Saturday, December 29, 2012

Making the church rape free

After a long struggle the symbol of hope for women has died down. We are told that India’s daughter wanted to live and continued to struggle, wanting to come back. Her brutal rape is a reminder of how brutal men in India are. However much we justify our institutions, frameworks, our legislators and our law enforcers, we have fallen short by many a mile. Many people in India sincerely prayed for the recovery of our daughter and sister. But nothing could stop the brutality of the rape, not even the best medical care. Where do we go from now?

I am a theological teacher (facilitator) and a church worker. My area of influence is theological seminaries, students, churches, church women, church men, girls, boys and children. I can’t help but wonder what my response to this highly despicable incident should be? After the strain and work of an academic term, after the joyful work of preaching and announcing Christ’s arrival to church members and the world, I am left drained. Not because of both the things I mentioned above, but because I haven’t been able to stop violence against women in the church and in society. I have been a failure amidst all the success I have enjoyed. And it is because of my silence, lack of pro-active involvement and status quo in the church and in seminaries that I feel this way. Every reluctance of standing for women has meant that I have been an accomplice in every rape.

What am I supposed to do? I am supposed to facilitate a thinking process in the minds of students from various parts of the country and various denominations. I am supposed to teach and practise a thinking process that women are not lesser than men, women have to be respected, women have feelings and the body of women belong to them. I am also supposed to preach and practise the same in church. But I am falling short time and again. Time and again women are not getting justice in church and I go along with the status quo. In all trueness I am not doing my job.

Every religion is supposed to be a protest, a movement asking for change. And yet we are far from it today. Can women wear what they want to in church without hearing a lewd comment in the back ground and being marked twisted? Can women speak in church without being labelled ‘forward’? Can women file a complaint against a church leader/s for harassment, misrepresentation, misuse of authority, humiliation, staring, sexual overtures, and misquoting of scripture? Can women expect the church to support them in the case of domestic violence, marriage related violence, violence at work, violence during public transport, violence at public spaces and violence from the law and authorities? If the answer is no, isn’t the church an accomplice to violence against women?

What am I going to accomplish by lighting a candle in church against the violence and brutal rape and murder of the 23 year old woman? Nothing much I suppose. There are several women in my own church who in all probability are exposed to violence in different places and the church remains silent to this. “Potte mole” (It is okay daughter, let it go daughter) is a constant reminder given to women to forgive and forget. Today has reminded us that we face a grim reality. Part of India has risen up against this. There are many others who have not got support and have been violated again and again. This is the time to fight for all women. No more potte mole. “Unaruvin and poruthuveen” (rise and fight) would be a better slogan for women and for those men and leaders including me who have some sense of guilt left in them.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Protest hard but protest real

It would be wrong to say that India is seeing unprecedented protests following the brutal violence and pain inflicted upon a 23 year old woman in Delhi. My negative statement is due to the protests that we have seen in the past few years in India. India has by and large protested over fuel hikes and hikes in the prices of essential commodities. Over the past couple of years we have seen protests over the Mumbai terror attack, corruption and now the protest to amend the laws with regard to rape.

What has come about from these protests? People have gone back to work and to their lives, waiting for another incident and another day to protest. To the credit of the Indian public, the propensity to come out on the street and offer solidarity for however short a period is commendable. But is it enough and will it bring about any change?

What is the real issue in the present brutal case before us? It is a clear violation of a girl's person hood, freedom, body and spirit. A group of men got together and thought they could do what they wanted in the darkness of the night. The cruelty and the subsequent consequence of the cruelty has brought people out into the streets. It is also a lack of awareness among law enforcement agencies about what constitutes the freedom of a woman and how far they should go to protect this freedom. The issue is also about clarity in laws, punishment based on these laws and additional laws to deter anyone from violating the freedom and body of another person. But the issue has turned into capital punishment and castration of culprits!

The problem with both of these solutions is that one, we are struggling with whether we should do away with capital punishment all together even in the rarest of rare cases and two, these solutions are patriarchal and male solutions.

Capital punishment once upon a time was seen as a deterrent just like nuclear weapons are still seen. But there is over whelming public opinion that this is the most inhuman thing one could do to another person. From a Christian point of view and a non-violent Indian point of view this goes against our very notion as a collective and as a nation. Capital punishment may also result in innocent people going to the gallows simply because the rich will get away with rape and violence and the poor will get raped twice over. If fear in itself would have instilled goodness in people, we would have all been saints. Fear will only instill a sense of deep hatred and criminal tendency which will lead to more fool proof crimes which will become more difficult to detect.

Such solutions go against the violated and the victim. Women through such revenge will be sucked in to the world of male dominated violence which in actuality women detest and oppose. What rather needs to be done is to bring women to the main stream. How many women represent us in parliament? How many women are in church committees? How many women are leaders who make legislations that will take our country forward? The answer would be negligible. In this context what capital punishment would do is to strenghthen the male dominated framework of decision making and violent mode of functioning. This will not deter rape but will keep the basic precents leading to rape intact.

Churches and other religious institutions have to claim their women. The framework of marrying off daughters, teaching them to cook, keeping them inside homes and having them as receptors of religious services has led to the detaching of women from homes and churches. This makes them second class citizens in their own back yard. What security can they expect when they are out in the night? The talk of women reclaiming their public spaces cannot be actualized unless we include home, work and religious spaces in the gamut of public space/sphere.

The street protest now is essential. People have to protest as without protesting they are not human beings. But protesting for capital punishment goes against everything woman. Equal representation for women in all aspects of life would be a better protest to die for. Equal representation in the household, in religious institutions, in property, in security, in articulation and implementation would bring about equal space for women in India. Once this comes into force women will make laws for themselves. All that we are doing now is strengthening the status quo.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sunday worship order on Food

Opening prayer
Creator God, you have constructed us out of the mud of the earth. You have also asked us to share the produce of mother earth. We have a deep, passionate and intrinsic relationship with the ground. We have gathered here today as a community which lives on faith, respect, care and compassion. We also get our nourishment to carry on from the food we eat. Each region and each food bears a separate story. Help us to open our hearts to the different food, hospitality and stories which surround us. Amen.


Praise and thanksgiving
God who offers peace to all human kind, we thank you for your presence in this worship service and for guiding us all through the week. We call out your name and maintain that you have looked after us and strengthened us whenever we needed you. We praise you just as we breathe, as praising you and thanking you is the most significant part of our lives. Praise be to your name O God. Amen.

Hymn- Breathe on Me, Breath of God
1. Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.
2. Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure, until with thee I will one will, to do and to endure.
3. Breathe on me, Breath of God, till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.
4. Breathe on me, Breath of God, so shall I never die, but live with thee the perfect life of thine eternity.

Bible reading: Luke 9:10-17


Sermon- Food for thought: From Charity to Parity

In every morsel of food, there is a taste to understand
In every act of food, there is a reason to come together
In every completion of food, there is a bridge we cross further
Yet we refuse to eat together and refuse to share our basic resource with others. What good will it do if our food rots away while hunger persists? We confess that we have not taken the effort to eat at the table of others and offer our table as a recourse and hospitality to others. We have definitely come short of our call to break the spices of discrimination inside us. Forgive us merciful God.

Till we try, we will not understand the power and beauty of different food. Till we accept we will continue to savour ourselves. Till we take the effort, several will hunger. May God see our clear efforts at change and extend to us the mercy which God so freely gives like the food God distributed. May God forgive us all for failing to accept and failing to reach out. Amen.

