Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Preachers of Vanity

A few Sundays back I visited a large church in a major city of India. I have heard about this church and has been eagerly waiting to be there. As usual, there was ‘praise and worship’, then announcements in video format about the seminars, workshops and a whole lot of activities that the church organises. Then the senior pastor stood up to preach. Before preaching he gave another run-down of the announcements orally.
The preaching was quite long. It was about the place of Israel in the Bible. He started with Abraham, through Egyptian bondage, Exodus all the way to Babylonian captivity and return. It continued further on to the Maccabean revolt, and all the events between the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 68 and then the end of British Mandate and the formation of Israel in 1948. I though he will end there but he went on Camp David agreement, the present situation including the murder of a Jewish girl by a Palestinian which took place a week before. Then the sermon ended with a call to pray for Israel.
I noticed that at least some people in the pews were restless, some were sleeping tight, some were on WhatsApp pretending as if they were looking up bible verses (all that were on the two screens!) While we were walking out my wife asked me will this crowd return next Sunday too, to hear such a sermon? I said ‘yes.’ I will explain why if you would hang on.
Before that, I should narrate another incident. This happened in my church. I invited a guest speaker. I have never heard him before in my life, but he had invited me many times to his church. So, it was a time to reciprocate I thought; moreover, I need a change as well as my congregation too.
To my surprise, the guest preacher stood up and gave us a lecture about how the Bible came to us starting from the manuscripts, editions and translations. The congregation was thoroughly disappointed. My congregation returned the following Sunday because they knew the guest preacher is not going to be there.
In many urban congregations in India, the pulpit tends to lean away from the Bible. There is a conspiracy in the pulpits. That conspiracy is to avoid the Spirit speaking to us. It is a conspiracy to avoid Bible addressing the real issues of life. It is a conspiracy to mute the Word of God so that we don’t want to be rebuked and corrected by God. It is a conspiracy to keep God out of our life.
This conspiracy is carried out by speaking about issues that belong to another realm. To talk about things that do not really matter to our walk with God. In some pulpits, they talk about how to be successful and the like—biblical versions of Shiv Kera, Robin Sharma and others. Five days of the week, committed believers have heard such voices and they have lived it in order to eke out a living in this world. There is an eternity waiting for them. The preacher's responsibility is to guide them to lead their lives in this world with eternity in view.
Week after week the same crowd returns. To learn what they already know. They return to their homes and their offices believing that what they learn and practice in their corporate offices is what the Bible also teaches. They fail to understand that the Bible is not a volume of footnotes to what we know, it is the Word of God that challenges us, to raise us to new levels of understanding of our world and its realities. They fail to know that we are on a journey, a pilgrimage. We are sojourners whose eyes are fixed on a city that has foundations.

Why do they return Sunday after Sunday? Because this higher view is hidden from them. So, they come to satisfy themselves with water that makes them thirst again and bread that only causes more hunger.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Not so powerless!

