Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko

“What Are You Doing Here”? – The Power of Discernment

The BSI offices reopened on 3rd January 2022, with Combined Prayer fellowship of all BSI Staff across India. Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko, the General Secretary of the Bible Society of India delivered a very profound and challenging message. The Scripture portion was taken from 1 Kings 19:8-5a and was read by Dn. Ranjit Paswan, Associate Auxiliary Secretary, BSI Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A solemn Order of Worship was led by Dr. Hrangthan Chhungi, Director, Church Relations and Resource Mobilisation. A meaningful time of intercessory prayers was led by Mr. Shantwan Raiborde, Auxiliary Secretary in-charge, BSI Bombay Auxiliary, Rev. Dr. B. J. Syemlieh, Associate Director, Translation Centre Shillong, Rev. Daniel Nath, Auxiliary Secretary, BSI Jabalpur Auxiliary and Rev. Gershombhai Khristi, Auxiliary Secretary, BSI Northwest India Auxiliary.

Overall, the entire New Year Service was solemn and set a right tone to face the uncertainties of the future. The New Year message from the General Secretary is found in its full length here below: 

“What Are You Doing Here”? – The Power of Discernment

Bible Text: 1 Kings 19:8-15a

Have you ever gotten somewhere and forgotten how or why you got there? We do it all the time with daily routines, going into auto-pilot mode for our most mundane tasks or daily excursions, so much so that sometimes we stop paying attention to what is happening until something out of the ordinary happens and gets our attention. Or, better yet – have you ever gotten somewhere and forgotten why you were there? Maybe it’s the grocery store or Target, or even your living room. You know you went in there for a reason, but for the life of you, you can’t remember what it was. Some say it’s a sign of aging, which is in part true, but it can also happen when we are stressed out or tired, and lack the capacity to retain information any longer.

This is where Elijah finds himself in our text. He is stressed out to the max, and on the run from Jezebel, longing for relief. He even asks the Lord to take his life; he is at his end. He finds himself revived in the wilderness, thanks to the attentiveness of angels sent from the Lord with bread and water. And while that sustains him physically, his spirit is still depleted. We hear earlier in the story of how Elijah is down and out, convinced that he is a failure as a prophet.

This experience of Elijah is blatantly honest about the humanity of God’s servants . . . He appears to be totally worn out, fatigued . . . He complains. . . He needs to be told to eat. His view of reality is distorted. He is quick to blame others for the situation in which he has found himself. He feels all alone. Given his attitude, one should expect a divine rebuke. There is not one, however. Instead, there is a series of epiphanies . . . God does not let him go simply because he is burned out and depressed.

God responds in the opposite way, providing him the very basic things he needs to survive: bread and water, and calls him instead on a journey through the wilderness. Now, this is not the first time God has called a prophet into the wilderness. The Israelites hearing this story would have immediately connected the journey to that of Moses in Exodus, spending 40 days and nights with God on Mount Sinai. Here, God leads Elijah to Mount Horeb, which is the name used for Sinai in Deuteronomy. Such leading reminds us that:

when forces in the world threaten us, when our bodies or spirits turn against us, there is One who seeks us, One who meets us, One who heals us, whose love washes over us and sets us free for joy. This One is the Lord.

God calls to Elijah with a question, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” (Verse 9). It is that moment of awakening, when you blink and come to your senses and try to orient yourself.?” It is as if God is displeased by Elijah’s flight, and wants Elijah to reset the course. We all need to hear this kind of call-out questions in life now and again. Sometimes we can offer them to ourselves; other times we need to hear them from others, and we hope they come from those who love us and have the best intentions in mind, rather than call-outs that are intended to shame us into correction.  When done well, they become our re-orientation points, invitations to gain perspective and re-evaluate our purpose so that we can pick back up the difficult everyday tasks of life and make it through. Sometimes our reflections on them are short-lived, but other times, as in the case of Elijah, they represent major turning points in our lives. Elijah is not only having a work crisis, but a spiritual one as well. In theological terms, we call this experience in the cave one of discernment – the process through which we seek to understand God’s will and then try to figure out how we can take a part in it.

But it is not just limited to Elijah, or those on a hike in the wilderness. Such an experience is open to us, too. Our text this morning can be seen as an invitation to experience God’s unexpected encouragement for perseverance in the daily mazes of our lives, whether we are facing abundance, adversity, or dulling routine.