Special song- Mizo fellowship

Half the population in India goes hungry daily. They remain hungry even as others have control over resources and food. The government and its machinery find it difficult to share from the national wealth. Death due to hunger and malnutrition becomes a common phenomenon. We pray that better sense prevails and that people in positions share equally what belongs to all. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

We pray that the right to food becomes the rule and norm in India and that the poor will never go hungry again. The right to information has been a landmark bill whereby every citizen of the country can find the truth about what is happening in the country and expose corruption and make sure that the government policies benefit the people they are meant for. May the right to food become a law that benefits all people in our country and may no one go hungry again. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

Help us Lord as various churches to work towards the eradication of poverty. May we stop mere charity and intervene strongly to change the fundamental wrongs that keep people poor and needy. Help us to overcome the urge to be fence sitters and maintainers of the status quo. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

We thank you for the UTC community. We thank you God for this opportunity to learn from and be a part of different cultures. Help us to accept each other’s hospitality and partake of the food from one another. Even though acceptance is difficult, help us to try hard to distribute the food you have earnestly and whole heartedly asked us to do so. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

We thank you for those who have gone by from UTC. We remember with thanks the teachers, mentors, partners, associates, leaders, students and community members who have taught and lived the life of sharing each others lives and food. They have been our inspiration and we continue to thank you for their lives and pray that their lives inspire us to action as well. We also pray for the community here. Some of us are recuperating from sickness, some from personal losses, some from fatigue and some from stress. Help us to be there for each other in this community and to eat, pray, and live together here. Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

Prayer to our Lord God
Our provider, blessed be your name. Your table come, your wish be done in all corners of the earth. Give us the food for today and forgive our refusal to share, just as we have forgiven those who have not shared with us. Lead us to the right path and bring us to your table. For yours is the creation, the people and the food, forever and ever. Amen.

Hymn- Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee
1. Jesus, Lord, we look to thee; let us in thy name agree; show thyself the Prince of Peace, bid our strife forever cease.
2. By thy reconciling love every stumbling block remove; each to each unite, endear; come and spread they banner here.
3. Make us of one heart and mind, gentle, courteous, and kind, lowly, meek, in thought and word, altogether like our Lord.
4. Let us for each other care, each the other’s burdens bear; to thy church the pattern give, show how true believers live.
5. Free from anger and from pride, let us thus in God abide; all the depths of love express, all the heights of holiness.
6. Let us then with joy remove to the family above; on the wings of angels fly, show how true believers die.

Closing prayer and benediction
We all have our differences. Our food is different and the way we choose to make and eat it is different. But the ingredients are the same and the ground it comes out from is similar. We hope and pray that in our diversity we will have the courage, presence of mind and faith to come together, share equally and gain fulfilment out of dividing equally. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest and abide with us now and ever more. Amen.

(Worship order prepared for Sunday evening worship conducted on October 28, 2012 in the United Theological College, Bangalore.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Food for Thought: From Charity to Parity- A sermon

Luke 9:10-17

We are commemorating World Food Day this month. Half the population in India do not eat food three times a day and India has 25% of the world’s hungry. The government, people, NGO’s and religious institutions have to work over time to ensure that everyone gets at least three decent meals a day. Even as FCI godowns hold rotting grains, food is wasted and thrown away, food is commodified and priced, even as food becomes a fashion statement, we fail to give food to the poor and continue to play the politics of caste, religion and gender in food and the right to food. On the bright side people help, noon day meal schemes are reasonably successful, food from five star hotels are routed to orphanages and rice and essentials are distributed to the needy. But is food all about charity or is food the right of people to exist, to be and to become? Does food also have a tinge of discrimination in the midst of the spices and condiments?

The media have now understood the commercial value of food and have several food shows, travel cum food shows, food competitions like Master Chef and festival coverage of food delicacies. There are also numerous cookery books, websites and blogs and thousands of restaurants catering to all sorts of palates and pockets. UTC also has a way where we get to discover new tastes and dishes. My exposure to different forms of food was through the many friends I had here. I was therefore introduced to different forms of South Indian, North East Indian and North Indian cuisine. It also dawned on me that that there were so many kinds and types of food. Friends were made and relationships cemented through this sharing of food. My earlier stint at one of our seminaries in Kerala also has several stories of sharing food. All strong relationships made here are relationships sealed by food and drink. The visits to Siddique Kabab Centre, Chandrika restaurant, railway canteen, several food carts in Vasanth Nagar and the numerous tea stalls in Shivaji Nagar also made theologizing strong, as eating from one another and with one another meant an acceptance of one another too. Spice or no spice, smell or no smell, bland or salty, each dish talked a story. The food sharing in UTC opened me up as a person and it became one of the key factors of whom I turned out to be. This then helped in forging a language of communicating with my mother in law. We started speaking the language of food and she accepted me not because I knew her language through words but seemed to show affinity and a liking to her language through food. This was a fundamental progress in my development as a human being. This same formula works for pastoral house visits as well where one becomes a family member if one eats the food given. I agree that there are certain privileges which make for this pampering. Otherwise theological students are not too lucky with food in houses always. There was a student who went to a house and was asked to finish a side dish that he was given. He initially thought it was out of love but later on was told by the old woman that she had made it a month ago and was waiting for someone to come and finish it. In school I would not eat all kinds of food, partly because my stomach did not agree with it and partly because I thought or was tutored to think it was not good for me.

We can have a different take of the feeding of the multitude by Jesus. Such a take concentrates on how it would be if we were the disciples in the story and in which way we would react. We can only assume how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ retort to “give them something to eat.” Any sermon usually goes the way of looking at who wrote the text, what was the context, when it was written and what could the text be speaking to us. But we can get newer insights by writing our playwright based on what we read into the text as well. The skit tried to do that by looking at what may be another way of looking at the same story. The disciples have already scripted their own ending even before Jesus tells them what to do. But they cannot tell Jesus about this as he won’t understand their inability to distribute. The interpretation is based on what we see in the church today.

The feeding of the multitude is found in all gospels and suggests an importance to the passage and what it seeks to tell us. This importance includes the Eucharistic symbolism especially with the symbol of the bread and fish, the tutorial to the disciples on what they are supposed to do with the people of God, the importance of fellowship and sharing and even Jesus the miracle worker. The church I belong to also gives much importance to the feeding account and we hear it several times round and it even comes to the extend that certain ministers then read a different portion and preach from it as they feel this is too monotonous. The similarity with the Eucharist which the minister also conducts and distributes is strong and in a similar understanding this also becomes monotonous for several.

The problem may actually lie in the fact that the interpretation has to be a bit more relevant for the present time. I propose five insights we could get from the passage. One, food is not just a crowd puller and stomach filler. Jesus was the numero uno crowd puller for the disciples. We usually think that Jesus chose his disciples. But it could also be that the disciples chose Jesus as well. But after being a part of the Jesus movement they also understood that he had a charisma to pull crowds. This was not something they could immediately substitute. But even Jesus understands that people can’t keep listening to him. They need rest, they need to be replenished, they need food. But the disciples could not completely come to understand this, partly because they panicked how so many could be fed and partly because there was a problem that the feeding would lead to other problems later. Food still remains a crowd puller. People are hired for political rallies with the promise of food, drink and money. Almost every meeting has some sort of snacks or ends with a bigger meal. It is part of our existence and without this we cease to exist. In UTC also food becomes an important component of our meetings and many a time that is the bigger crowd puller than the talk or sermon itself. Churches also follow the system of big and small meals to keep the crowd engaged. But one has to wonder whether food is used as a crowd puller in the passage as Jesus did not use it to pull crowds because they were already there. The basic characteristic of food is filling up the stomach. But the number of people in the Lukan account would have taken quite an effort to seat and to serve as well. The amount of food from which Jesus divides is also just too small to feed the people. And yet they are satisfied. This does suggest that instead of the amount of food that they ate it was the very act of eating which somehow satisfied them. Food as just a crowd puller and stomach filler is food given out of charity. But such giving is not complete giving as it only gives a temporary relief from hunger.

Two, food encourages group activity. It is something which people do in groups. The fellowship groups in UTC are evidence of that. We usually have several activities in groups and it includes singing, story telling, gossiping, and eating. To keep a group together, we need some activity whereby they will be interested to be together. Food sharing is such an activity which will keep people engaged. Jesus instructs the disciples to seat the people in groups of 50 and then distribute the food to them. The seating in groups may have helped in two ways. One, there was an anticipation as to what would happen next and two it brought a specific number of people together. For weddings these days also there is the style of being seated on tables and in groups. What happens is that there is the opportunity to converse and share the food at hand. The bible passage does say that the disciples were asked to give food and the crowd was seated in groups. But it could also be that the disciples distributed and then asked the specific groups to distribute among themselves. This gave the opportunity of conversing, distributing and sharing, and eating and conversing. The distribution of bread and fish leads to the people getting an opportunity to come together and be in conversation. This conversation may or may not happen otherwise. But when one is put into the face of the other there is likelihood to make an effort to converse or it may be that this will not happen despite looking at each other. Even if nothing of major importance would have been said, at least small talk was possible. If we see sharing of food as charity one does not need to see the face of the one on the other side. Faces then become only photo sessions which bring us glory. Trying for parity means an effort to see who and what the other person is.

