Friday, October 10, 2014

Smart Spirituality


This is the age of Smart Phones. Smart phones can do almost everything that a personal computer can do and is increasingly replacing them. Studies show that the sale of laptops have gone down and that of smart phones have gone up considerably.
Smart phones are now used for internet browsing, sending and receiving emails, banking, ticket bookings, games, social networking, and all that you can imagine are possible with your hand-held phone. It is even replacing the TV and radio sets. Apps on smart phones can help us keep our body slim and mind sharp. The smart phones are only going to get smarter as days go by.
Integrating technology and spirituality is very important. This is not new. The sages who recorded the scriptures moved from clay tablets to stone tablets to leather scrolls to papyri. Then came Gutenberg with the movable types. Thus the bibles until then found only in the churches and monasteries reached every home. Then as book production became easier and cheaper most Christians have at least one bible in their own languages. Then it was the days of Bible software on computers. Some of them had features that no user had any use of! Some experts say that no user knows or has any use of 80% of the features a software offers.
At each turn of technological development spirituality benefited positively. Reformation would not have happened the way it happened if there was no printing press and communication. Revival preachers have taken advantage of the newspapers, radio, TV and Internet. This marriage between technology and spirituality is certainly from God. But we need to remind ourselves that the Devil is also keen on using it.
Now the emerging trend being that of smart phones how smart can Christian spirituality get? I have some suggestions from own experience. You may have more and I will appreciate if you could share it with all of us.
I use a Bible software on my Android Tab which has practically replaced my print bible. Print Bibles are huge and heavy. Highlighting verses see through to the reverse of the page. There is a limit to what you can note on the margins. Moreover, what would you do with a Bible that you used for so long and love so much with all your notes in it. You feel it is too sacred and precious to throw in to the trash bin like other used books or old newspaper.
I use Olive Tree Bible Software on my Tab. I can have multiple versions, highlight, make study notes and reflections, look up commentaries and dictionaries side by side. Nothing will be lost since everything is synced between my Tab and the cloud service the software company offers. I have routed my Tab many times but nothing is so far lost. Even I lose my Tab or have to buy a new one all my data will be secure.
My smart tablet has helped me not only study and meditate the Word but is also helps me in my research and writing. I carry a huge library on my Tab. Mine is a very basic machine with only 16 GB of memory and screen size of 10.1. I have the entire collection of Early Church Fathers besides many other huge collections on it. If I stack the printed volumes of Early Church Fathers one on the other it will touch the ceiling of my room!
Then I have Kindle on my Tab as well as Play books and other eBook readers. I used to carry one or two books on my travels. Then on the way or at the destination I had after thoughts on the selection that I made when packing. That is no more a problem now, I have the entire library with me accessible from anywhere.
On my quite strolls around the campus I feel God prompting me to think. I have thoughts that come to me in my quite contemplations. Then if I can’t find a piece of paper and pen and jot them down immediately they will be lost for ever. However, my smart phone with Evernote has never disappointed me. I can jot it down on Evernote (like the seed though of this write-up) even if I am in a desert with no internet connection. Then when I get home or the data connection is restored it has already synced with my other devices—laptop or the Tab. Sometimes, I use it for noting down prayer points, sermon ideas, announcements in the church for the next Sunday.
Evernote Hello which integrates with Evernote has been helpful in my pastoral work a lot. This helps me keep a record of my meetings with people, notes on the meetings etc. Before the next meeting I can go through the notes and have a follow up.
I find Remember Me a very useful tool. This is an app that helps you memorize the scripture. Olive Tree has bible reading plans and I follow one. Then when I come across a verse that I would like to cherish I can highlight it or make a note on it. However, Remember Me allows me to keep this verse along with other verses to memorize it. It will play the verses added to it audibly so that I can just hear my favourite verses read to me. I remember one of my family members when she was old and eye sight being poor making us the younger ones read the Bible to her. Now, I can have that privilege while I am comparatively younger and with no grandchildren around.
My smart phones help me keep my prayer journal, spiritual journal wherever, I go.
As a pastor I find it extremely useful to stay in touch with my congregation throughout the week. Most of my congregation members are on WhatsApp. So we have a group for the church. We send prayer requests, birthday wishes, songs and videos over WhatsApp. It helps the church stay connected throughout the week.
So I developed a App for my church. We use the App more than the church website now—www.coreindia.org. This android app called COREPUNE has the schedules, blogs, directions, and a whole lot.
I remember an ad in the early ninetees that the Indian High Commission put out. It said, ‘We missed the industrial revolution, but we are not going to miss the IT revolution.’ That resolve came true. The first Indian company to be listed on NASDAQ was an IT company called Infosys! I think a similar slogan is now in the air. ‘This is the era of Smart Phone revolution, the Church should not miss it.’

