Outside the gates of my Nairobi home was a rain gutter two feet deep, lined with concrete and hedged by shrubs and succulents. Some bright, sunny mornings, I would turn the corner and see him there. He was always in the same spot, sitting on the corner of the street with his back to the hedge and feet dangling in the dry gutter. He wore a coat of dirt and dust — a second layer to his tattered coverings. His hair was knotted and unkempt and his head would bob erratically as he babbled to the unseen figures in front of him. He noticed my car every time I pulled up to the intersection and slowed to a stop. Every time, his body would jolt upright and a wide, wild smile would flash across his face as he raised his good right hand to point at the severed stump of his left wrist. Every time, I would look away as his arms dropped back to his lap and he returned to his guttural babble. Every time, my heart would break. Where did he come from? How did he get there? What did he do to lose his hand? His people? His home? His mind?
Four stoplights away from home here in Joburg, there stands a man with a sign. I see him there most weekdays and some weekends, but only for a stretch. He will be there for several months, disappear for short while then be back. His face is almost expressionless. No face is without expression, but in this face I read only one: resignation. His sign changes, but it always matches his face. “Not angry, just need help. Clothes, shoes, job. Anything helps. God bless.” He stands quietly between two lanes at the light, unflinching as cars ebb and flow past him. Does his need really drive him here year in and year out? Or has he chosen this life? Do his face and his sign hide a more complex problem? An addiction? Mental illness? A con scheme? Is this really the only option he has left? Why this light? Why this life? And how?
The last few months have been full of heartbreak and struggle for me. Every so often, a kind and well-meaning friend will try to encourage me with a thought along the lines of “You deserve to be happy.” While the thought doesn’t hurt, it always rattles around in my brain. It’s that funny word – deserve. How does anyone “deserve” happiness? When I’m sad, have I somehow been robbed of a right? What is the root of happiness and joy? Is it circumstantial or internal? And what do I really deserve?
I know I’ve been stringing a lot of rhetorical questions together without giving them any room to breathe, so let me exhale on that last one: what do we deserve?
If I had a grey pebble for every good, honorable, kind, faithful, loving thought and act and word I ever uttered … and if I had a pink pebble for every selfish, ugly, arrogant, cruel, bitter thought and act and word … do I really believe that the grey pebbles would outweigh the pink? And if they did, how many is enough to earn all the good that I long for? It is a heavy kind of reckoning. If my grey pile was only one pebble higher than my pink pile, I deserve no more than one pebble’s worth of good. Why ask for more? If I struggle my whole life to balance the two and only ever manage to break even, then I deserve nothing. I should breathe my last content that though I am empty of joy, I at least have not been punished. But if I’m even one stone short, then I might as well accept the just punishment for my failing. How is it helpful to believe this kind of moral logic? Could I really look either of those men in the eye and tell them that they deserve the pain they live? Which is worse? To live in pain that you deserve or pain that you don’t deserve? Both are agony.
“They made choices didn’t they? To one extent or another, those men are living with the consequences of their choices” So have I. I have made choices and I am living with the consequences of those choices. What kind of hope is that? “That pile of bad is clearly bigger than that pile of good. Surely she deserves punishment for it.” Well, yes. But what a person deserves and what he or she needs are often two very different things. What we deserve vs. what we need. Hidden in that distinction are several layers of truth.
True: no human can balance the scales of a life. We are quick to hide, lose, or forget about our pink pebbles. We are also really good at stacking our grey pebbles in such a way that makes the pile look bigger than it is. Our hearts and our memories are excellent liars. True: kind people suffer and evil people get away with their evil. Our hearts rightly long for justice. True: I was given good before I even knew I wanted it, and long before I could begin earning it. I have in my life received so much better than I deserve from friends, family, and even strangers. This is grace. I have also been spared a lot of the bad that should have come my way as a consequence of the wrong that I have done. This is mercy. True: We have all done wrong. We all deserve justice and we all need grace and mercy.
There is only one story in this world that scatters the stones of prideful reckoning and brings justice, grace, and mercy into perfect balance. The root of joy lies in this unsearchable paradox: we who deserve less than nothing have been given everything.
Emmanuel: God with us.