The Problem of A Clean House

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”-Luke 11:24-26

Her father would drink all evening. Arriving home, he was violent with everyone beginning with her mother. No one was spared the abuse. Understandably, she grew to despise him. The first chance she had, she ran away to the streets. She was determined to make the streets her home. Consequently, she became one of the toughest girls in the streets. She would still occasionally return to her house to visit her siblings and mother whom she loved dearly. She was willing to put up with her father’s abuse just to spend a few days with them. On one of her short stays at home, her father came home unexpectedly early in the evening. He looked different. He was sober. He shared with the family an astounding news; he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He promised to stop drinking and start attending church on a regular basis. The family was naturally skeptical. They had only known this man as a violent drunk. It was hard for them to imagine anything different. She decided to stay home just to see if her father was able to keep his promise. She was amazed that her father was able to overcome his alcoholism from one day to another. He replaced the bar with the church. He went there on almost on a daily basis. Within a short period, he was already sharing his testimony and given leadership roles. Everyone in the family went along to support him. She was telling me this story while she was in the streets. Anticipating a tragic end, I asked whether her father went back to drinking? She replied that he never touched a drink after his conversion and this was few years ago. However, she said that this was the only change. He continued to be violent and domineering. Since his conversion, he spent more time at home and home life for the rest of the family became intolerable. To a certain extent, it was worse than before. Instead of being drunk, her father became self-righteous and used the Bible as a justification for all his manipulative behavior. Finally, she could not stand her father’s religious diatribes and abusive ways and she left for good. She broke all contact with her family. I had this conversation twenty years ago. I never forgot any detail. It made me question the kind of the gospel that was being preached.

Many times I have heard testimonies about people who were involved in addictions and substance abuse and how they changed their lives around after they found God. These testimonies are often greeted with applause and sometimes they have even brought us to tears. I am sure that this girl’s father was one of these who has shared his testimony. These stories of overcoming addictions and self-destructive habits can be inspiring and encouraging but they are not to be confused with the power of the gospel. There is nothing wrong with testimonies in themselves. However, what we consider to be testimony-worthy may not necessarily reflect the true message of the gospel. Our testimonies should testify to the power of the gospel and not mere house cleaning stories. As pointed out by Jesus in the above parable, this is not the gospel. We don’t really need the gospel to clean our house. Therapy, meditation, joining a social movement, being part of a support group … The options are almost infinite; all of these things can help us to clean our house. They just clean up for something else to occupy the space. It could be something better or worse but Jesus seems to say that it is always something worse.

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”-Matthew 5:20

The Pharisees in the first century were into “clean houses”. They ensured that they were above reproach in their behavior and observance of the Law. They were not necessarily hypocritical. They genuinely desired to please God with their lives. Their spirituality was at odds with the message of Jesus because He claimed that what they did was not enough. Jesus used harsh words to describe this type of spirituality. He said that it prepared their souls to be possessed by worse and more dangerous demons.

Religion has been under scrutiny and attack these days. Religious people have shown that they have the capability to do dangerous harm with their words and actions. We cannot hide from these attacks. We have to be honest enough to accept that these attacks have some grounds. It is not just the terrorist attacks. In São Paulo, church leaders have been using the pulpit to promote their selfish ambitions and it has brought much disgust to the public. People have become skeptical about religion in general and more specifically the church. The arguments against religion are still quite infantile and biased. This does not mean that serious Christians should ignore them. We need to look beyond the arguments and see that there is a great shortcoming present. Saying “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” is not an option or an argument. It is avoiding the question. People outside look at the church as a religion. If it is different, then they need to see the difference in those who follow Christ. Unfortunately, most Christians are satisfied with “clean house” gospel. This is the other gospel and, in reality, it is just Pharisaical religion disguised as the message of Jesus. Jesus came to preach a spirituality that would be superior to that of the Pharisees.

Strangely the parable quoted at the beginning of this post is one of the most commonly cited verses among the children and teens. Whenever they hear this, it resonates with them. Where most of the poor live, there are an abundance of churches. They have relatives who can cite biblical verses one minute and then say hateful things the next. They have seen gangsters go to church and pray and then turn around and attack a rival gang member mercilessly. They have seen the policemen in their communities preach in their churches and then accept bribes and humiliate their brothers and sisters for just walking in the street in the evening. They are inundated with the religion of the Pharisees. It is a religion of words and outward appearances and uses the tools of this corrupt world. It does not matter where we live, whether in the slums of São Paulo where most of children and teens come from or the middle class neighborhoods of our respective nations. This religion of the Pharisees is present. It doesn’t matter what religion we follow; we can be Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Hindu, hiding behind a spirituality of words and appearances and still living within the values of the corrupt world.

