Unexpected Grace

Her book was exiled to the $0.25 shelf of an used bookstore in the States. It was in Portuguese and it is very rare to find anything in this language. The price is symbolic. It was an unexpected gift for me. I bought it but it never got it what it deserved. It sat on my shelves for almost 8 years. Recently, I decided to read it.

I discovered later that this author* is highly esteemed in the Brazilian literary culture. Books and thesis have been written about her. She never considered herself as a professional writer. Her priorities were being mother, friend, and common observer. Her ordinariness provided her with an unique outlook of life. She had the gift to be amazed with the common things of life. She revealed her secret. She never felt at home where she was. She was of Jewish extraction living in a predominantly Catholic nation. She was born in Lithuania but the only home she knew since she was a toddler was Brazil. All these life experiences helped her maintain an outsider perspective while being deeply engaged in her world. It sounds like the spiritual vocation of a Christian. We live in this world and yet we don’t belong to it. This could be something devastating or beautiful. It really depends on one thing. This author, despite being a non-religious person, wrote extensively about grace. In fact, most academics noted this trait about her. This is why I am writing about her here. Perhaps it is not necessary for me to say so much about the author but nevertheless she deserves the recognition. I want my posts to be a portrait of people. In this case, she would be a portrait of the power of grace. It does not limit itself to a certain people or religious groups. God freely pours His grace to all. One of things she mentioned about grace is that it comes to us in an unexpected manner. It seems appropriate that I am reminded about this peculiarity of this divine gift through a book bought on the $0.25 shelf.

We use the word, “grace” a little bit too freely. We have forgotten that we can only use this word accompanied by awe and wonder. Sometimes some churches think that they have ownership of grace because they have defined it. However, what they have is a watered down version of it which does not deserve its name. Grace remains free because it belongs to God. I remember trying to explain its meaning to a group of teenagers. I could see in their faces that my explanation was empty. They were kind about it. I knew that I failed. I wanted it to be refreshing and life-giving but the words could not do any justice. It was refreshing to read about a grace from an author who was not religious. She had a simpler idea of grace. Perhaps it was purer and perhaps truer to the biblical notion. She described it as a moment where everything becomes crystal clear and harmonious so much so that it touches the depth of our souls and leaves us wondering about life itself. She used the Annunciation as an example. I can think of another one: the Transfiguration. In both events, the people who experienced it were willing to have a radical change in their lives. This is what grace does; it gives us the power to change.

There is really nothing more simple and ordinary than a letter written to a stranger. Our children and some adults in Florida have been corresponding with each other. Often times, both parties tell us that they don’t where to start. Consequently, the letters are written in the simplest manner. Nothing special or dramatic is revealed. Everything is very basic. This was the kind of letter I read to Wanderson. It was really the first time I ever read a letter to him. Despite its spartan content, the sincere and genuine concern was obvious. I asked him if he wanted to write a reply. He nodded to say yes. Then he confessed that he had been sniffing paint thinner all day and he was not in the right frame of mind to compose a letter. It was an unnecessary confession. He is always sniffing paint thinner. It is almost as if he has a bottle of this dreadful chemical surgically attached to him. He promised, however, that he will not use anything the next day so that he could write the letter with a clear mind. We left it at that. About fifteen minutes later, he came back with a card in his hand and a receipt. He spend half of the money that he had kept aside for drugs to buy a card for this woman who wrote to him. He said that it was only right that he gave her something special since she took the time to write to him. For today, Wanderson found something better to do with his money than using for drugs.

No one told him to do this. He had the receipt in his hand to show me that he did not steal the card. He is not the kind to steal or engage in any criminal activities. The other children were watching. Alex who has received several letters asked him how much the card cost. He said that maybe he would buy some to write to the people as well. I did not say anything. There was really nothing to say. Maybe some would not understand what just happened because nothing really did happen. Everything that occurred was something ordinary. We buy cards to send to people without thinking about it. For us, it is the most ordinary thing. In Wanderson’s case, it was something different. He had experienced grace which opened his eyes to see that there was something much better than drugs. He decided to forego a few hours of chemical induced stupor for the sake of an ordinary woman who took the time to write to him. We did not tell him what to do. It was just simply grace in action. For a moment through ordinary means, Wanderson saw a harmonious life being offered to him instead of the drug-induced chaos. He decided to grab hold of it. Even though it may be for just a moment but it is still powerful. It is a gracious moment and it has the power to help a person to take a step towards transformation.

