Saturday, May 30, 2015

English service for a more inclusive church

Church has to be inclusive in every respect. Theological differences with regard to communion and beliefs always were a part of the church. But bringing people to church and making them feel the fellowship of acceptance, love and caring is what the church stood for and has to stand for. It is not in judging and keeping away but in accepting and including that the church stands apart from an organization or group. In Acts 8:26-38 Philip talks to the Ethiopian eunuch and they get into the water as a sign of their acceptance of Jesus.

The Jacobite church like many other churches has been stuck in the non-availability of a neutral space where any Jacobite Christian can come and pray. The net neutrality debate which was going on a month ago was about how the internet cannot be controlled and made into a place for a few but must be left free for people to come to and get what they want. Making churches language specific limit the coming in of our very own community members as they don’t understand what is going on but have no choice on offer before them. The liturgy as such used is very meaningful but unfortunately no one can understand very liturgical Malayalam. This questions whether the church can offer a platform of neutrality which the church should stand for and which will offer meaning to the church members. We are after all called to take care of everyone. Acts 20:28 says “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

It is an uncontested yet usually undisclosed secret that many members, young and old are keeping away from church because they do not understand the prayers. It should also be noted that there are people who flock to church to keep in touch with a culture that is highly being diluted both inside and outside Kerala. In this context it should be noted that making the liturgy used understandable and comprehensible is of utmost importance as otherwise the prayers will not make any effect on the congregation in a particular place. 1 Corinthians 12:14 speaks “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” Thus languages that are used and understood by people should replace one language whenever the need is felt. This is not to undermine a language but to say that the belief, faith and theology of the church are beyond any one language.

English could be one such language which can be used. At the same time other South Indian and North Indian languages should also be tried whenever it is needed and meaningful for the congregation. This will in essence be location specific and cannot be dictated by anyone. In South India, English becomes one language which can be used for a congregation which is multi lingual. English by default is a unifying language in India because as of yet we do not have a language accepted by people as national. Hence English services should be encouraged and started in cities and towns and this should be made a space where people can come to be part of a Syrian Orthodox service. Such spaces are simply not available at the moment. It is very interesting to note what Dalit ideologue Kancha Ilaiah says while discussing Dalit empowerment in India “My way of equality is English education. Even if 10% of our children got English education, the intellectual field would have changed. This country would have changed.” Upward mobility of people coming to church should be taken into consideration while doing worship services.

In those lines the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church under the leadership of its bishop H.G. Osthatheos Mor Pathros is starting an English congregation named the St. John’s English Chapel. Unlike how it was seen many decades ago, this is not anymore an experiment but a need of the hour. It is to bring people who are not going to church due to various reasons, back to church. It is also to offer other people who are already going to a church, the option of going to a church where they can understand completely what is going on. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church definitely affirms mystery as an integral part of its worship. But that does not mean that the worship in its entirety should not be understood by those attending it! It means that there are parts of the communion which go beyond human understanding.

The call for all to assemble and come to church is beautifully put in the song after the Nicene creed in the worship service.
Mercy here is full and free,
Come, beloved, come and see,
Give the kiss of peace divine,
Hearts sincere in love combine.
The success of such a worship service depends on several factors; the actual interest of the people being the last of the lot. It depends rather on how the service is done. Knowing every language is a skill and it should be studied to an extend where it can be used so that people who listen to it understand what it is. “It sounds like Greek to me” is a usage that one has not understood a word which was used because it was either not communicated properly or it did not make any meaning to the person who heard it. Similarly using a language is a skill which has to be developed in all seriousness and with great effort. Secondly, the success of such a service also depends on whether people know about it and whether those conducting it have made an honest effort to inform people of its existence. Clubbed along with this are the timings of such a service, continuity, team work and location.

Considering all such things one also faces the question “Are we ready?” When will we be ready? Another decade or two, five years? Maybe then it will be of no consequence anymore. A 40 odd year old man I talked to told me that he goes to one of the new churches offering a host of services. I asked him whether he was happy? He said that he actually was not. He did not agree with what was being preached but the only reason he continued to go there was that he understood to a great extend what the preacher was saying even though he did not agree with it. Will such people flock back to a congregation like this? Only time will tell. The only thing we can gauge now is the feelings of children, teenagers, youth and even those hovering around their half century of life. This then is not an effort to count numbers and then say this is a success but an effort in the right direction understanding the needs of people.

