Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The truth of the manger during Christmas

Jesus born in a manger can be likened to Jesus born in front of a shop front (kada thinna in Malayalam) or Jesus born on the street. This season we reconstruct the manger in our homes and churches with baby Jesus surrounded by his mother, father, the shepherds and the wise men. Our construction betrays the very concept of the manger and the manner of the birth of Jesus. In a country where the aam aadmi (common (wo)man) is more an election slogan than a sincere move, it may help to go back to why the most powerful man in the world would be born in the most common (now despicable) of circumstances.

Was Jesus an aam aadmi? Was his power reflected in his commonness with the ordinary people around him and his identification with them? Why would God choose to be attached with the ordinary rather than have a royal and luxurious birth? Jesus’ birth and life can be said to be the rise of an ordinary man from the manger to the cross. In this way he chooses his entry and exit in the comfort of what we would call ordinary and powerless.

Our faith in these times is being symbolised with the huge churches and big homes that we build rather than the truth of the manger. Our march and expansive drives to our churches is crisscrossed by the images of the homeless sleeping on the streets, covering themselves with old rags and pieces of plastic stitched together. One can’t help thinking that we are maybe congregating to the wrong places. Our association to money and luxury simply goes against our Lord on the streets. In this sense does a king need a luxurious palace? A king is rather a king by what he does and how he lives. A true king in this sense will have people congregating to where he is. We obviously want that to be in the churches we build. But this season we should meditate on whether our churches should be more broad and expansive and not just limited to the boundaries of our church walls.

Jesus as an aam aadmi remains a slogan for us as well. We preach about the poor Jesus in our rich sermons in the confines of our rich churches. This is just as the politicians talk about the aam aadmi from within the confines of their political offices and election rallies. Rahul Gandhi tried to define the aam aadmi during the Congress Party plenary session on Sunday. He said “Aam aadmi in India is that person who does not have a connection to the system. Whether he is poor or rich, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian, educated or uneducated, if he is not connected to the system, he is an aam aadmi.” He further explained citing examples of a “tribal boy in Niyamgiri who is thrown out of his land without justice, the Dalit boy in Jhansi who is forced to sit at the back of the classroom; the young professional in Bangalore who cannot get her child into a good school; the university topper in Shillong who cannot get a job because he does not know the right people.” There are problems with his definition but what he tried to say I feel is the lack of opportunity that arises because of the lack of connect with a power system within India.

Jesus as an aam aadmi lacked this political ‘connect’ with people in power and yet he manages to inspire many and continues to do so. His lack of connect with the powerful becomes his connect with the poor. This is the truth which lies hidden in the manger. This is the truth of Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The challenges faced by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church

Every church is defined by the time it manages to put behind it. The time adds to the seasoning and maturity of its tradition as they stand through the test of times. Every great church tradition is thus a test by time. The tests change with the time as well and become different for changing generations. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church is steeped in tradition and time tested beliefs and faith. But with the turn of the century clock come new challenges put forth by the experiences of the younger generations of the church. These experiences are not better than the experiences of the older generations but different. But these varying experiences bring us to the need of having to look at how we can live meaningfully in the church we belong to, even as we continue living our lives in the changing times with new innovations and new work and living conditions.

Some of us resist not just change but even discussing the change we have already undergone. The dichotomy which exists between our secular and religious lives is appalling and yet we choose to ignore it. But ignoring this aspect of our lives will not take away the reality of what is happening. We have members leaving the church for other spiritual expressions, short term gains, due to language incompatibility, cultural problems, misunderstanding of church doctrines and tradition, and isolation by a powerful minority in individual churches. Each reason is a problem in itself and one cannot tell others in one’s church to get out if they don’t like how things are inside. Every member of the church is in possession of the right to belong and be a part of the church and this right cannot be usurped by a certain few.

