Friday, December 28, 2012

The non-threatening, approachable King

In the events associated with the birth and infancy of Jesus we hear the unique message that he has for the world then and now. Christmas decorations depicting the Baby Jesus in a manger are integral part of the displays during the season. It is a reminder that God comes to the human race in the most non-threatening way, in the form of an infant. Jesus Christ came to this world in the form of a baby born in a manger outside an inn in Bethlehem. Babies are innocent, they have no enemies, they have no prejudices. All babies are cute and adorable. We love babies not for their eloquence or even for their achievements: they are unable to speak and they haven't achieved anything yet. They don't threaten us in any way! It is the most non-threatening form God can incarnate. His purpose was to make a dwelling in the hearts of people, so he chose to be in the form of a baby.
Besides this non-threatening presence of God in our midst, Christmas also reminds us of the approachability of God. The night he was born, a host of angels appeared in the skies and sang praises to God. Their singing woke up the shepherds who were watching their sheep in the open field. The angels told them the exact place where the newborn Jesus could be found. The shepherds followed the angelic instruction and worshipped him in the manger. The shepherds were people of the lowest rung in the society. For their sake and the sake of all those of their rank in society, God chose a manger to be born in. A cosy bedroom in a large house is an ideal place for Jesus to be born. However, that would make him unreachable for the poor for whom he came. So, he chose to be born in a manger of a stable which is outside an inn that was approachable to the poor. We don't have to worship God from a distance, he meets us in places where we can find him. God, though transcendent breaks the barricades the society has erected and comes to the aam admi.
However, Jesus more than a mere baby. What drew people to him as a baby was not the fact that he was adorable but the fact that he was worthy of their worship. Another story associated with Christmas is that of the kings of the 'East' visiting the baby and paying him tribute. These kings were probably astrologers who gazed the stars and saw 'his star' in the sky and followed it to the place where Jesus was born. According to scholars, they might have travelled either from present day Iran or India two places where astrology flourished. It might have taken many months of travel for them. Jesus was not in the manger anyway for such a long period. It seems appropriate to think that he was in a place where the royalty could walk in. The kings visited him and worshipped him. They presented him with gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, valuable gifts from the East. This symbolic act of paying tribute was to accept his authority over them. He is not just a mere adorable child but a king over other kings.
Jesus came to rule the hearts of men and women of the world. To give them a new standard to live by. To challenge the evil social systems and decadent moral values that corrupted the society. Christmas thus reminds us that God has come to human beings in the most non-threatening, approachable way to claim his place in our hearts. To rule it in such a way that a just, righteous societies are built up.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The 'God-deficiency' of our days

