When asked why I was going there I couldn’t come up with the real truth of the matter. I didn’t want to land on the obvious default reasoning; cultural experience, a step out, learning a new language, using my time to serve God. Of course, all of these played a role but as for why exactly I going, I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that I wanted movement and no calm course of living, and it fell together perfectly, I knew I would and had to do it, and there were no questions to be asked about it. Somehow I knew I would end up here, which was quite contrary to my feeling regarding where I ended up in 2006-07, scaling the city of Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa. It’s crazy to see the fulfillment of something like that in your life…
to know in your heart, as if revealed to you by divinity, that you would end up somewhere and then see it come to pass. Something about Spain always struck me. Besides eight years of Spanish and learning close to nothing, it wasn’t the language; it was Europe, and the place itself. It was a promise between me and God and I was getting a sneak peak…
Just a few hours earlier, I was playing with Legos at O’Hare in Chicago and now sat under the stars at a classy outdoor restaurant on the outskirts of Madrid that overlooked the city skyline; four tall buildings known as the Crooked Teeth. Maria, the woman whose home I was staying at, sat across from me with her boyfriend, a Spanish journalist who didn’t speak a word of English. Fortunately, Maria knew perfect English which she taught at a University in Madrid. She had spent two years in Fort Wayne, Indiana and some time in Nashville, Tennessee. The two of us hit it off immediately. I was nervous about the host families, and wasn’t sure what to expect but it must have been impeccably planned that Maria and I would be placed together. Both of us shared our love for literature, and our laid back, fun loving personalities coincided so well it was like we had known each other for years…
Maria clattered the empty plates together and straightened her crumpled Euro’s. The meal was expensive, and I couldn’t help but convert how much money it cost, which dismayed me a little bit. I don’t know what I ate, but I really enjoyed it! In fact, I enjoyed absolutely everything I ate in Spain. The whole trip was amazing and I could go on and on with stories of crazy German flight attendants, exploring “Prohibido Road” at a camp in the middle of the countryside, finding an abandoned bombed out train station from WWII, the wild metro-rides, the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, the kids that we got to know and the camp that we ran as a group. I could share pages and pages of experiences but instead of doing all of that, I’m going to narrow in, and emphasize the one night that meant the most to me. A night that nothing epic really happened, but a conversation occurred that I will never forget, and in a setting that will always remain in the forefront of my mind.
Two worlds clashed at the table that night. There wasn’t some kind of grand difference as I had experienced before in Africa, but clearly we had been brought up in two very different world views. What I liked most about Maria was her veracity. She was a genuinely good hearted woman, divorced with two elementary age children. She had a classy but gentle authority when she spoke and moved, a great sense of style, drank and smoked and went clubbing on the weekends. She opened up her home and her life to me, which is something very difficult and uncommon for Spanish people to do. She accepted me immediately, with no preconceptions or judgments. While some of the other students were struggling with their host families due to minor cultural or language barriers, Maria had taken me out to Madrid for a night on the town before any of us had been there.
We exchanged stories that evening. There was a heart of hurting brokenness behind a mask of elegant sway that Maria wore. In a sense, the same was true of me, except I had something else. Although neglected and one sided at times, I had a relationship with a person that would last forever, and a grace that required nothing of me but left my life beautifully unfair.
In Spain I found the complete opposite of what I discovered in Kenya. The poorest, lowliest people on earth were far richer than I would ever be able to experience in my life. After seeing that kind of poverty and devastation I couldn’t help but feel incredibly selfish about my own life, and my parents spending thousands of dollars for me to go to college. Then I realized that it really wasn’t poverty and devastation that I had seen, but rather riches and simplicity, treasures and preservation. The morsel of bread that Vivian, my Kenyan compassion child living in the Nairobi slums, gives to her friend goes so much further than any kind of money I set aside to donate towards a good cause. On the contrary, in Europe and America, the richest people are so much poorer than those huddled in their tin and mud hut structures. No one walks down Madison Avenue in New York or Plaza Mayor in Madrid and sees poverty. Though with a slightly altered perspective, everything changes. Jesus hung out with the whole spectrum of people, the very rich to the very poor. They all had one thing in common – they all needed him.
Maria wanted to know about my faith, personally. I briefly told her about this relationship I have with Jesus. The whole idea of a relationship instead of some kind of traditional list of rules and commandments was something she hadn’t heard before. From talking to her, I gathered that she felt as if her life was a mess, like she had to clean herself up before she could even approach this idea of a relationship with God. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be anywhere close to it either. There are some people that alter their principles and convictions based on circumstances and personal gain, myself included. The difference is I can’t deny (in my heart) what I know to be true. If this Jesus was just a teacher, then all he can do is frustrate me by setting this unattainable standard of being “pure in heart.” If I can never reach this standard, what is the point of even telling me about it?
What Maria didn’t understand and what I had trouble communicating verbally was that of knowing Jesus as Savior before his teachings and ideas can have any meaning other than a lofty, unattainable inspiration that only leads to despair. But maybe that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. As long as we try to “do the right thing” and clean up our act and our lives, over and over again mulling over what we can change about ourselves in our Christian circles, we will continue to face obstacles until we are willing to come to Jesus just as we are, as paupers. Until we finally admit, “I just can’t even begin to do this” then Jesus says to us: “Blessed are you… the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3)
How many times throughout my life will it take for me to realize that God didn’t rescue me so I could continue in drudgery to ‘get myself together.’ He only asks me simply, to come to him. He came to make me what he teaches I should be instead of me having to work towards some kind of standard. With all the stresses and busyness, and things that need to be done, and dreams that want to be fulfilled, and things that I want to change, there is this simple whisper in the whirlwind of fury that says, “Come to me, just as you are, I’ll have no preconceptions or judgments of you, and I will give you rest. Blessed are you, the poor in spirit.” There is only one person who can completely satisfy to the absolute depth of the hurting human heart, and that is Jesus. I know this to be true, even though I constantly turn away and look elsewhere… I know it is true.
Maria and I both didn’t realize it at the time, I only realize it now months and weeks later, but there at the table, in our weakness we were strong and blessed, and now I just have to write to her and tell her this good news! This is it, the doorway to the kingdom, and yet it takes us so long to believe that we are actually poor.