Friday, February 02, 2018

The Gladiator Emperor

Lucius Aurelius Commodus was unique among all Roman emperors in many ways. He was the first Roman emperor to succeed his father. He was emperor of Rome with his father for three years from 177-180 AD and then on his own for another twelve years till 192 AD.
His period is considered to be a period of peace for Rome after many years. His father spent most of his reign fighting the Germanic tribes on the north-eastern borders of the Roman empire. However, after the death of his father, Commodus ended the war and returned to Rome.
He never wanted to be an emperor. As a young man, he was indulged in wine and whores. However, his mother Faustina was so determined that he succeed his father to the throne of Rome. She pushed him to the war front to be trained by his father and then to the throne in Rome. It was all against his will. Moreover, he never believed in his ability to rule the empire. For a while he withdrew from the daily affairs of running Rome delegating most of his powers to his trusted friends.
There was so much blood on his hands. He exiled and later killed his eldest sister. She was envious of him and even had plotted to kill him--a murder plot he survived. He exiled his wife who failed to bear him a son after so many years of married life. He then lived with his concubine who also became his trusted advisor. His concubine was already married to his slave!
Though there was no war on the borders, his reign was inernal turmoil for Rome. There was a grain shortage created by his advisor Cleandor who plotted to discredit the emperor. That led to a widespread famine, and as the result of famine, a plague that claimed the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens of Rome followed. When Cleandor's plot was revealed, Commodus stabbed him to death right in the Senate, as the members watched.
Bad luck followed Commodus everywhere. After the famine and plague, fire broke out and consumed most of Rome. The fire, caused by lightning, reduced to ashes temples, administrative buildings and homes of ordinary people. People interpreted it as the wrath of gods against the reign of Commodus.
The popularity of Commodus plunged into lower levels. Riots broke out in the streets of Rome. The Senate turned out to be hostile to the emperor. Commodus had to do something to stay in power. So, devised a clever plan to regain his popularity.
He announced 14 days of games in the arena. Gladiator games were common in Rome. It was one way of turning the attention of people from their problems. But this one was more exciting. The gladiators are slaves or prisoners who were forced to risk their lives to entertain the free citizens of Rome. However, in this 14 days game, for the first time in Roman history, a free man is going to enter the arena. That is emperor Commodus himself. Though the Senate disapproved the decision of their emperor to put his life at risk, Commodus was determined. It was his last-ditch attempt to regain his popularity among the people and authority over the Senate.
So, he started training to become a gladiator under the top-most gladiator of the time. After many days of intense training, as the games were only a few days away Commodus realized one thing: He was not fit for the fight! But he is now at a point of no return. He can't back off as a coward, that will do more damage than good.
The first day of the games arrived. As his wife and the members of the Senate watched holding their breath, Commodus entered the arena. Within a few minutes, he struck his sword into the chest of the first gladiator who confronted him. The arena reverberated with the cheers of the people, 'Commodus, Commodus!' On day two too Commodus won; another famous gladiator succumbed to Commodus. Commodus' popularity soared to new heights! The Senate who underestimated his abilities hanged their heads in shame.
Then before the 14 days game was over, came the shocking revelation. Commodus was fixing the matches. He had given secret orders that every gladiator appointed to challenge him to be given a blunt sword! However, skilled a gladiator be, he cannot do anything with a sword that is just a piece of iron and nothing more.
His own trainer came to know it. So, one night before the games were over, he entered Commodus' chamber and stuck his sword into his emperor's chest. He thus took revenge for the death of his comrades who died at the hands of an emperor who tried to gain cheap popularity through deception.
Emperors worthless to rule but who love to cling on to power, surround us. In politics, in religion and all spheres of our existence they abound. They put the very lives that they are supposed to protect at risk. When emperors turn gladiators, stay cautioned. They may appear to do miracles! Their miracles ar deceitful. They will keep their swords sharp and make sure your swords are blunt. These emperors do not know how to fight against sharp swords.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Grammar of Love