'God is closer to me than I am to myself,' said Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), the German mystic and theologian of the bygone days. He went on to say that God is close to the wood but the wood doesn't realize that. That's true. God is closer to us but we don't realize the fact of God's nearness to us.
This insensitivity to God's nearness is caused by those things that have exiled God from our consciousness. It could also be that that many of our worldly concerns, cares and the like has created a wedge between us and our God and we let that gap grow as time went by, thus distancing us from our God.
We have many things that can take the place of God in our life. There are many rivals to God and we have consciously or unconsciously give these rivals to God the place of God in our lives. These are things that engage each moment of our lives. Our busy life, life's priorities, the things that demand our attention, those things that we adore have engaged our minds so much that we don't have time to realise the presence of God around us. These make us so insensitive like wood to the presence of God.
We then become like chidren who left their parents hands and were finally were lost in the crowd. Some search frantically for their parents to be united with them, some don't even realize that they are lost. This is what has happened to most of us. We have deliberately travelled too far from our Father who want to be closer to us.
One reason for wandering away from the Father is our own false self-confidence. We are made to believe that we are independent and we can do things without Him. As children grow and are more and more used to their world, they develop a sense of independence. That make them to dare to venture out themselves. This independence resulting from the false self-confidence is what makes us less and less aware of the presence of God. We are certainly less aware of what we don't make use of at all.
Jośe A. Pagola a Spanish bible commentator thinks that the problem of the modern world is not atheism but a 'God-deficiency' that we experience. We may not deny the existence of God but we don't acknowledge or experience God as much as we ought to. God is there, but we feel a deficiency of him in our lives.
This God-deficiency in our lives is the reason for all the ills of the modern day. Our world has turned more violent than before, because we in short supply of the God of love. We are merciless to women, children, the unborn, the poor etc, because we are deficient of the God of mercy.
God created the world centered around him, beautiful. The Bible encourages us to live our lives centred around him. God in the Old Testament had his presence in the midst of his people in the Tabernacle. He led his people through the wilderness. Jesus invited us to abide in him and promised his presence in our midst. He is ready to dine with anyone who opens the door of his heart for him. However, our insensitiveness, our God-deficiency and the lack of the God-centredness of our lives has thrown us off balance. There is a great need to return to God.
The devotional masters always tried to 'centre' themselves before they prayed, studied their scripture or even before they wrote. Everything has to be activities centred on God and proceed from the great awareness of him around and in us. This is why learning to centre our lives on God, whenever we feel that we are away from him is important.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Jericho Luncheon

Jesus once told the parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). A man who knew there was treasure hidden in a field sold all that he has and bought that field. He paid a price that is much higher than the actual price of the field. For the owner of the field and others this man appeared to be a fool. Though the owner of the field was selling the field, this man was in fact buying the treasure. The owner could see only the field but the buyer sees a treasure in it.

This parable applies to all who have sacrificed all that they have for the sake of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish. The best illustration of this parable is what happened in Jericho during the visit of Jesus when he met Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

The Bible says Zacchaeus was a chief-tax collector. A chief tax-collector is someone who was in charge of many tax-collectors or had the right to collect tax from one or more tax-districts which he might have delegated to others. What this means is that he was doubly hated. He was hated by the tax-collectors who worked for him for demanding too much and also by the ordinary people who were struggling under the burden of Roman taxation who hated all tax-collectors!

He was the symbol of exploitation, collaborator with the Romans who economically and politically oppressed the people whom they ruled. Nobody liked Zacchaeus and his class. However, tax-collectors had a life of their own, they partied together and there was plenty of money to spend on lavish parties.

Zacchaeus was very curious but was short in stature. His curiosity was so much that he resorted to climb a tree to get a good view of Jesus. Certainly he might have heard a lot about Jesus, otherwise he would not have longed to see him. It seems that he also had some knowledge of what Jesus was preaching. Otherwise, he would not have told Jesus what he is going to do with his ill-gotten wealth (Luke 19:8).

Jesus carried with him a large crowd wherever he went. Besides the disciples and others who followed him wherever he went, there was also people from the places that he was visiting. In this large crowd that Jesus drew around himself critics were not rare. The critics who surrounded him would question his words and actions. At times they tried to harm him also.

Now, for these critics, meeting Zacchaeus was probably okay. But Jesus inviting himself to the house of Lazarus for a meal raised many the eyebrows. Their criticism was valid! A meal is more than having food. We need to be careful not only what we eat but with whom we are eating. Inviting someone for a meal, or having a meal with someone means that we share their values. We are in the same party! Seldom does enemies get together for a party unless to celebrate the end of their hostilities. If we don’t like a person we don’t like his parties also.

Having a meal with Zacchaeus means Jesus is his kind: A collaborator with the tax-collectors who support the Roman occupation of Judea to exploit his own people. A meal with Zacchaeus, that too with the knowledge of the public (Jesus invited himself to Zachaeus place in the hearing of the crowd) simply means Jesus endorses what Zacchaeus does. Jesus' is risking his reputation and making a public statement about where he stands: that he is with the oppressors and not with the oppressed. Having a meal with Zacchaeus, for the critics means that Jesus is with the imperial government and its collaborators.