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”-Roman 8:5

The gospel of Jesus is about ushering in the New Creation. It is living our lives based on radically new values that are incompatible with the world’s values. We have had our fair share of tragic and violent events this year. There is always an ethical argument that follows immediately after these occurrences. Christians appear to use arguments grounded on values of this world to debate against each other. They openly embrace the principles of this world to solve the problems. This is fine if they are not people who are living their lives according to the Spirit. However, if anyone who embraces violence and hatred as a response to violence in the world, then they need to question themselves in the light of scripture. I have heard people say that we need to live in reality as well. Unfortunately this type of attitude puts in question whether people who claim to be Christian understand the gospel. The gospel faces reality in its raw and brutal form. It provides us with an answer but it may not be an answer that we like to hear.

As Christians, we need to go back to the Cross for the answer. It is our key to face the unjust brutality of this world. The silence of Jesus at his trial is a powerful weapon for us as Christians. Jesus did not passively submit to the will of the tyrants and tormentors of this world. He actively opposed them with His silence. He did not succumb to their ways and methods. He did not resort to using their tools to fight against them. He ushered a new era where the Kingdom of God will establish itself and all the corrupt ways of the world cannot deter it. The Pharisees and Roman leaders are long gone and forgotten. The Silent Christ reigns in the hearts and minds of all those who seek His face.

People want to reduce religion in all its forms to house cleaning. People are uncomfortable with the presence of children and adults living in the streets because it fills their lives with unnecessary visual inconvenience. They want to clean it up by moving them out of the streets and placing them in shelter hidden from sight. We hear news about people killing people senselessly. We want to clean it up with violence. We will only be making room for something worse and more destructive. Jesus is not into house cleaning. He is building a new house. Its foundations are stated clearly by one of his followers who understood this best.

And the fruit of the Spirit is: Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law- Galatians 5:22-23

These are not concrete answers to problems that we are facing in this world. They are attitudes that we need to embrace to understand how to live according to the Spirit in this world. When the demon comes back to a house and finds it to be restructured and occupied with values and principles that are incompatible with its own, he will have no choice but to remain in the wilderness.


Being Available

And it came to pass, in their going on, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman, by name Martha, did receive him into her house,
and she had also a sister, called Mary, who also, having seated herself beside the feet of Jesus, was hearing the word.- Luke 10:38-39

It has been a while since we saw Igor. An unexpected knock on our door on a Sunday afternoon and he was standing outside smiling. Looking different. Looking very much like a normal twenty year old. Teens living in the streets tend to have a style of their own; the same haircut, similar clothes, a distinctive way of standing, walking and speaking. All these characteristic were absent in the person outside. He wore a dress shirt and he was clean cut and well-groomed. He looked like an average person and this was excellent. He came in and hugged us.

It had taken him almost two hours to get to our place. He lives on the outskirts while we are in the old center. He is staying in a halfway house for drug addicts run by a Pentecostal church. He is not interned there. The church has offered a temporary place for him until he is ready to find a place of his own. He worked briefly restoring furniture in a used furniture store. Igor was the last one employed and when they downsized, he was the first to go. Thankfully, he wasn’t discouraged. He believes that something better will come along. For now, he helps out where ever he can in the halfway house.

Life is the halfway house is very structured. Every one follows a strict schedule including Igor. It is helping him to have the structure that he never had in his life in the streets. He changed the way he dresses and looks; he felt it necessary to leave behind everything that he learned in the streets except for the things that inspire him to become better. I suppose that we are one of the things- well if that wasn’t true, he wouldn’t have spent two hours on the bus to visit us.

Igor was able to stay a year away from the street life. For most of us, a year is not a long time. However, for children and teens who could not bear to be in a new environment for more than hour, one year is quite a significant period. He still feels a strong attachment to his friends. This is understandable. They were the closest thing to a family that he had. He visits them whenever he can. He wants them to know that there is life beyond homelessness. This is a beautiful thing. I asked him if he ever felt tempted to return to the streets, after all, it was his comfort zone. He told us that he never felt comfortable in the streets but it was the only option for him then. Now, he has options.

