Melancholic Beauty

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.-Romans 12:1

There have been weeks where I didn’t post anything. Those weeks are gone forever without any memories. I lament their silent passing. They deserve better. I started writing this blog as a way of keeping in touch with people but it has evolved into something special and sacred. It has become like altars constructed with words. The biblical patriarchs built altars to mark an encounter with God. They used stones and we use words. I usually spend the week waiting and listening for these words. They come to me through different means. On rare occasions, they come through a book or a casual conversation. More often than not, these words are spoken through the children and teens themselves. After all, this is why we are here; to hear and discern the voice of the Spirit in the midst of His lost sheep.

Every week we experience the same cycle. We start our Mondays as if we are stepping into the unknown. We are taught to believe that each week is a linear progression to a goal. However, in reality, every Monday is a reset in our experience. We have two days break in-between. Many things can happen during this time. Our children and teens don’t have a notion of tomorrow and next week. They only have today before them. They can only deal with one day at a time. It is not to be confused with modern pseudo spiritual jargon of living in the moment. They don’t live in the moment but in a state of melancholy. It is not joyful. It is sad. They cannot afford to think beyond today because they cannot imagine a future. The past is something that they use drugs to forget. Today is all that is left for them. When they don’t see us for two days, they have lived two days without our existence. They have grown accustomed to life without our presence. When we reappear on Mondays, they have to redefine their world once again to accommodate us. Mondays are always unpredictable. Sometimes there is a subtle rejection. Other times, there can be excitement to compensate for the lack of attention they experienced in the past two days. We have even experienced Mondays where everything is just perfect. Like I said before, it is like stepping into the unknown.

Tuesday is more predictable but not necessarily good or bad. It is just uneventful. The children and teens are around but they usually don’t want to do anything special. They speak to us for a few minutes and then go away. Sometimes we sit and wait for them and no one comes around. If they do, they might spend just a few minutes with us. They still need time to get accustomed to us.

Wednesdays are hopeful. We find them waiting for us. They greet us with a smile. They announce to everyone, “Stephen and Mary are here.” Some might even leave a message asking us not to leave without saying hello to them. They ask about the letters. They complain that they are not arriving soon enough. They promise to write replies to the ones they received in the next couple of days. Everyone wants to play all the games we have at the same time. They will make plans for excursions with us that most of them will not go on when the time comes. Wednesday is the day when we are fully accepted into their circle. They will even encourage other children to give us their attention. I think that the children think that they are ministering to us and, in a lot of ways, they are right.

Thursdays and Fridays are when the flowers bloom. Things become crystal clear for everyone. They understand our presence here. They want us to stay longer. They are game to do anything as long as we are doing it with them. It is on one of these days last week when Felipe asked us if we talk about them with other people. We thought that it was a strange question but then it made sense. He wanted to know if they are part of our lives apart from our time in the streets. His question inspired my reflection today. As I was writing this, I realized that they are an essential part of our weekly liturgy. The purpose of liturgy is to help to us pray and discern the presence of God in our lives. In the Anglican tradition to which I belong, we use the Book of Common Prayer to aid us in saying the right words and thinking the right thoughts about God. Our children and teens are our living Prayer Book. The Spirit uses their words and actions to show us how to think and reflect about God. To Felipe, my answer is a resounding Yes! We constantly talk about you and the rest of the children to our friends and families. You are part of our liturgy.

A Serbian Orthodox priest here told me that liturgy is suffering that brings forth beauty. It made me have a fresh understanding about liturgical practices in the Bible. They seem like a lot of work. I think about the churches that want to make liturgy light and sentimental in order to be more appealing, they usually lack beauty. Beauty hides behind melancholy. It reveals itself in the strangest times and places. In our lives, it can show its face on any day it chooses from Monday to Friday. This is why we take courage and participate in this melancholic liturgy every week because we know beauty is lurking around the corner.

