Strange Choices

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.-Luke 1:38

Mary is the focus of the gospel reading today. This is the Mary before dogmatic interpretations, before she was dressed with royal garments and majestic titles. She is just Mary, plain and simple. Most likely, no one ever took any notice of her. Definitely they would have never imagined that her name would be remembered with reverence after two thousand years.

There are several traditions related to Mary’s parentage but, in the canonical gospels, we are only informed that Mary lived in the temple. Her parents do not appear to be in the picture anymore. Elizabeth, the mother of John, perhaps was her only living relative. Therefore, it is safe to assume that she was an orphan. She survived on the charity of others and even Joseph’s betrothal to her was considered as an act of kindness on his part. Apparently, Elizabeth and Joseph were the only people who were concerned about her well-being and the Holy Spirit testified to both about her pregnancy. She was basically a young teen alone in this world. There was nothing remarkable or spectacular about her. To make matters worse, she was poor and an orphan. The future did not seem very bright for this young girl. Her only place of refuge was the temple where she could be safe from any exploitation. She seems to have a similar story with our children. Except that in our present time, the streets have replaced the temple.

The angel never said why God chose her. The churches have many theories which have transformed Mary into super spiritual saint. I understand the intention behind it. They did it because Mary is our only witness to the virgin birth. They wanted her to be above suspicion. However, the authentic nature of the Virgin Birth is not something we prove through the testimony of witnesses. It is a Truth that is realized through the Holy Spirit.

As for Mary, the Bible just says that she was the one God chose to be the mother of Jesus and He has no obligation to give us any reason for His choice. It was quite simple and in a way, it is beautiful in itself. God chose an orphan whom society considered as insignificant or perhaps even a burden. I have no doubt that Mary was a devout young girl and I am also sure that there were devout virgins during the time. God did not choose her because of her sanctity. It is not a choice based on merit but it is purely God’s grace. Besides, it seems like God chooses underdogs to reveal His love to the world. Perhaps, we need to focus on this fact. God seems to have a preference for those whom society deems as insignificant to accomplish His work.

It is not first time He done this. It is basically the story of almost every personality in the Bible. God chose an enslaved nation to be His chosen people. He called the most unlikely shepherd boy, overlooked by his own father, to become the greatest king of Israel. Jesus chose common and perhaps unqualified people to become his apostles. He chose a despised Pharisee who persecuted Christians with a vengeance to become the apostle to the gentiles. The Bible is full of such examples and our religious history is also full of women and men who often overlooked that ended up doing great things for the Kingdom of God. There is a tendency for the church to be influenced by worldly standards to transform these people into some sort of super heroes. This is a great disservice to the message of gospel and it is also disrespectful to these saints. I am sure that Mary would reject all the titles that have been given to her by the churches. She has no use for them. She discovered the one needful thing that has made her life full of significance. She said, “Yes” to God. She chose life when she said that she was a handmaiden of God. She did not sacrifice anything to become Jesus’ mother. She had nothing to sacrifice. She had nothing in this world. This helped her see the life that was being offered to her.

I think that the most powerful message that the biblical Mary can teach us today is to say, “yes” to God. There is no sacrifice in saying “yes” to God. In fact, the contrary is true. We lose everything when we say “no” to him. Sometimes we are blinded by the things we possess and status that we have in this world. We think that we need all these things plus the gospel to be happy. In the end, we end up holding onto things that are meaningless and give up the One thing that is needful. Mary was the perfect candidate because she had nothing to hold her back from saying “Yes!”

The story in the gospel reading above sounds like a Christmas story but it is still essentially an Advent story. It is still about waiting. It is not about waiting for Christmas. We can’t wait for something that already happened. It is waiting for God to manifest His Kingdom in a clear and precise manner to the world. The story is also a warning. It reveals to us where to wait. The religious authorities waited in high and lofty places for the Messiah. However, God appeared to the world in the same way He has always done. He appeared among those who are meek and forgotten. As Christians, if we considered ourselves to be people who are waiting for the Messiah, then we need to know where to wait for Him. He hasn’t changed. He will continue to manifest Himself among those whom the world rejects. This is why He admonished his disciples to be among the poor, imprisoned, orphans and widows, basically among those who are easily overlooked. Not because we are superior to these. The contrary is true. They understand that whatever God has to offer to them is infinitely better than what the world has to offer. Mary said “Yes” because she knew all the securities and honor that this world could offer is garbage compared to the gospel.

