Tag Archives: India

Building a Christmas Wall

Mother&Child Jaipur Train

Jaipur, India

Photography by D. Plasman

The story of Christmas in essence is the story of a middle eastern family seeking refuge in a hostile world. What I heard in the most recent presidential debate is that we’d better close our borders, send the illegals home, and protect ourselves by building a wall that will dwarf all walls. The two narratives don’t match. Here’s my take on the Christmas story, an excerpt from my book available at Amazon: Jesus, a Life – Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke.

“God’s arm is strong and has scattered the proud who trust in themselves. God has brought down the powerful from important places, and lifted up the humble. God has filled the stomachs of the hungry, and sent away the rich with nothing. God has been merciful to the people of Israel, just as God promised to Abraham and his descendants forever.” After three months, Mary returned to her home. (Luke 1:51-56)

The second half of Mary’s prayer has endured a variety of labels: a war cry, a political platform, a revolutionary’s manifesto, even a subversive tract. Mary’s prayer moves beyond the personal and private into the reality of God’s great reversals. What starts as a lullaby is now laced with landmines.

Borrowing again from her ancestors, Mary uses imagery uttered by Moses (Exodus 15:1-18) and Deborah (Judges 5:1-31) and David (Psalms 33, 47, 136). The great deeds of God are declared in the past tense as works already accomplished in the life and history of Israel. However, as past actions, they are experienced in the present and will continue in the future. What God has done, God is doing, and God will continue to do.

If we find ourselves among the world’s humble, hungry, and poor, Mary’s Magnificat is powerful assurance of a God who sides with the oppressed and one day will turn the tables. However, if a proactive God troubles our status quo sensibilities, then we tend to spiritualize Mary’s radical message and fashion to our liking a domesticated God.

No doubt, it is from their parents—especially their mothers—that John the Baptist and Jesus learn the radical nature of living into God’s ongoing transformation of the world. From their parents, they learn of God’s deep connection with those who suffer disconnect. From their parents, they learn that God won’t let things sway forever in favor of the rich and powerful. From their parents, they learn of the God who stands in solidarity with the weakest and most vulnerable.

Where have you seen the great reversals of God?

 

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A Bloody & Violent Religion

Jama Masjid, Delhi, India © Daniel Plasman

India’s Largest Mosque

What are we to think of a religion whose historical roots are bloody and violent, a history manifested to this day?

What are we to think of a bloody and violent religion whose sacred book is believed by many adherents to be the inerrant word of God?  I haven’t read every word of those sacred writings, but I’ve read enough between the opening and closing chapters to know those bloody and violent passages exist.

Imagine a spiritual heritage where ancient people believed that God demanded certain transgressions be punished by stoning the victim.  If a son or daughter was disobedient, the parents should haul the kid to the town square and publicly stone the child to death.

Imagine a religion with a spiritual heritage that believes God permits a soldier to rape a woman of a defeated people, and then take that humiliated woman as his wife, only to discard her after she no longer pleases him.

What are we to think of a religion whose sacred writings, believed to be inspired by God, permit the lobbing off of fingers and hands as a form of punishment?  For example, if intervening in a fight between her husband and an assailant, a woman grabs the genitals of her husband’s attacker, God permits that the woman’s hand be cut off — presumably, after she releases her grip on the assailant’s stuff.

And what of a religion that teaches if a husband discovers that his bride is not a virgin on their wedding night, he has the permission of the religious community and of God to kill her, again, stoning the preferred method of execution.

Imagine a spiritual tradition that believes God sanctions holy wars against other nations and orders the annihilation of entire populations, not just the killing of soldiers and combatants, but all citizens – young and old, male and female, the sick and infirmed, pregnant women and the fetuses inside them.

Imagine a religion whose sacred text instructs slaves to obey in “fear and trembling” their masters for this is the will of God.

This is the bloody and violent reality of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The above examples can be cross checked in Deuteronomy 17:2-5; 21:10-14; 21:18-21; 22:13-21; 25:11-12; Joshua 10:28-43; Ephesians 6:5.

The Boston Marathon bombings have awakened a new anti-Muslim sentiment led by the pathetic ranting of pseudo news outlets.  We are a bloody and violent nation not because of Muslim aggression toward us, but because we spend more on our military industrial complex than the next 17 nations combined.  We are a bloody and violent nation of more than 10,000 gun homicides a year because our legislators fear political retribution from the National Rifle Association.  We are a bloody and violent nation because we kill innocent people abroad with drone attacks at a rate of 50 citizens for each targeted terrorist.

To the extent that we allow our biblical and spiritual heritage to legitimize our pursuit of blood and violence, we all share the blame for the way things are.

Peace be upon the victims and perpetrators of the bloody violence.

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A Question

Taj Mahal Visitor © D. Plasman

I’ve long had the notion of developing a sermon series on “Great Questions of the Bible.”  If it ever happens, the one I’ll start with is the question John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we look for another?”

This is the same John who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  There’s no evidence that John had early doubts when Jesus began his public ministry, but now that John was in prison for having criticized King Herod’s illegitimate marriage, he begins to wonder.

We’re not told the reasons for John’s question, but it’s not difficult to speculate.  John was in prison for doing what he believed was God’s work: “putting the axe to the roots of dead trees.”  Yet, ruthless King Herod was still in power.  Foreign soldiers still occupied the land.  Rome still imposed its imperial will on the people.  The kind of world John imagined bore little resemblance to the world he lived in.  To make matters worse, Jesus was doing nothing about it.