When our souls are “disquieted within us” as the Psalmist says, we are invited to take refuge in God and hope in God, trusting that even in the midst of confusion about who we are, and who we are called to be, God is with us still.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the God of Israel often appeared in fantastic and dramatic ways. When we seek to encounter God with our questions, we yearn for those clear signs. Have you ever begged God for a burning bush or some other direct divine revelation about what you are to do? I have. In seminary I would somewhat jokingly say that God would have to send a great fish, as in the Jonah story, to get me to figure things out. And yet, none of those tremendous things has happened to me, not yet anyway.

Sometimes, it seems, God works in more subtle ways. This is what Elijah finds in 1 Kings. Did you catch the phrase that repeats after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire? “but God was not in” that tremendous sound. That is not to say that God never does those things. Indeed, we know God has from other Biblical narratives. But rather here, God acts in a new and perhaps more challenging way. God is heard in “the sound of sheer silence.”

The words translated “a sound of sheer silence” (qoldemamahdaqqah) can have more than one meaning . . . Qol can mean either sound or voice, demamah can refer to a whisper, silence, or stillness (see Ps 107:29), and daqqah can mean thin, small, fine, or sheer… In contrast to the thundering presence of the storm god Baal, Israel’s God is now present in “a sound of silence,” as in the sound of calm after a storm.

It can be translated in many ways, including “the sound of fine silence,” or conveying the sense of a hushed whisper.  Such a sound allows for centering, a meaningful pause. In the literary world, it might be classified as a “pregnant pause,” one that has energy brewing behind it, just on the cusp of something to be revealed.

This morning, I want to invite you to place yourselves in this story with Elijah, to join him in sitting with this question “what are you doing here?” and reflect on your sense of God’s presence in your life and the direction in which the Spirit might be nudging you.  To help us truly engage in this moment, I will read part of our text again slowly. Our time will include some significant moments of silence, during which I ask that you remain in that stillness and silence as best as you are able, allowing God’s presence to wash over you. Let us prepare to hear God’s Word anew to us:

11. He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

12.and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

13.When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

What was this like for you? Take a few moments to check in with yourself.

The silence in this story is striking, particularly because it comes from God. Sometimes, we don’t know what to do with such a pause or perceived silence from God.

No one is ever prepared to endure the long silence that follows intimacy . . . no one is prepared to face it when it follows a season of intimacy with God. It is the hardest thing to talk about, and it is the hardest thing in the spiritual journey to prepare for.

We don’t tend to like silence in our faith. It seemingly calls immediate attention to all the things we don’t know about God, or about ourselves – it highlights all the questions that we have about our faith and lives, and even in times of discernment, can bring about more questions than answers. And yet, embracing these moments is a crucial part of the faith journey, alongside a fervent trust that God is with us in these moments of silence, just as God was with Elijah.

Perhaps God is not silent but rather is waiting – waiting for human beings to gather their thoughts, compose themselves, regain their speech, and find their way back into the give-and-take of intimacy with God.

Maybe that’s truly what discernment is all about; not so much discovering a specific set of actions we are supposed to do, but discovering how to reconnect with God when we are jolted out of a faith lived in auto-pilot, and forced to renew our understanding of purpose.

In the Superman movie, Man of Steel, a young Clark Kent becomes overwhelmed by all of the chaos in a school classroom. To escape his sensory overload, he literally bolts from the room and is found hiding in the quiet comforts of the janitor closet. With teachers and students gathered outside, urging him to come out, his mother bursts into the hallway. Calmly, she kneels down by the door and softly speaks to her son. She asks if he hears her voice. He responds yes. She tells him to focus on that, just her voice, to make it his island and swim toward it. After some time and lots of determination, Clark emerges and is immediately embraced by the loving arms of his mother.

After the sound of silence, Elijah emerges from the cave, humble and ready to hear what God would reveal. Here he experiences a bit of surprise, with God asking again “What are you doing here?” and Elijah offering the same response. Such repetition reminds us that even in times of discernment, we can come out in a similar place. And yet, God doesn’t leave Elijah there. God provides direction, specific directions about whom to anoint as the next king, and to whom Elijah is to pass on his mantle of leadership.

In other words, God tells Elijah to go back to work. Elijah does not have to give up his frustration, but God will not let him give in to it.

The same is true for us today. In the midst of difficult decisions, and when confronted with challenging situations in our lives and our world, God does not just let us throw up our hands, declare it all doomed, and go hide in a cave. Instead, through the Holy Spirit, God nudges us into contemplation and reflection with the question “what are you doing here?” Such a question prompts us into an active response to the world and reminds us that we have been created for a purpose. There is work for us to do. Sometimes discovering what that involves pausing, and listening to that hushed whisper. Because in it we know that we are not alone. The God who is alongside us in our chaos, who accompanies us into the wilderness, and who sits with us in the cave, is also the God who leads us out and remains with us, in whirlwinds, in earthquakes, in fires, and yes, even in the sounds of sheer silence. May we find God, and ourselves, there. Amen.

