What was Prevaiz Masih Thinking?

His name was Prevaiz Masih.  He was the janitor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan until October 20, 2oo9.  On that day two suicide bombers attacked, one on the women’s side and the other on the men’s side of the campus.

An attacker dressed as a woman shot the school security guard then approached the women’s cafeteria where Masih was working.   Masih intercepted him at the door and told him that he could not enter because there were women inside.  The two argued and the attacker detonated his bomb outside the cafeteria killing Masih.  Three women were also killed, but many more would have died had Masih not met the attacker at the door.

Prevaiz Masih was a Christian.  Standing in the cafeteria doorway, he was protecting the lives of between 300 and 400 young Muslim women.  “Despite being Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls,” said professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, rector of the university.  I cannot help but wonder if maybe it was because he was Christian that Masih acted to protect those women.  What if he did what he did not in spite of his Christian faith, but because of his Christian faith?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable:

As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.  So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.  He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’  But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us’’  When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.  The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’  He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave!  Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’  Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’  He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’  Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound.  I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’  He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!  You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?  Why then did you not put my money into the bank?  Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’  He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’  (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds’’)  ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

From time to time someone will say to me preacher, we need to run the church like a business.  I am inclined to agree with those folks, especially when I read this parable.  The slaves in the story are given money.  The nobleman who gave them the money expected them to do something with it.  The expectation was real.  The message was clear; take this money and do something with it.  I believe Jesus told this story, at least in part, to teach us that we have been given something and we are expected to do something with it. If I remember correctly, Clarence Jordan suggested that money is not the currency of the Kingdom of God.  Ideas, convictions and principles are.  Jesus says to us take this idea of grace out into the world and trade with it.  Take this notion of mercy out into the marketplace and do business with it.  Set up shop and stock the shelves with justice, compassion, love, understanding, acceptance, peace and forgiveness.  Do business with these ideas.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Prevaiz Masih had been given these same ideas.  He possessed the currency of the Kingdom.  I do not know if he was thinking about his faith when the attacker showed up. Was he asking himself the question, what would Jesus do?  I do not know.

He had just started the janitor’s job making barely $60.00 a month.  He lived with seven other family members in a crowded, one-room apartment.  By our standards, he did not have much. Yet, he had compassion.  With compassion for those who would be harmed, even killed, he acted to protect them.  Many are alive today who would have been dead if Masih had not done what he did.

Thankfully, we will rarely, if ever, have the need to practice our faith in such a dangerous environment.  But we should not let the relative safety and security that we enjoy keep us from offering what we have been given to those who have need of it.  We, who have been given grace and forgiveness, might seek out those who are hungry for it. We, who have experienced compassion and mercy, might seek to give that experience to others.  We, who have found acceptance and hope, might point the way for others who are still searching.

Not many people in Pakistan expected a Christian to act on behalf of the safety of a room full of Muslims. Masih’s action surprised a number of people in his country.  What unexpected act can you do that might cause someone to look at Jesus in a new light?

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Why Say No to Universal Health Care? Part 3

The reasons just keep piling up. I can hardly keep track.

1. Because Cigna needs the 13.6% premium increase it will take to keep my policy in place in 2010 more than the uninsured people in our country.
2. Increased premiums and higher co-payments for the same level of coverage are preferable to being a part of system that provides equal access to all of our citizens.
3. I have no desire to live in the two additional houses that I could afford to pay for if for some reason I did not have to pay health insurance premiums.
4. The health insurance bureaucracy employees a good number of people. Think of all the claim deniers and coverage terminators that would be out of work if real reform were enacted. Better that they should have jobs than for us to pay lower premiums.
5. Likewise, doctors have to employ people to argue with the claim deniers in an effort to get them to pay for services that the policy is supposed to cover. These people earn their money. I would not want to reform the system in such a way that the important work they do was no longer needed.
6. In a similar vein, think of all the lobbyists that get paid with dollars generated by the payment of health insurance premiums to make sure that no laws get passed that would interrupt the continuous flow of those premium dollars. These folks have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. I would not want my desire for more reasonable premiums to negatively impact their chosen way of making a living.
7. Without sky high premiums, how could health insurance companies afford to make lucrative contributions to the campaign funds of members of congress? I am sure that there are no strings attached to such contributions. The health insurance companies probably realize that with the high cost of television advertising, those guys need all the money they can get when it is reelection time.
8. When I consider the number of career paths that are funded with the proceeds of health insurance premiums, I am proud to be making such a contribution to our robust economy. It would be heartless and unpatriotic to even consider reforming such a system. Frankly, I wonder if a 13.6% increase is enough to keep it going.
9. Emergency rooms have adapted to serving as a point of primary care for people without health insurance. Imagine how bored the people who staff emergency rooms would be if we had a health care system that provided primary care in less costly more efficient way to all of our citizens.
10. Finally, people who want reform often mention the poor, the working poor or the uninsured as their motivation for supporting health care reform. What about all the social service agencies that work to provide services to these people? What about the ministries, the community clinics and that sort of thing? What about the United Way? The point is there are already all sorts of resources out there for people who don’t have insurance. Most of the people who provide those resources find a great deal of satisfaction in helping people who are less fortunate. What would all those human service workers do if all of sudden their clients had access to health care? Think of the many rewarding experiences that might be denied this caring group of professionals if health care reform actually came to pass.

