A Culture of Life

Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas,[a] and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’ But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’-Luke 19:11-14

“For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”-Luke 19:26

It seems like the wrong person is always getting elected. This is often coupled with the fact that he or she always belongs to the party that we oppose vehemently.

With every new president, some things get better and others worse. It doesn’t matter who they are or their party affiliation. It is a cycle of life just like everything in nature. It goes on independently of the presidents and the politicians. We spend our time investing our passions and energy on something that just happens naturally. Jesus definitely did not participate in it. When he was asked about his political affiliation, Jesus simply responded, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jewish authorities: but now is my kingdom not from hence (John 18:36).”

Each election cycle tends to bring out the worst in people and we have to ask ourselves this important question; what is our role as Christians in all of this? It is understandable that those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith put their faith and hope in this political reality. They believe that this material kingdom is the be-all and end-all. They judge it as the foundation and basis for all endeavors and even perhaps their access to God or some sort of spirituality; not unlike those who attempted to construct the Tower of Babel. As Christians, we know the end of this story: utter chaos. We should also be wary of any talk about utopia or greatness or unity. All these illusionary goals can indeed become dangerous idols. Without God, none of this is possible. However, having said this, God does not need our manipulation to achieve them in this world. Historically, political entities that have attempted to establish utopian-like existence have resulted in many disastrous things. When we unite people without true love and God’s grace, we need a common enemy or a scapegoat to hate. Hatred for a common enemy becomes the basis for unity or utopian societies. This is not just an opinion; there has been extensive study on this done by a renown sociologist and philosopher, Rene Girard, in his major work, The Scapegoat. Nothing good comes out of this. If we want peace and greatness, then politics is definitely not the way to achieve this, especially the kind of politics presented by this world through its deceiving media. As Christians, we should ask ourselves; why do we insist on constructing the Tower of Babel when the inevitable result is chaos? Perhaps, we should focus on something more concrete as Christians. There is more to life than politics. The people in the text above asked Jesus a political question and Jesus responded with a parable. It wasn’t the answer that they were expecting.

We also have lived through a tumultuous political period in the Brazil in the past few months. A couple of months ago, sirens and helicopters were constantly heard from our apartment because of riots and protest. These were daily occurrences. However, everyday whenever we went to the streets, it was business as usual for thousands of people. The political climate did not change the basic reality of the everyday people. Eventually the protests died down and everyone realized that politics was just getting in the way of everyday life. I would say that this is not true politics. It is the media trying to stir up dissent and strife while pretending to be purveyors of the truth. What they say has very little to do with everyday life. When the people asked Jesus about the coming of Kingdom of God, they wanted to hear media politics. Jesus gave them an answer, showing them something completely different. He revealed how to be really political in the Kingdom of God.

I would recommend reading this parable in its entirety.

It was strange that Jesus would use a ruthless nobleman as the protagonist. In other places, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was not like the kingdom of this world and yet the nobleman in this parable was very much like the princes of this world. Therefore, we can take it to understand that the nobleman is not a definitive depiction of God. I believe that his role is used to emphasize the chasm between those who are in the “know” and those are not in this political system. This system operates on violence and dominance and Jesus presented it as such. It does not mean that he condones it. Whatever the noble does is beyond the control of the servants but they are not helpless spectators. The interactions between the noble and his subjects are nothing out of the ordinary in this parable. He behaves exactly the same way as any king of his time. It wasn’t a democracy: it was a tyranny. Even in such hostile conditions, we, as servants of God, are not helpless. We can still be real participants in the political life of the God’s kingdom. It has everything to do with using our gifts that God has given to us.

I have to confess that I find it tedious when people say that they feel blessed to born in such and such place whenever they hear the plight of the poor in other countries. Their criteria for being blessed is material wealth. This is fine for someone who is not a Christian or rather, for those who are not interested in being a citizen in God’s kingdom. However, true blessing is gauged by our application of the gifts that God has given us to do something productive for the Kingdom of God. Saying that we are blessed and doing absolutely nothing is very much like being the the servant who said, “Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief.”(Luke 19:20). God does not need to be reminded that He has given us something we can share. He wants to know how we use what we are given for the greater good.

