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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In and Out

And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a gentile and a tax collector. -Matthew 18:17

Church discipline. That’s what I was told this text was about. The explanation was satisfactory for a while because it appealed to something within me. I liked being justified, being proven that I am right. I liked those who did not listen to me to suffer the consequences. This text sounded like a perverted promise to my base instincts. People get what they deserve, being sent out into the wilderness so to speak because they refused to change. However, times have changed and I have changed. Now we are in the wilderness. We discovered that this text isn’t about discipline but about love. The wilderness where the Gentiles and tax collectors lived is not a place of abandonment. It is where Jesus dwelt. It is a place of discovery.

Gentiles and Tax collectors. Jesus was known to be a friend of the tax collectors. He sought them out. He had dinners at their homes. The religious authorities said that he drank too much with them. They did not like his association with them. They thought that tax collectors should be ignored and despised so that they could learn the errors of their ways. Jesus thought differently. He thought that tax collectors were to be treated more delicately and with much grace.

The religious authorities thought that the Gentiles were excluded from the promises of redemption. They were irrelevant as far as the Kingdom of God was concerned. Jesus hardly said anything about Gentiles. He had sufficient interactions with them to reveal His true attitude towards them. He sought a lonely man who lived in a cemetery in a Gentile territory. This strange fellow liked cutting himself with rocks and was violent and terrifying. The people preferred to chain him in the land of the dead. This is where he belonged, they thought. Jesus went despite the fact that this was a land where pigs dwelled. It was not a place for any religious Jewish leader of His time. Jesus thought it was important to go to this unclean land to heal this abandoned young man. The fact that he was a Gentile did not hinder him. There was another Gentile that Jesus praised, he was a centurion. A military officer of a people who oppressed the Jewish people. He was the enemy and yet, Jesus commended his faith. It was greater than anyone He met among His own religious people. There was another despised Gentile woman who won an argument with Him. She showed Jesus that faith is able to overcome boundaries. Strangely, the gospel never talks about bad Gentiles.

The gospel text tells us that we are to consider those who refuse to change as Gentiles and tax collectors. We are to treat them as Jesus did and not as the religious authorities did. To these, Jesus’ attitude towards the Gentiles and tax collector doesn’t seem to be much of a punishment or discipline. Today, some might even say that Jesus was basically enabling them to be bad if our goal was to punish the obstinate sinner. Perhaps it is not about punishing but about understanding where this person is spiritually. He is yet to understand what it means to be a child of God. He is still blind to God’s love. This is the primary difference between those who are “in Christ” and those who are “outside”. They are not out because they don’t deserve to be “in”. Neither should we think that we are “in” because we are deserving. It is all about grace and one understands grace enough to know how to walk in grace. Others still believe that grace is something you purchase with your merits.

There are many homeless teens and children where we minister but only a few spend quality time with us. These are the ones that are “in”. They understand something that the others have yet to perceive. They know that they are loved and with this comes a certain responsibility. It is something natural and we have never demanded anything from them. Whenever we go to the streets, we sit in a little square close to where the children and teens hang out during the day. Some of them will see us and ignore us. Felipe, Gabriel, Ruan, Bruna and some of those with whom we have a strong bond will come come up to us. Sometimes one of them will pass by and will assure us that someone will come to us and spend time with us. It is always the same everyday. There are times when their minds are fuzzy due to drug use and they apologize for not giving us any attention. We assure them that they don’t need do anything with them and they know this. However, they know that they are loved and they want to be in a place where they are surrounded by love. The others come occasionally to us but they have yet to understand. It doesn’t matter, We are always here for them. One day they will understand and most likely they will come to this stage through the examples of those who understand. In the meantime, we are open to receiving everyone but we recognize that some are “in” because they understand. The rest are “out” but the door is always open.

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The Blessed Cross

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:22-24

We often refer to the Cross as if it is a burden or a great sacrifice. Peter thought so as well and he reprimanded Jesus for saying such awful things. The response was unexpected. It was the harshest rebuke anyone has ever received. Jesus never called any of his enemies “satan”. Unlike them, Peter was only looking out for Jesus. Maybe sometimes Satan comes disguised as our friend. Just because we have good intentions doesn’t exclude us from being used by the devil. As long as we reason like human beings in matters of the gospel, then, as Jesus said, “ ‘we’ are setting ‘our’ minds not on divine things but on human beings.” The way of the Cross is the way of the divine things. It is not an additional spiritual burden. Jesus is not in the business of burdening his disciples. To the contrary, He promised that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. When we carry the Cross, there is no room for all the unnecessary baggage that we haul around with us. We have to discard it. Consequently, the Cross lightens our load and helps us focus on the one thing that is necessary.

