Friday, February 27, 2015

We need more priests like Arch Corepiscopa Dr. Curien Kaniyamparambil

Arch Corepiscopa Curien Kaniyamparambil achen is celebrating his 103 rd birthday today. He has completed a century and three years of his life, bearing witness to church saints like St. Ignatius Elias III and church stalwarts like Mor Dionysius Michael, Gheevarghese Mor Gregorios, Perumpally, Mor Yulios Elias Qoro and several priests belonging to the Elavinamannil, Kodiattu and a host of other families.

In the course of all this he has taught Syriac to several generations of students, conducted the baptism, marriage and funeral of several people in the same family, translated several prayers from Syriac to Malayalam and written books on church history, faith and tradition. His simple slogan “Christ needs this donkey” has inspired him to work tirelessly for the church and its people. He was and still is an icon to the people of Thiruvalla having been there for close to sixty years of his life.

His deep devotion and belief in the intercessory powers of Mother Mary has seen him wear a relic of St. Mary within his shirt pocket almost like a bullet proof vest, safe guarding him from any problems in life. His intercessory prayers and songs to St. Mary for the eight day September lent have been used by hundreds of thousands of people officially and unofficially. His translation of the Syriac morning prayers into Malayalam is by far one of the best translations of prayer songs. The Archcorepiscopa will make sure to pray at least three times a day religiously and intercede to Mother Mary at all times. His belief in honoring his teachers (gurus) will always see him giving credit to them and to how they have made him who he is.

Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen never fought with anyone. When he had to come out of the St. George JSO church, Kattapuram, Thiruvalla, all he took with him was his tears which he continued to have years after the painful incident of having to walk out of one’s own church. After that he was instrumental along with the Kodiattu family to set up and consecrate the St. George Simhasana JSO Church in Thiruvalla. Through this church he kept the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox believers in Thiruvalla rooted to their faith and pastored to them despite a very unfavorable environment.

He collected the money from the faithful and used it for the upkeep of the church, printing of several books and helping the poor. I have never seen achen spending money for himself. He has collected every single donation and used it for helping others, printing books to keep up the faith of the people, and give to the church in one way or the other. This is not known to many. The St. George Simhasana church in Thiruvalla flourished under him.

Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil was a great orator in his youth. He was a constant invitee in several churches as his knowledge of the bible, history and tradition of the church and preaching style were un paralled. His Good Friday service in church was a great experience of feeling the passion and suffering of Christ. He had the skill to translate Syriac to Malayalam on the spot and he used this to explain songs and bring people into a spiritual mood by explaining songs after each stanza and creating a real effect of commemorating the passion and crucifixion of Christ.

Achen’s faith has always been an important part of his life. His prayers were simple but deep. It would give you the strength to undertake a journey, write an exam, undergo an operation, come out of grief and expect good things from God. This coupled with his sense of humour made one want to go and spend time with him. He was always available in the arm chair, with his legs up and constantly writing on his writing pad. The sight of any visitor would make him stand up and he would seek the strength of your hand and in return give you the strength of his prayer.

Have we lost out on such priests? In a way yes. A comparison may be too harsh on the present generation of priests. The Arch Corepiscopa lived in an era where he had no mobile phone, no internet, no facebook and no luxury car. He lived in ordinary circumstances and perhaps that was what made him who he is even today. One inspiration for the priests of today would be his interest and his effort to write. His accomplishment in this direction is great. A list of 50 books and counting is not any average Syrian Orthodox priest for you! There would not have been a day without achen writing a page or two. This has been lost on today’s generation of priests. His single handed translation of the Syriac Peshita bible from Syriac to Malayalam has been the most understated fact in recent times. Who on earth can single handedly do something so difficult like that? Perhaps we should give the writer in Archcorepiscopa Kaniyamparambil more credit than he has received thus far.

