Lessons on Being a Neighbor in Small Spaces

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40

I rode the elevator with my neighbor. We have lived next door to each other for than a year. I have only seen him once or twice. We felt a little awkward being forced together in a small space. We did not say anything to each other and perhaps we were ashamed that we had nothing to say to each other. Obviously, we were anxious to get to our floor. When the door opened, we gave each other a weak smile and nod and then went into our own apartments. We were free again to be alone and apart from each other.

Mary and I were in the elevator with some of our children a weeks ago. It was the first time for us. We haven’t been in a situation where we needed to be in a building together. However, this was a special occasion. Children day’s in Brazil falls on October 12th. Here the day is honored and celebrated with events and parties for children. A social agency decided to hold a party for our children and teens. Ruan insisted that we go with them and even made a special invitation for us. So there we were crowded together in a small space. There were at least 8 people this time. The party was on the 5th floor. Ruan was practical leaning on me. Then he did something unexpected. He rested his head on my shoulder. The other teens from the streets were with us. They did not say anything or even think that it was strange. I think that they would done the same. They can be very affectionate. A regular teenager of the same age wouldn’t do this even with his father. Ruan did not mind showing his affection with me. I did not mind being in the elevator with him. There was no awkwardness. I wasn’t waiting for the door to open to rush out. Ruan is my neighbor too but he lives miles away from my apartment. I feel comfortable with him. My next door neighbor lives in close proximity to me but there is a distance between us.

Jesus said that I should love my neighbor as myself. Love in itself is a complicated thing but loving another person as myself raises the bar. The traditional idea of love which I held onto to once doesn’t seem suffice.

Loving someone means desiring goodwill towards them; this was my answer to anyone who asked me about love. However, it doesn’t quite capture the essence of what Jesus is saying. I can convince myself that I desire goodwill for my next door neighbor without ever talking to him. I really doubt this was what Jesus had in mind when He said that we should love our neighbor. There is a distance between me and my neighbor. I cannot imagine loving him as myself because he is not part of my life. The love of Jesus overcome distances. His love for people was concrete and real. He loved people in a way that He made Himself need their presence. Jesus asked his closest disciples to be with him when He prayed the anguish prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. According to our faith, He is God incarnate. By right, He doesn’t need anyone. Yet He loved people in a way that He always wanted to be with them. He wasn’t afraid of this type of needing people: to allow them into our lives in such a way that it is difficult to imagine life without them.

The way Jesus loved produced something in the lives of the beloved. His love restored their humanity. The people who were once forgotten suddenly felt that they were important to God because of Jesus. They had a renewed zest for life because of His Love. Nothing of this sort was happening between me and the man who lived next door. There are too many obstacles between me and my neighbor.

The obstacles are there because we feel that we don’t need each other. We have our apartments. We have our hobbies. We have created a world for ourselves that excludes needing anyone. I don’t what he does in his home but I have enough things in mine to forget that he exists next door. On the other, Ruan has no possessions. He has some cards and letters that he treasures. He asked us to keep them for him because he knows that he will lose them in the streets. Homelessness doesn’t allow any room for personal possession. In a strange way, it creates less hindrance and distractions between us and the children. There are no material things to replace human interactions in their lives. The children and teens don’t need us in the material sense. They have their basic needs met by other social groups or random strangers. They have a different relationship with these people. It is based on a physical need and when the need is met, the relationship becomes meaningless. We don’t provide any material things. We are just there and they come to us. They want to be with us as much as we want to be with them. They need us as much as we need them but not because we gain some material benefits. There is an exchange between us but it is beyond material needs. When we are together, we feel like our world is complete. Perhaps, this is what it means to be reconciled.

When we go to the streets, we sit at the square and wait for them. They come on their own. They know that they don’t have to but they come to us and spend time with us. Recently, they made us overstay our usual time. We were with them until it got dark. We did it happily. We were not trying to rush back to our apartment. We don’t mind spending time with these children and teens because they are our neighbors. They have become part of our lives. Jesus has used these children and teens to teach us what it means to love a neighbor according to the gospel. They are people that you allow to become an integral part of your lives. Their relationship gives a new understanding of the meaning of life.

It is easier to love the children and teens than our next door neighbor. We thought that we are going out to the streets to teach the children about the gospel. However, I am discovering that Jesus is using them to teach us to remove the obstacles that separate us from our neighbors. Ruan was not afraid to show me that he enjoyed being with me. On the other hand, I can’t even think of something to say to my next door neighbor. Maybe it is time to allow the Holy Spirit to help me remove some of the barriers I have put between me and my neighbor. I don’t how to do it. Frankly speaking, I am not sure if I want to do it. However, I don’t want to miss out on life. Our life has become richer because we were open to the children. When Ruan put his head on my shoulder, it was special. I don’t want my next door neighbor to do the same. That would be very strange. However, I would like to learn how to love him as myself.

