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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Jo Tera Hai Wo Mera Hai……..

Luke: 10: 25- 37 

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’Jo Tera hai and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Message:

Ryan and Harris are siblings aged 6 and 8 respectively. They both are always fighting over the trivial things and sharing is not a virtue in their land. They both love pancakes and mommy dear makes it for them. Now to teach them to share she makes an odd number of pancakes and the number is 11. So you know they both had 5-5 each and there was peace in the universe. But wham, bang bang. The question is who will have the 11th? The fight ensues and it gets physical and this is when mommy dear interrupts. She is ready with her sermon. She asks both of them, “What would Jesus do, if he was in your place?” The boys looked puzzled. The expression on their face was as if the question was what is 37855×389÷635=? Well mother seeing their confusion to answer that, resolved the chaos by saying “You know if Jesus was here, he would say ‘I love my brother and let him have the pancake’”. Ryan the younger and the smarter one clapped hands and said “Problem solved mommy, Hey Harris, you be like Jesus and let me have the pancake”. Keep this story with you and let us further explore the timeless parable of Good Samaritan.

The question that initiates the parable is a question by a religious scholar as to “Who is my neighbor?” This is a very important question as we need to love neighbours, but then who is the neighbor? How do we decide, whom to love and whom not to love. Jesus gives a parable. And we will not just be passive readers but let us see where we stand as we recount it. Let me remind you of a very famous Airtel Ad which was on our tongue and which by far still is. It had a ring to it. The ad defined friendship on the simple premise of “Jo tera hai wo mera hai, jo mera hai wo tera…Jo tera hai wo mera hai…..lalalalaala” Please do sing along as you read as I have sung it while I have written this. Now you might think, why the ad of all things. Hold on. We will get to that.

First we know that there is an unnamed man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Please have a mental picture of him which sure the listeners of Christ had. Now we will sing along the song as to what each character must have sung when they saw the man. First the robbers: We are dedicated Bollywood fans and having songs for every situation is no big deal for our imagination.

Robbers see the man. The thugs with all the attire circling the man and singing “Jo tera hai vo mera hai……. Jo tera hai hai wo mera” (What is your’s is mine… what is your’s is mine) and repeat it for more dramatic effect and sing it out loud. And the next scene is the half dead man on the road. So how did the robbers see him? Jim Moore says that we have a lot of people who look at people, experiences and things with Cruel Eyes, to snatch, to take away, to control, to hoard. We live in a time where such practices are institutionalized by big corporate companies and all they want to do is snatch and dispossess people. Well that would take us to a different tangent.

The next two characters have different entries in the scene but same song on their lip. What is it? “Jo Tera hai wo tera hai… Jo Mera hai wo mera”(What is yours is yours and what is mine is mine). When one reads about the robbers and cruel eyes, it is a relief that most of us are not snatchers, usurpers and goons. Thank God! But the very noble priest and Levite saw the man lying half dead and must have had the “O that is so sad, poor fellow” expression. But they did not want to get involved. Play safe. Why get into trouble? We all are convicted of this. We want to be involved in social issues as long as it is on ‘Facebook’ and dealing with slogans. But the moment it gets risky, we begin to calculate. In principle, we are against child labor. It is bad. But, when we see a Chotu serving tea or as a waiter in a hotel, we feel bad, but that is the extent of our action. We like the Priest and the Levite look around with Calculating Eyes.

 

Now enters the notorious Samaritan. The people listening to Jesus telling the story must have said “What good can come from him?” But figure out the Samaritan is in a foreign land. He is not aware of the road so observes everything around and pays special care. I remember the first time I rode bike in Bhopal, I was aware of every crater, pothole, turn, landmark and road. I was aware and was anxious about being lost as I am too proud to take directions. Well, so would have been the Samaritan and lo and behold, there is a half dead man and the risk of being a foreigner. But what is the song he sings. “Jo mera hai wo tera hai… Jo mera hai wo tera hai.. chalo isse baate hum.” (What is mine is yours, let us share it.) He saw the half dead man with Caring Eyes.

 

My friend Blessen Varghese, who is now working as an evangelist of the Mumbai diocese at Khardi mission, gave a brilliant insight by saying that every person who travelled down that road had “Oil and Wine” with them(It is like having a security like our mobile phones in today’s world). It was a travelling must. So it means that the Priest and the Levite too had it but as far as they were concerned ‘Oil and Wine’ is to be preserved for a future use for their well being. When the Samaritan pours oil and wine, he is risking his well being and security and puts the man’s security at the top priority. But is the story about glorifying the “Good Samaritan”? If so, it is easy. In real life and on social media we love to read about sacrificial people and good Samaritans. We do our best to share it.

The question that started it all is “Who is my neighbor?” Once we know who our neighbor is, we can limit our love by embracing some and excluding others. Now again Jesus asks a very crucial question after the story. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (vs36) The answer seems very simple, “One who showed mercy”. That is very simple. But the last word of Jesus is “Go and do likewise”. So the lawyer answered his question but the answer he got was very different. Jesus does not define a neighbor, he created a neighbor. The question to be asked is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Will I be a neighbor?” Like Ryan, it is easy to expect Harris to be like Jesus. The question is, “Are you ready to be like Jesus and be a neighbor?”