Jesus and Zacchaeus have something to sort out. Do they belong to two parties or the same. If same who is on whose side? The solution was simple. One of them has to join the other. Who should do that? Should Jesus say that he belongs to the class of Zacchaeus or should Zacchaeus declare that he belongs to Jesus?

Zacchaeus knew he cannot have a meal with Jesus unless he joined Jesus party! So he "stood" (Luke 19:8). This word is powerful. Though this word means standing literally, it is used also in the sense of standing up to, resisting, etc. In Ephesians 6:11, the same Greek word is used to ‘standing against the schemes of the enemy.’ Here Zacchaeus thwarted the criticism of the crowd, and stripped them of their ammunition before they can fire the first bullet by changing sides. He is no more a tax-collector who exacts money but a new person. He will give away four-fold of what he has unjustly collected and give half of his wealth to the poor! His decision shut the mouth of the critics: Jesus is doing nothing wrong in having a meal with him, because they share the same values.

So, that meal was not Jesus endorsing Zacchaeus but Zacchaeus endorsing Jesus!

The cost was high! Much higher than the cost of meal they shared. The cost was so high that Zacchaeus probably may not be able to host another luncheon like that again. This decision might make him bankrupt, but for Zacchaeus what was important was to share the same values as that of Jesus, the Kingdom values, by bidding farewell to oppression and exploitation. That is worth more than what he was parting with--his ill-gotten wealth. He was parting with all that he had because he was simply trading it for a much precious treasure: the Kingdom of God. He bought a field selling all that he had, because he eyed a treasure in it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Conversations with a Very Religious Companion

I had an aisle seat; so I was waiting for the other two passengers in my row before I buckle up and have a nap. I haven’t slept the whole night thanks for this red-eye flight. A young man and his wife walks towards my row; it seems they are going to be my co-passengers for the three hour flight in economy class. He was about 27 with a thin but medium long moustache and a cap that betrayed his religious identity. His religious identity was clear from the way he and his wife dressed. His wife wore a long black robe. Only her eyes were visible through a slit on that black gown. 
I looked away as I made way for them to get to their seats. The young man let his wife go to her window seat and then turned to me. "Uncle, how are you!” the young man asked me in a very friendly tone. That woke me up and I made an eye contact with him; his friendly smile conquered me.
I wanted to sleep, but he won’t let me. He kept talking always punctuating it with this respectful "uncle.” I managed to have a nap but when I woke up he started massaging my right arm though I politely protested. He claimed that he was trained by his uncle to massage. However, I enjoyed the soothing effects of the massage and I let him; I badly needed it though. He then massaged my arms, my head, shoulders as I listened to him.

He is an engineer, studied in the UK. When he realized that I too am a UK alumnus he was excited. His wife had all her education in the Madrassa and never been to college. She has done eight years studying the Holy Quran, the Hadit, Shariya and so on. She is in fact qualified to be a teacher in a Madrassa.

Our conversation meandered through various subjects into the topic of a good moral life. It all started as I quizzed him on Islamic banking, a subject that I am keen to learn. That conversation made me realize that in all religions there are people who would like to live upright lives. Its true that religions create in their followers a quest for ethical lives.

He told me how one can avoid lying. "When someone bargain with you” he said, "if you are a merchant, you don’t have to lie.” For example, you don’t have to say that you got it for a certain price, and can’t sell it less than that. It could be a lie to convince the buyer. Instead, an ethical merchant just need to say that it is the lowest price that he can sell. No explanations needed.Further explanations may require lies!

He had some useful tips on overcoming jealousy too. We often are jealous of people’s achievements, that’s human. However, if we can bless the person who has made an achievement, we can overcome jealousy. For example, if your neighbour buys a new car or had a salary hike just bless him and you can overcome jealousy. That too was a very useful tip!