Jesus wrote and he wrote so that he would be accountable and he would make others accountable. John 8:1-8 bears witness to that. Arch Corepiscopa Kaniyamparambil achen also wrote to be counted, to be held accountable and to stand up for what he believed in. Today history will attest to that. Unfortunately today’s generation of priests may not even write a status update on their own. I may be wrong and I will be happy if I am proved wrong. Kaniyamparambil achen should be an inspiration for us to write for the glory of God and write so that people may understand God’s word and will be kept in faith.

Humility is a character trait of Kniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa that today’s priests should learn from. Anyone from around the world and Kerala could and can meet him any time. If he is awake and healthy one can meet achen. This is associated with his humility and his eagerness to meet people who go to see him. I wonder whether today’s priests are so eager to meet their congregation, chat with them and offer them advice and guidance? This again cannot be generalized.

Faith, hope and love have always been part of Kaniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa’s repertoire. He has the faith as big as the mustard seed which can have him tell you to go in peace, God will help you. He has had his share of misfortunes and he has also been on the wrong side of decisions taken by higher ups. But he never gave up hope and always went forward. He was betrayed and used by his friends, colleagues, students and disciples. But this has not decreased his love for them. He still holds everyone with equal fondness and never speaks ill of or works against another. His love for another human being has been exemplary and this is something we can definitely emulate. What would one expect of a priest? These three things in all probability. A priest should be able to offer faith as healing to his congregation, should have hope that whatever the situation, God will help and that love and only love is God like and will take a church forward. This has somehow been lost in translation today. I hope that the Arch Corepiscopa can remind us that today for his sake we can rekindle these three in our ministry in the church.

Forgiveness has come naturally to Kaniyamparambil Arch Corepiscopa. When you meet him you feel the love he has for you and not the hatred. This has been possible through his efforts to forgive and seek forgiveness. Who won’t melt and change when a 103 year old priest asks you for forgiveness even when you have been the one who may have committed the wrong! This is what achen has done all through his career. It has not just been his willingness to forgive but his over willingness to seek forgiveness even when he never did anything wrong. This is a true lesson for priests today. A priest’s effort should not be to justify but to ask forgiveness even when there is a doubt in our mind and to give forgiveness when someone comes to us seeking for it. A priest should be a fountain of forgiveness which never dries and Kaniyamparambil Archcorepiscopa has borne testimony to this.

What then can we offer Kaniyamparambil Archcorepiscopa for his 103 rd birthday? If you speak to him he will ask us to pray for him and he will then utter “God bless you.” Even in his request there is something for us. The only way we can give him a gift which will compensate his stature is to pick any one quality of his and emulate it. It could be humility, faith, hope, love, writing, forgiveness, saving for the future generations, right use of funds and anything that I haven’t mentioned. At this age and at this stature I suspect there is anything on earth that we can get for him. If he can live on forever that will be a great blessing for this church. One way that is possible is to take a commitment that each priest and lay person will take one quality or several qualities of the Archcorepiscopa and live it out through our lives so that achen will live and live abundantly.

Here’s wishing our beloved Archcorepiscopa Dr. Curien Kaniyamparambil a blessed birthday, good health, an active mind and long life. Beyond everything here’s praying and committing that we take one part of your noble character and live it out remembering what you have told and showed us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Getting into character this lent

Character is a very important aspect of an individual and helps in the spiritual life of an individual. A person with integrity and character shows good leadership skills and can always be an inspiration to others. But one cannot say that one is born with good character. Rather one imbibes good character through several ways, one of them being through experience and prayer. We get to see characters of integrity and sincerity in the bible, history and in our day to day life. Lent becomes a time to identify these characters and try to get into the character we have identified.

A lent with character is not only with food restrictions but is with certain ideals which identify a person as working for common people, the poor, sick, needy, children and women. We have characters we can take from and become because this becoming is a God inspired process of spiritual growth. In the book of Esther we read about Esther a woman who was courageous enough to reveal Haman’s treachery to the King. She moves beyond the usual barriers and gets into the character that God prepares for her.