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ. ”-Philippians 3:8

She never said these words but St Paul, another unlikely servant, articulated it perfectly. Many of us are still holding onto garbage. We need to be with people like Mary to realize the truth of our fantasies.

Our children and teens are in an excellent place to see the world as Mary did. When we see them in this situation, we just see hopelessness and poverty. However, God sees them as great and potential servants like the Mother of His Son, Jesus. These are the kind of people God usually chooses to reveal His kingdom to the world. He does make strange choices.

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The Joy of Not Being the Savior

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.-John 1:6-8

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”-John 1:19-22

A friend offended me once, unintentionally of course. It was a good thing. Obviously no one in their right mind wants to be insulted. However, this particular incident was a great help to me. The topic of the conversation was about altruism. The statement was a generalization. The subject was none other than Mother Theresa and the unfortunate term, “messianic complex” was thrown about callously. There is no need to go into details. One can figure out how everything unfolded. There was complete silence for a moment after the unsavory term was used. Our friend realized that he had inadvertently insulted us. During this uneasy moment, my own personal thoughts went wild. I began wondering if he was actually right. Am I serving in this ministry to the homeless because I secretly want to be their savior?

I eased the tension by reverting the subject back to Mother Theresa. I defended her but in reality I was desperately trying to find arguments to defend myself. I wasn’t sure if I was convincing. It did not matter. Everyone wanted to move on to something else. However, his comments had penetrated my soul. I was questioning whether I have a messiah complex. On the other hand, we are all attracted to messiahs. We read about them. We flocked to the theaters to watch dramatized versions of their heroic deeds. They are people we want to imitate. Maybe the question should be who doesn’t have a messiah complex?

I can think of many reasons why I remain in this ministry in São Paulo. However, there was only one foundational reason that brought me here. It was and still is the gospel. I had no idea what the homeless situation was like before coming to this mammoth city. I had seen abject poverty before. I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia for four years. Then I lived next to a slum. I did interact with the very poor there. I am accustomed to the situation of urban poverty but homelessness is completely different. There is a sense of complete abandonment and hopelessness. Seeing children and teens in these circumstances added a more painful dimension to it.

Faced with such dire circumstances and armed with a privileged middle-class background, my mind was flooded with possible solutions to this problem. Somehow I thought that it was incumbent upon me to solve the malignant social illness. I thought that this was an intricate part of preaching the gospel. I fell into the trap without realizing it. I wanted to become their messiah. I read the scriptures and I imagined myself as their Moses, Elijah and David, not realizing that none of these were really successful messiahs. Moses failed, except for Joshua and Caleb, to bring the generation that he led out of slavery to the Promised Land. Elijah could not convince the people of Israel to abandon idolatry and David never could bring peace to Israel and his own family contributed to much of the chaos. Bedazzled by the prospect of being a messiah, I failed to see the truth about these great men of faith. Strangely, John the Baptist was never up for consideration. He was too simple. He appeared in the gospel for a few verses and then we never heard from him again until he was murdered. However, he was the one that I needed to heed. Jesus considered him to be the greatest prophet.

Occasionally, a young person who is unfamiliar with us will come and ask; “What are you offering us?” In a way, it is a fair question. There are various social agencies that go around offering their “solutions” to the homeless. There are many churches that provide food in the evenings. They are solving the problem of hunger. There are some religious groups that go to the streets offering shelters. Everyone is offering something. They want to know what we are bringing to the table. We don’t have anything concrete to say. I cannot say that we are bringing Jesus to the streets. That wouldn’t be true. He does not belong to us for us to take Him around like a prop. Besides, He was already in the streets way before we ever thought of coming here. Whenever someone asks this kind of question, they are usually not interested in anything beyond the material. Sometimes questions like these make us feel a little inadequate. Before someone thinks that they need reassure us that we are doing something significant, let me say that this is really a good thing. We need to be aware of our limitations and reality. We have nothing to offer that will end homelessness or other social ills. Therefore, I can safely toss out any aspirations of being a messiah. Thanks be to God because now we can really do something for the children.

