I currently spend my days assisting staff at a nearby elementary school. Our team gets the call when students have serious issues with behavior or cooperation. This week, I was summoned to a normally tranquil kindergarten class, where a five-year-old was out of his seat, hiding in plain sight behind a giant smart board.
This was an odd scene, with the little guy attempting to cloak himself from a classroom filled with twenty curious onlookers and one aggravated teacher. But one look at the recoiling five-year-old filled me with a sense of connection and envy, for I too have days where I long for a smart board, a desk, or a table large enough to hide me. With this common understanding of the moment, I convinced the tyke to leave the comforts of his newly occupied shelter and take a water break with me. After our short walk, and a chance to review of our shared anxieties, he was back on the cooperative track. And as a bonus, I now have a new ally and a buddy.
My earliest childhood memories were mainly viewed from the underside of our family’s dining room table. I knew every detail of this seemingly immense structure. Its clawed feet intrigued me…as did the details of the crafty grooves and flourishes that ran up and down the legs and around the edges of the table. I even remember the pyrographic etching of the manufacturer’s name, done in bold, fancy lettering. For me, the underside of the table was a comforting refuge from a world that I didn’t understand, and one that certainly didn’t understand me.
The table was mine; my siblings didn’t need it. They seemed to have a much better grasp on the world. It felt like they were much more gifted, good looking, and brilliant. I was the nondescript, chubby kid with the darker brown skin in a family with members who preferred high yellow skin, thinner lips and “good hair.” So there, from my walnut fortress, I peeked, foraged, and explored at my own pace, scurrying out in times of safety and retreating when the world became too much.
I’m guessing the disciples in today’s Gospel reading were also nondescript. They were probably part of the general backdrop of peasant kids that comprise the landscape of streets and roads in struggling little villages and big cities. Peeking out from the immense and deeply embedded structures of social station, economic hardship, and colonial injustice, favor had moved them to stumble upon the Messiah, who had spent an eternity hidden in the plain sight of glory. For these disciples, the call from Christ to “follow me” must have seemed like an invitation to ride in the front seat of the car.
During my hiding-under-the-table days, I was always relegated to the rear-facing seat of the family station wagon, watching the scenery shrink behind me as the vehicle moved forward in mysterious directions. For kids like James, John, and me, a sit-up-front invitation from a trusted friend is liberating and exciting. That’s why I can understand their excited appeal to remain on the right and left of the driver. This wasn’t a power grab or a snub of the other disciples. It was, rather, a statement expressing the value of their relationship with their buddy. Surprised to be so loved, affirmed, and included by one with the power of healing, provision, and life, they simply wanted to ensure the up-front ride would continue into glory.
Yes, the ride upfront is often fraught with the pains and struggles that accompany the work of addressing the world’s ills and injustices, just as Jesus assured his young buddies. Yet the invitation is compelling, drawing us out from under the table, from behind the smart board and all the other barriers where we’ve sought refuge—our jobs, our status, or our excesses, to name just a few.
I have come to understand, as my new little buddy will soon recognize, that there is little chance we will truly understand this world. And there is much less of a chance the world will ever fully understand us. But, the trip is certainly worth it when we get to ride up front with a true friend who has lived our fears, feels our pain, and knows the way forward.