Wasteful Living

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?”-Mark 14:3-4

We were just sitting in the square waiting for the children and teens. It was too hot for us to walk around looking for them. There was no one around yet but we know that they always come to this particular square. We just decided to just wait. Today we did not bring much stuff with us. We just had some coloring books and we wanted to do a quiet activity. We figured that if we started coloring without them, maybe they might just come and join us without any prompting from us. Sure enough, our quiet activity attracted someone. It was a lanky teenager named Filipe who seemingly appeared out of nowhere. He has lived in the streets for a long time. He just turned 18 but he still acts and behaves like a child. I don’t mean that he is immature. He has been to maintain his innocence throughout this time. It is quite a miracle. Filipe always has a smile for us. He treats us with the uttermost respect but at the same time, he is one of the most closed teenagers. He hardly shares anything about his past and rarely participates in any activity with us. We were really surprised when he asked if he could color as well. We had a coloring book that was for older teens and adults and it was supposed to be a therapeutic coloring book. All I can say about it was that it was very relaxing for me to just sit there and color. Filipe sat down next to us and started coloring in silence. Then Dreyson appeared. He is another tough teenager. He always high on something and it is hard to engage him in any conversation. He watched us quietly for a while sniffing paint thinner in a plastic bottle. He decided to put away the paint thinner and asked if he could color as well. A few others came and did the same. We sat there in the square coloring different figures and pictures. It must have been strange for those who walked by us. Some must wonder why we are wasting our time coloring when we should be doing something more productive. Well, it was a good afternoon of holy waste. It was productive as well. We were very grateful for it.

A lot of things we do can be considered a waste of time. There are people who might consider missionary work as a waste of time and money. If these people saw us sitting around and coloring, they might even argue that we are proving their point. I won’t try to argue my way out of this one. Instead I will say that they are right. “Yes”, it is a waste of time and money. There are many things we do in life which are a waste of time and money. A church building is a waste of time and money. Why do we need to have a building to meet? For that matter, why do we even need to meet together for worship? In this age of internet and technology, wee can just transmit all that we need to hear and see through the computer or mass media. There is no need for buildings, no need for priests or ministers. In fact, is there really a need for religion? Many secular groups can do charitable works. We don’t need the church to do these, things. We have counselors who are better trained to help people than priests and ministers. If we were really pragmatic, we don’t need many of things we spend time and money on in this world. Even prayers can be considered a waste of time. Jesus Himself said that God knows what we need before we pray, so why bother praying? There are also other things we do on a daily basis that can be considered a waste of time and money, like reading, drinking coffee, and watching TV. There are a lot of things in life that do not appear to be necessary. If we did away with all these things Life would be colorless and empty. Perhaps, what appears to be a waste might be necessary to help us appreciate that which is precious and wonderful in Life.

Perhaps I could be doing something else with my life at this age than sitting on the filthy floor of a square and coloring with kids. This might appear to be a waste of talent. However, for us, it is one of the most enriching moments of our life. Filipe got done before the rest and he sat there with the rest of the children and took out a bible from his bag. He started reading from the Psalms. I never knew that he had a bible and he liked reading from it. When I asked him if he had a favorite Psalm, he smiled and said that he liked whatever he read. Another older teenager, Caio started sharing that he loves to listen to the street preachers just to hear something significant and then he shares it with the others. Filipe then took out a book about a drug addict who managed to kick his addiction through the strength of his faith. He gave the book to Mary and asked if she would read it and then talk about it with them. Dreyson also started opening up. He shared about his family. He told us that he has eight brothers and sisters. His younger brother, Daniel, also in the streets, has a twin sister living at home. He talked about his life at home and this was the first time he shared anything personal with us. He just did it without any prompting from us. I could go on and on but I won’t. All my years of seminary training has never really taught the lesson I think I am learning in the streets that intentionally ‘wasting time’ to be with people can be very productive. We felt such a strong bond being fostered between us and the children. They figured that if we were willing to waste our time by sitting around with them that they must be special to us. There is no other way to show how special someone is to us unless we are willing to put away so called important things and just waste time with them. What others perceive as waste is worth its price in gold in the language of Love.

The message of the gospel is a message of Holy Waste. God wasted His Son’s life for the very people who murdered Him. It was this willingness to throw His life away for a brood of ungrateful people that made the centurion say,“This man truly was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39) If we never willing to waste our time and energy on people, we will never discover the meaning of the gospel. The Truth revealed in the words of Jesus are found in holy wasting. It is discovered when we give ourselves to doing things or maybe not doing anything for the sake of being with someone whom we love.

A Christian once asked me why he should be helping a missionary work in foreign land when it would not bring any benefit to his local community? I think such a question is revealing. It shows that perhaps we have not understood the depth of the gospel. This person is not ready for missionary work in any shape or form. He needed to understand the gospel first. Not just intellectually, but he has to allow the Truth of the gospel to penetrate into his being. Then he would understand that he wouldn’t be able to experience the depth of God’s love if someone hadn’t wasted their time and energy to bring the Truth of the gospel to him. I am here in Brazil because someone wasted their time to share the power of the gospel to me. The gospel compels us to waste our time for something greater and more powerful than what our physical eyes can perceive. It compels us to see a different set of values present in which there is no such thing as wasteful time when it helps to bring out the true value of one’s personhood.


