El Divino Niño

The bustling panorama of Constanza, a Dominican town a few hours to the northwest of Santo Domingo, stretched along the mountains opposite. Standing by the statue of el Divino Niño, I inhaled the breeze, which (having shed the motorcycle fumes and street dust from Constanza on its way up the mountain) tasted like August sun and the vapor rising from a faraway river.

Some man erected the statue years ago as a way of thanking God for healing him of cancer. He never took God seriously before that experience, but one night during the chemotherapy stage, his deceased mother appeared to him in a vision and urged him to cling to the Divine Child for healing. The man did, and his cancer left him. Some people donate to charity when they’re healed of cancer; they send money to starving kids in Africa to prove that their lives are useful to the rest of us. Instead, this man advertised his healing by erecting a monument on top of a mountain in the middle of the Dominican Republic to prove that miracles are possible. We all need that reminder.

The strange thing about el Divino Niño is that rather than facing outward to embrace Constanza, the statue turns his back on the little town. What did those hundreds of poverty-stricken people do to make el Divino Niño turn away? In stories, he always welcomed the sick, the lame, and the blind. But that was, after all, 2,000 years ago. Maybe el Divino Niño got tired of dealing with humanity’s messiness and gave up on us all. Maybe healing that man’s cancer was the last miracle that he was willing to perform.
During the ride up the mountain our truck had jerked and lurched and rattled, constantly threatening to eject us out of our seats. Our entire mission team had hopped onto that truck: Heather, with her t-shirt and a pair of neon sunglasses; Lucas, with his ruffled blonde hair and the intensely introverted look he always wore; Sue, Adam, Lauren, Kiki, Bethany, Chris, my mom, me – so many clashing personalities thrust together in a single truck. We hadn’t known each other very well at the beginning of the trip, but we shared our testimonies throughout the week – our testimonies of how we had come to this place, this placing of going up the mountain to see el Divino Niño. I whipped out my phone and tried to capture the ride on video, but nothing could reproduce those bumps, the earthy air, and the mountains rippling over each other. I felt so alive, as if my life in America was all a dream and this was the only real thing. Had I never been alive before?

Finally, the truck eased to a stop and we all looked expectantly toward el Divino Niño, a huge and somewhat disproportionate statue of Christ set onto a platform. Robed in rose-petal pink and wearing a spikey halo around his head, the statue wasn’t exactly a Doryphoros, but the radiant expression of his face gave him a unique attractiveness. Each culture, including the Greeks, has manufactured its own standards of beauty, but that of el Divino Niño is Classic in the fullest sense. Unlike the mole dotting Marilyn Monroe’s artificial upper lip, no one will ever get tired of el Divino Niño’s smile.

Under the influence of that gentle smile I examined the poor town of Constanza, which lay sprawled out like an open briefcase full of papers that some businessman had dropped: a mess of squares and rectangles surrounded by green fields and humping mountain-tops. I couldn’t make out the therapy clinic where I worked as translator or the shop where we bought ice cream flavored like coconut and pastel de tres leches. Someone pointed out the orphanage and school where we led VBS, but the individual faces of the children had melted into the stone walls of the buildings, too miniscule to pick out. Where was Wilson with the scar on his face? Or the boy with the piercing green eyes and freckles, the one who always watched me like a sly cat? Or all the little girls with their braids and happy, dirty faces? If I, standing on this mountaintop and straining my eyes, couldn’t glimpse them, then how on earth could el Divino Niño see them with his back turned?

CandlesIn the Dominican Republic every year, thousands of men and women go on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Higüey to venerate la Virgen de Altagracia (their patron saint), hoping that she will alleviate the immense suffering that encompasses their daily lives. I’ve never been to the Basilica of Higüey, but I wonder if la Virgin’s back is turned like that of el Divino Niño. I suppose that people go on these pilgrimages because they believe their prayers won’t get heard any other way. They think they have to push themselves into la Virgen’s face for her to notice them. I wonder if that’s how they feel with el Divino Niño.
Inside the statue I found a little room full of candles of all different shades of pink and red: vermillion, coral, salmon, crimson. I admired those little flames, the embodied prayers of Dominicans begging el Divino Niño for the health of a loved one, for their daily bread, or for a job that payed more than a few pesos.

