Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Life and Light

'For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light' Psalm 36:9.
When David sang to God, 'For with you is the fountain of life', he was not thinking of life in the ordinary sense of that word. Similarly when he said, 'in your light do we see light', he had a different idea about light also.
Life is not just a mere existence. Generally speaking, we associate life with the state of creatures to have an existence. When an animal dies it's life is taken from it. However, the word life means more than mere existence.
Life also means that vitality and vigour with which we lead our lives. Two people join us at the party. We say one is lifeless because she is not enjoying our company or contributing anything to enhance the enjoyment that we are all looking forward to. Maybe she is a party pooper by her presence. The other person is altogether different. We may also even say that she is the 'life of the party.' She not only keep the party going, but makes it enjoyable by her active presence, and by the way she contributes to the spirit of the party.
Our earthly existence has ups and downs. There are times when the vitality and vigour are drained out of our lives. We can say that we live because we walk, talk, work and earn a living, etc. However, most of the time, we do it without real life in us. Our relationships, our talk and even our work are 'lifeless.'
However, it is possible to lead our lives without unrealistic ups and depressive downs. It is possible to live on a higher plane but still on level ground. We can maintain a healthy, steady level of vitality and vigour of life even in the most trying circumstances.
The secret of how much life we have in our lives depends on where we draw our life from. There are two sources of life. One like all nature we draw our sustenance from the surroundings and ourselves. That is how trees and animals live. They draw their food and nutrients from their surroundings. When they have nothing to draw, they use what they have stored up for the difficult days. They survive in arid places in dry summer until the refreshing rain arrives. Human beings too keep going using their built-in coping mechanisms.
The other source as the psalmist has discovered is to draw our life from God who is the source of life. When there is nothing that the surroundings can offer and there is no inner strength left, godly people look up to God. Then God who is the source of life provides new vigour in abundance like a fountain refreshing those who parched with the heat of the day.
Jesus told made it more clear to the Samaritan woman. He told her that the water that Jacob's well offers makes a person come back to it every time they thirst. And the heat of the day makes them thirst again and again. The trying circumstances of our earthly existence are like the heat of the day. However, he offers living waters that never causes thirst. The water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman is qualified as 'living' in two senses. First of all, it is not stagnant as the water in Jacob's well. It is like a stream that flows with water because it originates from a spring that keeps gushing out fresh water. It is also living waters because it gives life.
On the last day of the festival, Jesus said something that elaborates this truth. He said, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink' (John 6:37). He was calling all those who lead lives like the beasts of burden, heavy-laden and lifeless. He promises all those who drink from him a life that doesn't thirst but also becoming streams of life for themselves and others. That is the message hidden in the words that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman:' ... but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life' (John 4:14).
The concept of light also is similar. David uses it in this verse metaphorically to illustrate its spiritual aspects. Bible associates light with the truth. This is clear in some passages where light is lumped with truth, wisdom, knowledge etc. Having light means having the ability to avoid what is false and to know what is true. The psalmist would say, 'The unfolding of your words gives light;it imparts understanding to the simple' (Psalm 119:130). In a similar vein, the Book of Daniel lumps it with 'light and understanding and excellent wisdom'  (Dan 5:14).
However, this is not just an inner illumination that we possess. The source of this life is God because God is light. It is one of the powerful statements in the Bible: 'God is light; in him, there is no darkness' (1 John 1:5).
This leads us to this truth: Without God being the source of light, we will not every discern truth from falsehood. Without God the light guiding us we will never be able to find the pathways to everlasting life.
David thus in a poetic manner expounds this truth that life and light or vitality of life and wisdom for living comes from the living God, the God of the Bible.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Joy, the hallmark of Christian life.

Joy is the hallmark of Christian life. Jesus mentions a long list of adverse human circumstances and concludes, ‘rejoice and be glad.’ Each of these adverse circumstances he introduces with the word, blessed.’ Matthew 5:2-12.
The word used for ‘blessed’ can also be translated as ‘happy.’ Some translation have it so. It is the ‘transcendent happiness or religious joy.’ So blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted, and so on ....
We get a sharper picture of the adversities in the parallel passage in Luke 6:20-23.  Luke's version includes poverty, hunger, weeping, being hated, etc... There too Jesus sums it up saying, 'rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for your reward is great in heaven.'
Followers of Jesus are destined to be happy in all circumstances that their earthly existence throws at them.
The reason for this transcendent joy is that they have a larger vision of life. They can see life that stretches to eternity, beyond this transient earthly existence. The success and failure, joy and sadness, and all the sort of experiences are not final, but there is more to human life. There is eternity or our life that extends beyond the grave to heaven.
Those who have that vision can literally 'leap for joy' now because they can see their reward in heaven. They are not losers at all.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