St. Ephrem was a church father and doctor of the church who got into the character of making women teachers in the church. Bishop Anthimos writes "Ephrem was a promoter of women folk – from silence to dignity of their own. According to Jacob of Serug, the whole aim of Ephrem's teaching was a new world in which men and women would be equal. Moreover, he calls Ephrem as the second Moses for women because Ephrem took the revolutionary step of forming a women's choir (may be the first in the history of Christianity) and many of Ephrem's hymns were written exclusively for women's choirs. To him, Ephrem founded the women's choir in order to teach the Edessan Christianity right doctrines, made women teachers in the church and thereby promoted women folk from silence to the dignity of teacher. Thereby, "Ephrem presents his church with a new sight of women uttering proclamation". St. Ephrem took it upon himself to fulfill the very difficult role of being a church father with a difference with perfection. Can we also get into the character presented to us by God whereby we do things which we never thought capable of us and which people around us never thought possible?

Irom Sharmila is an ordinary woman but she has kept an entire state in limbo because she has been fasting from November 4, 2000 for repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Recently the court quashed a case of attempted suicide against her. She is free but still fasting. How on earth can we compare the fast or diet restrictions of fifty days in the church to the fifteen year old fast of Irom Sharmila!? She has been playing her character as God wanted it in the hope that anti people laws will be repealed and people can have freedom in their own land. She dreams of a future where the government and people will work and live together instead of fighting each other. Irom Sharmila’s will power has given her the nick name “Iron Lady”. How many of us could fast for a common cause and personalize a problem like Irom Sharmila has done?

Romans 12:2 says “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.” Character is God given but it has to be discerned and fulfilled by us. Character is also what we receive within us and what comes out from within. It is courage, will and hope that God has great plans for us and for that we have to get into the character that God has chosen for us. 1 Samuel 16:7 says “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Let this lent be a time to get into character. This is not what we have necessarily done before but what God is backing us to do now. It is not available character but character that we are reaching out to and making as our own. It is the character that is waiting for someone to take and act upon. Are we ready? Amen.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

A lent with character

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

There is a saying that was very popular for speech competitions in my childhood. It says “If wealth is lost nothing is lost, if health is lost something is lost but if character is lost, everything is lost.” It throws light upon one of the very important aspects of our existence. Even as we concentrate on body and soul we lose touch with the character of our very being.

Character initiates and eggs us on to do something we believe in and something which is just and right. This may not be what everyone else does but what we strongly feel should be done. It is not an outward initiation but an inside, intrinsic feeling of what our reaction should be in a particular situation. “Character is a pattern of behavior, thoughts and feelings based on universal principles, moral strength, and integrity – plus the guts to live by those principles every day. Character is evidenced by your life’s virtues and the “line you never cross.” Character is the most valuable thing you have, and nobody can ever take it away.” Jesus had character. This was build up by his relationship with God, his family and his society. But it was also a character which was against certain notions and taboos in society. The man with leprosy did not look Jesus in the face but he begs him to make him clean if he chooses. A confused character would have lead Jesus to look away from the man because that was what the majority in society did at the time. But Jesus looks at him, says yes, stretches out his hand and touches him. What Jesus did needed lots of courage because of the stigma of disease associated with leprosy or a skin disease. But Jesus’ character makes him think different and initiates an act of courage. His character is strong and is his biggest asset which is more than wealth and health.

Peter Drucker , a management expert has an interesting opinion on character. He says “A man (or woman) might know too little, perform poorly, lack judgment and ability, and yet not do too much damage as a manager. But if that person lacks character and integrity – no matter how knowledgeable, how brilliant, how successful – he destroys. He destroys people, the most valuable resources of the enterprise. He destroys spirit. And he destroys performance.” Jesus lead from the front and he did so primarily because he had character and integrity. When everyone else would have turned away from the person with leprosy he stretches out his hand. Even as people would have been shocked at what he was doing, he was courageous enough to do what he did.