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lies--The Vocal Killers


“Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (Psalm 120:2).
Lying is a reality in our society. Parents lie to their children and children to their parents. The reason for denying something to their children may not always lack of money though that is what the parents try to convince them. Spouses do lie. Coming home late from office is not always some urgent work that landed on the table as ‘I was about to leave the office.’ Politicians have perfected this art so much so that the expression ‘honest politician’ is obsolete and is a contradiction of terms in most of the cases. Exaggerated resume, tall claims of achievements, grades, qualifications the list goes on.
How often do people lie? A study on American students a few years ago found out that on an average, they lied almost 3 times in a 10 minute conversation with strangers. Another study in Britain found out that British men lie six times a day and women three times.
Saints of the Old Testament especially those who composed the Psalms took lies very seriously. The word translated as ‘lie’ in this Psalm occurs in 21 Psalms and many times more in the rest of the Old Testament. Its synonyms comes many more times.
Isaiah was concerned with speech that is not truthful but deceptive and misleading. He cried out, ‘for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ (Isa 6:5). He had to fight political lies and deceptions all throughout his ministry.
It is not a problem in the Old Testament only but the New Testament also exposes the sin of lie. Jesus had warned his disciples that Devil is the source of all lies: ‘for he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). As in all other cases in this aspect also Devil’s character is diagonally opposite to the character of God for whom ‘it is impossible to lie’ (Heb 6:18).
Followers of Christ who has put on the new nature and is growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ are exhorted not to lie. Especially to one another: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices’ (Col 3:9). John’s vision of those the saints who make it to heaven is very much in line with exhortation to Colossians. They are the ones in whose ‘mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless’ (Rev 14:5).
The early Church also had its share of liars. The story of Ananias and Saphira stands out among them. Though they lied to the elders of the church about the proceeds of the sale of their property, it is considered as a lie to the Holy Spirit.
But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?’ (Acts 5:3).
Lying is a spiritual problem. It comes out of fear and lack of trust in God. It reflects the character of the Devil (liar par excellence) than of God. Jesus said that the Devil is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). It is not then surprising that those who belong to him lie. I have come to realize that it is easy to estimate spiritual status from how spontaneous is lying to that person.
Some by nature resort to lie and avoid being confronted by the truth of the Word of God or good counsel by their pastor or spiritual peers. They sow immense damage to themselves as they spiritually wilt away in the course of time but in the process mislead many and sometimes hurt the body of believers. That is why the one who lies and the victims of their lies need God’s protection.
Lying for some is a way of life. They lie not realising they are lying. Lying is built into their system for managing conflicts and maintaining self esteem. Many psychologists agree that people lie in order to avoid ‘social conflicts.’ For example when they are late for a party or dinner with a friend it is usual for people to resort to a lie—most of the cases it would be adverse traffic conditions, an unexpected visitor, or any other convenient lie. Friends lie to each other about their status, finances, relationships and so on, all with the intention to keep good relationships.
Psychologist Robert Feldman finds the main reason for lying is a threatened self esteem. Many people have a ‘real self’ and ‘ideal self.’ When the ideal self (or what they really want to be) is farther away from their ‘real self’ (or what they really are now) they bridge the gap through lies. People claim what they are not and what they did not achieve.
There may be a number or explanations why people lie but one things is clear: lies hurt. Lies hurt first the person who lies and then it hurts the people whom they are lying about. It also hurts who act on the lies that they believe. That is why the Psalmist prayed for deliverance from lies.
Lies hurt the person who lies. I know a man who opened the door of a running car and jumped out of it hurting himself. The driver had slowed down spotting a large truck that was about to enter his lane. However, according to the one who jumped out, the car was about to ram into a truck. The door on the passenger side opened on its own as the driver applied the brake suddenly and he was thrown out of the car. I checked with the driver. It was true there was a truck ahead of them and he had to slow down. But the door was intact and it will not open in any situation on its own. It has never happened with that car before or after.
This person has a problem of seeing things and hearing voices. That runs in the family. He sincerely thought that the car is about to ram into the truck. Out of panic he opened the door and jumped out. He acted on a lie that his sick mind told him. When he later recognized his mistake shame made him to blame the door and the driver. It hurt him physically and emotionally. It hurt also the driver emotionally who had to take the blame. We can forgive this man if we are willing to accept the fact that he did it trusting his mind which was a bit faulty at times. However, lies hurt.
We need protection from lies for many reasons. First of all, our lies backfire to our own harm. We may be caught and the self-esteem that we built up through lying and false pretensions collapse under the weight of it.
Secondly, lies distance us from ourselves. When we lie we have to tell more lies to keep the lies alive. Then as we build upon each previous lie we go far from the reality and end up living a false reality. We end up in a false self image: an ideal self than the real self. The real self which need care, nurture and growth is ignored as we live in ‘an ideal life.’ Lies distance people from us. Lies hurt the villains.
Lies also hurt the victims badly. Lies that people say about us hurt our reputation and our relationships. Lies can be harmful to an extent that some lies could turn to be mortal. When two scoundrel’s gave a false testimony about Naboth he not only lost his property but also his life (1 Kings 21:1-16).
Victims of lies are not only the people who are lied about but also those believe the lies about others. Those who are gullible distance themselves, hate or even attack the innocent victims of lies. Thus those who believe and act upon lies become victims of the lies they are told.
Lies are harmful but who can protect us from lies? I am not aware how many lies about me are out there doing their rounds. Even if know, I cannot go around and defend myself. Even if I defend people still may not believe me! I am least aware of the damage it has caused and it would cause. Lies are silent destroyers. Lies never build anything up. We are totally helpless as victims of lies.
It is this sense of helplessness that makes the Psalmist turn to God for deliverance as he cries out, “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (Psalm 120:2).

