Monday, July 18, 2016

Exalt God, not yourselves

Luke 14:7-11
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Behold, there is someone so strong and looking over us always. In our vast web of life this is something we all need to be aware of. God always has us on mind and is always mindful of us. But we would also wonder as to why we need to always glorify God as God is all knowing. Glorification of God is not for God to feel that God has several followers and thereby boost God’s ego. Rather it is helping us and not helping God. When we look up we humble ourselves accepting that we are small and we always need to listen to a voice which is within us and always seeks to talk with us.

Jesus carefully uses his words and says “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” We are always trying to get the best seat. It is either on stage or even when we are not on stage we are eyeing the stage. In all ways it suggests that we are not prepared to serve. Not everyone is called to lead unless he or she wants. Sometimes we are thrust into leadership roles. A leader is someone who will show his or her flock how to serve. Jesus shows this to his disciples. He is an accepted leader because he preaches and practices servitude.

Jesus was not consumed of his own world and in his own thoughts. He was willing to accept someone above him because otherwise he could never serve. In John 4:21-24 we read “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” Jesus is making a big claim to the woman when he says that salvation is from the Jews. This perhaps is the human in Jesus speaking, forgetting about reality and being limited to his own intellect. But in a moment Jesus corrects himself and says that there will be a time when people worship in spirit and truth.

This should be our take away from the passage. The seat or the exaltation is not important. What is important is glorifying God because glorification is acceptance of not our intellect but the spirit of the Lord. May we be guided by God, son and the Holy Spirit to understand this core element of spirituality. Amen

Thursday, June 16, 2016

1916- 1986- 2016 Mary Roy and Mary John Akhouri: Overturning 100 years of discrimination

Mary is a very important name in the church and it includes St. Mary, first among saints, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Mary the sister of St. Martha among others. Mary brings to mind several things. It is a name that the church will never be able to wipe out. The name brings not just assurance, hope and obedience but rebellion, sacrifice and victory from oppression. Along with Mary John Akhouri who has managed to wake up the senses of the church and civil society in Kerala, India and the world, is Mary Roy who single handedly fought against an oppressive law and a patriarchal church and society which supported the law.

We are still looking at the merit and faults of denying a decent burial to Mary John Akhouri in the church of her choice and as per her last wish. But there is also another interesting aspect to this time and year. 2016 is an important date because it comes exactly 100 years after the act of 1916 which was discriminatory towards Syrian Christian women in India because it gave only 1/4th the share of ancestral property going to the son, to the daughter or Rs 5,000 whichever was less. In 1984 Mary Roy who also belonged to a Syrian Christian family and was separated from her husband and was going to be evicted from her house in Ooty, filed a case in a court of law, which came out with a favourable verdict in 1986. This was followed by several other cases which culminated in the 2010 verdict of the court granting the right to one part of the property to Mary Roy. 100 years after a discriminatory law and 30 years after a favourable court verdict for Syrian Christian women. This is what 2016 offers and the passing away of Mary John Akhouri and her wish to be buried in her parish brings to focus not just inter religious weddings, church membership and funerals but the key factor of rights of women.

I mentioned in an earlier write up that we have to have a lenient view to several parties involved in the recent issue. But how can we reason within the church that Mary John Akhouri deserved better? For this Mary Roy offers help to us. The Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 was clearly discriminatory and it was tweaked to be even more so by the powerful Syrian Christian community. “Under Section 24 of the Act, a widowed mother has only a life interest terminable at death or remarriage, over any immovable property. Under Section 28 female heirs who had already received Streedhanam (dowry) were not to be given any share in the case of intestacy because the daughters have only a right to get streedhanam and it was fixed as ¼ of the share of a son or Rs.5000/- whichever is less, daughters could get shares in the intestate’s property only in the absence of male heirs. Even the unmarried daughters had only a right to get streedhanam which was to be calculated as aforesaid. Thus the Travancore Act contained several discriminatory provisions blatantly violating Article 15(1). The reason for the denial of the share in the family property was that the daughter was going to the matrimonial home and only the sons are contributing to the growth and betterment of the family.”

Venu Menon writes that the Supreme Court verdict brought about by Mary Roy’s court case brought the Syrian Christians under the more liberal Indian Succession Act, 1921. “The judicial order sent shock waves through the community, especially the patriarchal authority that influenced the lives of Christians. The verdict not only gave the female progeny equal rights in the father's property, it did so with retrospective effect. The retrospective clause promised to unleash chaos in the community. Every Christian household faced the prospect of an insurrection from within. All past land transactions became open to question. All titles to property derived from intestate succession now stood invalidated. There could be no precise estimate of the number of women who suffered injustice under the earlier law. The Supreme Court judgement provided an instant remedy.”

The church and the state tried to stall and circumvent the court order and has been successful to a great extend with changes in will and daughters agreeing to sign legal documents mentioning they have received their share. The court order should be read from the perspective of daughters being sent off from their house in the hope that they will never return. It is a once for all settlement. Perhaps this was what happened with Mary John Akhouri. Her being sent off or her going on her own was the part of the societal and church sponsored programme of making sure that the daughter of the house was settled and sent away. Mary John Akhouri’s wish to be buried in her mother parish can and must be seen as her return for her rights which were denied to her earlier. Even if she personally got something from her family her return is the return of a Syrian Christian woman for an equal share of the property of her family which includes a space in church and the cemetery as well. Here I am again sympathetic to the priest in charge as his denial must be seen as the denial of the church to accept someone like Mary Roy and her fight for her rights and the effort to circumvent any court order given otherwise.

The court order giving equal rights over ancestral property to women in the family was always fought by the church and the political class as well because they thought that the ruling patriarchal class would be offended if they did not circumvent the court verdict. It was also a case of holding on to power by the influential class of people in society. The church still has a chance to redeem itself by first of all accepting what Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian herself has done for the emancipation and equal rights of women. She should be honored for this fight and struggle that she has undertaken. Her fight and case should not be seen as anti-church but as a struggle for the church and its constituency of women. What the church has not done for various reasons was taken up and done by a church member and this should be appreciated by the church. The church finds itself at the cross roads looking at itself on what it means by equality, justice and peace. Is it only a slogan or is it something which suggests that all who are in the church are its members and deserve equal treatment from the church? In the Mary John Akhouri analysis it will help church members and others to understand that her burial is not just a burial of a church member who was away and therefore had given up her membership status but that she was a woman of the church who was collectively wronged by a patriarchal society and church together. Her wish to be buried in Kumarakom is her coming back and her journey for the justice which was denied to her because of a discriminatory law of 1916 which still seems to be hanging like a mill stone around the neck of church administrators.

The church and all of us together must understand that we have been hand in glove with all of this. We have not considered the work of women like Mary Roy and Mary John Akhouri because they were women and they tried to change the status quo of gender roles prevalent in the church. One did it through a life long legal battle to get a right to her ancestral property and the other did it through an end of life wish to gain access and right to her ancestral tomb and thus property.
In Numbers 27 the daughters of Zelophehad Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the LORD, and the LORD said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. The five daughters of Zelophehad are the women who makes God change God’s rules. They go to Moses and the others and when Moses asks God, God tells Moses to give them the inheritance to their father’s property and name even though that was not the norm.

The year 2016 is a good year to remind ourselves about our commitment to women and that we owe them their inheritance which they will come to claim at a time they choose. Mary John Akhouri chose now and chose her way to do that. Mary Roy has already brought about a change through her struggles. Now it is time for us to go to God like Moses did and ask God what indeed we must do.