There is one thing we do very well. We sit and wait for the children and teens to be with us in the square; our usual meeting place for a long time. We are mastering this art. The children eventually make their way to us, one by one voluntarily; Caio, Ruan, Guilherme, Felipe, Bruna….They come even though they know that we have no solutions for their situations. The interesting thing is that they never asked us to solve their problems. Danyel asked us why we haven’t been coming recently. I reminded him that we have been here almost everyday. It was he who had disappeared for a while. He smiled and asked to play a game and then he fell asleep in the middle of it. Felipe asked our help with his documents. He said that he found the whole process intimidating and he wants us to be with him to give him a sense of security. Bruna showed us the latest piece she had colored. She wants to send it to her newfound friend in Florida and asked our help to write a letter.

We discovered something better than trying to be the messiah. We can just love and enjoy them. People flocked to John the Baptist despite his strange outfit and mannerisms because he loved them. He cared enough about them to boldly proclaim the Truth which that the coming Messiah loves them more than they can ever imagine. We realized that we make lousy messiahs but we can be good John the Baptists. However, there is a significant difference between us and John. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

We have something more powerful to share than John. John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. Jesus has given us the message of reconciliation. Christ reconciled us to Himself and now has given us the ministry of reconciliation. The Shepherd of our souls has come to reconcile all people. Our children and teens were cast out of their homes and society and God wants to gather them into His eternal rest. It is a message of eternal love. Our children and teens need to be ready for reconciliation. They need to know that they are included in God’s Kingdom.

Yes, I was once possessed by the “Messiah complex” but thankfully Love exorcised this false image of myself. As for my friend, he will never know that his offensive words have helped me put things into perspective. I am grateful that I was offended. Nevertheless, I don’t want it to happen again.

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Waiting for The Embrace of a Mother

And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”-Mark 1:7-8

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the screen. We were waiting anxiously for our numbers to appear. All we have had so far were numbers. We started this process with Dreyson a week ago. He just turned 18 and wanted to have all his documents. You are nobody in this society unless you have your documents. Many children and teens are buried in unmarked graves because they did not have a piece of paper with them when they met their unfortunate end. Now they are forgotten in death as they were in life. However, it was not death that inspired Dreyson to get his documents. He wanted to embrace life. He wanted to change his story. He thought that the first step is to be recognized officially by the government that he is someone. He asked our help to do it. It had brought us here to this cold lifeless room waiting for his number which finally appeared on the screen. I walked with Dreyson to the counter and got him settled. Then I went back to our seat and waited.

It is hard to believe that this young teenager is legally an adult. He still looks and acts like a child. He is not childish but he is not an adult. We met him when he was 14. He was extremely shy and insecure. He wanted me to know his name and the next day he asked me if I remembered it. This was our first contact. Over the years, our conversations with him were quite erratic. He was hardly sober. He sniffed lots of paint thinner and whatever substance that was available to him. Despite this, we still managed to spend some quality time with him whenever there was an opportunity. Recently, he had a conversation with someone from a church and the person challenged him to take baby steps to leave the streets. He took the advice to heart. He asked for our help to navigate through the bureaucratic nightmare to get all his documents. This was his first step.

We did need to wait long this time. Dreyson came up to us and told us that he was done. He is registered now. However, he did not have any documents in his hand. He had another slip of paper with another number instead. He asked us to keep it for him. It said that his documents will be ready in 12 days. We have to wait again.

