Thursday, July 24, 2008

Props-Free Spirituality

One of the remarkable features of the Judeo-Christian religions
including Islam is the ban on idols. The Jewish scriptures prohibit
the making of idols and the worship of any objects representing God.
Biblical Christianity has continued the same tradition. Islam standing
in the same religious traditions has the same emphasis. However, this
never banned art from these religions. Christian church has a great
tradition of promoting sculpture and painting. Islamic art is also rich.

Nevertheless, some Christian churches have gone quite far from its
original ethos of an iconoclastic religion to the veneration of the
cross and praying before the images of saints. Those who use idols or
images in worship argue that these help in focussing their thoughts on
God. The argument is that the worship is not offered to the idols but
to the deity represented by the idols.
Biblical Christianity, however, advocate a spirituality that does not
require crutches. Their object of worship is Jesus Christ. None of the
images of Jesus Christ whether sculpted or painted represent the real
Jesus who walked on the face of this earth 2000 years ago. No one made
a portrait of him while he was alive. We do have a description of
Jesus by an eyewitness historian Josephus, but he does not describe
the features of Jesus in details enough to make a sketch of him.

It was easier for those disciples of Jesus who have seen him to love
and rejoice in him. Love and joy are the two important expressions of
spirituality. However, Christianity continued to spread to nations and
to people who in space and time stand quite far from the historical
Jesus. It is true that there are Christians who would stand before a
crucifix or the icon of Infant Jesus to offer their prayers. At the
same time, there are millions of Christians who relate to Jesus
without any of these props. Icons entered Christianity much late, but
early Christians who lived in the days of Saint Peter, who haven't
seen Jesus nor a picture of him continued their worship of Jesus
without any of these. Peter's commendation of them is remarkable. He
describes Jesus as the one, "… whom not having known you love; in
whom, though now you don't see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly
with joy unspeakable and full of glory— " (1 Pet 1:8). This is the
essence of Christian spirituality: love, faith and joy in the one whom
we worship, though the object of worship is invisible!

I feel icons though may be of some use to focus my thoughts, limits my
adoration of Jesus. It brings down Jesus to the level of a tangible
object; he is much more than that. Icons eclipse the real Jesus my
Lord from me by standing in between. Moreover, I do not need them as
long as I can relate to Jesus by faith and love him, and rejoice in
him. A props-free spirituality, which senses Jesus' present all around
us, able to immerse in his love made manifest in our lives daily is
what we should be heading for.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How far is my neighbour?

"Love your neighbour as yourself" has been a great teaching that no pious Jew ever questioned. However, the range of its meaning was certainly in doubt. That is why a lawyer once stood up in one of the teaching sessions of Jesus and asked, "Who is my neighbour?" (Luke 10:29).

The story that Jesus told him was to illustrate the meaning of neighbor. He told him the story that we now call the Story of the Good Samaritan. There was a man who was attacked by the robbers who left him on the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho to die. All sorts of people passed by this man but no one except a Samaritan helped him and saved his life. The priest and the Levite who passed him by without lending him any help were closer to him in every way. They were from the same race (Jews) and belonged to the same religion (Judaism) and most probably lived somewhere around that area. However, as far as Jews are concerned the Samaritan was an outcast and foreigner. He must have lived in the territory of the Samaritans, which was further north of Jerusalem. After concluding his story, Jesus posed this question: "Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" This question implies that there is a distinction between two realities. One is to have a neighbour, and another is being a neighbor.

Having a neighbour is decided by the physical proximity; however, being a neighbour is being there for a person when he is in need disregarding all sorts of distance. Living in a Jewish neighbourhood, the lawyer could only extend his love only to another Jewish person (or to a lawyer if he lived in the Lawyers Campus) who lived next door or just across the street. For the priest and the Levite the man on the road was not his neighbour though he was a fellow Jew, because they did not live in the same neighborhood.

