My June Prayer Letter

Well, all three of you will probably be surprised that I’m putting up something else so soon… But I thought, what the hey. I had to get this done for today, and I thought I would share w/ you a few of the random thoughts (especially for those of you who don’t get my snail mail letters…) Sorry it’s so long… I like to call it “the beast.” Enjoy.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

June 2005

Dear friends and family,

You can tell winter is approaching here in Rio – the sun sets earlier (around 5:00), the rains dwindle, and the temperature cools. All in all, it’s a nice change. But in many ways I feel that a winter has been drawing near to my heart as well. This last week was especially painful – death was present in both our memories and in our day-to-day lives. Yet in the dark times, I have been clinging to the above verse. I don’t see it yet, but I trust in our God who has promised us that those who mourn will be comforted. But how long must we wait?

I spent a couple hours on Mother’s Day down in Lapa with the street kids. It was a painful time for all of us as we remembered our mothers. I heard many stories of the ways their mothers had let them down, failed them, ignored them, or abandoned them. Some still loved their mothers. Others wanted nothing to do with theirs. I wept with one friend as we remembered our moms, and were missing them especially on Mother’s Day. They died years ago, but the wounds still ache. As we sat under the arches and the tears flowed, another kid patted us reassuringly on the shoulder as he walked by and murmured “It’s hard to lose a mom, isn’t it?” And so we mourn.

That same day we found out that Thiago (one of the Lapa kids) had passed away the night before when he used too much of an inhalant called lolô, fell down on the sidewalk, hit his head, and bled to death. He was 17. We went to his funeral the next morning, and it was a sad affair. I didn’t know Thiago very well. I didn’t know his heart, so it was difficult to try and speak words of comfort to his mother, his family. Our presence, an arm to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, and a few heartfelt prayers were all we had to give. Yet though I didn’t know him well, I do trust in our Heavenly Father – in His infinite compassion and mercy, as well as His infinite justice. And we continue to mourn.

In many ways, the kids in Lapa are hardened – they have to be to survive. Yet they too mourn the loss of their friend Thiago. They too suffer, and I have been privileged to see into their hearts. They let me share their pain with them, and that is a precious, priceless gift. In the aftermath, as I reflected more on suffering, on mourning, and on the pain that exists in so many lives, I stumbled across Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. It is a series of profound reflections on suffering and love, written after his son died in a mountain climbing accident.

One of his most moving passages focuses on the beatitude – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” His response – “Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence.”

Those who mourn are the ones who realize that when the Kingdom of peace and wholeness comes, there will be no hunger, no sickness, no brokenness, no injustice, no fear, and no death. However, this present world is full of such things. Those who mourn see things as they are and ache – they see the hungry, the sick, the broken, people suffering injustices, people who are afraid and dying. As they see, their hearts break and they are moved to tears because these things should not be! In this way, our mourning and our weeping are acts of prophetic criticism, proclaiming not only the sad reality that exists today. Each tear also proclaims what may be, what should be, what one day will be. And the words of Jesus tell us that as we mourn, we will be held in the arms of the God who suffers with us.

Wolterstorff goes on – “The mourners are aching visionaries. Such people Jesus blesses… and he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come. They will be comforted… Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”

When the Kingdom of God comes in fullness, we will then see face to face. We will see Life redeemed as it was meant to be. Until that day, however, our tears are our witness. God’s children die every day. In that day, they will die no more. His daughters are used and abused. In that day, they will be cherished. His sons are crushed and thrown away. In that day, they will be honored. The poor are exploited and ruined. In that day, they will be lifted up. The image of God in His beloved children is consigned to the rubbish heap. In that day, they will be seated with the princes and princesses. Therefore we mourn, but not as those who have no hope.