'Love is a verb, not a noun.' That was on a T-Shirt. What it stressed probably is to really love than talking about love.
However, in the Bible, just two verses apart from each other the word 'love' is used both as noun and verb. That is in 1 John 3:16-18. In the first case (in 1 John 3:16) it is a noun. 'By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.' The second occurrence is in 3:18, 'Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.'
Love cannot be just a verb. At the same time, unless love is quantified and displayed it cannot be a verb or an action. In fact, the act of loving comes from love. The reason for the exhortation in verse 18 is the direct result of the experience of love that verse 16 talks about.
Love is quantified as 'laying down our lives for others.' That is the breadth and depth of love. It can reach a point where a person loves another person to such an extent that his life is not more important than the life of the other. The life of the loved is more important than that of the lover.
That, however, seems to be humanly impossible.
Though it seems to be impossible, it was proved to be possible by Christ Jesus. He defined love by laying down his life for us. That is love as the noun.
Now, the verb is possible only if the noun is known through our experience. That is to say, Christ's love for us must be experienced in order to love others. Experience of any other form of love is certainly inadequate.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dalit Upliftment. Unanswered Questions.

He wore a confused look. His eyes were constantly scanning around. He was looking for something but appeared as if he was not sure what he was looking for.
I met him on a medical college campus in Pune. Among the students lounging around the cafeteria, he was the only one without a white apron. However, he had a clean pair of clothes and a small backpack.
Watching him for a while, I walked towards him to find out what he is looking for. He told me that he is looking used textbooks. He is a first-year medical student at a different college. However, he doesn't have money to buy new books; so he is asking around among the second year students if they would like to part with their old books. But he hasn't yet met anyone willing to do that.
He told me his story. He is a Dalit from Nanded district in Maharashtra. He got 280 points out of 720 for the national medical entrance exam. Though that is only 38 percent he still managed to get a seat, being a Dalit. According to him those who got 28% also have secured admission in the Scheduled Caste quota. This is the reality here in India but those who got much higher score are left out since they are born in higher castes!
I wanted to help him. However, I wanted to verify the facts. I found many holes in his story. He told me that he has no place to stay. So, he has kept his clothes and little belongings in his friends room in the hostel. He sleeps in the hospital veranda at night. I verified his ID card, it says he was a first-year student in 2016.
So, I tried to put the pieces together to make a coherant account. He got admission in 2016, that means he should be in the second year now. He might have failed in the first year and duly thrown out of college. Being a Dalit he had a free accommodation in the hostel. He probably lost that privilege also. Now, he has no access to the library and no money to buy books. That may be why he is looking for used books.
I asked him questions in English, but he chose to answer in Hindi. Sometimes, I had to resort to my broken Hindi to clarify myself.
This is where our education system has gone wrong. Here is a student who is not eligible for admission on merit. But the government gives him admission just because of his birth in an underprivileged class. Though medical education is in English, no one cared to equip him for that. Lecture after lecture, he stared at the teacher who was speaking in a foreign language! The books in English did not make any sense to him. He has to write exams in English, but he can't. He doesn't seem to make it.
Here are a few questions that demand answers. Is this the way to uplift the less privileged classes? Does anyone know the drop out rate of Dalits in schools and colleges? Uplifting the Dalits has to begin much early in the life of every Dalit boy and girl. Giving them opportunities without capacity building is of no use.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Burning Bushes

'And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned. (Exodus 3:2-3, ESV)

One thing that Moses learned towards the end of his 40 years of shepherding in the wilderness was that all bushes may not be consumed by fire. He had seen a lot of bushes, most are eaten by his sheep as they pass by. Some cath fire and reduce themselves to ashes.
He probably might have watched this bush on fire but he paid no attention; he dismissed it as another bush on fire. It is a usual scene in that part of the wilderness.
However, after a while, the usual time for a bush to reduce to ashes was over, he just walked towards it. He noticed that the bush is still burning but it is not being reduced to ashes. All its leaves and branches are intact. As he walked closer to it a voice stopped him. It asked him to remove his sandals.
He had to remove the sandals because the place he was standing was holy ground. The voice said. He had passed through that patch of land many times but hasn't noticed anything special about it. But today, the angel of the Lord is in the midst of the burning bush so that ground becomes holy. The expression 'angel of the Lord' is another way of saying God. So, it is the presence of God, or more specifically, that of Yahweh the God of Israel is what makes the ground holy.
The bush is burning, but what it emits is not the heat but light only. It is the glory of the Lord that is being shone through.
The burning bush is, first of all, a miracle. The miracle that fire cannot do what it naturally do--burn the bushes to ashes. It is also a symbolism of how God has preserved Israel though they have been through the immense heat of persecution in Egypt.
It is the presence of God in their midst that preserves them though they go through immense oppression. Early chapters of Exodus tell us how Israel multiplied and was preserved through the Pharoah tried to check their growth.
Another aspect of it is that their burning is for the glory of God. The following chapters of Exodus tell us how God glorified his name through their suffering.
This incident is pivotal to their story. Israel turns to be the people who through their suffering shine forth the glory of their God.
Sometimes God treats us bushes and puts us through the pain of burning so that his glory may shine through. However, God guarantees that no bush on the holy ground will be consumed.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Creativity Tip: Kick the Devil out