You may already be opposed to universal health care. If that is the case, then hopefully these points will only strengthen your resolve to resist changing the effective, efficient health care system that most all of us enjoy. However, if you are not convinced that universal health care is a bad idea, then move to Canada, Great Britain or Sweden. There you can have your universal health care and for some reason you will be statistically more likely to live longer. Go figure.

Will the Syrophoenician Woman be Covered?

She is a desperate woman. Her daughter is gripped by the power of a demon greater than all of the available remedies. She has exhausted them all. To be certain, she has tried everything that she knows to do. Neither the advice of friends nor the wisdom of those who often times know what to do in cases of sickness and injury provides any relief. She is a desperate woman.

So desperate that she forgets her place. Without regard for race, creed or ethnicity, she moves out to find help for her daughter. She is blind to any customs, mores or values that would deny relief to her tormented child. What is or is not socially acceptable means nothing to her so long as her little girl is hurting. What has always been, and even what she has always held to be true, is secondary now to finding someone who can ease her child’s pain.

She is hearing stories of a man who does such things. He is a Jew from down south. Why he finds himself in her town she knows not nor cares. The reports of His deeds seem incredible, too much to believe. Something in the stories ring true. Her hope is gaining momentum. Her desperation has a direction, but it is no longer simply desperation that drives her. No, her desperation has turned to determination as she becomes convinced that this itinerant miracle worker is the answer that she is longing for.

She falls down at His feet when she finds him and begs him to heal her daughter. Now her daughter will be made well, so confident is she in this man’s power and compassion.

But it is not happening. He is refusing. Rather adamantly he tells her that his power is not for people like her. His mission is elsewhere. He is in her town to rest, not to heal the sick. He will not do for her before he has done for those that he was sent to do for. The children must eat before the dogs are fed.

She has no time to be insulted. What she does have is a certainty that it is within this man to heal her daughter. Yet, it is more than that. She sees in him what others do not see. Not his most adamant opponents, nor his closest followers, have yet seen what she sees with absolute clarity. One wonders if even he sees what she sees, that he is for everyone.

With such certainty, she moves through clouds of desperation gripped by a mother’s determination, refusing to be denied His healing power. With great clarity and not a little cleverness, she reminds Him that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. What can he say? She has spoken a timeless truth. If there is a dog in the house, there will be no food left on the floor.

For seeing what she sees, and saying what she says, her daughter is made whole again. The demon leaves her daughter.

Does this encounter mark a change in mission for Jesus, a broadening of the focus of His life and ministry? Does it in any way affirm His assertion that “. . . God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish?”

What is it about this mother that moves Jesus to move beyond His initial reluctance to healing her daughter? Was it her determination or her desperation? The story as it is told in Mark’s gospel would seem to indicate that it is the wisdom of her reply that won Jesus over. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Whatever the limitations or restrictions that Jesus understands to apply to the range and scope of his ministry get obliterated in this encounter. Compassion trumps gender, religion and ethnicity. With Jesus, compassion always overrides whatever would withhold treatment, deny care or hoard mercy. She is persistent and he is compassionate. As followers of Christ, we are called to both that kind of compassion and that sort of persistence.

Doing Theology in an Economic Downturn

The economy is in the tank or at least that is what we have heard most every day for the last several months. However, the reality of economic hard times is not something we need the newspaper or television to tell us. We know that the economy is bad because we know people who have lost their jobs and we have seen people lose their homes.

The stress and anxiety produced by financial hardships impacts every phase of our lives. We cannot help but worry when our ability to take care of our families and ourselves is impaired by lack of work or rising costs. While economists and commentators discuss the situation in large national and global terms, we experience it in cutting back on what we spend and how often we spend. That is if we are fortunate, for some the situation requires far more than just cutting back and spending less. For them, job hunting, relying on friends and relatives and possibly relocating to a new city in order to find a job are all a part of managing tough economic times.

Why is this happening? The answers that the experts provide for us are not really the answers that we are looking for when we find ourselves facing such difficulties. That is true because our question is usually more pointed. What we really want to know is why this is happening to me? Why this is happening to us? The answers to such questions vary. We may be able to look at some of our decisions and readily see why current economic conditions have had an especially adverse effect on our lives. Our spending practices may not have as wise as they should have been. Our job is in an industry hardest hit by the poor economy. Therefore, it naturally follows that our share of the pain would be greater than those who work in other fields less impacted by economic conditions.

