Defocus Lab: the woman with ‘stomach trouble’

I was winding down from my morning run, when I crossed a woman walking in the opposite direction. She was not at first glance ‘the type’ of person I’d normally connect with. I glanced at her and looked away..and then reminding myself of my recent post ( see https://opendiary.blog/2019/05/25/defocus-me/ ), I glanced her way again, this time purposefully allowing my gaze to linger on her face. I noticed she looked troubled.

I walked on regretting that I hadn’t smiled at her. I made a mental note to myself – “next time, smile!”. I had barely completed that thought when the woman was walking beside me. “Madam” she said, “I have stomach trouble, I need help”. That slightly awkward introduction started a conversation which quickly accelerated from talking about “stomach trouble” ( her way of saying she wanted tighter abs!) to her personal life. I now know her name, how many children she has, what age she got married, some glimpses of her relationship with her husband and her in-laws and where she works! – crazy huh!?

People are lonely. Maybe Jagdamba (that’s her name) genuinely wanted advice. Maybe she just wanted to talk… I don’t know.. but it would seem that this encounter was sparked off by something as effortless as “eye contact”!

I want to encourage us all to give this a shot. Today when you cross those faceless strangers on your way to work, or to the supermarket or wherever, make eye-contact, smile..and if you’re bold enough, just walk over and say ‘hello’ – you never know how God may use these little windows to light up someone’s world!

Defocus Me

A man with gnarled hands appears at my train window.

Instinctively I jab a mental button that raises a screen between us. It’s an art that’s been perfected by years of practice- the art of ‘defocusing’-blurring out troubling details you don’t want to engage with.

Perhaps it started when I was a little girl with mum pulling me past their outstretched hands and yearning faces – “don’t look at them or you will have to give them something”, she warned.

Over the years I’ve put this inbuilt ‘defocus setting’ to good use. I’ve used it to block out the lustful stares of men as I walked down the narrow streets that led to the local train station . The same for piles of stinking garbage that spills into the streets of even our biggest cities, for inebriated men sprawled on sidewalks, for women with unwashed hair and clothes, for children with runny noses playing with broken toys..the list is endless…and we all know the list. I’ve learned to walk down the streets of my country by relegating everything that I don’t want to see to a fuzzy, de-focused background.

As I wait for the train to start, I recollect the excerpt of a speech I’d heard only a few days before by Harsh Mandir on TED talk. (look him up on the internet if you don’t know who he is). He was saying that what concerned him more than the poverty and deprivation of our country was the lack of concern towards it.

As I reluctantly process the implication of my thoughts, my children stare with wide-eyed, open curiosity at the man with the gnarled hands. Their stares embarrass me. I am tempted to repeat mum’s advice – “don’t look at ‘them‘”. I realize I’m trying to wear -out the persistence of the beggar with my trance-like expression. Eventually he moves on…and I relax.

I know this must change. ‘Looking’ precedes ‘doing’. I guess that’s probably why we don’t look in the first place. Could it be a way of shielding our nervous selves from the heart-break and inconvenience of action?

I want to learn from my kids. I want to ‘defocus me’ and start seeing again.

Life Assignment: Stand on the Road with Jug!

It was a stray sentence spoken at church last Sunday but it’s remained lodged in my mind ever since.

One guy’s life assignment was nothing more than to stand on the road holding a jug of water! The occasion was the last meal that Jesus would have with his twelve disciples. In preparation for it he sends two of the twelve out and tells them to follow a man who they’ll meet on the road holding a jug of water.

What were this man’s assignments prior to this moment? – nobody knows. Did he do anything exceptional post this encounter? – nobody knows! But this one act – standing on the road with a jug of water is what he’ll go down in history for! History told from God’s point of view that is!

So I’m in the middle of my morning jog, my mind working a bit slower than my legs and I’m pouting a bit over my life, when I’m reminded about what was shared this past Sunday.

Those of us who dream of making a big splash in our little ponds need this sober reminder – at the end of day, what may be noted down about us in the eternal records might simply be – “she stood on the road with jug” – and that ‘little- big’ one thing may be what satisfies God’s soul and ours.