Jesus redefined love to neighbours by defining what it means to be a neighbour. By extending our love to all those who are in need we become a neighbour to them. They may be living miles away from me in the poorest countries of the world, or the poorest sections of my own country but I have to be a neighbour to them by extending my love and care to them. For Jesus, a person's need is what brings that person to the neighbourhood of my love. It is a challenge to extend our love beyond our own neighbourhoods of religion, caste, nationalities to all those who suffer.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why Christians are Compelled to Serve

Down through the centuries the followers of Christ have set examples of being kind through their service to humanity all over the world. Numerous hospitals, orphanages, schools and colleges in places where there was no health care and proper education are examples of kindness that is integral to the followers of Christ.
Kindness is love in action. In 1 Corinthians 13:4 Saint Paul wrote, "Love is patient and is kind...." If Christian love is a coin, then patience and kindness are the two sides of that coin. A coin cannot exist unless it has two sides! This also means that the real kindness proceeds from the real love. What type of love would produce kindness?
First of all, there is contemplative love, where love is a feeling. This love, seeks and cherishes all that is lovable. Human beings has the tremendous capacity to love anything even animals of different kinds. Humans are the only creatures who keep pets! It does not move beyond the thoughts or feelings of love to action. Contemplative love is thus impotent. Sudhiir Kakar retells the story of dog-couple in one of his books. One day the bitch was killed and its body was lying on the road. Its partner came along and saw the lifeless body of his partner, sniffed it and then walked away. Later that dog was found in the company of another bitch. Contemplative love is nothing beyond the love this dog showed. The followers of Christ who busied themselves in serving humanity cherished a love that springs in to action.
Secondly, there is the congenial love which is love for the things that a person likes or of the same kind. Congenial love cannot love persons of different likes, looks or class. Though congenial love may be lavished on the persons whom we like, particularly our own people it does not go beyond cross the barrier of race, culture or language. It may also express itself as xenophobia. The disciples of Jesus who travelled across the nations to serve the poor and the needy of people other than their own showed a different type of love.
Thirdly, there is the outgoing love. This love goes beyond feelings to action, is not limited to people of ones like, and looks. God, by loving the entire fallen humanity shows this love. As Jesus puts it, he is a God who "... makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust" (Matt 5:48). God's love is outgoing love, which Jesus exemplifies. Jesus' miracles were not merely displays of his power but acts of kindness, which spring from his outgoing love. Jesus did not just feel sorry for the sick (contemplative love), but he healed the sick (act of kindness). Jesus did not heal only the Jews (his own people) but all sorts of people. It included Samaritans (Luke 17), Syrophoenicians (Mark 7:26), Romans (Matthew 8) and all.
This is the secret of kindness, which is the Fruit of the Spirit; an outgoing love which God's only Son showed by his coming to a people who are not his kind, rendering service which they did not deserve and dying a death which they should have died! This explains acts of kindness followers of Christ showed and should be the model for Christians today.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Masks Modern Christians Wear

The life of and life in modern Christian churches, with all the dissensions, hatred and disunity is certainly shameful. That is not what Christians are called to, they are called to produce the fruit of the Spirit.
Fruit of the Spirit is the natural outcome of a Spirit-led life. It is characterisctic of a Spirit-filled life. The foremost of this is love (Gal 5:22). Though Paul listed love in Galatians 5:22 he best exposits it in his first correspondence to the church in Corinth. Love is the hallmark of Christ-disciples: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Three redherrings of true love are spirituality, charity and self-sacrifice" (John 13:35).
However, Christians tend to wear different masks that look like love which Paul criticizes very caustically in the great poem on love in 1 Corinthians 13. First of these masks is false spirituality. Christians who fail to love each other as Christ loved them tend to wear a mask of spirituality. This comes usually in the form of high spiritual gifts like, speaking in heavenly languages, prophecy, and claims of miracles. Even if these claims are true, they are useless unless they proceed from lives that are saturated with the love of Christ and is able to pour that love out to others. Such lives are lifeless as "sounding brass" or "claning symbols", makes noise but lifeless!
Second mask that they  use to cover their loveless lives is charity. To be at the service of the poor and needy is often considered as acts of love, but may not. I once saw a lady running after a begger to give him an apple from her shopping bag. It is evening, and her religion requires that she should do some good thing each day to earn merits before her gods. It is not really love that drove her but her own selfish spiritual interest. Christians need not be different, most social service need not be out of love, but fund-driven or for a good name in society. I don't intend to look down upon people who sacrifice for the poor out of genuine love.
Third mask is self-sacrifice. Pauls mentions the extreme self-sacrifice of letting oneself to be burnt at the stake (one of the means of persecution in early Christian period). Just because a person denies his body, chastises himself does not mean that s/he is doing it out of love. The Bible insists in this passage (1 Cor 13:3) that giving and even self-molesting for the sake of charity is useless if there is no real love.
Christians are expected to "serve one another in love" (Gal 5:13). For that we need to rip these mask off. Lack of love leads them to behave like animals who "bite and devour" each other (Gal 5:15). These two verses in Galatians which serve as introduction to the discussion on the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Gal 5:22-23 explains why so we face so much of disunity and hatred in modern churches.
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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,...