Let me leave you with a story. There was a 12 year old boy who lived with his family in a small village in Africa. The boy’s name was Panya. One day as Panya was playing near his hut, he saw a distant hut being enveloped in flames. There were many who gathered outside without knowing what to do. There was a baby inside the hut and the cries were getting louder. Panya hearing the cry of a baby plunged into the blazing hut to find the baby in a poorly made crib. He had trouble to negotiate the fire as the flames danced upon his head. Finally freeing the baby, he picked him up, carried him outside and in the nick of that time the hut caved in. The villagers were now relieved as they out of fear were paralyzed to do anything. They were very impressed seeing the courage of Panya. One person said and asked “Panya, you are very brave. Weren’t you frightened? What were you thinking as you ran into the burning hut?” Panya answered, “I was frightened but I did not think anything when I heard the cries of the baby. I jumped.”

It was not that the baby was Panya’s neighbor. Among all the onlookers, Panya became the neighbor to the baby.

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal 

What Is Your Name?

Genesis 32: 24-31.

Image

Bible Portion

And Jacob was left on his own, and a man struggled with him till dawn broke.  He realized that he could not win, so he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was dislocated as he struggled with him.  He said, “Let me go, for the dawn has broken.” He said, “I shall not let you go, unless you bless me.”  He said to him, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Jacob.”  He said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”  So Jacob asked, “Tell me please your name.” He said, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.  So Jacob named that place Peniel, because “I have seen God face to face and yet my life was rescued.”

Devotion

The passage starts with the words “And Jacob was left on his own”. When Jacob was on his own he gets into a struggle with a man until the dawn broke. Even in this struggle where Jacob gets his hip dislocated he demands to be blessed. Jacob is a character who would go to any extent to win a blessing. If he did not get it, he would steal it. Point blank he was asked the question “What is your name?” this was God asking Jacob his name? Dint he know it? God is asking him “Who are you, what is your name, what is your past?” Jacob who had cheated his father and deceived his brother had to be reconciled to God. He had to own up his past. He had to say his name is Jacob, he had to accept that he had cheated his father. He had out of greed stolen the right of his elder brother.  And then God changes his name, reconciles his past and gives him a new identity as Israel. He realizes God’s presence to name the place Peniel that reflects the grace of God in his life, that with all his shameful past, he is still alive. He is a new man. Man transformed by God. After God names him, he repents and goes and reconciles with his brother Esau in Genesis chapter 33. He gets first straight with God, and then with his brother.

Are we not like Jacob? Are we not on the run, fleeing from God and ourselves? We are like him, we want everything for ourselves, no matter what the cost. We are struggling with God. He asks you and me, “What is your name?” “Who are you?” “What is your past?” in the presence of God we need to own up our name, who we actually are, What is our past. This is the act of Confession. Coming as you are in front of the Lord. Repenting and accepting yourself owning up the shameful acts we do, the hypocritical lives we live and greed we have, to urge we have to fulfill all our needs even at the cost of our brothers, sisters and friends. God gives you a new name, makes you a new being, transforms your identity. Friends, it is important to come in the presence of the Lord and say “Lord I am wrong. I am leading a very shameful life. I am hiding from myself. I am fooling You O Lord. Forgive me”. Let the Lord heal you. You will have to discern his forgiveness and grace. Do not hide yourself. Come out and own up.

If one notices the Mar Thoma liturgy, we see that after the sermon we have the Sacrament of confession. In that confession we begin by saying “I confess that I have sinned against you, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in thought, word and deed. I am sorry with all my heart for these my sins……” He forgives those who truly repent, He gives them a new name. He calls them His children. And like Jacob after being forgiven by God and transformed by God went to reconcile with his brother. In the same way after the sacrament of confession, the second part of the service begins with the act of Kiss of Peace which indicates reconciliation with your brothers and sisters. Your confession is not just a hollow act, it has to be manifested in action, and you have to be a witness to the people around you. People will have to see the Peace of God in you.

One of my favorite hymns is “Amazing grace” written by a gentleman in 1779 by the name of John Newton. John Newton used to be a Sailor who used to sell young boys from Africa as slaves for huge profit in England. The lives of young boys from Africa were a matter of profit to him and he earned immensely. But there was guilt. This man that he sold was created in the image Of God. But he avoided heeding that voice. Then one day when he was alone in the sea and had a near death experience. He discerned the grace of the Lord and repented, owning up his sins. After this he wrote the beautiful hymn “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see.” He not only repented but also reconciled with his brothers who he sold for his profit as slaves. John Newton later became a priest and he crusaded against slavery and slave trade. He too got right with his Creator and reconciled himself to his brothers.

God is asking you “What is your name?” What is your answer?

Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church
Guwahati

Paul What Were You Thinking? Pray Without Ceasing?

Text: Psalms 139: 1- 4, 23-24

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

    you discern my thoughts from far away.

 You search out my path and my lying down,

    and are acquainted with all my ways.

 Even before a word is on my tongue,

    O Lord, you know it completely.