21 May 2019:
Lessons from Michael Jr.

Prem, my husband has his headphones on and is laughing loudly as he watches a video of some dude on his laptop. As is usually the case, he has no idea of how loud he’s laughing! But his laughter is madly infectious and pretty soon I find myself giggling even though I haven’t the faintest clue why!

Turns out that Prem is watching a video of a stand up comedian called, “Michael Jr.” When I ask him what’s so funny, he looks at me with a mildly surprised expression – how did I know he was watching something funny?! Of course he’s completely unaware that he was laughing, let alone laughing at volume 10! Now it’s my turn to look surprised! (actually this is one of those things that continually surprises me about him) – how can one laugh and not even be aware of it?!

Anyway to get to the point : ) Prem tells me that this man ‘in’ the laptop, “Michael Junior” had one of those dramatic turn-around moments in life when he realized that his career as a stand-up comedian was entirely focused on ‘getting laughs’ from people. What changed for him was focus – he decided that rather than doing that, i.e, making himself the centre, he was going to ‘gift laughter’ ..gift joy to others! From the moment this realization hit, he started visiting joy-starved places – hospitals, old-age homes and the like, ‘giving laughter’ and reviving souls!

There’s something profound here folks! I ask myself, how much of what I do (ostensibly for others) -writing, speaking, mentoring, counselling, cooking, exercising etc boils down to wanting self-validation? How hungry we are for human approval – it’s like a cavern within that gets filled only to empty itself out again! What would it be like to do all that I (we) do with the sole motive of ‘giving’? – giving laughter, giving hope, giving a shoulder..giving..ourselves. Surely it would significantly change our paths as it did Michael Junior’s..

Faith is sometimes thought to belong with the “ostrich people’ – those who resolutely stick their heads into a reality called, ‘just believe” and refuse to look at what is palpably true to everyone else!

Sometimes words of admiration are offered to acknowledge this divine stubbornness. People may say things like, “I admire their faith” or “I wish I could believe like that”, but underlying their admiration is an assumption of naivety – they find beauty in such tender trust but find themselves too ‘grown up”, too ‘rational’, ‘too questioning’ to embrace it. : )

I suppose in part this view is valid. For Jesus did say that unless one is changed to become like a child, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God. But is becoming a child the same as believing in a world of goblins and pixies?

When I think of faith, I think of King David..

When I think of faith, I think of King David charging into battle with songs of praise on his lips whilst facing hordes of fierce, merciless bloodthirsty men who wanted nothing more than to cut his flesh into hundred pieces. I see him in the palace surrounded by intrigue, envy and spite- here being stabbed in the back wasn’t just a matter of metaphor. I see him fleeing for his life from his own son, walking away from everything he’d built and fought for. And I ask myself, what nature of faith is that? Surely not the dreamy, pie in the sky type of wishful thinking that is so often associated with the word. Faith here seems to look less like holding on to a fantasy that one can ‘make happen’ if only one shuts one’s eyes long enough and believes hard enough and more like.. reality. A reality so vivid and intense that it strengthens one to face one’s deepest fears and engage with life in its most gruelling moments!

Faith is Assertion

How does faith become this kind of tangible strength? Through some kind of divine revelation of a God-reality that surrounds us even though we can’t ‘touch’ it?  Yea for sure that’s one part of the equation..but I do believe there’s another part and that involves asserting what has been revealed to us of God. For we read in scripture, that to each of us, a measure of faith has been given. Further, Jesus teaches that when we use what we have, more is given to us! And that’s the whole point of the battle! Battles beckon us to use the little we do have!

Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” -Jesus.

A Battle Song..

Faith is sometimes restful trust, but sometimes it is a battle- song, a battle cry that calls a higher reality to bear down on the scariest, most discouraging situations of life! Our lyrics may be as simple and as repetitive as a nursery rhyme that goes “God is good” but when we adopt it as our battle cry, we slay giants. For sure what emboldened King David’s battle charge was not some vague, passive hope that somehow everything will work out for good in the end.. We can be sure that when he lifted up his sword and plunged into the thick of battle, his hope became an assertive shout …a declaration of victory promised and given!