This is an honest confession. I am not the smartest person on planet earth. I never been. My IQ is average and it hasn't made any significant progress in the last few decades. However, my work involves a lot of thinking. It requires that I should focus on a subject for a considerable time without distraction.
For the sake of those who do not know me, I should say that I am an academic first. My job involves reading, preparing lectures, notes and books on topics in my field of expertise. I am also a pastor. That means I have to prepare sermons, bible studies, etc. All these means serious cerebral work.
However, most of the time my cerebral space is under siege. There are interpersonal issues, difficulties with the administration and a whole lot of things that keep invading this space. I try to fight out, but most of the time, I lose.
The consequences are disastrous. This disastrously affects my productivity. I find myself busy scheming, imagining my enemies, sometimes silently addressing my adversaries, preparing answers to questions that they haven't raised yet, etc. Then when I come out of it finally, I find myself tired. Exhausted to such an extent that even when I able to return to my work I am not able to move from where I left it.
One big shocking observation that I made is that the enemy took over this cerebral territory at my invitation. I allowed him to do that. Once I allow him in then he refuses to go back on his own. There ensues a battle to evict him.
After one such battle, when I was cooling my heels in prayer and meditating on the Bible, Ephesians 4:27 jumped out of the page. 'Give no opportunity to the devil.' That is what it said in the English Standard Version. I looked up the word used for 'opportunity' in Greek. It could mean 'opportunity' but the primary meaning is not that. The primary meaning of this word (TOPOS) is 'space' or 'place.' This verse then could be translated as 'do not give the devil any space!'
The Devil is the enemy of creativity and productivity. Devil is the opposite of what God is in every way. God is the creator but Devil is the destroyer. God gives life but Devil steals and kills. God makes us productive and creative but the Devil does just the opposite.
Devil cannot be a partner with a mind that is dedicated to God. Spending a single minute with thoughts that Devil plants in our mind amount to the loss of hours of creativity. Resolve conflicts as early as possible so that the Devil is kept out. Pray for troubling issues so that all that can be entrusted to God and sorted out by his help. This helps us to be creative for the creator God.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Kiss of Peace!



It was a very small stone church tucked away in the hill locked village of Paud in Pune. It had only 10 pews with a total capacity of 50 people. Still the church was not full that day. Among the congregation, more than half were kids of all ages.
I had just returned to the altar after passing the peace among the congregation. I passed the peace to all in the congregation adults and small kids as well.
Then, I heard a cry from the congregation. It was feeble in the beginning and then got louder. My mind was so engrossed in the service order than the crying little girl. Then I noticed the adults giggling. So, I turned to my assistant to find out what is going on.
He told me that the little girl is so sad that I missed her in the passing of the peace! I had taken care that I passed the peace to everyone, but some how this four-year old was missed. I don’t know how. So, I immediately walked down to her and extended my hands. However, she turned her head away in protest. I tried again but her cry got louder. The mother then took her out, and she stayed out for the rest of the service. Her mother missed the Communion service as well.
After the service, I joined a family for lunch. Over the lunch, I was told that Sara’s parents live next door. So, made it a point to visit her, say sorry and cheer her up. Her elder brother and sister came out of their little house to greet me. But Sara was not to be seen anywhere. She had spotted me walking towards her house and she had resolved not to meet me. I called her out, she won’t budge. Then I forced myself into her house. There she was, in a chair, refusing to give me the advantage of an eye-contact. She has nothing to do with the pastor who ignored her in the passing of peace.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Let the Children Come to Me