Even those kinds of answers do not get at what we really want to know. Because what we really want to know is not so much why it happened, but why it happened to us? For some, after all the rational and reasonable explanations have been given, the answers can become more personal and painful. This would not have happened to me if I were smarter, if I were a better worker or if I were more likable. These sorts of answers can spiral out of control and result in quiet a beating to ones sense of self worth. There are times when our lives are impacted by events that are far beyond the scope of skills, abilities and choices.

Along the way, it would not be surprising to hear someone say why is God doing this to me? In the midst of difficult times that would not be an unusual question. God, where are you and what are you doing? This sort of question indicates an understanding of God that is magical and mechanistic. That is to say that God operates all the levers of our lives as well as the lives of others and magically bestows good outcomes on those of us who are good while those of us who are bad receive not so good outcomes. The problem with this approach to God is that we all know good people who have received not so good outcomes and we all know not so good people who seem to be doing just fine.

So what is the answer to the question? The answer, at least in part, is that God is incarnational. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It marks for us the beginning of Lent and our journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. We make that journey with Jesus, God incarnate. God, confronted with a broken and rebellious creation, took on flesh and dwelt among us. God, facing God’s greatest dilemma, came to us as one of us. The testimony of scripture tells us that there is no desire in the heart of God greater than God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God, in order to make that kind of relationship possible for each one of us, took on flesh and came to us. As we look forward to Holy week, we are reminded that this action on God’s part is no idle endeavor. The humiliation will be real, the pain real, the nails real and the cross rugged. God with us, Immanuel, endures it for us.

What is this God who takes on flesh doing in these challenging economic times? I think it makes sense to assume that God is doing the same thing now as God did at Calvary. God is being with us and still doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. At the same time, God is calling us to be the Body of Christ. To be the presence of Christ in the lives of people who have been knocked to their knees by economic hard times.

If someone is asking where God is or what God is doing as result of the impact of our nations current economic situation on their lives, that person ought to be able to look to the church and see what God is doing. That person ought to see a church praying for those whose lives have been turned upside down by job loss. That person ought to hear more than just words of encouragement from church members, but also see actions that help that person move from despair to hope, from unemployment to work, from being hungry to being fed and from worrying about family to providing for family.

Whoa! That is a tall order. How can a church be expected to do something like that? Well a church can’t do something like that, except that we embrace the ongoing reality of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. We are the Body of Christ; as such we are called to be the presence of Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves. God calls us and entrusts us with an awesome and enormous task. Namely, that we live our lives in such a way that our very lives answer any questions about where God is or what God is doing.

Broken Windows,

Rocks are thrown. Windows are broken. A senseless act of vandalism is committed. Most likely it happened in the night so that darkness would cover the misdeed. Maybe that is all it is, a senseless act of Vandalism.

Yet when I hear the news I immediately think of another night, a night long ago when other windows were broken. I think of the long ago night not because I was there or even because I was alive. I think of that long ago night because on that night, just like the recent night in our community, the windows that were broken belonged to Jews.

Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was a night of terror. So many windows were broken out of Jewish synagogues, community centers, homes and businesses that the streets of Germany were filled broken glass. On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis staged riots that resulted in the destruction, burning, vandalizing or looting of 267 synagogues and 7,500 businesses. Jewish cemeteries, hospital, schools and homes were also damaged. 91 Jews were killed. Kristallnacht is one night among many when the Nazis terrorized Jews from 1933 to 1945. It is the night of broken glass.

Why do I think of that long ago night when I read of windows being smashed at a synagogue in the city where I live in 2009? Is there connection between the two?

Where they motivated by similar hatreds, similar prejudices? I hope not, but regardless of the motivation of the vandals who broke windows at Temple Beth El, I wish they had not done what they did. I wish houses of worship, all houses of worship, were safe from such senseless acts. In the 21st century, we should be living in a country were neither people nor property are attacked because of the religions that they represent.

As troubling as I find religiously motivated violence, I am deeply encouraged by cooperation, especially when that cooperation takes place among persons of diverse religious beliefs. Just such an event took place in our city last Sunday. Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church to pray for peace. The Sanctuary was packed full of people. People who in many ways where as different from each other as night is from day. Yet, we were praying together. While the room was full of diverse opinions about the nature and activity of God, by gathering together those assembled said with their presence that prayer was an appropriate action on the part of those who desired peace and justice. To me, it is a hopeful sign when people of such varied religious backgrounds can gather in the same room and lift prayers together in the belief that those prayers are heard and that they may well make a difference in the lives of people living in the midst of war and violence.

What seems odd to me is that both of the events that I have just described took place within two weeks of each other in Knoxville. What a stark reminder that even at this late date in history we are still daily faced with a choice. Do we reach out or retaliate? Do we seek reconciliation or revenge? Do we act in ways that give hope to those with whom we share this planet or do we act in ways that strike fear in their hearts? Not acting is acting. The world has grown much too small for any of us to think that injustice in some remote corner of world is too far away to be of concern to us. Let us pray always for the peace of Jerusalem—of Gaza —and of Knoxville.