FEEL THE RAIN ON YOUR SKIN - PRESENCE OF GOD
Mark Twain, who wrote that “when I was six years old I knew half as much as my father, when I was sixteen years old, my father knew half as much as I knew and when I was 26 years old I was amazed how much he had learned in years”, was wrong about my parents. Both my parents, very much like those with both feet on the ground, warm Christians grew in grace in our 2000-year old Kerala Syrian Christian tradition, were totally enthralled by the ubiquitous presence of the holy at home, at work and in the marketplace. Even today, Muthampakkal Sadhu Kochukunju Upadesi’s (1883-1945) well-known hymn ‘Ente devyam mahathwathil ardravanai jeevikumbol sadhu jnanee ..….vyshamyamullethukunnum jnan kareri nadakollan, reskshakenan kallukalku vegamai’ about the all-encompassing presence of God energizes me as I go for my early morning walk around the block in Northern Ontario. About two decades ago, during a short Canadian visit as one of our parents from Singapore began singing this hymn about 6.00 in the morning, a bit baffled by this unintentional wake-up call our teenage son came to us and whispered, “Grandma / Amachi is homesick! Maybe she suffering from insomnia or jetlag”.
It is impossible to ignore the inescapable theme of the presence of the Almighty in this Psalm of prayer of confession, dedication, praise and thanksgiving. As I happened to focus on this theme of the presence of God, I felt constantly uneasy about this theme as John Baillie , one of the well-known 20th century Scottish theologians whom I have always looked upon in my theological education, was invited in 1962 to give the Gifford lecture at the University of Edinburgh on the subject, The Sense of the Presence of God; but Baillie died before the date of the renowned lectures!
On July 20, 1969 American astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander, Michael Collins, command module pilot and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., lunar module pilot, stepped on the moon. This was certainly more than an earth-shattering experience to me and my generation of idealistic youths of the 1960s around the world looking up to the Beatles : John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Three months later in the fall of 1969, I found myself in Edinburgh, Scotland as an overseas theological student.
This was my very first experience of being away from my traditional first-century Christian home in Kerala. I was, as most besotted admirers on this planet, very chipper, brash and appreciative for the exceptional accomplishments of the astronauts landing on the moon and then safely returning to our home, planet earth. In spite of all these seismic events in space and around me, I was focused on my preparation to become a minister of the Good News of Jesus. The day before I left home, an itinerant evangelist with absolutely no training in theology, dropped by and said his customary prayer at our home, this time explicitly for my safe trip and sojourn in some exotic place!. I will never forget the rousing assurance and composite conviction with which he quoted an overwhelmingly stunning verse from the Book of Joshua for me, “I’ve commanded you to be strong and brave. Don’t be ever afraid or discouraged! I am the Lord your God, and I will be there to help you wherever you go.” (Chapter 1:9).
Natasha Bedingfield’s words in her song ‘Unwritten’ are deeper than one might imagine. –
Since then, I returned to my native home on several occasions but our paths never crossed. I do not even remember the name of this humble bearer of the presence of God. Nevertheless, I have remembered that blessed experience tens of thousands of times during my uphill battles of personal and professional loneliness, my attempts to stay afloat in many a frightening floods of fear and failure, my demanding lifelong quests for scholarly pursuits and conquests of stuck-up goals of worthless narcissism and every now and then deeds of altruistic generosity. Two clergymen, both family friends, showed up as well and offered their prayers but nothing dramatic and significant happened. The humble evangelist’s words of comfort and encouragement of the presence of our eternal God, who gave permission to Joshua, the new kid on the block following the sad removal from office of Moses, to salvage the confidence of his people in order to herd them towards the Promised Land. One afternoon, our first trounced couple heard a blowing breeze as God walking in the garden of their garden grotto. (Genesis 3). Following her epiphany, Hagar renamed God, “The God Who Sees Me”(Genesis 16 ). God counseled the aging couple Abraham and Sarah in the shade of the sacred trees. (Genesis 18). Jacob saw God face to face (Genesis 32) on his safe Jabbok riverbank. While Gideon was threshing grain in his shallow pit, God showed up. (Judges 6). Moses meets God on sacred ground.(Exodus 3). God travels with the people of Israel in the sacred chest (Numbers 10). David had hoped to build a divine palace on earth for God ( 2 Samuel 7)but his son Solomon finally built the Lord’s temple ( 1 Kings 7).Isaiah saw God in the holy smoke in the temple (Isaiah 6). The sanctuaries of worship around the world one common, familiar welcome sign: ‘Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter the Lord’s temple’ (Psalm100). The dishonest, rebellious, unjust people of Israel offered incense to Baal and had assumed that their domesticated God of their forbears would guarantee immunity from their enemies.(Jeremiah 7) Following the Babylonian conquest, Ezekiel warned them that the glorious presence of God would leave them (9 –11).
