During a year I spent in South America I got to know a university student of roughly the same age as myself. Apart from that single similarity, our lives could not have been more different. His childhood and youth had been very tough and appeared to offer only limited prospects. At the sage of 15 he’d left school and worked for his uncle in a car body repair shop. Yet he harboured the vocation to be a doctor. Eventually he got to university – when I met him for the first time. During a conversation about his situation he told me that he lacked ‘respalda’. It wasn’t a word I knew and I needed to look it up. It means ‘support’ or ‘back up’. Unlike many of those he studied alongside, there was no avenue of parental support; no community from his past which could offer help; little that enabled him to keep his head above water. Thankfully, at university, he found the support of a church, and friends: today he is a well-established surgeon.
In Pulp’s song Common People we hear how the story of a woman wanting to ‘live like common people’ is challenged in several ways. However, the definitive obstacle to her achieving her stated ambition lies in the parental support she enjoys: “If you called your dad he could stop it all”. In reality this desire to experience the life of ordinary people is nothing more than a passing fad. As the lyrics bluntly put it: “Everybody hates a tourist”.
Knowing an emergency rescue is available alters our feelings about difficult situations. So long as it’s there we can never experience what it means to have no one to call – no emergency fund, get-out-of-jail free card or saviour. Sadly, all too many people in our world know what it is to lack ‘respalda’. Sharing something of ourselves to be support for others is one of the most constructive things we can do to make this a better world. At times it may cost us material effort, but mostly it will be our silent presence in someone’s life which reduces isolation and affirms both their dignity and worth. Without show or heroics, it can be transformative.
As we journey through Advent and draw nearer to Christmas, there is the opportunity for us to give thanks for the love and support we enjoy. When “the Word became flesh” it was not God among us as a tourist of mortal experience. On the cross there is no answered call which made the pain of life and death disappear. Jesus is truly and fully given into human experience, and shares life with us without a privileged route of miraculous removal. God is among us as our support, longing for us to use our gifts well and be at our best. This help is offered to us from within the experience of human living, not apart from it.
Walter Brueggemann calls Advent the “season of yearning”. It is the time when we hear of God’s desire for us to flourish as human beings – and learn to share that same longing for those around us. The late David Jenkins summed up the whole of the Bible with the simple phrase: ‘God is; and is for us’. As we come to the final weeks of an unimaginably difficult year, let us seek to know again what God’s being with us means, and how we need to live as those committed to the well-being of others.