I took my car in to get the oil changed a couple of days ago. Things were a little slow at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning and Alex, the man who checked me in, was full of stories which he was eager to share. It was clear that this one in particular is one he is particularly proud of and it took neither prodding nor invitation to get him to tell it to the handful of us waiting for our cars to be serviced.
It seems Alex grew up in a small town in southern Wisconsin some years ago now. His parents’ best friends had a six year old who was being bullied. Every day as he was walking to school a group of older kids would ambush him and steal his lunch money. Desperate to keep him safe, his parents talked to their best friends who roped their son, who was a few years older and a whole lot bigger than their son, into walking him to school. Indeed, the man who now manages the place where I get my oil changed, was that little boy’s protector.
It turns out that when that little boy grew up, he ran for Vice-President. Alex went to one of his campaign rallies a few years ago and managed to get close enough to speak to him, calling him by a childhood nickname. But the candidate pulled his old protector close and said, “It’s Paul. My name is Paul.”
What interests me about this story is not so much that a little boy needed protection on his way to school. We all have times and places when this is so. No, what captured my attention was his strong desire to leave any reminder of that hard time far behind him. No doubt, Alex’s very appearance at his campaign rally brought to mind the unwelcome memory of a time when he was vulnerable — and ironically, at a moment in time in his life when he felt he could show no weakness. Indeed, I expect he felt his entire future depended upon it. And perhaps it did. (Indeed, I can’t say as I blame him, really. I know that I, too, cringe to remember the names and the faces of the two girls who made my life miserable in the 7th grade.)
So as I hear Jesus’ promise for us today, I expect it goes without saying that none of us wants to be ‘orphaned.’ No one looks to be vulnerable, in need of protection, or in particular, as was in the case of the disciples to whom Jesus first spoke these words, without the presence of their beloved master and leader, guide and friend. In fact, Jesus knew this even before the disciples did as he speaks to them in today’s reading. Oh yes, he knew that they and we would need more than the memory of who he was to carry us forward. He knew that we, too, would need an Advocate, a Protector, a Teacher, a Guide in the Holy Spirit promised now. Otherwise, we might well find ourselves much like a little boy walking alone to school — vulnerable to the vagaries of all the bullies of this world and unable, perhaps, to grow into all that we were created to be.
Now young Paul, of course, was not ‘orphaned’ — even though he may have felt like he was. He had parents who were looking out for him and who, in this instance, called in the help of long time friends to change the course of his first grade year. Indeed, it seems to me it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Alex, who grew up to run the shop where I get my oil changed, may have looked a lot like the promised Holy Spirit now. Just by walking alongside him, Alex stood between a little boy and the bullies who would take his lunch money, making sure he got safely to school.
And at the same time, Alex, as a twelve year old in a small town in Wisconsin, was in a very real way ‘keeping the commandments’ Jesus speaks of now. At the direction of his parents, to be sure, he was loving another as he would have wanted to be loved when he was also six. And he became a reflection, a living example of what God would have us all be and do. And somehow Jesus is present in that. Oh yes, somehow we get a sense of what and who the Holy Spirit is for us and all the world.
It’s hard, I know, to acknowledge our need for this. We don’t want to be reminded that perhaps we are all, still, very much like a six year old in need of someone to walk us to school. And yet, as I allow myself to recognize that truth in me, I am able, without judgment and with deeper sensitivity, to see that need in others, too. For sometimes, oh yes, I sense Jesus’ promise kept to me — and I know beyond reason or explanation that the Holy Spirit is right beside me. More often though, I have to say, I recognize this remarkable gift of God in the active presence of others — who are living in kindness and compassion. And I am reminded then that I am called to be and do the same — that perhaps the promised Holy Spirit might just show up in and through me, too. Again, not unlike a certain twelve year old walking a six year old to school.
- Can you recall a time when someone walked alongside you as protection? Can you remember the last time you were called upon to do the same for another? Can you see how that may have been a reflection of the promised Advocate in our Gospel now?
- Think with me about this. What is it in us that makes us want to deny our need for protection, advocacy, or guidance such as Jesus promises now?
- Have you known yourself to be ‘orphaned’ in any way? How has that deepened your understanding of others in such circumstances? How have you known God’s protection and care in those times? How are you called upon to live as that for others?