Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Opening of our eyes

A few kilo metres from where I live, was a farm opened for visitors. It was an rare patch of pristine countryside in the midst of a booming urban landscape. Among the many attractions there, was the workshop of a potter. In his workshop, the potter displayed making various articles from clay. I had frequented his workshop a number of times. He is very patient as he works with wet clay on his wheels. The patience of the potter and the vulnerability of the clay combined ends up in a beautiful clay object!

Whenever, I visited this potter's workshop, I used picture myself as the clay on the wheels and the fingers of the potter as that of my Lord who shapes me. The Lord is like a potter, willing to work with us as long as we are willing to be shaped by his hands. He doesn't give up in the middle of the process if we are willing and vulnerable in his hands. He keeps working on us to bring to fulfilment what he has begun in us. That’s why he is called, ‘the founder and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:2).

The story in Mark 8:22-26 is about a blind man who was brought to Jesus so that he may receive healing. Jesus had healed many sick so far; especially those who are blind. But this healing is very unique. First of all, it is found only in the Gospel of Mark. Secondly, rather unusually, Jesus takes this man out of his village to be healed. Third strange thing is that, Jesus spat on his eyes; certainly the spray must have fallen all over his face too! Fourthly, though there is nothing unusual about touching the eyes in order to receive healing, in this case, Jesus had to touch twice! After the first touch, Jesus asked the man whether he is able to see or not his answer was rather strange. He said, ‘I see people, they walk like trees.’ Trees don't walk! He might have seen people walking around and people might have appeared to as trees. What is important is that he did not receive total healing. Jesus had to try again. On the second touch he received full sight: ‘He saw everything clearly.’ Finally, he prevents him from entering the village again.

It is important to note that how the first readers of the Gospel of Mark might have read it. They could identify with this man who was taken out of his village to receive healing. Like him they were also led out of their villages, homes and businesses to follow him. In this Gospel we have the stories of Peter, Andrew, James and John the fishermen and that of Levi the tax-collector who were called by Jesus. They had to leave their fishing nets, their boats and their tax-booths in order to follow him and travel all over the towns and villages of Galilee. As the gospel was preached all over the world, many followed suit: Leaving their villages and towns, their own communities and families behind. They were not allowed to go back, though some did. Like Demas who went back because of his love for the world. The story though strange it looks was packed with significance for all of us. We can all put ourselves in the shoes of this man who follows the Lord, cutting all that moorings to our life-style.

This calling and going out was to receive sight—a new sight about the Galilean carpenter. The new sight they received was that the Galilean carpenter by the name Jesus is not just an ordinary leader but he is the Messiah, the saviour of the world.

However, this sight they received about him was not sudden, it was gradual. They began with total ignorance, then slowly, degree by degree they began to receive deeper insights about him—like this blind man. First he was blind, then his sight was foggy and then clarity came.

It is this idea of receiving sight by degrees that Mark intends to convey by positioning this event at this particular point in his Gospel. This passage that is unique to the Gospel of Mark is placed between Jesus’ warning about ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ (Mark 8:11-21) and Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27-30). The Pharisees though they have seen many signs that Jesus’ had performed still needed more sign. They were not willing to accept the fact that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Their unwillingness to accept Jesus is the leaven. The disciples in a like manner were not able to put their trust in him fully. The miracles and teachings have to produce faith in them but they were not sufficient progress in their journey of faith with him. When Jesus mentioned ‘leaven’ they thought of bread. It is true that leaven can mean bread but Jesus did not mean the literal bread. They failed to see the spiritual significance of his warning. However, Jesus was patient with his disciples: teaching, warning, doing miracles.

However, there is a great change in the disciples when we come to Mark 8:27-30. The same disciples who wondered ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41) is able to confess that Jesus is the Messiah. Though their vision of Messiah was very different from that of Jesus’. Peter rebuked Jesus because he could not understand the concept of a suffering Messiah (Mark 8:31-33). His notion was a triumphant Messiah in line with the popular Jewish expectations of the day. Whether it is faulty or partial, the disciples represented by Peter has made considerable progress in their vision of Jesus. From a country carpenter, to a teacher-miracle worker to Messiah!