One day during that mission trip we visited a young widow who was trying to scrape enough money together to finish the construction of her house. Her husband, a pastor, had been killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving her alone with her two little girls. It was a barren place without doors or windows (just openings cut out of the chalky-white walls), probably smaller than the size of my living room and kitchen combined. Her two little girls played among the dirt and rubble inside the house where the floor should have been. Did that widow venture to el Divino Niño to light a candle, asking for enough money to finish that house?

Wherever you go in the Dominican Republic, you run into a cluster of children staring at you with smiling faces. It isn’t like in America, where children don’t bother to glance at you, or their own mothers, over their iPads. Dominican children at the bottom of the social hierarchy – illiterate children, campesinos – don’t have iPads, and you don’t usually see them with their mothers (or fathers, if they have any). They don’t seem to belong to anyone except to the mountains, or the streets, or even the little ravines sighing away from the road. The moment that these children see a friendly face they latch onto it, like a dewdrop attaches itself to a rose. I don’t understand much about the relationships between organisms, but I’d call this one symbiotic: the rose prevents the dewdrop from melting into the dirt, and the dewdrop softens, irrigates, and bejewels the rose. I don’t know much about psychology, either. I’ve just observed people, and street children in the Dominican Republic are like those dewdrops: fragile, hopeful, beautiful, transitory. Looking into their faces as they latch onto you, you’re afraid that they’re going to dribble into that mud and be absorbed at any moment. And most of the time, the earth does swallow them. There’s nothing really that you can do about it.

I was standing in the gift shop at el Divino Niño and glancing at the trinkets for sale when a little boy latched onto me (not physically, min

Mario Shirt Boy
My Mario Friend

d you, but emotionally). Once our eyes met there was no avoiding it. I like to imagine that he thought me kind, or gentle, or something eloquent, but he probably just liked me because I was “una americana.” The boy, aged about ten or eleven, observed me with a pair of chocolate-mocha eyes that were deep, serious, and lighthearted at the same time. You see that combination with children everywhere in the Dominican Republic – their childishness just manages to hold its head above the waters of abuse and misfortune, of street gangs and unclean water polluted by floating bird carcasses. Tall and lanky, the boy wore a baseball cap and a red shirt with Mario characters on it. Did he even know who Mario was? Some innocent American boy probably donated that shirt to the Haitians without realizing that the Dominicans would sell it on the black market.

We started a conversation in Spanish about something; I think I asked him about his family, but we both sensed intuitively that the words themselves didn’t matter. We were assessing each other amiably, determined to like each other. My little friend followed us back to the truck, and Fred (the missionary) invited an entire cluster of children onto the back to ride down the mountain with us. In America, some well-meaning elderly lady would have labeled us as kidnappers and called the police, but here those kids didn’t belong to anybody anyway (except, perhaps, to el Divino Niño). I asked one of them, a little boy (I can’t remember if it was my Mario friend), if he had any pets, and he shook his head. “¿Por qué? (Why not)?” I probed, gazing at his wistful face, even though I should have known the answer. He smiled and held up his hand, rubbing his fingers together. Of course – they didn’t have money for pets. Is that why he walked up the mountain to see el Divino Niño? To ask for enough money to buy a pet goat?

We smiled at each other the entire way down from el Divino Niño. If I could have, I think I would have adopted them all right then and there. But eventually we reached the bottom and had to say goodbye. The dewdrops rapidly dribbled into the dirt and disappeared. They all hopped out of the truck and scattered to tell their families that they had just seen a bunch of Americans. I wonder what they thought of us, with our iPhones and spare sneakers?