Today we are each in a battle of some kind  – a battle for our marriage, a battle for our kids, a battle for our finances, a battle for seeing our God-given purposes fulfilled, or as is so often the case, a battle against our worn-down selves. 

Praying Heaven to Earth!

Today, I’m saying a prayer for both of us that though we fall (and fall again) we’ll rise again (and again) ..with a battle song on our lips. We are not ostriches!  Neither are we brave-hearts. We are timid children, stubborn children who nag our present realities with the truth we know, till it succumbs to that higher law of order, goodness and beauty and makes way for heaven to come on earth!

 

I owe this one to my dear husband : ) He mentioned at a small bible study we were having at our ‘home-office’ that there are two words in the Bible that are often confused for each other. The one is ‘remission’, the other is ‘repentance’.

Remission means the cancellation of a debt, charge or penalty.
Repentance(Wikipedia definition) is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.

Peter in his unforgettable speech after Jesus raised from the dead used both words. He said,Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

What a joyous word ‘remission’ is! The debt that we each owe our Creator was canceled because Jesus paid it for us on the cross! That truth takes a lifetime (and possibly more) to sink in, savor and exult over! However the question before me/us today is – can we take this immeasurably great gift and then carry on our merry old way?
What if a man had taken a massive bank loan that he hadn’t the resources to repay? And what if that loan that would’ve potentially cost him everything – his savings, his house, his car et al was then cancelled? Would he then go and check into a seven star hotel and spend lavishly on himself? If he did, we’d consider him to be deluded indeed! Why? For deep down we instinctively understand that remission and repentance go hand in hand. The grateful tears we shed in knowing that God has torn to shreds our collective ‘I owe you’s’ must turn our feet onto a new path – away from the old, tired one of the self-driven life!”

Unfortunately we tend to engage with God’s costly sacrifice as a large blotting paper that soaks up the guilt of personal sin and never truly come to terms with the need for a heartfelt decision to turn away from sin. And a decision it is! ( the decision to deny ourselves everyday, pick up our cross and follow Him) It doesn’t happen by default; we have to want to choose it.

It’s not that turning away from sin (and by sin, I mean the pursuit of ‘self’ which is the root of all sin) is totally ignored. It’s just that it is considered as optional – a good thing to do but not wholly necessary because after all Jesus paid for it all! Yet if we were to forgive someone who wronged us and if their following choices demonstrated little remorse or regret, we’d bristle at the thought of being so completely taken for granted! Then what about the King of the Universe? Would He sagely wave off our lack of demonstrated regret and say with a shrug of His shoulders, “it’s okay…I’ve paid for it all anyway”? Yes, it goes without saying that the motive for change should NOT be guilt, but there is every place for taking the God who redeemed our souls seriously!

Just before Peter invited his audience to “repent and receive remission for their sins”, he proclaimed,“let all Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” (Acts 2:36) Jesus is the Christ (the Savior) – the one who saves us from our sins, but He is also the Lord, the One we must change our ways for. He is both..and the call is still towards both.

Down the ages the message has been clear. John the Baptist inaugurated the coming Kingdom, (God’s rule on earth), by saying,”Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. This was the message that Jesus preached ( Mathew 4:17) and it is this same message his disciples later carried forward.

It’s very important to consider here what makes repentance ‘doable’ in every aspect of our lives the marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit. God has given us Himself, His very nature to empower us to walk in wholesome, life- giving ways. It is possible that we tend to overlook this mind-numbing gift or treasure as Paul refers to it (which is Christ in us) because we haven’t still properly felt the necessity to repent. If we see change as beneficial but not very necessary, then there’s no big urgency to engage with the only Power that makes change possible.

Let me end with another quote from one of Peter’s messages. This one spoken to the crowds that gathered around him just after he healed a beggar who was lame from birth. His words – “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,” (Acts 3:19) . Oh! how we want these times of refreshing to come! Doesn’t it sound like the promise of a cool, moist breeze on a hot day? Well that’s the third ‘R”. The other two are pretty obvious by now – Repentance and Remission…but folks, there’s a third ‘R’ –Refreshing – which follows the first two!