Pictures courtesy and

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Mary John Akhouri burial: An opportunity to discuss religion in public for the benefit of the masses

Mary John Akhouri (aka Madhu Jyotsana Akhouri) was denied a burial in her mother church, the St. John's Attamangalam Jacobite Church, Kumarakom because the church argued that she did not possess a membership which she had forfeited due to her marriage to Dr. Akhouri, a Hindu. She was then buried in another church. Mary Akhouri is the grand mother of Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra and this was one of the main reasons of the story being reported in the mainline media. Priyanka herself called it an unfortunate incident while the Jacobite bishop of the Kottayam diocese H. G. Thomas Themotheos called it inhuman and unchristian. The church in question through its vicar and committee stood their ground and said that this was what any church under the Jacobite fold would do and a burial was denied not just because of Ms. Akhouri’s intercaste marriage but because she had never renewed her membership in the church. Her relative though from the same church said that Ms. Akhouri had confessed to a priest and had communion from the same church two years ago.

It is easy to point fingers at this moment but we should also be understanding on several fronts. We should be understanding to Ms. Mary Akhouri who was a hard working person, a freedom fighter and a member of the legislative assembly in Bihar. We should also be understanding to Ms. Priyanka Chopra because it is not fair to come down heavily on her because she is a famous actor and she is rich. In many ways even though it is easy to criticize the church we should also try and understand the policies of the church, irrespective of whether they are good or bad.

Was the priest correct to say no to a burial in a church under his leadership? Did he also refuse to conduct the service despite a directive from his own bishop? The priest must have in all probability used his experience, the church tradition and the collective wisdom of the church committee to come to an understanding. Was he wrong in doing so? I don’t think so and I will explain why. A priest is taught in a regional seminary to follow the rules and traditions of the church that he is pastoring in. In this case the marriage of Mary John to a person from a different religion must have disqualified her from church membership. Whether the church actually did follow any procedure in intimating Ms. Akhouri or her family in Kerala about the cancellation of the membership is not known to us. The priest only followed instructions which he learnt. Which religion teaches priests to be compassionate or humane? Which priest is given permission to follow his heart and not the rules? If that was the case would so many people die in the name of religion in India? Wouldn’t India be absolutely inter religious and unified in diversity? So if at all, the church, religions and the society has to be questioned as to what their roles are? Is it to unify people or to create discord among people? Priests in all religions end up being spokespersons of their own community and don’t go beyond that. It is true that the bishop seems to have sent the priest a directive. One way forward was for everyone to meet and sort out the issue. But aren’t there deeper issues which cannot be sorted out with one directive from the bishop?

What are the issues that come to the forefront through this? What is the policy of religions to inter caste marriage? What is the belief of religions with regard to people of other religions coming to their sacred space and partaking of their blessings? Are people of all castes allowed in all temples, are Hindus allowed in mosques, are all people from all religions and other denominations given communion in churches, are women allowed in the holy of holies of religious spaces? There are many underlying issues in the issue of denying a decent burial. Are we ready to talk about them?

Couples who opt for inter caste weddings are killed and brutalized for falling in love and this is justified by politicians, religious leaders and high caste families. Why don’t people come together against this? Women in the Syrian churches are married out of the church. They join the church of the husband and then severe ties with their mother church. Why should it be this way and why can’t women still be part of their own church? Mary Roy created history by fighting for the rights to her ancestral property and through that came into the bad books of her Syrian church and interestingly all of this happened in Kottayam. Mary Roy, the illustrious mother of Arundathi Roy fought for and got a judgement from the court granting equal rights to ancestral property for women. The church was uncomfortable with Mary Roy and the verdict, and this continues even now because Mary Roy has not been felicitated for the great work that she has done. This has been the context of the priests and how they have experienced ministry in the church.

The humanity and Christian values that they have to show in the church they are ministering in also gives second priority to women in almost all things. This is so for burial as well when the face of the deceased is preferably covered during the last rites by the son or another male member of the family and not a woman. Recently I also observed some priests insisting that when a woman was buried the church should not use a silver plated cross but a wooden cross because the husband was still alive! This has been the context in which a priest has come up. Any reaction to a new situation is only based on what he has experienced right from childhood up till becoming a priest. In many cases priests do not completely agree with what is being followed in church. An example of this is that girl babies are not taken to the altar after baptism while male babies are taken, creating a clear division between boys and girls. Many priests now do not agree with this but keep quiet knowing not what to do.

As I mentioned before it is not fair to come down heavily on Priyanka Chopra or her family for what has happened. So we can consider Mary John Akhouri as our own grand mother. What else should we have done to make her memory live on and for her last wish to come true? We should for starters try and understand the system of the church and debate and seek change of any archaic and wrong traditions followed in the church which are beneficial only for a certain section. Why are women treated as second class citizens in the church even though the theology of the church says that God has created man and woman in God’s image and likeness? Can’t we question caste based traditions still followed, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with clear cut intentions? People inside and outside the church approach the church mainly for baptism, marriage and burial. But shouldn’t we also be approaching the church at other times and debate with the church about the culture of the land and about a society which is very multi lingual and multi cultural? Any loss of a family member is sad but that is the case for all families. When other people and families are discriminated against on the basis of caste, class, gender and religion why do we keep quiet and maintain a status quo? It is time to debate and time to change.

But again it is not to say that we have to do something new in the context of new challenges but to also see what are the corruptions that have come into the church because of cultural pressures and thus go back to the bible and read what it says. The concept of a cemetery is new and is not mentioned in the bible though having a tomb for people is. In John 11:38 it says “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.” There is no suggestion that this was a cemetery. In Genesis 23:9 Abraham seeks a place to bury Sarah and the verse says “That he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.” In the Old Testament as well we read about tombs and not cemeteries. In John 19:38-42 Jesus is also placed in a tomb after his crucifixion. “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” So even Jesus was not buried in a cemetery. But then Jesus showed us the importance of his resurrection over his death.

It is important that the church and civil society work together and that the church should be a corrective for civil society and when necessary civil society should also be critical of the church. One should not get into the narrative of church vs civil society or church vs the media but should look ahead at what can be done so that all who live and all who pass on are equally honored because they are a creation of God. Why is it that people in the church and people belonging to civil society keep quiet or are not expressive enough when people who died were not given a decent and honorable burial because of church feuds? Why weren’t the people involved including priests then not questioned enough about the inhuman and unchristian approach to dead persons? Was that person not a human being? Why don’t we pose enough questions when the funeral rites are done two times, one each by different denominations wanting to assert their supremacy through such acts? Why do we remain quiet when the pulpit is used for preaching hatred, caste supremacy and gender difference?

We have in numerous ways humiliated various living persons and dead persons by our actions in the religious sphere. Mary John Akhouri was not singled out for discrimination but that does not mean that she did not deserve better. It is time that various religions and denominations got together to look at their similarities rather than preach their differences. It is an opportunity to talk about topics usually not encouraged to be discussed in the open. It is also a space for us to gather in public and openly express our religious beliefs including and not excluding the other. If we can do this in the name of Mary John Akhouri and other women and men before her then we will end up respecting them forever. Anything less than that will only lead to the disrespect and humiliation of the soul of Mary John Akhouri. May God guide us.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Who is a priest? Seek and you shall find!

In a church which tries to express itself in the 21st century it is important for all to know who a priest who leads a church can and should be. This is important for the priest to minister well to the priest’s flock and for the flock to understand what to expect and how to work with the priest in a particular church. It is also important that the clergy and laity work together in the church so that everyone in church and society benefits from the policies of the church.

Looking at the clergy from the perspective of the laity is also important. It is this Orthodox understanding of the "laity" that discloses the real meaning and function of clergy. In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it. First of all, strangely as it may seem, the basic meaning of the term clergy is very close to that of laity. Clergy comes from "clerus" which means the "part of God". "Clergy" means that part of humankind that belongs to God, has accepted God's call, and has dedicated itself to God. In this initial meaning the whole Church is described as "clergy"— part or inheritance of God. But gradually the term "clergy" was limited to those who fulfilled a special ministry within the People of God, who were especially set apart to serve on behalf of the whole community.

