Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: A call to be equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy

Feet washing: Reading the scriptures publicly and sensually

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

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

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

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

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

(Already published by NCCI)
Picture courtesy

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: Give peace a chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Come Lord Jesus, set me free!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy

Friday, March 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jesus healing the paralytic: Moving beyond our paralyzed selves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

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

Luke 5: 12-16
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy.[b] When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 13 Then Jesus[c] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy[d] left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus[e] spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy

Friday, February 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Picture courtesy

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nineveh lent: Get up and call God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nineveh lent: Let the anger go!

Lent is a perfect time for us to realise that there is immense anger inside us. Many a time anger is left to fend for itself, while we pray against enemies and wish for their downfall. Maybe a part of the anger is making us do what we do in the form of praying against enemies even though the gospel does not have the concept of enemies as everyone some day or the other will be open to the salvation presented by Christ Jesus.

Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he can’t deal with the anger he has against the people of Nineveh. And yet part of the same anger makes him go in another direction hoping that something bad will happen to the people of Nineveh. It is misplaced anger and unjustified anger. When God God’s self does not anger against the people of Nineveh, Jonah feels otherwise.

The three days and nights Jonah gets to spend in the stomach of the big fish is a time to deal with his anger. It was a time when he was alone and could think about what he should do. It was also a time when he truly called out to God. The time in the stomach of the fish keeps him thus because of the vulnerability he is in. This again changes when he is out of the fish and is angry that the people of Nineveh change and follow God. His anger is further expressed on the shade in the form of a bush which withers away. He tells God that he is angry enough to die. He is sad that the people of Nineveh don’t get to die too.

The book of Jonah reminds us that God is not a vengeful God. God does not want to kill to prove a point. Rather God wants to save at all times. He reasons with Jonah that if Jonah is concerned about the bush he did not toil for, should not God be concerned for the people of Nineveh. It is a reminder for all of us that the Nineveh lent is a time to deal with our anger and let it go rather than keep it burning inside us.

Yesterday I got an e mail from someone I do not want to name. The person wrote the following with the following pictures.St. Mark 13:1-2 was first quoted in which it says “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then the e mail went on to say “Kindly see the below pictures of Syriac (Jacobite) Churches destroyed in Syria. Isn't this also a curse from the Lord for creating schism in the Holy Orthodox Church in India by creating a rival Catholicate?” The pictures are supposed to be of churches destroyed in Syria.

The first reaction I had to seeing this was that of deep pain and anger. Pain of seeing the pictures of how sisters and brothers in Syria have suffered during the still continuing civil war, and anger that people in the church in India (whichever denomination) could even think that this is a punishment from God. The anger inside me was similar to the anger Jonah felt. It was an anger which made me sick to write and say anything. I had to deal with it and let it go. My post is one way of doing this.

I am not getting into who sent this and what kind of theological understanding about God they have. What concerns me is that anger makes us do insane things to the point of using disasters, wars and violence to say that God does all of this. The book of Jonah portrays a God who is slow to anger and who is full of patience and wants to save his people at any cost. This despite the fact that they were even worshipping other Gods. God's concern is that every single living organism should live because God created it. Jonah's anger wants annihilation while God tries to tell Jonah to deal with his anger and let it go.

The three day and night solitude in the belly of the fish is his first opportunity to deal with his anger. This tones him down a bit. But it continues despite this. After prophesying to the people of Nineveh he then again tries hard to deal with his anger. So much that if not the people of Nineveh, he wants God to take 'his' life. But time and again God tells him using the bush as an example that God cannot imagine doing something like that.

The Nineveh lent is a time for all of us to deal with our anger. This could be anger because of our spouse, child/children, colleagues, bosses, leaders, and even caused by church feuds and quarrels. As long as it is inside, it will come out in some form or the other. In some cases it will come out in installments. What is inside has to be dealt with and we have to use various ways to do this. Lent becomes an opportunity for all to deal with our anger through prayer and meditation. It is an experience whereby we isolate ourselves and think whether what we are doing is correct or not. The lent in Nineveh was for a common cause and everyone participated in it. It was not to take away life but to save life.