The wiping of our sins and the turning of our faces towards God opens the window to heaven’s refreshing winds and invites it to gently blow across our lives! Could it be that the reason that we’ve not fully experienced this is that we’ve engaged with one ‘R” and bypassed the other?

Last week I stopped at the thought that love means ‘giving up ‘self’ much the way Jesus did for us. Yet what we tend to do is to guard ‘self’ the most and constrain love to the safe-zone outside the carefully erected walls we’ve built around ourselves. As a result, if loving others inconveniences us to a point where it’s no longer pleasurable, it comes to a screeching halt!

If you’ve tried to walk this out in any measure ( that is to go beyond your natural inclinations when ‘self’ hurts), you would’ve run headlong into the truth expressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church –
“For the flesh craves what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, so that you do not do what you want ” (Galatians 5:17). That is, our desire to get past the hurt, anger, bitterness, indifference, disconnectedness, or even just our innate fondness for ease in order to love others is met with some serious push back from within!

In this regard, I want to share something written by C.S. Lewis. This is an excerpt from his book, “Mere Christianity” – ” Christ says, ” Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment the natural self but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent and the ones you think wicked- the whole outfit, I will give you a new self instead. In fact I will give you Myself, my own will shall become yours”

I believe there is great liberty in Christ’s invitation to give up the whole self!
I am discovering that my choice to go God’s way in a particular situation is greatly empowered if I get up in the morning with the notion of giving all of the ‘natural me’ up. Otherwise every act of love (of other-centered thought and action) will be reluctantly squeezed out of my selfish being drop by drop! But if I set my mind to thinking that I’ve junked all of it, the specific choices of the day are so much easier to engage with!
It is surrender that finally ends the war within! For it is in doing this that we encounter His Spirit within us – what the Bible calls the “new creation’ which is full of lively impulses, thoughts and desires! The liberty we experience is not so much from letting go of the old as from encountering the new! – the power of His spirit working in us as we surrender to the goodness of His plans and His ways!

I’m going to end with another excerpt on the same subject from “Mere Christianity” – “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call “ourselves”, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good”. We are trying to let our mind and heart go their own way- centered on money or pleasure or ambition- and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short, but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.”

The Gospel is good news indeed! – and it involves surrender and life. Both go hand in hand! More on that next week, but for now would you imagine with me what impact living out this kind of love could have – on your marriage, on your children, on your neighbours, on your friends, on society ..and on the future direction of your life? And then consider one more thing – this is actually doable! God wont set us up to climb a wall that’s impossible to scale!

To follow Jesus is to follow the path of love.
And the path is a thorny one
.

Jesus condensed the whole requirement of God into two simple statements – Love God. Love your neighbor. And before his death, He gave one more final command to his inner circle of disciples – “love each other”.

So what then is love, this thing that God puts such a massive emphasis on?
Is it hugs, kisses and affirmative words? Birthday surprises, laughter, good times? Shared secrets, meals and WhatsApp groups? Exchanging smiles, wishes, prayer and stories on Sunday mornings?

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus, begs the community there to walk in unity and then adds, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God” .

As I turned this sentence over in my mind, in particular the words, “gave Himself up‘, it occurred to me that what God calls love is so vastly separate from our own perceptions of it. Walking in love, Paul says, is to love like Christ loved. In short, it is to give ‘self’ away – or to use Paul’s words, it is to “give oneself up”! A quick reflection on my own life revealed that what I call love has often stopped short of what God calls love. That is, my love always stops short of giving my ‘self’ up.
When self hurts, love stops.
I’ll love you till you deeply offend me (hurt my pride). I’ll make time for you if it doesn’t cost me all my afternoon naps. I’ll hang out with you if you don’t have ‘attitude’. I’ll reach out to you, if you’re not too difficult to reach out to. I’ll pick up your calls if you don’t call too often – for then you’re becoming co-dependent on me! You see, I’ll love you as long as I feel good about loving you!