The acted parable of the double healing of the blind man is the transitional narrative. A parable that tells us the gradual growth in our faith, the faith of those who follow him out of their ‘villages.’ We follow him. However, we fail to receive the sight fully. However, the Lord helps us in our weaknesses. He touches again and again and again till we see people as people and trees as trees! He works with us patiently as the potter does.

That is why Paul calls Christian lives as ‘the handiwork of God’ (Eph 2:10). God works with us, in us until we are ready to be presented. Just as the potter takes the object he shaped from the clay out of the workshop to the sunlight to be dried and then to the showcase to be displayed. This is summarised beautifully by Paul. ‘... so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’ (Ephesians 5:27, ESV).

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Dangerous People

The psalmist has a strange complaint in Psalm 14:4 (also in Psalm 53:4). It is about those people who don’t pray to God.’ Why should another person’s prayer life bother her? The psalmist’s worry doesn’t seem to be the fact that they don’t pray but the reason why they don’t pray.
The ungodly people don’t pray to God because they don’t take God seriously. These are people who like to pretend that God doesn’t exist at all. That is why the Psalmist says, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God."’ This is not a philosophical theory for them, but they have found it convenient to think that God does’nt exist or is not interested in human affairs. This can be called practical atheism. That means, for all practical purposes they tend to believe that God doesn’t exist.
Practical atheism allows its adherents to do all that is evil and wicked. Acknowledging God’s existence and involvement in human affairs by punishing the guilty and rewarding the righteous is an inconvenient theory for those who want to do evil at their will. Put in another way, this means that by getting God out of your way and from your mind you can do all that you want to do.
The reason why the ungodly doesn’t trust in God in prayer is that they trust other means to get their way. They resort to lying, flattery, bribery and threat. Throughout the Psalms, godly people describe how these have made their lives miserable and pray to God to intervene.
The person who composed Psalm 5 complains about those who have ‘... no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.’ They are dangerous because they lie, and flatter and their lies and flattery has grave consequences to the life of the Psalmist.
If lies and threat won’t get them what they want, they may resort to threat. The enemies of the Psalmist in 73:8 faces threat from ungodly people: ‘They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.’
The enemies in Psalm 26 are ‘... bloody men; In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes’ (Psa 26:9-10). These people can buy whatever they want by the power of their money. They can pervert justice and oppress people by greasing the hands of those take and overturn decisions.
Since lying, flattery, threat and bribes work for them, they don’t have to depend on the power nor the wisdom of God. So, they don’t pray. People who don’t pray are thus very dangerous because they resort to other means which harm godly people and their societies.
This can be a trap that the godly people can also walk into unaware. False confidence in one’s ability to convince, win the favour of others and sometimes taking threatening postures are ways they may also be tempted to get their way. These result in less and less dependence upon God in prayer. These may take them far away from God and they may end up with all that God hasn’t willled them to have or do. When we don’t have confidence in prayer and have no patience with God we tend resort to these means as well. Dependence on our wisdom and strength is always disproportionate to our dependence on God in prayer!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Faith that Draws