The Cross helps us understand the way God reveals Himself. The people did not expect the Messiah to be crucified. It goes against their understanding of power. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ predictions was rational and logical. The Cross represented a lost cause. No one could imagine anything hopeful at the foot of the Cross. Strangely, it was the most glorious moment of Jesus’ life. It changes the way we perceive hopeless situations. They can be a place where God reveals His power and glory. Therefore, any missionary endeavor of Christians would be wise to start in places which the world considers as loss causes. It is highly likely that these are the places where the Spirit of Jesus is clearly sensed. They might not be considered successful ventures by the world. However, we are not called to be successful according to the world’s standard. The world’s values are based on its ruler, the Devil. This is why Jesus addressed Peter as ‘satan’ when he tried to instill worldly values into Jesus’ plans.

The Cross is embracing things that do not seem profitable, such as looking for the one sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. The world would have counted the lost one as a write-off. The Cross refuses to recognize such values. Jesus changed the way we think about the wandering sheep. The lost sheep revealed the Shepherd’s heart of God who refuses to lose one soul. If we don’t look for the lost sheep, we will never discover the essence of God’s love.

The Cross is revelation of power as defined by God. It is unlike the definition of the world. The world honors warrior kings despite the fact that they might be ruthless and vicious tyrants and murderers. Violence is an accepted form of establishing law and order in this reality. Jesus kept silent when it was time to defend Himself. He was not going to subject Himself to this demonic system. The Cross achieved something that war and violence could never do. It made a Man who died a criminal’s death to be the greatest influence in humanity. He was able to transform hearts and minds without any violence or coercion. Kings, presidents, rulers and princes with all their brandishing violence and threats just eventually disappear into oblivion. Jesus on the Cross remains the symbol of power in the hearts and minds of many forever or at least for more than 2000 years.

Nothing about the Cross should or can be considered a burden. It is only a burden for those who reason according to this world. Those who are able to see the divine hand behind it will recognize that it is a gift, a very precious gift. Jesus did not want anyone to steal it away from Him. Satan is a thief and liar. Jesus was right in calling Peter by this name. He was acting according to Satan’s values. It is also an humbling fact. It is easy to fall from grace even with the keys of the Kingdom in your hand. It would be wise to never assume that we know how God should function in this world. As we can see in Peter’s case, God acts according to His own standards. The Way of the Cross is foreign to our understanding. We need help to transform the way we think. The disciples discerned that Jesus was different, drawing His strength and influence from a different source. They desired to drink from the same fountain. They asked Jesus to show them the way. It was the only time that disciples took the initiative and asked, “Lord, Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

In the Bible, prayers informed the course of action. Peter was praying when it was revealed to him that the blessing of the gospel was not limited to the Jewish community but for all peoples. Paul spent much time in prayer before he understood his vocation to the people whom he once abhorred. Prayer is not repetition of pious sounding words. It is opening our hearts and minds for God’s spirit to move within us. It is acknowledging our frailty and allowing God to be God in our lives. It is allowing God to show us that the Cross is something wonderful even though it might look and feel intimidating. It is giving the Holy Spirit space to remind us that we don’t carry the Cross alone; Jesus carries it with us.

Alex came up to us and told us that there was mute teenager in a shop asking for help. He led us to the store and there was a teenager writing on a piece of cardboard asking us to buy some clothes from the store. He claimed to be mute but our experiences alerted us that it might be a scam. The store salespeople were also a little suspicious too. Alex was the only one who believed him completely. Then we had to assure Alex that the boy will be fine. Incidentally this young teenager was well-dressed and looked rather well-fed. Alex, on the other hand, was dressed in torn and tattered clothes and looked malnourished. Then Alex blurted out, “Have you seen anything sadder than this young mute man without any money or family to help him?” We were silent because we were looking at someone who was hundred times worse off than the mute teenager. Alex comes from extremely poor family. His father died from crack addiction. His mother died on a filthy floor in the one room while they were waiting for an ambulance to arrive. It has been one disaster after another in his family life. Besides this, he was easily the most severely neglected teen in our group of children. Today, Alex was only able to see a helpless mute teenager and wanted to do anything possible to help him. I reminded him that there was a Catholic charity that gave away clothes for free. When he heard this and dashed back into the store and told the young man about this. However, the young man was only interested in getting new clothes and we will leave it at that. It is Alex on whom I want to focus.