Igor’s conversation with us was peppered with religious jargon. There is nothing with wrong this. He knows that we are religious and he wants us to know that he is learning this new vocabulary to communicate with us. He is figuring out with each new social group that he encounters he needs to learn how to communicate in a new way. He does not use these words to hide behind them. The words express his genuine feelings and experiences. For us, it was strange to hear them coming out from his mouth. We were used to the old Igor but this new person was beaming with hope and life. He came to share a special event that took place in his life. He was just recently baptized. He said that it was a decision that he pondered seriously. He did not want to be one of those people who find religion and then go back to their old way of living. He wanted to make a life-changing decision. It is evident that this was a genuine one. We cannot but rejoice with him.

I asked Igor what made him make this bold step of leaving everything behind in the streets. Throughout his time in the streets, there have been many religious and social workers who have worked with him. He told us that these people were also present but it was very rare that someone would actually listen to him and help him express his own thoughts and understandings. It was only recently that he met people who took him seriously and allowed him to open up to them. In a simple way, Igor put some flesh and blood to the concept of ministry of presence. It is not just being there but it is being available to the person whom we serve allowing them to open up to us. There are people who want to help but only a few are available to those whom they serve.

Martha and Mary in the text above invited Jesus to their home but only one made herself available to Jesus. The former was busy trying to make sure everything was perfect for Jesus. She didn’t even ask him what he wanted. She assumed that she knew. Mary did absolutely nothing; she just sat and listened. She waited for Jesus to let her know what He desired.

Another incident from some years ago is permanently imprinted in my mind. It was nothing dramatic, just a simple conversation between my friend and an homeless adult in the streets of Montreal. I was doing my final year of seminary then. It was scene that would be common in any big city. We were on our way to a coffee shop when a homeless man sitting on the pavement asked us for some change. Our friend heard him first and turned to him and told him kindly that we were sorry but we didn’t usually give money. My friend then introduced himself and us to this man. He told the man that we would love to sit and chat with him whenever we see him. He assured the man that we would be happy to give him our time freely. I can’t remember the name of this homeless person but never will forget what he said afterwards. He told my friend that he gave him something that was worth much more than anything money could buy. He thanked us for treating him like a human being. The attitude of my friend is an attitude of a person who is available. Today he is a Lutheran pastor of a small church and he continues to avail himself to people of all sorts and conditions. My friend is an ordinary person and he did something very simple and ordinary and made an impact in my life. Mary was an ordinary young woman and we are still reading about her after two thousand years. On the other hand, we shouldn’t think of Martha as a negative example. She was a good person and her intentions to serve were genuine. People like Martha do not have a messiah complex. They are sincere people who want to make this world a better place. I think that it is cruel to degrade people like her. Jesus did not do it. He just showed us a more perfect way.

Being available is not just listening. I have known people who are good listeners but they were not available. Being available means that we genuinely believe that the person to whom we are listening to has something to offer to us. It does not mean that we pretend that the vacuous things that people say are truly profound. Such an attitude in itself is condescending. We have to genuinely believe that people have something to offer even if they appear to be superficial. This is where being a Christian makes a big difference. A Christian believes in the active presence of the Holy Spirit. He or she believes in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all peoples as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Then, we must also necessarily believe that the Holy Spirit is present and working in the lives of all people. All peoples, even those who reject God; a hardened atheist has the presence of the Holy Spirit working in him or her. Many times people do not recognize this presence. They might be wrestling the Spirit the way Jacob wrestled with Him (Genesis 32:22-32) and they may not recognize it. They might never find out the true nature of their inner struggles unless they can have the opportunity to share this with someone. People will not often reveal these struggles or questions or insights if they are not sure if the person is truly open to them. When we decide to be available to people, we are not adopting a posture or an attitude but we are engaging in a spiritual discipline. It is a kind of prayer when we ask the Holy Spirit to open the heart of the person to share his or her depth with us. It is something requiring faith on our part; Faith that believes that the Holy Spirit is truly alive and active in our midst.

It is not easy to be Martha in this world. It takes time and energy. However, it is even harder to be a Mary. It means putting aside our prejudices and preconceived notions to listen and believe that the people whom we serve can actually help us to understand God even better. Igor met people who were available to him. They helped him understand his struggles and doubts. They helped him understand that his growing discomfort of the street life was the prompting of the Holy Spirit to move on and seek something better. We hope that we were some of these people who were available to him. The fact that he travelled two hours to see us as a good sign that he considers as such. On our part, I can safely say that we are receiving something from him. Igor did enrich our lives. When we saw him sitting in our living room sharing about the new things in his life, we felt privileged to have a small part in his life. We cannot take credit for the things that are happening in his life. We did not find a place for him to live. We did not get him a job. We did nothing for him in this sense and yet he thought that it was important for us to know all these good things that are happening in his life.