Saturday, May 30, 2015
Church has to be inclusive in every respect. Theological differences with regard to communion and beliefs always were a part of the church. But bringing people to church and making them feel the fellowship of acceptance, love and caring is what the church stood for and has to stand for. It is not in judging and keeping away but in accepting and including that the church stands apart from an organization or group. In Acts 8:26-38 Philip talks to the Ethiopian eunuch and they get into the water as a sign of their acceptance of Jesus.
The Jacobite church like many other churches has been stuck in the non-availability of a neutral space where any Jacobite Christian can come and pray. The net neutrality debate which was going on a month ago was about how the internet cannot be controlled and made into a place for a few but must be left free for people to come to and get what they want. Making churches language specific limit the coming in of our very own community members as they don’t understand what is going on but have no choice on offer before them. The liturgy as such used is very meaningful but unfortunately no one can understand very liturgical Malayalam. This questions whether the church can offer a platform of neutrality which the church should stand for and which will offer meaning to the church members. We are after all called to take care of everyone. Acts 20:28 says “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
It is an uncontested yet usually undisclosed secret that many members, young and old are keeping away from church because they do not understand the prayers. It should also be noted that there are people who flock to church to keep in touch with a culture that is highly being diluted both inside and outside Kerala. In this context it should be noted that making the liturgy used understandable and comprehensible is of utmost importance as otherwise the prayers will not make any effect on the congregation in a particular place. 1 Corinthians 12:14 speaks “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” Thus languages that are used and understood by people should replace one language whenever the need is felt. This is not to undermine a language but to say that the belief, faith and theology of the church are beyond any one language.
English could be one such language which can be used. At the same time other South Indian and North Indian languages should also be tried whenever it is needed and meaningful for the congregation. This will in essence be location specific and cannot be dictated by anyone. In South India, English becomes one language which can be used for a congregation which is multi lingual. English by default is a unifying language in India because as of yet we do not have a language accepted by people as national. Hence English services should be encouraged and started in cities and towns and this should be made a space where people can come to be part of a Syrian Orthodox service. Such spaces are simply not available at the moment. It is very interesting to note what Dalit ideologue Kancha Ilaiah says while discussing Dalit empowerment in India “My way of equality is English education. Even if 10% of our children got English education, the intellectual field would have changed. This country would have changed.” Upward mobility of people coming to church should be taken into consideration while doing worship services.
In those lines the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church under the leadership of its bishop H.G. Osthatheos Mor Pathros is starting an English congregation named the St. John’s English Chapel. Unlike how it was seen many decades ago, this is not anymore an experiment but a need of the hour. It is to bring people who are not going to church due to various reasons, back to church. It is also to offer other people who are already going to a church, the option of going to a church where they can understand completely what is going on. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church definitely affirms mystery as an integral part of its worship. But that does not mean that the worship in its entirety should not be understood by those attending it! It means that there are parts of the communion which go beyond human understanding.
The call for all to assemble and come to church is beautifully put in the song after the Nicene creed in the worship service.
Mercy here is full and free,
Come, beloved, come and see,
Give the kiss of peace divine,
Hearts sincere in love combine.
The success of such a worship service depends on several factors; the actual interest of the people being the last of the lot. It depends rather on how the service is done. Knowing every language is a skill and it should be studied to an extend where it can be used so that people who listen to it understand what it is. “It sounds like Greek to me” is a usage that one has not understood a word which was used because it was either not communicated properly or it did not make any meaning to the person who heard it. Similarly using a language is a skill which has to be developed in all seriousness and with great effort. Secondly, the success of such a service also depends on whether people know about it and whether those conducting it have made an honest effort to inform people of its existence. Clubbed along with this are the timings of such a service, continuity, team work and location.
Considering all such things one also faces the question “Are we ready?” When will we be ready? Another decade or two, five years? Maybe then it will be of no consequence anymore. A 40 odd year old man I talked to told me that he goes to one of the new churches offering a host of services. I asked him whether he was happy? He said that he actually was not. He did not agree with what was being preached but the only reason he continued to go there was that he understood to a great extend what the preacher was saying even though he did not agree with it. Will such people flock back to a congregation like this? Only time will tell. The only thing we can gauge now is the feelings of children, teenagers, youth and even those hovering around their half century of life. This then is not an effort to count numbers and then say this is a success but an effort in the right direction understanding the needs of people.
The church has always stood for the outcasts and the discriminated. The church is by itself struggling still with the issue of casteism but one should also realize that there has been a more internal problem of seeing as outcasts people from within as well. There are several inter caste marriages happening in the church. The couple starts living as one but then realize that there is nothing on offer for them from the church because one of them and sometimes both of them cannot understand the language used for service. A service such as this is meant also for such couples who have found themselves at the cross roads, having to figure out for themselves how they have to continue as Christians and as a Christian family.
Only time will tell whether a decision is right or wrong. But some decisions can never go wrong. They will only be perceived as wrong. I have a strong feeling that this decision by the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church, which has received consent from the Holy Episcopal Synod in India, will fall in the latter category.
Poster design courtesy: Dn. Vineeth John Abraham
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Come Holy Spirit, dwell inside us
Come Holy Spirit, renew us
Come Holy Spirit, make us a channel for your grace
Come Holy Spirit, may we accomplish the unthinkable
The service of Pentecost gives us the opportunity to renew the power of the Holy Spirit inside us. We have gained the Holy Spirit through the commitment of baptism. The bending of our knees is an acknowledge of our short comings and sinful nature and an invitation to God through the Holy Spirit to work inside us. Such opportunities are less in life.
The sprinkling of water is a cool breeze and energy of faith that splashes onto us the commitment to work hard for God and be blessed by God in return. The fact is that God never forsakes us. Jesus tells his disciples that when he leaves them, the Holy Spirit will come to guide and lead them. As the father God inspired him, he will inspire the Holy Spirit to guide us. He informs the disciples in St. John 14:1-3 that he will ensure a space for them in his father’s house. The one who works for God will never be let alone to wither away but will be send springs of grace to grow and become whole. No matter what, I am there for you, says the Lord God!
Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit also reminds us from St. John 15:15 that Jesus comes to the point of accepting his disciples and followers as his friends and as his equals in ministry. It is a call to them of their responsibility rather than a feeling of accomplishment of their elevation. He tells them that him calling them his friends also means that from now on they share the responsibility of working for the kingdom of God. Jesus says that this kingdom cares for the poor, nourishes the sick, looks after the elderly, accepts the outcasts, stands with the wrongly accused, and offers good governance for all which leads to just and equal prosperity for all. Jesus just does not elevate them but puts the glorious burden of ministerial responsibility on them. In St. John 15:13 Jesus says that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Ministry is a calling to see others as our friends and to go the extra mile for them, unto the point of even laying down our life for them.
Pentecost reminds us of team work and unity. There obviously cannot be various Holy Spirits and various views of the one Holy Spirit. What that means is that any difference of opinion of or about the Holy Spirit means a difference of opinion of people on how they see and experience the Holy Spirit and one another. So the service of Pentecost reminds us that we have to work together overcoming our differences. This cannot happen overnight but this is also not impossible. Responsibilities should be equally divided and given in a way that no one feels left out and the gifts of all are used. A call for unity is not to crush the spirit of diversity but to say that God in the form of the trinity is united and it is humans who bring about division. God cannot be divided from God’s own front but is divided by the narrow understanding of human beings.
The bending of knees and prostration during the service is an act of humility and repentance. It is to say that we are willing to unite under the wings of God. It is painful and difficult but it leads eventually to a wonderful unity which will do away with the pain and difficulties involved in kneeling. Accepting our differences and the fact that our difference of opinion is also a difference in understanding of one true reality is indeed painful but not wrong. The kneeling process makes us accept the pain and the knowledge that the pain will become happiness soon. It is indeed happiness that makes us arise in one accord and receive the droplets of water symbolizing the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a great happiness of having being accepted into a single fold of children, women and men. In St. Mark 1:40 a leper comes, kneels before Jesus and says that “if you choose, you can make me clean.” Kneeling is a very inherent act of accepting from our very high positions that we are after all children of God and not beyond God.
The incident at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 were confusion springs upon an over confident people, and the occasion of the Pentecost in Acts 2 when each understood in their own language what the disciples spoke, are contrasting in their approach. In the first case the people have figured out everything and they forget that an ambition of a few does not stand for the many. In the second instance the people do not know each other but are brought together by the Holy Spirit. One does not know where the spirit goes and how it leads. We bow before the Holy Spirit to be blessed with showers of blessing which become legible and understood by multiple sections of people.
The Pentecost is thus a time of renewal of our commitment to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to stir us to action always making us bow before God. Being accountable to no one and living a life beyond and above everything cannot make us members of a community who cares for one another. The Holy Spirit gives peace, assurance, guidance and happiness. The Holy Spirit also gives the strength to bow down and rise in expectation and hope that God is present inside us and whenever we bow before God, we will be raised from the ashes.
The service of Pentecost thus becomes a cool wind in the midst of testing times, problems, expectations, doubts and half truths. It is a washing of the body and soul. A sign that whatever has happened in our lives, we have God in the presence of the Holy Spirit to carry on with strength and hope. When the representative of God announces “Stand up by the power of God”, it is a nudge and a help to now get up and be assured that God is with us.
As is said in one of the prayers during the service of Pentecost “We pray You, 0 God, the comforter Spirit, by this sweet incense, beseeching the abundance of Your incomprehensible richness, that even now You be pleased to renew unto us Your divine gifts, and to rest upon us as You did upon the holy disciples in the Upper Room, divide among us Your heavenly presents, fill us with Your divine wisdom and with the doctrines of Your divine mysteries, make us temples for the dwelling of Your glory, grant us to drink to the full of the abundance of Your grace, satisfy us with the sublime richness of Your bright light, grant to us that we live to You and yield ourselves to You that we may, in purity and holiness, worship You, 0 God, the Comforter Spirit. Through You and by You we worship the hidden God, from whom You proceed, and the Son of Whom You take, now and forever. Amen”
Thursday, April 30, 2015
A statement has come from a section of the legislature in India explaining that rape within marriage cannot come under the preview of rape because marriage in India is different from other parts of the world. Due to this any United Nations observation and recommendation in this regard cannot be implemented in India it is being argued. The second argument being put out is that marriage is a holy sacrament and therefore what happens in such a relationship cannot be rape.
One needs to think whether marriage in India is indeed different from other countries? To consider one’s tradition higher than others is very parochial and high ended. Which culture can we refer to in India? Is it a male dominated culture and tradition or is it a marriage of equals which also exists within the Indian tradition? Indians across the board migrate to different parts of the world. When they live in other parts of the world they have to adhere to rules which give importance to equal partnership in a marriage. Will their marriage become less sacred by being in a different culture and adhering to rules which are now being labeled as anti-Indian? Will their economic clout and foreign exchange be less acceptable to the government which thrives on such NRI support?
In many churches the understanding and basis of marriage is played out as the relationship between Christ and the church. Husbands are therefore supposed to sacrifice their lives for their wives just as Christ did for his church. This understanding in some form or the other is prevalent in all religions. What is being proposed by the U.N. is not anything new but what all religions are supposed to do anyway. This is not a foreign imposition of any new law or understanding but what hasn’t been done because of continued male leadership and females adhering to patriarchal leadership norms.
Marriage is an important step in the life of a couple. The religious rite or sacrament is an institutional step which welcomes the couple into a community and makes them take a public decision and commitment in front of elders, women, men, youngsters and children. The main step of the couple is not just a sacrament but the commitment they make to one another.
This mutual commitment goes beyond everything else and despite or in the absence of any other thing, the couple will try and be committed to each other and stay with each other. Such human to human contact and commitment is not forced but is voluntary, mutual and even equal to an extent. Our relationship with God should also be natural and not forced. By saying that what happens in a marriage cannot be brought under the purview of rape, people are questioning the sacredness of mutual love of a couple, their commitment to one another and the love in their marriage. Marriage is not a slave of the state. The state ensures that those who enter a marriage have their rights safeguarded. Religion makes sure that this coming together is blessed with the presence of God in the witness of the particular community of family, friends and well wishers.
Fr. George Morelli puts it such “St. Paul explains this beautifully (the essence of marriage) when he compares the love a man should have towards his wife in terms of the love that Christ has for the Church. "Husbands, love you wife," St. Paul writes, "as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her ... " (Ephesians 5:25). Therefore any type of sexuality, which is self-centered, manipulative and degrading, is impure because it is not based on self-emptying, self-giving, committed, and creating love. Love always has as its center the good and welfare of the individual. It is for our good and welfare that we were created by God, our Father, redeemed by Christ in His act of "Extreme Humility" of embracing the cross, and sanctified by the Spirit whom He sent. As Christ took on our flesh, a man and woman in marriage " ... shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh" (Matthew 19:5-6). Thus the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians have so much meaning: "The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." As God's love is not casual, crude, rude and self-centered, so too, sexual love should not be this way. As God's love is giving, emptying and creative, so too sexual love should be this way.” This does suggest clearly to us that love and sexual relations cannot be seen from the perspective of how it has been explained recently in India.
Both religion and the state ensure that the people are given their rights and grow up in an environment of trust, love and equality by using religious texts, tradition, theology and the constitution as guiding principles. Religious texts, traditions and the constitution give enough and more pointers on how a marriage should be and how the relationship between a wife and husband should be. Despite this there are attempts within the legislature and the church to oppress certain groups for some benefits.
In the paper “Marital rape: A Legalized Sin”, Anjali Shrivastava, Devanshu Jain and Ayan Hazra identify the short comings of an archaic law which has limited scope for women who are married. The law says that punishment for the spouse can only come about if the wife is under 15 years of age or if the couple are separated at the time of the non consensual sex. The Justice Verma committee constituted after the gruesome rape in Delhi in 2012 proposed that this should be changed and domestic rape has to be brought under the purview of rape. Recommendations made by the Verma Committee include
“i.The exception for marital rape be removed.
ii. The law ought to specify that:
a. A marital or other relationship between the perpetrator or victim is not a valid defence against the crimes of rape or sexual violation;
b. The relationship between the accused and the complainant is not relevant to the inquiry into whether the complainant consented to the sexual activity;
c. The fact that the accused and victim are married or in another intimate relationship may not be regarded as a mitigating factor justifying lower sentences for rape.”
‘Though the committee had recommended the removal of the exception for marital rape, no steps have been taken by the legislation regarding it.’
The query whether India is not on par with other countries brought up the reply on the specific culture and sacredness of marriage in India. Sana Shakil writes that “Marital rape is illegal in countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Israel, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Russia and Poland. It is also an offense in 18 states in the US and three in Australia. A survivor of marital rape in the country (India) can get some relief by filing a case against her husband under 498A IPC (husband subjecting his wife to cruelty). However, the section doesn't clearly define the term cruelty and carries a maximum punishment of three years and fine.” India in this sense does need a clear definition of law and amendment of the law.
The statement on rape within marriage should be seen as a statement against married women and a lack of interest in bringing out real development in the country. Marriage is not a license to rape. Marriage is a commitment to live together in love, mutual respect, sharing and harmony. The only option for a woman who is raped within the perceived sacredness of marriage should not be limited to separation and divorce but also to file a case against the injustice meted out to her. This is what religion and the state should stand for. Anything else will be a blot on our fragile religious harmony and democracy.
Picture courtesy http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/Heroic_Rape.html
Poussin's Rape of the Sabines, painted in the 1630s and today in the New York Metropolitan Museum, may well be the rape image most familiar to American art historians. It illustrates an episode from the early history of ancient Rome. The Romans, unable to obtain wives peacefully, staged a festival, invited the neighboring Sabines, and, at a signal from Romulus, each violently seized a Sabine woman.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Maundy Thursday is celebrated the world over as a time for Christians to come together and partake in the communion of the body and blood of Christ. People who have confessed their short comings and have taken the decision of being at peace with one another flock to church to receive the communion set in motion by our Lord Jesus Christ. But what is indeed the significance of this communion or the Holy Qurbana (o) in church?
Jesus commits to his disciples and says that he wanted to have this meal with them before he suffers and that he won’t do this again till the fulfillment of the Kingdom. He then says the formulaic sentence followed by many churches up till today and announces that he is giving them his body and blood as a sign of the new covenant between God and human beings. We are all under this new covenant of commitment that Jesus makes to us. It is a commitment to suffer for the cause of many and to fight for all. As we partake of the body and blood of Christ we are also coming under this covenant and commitment to do good. For that we have pursued a tough time of cleansing ourselves of all things which are anti Christ. Today we then come forward in that commitment that as God has made a covenant with us we also make a covenant with God that we will do what God seeks of us, which is to be Christ like.
What could be the good expected of us? Isaiah 58:6-9 offers us a splendid idea. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” We are bound to a commitment of doing specific things which are expected as part of our fast and commitment to God. It is a clear call to do good like Jesus chose to do. Fight injustice, let the oppressed go free, cover the naked, share our bread with the hungry and the Lord will hear our cry and say “Here I am.” Allowing the body and blood of Christ to work inside us is necessary as otherwise we only partake and nothing seemingly happens out of that. The wonderful opportunity to partake and to effect change brings about a true commitment from God to hear our cry and reply Here I am.
The partaking of the body and blood of Christ makes us enter into covenant with God and gives us the unique opportunity to be co-workers in God’s kingdom. The partaking is not a simple act of dealing with our short comings and coming forward to accept communion but steps of commitment and faith saying that I will heed to the wish of God to correct injustices in society and open my life to the poor and let the oppressed go free. Those small steps towards communion that we take are big steps of a commitment that I will contribute my bit to change the world that I live in. What a beautiful thought it is and what a wonderful commitment we share. Amen.
Praise to Thee, O Lord, To Thy Father Praise,
Worship, glory be To the Holy Ghost.
Grace and mercy be on us sinners all,
Opened be to us Zion’s gates above
May our pleas be heard at the throne of Christ.
Praise to Thee, O Lord, Praise to Thee, O Lord,
Ever praise to Thee, Our hope. God bless.
(Excerpts from a sermon preached in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore during Pesaha service yesterday night.)
Picture courtesy www.lds.org
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Peace is difficult to comprehend especially when one comes across Jesus’ exhortation that “I have not come to make peace in this world.” What is peace and should we undertake an effort to understand and establish peace during lent?
Peace can be seen from the context of being peace that is available from God in times which are confusing and lost. “May the peace of God that exceeds all understanding be with you.” Peace need not make sense but peace also gives sense and direction during very confusing and difficult times. The loss of a dear one and the confusion and blankness it brings about cannot be settled with anything else but the soothing peace from God. This is a peace which is offered as a prayer to us in times of need.
Peace can also be seen from the context of what we offer to others as a negotiated and thought out offer and even a less thought out but never the less sincere offer. This is peace that seeks to do away with conflict and bring about an honoured, respectful and mutually enriching atmosphere of trying to live with each other. In the first case we receive unceasingly and in the second case we ask for continuously. Peace is an uninterrupted time of calm. But many a time it is a calm before a storm. It can also be that peace is what we see on the outside while the inside is brimming with unrest. What then can lent be in terms of peace? Is it a time where we try to be at peace with ourselves and others? Is it also a time where we are holding our emotions through lent or stoking our inner hurts so that we burn them out forever?
A woman or man of God can and should be peaceful. Proverbs 16:7 says “When a man’s (sic) ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Peace and trust in God go along side each other. One cannot do away with peace and maintain one is close to God because we are missing an integral part of God in our lives. It is not to remain quiet and bring about peace but to exorcise our inner demons and disturbing thoughts and bring about peace in the process. Peace is not at hand without suffering and Jesus reminds us of that. In St. John 16:33 he says ““These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Peace then becomes more than what we experience in this world. Maybe we won’t experience complete peace in this world. But the peace of God allows us to see a pattern to the suffering we face and to come out of it and have an inner peace initiated by God.
Peace then becomes not what is imposed on us. Lent should rather be a time to trust in the immense power of God to bring peace in us. It is an extended invitation to be at peace with ourselves and our contexts by being at peace with God. Philippians 4: 6-7 says “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” This is not what we can make sense of but what may pass all our understanding and yet bring understanding in our lives.
This lent we can try for such peace where we are brought into understanding our lives in terms of what God is doing for us. Peace is out of this world because it is difficult to accomplish but in our effort to do that peace becomes this worldly rather than other worldly. We can’t work on the short comings of others but we can burn our own insecurities and negative feelings and bring about a peaceful stillness after that. Lent offers us an opportunity to try for a peaceful existence by being at peace with ourselves primarily and calling upon God so that others be at peace with us. Amen.
Picture courtesy www.delta.edu
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
In the gospel according to St. Luke 13:10-17 the woman with an infirmity for 18 years catches Jesus’ attention in the synagogue while he is teaching there. Jesus tells her that she is set free of her ailment. She stands straight and praises God. Jesus sets right what is perceived as a promise which has been bent to the extent of breaking but still hasn’t been fulfilled. But despite Jesus doing what should have been done ages ago, the leader of the synagogue is bitter with Jesus for having cured on the Sabbath.
Did the leader want the woman to stand straight or did he not? Was his problem the Sabbath or the woman standing straight? Jesus calls this thinking hypocrisy. You got to do what you got to do! There is no special time for that. The liberation of people belonging to the lower strata of society and the problem of women being pushed away from the main stream is always set aside for an opportune moment.
This moment becomes promised liberation. Perhaps the woman was coming regularly to experience liberation. But she was denied it citing laws and regulations. It is in essence a feeling of having the cake (apple or bread) and not being able to eat it. Jesus changes this promise of liberation to actual liberation. Liberation cannot be words and promises blocked by culture, traditions and auspicious occasions. It has to be offered when someone seeks it through words, actions or even silence.
Jesus is angry at the lack of interest in the well being of the woman who has aspired to see and experience life like everyone else. When this takes place the community leader expresses his clear displeasure. Jesus exposes the leader’s actual problem though. Is it the Sabbath or is it what is done on the Sabbath that is problematic to the leader?
The ban on cow slaughter in a particular state in the country has brought in a lot of criticism. One strong criticism is that a cow has more protection in India than a woman. To make a more appropriate statement, a cow has more value than a woman! Jesus asks the community leader “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” 'And should not this woman be liberated?' Jesus points out a very similar point that we are facing in our age. Don’t women have the value of an animal?
Jesus’ reaction to the woman offers us a wonderful model to follow this lent. Liberation of the oppressed should be now and not later. Lent is an opportunity to say that our dietary restrictions are going to make us spiritually strong to raise our voice against the oppressions we observe in and around us. Lent is not a time to bow down but a time to allow Jesus to straighten us and liberate us. Amen.
Picture courtesy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_healing_an_infirm_woman
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Forgiveness is a critical part of our spirituality which we are not able to control and use properly. The reason for this is that we are filled with expectations of what we want from various people around us. The closer people are, the more are our expectations. We also give to others expecting something in return. Lent cannot be a time when we lent ourselves to get something in return. It is a process of self-examination and self-cleansing whereby we let go of our expectations and are willing to forgive seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, meaning as many times as needed, almost till our expectations are extinguished.
In St. Matthew 18:21-22 Peter wants to know the rule to be followed. Jesus gives him the sense to be undertaken. Lent for us becomes a 50 day routine where we would like to fulfill certain prayer timings, diet restrictions and feel we have fulfilled something by doing this. Seldom do we realize and are willing to accept that lent is a big teacher of how we should conduct ourselves not just for 50 days but the rest of our lives. Peter wanted to be absolved and wanted to know that he was doing the right thing. Jesus puts up a new challenge in front of him and reminds him of the journey he has to undertake in all probability till death.
Forgiveness has to come from top to bottom and cannot be expected bottom to top. The one who wants authority, position and a place of honour has to go through the process of forgiving wholeheartedly and continually. So much that forgiveness will become part of one’s life and a natural reaction to what someone does to us. We are always trying to teach a lesson to someone and forget that lent is a time to teach ourselves first. We are not teachers who are supposed to punish and change someone but learners who are supposed to forgive and change ourselves. Perhaps what Jesus said to Peter is very important considering Peter was going to take up leadership in the church. This leadership according to Jesus could not be taken forward with rules but had to break the rules!
In today’s life forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for the clergy and laity alike. We simple refuse to forgive, and behave with others keeping something in mind well into the lent and well after it. Confessions are often filled with the disability to forgive and the final acceptance that “after all I am a human being!” Jesus becoming human for the sake of humanity shows us what a human being is capable of doing. Even as Jesus was human and divine at the same time, he suffered on the cross and felt the pain. He did not use his divinity to escape from or move beyond the pain. The “after all I am a human being” comment does not give us an excuse but rather puts a responsibility on us. Jesus reminding Peter is Jesus reminding us today that if we would like to develop, move forward and take over leadership roles, we have to claim the fact that we are humans and we are capable of forgiving instead of saying after all I (we) am a human being!
This lent it would be meaningful to try and write to people, talk to them over the phone, meet them, or even do something symbolic to suggest to them that we are indeed sorry for anything that we have knowingly or unknowingly done to them and reach out to those who are trying to say sorry to us and tell them that we forgive them for whatever misunderstanding has happened. This is not an act of meekness but an act of courage where we are willing to accept the power of humanity reignited in us by Christ Jesus. Jesus answers Peter and Jesus answers our lent today by telling us to forget and forgive. We are human and we are capable of forgiving. Amen.
Picture 1 courtesy www.rejuvenatingwomen.com
Picture 2 courtesy www.psychologytoday.com
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
The Canaanite woman in St. Matthew 15:21-28 approached Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. His disciples who resemble us tell him to send her away as she is an irritant and keeps shouting. Jesus in an effort to converse says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the story starts here. The woman expresses her faith which is unrelenting perseverance. She finds the solution to Jesus’ problem of not being able to look beyond where he has been sent. The woman in her desperation but with unrelenting perseverance points out that in breaking comes out the solution for the problem. There is enough for everyone and everyone has a right to sustenance. This she courageously points out to the amusement of Jesus. Perhaps it is her eye for detail based on her experience on running the household which makes her point out this wonderful solution.
It is interesting that Jesus’ disciples want to ease out the woman and Jesus states a fact. But the woman is not willing to give up. She identifies crumbs as the way out of the situation. Her daughter needs help and the very basic help of sustenance. But none are willing to offer her that. Is there a way out? No one else thinks so. But Jesus offers a rope to hold on to when he says that no one gives dogs what is meant for the children. This is a clear indication of reality. But the woman is not willing to give up. She goes on and expresses her resilient faith making Jesus remark “Great is your faith.”
There was a way out of the deadlock. Jesus offers a possibility and the woman changes it into her opportunity. The dogs live out of the crumbs from the master’s table. What faith indeed! As we celebrate International Women’s Day we should realize that men haven’t given women their due! Men continue to argue that it is not their work. Women have now come into the position of asking for their rights and what is justly theirs. We should understand that men have treated women as second class citizens. But can we continue like this? It is one thing to say that we should follow the cultural changes that are taking place in society. But we should also look at the message in the bible and how we have not been able to get the real message out.
Women have not even been offered the crumbs when in fact the table is equally theirs. We have been like the disciples showing eagerness to sideline the woman and branding her as an irritant. But in reality women deserve much more. Can’t we at least follow Jesus’ model of offering life to the woman by healing her daughter and offering much more than the crumbs? Isn’t lent a time of unrelenting perseverance and resilient faith? Shouldn’t God accept us and tell us “Great is your faith”? Or are we going to be stuck in the temporal limitations of what gender is perceived as?
Jesus could come out of it despite it being part of his culture, traditions and belief. His blessing is an acceptance of the woman and her faith. It is saying yes to the smartness, faith, perseverance and resilience of the woman. Can we on International Women’s Day do this and continue to do this on other days as well? Amen.
(Preached on March 8, 2015 in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K. R. Puram, Bangalore.)
First picture courtesy www.healingmoments.com
Second picture courtesy www.lucascleophas.nl
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Values are a part of human life. We learn values from parents, peers, friends, teachers and the church and other religious places. Values are important for every generation to be in touch with each other and to show interest in all aspects of their life. Media education is done in some schools to make children media literate. Similarly value education can be done to make children well versed in values and how we should live life. Values are regard of what is important in life. When the things that you do and the way you behave match your values, things are good.
Values help us decide what job to choose, what compromises we should make and whether we should be traditional or have a modern outlook to life. Value education is the process by which people give value to others by way of education at home, in schools, colleges and religious places. Value education helps people determine how to treat others, what is respect, who are the old and new and what attitude to follow in life. Value education sometimes becomes a part of Sunday school education in churches but can also be a part of special education done in churches and schools.
Lent becomes a good time to help everyone to focus on what their values are and whether they are following it in their lives. It is also a time to introspect as to what our values really are and whether we have been misled into wrong values. It is a time when we can check all that we have been doing and would like to do in the future.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. How do we teach about women as part of value education in schools and religious places? Are women supposed to be looked down upon, weak and befitting protection from men or are women equal to men and befitting respect from men for who they are? Value education helps us to identify what we have been doing and how women have been portrayed in our text books. The furore over the documentary “India’s daughter” mentions such things as our culture, our women, our dignity. But what are women and how should be they treated in this country? Is there a value education for all children where boys especially are taught that girls are equal to them and the same creation of God? Or are religious places and education institutions getting it wrong somewhere?
How could an incident like December 2012 happen where a young girl and promising doctor Jyoti Singh was brutally killed and the perpetrators feel that she was being taught a lesson in values? What values do Indian culture and religious culture portray if this is the case? Can we escape by saying that we are not part of this or should we wake up this lent to say that we will teach good values to our children so that such incidents don’t repeat themselves in modern day India? 1 Timothy 4:7-8 says “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
How can such brutal acts happen in India you ask yourself and then you ask “How can such inhuman acts happen daily in a place which calls itself very religious”? This lent we have to as men, women, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters introspect what our values are. Are we a brutality waiting to happen? Can we train ourselves in Godliness and factor in the value of human life and all its complexities? May lent help us to instill values in us and regain the lost values inside us. Jyoti do, jyoti do, jyoti do Prabhu. Jeevan do, jeevan do, jeevan do Prabhu. (O Lord, give light. O Lord, give life.)
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
We have already entered into another blessed lent looking at ourselves and trying to figure out where we stand. This initiative of the UTC worship committee is indeed a good one as it gives a time for a theological community like ours to pray for each other and pray for ourselves. There is sometimes a mis-notion that theologians and pastors need no prayers. We all need prayers and we all need to know that we are not perfect and that lent is a time to work on our faults and accept others with their faults because in accepting others we are accepting ourselves!
As an introduction we are looking at traditions which continue to live in our midst but will also look at how traditions have evolved and why this is an important aspect of tradition itself. Valentine’s day came with no preplanned bang before the start of lent in some of the Christian denominations. So much that it was an emotional drain on youngsters to start off lent because they were wasted even before the start of lent.
But the Valentine’s day tradition offers us a link to lent and a reason to lent as well. This we understand from the story behind Valentine’s day. The Emperor issues an edict that soliders should preferably not marry as this would make them weak soldiers and if at all they could have several women so that they would love none. Valentine took the risk of marrying couples in love and thereby also gave them the opportunity to be committed to one another. The Emperor jails Valentine and he heals Julia, the daughter of the jailor Asterius. Before his execution he writes a letter to her and signs off as Your Valentine. Interestingly the heart, and the love have been taken over by a commercial frenzy on February 14 and the sacrifice and real purpose of Valentine have been left behind. Perhaps it will serve us well to pick up the crumbs and understand lent through that.
Va-lent-time is an exclamation that this is something we do by our own will and that this is something we do diversely. Every Christian tradition has some form of lent and that cannot be discounted in any way. Every Christian tradition also understands that lent has several things to offer them and through diet, manner, character and life restrictions each one tries by himself or herself to lent and live. The Orthodox (Syrian, Oriental and other) churches fast, lent and give alms and pray that lent without practice of alms giving and helping the poor is no lent at all. The idea is not to be self righteous though it is misconstrued that lent makes one self righteous. On the other hand lent makes one humble, self critical and analytical. Food restrictions are to tone down desire on several levels as prayer for the soul over food for the body takes center stage.
This lent in UTC we are trying to figure out sins which we are committing and which we have to stop doing by fasting and praying. They are sins against humanity and community. This is a perfect time to tell ourselves that we are sinning and we need help to stop. It is not a lent to rectify and renew others but a lent to change and offer a leash of life to oneself. St. John Chrysostom says that “It is folly to abstain all day long from food, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness.” Lent to love is to love ourselves to the point of saving ourselves to offer food and nourishment to others.
Churches should become the best place one wants to go to. Pastors should be the first person someone wants to meet at a difficult time. Lent can help for attaining this goal. But the biggest corruption of lent has been to think that lent makes us better than someone else and our lent is the best and most perfect lent. If we start thinking like that our lent has been wasted. Stop abusing lent and start loving it.
Get dirty this lent
Undergoing lent and the thoughts that we have while doing it are the reverse of what we have on mind. St. Luke 5:12-16 talks of the person with leprosy who asks Jesus to make him clean. We usually try to make ourselves clean during lent. Our practice of lent is to have diet restrictions, prayers and a life style to suggest that we are clean by ourselves and cleaner than others. There is an addiction towards being clean and more so to be cleaner than others. But what does Jesus do? What was he supposed to do? He was in all probability expected to ignore the person with leprosy because Jesus was clean while the leper was perceived as un clean.
But the clean Jesus does an interesting thing by stretching out his hand and touching the unclean person. This is a true model for Lenten practice. If we cannot offer cleanness to others our cleanness becomes suspect. The entire essence of purity, cleanness and holiness somehow prevents us from reaching out to those who are branded as impure and un clean. This important observation of reality has to be part of our Lenten experience. Jesus gets dirty and also reflects a certain ughhh from people to suggest that he did something which was not acceptable. We have it as part of our sermons but such dirty acts of faith which are actually good acts of faith are left in the script and don’t go to the field.
The eeeggh and uuuggghhh have to be part of our process of getting mud on our hands during lent so that we are prepared for real ministry. Identifying inward beauty is something we haven’t been able to grasp despite knowing fully well that our spiritual guidance suggests us that. Love cannot be limited to what we are taught is beautiful. Love has to be acts of love like Jesus showed. It did not matter to Jesus how the person looked anymore. Can lent bring about such love? Can we lent ourselves so that love indeed becomes blind as they say it?
Fasting against corrupt practices
Lent is a protest. When everything is accepted and goes a certain way it is to say that I don’t want to be part of a uniform way of thinking as I feel this could be disruptive of the gospel. Protest is not a bad word. Perhaps the images in our mind of protests which have become violent make us identify the word protest with something bad. Protest is to say that there is another way of doing things and we would like you to try it out. St. Mark 2:1-12 contains the story of a unique protest. Four people bringing a paralyzed man discover that they cannot bring the man to Jesus because of the crowd and so they find a unique way of letting him to Jesus. Jesus is impressed and helps the man. There has to be a discernment to do good whenever possible. Lent is a time when we enable ourselves to able others.
We usually talk a lot about lent and sometimes it even sounds like we are doing it because someone is forcing us to. But there are others who are not forced by anyone and yet commit to lenting their own lives. Irom Sharmila is one such courageous woman who has fasted for 15 years of her life starting from November 4, 2000. When many of us complain and undergo the lent experience because it is a part of our traditions, Sharmila has made a tradition out of her fast against unjust structures. Her fast is not for her self glory and purification. It is for the repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Her usual practice of fasting once a week in her usual life turned into a lifetime fast because she protested against the killing of innocent people from her state. What do we call her fast? Is our fasting and are our lents close to the deep spirituality of Irom Sharmila’s fast where she has made herself into a vegetable for the sake of others?
The people carrying the paralytic get a deep sense of spirituality to break the line and do something so that justice may be gained. This then becomes a traditional endeavor for us to follow. Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed for the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern, what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. Irom Sharmila has proved that love goes beyond love of the self into uncertain and unknown territory. The people carrying the paralytic where going through unknown territory and yet love makes them do something so crazy that even they had no logical explanation for it. Can we lent that we become crazy enough to follow Christ through unknown ways?
Depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings
St. Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have others to do to you.” Deprivation is a part and parcel of traditional lent. But deprivation is not an act of weakness but an act of strength where we give up something so that those who are deprived may have it. We crave for a lot of things but many a time these cravings are not justified. They are what we take from others and have. Can we take from others and justify that? We obviously can’t and lent becomes a time when we can say that I would like to deprive myself of these unjustifiable cravings which deprive someone else of what is their share.
Lent becomes something to undertake, the stronger you are. This could be a reason why children, elderly folk and even nursing mothers are allowed to skip lent in some traditions. Lent is something you do in your strength and not in your weakness. It is what we give away and not what we take away. If we have received out of lent it is not completely justified. If on the other hand we have given away out of lent, it is justified. It goes along with the song “The weak say I am strong and the strong say I am weak.”
Lent in this sense is not a sadistic effort at saying we have done something great but a spiritual effort in saying that we have tried to become what God wants us to be and this is not sacrifice but the way God wants it to be. 1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” How clear a verse this is, how truthful an advise this is?
Lent becomes our natural action towards loving others, caring for others and ensuring God’s justice to be done. It is our deep spiritual engagement with God by loving others and letting them know that we are depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings so that they may have and have abundantly. We are invited to love and love beyond anything we know. Amen.
(Preached yesterday in the UTC Ziegenbalg chapel, Bangalore for the first Lenten Lantern service.)
Friday, February 27, 2015
Arch Corepiscopa Curien Kaniyamparambil achen is celebrating his 103 rd birthday today. He has completed a century and three years of his life, bearing witness to church saints like St. Ignatius Elias III and church stalwarts like Mor Dionysius Michael, Gheevarghese Mor Gregorios, Perumpally, Mor Yulios Elias Qoro and several priests belonging to the Elavinamannil, Kodiattu and a host of other families.
In the course of all this he has taught Syriac to several generations of students, conducted the baptism, marriage and funeral of several people in the same family, translated several prayers from Syriac to Malayalam and written books on church history, faith and tradition. His simple slogan “Christ needs this donkey” has inspired him to work tirelessly for the church and its people. He was and still is an icon to the people of Thiruvalla having been there for close to sixty years of his life.
His deep devotion and belief in the intercessory powers of Mother Mary has seen him wear a relic of St. Mary within his shirt pocket almost like a bullet proof vest, safe guarding him from any problems in life. His intercessory prayers and songs to St. Mary for the eight day September lent have been used by hundreds of thousands of people officially and unofficially. His translation of the Syriac morning prayers into Malayalam is by far one of the best translations of prayer songs. The Archcorepiscopa will make sure to pray at least three times a day religiously and intercede to Mother Mary at all times. His belief in honoring his teachers (gurus) will always see him giving credit to them and to how they have made him who he is.
Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen never fought with anyone. When he had to come out of the St. George JSO church, Kattapuram, Thiruvalla, all he took with him was his tears which he continued to have years after the painful incident of having to walk out of one’s own church. After that he was instrumental along with the Kodiattu family to set up and consecrate the St. George Simhasana JSO Church in Thiruvalla. Through this church he kept the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox believers in Thiruvalla rooted to their faith and pastored to them despite a very unfavorable environment.
He collected the money from the faithful and used it for the upkeep of the church, printing of several books and helping the poor. I have never seen achen spending money for himself. He has collected every single donation and used it for helping others, printing books to keep up the faith of the people, and give to the church in one way or the other. This is not known to many. The St. George Simhasana church in Thiruvalla flourished under him.
Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil was a great orator in his youth. He was a constant invitee in several churches as his knowledge of the bible, history and tradition of the church and preaching style were un paralled. His Good Friday service in church was a great experience of feeling the passion and suffering of Christ. He had the skill to translate Syriac to Malayalam on the spot and he used this to explain songs and bring people into a spiritual mood by explaining songs after each stanza and creating a real effect of commemorating the passion and crucifixion of Christ.
Achen’s faith has always been an important part of his life. His prayers were simple but deep. It would give you the strength to undertake a journey, write an exam, undergo an operation, come out of grief and expect good things from God. This coupled with his sense of humour made one want to go and spend time with him. He was always available in the arm chair, with his legs up and constantly writing on his writing pad. The sight of any visitor would make him stand up and he would seek the strength of your hand and in return give you the strength of his prayer.
Have we lost out on such priests? In a way yes. A comparison may be too harsh on the present generation of priests. The Arch Corepiscopa lived in an era where he had no mobile phone, no internet, no facebook and no luxury car. He lived in ordinary circumstances and perhaps that was what made him who he is even today. One inspiration for the priests of today would be his interest and his effort to write. His accomplishment in this direction is great. A list of 50 books and counting is not any average Syrian Orthodox priest for you! There would not have been a day without achen writing a page or two. This has been lost on today’s generation of priests. His single handed translation of the Syriac Peshita bible from Syriac to Malayalam has been the most understated fact in recent times. Who on earth can single handedly do something so difficult like that? Perhaps we should give the writer in Archcorepiscopa Kaniyamparambil more credit than he has received thus far.
Jesus wrote and he wrote so that he would be accountable and he would make others accountable. John 8:1-8 bears witness to that. Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen also wrote to be counted, to be held accountable and to stand up for what he believed in. Today history will attest to that. Unfortunately today’s generation of priests may not even write a status update on their own. I may be wrong and I will be happy if I am proved wrong. Kaniyamparambil achen should be an inspiration for us to write for the glory of God and write so that people may understand God’s word and will be kept in faith.
Humility is a character trait of Kniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa that today’s priests should learn from. Anyone from around the world and Kerala could and can meet him any time. If he is awake and healthy one can meet achen. This is associated with his humility and his eagerness to meet people who go to see him. I wonder whether today’s priests are so eager to meet their congregation, chat with them and offer them advice and guidance? This again cannot be generalized.
Faith, hope and love have always been part of Kaniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa’s repertoire. He has the faith as big as the mustard seed which can have him tell you to go in peace, God will help you. He has had his share of misfortunes and he has also been on the wrong side of decisions taken by higher ups. But he never gave up hope and always went forward. He was betrayed and used by his friends, colleagues, students and disciples. But this has not decreased his love for them. He still holds everyone with equal fondness and never speaks ill of or works against another. His love for another human being has been exemplary and this is something we can definitely emulate. What would one expect of a priest? These three things in all probability. A priest should be able to offer faith as healing to his congregation, should have hope that whatever the situation, God will help and that love and only love is God like and will take a church forward. This has somehow been lost in translation today. I hope that the Arch Corepiscopa can remind us that today for his sake we can rekindle these three in our ministry in the church.
Forgiveness has come naturally to Kaniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa. When you meet him you feel the love he has for you and not the hatred. This has been possible through his efforts to forgive and seek forgiveness. Who won’t melt and change when a 103 year old priest asks you for forgiveness even when you have been the one who may have committed the wrong! This is what achen has done all through his career. It has not just been his willingness to forgive but his over willingness to seek forgiveness even when he never did anything wrong. This is a true lesson for priests today. A priest’s effort should not be to justify but to ask forgiveness even when there is a doubt in our mind and to give forgiveness when someone comes to us seeking for it. A priest should be a fountain of forgiveness which never dries and Kaniyamparambil Archcorepiscopa has borne testimony to this.
What then can we offer Kaniyamparambil Archcorepiscopa for his 103 rd birthday? If you speak to him he will ask us to pray for him and he will then utter “God bless you.” Even in his request there is something for us. The only way we can give him a gift which will compensate his stature is to pick any one quality of his and emulate it. It could be humility, faith, hope, love, writing, forgiveness, saving for the future generations, right use of funds and anything that I haven’t mentioned. At this age and at this stature I suspect there is anything on earth that we can get for him. If he can live on forever that will be a great blessing for this church. One way that is possible is to take a commitment that each priest and lay person will take one quality or several qualities of the Archcorepiscopa and live it out through our lives so that achen will live and live abundantly.
Here’s wishing our beloved Archcorepiscopa Dr. Curien Kaniyamparambil a blessed birthday, good health, an active mind and long life. Beyond everything here’s praying and committing that we take one part of your noble character and live it out remembering what you have told and showed us.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Character is a very important aspect of an individual and helps in the spiritual life of an individual. A person with integrity and character shows good leadership skills and can always be an inspiration to others. But one cannot say that one is born with good character. Rather one imbibes good character through several ways, one of them being through experience and prayer. We get to see characters of integrity and sincerity in the bible, history and in our day to day life. Lent becomes a time to identify these characters and try to get into the character we have identified.
A lent with character is not only with food restrictions but is with certain ideals which identify a person as working for common people, the poor, sick, needy, children and women. We have characters we can take from and become because this becoming is a God inspired process of spiritual growth. In the book of Esther we read about Esther a woman who was courageous enough to reveal Haman’s treachery to the King. She moves beyond the usual barriers and gets into the character that God prepares for her.
St. Ephrem was a church father and doctor of the church who got into the character of making women teachers in the church. Bishop Anthimos writes "Ephrem was a promoter of women folk – from silence to dignity of their own. According to Jacob of Serug, the whole aim of Ephrem's teaching was a new world in which men and women would be equal. Moreover, he calls Ephrem as the second Moses for women because Ephrem took the revolutionary step of forming a women's choir (may be the first in the history of Christianity) and many of Ephrem's hymns were written exclusively for women's choirs. To him, Ephrem founded the women's choir in order to teach the Edessan Christianity right doctrines, made women teachers in the church and thereby promoted women folk from silence to the dignity of teacher. Thereby, "Ephrem presents his church with a new sight of women uttering proclamation". St. Ephrem took it upon himself to fulfill the very difficult role of being a church father with a difference with perfection. Can we also get into the character presented to us by God whereby we do things which we never thought capable of us and which people around us never thought possible?
Irom Sharmila is an ordinary woman but she has kept an entire state in limbo because she has been fasting from November 4, 2000 for repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Recently the court quashed a case of attempted suicide against her. She is free but still fasting. How on earth can we compare the fast or diet restrictions of fifty days in the church to the fifteen year old fast of Irom Sharmila!? She has been playing her character as God wanted it in the hope that anti people laws will be repealed and people can have freedom in their own land. She dreams of a future where the government and people will work and live together instead of fighting each other. Irom Sharmila’s will power has given her the nick name “Iron Lady”. How many of us could fast for a common cause and personalize a problem like Irom Sharmila has done?
Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Character is God given but it has to be discerned and fulfilled by us. Character is also what we receive within us and what comes out from within. It is courage, will and hope that God has great plans for us and for that we have to get into the character that God has chosen for us. 1 Samuel 16:7 says “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
Let this lent be a time to get into character. This is not what we have necessarily done before but what God is backing us to do now. It is not available character but character that we are reaching out to and making as our own. It is the character that is waiting for someone to take and act upon. Are we ready? Amen.
Picture courtesy www.plymouthherald.co.uk
Monday, February 23, 2015
St. Luke 5:12-16
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy.[a] When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 13 Then Jesus[b] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy[c] left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus[d] spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
There is a saying that was very popular for speech competitions in my childhood. It says “If wealth is lost nothing is lost, if health is lost something is lost but if character is lost, everything is lost.” It throws light upon one of the very important aspects of our existence. Even as we concentrate on body and soul we lose touch with the character of our very being.
Character initiates and eggs us on to do something we believe in and something which is just and right. This may not be what everyone else does but what we strongly feel should be done. It is not an outward initiation but an inside, intrinsic feeling of what our reaction should be in a particular situation. “Character is a pattern of behavior, thoughts and feelings based on universal principles, moral strength, and integrity – plus the guts to live by those principles every day. Character is evidenced by your life’s virtues and the “line you never cross.” Character is the most valuable thing you have, and nobody can ever take it away.” Jesus had character. This was build up by his relationship with God, his family and his society. But it was also a character which was against certain notions and taboos in society. The man with leprosy did not look Jesus in the face but he begs him to make him clean if he chooses. A confused character would have lead Jesus to look away from the man because that was what the majority in society did at the time. But Jesus looks at him, says yes, stretches out his hand and touches him. What Jesus did needed lots of courage because of the stigma of disease associated with leprosy or a skin disease. But Jesus’ character makes him think different and initiates an act of courage. His character is strong and is his biggest asset which is more than wealth and health.
Peter Drucker , a management expert has an interesting opinion on character. He says “A man (or woman) might know too little, perform poorly, lack judgment and ability, and yet not do too much damage as a manager. But if that person lacks character and integrity – no matter how knowledgeable, how brilliant, how successful – he destroys. He destroys people, the most valuable resources of the enterprise. He destroys spirit. And he destroys performance.” Jesus lead from the front and he did so primarily because he had character and integrity. When everyone else would have turned away from the person with leprosy he stretches out his hand. Even as people would have been shocked at what he was doing, he was courageous enough to do what he did.
During lent, many people try to work on a lot of things but conveniently ignore character as then they don’t have to change anything they do. Lent is a time which gives us an opportunity to fine tune and refurbish our character. If we have a stigma for someone based on their beliefs, disease, colour, and way of life, it means that we have to work on our character and not theirs. Do we make quick judgments on people based on what others say? If so, lent becomes a time to work on our character and how we have been formed so that we become courageous like Jesus to stretch out our hand instead of keeping it under wraps.
Aristotle offers practice of virtue as a way of developing our character. Good work with good intentions are a way to practice reshaping our character. Jesus practiced this all through his ministry. He did what his character reflected. But he still had to do it to reflect his character to others. But have we learnt from that? Our inability to make our character above our other qualifications has brought about a life that is not beneficial for us and others. This lent is a good opportunity for us to practice goodness and practice courage which should reflect the character of Jesus which we see in his courage to stretch out his hand, touch and heal the person with leprosy. Romans 5:3-5 says "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." A lent with character should not disappoint us but give us hope.
So, as part of lent, let us practise to reach out to people however they look like and whatever they believe in. Picture the scene of Jesus touching the person with leprosy and then see if we can replicate that! Get into the character of Jesus who touched the man when everyone else refused to. Reflect the character of Jesus by practising lent. Amen.
(Excerpts from a sermon preached in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore on February 22, 2015.)
Picture courtesy www.millersportcc.com
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Lent is a time to reflect upon our own short comings, to rectify our life and follow diet restrictions so that we become better persons. But one can’t take love out of the equation when we do this. But who or what do we love and can we love ourselves while we are at it?
To love means to sacrifice and let go of many things which we consider valuable to us. But love also means doing something good for the sake of others. There are a lot of people who ask whether it is imperative that we have diet restrictions during lent and whether we need to fast during lent? The question itself means that we need to because it affects us so much that we ask! Diet restrictions are not by itself going to take us to heaven as prayers mention clearly that fasting without inner change is of no use as inner change provides fodder for the soul and outward fasting only affects the body.
But diet restrictions are good because they help us to lighten up, think well, hope good and act meaningfully. It is to suggest that diet restrictions and fasting instead of making us angry should make us better individuals who work for the betterment of others. This can be done by knowing that we have to love ourselves to diet and fast. We are on the journey to become better people and thereby behave better with others. The journey always starts with us and we prepare ourselves by eating light and eating less and thereby telling ourselves that we are not starving and denying ourselves food but rather giving just enough food for sustenance and survival. This then leads us to thinking about the sustenance and survival of others. So loving ourselves in a spiritual way leads to loving others and is a natural progression. St. Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Today dieticians tell us to love our body more so that we can get more out of our body. Watch what you eat so that you can have a balanced body and mind they say! So dieting for a special cause is not depriving the body but in essence loving the body. Loving the body also means having good thoughts about ourselves and what we are doing. If we don’t love ourselves how can we love another? Proverbs 10:12 says that “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs.” Eating our heart out may only bring about more desire and dissension. On the other hand depriving ourselves brings out true love.
Deprivation is one sort of love where we say that I am sacrificing for something. Lent has also been seen as deprivation of food for the body so that the soul is enriched by the deprivation. But lent is also depriving cravings for certain kind of food so that true love is brought out. Craving for something or someone may not be true love. Depriving our cravings brings out a true element of love inside us.
Eating is something everyone can do. It comes naturally to us. Love is also natural but it becomes true love when we do unnatural things. Jesus Christ dying on the cross was unnatural but brought out God’s love for the world. 1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” Bringing in dietary regulations during lent brings about an element of unnaturalness in us and leads to true love. St. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Love makes no sense and is mysterious in certain ways. But it is the only way forward.
Any act of dieting and love can only be complete when we prepare ourselves to love others. Without this we will remain in a vacuum of self-righteousness. St. Matthew 22:37-39 says “Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving others is dieting, restricting and depriving as this leads us to love.
May lent be a time to deprive and love ourselves so that we may move on to loving others just as we were told by Jesus Christ. Amen.
Picture one courtesy www.theunitive.com
Picture two courtesy www.alivinggarden.com
Friday, February 20, 2015
The AAP victory in Delhi two weeks ago for the assembly elections held there is a result of hard work, planning and networking between people from various strata of society. One cannot and should not put this down as fluke, luck or a rare miracle. It is not every day that a political party wins 67 out of 70 seats!
There can always be conspiracy theories that the AAP won because of RSS support or that the Congress party did not bother to put up a fight because they thought that the AAP can take care of the BJP for the next five years in Delhi and be a thorn in the flesh of the Central government as well. One cannot deny the fact that the AAP worked pretty hard, did their home work and worked among various classes of people who are usually ignored by parties.
But what does such a victory do for the church? Is there anything we can learn from it and should we embark on that journey at all? The church is close to politics as it is also involved with thinking about governance, is concerned about the welfare of people and always wants to bring about change for the better in various places. One cannot therefore separate the church from politics completely and say that the church should never come close to politics and politicking.
What were some of the simple models followed by the AAP which can also be followed by the church? One should know that there is no question of one following the other but to rather understand that both the church and political parties are trying to work for the welfare of the people. Firstly, the AAP worked with people in the grassroots and took their concerns seriously. It was just not to impose things on them but to ask them what was needed and how things could be accomplished. Not listening to people and taking their opinion suggests arrogance and the church should never be arrogant and thrust its views on people. Rather the church should know what the people want by talking to them on a regular basis and arranging for meetings to interact with people who have common jobs and find it hard to make a living.
Secondly, the AAP stressed on positive campaigning rather than negative campaigning. They talked mainly about what they were going to do and had an extensive manifesto for everyone to check. There were moments when the media dragged them into comparisons and asked specific questions on personalities and candidates in other political parties. The AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was quick to steer away from comparisons and questions on opposing candidates. Instead of dwelling at length on them he dwelled on his party and their work. On asked about Ms. Kiran Bedi he said that she was a nice person. This brought in a good response from the voters. The church should understand that we don’t need to criticize each other and other people and instead can concentrate on the good that the church is doing. Going positive can help the church to concentrate 100% on its own plans and work instead of concentrating on someone else for the entire period. Criticizing others and what they do and follow is not how one must believe in God but rather one should concentrate on one’s own positives and work for the betterment of society.
Thirdly, the ability to say sorry should not be seen as a weakness but as an act of strength and character. The AAP made a mistake by stepping down after 49 days in their first shot at running the government. The first thing they did while campaigning was to admit this and say sorry. The church can correct historical wrongs and correct what may have been a wrong decision based on wrong assessments. A decision once taken need not stay for the sake of our own egos but can be rectified considering the general mood of what is right and wrong. Showing that anyone can make mistakes makes us ordinary and vulnerable but also appealing to those who form the actual support base of the church. One wrong cannot be made true by subsequent wrongs to cover up the original wrong.
Fourthly, one should be able to move with the times and trends. The AAP used the internet and the social media to a great extend to get in touch with people, understand political trends, get new supporters, and explain their programs to people. This brought about a great change to how politics was made to enter into the office, study and even bedroom of the individual voter. The internet was also used to announce meetings, give key information and influence people. This reaching out helped to interact with people. The church can do well if it reaches out to the young generation by speaking their language and hanging out where they do too. This may not be limited to the church but in youtube, whatsapp, facebook, blogs and virtual spaces. Keeping out of spaces frequented by the youth will also mean losing them completely in the long run.
Finally, the AAP believed in what they were doing and even gave religious overtones to it. The bible says that one must pray believing that the prayer has been answered. St. Mark 11:24 tells us “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The AAP leaders and party workers believed that their dream would come true even though they were written off as one time wonders. The church has times when it ceases to believe in itself and more so in God. So much that we belittle and limit the wondrous powers of God. The Delhi victory can become a Delhi belly, the rumblings of which can be felt in other states and institutions including the church. The church will definitely do well to reclaim the simple yet powerful truth of faith and belief.
Be humble, work hard, say sorry when at fault, understand the feelings and aspirations of people and be one of them, believe in yourself and in the positive shades of the people around you and above all, trust in God for God to carry you through. Should I say more?! Isn’t it time for a church of the common people to arise from within exclusive expressions of the church?