The modern preachers (especially those ones on the TV) have popularized a particular version of ‘faith.’ According to them we need faith in order to God to do miracles. Some of them even tend to preach that the miracles are proportionate to the size of ones’ faith. This is often implied in expressions like ‘level of faith’ etc that we often hear on the TV.
In this popular conception ‘faith’ is portrayed as something that triggers God’s power. Unless we exercise our faith we cannot receive God’s power through miracles. Doesn’t this imply that the omnipotent God is helpless to do a miracle for us! Certain stories in the Bible are used to support these positions. Often quoted is the faith of the woman suffering with a flow of blood who received her healing by touching Jesus’ garments secretly (Mark 5:24-34). The faith of the centurion is also often cited (Matthew 8:5-13). He received a miracle because he ‘exercised’ his faith.
Often times preachers quote Jesus’ statement to the woman with a flow of blood, ‘your faith has healed you’ to say that it is our faith that works miracles! If faith that is situated in the receptor is the condition for the power of God to act for the benefit of someone then the miracles looks like an illusion. If faith is something that makes a person just believe that the miracle has happened then faith is similar to to the effect that placebo has on a patient.
These stories need to be re-examined. But before that we also need to look at other instances where Jesus did a miracle for those who did not have any faith or were unable to exercise their faith to trigger a miracle! What about Jesus stilling the storm in Lake Galilee? From the statement of Jesus, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) it is reasonable to conclude that they did not expect a miracle from Jesus. Their surprise confirms the fact this fact (4:41). They never knew that Jesus had control over the storm, the sea and the waves until he stilled the sea! The disciples had cried out to Jesus who was sleeping at the helm of the boat: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ This was not a request but a complaint. Actually, they were asking Jesus to help them bail out water as the waves were dashing against the boat. They never believed that Jesus had the power to still the storm. Still there was a miracle, in spite of their lack of faith.
When Jesus raised Lazarus who ever believed that was possible? Martha agreed saying that he will certainly raise up in the resurrection at the end times but not now (John 11:24). The disciples did not believe that it will be possible (John 11:12-16). They also pointed out that it has been four days now since he is buried. Martha even pointed out that, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days’ (John 11:39). This miracle happened in the context of utter lack of faith in Jesus.
Then there are a host of people who were not in a mental state to seek Jesus’ help or had nobody to seek God’s help for them. The demon-possessed resisted healing (Mark 5:7). The dead people whom Jesus raised couldn’t exercise their faith.
Jesus also helped people who had no knowledge of him or his healing powers. The man at the Bethseda pool didn’t know that Jesus can heal him. He believed that he can be healed by the pool and his complaint was that he had nobody to help him enter the pool at the right moment. His response to Jesus question ‘do you want to be healed’ was one of despondency (John 5:7). His faith was fixated on the healing power of the pool. However, he had come to accept the fact that there are logistic difficulties for his healing. He was losing his faith in the miraculous power of the pool and had no faith in the healing power of Jesus who was standing nearby. He probably didn’t know who Jesus was and what he is capable of. Still he was healed. Who exercised faith and whose faith healed him?
These observations lead us to certain inevitable conclusions. Our faith is not the basis for the miracles. God works miracles whether we have faith or not. God’s power is not triggered nor dependent on our faith. Simply put, God cannot be manipulated by our faith! God works as he wills, unconditionally.
A second observation is God does miracles with a purpose. The main purpose is that it will create and nurture faith in those who received and witness the miracles. In other words the purpose is that we may put our trust in him. Thus viewed faith is the product of miracles not vice versa. One of the essential components of the miracles stories in the Gospels is the faith that it generated in those who witnessed them.As it generated faith in God it also made the witnesses and those who received the miracle to glorify God. This is very well summarized in Matthew 15:29 as: 'And great multitudes came unto him, having with them some lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus' feet; and he healed them; insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see. And they glorified the God of Israel.'
If then what is the role of faith in Christian experiences of God’s power? Faith is that connects a person with God. First of all, it is something that draws a person to God. The woman with a issue of blood came closer to Jesus enough to touch him because he had ‘reports of him.’ She believed that Jesus could heal her if she just touched the edge of his garments. Faith drew her to Jesus. The centurions faith was much stronger. He knew that a word from Jesus was enough to heal his servants. There are a number of people who don’t draw to him and they miss a miracle. They don’t draw to him but their doubts and questions deprive him an opportunity to do miracles for them. This is what happened when Jesus visited his own home town. The Bible says, he ‘couldn’t do’ any miracles in that place because of their unbelief. Since people knew him as a carpenter and as the son of an ordinary woman like Mary they did not bring their sick and demon-possessed to him. Thus they denied him an opportunity to help them. That is why ‘he could not do’ any mighty works there. Faith that draws us to God is essential.

