Tuesday, January 1, 2008

MacGyver and the Apostle Paul

Our four-wheel-drive SUV turns off the paved highway and onto a rocky, rutted Honduran road. The next five miles will take forty minutes. The road is very narrow at times, and muddy patches threatened to engulf our tires up to the axle. Large rocks jolt our spines and we find ourselves alternatively holding our breath and laughing out loud like we are on some amusement park ride for the developing world. Our engineer’s eyes look with doubt at the earthen bridge that cannot be wide enough for all our wheels at the same time. Shifting into the lowest gear, we climb up and down hills that are alarmingly steep. Guardrails? We don’t need no stinking guardrails. Our tires spin on loose rocks in protest of such abuse.

Then we come to the river that has, apparently, swallowed the road. The laughter ceases so that the only sounds are running water and a whispered prayer. We pause for a second and then drive slowly into the river. Though we cannot see the bottom, we know the path. The word “faith” bubbles to our consciousness but the intensity of the moment will not allow meditation on this metaphor. The water splashing over the hood is too distracting. Climbing out onto the opposite bank we collectively exhale. Almost there.

We pass homes surprisingly well walled with mud and roofed with palm branch thatching. Finally we arrive at the small village of Pueblo Nuevo, a loose grouping of about 50 such homes. Are we here for the adventure? The curious smiles on barefoot children remind us we are not.

We are here because of relationship. In fact, we ARE because of relationship. We are made for relationship. The Christian view of the world has at its deepest roots the Trinity. Three distinct persons, one in essence. The Trinity is. The Trinity has always been. When God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” He was revealing the meaning of his name, Yahweh. It means the self-existent one, the one who was not created and had no beginning, the one that always was, and is, and is to come. The persons we call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were in relationship. They communicated and loved in a beautiful ebb and flow from before the creation of anything. God did not need to create man in order to experience love. He had experienced love already. Love and relationship are central and definitive to who He is. The incarnation of Christ is the supreme initiative of God to reconcile the broken relationship between Himself and all of mankind. That is the meaning behind the scripture “God is love.” And that is what gives love its power here on Earth; it is cosmically grounded in the nature of who God is.

As engineers, we like an elegant theory. Applying the theories of physics and mathematics is the basis of engineering. So as we consider the “theory” of the Trinity, we are struck by its beauty, its elegance, and the way it explains what our intuition tells us are the most important parts of life: love, kindness, family, intimacy, in a word, relationships. Isaac Newton’s gravitational theory explained both the orbits of the planets and the trajectory of a falling apple. The universality of its application speaks to its truth, (even if Einstein showed us this truth was incomplete for apples falling near the speed of light). Like gravitational theory makes sense of apples and planets, the Trinity “theory” explains the significance of love; a significance already felt by lovers, children, and country music song writers. This significance, this gravity, harmonizes with our life’s experience in a way that speaks to the truth of the Trinity.

So what? What does this mean for us today? It means the nucleus of who God is, a relational, loving Person, provides us with a cosmic basis for our own love. It is the stuff of romance, but it is also the stuff of brotherhood, of self-sacrifice, of paternal and maternal love, and the love for our neighbor. Even neighbors in say, Honduras, who we have never met. Real love, then, is not limited to a simple emotional response. It is more than chemistry and biology – or electricity. It is, in a sense, divine.

And this love can motivate us to a life marked by service. When we have come to really believe that God loves us and desires a relationship with us, we are changed. He loves people. As we abide in that love, He cultivates our hearts in such a way that we really begin to love people too. When we hear of people suffering, we are stirred with compassion. Perhaps our hearts are pricked for the victims of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or a war. As we mature in Christ we slowly come out of ourselves and become aware of those around us. As we respond to the vocation to which God has called us, in our case engineering, we imagine ways in which we can use this vocation to serve people, especially the “least of these” of whom Jesus spoke. As we enter into this new life of service, perhaps we are na├»ve, perhaps we are scared. Perhaps we imagine ourselves as Christian engineering heroes of some kind like a cross between MacGyver and the Apostle Paul, but the realities of project implementation and the difficulties of dealing with real people with real problems soon banish this absurdity.

And so, as we step out of our SUV into an intense Honduran sun, we shake enthusiastic hands with Santos, the lay-pastor with which we are partnering in this project. His wife and children come out and we shake hands with all of them. Then more people come from places we can’t see and we shake hands with them too. Greetings are important here. People are important. Perhaps we could learn something about relationship from these people. Those that do not speak Spanish are soon a bit left behind as multiple conversations develop around them. Keep smiling, try not to stare at your feet. We soon move inside to have a drink. Extra chairs are brought in and we sit at a simple wooden table. The open doors and windows are filled with curious children’s faces. Plates are set before us with the biggest tamales you have ever seen. We are showered with hospitality and humbled by their giving.

After a time of greeting and refreshment, we don our sunscreen and water bottles, our walkie-talkies and other electrical gadgetry, and begin our hike to the river. We walk past the cinderblock church that will serve as our workshop. A local carpenter using only a chainsaw and sandpaper has beautifully made its wooden doors and windows. These people are resourceful. Soon we leave the footpath and begin to descend a steep cow trail to the river. We try not to look to winded compared to the locals who are obviously tougher than we are. A dozen school children follow us; we are the most interesting thing around today.

The river does not have a name. It’s just a river. A spring further up in the mountains keeps it flowing all year long. It is about ten feet wide, one foot deep, and flowing rapidly. It is pleasant and cool here, the riverbed is rocky and lush and beautiful. But we see something else too, another kind of beauty. We see kinetic energy of mass in motion. This river could provide the people of Pueblo Nuevo with a source of electricity by the installation of a small hydro generator. Someone breaks out a global positioning system receiver and records the coordinates. We begin our river flow measurements. Careful records are kept and back-of-the-envelope calculations are made. Check my math. Did anyone bring a calculator? For the next two days we repeat this routine at different points in the river. The children eventually loose interest and no longer follow us.

Finally, several men of the village are employed to help with the final stage. We carry the equipment to a point in the river where a natural dam of boulders forms the ideal spot for the generator. It’s not too far from the cinderblock church, and Santos has agreed to give us some church land for the battery charging station. We build a water channel to direct a portion of the river to our hydro generator. As water spills through a six foot long fiberglass tube, it turns a propeller which drives a generator to produce electricity. The men dig a shallow ditch by hand so we can bury the power lines to keep out curious children and free roaming cows. The power lines run 750 feet up the hillside to the church where Santos will operate his battery charging station. He, like us, desires to bless his neighbors, his brothers and sisters, sus hermanos y hermanas.

Just as power flows through these power lines to bring light to a community, love flows through this web of relationships to bring the Light of the world. We love because we have been loved. We bless because we have been abundantly blessed. We have given our sweat, our minds, two weeks of our summer, and nearly $2000 each, and with God’s guidance at every step, built a micro power station to alleviate a little of the world’s suffering. Perhaps there’s a little MacGyver in us after all.

(c) Copyright 2007, The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University (www.ChristianEthics.ws). Used by permission.

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