Paul's final exhortations to the church in Thessalonica poses yet another difficulty. He said, '... Give thanks in all circumstances....' (1 Thess 5:18). However, all circumstances are not really good to be thankful. So, how can we be thankful irrespective of what befalls us?
Ratna and her husband were thrilled when she came to know that she is going to have a baby. It was a long wait since they got married. They are indeed thankful to God and to their little prayer-group who upheld them in their prayers.
However, the scenario changed in a few weeks time. She had visited her doctor to discuss the recent scan report. To her shock, the doctor told her that the baby to be born may have Down's Syndrome. He added that it is better to abort now before it is too late. However, they decided to keep the baby. Joy now turned into weeping. They both roll in their bed sleepless and imagining the challenges of caring for a baby with Down's Syndrome for the rest of their life.
Ratna and her husband are not alone nor their circumstance unique. You may know many such circumstances where adversities hit without warning. It might have happened to you as well.
Can they be still be thankful to God. However, the Word of God says, 'be thankful in all circumstances.' It is a command, not a suggestion. It also says it is God's will that we remain thankful to him in spite of all that bad happens to us.
To be thankful, we need to trust God's wisdom. He knows everything, he knows everything better than us. His wisdom is faultless. He decides what is good and bad. Whatever adversity that befalls us has happened with his knowledge and purpose. All that we need to do is to accept now what he has given with thankfulness and wait for the good he has planned to unfold in its own time, in his own way.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Praying without Ceasing

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1 Thess 5:16-18).
During my last medical check-up, the cardiologist put me through a treadmill test. He asked me to keep moving until he stopped the machine. For some reason, I pressed the stop button after a while since I felt uncomfortable. Probably, I was wearing the wrong shoe on that day.
The exhortation to pray without ceasing is to keep praying for something until we receive the signal to stop. This is important because most of us give up before our prayers reach their proper end.
Why do people give up prayers? There could be various reasons. Discouragement is the main reason. We keep praying and there seems to be no result for a long time so we drop praying. This is tied to a person's level of patience because discouragement sets in for different people at different periods. Some, with longer patience may go on for longer periods because they surrender to discouragement slower than others. 
Praying for the wrong thing also bring discouragement. God will answer our prayers according to his will. Prayers for wrong things are not going to be answered. Since such lives are dotted with unanswered prayers, they lose the steam to advance in their prayer-life further. Thus ceasing such prayers are not bad but will do immense good to our spiritual life.
When is the right time to stop? The simple answer is to stop when the prayer is answered. But what about prayers that will never have an immediate answer or could be open-ended. For example, praying for the welfare and peace in my country is an ongoing prayer. It doesn't seem to happen in the near future though I would like to see it happen in my life-time.
Prayers without end in sight are prayers that shape us spiritually. Such prayers draw us regularly to the bossom of the father. Such prayers keep us prayerful. Finding such things to pray helps us to pray without ceasing.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Rejoicing always

At least some part of Paul's final exhortations to the church in Thessalonica is quite challenging; especially the one in 1 Thess 5:16-18. 'Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.' Though challenging, we cannot run away from it, because we are bound by it. It is the will of God for us, or what God demands from us.
Is it possible to 'rejoice always'? There are circumstances in life, actually most of the time, which drives us to sadness and sorrow. Everyone goes through disappointments, sorrow, and sadness even though for brief periods. Though the good Lord may spare us for long and deep valleys of depression, rejoicing always includes those brief periods as well. 
Rejoicing always, in spite of long and short spells of sadness is possible only if we take it as the command of God. It is not a suggestion but imperative on us. We are under order to rejoice! We have no choice other than being joyful in spite of all the adverse circumstances. 
Rejoicing always is a major theme of Paul's life. His life was full of tragic and challenging experiences: hardships of life, imprisonments, ailments, opposition. However, he kept his life in Christ upbeat.
Paul penned the advice 'rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice' (Phil 4:4). This often-quoted Bible verse was written in prison as most scholars agree. However, we have much more concrete evidence in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:25-33). When Paul and Silas were shut behind the bars in the city of Philippi they did not spend the night planning a jail-break. But they were praying and singing. What kind of songs were they singing? Luke, the writer of Acts is clear that they were not singing a song for deliverance but they were singing hymns to God. Hymns are songs that adore God. In the midst of their suffering, physical and emotional hurt, humiliation and imprisonment they were not thinking of freedom and justice but of the glory of God. 
For a godly man like Paul, rejoicing always came very naturally. Thus he has the right to write that it is the will of God for us to do the same. But from my experience, I can only say that that is still an art that I am yet to master.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Final Victory

'I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.' John 16:33 (ESV).