Whenever we drove through the city in our truck, we always waved and smiled at all the Dominicans in the various stages of mundane life: an entire family piled on top of a motorcycle; a group of men drinking in the shade; a bunch of dusty children wandering through the streets; a woman with her groceries piled on top of her head. When they saw us, their faces lit up and they waved back, their eyes following us down the road. Why do I look back at those faces and feel a throb of dissatisfaction, perhaps even guilt? Why do I somehow connect those smiles with a row of candles in a little chamber on top of a mountain? And why does my back as it rumbles away from each successive face remind me of the back of el Divino Niño, turned upon the town of Constanza? I wonder whether we, like el Divino Niño, were to those people more than a simple tourist attraction.
Our team leader warned us girls to be very careful around Dominican boys because they snatch up any opportunity to get on good terms with “las americanas.” Their attentions are hardly flattering. In reality, they see us as a fast and easy pass to the United States, the Land of Opportunity. It’s strange to be treated like a ticket, like some secret password for success.

Once again I think of the candles, el Divino Niño, and the pilgrims to the Basilica of Higüey. I wonder whether Jesus likes being treated like a ticket or a secret password. I wonder whether the people who hustle up the large steps to look at the statue’s face secretly harbor the hope that el Divino Niño will heal them, just like he healed the man with cancer. And when he doesn’t take them out of poverty, or prevent their family member from dying, or give them a good crop harvest, do they shake their heads and throw away the ticket as defective? No, because the flames of the candles keep on burning, day after day and year after year, and people keep on visiting that monument with its back turned to Constanza.

In America, too, we have tickets, but of a different kind. We have the tickets of luxury, and intelligence, and success – of impressive job resumes and Bath and Body lotion bottles with pretty flowers on the front. No one knows what the tickets are for in the end, but no one really cares. It doesn’t matter if they’re worth anything or not. The Dominicans look at us as tickets to material advancement, but if they lived in America, they would see all the dissatisfaction, depression, and anger and wonder what on earth they had traded their Divino Niño tickets in for. Not much, I’d say. The whole concept of tickets – the whole ticket industry – is skewed. You can’t trade in your ticket of materialism for happiness any more than you can go on a pilgrimage to Higüey hoping that all your problems will melt away. Maybe it’s time that we stopped treating Christ – or people – like tickets.

Why did the man make el Divino Niño face away from Constanza? Supposedly, the people who erected el Divino Niño turned him the wrong way by accident and the man didn’t have enough money to change it. On the other hand, el Divino Niño might have told the man to let it be; he might have chosen that position. That way, the only people smothered by that radiant smile are those who trek up the mountain seeking it. Each Dominican in Constanza knows that he’s there; they can feel his influence over the town even with his back turned. They understand that in order to see his face, they must hike up the mountain to meet him. El Divino Niño wants them to prove their loyalty to him. He wants to be adored for the sake of his beauty, not for his ticket-value, so he tests them. It’s like with the pilgrims to Higüey. No one promises those pilgrims that they will get what they ask for, but they continue to make that journey year after year. Why? Maybe they want to prove to la Virgen that they love her even when she doesn’t stop the street gangs or wipe out corrupt government officials.

I have a friend who has wandered away from the faith slowly but steadily; she seems to have given up on the idea of a faithful God.

“Have you ever tried to seek Him?” I asked her.

“Yes, I tried. And nothing happened.”

No, that’s all wrong! You can’t take just one step up that mountain and be overwhelmed by the presence of el Divino Niño. Don’t you realize that at first you must be content to see his back, knowing that you’ll soon see him face to face? Don’t you know that sometimes, on the curves of the mountain, you lose site of him altogether? He’s still there, I tell you, and he’s waiting for you. But he doesn’t want to be treated like a ticket.