Three, the Eucharist must go beyond symbolism. The feeding also symbolised the Eucharist especially because of the formula used while looking to heaven with the bread and fish. “He gave thanks and broke them” and the bread and fish used and the later symbolism of the bread and fish in the church suggest that the early church also understood this passage as a symbol of the Eucharist which was supposed to be followed by the disciples of Jesus. This has been continuing in the church till now. The Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church which I belong to also gives much importance to the Eucharist with every service being a Eucharist service. The concept of sharing from the same bread is still followed in a tradition that has spanned for centuries. But critically speaking the problem would be that the church has continued to see it as a symbolism which many a time does not manage to go beyond the symbolism. This has kept the church wrangled in theological disagreements with other churches and has seen the limiting of the Eucharist as a church limited, church member specific sharing. The Oriental Orthodox churches including my church see the Eucharist as the centre, start and end of worship and spiritual life. Any decision to commune with others is also influenced by this. If then certain sections of the church continue to misinterpret the Eucharist as mere symbolism it will never fulfill what Jesus may have wanted us to learn in the passage we are looking at. The passage is not mere symbolism. It is a call to share what little we have with everyone, irrespective of caste, colour, class, gender and race. Any misinterpretation of passages like the feeding of the multitude by Jesus puts the church at risk of not holding hands and sharing what we have with people beyond our limited boundaries. Symbolism also leads to charity rather than parity. We try to fulfill certain standards which will give us a certificate of charity but will never bring parity to those who seek to come to the table.

Four, who feeds the world? The World Food day had as its theme in 1998 “Women feed the world”. The feeding of the multitude does have a missing link. They are the women and children. Other accounts mention there were so many in number, apart from women and children. Jesus’ call to feed includes all who were there. But women are then absent by a very inconsequential mention later on. This again is the next problem of not having the Eucharist as one which is conducted and led by women. This takes away the credit of women as feeders of the world. This World Food Day, there was a showcase of women dalit farmers in Andhra, who are working towards preserving traditional agriculture practices. They are using their knowledge of traditional seeds to encourage biodiversity and thereby counter malnutrition and hunger. The government and the church though do not see the wisdom of such women and keep the conduct of the Eucharist a traditional man dominated bastion. 45% of women and children are still malnourished in India. The change in how the Eucharist is seen therefore cannot just be a church related thing. It is much more than that as the effects are more far reaching in how hunger affects women and children more. The absence of women and children in the feeding of the multitude text or rather the feeble presence of women and children in other similar texts proves to be more harmful than just being a church dogma. The charitable face of the church shows itself again to suggest that women were there. But were there remains an ‘also was there.’ Women and children need parity.

Finally, the 2012 theme of the World Food Day is “agricultural co-operatives as a key to feeding the world.” This leads to my final assertion from the text. Food has been commodified and is part of a multi billion dollar industry where genetically modified food will be sold to us at a premium and traditional crops will be phased out and given an early retirement. In this context food co-operatives are an answer to how we will manage to find a solution to food shortage. It is not only big co-operatives like Amul but other small co-operatives which can make a difference. Churches, seminaries and theological colleges can show the way by encouraging farming practices among community members. But equal participation has to be a key component of such initiatives as otherwise one cannot bring about successful co-operatives but rather limited co-operatives which are then not co-operatives. Such initiatives can also become true witnesses to the feeding of the multitude narrative and to God’s plan in it for us. It will be an effort whereby we not only produce for ourselves but also for the neighbourhood. The Eucharist will then be a much more expansive and liberal act where not only do we relate with the problem of denominationalism, but also caste, colour and even religion. Now we are still in the phase of charity where we still give what remains to others instead of giving from our own plate. The text can be used to recommit our call in theological colleges and churches. We are not just supposed to be a charitable organization or church doing ‘some’ charity but a larger movement which seeks a total re-organization of society and the church. Amen.

(Preached this sermon in UTC for Sunday evening worship on October 28, 2012).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Onam: The festival of hope (A sermon using John 20:11-20)

The tradition of Onam revolves around a story of the king Mahabali who was seen as a just king who ruled over Kerala. He was seen as a king who ensured a period when all people were seen as the same. For us this indeed will come as a surprise as to how it is possible to live in a period when people are seen as the same. India still cannot figure out a way where all women and men will be seen as equal. With our own problems of caste and gender, the story of Mahabali will definitely seem unlikely and therefore has the problem of being limited to a celebration where people of a state get together, arrange flowers, sing songs and eat a meal with close to twenty side dishes. But is it just a festival or is it much more than that?

The story of Mahabali when continued sees that the Gods became jealous of his popularity and the simple fact that he brought about the imminence of everyone being the same into the lives of people. This was supposed to be an after life reality. The Gods were indeed fuming because Mahabali was doing their job and doing a better job of it. It had to stop because this was upsetting the way they had intended society to be.

Of course one should also be aware that the said Gods were also the constructs of high caste religious priests. The story continues and the Gods send their representative Vamana to Mahabali. Vamana asks for three feet or foot of land. Mahabali perhaps undone by the small demeanour of Vamana or offering his usual hospitality readily agrees although there may have been an element of doubt in his mind about the intentions of Vamana. Vamana then assumes his real size with which he covers up all the space available with two of his foot steps. He then asks Mahabali where he will put his third step. Mahabali then offers his own head and he is pushed down into the earth by Vamana. Before being pushed down Mahabali asks for the opportunity to visit his people every year and he is granted this wish.

Onam is then the time that people in Kerala believe that Mahabali visits them and they want it to be a special time when there is a lot of sharing and coming together of families and communities. People belonging to all religions celebrate this as Mahabali is seen as a leader of all people. Food which is predominantly vegetarian has undergone certain changes and has got its own additions depending on the different communities celebrating Onam.

Mahabali can be seen on similar lines with Jesus because of the way Jesus positioned himself and how he was done away with by high priests because he started doing things which they thought were meant for God and were anyway disturbing their well established system. Mahabali and Jesus are similar because
1. Both Mahabali and Jesus were leaders who were passionate about equal rights and justice.
2. Both of them sacrificed their lives for the sake of their subjects.
3. Their commitment goes beyond the earthly life. Those who believed in their ideology, especially the poor and the oppressed were not left to fend for themselves. Their commitment to ensure justice leads them to extend their involvement beyond life as we see it here.
4. Both of them are done in by a conspiracy and although they agree to being sacrificed are actually murdered in cold blood.
5. Both Mahabali and Jesus offer hope as can be seen in the past, present and future.

Onam is a festival and also has characteristics of a festival. A festival brings forth happiness, celebration and above all, hope. Without hope, there is no life. In the read passage in John 20 Mary is filled with this hope and she waits with expectation to see the fulfilment of this hope. Hope is a right of the poor and the downtrodden. In this sense celebrations which do not include the poor are mainline, dominant and market based celebrations. But true festivals are people’s festivals which are a celebration of protest, dissent and non-conformity. The Onam festival goes beyond region and community. In Kerala it has become the festival of all people. But it is not just a festival of conformity to certain high caste traditions. The spirit of the King Bali also moves beyond the borders of Kerala. M.E. Sharp in his book “Reinventing revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India says that Bali has been taken as the major symbol of the oppressed shudra-dalit peasantry in Phule’s interpretation of the Aryan-Brahman conquest. The hope filled slogan in Marathi is “Ida pida javo, Bali-ca rajya yeva” (let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come). This has great similarity to the expectation of the arrival of the kingdom of God. A slogan is very much important to provide hope for the people and the slogan of the getting back of power is indeed very powerful. Mahabali the Asura King or the king from a lower caste, who ruled justly and provided equal opportunities for his people, is unceremoniously done away with. His re-installation means the bringing back of a glorious era where the practise of untouchability, inequality and other social evils did not exist. It also gives power to the people. Just as protest is a right of the poor, hope is also the right of the poor.

Mary exercises this very hope which is her right as a woman. Her visit to the tomb before anyone else reflects the hope that she and not any other disciple had. There is a sense of dissonance in the passage. It is not the apostles who go first but Mary who goes first. Mary is then seen as going to tell Peter about what she sees. Here there is a legitimization of established orders within the church. But Mary offers the essential piece of information first. The story becomes more exciting because Mary then goes and expresses her hope in full by standing and crying outside the tomb. This is a cry of protest which she hopes will bring back the one who will let all sorrows to go.