Church fathers have their own take on this. "A wandering mind is made stable by reading, vigil and prayer. Flaming lust is extinguished by hunger, labor and solitude. Stirrings of anger are calmed by psalmody, magnanimity and mercifulness. All this has its effect when used at its proper time and in due measure. Everything untimely or without proper measure is short-lived; and short-lived things and more harmful than useful." Abba Evagrius the Monk(Texts on Active Life no. 6). Further St. John Chrysostom says "For nothing is more grievous than wrath and fierce anger. This renders men both puffed up and servile, by the former making them ridiculous, by the other hateful; and bringing in opposite vices, pride and flattery, at the same time. But if we will cut off the greediness of this passion, we shall be both lowly with exactness, and exalted with safety. For in our bodies too all distempers arise from excess; and when the elements thereof leave their proper limits, and go on beyond moderation, then all these countless diseases are generated, and grievous kinds of death. Somewhat of the same kind one may see take place with respect to the soul likewise." St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.)

Fr. George Morelli points out the "beast of anger" and quotes seven cognitive distortions relating to anger.

1. "Selective Abstraction is focusing on one event to the exclusion of others. A mother , for example, pays attention to the "D" on her son's report card while ignoring the "A's" and "B's." This "D" now becomes the focus of anger.
2. Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, a parishioner says "Hello" to the Parish Priest in the Church Hall, the Priest doesn't reply, the person concludes the Priest doesn't like him or her and has a right to be angry.
3. Personalization, an event occurs that an individual concludes is directed to them personally. A patron in a busy restaurant perceives the waiter is purposely not waiting on his or her table. The patron never entertains the waiter may be under stress attempting to serve other patron's needs. The patron, concludes, they have a 'right' to be angry.
4. Polarization is the tendency to see things in all or nothing terms. 'Cynthia, Jack's wife misses making dinner one evening, because he 'categorizes' events into polarities he views her as a "bad" wife. All the categories between the absolute categories of good and bad are missed. He has the right to be angry at a "bad" wife.
5. Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. 'Jack' comes home late from work. His wife 'Jill' feels her husband will always be inconsiderate and never change. Not only is she angry at his lateness, but his future lateness as well.
6. Demanding Expectations, the belief that there are laws or rules that must or have to be obeyed. A mother believes her son should not talk back because she is his "mother." She has the "right" to be angry. (Note God gave us free will, He 'asks' us to obey His commandments. Like Christ, parents can 'prefer and constructively work' toward obedience from their children, but they have no guarantees their children will respect them.) Of spiritual help here is to reflect on the life of Our Lord. He was bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, crucified and died for our salvation. He Himself told us: No servant is greater than his master (Mat. 10:24) ---why would we expect to be treated any differently than Our Lord. It is a blessing if we are treated and honored, but we have no guarantee) A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment, without anger, for inappropriate behavior would be constructive.
7. Catastrophizing, the perception that something is more that 100% bad, terrible or awful In the example above, the mother feels that it is terrible, the end of the world, her son answered back, which of course triggers increasing anger."

There are several ways to manage your anger. Lent can be used as one such way to know that we can never wish bad about someone. Rather it becomes a time when we deal with our issues and work for the benefit of others. In the process I watch the pictures again and know that my sisters and brothers in Syria are walking the talk and living in the true path of Christ while I do not experience even a small part of the struggle they are going through. This lent, I try to be with them. If as the e mail suggests, God has cursed and punished them, I urge the God mentioned in the e mail to curse and punish me too.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

God, Jonah and Nineveh: Listening as a way of finding our voice

The three day Nineveh lent looks at the command of God to Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. His refusal and subsequent start of a ship journey to Tarshish shows that he did not do one significant thing which we need to do in our lives. Jonah did not ‘listen’ to God.

Listening is a skill which is acquired over a life time. The churches we go to help us acquire this skill over a period of time. But we don’t rely on this acquired skill in our personal lives. Listening to the guidance of God is a skill that exists inside us and yet has to be developed so that it can work completely. This is not just listening for a voice to come and tell us specifically what to do but to listen to God during worship, figuring out a hint in the numerous sermons we hear, understanding the needs of people and acting accordingly and knowing when someone is in need of our time, help and prayer.

Jonah refused to hear. He was simultaneously talked to by God, by the people of Nineveh indirectly and by his own voice telling him what to do. God gives him a clear message. We can identify three types of voices. The first is one’s own voice which is subject to be influenced by other voices. This is a thought inside as to what we should do or be doing. The second voice is a voice from God. This is something we hear as part of God speaking to us. This may be faint or loud, involve and not involve words, and could be misunderstood as other voices. The third voice is the voice we hear from others. They could be cries of help, sounds of joy, a gasp of frustration and shouts of anger. Growing spiritually means listening and understanding these voices. For this we need to keep away from everything else and listen carefully to these voices.