I will never see that boy in the red Mario shirt again. I will never again look into the faces of those children who melted like dewdrops into the parched and thirsty soil of the Dominican Republic. And yet, I hope that little boy stayed far away from the witch doctor’s house that we passed on our way to the airport, with its satanic symbols dangling from the trees. Did he ever venture to travel up the mountain to el Divino Niño again? Did he ever put his candle inside the monument’s bosom? I don’t know. I also can’t stop thinking about those people whose eyes followed us as we chugged down the road in our truck. Did they ever get sick and tired of looking at the back of el Divino Niño? Did they ever trudge up the mountain to see his face – not to get something from him, but just to belong to him? I can’t say. But I hope so.

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Looking Forward

DRIn the words of Mother Teresa, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” According to one estimate, there are over 150 million documented orphans in the world. This number can seem overwhelming at first – so overwhelming that we might be tempted to sit back helplessly and not do anything. However, God doesn’t evaluate our service based on how many people we touch, but rather by how willing we are to serve Him. He is concerned about our faithfulness, not our productivity.

Over the past few years, God has placed a burden on my heart for Latin America. As I fell in love with the Latin American culture, language, and people, I started to wonder whether God was calling me to serve Him in a Spanish-speaking country. This desire to serve the Latin American people only increased when I went on a short term mission trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2016 and experienced firsthand the beauty – and brokenness – of that little country.

When I applied to an internship to the Dominican Republic with Kids Alive International, I hardly dared to hope that I would be accepted. During that week of waiting to hear back from the organization regarding my acceptance, I had a hard time sleeping some nights because the desire to return to the Dominican Republic was so strong. When I found out that I was accepted, I was – needless to say – thrilled. God is so good.

Kids Alive International is a Christian organization “committed to providing physical and spiritual care for orphaned and abandoned children around the world.” I will be interning at one of the Kids Alive sites in the Dominican Republic as a teaching assistant, so I will have the opportunity to engage my love of language, children, and teaching all at once.

Although I am extremely excited to spend the summer in the DR, I recognize that the internship will be difficult as well as incredibly eye-opening. Please pray for strength and unity for all of us interns as we leave behind our friends and families and venture out into the unknown. Pray that God will use this time to give me His eyes so that I will value and love these children as He values and loves them.

If you would like to help me financially, I would greatly appreciate your support! If you decide to support me financially, please mail all financial gifts to: Kids Alive International, 2507 Cumberland Drive, PO BOX 2117, Valparaiso, IN 46384-2117. Make sure to include all reply cards so that Kids Alive can issue you a tax-deductible receipt. If you would would prefer to support me online, you can go to www.kidsalive.org and find me by clicking on “Intern Support” under the “Support our Work” tab.

Thank you so much for your prayers and support! I am so thrilled to see what God has in store for this summer.

 

Thinking

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about change…and growing up…and moving on. Senior year is one of those times when you really start to evaluate your life in all of its positive and negative lights. And you think, “What have I done with the 17 years that I’ve been alive? What opportunities have I embraced, and which ones have I bypassed? How do I move forward?”

Suddenly, you have to make important decisions almost all by yourself, and your to-do list expands exponentially to include tasks that will change the course of your life.

How in the world am I supposed to navigate this whirlwind that people call “being an adult”?

First of all, stop stark still, right in the middle of your tracks. Yes, you might have to cling to the doorpost to avoid being borne away by the wind billowing about your ears, but you’ll find that once you grab on, it will grow easier to hold your grip. Close your eyes and pray. Discard that spiritual checklist that you keep in the back of your consciousness and take time to rest in His presence. And suddenly you’ll realize that no matter what happens this year (or any other), He will never allow you to be crushed by the whirlwind of jobs and school and relationships and decision-making.

Secondly, allow yourself room to make mistakes. As a perfectionist, I have a very high standard for myself, but I need to realize that I will inevitably make some bad decisions in life because I’m human. Don’t be paralyzed by all the what-ifs. When you fail, shake yourself, take courage, and move on.