India is now going through a period of uncertainty where FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) has been allowed in the aviation and retail sectors. More sectors will be added in the near future. There is huge protest against this. Some of it is political but mostly it is the public expression of the aspirations of people who want to decide their own futures. The protest against the Koodankulam nuclear project also reflects the same aspirations of the local populace. When state and central governments have closed their eyes to nuclear waste and the risks involved so that they can have electricity, the only choice for people of the land is to protest. Protest needs a figure to inspire. Mahabali is one such figure and the inspiration of Onam is to live in harmony with one’s brothers and sisters. Mary seeks this inspiration from Jesus.

Perhaps festivals like Onam should inspire us to seek freedom for the masses and to effectually improve the lives of people. Festivals should also become a more common and repetitive part of our lives. Without this we make the festival and its commemoration and meaning making a once a year event which has no more significance than eating variety of food, meeting people and buying consumer goods. The festival of Onam has to transcend this in theological colleges and society at large. It can be a time when we vow and strive for equal opportunities for all and reservation for those who have been thrust behind. It can also be a time when we try to do away with all the corruptions that have crept into society. This could be a time for cleansing. Festivals in churches are no different. Two major festivals in the church I belong to are the festival of St. George and the festival of St. Mary. Both are very special for the people of the church. But consumerism and the evils of structure and power have crept in and limited it to an event. In the midst of this, ordinary people still find meaning out of these festivals. Mary Magdalene tries to question while initiating the quest to finding Jesus. Here is a festival procession which tries to go beyond certain fixed constructs. Her short pilgrimage to find Jesus inspires Peter to conduct the same journey.

Onam as the festival of hope has huge potential and offers valuable lessons for all. In situations of conflict and lack of harmony, festivals like Onam remind us of a time when humans lived together as one and that this is the opportunity we should use to try and reconcile. Nothing is beyond reconciliation and one should put out one’s hand in a reconciliatory mood of accepting and respecting the other. Even in the hardest and most difficult of times hope stands as the reason to live on. Mahabali offers this hope through his presence with us in this worship today. Jesus lives inside us as an ever present hope that there is nothing which cannot be redeemed.

The festival of Onam then is a once a year festival of forgetting all differences and coming together. It is an opportunity to re-learn our commitment to stand for justice, peace and reconciliation. This is not just one community’s celebration attended by others. It is the celebration and commitment of all that we hope for a better today and tomorrow. Justice has no boundaries and regions. Festivals cannot be limited to one caste or region. Let us all come together to remember a time when all people were treated with respect. Let us all be inspired by a man who did not belong to a high caste but shook the entire establishment by following the simple and yet hard formulae of not favouring anyone. Let us learn from the woman who hoped and stood strong in her hope even when others were not sure. Let us be steadfast in our faith and love for Jesus, the son of the carpenter, who took a stand and stood for the poor, the outcasts and the different people in society. I wish you peace, justice and reconciliation. Onam greetings. Amen.

(Preached this in UTC for the Onam worship on October 3, 2012)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Understanding the North East: A need to take out the hot pan to stem rumours

Fortunately the fear and fleeing of people from various parts of the North East has come down in the past 24 hours. The government on its part in Karnataka has taken steps to assure the students, workers and professionals that what has happened is the work of a few rumour mongers. Sms’ from the government with this assurance of security and peace has indeed been a step in the right direction.

Bangalore in particular looks ready to handle any situation. The government is positive in its approach, the police are keeping a watch and leaders of Muslim communities are pro active in assuring North Easterners that no hate campaign is going on and are reminding those who come for prayers that this is a season of fasting and peace and no one should be swayed by any campaign whatsoever.

Individuals, groups, institutions and religious groups have all got together to say that no one should leave and those who have left should come back. One should be happy that simultaneously the media, civil society and the government have all come together to ensure peace.

But one cannot but wonder how a few rumour mongers managed to scare so many people in a matter of hours and instigated a panic situation? Will people wilt under the weight of a few sms’? Or is there something more to this? I wonder whether I would have done the same thing had there been similar rumours against my safety. Maybe I would have, as everyone has some sort of fear of their belongings and their life. But this exodus may also be the result of an insecurity felt by those from the North East in various parts of India. The lack of understanding has at least to an extend led to the ghetto-isation of certain communities. This of course is not special just to the North East community. But there has somewhere been an opportunity lost in the understanding of our sisters and brothers.

The very reference "North East people" which has been doing the rounds in all forms of the media and whenever anyone of importance has talked itself smacks indifference in the form of a lack of understanding. The population in Bangalore is a mixed bag of people from various states from the North East. They include Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya to name a substantial lot. There are differences between the various states mentioned and it is unfortunate that for convenience we (including myself) bracket everyone together.

The way forward for now is dispelling any kind of rumours going around. But there is also a strong need to understand our friends from the North East, their culture and traditions. Food is one way of breaking dividing walls and frequent coming together should be encouraged to understand that India is not confined to one religion, region, caste, culture or ethnic identity. This could be a way of making everyone comfortable enough to stay, not with standing any form of rumour. The same institutions which are now playing a good role in re-assuring and offering their places to all should take the role in playing out this role as well.

Religious institutions like theological colleges have an important role to play here. These institutions are a wonderful mix of several identities coming together at the same time and under one roof. There will be several opportunities to get to know each other, taste each others food and understand one another’s culture. Such institutions along with several educational institutions and companies can take the lead to not just bring people together for study and work but also for peace in society.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The freedom to be

Freedom in one’s own country can be seen in two ways. One is the freedom enjoyed under one’s flag. It is a nostalgic, goose bump like freedom felt when the national anthem is sung and several gather together with the understanding that we are all one. The second thought goes against the first one. It goes in the direction of “Am I really free?” One is overly positive and the other overly negative. Both have their right to exist and to be.

The violence in Assam and the follow up in Mumbai and the fear rumours down South in Hyderabad and Bangalore make one think of the country we live in and the freedom we have. One must be grateful for the rights we have and the opportunities one gets because one is Indian. But the lack of opportunities and the refusal of being safeguarded by the Indian constitution will make those who suffer wonder what they get from their own country. Is it right to call those who question their lack of rights unpatriotic?

The Indian constitution is multi faceted and quite comprehensive in itself. Dr.B.R.Ambedkar definitely gave some thought and effort into the process. There may be certain sections which need a revisit because of new additions to the social fabric of life and society. But otherwise there are several commentators who believe that what India needs is the following of the constitution and that in itself will safeguard all citizens of this country and give them the freedom to be what they want to and live where they want to as well.

There are other commentators who would say that the constitution has become redundant and therefore needs a thorough overhaul and even if it is comprehensive other measures are needed to safeguard the people of this country. What I have been hearing in Bangalore for several hours now is very disturbing. Thousands of people from the North Eastern part of India have boarded trains to their home states in fear that there will be some kind of a back lash due to the violence in Assam. This is definitely fact as the Indian Railways had to arrange special trains because of the huge number of people who wanted to leave. What is not fact and definite though is the rumours that are spreading around about the violence that is going to happen. No one is ready to say who is spreading the rumour and sending sms’s. The government on its part is trying its best to assure the people.

Incidents such as these should be condemned and people should get together to assure any community or group of people who are being threatened. The constitution should be followed and rules have to be adhered to especially when people are violated in any way. There can be no ‘us and them’ at times such as these and everyone should rather come under the tri colour to protect rather than threaten. If I cannot do even these simplest of things the head I held high during the hoisting of my country’s flag will go down in shame due to the fact that I did not protect a fellow Indian and a fellow human being. I guess there may be many like me who don’t want great economic progress, an Olympic gold, and a certification from the World Bank. I would rather have the freedom to go and live anywhere in this country, work and just be. I don’t think it is too much to ask for this in this month of Independence.

If we feel we have the independence then so should our sisters and brothers from other parts of India. This then becomes our new struggle for independence where we fight not just for our own independence but for the independence of other fellow Indians and human beings. In the mean time let us stand up for a just cause and tell our friends from the North East that you are a part of this land just as we are. Let us be mutually hospitable to each other and to others.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Thinking aloud for the youth in Bangalore

It is difficult to suggest new things for the Jacobite church youth in Bangalore as there are varying needs. But it helps to start a thinking process aimed at the growth of the youth activities and its positive impact on society. In this light we can look at the following.

