Faith Overcoming Barriers

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” -Matthew 25:21-27

Janaina once told me that she journeys through life with a dark cloud hovering over her head. She is afraid that the people might only see the cloud and not her. I understood what she meant. I have one of my own. Neither of us put it there. It was given to us but not by God. Our life experiences are different. She was an orphan and homeless most of her life. She is 33 now. Years of discrimination and rejection have made her cloud heavy and burdensome. I did not mention to her my own experience. I did not want her to think that we carry the same weight. I have my cloud to bear but it doesn’t mean that I know how she feels. The only thing I know is that it is not her imagination or insecurity that creates this cloud. It is real. People are always going to look at the cloud first and then the person who is carrying it. It is almost inevitable. They will judge her according to it and some well intentioned people might try to pretend that they don’t see anything above her head. In a way, that makes it worse. It is better to say that there is a cloud but we also see the person who carries it. Janaina is a strong woman. No cloud is going to stop her from getting what she wants. It took her a while to discover what she wants. Now, she is going forward.

We can have many names for this cloud. It doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we don’t deny its existence. Jesus did not. He named it and in the process he used an ugly term. The gospel narrative tells us about a woman, not unlike Janaina. She was a woman who bore the label of being a Canaanite. In the land of the Jewish people her heritage was a symbolic reminder of their disobedience to God. Her society wished that the people she belonged to did not exist anymore. Despite the prejudice and hatred, she was in the presence of Jesus. She wanted charity and our Lord wasn’t in a charitable mood. The story portrays a very different Jesus. The disciples made it clear that she was not welcome among them but only Jesus could send her out. She was His visitor. He did not want her to leave and yet He kept silent. His silence was not a consent to his disciples’ request. He was waiting for the right moment to speak. Not all silence is equal. There is such a thing as a cowardly silence and there is silence that listens first before speaking out the precise word. There was something that needed to be addressed for the sake of everyone present. When He spoke, He said the words that should make our modern ears cringe and usually this is often preceded by a thoughtful silence. He called the woman a dog which was the derogative term for Gentiles. The racial slur was intentional. I have heard some commentators try to soften this text by claiming that Jesus was using it affectionately. In Jesus’ time, dogs did not occupy the place in society that they do presently. They were despised and considered to be like overgrown rats. Calling someone a dog is still an insult in these parts today. Jesus spoke quite harshly to this woman, at least in appearance. He was merely naming what was in the hearts and minds of his disciples. It was the thought of the time that her heritage did not make her worthy of God’s grace. Jesus did not say that He agreed with this. It was just the belief of the time. We may not like what Jesus said but Jesus is not obliged to act according to our preferences.The woman did not waver. She knew what she wanted and she was sure that Jesus wasn’t going to negate her plea for mercy. She was going to get what she wanted despite the huge cloud hovering above her head. Something gave her the strength to stand up against Jesus. She knew that He was the only hope for her daughter and she wasn’t about to allow verbal insults to hinder her from receiving God’s grace. She trapped Jesus in His own words. This was something that the religious leaders dreamed about doing but a lowly Canaanite woman is the only one in the all the gospels to win an argument wth Jesus.

The Jesus in this gospel story is perhaps not the kind of Jesus we want to read about. He sounds like a racist. He is actually a very realistic person. He wanted the woman to exercise her faith in a hostile context and she did. In modern times, it seems like people think that ideal circumstances are a prerequisite for efficient faith. It is not faith in an idea or doctrine or utopic imaginings. It is faith in the person of Jesus. Believing that His love is strong enough to overcome the barriers constructed by generations of hatred. Her faith was in the compassion of Jesus. She knew that His love would overlook her burdensome cloud of being a Canaanite woman. Jesus drew out her strength when she was confronted with His harsh words. Perhaps we might think that this is strange pedagogy. Well, we are not the Teacher. His method worked for her.

All our children and teens know that they are born with a cloud hanging above their heads. They can’t shake it off. They have to go through life with it and there will be many that would say that it is just their imagination. However, we cannot say anything meaningful about the gospel unless we recognize the reality of their clouds. Jesus did not pretend that his community did not consider Gentiles to be like dogs. He did not pretend that his society did not believe that they were excluded from the blessings of God. However, the story is not about the appalling attitude of the people but about the power of faith in the Love of God. This kind of Faith has the power that no political entity or social movement can achieve.