And finally, don’t ever allow yourself to lose your childishness, even in the midst of all this adult jargon. Responsibility does not override creativity, and practicality does not negate imagination. If you become so consumed in filling out job applications, checking off your task list, and spending hours on research projects, you will forget what sunshine tastes like. You’ll forget how vibrant a dew-speckled rose is. You’ll lose the ability to interpret the birdsong filling the air with vernal hues. And by losing your sense of  wonder, you begin to lose sight of eternity and immortality.

In his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Wordsworth cries,

“Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…”

Don’t forget that you are young yet, and that humans were created as much to play and rejoice as to work and mourn. Explore, create, love, think, feel…

And don’t let the world abash your optimism.

 

 

 

 

Cadence

Rhythm. Harmony. Music. Such is the cadence of life. Have you stopped to listen to that song, rising up beyond the farthest reaches of the sunset sky? But even more importantly, have you stopped to listened to its Composer?

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that we face is the ability to separate the blessing from the Blesser, the endowment from the Endower. How easy it is to get swept up in that little hand thrust confidingly in yours; that childish, dimpled face smiling at you from beneath sparkling eyes; those darling little flowers springing up in the newly-awakening garden, and get distracted with the wonder of it all. I hope you won’t misunderstand me, for it is perfectly right and good to bask in the beauty of this experience we call life. But let us not forget that other side – that ominous, tragic side.

Suffering. Even as I right this, millions of people trudge on wearily, day after day, with no hope and no idea of the death into which they are willingly be plunged. The cadence of death.

Are we so swept up with all the blessings God has given that we forget this battlefield on which we stand? Life is serious, my friends. We were not born to merely smile on all of humanity in a general state of beneficent approval (all the while knowing how very much they will rue such fickle “love” when they stand before an Almighty God) and throw up our hands passively with the excuse that “it’s their decision.” The bondage of tolerance is that society blurs (if not obliterates) the line between good and evil and values approval above truth. If we truly wish to love, we must not stand idly by while others steadily tread the path of despair and destruction, spewing out our insincere encomiums all the way. As Bob Hostetler and Josh McDowell explain in their article “Silenced by Tolerance,”

Tolerance says, “You must approve of what I do.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will love you even when your behavior offends me.”

Tolerance says, “You must agree with me.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will tell you the truth, because the truth will set you free.”

Tolerance says, “You must allow me to have my way.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will plead with you to follow the right way, because you are worth the risk.”

Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.

In my opinion, “tolerance” is one of the most abused words in the English language. Honestly, if tolerance means letting people commit spiritual suicide and then clapping while they yield up their souls to the Enemy, all the while tucking away the message of life that we bear for the sake of not “offending” anyone, then I hope that we might become the most intolerant human beings on the planet.

Of course, I am speaking as much to myself as to any of you. Speaking honestly, societal pressure often triumphs over the gentle pressure of conscience. But through God’s strength, we can catch a sense of that grand cosmological scheme unfolding right before our eyes. That overarching plan, that glorious truth – the one that was instituted before the creation of the world…

 

 

Breathe

The assignments are piled up. There’s that essay due at the end of the month that’s casting a dark shadow over your consciousness; you attempt to push it to the recesses of your mind. You know you could be studying right now, or getting started on that pamphlet you have to read…and then there’s that presentation you have to work on…

No. Stop. Breathe.