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INTERRUPTION AT CHRISTMAS

MATHEW 1:18-25

Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko
General Secretary,
Bible Society of India   
  

We have tremendously high expectations of Christmas. We want everything to be perfect. We have pictures in our minds of children playing, church choirs singing, and people smiling and getting along. But often it is not that way. It is supposed to be, as the song says, “the most wonderful time of the year” and the “hap-happiest season of all.” But for many it will be a very difficult time because something has interrupted the joy. It may be COVID 19, sickness, or death, or divorce, or loneliness.

We look to the Christmas season to be a time of perfect peace, harmony, and joy. But the first Christmas was not that way. It was an interruption.

Interruptions can happen at any good time. Consider the timing of Joseph and Mary’s interruption. They were engaged to be married. Like Christmas, an engagement is supposed to be a wondrous time. But it was during this time that an angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would miraculously, as a virgin, conceive and give birth to the Son of God. What joyful news! Yet, what an interruption! How would she explain her pregnancy to Joseph? Would he believe her? Would he be willing to take on that responsibility? This was not in their plans. And yet, she accepted it.

We know how Joseph responded. He didn’t believe her. How could he? His plans for a happy home with the woman he loved were dashed before his eyes. His life, as well as hers, had been powerfully interrupted.

If we are not careful, our response to an interruption can send us down the wrong path. Joseph nearly went down the wrong path. When he discovered Mary’s pregnancy, he was devastated. He couldn’t buy her story about a virgin conception. As much as he loved her and wanted to be with her, there was nothing to do but divorce her.

A betrothal – an ancient engagement – was much more binding than today’s engagements. The only way out of one was divorce. In fact, Joseph had the right to have her stoned to death for infidelity. Yet because he was a good man, he did not want to harm her or even embarrass her. He would divorce her privately. This was Joseph’s human response to a powerful interruption. But what a mistake it would have been.

Often an interruption brings on a knee-jerk reaction. We make decisions that, if we were better informed, we would not make. We must be careful that when we face an interruption, we don’t just react according to our own fears and feelings.

The key to handling an interruption is to get God’s take on it. Thankfully, God rescued Joseph from his error. I can imagine Joseph, having learned of Mary’s situation, tossing and turning in bed, trying to decide what to do. Finally, he decides. He will divorce her privately. But while he is sleeping an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says,

“Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. What she says is true. The child in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. This is in fulfillment of what God said through Isaiah the prophet, ‘The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and He shall be called Immanuel meaning ‘God with us.'”

Joseph awoke with a changed mind. He would not divorce Mary. He would take her as his wife and help raise this miraculous child. He had gotten God’s perspective of his interruption.

When you encounter an interruption, whatever it may be, don’t react according to your own feelings and thoughts. Seek God’s direction. Remember Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths” (HCSB).

Here are three words to remember when you encounter an interruption.

Prayer

The first thing to do when your life is interrupted is to stop and pray. Pray for guidance. Pray for courage. Pray for help.  When you look to God He will help you.

Perspective

Put the interruption in the proper perspective. How bad is it really? How long will it actually be important?

Providence

Keep in mind that God, in God’s providence, is still in control of your life. Nothing can happen to you without the leave and notice of your Father. He still has all of the hairs on your head numbered.

Interruptions can at times positively redirect our lives. This was true of Joseph and Mary. Their plans were interrupted, but oh what an interruption. Can you imagine a more wonderful privilege, or a more challenging responsibility, than to be the human parents of the Son of God? The direction their future took was not what they had planned, but it was so much better.

Have you ever considered that God could do that kind of thing in your life? Not that you would be made the parents of the Son of God, but that God would take what seems to be an interruption, an unforeseen problem, and use it to set your life on a new and better path.

Whatever interruption you may be enduring right now, why not look at it in a different light, and ask, “God, are you using this to do something great in my life?” Then begin to look for the marvelous things He will do.

Whatever interruption you may be experiencing this Christmas, there is one thing you can do: stop and give thanks to God for Jesus. And as you praise and thank God, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, something of the peace that Jesus came to bring will be yours.