‘And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And she took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.’ (Matt 9:14-16).
When Jesus took the little children in his arms, they might have told him something. What would they tell him? I was thinking about as it as I watched one of our team members ministering to little kids in a slum in Pune. He had just told those poor kids gathered under a tin-roofed hall a story about Jesus. Some children responded in faith and wanted him to pray for them. I was around, and listening to their requests. Some wanted Jesus to stop their father’s drinking. Some kids said that their father had deserted them and they want Jesus to bring him back. He might have eloped with another woman in the slum. Some want Jesus to change their father’s mind. He returns from work in the evening drunk and beats up their mom and threatens them.
The disciples rebuked the people who brought the little children to Jesus. However, Jesus took them in his arms and blessed them. They have stories to tell, stories of pain and rejection and also hope. These children live in utterly poor conditions hoping there is a better tomorrow. Every child has a story to tell Jesus, stories of pain, rejection and lack. That is why Jesus told them, ‘Let the children come to me! Do not hinder them.’

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stay Put and abound!

"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain." (1 Cor 15:58 ESV).
There are times when various factors bog us down. Especially in Christian ministry, there are oppositions, discouragements and a whole lot of things that makes feel like giving up.
If anyone had been through such circumstances that push you to the edge of giving up it was Paul. He had opposition from fellow apostles, enemies of the Gospel and even the churches that he planted. However, he kept going, excelling increasingly irrespective of the adverse circumstances.
His advice to anyone who is discouraged and tired of the work for the Lord is first to be steadfast. Steadfastness is that quality of sticking to the one thing irrespective of all that make us think or act contrary. One of the temptations that happen when faced with the opposition is to think if we are doing the right thing, have I gone wrong somewhere. Though this is a useful reflection and we may need to check and recheck if we are on the right path, an unsettled behaviour is not helpful. Once we have received the commission from God and if that is constantly being affirmed by the Lord, we need to stay put in what God has entrusted us with.
The second aspect is also related--being immovable. This in fact reinforces the idea of steadfastness. However, it also carries with it the idea of resisting the pressures on us. It carries with the notion of staying firm in spite of all that try to move us from what we are doing. This may come in various forms. However, we need to withstand the storms that battle against us so that we will be found doing what God has asked us to do when the storms tare away.
A third aspect is abounding or exceeding in what we are doing for the Lord. When there are battles our efficiency goes down considerably. The people whom Nehemiah led had to carry the sword in one hand and build the walls with other because of the threat of the enemy. It surely has a negative effect on their output. However, they completed the walls according to the plans as per schedule. This can happen only if we double efforts in the service of God.
There is yet another aspect to 'abounding.' That is to do more than what is required of us. Not to be satisfied by what the rule book requires but to go beyond our employers' expectations and even our expectations to please the Lord.
The motivation comes from the fact that we are not just made for this world. Paul comes to these words of exhortation after elaborating on life after death, resurrection, nature of the resurrected bodies and the believers' victory over death. The ministry that has this awareness that we are not limited by this world, that looks beyond the experiences of this world will be steadfast, immovable and continue to abound.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Art of Listening to God


God is contantly speaking. He hasn’t stopped when the canon of the Bible is completed as some people wrongly think. God continues to speak through his Word—through its reading and proclamation. Moreover, God is speaking to us through nature, history and all that happens around us.
To hear God we just need to listen to him. Listening to God is an art. A.W. Tozer wrote many years ago: ‘The Voice of God is a friendly Voice. No one need fear to listen to it unless he has already made up his mind to resist it.’
How do we hear that friendly voice speaking to us? There are lessons to be learned in this regard from Samuel’s encounter with God. We read of this in 1 Samuel 3.
The first thing is to tell God that we are willing to hear. God called Samuel by name before he told him what he wanted to tell him. Young Samuel was not used to the voice of God, so he ran to the only other person in the sanctuary where he slept. It happened three times. On the third time, Eli realised that it could be God calling him. So, he instructed Samuel to say when God call him again, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ The next time God called him, he said exactly the same words that Eli taught him and God spoke to him about his plans for the household of Eli.
It is God’s prerogative to choose the person he wants to speak to. Though he is speaking continuously, he may prefer certain people to receive his message. This may depend on that person’s relationship with God. God did not tell Lot what is going to happen to Sodom and Gomorrah though he was a citizen there. That plan was revealed to Abraham though Abraham was not going to be affected directly by God's action. God did not choose Eli to disclose the plan of judgement on his house, but it was revealed to Samuel. It is a privilege to be the person that God chooses to speak to.
Many people are experts in the technical details of having a conversation with God. Eli is a good example. However, one can use the technical knowledge only if God addresses them. Eli knew what to say when God calls, he probably had many such experiences even. However, he was not chosen to receive God’s message.
It is sin, Eli’s sin and that of his children that snapped the hotline between him and God. The continuous resistance of God’s voice, even through a prophet directly amounted to a break of talking terms with God.
The art of listening to God’s voice thus seems to be simple. Be ready with hearts purified before God. Wait for him to call, and say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Lonely Apostle

