When I was maybe 6 years old or so, I did a “cute” thing. After a bath I went to dry my hair in my mom’s hairdryer – one of those bee-hive beauties you see in old movies, where the thing drops over your head and dries your hair in place (and also reads your mind). When you’re in one of those things, you can’t hear anything going on around you. I assumed nobody could hear me, either, so I started belting out some of my favorite songs in my personal rotunda. I was in there so long I may have burned out the motor. Unfortunately, even though I couldn’t hear anything outside the metal dome, everybody could hear my heartfelt rendition of whatever song a six-year-old sings. My sister Ann decided it would be worth recording, so she got her cassette player to capture it all. When I had had enough and finally emerged, I was greeted with lots of laughs as my sister hit “Play”. I was humiliated and felt like my privacy had been hacked, like someone had been reading my diary (if I kept one). I’m almost over it.
When we read chapter 17 in John’s Gospel, we need to approach it as if we were eavesdropping on Jesus as he poured out his heartfelt prayer to God. Intimate. Personal. Passionate. The content of the prayer is pretty clear – Jesus prays for his disciples and future followers to stay close to God like Jesus did, and not get pulled back into the incredibly strong forces of culture that they would invariably face. I’ll unpack that in a minute, but before we do, we need to tap into the deep emotional state Jesus surely was in as he prayed.
I want to take you there in a way you might not normally associate with Jesus in relationship with the disciples, but I think it’s fair. Imagine a healthy parent praying for their child, dreaming only the best for them.
I still well up when I think about it. Lynne and I created a routing with our kids when they were little. After their bath they could each pick out a book for us to read to them, then it was off to bed. But that wasn’t the end. Lynne and I would take turns tucking them in, which included a couple of songs to wind them down to sleep. When I just sing it now, it has limited affect on me. When I put myself back in my kids’ rooms – especially when they were babies and we would sing it to them while holding them in our arms – I fall apart. I can still see my kids’ eyes looking back into mine as I sing a song reminding them of my love for them. I think there is a part of Jesus that thinks this way about his disciples. They are his kids, in a way. They were completely reliant on him when they decided to follow. Of course he feels deep love for them! I remember buying Billy Joel’s last album in 1993, which featured the song, Lullabye, that he wrote for his own kids. I loved it immediately, and dreamt of the day I could sing such a song to my own kids (it would be a four year wait). Take a few minutes and listen to it to get your ears and heart in the right frame of mind. Here’s the song. Cry a little if you want – it’s really sweet.
But the disciples weren’t babies, they were adults who had pledged their lives to following Jesus wherever that might lead. Recall that the night Jesus uttered this prayer was the night he would be arrested. He would go through a torturous hell, and his disciples would be rocked. That’s why his prayer was so filled with passion. He was deeply concerned about the wellbeing of his followers in light of hard times to come (and they did). The closest I can come to this is dropping my kids off at college 400 miles away. We had great faith in our kids and in the university they were attending, yet we could no longer immediately swoop in and save the day. We couldn’t take a hit intended for them. We couldn’t be there to save them. We knew they would face lots of different challenges and would have to figure things out on their own. Letting go is heart wrenching. They were in a safe place of learning, designed for their well-being. I can only imagine the struggle of military parents and spouses who say goodbye to their loved ones who are heading into truly hostile environments. That is what the disciples were going to face, and Jesus knew it. Parents are generally fine taking pain for their kids, but when they see their kids suffer or face great threat, that’s unbearable. It reminds me of a scene from Les Miserable, where Jean Valjean is worried about a young man he loves like a son. Here is the song, sung by Josh Groban. Let it move you. Cry some more. That’s what Jesus was feeling as he prayed.
Jesus’ great hope was that his disciples and future followers would recognize the great, Good News he was proclaiming, that there is a God-rooted way of living and being that is very different in form and practice that yields an incredibly rich life experience. Jesus’ life was extraordinary because he was so in lock step with God, so unified that one couldn’t determine where Jesus ended and the Father began. Their mindset and ethos and drive and vision were one and the same. That’s what Jesus longed for in his followers.
