The night air was warm, and its moisture caused my t-shirt to stick against the skin on my back and arms. It was going to be another rough night and I knew that my options were limited. I could either try to fall asleep on my rusty bunk and hope the breeze from the electrical fan made its way through the mosquito net adequately enough to combat the humidity; or I could go for a walk in the night air.
I chose the latter.
The fresh mud stuck to the bottom of my rubber flip flops, which sprayed the mire onto my calves as I walked on the uneven road that weaved its way through the camp. It was around the second of the three months of my stay in the Haitian refugee camp, and I’d gotten used to wandering out by myself. It was lonely being the only person in my concrete house at the entrance of a camp which seemed to be more accustomed to outsiders than I was of it. In fact, I was the only outsider living there.
I tried to make out the silhouettes of the people warming themselves around the various barrel fires outside their homes adorned with sheet metal rooves, but failed to recognize the more familiar faces. No matter - the road would eventually lead me to someone with whom I would stop and chat, but for now I took refuge in the sound of the tropical breeze softly pushing the palm leaves just enough to reveal the magnificent canvass of stars beyond them – a canvass made more vibrant in the context of a community living without street lights or traffic.
How many nights had I spent staring at the constellations on my flat concrete roof, up the rickety ladder, through the cobwebs and amongst the steel rebar which pointed ever upwards to the heavens?
Time held no place here. She was neither welcomed nor invited.
As I stumbled my way further along the potholed path, I stopped when I saw two of my friends, Joe and Orlando, standing in front of the concrete steps and humble vegetable garden of Orlando’s home – or rather, his family’s home. It was situated at the bend in the road, before it twisted and weaved its way up the mountainside, which is where most of the refugees lived. Orlando and Joe waved to me with their usual smiles and I happily joined them.
Politely switching from Creole to Spanish so that I could understand what they were saying, the two young Haitians were in the midst of discussion. From what I could make out, they were talking about their spiritual connection to the stars and what that meant for them. While I didn’t catch every word, I understood that their stars represented their lives – both the lived and the yet to be lived. It was the latter that Orlando and Joe were now focused on, as they began interpreting all that lay ahead for them. This came in the form of something other than what they had, whether power or wealth, or simply an opportunity to leave the camp in search of a more prosperous path. It was clear this was a powerful symbol. It wasn’t simply a game of imagination and dreams for them, but rather a belief that their future, a future of material advancement, was somehow related to one of these celestial bodies.
Orlando, with his usual effervescence, lifted his arm and strained his fingers, as if his manifest destiny were to pull himself out of that refugee camp and into a life of opportunity that lay in the stars themselves.
“This one, Ho-el, this one is my star.”
I felt Joe’s calloused palm tug at my t-shirt as he touched my shoulder in order that I might move my attention from Orlando to him. Joe was a motoconcho – a motorcycle taximan – who made his money ferrying people in and out of the camp, through the bumpy roads enveloped in overgrown sugarcane for 40 or 50 pesos (just over $1) a ride. He too wanted more. He beamingly asked, “you want to see my star, Ho-el? Look, this one here,” he pointed at one of the millions of stars above us, “this one is mine”.
When in Rome, I thought to myself, and too claimed a distant plasma hanging in darkness.
Joe and Orlando struggled to maintain their composure, attempting to stave off laughter, before Orlando finally took pity on me as I laughed, confused and clearly ignorant of the context.
“No, Ho-el, that’s not your star.”
“It isn’t?,” I asked – still confused.
“No. You are a rich man. A white man. Your star will be bright. Like…” He searched the blackened sky carefully, stroking his chin, “like this one!” He pointed out what I thought might have been a close planet, and admittedly it looked very bright indeed.
In truth, I wasn’t rich - not by Western standards anyway. I was dead broke. I had just finished university with a student loan and had yet to step foot into the working world. I didn’t have a cent to my name, but despite this fact, I was wealthier in that moment than they would ever be. To Orlando and Joe, as well as the other Haitians in that refugee camp, I represented the life they desperately wanted: a life of untold riches and opportunity. In their minds, I had made it; while in mine,
I didn’t even know what it was.
Truth was, I didn’t leave my comfortable life and sign up to live solo in a developing nation because I was confident in who I was. Au contraire, I left a life of comfort and material goods behind because I wanted to shake up the monotony of life in order that I might feel something, anything, that might orient me to a purpose.
I desperately wanted to trek across the linguistic, cultural and socio-economic wastelands that lay between us, and to somehow convince them that I wasn’t a fixed star to envy, but rather a traveler who’d lost his way. If they could have somehow put me through a spiritual x-ray, they would have seen past my skin and on to the state of my heart, which was neither familiar with fulfillment nor enveloped in confidence, but rather filled with an insatiable lust for belonging, direction and genuine significance.
