Liturgical Expressions

And it came to pass, in his being in a certain place praying, as he ceased, a certain one of his disciples said unto him, `Sir, teach us to pray, as also John taught his disciples.’- Luke 11:1

The train was chugging along slowly. It was just the right speed for Bruno and Felipe to climb aboard into one of the empty wagons. Felipe had done this several times. Bruno was still a novice. He is not one to make frequent trips to the beaches like the other children and teens. Once he got there, he realized why he never liked the beach. The children go to one of the most polluted beaches in the coast of São Paulo. There is nothing attractive there. I think that the excitement of going to the beach was actually better than the place itself. A major part of the journey to and fro was in cargo trains. Felipe and Bruno were on their way back to the city.

All the wagons looked the same to Bruno, but they were different. Some wagons were reserved for sacks of sugar and they had an entrance on the side which was fairly easy to open. Others were cylinder shaped and had an entrance on the top. Only Filipe knew which was which. They were running along side and it was raining heavily. This slowed down Felipe a little and Bruno managed to jump onto the train first. He held on to the bottom of the ladder at the side of a wagon. He held out his hand to Felipe but before he could grab onto it the train picked up the speed. It happened so fast that Bruno nearly fell and he had to use both hands to hold securely to the train. His friend could not keep up anymore and eventually gave up. The heavy raindrops were beating on his face mercilessly and everything was wet and slippery. Bruno couldn’t see anything clearly. He quickly climbed up the ladder and found himself on top of the wagon. He just wanted to get to a safe and dry place. He saw the entrance lid and with much effort he opened it. It was dark below and he can’t really remember how but the next thing he knew was that he was at the bottom of the wagon. As he landed on the floor, he cut his chin. The pain and shock caused him to faint.

He woke up after what felt like a few hours and realized what had happened. He searched for a door or exit in the dark wagon but there was only the one above him. There was no ladder. He felt something like seeds on the floor and he picked them up and realized that they were dried corn kernels. He knew what was going to happen. He had seen it before. The opening on the top was where they would funnel the corn into the wagon and fill it to the brim. He remembered hearing about some children being buried alive under corn and now he was facing a similar fate. The prospect of a painful death made him feel desperate and lost. He has had a tough life but he still enjoyed his life. He did not want to die and especially alone and forgotten in the wagon. The train made several stops and each time Bruno frantically banged and kicked on the walls hoping someone would hear on the other side but no one did. His only hope was prayer. He prayed and prayed for a miracle. However, at each stop nothing happened. He had some water with him. He took a sip each time and tried to conserve as much he could. He wasn’t sure how long he was going to stuck in the wagon.

After spending days in the train, he heard a noise from below him at one of the stops. He heard some voices and then a bright light coming out from the floor. There was another opening which could only be accessed from the outside. The voices belonged to people who were stealing the residual corn on the bottom of the wagon. Bruno yelled at them to help him but the people ran away thinking that it was the police or maybe even a ghost. Bruno crawled out of the tiny opening and yelled at the people to stop running. Finally an older woman came back to help him. Bruno hugged her and told her that she was an answer to his prayers. The woman took him to her home and fed him and took care of him for a few days. He was in another city far away from São Paulo. It took him a whole month to return the city.

Bruno just recently acquired a new notebook. For most of children, a notebook is not something they would treasure but Bruno is different. He is a learner. He notes down everything he learns and most of it is in English. He is highly motivated to learn English. Everyday he is asking us to explain certain English phrases that he was heard from songs or movies. His old notebook was torn and tattered from much use. Someone gave him a new notebook and he wanted to show it us. In the first page, he wrote down a simple prayer: ”Thank you, God, for giving one more day to live and enjoy Life.” He told us that everyday when he wakes up he says this simple prayer. He had told us the story of his close brush with death a couple of days prior. We know that this prayer that he wrote is not just something that came out of conventional wisdom but it was something that came from his own personal experience. Bruno is truly grateful for his life.