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Celebration of Life: A Problem at a Perfect Time

I don’t know how to introduce Gabriel. He is a paradox. He is one of the most interesting teens, yet has no particular interest in anything. He doesn’t like to draw. He is illiterate but never shown any interest in learning how to read. The only thing he wants to do is play Uno. On his birthday, we got him a deck of cards. He thanked us for it and then asked us to keep it for him. He was afraid that he might lose it. Then he never asked for it again. I have been wanting to share about this young man for a long time. However, I was afraid that my description of him might make you think that Gabriel is just an unmotivated and apathetic teenager. This would be a false impression of this fascinating young boy. Despite his lack of interest in almost everything, there is something in him that made us connect with him almost immediately when we first met him three years ago. I had to wait for the right moment to share about young Gabriel and it finally came.

Our children and teens are like stain glass windows in God’s eternal church. Some windows are located in places where the rays of sun shines through it first thing in the morning. Others reveal their beauty in the later part of the day. There are some windows that are hidden in obscure corners. Their colors and beauty are not seen easily. You have to wait for the right time of the day to capture their true glory. The sun has to shine at a perfect position and it does so only for a brief moment. It is easy to miss this opportunity if you are not attentive. These windows are often overlooked and even considered as dull and uninteresting. However, they are God’s windows. Therefore, they cannot but contain the beauty of the divine Artist. Perhaps, their exquisiteness is not obvious to the casual transient but through the grace of God, some of us are privileged to be present at the right place and right time to gaze upon this beauty. With Gabriel, the precise moment came when he had a problem with his foot.

No one likes to go the free clinics here, especially the homeless. There are only handful of places in society where the homeless are treated with dignity. Government agencies are rarely part of this handful. Despite this fact, Gabriel went to a clinic on his own. He had plantar warts on the sole of his foot. He mentioned it to me once and I offered to take him to the clinic but he refused. This time the pain must have been unbearable for him to face the condescending attitudes of the staff in these clinics. He got an appointment for a treatment but he missed it. It wasn’t deliberate. He could not find anyone to go with him and did not feel confident to go alone. He wanted to reschedule another appointment and asked us to accompany him. The administrative staff at the clinic was not interested in making things easy for him. He wanted Gabriel to provide some paperwork first which was not previously necessary. At this point, it is pointless for me to go on about the convoluted process. The end result was that Gabriel almost gave up getting any treatment for his problem. Fortunately, in Brazil, there are licensed alternative medicine. They are private and cheaper than the regular private doctors and they tend to treat people more like human beings. We asked Gabriel if he wanted to go to these specialists. We told him that we would take care of the expense. He did not expect this and did know how to react. He just smiled and thanked us quietly. The other children and teens heard this too. We could see that they were pleased with our offer. The normal envious reactions were absent in this case. They must be aware of the pain that Gabriel was suffering with his foot and so did not demonstrate any form of jealousy.

The appointment was on a Wednesday. Gabriel was wearing the best clothes he could find and waiting anxiously for us. In the initial consultation, the podiatrist told us that his problem was treatable but it has advanced and required several sessions. Thus began our weekly excursion to the specialist center. It became our personal one-on-one time with Gabriel. On our first trip, Gabriel started talking about his family. He has ten brothers and sisters. Not everyone has the same father, he said. On another occasion, he told us that he has never met his father. He also revealed that he was not able to read because he needed glasses. Unfortunately, his mother never provided them. As he began to share bits and pieces of his life with us it became obvious that Gabriel was neglected from a very young age. He suppressed his interest in things because he knew that no one would be concerned and help him to develop them. It was his defense mechanism. He also asked us about the letters from Florida. He had never shown any interest in them previously. He wanted to know how we received the letters. It never occurred to us that the postal system was a mystery to him and perhaps the other children too.

With each trip to the podiatrist, we saw that Gabriel was not really a teenager without any interests but one who was afraid to express them. He asked me to read a letter that he received from someone in the States. I had kept this letter with me for months and suddenly now, he was ready for me to read to him. The person who wrote the letter talked about working as a volunteer with seafarers. This perked his interest. He asked if I could help him write a reply immediately. He asked her if she knew stories about the seafarers’ experiences in the high seas. He wanted to know if the writer of the letter has ever travelled to different countries. He confessed that he always interested in foreign countries and what they were like. He started asking me about the countries I visited. We sat on the floor of the church square and talked about traveling. He wondered if he could do it one day. I assured him that it was not something impossible or absurd but was within his reach.