The church has always stood for the outcasts and the discriminated. The church is by itself struggling still with the issue of casteism but one should also realize that there has been a more internal problem of seeing as outcasts people from within as well. There are several inter caste marriages happening in the church. The couple starts living as one but then realize that there is nothing on offer for them from the church because one of them and sometimes both of them cannot understand the language used for service. A service such as this is meant also for such couples who have found themselves at the cross roads, having to figure out for themselves how they have to continue as Christians and as a Christian family.

Only time will tell whether a decision is right or wrong. But some decisions can never go wrong. They will only be perceived as wrong. I have a strong feeling that this decision by the Bangalore diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church, which has received consent from the Holy Episcopal Synod in India, will fall in the latter category.

Poster design courtesy: Dn. Vineeth John Abraham

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The service of Pentecost as renewal and hope for a spirited tomorrow

Come Holy Spirit, dwell inside us
Come Holy Spirit, renew us
Come Holy Spirit, make us a channel for your grace
Come Holy Spirit, may we accomplish the unthinkable

The service of Pentecost gives us the opportunity to renew the power of the Holy Spirit inside us. We have gained the Holy Spirit through the commitment of baptism. The bending of our knees is an acknowledge of our short comings and sinful nature and an invitation to God through the Holy Spirit to work inside us. Such opportunities are less in life.

The sprinkling of water is a cool breeze and energy of faith that splashes onto us the commitment to work hard for God and be blessed by God in return. The fact is that God never forsakes us. Jesus tells his disciples that when he leaves them, the Holy Spirit will come to guide and lead them. As the father God inspired him, he will inspire the Holy Spirit to guide us. He informs the disciples in St. John 14:1-3 that he will ensure a space for them in his father’s house. The one who works for God will never be let alone to wither away but will be send springs of grace to grow and become whole. No matter what, I am there for you, says the Lord God!

Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit also reminds us from St. John 15:15 that Jesus comes to the point of accepting his disciples and followers as his friends and as his equals in ministry. It is a call to them of their responsibility rather than a feeling of accomplishment of their elevation. He tells them that him calling them his friends also means that from now on they share the responsibility of working for the kingdom of God. Jesus says that this kingdom cares for the poor, nourishes the sick, looks after the elderly, accepts the outcasts, stands with the wrongly accused, and offers good governance for all which leads to just and equal prosperity for all. Jesus just does not elevate them but puts the glorious burden of ministerial responsibility on them. In St. John 15:13 Jesus says that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Ministry is a calling to see others as our friends and to go the extra mile for them, unto the point of even laying down our life for them.

Pentecost reminds us of team work and unity. There obviously cannot be various Holy Spirits and various views of the one Holy Spirit. What that means is that any difference of opinion of or about the Holy Spirit means a difference of opinion of people on how they see and experience the Holy Spirit and one another. So the service of Pentecost reminds us that we have to work together overcoming our differences. This cannot happen overnight but this is also not impossible. Responsibilities should be equally divided and given in a way that no one feels left out and the gifts of all are used. A call for unity is not to crush the spirit of diversity but to say that God in the form of the trinity is united and it is humans who bring about division. God cannot be divided from God’s own front but is divided by the narrow understanding of human beings.

The bending of knees and prostration during the service is an act of humility and repentance. It is to say that we are willing to unite under the wings of God. It is painful and difficult but it leads eventually to a wonderful unity which will do away with the pain and difficulties involved in kneeling. Accepting our differences and the fact that our difference of opinion is also a difference in understanding of one true reality is indeed painful but not wrong. The kneeling process makes us accept the pain and the knowledge that the pain will become happiness soon. It is indeed happiness that makes us arise in one accord and receive the droplets of water symbolizing the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a great happiness of having being accepted into a single fold of children, women and men. In St. Mark 1:40 a leper comes, kneels before Jesus and says that “if you choose, you can make me clean.” Kneeling is a very inherent act of accepting from our very high positions that we are after all children of God and not beyond God.

