My little boy recently confused my announcement that I was heading to an appointment that afternoon with news that I was somehow going overseas and leaving him behind. I don’t know how this miscommunication occurred, but he was devastated. And once I figured out that we were talking about completely different things, I was able to assure him that I’d only be gone for a couple of hours, not the indeterminate amount of time he was envisioning.
My son is heading towards a significant life change —he’s about to start school— and with this knowledge that his world is about to irrevocably alter, he’s announcing his still-existent need for us through his sudden inability to put on his own socks, or fill his drink bottle, or brush his own teeth. This sudden regression feels infuriating, and of course we encourage him to still do those basic jobs for himself, but in working through my irritation I’ve recognised my own need to be helped, to be witnessed.
When trying to explain to my boy that I’d only be gone for a tiny chunk of the afternoon rather than travelling away from him and leaving him alone resulted in him asking the question of who was going to ‘guard’ him whilst I was out. He never asks who is going to ‘look after’ him; he asks who will guard him. And this specific lexical choice is telling. He knows it’s our job to look after him, or the people we entrust to look after him to also take his safety seriously. He also wanted my assurance that I wasn’t leaving him behind, that I’d always be there with him.
I promised him I’d never leave my son, that I’d always be there to keep him safe. And even as I was saying it, I felt an internal twinge at giving such definitive assurance. The truth is, I don’t know what lays ahead in the future, but I needed him to feel protected, to trust that my love is enough.
As the dust settled from that surprising conversation, Jesus’ similar promise came to mind from Matthew 28:20: ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ I wondered whether it was a similar need in his disciples that compelled Jesus to make a promise that he could keep and I couldn’t. Whether they had a similar not-quite-toddler desperation to have him present and close forever. His followers had just witnessed Jesus murdered and were stunned to encounter his presence again. I can empathise with their need to hold on tight, their reticence to let him ascend to the sky and leave them again. And rather than the benign platitude I’d read that verse as over the years, it came alive to me as something Jesus articulated in response to the desperation in his people. They were scared, they were venturing into some wild times, they couldn’t go back to a pre-Jesus normal. They needed him close and powerful.
My son needs that too, but I’m not Jesus. I can offer him parental comfort, not universal significance. And I, too, want assurance that the world is safe. That the scary things of politics and climate and disease won’t touch me. I also want to know that the place I find security is not about to jump on a plane to Hawaii and leave me behind. That’s why there is such relief in that verse. All-knowing Jesus can promise his never-changing presence and mean it. What a kind response he gave to his disciples’ fear of abandonment. What a gift we can continue to hold onto. He is always with us, through it all, whether we feel it or not. Whether we believe it or not. Whether it make sense or not. Such comfort in times like these.