Many people would look at Bruno’s life and his clothes and the places where he sleeps and think that it is not much of a life. I have heard people say that it would have been much better if these children had not been born at all then for them to suffer such a fate. However, Bruno wanted so desperately to live when he was faced with the prospect of death. He did not just want to live but he enjoys his life. His prayer of gratitude comes from his own life experience. Many go through life without a thought of gratitude for their lives. They might have some complaints and frustrations about things they have or do not possess but Bruno is filled with gratitude just to be alive. However, this does not mean that his life is wonderful. It is not wonderful and he might be happy but it is still not enough. Maybe this sounds judgmental on my part. I don’t believe that Bruno should have the kind of life that I lead. I think that Bruno knows that there is more to life than what he has known so far. He has formulated a prayer to give thanks for what he understands now about his life. It is a good prayer. However, it is just a start.

Everyday we start our work with a simple prayer. We never wrote it down but it is the same everyday almost word for word. It has become our own liturgical prayer that came out of our life experiences in the streets. It summed up what we sense God is calling us to do. We ask God to give us an opportunity to share His love with one child and teach us to discern His presence in this child’s life. Without fail, we get to spend time with at least one boy or girl who tends to show us the presence of the living God in our midst. For the past few weeks, this boy has been Bruno. He shared his story with us on one of these occasions. I believe that both our prayers have brought us together: Bruno’s recognition of the gift of his life and our desire to discover the immensity of God’s love through our interaction with the children. However, there is one prayer that is the foundation of all our actions. It is the prayer that came out of Jesus’ life experience.

The disciples understood that prayers are not just words spoken spontaneously but liturgical expressions based on life experiences. Jesus prayed the same prayer daily because it reflected everything He understood about life. Bruno says the same prayer daily because of the experiences that he has had. We say the same prayers because of our experiences in the streets. However, our prayers are not just about our experiences but they are about our encounter with God. The disciples saw that Jesus had a deeper and more profound understanding of God. They wanted to learn the way Jesus prayed so that they could experience God in the way He knew the Father. They wanted to make his prayer their very own and Jesus offered it to them.

Prayer shapes the way we understand our reality. Bruno never really considered the wonder and beauty of life until the moment he was stuck in the wagon. Being saved from this incident made him realize that life is a gift. Perhaps it is this realization that draws him to people who would help him discover its beauty. When Bruno shared his prayer wth us, he invited us to participate in this journey with him. When Jesus shared his prayer with us, He did the same. Prayers are not mere words but they are religious expressions of life experiences. In a way, Bruno has helped me discover a different way at looking at prayer especially the Lord’s prayer. It is not a religious formula but it is an invitation to discover the wealth and depth of this gift that is called Life.

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Living Faith

‘Whoever may receive this child in my name, doth receive me, and whoever may receive me, doth receive Him who sent me, for he who is least among you all — he shall be great.’-Luke 9:48

The subject of discussion among Jesus’ disciples was greatness. It is an universal subject. From the time of our birth, our parents aspire greatness for us. It would be sad if they didn’t. Young parents dream of greatness for their children. They always tend to think that their children are extremely intelligent even though the rest of the world might have a different opinion on the subject. Parent use bumper stickers boasting that their child is a honor student and there seems to be an abundance of honor students recently. The average student must be a minority. In a month’s time, we will watch the Olympic games and we will remember the Gold Medalists who will be hailed as heroes and role models. The ones that win the silver and bronze medals don’t really get the same attention. Only number one counts.

Our children living in the streets share the same aspirations. Maybe they don’t desire to be a gold medalist or a genius but they want to be successful enough to escape the stigma of extreme poverty. They see the approval in people’s eyes when someone drives by in a fancy car. They can see people treated differently when their clothes and appearance bears the markings of financial success. They see wealth as a sign of greatness because it has the power to get them out of poverty.

The desire for greatness is something inherent in humans. We may have different ways of defining greatness but the desire is universal. Perhaps it is something linked with the consciousness of our mortality and finitude. People who have achieved great things are remembered. Perhaps our desire to be great is a desire to be remembered even after we are gone.