'These things' that Jesus told the disciples were horrid. He told them that he is parting company with them. He said the world that they have to live will persecute them. 
However, what is the purpose of telling them all these things that will happen to them? Jesus' reason is clear--that they may find peace in him. In a world that is friendly to them, they will have peace. But that will be the peace like the one we will have when there is no conflict. However, when there are conflicts, then the source of peace must be something different. In the midst of their conflict with a hostile world, the disciples have to seek Jesus for peace.
The reason for peace in Jesus while living in conflict with the world is that Jesus has overcome the world. The ultimate victory doesn't belong to the world, but to Jesus the victor. When the world deprives us peace, we can always find solace in the fact that the world is already defeated by Jesus. It is the defeated enemy that is shouting at us and fighting with us. We have peace because we already know that the enemy is not going to win because it has already lost!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Losers, Gainers

Jesus made yet another paradoxical statement in Mark 10:29-31. The substance of what he said here was this: losers will be gainers.
His statement was in response to Peter’s question. Peter asked Jesus what would people who left all that they had get. Peter and other disciples of Jesus had left their jobs, belongings, families and even their community to follow Jesus. Jesus assured him that they will get everything back hundred-fold.
Peter’s question was in the context of the rich man who was not willing to leave what he had to gain eternal life (Mark 10:17-22). This young rich man was a gainer while Peter and his friends were losers at that moment. The rich young man retained what he had.
The word ‘left’ is important here. It is not merely losing what one have, though that also might have happened. Some followers of Christ had their property confiscated (Heb 10:34). In some places this word is used for giving up something voluntarily just as Jesus ‘yielded up’ his spirit on the cross (Matt 27:50). Many early disciples and some contemporary Christians had to let their belongings go for the sake of Christ. In some contexts it could mean ‘neglecting’ something, like the Pharisees neglected the commandment of God (Mark 7:8). Peter had to neglect his boat and nets because his eyes were solely on Jesus. In summary, ‘Leaving’ is to consider our earthly relationships and possessions of low priority for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel.
What did Jesus really mean? Did this really happen or was it a vain promise? Did Peter get 100 houses, mothers, brothers and sisters before he was martyred? One thing is sure, he or the other followers did not receive 100 houses like the one they left nor the siblings like the ones they had before following Jesus. In passing I also want to note that they are not promised fathers hundred fold.
By leaving one father, one mother and a few siblings (three or four) Peter received a greater father. It was God himself who is better than 100 earthly fathers, who he could call ‘heavenly father’ every time he prayed.
The word ‘receive’ also do not mean ‘owning’ or ‘possession.’ It is having or enjoying something even without owning. It is experiencing something without really owning it or having a claim on it. Such things are not owned by anyone but all of them had access to it. That is the nature of Christian blessings.
The early church was a community. There were younger followers of Jesus as well as older ones. They called each other brothers and sisters (Acts 1:16). The younger ones might have considered the older ones their mothers and fathers because they might have left their own parents (1 Tim 5:2). Back at home, before following Jesus they had only one pair of parents, but now there are hundreds. In return, the older ones considered the younger ones their sons and daughters.
In Jerusalem they were altogether. They shared their possessions in such a manner that there was none who was in need. The rich sold their possessions and shared it with the poor. It was a new family of God.
This new family of God had no geographical boundaries. People in Corinth were willing to share their wealth with their siblings in Jerusalem who were miles away. The siblings in the province of Macedonia shared their resources with other siblings like Paul and companions when they were in need. So, Jesus' promise was fulfilled in their own life. It was a larger family, greater bonding and superior caring.
But Jesus had also promised along with all these ‘persecutions’ as a reward for forsaking what they had to follow him. Though we may consider persecutions undesirable, the early Christians did not consider it so. They took pride in persecutions. Typical response to persecution in seen in what Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:10). He wrote, ‘For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
With persecutions promised, their reward is complete. They gained much more than they lost. Losers are gainers in God’s economy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Master's Voice