This association of the clergy and laity is important to keep the clergy grounded in the grace and mercy of God instead of always talking of priesthood in terms of privilege that certain people enjoy over others. Pope Francis in his sermon to priests made a very critical observation which is valid for priests all over the world. He requested the priests to strive for a “conversion of our institutional mindset,” because if priests don’t showcase God’s mercy, they become something “bizarre and counterproductive.” A priest cannot forget that the basis of priesthood is the very humble grounding on the mercy of God. Priests would do very well for the church if they can come out of this institutional mind set mentioned by the Pope. It is not what we cannot do, but what we can do which makes a priest a listener, helper, motivator and provider for someone seeking the time of a priest.

The Pope continues “If we start by feeling compassion for the poor and the outcast, surely we will come to realize that we ourselves stand in need of mercy.” A priest will definitely go through several forms of crisis in pastoral ministry and family life. This should not be the reason to jump on the laity but a reason to love them more because our journey in search of God’s mercy should make us be merciful and reflect God’s mercy to others. That is why the Pope reminds us to “show mercy” in order to receive it. He makes this clearer by saying “The priest who has scarce pity for sinners is only half a priest. These vestments I wear are not what make me a priest; if I don’t have charity in my heart, I am not even a Christian.” The Pope uses the gospel passage of the woman caught in adultery. When Jesus encounters her, he’s asked “should she be stoned or not?” “He did not rule, he did not apply the law. He played dumb, and then turned to something else,” Pope Francis said, adding that in doing this Jesus started a process in the heart of a woman who needed to hear, “Neither do I condemn you.” It will do well in this era for a priest to understand the needs of a congregation and make it the best place available in an area to come to and be in. It should be a place where a congregation member can be herself or himself. A church will become a dark, judgmental place if the priest is judgmental.

Sometimes long years in ministry can slacken a priest and lead to disinterest in being a spiritual counselor and guide for the congregation. The Pope has a clear piece of advice here. He says “A shepherd after the heart of God has a heart sufficiently free to set aside his own concerns. He does not live by calculating his gains or how long he has worked: he is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need,” the Pope said in a June 3 homily. “For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has.” “In seeking, he finds, and he finds because he takes risks. He does not stop when disappointed and he does not yield to weariness. Indeed, he is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one,” the Pope continued. “Not only does he keep his doors open, but he also goes to seek out those who no longer wish to enter them.”

Even young priests could back track from their ministerial objectives because of the pressure they may have from seasoned and established seniors and lay leaders who may not agree with the free flow of grace and mercy. The Pope gives hope here by saying “Woe to the shepherds who privatise their ministry.” A shepherd after the heart of God does not protect his own comfort zone; he is not worried about protecting his good name; he will be slandered like Jesus. But rather, without fearing criticism, he is disposed to take risks in seeking to imitate his Lord. Blessed are you when they insult you, when they persecute you,” he said. A good shepherd excludes none of his flock and does “not await greetings and compliments” but is the first one who reaches out to others, listening patiently to their problems and accompanying them with compassion. “He does not scold those who wander off or lose their way, but is always ready to bring them back and to resolve difficulties and disagreements. He is a man (sic) who knows how to include,” the Pope said.The final exhortation of the Pope is passionate and he reminds priests “Dear priests, in the Eucharistic celebration we rediscover each day our identity as shepherds. In every Mass, may we truly make our own Christ’s words: "This is my body, which is given up for you”.

This is also true in the Orthodox church. Although Orthodox clergy are given considerable honor by the Orthodox Church, each ordination is also viewed as a kind of martyrdom. The Orthodox cleric agrees to be a servant of both Jesus Christ and of the people of the church; many of the vestments are intended to remind him of this. Much is expected of the clergy, both practically and spiritually; consequently, they also have a special place in the litanies that are prayed, asking God to have mercy on them.

The Priestly Commandment in most Orthodox churches include to teach people by good example and inspiring sermons, caring for the congregation as a father not a hireling, to work for achieving the food of eternal life which does not perish, rather than that which perishes, continuous growth in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The priest must escape from the love of money which is the source of all evil deeds, must be aware of drunkenness and bodily lusts as it darkens the enlightened mind and converts a man to a lustful animal, must avoid envy and strife, unkindness, mockery and pride, so that he does not lose and destroy his service, must avoid gossip, boasting, hypocrisy and pretence, for they are terrible vices which cause problems and make people stumble. The priest must also avoid being double faced, double tongued, and false witnessing, must not frighten or dominate people, but rather, be compassionate and patient, must love God and all creation with all his heart and soul, must possess the virtues of righteousness, mercy, chastity, humbleness, content, contrition, endurance and patience, resembling his master and teacher Christ Jesus in His virtues and good behavior. The priest must not deviate from the true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who is the foundation of religion and by whom all Christians are saved, must treat the congregation of God with compassion and skill, leading them by the tenderness of Christ, endurance and compassion, must care to acquire the first Christian virtue, which is love, by the sincerity of conscience and true witnessing, must care for the Holy Mysteries, especially the sacrament of Communion which are the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Christ Lord, and watch these treasures and gems as the cherubim guarded the tree of life (Genesis 3:24).

It is quite clear. Who is a priest? A priest is a person who serves, is merciful to others, looks at life as sacrifice, looks beyond an institutional mind set, does not judge but is rather a shepherd, and looks forward to martyrdom. It is our prayer that the church gets more such priests for ministry.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Don’t discount the miracle of touch for healing

Touch and touch therapy have been found to be one of the most effective ways of healing. So much that many hospitals these days are teaching nurses touch therapy and many governments are releasing funds for more research and training of touch therapy. This touch is also called therapeutic touch involving touch with and without actual coming into contact with the body. The energy field of the body and the coming together of the energy fields of two bodies and the resulting healing using touch and channelizing of energy has been talked about for many years now. But what about the church and is the church using the power of touch or has the church discounted the power of touch and through that the power of healing?

The priest in church is asked to pray for church members and this is usually done by touching the forehead of a believer or a person who has come to church or whom you have seen in an outside setting. I have come across many people from other religions who have requested prayer even though they were seeing me for the first time. I have come to understand that this is not my greatness or power but the positive energy of spirituality through touch that they are seeking. It is not the power of my hands but the power of touch which Jesus has so effectively shown us through his ministry. This power is so much there and effective. It does not belong to the priest to use according to his whims and fancies but rather to be given freely just like the grace and mercy of God is given to us by God freely. In Daniel 10:18 it is written “Then this one with human appearance touched me again and strengthened me.”

Touch also in church includes much more than the touch for prayer and blessing. It includes our looks, gestures and all that we do while conducting ourselves in church. This leads to touch. Touch is not what we should be ashamed of or reluctant to give but should rather be a part of our conduct in and outside the church. If we are reluctant to touch it means we are reluctant to accept the person we come across and that means we are discriminating against people. Touch has now become such a difficult thing in church because people are watching when two people use the magic and miracle of touch to heal each other. They may pass comments or view touch with judgment even when it is one of the most powerful miracles we can initiate on a regular basis. It is amusing that the church does not allow women to be a part of the ministry of the church and at the same time will also judge a priest who is using the healing power of touch irrespective of gender in the church.

There is also the problem in society of abuse using touch when men without permission touch children and women leading to abuse. The fear of abuse is also making the church and its people paranoid about touch which is such a shame. Touch can only be upon the comfort and the permission of the person we are touching. Any other touch is not acceptable as it will not bring about healing. Even the touch between husband and wife and parents and children has to be with comfort and permission as otherwise it will only be the touch and expression of power and not healing.

What was so special about Jesus’ ministry? Was it that he healed so many people? Yes, but what did he do before the healing process was initiated. He touched people and in all cases he touched the most unlikely people including women, lepers, the blind and the lame. They were all people Jesus was not supposed to touch. In Mark 8:22 we must note what the people did “And they came to Bethsaida and they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him.” In Luke 18:15 touch even brings discomfort to Jesus’ disciples as we see “And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them.” In Mark 7:33 “Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva.” And in Matthew 8:3 “Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” There are many other examples which prove that Jesus touched and touched and touched and thereby the miracle of healing was so prevalent among different kinds of people. He did not leave anyone out.