A simple trip to the podiatrist has given this young teenager to courage to show his interests again. Perhaps he realized that they won’t fall on deaf ears. He has already asked my help to write two letters. He expressed an interest in learning how to read and write and wants Mary to teach him. All the sudden our apparently unmotivated teenager has been given a new surge of energy. All because he realized that he is not going to be ignored. This is perhaps something new in his life and consequently it has caused a fresh reaction in his outlook of life.

When we met Gabriel for the first time, we wondered why his parents never came looking for him. He was such a sweet and kind young boy. I am glad that we have our Wednesdays with him. They have given us a vision of this stained glass window of God and to capture its beauty was worth the wait.

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Celebration of Life: New Words for a New Life

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

On Felipe’s birthday it was raining heavily. It had been rained for the past few days. On days like this, the children and teens take shelter under the highway bridge. They won’t come out unless the sun comes out. I don’t blame them. The streets are usually wet and flooded with dirty water and a grey and gloomy sky only adds to the overall melancholic atmosphere. It is better to find a dry place and say put. No one dares to complain about the rain. We just came out of a severe drought. The rain is much needed even though a slight relief from its onslaught might be greatly appreciated. We were really hoping for sunny weather this particular day. We wanted to give Felipe his present. Unfortunately, it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Felipe has spent many birthdays in the streets. Many times even he forgot his own birthday. He was not expecting any gifts or anyone to remember the day. Perhaps it is his defense mechanism. He won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t expect anything. On Christmas, we gave him a simple gift. He felt a little awkward. It was obvious that he does know how to receive a gift. He is accustomed to receiving lose change and leftover food but not gifts. Gifts are special. They are given with thought and consideration. Felipe has forgotten what it means to be remembered and considered. Maybe he had never experienced such sentiments. Consequently, he has no idea what to say or do when someone gives him a gift. He was lost for words. Maybe he didn’t possess the necessary words to express gratitude for something given with love and consideration.

Felipe lives in a world where people are a means to an end. His only connection with people outside his circle is through begging. It is a simple transaction. The people give out of pity and he receives and thanks them without much emotion or eye-contact. We have watched this exchange countless times. It is very dehumanizing for everyone concerned, as well as degrading for the person begging. They feel humiliated and so treat those who give as nothing more than human ATM machines. Sometimes people who give try to treat them with humanity but they are too close to recognize the kind gesture. It is quite heart breaking. No one escapes the degradative effect of begging.

Receiving a gift is different especially when it flows out a relationship. It is an invitation to a deeper and long-lasting relationship. This is something new for Felipe and the other children. They don’t know how to relate to people who remember them on special days or occasions. It is something new and perhaps even strange for them. They know that it demands a deeper response than the mere words of gratitude that they easily dispense in their begging. The gift forces them to open themselves to the giver. They have to respond to the love that is behind the gift. It makes them feel unsure and insecure because it is new. They don’t feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone but at the same time the lure of love is very attractive. They like the fact that someone remembers them on their birthdays. They like receiving letters from people whom they never met. They are touched that people are taking time to pray and think about them. All this is new to them. They know that it is something good and new. Now, they have to find the words to express this new thing that is unfolding in their lives.

“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 8

In search for something concrete and enduring, the kids come to the street. They want relationships that would help them discover their own self-worth. However, they only find others like themselves who are just as lost. Eventually they give up on finding anything good and worthwhile and drown themselves in whatever is available to help them escape their miserable situation. They have grown accustomed to this misery but things are changing. It is shaking the foundations of their existence in a good way. They don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings and maybe their fears. Everything is new for them. They talk about it among themselves. They say that we are connecting them to people around the world whereas before people would just ignore or avoid them. They are accustomed to this. Now the foundation of their world is being shaken. They are not alone. Our personal foundation is being shaken as well. Our world is being transformed. We miss the children when it rains. Our day seems a little empty without our time with them. It seems almost pointless. We look forward to our time with the children and teens. They renew the hope in our lives. The hope that God is creating something new and eternal in our midst.