Friday, May 30, 2014

God, the dropper of my jaw!


God is the God of surprises. In our walk with God, there is some surprise waiting for us at every turn. In the narrative of John’s birth in the Gospel of Luke (1:5-25) we find many divine surprises.
First of all, Zechariah the priest did not expect to find Gabriel, the angel of God as he entered the area where the altar of incense was. The old priest was startled at the sight of the heavenly being right in front of an earthling like him. Secondly, he did not expect the announcement that he is going to become a father. He was old and has accepted the fact that he and his wife will be childless for the rest of their life.
The worshippers waiting outside had their surprises too. They were surprised that the priest has taken unusually long time to return. Now, finally when he emerged he was not able to talk to them. He was mute. Then they concluded that the priest might have had a encounter with an angel in the inner court of the temple. That also is a surprise—an angel in the inner courts of the Temple?
Elizabeth, the wife of priest Zechariah also had her share of surprises. She was not expecting a child. However, she tried to keep the secret that was growing in her belly for five months until it became to big to hide from the people. Now, we can imagine the surprise her family members and friends had when the discovered that the old, barren woman is going to have a child.
Finally, the child was born. The people wanted to know what they should call the child. The mute father writes the name ‘John’ on a tablet. There was a double surprise waiting for them. First of all, the name was unusual. Usually, a child is named after members of the family—parents or grandparents. However, there was no one by that name in their family. Why this name? However, this is the name that the angel had suggested to the father. Then they had their second surprise: the moment the father wrote the last letter of the name ‘John’ his mouth was opened and he was able to speak. He has been dumb for about 10 months and suddenly he speaks as soon as he wrote the name that the angel had told him to give to his son to be born.
At every turn of life we should expect some surprise as we walk with God. The reason—God loves to surprise us. He is not a God who specialize in the mundane and the ordinary but he loves to do what is beyond the limits of our imagination. He enjoys doing what we dump as impossible. He makes my jaw drop! This is a parody of what the Psalmist said in Psalm 3:3 ‘the lifter of my head.’