Today a priest, a missionary, a lay leader and any person who has any role in ministry is given a list of people who are not supposed to be touched. Of course this is not a written down official list but a list which is culturally passed on and expected to be followed. What happens in the process is that the power of healing is lost in church and in the area of ministry. This is sad and wrong. Jesus’ touch was acceptable to the people he touched. He did not touch inappropriately and unwantedly from the perspective of those he touched. He also submitted himself to touch. Such is the healing of touch!

Touch does not just come from above from the bishop, then to the priest, then to the deacon and then to the lay leader. The healing power of touch plays around in various kinds of relationships. This is what we have to revive in church and in the sphere of the church. For that we have to see people equally as otherwise touch will become a very difficult thing to practice. The father and mother have to touch their child/children, the wife her husband and the husband his wife, the child the parent, the siblings, friends and in all kinds of relationships touch will enhance healing and happy living. Even while praying we are unknowingly touching. Folded hands mean that one hand is touching the other. Some hold on to the table, some to the book and some elsewhere. We are all touching because it is part of the healing process of the body.

Isn’t it time we brought back touch? Why are we reluctant to practice healing through touch? Isn’t it because we have unequal relationships, discriminatory relationships and the sins of gender, caste and class posing hurdles? This needs to be corrected in the church context and we have to become Jesus people who use the power of touch to question wrong notions in society and through that perform miracles. Each one of us is a miracle worker. God has given us the unique power of being a miracle worker and the power is in our hand. But unless we exercise it and unless we use it unabashedly without any hurdle we can’t become Christ’s church. We will just continue to be collectives of people who come and go without following Jesus in particular!


Sunday, June 5, 2016

The festival of St. George as a reminder to women and men to live fearlessly

Festivals are a time when people come together in hope and prayer interceding to a saint and asking for God’s grace and mercy. But one should also note that people also come to a festival in a flow of tradition and as a performed ritual. It becomes a time when one nudge leads to another and then another and further another. There are many who don’t identify a saint with their present life and there is therefore a disassociation with the saint in some way. This is not to say that all people come to church during a festival not knowing why but that many come without associating the life of the saint with their own!

St. George was a solider born to a Greek father and a Christian mother who lived near Palestine in the 3rd or 4th century C.E. He joined the army and rose up in life very quickly because he was a good soldier. He then became the joint leader of a 1000 strong regiment and was popular among his peers. This was when the Emperor Diocletian brought out an edict that all Christians in the empire should come back to the state religion and that Christianity would not be encouraged by the state. St. George on hearing this changes his stance of being loyal to the state and says that he is loyal first to Christ and then to the state. Till this point of time the state through weapons gave him the security he needed. But he is prepared to shed the weapons in favour of Christ and the protection God offers him. St. George is tortured and then asked to convert from Christianity but he keeps refusing and the torture and the range and scope of the torture also keeps changing. Finally the soldiers and the emperor understand that the only way to make St. George quiet is to behead him, to separate his head from his body because every single cell in his body when alive kept repeating the name Christ. Such is his faith that it is said that after his torture the empress and the chief sorcerer in the empire also join St. George in his martyrdom after accepting Christ.

There are a few things for us to learn from the martyrdom of St. George and from one of the most popular traditions about him. The martyrdom of St. George is a model of disarming ourselves and our enemies. We live in a world where we use arms and ammunition to get our things done. Many countries and media houses create monsters so that they can then destroy the monsters they create and do a victory lap. But St. George is not like that. Instead he rejects arms and violence and preaches Christ because the peace of Christ is beyond the power of any arms and violence. John 14:27 says “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Further in John 16:33 Christ says “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As it is said in Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” St. George is overcome by a peace he perhaps never had before and that is the peace which gives him courage.

How do we identify that St. George was transformed by the renewal of his mind and his discernment made him fight for peace and shun violence? What does this understanding give us to identify and understand in today’s world? The single powerful symbol for us to identify with is the picture of St. George which we have in most of our churches. This is the picture of a man who looks like a solider and is on a white horse putting a spear at a dragon, with what seems like a woman in the background.

But look closely at this picture on top. The usual story behind the traditional picture (at the bottom) is that a particular city was hounded by a dragon who lay at the only source of water for the city. This was followed by the need of the dragon to eat something. Water was available for the city only if the dragon was fed. Initially the dragon was satisfied with cattle. But after that was exhausted, the people who were selected according to lots were fed to the dragon. One day the daughter of the leader of the city is selected by lot to go before the dragon. The leader is helpless and the young woman is led to the outskirts of the city and left there. This is when St. George who is passing by stops and asks the young woman what the problem is. She asks him to go on as she is scared to even accept and talk about her fear. St. George persists and she is ready to engage her fear and so tells him about the dragon. On hearing this St. George does not move on but helps the woman to disarm her fear. He mellows down the fearful dragon and tells the young woman to put a rope around the neck of the dragon and walk it into the city. By now the young woman is fearless and does just that. Imagine the sight of a crowd who were waiting to hear the sound of the satisfied dragon after having devoured the young woman. Instead they saw her walking into the city, fearlessly with another man on a horse. They immediately believe in God. The transition they have in their lives is quick because such is the sight they see. They, like the woman are not scared anymore.

The festival of St. George is a time to look at and accept our fears, engage our fears and disarm our fears. The woman, like a woman in our society today was scared. She was scared of evil befalling her but she must have also been scared of the soldier who she thought must have come to harm her. But the solider does not do that and instead helps her go through the difficult process of handling her fear. The festival of St. George is the time we get to help each other and to help ourselves to take fear head on but without killing anyone and without harming anyone. Instead we use the peace and love of Christ to completely disarm and diffuse evil and the fear of evil.

St. George offers us an opportunity to accept Christ and transform our lives from what it is now. It is not to pull back to the safety of the city and hear the woman die but to stand for the life of the woman even though we do not know her before. As responsible and religious human beings we can also do just that. We can stand up for one another and use the peace of God to transform ourselves from fearful by standers to fearless people who interact with the person nearby to together create a fearless reaction to a situation. The festival of St. George should invigorate us to do such acts of fearlessness.

(Parts of this was preached as a festival sermon at the St. George Knanaya Church, Domlur, Bengaluru on May 28, 2016.)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

It is time to root out the rampant misuse of morality from the church

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church has put a good foot forward by encouraging congregations to have 35% reservation for women in the managing committee of the church. When we read into it what it means is that all women and men can attend the general body of the church. Thus far women are not allowed to attend the general body as voting members unless a woman has lost her husband.

Even though these are good steps on behalf of the church one does get the feeling that the church which includes priest leaders, lay leaders and church members are not completely ready for equality in the church even though the church believes in equality of gender as there is nothing like inequality in the theology of the church. Despite this we can see that all spheres of the church are very unwelcoming and unequal for women and men. What could be the reason if the church maintains that the church believes in equality of both women and men? One of the strongest factors is morality.

Morality apart from being a framework for living is the form of standards for life and is also a way of drawing lines and saying for sure that this is what the church believes in and there is no other option. It is also the measure through which groups or certain people are prevented from being who they are and as they want to be. Take a look at the unending list of things starting from childhood.

Moral standard
1. Girls have to cover their head.
1. 1. It is mentioned clearly in the bible.
Flip side
1. 1 Cor 11:15- “but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.” Meaning that women already have covering and don’t need extra covering.

Moral standard

2. Girls/women should not pollute the church by their presence if they are having their period because they need to undergo the time for recovering and purity.
2. This is what is said in Leviticus 15.
Flip side
2. Read Leviticus 15 again. The first part talks about the discharge of men and what they should do. Which church talks about this?

Moral standard
3. Women should dress properly.
3. The bible says so.
Flip side
3. 1 Peter 3:2-5 says “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.”It is suggesting the inner beauty of women and not necessarily what to wear and what not to wear!

Moral standard
4. Disease is brought about by an immoral life style by women and men. Women are also now smoking and drinking like men!
4. Women should be modest, and cancer and other diseases are increasing because of an immoral life style followed by men and women.
Flip side
4. In Mathew 8 Jesus heals a person with leprosy, heals the helper of the Centurion who is paralyzed and heals Peter’s mother in law. 8:17 says ““He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Jesus never associates disease with sin and morality but rather heals.

