In 2012, I left work and school for a while so I could be with my father in the final weeks of his life. It was a difficult time of anxious, exhausted waiting — even with the blessing of a wonderful hospice team. My family and I patiently attended to my father’s needs, being as fully present for him as possible, our one wish being that his final passage be as peaceful and loving as possible. Making it more bearable were small moments of gifted grace — a random smile from my dad, a comment or mannerism that would usher in good memories, or just the touch of his hand.
Not long after my father died, I returned to the life I had left, relying on God’s love and compassion to help me through the painful grieving. On one occasion I found myself asking God for just one more chance to hold my father’s hand, just once more. I remember feeling a little guilty for asking the impossible, but it also felt right and honest — it just happened to be exactly what my heart most needed to ask.
Jesus said that if we ask for something in his name God will give it to us. I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t literally suggesting God will give us whatever we want including the fulfillment of all our material whims. We could take Jesus to mean we should end all our prayers with the actual words “in Jesus’ name” or something similar, but I believe Jesus is trying to tell us something more.
There are other places in the gospels where Jesus himself prays or gives instruction about prayer. When Jesus asks for something, for example in the Lord’s prayer or when he asks if his cup may be passed from him, he does so while also submitting to his Father’s will. God’s will be done on heaven and earth; and only if possible and by God’s will may this cup pass from me. Perhaps when Jesus says to pray in his name he means to pray in the spirit of Christ, relating to God the way he does, leaving our egos and our small selves at the door, and surrendering to God’s will in all things.
But, if that’s true, why would we bother asking for anything in prayer at all? Well, there are at least three reasons that seem to carry some truth. First, there’s something about being human that makes it very helpful to name the things we need while giving them up to God, reminding ourselves that we can trust God enough to put the needs of our hearts into God’s loving hands. Second, asking for something in the way of Jesus, surrendering to God’s will in all things, reminds us that God will probably answer our prayers in unexpected ways, and probably more in line with what we truly need. And third, asking God for something in the way of Jesus helps our hearts be open enough to receive the answer with grace and thanksgiving.
The day after I asked God to let me hold my father’s hand one last time was a Sunday, and I was attending church as usual. Still buried in grief, I wasn’t very present, but near the end of the service I became aware of one of the older congregation members, Ernie, sitting alone in a nearby pew. I felt concern, because it looked like he was having trouble breathing. As the service ended I went to him, sat by his side, and provided what comfort I could while his friends went to find his oxygen. He couldn’t speak, but as we looked into each other’s eyes I saw love and gratitude. And then he reached out and very gently, tenderly he held my hand. In that moment, my heart, filled with gratitude and joy, knew, knew the truth that God had just answered my prayer.
So thank you, Beloved God, for hearing the prayers of our hearts, and for helping us receive your beautiful answers. Thank you for answering our prayers in ways we could never imagine, answered from the depths of your infinite compassion and wisdom, turning despair into hope, sorrow into joy, and suffering into love. Thank you, Beloved God, for being the answer to our prayers, for your will being done on heaven and earth, in the name of Jesus Christ, your son, amen.
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