1. Programmes for the youth- understanding society and the people we live with, understanding other denominations and religions, having resource persons from different fields talking to the youth. Apart from these, church oriented classes on history, theology and liturgy can also be planned depending on the availability of resource persons.
2. Making sub groups- it will be beneficial to make sub groups within the youth group so that people staying in the same place can meet often. These groupings should not be based on gender but on geographical location.
3. Unofficial gatherings- the youth can gather together in common places and have short talks or discussions. This does not have to be in church because the church may be far for many. These unofficial gatherings could be getting together for tea/coffee, dinner and the like. Being in a youth group should not put pressure on members but should rather be an opportunity to mingle freely and open up when the need arises.
4. Data base for the youth- there should be a data base for the youth whereby names, addresses and other details can be collected. This should be kept by the office bearers and should not be misused in any manner.
5. Project identification- the youth should visualize a project which they can raise funds for and manage by themselves. For instance, it could be a hostel for women and men youth members who come from Kerala and would need accommodation. Or it could be providing paying guest facilities for the youth. This should be co-ordinated by the youth themselves. For this purpose any youth from Kerala or other places should be able to contact the youth here and ask for any help. This could be help regarding a job, a place to stay, marriage, and the like. The project thus can be big or small depending on how the youth would like to do it.
6. Website or blog- the youth group should have a web site or blog which is comprehensive and updated regularly. Programmes should be conducted at least once a month and this should be accounted for in the calendar. It should be explored whether online chatting facilities are also possible for youth members and how far social networking sites can be made use of.
7. Worship for the youth- the need for this can be discussed. The youth can either meet in different places and pray, or come together in church, or do both. The need for English qurbana will vary according to different churches and therefore individual churches should take those decisions.
8. Committees for regions- the youth committee of a particular church can also be the committee of the region for the diocese. They will then report in the diocesan level youth meeting on the work they are doing in their region.
9. More roles during qurbana- the women and men of the youth should be encouraged to take a more active role during qurbana and other services in church. This includes choir, bible readings, special songs, and skits. As far as possible, women should also be given roles just as men.
10. Helping Sunday school- the youth should also actively involve themselves in Sunday school as the younger crowd will be able to identify better with the youth. This will also give an opportunity to mingle with the younger crowd in church.
11. The youth group should be baby friendly- many youth members especially women are not able to attend meetings because they are taking care of their little ones. Some scheme should be devised wherein we make such families comfortable in attending such meetings.
12. Understanding each other- there may be cultural and other differences within the youth group and this should be dealt with by encouraging people to people contact and interaction. This will go a long way in ironing out differences and bringing about a deeper understanding of one another.
13. Debates and interaction- debates should be arranged on topics of interest. For instance the Jan Lokpal bill has evinced a lot of interest in people. Wouldn’t it be good if we were able to discuss it among the youth and try to understand the issue more deeply?
14. Overnight camps- as part of the mingling process it would help to have small youth camps where over night stays are also encouraged. These have been conducted in the past but we could get more experimental.

(This was presented for a church diocesan youth gathering in Bangalore in July 2011.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Portal workshop held

A day long workshop on the feautures and model of a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church Portal was held in the St. Ignatius Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore yesterday. Youth members from several Jacobite churches in Bangalore attended the workshop which gave stress to collecting information, editing, compilation and writing styles for the purpose of online publishing. The Bangalore diocesan metropolitan H.G. Pathrose Mor Osthathios gave an introduction to the workshop and elaborated the need for a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church Portal in this era of technological innovations.

Priests of the diocese and youth members came together in a unique exercise which is set to continue in the future as well. Immediate brain storming, collecting and validation of information, distribution of work and transparent decision making were all possible under one roof. Such an initiative also offers a hitherto untested model of governance in the church.

The unique undertaking is a coming together of tradition and technology and aims at including the aspirations and needs of the old and new members of the church. Such an initiative is a first in the church in terms of planning and executing. The ambitious project has many uniqe features and has already been discussed in the Holy Synod of the church.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Communication in Theological Education

The word communication brings to mind words like commune, communion and community which suggest that it means bringing together or coming together. All forms of communication thus seek to bring people together for whatever purpose. Communication also brings to mind sharing, participating, giving, taking, co-operating and transmitting. Communication thus involves people and what they do. Communication is a basic human need like food, shelter and clothing. It is a right of people. ‘One cannot not communicate’ and ‘one cannot but communicate’ provides the essence of the importance of communication. Even if we are silent, we communicate something. Religious institutions are usually happy with providing food, shelter and clothing to people in need. But this does not give the right to speak and express ones thoughts and very being. A world and church without communication would be just this. A world confined to superficial charity while refusing to give the poor and needy what is their fundamental right. This is the right to communicate.

Some definitions of communication are
1. The English word communication is taken from the Latin noun ‘communis’ and the Latin verb ‘communicare’ that means ‘to make common.’
Making common also means having something in common. Usually only people who have something in common can talk to each other. But this cannot be a hard and fast rule making us think that people who don’t share anything common cannot interact with each other. But on the other hand an element of commonness is definitely essential. All human beings have something in common but one needs to look to find and feel this commonality. Commonality includes religious beliefs, colour, taste, region, education and the like. In a theological setting it is very essential that we look for things that bind us together rather than for things that separate us. In churches also this holds true. A pastor has the responsibility of finding common threads between people rather than dividing people based on superficial disagreements. A communicator would seek to bring people together in a church setting and try to include the aspirations of all.

2. Communication is a human relationship involving two or more persons who come together to share, to dialogue and to commune.
Communication seeks to make relationships. It is not an artificial act but a human act whereby we seek to create togetherness. The first act of communication was God’s creation. God reached out to human beings and got into a relationship with them. This still continues. This is what should happen during church services as well. People should not come to see and hear something and then leave. Rather they should come and be a part of the church and each other. Without relationships, we cease to become human and therefore communication becomes an integral part of our lives.

3. Communication is the process that links discontinuous parts of the living world to one another.
We are a broken world trying to live together in hope. As pastors, care givers and social activists the hope we share is the hope given to us by the resurrected Christ. Communication forms the medium of experiencing and living this hope. How many times have we heard in theological institutions and churches that “it is a problem of communication”? Any breakdown in relationships is immediately attributed to the lack of communication and miscommunication and urgent calls are made for this to be rectified. Communication should not be seen as something using the latest technology but should be seen as the importance of doing simple things. Pastors looking at and greeting people in church, listening to people and holding their hands are all simple yet effective means of communication. This makes us a community who holds hands together, knowing fully well that we are broken and imperfect and yet coming together in the hope offered to us by God. This then should be extended to all people, of all races, castes, class, colour and gender.

4. Communication occurs when an individual assigns significance or meaning to an internal or external stimulus.
There are two types of stimulus. They are internal and external. An internal stimulus gives a signal to our brain that we need something or should do something. An external stimulus will be from someone else who wants something from us. When we are hungry, a signal is passed to the brain and we are informed of the hunger of the stomach. In Indian culture, peculiar movements of the hands and feet suggest various things at various times. This then makes us react in a certain way. Pastors/priests have to read various messages from stimuli from various sources. The need is to make out the correct meaning from what we see and feel. Many people in church will be silent and will not talk about their real feelings. Pastors should read the stimulus from silence and gather the need of people.

5. Communication is a process by which senders and receivers of messages interact in given social contexts.
We are all part of one or the other context. The social context decides how we should behave and what all conventions we should follow. This differs in each context. A pastor has to first of all understand her/his context before speaking. Only this will bring about effective interaction. The early history of modern communication hinged on the propaganda wars played out by various nations during the first and second world wars. This propaganda concentrated on transportation of messages. But mere transportation without knowledge of the social context will not ensure the intended goal. Communication as a process is much closer to understanding communication as relationships.