After sermon last Sunday, we had a brief time of worship and I faced the congregation again. This time, to show a video circulating in my WhatsApp group. The video is about a homeless man who survives on stolen dog food somewhere in the US. I then showed the picture of a 17-year-old and his 80-year-old great-grandmother who lives on the pavement outside our church. The picture was sent by one of our own young members. The boy works in a nearby coffee shop for food for himself and this old lady and lives under a blue plastic sheet on pavement. Much awaited monsoon rain has arrived in the city. Though it brings joy and relief to our hearts, it makes the life of many with leaking roofs and especially who live on the pavement miserable. After speaking about their miserable condition, my moistened eyes scanned the congregation. Mine was not the only pair of eyes that are wet, I was moved to find that many are wiping their eyes. Then, after a brief pause, I continued, 'Brothers and sisters, when it comes to the suffering of this magnitude, being a small church, we are helpless and powerless. All that we can do for them is to have a heart of compassion and pray.' Then we brought the service to a conclusion with prayer and benediction.
As I walked down the aisles after meeting a few people who had come to the front to greet and appreciate the sermon, I noticed a commotion at the entrance of the church. Someone has brought this boy from the street and his old relative to the church. People are all around them. I ordered a coffee and some biscuits and thought my job was over.
The boy said that it is pouring rain outside. One of our church members came forward and offered to take her home. I could not advise her against the decision, or to make her think twice about it. Someone quickly made a rota to feed them.
My wife had a call at night. The new host for this destitute is calling. She lives in an apartment complex. Her neighbours are not happy with her quests. She wants her to find them a place as soon as possible? The following day was busy. My wife called up a Christian Old Age home. They said it is not for people on the street. It is for people who can pay, about Rs 15000 per month. She called up two or three such places--Catholic, Adventist, etc. This time, we were more ecumenical than ever before! Sisters of Charity is full. Some Christian old age homes said that they don't take any who are above sixty.
Helpless, we sat down. Frowning the enthusiasm of the 'immature' members of the church who dragged this old woman, who can hardly walk to the church. Both of us agreed that our youth need more discernment, they jump the gun. That doesn't solve the problem. We need to get this woman and the boy out of our church member's house. We can't take them back to the pavement.
That was the night we thought of an acquaintance who died a month ago. He had lot of dreams for God. But before he could achieve much he died in his sixties. I heard that his son has taken over and continuing the ministry. Someone had told me that they run a home for children and old people. I rang up, but only to be told that they don't take old people who need assistance. However, I was able to convince them.
So, we made the four-hour drive to the home for the destitutes yesterday. On the way, we heard their stories. When the boy was six months old his mother left him with his grandmother never to be traced again. Someone later gave him a black and white picture of his mother which he still keeps in his pocket. After staying with some relatives, he finally came to stay with his great-grandmother. When she was old, her own children evicted her from her house. She could work and earn a living then, so they moved to a small rented hut. The grandson contributed doing small jobs quitting school. Finally, they ended up in the street when they could not pay the rent.
The boy would like to study. He has done up to seventh grade. He loves drawing. He has learned horse-riding. He even came up in the seventh position in a horse race when he was working for a holiday resort on the hills. Though he was in the streets, he has never touched tobacco or drugs. They lived just outside the McDonalds and people gave them the left-overs they had packed to take home. Sometimes, the staff in the Mac also fed them.
The journey was long, but I enjoyed it. The shine in the eyes of the old woman was so brilliant it lighted up the cabin. It was foggy and raining outside with poor visibility. She has never travelled in a car. She looked at her grandson curiously as we overtook a container truck. He explained to her that the 'big-box' has come from a distant country by ship. Then there was oil-tanker, he pointed to a waterfall as we went past it. It seems that she enjoyed the trip.
Finally, we reached our destination and handed over our guests to their new caretakers. While we were filling and signing the documents, the young boy took a walk around the campus that is going to be his home. The old woman sat in a chair with walking club with her eyes still beaming. She will have a roof over her head and meals every day. She will not be hungry anymore and the boy is planning to go to school. In two years time, he will qualify to earn a decent living and lead his own life with dignity.
I came back with one of the kind church members who had accompanied me on the long trip. Before going to bed, I reflected on the last two days. From projecting their images in the church. My concluding words that day kept haunting me. I had told the church, 'When it comes to suffering of this magnitude, all that we can do is pray!' It seems that there was some in my congregation who did not believe what I said. They thought something more can be done. They dragged me into a situation where I had to rethink, there was something more we could do. As Paul said, 'We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.'
We are not alone in doing good things. When my wife took the old woman to a doctor for a certificate, the doctor refused to charge her the fees. He humbly said that it is his contribution to the kindness we show. An old man whom I never met called up to appreciate what we have done for them. He wanted to meet me. It seems that he lived nearby and used to see them on the street every day. On my way back one of the church members called me on the phone to say that he will pay all the expenses involved in this. When I finally reached home there was another surprise. Another church member who missed the church last Sunday and totally unaware of what is going on has contributed Rs 5000 towards the church's charity fund.
I had my lesson. When it comes to the suffering of great magnitude we are not that helpless and powerless as we think. Moreover, we are not alone. We are surrounded by kind people and above all God who makes all things possible is with us. All that we need is a heart of compassion and of faith.

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,...