 

*The author’s name is Clarice Lispector

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A Question about Easter

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25

“What is Easter?” Wanderson asked. It seems like a simple question. The answer should be very easy for any clergy person. However, I was little stumped. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the question. We had just stepped out of a science museum. He had wanted to go on this excursion for weeks. He even offered to pay his way as long as we accompanied him. Of course, we did not let him to do this. He is an intelligent teenager. He likes to be the clown of the group and yet, there is a seriousness about him. He tends to be melancholic when he is not being the fool.

It is interesting that such a question would be asked in this most populous Roman Catholic nation. The city is replete with marks of Christianity. There are evangelical churches on almost every corner. The center abounds with majestic Catholic churches that tower over the principal squares. Preachers of all sorts and conditions taunt the average passerby with their rhetoric of religious jargon. Nuns and friars walking in their religious habits are a common sight. We spend all our time in front of a church where the doors are closed but its tiny square is our meeting place to play, teach and talk with the children. Religion is everywhere, but despite this, Wanderson still does not know the meaning of Easter.

It is not that he hasn’t heard the standard answer. This is why I couldn’t answer him. I knew him well enough to know that he was asking for something more concrete. If I had replied, “Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection”, he would have nodded his head and never brought up the subject again. I did not want the question to die without the possibility of resurrection. The standard answer has no relevance to Wanderson’s life. It is hearsay as far as he is concerned. It is enough for him to join in the celebration. He needed to know something more significant and relevant. He would have been Thomas if he had been an apostle. For that matter, I would have been Thomas. His attitude makes complete sense to me. I would want to see the marks of the Cross on Jesus before believing any account of the disciples. It is interesting that Thomas said that he would only believe if Jesus still bore the wounds of His sufferings. There is no doctrine that states the resurrected would bear the markings of their previous lives on their bodies. However, for Thomas, only the Jesus who suffered would do for Him. It was that Jesus who was most relevant to his life.

Our children know suffering. Well, every human being is acquainted with suffering. In our fantasy, we believe that children should be given a brief reprieve from it but reality is often times more brutal. Our children and teens have embraced their suffering. They treat it as part of their lives. They can’t imagine their lives without its unrelenting presence. Consequently, the suffering Jesus is a powerful symbol for them. The idea that God has experienced suffering is very comforting to them. No one has doubts about the meaning of Good Friday. Perhaps the only questions asked about this day is about the dietary restrictions which have nothing to do with the Cross. The image of the Crucified Jesus makes complete sense to our children and teens. It makes God become as one of them. The Resurrected Jesus brings something new to this conversation. It is an invitation to go beyond the Cross. This is quite difficult because it demands that we go beyond our comfort zone. Suffering and pain is our comfort zone as strange as this sounds. Our minds are aware of these things and have grown accustomed to them but the Resurrection opens the doors to something different and new.

Thomas wanted to see the marks of his wounds which led to his powerful confession of Jesus as his Lord and God. The boldest statement made by a Jewish man in the Bible. It is a grave injustice to remember Thomas only for his doubts and not for this confession but such is our human nature. We are more fascinated with failures than success. Failures of others comfort us and we are disturbed by their success. Failure reaffirms our frailty and success perhaps challenges us to go beyond our status quo. In the same way, the Resurrection should disturb us. It marks the victory of Jesus over humanity’s greatest enemy. It is not death. It is suffering. Death comes quick but suffering lingers, especially, when it is unjust. It paralyzes and dehumanizes. Thomas experienced these feelings at the foot of the Cross. The Risen Christ does not put an end to suffering but He overcame it. It did not stop Him from achieving His fullest stature. He came back to give us this Hope. We no longer have to be slaves to our suffering. This does not validate the unhelpful and hurtful clichés of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps or not having a victim mentality or learning to overcome life’s obstacles. All these empty sayings have nothing to do with the victory of Jesus over pain and suffering. The Risen Christ is our hope to lift people out of their hopelessness. He is the Love able to heal our souls to see beyond the pain and suffering. He is the courage to live our lives to the fullest. This is the meaning of Easter. However, I still cannot give an appropriate answer to Wanderson. None of this translates into words. He has to meet the Risen Christ.

