Monday, September 5, 2016

Teacher's day.....more than a brick in the wall

Teacher- Why don’t you do anything like I tell you to?
Student- But sir, I thought of acting out my presentation.
Teacher- Acting. Do you think you have come to an acting school? Do you think what we do here is a joke?
Student- No sir. Don’t get me wrong. I have come here to become a pastor. I want to be the best pastor there is.
Teacher- Ha ha. Do you think you can do that? Look at your grades! You have to be cut out to become a pastor. It is not an easy job.
Student- But my grades are okay. They are not great. But I feel I don’t get the grades I deserve.
Teacher- That is true. I think the low grades you have are much higher than they should have been.
Student- Don’t make fun of me sir. I try my best. My point is that you can grade me in a different way.
Teacher- Different way? And what way is that? Not grade you at all? Or giving you the freedom to put your own grades?
Student- No. But I also have something to contribute. I have something to say. Why don’t you listen to that?
Teacher- All that you can say is rubbish. And then do a bit of acting. Rubbish. This is a theological college. We make pastors not actors. If you want to act, you can go to an acting institute.
Student- I heard that you used to act well sir. You were a talented person.
Teacher- Who told you that?
Student- I have my sources. Why are you trying to hide it?
Teacher- Why? Because I was always told to hide it. I loved acting, expressing myself and learning about others while doing it. It was the most liberative thing to do.
Student- Why did you stop then?
Teacher- I had to move on. Acting didn’t get me grades. It only got me reprimands in the end. Acting is just extracurricular. What is outside the curriculum is outside. People will come and appreciate you while your fellow students use that time to study their notes and write exams. While we internalize our dialogues and let our heart speak, they will mug up their notes and write treatises during the exam.
Student- Can’t you change all this? Isn’t there someone who understands?
Teacher- Many may understand. There is an actor inside everyone you know. But no one will come out with it and support it and give grades for it.
Student- Can’t you use it in your classes then?
Teacher- I can I guess. But then I will have to handle the drama that follows.
Student- I feel relieved having talked to you. I never knew teachers would understand students like me.
Teacher- We are all actors. Small and big, but all actors.
Student- Can you allow me to act out what I feel in your class? Just like an exam by showing you what I have learnt and how I feel?
Teacher- I guess you can. But I still can’t give you grades for it!
Student- I don’t want the grades. I just want to act. I want to express myself. I want to show what I have learnt. I want to break all the walls that have prevented me from speaking to those around me.
Teacher- Well, let us act between ourselves. You can be the teacher and I the student.
(The student gets into the character.)
Student- Don’t make noise. Sit down I say.
Teacher- Yes sir. Can I say something?
Student- You can say whatever in your room. Not here. This is my space.
Teacher- But sir. I thought you were someone who would share your space with me.
(Both look into each other’s eyes.)
Student- I will share the space and my role with you. Speak, act, express yourself. That is why you are here.
Teacher- Thank you teacher.
Student- You are welcome. Now act out what you learnt today.
Teacher- (Grabs the student by his hand.) I learnt that there is no difference between us. We are all humans. You have something to say just as I have something to say. Let’s….
Student- Let’s break down these walls. Let’s break them down.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Video of the sermon "Walls of Love"

The youtube link of the sermon "Walls of love" @

The highlights of the sermon include "In the Eastern church she is perceived as the woman of faith who reported the resurrection of Christ to the disciples. In the Western church interestingly in a later development, Mary Magdalene is seen as the sinner who repented and then became a saint.", "We feel very uncomfortable to talk about the bible and especially topics in the bible which we perceive as contentious and controversial. By positioning Mathilukal (Wall/s) in this worship we are trying to look at popular culture and the theological insights it offers. Luke as a writer has written with passion along with a list of writers to help him but if we refuse to see the Jesus they try to portray then we have to look elsewhere to ease us into the passage in Luke."

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Adapted script of Mathilukal (Walls) for performance

(The entire play is played out on two sides of a wall in prison with a woman on one side and a man on another.)

Play begins...