Sometime back, I took a team to the elephant park in my town. There are about 40 elephants belonging to a temple. Each elephant is assigned to one or two care-givers (called mahouts) who feed them, bathes them and trains them.) One of these mahouts joined my team to show us around. As we approached one elephant the mahout called out its name. To our amusement, the elephant raised its trunk and waved at the man. Then it made a low hissing sound and started swinging gently. With his eyes beaming with pride, the mahout told us that he was in charge of this elephant for some months when its mahout was on leave. The relationship started then, though it was a long time back, the animal still recognizes his voice and greets him.
The ability to distinguish the voice of the Lord from the other voices and to follow him is the essential characteristic of Christian discipleship. While elaborating the relationship between him and his disciples Jesus used the metaphors of sheep and shepherd in John 10:1-21. He said, 'The sheep hear his (the shepherd's) voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out' (John 10:3). He also said: 'A stranger they (the sheep) will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers' (John 10:5).
This is what happens when a person turns to Jesus Christ, a relationship begins. This relationship is maintained by constantly being in tune with the voice of the master, and only to the voice of the master. When my neighbour was walking the dog, I approached them and commanded the dog to sit! I had taught my dog (when I had one) to sit when ordered. However, when told my neighbours to sit, it stared at me, shook his head and then turned his eyes to something else. It defied me. Then the master said, 'sit' and the dog sat! It recognizes the master's order only and disregards all other voices.
Christian life is often far from this ideal. We are surrounded by voices that come with lots of worldly wisdom. Young girls are told that every birthday means that they are 'getting late for the marriage market' (as a friend of mine puts it). So they hurry and get unequally yoked to unbelievers! They didn't wait for the voice of God to guide them to the right person in their life.
Sometimes we yield to the voice of authority figures without question. One of the leading IT companies in India was caught in fraud, its CEO ended up in jail and investors suffered a huge loss. The root of the problem was that the CEO was syphoning company funds to invest in real estate as his mother insisted. He could not resist his mother though she was an ignorant housewife who hasn't seen the world outside her house. She raised her son in such a way that he couldn't question her foolishness.
Voices could be that of the dominant culture and values. To have more money, to climb the career ladder as fast as possible, to amass wealth are the most popular voices we hear now. These voices make us ignore the duty to nourish the lives of our children by being available to them, to strengthen our marriages by being together, developing intimacy, etc. So many Christians go by the dictates of the dominant voices and fall away from the master.
Psalm 32:8-9 talks about two ways of being guided by God. One is the painful way of the animals who lack discernment. They have to be guided by the bit and the bridle. They have to be heavily whipped to guide them in the right path. That is the way of the ungodly. However, there another way too. That is being guided by the voice of God, the God who will watch us and guide us. The closest comparison to this is the GPS that we use while driving.
Hearing the voice of Christ and be guided by him is possible only if there is an intimacy in the relationship. That is what he means by 'knowing.' He knows them and they know him.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Faith of Isaac

We have heard a lot about the faith of Abraham. He is also known as the father of the faithful. His faith to leave his country and venture into unknown lands trusting God is well-known. Even more is his faith in God when he was asked to offer his only son Isaac (Genesis 22). He trusted that God will provide a lamb at the right time. And it happened! When he was swinging the knife at his only son tied to the altar, he heard the voice that God has provided a ram in the place of his son.
In narrating the story of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son we often leave out Isaac. Does this story tell us something about the faith of Isaac as well?
Isaac was not an infant when the incident happened. He was an adult. He could travel with his father, then he could climb up the mount where he was to be sacrificed. According to some Jewish traditions, Isaac was 37 years old when this happened. He could ask rational questions. Noting what is missing in their planning, he could ask his father where is the lamb?
Though he was capable of rational thinking and strong enough to resist his old father's actions, he didn't. He believed what his father told him that God will provide a lamb. He believed it even when he was tied and placed on the altar, he believed it even when he saw the knife was about to slit his throat. He had faith that God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice and it is not him who will go up in the smoke of the altar.
Isaac's faith was that 'God will provide.' Probably, this faith was formed in him in the early days of his childhood. His mother might have told him of her barrenness. But even though he crossed the age of child-bearing God provided him to them. Now, that faith is reinforced as his father dropped the knife, ran to the thicket, and came back with a ram. He was untied and he watched the lamb going up in the flames. The flames that would have licked his life out of him is devouring the body of the ram. His faith was confirmed--God will provide.
Isaac carried that faith to the most part of his life. For example, when the shepherds of Gerar disputed with him over the wells he dug, he chose to suffer loss and moved to another place to dig wells believing that God will provide (Genesis 26:18-22). And God did provide. Wherever he dug he hit the water.
He had to exercise the same faith as his father's servant hit the long, dusty road to find a wife for him. He did not go with the servant to make sure that the person he would choose will be the right choice. He just trusted that God will provide the right person to be his wife. And he spent his time devoid of anxiety, meditating in the open fields (Genesis 24:63). Through a miraculous turn of events, God did provide for him the right person.
However, we are not sure if Isaac, like us sometimes, was able to maintain that faith throughout his life. His appetite for wild games that his son Esau fed him made him love him more than the other son. Though he trusted God for his wife, it seems that they could not maintain that intimacy to the end of their marriage. They took sides, wife duped him by dressing up her beloved son as Esau and feeding her a lamb stew. Faith waxes and wanes. However, it is important to have faith, faith that Isaac had--God will provide.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Anglicanism and Alcoholism