Moral standard

5. Women and men should always live within the framework of marriage. If you are unmarried you are susceptible to an immoral and sinful life. People in church always have an eye on a man and a woman talking, to ensure they stay within moral standards of the church.
5. The bible is always moral conscious. Proverbs 12:4 says “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.” So morality is important.
Flip side
5. In John 8:7 Jesus says “Let anyone among you without sin be the first to through a stone at her.” Further Jesus says again in Mathew 5:28 “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” If so then what difference is it going to make by watching people and commenting on their single hood or marriage?

I can go on and on about different forms of moral standards and moral policing in the church. But does the bible and does God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit expect us to fulfill moral standards and be morally solid or does God want us to be God’s creation reflecting God’s love, assurance, equality and justice in this world?

When we examine different rules and regulations in the church we understand that many of them are a result of morality and how we look at people with the lens of morality. Women are usually on the receiving end of this but men also find themselves stuck in a moral debate of what is good and bad. There has been a call by the World Council of Churches to root out caste from the church. Caste, gender and other oppression are also a result of moral standards of purity, colour and piety. The church then has to also address the issue of morality in the church to make the church closer to what the early church was and also near to what Jesus envisioned it to be.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Left, right, left: The impending crisis of religion in a Left majority polity

The Left is back in power in Kerala. Comrade Pinarayi Vijayan is at the helm of affairs and Comrade Achuthanandan is rumoured to being given an advisor’s role with a cabinet rank. The public may have a lot of opinions on who should be Chief Minister and who not but ultimately it does depend on the decision of the party or coalition who has won the election. We may even have our own theories and opinions about the ministers without actually knowing them but it is within their rights to be given the chance to head a particular ministry.

As a church member what intrigues me though is the way that churches and other religions have conducted themselves during the course of this election and afterwards. On the one hand various churches find the Left alliance anathema and completely against the church values and on the other hand you also have churches or church leaders, priests and laity who have embraced the Left because of a perceived closeness to the Kindom values preached by Jesus. Many have given press conferences, preached against and even openly threatened candidates in their own religious way. Some of those candidates lost while some others won. Interestingly many churches have followed the easy route of immediately claiming the victory of candidates who have won, as theirs, and also claiming to be the spoil sport in the case of certain losses. We do not know how far this is true but what we do know is that there is a tendency to side with the party or alliance that has won.

This is now what is also happening in Kerala. The BJP has campaigned hard and won a lot of votes but only one seat, the Congress is cooling its heals waiting for a come back the next time around and the CPI(M) led Left alliance is basking in glory with a well-deserved victory. Political parties have their ideology and their election agendas. But what about various religions and churches? Are they supposed to change their ideology and belief with every election or is it a given that they will follow one particular ideology and that is based primarily on love?

Is the Left coming back to power bad news for churches in Kerala? It depends on how you look at the Left and what about them you are discussing? It is true that the churches should have no problem to accept liberation of the masses, upliftment of the poor and equality for all even if the Left takes that forward. The interpretation of the Left as a Godless movement has changed over the years with several leaders openly professing their faith in God. But churches or church leaders will have a problem with the Left if churches are pro-rich, anti-poor and against equality. On the other hand blindly supporting the Left need not be what a particular church has to do. Violent and revenge filled politics practiced by certain sections of the Left can’t be accepted and justified by the church as okay and acceptable.

Religion and churches in particular will find themselves immersed in a crisis by supporting whichever party that comes to power for their own needs at any particular time. This is because the people in the church will understand the double standards being played out. It may be true that the Left may have not been able to rule out gender and caste issues within their flock but they have been able to do something about it. It may be true that all Left leaders are not living a simple life style but there are many people who are called with respect as a “Communist comrade” (going on to mean just not a leader but a person respected by all for his/her simple life style ) by people from all walks of life. It may also be true that the Left has not reinvented itself to attract the modern generation but there are educated and inspirational leaders who are doing just that.

When the church is pleased with the victory of the Left, is happy that it has come to power, shouldn’t there be an introspection as to why God may have allowed such a thing to happen? Will the church when supporting the Left work on deep and contentious issues of gender and caste within the church so that a Left leader who has come up from a very difficult background is truly and honestly welcomed into the church? Will the church start preaching simplicity and ordinary living by practicing it at different levels in the church starting from the top? Will the church reinvent itself to prevent being obliterated and becoming completely irrelevant for the younger generation?

The coming of the Left is a nice thing in a state like Kerala. Kerala has seen much change happening through successive Left governments and no one can take that away from them. The church aligning with the Left is not anti-religious or non- Christian anymore. The church, however inspired it is by the word of God and by God’s revelation can go wrong when leaders misread the sign of God because they misunderstand their way as God’s way. Movements like the Left have shown through UPA I that an irritant is necessary to keep bad things at bay. The church can learn a bit from the Left movement about gender and caste consciousness, about simplistic living and about new trends in society. Similarly a close proximity with the church can also make the Left realize that violence won’t lead to solutions and positive results.

It is a welcome change to see the Left and the church together. But unless it is used by both to bring about quick change and benefit for the people, this is going to be an alliance of convenience which is going to give more strength to caste-gender- power and violent politics, which will be such a shame after showing so much promise.

Picture courtesy:
Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Using prayer as motivational therapy

The Syrian Orthodox Church has prayer seven times a day and this is shortened to three and two times a day due to time constraints and changes in culture. The prayers are in one sense written for a generation which was more agrarian in nature. This does not mean that it is not effective for the present generation but that we have new challenges to overcome through prayer.

In the bible it is clear that many communities used prayer as a way of communicating with God to intervene in their daily struggles and liberate them from bondage and suffering. Prayer was a part of life for many as they managed to wriggle out of difficult situations. God answered prayers and helped people and communities escape very difficult situations. Jesus also showed us the importance of prayer and meditation through his forty day fasting and prayer. Prayer was a withdrawal for him to think, recuperate and prepare for the great ministry he was going to undertake.

What is prayer for us today? Do we get time to pray or do we pray from the prayer book routinely taking from our memory and yet not stopping to understand the real meaning of the prayer we are praying? Has prayer lost out in our busy life? Are we even reluctant to pray when we are in church? A culture change may have changed priorities for us leading to a lack of interest or time to pray.

But doesn’t prayer have huge significance in our life? Motivation is a word used frequently in our culture and in spiritual and corporate settings. It is a power, feeling or energy for us to get things done. We all need to be motivated. Lizzie Velasquez is a woman who is affected with a disease that only a handful of people have. She was humiliated when someone in school posted a video of hers and people called her ugly, fearful and what not. She was confined to her bed, crying and complaining to God as to why she was created like this and why her parents allowed her to live and took care of her to be like this. She weighed only 29 Kg and now the world was laughing at her.

We also face similar situations when people make fun of us, humiliate us and call us good for nothing. It is a very critical period of our life when we would like to end it than continue living. It is a time when we feel that we don’t want to continue in our church, school, college, office and even house. But it is also a time when motivation can do wonders. Lizzie does not give up. Her cry becomes her prayer. She finishes her graduation in Communication and goes on to become a motivational speaker. She starts her own youtube account and uploads her own videos which get many subscribers. She is also invited to talk in the famous TED series lectures. Lizzie turns around her life by being motivated by her own tears and sadness by talking about inner strength instead of outward beauty.

Prayer gives us this inner strength. It is a strength which tells us that it is okay to be the way we are and that God has a purpose for creating us the way we are. Prayer is not just seven times a day when we count and say it is over. Rather prayer is a continuous outpouring and communication of our spirit with God. In James 5:13 prayer means “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” It is not to give up or give in but to stand firm. It is a beautiful cry and release of inner pain so that God feels with us and becomes a part of our lives. Can we communicate with God like this and see our inner beauty and inner beauty of others? 1 John 5:14 says “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to God's will, God hears us.”