The Nineveh lent in the Jacobite church or any other church is a time to listen to these voices. We have to keep away from everything else so that these voices become audible and clear. A three day lent brings about an atmosphere to listen to what God wants for us and listen to the cries of others and our own body as well. Todd Henry offers ten questions we can ask ourselves to reclaim our voice. They include what angers you, what makes you cry, what have you mastered, what gives you hope, as a child what did you want to be when you grew up, if you had all the time and money in the world, what would you do, what would blow your mind, what platform do you own, what change would you like to see in the world and if you had one day left, how would you spend it?

Most of us are working and we try to play our own political games in our office spaces and institutions. These are games that we think will make our future better and give us the financial security which we and our families are yearning for. All the while the three types of voices continue to sound somewhere inside our mind and head. But we don’t take time to listen to these voices. The three day lent offers a perfect excuse and opportunity to listen to these voices. These are voices which will change our world and the world of others. They are also voices which will tell us that if we can hear something unique then we don’t need to play any politics anymore and the uniqueness will carry us through.

Jonah’s diversion to Tarshish is a purposeful attempt to negate God’s voice, his own voice and the voices of the people of Nineveh. This negation leads to his own journey thinking that it would give him the satisfaction he yearned for. But he is proved wrong eventually. Let us use this time of lent as a time to listen to and find our voice. This is the voice that has always been there but which we have time and again managed to brush away.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Thrikkunnathu seminary: Why the government can and should change its approach

Public anger spilling on to the streets is usual when the situation is heated and two groups are involved. Quelling this with police force using batons, water canons, rubber bullets and real bullets will only lead to a temporary calm which will be broken at any time. The churches involved in the Thrikkunnathu seminary conflict are definitely expected to be striving for peace and are also responsible for keeping church members and supporters at bay. This responsibility is one that belongs to all leaders of both churches and there is no doubt about that.

Church feuds spill over into the public domain and this is when political parties and the government especially have an important role to play. This is not something which can be wished away or will be fixed by itself. The government of the day has the responsibility of taking care of the needs of every citizen of the region or country. Questions posed in the form of letters, speeches, marches and entries cannot be quelled by police brutality. Waving of batons and sticks and using authority is the sign of government sponsored anarchy having set in instead of making use of democracy. Anarchy is what the people are usually accused of when they stand for their rights. But using the protective police force as a destructive and obstructive force is also anarchy as it leads to the denial of rights of people which is not based on a public debate or a democratic process. Such brutal force only shows the helplessness of a government in dealing with the situation.

Anarchy is usually played out by ordinary people. It is a reaction to forceful tactics employed by the government against its own people. Giving this a political twist with hired goons and plain clothes policemen waiting to pounce on a sensitive situation is government sponsored anarchy. This is against the true spirit of democracy and this should be contested.

Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart in their “An anarchist critique of democracy” talk of how false democracy can bring about alienation, decontextualization, opinions, majorities and imminent critques. According to them alienation happens when “Society thus ends up divided into the alienated, whose capacity to create their lives as they see fit has been taken from them, and those in control of these processes, who benefit from this separation by accumulating and controlling alienated energy in order to reproduce the current society, and their own role as its rulers. Most of us fall into the former category, while people like landlords, bosses, and politicians compose the latter.” The Jacobite church being alienated by the government brings about a foul democracy in this sense. Decontextualization leads to rules and laws being framed and used without taking into consideration the context. Opinions of the people rather than agendas of political rulers are better any day and this is forgotten conveniently. Marlinspike and Hart further explain majorities by saying that “The concept of the “majority” is particularly troubling. By always accepting the will of the majority, democracy allows for majorities to have an absolute tyranny over everyone else. This means that in the winner-take-all context of democracy, minorities have no influence over decisions that are made.” A minority church then has no say in its own matters and justice becomes a difficult proposition. Finally demagoguery, lobbying, and corruption are also fall outs of a misplaced democracy. “Demagoguery refers to a political strategy of obtaining a desired outcome or power by using rhetoric and propaganda to appeal to the prejudiced and reactionary impulses of the population.” This happens a lot with misplaced news and analysis against the church. Lobbying means that “Special interest groups send extremely well-paid people after elected representatives to persuade, threaten, barter or bribe them into delivering legislation, government funding, or other favours for their group.” The church has always found several hidden factors influencing the government for certain decisions. All of this is associated to corruption as well.