On our walk back, Dreyson shared his dreams with us. He said that he wants to become an interstate bus driver. He liked to idea of driving and traveling to different cities. His father had taken them across the country before. It was perhaps the fondest memory he has of his time with his father. They hitchhiked for the most part. Ever since then he was always interested in traveling. We had many conversations together about our travels. It was wonderful to hear from a young man who hardly shared any of his dreams before. He asked us what he needed to become a commercial driver. He wants to take the necessary steps to achieve his goal. He said that he did not want to continue living in the streets for the rest of his life. He wants something different. I am glad that he is thinking along this line and we felt especially honored that he wants to include us in his journey towards a new beginning. He also told us that he had recently wrote a letter and wanted to show it to us. It was scribbled on a stained paper but it was one of the most beautiful things written by a teenager living in the streets. It was a letter to his mother.

Dreyson came to the streets with his younger brother, Danyel. I wrote about the latter before. He suffered an accident and broke his leg. We visited him in the hospital during this time. Unfortunately, his mother only came to see her son after five days. Initially we were mad at her. Then she finally came. She hardly hugged him. She did not even ask anything about the accident. Throughout her time with her son, she appeared to be a little distant. However, our initial anger subsided when we met her. Unloved and neglected people can also have children. It was obvious that she had never received love in her life. It was also clear that she was giving all she had to her children even though it wasn’t much.

In his letter, Dreyson wrote that he was sorry that he and Danyel are living in the streets. He said that she deserved better than this. He did not want her to worry about them. He wanted her to know that he appreciated her. He thought that she was a wonderful person. He cherished her embrace and affections. He wanted her to know that these things were important to him. The letter went to describe a mother that was nothing like the woman we met. He did not want too much from his mother. He just wanted her hugs and affection.

Dreyson had spent two years straight without going home even for the holidays. I remembered asking him if he missed his home at that time. He did not say anything. His father only came looking for him after two years. Since then, he would try to go home for a few days but he always returns to the streets almost immediately. He goes home looking for something that perhaps does not exist. It doesn’t take him long to realize this and it drives him back to the streets. Now, he wants to be someone in the world; a bus driver has a place in society. He wants a place in this world. It is not a coincidence that he wrote a letter to his mother at this precise moment. He is feeling hopeful. He wants to connected to the first person who gave him the sensations of being loved. He wants to be loved and recognized.

John said, in the gospel verse quoted above, that Jesus will baptize us with the Spirit whereas he can only baptize with water. I have read this verse a hundred times before but listening to Dreyson’s letter has given me a fresh understanding of John’s proclamation. Dreyson is waiting for several things in his life. His documents, his dreams of becoming a driver and his desire to leave the streets; all these things are attainable if he is willing to wait for them. They might introduce minor changes in his life. He might leave the streets. This is a strong possibility in his case. One day, he might have a steady income. He might be financially and physically better than he is presently. It is possible to achieve these things without any reliance on God. We don’t need the gospel for these things.

The people who came to John the Baptizer were most likely better off than Dreyson in terms of wealth and security. Yet, they were not satisfied with their lives. They wanted something more. In this sense, Dreyson has something in common with them. His letter to his mother revealed something more profound about Dreyson. Something that John the Baptizer saw in those coming to him. They were seeking for something more substantial. He knew that he couldn’t give them what they needed. We cannot give Dreyson what he truly needs. He wants to be connected in a profound manner with Life in its fullness. The best way he could describe what he wants is to use the symbolic gesture of the embrace of his mother. It is an image of being united with Love. His mother is not capable of giving what Dreyson yearns for. Neither are we. The people who came to John the Baptizer came with the same expectation. They wanted to be connected with Love in a way that was beyond what John could provide. However, there is hope. This yearning is not something that cannot be satisfied. It prepares us to look for the only One who can touch us in our innermost being. Our task is to follow John’s example. We are the ones who help Dreyson and anyone else that God puts in our path to see this Hope that is coming. We cannot make it happen. It is not a formula or a doctrine that Dreyson desires to encounter. He wants to encounter the embrace of Love. We can only prepare him by letting him know that it is possible to encounter Life in its fullness. John baptized with water. It is symbol of purification. It is an act of helping people discern the true source of life. We will give Dreyson help with his documents and whatever help we can provide to guide him in discerning that true Love is found in the One who can nourish our souls with the Love that gives us the zeal for Life.

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