Why worry when we are not even responsible for a single strand of hair on our head? Instead as St. Mark 11:24 says “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” Prayer is not to change a situation and make us what others want us to be. Rather prayer is making us confident in ourselves and using that to motivate ourselves and others in any given situation. It is like Lizzie said “I haven’t met the person who put my video online which led to great torment and pain for me. But when I see him I am going to hug him and say “thank you for changing my life”.” This is inner strength that only God can give us. It is to believe in positive outcomes no matter how negative we feel. Pray and motivate yourself to be what God wants you to be, nothing more, nothing less. Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Valedictory worship order

Order of worship

Processional hymn- O God our help in ages past
1. O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.

2. Under the shadow of thy throne,
still may we dwell secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

3. Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting, thou art God,
to endless years the same.

4. A thousand ages, in thy sight,
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night,
before the rising sun.

5. Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

6. O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come;
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

Opening prayer
Leader: God of knowledge and compassion, you have taught us that the acceptance of God is the beginning of knowledge. We seek gracious God your guidance to be merciful in our happiness, to be creative in our ministry, to be gracious while accepting our diplomas, to be loving even when leaving. You O God are the reason that we as graduates, students, staff, teachers, parents, family and friends are here. We are thrilled and humbled by the grace you have shown to our graduates. Be with us through the service. May we wish the best and accept goodness from all. Amen.

Deva Ninna Amitha Premavanu
Enithu Naanu Mareyali
Dhinavu Dhinavu Ninna Karuneyanu
Yaava Theradhi Haadali

Hagalu Irulu Ninna Preethi
Jagadhalemma Kaapudhu
Gathiyu Emage Ninna Paadha
Endhoo Aasare Eevudhu

Bendha Manake Neenu Koduve
Endhoo Aarada Preethiya
Nondha Baalige Neenu Tharuve
Thandhe Ninna Shaanthiya

Prayer of thanksgiving (Together)
It is a joy to be able. It is mercy to sacrifice and yet survive. It is grace to finish and delight in the Lord. Loving God, we were chosen by you to do the difficult, spare our time, use our resources and continue in our efforts however difficult it got. In now bowing our heads before you, merciful God, we are celebrating the completion of what you have made us do. We thank you together for the courage you gave us to study and to support, to live and to let live, to be passionate and allow others to do so. As graduates, teachers, parents, pastors, friends and well-wishers we thank you God, Son and Holy Spirit for this moment. Amen.

Confession (In unison)
Forgive us God for not experiencing even when knowing, for not helping even while being helped, for not committing even while we were set apart, for not initiating even when we were initiated, for not understanding even while expecting others to do so, for not following Christ even when that was our mandate, for not serving even when that was our motto and for not becoming of God even while being created in the image and likeness of God. May we accept our problems, sort out our issues and become what you intend us to be, merciful God. Amen.

Assurance of God’s mercy

Leader: May we feel happiness in gloom, peace in uncertainty, grace in failure, mercy in negative situations, hope in absolute dejection, light in darkness and God’s presence in every single instance. May God be with us, assure us of God’s unflinching love and continue to make God’s face shine upon us. Amen.

Congregational hymn (Offertory)- Christ is all to me

Refrain: Christ is all to me, Jesus Christ is all to me
In this world of strife and sorrow, Christ is all to me

1. Brother He, me brother calls; Bridegroom he, the Church His bride;
Parent, Kinsman, Master, Savior; And to each his Friend and Guide.

2. Watching me with shepherd-care; Lovingly my wants attends,
My companion all the way till Evening falls and journey ends.

3. Peace when storms around me blow, Joy in sorrow, calm in strife,
Health in sickness, wealth in want, the Noon day sun, the Light of life.

4. Teacher of the truth of God, Prophet of God’s heavenly reign,
Sent of God that we may find in Serving Him eternal gain.

5. He the prize and He the goal And by Him the race begun,
He the runner of the team who Will complete the race I run.

Scripture- St. Luke 19:28-48

Commitment song- O Jesus, I have promised

1. O Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
be thou forever near me,
my Master and my friend.
I shall not fear the battle
if thou art by my side,
nor wander from the pathway
if thou wilt be my guide.

2. O let me feel thee near me!
The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle,
the tempting sounds I hear;
my foes are ever near me,
around me and within;
but Jesus, draw thou nearer,
and shield my soul from sin.

3. O let me hear thee speaking
in accents clear and still,
above the storms of passion,
the murmurs of self-will.
O speak to reassure me,
to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen,
thou guardian of my soul.

4. O Jesus, thou hast promised
to all who follow thee
that where thou art in glory
there shall thy servant be.
And Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow,
my Master and my Friend.

Commitment prayer of the graduating students
What have we done to deserve your loving kindness dear God?
What have we done to deserve the comfort of our families?
What have we done to deserve the opportunity to study in this institution?
We have committed ourselves to the glory of God and for the accomplishment of God’s work in God’s land. God has respected our commitment and helped us in our training and learning to be better ministers for God. Today we stand here humbled as ever because God has worked a miracle in our life. We have received the gift of reasoning, understanding, writing and expressing. This we submit for God’s glory. We thank you for being part of our journey in UTC. We promise to be understanding, caring compassionate and truthful pastors, teachers and workers for God. Amen.

Prayer of commissioning
Leader: You have been privileged to go through the portals of this institution, gaining in knowledge and maturity, understanding issues and sharing experiences leading to mutual learning and growth. You had a family to support you, teachers to mentor you, pastors to pray for you and well-wishers to provide for you. We pray to God that today as you are being sent out to the world that you will have neither purse nor tunic but the presence of God which will go before you. Amen.

People: We are so happy that God has given this day so that you as graduating students will go out and provide care for the needy, spiritual nourishment for all, prayers for the people of the world and healing for the sick. We understand that we as family, church members and friends have to let you go to serve God and God’s people. We have been blessed by witnessing your growth and God’s mercy in your life. We now pray for your health, sustenance, providence and future. God be with you. Amen.

Graduating students: We are aware that many of our sisters and brothers don’t have the opportunity for basic education and yet we have received much more than that. We pray to God that this will inspire us to educate, learn, work and grow with everyone around us. The word of God should not be hidden under a basket and we promise to try our best to shine and be a light to others. Even as we are graduating from this institution, we pray that we will help others study, understand and benefit from the bible, traditions and culture. We will stand for equal rights, preferential option for the poor and oppressed, food for the hungry and justice for the weak and heavy laden. Amen.

Intercessory prayers
Leader- God of hope and infinite grace, we pray for all those who are graduating from the UTC. Give them strength, peace and calmness to face any situation with ease and poise. Fill all of us with the power and love of the Holy Spirit that we go wherever we are sent and do what needs to be done without complaining or stopping in our steps. May others be inspired and join in the wonderful sanity of ministry and God’s work.
All- Lord in your mercy, hear our prayers.

Leader- God of love and forgiveness, help us to accept each other as we are. You have given a special gift to each one who is graduating today. Some are writers, some speakers, others are listeners, some others keepers, many are understanding and some go the extra distance, some give time and others are patient. We thank you God for the gifts you have given each one and pray that these may be used in many ways so that ordinary people may benefit from each gift in a different way.
All- Lord in your mercy, hear our prayers.

Leader- God of stillness and greatness, we pray for all those who are assembled here. May the time spent here be of great use and provide a wonderful memory for each one. May friendships bloom and ties be restored. Help all of us to smile, greet, embrace and thank. We pray for the UTC community, the president, chief guest, members of the executive, council and friends and well-wishers of the UTC community. May this graduation be a letting go of graduates who carry the bible with them and preach ceaselessly, truthfully, fearlessly and gracefully. May the UTC community feel happy and thank God for the UTC graduates. We also pray for many who are suffering in the world due to natural calamities, incorrect policies, war, famine, drought and poverty. Help us and others to provide care and share our resources with others so that suffering ceases.
All- Lord in your mercy, hear our prayers.