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TOWARDS A THEOLOGY OF DEATH

Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko
General Secretary
The Bible Society of India

In the recent past, we had to confront deaths of several of our loved ones, including nine of our own dear colleagues succumbing to the Covid Pandemic. All of them could be, without any shadow of doubt described as “persons who have lived a life of kenosis”, emptying their own lives for the development of the other. The departure of the above loved ones made me to ponder over the importance of developing and practicing a Theology of Death by the Church at large so that people do not become afraid of death but instead face death boldly viewing death as a natural and normal process of life. For this, Job 1:21 is taken as a tool from which a few pertinent observations are culled out to develop a Theology of Death. Job is regarded as a blameless and righteous person, who shunned away from all evil. Yet he had to undergo suffering including the death of his children. When the news reached Job about the death of all his children, he got up, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship and remarked “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (1:21).This statement of Job is moving and thought provoking. It projects three elements which can help us in developing a Theology of Death.

  1. Firstly, the Nothingness of Life.

Job’s statement “Naked I came…naked I will depart” points to the fact that Job understood the ordinariness and the impermanence of life. He realized human life is fragile and that he is nothing. In the Biblical account of Creation in Genesis 2:7, it is stated that God formed the human out of the dust of the ground. So the human according to the Biblical writer is nothing but dust. Dust and ashes in Hebrew thought stand for nothingness and ordinariness. This thought is beautifully expressed further in Isaiah 40:6-7 where it reads “All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… Surely, the people are grass”. Uncertainty of life and certainty of death are emphasized here. Job knew well that if one is born, he/she is to die. Life and death are part of a natural process. Hence Job was able to affirm “Naked I came…naked I will depart”.

  • Secondly, the Sanctity of Life.

Job continues his theological utterance by stating “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”. Here Job acknowledges that the life is God’s. God is the source of life and hence God is its owner. If God is the owner of life, God the owner can take away life as per God’s will. When God the owner of life takes life away, we have no right to question God, the owner and fall into skepticism. Rather we need to thank God for the life given and lived till death. A primary element in a Theology of Death is God’s ownership of Life. In Genesis 2:7, it is written that after forming the human out of the dust of the ground God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The Biblical account reiterates the fact that God is the source of life and that God gives life as a precious gift to the human to live and to experience the joy of living. Because life is God’s, life is sacred. There is sanctity in life. The human needs to realize this aspect and receive this gift of life with a sense of gratitude and be responsible in living the life which God has given. Life is not to be wasted away. Rather it is to be lived in all its fullness. Job realized this great truth and therefore in the midst of bereavement he was able to say “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”.

  • Thirdly, the Approach to Life.

Job’s last statement “let the name of the LORD be praised” is equally significant. It is also to be noted that Job tore his garment, shaved his head and worshipped God and uttered the above statement. These are amazing words and the wonder of it grows when we realize the context in which these words were spoken- loss of everything including all his 10 children!  His approach to life during the moments of crisis was not one of dejection but one of creative outlook. He did not question God by asking “Why?” Rather out of great humility he worshipped God by saying “Let the name of the LORD be praised”.

Creative approach was the way Job encountered suffering and death. Dr .Paul Tournier in his book “Creative Suffering” writes about 330 world leaders like Hitler, Napoleon, Lenin, Alexander the Great who all came up in life as orphans. They all faced Life and its challenges with a creative outlook. Religions have put forward different views on Suffering in life. In Hinduism, there is the doctrine of Karma that suffering is because of one’s actions. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. There is the doctrine of Kismet in Islam that suffering is the will of Allah. In Zoroastrianism, there is the teaching that evil/ suffering is caused in life by Ahriman, the God of Evil and good and prosperity by Ormazd, the God of Goodness. Buddhism advocates the view that suffering in life is due to one’s Attachment to worldly desires and the way out of suffering is to detach oneself from the world by following the Eightfold path. In Christianity, the way to face suffering is by the way we approach suffering by making suffering creative. Paul and Jesus are the best examples of Creative Suffering. Paul says, “… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13). Jesus in the midst of agony and pain cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Both Paul and Jesus approached suffering with a creative outlook.

CONCLUSION

Death is a somber subject indeed. None wants to face it. We take all precautions to escape death like medication, exercise etc. Yet the reality is, it comes irrespective of caste, color, creed, gender or age. None can escape death. The best option humans have is to realize that Life is nothing; Life is to be received as a gift from God to be lived responsibly and Life and its challenges including death have to be faced creatively with a spirit of optimism. By developing such a Theology of Death, life continues on the planet earth in all its fullness. Death ceases to be a threat to be afraid of. Rather Death becomes a part of the process of living.

