A Protestant minister was counseling two young children whose mother was gravely ill and thought to be dying. A sensitive and compassionate man, he urged them to pray and to trust in God. The children, raised in a good Christian home, eagerly accepted his advice and continued to pray, as they had been doing for a long time, but with increased hope based on his assurance.
Weeks went by, during which time the illness became a desperate struggle for survival and ended in her death. Around the time of the funeral, the article from which I got this story went on to say, the grieving children said to the pastor, “We thought that if we prayed, God would make Mommy well, but God didn’t do that. God let her die.” The pastor replied: “No, only her body died. God made your mother so well that this world wasn’t good enough for her anymore. Now she is living with God, and when that happens to you someday, you will be with her again and forever.”
It’s hard to forget a story like that, and I want you to know that I repeat it with both respect and caution. There is some truth in it, no doubt; but at the same time, it has to be interpreted with care because it suggests and reinforces the notion that God manages our lives, step by step, minute by minute. And that, I feel strongly, we can no longer believe.
Yet, in the minister’s words about God making the woman so well that this earthly existence was no longer good enough for her, we can see the phenomenon of transformation – a radical change in the person that moves her from one level of existence to another. And that’s about as good a definition of the spiritual aspect of death as I can find. We believe that that is what happens in our biological death: the cloud that surrounds and permeates our entire being here on earth is lifted, enabling us to see all things as God sees them, even to see God as we cannot in this life. This is the transformation that we call heaven.
So again, even though the good pastor’s words are not to be taken literally, that is to say, God was not engineering the progress of the fatal disease, his words do express in a very attractive and appealing way a fundamental belief which is at the core of our faith, namely, that we do pass over from life to life in death, a life that is pure light, with none of the darkness that we experience constantly here on earth.
Now consider Jesus’ words that we just heard: “Ask anything you want, and it will be granted you.” Those two little kids who lost their mother and the billions of others around the world who have prayed for relief from their painful tragedies to no avail would find Jesus’ words impossible to accept, or at the very least extremely baffling. Their real-life experience doesn’t seem to validate his promise. But, maybe this is where the minister’s words are most helpful: he has his finger on something we are apt to miss: that the wisdom of the Creator of this universe far surpasses our own, and that God’s care for us is infinitely more tender and comprehensive than our own care could ever be.
When we ask for something in particular, as the two children did, which is perfectly natural for us to do, it should always be with the understanding that we see only the
smallest part of the total reality embraced by God’s vision. The response to our plea will often enough not immediately satisfy our specific request. But our living in faith means that we really do believe that God is loving and wise beyond our comprehension and that in the end everything will work to our welfare. Jesus’ way of praying supports this point of view: “Not my will, but your will, be done” he said to God just before his crucifixion. And you may recall my telling you once that a high school classmate of mine said at the funeral of his 19-year-old daughter, “In this too God is only loving and merciful.”
The old song had it right: “Che sera sera.” What will be will be. I doubt that the author knew what a profound theological statement that is. Our prayers don’t change anything outside of us; they change only us. They broaden our vision and understanding so that when terrible things inevitably happen to us and those we love, there is no reason for us to despair, because we know that the power and love and wisdom of God are never absent from the human scene. Jesus might have said, “Ask anything you want, and in the end you’ll get a thousand times more. Be patient – and trust.”