Respecting the Freedom of Others

Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”- Genesis 2:15-17

Why did God place the tree in the garden? This question often comes whenever we study this text; I asked the same question when I was a boy. My Catechism teacher said that it was because God wanted to test us. The answer that worked for a young boy does not make sense to me as an adult. Terms like omniscience did not mean anything to me then but as an adult, they change the way I understand this story. If God knows everything, then He does not need to test us to find out if we love Him. First and foremost, this story wasn’t written for children, but for mature adults. There is something deep and profound about this story which we can miss if we are obsessed with the tree. We need to look beyond the presence of the tree. The tree is a mere symbol. It is symbol of our freedom.

God made humans free agents. In order to be truly free, they must have the capacity to reject Him. The tree was this option. St. John reveals to us that the essence of God’s nature is Love. Every action of God is motivated by Love. The placing of the tree is an act of Love. It is to guarantee that humanity has the freedom to accept or reject God. Therefore, freedom is an essential part of Love. There cannot be true love if there is no freedom.

Igor was doing well for a while at the halfway house. He managed to stay there for almost a year. He even started to believe that there was a future for him beyond the streets. Unfortunately, Igor and Ana Paula terminated their five year relationship and this resulted in an existential crisis for Igor. We tried to respect their privacy and did not pry into the causes and reasons of this sad occurrence. We just dealt with the aftermath. Igor was emotionally crushed. He found himself once again alone in this world. Ana Paula had been his family all these years and now she had given up on him and returned to the streets. Igor refused to regress to his old life. He still wanted to hold onto the possibility of having a better life. After many frank conversations together, he decided to learn a trade. Since, he had always liked cutting his friends’ hair, he asked if we would help him find a hair stylist school.

We had some contacts in this area and found a wonderful project that trained people from all walks of life to work in high end hair salons. This school gave scholarships to young people like Igor and even though there was a waiting list, they made a special concession for us and gave Igor a full scholarship. Everything worked out perfectly and it was like a dream come true. Sad to say, the dream did not last long. Igor begin to regress emotionally into his old street ways before the course begin and eventually gave up in the first week of the course without reason or cause. Then he just simply disappeared. It was only a few weeks after that we learned that he was living with a Pentecostal pastor and his family. The teens in the streets had seen him and they said that he had become a pentecostal preacher. This was later confirmed by other groups working in the streets. All this happened in a span of a month. I would like to be honest and say that I am not sure about it. I do believe that change can happen. We would not be doing this ministry if we do not believe in this. Igor has changed radically over the period we have known him. However, I don’t think that he should be in the pulpit. We don’t want Igor to be setting himself up for failure. Igor is doing what he thinks is best for him within his capacity. We believe that God can use this situation to do something incredible in his life. This is a possibility. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Igor threw away a good opportunity with the school. He is not going to get a second chance in this respect. It wasn’t easy to get him into this school in the first place but it is his freedom to choose what he wants to do with his life.

To be brutally honest, we were disappointed with Igor. We were upset that he just gave up without even talking to us about it. We also felt a little abandoned. After the initial shock, we started to reflect on our work here. We are not here to force anyone to accept our help. To a certain extent, we aren’t here to take anyone out of poverty. We don’t have the resources for this and even if we did, we are not here for this purpose. We don’t believe that all problems are resolved when people are financially better. This is perhaps a simplistic way that some ideologies look at reality. It is not the reality that brought us to this place. It is not the reality that makes churches invest in the lives of people that they will never see or be benefited by. God opened our eyes and ears to perceive a new reality. This reality is only made palpable when we learn to love our neighbors the way God loves us. God does this first and foremost by respecting our freedom. He respects our freedom even when we choose to hate Him. God does not change His love and affection when we use our freedom in a detrimental way. Jesus told us,

“A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” -John 13 : 34

God loved us without disregarding our freedom.

Respecting the freedom of others also means freeing them to do what they deem as right for them even when it can seem to be obviously wrong from our perspective. When Jesus calls us to be servants, it means that we need to recognize the process of growth in people and ourselves. We need to realize that we also make decisions based on our limited wisdom and what we think is good may not necessarily be the absolute Truth. This does not automatically mean that every decision is valid. It only means that none of us have a monopoly on the Truth. Respecting the freedom of others keeps us in check. It humbles us to admit that we might not have everything figured out. Besides, if we are going to follow the footsteps of Jesus in our service, then we need to respect the gift of freedom that God given to all human beings.

As I was writing this post, Igor stopped by for a surprise visit. It had been two months since we last saw him. He came to apologize for leaving the course without talking with us. He wanted us to know that he appreciated our help. He asked if we would continue to walk with him. We said “yes” but now we are perhaps a little wiser than before. We are walking together with Igor knowing that he has the freedom to accept or reject our help. It does not really matter if he accepts our help. It only matters that he knows that he is loved and perhaps this love will empower him to use his freedom for achieve virtuous things in life.