We have heard countless of times that the world is promoting a culture of death. It has said been so many times that it has become a cliche. Electing politicians into office is not the way to avoid suicidal traits in society. If anything, it would be the weakest way to counteract against the tragic trajectory of the world. Policies are not going to bring the hope of life into the hearts of people. Material wealth does not going to bring joy: if so, suicide rates would be the lowest in wealthiest countries, but the opposite is true. Only the gospel can bring hope and joy. God has given us the gifts that we can use within our capacity to promote the culture of life that the gospel proclaims. It is not just voting pro-life which may be just a tactic of media politics. The Kingdom of God demands that our lives promote the joy of life in others through loving them. Loving others is not pointing out the mistakes in others but living our lives in a way that would make our neighbors desire to know the life and person of Jesus who is the foundation of our hope and joy.

This week, Ruan surprised us. He invited us to go to his house with him. It was the first time in three years that we got such an invitation. He informed us that he told his family about it and they were open to the idea. We have known Ruan for a while now and he hardly mentions anything of his family. Suddenly a letter from a church member in Florida is opening all kinds of doors. He wanted to send a picture of his family to this person and this was the main reason for our invitation. We met his mother and sisters. We did not know that Ruan had a new step-father whom he mentioned minutes before we got to his house. He was also very excited to introduce us to his grandfather who is just a few years older than us. It seems like he is the most consistent male presence in his life. The house was small but it was cramped with things. It contained most of the modern conveniences including a large TV. Ruan’s mother was mad that he preferred to sleep in the streets than at home. She believes that she provides everything to entice him to stay at home but he just refuses. He did not say much but he wanted to tell his mother about us and that he was learning to read and write. Unfortunately his mother was too busy being mad at him to listen to him. It was a little tense and we decided to ease the tension by taking pictures and explaining why he wanted to take them. It was our first visit and I don’t foresee any future visits unless Ruan initiates it. This first visit was important for him. He wanted us to meet his family and we are glad that we did.

We don’t know why Ruan is in the streets. Besides having all the material conveniences, his house was tiny and they had more than five people in a space of a small living room. However, it wasn’t the lack of space that brought him to the streets. One thing we know for certain that no child in his or her right mind would want to be far away from her/his mother and sleep in the filthy streets. Ruan prefers the streets more than his home. Something happened to cause this. We cannot change this something. It is beyond our capacity. We cannot change his family dynamics. It is the way that they have learned to function in this life. They don’t see anything wrong and we have no right to tell them otherwise. However, there is something that we can do. We can show Ruan that he is indeed a valuable person to us. We have the capacity to care and love him within our limitations. To do this, we don’t need the approval of the government; we don’t need a proper social and political climate or the ideal family situation. All we need is to recognize God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of others. However, we cannot do this work alone. We need the participation of others who are interested in Kingdom politics and not media-frenzy spectator politics. Real godly politics is where people reach and touch the hearts of their neighbors and help them see Life. From what I have been seeing, partisan politics regardless of which side we choose, promotes death; death of relationship, death of love and death of intelligence.

I am not saying all political systems are the same. Some systems appear to build good towers of Babel, but they can never be the Kingdom of God. This is a Kingdom of Grace and Love. It is not brought about by our workings. It is given to us through the person of Jesus. We did not vote Him into office but He chose us. He has given us the power to be His instruments of Life in this world. One day, He is going to ask each one of us what we have done with our gifts. We hope that on this faithful day, we can bring Ruan forward and say, “Our gifts have taught us to see the beauty of Life in this little child.”

This, my faithful Christians, is the culture of the Kingdom of God.



Letters, Literacy and Related Events

“Do you know what I want for Christmas?” Ruan asked Mary. She was a little hesitant. On one occasion, Ruan asked for a cell phone for his birthday present. The other children just laughed when they heard this. They reminded him that presents are not something we demand from others. Now, he was talking about Christmas gifts. She thought that it was going to be another absurd request. He did not wait for her response. He just came out with it and said, “I want to learn how to read and write before Christmas.” It was definitely unexpected.

About a year ago, Ruan came up to us and told us that he wanted to learn how to read and write. He is thirteen years old and completely illiterate. He has been to the public school but never learned the basics. He is not the only one. In fact, most of our children and teens are illiterate. Only a handful of them are able to write their own names. However, none of them ever displayed any interest in learning or education in general. All of them have had negative experiences in the school system. After hearing stories about the precarious schools in the poor neighborhoods, we can understand their aversion. Recently we have noticed a change in their attitude towards learning. They are asking us to do more educational activities with them. The amazing thing is that the initiative comes from them and not us. We can’t really pinpoint one single incident that awakened this growing intellectual curiosity. I believe there are a series of events which contributed to this and they share one common denominator, which is relationship. The children have discovered the value of education within the context of human relationship. Prior to this, they have associated school and learning as something institutional and distant. They did not see the relevance of their knowledge in real life. Now, they want to learn because it makes sense to them within the context of a friendship.

