Climbing Stairs

Our first year overseas we lived in a dark, cold, damp, and generally unpleasant apartment. It occupied the 7th and top floor of a communist style cement block. There was no elevator.

The first few nights my quads felt like boulders. My bootcut jeans began to get snug from the speed skater size thighs I developed.

We got so tired of those stairs that we began taking risks. One time my husband got to the first floor, realized he needed my passport and called up for me to throw it down.

Yes. Throw it down to him.

I didn’t want to go down. He didn’t want to come up and it seemed reasonable to throw down proof of our identity to avoid climbing 7 flights of stairs.

Our cheery apartment block…

I watched it float down. When it got to the 6th floor I realized climbing 7 flights of stairs was much better than spending 10 days trying to get that document and the visa replaced.

The little, blue, very important book graciously avoided a couple awnings and a sewer grate before landing on the pavement.

Phew.

So, when a plum apartment opportunity opened up on the fourth floor, we jumped at the chance to rent it. Climbing four flights with groceries, books, friends… just our bodies… seemed divine.

In those days landlords needed a document giving special permission to rent to a foreigner. The police dispensed this document but it seemed to be taking a long, long time for our landlady to arrange the appointment at the police office.

We waited and waited for her to give us the word to show up at the police station with our documents. We called her many times and always left assured that she did want to rent to us. A divorce seemed to be complicating her ability to rent out the apartment, or so we gathered in our first year level language ability.

As is common in cross cultural situations, we didn’t understand a lot of what was going on at the time. We didn’t understand why we needed the permission from the police, or why she couldn’t get it. We didn’t understand why we were waiting and waiting to go to the police office right down the road.

But she was kind and we felt motivated to keep waiting on her and the apartment she was renting.

Then, one day the call came. She sounded rushed and hurried. She insisted that we show up at the police office that day at a specific time. No flexibility and lots of anxiety resounded in the call. It was strange but we grabbed our papers, skipped classes and met her.

Stamp, stamp, stamp…and the process was over after months of waiting. Finally our rental contract went through and we moved across the apartment complex, closer to friends and only four flights up from the road.

Much later I began to wonder how much I missed in that interchange. Did she bribe someone at the police station? Or just wait for the one police officer that owed her a favor?

Systems of favors and paybacks– social indebtedness or downright financial indebtedness– clouded most of the functioning bureaucracy but it took me a long time to identify early on. Even after more than ten years living in there, it took me a few extra beats to clue in that receiving something from a person could put me into a kind of debt with them.

It took many years for me to realize that I absorbed this cultural influence more than I knew. Accepting gifts or favors of time from people triggers an alert response to begin looking for ways to return the favor and get me out of an uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness.

Sunday I flipped to a passage in the Bible where God is described as a God who doesn’t take bribes. Huh. What does that mean?

I was also reading in Mark about how in Jesus’ day, some people devoted their wealth to God in some kind of ceremony or tradition. Then, because of this devotion, they resended their support of their parents in their old age. The money was going to something more important in their eyes…God’s work.

Funny thing is that in the first passage in Deuteronomy, right after it says God cannot be bribed, it also talks about how He cares for the orphans, widows, and foreigners–the vulnerable.

Devoting wealth to God began to seem to me like a form of bribery, getting into God’s good favor through giving something to Him. But then it missed the whole heart of God because God cannot be bribed.

And! Caring for the vulnerable is pretty important to God apparently. So important that Jesus seemed to say supporting the vulnerable in your family is more important than giving a lot to the church at their expense.

Our second apartment had a dreamy kitchen…one where I didn’t have to rest my forehead against a cabinet in order to do the dishes. Most people weren’t 5’9″

God and money and our soul are such fascinating topics!

Isn’t that how I behave so often with God too? Best behavior, nervous, anxious to please, gaming the system….

Yet, there is nothing more to pay…no more abundant grace to get for those who are in Christ Jesus. It all got settled and paid at the cross. My standing is secure.

It would be pure silliness to try and bribe God like I had any more to add to what He did.

Reflecting on those truths this week…remembering those rich years learning to love like God loves in a country where I did not fit in… and standing a little more secure.

Why try and bribe God? Just delight in this undeserved acceptance.