Sometimes the wonders of God come as a surprise—apparitions from elsewhere in God’s grace without explanation or a proper sense of why. The wonders of God also come through hard work, a life of discipleship, commitment to God and others. In a sense, we could say that the wonders of God come after the work we do for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.
When I look back and consider the work of faithful men and women at a small Presbyterian church in Sao Paulo, Brazil, they were the channels from which God’s wonders appeared and continue to appear to me. They prepared my eyes to see and my body and soul to experience the wonders of God. And yet, they are still surprising to me. Perhaps without knowing clearly, they were educators of God’s wonders in my life.
I have just read a wonderful book that Paulo Freire and Myles Horton “spoke” together, We Make The Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change” (Horton, Freire, Brenda Bell, and John Gaventa, Temple University Press, 1990). In this book they speak about their trajectory as educators, about how they believe things changed in their lifetime and how they believe education can work for a better world. I took a few quotes from the book as the framework for talking with you about the ways in which we can, like John the Baptist, prepare the way for Jesus Christ and the wonders of God to happen in our midst.
“Reading must be an act of love”
My mother read the stories of the Bible to me and on Sundays we would learn them together in church. I learned to memorize the Bible and sing its books and stories. We had our own Bibles that we each carried to church and anywhere we went. Carrying my own Bible and reading from it every day became an act of love to me. I wanted to know about these stories and learn from them. The Bible gave me an identity and a deep sense of belonging. The Bible was a powerful book for this community and we all loved to read it. We never left it in the pews.
“To establish a connection between words and the world”
The words of the Bible were always connected to the lives of the people who formed me. To each word of the Bible I had also a careful touch; to each hymn, a caring look; to each celebration of the sacrament, an assuring presence of someone around me. Their presence and deep commitment to my life created a network of support that made me know that I could face the world.
The world didn’t become a threat to me. Instead I knew I would not be overcome by it. Bonds of affection to one another were created to the point that each one gave time, money and his or herself to really care for each other. From this little community, I gained direction for my life and a future I otherwise would never be able to have. Words, the Word, and the world were all tied up together!
“I also know that without practice there is no knowledge, at least it is hard to know without practice.”
The love I received taught me to engage, to listen and to be involved with people on a practical level. My faith was always a communal practice. My boundaries were those who were there or arriving from time to time, as strangers became family. The criterion of truth I learned was always practical, through our living together. Their constant presence, never abandoning me, never wanting to throw me away because of something I did wrong, assured me that I was beloved. In spite of problems and differences of thoughts, we stuck together. I don’t remember people leaving the church because they were offended. To live together was painful, but better than going our own way.
“There is no educational situation without certain objects to be known and recognized.”
Yes, we have our sacraments to be continuously known and forever recognized. Why is it that we don’t have Eucharist every Sunday in our churches? The sacraments are bonds of affections that unite us, much more than our sermons. If we were to be truly Reformed, a sermon would never be preached without the Eucharist. We must teach each other and our children about the sacraments, these “certain objects to be known and recognized,” until they are deeply marked in our bones and we cannot live without them. Sacraments are exciting boxes of never-ending wonders of God to us. Every time I go to the Eucharistic table I cannot help but say, “Wow, this is incredibly amazing! I can’t quite understand what this means but I know there is something here for me and for my brothers and sisters and for the world.”
“Without understanding the soul of a culture, we only invade it without interfering in it.”
We must be very critical to the ways in which our churches have bought into the egotistic, individualistic and narcissistic culture of our times. Our main battle here is to continue to offer ways of living together, emphasizing community living, giving instead of only receiving. This culture of individualism is killing the church of Jesus Christ. How can we sing together if we all have our own iPods with our own set of music? How can we pray together if we don’t have time? How can we live together when “personal space” is a sacred cow in this culture? How do we share what we have if the economy is telling us that hard times are ahead and we are responsible only for ourselves? No! We are each other’s keepers. Under God’s name, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ companions and assurance of a dignified life. I am responsible for you as you are for me and there is no rationalization about that! Unless we “interfere” with the gospel of Jesus Christ saying, “Loving our neighbor is loving God” and “If you have two coats, give one away” “and “Walk the extra mile with those in need,” we will die, frozen by our own set of private and proper beliefs using the name of God.
“The world should be what life should be.”
In our worship services we rehearse a life for which we hope. In worship, life should be a place where everybody is welcomed to the table of Jesus Christ and no one goes hungry or thirsty, where we all have roofs over our heads and the possibility of getting an education. This is our prophetic imagining of the gospel. In our worship services we send out the news that this is a group of people who will struggle to see God’s love and wonder gracing the world with respect for differences and a special care for the least of these.
Paulo Freire quotes a Guinea-Bissauan agronomic engineer and writer, Amilcar Cabral. I think that this quote is another way to say what we believe about the kin-dom of God: it is already here but not yet fully here. We won’t give up our belief that the church of Jesus Christ will continue to make a difference in the world. In the last 25 years, the annual reports of the Presbyterian Church (USA) were about the decrease of its membership. This puts people into a state of fear and anger. We must work instead out of the dreams we dream and not out of the numbers in reports. What really matters in ministry? I grew up in a small church and the key aspect of this community was not the number of members or the size of its endowment (since there wasn’t one), but rather, the excellence of the worship of God, the Sunday school program, the church doing mission in the neighborhood, the choir singing for the glory of God, the healing of people by the prayers of the entire community and people caring for each other. Away from numbers, we must work passionately, as impatiently patient dreamers of God’s love on earth.
Concluding, we are what others have made of us. The wonders of God appear through our lives in this very complicated life together. When we become church, we are to educate each other, to step into each other’s shoes, to care for one another, to get entangled in our idiosyncrasies and stupidities, to forgive and forget, to keep others, to dream and help others dream. This is our task: to live this gospel as disciples of Jesus Christ together in a church, which instead of fearing to disappear looks ahead for what wonders God has still in store for all of us and for the world.
Cláudio Carvalhaes a theologian and artist, was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil. He was ordained by the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil and served two Presbyterian congregations in São Paulo.
In a partnership between his Brazilian church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), Carvalhaes became a founding pastor of Christ is Life Presbyterian Church, a Portuguese-speaking congregation in Fall River, Mass. After that, Carvalhaes earned his doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary and since the Fall 2007, Carvalhaes is the Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
A much sought after speaker, writer, performer, and consultant, Carvalhaes has served with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in its peacemaking and immigrant groups ministries. From 2002 to 2006 Cláudio served the Brazilian Landless Movement in New York. In 2010 he was the co-chair of the Hispanic Latino/a Coalition of Louisville, KY. He also serves on the board of The Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture and of the Brazilian online journal, Trópico – Ideias de Norte a Sul.
In December 2008 he was part of the worship team of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Maputo, Mozambique and in June 2010 he served on the worship team for the Edinburgh 2010 World Missionary Conference. He has published articles in both English and Portuguese on the relation between worship, globalization, immigration, art and postcolonial theologies/liturgies.
With David Gambrell, he leads the annual summer conference on Worship and the Arts at Louisville Seminary. He has a website in English, Spanish and Portuguese: www.claudiocarvalhaes.com.