 The second aspect of faith is that it is a response to God’s power displayed through miracles. In another sense it draws us closer to God. Moses had no knowledge of faith in Yahweh when he saw the burning bush. But he drew close to the bush (in fact to the presence of God) to see what is going on—why the bush burns but is not consumed (Exod 3:1-7). God does what he want to do irrespective of or unbelief. But he expects us to respond to him in faith. The people who were healed by Jesus went around sharing the goodnews about Jesus. The people who witnessed miracles put their trust in Him. They became of people of faith because they experienced the power of God in their life. It is not faith triggering God’s power but God’s power triggering our faith. And faith thus triggered grows on its own even when there are no miracles.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Fathers' Day Surprise

I stared at that bouquet of flowers handed over to me feeling little uneasy. It was Fathers’ Day and I was reminded of it early in the morning by my two children who had wished me already before I went to church. In my church I have made it a policy that we will pray for fathers on Fathers’ Day and mothers on Mothers’ day in the church but will not have any celebration of such days on Sundays. My reason is simple. Nowadays, almost every day is ‘some day’ and it distracts our attention from the real business that we are supposed to do on Sunday: the Lord’s Day. I don’t encourage celebration of such days to make sure these celebrations do not eclipse the day that is of paramount importance: the Lord’s Day.
However, one of the youth took the initiative to buy a bouquet of flowers and when I had said the benediction at the end of the service, shot in front of the pulpit with the flowers saying, ‘today is Fathers’ Day. And we would like to honor our pastor who is our spiritual father with these flowers.’ She also announced that an elderly lady in the church will pray for all fathers in the church. It was gross disobedience and violation of rules! However, I accepted it on behalf of all the fathers in the church.
I was busy after the service: Had to meet a lot of people, especially the new-comers. After all the meetings, I left the church in a hurry leaving the flowers in the church. In an hour’s time, some youth in the church turned up at my door with the flowers that I left behind in the church. One of them with a grouchy face said, ‘Uncle, you left the flowers in the church!’ And she trespassed into my house and placed it on the coffee table at the center of my living room. And others looked at me as if they have revenged me for a crime. I apologized and thanked them for bring it to me. Now, there it is on my table.
I stare at it at least three or four times a day since it has been there. When I look at these flowers, I see the younger faces of my congregation and God speaks to me powerfully. I see faces of young people who have come to the city to get an education or job leaving their parents. Most of them came immediately after leaving high school and get to see their parents only once in a year. We try our maximum to get most of them to our home on Sundays for a meal and fellowship. Some of them have lost their fathers when they were young: some were just 12 when their fathers passed away. Some have fathers but they are absentee fathers. Not really interested in their children. They drink, spent all their time at workplaces, or in socializing with their friends and hardly have any time for their children. Some belong to single mothers, their fathers have left them or are no more!
These flowers bother me a lot. They tell me there is quite a big-sized crowd who have installed me at the place that their biological fathers have vacated! I need to fill in that place! Pastor as father is a discomforting responsibility.
A few days before this, I was reading a blogpost where the writer talks about a young lady who was sobbing when her pastor announced that he is moving to another church soon! Why should any young lady sob when the pastor is moving out? Lots of reasons: She is a new believer. He is her first pastor. But most important one is that she had no father. Ever since she came to this church and became a Christ-follower, she has found her lost father in the pastor. For her, it is not a pastor moving out, but it is dad leaving. Does the pastor realize that he will be orphaning many such young ones when he moves out?
The blog and the flowers still torment me in a gentle way. A torment that I am beginning to enjoy and would to live with. The new realization that I have children besides my own biological ones who love me and look up to me as their dad is exhilarating. It also reminds me that there is an awesome responsibility upon me to model a father. That modeling is important because these young lives will learn how to be fathers and even mothers from the way I parent. The flowers are still fresh though they are almost one old week now--thanks to the damp monsoon weather. They may wither one day however, but their message will stay on to challenge and motivate all those who like me are looked upon by others as fathers, in the church, school, workplace... wherever someone need to imagine a father in us.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Treading Dreaded Paths