Perhaps John regretted signing on to a cause that was turning out to be nothing close to that for which he had hoped.  All kinds of plaguing questions and second guesses hijack the mind when you realize the ladder you’ve been climbing is leaning against the wrong wall.  Why is the world such a damn mess if a Messiah like Jesus was supposed to make it better and sweep away evil doers?

As intriguing as John’s question is, I find Jesus’ eventual answer more so.  To the delegation sent by John, Jesus says, “Just look around.  See what’s happening.  Notice the changed lives.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  Those once stigmatized by their social status are no longer.  The poor have a place at the table.  Those shunned as outsiders are now, because of me, insiders.  I know it’s crazy and I know it will upset some people, but I came to agitate the status quo, not affirm it.”

I wonder how most churches would go about answering an inquirer’s related question: “Is this a community that takes Jesus seriously or should I look for another?”  Here’s a partial list of likely answers:  We sing the old hymns just like our ancestors did.  We keep an American flag in the sanctuary to remind us that we’re patriotic.  We believe that the capitalistic system is the one Jesus blesses.  We always celebrate Holy Communion with postage-stamp-squares of bread and tiny cups – just like Jesus did.  We’re proud of our stained glass windows, better than any museum’s don’t you think?  We give lots of money to support food pantries and homeless shelters, but we don’t believe we should work to change the injustices that cause those problems, that would be too political.  We know that doctrinal purity is the mark of true believers.  We believe the Bible is God’s inspired word.  Of course we take Jesus seriously, haven’t you seen our parking lot, and what about our carpet?  Our liturgy is timeless.  Don’t you love our drop down screens?  Come to think of it, if you’re not heterosexual then, yes, perhaps you should look for another.

Many are asking the same question John the Baptist asked:  “Are you the one we’ve been looking for?  Can we find you here?” Far too often, the answers force people to keep looking.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blessings

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

During this season of Lent, the church I serve as a co-interim minister is using as its Sunday theme the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.  In his book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Harvey Cox offers this translation.

Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.  Blessed are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation.  Blessed are the gentle; they shall have the earth for their possession.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown to them.  Blessed are those whose hearts are pure; they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called God’s children.  Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Though I’ve known the Beatitudes for most of my life (I earned a gold star in Sunday School for memorizing them over four decades ago) a recent awareness has come my way.  I’m struck by what is missing, by what is not said.  Jesus does not make himself the subject or the object of the Beatitudes.  He doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit who believe in me; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs;” nor does he say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for me; they will be satisfied.”

Take fifteen minutes and read through the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  Nowhere in this essential discourse, pieced together by the gospel compiler(s), does Jesus instruct his hearers to believe anything about him.  To an audience that may have numbered several thousand, as suggested in Luke’s account, Jesus makes no claim of being the Son of God, no claim of being born of a mother who was a virgin, no claim that his only reason for living was to die for your sins or mine, no exclusivist claim that heaven is available only to those who pin their faith on him.

Yeah, I know, even though such claims don’t occur in the Beatitudes or in the Sermon on the Mount, there are numerous references throughout the rest of the New Testament.

Yet, I can’t get out of my head this scene.  One day, as the sun was reaching for the western horizon, Jesus sat for the longest time behind the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, at a vantage point where the crowd numbered only a few dozen, much smaller than the thousands who were touring the grounds of this man-made wonder of the world.

Jesus said to the young boy, likely a Hindu, who carried his worldly possessions on his head, “Blessed are you, the poor in spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours.  And blessed are you again, for gentle ones just like you shall possess the earth.”

Not long after, two Hindu women colorfully adorned passed by with their goats, toiling hard as they always do.  And Jesus said, “Dear women, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for right to prevail, you will be satisfied.  And blessed are you, tireless laborers and tillers of the earth, for your hearts are pure and you shall see God.”

Jesus blessed them all and promised them everything!

 

 

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The Jaipur Kid

 

 Jaipur, India

This is Naadir.  His name means “rare” or “dear.”  We met while standing along a chaotic and busy street in Jaipur, India.  Naadir was begging for money, money he needed to eat, money he needed to feed his family, money he needed to buy the uniform required for school.  He needed money to survive and that’s why he kept begging.  He begged because he knew I was an American.

When I tried to ignore him (like the guidebooks told me to) and turned my camera in the direction of an interesting blue rickshaw, Naadir followed me, stretched his neck and leaned his head into the frame of my next shot.  Naadir kept begging me for money.  Did I mention he kept asking for money?

Not all I’ve written to this point is true.  I did meet this boy on a recent trip to India.  We met in the middle of a street in Jaipur, about a 4-hour train ride from Delhi.  I don’t know his name.  He didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask.  But Naadir does mean “rare” or “dear.”

I have no idea how many siblings he has or if he attends the local school.  He asked for money lots of times in our thirty-second encounter; that much is true.  He never told me what he needed it for.  I never asked.  I had no small change to give him.

Without knowing much about his situation, I knew that the money I had in my pocket could have changed his life.  Along with rupees, I was carrying more than $500.  That’s more than eight months of income for the family this kid probably belongs to.  My camera and lens were worth four years of wages to those, like many of the 1.2 billion in India, who live on less than $2 a day.

When the traffic light changed, I turned and crossed the street.  Desensitized is one word to describe it.  I’m not sure this is what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.”

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