The next day we went back to the streets, Alex was a little upset. He said that the store owner came out and yelled at Alex for being a nuisance even though he just walked by to say hello to some of the sale assistants. The store owner only saw in Alex what the world sees him. Jesus gave us a Cross that opened our eyes to see the Alex of yesterday. Inside the neglected teen who is socially awkward to point of being rude, there is a kind and gentle soul. This is the difference between those who carry the Cross and those who don’t. We see what God is working in the lives of the people. If the Cross does this, how can it be a burden? It is nothing but a wonderful gift and blessing.

I, for one, am grateful for it.

 

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Opening the Gates of Hades

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:17-19

There was a time when Hades was not hell. It was not a place of torment but of lament; a shadowy existence where the once living would melancholically reminiscence about their former vibrant life. Hades was the much dreaded end of all humanity.

All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. Ecclesiastes 9:2-3

The existence of Hell with all its creative imaginings of eternal fire and torment is debatable but there is no doubt about Hades. It is a place that awaits of all humanity. An existence where we won’t be remembered anymore despite our best efforts to be remembered in this world.

Living a shadowy existence is not reserved for the afterlife, unfortunately. It is a present reality for many. Some have wealth and power to create an illusionary heaven on earth. They create a façade to hide from their reality. Most can not afford this illusion and they are forced to face their Hades on a daily basis. It is a consequence of the Fall. God warned Adam:

“but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17

Alas, from Adam to present times, humanity desires to be like god and decide what is right and wrong. They want to create their own justice. They want to be judges of their own destinies. They think that heaven is within their reach, yet all they have created is a ever present state of Hades. Some continue to pretend that they have a secure piece of heaven in this Hades. They try to exclude anyone who reminds them that it is an lie. The message of the gospel is of no use to them. They are only interested in it if it can guarantee that they can hold unto the “heaven” of their own making in the afterlife. For these, the power of the gospel only takes effect in the afterlife. They have no use for the gospel in the here and now. Jesus said that those who are well have no use for Him. He came to heal the sick; those who are able to see that Hades is the world that fallen human beings have created.

It is understandable that instead of religious leaders and powerful Roman officials, God chose a lowly fisherman to confess the true nature of Jesus. The others would find the Messiah to be troublesome rather than a blessing. Peter was conscious of his lowly status. He confessed when he met Jesus for the first time that he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8). This was the man Jesus chose to open the gates of Hades. Peter knew what it was like to live in Hades. Until Jesus came into his life, he was living in oblivion. Now, he was given the Truth that would make Him the richest man in the world but it was not his to keep. He needed to share this truth and the gates of Hades was a good place to start.

What are we suppose to do there? There is no clear instruction except to unlock the gates. The key can be none other than the person of Jesus, in other words, His love. It is this key that touched the hearts of His disciples. The gates of Hades have existed far too long, keeping many out of the land of the living. We can open these gates with confidence because we encountered the reality of His gracious love in our hearts. However, we cannot make people leave Hades. They have to do it for themselves. They need to listen like Peter did to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Jesus made it clear that it wasn’t Peter’s intelligence or wisdom that made him see things clearly; it was the Holy Spirit. We go forth to Hades because we know that the Holy Spirit will there waiting for us. If not, Jesus wouldn’t send us there. We are given this honor to participate in this work with the Holy Spirit. We are given the keys to remove the obstacles that impede people from living a full life instead of a shadowy existence. This is the opposite of the world’s view. It is always placing obstacles to separate people. The word ‘diabolos” for the devil means the one condemned to sever relationships. We bind all the powers that severe relationships and release things that will unite us.

This week I was surprised once again by a question that was never asked before. Dreyson wanted to know what I like to do in my spare time. He stressed the word, “like”. Our relationship has come to a stage where the children and teens are interested in our daily lives. He knows that we don’t have a TV. He cannot imagine life without TV. I told him that I liked to read a lot. Then he asked a follow-up question, if I completed college. I told him that I spent too much time in colleges. I had enough of them. Then he had a curious look on his face. Then as if it never occurred to him before, he asked, “Are you rich?” I guessed he thought going to college twice means that I had money. It was hard to explain the concept of scholarship. However, the reality is that compared to his family, I am rich. I told him that I am richer than his family but in the eyes of society, I am not rich but I am definitely not poor. He smiled and liked my answer. Then he asked what I had planned for tomorrow. I told him Mary and I were going to the museum with him. We had planned this earlier this week. He smiled. He wasn’t trying to be smug but he wanted to hear from me that we have a date reserved for just him and us. Then our conversation wandered off to many directions. We sat there on the floor of a dirty city square. One person richer than the other without any obstacles between us because Jesus was in the center of it. He united us to become one.

 

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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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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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