The church feuds in Kerala are not new. Both the Jacobite church and the Indian Orthodox Church have to realise that whenever the police use force against prelates, the clergy and the people, they are crushing the democratic spirit which this country and the church believes in. We have to condemn violence and aggression against any church or community as the biblical notion is that “Today it’s me and tomorrow it could be you!” The government by not taking an initiative to bring about justice and peace has turned into a mob, which it accuses the church groups of being, whenever it is pleasing and comfortable to them. The ruling dispensation in the form of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala has its grounding and foundation in ahimsa (non-violence) and the non-violent struggle of Mahatma Gandhi. Yet the same dispensation tries to quell non-violent protest and thereby quells and destroys the very democratic foundation of not just the church and society but also of the very own political parties that are a part of the alliance.

How many times have political leaders been lathi (baton) charged, hit with water canons and forcefully evicted from contested places and spaces? How many times have politicians been evicted from the revered assembly, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha when they shouted in the house and threw chairs? How many police men waved batons at members of the assembly and parliament when they made different kinds of noises in the place meant for meaningful and civilized debate? The security and justice expected by the people from a democratic dispensation is then only made available to a select political and business class. This is complete breakdown of democracy, challenging the very notion of freedom that this country has been built on and encouraging anarchists to take control of the situation.

All churches try to stay away from politics because they trust politicians to do their job. But what happens when this is not done? What is the alternative for churches and all religious groups when the government supports its version of anarchy in favour of democratic consultation and decision making? What if the people were to say that the security of the politicians is not the concern of the public and therefore the millions of rupees being spent on VVIP security should be stopped? What if the public were to duplicate the anarchy let lose by the government and the police?

The churches and its leaders are definitely called to serve and not to be served. But the same stands for the political class. This is something that has to be done together and not in isolation. The language, humiliation and force unleashed by the police is not a good sign for democracy in the state and country. So there is definitely no need for special treatment for leaders. But a head of a church and its bishops are not criminals in the same manner in which our representatives in the assembly and parliament are not looked at as criminals. If you can ask for, demand and forcefully take respect and use government machinery meant for the people, can’t religious leaders expect a bit of decency from you as well? This is not misplaced. It can be seen as the yearning of an ordinary citizen and should not be misconstrued as the demand of a powerful church and its leaders.

(Picture at the top is of priests in Ukraine standing between police and protestors during the huge protests there last month.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Will Nido Taniam’s death wake us up?

The murder of Nido Taniam is a blemish on Indian democracy because it shows that racism still exists despite repeated assurances by politicians to the contrary. What it has done is to confuse the minds of people who are actually taking national integration and the great Indian dream seriously. Nido becomes one more martyr in the big list of martyrs.

Home sweet home is what we all yearn for and we make a home of where we feel we have our loved ones. This will be a place where we feel loved, secure and free to do what we want, the way we want to do it as long as it does not intrude on the freedom of another. This is what India is supposed to be. The tri colour in its various ways assures us that we are all a part of this diverse and great country. That is what makes us look up to it. It is the feeling of being assured and wrapped up by the nostalgic and warm feeling of the flag.

We celebrated the coming into formation of our republic on Republic Day. The feeling of being children of the country we call our mother should be what keeps us assured that we all belong here because we are all connected to the same mother and umbilical cord. So every time we hear the news of a race, gender, caste or class related altercation we doubt whether we are true children of this mother. This is a mother who has children who have different opinions and beliefs. But the mother can’t have favourite children. Any narrative of a favourite child is one written by the child and not the mother.

Nido Taniam reminds us again about the country we live in. It is a country we have humiliated and ruined by what we do. Development can only be truly measured in terms of whether all citizens of this country can travel anywhere in the country, stay, work and be free to do what they want to do. With a national election round the corner, will racism in India be taken seriously? Or will it be shoved into a long list of poll promises and make an appearance in poll speeches across India for a week? It is so bad and yet we refuse to accept that it exists.

