God in Diapers

I’m pretty sure I offended him.  Eliazar tried to explain to me why he didn’t want the money.  I understood him, but I wasn’t really listening to him.  Eliazar, a bit rebuffed, turned to Emily and said, “Kurt’s trying to pay me for this but I never did it so that you guys would give me money for the work.  I just did it.”  In my defense, this wasn’t “hey, let me watch your dog while you’re away for the weekend” or “anytime you need something out of my garage just grab it” kind of neighborliness.  This was, “hey, I just quarried this limestone while excavating a basement, loaded it up into my truck by hand, and by the way, how about the next 3 weekends I use it to rebuild that crumbling, 100-year old retaining wall in front of your house?”  You know, chattel slavery kind of neighborliness.  He did amazing work on it, so I wanted to give him at least something for it.  And I knew he needed the money.  We’d helped him buy the house next door to us and we’d sold him our old car and he was a bit behind.  I acted like I was bantering with friends, seeing who was going to be the big man to pick up the bill at Applebee’s and I, the victor, wrestled it from his hands and unilaterally settled on writing down some of his car loan.  Emily gave me this look of bewilderment and said, “Kurt, let him do this for us.”  Finally I got it.  Building this wall was certainly about Eliazar’s generous spirit.  But it was also about a man standing up and asserting his own agency and maintaining his own dignity.  This wasn’t just dinner between friends, between “equals”.  It was about me not being the benevolent benefactor for once, and he not being the gracious recipient.  It was his chance to level the playing field to make us equals, and make way for true friendship.  And I doltishly tried to take it away from him.

    Last week in my Economics of Development class, one of my classmates noted that India refuses most international aid even in the face of catastrophic events like the 2006 tsunami and in the face of much poverty.  Others chimed in with suggestions as to why this was the case.  My friend, Jeff, reminded us that even after Hurricane Katrina, the US accepted foreign aid remembering the Mexican army convoys that delivered food, water, and medical supplies.  It was the first time Mexican troops had been in US borders since 1846.  Even the United States.  I was so struck by that phrase.  It doesn’t fit our story.  That isn’t really the image we want the rest of the world to remember about us.  Everybody knows we’re the ones who help out everybody else.  We’re the generous ones, the ones who step in and save the day.  We don’t need Mexico’s help, we have all of their people climbing our fences because they’re such a disaster over there and can’t get their stuff together.  When everybody else is whining for some kind of bailout here and another civil war is breaking out there, at least the world has someone who can be counted on to be stable and dependable.  How disarming and equalizing to see the US receive aid from Mexico!  If only for a moment, the power dynamics were reversed and the typical roles of benefactor and recipient were subverted.

    While it might be true that it’s better to give than to receive, it’s a whole lot more difficult to receive than to give.  While gifts can infuse a relationship with unanticipated new energies and can strengthen and nourish relational bonds, gifts can have the opposite effect when the roles of benefactor and recipient are cemented and sustained for too long.  Gifts have power.  They make a claim on the recipient.  That sense of indebtedness that a recipient feels can, in the short run, draw us closer to the gift-giver for their generosity.  But in the long-run, when we’re constantly reminded that we’re dependent on another, those claims can make our lives bitter and resentful.

    I used to be enamored with images of a self-sufficient, omnipotent, glory-hungry God who was intent on making sure the rest of creation knew exactly how great he was too.  A God who called all of the shots, a God who was demanding, no doubt, but also generous enough to let us in on a piece of himself too.  I think I used to be enamored with a glory-hungry God because I was enamored with power myself.  It said more about my own ambitions than it said about God’s.  And then came Christmas.

    The irony of Christmas is that in a world where we amass more and more power, where we strive to be self-sufficient and independent so we can be generous and benevolent–more “like God”, at Christmas we see a God who becomes as utterly dependent on another as a creature can possibly be.  At Christmas we celebrate a God who found his home, sucking his thumb in the fetal position, bathed by the warm, amniotic fluid of his mother, soothed by the sway and the sweet lullabies of Mary.  By what divine invention do we find a God so desperate for human union that for 9 months he tethers himself via umbilical cord to a teenage girl whose own being is upheld every moment by God’s own?  By what comedy do we see a God who is so willing to give of himself to humanity that he’s willing to let us change his sodden and soiled diapers?

    I don’t think God’s advent was about changing tactics with humanity.  It’s not as if that first go at connecting with humanity was a flop–that being the tough, demanding father wasn’t working.  The advent of Christ was conceived before it all began, the mystery itself, held within the Triune womb of God, waiting in long expectation for humanity to receive the gift that has always been ours.  Immanuel.  God with us.  This is the secret “that we have to whisper because it is so beautiful, it should get stuck in our throats while we say it”.  God doesn’t want to be our benefactor.  Christ’s coming doesn’t change the fact that we are utterly and helplessly dependent upon God or that he is deserving of all glory.  But it’s precisely the fact that God himself, out of a desire to be with us, became so utterly helpless and dependent upon us and made a way that we too might give God a gift.  It’s because of this that we can say with no hesitation that God is indeed deserving of all glory, all of our love, and all of our affections.