It rained for two days straight before we had a brief reprieve. Felipe was waiting for us. He looked as if we was waiting for us for two days. His face lit up and he wore a big welcoming smile. He said out loud, “You missed my birthday!” He wasn’t mad or sad. He was glad that he could say these words to someone who cared about his special day. We told him that we didn’t forget it. We had a small gift for him. He did not open it immediately. It is almost like he wanted to savor the moment for a while. Finally I had to prompt him to open the package. It was a comic book that he had wanted for a while. He smiled and thanked us. We told him that we had some letters for him as well. We sat down and read one. He wanted to write a reply immediately. In it, he wrote these words,

“God has sent many people to show us that He will care for us.”

It seems like he is discovering new words to express what is happening to him and the other children.

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Celebration of Life: The Fabulous Purpose of the Gospel

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

I made a pleasant mistake of picking up a copy of the “Imitation of Christ” in the beginning of this year. I read it before but this time I found it to be annoying and yet, I could not stop reading it. I found myself disagreeing with it while at the same time, I could not disregard what it says, mainly because it exposes my own struggles with pride and insecurity. It was as if it was written for me. Then, I realized that I was again being an egocentric person. There was no winning with this book. It was written for all peoples; everyone is flawed with a tendency to confuse the message of the gospel with our own personal ideas. I began the year thinking that I should have goals for our ministry so that I can show myself that I have achieved something. However, this is not my ministry. It belongs to God. We either serve His purpose and set aside our personal desires or we aren’t part of it at all. There is no middle ground, only God’s goal established in His gospel matters.

God does not have resolutions like us. He just has one simple eternal plan for the world laid out in the gospels. The gospels testify about the person of Jesus. In all the four gospels, we know that Jesus is notorious for not giving a straight-forward answer. If Jesus were to be present in the flesh in our midst and we asked him what is the essence of the gospel, I am sure that Jesus would answer with a question. He gives nothing away on a platter. He wants us to have the joy of discovering the answer. Thankfully, we have St Paul who attempts some answers. He sought to live the gospel in its plenitude. His complex and rich summary of the gospel was that it was a message of reconciliation. My own plans and goals seem pitiful compared to this lofty aim and purpose. God wants to reconcile the world. With division and strife surrounding us, it is a powerful notion. Our situation is not something new. It has always been like this ever since Adam and Eve had their first children. This is why the ministry of reconciliation is such a controversial and powerful message in every age.

Our responsibility as Christians is to stand in the place where God has called us to be His witness and ask what does it mean to part of this ministry of reconciliation. In our streets, the Holy Spirit is opening our hearts to understand that it means celebrating the lives of the children and teens who have been forgotten and despised by many. St Paul, who was a strict Jewish leader who once disapproved violently any idea of reconciling with the Gentiles, became the champion and model of reconciliation with the very people he despised. They became part of his identity and he loved them and celebrated their lives.

Reconciliation goes beyond saying affirmative statements about an individual. We recognize that our lives have become richer through our relationship with such and such person. St Paul said that everything he lost for the sake of the gospel he considered as dung in comparison to what he had gained. These were not mere words; he laid down his life for these people. He discovered something greater and more precious than his previous status could ever offer. He found God’s beauty and love in the people he once despised or disregarded. He had genuine reasons to celebrate the lives of those whom he served.

We are in a moment in our ministry here where we can say we want to celebrate the lives of the children and teens. Part of celebrating is sharing. There can never be a true rejoicing in isolation. The deep joy of being part of something wonderful and precious is being able to share it with your friends and family and even total strangers. However, evangelical celebration of lives must be done in Truth. If not, it would be reduced to something sentimental and there is no future in this. We can only perceive the true value and beauty of our children and teens through the Holy Spirit. We can only be sensitized to the presence of the Holy Spirit through faith. One of the keys to unleash our faith is through prayer. Before we can truly celebrate, we need to pray; not for God to change things but for Him to change the way we see and understand people. I noticed that whenever I pray, I see more clearly how special and precious these children are even when they are difficult.

I want to begin this year praying that God will reveal to us how to celebrate the lives of the people who He has put into our lives and neighborhood. It doesn’t matter how the world considers these people but God has given them to us so that our lives would be richer. I want to share this wealth with you. I invite you to pray with me as you read about these treasures that we share with you. I am sure that prayer will unleash your faith to celebrate the lives of these little ones together with us in a genuine way.

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