Trophies in the Dustbin?

Phillipians 3: 1-14

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.  Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Message

Macaulay Culkin is a name very familiar to all of us. If not, he is the child superstar who shot to fame thanks to his exploits in the Home Alone series of movies. As a child, when I saw the movie, I always looked out if robbers or goons were coming when I was home alone, to trick them with the newly acquired skills I had, after watching the movie. I was disappointed to know that I had a very safe and boring neighbourhood which snatched away a chance of displaying my smartness. My fascination for the actor was way too profound to express in words. And I kept saying, I just want to know what this guy will become when he turns into a fine man. But I did not hear much about him. Where did this superstar go? What happened to him? It was heartbreaking to see a photo of him, where he looked a shadow of his past.. He looked disheveled, shabby, disoriented and out of sorts. The report said about he got hooked to heroin and other drugs. Well I am not shaming him or so. But what caught my attention is a line in the report that said “Success had ruined him.” That tipped my mind. That statement looked very ironic, but so true. I have done some counseling and have taken classes on how to handle failure, depression, rejection and so forth. But never have I come across a book that says “How to handle Success.”

In today’s text we read Paul eloquently expressing his changed priorities in life once he had encountered Christ. All that he boasted as trophies in his life, of being circumcised on 8th day, of belonging to the Benjamin Tribe, of being a Pharisee, a scholar who studied under Gamaliel, were all considered as loss once he encountered Christ. He considers all the worldly trophies as dung or garbage. His eloquence comes very close to the words of Jesus in the sermon of the mount

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6: 19- 21). If one follows Paul’s life very seriously we see that his encounter led him to a life of deep failure according to the yardsticks of a Greek and Jewish society. As a Pharisee and a scholar, he would have had more economic security, a far better reputation, could have been spared of the many ship wrecks, nightmare in prisons, the lashes and the untimely death. Following Jesus, brought Paul in contact with suffering, humiliation and finally death. Now keeping this in mind reading the verse without a tear is not possible. ‘What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.’ (Phillipians 3: 8)

When I travel around, I feel very excited to meet youths everywhere. I envy the focus that they have which I have always lacked. I see that so many youths are so more articulate of things of which I was clueless at their age. Their finesse with photography, their sophistications with social media, their raw talent in music keeps me enthralled. There are many who move to a new city for a new job with unlimited freedom. An exposure that is just dizzying in every respect. But the Euphoria fades even if they have landed with their dream jobs. The trophies like ipad, latest mobiles, cars, new bikes or vintage ones cannot satisfy them. The dream job now scares them and we have a whole lot of people or a generation that has grown to dread Monday mornings. They wish everyone “Thank God it is Friday” or “Happy Weekend”. What is wrong? Why are we not enjoying what we thought would buy us happiness?  We realize that all we have gained is garbage. It is all dung. It does not bring us happiness. As John Ortberg says “The biggest guarantee to live in misery is to make ‘I want to be happy’ as the goal of your life. When I look at the tree I realize why I am so frustrated. I am chasing my happiness. I am dependent on myself. The tree has life because it is rooted in something other than itself and something way deeper than itself.” So I pray that God gives discernment and grace to friends who are leading a dream life. I pray that God helps them to handle their success. It would be sad to read about any friend which would end up as “O dear, Success ruined her/him.” I urge you to root yourself in Christ Jesus, who has the power of resurrection. In an authentic encounter with him all we will care is to press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3: 14)

Let me end this meditation with a story that has transformed me. It was time in my life as a college going student after many heartbreaks and frustrations and failures I started to taste success. After losing debates after debates, I finally started winning and found myself marginally successful and started getting addicted to winning to the point of being miserable. It is an such a juncture I get to know one aspect of my friend Biren who came all the way from Sikkim to Pune to pursue his education. He was my batchmate. He was passion personified. Other than singing, football and swimming,  karate was his passion. Every day he practiced for three hours. One day I stumbled upon the heap of certificates he had. And there I was shocked to see “National Kickboxing Champion 2000”. I was like ‘What?’ He very modestly said, “I have been winning it for past two years”. I had won some intra college debating competition where 3 of us competed and the whole world knew that I had won this very ‘prestigious’ debate. At that time Manish, our friend and Biren’s flat mate said, “These days he is practicing for 8 hours to defend his title. The tournament is to be held in August”. The period that I am talking about is July 2001 and the world had not changed yet. 9/11 was yet to happen. Biren became more and more of a rare sight even if he lived 10 minutes from my house. He was practicing. The month of August finally arrived. It was time for Biren to leave to defend his title. We had seen him very purposefully practice day in and day out. On the day before he was about to embark upon his journey we wished him luck, and in our rap style we banged our chest and said ‘Yo Homie, go conquer the world.’ (Man, we were juveniles). The entire tournament would take 10 days. We were planning to take a treat from him when he would return. His victory was a foregone conclusion. We loved food for free. I guess we were more excited than he was.