6. Communication is the transmission of information, ideas, emotions, skills, etc by the use of symbols, words, pictures, figures, graphs, etc.
Communication makes use of several things at the same time. It is not just words, but a plethora of other things which make the message clear to the audience. Even in churches it is not enough that we use just words to preach a sermon. A sermon should make use of all means and methods to introduce and explore the message which is being preached. Still and moving images, music, pictures, figures and graphs should all be made use of to make people understand what is being said. Take for instance the feeding of the five thousand in the bible. The message can be explained much better if we use an LCD projector to show a picture of thousands of people sitting together for food, playing appropriate music in the background through the same laptop used for projecting the picture, showing official figures of poverty in India and using graphs to show a break down of food production and distribution in India over the past decade. This will give a link between the biblical story and present day reality. There has to be a visual impact along with other things. This visual impact is present in the liturgy in churches and happens especially during the breaking of bread. This same impact should then be carried forward into the sermon and other parts of the service as well.
(to be continued...)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

How a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christian can make a difference for the environment

The United Nations based World Environment Day (WED) was held on Wednesday, June 5th in several parts of the world including India. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which is instrumental in the conduct of the WED has as this year’s theme “Green Economy: Does it include you?” The Indian media was filled with interviews with environmentalists and some had a list of human made ecological disasters in India. On the whole it was a day when we were all encouraged to do something for our mother earth and for the generations to come.

Solutions for the crisis that we are facing include decreasing our consumption of various commodities which make use of water, natural resources and fuel to be delivered to us. Local produce will not only ensure food security but will also ensure that less resources will be used and less communities will be robbed of what is theirs to use. Other local solutions include using modes of transportation which do not run on petrol and diesel, using less electricity and water, managing waste and recycling.

As churches are also encouraged to set apart a day for the environment and remind people of the importance of integrating the gospel learning's in our lives, it is important to reflect on what each church can contribute to this. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India is seen as traditional, old, ritualistic, repeating, and rigid by other members of society. Yet all these very nomenclatures may eventually show us something which will help us to see the environment as part of our lives and therefore as “our environment.”

For the purpose of looking into one’s own church for offering contributions for WED, one can look at four points. One, reducing our carbon foot print, two, reducing the usage of water and electricity, three, using natural energy and four, recycling and renewing. All these four things have corresponding contributions from our ancestors in the church.

Festivals in the JSOC are a part and parcel of the church. Festivals are conducted in the name of several saints and St. Mary. One of the significant parts of a festival is the long walk undertaken by the faithful to the said church. This is a walk which is done with meagre resources and the only fuel burnt is "one’s own." One such walking pilgrimage that I have witnessed and been part of several times is the Manjinikara festival in Kerala. People walk for several kilometres together to reach the destination. This walk of faith uses as less as possible. People are in fact told that one should survive on the least possible means. The essence of this walk of faith is to consume as less as possible. If more people were to take part in these festivals and make this as a part of their very lives, we would be able to reduce our carbon foot print significantly.

People earlier also believed in communitarian live styles. Everything was done together. House prayers were conducted by all in the family sitting together in one room and in the process switching everything else off. The communitarian lifestyle thus ensured single energy use in comparison to multiple energy uses. People were very conscious of the energy used and always wanted to consume and use less.

Natural sources of power were used abundantly. The sun as a source of power is indeed one of the strongest sources. People slept early and woke up early and in essence made use of solar power as much as possible. They used natural light for many things. Everything was put to use. The sun was used to dry coconuts and every perceivable thing which could be used as a food source. All the food was shared between humans and animals (cattle, dogs) and the rest was returned to the soil to provide manure for new life and supporting existing life. Instead of air conditioners for cooling down rooms, trees were planted and they did the job of two or three air conditioners at a time.

Finally houses in the old days were recycling centres and women were at the heart of recycling. Everything was re-used. Newspapers, bread packets, rubber bands, bottles, ropes, and wires were all reused for other purposes. Even old t-shirts were reused as table wiping cloth. Everything had a coming back effect. It was as if the ball had a strong thread attached to it. Whatever was thrown came back and was used again.

In John 6:1-13 Jesus feeds the five thousand plus crowd with five loaves and two fish. Everything here was also highly environment friendly. Jesus shared the little food that was there with everyone. The community sharing of food made sure that very little energy was consumed to make it. What remained was shared again. Jesus’ model suggests a “sharing without ceasing” and has something in common with the church understanding of "liturgy after liturgy". Sharing simply cannot end. The Holy Qurbana or communion in the JSOC is also like this. The bread is single bread which is shared among all. The bread for the next communion is made from the part of the dough from the previous communion. This is the yeast which works on the bread. Here the concept of sharing without ceasing continues. The church thus contains the secret to renewing, recycling and reforming.

Therefore a church member can say that I belong to a green economy. But the challenge is to bring the past into the present. Instead of saying I belonged to the green economy or my fore mothers and fathers belonged to a green economy, can we translate this tradition of being green into our own lives? This WED let us take small steps to continue our tradition of sharing without ceasing.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

We the people have to step it up

The people of Kerala are voting today in Neyattinkara. What should have been a referendum of the Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) has also turned out to be a referendum of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI(M)) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) . The Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) leader T.P. Chandrasekharan was hacked to death in the most brutal fashion last month. The UDF has got into fast mode and is investigating the case with great vigour.

It is also note worthy that the UDF has its own set of woes. The government has been alleged with building up a communal front and instigating the majority Hindus by giving an additional ministerial berth to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). Along with this the slow pace of development also due to coalition compulsions and the rising prices of essential commodities and the latest humongous rise in petrol prices has also made the ruling front very unpopular with the people.

This election is thus an election which has so many issues that one does not know which one to concentrate on. Should it be the shifting of sides of Mr. Selvaraj, the present UDF candidate, the rising prices, the culture of murders and quotations given to sniff out precious lives, the regrouping of majority groups who find themselves at the receiving end of certain minorities, the loss of lives of two local fishermen to an Italian ship, the ever increasing problem of waste disposal or other local issues of Neyattingara? Too many issues have resulted in no particular focus on what should be the issue which should be discussed.

The CPI (M) has not been favoured by one of its own members who vigorously spoke about how murders are common among them in Kerala. But should issues be issues and dealt with only during election time or should they be dealt with in the same manner at all times? Take a look at all the above mentioned issues. Selvaraj tries to neutralise the CPI (M) allegation of being a traitor by positioning himself as the suffering one, the UDF has been trying its best to tell the Central government to stall the increase in prices till after the election, the murder of the RMP leader has been already called a political murder before the investigation is over, the M.M. Mani speech has led to the reopening of atleast three murder cases, the loss of lives of the fishermen keeps going both ways suggesting many forces being at play and the waste disposal also suddenly picks up pace during election time. Simply speaking, most of these cases should be handled in a just way whichever party rules and should not just be election issues.

The church also wonders whom to support and what to say. Are we politically correct, aren’t we Congress supporters even though we know they may be in the wrong, can we support the CPI (M) because they are helpful and should therefore keep quiet even if there is a culture of killing? This suggests that the church does not want to be on the wrong end of political parties. But politicians are meant to serve just as Christian leaders are meant to. It is understood and there need not be support given for this purpose. The main objective of any government is to stand for justice. If we expect various political parties to do something apart from the truth, it means we want something which is not acceptable lawfully.

The culture of murders and doing away with human life is not a new thing. If we accuse the CPI(M) today, we have to be aware that the Congress has done it yesterday and every political party worth its weight has been in the business of doing away with opponents to build their own empires. The church and people from various backgrounds have given their silent acceptance to this because they have been bothered about their own agendas. It is indeed time to step up for what we are worth. What does it benefit me in the kingdom of heaven to be a silent acceptor of violence, corruption, falsehood and injustice? The message on the one who dies and departs is “Innu jnan, nale nee”, meaning “today its me and tomorrow you.” Time to step up people. It is time to step up against murders in the state, price rise, communalisation, lack of development and rising corruption. It does not matter which party does it. Wrong is wrong. This is the only path a Christian can follow in this country and it could be the uniqueness that being a Christian could offer to India.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Who is going to scrape off the dark tint/window in my life?

I have been trying to figure out the court judgement on how much sun film you can use to cover your car and how much is seen as okay and how much will attract the attention of the police. The mad rush to scrape of the dark film has subsided for the moment but new deadlines will obviously come up. The first concern of mine is obviously personal. Will I have to remove the light sun block film that I have on my car glass windows? What will I do after it is off?

