A spirit next to you

May 26, 2014 by

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Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
— Christina Rossetti

One of the gifts of spiritually mentoring children is the opportunity to revisit my own childhood experiences. For instance, the simple assurance that “Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though it makes him very sad,” means more to me now than as a child.



Of course, there are more negative memories as well. Like how I dreaded the opening strains of “Jesus is a friend, he’s a friend next to you.”

The song involved touching other people, usually virtual strangers at summer camp. I’d never been a fan of random hugs and certainly not of scratching others’ backs or pinching cheeks, as the song dictated.

What is more, the song didn’t make sense. A friend was someone who played with you at recess and guarded your secrets. A friend picked you first for their baseball team even though they knew they’d bury you in right field.

At 10 years old I had no evidence that Jesus did any of those things.

In middle and high school, the idea that Jesus was my friend morphed into “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” This analogy was also unhelpful.

A relationship means there is some kind of call and response. Having a conversation with an invisible Jesus felt pretty much like talking to myself.

Jesus was a real man whose sandaled feet stirred up dust in the roads of Palestine. He was a man who physically died, physically came back to life and physically left this physical Earth.

He made certain there was no doubt of any of those things. Jews and Gentiles witnessed his crucifixion. He returned from the dead — and ate fish and got poked and prodded as proof.

Likewise, there was intentionality in Jesus’ final exit. He took special care that human eyes saw his human body rise up into heaven.

Sometimes I’ve wondered why Jesus had to leave so quickly. He could have continued his ministry on Earth for another couple of decades. Why, for that matter, did he have to leave at all?

Jesus explained: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”

Yet this raises the question: Why is it better to have the Advocate (or Holy Spirit) over Jesus? Surely we would be better Christians if the Teacher were available for counseling and Bible study.

I think Jesus knew that as long as he was around, humans would choose body over spirit. We would look first for the healings, the bread and fish multiplied, the raising of the dead. We would not be able to see past the literal and fully grasp the spiritual.

We see this in the disciples’ last earthly interaction with Jesus.

Just after Jesus told them to wait for the gift of the Spirit, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus had just spent 40 days, in his resurrected body, speaking about the kingdom of God. Could it be true that they were still fixated on a geographic, political kingdom?

Analogies are powerful. When I call Jesus my friend I expect him to behave as an earthly friend would. What I do not expect is to be fundamentally changed; an earthly friend has no power to do that.

The Holy Spirit does not come cook me dinner, though it may send “a friend next to you” with a casserole. But it does use its attributes of counselor, comforter, advocate and truth to transform my body and spirit into a kingdom citizen.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Asheville, N.C.

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