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Reformation: A Challenge to Break Boundaries and Barriers

 

Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko
General Secretary,
Bible Society of India

Friends, as we celebrate the Reformation Day again this year on the 31st October 2021, I want to suggest that we of all people are in need of reformation.

In Acts 10, we read a beautiful story of Reformation. Apostle Peter receives a vision from God. In that vision, God showed him a sheet, and inside that sheet were all kinds of unclean animals.

Now Peter was a faithful, Bible obeying Jew. He knew what the Scriptures taught. He knew what the consequences were for disobeying the word of God. He could not eat these unclean animals. They were forbidden by God. They would defile him. They would separate him from God.

Yet in this vision, the most peculiar thing happens. Instead of God restating what was once written in the Bible, reminding Peter that these animals were unclean, God does exactly the opposite. God instead commands Peter to “Rise, kill, and eat”, in direct contradiction to what was written and believed by faithful Jews for centuries.

So Peter responds to God’s command by saying “No. I cannot touch these unclean animals because of what is written in your word.”

Peter resists this command from God because of his commitment to the Bible. He resists this command from God because in the world of religion, we always seem to think that the ways things have been are the way things should always be.

Two more times, God shows Peter this vision and commands him to eat these unclean animals, in direct contradiction to the Levitical law. And two more times Peter resists, on the basis of what was written in the word of God.

But the final time that Peter resists, God speaks another word to the Apostle. Instead of restating the command to rise up, kill, and eat, he says to Peter some of the most powerful and uncomfortable words in the entire Bible.

God says to Peter, “Do not call unclean that which I have made clean.”

These words are uncomfortable words because they are words of reformation. These words are uncomfortable because what they suggest is that God is on a journey of reformation and that God can call to us to transcend that which has always been accepted or practiced into a new way of believing and being in the world.

In this one statement, God tells the Apostle Peter  that which was once considered unclean, based on the word of God, is now clean. That there has been a progression. A reformation. Things have evolved. Moved forward.

This story is one of reformation. It is a passage that tells us that God is still speaking. That his Spirit is still moving and evolving, calling us to move past our outdated religious traditions and narrow beliefs into a greater more expansive vision of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.”

The Christian tradition at it core is one of reformation. Reformation did not begin with Luther and his 95 theses in Wittenberg. It began with a renegade Jewish Rabbi named Jesus coming on to the scene and mucking up the religious tradition of his day.

He healed the sick on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the word of God. He touched the unclean and unworthy and extended forgiveness to violators of God’s law. He overturned tables and spoke truth to the religious powers of his day, which ultimately cost him his life.

Friends, when we say that we follow Christ, we are saying that we are followers of the greatest reformer that ever lived. And when we say we follow Jesus, we are committing ourselves to be a people that are always harkening to the new thing that Spirit of God is saying to us.

Jesus told us that when he left, he would send the Spirit to lead us forward into all truth. The implication, then, is that there is much truth left to be revealed. More tables to be overturned. More scriptures to be expanded. More traditions to be burst open.

We, as followers of Christ, are people of reformation. Always called to be listening for a fresh word from the Spirit, always being willing to break past our comfort zones and move in to the wild, uncharted territories that God is calling us to.

 God is calling us to move forward. To change the way we think. The way we believe. But more than that, God is calling us to change the way we show up in the world.

We have forsaken the Gospel of Christ, a Gospel which is first and foremost good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and jubilee for all. Instead, we have embraced a consumeristic, capitalistic, materialistic Gospel. We have become so concerned with money and power. 

We have forsaken the kenotic way of Jesus that calls us to humble ourselves, to take the form of a servant, and to sacrifice all that we are for the good of our neighbours and our enemies. 

 The God revealed in Jesus is a God who is altogether strange. A God who is unique and expansive.  A God in whom every molecule of the Universe is held together and a God who is made manifest primarily, not in scriptures or temples made by human hands, but in the faces of our neighbours and our enemies. A God that is not so abstract that he becomes a mere philosophical concept, but a living and active God who in reality lives and speaks and works in the world through us.

Each of us needs to reform our lives. We need to reform our churches. We need to reform our communities. And it is not the job of religious leaders, or politicians, or activists to lead this theological, philosophical, social, and political renewal. The Spirit’s call is to us. To me. To be agents of reformation, of expansion, of inclusion, and of redemption.

May we always be reformed and always keep reforming, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of each other, and for the sake of our world, making the world a better place to live in breaking all boundaries and barriers.

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