But two days after he left, he was back in Pune. As you would remember that the whole course of the tournament would be for 10 Days. We were shocked. We speculated that he had an early exit in the tourney. But that was unfathomable. We did not dare to ask him. Then one of us asked “Dude, what happened.” He said “I did not fight.” We all had a blank face. He explained. “Every year the tournament registration fee is Rs. 1500. But this year in Mumbai, they made it Rs 5000.” So I jumped the gun. “You didn’t have money?” he said “No, not like that. There was a boy who came all the way from Sikkim to participate. He had only Rs 2000. He knew nobody. Even I was seeing him for the first time. But we spoke. I know Sikkim. People go for such tournaments with a lot of expectations. The whole village expects a lot. I gave him the money and told him to win. So here I am.” I was the first to tell him what a loser he was. But was he? A national champion who had the detachment to forsake what was at stake for a complete stranger. This story will always remain with me. It’s a decade back it happened. But even today I have nowhere reached that point. It has become my personal yardstick in my journey to be a disciple of Christ. It is through him that I truly understood this passage and the profound words of Jesus

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12: 24)

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal

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Rahul Gandhi, Beef Eating, Persecuting Christians? Who is at fault for Nepal Earthquake?

Luke 13: 1-9

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’

Message:

The Nepal Earthquake has shaken all of us to the core. The devastation and death toll is really disturbing. But what else is more disturbing? The blame game that starts and the strange religious theories that float. Sakhshi Maharaj never stops to amaze us. He connected the Earthquake to Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Kedarnath. Wow. Seismic patters are indeed very complex. Next gem was Sadhvi Prachi who connected the Quake to the beef eating habits. Well as a Christian priest it will be very easy for me to criticize to such fringe voices in another religion and turn a blind eye to the narrative that pops up every time a calamity occurs. It is like a sport “Whose fault is it?”. There was an evangelist who accused that God punished America with 9/11 because of homosexual behavior of Americans. It is like we want to manage everything neatly and manage God in neat boxes. Now I recently received 8 Whatsapp messages that said “There was Persecution of Christians in Bhopal in 1980s and Bhopal Gas Tragedy happened, Graham Staines was murdered and there was Famine in Orissa, Christians wer persecuted in Gujarat and in 2001 there was Earthquake in Bhuj….” And there it continued on and on connecting to the Nepal Earthquake and how it is a retribution to Christian persecution. I am truly ashamed of such convenient assumptions by my community. The problem is, some very devout and faithful christians harbour such assumptions.  Before anything, let us look at how Jesus answers in the passage in front of us.

The news brought of Jesus about Galileans being massacred by Pilate is not just a casual one but they too wanted to find what sins did those people commit to deserve such a death. “Whose fault was it” is indeed a very interesting game. But Jesus as one knows never answers anything straight away. He asks question to a question. The Holocaust survivor and legendary Elie Wiesel was once asked “Why do you Jews respond to a question with a question and not an answer?” to which Wiesel replied “Why not?” Again a question. Coming back to Jesus he says “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13: 2-5). Jesus does not like distant gossip or comment on a distant event with our own understanding of God. He turns the onus on us and says, “You are no better than who you think.  It is easy to judge. You are in the same boat as being sinners. Forget whose fault it is.”  The poet, Mary Oliver, states this beautifully in the last lines of “The Summer Day.”

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

 

This is repentance that Jesus calls us to. Do not sit there and judge of what God is doing. Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Do you want to be fully alive to God or live passively  sitting conveniently playing the game “Whose Fault is it?”

Now the parable after this is about a fig tree and one knows that fig tree which usually takes a lot of time to grow and bear fruit. Eugene Peterson says that in Luke 9- 19 Jesus and disciples are travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem and in between they pass through Samaria that is very hostile to Jesus and disciples. They face hostility where Samaritans do not welcome them but create stumbling blocks. But the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them[a]?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9: 53-55) Now the parable too talks of chopping the fig tree as it is the best solution and there is immediate result. This is what we want. We want thjem to be chopped off.  Since we cannot do it, we think our God is worse than us and does it. As Anne Lammot says “You can safely assume that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do”  But the gardener says “Leave it alone.” He will loosen the ground and put some manure”. The voice of the gardener is not something we like to hear. Manure is not immediate result. It needs patience. Results will not be immediately visible. So now the God revealed in Jesus does not ask us to enjoy the destruction as they deserved it for persecuting, but Jesus wants us to repent by remembering

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,     neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,     so are my ways higher than your ways     and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9). Let us remember this. Let us be part of the solution by being the manure in such times. Let us reach out in compassion. Let us reach out by volunteering for the people of Nepal. Let us reach out in love. Let us reach out in prayer. Let us be the manure by remembering “If we are too busy judging, we will have no time to love.” Manure makes us fear of the insignificance of our deeds. Questions like “In face of such destruction what can my little help do? What difference does it make? Let me narrate a story that most of you all know. Let us relearn it.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal

P.S.- This note is a result of my wife Soji’s deep discomfort with the blame game that she read about. She insisted that I must challenge such simplistic thinking while I shrugged “What difference does it make?”

nepal1

 

(This image of a man being tied up and burned and an arresting footnote that said that God had taken revenge on Nepal for persecuting a Christian brother. In actuality, the image is that of an Ecuadorian thief who was tied to a cross and set on fire by angry peasants from who this guy used to steal. It took the local priest all his persuasive powers to dissuade the mob from totally burning up this guy. The priest along with some others took him to hospital and got him healed. Now this incident happened in 2006 and it come up in Cyberia conveniently after the Nepal quakes) This info was pointed out by my friend Mr Aby V Koshy