Whenever I read the above verse, I always think about my friend, Victor. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. He died tragically in a motorcycle accident about fifteen years ago. I met him while I served in the military in Singapore. He came from a troubled background. In his early teens, he was arrested for being involved in street brawl with a rival gang. He was put on probation for two years. As part of his probation program he was required to do some volunteer work and was sent to a group home for adults with severe Down syndrome. Living most of my life in large cities, I have had the privilege of knowing people with Down Syndrome and usually the ones I know are very independent. However, this wasn’t the case of the adults in the group home where Victor volunteered. Their state was so severe that they could not perform the basic bodily functions without assistance. Victor spent his weekends with these young people. After his probation, he continued working there and he was there every Saturday until the day he died. This work became the highlight of his week. He invited me to visit this home with him one Saturday. He wanted me to meet his friends. I can clearly remember my first impression. I felt overwhelmed by these young people’s disabilities. Many of them could hardly speak. They tried to say something to me but I could not understand a single word. Victor, on the other hand, understood these gentle people perfectly. He proudly introduced each one of them to me. He cherished each one because they saved his life and he is forever indebted to them. Victor received these little ones and his life was transformed. Victor was not a Christian but he was always curious about the gospels. He read them several times over and we often had deep and enriching conversations about Jesus together. All I can say is that Victor loved Jesus but he died a Buddhist.

Jesus said that in order to be great in the Kingdom of God, we need to receive a child in his name. Receiving is not to be confused with tolerating. We can tolerate the presence of children but we may not receive them. We can extend this to the presence of the homeless in our congregation or women in leadership and the list could go on and on. We can tolerate all these people but it does not mean that we receive them. We can only receive from someone when we believe that they have something valuable to contribute. Jesus is saying something radical then and today. Almost all books on leadership will tell us that in order to be successful, we need to surround ourselves with successful people so that we can receive their inspiration and aptitude for success. The underlying meaning is that we need to distance ourselves from the not so successful people. Jesus tells us to receive children who have yet to prove themselves in the world. The significance of this could only mean that the Kingdom of God doesn’t gauge success and failure according to the standards of the world but according to the understanding of who Jesus is.

Children understand their faith in a different way than adults. There is nothing remarkable about this observation. The problem is that most of the time we only appreciate the way adults understand faith. As adults, we have a tendency to reduce faith into something theoretical. We tend to reduce faith into something doctrinal or membership in a church. We reduce theology as something reserved for the experts or leisure reading and discussions. We are satisfied with limiting our faith to ritualistic practices. Whereas children are constantly trying to figure how their faith fits into the world they live. They are truly theologians in this sense. If we read classical theologians, they will see that they deal with questions that children commonly ask. Maybe we don’t realize this or pay attention to this. Maybe this is because we don’t receive children. We don’t realize that their questions about God, even though they might seem absurd and frustrating, come from a dialogue that they are having with their faith and the reality in which they find themselves. Adults tend to settle for simplistic answers but children keep questioning and questioning until an adult forces them to accept simplistic answers. However, when we receive their questions with seriousness, we will discover that they have something valuable to contribute to us. They can help us to remember that living faith is a dialogue with our reality. Adults think that children must be entertained in church so that church would be fun. This is perhaps harsh statement but I will leave it here. It is something for us to ponder because it is detrimental to their faith if their religious experience is reduced to fun. There is room for play but it should only serve to help the children be comfortable enough to ask questions about faith.

None of our children in the streets are atheists. They have had hard lives but we never heard anyone of them blame God. It is because they are a living faith in God. They did not settle for simplistic solutions. They don’t think that they are in the center of God’s universe. They are still trying to figure out where their place is in this universe. However, they need to find someone who is willing to just listen to them. They will stop asking questions when there is no one that listens to them. When we listen to these children, they help us get in touch with an aspect of our faith which was dormant for some time. About twenty years ago a young boy told me that God was His everything. I did not take him seriously. I thought that he had just repeated what he had heard from other adults. Maybe he did, but I will never know. Now I know better. I will listen the next time this happens. My friend, Victor, discovered in the young adults with whom he worked the joy of living. He received them. He listened to them. God opened his eyes to see that their severe disability did not hinder them from knowing their place in this universe. They loved their lives and Victor learned to treasure his own through them. Mary and I are learning to receive these children and they are teaching us to see the beauty of this life. We need our children as much as they need us to understand how our God works in our life. We need to receive children to save ourselves from reducing the gospel into a set of doctrines and rituals. The children need us to help them formulate the questions they have about their place in the wonderful existence that God has given us.

