Category Archives: Jesus

Who is Truly Happy in Bhutan?

Last week’s official visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has put the spotlight on this tiny nation, wedged between China and India high in the Himalayas.

With a total population of only around 750,000, Bhutan is not well known to most people in the West, apart from a single snippet of trivia. In 1972 the country’s king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness – based on Buddhist values – as a gauge of the nation’s development.

So the Gross National Happiness Index embodies not only economic development but also the preservation of traditional cultural values, ethical governance and the protection of the environment. It is rare nowadays to find a media report on Bhutan that does not somehow incorporate a reference to the index and the perceived happiness of the nation’s people.

Sadly this happiness does not necessarily extend to the country’s small Christian population, estimated at fewer than 20,000 people. For Bhutan is ranked at No. 38 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

The “Operation World” prayer guide comments: “Christians are denied religious freedom and are persecuted in various ways. Church buildings are forbidden in all but a very few cases; most fellowships must meet in homes. Bhutanese who become Christian face the loss of their citizenship, of other benefits – such as free education, health care, employment – and of access to electricity and water. In some instances, harassment and beatings occur.”

(The Duke Of Cambridge is the elder son of Prince Charles, and when he ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom he will also become Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It would be pleasant to imagine that he raised these matters with the Bhutanese authorities. Perhaps he did, though I assume not.)

By chance, happiness has been on my mind recently. This week my church is starting a Bible study group for newcomers to the congregation, and I shall be leading. Our first study is on Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount.

Traditionally, this Bible passage is presented in English as a series of blessings – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. But the study guide we are using, aimed at new Christians, replaces the word “blessed” with “happy.” Thus, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and, of course, “Happy are those who are persecuted.”

Clearly Christian notions of happiness are radically different from those of the secular world – or of Bhutan. For a Christian’s happiness is a spiritual happiness that derives from our complete dependence on our mighty God and the blessings we receive from Him.

Now I do not want to downplay the persecution or the suffering of Bhutan’s Christians. I do not envy them their plight. I would not wish it on anyone. Yet, based on words of Jesus, they are among the happiest of all people in their country.

The Language of Jesus Under Attack

Attacks on an ancient Syriac church in Turkey constitute another blow to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

According to a press release from the World Council of Arameans, fighting in late-January between the Turkish army and Kurdish militia groups in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir has caused many deaths and extensive damage.

Diyarbakir, with a population of more than 900,000, formerly boasted a flourishing Aramaic-speaking Christian community, but this number has declined sharply over the past 100 years. The city is home to the Syriac Orthodox St Mary Church, which dates back to the third century and was once a center of learning for the Aramaic language, as well as attracting some of the Eastern church’s most famous patriarchs and theologians.

Its priest, Father Yusuf Akbulut, stayed in the church until the last possible opportunity, before fleeing.

The press release quoted him as saying: “When we escaped, we saw so many streets completely destroyed. Our hometown was unrecognizable and it looked like a war zone. We don’t know what has happened to our church, because we didn’t dare to look while we were running for our lives. Now we have little hope left that there can be a future for us, Aramean Christians, to stay in the land of our forefathers.”

Subsequent reports stated that parts of the church walls have fallen.

Aramaic was, at the time of Jesus, the most common language of the Middle East, and it remained widely spoken, particularly among Christian communities, for many hundreds of years.

But recent decades have not been kind to the language. Younger generations in the Middle East, even if they grew up with Aramaic, often ended up mainly using Arabic, the dominant tongue. In addition, there has been a steady exodus from the Middle East of Aramaic speakers – intensified over the past few years with the attacks of Islamic State – with many moving to the West.

Ironically though, the language is seeing something of a mini-revival in an unexpected part of the region – in Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, and they still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And in 2014 the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

It is a sign of hope. But will it be enough? Some experts maintain that Aramaic will disappear as a living language by the end of the century. That would be a bitter blow though it pales into insignificance when compared to a more distressing looming tragedy. Can Christianity itself continue to flourish in the Middle East until the end of this century?

Which Shares Would Jesus Buy?

I’m a freelance writer, semi-retired now, but still specializing in finance, investment and the stock market. It’s not work I’m entirely comfortable with. I know that many Christians – including some in my own church – regard the financial markets as casinos. But I have a family to feed, and I haven’t been able to make a living writing on Christian themes, so the stock market it is.

Friends sometimes suggest I write a book on “Christian finance.” That is, on money management for Christians, like Larry Burkett. I’ve resisted, for several reasons, and it’s probably as well, because, according to a “Religion BookLine” email newsletter from Publishers Weekly, the market for those books is crowded.

dollarThe newsletter (which is not online) put the spotlight on several books related to Christians and finance. About one of these it wrote:

The book’s tone is more aggressive than other Christian guides, exhorting readers to think of debt elimination as a “war,” with its accompanying sacrifices. Exclamation points, italics and parenthetical intensifiers so abound in the text that by the book’s end, even the most committed reader will feel rhetorically exhausted.

I’m not comfortable with “Christian finance” books that lay down lots of rules. After all, even a Christian financial principle like tithing is open to various interpretations.

I don’t believe Jesus gave specific instruction concerning the stock market, savings accounts, debt reduction or whatever. Instead, he taught love, forgiveness, service, integrity, trust, humility, prayer, compassion, justice and more. These virtues should naturally (and increasingly) govern every aspect of our lives, including our attitudes to money.

That’s not to say that personal finance books are useless. Far from it. (After all, I write some.) But I don’t think that Christians necessarily need “Christian” personal finance books, any more than they need, say, “Christian” car repair manuals or “Christian” aerobics guides.

Martin Luther is famously quoted as having exclaimed: “I would rather be operated on by a Turkish [Muslim] surgeon than a Christian butcher.” (Though some doubt he really said it.)

A short article from Christianity Today magazine has influenced my own attitudes. By J. Raymond Albrektson, it is titled “Is the Stock Market Good Stewardship.” Here is an excerpt:

The bedrock of a biblical understanding of wealth is that it all belongs to God, but he entrusts us to manage it during our lifetime. Our task is to decide how to divide the pie. How much do we give away to help meet the needs of others and expand God’s kingdom? How much do we consume on our own needs? And how much do we set aside for future needs?

We’re basically trustees, and a trustee normally does not take high risks with the owner’s wealth. When you entrust assets to a financial manager, you expect rational plans for putting that money to work, not unreasonable risks in hopes of a quick payoff.

I would commend the article to anyone interested in this theme.