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Camel through the Eye of a Needle

Paul Piff, social psychologist has studied how wealth affects attitudes and behaviour. His empirical studies has uncovered that the wealthy are more prone to corruption and very poor in giving. They tend to be more likely to be law-breakers than those who are poorer than them! However, he says that these can be improved, though he doesn’t tell us how. There are exceptions to this rule certainly. The exceptions comes to us in the form of Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates and Narayana Murthi (Infosys) and many others who though rich are engaged in commendable service to humanity and liberal in their giving.
I think Paul Piff, has provided a modern scientific commentary to what Jesus said in the first century: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25). He meant ‘eye of the needle’ literally. It is not a small gate in the city of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time as some interpreters think. There was no such gate! ‘Eye of the needle’ is a hyperbole used to illustrate the near impossibility of the rich making progress in their spiritual progress.
The story of the rich man who approached Jesus is a good illustration. This man (young and rich) approached Jesus to find out how to enter ‘eternal life’ (Mark 10:17-31). This man obviously had the hunger to grow spiritually. He knew that there is something more than what he know and he practice to spirituality. It is this realization of lack that made him come to Jesus ‘running’ and ‘kneel’ before him. In addressing Jesus as ‘good teacher’ he also expressed his confidence that Jesus has the right advice and he is eager to know it.
The conversation  between him and Jesus reveals that he has achieved good spiritual progress already. Jesus prescribed to him six out of the ten commandments that has to do with human relationships and wealth (Mark 10:19). However, Jesus slightly modified one which originally said, ‘do not covet’ to ‘do not defraud.’ Defrauding goes a step further than covetousness or that is where covetousness leads a person to. In response to Jesus he claimed that he has been following these ‘from his youth’ (Mark 10:20). That means ever since he became morally responsible for his actions. (A Jewish male is considered to be morally responsible for his actions when he turns sixteen. He is then accountable to God and the society for his actions.) Jesus was very impressed by his spirituality, that is why Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10:21).
He is indeed a righteous rich person by the standards of his society and the religion he followed. By declaring that he has been observing all these rules, he claims that he has become wealthy in the right way. He hasn’t become rich at the expense of others. This is almost equivalent to any claim religious people make our days too. They haven’t accepted or given bribes to become rich, they haven’t exploited anyone, or have never made through illegal means. All that they have is made through right and justifiable means.
But Jesus’ response to him was shocking: ‘you lack one thing!’ (Mark 10:21). What is that one thing that the rich lack? Jesus did not make it clear when he said: ‘go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.’ Jesus was not asking to make a donation or to be regular with his tithes. His demand was to give away all that he has. It is shocking because Jesus was not against wealth or the wealthy. Jesus did not demand anyone other than this man to sell all that he had. If they left anything that was on their own, not because Jesus forced them to. The disciples left their nets, boats, taxbooths at their own will. Zachaeus offered to give away the wealth that he gathered through illegal means and share his legitimate wealth with the poor without any insistence from Jesus. Jesus certainly had many rich friends and disciples. Some of them were so rich to throw parties and Jesus accepted their hospitality to be labelled ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Mat 11:19) by his opponents. This peculiar demand was to illustrate to his disciples that the wealthy preferred their wealth if they had to make a choice between wealth and spirituality. As he expected, the rich man walked away: ‘Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions’ (Mark 10:22).
Jesus made two powerful statements through this confrontation with the rich man. First, even the  most perfect man by any standards have still room to grow spiritually. Second, wealth is the most important thing for the rich people. It is so important for them that even higher goals of life like growing spiritually takes a backseat. That means it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than expecting the rich to make spiritual progress.
What is wrong with money then? Does this mean that one has to become poor in order to grow spiritually? Not at all! We have already seen that Jesus did not demand asceticism from his followers. The danger of wealth is that it demands worship from us. That is why Jesus qualified wealth as ‘mamon’ the name of an Aramaic deity. That is why Jesus said that noone can ‘serve’ God and ‘mamon’ at the same time (Matthew 6:24). ‘Serve’ means to worship. It competes with God for its place in human life and we are prone to yield to wealth than to God when a choice has to be made.
Paul Piff’s research tells us that the problem with the wealthy is the sense of entitlement that they have. ‘Entitlement’ is that notion or belief that all that one has belong to him (her) and he (she) has right to it. He has found out that even those who didn’t make their wealth but got it through inheritance could have this sense of ‘entitlement.’ This makes them poor givers because they want to hold on to what they are ‘entitled’ to. This also make them make more money any way they could. Paul Piff through his scientific studies which the great Teacher had already stated and proved through the conversation with this rich man: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:25).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Elihu blew a fuse?