Narayani- When will I see the outside world? All I can do is sit here and pluck the grass in this jail hoping that one day I will be out of here.
(Sound of whistling.)
Narayani- Who is it?
Basheer- It’s me.
N- Did you whistle?
B- Yes.
N- What is your name?
B- Basheer. What is your name?
N- (Looks around) Narayani.
B- Nice name. How old are you?
N- 22
B- Nice age.
N- (Looks around) Who did you kill and come here?
B- I didn’t kill anyone. I’m here because I am a freedom fighter. The government found something wrong in what I wrote.
N- Oh. So, you are a writer?
B- Yes.
N- People say that you can’t trust writers.
B- Who said so? I am not like that. You can trust me. Tell me. How long have you been here?
N- One year.
B- I also have been here for a year. So we came about the same time to this jail. Who did you kill Narayani?
N- I didn’t kill anyone. But I slashed someone with a knife.
B- Narayani. Tell me your story.
N- Why? You want to write a novel or what?
B- No. I want to save it in my heart.
N- Then I will tell you.
B- Tell.
N- My father and mother have four children. Three sons and one daughter. My brothers got married and left. I stayed as a burden with my parents. One day they made me marry a drunkard. Are you listening?
B- Tell me.
N- One day my husband drank too much and went somewhere. What could I do? I should also live, isn’t it? I still wonder what kind of a man he is to go just like that.
B- What a man indeed. If it was me, I would have hugged you and stayed in the house.
N- Don’t lie.
B- No, it’s true. Then say. What happened afterwards?
N- What else? I started going for work. My boss had an eye on me. One day he came and caught my hand. I took a knife and slashed his hand.
B- If I would have seen him, I would have killed him.
N- Don’t strangle him from here. (Laughs) Nothing will happen to him. (Pause) Will you give me a rose plant?
B- How did you know that there is a rose plant here?
N- Oh. It is a jail no. Everyone knows everything. There are no secrets here. (Pause) Will you give me a rose plant? Will you? Won’t you give me a rose plant?
B- Narayani, I will give you all the plants in this world.
N- Aiyo. I want only one.
B- Narayani, stay right here. I will bring. (Pause) Narayani, Narayani. (She hides) Narayani.
N- What?
B- Where were you when I called? (She runs to the wall)
N- I was behind this wall.
B- And?
N- I was hiding here.
B- You naughty girl.
N- Did you bring the rose plant? Did you. ……….Oyi……..writer.
B- Yes.
N- Why are you silent?
B- Why did you call so lovingly?
N- If I would have called lovingly.
B- Yes, if you would have?
N- If I would have called lovingly, God would have come in front of me.
B- (Laughs). God won’t come in front of anyone. God is near us. God is love, light……Catch this rose.
N- Wait. Put it high.
B- Okay. Catch it. Catch. (Throws) (Catches)
B- Did you get it?
N- Yes. (Holds it close to her.) Why were you quiet?
B- I was thinking about you and holding you.
N- Where on the wall? (Laughs)
B- No
N- Then
B- I held every rose and petal and thought of you.
N- God, I feel like crying.
B- Narayani.
N- I am going to keep each rose in a special place.
B- Where. In your hair? Those roses are special. It has my love. Be careful with them.
N- I will.
B- Remove the knot and dig a hole.
N- Let me search for a pot. (Searches and finds) Pot is ready.
B- Put the roses in the name of God in it. Put some water. Say good morning to it every morning. And ask when it will give you a flower.
N- When will you give me a flower? Won’t people think I am mad? I have to go now. When I come again I will put a stick on the other side of the wall. You should come. Don’t forget.
(Both go off stage and come back.)
(Narayani throws sticks and gets angry. She then sits on the floor. After a pause Basheer speaks.)
B- Narayani. Narayani.
N- What do you want?
B- Are you angry?
N- What else? My hand is paining after throwing so many sticks.
B- I will massage them.
N- Then massage. (Saying this she stands close to the wall) I am close to the wall.
B- I am stroking the wall. Narayani, what did you do with the rose?
N- Why do you want to know?
B- Did you throw it away?
N- If I did?
B- That was my heart. (Music)
B- Then Narayani. How many women are there?
N- Only me.
B- Tell the truth. How many are there?
N- Quite a bit. All are old women.
B- How many?
N- 87.
B- How many young and how many old women?
N- 86 old women and 1 young woman.
B- (Laughs)
N- Then. (Laughs) Aiye. How do you look?
B- I am brown skinned, have a long nose and am slightly balded. I have big eyes.
N- (Laughs) Even I have big eyes. What about your chest?
B- I have a broad chest.
N- Even I have a broad chest.
B- Can you smell me?
N- No. The darned wall.
B- Shall I put something on your side?
N- Yes.
B- Catch (Throws a packet) Did you get it?
N- Yes. I got it. Chips. Shall I give to everyone here?
B- Yes. Give to everyone in our name.
N- Will you love me?
B- Yes. Why do you doubt?
N- There are many women here. Beautiful women. I am not so beautiful.
B- I am also not handsome.
N- Have you loved anyone?
B- Yes. So many.
N- Hmm. Womaniser.
B- It’s not like that. I didn’t say that they loved me. It was one sided.
N- Oh. I got scared for a moment.
B- But why should you get scared?
N- That you don’t need to know.
N- Listen. Is Narayani one among the countless women?
B- Narayani, you represent all women. I love you like my life.
N- You are lying. Can’t trust writers. You will tell everyone you see the same thing.
B- No. I only have my Narayani.
N- I don’t have anyone. Don’t promise me things. I want to see you.
B- I also want to see you.
N- I haven’t seen you and yet I feel I know you more than anyone I have seen.
B- All this while I wanted to escape from here. But now I don’t want to go anywhere. There is a jail outside these walls. I don’t want to go anywhere.
N- You are just saying this to please me. If freed, anyone will go from here.
B- Tell me now, how do we meet?
N- There is one way. I will try to come to the jail dispensary.
B- I will run to you when I see you.
N- How will you recognize me? Aah. There is a black mark on my left hand. (Jumps to show)
B- I will have a red rose with me.
N- Will you miss me?
B- I will remember you when I see the walls of this world.
N- Can I cry?
B- Not now. Cry later. When are you coming to the dispensary?
N- Tomorrow 10 in the morning. I have something urgent to tell you.
B- What is it?
N- I will tell you tomorrow.