Leaving aside contempt of court, one can analyse rules which affect the public in various ways. The latest directive is also an effort to curb something. Specifically speaking, car windows which do not show, are at risk of hiding criminals, terrorists and offendors of various kinds. So, all those insticts which are done in the cover of darkness will be curbed by this order. Atleast that must be the case for the coming out of the order.

What could be the pros and cons of the order? As mentioned above, those who seek to bring harm to others by using their cars as the place for offence is indeed a reason for the directive on car windows. The cons on the other hand are that it goes against single women who see their car as a world which gives them their space on their terms and the order takes away this space from them. Families who may get to spend quality time together will have to do away with this time all together. Nursing mothers who may want to feed their babies will again have to hide their babies with yards of clothing. Women and children who may want to have a bite of something to eat in their cars may have this privacy lost forever. VIP's, movie stars, sports personalities and even religious leaders who may want a little time away from the public eye may find this more and more difficult and will have to pay the ultimate price of stardom.

One's car therefore has today become one's world. You will find everything from food, clothing, and books to make up, documents and memories. All this has been kept together by the dark window. This is a secret and personal space at the same time and it is an individual's space whatever said and done.

Now that I have conceptualised and talked about my own problems I should also talk about the unsaid problems. Even a recent survey conducted in India has come out with the startling but not surprising fact that 60% of India lives on 35-66 rupees a day. They don't have three square meals, will be lucky to have a cycle, and do everything in the open. Their lives are in the open, their suffering in the open, and we further dissect them and open them up for everyone to see, never really asking them whether they want it this way. Media reports and NGO reports are basically made to document and report a startling fact and nothing more than that.

Now let us come back to the car windows. It is obvious that many (me included) are ilked by this order. But what about those who don't have a chance to express their opposition to be made objects of sensational reporting? What about those who don't even have enough to cover their own bodies with, and are we talking about cars?? What about those who don't have anything to eat in the first place and therefore would not mind whether they can eat it in the comfort of their own spaces or wide open in front of the whole world? What about those who feed their babies while working in someone else's field? What about those whose honour is taken away in front of a bunch of losers who cheer on for more? The list is endless.

I am not saying that the court or the government got it right and thought we should frame laws for our real constituents. What I am trying to say is that we have got the space (outside our cars) to register our opposition. What about those who can't do this? While we seek for some more time for debate and sane decisions let us also pray for the dark windows of our lives to be scraped off. We have maybe lived too long in them and it is time for us to come out.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A century of faith and practice: Very. Rev. Dr. Curien Kaniyamparambil Corepiscopa.

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church is buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. This recent burst of energy is not from its youngsters and young leaders but from its oldest priest, affectionately known as Kaniyamparambil achen. The church is celebrating the 100th birthday of this illustrious priest who has moulded the lives of hundreds of priests and bishops and given pastoral care and support to thousands of people in the church. His accomplishments are many like the number of books and articles he has written. The honours that he has received and his accomplishments are indeed many and known. But what can indeed be done again and again is to write about him from the personal experience that one has garnered. This will never end because Kaniyamparambil achen is so many things to so many different people.

1. An academician par excellence- Kaniyamparambil achen has been a vociferous reader and writer all his life. His urge to write is second to none and the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church simply does not have anyone who has written as much as him. This is a quality which is difficult to beat. His generation of people was a generation which had an oral tradition and reading and writing was not part and parcel of this tradition. Corepiscopa achen turned this around single handedly by starting to read and write from a very young age. The younger generation should appreciate his translation of the morning prayers before qurbana as a work that only someone like him could do. His simplicity comes through in language even as he manages to maintain the depth of meaning. It is a writing and poetic style which is very difficult to imitate. His academic interest took him to the direction of doing something for his own church and thereby his research in Syriac, church history, faith and traditions have all been for the coming generations of the church. His Malayalam translation of the Syriac Peshita bible shows this commitment to the church in unimaginable ways. The honorary doctorate that he received is not a simple decoration but evidence of the scholarship that this church father possesses. Indeed this is difficult to comprehend for a generation which does not know what true scholarship means! The half century of books that he has already published is evidence of his will to write for the church. Even today he continues writing like an old man in a hurry! It is of special interest that many young priests have made use of him to write their theses and assignments. I am specially honoured that the college I am teaching in now has one of his books in its library.

2. A perfecter of the art of simplicity and prayer- Many of achen's congregation members and spiritual children (including myself) will remember that whenever we have prepared to say good bye to him, he has stood up to pray for us and led us to a higher spiritual realm. His written works always start with “Daivathinu sthuthi” (Praise/thanks be to God). His favourite verse is “The Lord is in need of this donkey.” Kaniyamparambil achen believes that simplicity takes one closer to God. He wishes to be of help to God whenever and wherever. Those who have had the pleasure of his pastoral ministry know that achen's simplicity and approachability brought great dividends to his flock. He prayed and interceded every single day and his faith is the faith of a true Christian. His faith taught us that we should believe without seeing and that faith is not just some inexplicable experience but is simple and everyday as well. Achen’s faith in and intercession to St. Mary is second to none. He can be credited with the Wednesday Qurbana and intercession to St. Mary in many parts of Central Kerala. The Holy mother has indeed interceded for long life for this beloved son of hers.

3. A delightful preacher- Achen taught many of us the importance of preaching. We grew up hearing his sermons and knowing how to develop our thoughts from the bible verses. He was a popular preacher and took it upon himself to teach his congregation what he knew, in the hope that all who listened would not go astray. Many young priests learned to preach from him and the importance of preaching during a qurbana and how one should develop one’s sermon are invaluable lessons that one learnt from him.

4. A supporter of his friends and well wishers- It is always good to come back to someone whom you know will support you. All through his years of pastoral ministry, his congregation grew up in the assurance that he would be there when they came back home. This constant presence still continues and offers hope to hundreds of people for whom seeing him itself offers a rare calm and gives much hope to their lives. Apart from this, one can always count on achen to support you through whatever ups and downs you go through in life.

5. A role model of a true priest- Kaniyamparambil achen offers a true and firm model of what and who a priest should be. As priests, we grow up with the faith, traditions and practises of the church. Along with this, seminary education teaches us what we should and should not do. But if one wants to see first hand on how to be an ideal priest it will help to learn from achen. His prayer life, commitment towards sacraments, behaviour to people and deep spiritual love teaches us a lot on who a priest should be.

6. A priest accepted by all- Achen has been accepted by all in the church. One can say that it is a rare exception that a priest could be accepted by all people in the church. So much that there could be no doubt as to who the priest trustee of the church could be. One need not search further to know the greatness of this very mature priest. If one were to conduct a transparent poll in the church today I am pretty much sure that people across regions would vote for Kaniyamparambil achen as the most loved, respected and accepted priest in the whole of the church.

7. An upholder of sense, calm and peace in the church- Achen is from Kanjiramattom but lived the majority of his life in Thiruvalla. There is a substantial difference between the culture of the North and South regions of Kerala and this is reflected in the church as well. Kaniyamparambil achen managed to transcend this and one cannot help but saying that he could do this because of his commendable nature of constructing a sense of belonging to the place he was attached to. Achen should be honoured separately for his ability to transcend human made boundaries and build a strong network between the North and the South. The true teacher Gamaliel, as he was called by the Catholicose Mor Baselios Paulose II of blessed memory, truly taught us that we can be a one, strong and united church and that separate regions don’t matter. Achen’s presence made the welcoming of pilgrims from the North during the Manjinikara festival even more pleasant and easy because here was a priest who could go beyond small things and lead us to bigger and better things.

8. A strict follower of authority- One could learn from achen that the church follows authority and respects the hierarchy in the church. It was evident that even when a particular order from above may not have made perfect sense, he obeyed the position and authority associated with the order. This may have been taken advantage of during the early days of the schism in the church but nevertheless he does show us a different view point of the oft quoted ‘first obey then question.’

9. An accommodator of others- The brilliance of Kaniyamparambil achen is accepted by all today. We have indeed seen many instances of others seeking the shadow of achen’s presence to come into the lime light on their own. Many have thus used achen’s prowess and acceptance as a way of coming up. Achen has never prevented this even though I am sure he was aware of this all the time. His genuine character has always given this space for others to grow in his lingering and cooling shade. To be a scholar oneself is one thing but to be able to allow others to grow in that scholarly shade is unique to achen’s bountiful character.