Elihu was a patientl listener to the arguments back and forth between Job and his friends. However, it came to a point were he blew his top! ‘Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God. He burned with anger also at Job's three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong’ (Job 32:2-3).
It is not an acceptable behaviour in ancient societies for young people to speak in the presence of the elders, leave alone criticise them. Elihu had reserved the most disrespectful, caustic comments about the whole thing. The reason for his frustration is not that the debate between Job and his friends has been the poorest show on earth but they proved themselves to be fools, though they were widely accepted wisemen! He burst out, ‘I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom”’ (Job 32:6-7).
That is only a rather gentle introduction to sharp criticism of wisdom of aged that is to come. He said, ‘It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right’ (Job 32:9). That statement flies at the face of the values that the ancient world cherished. There was no Google those days to consult. Wisdom was oral, passed on from one generation to another. The older the person, the wiser he would be, because wisdom is accumulated by age. This is what the young man Elihu is dares to deny.
What is important here is that, Elihu is not denying the wisdom of the wisemen or the old. He points out to another source of wisdom which neither Job nor his friends have realized. That is the Spirit of the Almighty God which dwells in human beings. He argues, ‘But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand’ (32:8). Before we take a closer look at Elihu’s statement we need to do see why Elihu blew a fuse!
The secret of Elihu’s outburst is evident in the structure of the book itself. Job has lost everything: his wealth, his children and his health. He has moved from the honourable place he had at the city gate to the trash dump in the city. His friends wise in every way (the three came from the major seats of learning in the ancient world) comes to visit him. They argued only one thing: Job is a sinner and that is the reason for his suffering. Ask God’s forgiveness and he will be fine. That is exactly what Job could not accept. He didn’t hear the conversation between Satan and Yahweh in the heavenly court where Yahweh swore that Job is righteous in every way. But he had the inner conviction that he is not a sinner as his friends tries to argue. There are three rounds of arguments between Job and his friends. They will speak one after another and Job replies to each of them in each round. They used their wisdom and reasoning to convince Job but he kept justifying himself.
The friends were tired. Their arguments became shorter and shorter as they move from one round of arguments to another. The friends speak in the order as Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. However, by the second round Zophar seems to have given up. He has no speech in the third round. By the end of the third round the other two also gave up. The three friends ‘had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.’ (Job 32:3). Now, did Job win the argument? Not at all. Because the rebuttal to his positions comes from God who speaks ‘out of the whirlwind’ in chapter 38. Elihu is only a transitional figure between human wisdom (of the three friends and Job) and divine wisdom. God then unleashes a barrage of questions at Job in his speech. Questions that have no answer. What is God trying to tell him? Its simple: there are hundreds of questions for which human minds have no answer! Suffering of the innocent is just one the myriad of such questions. Keep quiet!
Then finally, God condemned Job’s friends and gives Job the privilege to pray for them. The verdict is out now. The friend who were experts in traditional wisdom are wrong, Job who justified himself is wrong. All of them except Elihu who thought they can find answers to all the mysteries of life are wrong. The friends were wrong because they depended on the wisdom that they gathered over the years. They could not think outside the box of traditional wisdom. Job was wrong, though he is righteous in God’s eyes he had no right to justify himself. It is God who justifies.
Elihu is right! Because he did not depend on the traditional wisdom nor one’s own self-confidence of being right but on God’s wisdom. That wisdom was available to him not from Google or encyclopedias but by the indwelling of God’s Spirit in him. Before he set forth this argument he disclosed that secret when he said: ‘But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand’ (32:8). The Spirit of God that dwells in him makes him restless. He said: ‘For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. Behold, my belly is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins ready to burst. I must speak, that I may find relief; I must open my lips and answer’ (Job 32:18-20). The nearest parallel to this restlessness is in Jeremiah. The prophet is filled with the Word of God that he is so restless until he get it out of his chest! Jeremiah laments: ‘If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’ (Job 20:9).
Then after Elihu has spoken and relieved himself of the great burden that the Spirit of God has placed in his heart, be breaks into one of the great doxologies we find in the Bible, the great praise of God almighty in Job 36-37 at the end of which God takes his place on the stage to speak out of the whirl wind and take the debate to its conclusion.
We just learn one lesson. Human wisdom has its limits. Even those who are righteous in God’s own eyes have no right to justify themselves. The source of wisdom is God and God imparts this to human beings through indwelling of his Spirit. All other wisdom and reasoning is an endless merry-go-round going round and round in vain and comes to an end when we are tired of speaking/thinking! The real source of wisdom is the Spirit of God which dwells in everyone who believes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sibling Rivalry

