A Roaring Lion Defeated

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour- 1 Peter 5:8

On Monday, Felipe took us aside and said, “I have some bad news.” We knew the words that would follow after this. We haven’t heard them for a long time. We almost forgot that they were part of the street vocabulary. We experienced a period of tranquility and perhaps we have overlooked the fact that we still have an enemy who roams around like a roaring lion. He attacks when the opportunity strikes and this time the victim was Ruan. He was assaulted by a group of individuals who have sacrificed their humanity to the idols of hatred. They were hiding and waiting for their scapegoat. They decided to vent on any homeless person all their bitterness and abhorrence for life. Ruan unknowingly walked into their path and two of them ambushed him with their knives. Fortunately, their hurried footsteps alerted him and he was able to block the blows that were meant for his face and neck. He sustained three stab wounds in his right arm. Somehow, he found the strength to fight off these two angry individuals adults and escaped to a safe place. Ruan later said that he remembered clearly that there were three young men wearing masks. One stood and watched while the other two did the deed. They fled away. We hope that they never come back again. Probably, this was not their first time. One of our boys was killed two years ago in the same spot.

We were silent as Felipe told us what happened. Finally he said, “These things consume our hearts with sadness, don’t they?” Perfect words to sum up what we were feeling. Thankfully, Ruan did not sustain any serious physical injury but it was impossible for us to imagine his spiritual state. We went to the hospital to visit him but he was discharged before we arrived. Throughout our walk to the hospital, our minds were processing that the fact that we nearly lost a child because of hate.

We decided to visit Ruan at his home the next day. We went to his house at his insistence about a year ago. He wanted us to meet his family. We knew that it was close to the center where we work but we had forgotten the way there. We went to the streets first to ask the children for directions. They only knew the general area where he lived but nothing specific. However, it was meant for us to see the children and teens first. They were traumatized by the incident too. They were more open to us than usual. One girl asked about the letters she received a few months ago. She did not mention anything about them previously but suddenly they came relevant to her. She wanted to write a reply almost immediately. I had to hold it off with the promise that I would do it after our visit to Ruan. It wasn’t just her. The others were also renewed their enthusiasm for the letters. Perhaps, the letters helped to balance out the affect of the incident. The attack was motivated by random and gratuitous hatred. The letters were an expressions of love. They were also random and gratuitous. The children needed an extra dosage of this love at this moment to make sense of their lives.

After a wandering about for an hour, we finally found Ruan’s house. He was resting on a couch when we arrived. When he saw us, he gave us a big smile and hugged us. He showed us his wounds and told about the whole incident with a smile on his face. It was as if he had gone through a great adventure. There was no anger or hatred in his voice as he recounted the whole experience. He was just grateful to be alive. Then he asked if I brought some games and I informed him that I actually had all the unread letters he had received with me. I thought that now was the best time to read letters to encourage him. His face lit up. He asked to see all the letters and then started showing them off to his family members. The first thing he wanted everyone to see a musical birthday card. Then he kept reminding everyone that this was from the States. You can never find anything like this here, he claimed. Everyone was impressed. He put it away in a safe place together with the other cards and souvenirs that he received from people in the States. Then he asked me to translate the letters one by one. They all ended with the almost identical phrases; “We pray for you everyday and we ask God to keep safe and protect you.” These words on another occasion would have been mere pleasant and heartwarming words, however, now they seemed to be extra powerful and even sacred. These simple words ignited something in our hearts. One of the letters shared something was especially intimate. It talked about death and how this person lost a child just a little younger than Ruan to illness. When he heard these words, I could see that it struck a cord in his heart. Death is not reserved for the old but it lingers like a silent stranger around everyone. Ruan caught a glimpse of his face. However, it wasn’t his time yet. It has been etched into his soul that death is a true reality. Throughout our time with Ruan, he was more tender and affectionate. He gathered all the letters together and showed them to his family and said, “Look! All these people are my friends whom I never met.” Mary added that everyone loves Ruan. “Well.” I said, “At least we know three people who don’t.” Ruan laughed and his face was filled with joy and peace. Hatred did not penetrate his soul. He is still full of life and love. Those three men who tried to hurt him are still wallowing in their hatred and miserable existence. They deserve our compassion and prayers too. They have succumbed to the enemy of their soul whereas hatred has failed to penetrate into Ruan’s soul. He chose to celebrate that he is still alive. Most importantly, he knows that there are more people who love him than those who hate him. With this, we can conclude that the roaring lion has been defeated for now. We are aware that he is not going to desist from venting his hatred. We also know that love is always more powerful than any of the antics of this defeated foe.

