Last week I heard an interview with Adrienne Haslet-Davis, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing. She was a ballroom dancer; she lost her leg in the bombing. Anderson Cooper spoke to after the judge pronounced the death sentence for the bomber. Ms. Haslet-Davis was an outspoken advocate for the death penalty in this case. She felt that justice must be done, and although I’m not a big fan of capital punishment, I certainly understand her feeling.
She expected to feel joy at the verdict, but instead she felt deep sadness. She wisely agreed with Anderson Cooper that the verdict could never bring what people call “closure.” Closure can never really come for a ballroom dancer with a prosthetic leg. Degrees of healing and acceptance might come, but not closure.
I find this to be true for any kind of wound: physical, emotional or spiritual. Of course we desire closure – to nail down the lid on any pain, seal it up tight as a tic, never to have to deal with it again. The fallout from an absent father, cheating spouse, ungrateful child never just gets closed up for good.
Nor do the regular slings and arrows of life we hear about in the Traveling Wilburys’ song: “Been beat up and battered round, been sent up, and I’ve been shot down…. handle me with care. I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled, I’ve been robbed and ridiculed, in day care centers and night schools, handle me with care.”
People are too leaky for closure. We’re shot through with leaks, leaks through which the thing you felt that you have decisively dealt with, once and for all, comes calling like a bad penny or a loan shark. We are more like the 60-year old windows in my house that need replacing. If you sit on the sofa in the living room by the windows on a cold winter night you better have a blanket ready. The windows are closed, they have “closure”, but plenty of air still leaks through. Instead of having closure, we need to be handled with care.
That brings us to today, which is Pentecost. This is the day we received the Holy Spirit. In our gospel reading today, Jesus talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is just Jesus’ presence with us today. This is why Jesus says the Holy Spirit will “take what is mine and declare it to you” and the Spirit will “testify on my behalf.” Although Jesus isn’t present in bodily form, obviously, He is still here with us through the Holy Spirit. He’s in day care centers and night schools, and everywhere else too.
The Greek word for the Spirit is “Paraclete”. It can be translated to mean a few things. The first is “one who comes along side of and consoles”. This is why Jesus calls His Presence the “Comforter.” Comfort is what we need when we don’t have closure. I need Someone to Handle Me With Care.
The word is found once in the Old Testament, in a negative way. It’s in the book of Job. When Job has been beat up and battered around, sent up and shot down, 3 of his friends come to visit. At first, things go well. They are so taken aback by Job’s suffering, that they just sit down on the ground with him and say nothing for 7 days.
Then they open their mouths to give Job advice. Maybe they think they are speak ing the truth to him in love. Job, you’ve clearly done something wrong. Job, your pride is in the way. Job, your sin is blocking your connection with God, that’s why bad things are happening. Get right with God, Job, and then you will have closure on all your troubles. None of this claptrap helps or comforts the suffering man. That is why Job calls this friends, “miserable comforters.” My guess is that you’ve had some experience with miserable comforters yourself.
The presence of Jesus is the presence of comfort. You have certain people in your life that you go to when you need comfort. These people do not tell you how to be a better person, or how you can learn from your mistakes or talk about iron sharpening iron. These people listen to you without judgment and maybe make you a sandwich and give you some coffee. These people are more interested in love than in truth. These people handle you with care. They are ready with a mop when everything leaks out of you that you thought you had closure on. These are people filled with the Holy Spirit. When you have been comforted you can be sure that you have been in the presence of Jesus.
The other translation of Paraclete is Advocate. That’s the word we have in our reading today. Jesus sends the Advocate to us from the Father. An advocate is one who intercedes on your behalf. In court, an advocate pleads your case and represents you. An advocate is for you. So the Holy Spirit not only comforts you, but is a top notch defense lawyer whose legal fees are waived. He works for you pro bono.
I heard an unbelievably moving story on a radio show that illustrates the presence of the comforting advocate in someone’s life. That someone is named Robert Davis, who tells his own story on the show. Mr. Davis was a police officer in New Orleans in the 1970’s. He was young and idealistic, but was soon confronted with the widespread corruption of the New Orleans police department. When he reported corrupt behavior to his supervisor, he was told to pretend it didn’t happen if he wanted to keep his job.
Davis wanted to keep his job. Soon he was corrupt too. He would arrest people and extort them for his own personal gain in exchange for dropping his trumped up charges. This went on few several years, until he was caught in a sting operation. He was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Davis remarks that the prison system in the 70’s was corrupt too. He felt he would be killed if he went to prison and was confronted by 40 or so people that he had sent there. So instead of going to prison, Mr. Davis decided to go on the lam. He left everything behind and took of to live in the woods, always moving from place to place. He learned to catch his own food and survive outside. He had no contact with anyone, anywhere.
Mr. Davis says he was so scared the first night that when I felt something touching his leg, he grabbed his pistol and was ready to shoot. Only then did he realize what was touching his leg was his other leg. But after a while, he acclimated to this refugee life. He says he began to change. He said, “after 5 years I was heartless, and after 10 years I was an animal.” His toenails would grow so long that he would have to curl up and bite them off. That’s a vivid image of a man, all alone, living in the woods, turning into an animal.
After 18 years, he came across another guy in the woods. It was this guy’s first night and he too was fleeing from the law. Davis told him about his life in the woods. The guy was so alarmed that he might turn into someone like Davis, that he broke down in sobs and left the next day to turn himself in. He would rather go to jail then live like an animal.
After 22 years in the woods, Davis began to think about going back into society and turning himself in too. He said, “I began to test God. I would say, if there is a God, this plant should be closed when I get back to my camp. And then it would be closed. The next day, I said, “this same plant should be open. And it would be open.” Finally, he put a rock on top of a can outside his tent. He said, “if I wake up and the rock is gone, I’m going to turn myself in.” In the morning, the can was there but the rock was gone.
He hopped a train to New Orleans to give himself up.
When he got to the police station and turned himself in, he was told that nobody could find any chargers against him. He was free to go. But Davis’ conscience was too strong. He led them to the basement archive and found the file against him. He was put in custody, and given a court date with the toughest judge.
In court, the judge asked, “Are you guilty of the crime?” He replied, “Not only that, but many other crimes. I want to account for everything I did wrong.” Davis was guilty, and he needed an advocate. The advocate turned out to be the tough judge. She declared him guilty, sentenced him to prison, but then suspended the entire sentence. She said that he had served his time already with his 22 years in the woods. He was free to go. Robert Davis now spends his time working against police corruption.
The Advocate who comforts was with Davis in the woods on his own, in the face of the man who turned himself in after one night, in the rock on the can, and most clearly in the judge who suspended the charges. This same Spirit is here today, ready to handle you with care. Amen.