Being Led

It could have been some kind of teleportation.  It was almost as if the security guards at the door knew it too.  They guarded their portal with a quick appraisal of me, a head-to-toe assessment that told me that I was in the wrong place.  Maybe out of compassion they would have said something to me, but I think they wanted to see how long it would take this poor sap to realize this wasn’t the Miller’s 60th anniversary celebration. They wanted to see me swim like a scared fish in a current of belt buckles, tossed and turned by the accordion’s norteño twang, confused by the heedless consumption of carnitas and Coronas only to be spit back out onto the parking lot like Jonah’s hungover whale.  If ever there was a profile for the consummate quinceañera crasher, I had neither the hair color nor the dance floor finesse to flow with 15 year-old Mexican-Americans and their uncles from Juarez.  After a few minutes of scanning the ballroom for my neighbors and chastising myself for being so woefully and so gringo-ly underdressed, I saw Nancy in her billowing gown and her mother, Martha, fretting about like her biblical namesake.  I soon settled in with a plate full of mole, sidling up next to the speakers filling the hall with songs steeped in wistful, but energetic memory of the motherland.  And a smile grew in me as I sat back in a deep sense of gratitude and wonder.  How did I ever get to this place?

It had been a long weekend already.  Two nights prior, I’d stayed up until 3am finishing a final paper for grad school.  The night before I was facilitating a service retreat in Argentine for 100 students from a suburban church in Kansas City.  And then there was the Franklin Center Fall Festival.  All morning long, I was busy with the youth in spiritual formation exercises and then I pulled up to the Franklin Center parking lot.  It was full of tents with vendors preparing skewers of pastor, wannabe carnies peddling the promise of a 10-cent goldfish on a dollar and a ping pong ball, live music echoing all the way down Metropolitan Avenue, and the students from the church readying carnival games that Emily and Amber had prepared.  I walked up to a second floor window and peering out over the parking lot through broken glass I thought to myself, “How did this ever happen? This is amazing. I don’t deserve any credit for this.”  At the center of it all was Ruperto.

Ruperto is a guy who I’d run into on another Argentine committee a couple of years ago.  I knew there was something special in him when he came to our meeting with a scale mockup of the stage and judging procedure for the menudo contest at Silver City Day.  Ruperto is a larger than life character who grew up in Kansas City, lived under a bridge, homeless in Chicago, went off to the military and spent many years of his life as a building engineer for Marriott before retirement where now he gets about 4 hours of sleep a night between writing homespun novels where the line between his own story and fantasy bleeds seamlessly into one another.  Ruperto lives right behind the Franklin Center and now he spends much of his day scheming with others about what we can do next for the Franklin Center.  This Fall Festival was his work, his passion, his crazy dreams that brought a glimpse of a better future for our neighborhood.

Ruperto and I were talking to a TV reporter when Kelly came up to us.  Kelly is an electrician who lives a couple of blocks from the Franklin Center.  In his own words, Kelly is ‘blue collar all the way’–the kind of guy that doesn’t have time for talk or bureaucracy, he wants to just get stuff done.  That day he had one thing on his mind–getting electricity to the Franklin Center.  Kelly begged Ruperto and I, spouting off his credentials and his contacts in City Hall.  Getting a temporary permit to get us electrical service was routine business for him.  Three days later, Kelly kept his word.  Cars were stopping by the side of the road as they saw lights shining out of the cafe windows for the first time in more than 3 years.  By the end of the week, he had nearly the entire building rewired and reconnected.  And the question hit me once again, “How did this happen?”

In some way, I think each of these stories are connected to one another and I think it comes down to the difference of leading and being led.  We do so much to control our lives, to be the architects of our own destinies, and to maintain appearances of being in charge.  There’s undoubtedly an element in these very letters where I attempt to communicate to each one of you that we’re competent, that we’ve got things under control here in Argentine and that we’re “leading” something really special.  But the more that I look back on big milestones on our life in Argentine, the more I realize that we had nothing to do with them.  The greatest gifts that we’ve received here have been exactly that–gifts.  If it had been up to me, the fall festival would have been a couple of teenagers in the parking lot with a handful of kids carving pumpkins.  Or more likely, it wouldn’t have happened at all.  By our own efforts, getting the Franklin Center reconnected with electricity had seen nothing but red tape.  And that night at the quinceañera, I didn’t want to go at all.  With all of the activity that weekend, I hadn’t seen much of Emily or the kids over the past 48 hours and they’d already come back from the party.  But I knew I had to go for our neighbors’ sakes to share in those significant life moments with them.  It was there, at the moment I least expected, where I experienced a profound gift.  I had walked into another world.  Part of it was the wonder of being found in a place of deep, cultural dislocation–a rare invitation to be a spectator of a beautiful, intimate, human liturgy.  But I think the real gift was walking into a world where I was not in control.  I never would have scripted the life that we live.  And if I had, I would never have received this.  I never would have gotten involved.  I never would have stuck out my neck.  I never would take on any project that I didn’t think I could handle.  And because of it, I never would have experienced the miraculous, I’d never know that gift was more than reciprocal exchange, and I never would have experienced true grace.

I’ve always been taught that growing up meant dressing myself, being a leader, and going wherever I wanted.  But Jesus overturns my logic again and again teaching me that growing up isn’t about leading.  It’s about stretching out your hands and letting someone else guide you to places you don’t want to go.  It’s then, and only then, will you experience the miraculous.

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Let’s write new stories together this year.

We all seek out stories–people, businesses, ministries, and products–that resonate with us in some way.  Sometimes those stories reassure us.  They tell us we’re not alone, or crazy.  Sometimes they disturb us and unsettle the status quo.  Yet somehow we can’t walk away.  Sometimes they bring a glimpse of the future we ache for.  And we want to be a part of it.  The ministry that we have here in Argentine is not our own, but it is the collective work, the desire, the imagination, and the frustration of hundreds of us.  If there’s something that resonates with you in the stories that we are creating here, please consider a tax-deductible, year-end donation or becoming a regular contributor to this work.  You can contribute online at youthfront.com/staffsupport.  We need you!

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