N- (Runs around and throws sticks. Holds the wall and throws sticks.) Basheer. Writer. My love.
Voice- Yesterday they released a prisoner. A writer. They released him.
N- You are lying. Go away. Come Basheer.
Voice- They have released him.
N- (Cries. Holds the wall.) My God. You made me alone again. No. He will come. He said he will come to the dispensary. My black mark. (Throws sticks.) Come. (Wipes tears.) Didn’t you ask about the red rose. Whether I threw it? It is inside me, in my soul. Can you hear me?

Play ends...

Pictures credit- Deepak

Walls of love.....the sermon

Luke 7:36-46
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[a] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b] and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[c] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Walls of love
The passage Luke 7:36-50 which was read to us has certain peculiarities. Usually in the church the probability is that it will be read along with the title of the section which is mentioned as "sinful woman". The woman here is differently seen as perhaps being Mary Magdalene or Mary the sister of Martha, among other women. It has parallels in all gospels but this passage is special in that Jesus does not talk about his death and the preparation for that.

Now what are some of the problems in the passage when we read it today? The first problem is that there is a tendency to come to a conclusion that the woman is a sinner and the sin associated with her is that of being a loose woman, an adulteress or temptress. It may have been something else though, for instance her association with tax collectors which made the writer refer to her as a sinner. But the understanding of sin in relation to the woman is sadly in one direction and this is the popular understanding of the church. The second problem is the association of the woman as Mary Magdalene and the way she has been perceived by the church. There are several interesting theories about the association of Mary Magdalene with Jesus but I am not going into that but rather would like to point out that Mary Magdalene has been slut shamed and trolled by the church.

What is slut shaming and trolling? Slut-shaming is defined by many as a process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct,i.e., of admonishing them for behavior or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable.It is retrograde, the opposite of feminist. Calling a girl a slut warns her that there's a line: she can be sexual but not too sexual. Online trolling is In Internet slang what happens when a person sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement. There is more an online phenomenon these days were women are subjected to verbal online abuse for having expressed their views in public. Several famous personalities, writers, actors, public figures and women from various walks of life are subjected to this regularly even bringing in the public debate whether there should be a law to safe guard online users who express their thoughts and feelings. The women and child development minister offered help to those who are facing online trolling and her tweet itself was subjected to online trolling!