Racism in India is on many levels. It shows its ugly head against foreigners (here again colour also makes a difference), North East Indians, North Indians in South India, South Indians in North India and in many more forms. Diepiriye Kuku, a black Amercian says that “India is racist, and happy about it.” She puts her experience into perspective by recollecting that “Discrimination in Delhi surpasses the denial of courtesy. I have been denied visas, apartments, entrance to discos, attentiveness, kindness and the benefit of doubt. Further, the lack of neighbourliness exceeds what locals describe as normal for a capital already known for its coldness. My partner is white and I am black, facts of which the Indian public reminds us daily. Bank associates have denied me tea, while falling over to please my white friend. Mall shop attendants have denied me attentiveness, while mobbing my partner. Who knows what else is more quietly denied?" She further says "“An African has come," a guard announced over the intercom as I showed up. Whites are afforded the luxury of their own names, but this careful attention to my presence was not new. ATM guards stand and salute my white friend, while one guard actually asked me why I had come to the bank machine as if I might have said that I was taking over his shift.”

Pawan Gupta says that India follows double standards when it comes to racism. Few attacks on Indians in Australia where reported in the media and it lead to unprecedented reactions from the government and people here. All this when racism is being openly followed in India!

Madhu Chandra identifies the migration of people from different states of North East India due to a push and pull factor. The push factor includes internal conflicts, lack of enough educational facilities, lack of enough jobs and socio-cultural factors. The pull factors on the other hand are that states like Delhi have better infrastructure, educational facilities, and employment opportunities. According to Chandra social profiling, weak political will and lack of law enforcement are the reasons for racism related attacks.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara says that “Racism, prejudice and xenophobia are rampant in India” and that “differences made people fairly suspicious of those who were not like them. And ‘people like us’ closed ranks and bonded. These closed communities are naturally full of prejudices towards the other, the outsider. Every state considers itself superior” and “as migration takes place, across state borders within India, a kind of xenophobia begins.”

The amount of taunts and problems North East students go through is horrific. Dr. Renu Naidu in her research on North East tribal girl students in Delhi came across the following observations. "For a student from the Northeast, irrespective of whether she or he is from an urban or tribal background, Delhi is like an alien land," says Naidu. The language is unfamiliar; the cultural and social terrain is unknown. Even getting a letter of introduction to open a bank account is a mammoth task. What is more, their distinctive physical features immediately mark them out as outsiders among the local populace." Being cheated as a matter of course is one direct fallout of this situation. “Even rickshaw-pullers, auto-drivers, vegetable vendors and bus conductors cheat them because they know that they are not aware of the price of things here, and are not in a position to drive hard bargains." She further found that “for girl students, the situation is worse still: in the conservative Delhi milieu, their Westernized style of dressing and easy camaraderie with the opposite sex - owing in large part to their liberal tribal culture - they are seen as 'fast' or 'of easy virtue'. This wrong perception exposes girls from the Northeast to the worst sorts of sexual harassment, both within campuses and without. Diana, a Mizo student at Indraprastha college, said, "Delhi men believe that north-eastern girls are easily available. They look at us with only one thing in mind: sex. If we protest, they warn us to clam up, because we are alone and there is no one we can turn to for protection."” Rented accommodation is also a problem because high deposits are demanded, sometimes repayment of these deposits does not happen, and unprecedented rent hikes are the order of the day.

It is no wonder that women and men from various states of North East India do not feel that they are a part of India. The feeling of being a foreigner wherever they go haunts them. It is important at this juncture that schools, colleges and religious institutions come together in a serious exercise of true national integration. Without this the very concept of a republic is very hollow and unrealistic. To say that we are a lose formation of several states and we are one country are two totally different things.

A few reasons of racism are xenophobia or the fear of people who are different, a need socially, politically, and economically dominate other groups, it serves to "rationalize the hierarchical domination of one racial or ethnic group over other group(s), and maintain psychological, social, and material advantages for the dominant group", it is used by governments to excuse systemic and systematic oppression and human rights abuses, it is due to the ignorance of other cultures, religions, and values and it is because of a fear of sharing power with other groups of people.

Can we reverse this trend? Of course we can and several people in India are already doing it. As I remember the celebration of republic day I salute the real Indians of this country. They are the ones who do not practise racism, who suffer racist taunts from several quarters and who continue living in the midst of violence and humiliation. The rest belong to the category of living out of the concept of the Indian republic without ever practising it. I am sorry if I have ever belonged to the second category Nido Taniam. Rest in peace Nido, even as we make sense of how to carry your spirit forward.