I Suffer Because I Do NOt Have Faith??

2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Message

In seminary I happened to go to a new age church to just understand its worship patterns. I am not generalizing anything here. I loved the energy of the worship which could give any rock band a run for their money. After an hour of great singing, it was sermon time. I seriously do not remember what bible portion this gentleman took. But I remember he asked “Is there place for suffering in a Christian life?” The people did not know how to answer that and they found it very convenient to chant loudly “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord.” And I did not understand the point of the exercise. Again the question was repeated and the answer was the same. So I learnt that if you do not know an answer this congregation Praises God. That’s not bad. So the pastor went ahead to explain. He said “Christ called me in a vision to heavens and told me in a thundering voice ‘Tell your people that I have borne all the sufferings for the people on the cross. So there is no more suffering. Suffering now that you have is because of lack of faith and prayer.” And there was a deafening roar of “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, Jesus come soon.” I was stunned at the message.

Now why did I take this as the starting point is very simple. This is the majority belief of Christians. Good people will not suffer. Bad people will be punished. If one suffers, it is because we have little or no faith. People say that because we do not pray. Such a view has really hurt many people and destroyed many lives. So this is a very dangerous and flawed understanding. Let me also give you another example. I recently met a youth who has been struggling to get in terms with her/his father’s death a few years back. This struggle really derailed the faith journey and when people very glibly said “Your father’s death was God’s purpose for the best” this youth just could not take it. What kind of a God is this who is cruel and sadistic? These are authentic faith questions where if we simplisticly reduce faith to cause and effect, we simply miss the point. The question of suffering is truly a big one that needs to be maturely answered. There are thse bumper sticker faith truism that needs to be shown the door. For eg “God will give you only as much you can handle”. This is a statement that gives a lot of comfort as it means if you are suffering, God believes that you can handle it. Is this true? I feel I have seen people who just cannot handle the suffering. They are just out of wits and end of resource. How do you answer that then? So the question is where did this statement or belief arise? The only temptation that has come to you is that which everyone has. But you can trust God, who will not permit you to be tempted more than you can stand. But when you are tempted, he will also give you a way to escape so that you will be able to stand it. (1 Corinthians 10: 13) This is the root for such a popular belief. But hello hello, there Paul is talking about temptation and not suffering. So that settles it.

Now with such a background we come to the passage that is in front of us. We see Paul as a champion of faith, who is saved from snake bites, who is released from prisons, who has survived ship wrecks. So one would imagine he has all things resolved and is very intimate to God. We totally believe that if one prays, God will answer. This is true to some extent. God sure answers, but the answer may not be to our liking or plan. Paul the champion of faith prays 3 times for the removal of thorn in the flesh. It sure shows that Paul is suffering and not happy with the thorn. He wishes to be released from it. Now some say that thorn could be malaria, eye sight problem or mental torment. We do not know for sure. But what we know is that he prayed thrice and he did not get an answer to his liking. In that sense the original intention of the purpose of his prayer is defeated. But the answer he got echoes in our head. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Boom. As far as I am concerned, I love the first part. My grace is sufficient. Sounds great. But I tend to struggle with the second part. My power is made perfect in weakness? Weakness is something that needs to be hidden and minimized is what the society teaches us. Weak people are of no use. We like strong leaders, strong sportsmen, idealized beauties. Weak and frail are losers in our culture. And who likes to be a loser? But Paul is hearing the voice of Jesus who chose weakness over strength. Jesus who communed with weak people and useless losers. Saul before his conversion was a strong person breathing hatred and killing people. Scholar from Oxford, belonged to the best order, a man who was in control. Encounter with Jesus made his realize his weakness and the necessity for grace. As an apostle of Christ,  Paul was not in control. He let go off all securities. Interestingly when Saul was encountered the purpose of God was made clear in the following statement. “ I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Acts 9: 16. Sufferings and trials in life is a time when we are not in control. We love to be in charge of our lives. But in weakness, Jesus promises that His power is what transforms us.