Lord’s prayer (All together)
Our God in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom, power and glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Closing hymn- Great is thy faithfulness
1. Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
2. Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
3. Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Closing prayer and benediction
Leader- Go into the world knowing that we will work together, suffer to enrich God’s love and be happy by seeing God’s presence in daily miracles in our life. We are not alone. If God is with us, who can be against us? But if God is absent from our lives, our faith is in vain. Be assured and be strengthened by our prayers for you and God’s mercy and grace in your lives. You are called to go and proclaim like Moses to let God’s people go and worship in freedom, peace and happiness. God be with you. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and forever. Amen.

Recession hymn- Go down Moses

1. When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go,
oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.

Refrain: Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
tell old Pharaoh: let my people go.

2. The Lord told Moses what to do, let my people go,
To lead the Hebrew children through, let my people go.

3. As Israel stood by the waterside, let my people go.
At God’s command it did divide, let my people go.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Nation of Refugees: A look at the refugees crisis

The Nation of Refugees is a play produced by the Communication department of the United Theological College, Bengaluru. Full length plays have been a tradition in the life of the 106 year old UTC and the plays have been a part and parcel of the theatre scene in Bengaluru. This play features an off stage team of Firoz and Malavika, trained at the National School of Drama, Delhi and an on stage cast of a social worker Rebecca, a priest, Fr. Jerry and seminary students Irene, Prazwal, Raj Kumar, Gandhi, Samuel, Ivan, Ashley, Hanson, Ben and Vinod. The cast is international and draws from several states in India as well. The director Jain Syriac Babu has acted in a mainline movie Shikar and a recent movie Jalam (Water) on the displacement of people and homelessness.

The Nation of Refugees is an in house production of UTC born out an urge to let people in Bengaluru know about the refugee crisis brought about by internal war and displacement in Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and a host of nations battling civil war, dictators and genocide. In 2015 alone 1 million refugees have migrated to different countries in the European Union seeking asylum with 184,665 asylum claims being approved in 2014. The migrants have taken the very difficult route of sea and land and in 2015 3,770 migrants are supposed to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean alone. The picture of young Aylan Kurdi, a child of Syrian migrants who tried to make the journey by boat, washed ashore cannot be forgotten quickly. The denial of humanity to people forced to migrate from their own land is appalling.

The play brings about an interesting and yet serious prospect of highlighting the refugee crisis by looking at two extremes of the crisis. On the one hand there is a blood hungry and cruelly funny dictator, who is scared of everyone and yet feigns that he is always in control and on the other hand you have the journey of a woman divided into several shades coming forth as a response by people to the crisis. The people are forced by the evil ruler to build a wall and the people rally around the women characters to give an effective response to tyranny and inhuman policies. The evil ruler meets his match in the women who come up through their own struggles and are yet unwilling to give up their right to humanity. Their own trysts with destiny in their resistance to a patriarchal culture, skewed traditions and unjust laws lead them into responding to their families, culture and a threatening regime. The ending is a surprise unlike usual plays and looks to give some hope to a world divided by race, gender and religion.

The 50 minute production is a chance for people to re look their lives during the Lenten and fasting season which is half way through and get a slice of reality and be aware of the suffering of people worldwide. It also sees how children and women suffer most during war and strife and how women can lead a fight back through a self-realization that they have the power and the strength within them for that. In the lead up to International Women’s Day this is a perfect opportunity to look at how a combined humanity with both women and men can lead to a peaceful and harmonious earth and living.

The play was staged in UTC, Bengaluru, behind the Cantonment railway station on Miller’s Road on December 3, 2015 and will be staged again on March 4 and 5, 2016 at 7 P.M. at the UTC, near the library . Tickets are available at the venue.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Will you be my Valentine? The sermon

February 14 is a very special day for young people in India and all over the world. There is also a spring in the step of young men and women in the UTC campus when you ask about Valentine’s day. Many will tell you that there is no such thing and all this is hype by greeting card companies and other people interested in pushing their products through on this one day. The flower vendor will tell you that he is getting flowers from Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan and that is why it is expensive today. Luckily Milli, our ever ready chapel steward has used his influence to buy red flowers. Sam Anbrasu, our gizmo head knows that he can project a red rose at no cost and Bright, our bhajan secretary knows that he can replace the rose with his smile.

The men and women on campus who talk about Valentine’s day are like a mad man in a mental hospital who confesses to the ward boy that he was the one who told all the patients that someone is offering free biriyani at the entrance of the hospital. The ward boy then asks the man as to why he who cooked up the story is also running to the entrance. He replies “What if someone is really offering biriyani at the entrance?” This is the same feeling on campus. Everyone knows it is not important or we should say that it is not important but in every mind and heart there is a voice saying “What if a red rose comes from some where?”

There is an element of curiosity here. What kind of a sermon can come out of Valentine’s day? The truth is that Valentine’s day does indeed provide the opportunity for reflection from the gospel. I turn my attention to one of the fringe fundamentalist group’s in India and what they have said about Valentine’s day. According to them this is a day when lust, immorality, perverted love and obscenity make an appearance and it is a conversion of Indian culture into Western culture. It makes you think that people here should be thankful if all the mentioned only makes an appearance once a year!! That should make the fundamentalists happy. They also go on to say that St. Valentine was an old priest who fell in love with a young girl. Both these points seem quite preposterous to say the least. But more on that later.

What seems equally interesting is that the some elements of the church and secular society also join hands in saying that this is a celebration which is morally degrading, against Indian culture and against the gospel. In the secular realm this is a celebration with not much thought given into it apart from being a celebration for young couples to come together and even profess their love for one another. The word I love you comes in the form of heart shaped balloons, cards and small toys. A man saw a woman sitting alone on Valentine’s Day. He thought she needed his company and went up to her and told her that she need not worry and that he will do anything for her as long as her wish is three words long. He expected her to tell him to say “I love you.” She looked expectantly at the man, the man closed his eyes to hear the special words and then she said “Clean my house.” Hope this is a clue to all the married men on what kind of gift to give their wife.

When religious elements say that such celebrations should be shunned and done away with completely, what does the gospel and church tradition tell us and why is it important for the church today in India to use the opportunity of this day to think about ministry in the church? Rev. Dr. Vincent has already explained a bit about the World Association for Christian Communication. As part of the Christian principles of Communication brought about by the WACC one principle is that Communication preserves culture. It is important to note that culture is one of the backbones of society. It helps society to identify its roots and look at certain facts. The erosion of culture is not as is suggested by fringe fundamentalist elements in society. The truth rather is that facts have been conveniently forgotten and have been replaced by half-truths and lies. There was early research that suggested that ok and Coca Cola were the most recognized words in the world. Coca Cola must have done quite some advertisement to reach there and what they did was a change in culture. We believe advertisements just like we believe stories. It is a culture pressure. I have already told a story in a couple of classes last week. I would like to relive the story here. It is about Mr. Sharma. Someone tells him that his daughter has run away with someone. In Indian culture that is humiliating and Sharma can’t stand it and he jumps out of the 18th storey of his office. By the 14th floor he realizes that he is not married. By the 12th floor he realizes that he never had a daughter. By the 8th floor he realizes that his name is not Sharma but Varma. Varma it turns out jumped for something which was not even true.