At times the change which many want to be discussed may not be a change from tradition to modernity but a change from the true faith of the church. Our refusal to discuss and deliberate goes against the very premise of tradition because tradition itself has come out of discussion and deliberation among other things. Some of the challenges faced by the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church are
1. Language related challenges- English though a colonial left over in India has managed to become a common language in a country like India which has several languages. The absence of a common language otherwise offers this importance to English. Hindi has not come to the level of English as being a common language in India. Also, English is a common business language and so many learn, use and converse in it. The ignoring of this by the church will lead to a vacuum which will be a gap between the liturgy language and the spoken language. Many concepts will go un-understood due to this and the younger generation especially will not understand truly what is going on in church. The same problem arises from Sunday school onwards and continues to the youth which then is brought up in a different spiritual tradition which is completely different from the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. The use of language should also include the vernacular languages of every particular region which will give more acceptance to the church and its faith and traditions.
2. Country specific challenges- The faithful in Kerala may not be the same as the faithful in the U.S. or in the Middle East. Even though a good part of the crowd has migrated from Kerala they have changed their mannerisms and their children have completely been brought up in a different culture. One cannot engage this crowd in the same way as we do in Kerala. This seeks for a better understanding of the needs of such a group and what the church can do specifically for them. This includes having priests from the same region for the purpose of the congregation identifying with their priests. Country specific challenges also bring about a change in the perception and celebration of festivals and special anniversaries. These celebrations will be different from how it is celebrated in Kerala and therefore they have to be seen from this context. The church has to accommodate different kinds of people who live in different contexts. The church has to re-interpret the practices of the church with relation to the context in which the church exists.
3. Family challenges- The constitution of the family also undergoes significant changes in different church contexts. The number of children in a family, the concept of equality and acceptance in a family, the role of the woman in the family are all bound to be different from that of how it is in Kerala. Even Kerala will have its own differences. Sermons and discussions in church have to take into account these things. One cannot forget the equality which should exist within family and church contexts. For this more discussions on the church traditions and faith has to happen in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
4. Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages- More and more inter-religious and inter-caste marriages can be seen happening in church. Such couples have to be given help for church related integration and should not be isolated from the church fold. Isolated couples will not come to church and will prefer to stay away or go somewhere else. Sermons in church should also reflect a respect for other religions while we talk about our own. This will give a more accommodative picture about the church and will lead to having a diverse but strong membership within the church.
5. Using the youth and other groups in the church- As in India, the church has a predominant percentage of youth. The youthfulness of the church should be used so that the church reflects this youthfulness. In this sense all groups should be given representation in the church committees. Men, women, youth, and even teenagers should be included. This will bring first hand knowledge of the needs of each group within the church and the committee will be able to discuss these issues while formulating various policy decisions of the church. This representation will also give more transparency and participation.
6. Social issues and the church- The church has by and large been a group which comes together, prays and then disbands. All this while the country and world go through various challenges! This total dissociation with reality throws up several questions on the need for such churches. The continuous expression of the Holy Qurbana through the life of the members of the church calls for an involvement in issues which affect the society and the world we live in. Social issues have to be a part of not just the Sunday sermon but has to be weaved into the over all fabric of existence of the church.
7. Using technology to keep tradition alive- The internet has been a technological evolution which has helped people come together and create communities spanning countries and continents. The use of this technology by the church enhances the options of creating a much deeper bond between members of the church. It also allows an opportunity for the church to explore online counselling, knowledge sharing, information dissemination, and bringing people together.
8. Devising a special Sunday school curriculum- The concept of the Sunday school itself is a mounted concept on the church. The church has to decide on a framework which is children friendly and takes into account the feed back of the children as well. Other initiatives should involve learning different parts of the liturgy as this contains the theology of the church. The children should also feel close to the environment they live in and spiritual enrichment should involve this aspect. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in this way should be child friendly and respect the initiatives by children rather than always dumping imported Sunday school concepts on them!
9. The church as a public platform- The church should not just be a place where we congregate in silence and go away to our homes. They should also be spaces where we are given an opportunity to speak our mind. People should be mindful that this does not mean hurting others and misusing personal feuds. But otherwise people who come to church should sit down and speak to one another and seek to help and guide one another. The priest will play a big role but he should also be helped by both men and women lay leaders in the church.

These points offer an important cross section of the challenges that face the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church. I do not claim that these are the only challenges though. The need to discuss them is important. But the platform to discuss should be explored. This could be in churches, prayer meetings, houses, online forums and the like. Whatever the route selected the end result would benefit all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The WikiLeaks and the Jesus truth

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Jesus attests to his own authenticity in the wake of him being questioned by those in authority. He blows his cover and comes into the lime light with these series of revelations which embarrass many and challenge the authority and power of some. The official version is challenged by an unofficial claim to truth. The unofficial man who makes this high claim comes from an ordinary family which has no claims to any immediate royal authenticity. Those in power are usually unsettled by claims of ordinary people, that they too have the power of the truth with them. This claim by Jesus was indeed unsettling. So unsettling that the leaders got together and plotted his death!