As I was walking towards the Reception, that poster caught my eyes. It said: "Workshop on Alcoholism." So, I walked closer to find out more, the venue, date and time which are printed in smaller letters. I was shocked as I walked closer! The poster didn't say Alcoholism, it is Anglicanism. It is a workshop sponsored by the Anglican Chaplaincy in the University.
I noticed that I have been making many such mistakes recently. Sometimes, when people waved at me from far off, I just stared at them not being sure if they meant me or someone behind me. If I recognized them as I my friends, I would have waved back. It took me a visit to the eye-specialist to realize that I am suffering from short-sight and needed glasses for the rest of my life. The problem is not with Anglicanism nor with Alcoholism; the problem is with my eyes.
It is true that the real beauty is not in the holder but the beholder. A lot of our behaviour depends on our perception. We take things the way they appear to us without realizing that the problem could lay in our own perceptions.
Many of the problems that we are worried about may not be problems at all. That is why we need to pray for God to help us change our perspectives than deal with the problems that we perceive. When God deals without perspectives, the problem that we perceive may turn out to be a possibility. So,  before praying for breakthrough in life, it may be helpful to find out if there is a real roadblock that need to be broken through.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Sabarimala, Women and Jesus

The Supreme Court of India has ordered that women of all age may enter the Sabarimala temple. Since 1991 women were not legally allowed to enter the temple following an order by the Kerala High Court. After 37 years the apex court has overruled this ban.
Justice Indu Malhotra has observed that the Supreme Court should not rule over matters of faith. I agree with that. The judiciary has to guarantee the constitutional rights of the individuals. Every faith has its own rules that protect the rights of its adherents. The judiciary should not interfere with faith.
However, this case is different. The judiciary had already (in 1991) involved in this matter of faith to deny the rights of female worshippers. So it is binding on the higher court to correct what a lower court had already ruled.
There is also the issue of segregation of worshippers on the basis of gender. Is this justifiable? Though there seems to be a legal issue of human rights, gender equality etc, it is more a matter of faith. It is not much a matter of law. The simple question to be answered is this. Are men and women equal before God? Put it another way, is a God who makes a distinction on the basis of gender is a god at all? We must question not the validity of the law but the validity of our own concept of God.
Even from another point of view, the god-concept related to this issue must be questioned. The religious argument is that the deity can be polluted by the presence of menstruating women. First of all, does menstruation pollute anyone including the women who menstruate? This is wrong scientifically.
Even if we allow against all scientific evidence that menstruation is something that pollutes how can a deity be polluted by human impurity? So, faith has to bring under its scrutiny the validity of our concept of god than the validity of the worshipper.
I like Jesus for many reasons; particularly the way he stood up to wrong traditions. He touched what the traditions forbade a person to touch. The Jews of his day believed that touching a leper would make a person unclean. Touching a dead body was also an act that makes you unclean. Touch by a bleeding woman would make you unclean as well. However, Jesus chose to touch and heal the lepers. He held the hands of the Jairus' daughter who was already dead and raised her. On the way to Jairus' house, a woman who was considered impure because of her bleeding touched him and she was healed. Jesus affirmed her faith.
Jesus was not made impure, nor lose his divine power by the presence or physical contact by those who were unclean. But the reverse is true. His presence and touch made clean those who were unclean. That is the God I want--the one who is immune to my impurity but who has the power to cleanse me. That is the God that I found in Jesus.

Life and Light

'For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light' Psalm 36:9.   When David sang to God, 'For with you ...