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Intimate Silence

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

It takes a while to get accustomed to noise and São Paulo is a noisy city. Where we live, there is never hiatus from the hustle and bustle of downtown city life. There are always cars honking, loud engines of buses and trucks, the police sirens followed by the blaring ambulances, and not to forget the endless supply of drunk people who think that they have wonderful singing voices. We live on the first floor and there is a stop light just outside our window. Every time there is a red light we are tormented by the music that blares out of the cars. Sometimes people park their cars below our apartment building and blast their favorite music from the car stereos. It almost never the kind of music that I enjoy and most frequently the kind that I detest; such is life. This is a noisy city. It is a typical city. There is never moment of silence.

The children sleep under a highway bridge now. They were kicked out of the square when they had been sleeping for the past three months. They are back under the noisy bridge. It is dark and dirty. Rats and cockroaches are their companions. The highway is always busy day and night. It is a dangerous place for a pedestrian to cross and it is not uncommon for our children to get hit by cars while crossing. The noise is unbearable but they claim that they are accustomed to it. I am not sure if it is possible. Maybe it has become comforting to them.

I have been to the home of a family that lived in extreme poverty but they had a TV and a radio. I don’t believe these were purchased. Someone gave these to them. People tend to be very generous with the non-essentials of life. When we visited them, they had both the TV and the radio on at full volume and yet no one was watching or listening. When we sat down to talk, they did not even want to lower down the volume. Finally, I asked them to turn it off so that we could talk. Then the silence invaded our space as aggressively as the noise. It was quite intimidating. We sat there and faced each other in the uncomfortable silence. It confronted the true nature of our relationship with this family. It was not one that was comfortable to be with each other in the silence. I did not realize this until the noise was gone.

Our time with the children can be uncomfortable sometimes. There are times when they just don’t know what to say to us. They just sit with us in silence. Most of the time, we, the adults, fill this empty space with questions. They are always the same questions. Where do you live? What do your parents do? How long have you been in the streets? Don’t you miss your family? etc. At one point, we convinced ourselves that these questions are essential in building our relationship with them. In reality, most of the children and teens with whom we have a strong relationship have never said anything about their past. Most of my good friends here do not know anything about my life in Singapore and yet this lack of information does hinder us from having a good relationship. Knowing something about someone’s past is just information. We think getting information is the same as knowing someone. It is just like thinking that living in a noisy house is living in a happy home. It is just noisy and nothing more. We ask questions to avoid the awkward silence. We are afraid of it as well. It makes feel inadequate. It makes us confront our true selves. We prefer noise. Noise helps us avoid the real issues about ourselves.

We decided to sit near the children and color in silence. I told the team that we are not going to ask questions anymore. We don’t have to interrogate anyone about their past. It is not natural. Friends don’t bombard each other with questions that probe into their past. Friends recognize the privacy of one’s personal life. We are not psychiatrists nor social workers. We don’t need to know about their past unless they want to share it with us. We have a different reason for being here. We want them to know and recognize the presence of God in their souls and around them. Our God speaks to us out of the silence. Therefore, we sat and waited in silence. As we did this, we communed with God in the innermost part of our being. We faced ourselves in the presence of God within us. It was not easy but it was not hard as well. It was different. Then Alan came and sat next to us. He was quiet and just watched us coloring. After a few minutes or so, he asked if I was choosing a certain color for the background. I told him that I wasn’t sure and then he asked how I decided on the colors. There was no answer to this question. I said that I did not know. It was fine not to know until the time comes. He understood and sat there and watched. Alan doesn’t usually speak to us. Today, he wanted to be just there and watch. He felt comfortable to sit and there and watch us. He was silent and we were silent. We were comfortable. We felt peaceful and then some of children came over and joined us and colored together in silence. It felt nice not to feel that we have to say something. It was nice to be there in the silence with each other and feel complete together even if it was for a moment.

I won’t say that words are not necessary. On the contrary, I would say that words are a gift. However, noises or empty words should not be confused with words that come forth from the silence. It is out of the silence that God spoke the life-giving words, “Let there be Light”. Then He gave us the gift of Sabbath which is a time of silent waiting to listen to the words of Life that comes from the Eternal Light that dwells in our souls.

São Paulo is a noisy city. God is teaching us to find a quiet place in the midst of this noise.

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