Positive mind-set is very important. So my friend says "masha allah” ("God has willed it”) whenever he see someone doing some good work. When we see someone sweeping the street, washing the car or helping a blind person cross the road, whisper "masha allah” in order that such good works will prosper and then obviously the whole world will be filled with such good works. I liked it also. It is a very creative way of having a positive outlook on life around us.

I was a keen listener so far. It was my turn to talk. I have learned a lot from him and I also praise God that there are many in the world who like to live upright lives pleasing God. I told him I strive to produce the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit as a believing Christian. I struggle to love, to be patient, to be kind and so on. I told him I struggle to rejoice in the success of others and long to see a world full of happiness, good works, zero corruption, etc. "I do it” I told him, "slightly differently.” I may not use the expression "masha allah” because it is foreign to me. He was so pleased to find another person with a mind-set similar to his.

"However, AB,” I said (AB being the initials of his name), "I am trying to do my best and I know that I am not perfect.” Sometimes, the success of my friend is of such magnitude that it takes me a few days to overcome my jealousy and tame myself to bless him. I bypass so many people who do good works and forget to bless them. When I stand before my Creator one day (as all of us will) what guarantee is there that I will be admitted to Paradise? How do I know that while on earth I had met His criteria of righteousness? "Dear AB, this question has been bothering me!” I told him sincerely. "I realized that I cannot live a life pleasing God by my own strength. I needed help.”

"However, I found help,” I told him, "in whom you call Prophet Jesus.” "He was willing to help me because I consider him more than a prophet.” He is my saviour as he has condoned all my sins so far. He is my righteousness because I have put my trust in him. He is my model for ethical life. However, whenever I stumble and fail, I am sure he will come to help me. I am not living on my own strength but by his grace. I am sure, when I stand before my Creator one day, he will say to me "well done my son!” "You have tried to live according to my example and what I have revealed in the Word of God.” Jesus will tell me that day, "You have some failings but since you have put your trust in me and depended on my grace than your strength I ignore your failings.”

AB was very keen and attentive, he was all ears. He has found another person like him, trying to live a life that pleases God. But I hope he understood that my way of pleasing God is different from his. I struggle to please God because of the weakness of my flesh. But I live with the confidence that my saviour will make up what I lack since I trust in him. The trust in Jesus that is the difference between us.

Then the captain announced that the plane is going to begin its descend to Kuala Lumpur. Our conversation has to be wound up. But I am so pleased and thankful to God that in his plan he gave AB and me, two like minded people to raise to a new level in our thinking and challenges for life. That was indeed a divine appointment.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