I wept for my family as my mom died. I weep for Thiago, making his home on the street as he destroys his mind and body. I weep for Christian, growing up thinking it is normal to sleep outside. The street – with its noise, dirt, drugs, broken glass and broken lives – is his playground and sanctuary. I weep for Kaiwan, facing a bleak and uncertain future as violent men with guns occasionally invade his neighborhood. I weep as innocence is stolen, families are broken, hope is destroyed, and love grows cold. Faced with the cold, bleak reality of sin, injustice, and brokenness, we often feel helpless. Our hearts break. We cry, we weep, we mourn. Yet as we mourn, our tears do not lead us to despair, for our tears are mixed with faith, hope, courage, and love. “One day…” they whisper to us. Our tears are our prayer. And our Father whispers back – “In that day, I will make all things new… Come work with me. Trust me.”

So we mourn, and yet we hope. We sacrifice and sing. We labor and love. We cry and we move forward in resolve that the broken hearts and lives will one day be made whole. Not yet, but one day – one day soon… For He is able, and He is faithful. And after the last tear falls, there is Love… Amen.

Thank you for standing with me. Thank you for your love and support.

Gratefully,

Benjamin Michael

PS – One or two quick business things for those who want to keep in touch better (or want me to keep in better touch w/ them.) For those who are interested I am now sending out a regular prayer update email. Let me know if you want in the loop.

In random news (plus a new thing I learned this last week)…

So, I was looking at a 2005 World Bank study. It researched the differing amounts of bureaucracy on a global scale, in regards to what it takes to start up a business – the amount of red tape needed to go through, the number of procedures to register, the amount of time needed to wait, and a variety of other categories. They also have a handy comparison chart in case you’re interested in finding where your country ranks.

In the two main categories, Brazil was in the top 5 (as in the top 5 worst!)

In regards to number of different procedures that need to be filed, two countries have as many as Brazil (Paraguay and Uganda) while only Chad has more.

And then when it comes to the length of time needed to complete everything, only four countries took longer than Brazil – Mozambique and the Congo (by one and three days, respectively), Laos, and Haiti (which takes a whopping 203 days to start up a new business.)

Now obviously, starting a business and applying for a visa are two different things. However, the same bureaucratic culture applies. And I am already dreading the day when we have to try to incorporate WMF as a non-profit here in Brazil. 150 days… yikes. Five months. Pray for us…

By the way – something new I learned this last week… I’ve found out why they put those plastic guards on the fans. The plastic grill/guard dealie-o was not working out well on the fan in my room (it was making this rattling noise that was really loud – it sounded just like the kids who would put playing cards in their bicycle spokes and pretend they were driving a motorcycle. I would have been one of them, but I could never get the cards to stay. sigh…) Anyway, so I took off the front and back, and so now I have what I affectionately like to call “The Fan’o’Death”.

Thankfully its blades are made of soft plastic (not like those old-fashioned metal airplane propellor type fans you would get in Yarina). But still, when you get up in the middle of the night to stumble down the stairs to the bathroom, it’s a bit of a rude awakening to accidentaly trip on the fan. It doesn’t cut you, but it scares you. And if I follow the Nichol’s advice and glue razors on the edges so I can cut my vegetables faster, who knows what might happen. Remember – if at all possible, keep the guard/grill thing ON your fan. You’ll save your legs and feet and hands much unecessary cuts and scrapes.

Good night friends. More later…

Ben

Be careful who you love…


jeferson and isabel
Originally uploaded by Lost in Rio.

It’s late at night, and I can’t sleep, so I decided I’d make use of the time and try and write something. I’m sitting up in bed, shivering in my sweatshirt (it must be 60 degrees outside). I’m listening to a song by Waterdeep called “Foolish Love.” It’s beautiful. It’s probably one of my favorite songs at the moment.

At the moment it moves me because that has been much of my prayer for the last two years. “Father, increase my love. Father, help me to love more. Father, grow my love for the poor and broken and oppressed. Father, plant in me Your love, that I might love others w/ Your Agape…”  Sometimes it really sucks when God answers your prayers. Love opens up your heart and makes you so vulnerable.