I have a cloud above my head but I am where I want to be exactly. Janaina has a tough life but she is not going to allow that to hold her back. The Canaanite woman thought that she was going to get the scraps given to dogs but Jesus gave her a honored place in the gospels. Her faith is remembered today. She is the only person in the gospels that won an argument with Jesus. Her faith overcame all the odds that society stacked up against her. Her story is the story that is going to give hope to those who are forced to carry the cloud around for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps some would say that we should find a way to remove these clouds. It is a wonderful thought but it is not realistic. Education and persuasion are not going to remove these clouds. Hatred and discrimination will always exist until the Kingdom of God is established in His plenitude. It is God’s Kingdom and He will establish it at the perfect time. For now, we know that even when things appear to be hopeless, faith is still powerful to overcome the odds.

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Walking on Hidden Waters

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
Matthew 14:28-32

There is no body of water close to the old center of São Paulo. Once surrounded by rivers, the names of some of the streets reveal that there was even a tiny port. Today all we find are highways and tarred roads. The river is still there and active. We cannot see or access its resources. It is hidden underground. In a way, we are walking above the river. It is not the same as walking on it. We are not aware of the river running below our feet but it is there.

The story from the gospel is peculiar but not the part about Jesus walking on water. This shouldn’t surprise those who have faith in Him. We believe He is God incarnate. He is not dominated by nature. It is Peter’s attitude that I find to be strange. Why would anyone sane want to walk on water? He was a fisherman. He should know that the sea is a temperamental wild beast. However, Peter wasn’t thinking about this. He wanted to be like Jesus. This was his only inspiration and he also walked on water. Just a few steps though before reality sank in and his body followed suit. This is the most logical part of the story. It is something that we all can identify with him. I would panic if I was in the same situation as him. Jesus seemed a little unfair. He said that Peter had little faith when he did exactly what was normal for any human being. We were not meant to be walking on water and yet Jesus made it possible for Peter to do something that goes against his human nature.

I read this passage in the beginning of the week. The past few weeks have been chaotic for us. All the previous violent episodes had thrown us into some sort of a spiritual turmoil. I thought that perhaps I should start the week with the lectionary gospel reading to help bring things into focus. After all, the gospel is good news regardless of the circumstances. Initially I could not find all the necessary dots to connect this gospel reading with our lives.

Felipe and Tiger

The week was atypical but I could say this about every week in the streets. The children found a puppy, they fell in love with it and this love was mutual. He was their constant and happy companion. There was always someone giving it attention including us. Then, the dog took ill and the children came to us for help. The children in general are very protective over their pets. They would go without food to ensure that their dog was fed. They sensed something was seriously wrong with the dog. We told them that we would find a free vet close by and we found one on the day itself. Unfortunately, it was too late. The dog contracted a virus that attacked its nervous system and it died that very night. When we arrived to take the dog to the vet, the children were awaiting us to give us the tragic news. They shared the painful ordeal they experienced with their beloved pet. They said that they called different public vets and one said that he would see the dog if they paid him a large sum of money. The children were desperate and finally the dog had a violent convulsion and was no more. We heard the story in different versions. It was something they needed to share with someone who would understand. Felipe said that they sat down and cried when the dog died. They knew that it was part of life. We had taken a picture of Felipe with the dog a few days ago. The children were glad that at least they have a photo to remember it. They are not pet-less. They have another dog with them. It was abandoned too. They asked us if we would take it the vet just to ensure it was fine. It was really Alex’s dog because he found it. However, Alex looks like he is 12 even though he is turning 17 in a few weeks time. We needed someone from the streets who was above 18 to go with us to the vet because they only give free treatment for homeless people. We are afraid that they might take the dog from Alex thinking that he is a minor and incapable of taking care of a dog. I asked Felipe to do it. He was a little reluctant. He was emotionally exhausted but he eventually acquiesced. He knew that it was the right thing to do.

The scene was like a scene from a family. The children waited for us to share this tragic tale because we loved the dog too. It was a wonderful dog. It used to sit close to us when we did activities with the children and we certainly miss its presence. They knew that we would understand. However, it would have never crossed my mind that living the gospel would mean consoling children over the death of a dog. It would be crazy to share this at church meeting and say that we are going to another country to help children find a vet for their dogs. The gospel, however, makes us do the unexpected. Things that we used to think that are trivial or impossible become a viable means of expressing love. The children were waiting for someone who would understand their loss. They shared everything that happened. It gave them comfort to know that there was someone who was willing to understand them. The dog died and it wasn’t their fault. They did everything to save it. While it was alive, it never lacked love. They gave to the dog the unconditional love that perhaps they never experienced in their homes.

Like I said, the rivers and streams are still running through the streets where we work. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean Jesus is not beckoning us to walk with Him on water. It is not about doing something spectacular. It is just being willing to do something that is unusual for us. It is being willing to allow the gospel to take us to places that we don’t usually want to go or do this things that we might think are trivial. It is easy to disregard the whole incident as something banal. Thankfully, I started the week reading this gospel text. It was helped us look to the One who walks on water for wisdom instead of merely looking at circumstances and disregarding the valuable spiritual lesson hidden within.