Thomas was not easily convinced by the words of the disciples. However, he saw something in them that convinced him to stay around. They gave him hope that Jesus might appear to him as well. Perhaps, the best way to answer Wanderson or anyone like him is to bear the fruits of our personal encounter with the Risen Christ. This might generate hope in Him to wait and receive the answer from the One who truly gives the most satisfactory answer. Wanderson believes that we might have an answer. However,
all we can say are words and doctrines. None of these will do anything for him. He needs to encounter the Risen Christ. It is a possibility. This is why we celebrate Easter. It is not a historical event. It is an encounter that is still available to anyone today. Wanderson may not be aware of this. Most of people might not be aware of it. They might think that Easter is just a celebration of a dogmatic concept. Well, words are not going to convince them to stay around and meet the Risen Christ. They need to see the fruits of our encounter with Him in our lives. None of the disciples who met the Risen Lord were the same again. Their values changed. Their outlook changed. It was no longer compatible with the world’s ideas or concepts. It gave them the courage to face the unknown and perhaps grave suffering like Thomas himself who became an apostle to India. For us, the Risen Jesus has shown us something even more special. He opened our eyes to see that doing simple and mundane things like going to museum and listening to young teenager’s questions about Easter can be a special and life changing event for us and hopefully, one day for Wanderson.

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At the Foot of the Cross

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

His ministry began and ended with wine. This is something that I never considered. The gospel of John has only record of His first miracle. Water transformed into wine. It was the best wine the steward had tasted. On the Cross, the people gave Him sour wine in return. The transaction was complete. “It is finished.” Now, we wait for Him. We wait and see what God is going to do. We have taken the best from Him and in return we gave Him the Cross. What can we expect from God? Do we deserve anything good from Him?

Perhaps we might think that we are different from the people who jeered and mocked Him at the Cross. We like to think that we are better than them. I believe that the people who heard the final words of Jesus wished that they had been better. They wished that they had remained the crowd that shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David” and not become the crowd that demanded, “Crucify Him.” Alas, they were the same and one crowd. We are just like them. We have the potential to welcome God joyously into our hearts and at the same we can murder Him with our words and actions. We are no different from those people. They are us and we are them. We are saints and devils at the same time. We can do despicable things believing that we are doing something good. Then we take refuge in our intentions. We claim that we had good intentions. The people who crucified Jesus had good intentions. The religious leaders believed that it was necessary to kill Jesus for the sake of the nation. Everyone had good intentions. It was not enough. At the foot of the Cross, all this becomes clear. One thing is for certain we cannot remain as we are. Something needs to change. How many times are we going to crucify the One that can truly transform our contradictory souls?

There were those who wept for Him at the Cross. They were the strong ones and yet, they were helpless. They knew what was right, but they could not do anything about it. They could not speak. Their voices would have been silenced by the anger and hatred. They could only weep. They thought that they were lamenting all the things He suffered; His humiliation, His tortures, the cruel mocking and the treacherous treatment from the people whom He loved. He who hung on the Cross corrected them.

Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. Luke 23:28

At the foot of the Cross, all our frailty is revealed. All our illusions are shattered. All theories of us being essentially good lose their foundation. We are not evil and we are not good. We are just lost. We destroy the things that can save us and uphold things that contaminate and poison our souls. We cannot keep our focus on the good because we just don’t know how to recognize it. Those who are able to see goodness are often helpless. The truth is we are all helpless. No one wants to be evil, but we end up in the middle of something evil and we cannot resist it. The Only One who could resist was crucified. He had a choice but he accepted the Cross. It was necessary. He wanted us to realize who we are. We are not evil beings. In some ways, we are much worse. We are people who believe in goodness but seem to do the contrary. At the foot of the Cross, this becomes clear at the moment when He said, “It is Finished.”

These are strange words but they moved the heart of a seasoned soldier. In His death, the centurion saw Jesus’ victory. He proclaimed,

“Truly this Man was the Son of God.” Mark 15:39

It was a title given in ancient times to emperors and great conquerors. A centurion who knew that victory means the defeat and humiliation of one’s enemies proclaimed Jesus as a victor at the Cross. He was at the foot of the Cross with the rest of them. He witnessed everything from the start to the end but his eyes were opened to see something powerful. He saw Hope. He saw the establishment of a new Kingdom. He saw a new kind of King. Jesus began His reign on the Cross. It seems absurd to make such a claim. For those who believe in the false image of humanity such a claim is deserving of disdain and mockery. The Cross is meaningless for them. However, whenever I look at the Cross, I see Hope. The words, “It is finished” are not a judgement on our frailty. They are a promise that this agonizing conflict in our souls is not eternal. It can end and be overcome but we need to go to the foot of the Cross. We need to go there and face our true selves first before we can see the Hope that hangs on the Cross.

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