Mark 5:1-20 is the story of Jesus healing a demoniac. This man had withdrawn from the society. He was living in a graveyard. Graveyards are always away from where people live, usually outside the village or the town. Under the demonic oppression he ‘was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.’
The story goes on to say how Jesus healed him. Jesus commanded the multitude of demons that has possessed him to come out. The came out and entered the pigs and perished as the pigs frantically ran to the lake and drowned. According to popular beliefs of the day, the demons would perish if they touch the water. So, Jesus cleansed the land of the multitude of demons.
A legion is a unit of Roman soldiers. We are not sure how many people are there in a legion of Roman soldiers. But according to some scholars, five to six thousand members formed a legion. However, it is not the number that matters here. The demoniac says, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’
The word ‘legion’ is symbolic. The man is occupied by a legion of demons like the land is occupied by the legions of Roman soldiers under various army commanders. The story thus has a message beyond merely healing a sick person. It has another level of meaning. If Jesus can handle a legion of supernatural forces tormenting one man, then he has the power over legions of soldiers who are just men of flesh!
The situation of this man is pitiful. He is occupied by demons the size of a legion that is required to command and control a whole region. They have been oppressing him and was not willing not to leave. However, at the command of Jesus, they finally had to leave.
The story ends with a commission to this man. He wanted to follow Jesus in his forward journey. However, Jesus denied his request. Jesus said, ‘Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’
This command of Jesus is a total reversal of the condition of this man. He was living in a place where there are no living. He was in a graveyard. He had shunned people. Jesus thus sends him back to people from whom he has withdrawn. He will go to the people from whom he has withdrawn with a new message. That message is that Jesus has overcome a legion of demons. It is a message of hope for his region under Roman occupation. He is a walking symbol of liberation, once occupied now liberated. Once oppressed by violent forces but now free. The legion had taken over his mental processes, but now he is in control of his mind.
He is an apostle because he is sent by Jesus with a message. That message has to do with the mercy of God on his oppressed people. He will be a lonely apostle among his own people. That was his commission from Jesus.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Discipleship, a Life-long Process

Being a disciple is a life-long Journey through pain and suffering. The New Testament imagines discipleship as a lifelong journey. When Jesus called his first disciples asked them to follow him, but did not tell how long. It is a life-long journey co-terminus with the death of the disciple.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matt 10:25, ESV).
This passage is set in the context of Jesus warning his disciples of the persecution and martyrdom that they may have to go through.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matt 10:16-23, ESV).”
First of all, it implies that discipleship is a process where the disciples are treated by the world just as their master was treated by the world. There will be betrayals (v. 21), there will be arrests (v. 19) and even death (v. 21), just as the master experienced. It is death that is reached through a path of pain and suffering for others. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.
However, it seems that in Paul’s understanding it is beyond the death of the disciple but extends to the experience of resurrection. In Phil 3:10, Paul’s discipleship is not limited to a knowledge (learning) the historical Jesus nor a body of knowledge about Jesus that apostles handed down. It is the experience of Christ but an experience that is limited to his physical experiences. Paul wants to “… know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death….” His learning of Christ extends to the life beyond. (Phil 3:10, ESV).
Being the disciples of Jesus is a painful process. Paradoxically, we are ‘wounded healers.’ In the process of our service to God, we get wounded by the people whom we serve, people who oppose our service. It doesn’t matter whether you minister God in a country where Christians are persecuted or protected. However, the calling of the disciple is to continue the healing though wounded.

The Gladiator Emperor

Lucius Aurelius Commodus was unique among all Roman emperors in many ways. He was the first Roman emperor to succeed his father. He was e...