 

 

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Render unto The Caesar…

“Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22: 19-22

The mayor of this city wants to clean it up. He wants the city to be beautiful. Everyday he sends the police to where the children sleep and forces them to evacuate the area. However, they are not allowed to take their blankets or cushions. These things are confiscated and eventually destroyed. Apparently, these things makes the city look unsightly. I am sure the presence of the homeless children and teens sleeping under the busy highway bridge does not qualify for a post card picture. The homeless are not part of the beauty of this city. They need to find another place where they would not be a burden to those who want a beautiful city.

The cushions are perhaps the few comforts that the homeless have. They are discarded cushions full of stains and holes. Now, the children sleep on the dirt floor. Now, their clothes and bodies are covered with dirt when we meet them in the afternoon. The mayor has yet to improve the shelter situation. However, it doesn’t matter. Our children and teens won’t go to one. They are treated like prisoners in these places. They prefer to sleep on the dirt floor.

I don’t know the mayor personally so I cannot pass judgement on him. I shouldn’t do it even if I knew him. It is safe to say that he is not an evil person. He does not deliberately want to make life miserable for the homeless. It is just that he doesn’t know them. He cannot imagine their sense of rejection because they are not part of his world. They are just concepts and numbers for him. The distance between him and the poor of the city is astronomical even though the city office is in the old center of the city where we work. If he stepped out of his building, he would see the large number of homeless that occupy almost every street corner. However, he never steps out of the building. He comes to work in a helicopter and leaves the same way. He has no reason to meet the homeless. He is a mayor of the city and no expects him to be listening and hanging out with the homeless.

No one existentially is further away from us than God and yet He is with us. He dwells among us not like a mayor or a king but as a suffering servant. It is a choice that He makes. Perhaps, God thinks that it is incumbent to His eternal office as God to be close to those who suffer. Jesus tells us that if we want to see Him, we have to go to the ones who are hungry and give them something they need. He is among those who are in prison where society puts people it wants to punish. He is present there among those who are easy to hate and despise. He wants us to know that He cannot and will not forget anyone. He wants us to give Him shelter when He is present with our homeless children. Perhaps when there is no shelter available, a discarded cushion would be fine or even in some cases, a filthy manger.

He works completely different from any government officials. These officials like things to appear good. They work in the realms of numbers and statistics. They like to present a beautiful image. Jesus is not into images. When the disciples commented on the beauty of the temple, He told them that it would be destroyed. Outward beauty never lasts. The Pharisees liked outward appearances. Jesus has some harsh words to say to them;

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whitewashed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:27

External beauty doesn’t revive a soulless society. Jesus was not interested in building great cities or empires. He was concerned about finding the lost sheep. He wanted to be their shepherd. His priorities were centered on being the Good Shepherd to those that society forgot and rejected. The Caesars of the world have other priorities. They are invested in the constructions of images that one day will stumble and fall. Yet, some people who consider themselves followers of Jesus applaud the actions of the Caesars even when they are soulless. Regardless of who they are and what they propose to do, their desires are not compatible with the priorities of the gospel. They dwell in a world that is too separated and distant from humanity. They judge the world from a distance. Jesus did not make decisions from a distance. He is close to each and every person. He revealed to us a God who is so different from our nature and yet chooses to be close to us. Caesars share our humanity and yet they hide behind walls and illusions of their own creation.

It has been a while since we had a decent conversation with Bruno. He was the one who told us about the police taking away the cushions and blankets. He mentioned that it was the first time that the police actually seemed apologetic and said that they were just following orders. Without us saying anything, Bruno talked about shelters and orphanages. He said that he was in a state orphanage for most of his life before he ran away to the streets. It wasn’t because he disliked the place. He had many pleasant memories. However, the government only allows them to stay in the orphanage until they turn 18. Then they have to leave. He had no where to go. He doesn’t even know the address of his family or his mother’s full name. He ran away before he turned 18. He is not the only one. There are many who share the same story. They leave before they get rejected one more time by the state. Bruno ended his poignant story saying that he won’t go any shelter just for the sake of sleeping there. He wants to have some structure and stability in his life. Strangely, the streets has provided something for him.

Caesar has the finance and the resources but he is too far away to do anything worthwhile with them. We have restricted material means but we are close to the children. Bruno hugged us with his dirty blanket wrapped around him. His hands and feet were covered with dirt. However, his outward appearance did not hinder us from seeing his beauty. Not just Bruno, but all our children and teens. They might be considered a nuisance or a pest by many who are far away. These will support the actions of Caesar. However, Jesus beckons His followers to draw close enough to see that within each of these little ones lies the beautiful image of God. It is something anyone who is far away will never appreciate.

Render unto Caesar what belongs to him but he will never understand the things that belong to God.