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Using God’s Name Freely

So that, my beloved, as ye always obey, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, with fear and trembling your own salvation work out. Philippians 2:12

I love words, not necessarily literature or poetry or philosophy, these are all good but it is words that I find fascinating. They have the power to summon angels or demons from our past. They can inspire me to reflect on the higher things as well as down to the depths of …… I spend my days listening for the perfect word to trigger my meditation. It can come from anywhere. I usually hope that it comes from the children themselves. I don’t know why but it seems more powerful that way. Unfortunately, I am not a good listener. I should be after going on about listening for the right word. My mind tends to venture to different pastures whenever I hear an interesting word. They take me on a journey when I should be listening. It takes a while for me to get my mind back to my interlocutor and then I try my best to pretend that I have been listening all along. Most of the time, I don’t believe that I am very convincing. They can see through me my façade. The word of interest this week is “blasphemy”. It was brought up by one of our youths. It brought together several things that have haunting my thoughts for the past few weeks. It all started with this simple phrase,“Do you accept the Word of God?”

It was a woman handing me a religious tract. I kindly refused. I felt embarrassed that I rejected the “Word of God.” It is disturbed me. Not that I believe that I was rejecting it but her words accused me of doing this. The children took it without paying any attention to the woman and stuffed it into their pockets. The woman walked off feeling that she had done her part. Later I saw the “the Word of God” in the trash can. This is why I refused it. I know that I will eventually discard it too. It seems strange to throw away something scared with all our regular refuse. What else can you do? The children will do the same. Furthermore, it is not the Word of God. The Bible has 66 books that all the churches agree on. Some have more but none have less. We believe that the Holy Spirit uses these Words to reveal to us what we need to know about God. However, one or two isolated verses do not make it the Word of God. Not forgetting the fact that in our spirituality, His words are living and they are not just printed words. Besides, we attach things to God to freely. A tract is a tract. It is not the Word of God. Even the word, “God”, should be used with hesitance. We act as if He belongs to us and we can attach His Name to anything we like. I felt embarrassed saying, “no”, to this person. In reality, she should be feeling embarrassed to use “God” so liberally. My mind was just wondering off with these words muttered by this woman. I wasn’t angry with her. She is just doing what she was taught. She was a good woman doing something she believed to be good. It doesn’t mean that the name of God wasn’t trivialized. The children and teens received the “Word of God” without any concern or reverence. It wasn’t intentional on their part. They received it in the same way it was handed to them.

Throughout the week, I kept hearing God’s name being thrown about flippantly. I see worn out t-shirts with Jesus’ name, smothered with paint and filth. They will eventually end up in the trash can. Yet, we believe that Jesus is God. I decided to stop thinking about it. It was occupying too much of my thoughts. Then Felipe, out of the blue, asked what is the meaning of blasphemy. He is the most religious of the lot. He carries an old worn out Bible in his backpack all the time. He likes to read the Psalms and some of the Biblical stories. The word, blasphemy, has been on his mind. He was actually one of the boys that was there when the woman gave us the tract. However, this occurred weeks before this formidable question. I answered that it is using God’s name in a way that is not worthy of Him. I explained further that when we use God’s name as if it belongs to us, then we are being blasphemous. It is a constant habit for beggars to use God’s name to manipulate people to give. I told him that this was also blasphemy. We had a brief discussion about it. I allowed Filipe to carry the conversation as far as he wanted to go. I did not want to overburden him with an extensive answer. However, it was interesting that he asked this question. It was the very thing that has occupied my thoughts.