It’s like we erect careful walls around our precious, fragile selves and love outside those self-made boundaries. The minute those boundaries are impinged upon, we raise our “trespassing prohibited” signs and hastily withdraw indoors. Needless to say that in situations of abuse boundaries are needed…. But what I’m referring to here is the tight grip we maintain on ‘self’ in the everyday routines that define our lives ( and eventually our future).
We are fearfully cagey about our time, our space, our money, our feelings, our ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’. We hug our ‘self-life’ tight and love others to the extent that it doesn’t cause us hurt, discomfort or sustained inconvenience.
In other words, we continue to love ourselves the most.

What I’m seeing with greater clarity now is that this is not the way Jesus loved. Shortly before his death he said to his disciples – “this is my body broken for you -take and eat. This is my blood poured out for you – take and drink” – a symbolic representation of his death on the cross and the life we would have by believing in Him. Jesus gave himself up, poured ‘self’ out – fully, unabashedly and without reserve for the world that God so loved ..and it is this love we are called to imitate.

And that’s why love is war. For to love..to truly love requires us to war against our natural instincts to protect, preserve and pamper self. The war is not against people, but rather against ourselves, as we make choices to love others despite our desire to push away!

Yep…all this seems challenging at first read. It does to me too! But I know that it leads me to helpless dependence on God who has made it possible for all who believe in Him to live in this other-centered, freeing way.

There’s more I have to say on this, but I’ll leave that for next week . ..there’s more than enough to chew on for today, me thinks!

Not too long ago I found myself in a strange and difficult place – a place where the usual ‘comfort foods’ that bolstered my sense of well-being were gone! The odd thing about stuff we lean on is that we don’t realize how much they prop us up until they’re taken away!

I was prompted to think back to this recent season by a phrase in a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian church – “unsearchable riches”. Here’s the full context: ” Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” ‘ Unsearchable’ – that which cannot be traced out..In the original Greek language, the word literally means, ‘past finding out’. In my comfort-less existence at the time, I  was in a sense forced to look at what I had in the vacuum left by what I missed.  And what I had was the promise of those somewhat elusive, ‘unsearchable riches of Christ.’

In my pain, I realized I ‘d made a fatal mistake – one that I’d been warned about before. In consistently reaching for the tangible comforts of my urban existence, I’d replaced ‘the living’ with ‘the dead’. The prophet Jeremiah speaking as a messenger of God says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.Amazing.

Jesus came promising life…unbounded life..abundant life.  The divine message spoken through Jeremiah pointed to the root of my problem. Life can only be received from the living. . You cannot draw life from pleasant ambiences, scenic escapades, movies, get-togethers, community, stimulating conversations, memories, food, clothes, the mirror, sex, the applause of people or achievement – these do not have life -sap flowing through them! So though they invigorate for a while, sooner or later we’ll suck them dry and our straws will start making hollow. empty sounds as we scrape the bottom! This is exactly what had happened to me and in my room with no view, I began to see clearly again.

To make what may seem like a sweeping generalization, I do believe that this is our primary stumbling block- our habitual tendency to replace ‘ the fountain of living water’ -that which is endlessly alive -with that which cannot be! In many ways we’re all a bit like that Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well, throwing our pitchers into places that cannot bring up ‘living water’ . ‘Living water’, that’s what Jesus promises her -so much like those unsearchable riches that Paul later pointed to. I think that in some ways we were created to be insatiable. But the mistake we make is to look to the wrong sources to quench us. We know from the Biblical account that this Samaritan lady was looking to the promise of romantic love – she had, had five husbands and she was with her sixth lover when she encountered Jesus. She was seeking from a mere human being that endless something that only God, the fountain of living water had the resources to give. And like her, we too tend to look for life in dead places….and by ‘dead’ I mean everything that is supplied by the life of God but is not God (the life-sap source) Himself.

I ‘m far from fully grasping the ‘un-grasppable’! – those riches of Christ that are past finding out! . But this morning’s meditation was a personal reminder to me to keep my straw dipped into the right pitcher!

If you’d like to talk more about this, feel free to drop me a line at shalinaprem@gmail.com I’d love to hear from you!