I look back and realize that much of my life I have avoided love, or at least avoided the dangers of “loving too much.” When you love too much, you give people power over you. You allow them into your life, and you give them the power to hurt you. And people will hurt you. We are all imperfect, messy, broken children who on occasion are selfish, self-centered, proud, and inconsiderate. I love my family, but they have hurt me. I have hurt them. And in trying to protect myself, I slowly hardened my heart. You allow people in, but only to a certain point. Beyond that point, no one is allowed. Thanks for stopping by, but Keep off the Grass and Beware of Dog.

This worked out just fine until I came down to Rio, when it became my job to love the outcasts. And you can’t love someone unless you let them into your heart. Jeferson was the first to sneak in. Rafael came over the walls soon after. Isabel managed it. Then Hugo, Junior, Christiane, and Maria Elena, Raiane and Renato and Julia and Igor, and sometimes it feels like my heart will explode. It aches beautifully.

I prayed to love more, but I didn’t pray that I would make myself vulnerable and easily hurt… It hurts when the people you love are cold at night. It hurts to see the ones you love destroying themselves. A few weeks ago I sat w/ Jeferson on the cold sidewalk until late in the night w/ my arm around his shoulder and prayed for him and sang over him as he wept. But eventually, it was time for me to go. I had to get up and leave him there. As I walked away, I was the one whose shoulders were racked w/ sobs. My tears were my prayer.

There’s a Waterdeep song called “Foolish Love” – about how love doesn’t make sense – the chorus goes like this. “I’ve got some kind of foolish love, running through my veins. Standing in this foolish love, soaking wet in the pouring rain.” I’ve been there. This love that makes no sense, as I stand in the praça of Lapa, the cold rain on my face and in my heart. And then I think that I have a small taste of our Father’s heart for the youth of Lapa, and for each of us – the broken children of His dreams. And I want to weep and dance and sing and sob. But I don’t. Instead, I usually just go over and give out a few hugs and handshakes, play some dominoes, break out the first aid kit, give some hot chocolate and love and a prayer and a smile and a listening ear. And it doesn’t solve anything yet, but somehow, for now, it is enough.

Waterdeep goes on to say in their song –

“Reason will come to you in your darkest hour and ask you if you really suppose if all this foolishness makes any sense at all. You tell him Love has reasons that reason will never know – and stand there in your foolish love running through your veins just stand there in your foolish love soaking wet in the pouring rain.

“I imagine sometimes Jesus is a lot like me, when the woman he loves says she thinks she loves him too. He just gets real quiet and looks down at the ground, because until she says she’s ready there’s nothin’ much He can do – except stand there in His foolish love flowing out His veins. He’s got some kind of foolish love, soaking wet in the pouring rain.”

May we love those in our lives w/ His foolish love – That love which makes no sense, and only sees the beloved. May we love our Abba w/ His foolish love, as He first loved us.

Sometimes, I even amaze myself…

So I just wanted to tell everyone – I amaze myself constantly!!! =) Example number one – I just was heading down the spiral staircase in my house, carrying an empty plate and glass in my hand. I may have been a bit careless, and the plate slipped out of my hand and began plummeting down the staircase. I steeled myself for an earth-shaking crash, when, unthought or unplanned, my left hand lashed out like a striking cobra and snagged the edge of the plate only seconds before it plummeted to a certain, horrific, shattering death. I then danced down the rest of the stairs, shouting to myself “I rule, I rule.” Then I almost tripped over the trash-can (the one full of carrot peelings and other stuff – but I didn’t spill too much of it…) Sigh… right…

More later…

12 things I learned this last week…


I don’t have anything profound – but here are a few vignettes of life here – a few things that I have learned this last week – enjoy…


1 – When you eat something messy (like pizza sauce, or yogurt, or guacamole) you will spill it on yourself. If it lands on your skin (like your arm or your chest), it is still ok to eat it. Lick it off and continue. If it lands on your sock, it is not ok to eat. It does not matter if the sock is on your foot or not. Do not eat the guacamole. Not only will the guacamole taste funny, but you will sit there asking yourself “Why did I just practically lick my dirty sock? I disgust myself…”