 

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A Band of Strangers

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.-John 15:18-19

If I say that it has been a tough week, it would automatically set a precedence for this post. I have to explain what happened. I am not willing to commit to this. It would suffice to say that we experienced some unpleasant events. The details are irrelevant. They were disruptive but they did not steal anything from us. I am writing exactly what I wanted before these unfriendly interruptions. We had a special encounter with two older boys, Felipe and Wallace. It was so ordinary that it was special. I wanted to share it everyone.

Wallace wanted to know if I had some pictures. “Any picture will do,” he said. I took one of our coloring books and he chose a picture from it and took out a tattered notebook and started drawing. This was something new. Wallace never liked to draw before. His specialty was coloring and he did an excellent job of it. However, he wanted to do something new and different. Felipe took out his favorite Japanese comic book and started drawing a picture of the main character. He was drawing something for us to show to the people in the churches in Florida. Not too long ago, both these young men lacked the confidence to try anything new. Now they are challenging themselves. Mary and I decided to color. There we were, all four of us sitting in a church square doing our respective projects. Not a word was exchanged between us. Everyone who walked by was curious to see us sitting in silent harmony. It was peaceful. It was at this time that I thought about writing this post. It has been a long journey to get to this point where we can be silent with each other and yet at the same be challenged by each other’s presence to grow and develop our respective talents. Felipe felt confident in our presence and Wallace was beginning to nurture his self-esteem too. They both were doing very well in their drawings. Wallace chose a complex picture of a peacock and Felipe was having a conversation with himself on what to erase and how to make the perfect nose for his picture. Wallace completed his picture first and it was amazing. He was a natural, something he did not realize that he had in himself. Felipe was revealing his perfectionist side. Everything needed to be just right and mistakes were not allowed. Consequently, he took a longer time to complete his drawing and he divided it into sections. No one has ever taught him to anything of this sort. He did it naturally. We sat there in our quiet meditation for an hour at least and then we were briefly interrupted. This was a pleasant break. It was a homeless adult who came over with another teen from our group. She was carrying a cake. It was the adult’s birthday. We have seen him before but we do not know him. All the children and teens are friendly towards him. He wanted everyone to give him a hug. In the midst of all the hugging, I was overlooked. Felipe took a piece of cake and he wanted me to share his piece with him. He insisted and I took the piece that he broke off for me. Then he told the others that we shared the cake together. The birthday boy was obviously mentally challenged and behaved like a child even though he turned 36 on this day. I realized that our children and teens were looking out for him.

We returned to our quiet time. Unfortunately, it did not last long. There was an incident. There were verbal intimidation. It was teens from another area and they were being disrespectful and aggressive. Felipe decided to stop drawing. The moment was gone. We decided to leave the scene. As we were leaving, Felipe reminded that I owed the birthday boy a hug. I gave him a big hug and he was pleased.

Next day, we arrived and everyone was waiting for us. The group extended from two to eight. We decided to go to another place so that we wouldn’t be interrupted like the day before. We went to the steps of the cathedral. As incredible as it sounds, we had a repeat of the same quietness and peace we had the day before. Unfortunately, we also experienced the same interruption. This time it was people of authority with their guns in their hands. They surrounded us for no apparent reason and started uttering abusive words to our children and teens especially to a young 13 year old. Their crime was that a couple of them had paint thinner in a bottle. None of them were sniffing. They knew that they were not allowed to do so in our presence. These men of authority did not care. They wanted to show their power over us. Their abuse of authority continued until almost all the teens stood up and walked away except one who stayed with us. Before they left, they said that they would be back when these people were gone. We did not want to come back there. It was a horrible experience for us all. We went home a little sad. So many interruptions and verbal violence, all we wanted is to have a quiet time with these children and teens. There is always the next day.

There was no one around when we arrived on the following day. We waited for a while and then they started showing up one by one. We told them that all the hurtful words that were said yesterday were lies. They told us that they were used to it. They always heard these words hurled at them by people in authority. This wasn’t the point, we insisted. We wanted them to know that they were all lies. Words like worthless and trash should not be used in reference to people. They understood what we were saying. They know that we don’t approve of anyone talking about them in such manner. However, we were just as powerless as they were when it happened. Those with the guns have the protection of the authorities. We were nobody just like the kids in the eyes of society. However, we were someone to the only One that matters. We sat and played a game and it was peaceful once again. There were no interruptions this day. Before we left Felipe said, “It is wonderful when we can just have these peaceful times together without any interruptions.” I don’t think that I can say anything more after these thoughtful and sincere words.

 

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