He was realistic, however. Judas was choosing to tap out, after all, and Peter’s conviction was going to be shaken to the core. The pressure they would face was unimaginable – the Roman Empire had no problem executing them, the Temple leaders proved they were not beyond murder – how much would they be able to take? This threat is not our threat today in our Napa context. Honestly, nobody gives much of a rip about our faith perspective unless we’re hateful toward people. Faithful, fruitful Christians are in the minority, but our lives are not threatened. At least not in the same way. More likely, we will be tempted to succumb to the cultural pressure that dominates our culture to be consumed with ourselves, with status, wealth, material possessions, and self-protection. In the United States, our faith may even be used to validate a range of “isms” that seem biblical but do not reflect the ethos of Jesus: racism and white supremacy, sexism, discrimination against foreigners (undocumented immigrants), the LGBTQ community, the poor, other religions, etc. If we are not wise to this phenomenon, we will most likely fall victim to it. Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He is right. If we are not vigilant and focused, there is no way we will stay true to our deepest convictions. Recalling Jesus’ words about the vine and branches, we remember that the point is staying on the Way of Jesus which keeps us connected to God. This means we choose in myriad ways to be close to God and, especially in our radically individualistic culture, we do it in community. Without community, we are like a red-hot ember pulled away from a fire. It will stay hot for a while, but without the community of other embers it will die out pretty quickly.
Jesus knew his time was essentially up. He could no longer be with them. His prayer released his loved ones into God’s care alone, asking – even demanding – that God care for them. There comes a point for us when we have to do this for those we love, because we never had control anyway, right?! When we do that, our relationship with them changes. They are allowed to be responsible people and our relationship equalizes. Plus, God answers the prayer. God will always be faithful to be with us at all times in powerful ways if we will see it. God will work through all the circumstances for good ends, even if the circumstance results in suffering and death. God is that powerful.
The disciples by this time had spent a number of years with Jesus, watching him, listening to him, soaking up everything that was at work in him. Sometimes they learned the hard way, after challenging Jesus directly or having their worldview challenged. In the end, they stayed faithful, most of them even when faced with martyrdom. I think that if asked, they would unequivocably state that even if their lives ended in death because of their association with Jesus, it was worth it. Being with Jesus changed them for good. I can state this for myself, and every devoted Jesus follower I’ve ever known would say the same thing. Even if the Way of Jesus leads us to personal sacrifice in myriad ways, the Way is worth it. Being in relationship with God isn’t easy. If we’re paying attention at all we will realize that we are invited into deeper and deeper levels of wellbeing, wholeness, shalom. We usually only realize this when something grabs our attention – our prejudice, mistakes, ego – and the Spirit of God invites us to choose the Way yet again.
There is one final song I encourage you to experience. The song, For Good, from the Broadway show Wicked, is a song of blessing from two characters who were not always aligned, yet in the end loved and respected each other enough to say to each other that their relationship changed them for good. I hope it resonates with some of you who have walked great distances on the Jesus path and are so much better for it. I hope it is a song of prophetic hope for some of you who are considering getting on (or back on) the Jesus path, because it is true.
Jesus prayed for you. He loved you enough to pray that you would remain committed, even in the face of great cultural pressure to the contrary. God loves you like a daddy rocking his baby to sleep, like a worried father concerned for his son facing battle, and as a friend who, like you, is shaped by relationship with you even as you are shaped by the relationship. Hear the love, feel the love, remain united because of this deep love. And go ahead and cry a little, too.
Questions to think about…
1. Have you ever had a “Bee Hive Hair Dryer” experience?
2. How does Jesus’ prayer change in significance when you understand the passion behind it?
3. How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a daddy rocking their baby to sleep with a lulabye?
4. How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a father worried about his son going into battle?
5. How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a friend who changes for good with you?
6. How do you stay “one” with the Father? How do you do your part not to be swayed by the World?