2 – When you decide you want a coke float, and you put the bottle of coke in the freezer and forget about it and then take it out a few hours later and try to open it and it starts to fizz up all crazy like, don’t panic and put your mouth on the lid. You can stop it from fizzing over and making a mess for a little while, but you won’t be strong enough to keep it in the bottle. The fizz is stronger than you are. Eventually your mouth will get tired, you will have to pull away, and coke will explode all over your face. It will also, (if you’re lucky) shoot up your nose and make a huge mess all over the counter and floor as well.

3 – Even though I have almost reached the quarter century mark, I still get the heeby-jeebies when confronted by huge scary cockroaches running all over my house. Thankfully, they aren’t on of those Madagascar hissing cockroaches (although I do believe they are distantly related.)

4 – When you leave your house, close your windows. You never know what might come in. It could be a rat, a cat chasing the rat, or cockroaches. It could be an inch and a half of water on your floor and water all over your bed, books, couch, the phone, papers, and camera…

5 – On that note, take an umbrella when you leave the house. Tonight is the second night this week I have arrived home soaking wet. On Thursday I had to wade home through several “puddles” that were over three feet deep. That didn’t count the wakes from the buses driving through. The waves made the water higher. My clothes got wetter. It wasn’t just water too. It was trash, sewer water, and (as a friend from church told us), “rat pee.” I’m thankful our house is high enough that we didn’t get flooded. Sometimes I hate it when it rains. Maybe I should get a boat…

6 – I love the ocean. We went to a friend’s house on Saturday about an hour outside of the city – she lives on a military base, about 20 yards from the beach. It was a beautiful day – it was quiet and peaceful, the waves were strong, the water was cool, the sun was hot. A strong breeze was pulsing over the waves, and at the end of the day I sat on the beach and watched a lightning storm roll in over the waves. I did flips on the sand and stood on my hands and got tumbled by waves. We cooked out on the grill and walked and talked and laughed. And I want to live in a place like that someday.

7 – I have a friend named Jamie. In college, I really enjoyed scaring her. (I enjoyed scaring others too, but she the most fun.) One time I put on a creepy Halloween mask and jumped out at her from a dark house. She screamed, and I thought I was going to give her a heart attack. I felt bad. Another time, I contrived to slip a dwarf hamster into a shoe, and then asked her to hand it to me. As she was picking it up, the little guy stuck its head out of a hole, causing her to scream and throw the shoe across the room. It was great fun because I could always count on a reaction.

Now I’m on the other side of the equation. This morning as I left my house and walked around the corner, a group of PMs (Military Police) jumped out at me. Or at least it felt like they did. They were just standing there next to their car, backs to the wall, big guns in their hands. But my heart jumped up into my throat, the adrenaline started pumping, and I was breathing fast. “They’re not supposed to be here!” I thought.

I then thought of Jamie (and the many others) who I used to get so much pleasure out of scaring – jumping out of closets and surprising them and making them scream. And I was sorry. So Jamie, Sara, Laura, Tam, and the rest – I’m sorry. It’s not as funny as I thought it was.

8 – Will Ferrel is a funny, funny man. I wish he were a Christian.

9 – “The Power of One” is a great book.

10 – I hate red tape. Especially when the jerks who run the prison won’t tell you where they transferred the guy to, or rather they tell you, but they tell you the wrong place, and then you ride two hours in the bus w/ an emotionally unstable woman only to find that you might be at the wrong prison after all. But they don’t know, so just come back next week. NEXT!!!