 

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Message:

Psalm 139 written by King David talks to us of a God who is inescapable. He is everywhere. He is a God with us. He is Emmanuel. Before we go further down that road let us take a break and find out if it is so in our lives. Is God so present in our lives? Do we actually believe that? Ok if we believe that do we live like that? Psalms 139: 4 says “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” That statement has a lot of implication for our times. Rev Jacob Thomas, whom we called JT, is one of the most dynamic speakers that I have come across. When I was a teen I heard his ever thought provoking talk in a Teen Camp where he asked us the question “What is that one word that comes to your tongue when you are angry?” There was a long silence. The silence prolonged. He broke it by saying “I am sure that it is not God Bless You.” And we roared in laughter. We understood what he meant. I am sure even the readers have guessed it. It is 4 letter magic word that starts with ‘F’. Acharya Osho has a very interesting analysis of how this word became so prominent. Fredrick Neitzche propounded the philosophical statement that “God is Dead.” When this statement became accepted in the American Culture, Sex was the next obsession that took over. So this 4 letter word displaced God from the conversations. So this word espoused all the various range of emotions. More than a bad word it became an adverb which defines various ranges of emotions like ecstasy, anger, frustration, beauty, irritation and curiosity. This seems to be a very apt analysis. This 4 letter word is indispensable to our conversations. It is splashed out in our mental landscapes. You have songs, movies, dialogues all splashed with these words. If one follows Facebook this word is used very liberally and extensively. ‘WTF’ has become part of our accepted cool dude lingo. Now why am I insisting so much on this word? It is not just a word but it displays our attitude. Unlike the Psalmist, we feel that God is Dead. We act like that. Or if not that radical, we have assigned God to private spaces of prayer, church and songs.

Apostle Paul completely believed in this Psalm. That’s why he exhorted the people of Thessalonica to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). He does not talk about taking some time to pray or an hour to pray or about the benefits of having a quiet time. He says something more radical. He says pray without ceasing. Now the question arises is that “How is it possible?”The answer we may come to is “It is impossible.” This is because of our understandings about prayer. We normally divide our daily life into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events. Therefore we have assigned God a space and time where we converse with him and think Holy thoughts and say holy things. God is therefore removed from our daily life and events. But Paul reminds us that Prayer is an unceasing conversation with God. It means to think and live in the presence of God. It is the joyful affirmation that God knows our minds and our hearts and that nothing is hidden from Him. Prayer is the presentation of all thoughts divine and mundane, ugly and pervert, daydreams and night dreams to our God. When I write it I know how easy it is to write such wonderful sounding good thoughts. But in my personal experience this is far from easy. This is asking too much. There is a deep resistance to making ourselves so vulnerable, so totally unprotected. I indeed want to love God and worship Him, but I also want to keep a huge part of my inner corner for myself,where I can hide and think of my own secret thoughts, where I can nurture my hatred, where I can fan my lust and speak whatever I want to. And when I come to pray I select the thoughts carefully and make it sound very pious and lofty.My fear is, can God tolerate what goes in my heart and my mind. Can he handle my cruel fantasies, shameful dreams, inflated illusions and my deep seated selfishness?Sometimes we just want to hold on to these things.

Paul is asking me to get into a fearless conversation with my God where I bring my good and bad, ordinary and extraordinary, evil and divine thoughts and deeds to the Lord. From unceasing thoughts I am asked to move to unceasing prayers where the touch of God heals my deepest contradictions and pains. Only then can we pray along with David with confidence “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me,and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalms 139: 23, 24) But then when we come to this point, I am reminded of a conversation where my friend asked “How do we feel God in a world that is so brutal and nasty. In my workplace and in the market it is very difficult to feel the presence of God. And to pray unceasingly is so much tougher in such circumstances. It is easier to worry than to pray.” Whenever we say this or that is difficult i am reminded of the words of Dr P. C. Mathews, who is a personal mentor to me. He says “Who told you that Christian life is easy? Who told you that being a disciple is a cake walk?”

John Newton, was converted to Christianity when he was on the sea and a terrible storm broke out. He cried out to God and he was saved. But even after his conversion he continued the trade slave that he was involved in.  He traded many African slaves. He prayed everyday but he also traded slaves. He was inhuman in his dealings but never missed to read the bible and pray. He had a friend in John Wesley who showed him that his prayer life and his practices are contradictory. But John Newton kept resisting it. But once in midst of prayer he felt convicted of his ways. He quit his life of a slave trader and became a crusader against Slave trade. It is in midst of his struggles that he wrote one of the most immortal songs“Amazing grace, How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” John Newton owned his wretchedness in the presence of the Lord and found that he was blind. He felt found by God and started seeing and feeling the presence of God.

In a world that denies the presence of God, we are called to‘Pray without ceasing.’ Prayer is a protest against the godlessness and the chaos of the world. Let us enter into a fearless, unceasing conversation with a God who searches our thoughts and minds and still loves us.

Let us close this meditation with a song that sums our life and journey as Christians.

 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years

Bright shining as the sun.

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we’ve first begun.

 Amen.

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati