Thursday, August 21, 2014

Give me my chair

Luke 14:7-11.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Don’t go for the best seat so that if the host comes and asks us to move, we won’t be embarrassed. Rather go for the last seat or the seat with no consequence so that when the host comes and asks to sit at a higher and better seat, it will be an honour for us.Perhaps the musical chair is one of the prominent games children are made to play in public. The game cuts across ages and is therefore popular among all age groups in church.

The concept is that we keep going for the available chairs, with many falling away without chairs and the winner being the person in possession of the final chair. It is not the final chair that Jesus talks about, but the final chair achieved through competition. The game is ingrained in each and every person that we won’t even hesitate to push others and get a chair. The chair and its possession becomes a primary skill one has to acquire at a young age itself.
What this does is to turn on its head the biblical message that we should not expect places of honour. This has been turned around to mean that we should fight for the final chair to win! How then can Jesus’ advise that the first will be last and the last first work in this instance? The musical chair is perhaps the wrong name. It should rather be the ‘final chair’ or the last wo/man sitting (standing)!

But where did this concept of musical chair come from? Competition, calculation and luck are very much a business model that one is told of in a business school. But can this be a model for the church? Actually not. Competition, calculation and luck (CCL) are all not supposed to be church language. Rather they are very anti church because they lead to division and hatred rather than love and community.Can we turn around the competition and start with one chair and go to many chairs rather? The first chair will only be a beginning and will lead to several chairs and people, bringing about the thrill of community, caring and togetherness (CCT). Everyone, big and small, tall and short, gets a seat or chair. But every opportunity of not getting a chair is only going to be an excitement that the next could be mine instead of thinking that we are out and all is lost.

Perhaps this is the way of looking at the parable of Jesus today. There are chairs for everyone. The last will be first and the first last. Everyone gets a chair and everyone gets to be someone on the chair because every chair is unique. An opportunity for one today is an opportunity for someone else tomorrow.The church should definitely be the place where people feel there is a chair for them. This is not a chair of competition, calculation and luck but a chair of rights, opportunities and goodwill and a chair of community, caring and togetherness. This way everyone who walks into church will be assured of getting a chair. The last being the first and the first last. If this can be brought to fruition the musical chair will change in essence and style to what it should be! Amen.

(Picture courtesy

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The spirit of goodness

Mark 3:20-30
20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

1. There is no appropriate time to do good, rather do good always.
In the beginning of Mark chapter 3 a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus. Jesus asks those there whether it is lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath and whether to save life or to kill? They remain silent and Jesus asks the man to stretch out his hand and heals it.
The very famous one liner of the comedian Sreenivasan to Mohanlal is very popular among Keralites. “Ellathinum athindethaya samayam undu daasa.” It can be translated as "everything has it’s time". But Jesus here questions this concept of good and bad time. The time is when it comes. It is the urge to do good when we see injustice and suffering. The people in Syria, Iraq and Palestine are suffering for reasons not theirs. But the international community continues to wait for an appropriate time to do something. When will this time come? Is it dependent on rules and conventions?
The truth of the matter is that there is no appropriate or correct time. Suffering should force us into action instead of waiting to see whether we can or not. Jesus asked the Pharisees whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. They kept quiet and waited. Jesus on the other hand asked the man with the withered hand to stretch it out and healed him.

2. Never blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, rather affirm your neighbours.
When the scribes accused Jesus of having an unclean spirit they were in essence questioning his character and actions. They were suggesting bad over good and death over life. There was a clear character assassination of Jesus’ self and being. This unwarranted criticism was not done for good but in the effort of destroying the spirit of Jesus. Jesus hit back by saying that they can get away with everything else but won’t get away with blaspheming against the spirit.
What does this mean for us today? What it means is that we should stop criticizing and attacking others in church. If everyone truly believes in the invocation of the Holy Spirit during baptism and communion, how can the other person be bad? How then can we allege bad character, immorality and imperfectness in our neighbour in the church and other places? How can this happen when they also possess the same spirit that we have. This then is an attack on the Holy Spirit itself and an attack on the very essence of a human being, both female and male. How on earth can be get away with this unwarranted and uncalled for attack on others who are the same as us? What on the other hand can be followed is the affirmation that Jesus does for the man with the withered hand. Jesus does not wonder or question the reason for why the man's hand was withered. Rather he asks him to stretch it out. It works out into a handshake of good faith and affirmation.
The call to all of us is clear. Look around and continue to do good instead of looking for appropriate times and the clarity of the rule book and stop humiliating and insulting our neighbours in church and society and start affirming them.

(Picture courtesy

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Break to make

Matthew 14:14-21
14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Jesus finishes his ministry to the crowd and it is close to evening. The disciples request Jesus to send the crowd away so that they may eat something. Jesus asks his disciples to give the people something to eat. They reply that they have only 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus requests the crowd to sit on the grass. He then blesses and breaks the loaves and gives to the disciples to distribute. Everyone eats their fill and 12 baskets of broken pieces are collected.

The miracle story clearly talks of a symbolic communion as Jesus breaks bread and his disciples distribute it. The passage though gives a couple of pointers to think about.

Firstly, breaking bread or in essence breaking oneself for others is a clear moment of being able to offer a solution when none is available. The disciples cannot think about a solution to the crisis of having a hungry multitude of people. This is clearly something which comes from Jesus’ unique background and experience on earth. He was born in a manger, grew up as a refugee, and trained as a carpenter. This gave him certain mundane and critical skills which someone born in a palace would not have. In the time of a crisis, this comes to the forefront and he is able to offer a solution to hunger.

Secondly, Jesus’ solution is a third world outlook of life. Jesus’ wish to break bread is an ordinary step to share what he had. This is not what we usually do but definitely something which we can do. Indians are known in the business world and other places as people who can offer solutions when there appear to be none. Jesus does just that. “The wealth of one percent of the richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion—15x more than the wealth held by the bottom 70 percent.” Yet we struggle with poverty and scarcity. There is enough in the world for everyone and yet the mind to share does not come through.

This is when a third world mentality helps, because it associates with the mentality of Jesus. This is not easy but has to be experienced in several ways. In India, the poor share what they have in a very matter of fact way. Several of us would have noticed how the poor share the food they get on the street with one another. This is a normal reaction.

Many of us have come from an ordinary background. Today things might have changed but we can’t forget that we have been brought up in a culture of sharing. This is our strength. Jesus associated with the same culture. He continued to share even in his richness and continued to give even in his power and glory. This is what is being asked of us today. We have shown our creativity and hard work in offering solutions for business and creating jobs. Can we use the same creativity and hard work for alleviating poverty and suffering? Can we break ourselves like Jesus did and understand that in breaking and sharing lies our richness? Amen.

(Picture courtesy

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16: Exploring a theology of football

Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f]

The FIFA world cup in Brazil is progressing fast amidst the knock out pre quarter final stage and strong teams have already fallen by the way side even as new inexperienced teams with lesser rankings are making surprising strides forward. The Brazilian people are divided into the ones who want to showcase Brazil as a country capable of conducting such an extravagant sporting event and those who say that food and not a football is what everyone wants on their plate.

Pope Francis has come out with a statement on football and world cup himself and it tries to say that solidarity with the poor and people should be the primary concerns of such a sporting event. Such a team event has to be played with a spirit of camaraderie and foster goodwill. The message goes on to say that "sport is not only a form of entertainment, but also a tool to communicate the values ​​that promote the good of the human person and help to build a more peaceful and fraternal coexistence" and that "football can and should be a school for the formation of a "culture of encounter", leading to harmony and peace among people – teaching as it does the value of fair play and authentic team effort – values, the message concludes, without which all of society is damaged."

Can football have a theology and does God have anything to do with football? What we should realise is that football as we see it on television as an event is not what football actually is. Football is played on the streets, in backyards, schools, churches and homes. It brings people together but also has a Christian spirit hidden in the game.

Matthew 20:1-16 talks about the owner who wanted work in his vineyard done. He hires people in the morning but then realises that several need to be hired at several times because there are people without work. His mind to give work is criticized finally by the first timers who complain that despite being out in the sun from the beginning, they get the same wage that is given to the last timers. The owner then asks them as to what their problem is. What is it to them as he has already given them what he had promised. Why are they concerned with what the others are getting? This passage can always be used by the rich to suggest that Christianity is not a religion of the rich and that it is following Marxist thoughts in justifying the lesser work done by workers. It is another thing that this passage as also the beatitudes along with several other passages of the bible were already existent much earlier than Marx. The passage also suggests a more just way of looking at work and life as such and does not speak about working and not working but putting the usually elusive justice to work in the situation.

This is where understanding the theological message of the game of football offers some help. The game of football is played with eleven players in a team, each player having his or her role to play. But the most intriguing part of the game is the substitution of players and in some cases the super subs who come at almost the end of the match and steal the thunder from other players by scoring the all elusive goal. The other players can say like the workers in the passage that they were there from the beginning of the match and how can a substitute who comes in at the last moment get the lime light and equal payment?

Football is not just a man’s game or a game played in expensive stadiums, and in world cup like situations. Rather football is played wherever people want to come together. It is played by ordinary people who come together in solidarity and a spirit of hope and reconciliation. It is not war on the field but belief in human potential and team spirit.

The bible passage is clear. It is the master’s prerogative to pay how much ever he wants to whomever. The pay is not based on who was there first but on recurring justice. It is the inclusion of the excluded and the bringing about of joy and cheer to the faces of all. This is a season therefore to feel this excitement of sitting out so that someone can play, knowing that when we play, we play for the team and that the first will be last and the last will be first. It is not to take away the entrepreneurial spirit of anyone but to rather say that our toils will be rewarded when others also come into the picture.

(Picture courtesy

Monday, June 9, 2014

Experiencing Pentecost: Go where the spirit leads and build relationships

Acts 2: 1-13
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

The true experience of Pentecost in the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church is one of renewal and re commitment. It is knowing that God is reality in the trinity and the speciality of the trinity is being in relationship with one another. It is also knowing that the Holy Spirit will lead and that true discernment comes from feeling, listening and going along with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ advises his disciples that the way to the Father is through him and now that he has ascended the Holy Spirit will be there to guide and empower. But he tells his disciples that the best way to know God is to love each other just like the love of the father for the son, the son for the father and the spirit for the father and son. In essence it is saying that no one is great or greater but all are equal and all bring true value to the relationship.

The Jacobite church has a detailed and long service for Pentecost which is divided into three parts. The essence of the Holy Spirit is explained and the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is expounded. This brings about a clear picture of what and how things should be. The Father has no qualms in sending the son into the world and he believes that the son will do the job. The son on the other hand keeps promoting the father and in the end paves the way for the spirit. There is no staying back and saying that the son is capable by himself of doing what is needed. Jesus understands it is time to move away and make way for the spirit and in all humbleness and without any qualms or regrets he does just that. There is a special collegiality being expressed here. It is a special relationship of believing and trusting in the other person. This is not easy but we are shown that it is not impossible.

We are shown that relationships are not planned and have no emphasis on one person. Rather, relationships come across as something which celebrate each other and use the opportunity to work on what one is given but at the same time share the accolades that come along.

This being the case one needs to come to terms with the experience of Pentecost. What happened when the apostles received the spirit? They started speaking in tongues and others assembled there understood what was being spoken as each of the assembled one’s language. The relationship that Christ had with his disciples extended through his admission to the relationship Christ had with the Father and therefore the disciples were initiated into that relationship. The relationship Christ had with his disciples was then opened up to include the spirit in the relationship. This does not end here but rather becomes the extending of this openness and relationship to all people whereby the experience of the indwelling of the spirit during Pentecost leads to the opening up of the relationship to all.

The experience of Pentecost calls upon us to open up. It asks us to include, accept, celebrate and be free. There is no road map and there is no plan. The map and the plan are where the spirit leads us and frankly we don’t know where that could be. One should use this opportunity of the Pentecost to follow the spirit, open ourselves up to the liberation offered by relationships and have the courage to follow God even when we actually are uncomfortable with the initial paths that the spirit is taking us through.

(Picture courtesy

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: A call to be equal

The breaking of bread, sharing of the cup and washing of the feet is perhaps the strongest message of love and sacrifice that comes from Christian belief. It is the message which comes from the top that as disciples and believers we are called to sacrifice ourselves just as Christ sacrificed himself for us. The sacrifice though is not to say that we are to continue serving and be servants but rather that we are called to humiliate and embarrass ourselves in a culture where respect and honour are important.

Jesus’ sharing of bread and drink was profound in itself but more powerful was his message that this sharing was a call to say that all are equal and there is no master but only servant in the kindom of God. The message of servitude has almost been mis- interpreted to suggest that women, the weak and the poor should serve in continuance with the message of Jesus. This message though is more about being equal than anything else.

We forget this in church and in our lives. Why don’t men cut mangoes for pickle for Good Friday rice gruel in church? Why do people make fun of a husband who is concerned and caring about his wife? Why are children in church treated during service like they know nothing and are there to make the numbers than contribute to worship? Why do preachers turn towards the side of women while preaching about the responsibility of serving and why are the rich excused from serving in any manner?

Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is such a strong act of equality and acceptance that Peter is against this and says that this can never be. Jesus then insists and says that without this there can be no true sharing. Peter then agrees with full enthusiasm. Galatians 3:28 clearly reflects this feeling in the verse “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Hierarchy is done away with and all kinds of classifications and differences based on gender, class, caste, sexuality and other baseless categories are negated. The act of communion and feet washing is thus liberating.

Instead, the most powerful acts of communion and feet washing continue to become acts of expressing and legitimising one’s position in the hierarchy and celebrating that position of power, rather than becoming vulnerable and humiliating and embarrassing oneself for the sake of the true expression of God’s will on earth. Jesus celebrates his decision to become an equal and a co-sufferer rather than an over seer. His act is humiliating and embarrassing as it questions the very notion of hierarchy. The baseless explanation that hierarchy is essential for stability in society is undone by Jesus who does away with hierarchy itself and sacrifices himself for the undoing of hierarchy.

It is humbling to note that Maundy Thursday becomes a reminder that once we have become a part of hierarchy we have to undo hierarchy itself instead of strengthening it for our own gains. Communion and washing of feet should then become the liberating acts that they are supposed to be. This poses a serious challenge to us to become the true followers of Christ who broke hierarchy to come down, break bread, share drink and wash feet. This is the real experience of Maundy Thursday when we don’t get away with just saying that we have to love one another and share but to say that we have to give up the superior places that we have gained, occupied, and unquestioningly accepted. By this we become the table/s of true communion and go through the really embarrassing experience of washing of feet.

Picture courtesy

Feet washing: Reading the scriptures publicly and sensually

Sensuality is expressed in the most mundane and simple terms and yet it has its own complexity which attaches a certain sacredness to it. In the present era we even have festivals to celebrate our love and sensuality. Valentine’s Day is one such festival where flowers are exchanged and love is expressed openly. It is another matter that this has been commercialized and made artificial at the same time.

Luke 7:36-50 brings to us the encounter of the woman and Jesus. Jesus who is invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner is attended to by the woman who was perceived as sinful. She weeps onto his feet, wipes it with her hair, kisses his feet and puts perfume on it. This brings about a negative reaction from those in the house.

Worship involves the activation and constant interpolation of the five senses of a human being. The senses include touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We obviously do not give much thought to the activation and the coherent expression of these five senses and many a time maybe even forget about their existence. Nevertheless these senses when used in various combinations bring forth very effective interaction. Two of the important senses are touch and smell.

1. Touch is one of the most active steps of sense activation that we can undertake. In many of Jesus’ miracle acts what he does, goes beyond the miracle because it involves touching those who were not touched. This is not just a spiritual and inward touch but a clear physical touch which involved challenging the prevalent system of untouchability which was practised in various forms. When Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house there seems to be no indication that anyone received him with a welcome touch. Rather what we see is a woman referred to as a sinner who comes with an alabaster jar of perfume. She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and pours perfume on them. As we usually concentrate on the woman who lived a sinful life in the town, what we ignore is the woman who touched Jesus with her physical and sensual touch. Our feet are one of our most sensitive yet most ignored body parts. The sensation we feel when we are touched by someone at the feet is indeed very arousing. Yet we usually refer to the touching of the feet as a mark of respect (as is done in Indian culture) and forget that it also has a very distinct and clear meaning which goes beyond just mere respect. In the church, the main part of touching is the kiss of peace, which again should have been a kiss but is now a shake of both hands and even that is done half heartedly. At times members of the opposite sex try to avoid touching each other in this otherwise very meaningful ritual practised in church. The washing of the feet during Passion Week in the Jacobite-Orthodox churches also becomes an act of service, humility and discipleship and is never seen as anything beyond that. The kissing of the feet by the woman takes us towards a sensual awakening. How can then a woman who had led a sinful life bring about a sensual awakening? Her love as mentioned by Jesus covers any sin that she may have been accused of. So what for many may seem as a passage of servitude, discipleship, and confession may very well also be seen as a passage of love, passion and sensuality. When everybody goes for Jesus’ upper body, the woman goes for his feet. The church is always seen as shying away from touch. We refuse to touch the untouchable, we refuse to acknowledge that touch is sensual and we in the mean time run the business of touching souls, while the bodies wither away. Maybe we need to look at scriptures more publicly and sensually for us to come to a different understanding of touch. Valentine’s day (looking at the positive side of it) is a perfect punching bag for different religious groups and I wonder whether it is only because of the commercialisation of Valentine’s day or is it because of the refusal to acknowledge that expressing one’s sensuality is not religiously acceptable?

2. Smell is another of the senses which can arouse our feelings. Aromatherapy is now marketed in India as a spiritual and mental well being that we can feel when we use certain products which arouse and bring out our sense of smell. In India we live amidst the dichotomy of smell. We have what we can call the rich, ‘produced’ smell and what is the poor, ‘natural’ smell. The woman in the passage has a strange mix of both! She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and then pours perfume on them. Her tears are her own and they are as therapeutic for her as for Jesus. The drops which fall on Jesus’ feet may have caused the first arousal, the touch and smell the second arousal, the kissing the third arousal and the perfume the fourth arousal. She wipes off the tears with her own hair and then puts perfume. The base smell which she provides is her own. This is followed by the constructed smell of the perfume. The perfume adds to the olfactory delight that Jesus was being put through. Truly a great experience! The church more or less relies on incense to provide for the awakening of the sense of smell. This is complimented by the hundreds of smells emanating from the bodies of the congregation. If we care to take a dig into the variety of smells we will be aroused into action in church. What actually happens is that we turn off our smell sense and in our aim to attain holiness we keep away from everything which may awaken our minds. But think of using the smell as a welcome arousal of our senses to function better and to espouse this great feeling of love just like the woman who toyed with the feet of Jesus? In essence what happens in church is that we take away the senses of people or we try to numb them. This keeps our bodies in a state of non-orgasmic existence while our spirits are taken into ecstasy. The woman in the passage arouses us to our senses just like she may have aroused Jesus. Are we ashamed by our arousal or are we tickled to action? As others ignore Jesus, the woman welcomes him by arousing him and Jesus likes it! Are we willing to allow others to be aroused? The incense is only one particular way of doing this but there are other smells as well. This rounds up as the smell of love and warmth felt towards one another as well as the smell of passion which couples will sense and feel towards one another. Who are we to prevent this? The Pharisee tries to unlike the touch of the woman but Jesus reminds him of the woman’s love which refuses to subside. I am aroused, are you?

(Already published by NCCI)
Picture courtesy

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: Give peace a chance

Palm Sunday is perhaps one of the most popular pictures that we may remember from austerity and popular memory. The picture of women and men standing and holding palm leaves fills up the entire frame due to the leaves of various sizes. The picture also reminds one of an entire army standing in anticipation for the orders to carry out the mission. In a world consumed by the thought that power and force will bring about victory and conquer insignificant others into submission, the main stream picture of Palm Sunday may strongly bend us over to a similar line of thought.

But far from that, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem should be seen as the courageous and single minded journey of one man in the hope that he could turn around popular notion into correct notion and unruly crowds into peaceful ones. Two symbols suggest very clear meanings about what Palm Sunday should be for each one of us and why Hosanna is not a war cry but a yearning for peace.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey has been interpreted to already suggest that this was a symbol of humility and humbleness even though it could also suggest that his journey on a donkey (colt) could also be a sign that he was being welcomed just like a king. Two bible passages which throw light on this are Matthew 21:1-9 and Zechariah 9:9-10. In the gospel of St. Matthew unlike other gospels, Jesus tells his disciples to go to the village where they will find a donkey and her colt (or a colt). This suggests a she donkey and in all likelihood her off spring in the form of a colt (male). The symbolism is strongly suggestive of a nursing mother who stands for life, peace and sustenance. Zechariah 9:9 after announcing the arrival of the king says in verse 10 “ He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

John Dominic Crossan puts this beautifully by suggesting ‘Matthew wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.'

Both passages suggest a clear message of a messiah who comes for peace and stands for peace in the midst of violence and death. The symbolism of palm leaves adds to the message from the two passages. It signified heaven, victory and peace. It continues to be a symbol of hope and resurrection. The picture of the multitude in church holding palm leaves is a picture that arms, power and violence can all be left at the way side and instead the palm leaf of hope can become a significant symbol against all forms of violence and force.

The palm leaf is both straight and willing to bend, willing to make adjustments so that a common good can be attained. It is not wavering faith but unwavering commitment being expressed through a grounded expression of theology, that come what may, we will stand our ground and continue this struggle for justice and peace. The Palm Sunday procession with palm leaves becomes the anti thesis of the republic day procession with arms. Even as the arms bring about awe and fear, the palm leaves bring about awe and faith. It is a faith that Jesus will accompany us in every struggle and there can be no end to the struggle with the leader Jesus arising like a Phoenix bird, dying only to rise again in full strength. The struggle does not die out by his death but rather gains more strength and momentum to carry on with multiplied strength and commitment.

The Palm Sunday liturgy of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church has a prayer which says that God becomes small and low so that we may become holy. Jesus brings himself down so that humans may be exalted.
The first Kolo-Quqoyo further says
“Get stones and receive the One Who comes to Jerusalem
Children of Israel were asked by the oldest there
For receiving they picked stones and went to Him
On seeing Him; olive branches, instead, they carried,
And shouted, “Welcome the King of Israel;
Halleluiah, blessed is Your coming”
The young and children who were instigated by the elders to carry stones as Jesus enters, by themselves, drop the stones and carry olive branches instead, suggesting that the way of the world is not a way at all. The children and the young realise that when Jesus comes in seated on a she donkey and colt, he is suggesting to them that the only way forward is to give peace a chance.

Palm Sunday and the palm leaves become so significant in our world today. Holding the palm leaves and keeping them home remind us that we can’t resort to violence against the poor and helpless but rather should keep looking at the leaves as a symbol to follow and emulate Jesus. One has to die in order to resurrect with full force. Dying is indeed victory. The palm leaves and the spirit of Hosanna should remind our household that there can be no domestic violence, disrespect of spouses, mistreating parents, abusing and beating children, humiliating those who work for us, cheating others for short term gains and driving away people from God by using force and violent means. “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Come Lord Jesus, set me free!

Luke 13:10-17
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! 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? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The passage talks of Jesus healing the crippled woman who was crippled for 18 years. The setting free of the woman is questioned by the leader of the synagogue who tells the others there that there are six days to help people and the Sabbath being holy should not be used for such things. Jesus notes the hypocrisy of the statement and says that people give water to their ox or donkey on the Sabbath and what then is wrong of helping the crippled woman.

Though it seems an open and shut case of Jesus healing the crippled woman we could also interpret it from the perspective of lent as a case of Jesus healing the woman of the complex she may have had because of how people looked at her. It seems to offer a good case of how we treat people and create a system where children and adults alike are graded in a certain way to suggest what success is and isn’t.

The education system that we have and the way we bring up our children and look at the aged are determined by certain factors in the capitalist system that we are a part of. Children have to fulfill certain criteria right from the time of getting an admission to play school and Kindergarten. This is a system that has been founded on old perspectives of right and wrong. Such systems and grading will make a person shrink inwards instead of coming out and expressing themselves. Such shrinking leads to a crippling of the self and makes a person bends inwards. Perhaps this could have been why the woman was bent over.

The mind to tell the crippled woman that she has been set free could be seen from this perspective. It tells us that the very way we look at people is flawed. It leads to inferiority in people that they do not measure up to our expectations. This makes people quiet, walk with their heads down, stammer while they talk, not look people in the eye, not write and do everything different from whatever is called and understood as mainline and traditional. Parents will only be looking at how many marks their children score instead of seeing what ability they have. They will look to make them what their neighbour’s children are instead of what their children want to be and will always talk of what they are not instead of celebrating what they are. Jesus becomes a graceful and understanding parent, guide and brother to the crippled woman telling her that she is free to do what she wants rather than have the burden of what others want her to be. This burden has loomed over her for so long and it is time to bring a stop to that.

We can use this lent season to understand the gifts of people rather than harping on what they could have and should become. It is a time to stop being hypocrites and become human beings who care. It is also a time when we can turn churches and seminaries into places that accept people how they are instead of having difficult exams and grading systems to check whether they have learnt anything and become what we want them to be. The question that we need to pose here is “What does God want them to be?” rather than “What do we want them to be?” This brings in a change in perspective wherein it does not matter anymore as to what we want but it matters a lot as to what God wants. Such a commitment is necessary in true places of worship and teaching where we not only commit our children and students to God but then listen to and discern God’s plan and wish for them.

The synagogue leader had several six days in the week to make a difference in the life of the woman but he does not do anything. When Jesus does something he quotes the law and tradition. We will have similar instances to deal with when we would want to change the system and people will question us saying that it is against the constitution, syllabus, curriculum and whatever else. Lent brings about a time when we should feel strengthened and emboldened to take a step towards what God wants and not what we want. Truly that will bring about a setting free of those who have been crippled in society due to our wrong methods of looking at them. It will also set us free of our narrow mind sets and attitudes.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas: The equinox on which the church rode three decades.

The Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, H.H. Moran Mor Iganatius Zakka I Iwas is no more. The Holy Father who lead his sheep for 34 years is now a memory. As funeral service dates and the place of the funeral have been fixed and as people are waiting to be a part of the funeral, in person and online, one must bring grief, loss and confusion into perspective to come to terms with what has happened.

The patriarch did have health issues which were also linked with age but no one expected an end now. So much that many faithful in India are still waking up to the fact that their spiritual leader won’t be coming to India again to meet them and share his love with them. His passing away is a loss in definite terms to everyone who knew him personally, those who saw him from far and those who read and heard about him.

Grief has to have a way of being dealt with and when a national or church leader dies we try to deal with the grief that we have. The Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas is and was seen as a spiritual father to all the faithful in the church. The grief we are trying to deal with today is the grief of having lost a father. Seeing pictures of the patriarch in church and even in houses has been a constant for these 34 years. It was the feeling that when you entered the two common and most warm places in your life, your Holy Father was there to greet you. That was a constant and this removal of the constant becomes one of the significant aspects of the grief felt. It is like saying that wherever we went and whatever we did, we could come back to our house and to our church and see this familiar face which would put us at ease.

The loss felt at this point of time is of having lost the person who stood as the symbol of leadership for everyone. He was the sublime face of what is and what isn’t. Losing out on this face and the memories which come with it, make us feel that we have lost something so deep, committed and fixated in our hearts and minds that we cannot replace this with anything else. One has only one father and somehow another face cannot replace this immediately. The throne of the patriarch and the authority of the patriarch go beyond the personality of the patriarch but never the less the personality touches us in more ways than the throne or the authority can.

The confusion for the people is what happens next? Who will be the next patriarch and will that person be able to fulfill all that the Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas has been to all? This confusion adds to the grief of having lost our father. It is the pain of uncertainty coupled with loss that makes grief even so much more hurtful. Many of us have already experienced this with the passing away of our parent/s. This puts us back in time to a place when we lost many things and it took time to get back to our normal lives. This time our mind tells us that we are repeating this feeling in our lives.

There are several things that give us solace and hope at this time though. The patriarch was born in an ordinary family and had an ordinary life style. He joined the seminary like any other youngster who wanted to serve the church. Iraq where he was born and Syria where he then lived went through severe strife and violence. The violence in Syria continues till date. He has had to deal with Muslim Christian tensions which come with living in the same place and having a shared culture but different belief. He had to bear witness to the migration that people in his church had to undertake from their own land. He has watched the schism that affected his church in India. In essence, the patriarch watched not just the best of what happened in the church but the worst of what happened. His enthronement and period as Patriarch went through suffering and violence. But he withstood all of this with utmost sincerity and passion for service. At this time of grief this gives us constant solace and hope. The Patriarch stood his ground no matter what and so will we, because we are after all his followers.

Such problems in his own church did not deter him from being ecumenical. He fostered good relationships with other churches and set forth a great precedent in church relations by coming together with Pope John Paul II to sign a historic agreement of acknowledging the misunderstandings that crept into the churches and looking at the way forward. His straight and up right relationship with various sister churches and with member churches in the WCC showed time and again that he was as ecumenical as a Patriarch could be and one should be proud of that.

His scholarship and academic interest lead him to pen several articles and a study of these articles exposes the openness and just theology of the Patriarch. His article on women in the church is a reminder to the people in the church that God does not take sides and if at all takes sides with the weak in society. His articles therefore become a good resource for further research and study. Perhaps his basic seminary education in Syria and his further education in the U.S. together with his experience as an observer in the Second Vatican Council and his association with the World Council of Churches as one of its president’s gave him the openness to see theology and doctrine as it is instead of seeing it as how he wanted to see it. His wish to have a place of education and research lead him to build the seminary in Syria called the Mor Ephrem Seminary and Monastery at Ma’arrat Saydanaya in Syria, where incidentally he will be buried. It further made him remark that seminary and theological education in the church was very important and hence the church needed theologically educated priests. His love for the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary is well known and his penchant for a system and a framework made him do things in the way that the Indian church wanted it at times. Scholarships in the Patriarch’s name were made available not just to Syrian Orthodox candidates but also to Orthodox Syrian, Marthoma and other Syrian church denominations. I think it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that other sister church denominations made use of foreign scholarships in comparison to our own church members. But we can see this as a good approach that the Patriarch followed in which he chose to give away a scholarship instead of seeing it go waste. The gloominess and vacuum of his departure can be made up to an extend by encouraging theological education and research in the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. We would be honouring the Holy Father by such a distinguished decision and move.

The Patriarch’s passing away on March 21 also signifies a special day, when usually on the 20th or 21st , night and day are almost on equal terms. It is also a day used to calculate the Easter date every year. The Easter date is calculated as the first Sunday after the full moon occurring on or after the Vernical Equinox or Spring Equinox, that is, after March 21. The Spring Equinox signifies that the son is betrayed, dies and is resurrected to attain eternal life. March 21 is seen as important by many religions. The Parsis commemorate it as the beginning of spring and the beginning of the New Year. It is also seen as the time of the fight between good and evil and of good emerging victorious. His passing away at a well placed time could suggest something hope filled to the church suffering from civil war in Syria.

A leader is a leader not just by the position he or she occupies but of what the leader makes of that position. The Patriarch vociferously expressed his expression for his flock. His four visits to India and his numerous visits around the world to meet people in the church were moments of the leader reaching out to his people. This was despite his flailing health and weak knees. Anyone who visited him felt the warmth and hospitality of a human being more than a leader. This raised his stature among the people and attracted people to him. One church member grieved the passing away of the patriarch and reminisced of his experience with the Patriarch saying that he felt a positive energy when he stood next to the Patriarch. His sadness was not just of the passing away but of the thought that he could not experience this positive energy anymore. This positive energy can make people attracted to a leader to the point that they feel assured and confident in the presence of such a leader. The Patriarch managed time and again to become a soothing presence to his people and to those who met him.

The Patriarch managed to bring more people to the church by seeing the change in times. Within the traditional understanding of the church he understood that when ordinary people want to come to the church, the doors of the church cannot be closed completely to them. This may have prompted the Patriarch to accept two churches from South America into the Syrian Orthodox fold. The first number about 100,000 and are from Brazil and the second number a whopping 800,000 and are from Guatemala. Such openness may also provide hope for many others all over the world. Whatever was the reason for the Patriarch to do this, the positive ramifications of this will provide more vigour to the church and prove that the church is much beyond specific race and tradition.

To sum up, the Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas has managed to be a Patriarch and a true Holy Father for all the faithful. His spirituality, theology, and above all humanity have been something which the coming generations can emulate. Even as we grieve, the Holy Father has given us the hope of spring and resurrection. He has made us look forward to the rest of lent with renewed vigour, faith and hope. More than grief, he has reminded us of a new beginning and a fresh start. This is centred on the faith in the resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace our Holy Father and keep praying for us.

(The author is the small boy in between the then Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III and the present Catholicose Baselios Thomas I.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jesus healing the paralytic: Moving beyond our paralyzed selves

Mark 2:1-12.
2 When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

The story of Jesus healing the paralytic is quite a popular story. The intrigue in the story is increased by the adventurous four persons who help get the paralytic to the roof and then struggle to let him down so that Jesus would see him. The crowd that had surrounded Jesus is neutralized by this very creative way of approaching Jesus. It must have been quite a sight for people then. There are two things which come across to us in this passage. This helps us construct a spiritual basis for lent and takes us through a Lenten experience.

Taking the paralytic up and letting go would have been difficult for the four persons. It is like our talks and prayer to God. We are reluctant to pray and give our needs to God. The four men do the opposite of what we do. They know that they cannot get through the crowd. So they become enterprising and take the man up, only to let him down. After being enterprising and knowing that their enterprise works when Jesus takes notice, they are willing to let go of their friend into the hands of Jesus. During lent are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to accept that lent is a time when we should not only take a commitment to those who are in need of our help? Are we after fulfilling our role, willing to pull back and see God working rather than expressing our over powering ego and saying that we should then be given the honour of doing everything even when we know we are not skilled for that. Our preparation may make us feel that we can have easy access to God because we are closer to God in our own assessment. But we then understand that this is not the case. This is why we need to let go completely, lent or no lent. Letting go completely gives us uncertainty but coupled with faith and belief is the most important and beautiful thing in Christian faith.

Jesus heals the paralytic of his existence in the midst of people who look down upon him. Jesus says that his sins are healed. The healing is misleading because we think that sickness and sin are related. But this is confusing because sickness can’t be related to sin. Rather what this shows is that it is not and if at all, sickness is a corporate responsibility and therefore cannot be pin pointed on one person. What Jesus does through asking him to get up and walk is to tell them that he is fixing their short coming instead of the paralytic’s. Before that he says that your sins are forgiven. This is what the scribes complain about. They bicker as to how and from where Jesus got the authority to forgive sins. But it could also mean that Jesus is offering something greater than healing when he says that your sins are forgiven. But this is opposed by the scribes by their bickering. The paralytic could then not have been linked to his personal sin but rather to the corporate sin that everyone was bound to. It could be that Jesus could have been offering him eternal life which would then give him the courage to get over his paralysis. The scribes deny this to him.

But since the others there try to make that controversial, he says, get up, take your mat and walk. This then brings to an end the way people are going to see him. But the sin of the community remains. The paralytic is given the strength to get up and walk. This was what was denied to him all these years and this is what he now gets through the intervention of Jesus. Even as the onlookers who criticize Jesus and the paralytic stay on, the man on the mat walks away.

Disability is something we like misinterpreting in lieu of the scripture. This becomes so serious that priesthood and lay participation is being done taking into consideration such a framework which is in terms of perfection and the acceptable and unacceptable. Such a notion has dangerous ramifications on the real and true expressions of the church. This becomes a big sin during lent. Since lent is a time when we are trying to work on our short comings and sins, we then should also work on our concept of sin and who is sinning. Any set up which looks into disabled people as people who have in some way sinned is flawed. Jesus tries to go beyond the usual notion by saying that he as the second person in the trinity is capable of saying that the sin alleged and pinned on a particular person is being wiped out by him because he feels that this is unjust.

There is a feeling that lent is a time to become strong internally and spiritually. This internal strengthening sometimes also becomes a strengthening of moral attitudes in our culture. Moralizing like the scribes brings about such comments like who is he to forgive sins and by what authority is he doing it. Churches fall into the trap of thinking that priests and church committees are in the business of saying what is and what is not sin when only God can judge in reality. This means that lent can become a time to be inspired by what Jesus did. He offers forgiveness for sins which have been alleged and labelled.

When Jesus tells the person to stand, take his mat and walk, what he may have meant is to tell the paralysed person to not take this humiliation any more. Give it back to them and which better way than to stand up, take the mat and walk. Jesus inspires the paralyzed person to walk and to walk away after all that the person has had to go through. There is no need to take this insult anymore.

Lent becomes an excellent time for discernment. This is a discernment to accompany those who have been marginalized and then discern and accept the role of God in bringing them to the main stream. The Lenten experience should help us towards this commitment of accompaniment, moving back and then accepting the will of God.

Picture courtesy:,%20Book%20Two/target46.html

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent as a way of healing ourselves of prejudices and wrong notions

Luke 5: 12-16
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy.[b] 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[c] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy[d] 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[e] 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.

We have completed almost a week of the great lent. The 50 day lent observed in the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church seeks to impart a lesson on goodness in the lives of church members. The lent which also is inspired by the 40 day fasting of Jesus encourages the faithful to fast till noon and follow diet restrictions along with special prayers and helping those in need.

The incident of the healing of the leper found in St. Luke 5:12-16 has a leper who calls upon Jesus to touch him and cleanse him if he so chooses. Choice is critical for our spirituality. This is so because choice decides on whether we end up doing good or bad. Discount sales bring about people who either stand and watch in awe the products which are being given for a discount, or people who stand and watch what other people are choosing or people who grab everything they can, whether it is important for them or not. Choice is important and people choose in different ways. But our choice has high ramifications not only for us but for others. So when the leper asks Jesus to choose he is asking him to make an informed and just choice. Jesus chooses to touch the leper and make him clean.

The conversation between the leper and Jesus can be seen as a symbolism for lent. It is a symbolism of those who we are in touch with, seeking the goodness of the cleanness of lent that we claim.

Lent can be seen in three different ways. Firstly, lent is a time to clean up our act. Many of us are interested in bringing about personal change during lent. Personal piety becomes a way of bringing about this change. But we never go the full distance of righting our wrongs and doing penance for the mistakes we have committed. Perhaps we are being challenged by those who have been pushed away. The challenge is to clean up our act and show that we have indeed become better persons. Jesus brings about a cleaning up act when he touches the leper. It is to say in a way that he has cleaned himself of societal notions of disease and perfection.

Secondly, lent is a time to look at inward beauty. India is still obsessed with women and men who want to look fair. So much that fairness becomes the aspect of looking good or bad. But lent offers a time to know that beauty lies within and not outside. It is therefore not dependent on outward notions of beauty which have been passed on to us by the society we live in. The leper did not pass the test of outward beauty as seen by the society at that point of time. He then becomes an outcast. When Jesus says yes and touches him, he observes the inward beauty of the man with leprosy. Disease as we see it is a construct of a society which thinks it is perfect. This perfection gives the notion of healthy and diseased, strong and weak. But lent offers us a time to think and understand that inward dietary restrictions and piety should lead to the understanding that beauty lies inside and cannot be measured by outward notions of good or bad.

Thirdly, lent gives us an excellent opportunity to cleanse ourselves of leprosy and all bad thoughts. Our effort is towards bringing about inward change. This inward change is in the direction of seeking to clean ourselves of all sorts of competition, perfection, notion of beauty and judgement. So we should see ourselves in the place of Jesus. His courage to make a choice and say yes becomes a Lenten challenge before us. This is a challenge to change so that we accept others as they are, instead of judging them. Lent thus gives us an opportunity to say that our diet restrictions are going to make us refrain from judging and talking about others. It instead gives us an opportunity to work on ourselves so that others may benefit.

Lent therefore is a time to understand this deep presence of God inside us. God’s love for us is unconditional and not based on the fulfilling of certain parameters. Every day of lent should be spent in this understanding that the leprosy in our eyes, and way of looking and understanding needs to be changed and the leper in the story will helps us for that. Let this lent be a time of realization and not self actualization and self praise. Let it rather be a celebration of life where those around us will be blessed and happy by our presence and intervention.

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(Excerpts from a sermon preached in St. Mary's JSO Cathedral, Bangalore on March 9, 2014.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Come on man, be a woman": Turning into a woman on women’s day

March 8th is being commemorated as International Women’s day in all parts of the world. This year the United Nations theme for International Women's Day is "Equality for women is progress for all." It is heart warming to see that many in the church have started writing on the plight of women on women’s day. It shows that there is at least a small iota of hope, however far it may seem to us now.

Women’s day will be commemorated through various ways and means. There will be seminars, protest marches, worships, write ups and interviews of women who have made it big in a man’s world. From the perspective of a woman all of this is very important and provides an opportunity to talk about women’s rights at home, in the work place, with friends and maybe even in church. But what can a man do to feel the intensity of what it means for a woman to be accepted and be given equal rights?

Why not turn into a woman for a day and see what women really face in the world on an everyday basis. I am going to imagine my own life and the various instances and stories of the women I see.

So what do I get to see but conveniently ignore every single day of my life?

6:30 A.M.- My wife gets up and cooks breakfast and lunch while I rest saying that I was up working late.

7:00 A.M. -Wife is at the bed side when our daughter wakes up, reassuring her that her mother is there and asking her to cuddle and feel loved in the coolness of the morning.

7:30 A.M.- Wife brings breakfast to the table and sits with our daughter as I sip coffee and read the newspaper. I do say that it is urgent for me to read the newspaper as I teach about the mass media.

7:50 A.M.- Wife dresses up our daughter and gets ready. In between in all likelihood she has also found time to iron my dress.

8:25 A.M.- We drive to college. This is my first major work for the family in the morning. I drive to college!

8:32 A.M.- Wife takes our daughter to play school as I go to chapel. Since I am working in the seminary, it is important that I and not her is in the chapel! At least this is the lesson we have been taught.

8:57 A.M.- Wife has by now gone to the library for her own reading assignments and I am in all probability standing with colleagues and having a chat before class. I can notice that the loud laughs and confident talks are all by men while women are already sitting at their tables and talking in hushed tones, if at all. Women colleagues will be juggling between house and college work and will have a hundred things on their minds while the men will be having a good hearty laugh on politics in India or the state of roads in Bangalore.

9:04 A.M.- Classes start and one senses the difference between men and women in class as well. When women speak men make sounds, try to shout them down, and largely don’t take them seriously. When men talk, women are expected to listen with awe! The class representatives are invariably men, the discussions are by men and the decisions are also finally influenced by men.

10:55 A.M.- Coffee time and one can notice how men are more confident than women and how women are sitting more quietly and talking much more softly than men. Men on the other hand are confident and all over the place. The laughs and sounds are predominantly male.

1:00 P.M.- The situation in the dining hall is not much different. Men out number women everywhere. The jokes are male, the laughs are male, the food is male, the plates are male and the smell is male. Everything apart from the women themselves are male.

1:40 P.M.- People are walking around the lawn after lunch. The sounds heard are again predominantly male. There are women walking too but the body language of women and men is totally different. Women always seem scared and are looking out for themselves and each other. Men appear carefree and portray a “I care a damn” look.

2:15 P.M.- While walking past the men’s hostel one can hear a variety of sounds. It appears that men are having a good time inside. The same walk past the women’s hostel does not give many sounds. So less in comparison that you start wondering whether there is anyone inside!

4:30 P.M.- The small play ground has several men playing cricket and others playing badminton in the hostel quadrangle. Women are no where to be seen.

Coming back to my own house, my wife would have washed the plates, put our daughter to sleep and is tidying the house from top to toe. I spend time in the class room and office finishing up college work and reach by 5:30 or 6 in the evening. I say I am very tired with the lack of sleep and all the work in college. I never ask my wife whether she is tired.

7:00 P.M.- Any programme in church will bring a host of people. Many would want to speak to the pastor. It is noticeable that people will look with great interest if the pastor is speaking to a single woman. All eyes will be on the woman whether she likes it or not.

9:30 P.M.- Dinner is again ready on the table at home. I am back exhausted and manage to eat some food. I notice that my wife is reading a bed time story for our daughter before putting her to sleep.

An entire day passes and I realise that being a man has given me certain privileges in India. These are ill gotten and undeserving privileges. These are privileges that I should never have got in the first place.

On women’s day we do usually argue that there is no point in having one day set apart for women. But can men be a woman for one day? Just one day? As a son, a husband and father I may wash dishes, look after my daughter, cook at times, take care of the house and share house hold chores and be good to women students and women parishioners. But how often do I involve myself in that? How difficult is it to be a woman? Simple. Be a woman on women’s day.

Our culture brings up boys by telling them “Come on, be a man.” This needs to change. It’s women’s day. Take up the challenge. “Come on, be a woman.”

Picture courtesy

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine’s day: Let’s make love, not war

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Valentine’s day puts us again in the love seat with couples professing love to one another, marriage vows being remembered, and cards and gifts being exchanged. In all the sound and clamour there are those who oppose this as not being part of Indian culture and that which is a marketing gimmick for commercial gain. Accept it or not, but you can’t ignore it.

What then can the church say about such a celebration which knows no bounds and has no limits? The story of the priest Valentine is inspiring. He goes against the edict of the emperor and marries off couples who are in love and want to spend the rest of their life together. After his prayer for a blind woman gives her sight he writes to her before he dies and signs off as ‘Your Valentine.’ The mythical nature of the story not with standing does it have a theological and church based insight that one cannot ignore?

What is wrong if we remind people of love in a country where we are taught to express our manliness and serve as heroes to people? Two mainline political parties are trying to make the coming elections as a fight between Iron Man and Spider Man. The first says that “You can take away my suits, you can take away my home, but there's one thing you can never take away from me: I am Iron Man” and the second says “With great power comes great responsibility.” There is a concerted effort to suggest that the problems in this country can only be solved by a man or one man, as both parties would have us believe. And both men in the frontline don’t openly have a woman in their life. They form the antithesis of the message of Valentine. They have both forgone having a partner to fight a great battle for the country.

But is this what the country stands for? Are we war mongers who have to fight macho battles on the war field to safe guard the interests of the nation? Or do we have to bring about a complete turn around in our thought process to understand that without love we are nothing. This is the love which should make us understand that “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Isn’t this the message which can come out loud and clear during celebrations like Valentine’s Day where everyone is reminded that this is not a one way ticket to maximum enjoyment and fun but a ticket to commitment, acceptance, belief and hope? Can’t this be a slogan for the country to think about rather than fundamentalist battle cries asking for the ban of any celebration which remotely talks about love? Shouldn’t this be a point of discussion in a society where violence instead of love is propagated through various forms?

The let’s make love can be misinterpreted as talking about sex which again is seen as taboo in Indian culture. Far from it, we do not need to see sex as the fundamental aspect of a relationship. This skewed notion has also lead to violence inside the house in the effort by the man to show that his sexual prowess is the mark of his relationship with his wife or partner. So making love can be given a much more mundane and grounded meaning of making and spreading love all over. In a society which thrives and lives on conflict and violence this love making could bring about a good healing process.

I understand that elders are concerned about whether couples really love each other and whether this celebration is being stretched too far. There may be instances of this. But by and large this may not be the case. It could be that many couples are trying their best to come to terms with what real love means for them. The simple exchange of a rose and the sending of a card or a gift could also be a way of saying that let love be the basis on which we do things.

The church can make use of such a celebration to ask couples to commit themselves to each other. It can be an opportunity of saying that love is patient and kind and not envious and boastful. Relationships which are being ruled by violence both domestic and other can be questioned and such relationships can be shown the path of love. Love can also be a pastoral tool in the hands of the priest. This is a tool of love which looks at the flock in church and society as those in relationship with the church. It is an understanding that the relationship of the priest with his immediate and extended congregation can only be on the basis of the love of Christ which is sacrificial, patient and kind. Such a relationship will bring about a platform for people to be in relationship with Christ just as they are with each other. Love therefore is not a taboo and a word which should be used in hushed tones. It is rather the foundation of the church and all religious institutions. Let this spirit of love bring us together.

(Picture courtesy

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nineveh lent: Get up and call God

The end of the three day lent has brought us to the point of asking, “now what?” Three days of lent and even conventions in certain places has brought about a spiritual awakening in many people. But for some it remains the same as any day. Conventions, sermons, retreats and prayers do not necessarily bring about any change.

Why should it? Some may ask. Maybe this was the same way Jonah slept in the ship even as the others were terrified by the mighty storm. We see this in Jonah 1:6 which says "The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” Even as everyone else was thinking about whether they would have a future, Jonah was sleeping. It could have been because he had so much faith in God that he knew nothing would happen. But it could also have been that he was not bothered about what would happen to others. He was against God’s wish to go to Nineveh and preach salvation to them. So the saving of others was not on his top priority list.

Our lents are also taking on this colour and shape. We are turning out to be people who think just for ourselves and about ourselves. Our sense of justice is limited to us as individuals, and our family, community and church members as groups. It does not stretch much beyond this. It could be the reason why the Christian community has so many prayers, lents and conventions and yet is not doing enough to make a difference in fighting injustice in the country and the world.

This talks volumes about our sense of true morality and justice as some tool we use to hit out at others instead of helping others. The call of the sailors in the ship is interesting. The calamity does not differentiate between them and so each person is asked to call upon their own God. Jonah is unaware of this exercise and he has to be awakened from his slumber. Coming to think about it many of us may be suffering from the same sleepiness that Jonah had. This is almost a self imposed, forced sleep, a closing of the eyes to show that we do not know what is happening.

Sleep is good for the body and essential for a healthy mind and body. But over sleeping is not. It could lead to various complications. One of the reasons for over sleeping could be depression. If Jonah was sleeping while others weren’t could it suggest that he was under severe depression because of all that had transpired? There is an opportunity to pray for the good of everyone and that is over ridden by his sleep.

Many of us are undergoing the same experience of over sleeping. Even though there are many for who sleep deprivation is the problem, sleeping too much as if the problems will go away with that is also not an answer. Lying down is also something we do when we are sad and just don’t want to do anything else. With this there may also be instances of faking sleep. There is a call for all of us to pray for the good of everyone in society instead of faking sleep.

We need to be aware of those who are suffering in various ways in India and the world. We can’t be ignorant of such things and say we did not know. In today’s information rich culture where information is at the finger tip we should show the same eagerness to learn about others as we show to learn about our own culture and tradition. People need our prayers and our support. Saying we did not know, we were unaware and we are not interested in the welfare of others who God points us to is not what is expected of us after a time of lent and preparation.

The world and India are now undergoing challenges of several kinds. They include civil war in several countries, loss of pay for several, increase in the number of the poor, hungry and homeless, genocide, racism, casteism, gender disparity and oppression, discrimination against minorities, global warming, ecology related issues and developmental projects which are against the people of the land.

The Nineveh lent should help us to identify these gross humanitarian violations and pray for the people who are affected by them. Faking sleep and saying we did not know cannot make us oblivious to what is happening. Just as Jonah was awakened and asked to pray, we will also be awakened out of our slumber and asked to pray. Hope this lent will provide this very strength to know, understand and pray for the less fortunate and the least and the last.