There may be people reading this who are undergoing a tragedy that has shaken your life. There may be someone you know who was doing well and suddenly they have been detected with cancer. I hear this everyday and I do not know how to answer or assure. There may be some who have been trying for a job, but you are not getting it. All your friends are settled but you seem to be nowhere and this upsets you. Some of you wish to marry, but things have not gone the best way. There is pressure from family to marry but you want a suitable partner and things get tense. Some who have married discover that life is not as they had imagined.  There are some who have married and want to start a family. But things do not go as planned. Questions about ‘good news’ mount and you feel depressed as you do not know what to answer. Some who have big dreams about the future of their children, but they do not match up to your expectations. There are many many scenarios in our lives where we are completely weak and totally out of control. If Paul could say something to you I am sure he would not say “You are not praying enough” or “You lack faith o faithless generation.” Or “You have sinned and therefore suffering.” I am sure he would lovingly look at you and say “I understand. I have seen suffering and been there and done that. When I am not in control, My Lord is. His grace is sufficient for you,, for his power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Let me end this meditation by a testimony that deeply impacted me. Pradeep David is the Mission coordinator of Mumbai Diocese of the Mar Thoma Church. At the age of 19, he hears the voice for mission and embarks his journey to Jammu. For many years he was associated with Indian Evangelical Mission (IEM) and worked among the Kolaam tribes. He is a polyglot who knows 7 languages. His passion for mission and rural work sets him apart in his zeal. He married Shiny, his wife and equally zealous faith partner. A wonderful family life they embarked. Years passed by but a child was not in sight. This caused serious questions. They prayed and started taking treatment but to no avail. It was in this midst that they were at Chandrapur, Maharashtra and God prompted them to take over a hostel of 19 tribal children. Pradeep says “I was clear that God was leading us. There we stopped our treatment. God was answering us in a different way than we expected. He called us to be parents to 19 children. This was not a project. Shiny became  a mother and I father,  to 19 children. We took this challenge of parenting. God made us parents to 19 Children. Jesus was using our weakness and perfecting us with His strength.” I was in tears listening to this testimony when he shared in our just concluded Annual Convention. His wife Shiny also shared that “Parenting 19 children was not an easy task. We had a lot of struggles and there were many questions. But God’s grace we witnessed and his strength we have seen.” Today, Pradeep and Shiny are not jus parents to 19 children, but spiritual parents to many children and youths and a wonderful inspiration to many through their lives. Their life is a great example how God transformed their suffering into a blessing for others.

My dear friends, I truly hope that if you are suffering or feeling weak, God speaks to you through His powerful Word and let us keep struggling and grasping in our journey of faith, where in our weakness, God will make us perfect through his strength. May God Bless you.

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhop

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Lynching at Dadri, Politics of Food and Vision of Peter

Acts 10: 9-16

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

Message:

One day I was travelling in train and was privy to a conversation between two people, one from Uttar Pradesh and the other from Rajasthan. They were all set to eat their food packets. While they were sharing the conversation commenced “In North India, our food habits are really healthy. These Madrasis eat anything. If I see a Madrasi eating, my hunger vanishes; these people just don’t know how to eat. Kaise bhi haat dubo ke khaate hai (They eat very sloppily with dripping hands in the food)” Thankfully I did not reveal my identity. I went to the upper berth to eat my food, with dripping hands and lovely food.

Let me add another incident. After my undergrad college days, I joined the course of Masters in Social Work at Karve Institute of Social Service, Pune. From a very urban, elite college, I was suddenly exposed to students from Rural background. I did not like associating myself with them. When they spoke in Marathi or Hindi, I made it a point to speak in English. There was one incident I very shamefully remember. All my friends decided to eat their food by sitting on the floor. I just could not even think to associate with them. So when they all sat together, I sat at a distance on a chair, giving the excuse that I have back pain. Keeping this stories in mind and realizing the politics of food let us go further.

I have always felt curious as to what this vision of Peter meant. Why was such a vision necessary? It is interesting that the vision to Cornelius is a very simple and encouraging one. Angel says that his prayer and charity is accepted by God. But the champion of faith, Peter whose sermon transforms 3000 people, gets a very confusing vision, a very disturbing one. Now I really relate to Peter. The dude is like me. Whenever he wishes to pray like me He either sleeps or feels hungry. When Jesus asked him to pray along with him at the garden of Gethsemane, he could not control his sleep. Now when he is going to the roof to pray, he is feeling hungry. And this is where he sees the vision which is inexplicably bizarre and an abomination to a Jew. When he is hungry he sees the vision of food which he cannot imagine to eat. This was the vision he saw.

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 11-15)

Now before we go further, this is not a conversion story of Cornelius, like it is the conversion story of Jews in Acts 2 where 3000 people join the Church or like a conversion story of Samaritans in Acts 8, where they receive the gospel due to the work of Deacon Philip and the laying on of hands of Peter and John. Neither is it a story of conversion story like that of Paul, found in Acts 9. Then what is it? Cornelius has been accepted by God. There is an obstacle for his entry and that is the defender of faith, the apostle Peter. God knows that more than Cornelius, conversion experience is necessary for Peter. And bang on, the best way to shake him out of his ethnic blindfold is to help him overcome the basic root of all discrimination. The politics of food. As a Jew, Peter was very conscious of the law of food, what is Kosher and non-kosher. So God is challenging this very binary of us and them in this disturbing vision of reptiles, four  footed animals and birds. In his hunger, he was commanded to kill and eat where Peter refuses to eat anything unclean. Now here is the catch. God helps Peter to revision and reimagine the inclusiveness of the creation as God has created all pure and clean. It is an invitation that calls Peter to welcome Gentiles to come and join the Table of the Lord, where all the clean and so called unclean would join in community and Body of Christ. Let me help you understand how difficult this was. If even by mistake a Jew rubbed shoulder with a gentile, he is supposed to burn the robe he is wearing a take a ritual bath. It is in such a context that Peter sees the vision and is challenged to accept Cornelius in his fold. It is Peter who gets converted from his exclusive Jew centred thinking to a creation perspective where all humans are valued equally.