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More than One Way of Watering

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. – 1 Cor. 3:6-7

It started as an experiment. I used some fresh herbs for a recipe. I had a scrawny stalk leftover with some miserable leaves. I thought that it would be fun to see if they would root. They did and now my apartment is scattered with pots of basil, oregano, tomatoes and other vegetables. It evolved from a mere hobby to something else. I can’t really explain in words. It deserves a word better than hobby. The plants make feel connected with something in me that I never knew existed. Now, I cannot imagine life without plants. They have become a vital part of my existence. Therefore, leaving my plants for two weeks was a concern for me. It has been a while since we went on a vacation. We needed the break but I did not want to lose my plants. Thankfully, a friend offered to be their caretaker in our absence. However, there was a problem. She was doing graduate studies in theology and had a paper to present in a conference so she would be away for three days. Perhaps, I should have just trusted the plants could survive without care for three days. However, I wanted to play god and manage everything. I asked our building janitor to water them for me in our absence. Unfortunately, he overwatered the plants and the plants did not like it. I should have just left things alone. Playing god never works for anyone.

Two weeks came and went swiftly. We enjoyed our break but we were happy to be back home. We missed everything about being here. I was happy to see my plants had flourished without me. Despite the brief setback with the enthusiastic janitor, the plants looked healthier and better than when I was looking after them. Our friend was not around when we arrived. We invited her for dinner to thank her personally. She was happy and told us that she missed our plants. It sounded funny but she wasn’t joking. She connected with them.

Our friend is also a writer. She writes short but beautiful theological reflections that penetrate one’s soul. In her time in our apartment, the plants communicated with her and they inspired to produce a beautiful reflection. She had an open mind and God used the plants to broaden it. As she was tendering to their needs, she saw the correlation with the heavenly Gardener nurturing our soul. It is something that we hear about often but it is another thing when the truth sinks into our innermost being. The plants helped her discover this Truth in more profound manner. They become a channel of God’s word in her life, enriching her life. She enjoyed their presence without any expectations. She did even have any rudimentary knowledge of plants. It wasn’t necessary. Prior knowledge is not a prerequisite to enjoy God’s creation. All we need to do is to be open and God will communicate to us through his creation.

Our janitor watered the plants and noticed that one of the herbs that he tried to grow doing well in my apartment. He wanted to know how I did it. He was a very pragmatic person. For him, plants exist to serve our needs. He did not expect the plants to say anything to him. Our friend, on the other hand, allowed the plants to minister to her. However, they both watered the plants but one came out of the experience richer than before.

We were away for two weeks. We were in a beautiful place by a lake where the air was fresh. In the evenings, the skies were filled with stars and there was absolute silence. No pollution, no police sirens in the middle of the night and no unpleasant odors. Strangely, we found ourselves missing the city. Our thoughts did not take a vacation. We thought about the children and teens. We were not necessarily concerned about them. It is just that they have become part of our lives. We cannot imagine life without them. However, it is still good to take a vacation. It is good to remove ourselves from the ministry just to know that we are not indispensable. Life goes on for the children and teens with or without us. Their world doesn’t fall apart when we are not there. In a way, the children don’t really need us. We do not have that kind of relationship with them. It is not based on needs. We hope that they want to be with us. We definitely want to be with them. It made us wonder if the feeling was mutual.

Before we left, the children asked us to buy some souvenirs for them. This is the first time they asked this of us. They are not really collectors. They can hardly keep their personal possessions without losing them. They always ask us the keep all the letters they receive because they are afraid of losing them in the streets. Despite this, they wanted souvenirs from us. I thought perhaps they wanted us to remember them when we are away. It could also mean that they were afraid that we would not return and making us buy something for them is a way to ensure our return. Maybe I was reading too much into the situation. We bought some postcards and special pencils for them.

Some received their gifts with glee and others had a confused look. They did not realize that we were away. It was fine. The children don’t have a notion of time. One or two weeks don’t make any difference to them. Those who knew we gone, welcomed us back with hugs and said that they thought we were not going to come back. We have been away before but I am not sure why they were concerned that we were not returning this time. The next day, Wanderson handed the postcard back to me. I was a little confused and then he said that they wrote something for us on the card. It was written with the pencil we gave him. It said;

“Obrigado para lebro de nois. Foi legal que voces voltaram para nois. To feliz! Deus te abesoi.(sic)”

The translation: “Thank you for remembering us. It is great that you returned to us. I am happy. God bless you.”

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Portuguese grammar would say that this is fraught with mistakes and colloquialism. I have left it as it was written without correcting the mistakes. For us, it is one of the most beautiful things the children have written to us. It came from the heart of a young man who is usually insecure to write anything on his own. He wrote this because he wanted to do it. Our relationship inspired him to produce something. It answered our questions during our vacation.

Perhaps you might be wondering why I mentioned our friend and the plants. There is a connection. There are several ways you can water a plant and our friend did so in a way that the plants gave her more than she gave them. They become part of her life. We can say the same about our children and teens.

 

 

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