The WikiLeaks are being talked of as irresponsible, anti-national, misleading, and intended for character assassination of those in power. The embarrassment it has caused the U.S. is understandable. The freedom curtain has been exposed even as the U.S. has maintained all along that there is no curtain apart from the erstwhile iron curtain! The leaks also read like gossip stories on various countries. Truth is always bitter and even in this case this is what has come out. The bitter truth is too hot to handle. We are faced with the reality that the U.S. is everything opposite of what we have imagined and been tutored to accept.

Julian Assange is going to be hunted down. He is too hot to be walking free. Especially for those who are into the business of constructing truth and selling it! As usual he is being charged with crimes he hasn’t committed and faults which have nothing to do with the WikiLeaks. Whether he is a world hero in opposition to a national hero remains to be seen! What is fascinating is the role he is now living. The role of someone who has exposed the truth as it is. I don’t know whether the leaks are selective and only against a few, whereas others are taken out of the radar. And I don’t know whether he has an ulterior motive in all this.

What is rather interesting is that the WikiLeaks have destabilised the lies that we have considered the truth. We have got so used to the lies, that they were the truth for us. We have been woken from that slumber and are faced with the truth in all its broadness. The WikiLeaks have indeed brought out several issues. Does diplomacy mean that we lie to each other, will people of different countries come together in the culture of lies or the culture of truth, do we have to lie to be stable countries or will truth eventually stabilise any instability?

The church, like many governments would also not encourage any WikiLeaks like situation. Where does that leave Jesus in a Christmas season commemorating his birth? Should we side line him for the stability of our constructed lives or should we take him seriously and live in the beauty of instability, but peace of mind that we are offered? Can we be religious and sincere at the same time or is religion all about being politically correct and doctrinally sound? Should truth be guarded in a multi security prison or should it be free for us to see and decide?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Where on earth is the truth?

As a young boy everything I saw and heard was the truth. My parents gave their part of the truth which later on was shattered by my peers and school teachers. As I grew closer to the church I was given a different shade of the truth which I considered rock solid. With my foray into the field of communications, the media toyed with my representation of truth and challenged my concepts and notions of truth. Somewhere along the way there were these single individuals who continued to inspire me while never trying to impose their version of the truth on me. Truth had to be found and there were several dimensions to it.

This reminder comes back to me as I read about the Radia tapes and how the industry, media, and civil society always get together to influence governments and ruling dispensations. The truth seems to be manufactured by a select few and then sold to the less suspecting majority of others. We are that way consumers of a product named truth and not free participants in the natural and causal way of truth. But should I buy what others want to tell (sell) me or should I go behind the truth which I consider important and sincere?

This revelation puts out a few questions which have to be discussed in public. Is truth always manufactured? Are we being sold lies in the guise of truth? Can the guardians of truth change truth for their own gains and selfish wants? Can truth be redeemed or will it become a myth which really never existed?

All religions claim to have truth in their possession and yet there seems to be a move towards making people see only a part of it! This makes truth into a claim and not truth itself. Shouldn’t truth rather be something that people should discover for themselves? It shouldn’t be stage managed but left alone to be discovered. The presence of truth also suggests the presence of lies. By making exclusive claims to truth, aren’t all religions trying to cover up the lies that exist in them? Truth is being used for the selfish aims of those in power. This even suggests that truth is being converted into non-truth. Should we then lap up non-truth which is packaged and advertised as truth? Will religions and the media eventually destroy truth itself and convert it into lies? In such a context, truth will become a myth, something which is talked about but which no one has personal experience about.

This is where we should look for truth in the least expected places. Our established religions and institutions have been corrupted beyond repair. Finding truth in them is like finding a needle in a hay stack. It is not impossible but it is not easy either. Religions and the media should start talking and reporting about life stories from the margins. These far off stories are not about leaked tapes, conspiracies, corruption, high handedness and misuse of power. They are instead stories of courage, sacrifice, love and poverty. These in fact are the unreported and unsold stories of India. These are the stories which contain truth for those who are willing to dig deep. With each passing day our faith in religion, the government, judiciary and the leadership is shattered. But truth never the less remains and is existent. But only for those who are willing to search for it. For the others it is as good as dead!