10. There will be only one Kaniyamparambil achen- Achen cannot be replaced or outdone. I remember people telling me during my ordination that I should try to be another Kaniyamparambil achen! For me this is something that is simply not possible and something which should not be tried. There cannot be another priest who will come up to the stature of this noble priest. There are and will be great priests and bishops in the coming years but no one will do what Kaniyamparambil achen did. In his hundredth year we must realise that he is our most unique, talented and gifted priest of this century that we have passed. This honour belongs to him and him only. We will do well to stand aside and feel happy in the accomplishments and greatness of this very revered priest. The church has done well to honour him with a specific order of Arch Corepiscopos. It is unique and I hope it stays so for years to come. Till then shall we all pray for the mighty pen of our honourable Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen to continue writing.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The beginning of lent

The beginning of lent in the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church starts with the Shubkono service which calls for being at peace with those who we are in contact with. The service is indeed of great significance and the holding of hands and offering peace to everyone brings in a serenity in the midst of the all the affliction we may be experiencing. The specialty of the service is in the reconciliation we seek with our brothers and sisters and those who assemble in church. One can obviously take this a step further by doing the same to people in the work place, school and college. The humility which this brings can obviously bring about much healing not just to the person who reconciles but also to the person who is reconciled with. The inherent meaning at the symbolism of kneeling and asking God for mercy also prepares us to humble ourselves.

Many divisions and problems can be done away with this act of reconciliation. It is important to know that reconciliation makes more sense when it is done from a position of strength. When one looks around one cannot ignore the fact that we are advised never to give up our position of advantage when we are trying to come to a peaceful agreement with someone. Countries and communities will therefore find it difficult to come to terms with a peaceful settlement by giving something away. The true spirit of lent though calls for this giving up of our strength and positions. Lent being a sacrifice also makes sense more to those who have something to sacrifice in the first place. One should be sensitive in not preaching to others to observe lent while continuing in one’s strength and using that to preach down to others.

This sacrifice leads to a strengthening in terms of one’s spirituality. This cannot be gauged in terms of the usual world we live in where strength means beating others into submission. The story of the wedding at Cana is also a sacrifice committed by Jesus for others. This is a sacrifice which takes into consideration the need of others and looks at what we can do for them. Such sacrifice of blood and sweat makes the wine taste better and stronger. Strength is given off by Jesus for the sake of others. It is a strength he possesses but is willing to give away.

The importance of working together during lent also attains importance through the story where St.Mary, Jesus and the workers all together work to strengthening the guests. Such is the strength of community lent as well. It should not matter that we are doing it personally but should rather matter that we are doing is as a team and working towards the accomplishment of a single goal. This will bring about a draining of one’s strength for the replenishing of energy and strength of another. This noble thought of being weak so that someone may become strong rings through the song Amazing Grace with the words “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” For the one who is being reconciled with, the thought of a caring being and the possibility to find oneself and be able to ‘really see’ is liberating.

Every lent becomes a time to re-invent what we have done. The basics are always the same but the interpretations have to change so that as we grow, lent also makes more and more sense to us. This is indeed an inspiring thought. We are becoming part of a movement. This is a movement to make the poor rich and the weak strong. For this we have to lent(d) ourselves and feel the energy and inspiration that Jesus’ disciples felt when he asked them to join the movement that he put forward. May reconciliation lead to the washing away of our sins and gaining of the lives of those who lost it for us.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The role of media and religion in society in the midst of the ‘Christ the revolutionary’ debate.

The media in all its forms does have a very important role to play in society. As the fourth estate and as a gatekeeper it has to make sure that the people of the country get to hear the truth. Knowing the truth is the right of people and telling the truth is the responsibility of the media. Over the years the role of informing and educating people has given way to entertaining people and thus infotainment and edutainment are the rule of the day. As part of the news that should have news value some particular frameworks are being used. This includes writing news based on impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, and conflict. Sadly, news is made to adhere to the above mentioned so that the audience can be attracted. The most unlikely then is created to attract the attention of the listener/viewer. Noam Chomsky brings out the government-media nexus as well and calls this "manufacturing consent."

Religious institutions also are founded and based on certain foundations which call for the liberation of the poor and the helpless and seek to work towards an egalitarian society. But one cannot help but question the lack of concern of religious institutions towards this cause and the shift towards the creation of conflict and enmity as a way in keeping their existence relevant and continual. In this sense two important institutions in society are taking more or less the same path.

The ‘Christ the revolutionary’ usage which should have not made much of a noise is now at the center of attraction of society in Kerala. For this the term ‘revolution’ has been misrepresented and made into something bizarre which Christians can/should never accept. What is wrong with the word revolution as such? Every religion has in some way or the other been formed with a revolution rather than an evolution. The creation of the controversy has brought about binaries of good and bad, religious and irreligious, sacred and profane, Christian and non-Christian and even UDF and LDF. (Political groupings in Kerala). This is the way media houses create news now but should religions follow suit? And should the word revolution and revolutionary be associated with one party only?

The initial push which has led to the creation of a religion and followers would have always been a protest against something which already prevailed. All established and powerful religions except primal religions were in some way or the other formed as a protest against a powerful dispensation. With religions being organized this original protest has been shifted out of the essence of religion. Those who talk about revolution and protest have now become an embarrassment to established religions.

Both media and religion have the responsibility to stand for the ordinary people of the land. This need not be given to one political party or grouping because this could lead to the poor being left in the dry. Those who are discriminated against need all the support they can get and all have the responsibility to pitch in. Christ in this sense belongs to the poor. The Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of St. Matthew talks of the poor, the meek and the persecuted. Jesus makes a clear remark in favour of them and calls them blessed!

The issue to be discussed is that Christ belongs to all who seek him and he makes a preferential option in favour of the poor. In this sense, revolution and protest also belong to all those who are discriminated against and who suffer injustice. It does not belong to one political party. It is time to go beyond old stereotypes and clichés and offer the truth to people. Only this truth will set us free.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why are we uncomfortable with Jesus the revolutionary?

It would be preposterous to say that Jesus is in the news again! When was he out? The CPM state meet has brought out a problem that was never one in the first place. What is the problem? Is it that Jesus is seen as a revolutionary, is it that he is seen as a revolutionary who shares the same space with other revolutionaries or is it that Jesus is seen as occupying the sacred space of Communists in Kerala? The Christian church and all its denominations put together have come out with the response that one would expect. That is to say the opposite of what any left party would dare to say.

Is our faith supposed to be so fundamentalist that we should not allow anyone to be close to and have an opinion on Jesus, which may differ from the one we have? Or are we scared that Jesus will be hijacked by the ones who question religion and therefore will de-sanctify what we have sanctified and kept holy for centuries together?

So is Jesus a revolutionary? What does the bible say? What should one say of a person who chose to work for the poor, touch the untouched and question the powerful? Why shouldn’t such a person who chose to become human be called a revolutionary? Is the word revolutionary such a problematic word? The truth of the matter would be that the church as it exists today will obviously have a problem with the usage revolutionary because it finds itself on the other side of the revolution. The church has thus become a place where caste, gender and a myriad of other disparities are conformed to and in some cases encouraged. In such a context Jesus the revolutionary becomes a burden which the church does not want to handle as it involves criticising itself.

Jesus’ association with human kind itself is a coming down of his God self. Despite being one in his divinity and humanity, he brings himself down up to the point of the cross. Human history is filled with other instances of people who have risked everything for the sake of others. A leader is one when she/he associates with the people of the land. A God in exclusion and a God who is far away then has strong competition from the God who chooses to be with God’s people. If the church protests against Jesus' representation near other revolutionaries of the left, then it should also protest when the compassionate face of Jesus is pushed out of the church and its environs.

The development of any religion is not the choreographed development brought about by several denominations. It is rather a development which comes through due to the acceptance of reality by the people of the land. If the left parties in Kerala led by the CPM feel close to Jesus, why should we barricade Jesus and use tear gas on the left cadre? Christianity professes to be a peaceful religion. It is time to show that now!

One should understand that there is socialism inherent in every movement. The Congress led UDF should also know that theirs is also a coalition that had socialist values and still has in some respects. Every government and every religion in this sense is socialist. Just as Jesus is not the exclusive God of Christians, socialism is not the exclusive agenda of the Marxists. The ongoing debate has only resulted in an issue for discussion for the media, church and political parties. One should not forget that revolutionaries do more and talk less!