11 – When you’re tired and frustrated from a long day, and the red tape is giving you a headache, there is nothing better than walking down to Lapa and seeing little Christiane, who is four, come running up to you and leaping on you from five feet away, clinging to your legs and hugging you, and then begging you to pick him up. And then when you sit down, he just wants to sit on your lap and color – he doesn’t ask for things, or tell you that you are stupid and came to the wrong prison, or yell or complain. He just loves you. I love him. We’re going on Wednesday with him, his baby sister, and his mom to visit his dad who is in prison now. I can’t wait to spend the day w/ them.

12 – I am incredibly blessed to have friends and family like you all. Thank you for being a part of my life here. You are out of sight but not out of mind. And you are loved from afar. Thanks.

Light in the darkness

I’ve been meaning to get on here for a while to tell a story – so here it is.

One of the things that I love about my times down in Lapa w/ the youth is our conversation. We talk about the most random things – from why they left home, issues w/ family, faith, and God, to who’s going to be the next soccer champ of Rio, to the latest fun facts we’ve found out about animals. (One of the guys has a fascination w/ animals – we’ve talked for hours about the cool things we know snakes, whales, fish, dolphins, spiders, insects, and other creatures can do.)

Last week another guy asked me why I speak different. “Why is it that your country and my country have different languages?” So I launched off into a quick rundown of the story of the “Tower of Babel.” He was fascinated. “Is this true?” “It’s in the Bible…” “No way!” He quickly ran off to tell a few of his friends, “Guess what I just found out!!!” and proceeded to tell them the entire story. I had to smile.

Last week I ran into Rafael, who I hadn’t seen for a while, and he asked me to sing for him. He has a favorite worship song – “Oh Praise Him” – so I began to sing. Immediately a small audience gathered around to listen.

“That’s church music,” I heard someone explain to another. At the end of the song, someone else asked if I knew any church songs in Portuguese. I ran through the few that I do have memorized from church, and began to sing one. A larger crowd gathered, including some of the older, “tougher” guys. A few of them started singing along. And then the floodgates were opened.

They began clamoring – “Do you know this one? How about that one? Listen to me sing this song…” And they began to sing. We sat there for half an hour listening to groups of them or individuals sing songs from home – their “church songs”. I was struck by the beauty of it.

Hearing Chrstiano sing “You have taken off my filthy rags, and dressed me in garments of praise…” Listening to Leonardo sing “Great is the Lord, His amazing works will never end, His eyes will never leave me…” Trying not to cry when Thiago sang in his quiet, low, shy voice, “God sees into our hearts, He feels our wounds, He knows our pain, and He won’t give us more than we can bear…” Smiling and trying to sing along as they belted out “Lord, heal our land. Only You can make a difference here, so listen to our hearts and heal our land…”

I believe I have worshipped before. But nothing compares to that night. I knew I was in the presence of the Lord, as He was in the midst of “the least of these” (Matt. 25). These are the children of Lapa. These are the broken ones. Yet my Abba spoke to me through them.

As I walked the last bit of the way home, around the horses, past the men w/ guns, under the power lines and over the soccer field, I looked up and saw the stars, and contentedly sighed, “Lord, make those words they sung be a prophecy – what You will do in their lives, and what you’re already doing. Change Lapa, and change them. Give them life.”

Join w/ me in praying for them – for us – that we all may taste His life, even in the darkest, smelliest, most broken places. Thanks for sticking w/ me.

peace…

Five things we all need to learn…

1 – Life is hard.
2 – You are going to die.
3 – You are not that important.
4 – You are not in control.
5 – Life is not about you.

Perhaps a little word of explanation is called for. I’ve been reading a book (Finding Life) by Ashley Barker, the director of UNOH (Urban Neighbors of Hope), an Australian missions group that works among the poor in a variety of contexts. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.