I believe Bruno has a major part to play in this but his participation is unintentional. He loves to learn English and is self-motivated learner. Everyday he waits for us with a list of words that he wants us to translate into English. He is always coming up with new phrases and he wants to know the meaning of certain words and how to use them. The children noticed that Bruno has always tons of things to talk about with us. They wanted to be part of this but they did not know how. Some would sit next to us and just listen quietly. They noticed that the subject was about a movie or a book and it always connected to something educational. Ruan was the first one to ask our help. He wanted to read the books like Bruno and have access to the things that we talked about. Then Felipe started asking questions about the English language. Alex approached us and wanted to know if we have books about animals. One by one they begin to open up to us about their specific interest. They saw that their interest could be a means of building a stronger relationship with us. In a way, they are right. Their interests give a glimpse of the things that they like and care about. When they share it with us, they are giving an access into their souls.

Then the letters started coming. Ruan was the first one to receive one. It was from a church member in Florida. When I read the letter to him for the first time, he hardly said anything. He was impressed that someone would take the time to write to him. Then a few months later, we received some more letters for the other children and teens. The reaction was always the same. They listened quietly and all of them smiled when I told them that they were written by people from a far away land. After a while, nothing was ever said of these letters in our presence. However, unbeknownst to us, these letters were topic of conversations in the evenings when the children and teens were by themselves. The letters have created such an impact that some of the children began ask us why they did not receive any letters. They want to correspond with someone in the churches in Florida. I told them that letters are like a conversation. We don’t have to wait for someone else to initiate the conversation. They can do it as well.

In the past month, Ruan has been practicing writing with Mary. He even decided to forego a trip to the beach with the rest of the children because he did not want to miss his lessons with Mary. A couple of days ago, he asked if we would help him write the letter. Mary wrote down what he dictated;

“Dear…I really liked the letter you sent me and especially the Christmas card from last year. I thank you for praying for me. I want to tell you about my family…..I, Ruan, have three sisters but my favorite sister is four months old.….I want to make a Christmas card for you and hopefully I can send it to you with this letter….By the way, have you ever seen a alligator, if you can, please send me a picture of one…Please continue to pray for me and my family. By the way, my mother’s name is Andrea…”

Every single word written here flowed out of his heart without any guidance from us. This is the first letter Ruan has ever dictated in his life. I am sure that it won’t be the last. Maybe he might attempt to write the next one by himself.

“What do you do in your free time?”

The children have been become increasingly curious about our lives. They want to know what we do when we are not with them. We told them that we don’t have a TV at home. They were shocked. It is something unimaginable for them. We told them that we like to read and having a TV takes our away time away from books. Bruno, trying to find something common with us, started talking about books that he wanted to read. He threw out names of some classical literature. The others got a little jealous because they did not know names of any books. Some of them have never had any access to books in their lives. To rectify this, I decided to take a Roald Dahl book to the streets recently. He was one of my favorite authors when I was a young boy. I have acquired several of his books in Portuguese with the hope that some day I can give it to our children to read. For now, I just wanted to share some of my favorite books with them. I showed the book to Ruan and told him that if he learns how to read well I will give him a book like this one. His face lit up. He immediately grabbed the book out of my hand and showed it to the other children and said, “Look what Uncle Stephen bought for me to read one day.” The others looked on and I could see that they were a little envious. I did not say anything. Hopefully their jealousy will give them the desire to read as well. Bruno asked about the author. I told him that he was the one who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This led into a long conversation about other books of this author that were made into movies. The children were familiar with the movies but they never knew that they were based on a book.

My most memorable time in school was when we had lessons with our favorite teacher. It did not matter what the lesson was. It was almost irrelevant. If the teacher was a loving person who truly cared about us, whatever subject he or she taught was interesting. Education is fun and exciting when it helps to bring us closer to one we love. I had forgotten about this essential and crucial aspect of education. Education on its own is dull and uninteresting. However, if it opens the door to wonderful world of warm human relationship, then it becomes marvelous and exciting.

Ruan is progressing gradually everyday. He recognizes new words every day. He likes to sit next to Mary and listen intently to her instructions. He has developed a ritual. He practices writing or reading first and then he wants to play checkers with me. He has been faithful in his lessons everyday. I think that this Christmas he is going to get his wish.