to ask advice about what she should do about a gift her dying mother had given her ten years earlier. Her mother, sick with cancer, wrote her daughter a beautiful letter for every adult occasion in her life she could imagine—graduation, wedding, birth of her children. The mother intended these as an opportunity for her daughter to know how loved she was, but now that the daughter was an adult, these letters hung over her head and made it difficult for her to get closure over her mother’s death. She wanted to know what Prudence thought she should do—read all the letters now and get them over with, or honor her mother’s wishes and open them one by one.
Adult parent child relationship are complicated, aren’t they? This young woman’s mother never intended for the letters to upset her, and Prudence assured the young woman that her mother would just want her to be happy, whether that meant reading the letters or putting them away indefinitely.
Whether a parent is dying or just sending a young adult child off into the world, the parent has to wrestle with what it means to care for and direct this person while still giving him or her the independence to make their own choices and mistakes. We live in an age in which parents are so involved with their children they have a hard time letting go. My college professor friends all have stories of parents calling to argue about a grade their 19 or 20 year old got on a paper. Sending a child out into the world is really, really hard. Learning to let go is even harder.
Over the last few Sundays, we have been reading parts of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. In the Gospel of John, before Jesus is killed in Jerusalem, he spends three chapters telling his disciples everything he wants them to know before he dies. All the things we’ve been preaching about the last few weeks—the images of the vine and branches, abiding, keeping the commandments—all of these are from this long speech Jesus makes. He also prepares them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He wants them to know everything they need to live life as followers of God after he is no longer with them.
Yet, Jesus knows that he could talk his disciples ears off and it still would not prepare them adequately for what is about to come. He loves them and he is genuinely concerned about them, but he knows he cannot control them.
So Jesus prays. Today’s reading is the prayer Jesus prays immediately after his farewell discourse.
He has poured every ounce of love and wisdom into his disciples that he can, but now he turns to the source of all that love and wisdom. We get to eavesdrop on this incredibly tender and intimate prayer. Jesus acknowledges that every word he had to give his followers belongs to God. And even these beloved disciples belong to God. He then says “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
Isn’t that tender? Jesus knows his followers have been changed by being around him. They are no longer aligned with the values of the world. They have become Jesus people, more concerned about loving God and neighbor than following the rules. Jesus knows that this transformation puts them at real risk. Jesus knows that people will hate them for it. Jesus knows that the evil spiritual forces in the world will do their best to take back these men and women from God. He does not pray that his disciples will have radical success and change the world. He does not pray that they would glorify his name and make him the most popular God in the land. He prays for their protection. He has come to really love these people. He does not want to leave them. He worries what will happen to them after he’s gone.
We are in the season of graduations and I think of all the men and women saying similar prayers for their children. Hoping their children will retain their integrity and sense of selves as they go off to college or work or the military. Hoping their children will be kept safe physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. Hoping they will choose career paths that will lead to lives of integrity. Hoping they will find romantic partners that will treasure and honor them.
There is something so poignant to me that even Jesus, God incarnate, faced the same limits of control that we do. Even he could not guarantee that the people he loved would be safe and secure. Even he, at the end of the day, had to turn to God and pray for God’s intervention in the life of his beloved friends.
This is part of the finitude of being human. We cannot control the people we love. Even when they are still in our homes! No matter how clearly we see the choices our family or friends should make we cannot force them to make those choices. All we can do is share our best wisdom, set appropriate boundaries, and pray.
But those prayers we pray are not just the last result of anxious people! Jesus wasn’t praying to his Father just to blow off some steam. Jesus trusted his Father completely. He knew that his Father loved the disciples as much as Jesus did. He also knew that the Father was preparing to send the Holy Spirit, as a comfort and advocate for God’s people.
We live in an uncertain world. The people we love will make bad choices and will have bad things happen to them. But they are never alone and we are never alone. God loves us and is with us no matter what happens in our lives. And he is with the people we love.
The young woman who wrote to Dear Prudence had lost her mother, but she was surrounded by love. She described a doting father, caring siblings, and referred to her own upcoming wedding. Her mother faced her own finitude, but other people were able to carry out the holy work of loving this young woman.
And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, isn’t it? Because God uses us, the Body of Christ, to love one another and help one another now that Jesus has ascended. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take care of each other and love people who aren’t even in our family.
The online community Togetherrising, which is a group of people moved by the writings of Glennon Melton, had their annual Love Flash Mob this week. Glennon had her readers nominate the people they see who are heroes in their community and Togetherrising raised $250,000 from her readers to make these heroes’ dreams come true. My favorite story so far is the story of a nine year old girl named Hailey, who for four years has been devoted to caring for homeless people. Her work started with giving a homeless person a sandwich, but ballooned into keeping a garden for homeless people so they could have fresh vegetables, and raising money for and building temporary shelters for homeless people in her community. Her mom said that she would not want anything material for herself, so all the money raised in honor of this child is being poured back into building ten additional shelters for homeless people in her community. Now, just imagine all the families of these homeless people, some of whom must be terribly worried for them, or even feel guilt that for whatever reason cannot help them. They may have no idea that God is working through this nine year old child to give their loved ones help that meets them where they are and conveys that the universe still deems them worthy of respect, dignity, and love.
You are not the only person who is in charge of helping and loving the people you love. God is at work in creative, surprising ways. Your people will have friends, mentors, spouses, counselors, pastors who will do the work of God in their lives. The burden of their success or even their safety is not on your shoulders. Keep praying for your people, keep loving your people, and know that Jesus joins you in prayer and trusts in God’s radical all encompassing love.
And look around, because God may be calling you to be the Body of Christ for someone else’s special person. God may be calling you to be the answer to a frantic, hopeful prayer. You are part of God’s radical, generous love story.
Thanks be to God!