God's people and Good people

Yesterday was a great day in my life! I had a big problem to sort out; but it was great opportunity to learn something directly from God.
The church I pastor had been worshiping in a hotel room for the last three years. After a wonderful service last Sunday, as I walked out of the "church”, the manager of the hotel called me aside to say that we have to move out. That means I will have to find a new place for next Sunday.
So, I started the hunt for places. Called up real-estate agents, sent text-messages to church members to pray and called leaders together to pray.
I started with a Parsi lady who runs a small nursery school from her mother’s cottage. Though she gave me an appointment at 5:00 pm I could not keep it since I was with a property dealer who was showing me places around. She waited for me till 6.00pm and got on with her other evening engagements. However, when I called her up again to reschedule my appointment, she was extremely kind to discuss the matter over the phone. She even called her mom on phone to persuade her to rent the place for us for Sunday mornings but failed. Her aged Mom (about 80 years) cannot have a group of people singing songs on Sunday morning till 1.00 pm; Sunday is her only quiet day. All the other days they have the small kids screaming and running all over the place. I understand. However, this wonderful lady, who is not a Christian but a Parsi was so concerned when I told her I have no place for church next Sunday. She thought for a moment and offered me her cottage! She added that it will be free of cost until I find a new place! She don’t want the church to be without a place to meet even for a Sunday. A Parsi, offering her cottage free of cost for Christian worship? Yes, there are lots of good people who fear the Lord outside the church. That was a new discovery.
My next stop was back to the hotel manager to plead again. I need it for another four-five weeks which will give me some time to find a new place and prepare the flock for a move. So, I walked in to the hotel. The staff who noticed me stood up respectfully, offered me a seat. The managers walked in and offered tea. I was not in a mood for tea. But one of them insisted, "You should have something!” So, I surrendered my lack of appetite before his kind hospitality. I told him why I need it for another four-five weeks. He listened carefully. They have done some Vastu and Reiki investigations on the building and found out that the place badly need renovation. They need to get it done before the IPL season begins in the first week of April, it is already March. The architect is going to pull down the fixtures and start the work next Saturday in order to meet his deadlines. But one of the managers added, "but we need the positive power of your prayers too for our business. We don’t want you to go away, we need your prayers in this building.”
So, he need to make sure the "positive powers" of my church’s prayer every Sunday in his building. So, discussion proceeded along those lines. So, we need to work out how that happens and they came up with a plan. In case the architect pulls down the hall in these four weeks time, they will get the basement ready for our service. If that is the case, then the "positive power" of my church’s prayers will go up and bless the building. Sure, we will have the building for service. I dont’ believe in the "positive power" of prayers, I don’t believe in Reiki and Vastu. All these are non-sense to me! However, I like the people who think that Christian prayers can do them some good and would like to keep some praying Christians around them! So, yesterday God worked for us and sorted out part of our problem. Yes, there are lot of people who are vulnerable to God outside the Church.
This is the lesson that Jonah had to learn in the hard way. For Jonah people of Nineveh are the most wicked ones. They should perish. In fact the whole world, the pagans who don’t know the true God should perish, that’s what Jonah believed. So, he ran away from an assignment to preach in Nineveh. He didn’t want them to repent and be saved.
So, he got in to a ship that was to sail in the opposite direction. But God won’t let him go and followed him in the sea too. The severe storm threatens the ship. The sailors threw their wares out in to the sea to make it light in an attempt to save their ship and their lives. Now, through casting lots, they found out that all these are because of one man—a disobedient prophet on board. Jonah was cool when he suggested that he be thrown overboard to the Mediterranean sea where hungry sharks roam. However, the sailors won’t. The pagan sailors has such a respect for human life, they would like to keep an Israelite though he may be the cause of all their woes. He had already told them that he worships the Lord who made heaven and earth. So, they have such great fear of this God whom they don’t know but who, according to this passenger is in charge of the sea! He had to insist and they had no other choice than get rid of this dangerous cargo which has come to them in the form of the disobedient prophet. Finally, they prayed, asked God’s forgiveness before tossing this man in to the sea! Pagans who fear the Lord and who are integral part of God’s plan, that’s a new lesson.
Now, the big fish with Jonah in his belly is speeding in the opposite direction of the ship towards Nineveh. It has an urgent commission. It has a precious cargo in its belly. It has to throw up this rebel prophet on the shores of the city of Nineveh before the digestive fluids dissolve him in his belly! He has to be in one piece! The fish cannot be as disobedient as the man of God is.
Now, in Nineveh, Noah preached his half-hearted sermon, in a "here it is, take it if you want” attitude. But the response to the one-line sermon was great! The pagans walked up to the altar in large numbers even before he gave the altar call. In fact, he was not planning one. Jonah could not believe his eyes! Even before he started playing "Just as I am without one plea, O lamb of God I come!”, there is a long queue, Usually he had to play it twice and repeat the altar call two or three times, keep telling people that all should have their eyes closed, use all sorts of gimmicks for the first person to get up and walk toward the altar. Then there will be a trickle of three to five people who line up before the pulpit. Now, here comes the entire city of Nineveh in tears beating their chests in repentance; men, women, youth, children, babies in their mothers hands, pets and even cattle following them to fast and ask God’s forgiveness. Jonah is stunned! This sort of things hasn’t happened in his crusades in Joppa or even in Jerusalem, in God’s own land! This pagan city is responding in a way that he never expected.
Oh, yes there are lots of people outside the Church who are vulnerable to God. I am reminded of what Woody Allen said, "more and more people are leaving the Church and getting closer to God!”