Besides the rich resources of divine encounters and theophanies of the Holy One in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament is replete with equally fascinating stories of men and women in the company of God through Jesus Christ. Mary, having encountered God’s presence, sang the most beautiful psalm of praise known to us as the Song of Mary or Magnificat. By the very name of Jesus as I/Emmanuel (Hebrew: immanu=with us; el=God) God is present with us in an entirely new way through his healing, teaching and preaching missions. The Gospel of John provides us with an altogether innovative understanding of incarnation/avatar, an identifiable religious phenomenon to most folk on the sub-continent of India as a result of our Interfaith exposures over the centuries. John was probably influenced by the Greeks who were knowledgeable of the ancient Hindu theological teachings.
On a personal note, in my upbringing I learned that clearly and plainly Jesus is the way for me to walk, the truth for me to speak and the life for me to live. Later, somehow the knowledge of the presence of Jesus became a scholastic and pedagogic knowledge, which eventually turned out to be a gripping burden than an experienced blessing! One of my teachers with some sadness told us about the incident where three different levels of acceptance of our faith. While the experienced rabbi with great authority said, “It is written”, the regimented Roman Catholic priest began, “as we are told by the church”, and the practiced Orthodox priest repeated, “according to our tradition”, the theologically liberal Reformed minister started, “ nevertheless, I would like to suggest…”. Somehow we missed the line from our faith formation about the freedom, forgiveness, new life, courage and hope God has extended to us through the life, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection of Jesus, our Messiah.
What the 17th century English empiricist taught us about the four clusters of idols of tribe, cave, market place and theatre that would impede our observations and perceptions is abundantly true even in our globalized post-modern day and age.
I do not agree with Karl Barth, Swiss theologian who was influenced by Hitler’s agenda than the Bible, on many of his theological claims and findings; I choose a “lysis theology”, gradual transformation as opposed to his crisis/judgement style. My first theological teachers made a big thing about Barth’s teachings on Christianity as a revealed and supernatural religion. Yes, God is wholly other than humans, beyond our limited reason and effort but as creator God, although wholly other, does not function in isolation from creation, for that reason Psalm 139 asks, “where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I lie down in the grave, you are even there” with me. Having studied western Christian thought over the years in several seminaries in Europe and North America, I believe no theology, whether eastern or western, whether Orthodox or Roman Catholic, whether Protestant or Evangelical, whether capitalist or proletariat, is complete in itself. No one particular Christian denomination can claim that the Church of Christ in its entirety subsists in it; if an insecure, nervous, troubled denomination makes such an obnoxious, overblown declaration of such claim, it is fooling its own adherents. The presence of the holy God is so vast and wonderful that we all, as our ancestors claimed and experienced the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, belong to that enterprise Jesus began in Palestine with long apostolic heritage or without such traditions, with profound theologies or with the most fundamental, simplest Christian affirmation, “Jesus loves, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
At my vintage, I would argue that for me the Bhagavad Gita, where King Arjuna felt the presence of Krishna in order to deal with his disrespect towards his combatant cousins and gain new knowledge of the meaning and mystery of life grounded on enduring ethical values and the Holy Koran, where prophet Mohammad receives the holy word from angel Gabriel are more helpful to grasp the presence of God than all the distorted, pernickety, heretical, hair-splitting, pedantic mumbo-jumbo I have come across in the past thirty years. Not long ago at the Princeton Summer Institute of Theology, Diogenes Allen discussed on the sacred and secular in our post-modern social milieu; following his exceptionally luminous lecture we had an opportunity to ask questions. I informed him that as an eastern Christian I didn’t see the seeming western distinction between the sacred and secular to which Prof. Allen spontaneously retorted with his sense of humor: “Why didn’t you tell us this about ninety minutes ago; we all could have gone shopping!”
Since those early unripe and youthful days of Christian ministry, a goodly number of such emotive and energizing gifts of God’s word have been my rock-solid, secure and sure source of inspiration and energy in my long and wide journey around the globe. It is not difficult to feel overwhelmed by fear of death, health issues, rejection and despair in this life. At sometimes, the ever-present God nowhere to be seen, felt and available.
In the parking lot or in the shopping mall, I find myself humming some of the great hymns on God’s presence, which I learned after I became an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada. I owe much to Shirley, Margaret, Ivy, Brenda, Barbara, Ellen, Denise, Andy, Tammy, Bev, Eleanor – all the gifted church organists in my parishes in the Ottawa Valley and Northern Ontario. These two are among my favorites:
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LIGHT OF LIFE
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