The Eastern church and the Western church look at Mary Magdalene totally differently. In the Eastern church she is perceived as the woman of faith who reported the resurrection of Christ to the disciples. In the Western church interestingly in a later development, Mary Magdalene is seen as the sinner who repented and then became a saint. This can be traced back to Pope Gregory’s sermon on her and how she is made into the woman out of whom seven demons were driven out. In the Eastern church Mary Magdalene is a saint who showed exemplary faith and closeness to Jesus while in the Western church Mary is a sinner and a woman with loose morals who later on had a conversion in life. When the passage is read in this context we also associate the entire conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee as one on what sin is and who will be forgiven based on the weightage of sin.
On the contrary shouldn’t this passage be seen as a strong rebuke by Jesus of the Pharisee and the message that this slut shaming and trolling should come to an end. Sin cannot and should not be associated with gender! Mathilukal, which means walls is a famous novel by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, a well known writer from Kerala. He was involved in the freedom movement and jailed several times for his writings even though he did not do anything against the country as such. This story from which an adaptation was performed in today's worship is based on Basheer’s own experiences in jail. We feel very uncomfortable to talk about the bible and especially topics in the bible which we perceive as contentious and controversial. By positioning Mathilukal (Wall/s) in this worship we are trying to look at popular culture and the theological insights it offers. Luke as a writer has written with passion along with a list of writers to help him but if we refuse to see the Jesus they try to portray then we have to look elsewhere to ease us into the passage in Luke. Biblical interpretation has to in this sense look for the underlying messages and real characters to find strands of the message which in all essence will be lying hidden in the text.

The adaptation performed tonight is a conversation between a man, who is the writer Basheer himself and a woman Narayani who are both in jail separated by a wall built to keep women and men apart. The wall though does not prevent them from communicating and entering into a conversation. They talk despite the wall. In the process they share their lives with each other and look ahead for a time they can be together. We can very well get stuck in the ending thinking that Basheer has left, leaving Narayani behind but we must know that Basheer did not have any idea that he was being released and their spiritual relationship is threatened by the wall of perceived freedom when in reality Basheer is released into a place he does not want to go to. Even in their eagerness to meet, Narayani knows that Basheer will always be in her thoughts and mind. In Luke 7 there is an invisible wall built by the Pharisee between Jesus and the woman present there. It is the wall of judgement which the man is adapt at building through his thoughts and words. But this does not prevent the woman and Jesus from relating to each other and being in relationship. Rather the woman cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes it with her hair and anoints his feet with the special perfume. This sensuous act of love goes unnoticed in traditional interpretations but we would be missing the essence of the passage if we continue with only the usual interpretations.

The notion of Jesus and the Jesus movement is challenged by the Pharisee and his judgmental community when he notices what is happening on two sides of the wall they have constructed. The woman was not supposed to be there and yet she is there. She was not supposed to relate and be with Jesus and yet that is what she does. The woman and Jesus remind us of Narayani and Basheer who be with each other despite the wall which is built to keep them apart. The transcending of the wall by the woman and the reciprocation by Jesus annoys the Pharisee as it would annoy anyone of us who either construct or are part of such walls. But Jesus and the woman just be like Narayani and Basheer wall or no wall.

Jesus goes further in the passage and gives the example of those who owe money to a creditor. The creditor forgives both and then Jesus asks, which debtor will be more thankful. The Pharisee says that the one to whom more is forgiven will be more thankful. There is a problem here because this does not make total sense. For someone, forgiveness is not only comparison but is also the act of forgiveness itself. So whether big or small if we have been forgiven it will be great for us. Why then is the writer saying that the one who is forgiven more will love more? One reason could be that the woman is showing love for the forgiveness she has received through John and she is showing the love of what she has already received. Two could be because Jesus is here talking of unconditional love which leads to unconditional forgiveness. The woman loves completely. So much that she cries in being able to be with Jesus, she lets down her hair because she is no more concerned by those who have constructed the wall and who is watching, and she then anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume in unconditional love. What happens here is that the unconditional love of the woman leads not to forgiveness but forgiveness does not matter anymore because she has already gone beyond that. Jesus is not answering the woman but Jesus is answering his host by talking about forgiveness. The woman doesn’t seem to be bothered about forgiveness anymore. She is concerned about and is expressing love. This is what happens to Narayani and Basheer. Narayani does not want a good conduct certificate from Basheer the accomplished writer. Rather she wants to love and be loved. It was not mandatory for the host to wash Jesus’ feet, kiss him and anoint his head but he could have done it. The Pharisee represents the church which is unwilling to repent and love. But there are others sometimes inside and outside the church who are willing to love like the woman and like Narayani. The ordination of welcome through anointment of the head which should have been done by the Pharisee is then turned upside down into the ordination of acceptance through the anointment of the feet by the woman.