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Making Christiana Talk

She must be in her high teens or touching the twenties. A cute, lean,
blonde she is. However, her face was without expressions, she seldom
smiled and hardly talked. Her movements were robot-like.
She stood behind the restaurant counter painted in black. The dominant
theme of the restaurant was black. Black counter, black table-cloths,
the pillars which held the glass panels giving us a view of outside
were also painted black. She, like all the other waiters wore long
black trousers, black shirts with long-sleeves. All that was visible
from that black drape was her white expression-like face, dead tired
eyes and her short blonde hair.
In short, she and her team in that blackish restaurant intensified its
melancholic air. My team ate three meals there for five days. We were
there in that country which was part of former USSR. Tired after long
meeting, we wallked in to the restaurant to be refreshed, but the
melancholic air of the restaurant made us more tired and sick even
though the food was really good.
My friend is fun-loving and he loves to talk, and enjoys jokes. This
is not the kind of surroundings that he like to be in. One day, when
he cannot stand the waiters who seldom greeted the guests, but was
duty bound, just placed the three courses one after other and cleared
them without a smile, he decided to pull out one of his tricks.
"Hi, Elvina!" he said as she was clearing the table. "Can I have a
glass of water?" She raised her head and looked at him and knew he was
adressing her. He repeated, "Elvina, I would like to have some water."
"I am not Elvina!" she retorted; but she was not angry! "Then who are
you?", my friend insisted to know. She smiled and said in a rather
subdued tone, "I am Christiana!" "Oh, sorry Christiana! What do you do
besides working here, are you a student?" Christiana smiled again and
told us that she is a student, working towards a job in hotel
management. Then whenever, we walked in to the restaurant she smiled
at us from behind the counter painted black, and whenever he laid the
food on the black table-cloths she wished us. My friend has made
Christiana smile and talk!
Christiana is representative of a generation of young people whose
parents never taught them to smile though they were free to. Their
parents and grandparents have been through repressive communist
regimes that not only rationed out food and comforts but controlled
their intellectual and emotional life.
In the streets, people don't care to make eye-contact with others. The
cashiers at the super-market counters don't greet the customers. The
bus-driver looks away from the passenger as they enter the bus. The
people of this country are still under the spell of the repressive
regime though they are free.
There is religious freedom in almost all countries that belonged to
the Eastern block; Freedom to propogate and to practice ones faith.
However, having lived their lives for three generations without
religion the natural hunger for God that every human being has seems
to have died out. The new generation generally doesn't care. Their
parents did not go to churches or Sunday Schools and they do not know
why these are essential for their children. If they could manage their
without these then their children should also.
We have been hearing a lot about religious freedom in the former
communist countries ever since Berlin wall fell. However, as I walked
through the doors, what I found is freedom but a freedom nobody like
to make use of and is not excited about.
It is not only in former USSR or but people who had gone through
similar repressive regimes also feel the same way. I remember praying
with a colleague from Combodia some years back. He said, though the
country is now free, the people are still under the spell of the Pol
Pot regime.
The Christian challenge in these countries to proclaim that there is
freedom; to make them realize that they are now free to smile, talk.
To lead them to a greater joy that is in Christ means that they should
first discover the need to be joyful. My prayer for the younger
generation would be that their eyes will be open to realize the need
to be joyful and later discover that the real joy comes from the Lord.

IS LIFE TOO HARD? Cast your burdens on Jesus by yoking with him

Jesus invited the crowd that followed him: ' Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will ...