And the hole which sat empty in the depths of my soul would never be filled by my own workings, even if I were to be rewarded with every last of Earth’s valuable treasures.
There’s this tale of a man in the Bible who is powerful. Rich. Influential. If the Haitians were looking for his star in the night sky, they may have selected the moon at its fullest.
We don’t know much about him, but the first thing we learn is how he enters the story: he runs. He’s racing after someone – a carpenter of humble origins who is at the center of a new rabbinical movement in AD 1st century. The object of the man’s attention is neither a Pharisee of popular influence, nor a Sadduccee of social class and power. It’s neither an Essene of strict and respected piety, nor a Zealot of any political value. Instead, the man of great power is running to catch up with a blue collared worker who holds nothing of traditional value, and yet the only thing the man has yet to acquire:
A life worth living.
At this point in the story, the carpenter rabbi – Yeshua – is setting out on a journey, leaving behind what we can only assume is the rich man’s homeland. The rich man must have heard about the crowds that had gathered to hear Yeshua’s preaching and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to have a face-to-face encounter with the man that had been ruffling the feathers of those who held the traditional understanding of worth and purpose in their talons.
The man catches up with Yeshua. He let’s his knees fall to the ground in front of the rabbi. The man of wealth and success now kneels before Yeshua of humble origins, allowing his own tunic to be ripped and sullied by the Jordanian dirt and rocks. He begins his dialogue in this way:
“Good teacher! What must I do, to live forever?”
The wandering rebel ignores his question, choosing instead a series of his own,
“Why are you asking me? You know the old code. You can read for yourself in the texts how to live a good and moral life.”
The successful man stands to his feet and faces Yeshua, “but sir, I’ve followed the old code all my life. I’ve never broken any of the laws – I do what is right and just.”
The Bible says, then Yeshua looked at him and felt a deep love for him. Perhaps he even felt sorry for him. Here was this rich, young ruler who wanted desperately to follow the right way – the good way. He had built his kingdom, not by cheating or manipulating his way to the top, but by his own merit. He was successful, and he was respected – indeed we find out later how he had won over the admiration of the 12 Apostles of Yeshua.
But Yeshua doesn’t see a rich, young ruler who rightly follows the old code – he sees a conflicted soul, torn between the identity he has attached to his own wealth and power, and the desire to have the life that Yeshua offers – one of freedom and transformation. Yeshua senses the conflict within him and puts the reality into words: “if you want to enter my kingdom, you’ll need to give up yours”.
The story ends in disappointing fashion. The man goes away saddened by Yeshua’s words. He’s disheartened. He’s reached the apex of the social, religious and economic hierarchy and scanning from the summit he spots an even higher peak. He believed Yeshua to be his spiritual Sherpa – able to guide him on to the next peak. Instead, he’s haunted by the words of nomadic rabbi, which tell him not how to climb higher but that,
He may have been climbing the wrong mountain all along.
Yeshua concludes his exchange by saying “how hard is it for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!”
How often have I been there myself?
I have chased hopes of career, hopes of financial gains, hopes of possessions, hopes of opportunities, hopes of positive recognition…and perhaps the greatest disappointment is when I see those hopes come to fruition, because I see them for what they are : not stars in the distant sky, but shadows and dust upon which no foundation can ever be built.
The illusion is revealed.
As English playwright William Congreve puts it,
Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander, when he wanted other worlds to conquer.
Our heart is designed from the time it takes its first beat, to crave significance and seek fulfillment – we need not fight against this design, but rather to recognize the reason for its existence. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to feed the hungry, house the orphans, comfort the widows, aid the poor and expel the darkness. We are called to live a Gospel life – one of continual transformation at the feet of the cross – where we humble ourselves and surrender that which is in between us and the daily immersion into Kingdom of God. We are called to shake the dust off our hearts, now fallen asleep, and to open our eyes to reality that we may have wandered far from home.
We as a people do not hope in ourselves and thank goodness we do not. To hope in our own stars would be to enter into a process which inevitably leads to disappointment and want. Instead we hope in Jesus - the one who gives not as the world gives, but so that we may have life and have it to its fullest (Gospel of John). He is our hope, our salvation, our purpose and he invites us to enter into the renewal of all things, to bring our gifts and our shortcomings alike, so that the Gospel can awaken those who are dead and dying inside and bring about new life.
But we act as the gatekeeper of our heart and we are daily faced with the decision of what foreign desire we’ll allow in. Is it a desire to build our own kingdom? Or to enter into His?
May we as a people, look not to the stars for what they hold over our lives, but to the One who breathed both our lives and the stars into existence. It is by first adopting this perspective that we will come to understand that we are his offspring, his children, and in him we live and move and have our being.