I am extremely delighted that God challenged food and its politics to overcome the inherent division and exclusion. In my tenure in North East India, I saw that the mainline Indians used the habit of Nagas and Manipuris of eating dog meat as a way of ridiculing them. It made us feel superior to them and gave the picture of them as savages. This exclusionary politics of food is very dangerous. As someone pointed out, progressive newspapers like The Hindu made the canteen pure veg, so as to appease or not to offend the vegetarians. One is free to have their own choices of food. We can sanctify and defend it. But when we sanction it as the only way of functioning, food that brings people together, also sadly can divide and further discriminate people. Food politics is a very rife topic in contemporary India as Beef is being banned in states. The mob lynching at Dadri of Mr Mohammed has shaken the very fabric of the Indian Secular credentials.The incident was that Mr Mohammed was suspected to have purchased Beef and the mob reached his family and lynched him. His son is in very critical condition.  As someone rightly tweeted, Mr Mohammed had 2 kgs of Mutton and 2kgs of Beef in his fridge. 2 Kgs of Mutton= Rs 350 and 2 kgs Beef= Life of a person.  Our personal religious belief in the sanctity of cow is to be respected. But the food habits of different community are different. Jains do not eat onion. Does that mean we ban onion?  Muslims are prohibited from eating pork. There are many communities that have a thriving food culture that consist of pork.

We as a society need to grow up from the group ego centricism that is thriving in all communities. No one can be exempted from this madness. We all are playing our cards of identity of being different. As religious and ethnic communities we always strive to judge others by making our standard of morality and behavior as the norm. Judging gives us power and control. It gives us a feeling of superiority and security. Ego always needs to be in control. Ego always defines itself by negation and contraction. “I’m not like that one who eats dog.” “I’m not superstitious or ignorant like them” “I’m not a communist”. So as we are just interested in what we are not, it becomes easy to put others down and feel superior. But one who is based on the identity of God defines themselves  by expansion and inclusion. “Yes I am like everybody else, capable of the same good and same bad. They are all my brothers and sisters.” God is calling us to that level of inclusion and oneness which we have never taken seriously. Salvation is a gift to all is the message. God plays no favorites is what Peter realizes in Acts 10:34.

Let us not think that we are insulated from such tendency. We too are divisive in our nature and politics. Let us also confess to our divisive nature and practices. Let us finally end the meditation from a profound thought by Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr. Let me quote him that shows the all accessibility of God, where we cannot privatize or control him.

I quote “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Jewish revelation of the name of God. As we Christians spell and pronounce it, the word is Yahweh. In Hebrew, it is the sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH (yod, he, vay, and he). I am told that those are the only consonants in the Hebrew alphabet that are not articulated with lips and tongue. Rather, they are breathed, with the tongue relaxed and lips apart. YHVH was considered a literally unspeakable word for Jews, and any attempt to know what they were talking about was “in vain.” As the commandment said: “Do not utter the name of God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). All attempts to fully think God are in vain. From God’s side, the divine identity was kept mysterious and unavailable to the mind. When Moses asked for the divinity’s name, he received only the phrase that translates “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

This unspeakability has long been recognized, but now we know it goes even deeper: formally the name of God was not, could not be spoken at all—only breathed. Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. Therefore, the one thing we do every moment of our lives is to speak the name of God. This makes the name of God our first and last word as we enter and leave the world.

I have taught this to people in many countries, and it changes their faith and prayer lives in substantial ways. I remind people that there is no Islamic, Christian, or Jewish way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing. There is no rich or poor, gay or straight way of breathing. The playing field is utterly leveled. It is all one and the same air, and this divine wind “blows where it will” (John 3:8). No one can control this Spirit.

When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly—breathe. Exactly as some teachers of prayer say, “Stay with the breath, attend to your breath”—the same breath that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by this Yahweh (Genesis 2:7); the very breath “spirit” that Jesus handed over with trust on the cross (John 19:30) and then breathed on us as shalom, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit all at once (John 20:21-23). And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing—and yet everything?”

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road

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