Felipe, despite being very spiritual, hardly says anything about God. However, whenever he asks something about the Bible, it is always meaningful and relevant. Then we have some of our youth who use His name freely, they are the manipulative ones. I had to stop a teen once, not because he was using vulgarities or talking about inappropriate subjects; he used the words of Jesus to manipulate someone to give him a bottle of water. The person was walking into the church. She had her reasons for holding onto her drink. We might wonder why she did not give it. This is not the point. The disturbing fact that one of our youths had no qualms using our Lord’s words for his own personal gain. He learned it by just looking around. People have no longer any qualms about using God’s name to meet their own needs.
We have come a long way from the time of Jesus and apostles. Our faith is founded on Jewish traditions. However, we don’t need to just look at the Jewish community. We can pick any religious group at random and observe that they never use and abuse their sacred writings as Christians have done. I have a good Jewish friend who identifies himself as an agnostic in his present journey. He always uses G_d whenever he argues about His existence or non-existence. He shows respect and reverence for a deity that he may or may not believe in. Yet, we don’t seem to mind printing Jesus’ name on things that we discard in the most disgracing manner. Our children and teens look to us to see how we revere the Name of God. They follow our actions. They listen to our words. However, if we use His Name as freely as if it was our personal property, then we cannot expect them to think that God’s Name is sacred. Using God’s Name in vain is not just swearing. I think the greatest blasphemy of this age is that we use His name in a flippant manner. We have used His Name to get and do things to the point that no one feels the true weight of the word, God. We should not hesitate to use the word but only when it is appropriate. The word, God, should be used in the way Jesus used it. He described God’s living and active presence in our midst. Jesus used it with authority because His words followed His actions. His actions revealed the workings of the Father. Jesus took time to reflect and listen to God before proclaiming His words. We are asked to do nothing less. Giving out tracts and attaching God’s name to it won’t suffice. Using and saying, “Lord, lord……(Matthew 7:22)” won’t do especially for Jesus. God’s name must always be accompanied with an action that brings glory to His name. Something brings glory to God’s name when it reveals the essence of His being which is revealed as Love. Only then we can use His Name. However, it must be used with reverence. It must be used with fear and trembling.

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Faraway, So Close

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. Psalm 27:4

The question came up on two different occasions. Ruan was the first to ask it and the other was a recent arrival to the streets. The question left me feeling a little awkward. It was nothing complex. In fact, it was one of the most common questions often asked by strangers or acquaintances. Usually I would be able to answer it without any hesitation. The response is usually satisfactory and succinct when it comes to complete strangers. It is mere curious enquiry with them, whereas Ruan and the other teen were not curious. They want an answer that would give them a deeper insight into the kind of people we are. It is a desire to know us more intimately.

The question was none other than this; “Why did you choose to be with us?”

Mary felt the complexity of the answer too. She turned around and said, “Stephen can answer it better than me.” This was not true. I was paralyzed for a moment which made me frustrated. I should be able to handle this one being a priest and all that. Unfortunately, I found myself fumbling around to find the appropriate words. The standard reply would not do. With a complete stranger, we talk in general and neutral terms. Ruan and the other teen want an answer spoken at our level of friendship. The words have to contain affection and understanding. I made a mistake. I used the word, “vocation” and suddenly I felt a little embarrassed. It is not because this was not true. It is a genuine answer but, for them, the word is more religious jargon. The word has no meaning to our children. Both teens momentarily lost interest in the answer when I said this. Vocation does not exist in their world. It is not that they are atheists or agnostic. Quite the contrary, our children believe in God despite all the harsh experiences life has dished out to them. They don’t blame God for any of their misfortune. They just think that God is far away. They believe that He watches over them from His mountain. No matter what the metaphor they use, God is always at a distance. They think that they perhaps they are too small for Him to take interest in their lives. It is not their fault that they believe this. Whenever they go to churches that their families frequent, they hear people standing in the front proclaiming victories, testimonies of the things that God has done for them. No one talks about the struggles and neglect that they know too well. It is natural that they come to the conclusion that God is not doing anything for them because He is too far away from their reality. It is better than the alternative which is that God doesn’t care for them at all. They want to keep their faith in God but they have reconciled themselves to the idea that they are beyond His reach. They are not bitter about this. Perhaps they blame themselves for this distance.

The word, “vocation”, is for those who believe that God is near.This is a word that is not in their vocabulary. I had to find the words that would make sense. If I explained to Ruan that God is doing something here and we want to be part of it, he would not understand. He is not at a place where he can understand God’s active presence in his midst. I could say that we are here because the church sent us out as a missionaries. This would be a simple answer but it would be meaningless. He is not a church goer. He doesn’t understand why a church would take interest in these children. Besides, he wanted an answer that would bring him closer to us. This is why he chose to ask the question when no one was around. It was the same case with the other teen. The answer has to be a door into our hearts.