The incident at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 were confusion springs upon an over confident people, and the occasion of the Pentecost in Acts 2 when each understood in their own language what the disciples spoke, are contrasting in their approach. In the first case the people have figured out everything and they forget that an ambition of a few does not stand for the many. In the second instance the people do not know each other but are brought together by the Holy Spirit. One does not know where the spirit goes and how it leads. We bow before the Holy Spirit to be blessed with showers of blessing which become legible and understood by multiple sections of people.

The Pentecost is thus a time of renewal of our commitment to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to stir us to action always making us bow before God. Being accountable to no one and living a life beyond and above everything cannot make us members of a community who cares for one another. The Holy Spirit gives peace, assurance, guidance and happiness. The Holy Spirit also gives the strength to bow down and rise in expectation and hope that God is present inside us and whenever we bow before God, we will be raised from the ashes.

The service of Pentecost thus becomes a cool wind in the midst of testing times, problems, expectations, doubts and half truths. It is a washing of the body and soul. A sign that whatever has happened in our lives, we have God in the presence of the Holy Spirit to carry on with strength and hope. When the representative of God announces “Stand up by the power of God”, it is a nudge and a help to now get up and be assured that God is with us.

As is said in one of the prayers during the service of Pentecost “We pray You, 0 God, the comforter Spirit, by this sweet incense, beseeching the abundance of Your incomprehensible richness, that even now You be pleased to renew unto us Your divine gifts, and to rest upon us as You did upon the holy disciples in the Upper Room, divide among us Your heavenly presents, fill us with Your divine wisdom and with the doctrines of Your divine mysteries, make us temples for the dwelling of Your glory, grant us to drink to the full of the abundance of Your grace, satisfy us with the sublime richness of Your bright light, grant to us that we live to You and yield ourselves to You that we may, in purity and holiness, worship You, 0 God, the Comforter Spirit. Through You and by You we worship the hidden God, from whom You proceed, and the Son of Whom You take, now and forever. Amen”

Friday, May 15, 2015

Short speech for Sunday school competition

2 Peter 1:4: We are the partakers of divine nature. (Theme)
Nelson Mandela said that “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” Even when we see and experience things different we must be reminded of Genesis 1:27 which confirms that we have been created in the image of God. Human beings were created to share and work in the goodness of God. Yet whenever we move away from God, we start sinning and performing acts which are indifferent towards God.

Today societies all over the world are being corrupted through ungodly and unethical acts which are inhuman and terrorizing. 2 Peter 1:4 talks rightly of this corruption which has become a part of our existence in this world. It is a time to remind ourselves of our responsibilities and duties towards God and our fellow human beings and all of God’s creation. Our lust for various things has distanced ourselves from God and made us fall into a deep pit.

Holy Communion in church reminds us that the Holy Elements in the form of the body and blood of Christ are instilled in our forefathers and foremothers and by this they have been saved. Holy Communion is an act where we participate in God’s call for being like him through the institution of the Holy Communion by Christ Jesus. We are partaking of the divine and human nature of Christ Jesus by accepting the elements from the celebrant of the Holy Communion. In St. John 6:53-56 it says “So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This truly means that Christ abides in us and just as he has saved our ancestors through this, he will also save us.

But we need to do further to be participants of the divine nature of God. Verses 5-7 of 2 Peter 1 explain how we need to go on by reminding us “ For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” Chanakya said that “The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind. But the goodness of a person spreads in all directions.” Human beings are not meant to corrupt and spread corruption, they are meant to spread the fragrance of God’s love.

Our society is being challenged by acts of terror, racism, hatred towards one another and narrow mindedness. Being God’s children should inspire us to do different. 1 John 3:17 points out that “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” In such a time as this it is our responsibility to reach out and help all those who need our presence and help. It is not possible as ordinary human beings. But it is definitely possible because we can do the extra ordinary with God inside us. Bishop Desmond Tutu says “God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.” May God the only begotten son strengthen us by his presence inside us, may God the creator embolden us by the good measure of our ancestors and may God the Holy Spirit inspire us to look ahead towards the goodness that we are going to do. May we as partakers and participants of the divine nature reflect God’s goodness inside us. Amen.

(An example of a short speech for Sunday school competitions.)