We all love to tread paths that are well-trod. However, Jesus was different. He trod paths people dread to tread.
In most cases Jesus healed people by his word, without touching their body or the affected area. However, there were some exceptions. in the case of the deaf and the dumb man he touched his ears and his lips (Mark 7:33). In another case be touched the eyes of a blind man to heal him (John 9:7). These except in most of the cases the people touched him and were healed or he commanded the sickness or demons to go or pronounced healing.
However, he deviated from this in some cases. In the case of lepers he touched them to heal them (Mark 1:41). In the case of the dead he touched the bier or the dead body and raised them. In the case of the son of the widow who was dead and was being taken to the graveyard. He stopped them, touched the bier and the young man sprang up to life (Luke 7:14). In the case of the daughter of Jairus he held the hand of the dead body to raise her back to life (Mark 5:40 and Luke 8:54).
According to the Law of Moses, those who have leprosy should live outside the camp so that they don’t pollute others. Touching a leper made a person unclean. Anyone who touches the dead body should also become unclean and should live outside the camp. People feared the dead and the lepers and avoided both. However, Jesus did not.
In the story of Jesus healing a leper (Mark 1:40), the Gospel writer says that the leper came to Jesus. However, it is impossible for the leper to come to Jesus unless Jesus had ventured in to the territory where the leper lived with others from the rest of the people who considered themselves clean. In the healing of the ten lepers in Luke (Luke 17), Jesus was passing through the colony of lepers. This area designated for lepers between the two provinces (Galilee and Samaria) is a place that everyone who wished to be clean avoided. However, Jesus ventured through this land. Those who touched or carried the dead bodies were unclean. However, Jesus won’t hesitate to touch them. Jesus loved to do things that others dreaded to do. He trod paths that others dread to tread.
In recording in detail the healing of the leper and the raising the dead bodies by deliberately touching them, the Gospel writers are passing on an important message to those who want to emulate Jesus. Don’t shy away from the dreaded paths. Don’t follow the crowds along the well-trodden paths. The church has to deviate at times and sometimes stagger through paths the world hate to walk.
The disciples of Jesus had always followed his example of by treading the unfamiliar, untrodden, dreaded paths. Philip the evangelist had to move from the crowded streets of Jerusalem to the path in the wilderness where he met the Finance Minister of Ethiopia. He had to travel the wilderness road to meet the Ethiopian to introduce Jesus to him. Peter was hesitant to take the gospel to Cornelius who was a pagan. He had never visited a pagan in his house. However, God forced him to make that trip to Caesarea to take the gospel to a Roman centurion. Paul had to stray on to the Mars Hill in Athens so that he could tell the Athenians about the God whom they didn’t know. The history of the Christian Church all these two thousand years has been a history of treading the dreaded paths. It is a story of taking the gospel to lost, neglected, venturing in to unknown lands and it goes on. A church that remains in its comfort zones dies but the one that follows her master to the unknown and the unfamiliar thrives.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Demon in the Synagogue: The Power of the Word of God