In it, he quotes Franciscan Richard Rohr (who has researched many traditional societies’ “rights of passage”. The rights of passage are designed to teach their young people the above lessons, which he (Rohr) holds as key to maturing as people and communities. Contrast them w/ the dominant attitudes in “Western” culture (according to Jim Wallis…)

1 – Life can be easy.
2 – You can be young (or at least keep feeling and looking young) forever.
3 – You are what is most important.
4 – Above all else, you must stay in control.
5 – Life is mostly about you and your fulfillment.

hmmm…

At long last…

Now I know that some of you have been dying to see what has happened to my head in the last few months. And I’ve been meaning to put these up for a while… So enjoy, okay? (and you can read captions, but it’s pretty self explanatory…

First you have me w/ long hair…

long hair

Then you have Rebecca’s hand cutting my hair…

disappearing

Here’s my “come-be-a-missionary-to-Brazil” recruitment poster… catchy, isn’t it?

Mohawk 2

Then you have me, Jeferson, and Rafael hanging out in our house (I’m the one w/ the mohawk.)

b, j, and r 1

Close up of “the Hawk.”

mohawk 1

Me w/ my big shaved head…

bald

And finally, me back to normal. (as normal as I get, anyway…)

normal

So there you have it. Yes, I had a mohawk. Yes, I shaved it off. Yes, my hair is normal now. No, I probably won’t do it again. Ok. That’s enough for now.

More soon.

Adventures in the shower (aka, my own private death-trap)…

One of the best things about living in a favela is all the adventures you get to have w/out ever even leaving your house! Just the other day, I was thinking, “Gosh, I don’t even have to be working w/ the wiring in my house to get shocked. All I have to do is stand up straight in the shower or touch the wrong spot and I’ll get zapped. Isn’t this great!” (The reason there is electricity in my shower is that the only way to have hot water is to have an electric shower-head, w/ two wires running out of the wall into the shower head – I installed it myself…)

So two days ago I got home to find half the neighborhood gathered in my bathroom – Nathan (my servant team guy) had been in the shower when it started shorting out, causing an impressive cascade of sparks from the light post next to our house (which also happens to be where our circuit breaker is located.) Supposedly it was quite impressive… Later that night, as I was messing with it trying to fix it, it practically exploded in my face, showering me w/ sparks and heat – I still have most of my hair, though. =)

So I declared the shower off-limits until it was fixed. But when it’s 100 degrees out, you can only go so long w/out showering… I decided that it would be OK to use it as long as we didn’t turn on the hot water. Theoretically, that should mean there is no power running through the wires. Well, Nathan took a shower and everything was fine. But as I was standing in the kitchen making tortillas so we could have quesadillas w/ my guacamole, it happened.

The lights in the entire house start flickering like there’s going to be a blackout, and then there is a small explosion from the bathroom (right next to the kitchen). And the explosion of sparks goes on and on… getting bigger. I’ have started freaking out, wondering what exactly I will do to keep my house from burning down… Do I run in there and grab the wires w/ my bare hands and rip it off? (I really didn’t want to do it, but was working up the courage to do so when the fireworks stopped (after about ten seconds of flickering, sparks, crackling, etc. It was like having a small lightning storm in my shower…)

At this point, I’m hearing an odd sound from outside. I quickly realize that it sounds something like this: “Ooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhh…” – really quite similar to what you hear at the end of the grand finale at a 4th of July fireworks display. Except those who were oooohing were my neighbors, and what they were oooohing at was the connection of my house to the light post as sparks cascaded in a waterfall pattern down to the street…

Our neighbor Alison came over to help me take it apart that night (due to my entirely unreasonable fear of getting shocked… I told him I was going to shut the circuit breaker off before I messed with the wires, and he looked at my like I was a sissy… “Are you afraid of getting shocked?” he asked scornfully? “Yup.”) And so he helped me fix it so there are no more sparks. On the other hand, we also now no longer have hot water. Again, it’s not that big a problem at the moment. Maybe when the temperature falls into the 80’s we’ll need hot water again… but maybe not.

Anyway, I’m glad the problem is contained for now. and I’m REALLY glad I wasn’t in my shower when it went psycho… ouch.

take care of ya’llselves – and beware of showers… i’m serious.

peace,

ben