We were playing a game of cards when Ruan asked this question. It was his turn to play which meant I had some time to think about the answer. Finally, I gave it. It was clear and stripped of all religiosity. I told him that we are here because we want to be here. Ruan was winning the game and his mind was on his victory. He had already forgotten the question. It was fine. The answer was not for him. It was for us. Perhaps it was a question that God was asking us through the teens. Our answer was really a commitment to God. Ruan and the other teen have inadvertently challenged us to think about our presence here. We are here because we rather be here than anywhere else in the world. It took us almost four years to come to this point. I am sure that this question will come again and again. Each time we answer the question, it will be a renewal of our commitment to God’s presence here.

 

 

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Washing Unpleasant Feet

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. John 13:8-11

I heard the above reading on a Maundy Thursday and it did not move me then. Despite all the liturgical washing of feet and subsequent coverage of the Pope washing the feet of random people, I did not get much from the text then. I came across this text again recently in my daily reading. This time, the passage has riveted me. I could not move on to the next chapter. There were so many things to learn. Suddenly it became the most practical text I have read for sometime. I need to discipline myself for this post. I can only focus on one thing here. I chose to highlight the reference to Judas. It is actually the only one in the four gospels that mentions Judas’ presence in the most intimate moments of the apostles with their master. Jesus washed Judas’ feet. He served Judas from His plate. All these gestures are reserved only for the most intimate companions. John makes it clear that Jesus was always aware who Judas was and yet, there was never a change in His love towards His friend who would betray Him. John was the youngest apostle and he remembered clearly how Jesus treated Judas. He thought that it was important that the world knew this.

Every week, I write about our encounters with children and teens in the streets. I share positive experiences we have with the children because I want people to think positively about them. However, this is not the complete story. There is no negative side but there are the other children and teens. These are ones that are broken to the point that they can’t perceive human relationship in a loving manner. They function in chaos and destruction and they like to provoke and cause destruction. These are the ones that the media likes to put in the spotlight. They remove the word “children” and substitute “delinquents” to promote disgust and repulsion. I don’t usually write about these children and teens. Now is a good time to start. They are the difficult ones. Sometimes it is easy to think that they are a lost cause. However, this is not for us to decide. Jesus never tells us to go into the world and share His good news to those who have a fifty percent or more chance of being saved. We are asked to go to people of sorts and condition and share the Love that God freely pours out into this world.

Our contact with these children and teens increases on a daily basis. They approach us, but not because they want to have contact with us. They are jealous that the others interact with us and sometimes they disrupt our activities. Sometimes, they do this because they are bored. It doesn’t matter why they come to us. They are there and Jesus wants us to wash their feet in the same way He washed Judas’ feet. He wants us to share our bread with them in the same way He broke bread with Judas. He wants us to allow them to kiss us and perhaps even betray us in the same way that He allowed Judas to do the same. This is why the gospel is annoying and disturbing. It goes against our nature. We just want to work with the nice children. Alas, Jesus thinks otherwise;

“if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:46-48

Jesus lived what He preached. If we say that Jesus is our salvation, then the way He lived His life will save us from the hatred and destruction of this world. It means changing the way we think. It doesn’t mean that we become passive and allow broken and manipulative people to take advantage of us. It doesn’t mean that we think positively about everyone and believe that they are all great and wonderful. Jesus advises us to be wise like serpents. He knew what Judas was going to do but it did not disqualify him from receiving God’s compassion and love. We need to know that there are some children and teens who suffered so much pain and destruction in their lives that they don’t know what is good and bad anymore. Perhaps, these are like the one that strayed from the flock and the Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine and went to look for this self-destructive sheep.

Thankfully they are not many. Like the parable, they are one in a hundred. These are the ones that have mental issues coupled with neglect and abuse that have given them a distorted view of life. However, regardless who they are, God invites them. Jesus would not hesitate to have them at His Table. Not to do what they please but to remind them that despite of what they want or choose to do, Love is still available to them.

It is important for our own souls that we learn to wash the feet of these children and teens. I have to confess that it is not something that I would do voluntarily. This is why Jesus made it clear. If we follow Him, then we have to learn how to wash the feet of those who are not pleasant or grateful. They can even be destructive. However, they cannot destroy what God is doing. The apostle John saw how Jesus treated Judas. It is not a coincidence that he was the apostle most impressed by God’s compassion and love. We may not be able to do much for these wounded children and teens, but then again, maybe God will do something though us to help them. We will never know. However, the others are watching. They want to know how to treat these unlikeable and destructive people around them. The world reacts with violence. Jesus responds by washing and feeding Judas. The choice is clear and the eyes of the children are upon us.

God, please give us the grace and strength to do the right thing.

 

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