‘Hebron’ means ‘league’, ‘confederation’ or by extension ‘friendship.’ This is the place where Patriarch Abraham bought a small patch of land to bury his wife Sara. Later it turned out to be the place where all the patriarchs and matriarchs except Rachel had their resting place. Today there stands the Ibrahami Mosque (as the Muslims calls it) or the Cave of the Patriarchs as the Jews would like to call it. Sibling rivalry begins with names!
Abraham was a landless wanderer when his wife died in this area. Though God had promised him the land to his offspring he had none yet. Genesis 23 tells us the story of how patriarch Abraham came to own the place called Hebron. The Hittites who owned the land offered a burial space free but Abraham politely turned their offer down. He wanted the burial cave owned by Ephron the son of Zohar who also was so kind to offer the cave of Macpelah free of cost. However, Abraham had to persuade him with the help of the elders of the Hittites to sell it to him. Finally after turning down the generosity of the Hittites, Abraham the sojourner bought the burial caves along with the field and treess around for 400 shekels of silver. Thus it legally the grave yard of the patriarchs and matriachs. But which of their children have claim on this. The siblings could not agree.
Ibrahami Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs

The story of cordiality and friendship between two distinct group of people is remarkable. It also is a story of kindness shown to a stranger by the owners of the land. The story of Hebron doesn’t stop there. It is from around this area that the spies that Moses sent brought the produce of the land. It is the land that was occupied by the giants called Anakim whom Caleb challenged.
Hebron which begins its history in the Bible with friendship, cordiality and kindness had already turned in to a place of violent confrontations and conflicts in the Bible times itself. In modern times, it is symbolic of the tension between the two races who trace their history back to Father Abraham—Arabs and Jews. Sometimes in the fourth century AD, Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor identified the caves under the structure that King Herod built as the caves where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried. It became a ‘Holy Place’ for the Christians. Then to cut the long story shot during the days of the Islamic invaders a mosque was built on the site. Thus it became the place of worship for Muslims.
Among many violent incidents that might have hurt the memory of Father Abraham is known in history as the 1929 Hebron Massacre and the Ibrahami mosque massacre of 1994. On August 24, 1928, sixty seven Jews including 23 college students were massacred in Hebron by Arabs acting on false rumours that Jews were killing Arabs in Jerusalem. The land what is now called Israel and Palestine was under British mandate then. On the fateful day of February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish medical doctor who was also member of a Jewish extremist group called Kach movement opened fire on unarmed Muslims in prayer in this mosque. It was the holiday of Purim for the Jews and Ramdan for the Muslims. The attack killed 29 worshippers and 125 injured by the time Goldstein had emptied his revolver. He was beaten to death by the survivors!
Following this incident, the mosque was closed for years and when it was opened part of it was turned into a synagogue separated with a bullet proof wall from the mosque. In between these two major incidents were many violent actions from both sides until the streets of Hebron witnessed more violence in the second intifada or Oslo War.
The story of Gadi and Dina