I would like to look at two traditions or story’s today evening which shed some light on Valentine’s day. They are both connected with the church. The first is about the tradition of St. Valentine. Valentine was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who persecuted the church at that particular time. He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.
The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine did. And he secretly married them because of the edict." Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned and tortured for performing marriage ceremonies against the command of Emperor Claudius. There are legends surrounding Valentine's actions while in prison. "One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind. He was supposed to have prayed with and healed the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result."
In the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius' daughter. He inspired today's romantic missives by signing it, "from your Valentine.” This was then not a romantic card exchanged by a couple but a more spiritual relationship between two people, one who had known God and another who came to God and through that increased the faith of Valentine. It is a mutual relationship of love which has been brought about by faith. In Matthew 22:37-40 love comes out as the foundation of Christian faith. “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is what happens between the priest and the young lady. This is also why he signs off “Your Valentine.” Bringing love into the realm of morality is wrong and that is what is happening when fringe groups attack the celebration as a Western celebration. It may be true that youngsters are under peer pressure to do something on Valentine’s Day. But instead of bringing out the real meaning of Valentine’s day and what it means, attacking it will serve no purpose.
Valentine’s day should be seen as one opportunity among many to make a difference in the life of someone. It is not a celebration but a living out of one’s faith as is lived out on all other days. Identifying this becomes one of the important aspects of how religion can play a positive role in society and be a voice which identifies what humans can be to each other rather than what they can’t.

The second story or tradition is also from the early church. The early church contrary to what many people in the church think was not a conservative church. It was rather a believing and living church which reached out to people and that was also partly why the church survived. It is fascinating to revisit Tertullian who said that the Romans said of the early Christian community “See how they love one another.” This for me is so inspiringly strong that it draws a parallel with Valentine’s day but more than that it tells us as to how our life should be. “See how they love one another.” Today this has changed into the Christian community being one of the most nagging communities. I asked a church member what he was going to do today. He said he has to take his wife out otherwise she will keep nagging with him. A man once asked a Swami. Sir do you have a formula or a mantra by which my wife will stop nagging? If I come early she nags, if I come late she nags, whatever I do or don’t do, she nags. What can I do? The Swami told him that there is no mantra to help him. But he can start enjoying the nagging. How can I do that? He asks him as to how it was when he first drank wine. It was of course bitter. But now it is not. A few years later the man meets the Swami and the Swami asks him how his wife is. The man replies “She is now a wonderful nagger.” The man said that he started enjoying the nagging. But on the other hand the wife was not nagging but only talking sense to the husband which he now realizes after accepting her.

Justin Martyr talked of the church and said “We bring everything to a common fund for the needy, we pray for our enemies and live together with other races and country folk because of Christ.” Clement said that “A person who has come to know God impoverishes himself/herself for another and someone elses pain becomes our pain and hardship. That is why we tell couples they are mad and blind.

Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity” says that the early church did something peculiar. They took care of the poor and the sick, they honoured women and gave them dignity and the church was a multi ethnic local church movement. He further says that Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. Christianity revitalized life in the Greco- Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. This was why the Romans exclaimed “Look/see how they love one another.” St. Matthew 25:35-36 says “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” This is the essence of Valentine’s day. It should not be seen as a limited relationship between two people but is a community relationship between many, all coming in to help one another. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Worship order for Will you be my Valentine worship

Opening prayer
We arrive from many different experiences and backgrounds. Some of us have trouble speaking; others are so young that they’re still learning to talk. Some of us speak English as a second language, and others of us can speak several foreign languages. All of us share this in common
(congregation:) We speak the language of love.
In the moments before worship begins, and again when we return to the service of life, we greet one another with kind words; we chat about the days behind us and days to come, and
we speak the language of love.
We lift our voices in song — not to sing perfectly or in tune, but to hear and feel our voices form a life-giving sound; and
we speak the language of love.
As we form a web of compassionate listening when individuals among us, embodying vulnerability, name the fears that grip their hearts, the joys that buoy their spirits.
we speak the language of love.
At times, our voices clash. We disagree. Tension enters our voices as we make room for different beliefs, different opinions, different perspectives. Through it all, it's our intention that...
we speak the language of love.
In this congregation, we welcome a multiplicity of truths, and invite them to be named out loud. We prophesy, summoning the age when justice and peace will be evident all around us, and
we speak the language of love.
Let us worship together, making room for one another as whole beings, tender hearts, hungry spirits, and curious minds. With our actions and with our words, let us
...speak the language of love.


Let’s dwell in the love of the gospel (In unison)
Merciful God, we know that your mercy comes out of a heart which loves all of us. Pour your spirit of love upon us God that we listen to the gospel with love and great understanding. May we stand close and listen carefully and accept whole heartedly the gospel which loves us and speaks to us. Amen.

Bible reading
St. Matthew 22: 37-40
St. Matthew 25: 35-40

Confession (All together)
We have not held on to opportunities to love, care and share. Instead we build hate thinking it will be a good investment for our family. Little did we notice the sand sliding away from our feet and the tension building in our house. Love can change everything, it can do wonders. Knowing this we come to your loving presence gracious God ready and willing to love and to be loved. Amen.

Love can make us forgive seventy times seven. Love can go beyond rules and traditions and make us whole. God never punishes. God just seems far away because we push God away. Now love will bring us near and will wipe away everything which keeps us from God and God’s loving presence. Amen.

Special song



Exchange of love: Will you be my Valentine?

We pray God for gender sensitivity and acceptance of one another. May our faith and practice gently nudge others into exploring the beauty of love. Let people all around us exclaim “Look how they love one another.” We pray for a community of love which is sensitized to treat one another in love and equality. Lord, in your love towards us. Hear our prayer.

We pray, God of love, that even as flowers are exchanged and vows are made, we don’t forget the story of Valentine, who risked his life and brought couples together in matrimony. He stood for love against war, hatred and violence. Help us, God, to rid ourselves of unfounded patriarchal norms and stand for love because it is a cross against weapons, barricades, guardians of morality and cultural misconceptions. Lord, in your love towards us. Hear our prayer.

Tender and loving God, we pray that wrong cultural norms are healed by the freedom of love. May village khaps and male dominated community groups show true love to women and include women in the decision making and thereby stop one sided decisions against couples who take the bold step of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. We pray that groups who offer safe spaces to such couples may also flourish and people all over India support mixed weddings. Lord, in your love towards us. Hear our prayer.

God of compassion, we pray for true love where people love each other wholeheartedly and where love is not limited to a couple or a family but goes much beyond that. May the love of God lead us to share our food with the hungry, welcome strangers, cloth the naked and take care of, pray for and visit the sick and destitute. We pray for Ajungla Jamir and her family on the untimely passing away of her sister. We pray for those who have experienced bereavement and those who are recovering from medical emergencies. Lord, in your love towards us. Hear our prayer.

We pray God for the World Association for Christian Communication and its functionaries and members. May they be strengthened in their work towards women empowerment and the Global Media Monitoring project. We pray for the UTC community, so that we inspire, support, love and care for one another. Lord, in your love towards us. Hear our prayer.

Affirmation of faith (In unison)
We believe in God,
who is love, whose love is manifest
in all Creation, in our lives, and in all people.

We follow Christ, who embodied God's love through Mother Mary.
In his life and ministry, his death and resurrection,
and his granting to us of his Spirit,
he filled us with that love as well.

We live by the Spirit, the presence of God's love in us.
In that love we participate in the Church, Body of Christ,
in loving God by loving our neighbors
through our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service.

Love is our faith, and it is a gift from God.
We thank God, and ask God's blessings,
that we may love in the name of Christ
and the power of the Spirit, to God's glory. Amen.

Love’s prayer (All together)
Our love who dwells in the heavens and on the earth, You are love.
May heaven be a greater present reality here on earth,
And may we choose to join you in making that happen.
Provide us today with the things that you think we need,
And may we not take for granted that which you have already provided for us.
Forgive us for when we don’t live as you intend,
And may we be ready to forgive others when they don’t live as we intend.
Guide us in your wisdom away from the things that would distort us,
And restore the parts in us that are already distorted.
You are goodness, love and truth,
May you remain in us forever. Amen.

Closing hymn- Go my children with my blessing

Closing prayer and benediction
How nice it is to let go and love. How good it is to love without boundaries and fear. How fulfilling it is to keep the love flowing, waiting not for a moment expecting something in return. We have committed ourselves to one another, promising to care for, share and respect all we come across. There are no break ups, only take ups, there are no tears shed, only emotions fed, there are no hard feelings of separation, only good memories egging on to reconciliation. May God who is love fill you with never ceasing love now and always. Amen.

Opening prayer-