And then you suddenly realize that by the time you finally take a break, night has already fallen, and you have lost the opportunity to bask in the gently falling snow that covers the barren earth with its soothing cadence. That opportunity has vanished; it’s gone. You’ve lost it. “There will be other snows,” you remind yourself, “there will be other sunsets, other laughs, other moments to scoop up your bunny and hold him close. There will be other times for telling your mother you love her or for writing your inmost thoughts in your journal. You can pray once you have your life put in order; God understands how much you have to get done. You can finish that painting later. The sky will always be there, your family will always be there…”

If this describes you (it certainly describes me), then it’s time to take a breather and meditate on what you’ve just told yourself. There will be others snows? Yes, but not this one. How do you know that you will be alive to savor that new sunset? And if you keeping suppressing that palliative, boisterous laugh until it’s more convenient, well…it just might never come. You put off that hug one more time, but it might be one time too much. The sky will always be here? Maybe, but time changes things; you will never look at the sky quite the same way twice. You change; life sweeps you along and before you realize it, you’re at the end… And your family? Your loved ones? I hate to break it to you, but they’re not going to be here forever…

Why is it that we have such a hard time resting? Meditating? Basking? I don’t mean a lazy refusal to acknowledge your duties, but I do mean the ability to keep tasks in their place. Why are we here on earth anyways? To get 100% on every assignment and be working machines who suck in facts and regurgitate information? No, no, that’s not right – we’re robots who count up our popularity votes and strive to be the smartest, the most diligent, the most hard-working…

Let me make this clear: life is not about doing. Life is not about your school transcript or your community service record. It’s not (gasp) about your grades. It’s not about your ability to impress others with your brilliance. It isn’t even about the healthiness of your lifestyle or the fitness of your body. It’s about Christ.

Do you remember this story from Luke 10?

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

 

In the King James Version, distracted is translated as “cumbered.” The Greek word is perispaō and means: To draw around, to draw away, distract; to be driven about mentally, to be distracted; to be over-occupied, too busy, about a thing (blueletterbible.org). Do you catch the full implications of this word? Martha, like so many of us, is literally drawn away from Christ because of her preoccupation with material things. Her to-do list is dragging her mind on a mental horse-race and distracting her from what truly matters – Jesus Christ.

This isn’t to say that tasks aren’t important and that we should all eschew our various duties. God makes it clear that laziness is not tolerated in the Kingdom (2 Thess. 3:7-8, 1 Tim. 5:13). However, if we become so absorbed in all our doing that we neglect our true calling – to know Christ and to make Him known, then all our works are fruitless.

So take time today to love on those around you. Sing that merry little song that has been hovering hopefully about your soul, too frightened to squeeze out. Praise God for the glorious majesty of that sunset. Let the freshly falling snow light upon your nose. Let yourself dream those dreams that you’ve hitherto deigned impractical. Thank God for the bountiful blessings which He has so generously showered upon you. And most importantly – pray.

 

A Look at Redemption

Sometimes in the Christian walk, truths seem to grow stale; this isn’t because they are less applicable, less empowering, or less valuable, but rather because we bring our own misconceptions to the table in considering them. Sometimes a fresh perspective, a fresh explanation, of the simplest and most potent truths is the only way that they can truly hit home. Recently, I came across the beautiful poem written by George Herbert in the 17th century. Is it possible that in order to fully grasp something in all of its beauty, we must look to the wisdom of the ages in order to be lifted out of the narrowness of our perspective?

Redemption

By George Herbert

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
    Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
    And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.
In heaven at his manor I him sought;
    They told me there that he was lately gone
    About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.
I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.
A tenant. That is what I am; that is what you are. To think that I am bankrupt? To think that I must get on my knees to beg for a “new small-rented lease”? That crushes pride and bites at the very marrow of our human nature, yet He makes it worth all the pain of self-denial. Notice that before we even ask for His grace, He grants it. With His dying breath, He gasps, “Your suit is granted,” and then expires. Have you ever thought of what Christ’s death entails? Have you ever thought of our absolute poverty in relation to Christ? And yet, we try to tell ourselves how sacrificial we are being in doing a good deed here and there, and sticking the “Christianity” sticker on it as an afterthought. Goodness! What selfish, blind creatures we are! What can we do but fall on our faces before our “rich lord” and recognize the amazing depth of His mercy to us!