During the second intifada the streets of Hebron saw violence on a major scale. The Jewish settlers in Hebron had to use Suhada Street that passed by the tombs of Patriarchs populated by Arabs who were in uprise. The Jews blame that hundreds of Jews were slaughtered by the Arabs in this street. Walking along the street I spotted a sign where they tell the story of Gadi and Dina a couple who were expecting their first child killed by an Arab suicide bomber when they were on their way to pray at the tomb of the Patriarchs.
The Israeli government’s response to the alleged violence was severe. They closed Suhada street. Suhada Street was in fact a row of shops which was the only means of living for the Arabs who lived behind or above their own shops. Tourists who came to Macpelah (Tomb of Patriarchs) shopped there. Israeli military not only closed the street for the Arabs but also closed the shops. They welded the doors; many Arab families have no ground level access to the street. They have to climb over their roofs to visit their neighbours or to send their children to school. The street has a deserted look. There are military check posts at the entrance. Only Jews and foreign tourists are allowed to walk along the streets. There are no children playing on the streets. At the entrance of the street from the Tombs of the Patriarchs Israeli soldier verified my passport however, he was so light-hearted young man who even allowed me to take a picture with him.
Deserted Suhada Street, Hebron

The city of Hebron comes under the Palestinian Authority. However, the Israeli Military controls the area. There is propoganda everywhere. Flex banners explaining the Jewish position and graffitti on Arab homes and closed doors to counter the Jewish propaganda.
There is suspicion everywhere. As we walked through Suhada Street with a guide who explained to us the human right violations in Hebron and how closing of Suhada Street a Jewish settler followed as recording us on his iPhone. It was a way of intimidating our guide: don’t say anything against us, you are on record.
Closed shops with sealed doors

Hebron around the Tombs of Patriarchs is now a ghost city. It seems it is only for the dead and not for the living. The friendship and cordiality that the patriarch Abraham received is gone and is given way to suspicion, hatred and violence. Who is to be blamed?

Walls, stones and bullets!

We were figuring out our way to lunch. The lunch menu is the Arab speciality Makluth, something similar to the Biryani but much less spicier. However, our group was stopped by a person who said we should take another route avoiding the main road. The Israeli military who entered the Palestinian territory has tear-gassed the street against a bunch of youth who were protesting against the death of a Jordanian on the Allenby bridge the previous day.
A wall that separates Bethlehem from Israeli territories.

Just a few feet away from Jacir Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem.

Here on the streets stones are returned by bullets and tear gas
It has become the routine of the day for the Palestinian youth in Bethlehem. They throw stones at the tower built on the walls that separate the Palestinian areas from Israeli areas. The Israelis call it 'security wall' and the Palestinians condemn it as 'separation wall.' You can see them all around. The truth is that only 3% of the border between Israel and the Palestinian areas (designated as area A) have walls. Some areas have barbed wired fences and some are simply open. In spite of the walls still about 10,000 Palestinians still enter Israel illegally.

However, the walls are provocative. There are checkpoints everywhere. Those who enter the Palestinian areas are not checked, but when coming out even tourists are checked. Your passports be handy all the time. Hundreds of Palestinians have to cross the checkpoints every day in the morning and return in the evening if they have to work in Israeli areas. You may be turned down without any reasons. So there is great anxiety, fear and sense of loss of dignity as the young Israeli soldiers check your documents and person for weapons etc.

Youth vent their grudge against the walls by graffiti. On Fridays almost invariably they they throw stones at the towers where the Israeli soldiers are posted. The soldiers retaliate with tear gas and if that doesn't deter the mask wearing youth, fire in the air, rubber bullets or even aim at them.
There is denial! Or it is hope?

Stone throwing youth are rounded up at night. Even children under 14 serve in Israeli jails, thousands of them.
In our last day in Bethlehem we tried to walk back to our hotel. But there was drama on the street. It was Friday evening and the youth had a holiday. So, they decided to spend the evening throwing stones at the Israeli posts on the walls in Bethlehem. The youth were wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas. The Israeli soldiers opened the gates on the walls and entered the streets and they started firing. We were caught between the two warring groups--stones and bullets. We requested the hotel staff to stop a taxi for us. And as we jumped in to the taxi, the Israeli soldiers were firing into the air and the youth were running away. The taxi driver was cool. The hotel security staff was duty-bound. For them it is a daily scene.
Will this walls come down one day?
Will Abraham's children embrace each other one day?