I will offer three points for us to take home and think about.
1. I to we – We are obsessed with ourselves. We simply cannot go beyond ourselves like the host of the house. He is not obsessed with Jesus but himself. The primary reason of calling Jesus to his house we learn later is not to honor Jesus but to honor himself. We live in a culture of I’s. I phone, I pad, I pod…... and finally father or mother saying I paid. The host of the house is caught in thinking about himself whereas the woman and Jesus are not thinking about themselves but thinking about each other. The woman did not do what she did to get forgiveness. She was loving and one does not love for forgiveness. Jesus did not love the woman because she wiped his feet and anointed him. He loved because he was reciprocating to the love he received. Narayani and Basheer are on two sides of the wall. They are leading their “I” lives and yet the voice of the other leads them to the understanding of “we” which they cherish from two sides of the wall.

A mom and his son and the relationship their shared helps us understand the limitation of I. The man says I love you to his mother when he was 5 years old and she reciprocates. He says I love you mom again when he is 16 years old. She asks him "How much do you want?" Meaning how much money does the son want. The son again says I love you mom when he is 25 years old. The other asks him "who is she?" meaning which girl friend does her son want to introduce. When he is 40 years old he says I love you mom and she replies "I told you so". Finally when he is 60 years old the son says I love you mom and the mother replies "I won't sign on any paper come what may." I here is all the son himself and what he wants from his mother.

2. Ego to love
There was something preventing the Pharisee from seeing the beauty of what the woman was doing. There was a wall preventing him from seeing and he had built this wall so that others would not see. The three letter word ego prevents us from seeing many things. The story of the rabbit and the turtle is familiar to us and so is the saying "Slow and steady wins the race." But an extended version of the story goes on to say how the turtle wins first, the rabbit the second time, the turtle again the third time and the rabbit and the turtle together the final time. First it is "Slow and steady wins the race", second it is "Steam ahead and set the pace", third it is "Change the rules and claim your space" and finally it is "Come together and change the face."

Jesus conquered his ego and so did the woman. The host had ego as an accompaniment and he was trying to win a race he wasn’t capable of winning. Jesus and the woman team up while the host keeps away. Basheer and Narayani do not know each other and yet work together a relationship which is actually based on nothing and everything at the same time. They do not allow ego to prevent them from expressing their love for one another. Love is a natural expression for them and they do not allow the ego of their lives or the jail environment to spoil that.

Indians have a way of going around the ego. There is a story of Albert Einstein and an Indian man travelling together. Einstein says “Let’s play a game and if I know the answer you pay me 50 rupees and if I don’t know the answer I will pay you 5000 rupees. The Indian agrees. Einsten asks “ What is the distance between the earth and the moon? Indian gives 50 rupees and says "I don't know.". Then the Indian asks “Which animal goes up the hill with three legs and comes back with four? Einstein gives 5000 rupees and says "I don't know.". Indian man goes to sleep. Einstein is angry and says “Give me the answer.” The Indian wakes up and gives him 50 rupees and says "I don't know." We are good in going around our ego rather than engaging our ego.

3. Being sorry to having a choice- The host is sorry for Jesus, the woman and for himself. He is frustrated at the fact that Jesus is not performing as a prophet even though he must have actually invited him to prove that. This is very typical of us as well. We work all our lives to accomplish one thing and then realise that it is not what we want. If the host had invited Jesus to anyway humiliate him shouldn’t he have been happy!? In India there are some ways of saying things which are against each other “Are you a man to beat a woman. Are you a man to be beaten by a woman?!”, “You can piss in public but you cannot kiss in public”, “If one man stands with three women he is a stud whereas if one woman stands with three men she is a slut.”, “Never talk to a stranger before marriage. But we can sleep with a stranger after marriage.”, “We talk against corruption but will bribe a policeman after jumping a red signal.” and “Talking about sex is taboo but having babies and being the second most populous country in the world is not.” We can see a lot of discrepancies here.

Our country is fraught with problems of caste, gender and class. And yet there is also hope in the form of how and what people can make out of their contexts. The woman in the passage along with Jesus is also faced with problems and yet they choose to take the path seldom tread and stop being sorry for others and with themselves. This is what Narayani and Basheer do too. They have nothing to look forward to. They can be sorry about themselves and everything that is happening around them. And yet they choose to be happy, exploring what they can in the limitations they find themselves in. I to we, ego to love and being sorry to having a choice. We will also find ourselves on two sides of the wall. But that is not an invitation to be silent but rather an opportunity to explore, love and go beyond. Amen.

(Sermon preached on Sunday, August 7, 2016 in the Tagore Hall, UTC, Bengaluru.)

Pictures credit- Deepak

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.