The synagogue is the place where the Jews worshiped their God. But do you know that the first exorcism that Jesus performed was in a synagogue? It sounds paradoxical: casting out demons in the house of God!
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark it says that ‘ there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit’ (Mark 1:23). How can a demon-possessed survive in a religious place as a synagogue? Why nobody dealt with this evil-spirit in the synagogue until Jesus walked in? Probably he appeared perfectly normal so that nobody knew he was a demoniac? Or did they just let him be there since they were not able to do anything about it?
This story tells us three things about the nature of demon-possessed people.
1. First, they may look and behave like normal people.
2. Don’t expect to find them only in weird places like grave yards, dark gullies of down town areas, or mental asylums.
3. They can look very normal, could be hanging around religious places like churches and Christian fellowships
There is yet another important aspect in this whole story. It is the evil-spirit that reveals itself. This clearly means that nobody knew that this man has evil-spirit. Or nobody told Jesus that this man has evil-spirit. Evidently, nobody asked Jesus to get involved. The evil-spirit created the scenario on its own.
When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, the man with the evil-spirit couldn't stand the truth of God that Jesus preached anymore and it spoke out revealing itself. It cried out saying: 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.'
The people in the synagogue were amazed by the authority of Jesus, they exclaimed that he has authority that is so different from the authority that their scribes had. However, though that was the response of the normal people, the evil-spirit had become so fearful at the authority of Jesus displayed in his teaching. When the man with the evil-spirit heard the powerful teaching of Jesus, it cries out of fear! The evil-spirit immediately realized that their end has come. The evil-spirit knew that the end of the evil has come when it cried out, 'Have you come to destroy us?' They knew the answer to that question is certainly, 'yes!'
The onlookers were surprised indeed. They were curious to know how Jesus would handle the situation. The evil-spirit that cried out in the middle of the sermon interrupted the teaching.
Exorcisms were not new to Jews of Jesus' day. There were lots of Jewish exorcists in Jesus' time who used various means to drive out the demons. Some would use certain prayers or incantations. Some used certain medicines, or stones with magic powers.
This exorcism is different. Jesus did not use any such but commanded the evil-spirit to come out. And it came out immediately! The words of Jesus alone is sufficient to drive the demon out of that man.
For me, this story is not very much about the evil-spirits and exorcism. It is about the power of the Word of God. As the Word of God is preached with divine authority, the kingdom of Satan begins to shake. No evil can withstand the power of the Word of God.
Usually we tend to identify the evil-spirit only if it is manifest. However, the Word of God has the power to uncover everything that God abhors. It has the power to cleanse every mind of everything that displeases him. The Word of God has the cleansing power and every Christian should be cleansed every day by the eternal Word of God.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Salt of the Earth

When Jesus said, 'You are the salt of the earth' (Matthew 5:13) he was reminding his followers of their inescapable responsibility. They are not called to 'be salt' or 'to become salt' but they 'are' salt. Thus the options are limited to just one: losing the saltiness and becoming salt without taste.

Salt is a universally understood symbol. Salt is used from time immemorial for purification, preservation and to make food palatable. Salt can preserve anything from humble lime to the mummies of great Pharaohs. Egyptians stuffed the bellies of the dead bodies with salt to remove the water and other liquids from the body. Then they applied salt along with other chemicals to preserve the corpses for millennia. Cooks all over the world add salt to food to make it palatable. 'Salt to taste' is that line which is so common in all recipes.
Jesus was defining the presence that his disciples should make in the world. They will be those who purify the world that they live, they will make life more palatable, and preserve what is valuable and noble than pull it down.
'Salt' also meant something more. In the Jewish thinking, to be precise in the writings of the Rabbis, salt is a symbol of wisdom. That is why Paul, one of the greatest Rabbis exhorted the Colossian church, 'Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person' (Col 4:6). The followers of Christ has to be full of wisdom so that their words are gracious and filled with wisdom.The idea of wisdom is explicit in the contrast that Jesus makes. The salt can lose its saltiness and become 'tasteless.' In Greek, the word used for 'tasteless' is same as 'foolish.' The disciples have two options. First, be salt or be wise. Second, be tasteless or be foolish! 
Jesus reminds us of the great task that is ahead of us who live in this tasteless world. Life is miserable for many. Poverty, deprivation, injustice, lack of inner peace, conflicts within and without make our world unpleasant. The presence of the followers of Christ in this world that has lost it taste makes it more palatable.

The world is losing the values that preserve the human race. Values like respect for life, the dignity of the human being are being eroded among many other. Great social institutions like marriage and family that have preserved our race so far are under attack. The world is losing its salt. The disciples have to enter the world and salt it again with their presence. The Church thus has the great responsibility to make the world more palatable, or liveable. The world needs wisdom to live. That wisdom is entrusted in the Church of Jesus Christ. 

However, the followers of Jesus can also lose their saltiness. Salt if not used could also react with other active chemicals and become something else even harmful chemicals. Just as salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and is trampled upon, the disciples who lose their saltiness will become laughing stocks before the world. That would be terrible.

Some thoughts on suffering

Suffering happens when we lose control over the people and circumstances that cause our suffering. If we had control it would not have happe...