Back in my hotel room I told my wife. Both these parties lack one thing--a Gandhi! Every stone that is pelted will be returned by a bullet unless one more Gandhi's are born, may be two one on each side of the wall.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Storks and Steadfast Love


Most parents at least once in life have to answer this question their curious little ones toss at them: ‘Where did I come from?’ The child is too young to understand the complex biological activity that brought the child to this world. Embarrassed and bashful, parents resort to explanations that they might have got from their own parents. A white stork that flew over their roof carrying a little cute baby in a sling hanging from its long beak dropped it through the chimney! They found the cute little baby by the fire-side in the morning! The children are usually happy with that explanation and may watch for storks flying across their rooftops with babies in slings hanging from their long beaks, until they grow up to find out the truth for themselves.
The storks don’t carry babies in their beaks nor deliver them to couples longing for children. It is all part of myths that grew around storks—majestic, beautiful birds commonly imagined in white colour. For reasons we may not fully know they became symbols of kindness, love and care. Such myths about storks abounded in the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many European cultures have stories of caring and faithful storks. Storks are considered monogamous and faithful to their partners. However, it remains a myth since scientists have found that they change their partners after the young one are hatched and even during their migration. People believed unlike other birds storks are birds of integrity since the return to their same old huge nests year after year for laying eggs and hatching. According to some myths storks would prefer to be burned to death along with their helpless young ones if their nests catch fire than fly away to safety.
Popular beliefs and myths shape our language. That is true of Hebrew also. The Hebrew language gave the right word for this birds which had become symbols of integrity, faithfulness and kindness. Though according to Mosaic law this bird is considered unclean, the bird is called HASIDA which is translated as ‘faithful’ or ‘kind.’ The word comes from the root HSD and the corresponding noun HESED.
Though the root HSD is very frequent in the Old Testament, there is no consensus about how the word HESED should be translated in to English. Translations vary and even within a given version it could be translated variously depending on the context. HESED is a unique concept so rich in meaning which makes any language inadequate to express it. So, we have words like as ‘faithfulness’, ‘steadfast love’, ‘mercy’, ‘grace’, ‘loyalty’, and so on.
HESED is freely given and freely received; it is undeserved. It is not an obligation but sometimes comes to us as a surprise. The people of Jabesh were extremely kind to Saul who died in the battle (2 Sam 2:5). They kept his body so that it will not fall into the victorious Philistines to humiliate him further but he will receive a royal funeral fitting his role as a king. What they rendered to the defeated king is HESED which is rendered inadequately as ‘loyalty’ (ESV, NRSV), ‘kindness’ (JPS, NIV). He didn’t deserve it nor the people of Jabesh were obliged to render it to him. It was a free act of ‘kindness.’ The servant of Abraham who journeyed to the distant land where Abraham’s kindred lived appealed for HESED from Laban (Gen 24:49). Laban was not in anyway bound to comply with that request. But still, sending his sister with a stranger to be married to a relative whom he hasn’t met was an act of HESED. It was an act of trust and kindness. Ruth also extended HESED to her old and helpless mother-in-law by following her to a uncertain future. She could have opted to leave her as her co-sister Orpah did. Boaz called her action an act of HESED (Ruth 3:10).
HESED is most often used in relation to God. It is the undeserving mercy of God. At the same time the people of Israel understood themselves as a people who have covenanted with their God. Or more precisely God has entered into a covenant with them. So, he is bound to show them mercy as he promised: ‘Showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Deut 5:10). So those who love God have a claim to his ‘steadfast love.’
There were times when Israel failed their God—they were not loyal to the covenant. Sometimes, kings like David or less prominent individuals have failed to meet the demands of God. However, they appeal to God for HESED solely on the basis of God’s faithfulness to his relationship with his people. David would cry, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your HESED...’ (Ps 51:1).
Though the humans break the relationship, God always remained faithful. God honours his part of relationship though the corrupt humanity couldn’t keep their part. That makes saint Paul say, ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful’ (2 Tim 2:13). The HESED thus becomes God’s ‘unfailing love’, or ‘steadfast love’ which the hymn writer (Albert Lister Peace, 1844-1912) would call ‘love that wilt not let me go...’ The history of Israel is a history of Gods’ unfailing kindness to them. No words are adequate to express it because we those who follow Christ experience it as the,deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, freeas the hymn by Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925) goes.

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,...