During lent, many people try to work on a lot of things but conveniently ignore character as then they don’t have to change anything they do. Lent is a time which gives us an opportunity to fine tune and refurbish our character. If we have a stigma for someone based on their beliefs, disease, colour, and way of life, it means that we have to work on our character and not theirs. Do we make quick judgments on people based on what others say? If so, lent becomes a time to work on our character and how we have been formed so that we become courageous like Jesus to stretch out our hand instead of keeping it under wraps.

Aristotle offers practice of virtue as a way of developing our character. Good work with good intentions are a way to practice reshaping our character. Jesus practiced this all through his ministry. He did what his character reflected. But he still had to do it to reflect his character to others. But have we learnt from that? Our inability to make our character above our other qualifications has brought about a life that is not beneficial for us and others. This lent is a good opportunity for us to practice goodness and practice courage which should reflect the character of Jesus which we see in his courage to stretch out his hand, touch and heal the person with leprosy. Romans 5:3-5 says "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." A lent with character should not disappoint us but give us hope.

So, as part of lent, let us practise to reach out to people however they look like and whatever they believe in. Picture the scene of Jesus touching the person with leprosy and then see if we can replicate that! Get into the character of Jesus who touched the man when everyone else refused to. Reflect the character of Jesus by practising lent. Amen.

(Excerpts from a sermon preached in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore on February 22, 2015.)

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Don't deprive yourself of love! Lenten thoughts

Lent is a time to reflect upon our own short comings, to rectify our life and follow diet restrictions so that we become better persons. But one can’t take love out of the equation when we do this. But who or what do we love and can we love ourselves while we are at it?

To love means to sacrifice and let go of many things which we consider valuable to us. But love also means doing something good for the sake of others. There are a lot of people who ask whether it is imperative that we have diet restrictions during lent and whether we need to fast during lent? The question itself means that we need to because it affects us so much that we ask! Diet restrictions are not by itself going to take us to heaven as prayers mention clearly that fasting without inner change is of no use as inner change provides fodder for the soul and outward fasting only affects the body.

But diet restrictions are good because they help us to lighten up, think well, hope good and act meaningfully. It is to suggest that diet restrictions and fasting instead of making us angry should make us better individuals who work for the betterment of others. This can be done by knowing that we have to love ourselves to diet and fast. We are on the journey to become better people and thereby behave better with others. The journey always starts with us and we prepare ourselves by eating light and eating less and thereby telling ourselves that we are not starving and denying ourselves food but rather giving just enough food for sustenance and survival. This then leads us to thinking about the sustenance and survival of others. So loving ourselves in a spiritual way leads to loving others and is a natural progression. St. Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Today dieticians tell us to love our body more so that we can get more out of our body. Watch what you eat so that you can have a balanced body and mind they say! So dieting for a special cause is not depriving the body but in essence loving the body. Loving the body also means having good thoughts about ourselves and what we are doing. If we don’t love ourselves how can we love another? Proverbs 10:12 says that “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs.” Eating our heart out may only bring about more desire and dissension. On the other hand depriving ourselves brings out true love.

Deprivation is one sort of love where we say that I am sacrificing for something. Lent has also been seen as deprivation of food for the body so that the soul is enriched by the deprivation. But lent is also depriving cravings for certain kind of food so that true love is brought out. Craving for something or someone may not be true love. Depriving our cravings brings out a true element of love inside us.

Eating is something everyone can do. It comes naturally to us. Love is also natural but it becomes true love when we do unnatural things. Jesus Christ dying on the cross was unnatural but brought out God’s love for the world. 1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” Bringing in dietary regulations during lent brings about an element of unnaturalness in us and leads to true love. St. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Love makes no sense and is mysterious in certain ways. But it is the only way forward.

Any act of dieting and love can only be complete when we prepare ourselves to love others. Without this we will remain in a vacuum of self-righteousness. St. Matthew 22:37-39 says “Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, 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.” Loving others is dieting, restricting and depriving as this leads us to love.

May lent be a time to deprive and love ourselves so that we may move on to loving others just as we were told by Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

What lessons do the AAP victory offer the church today?

The AAP victory in Delhi two weeks ago for the assembly elections held there is a result of hard work, planning and networking between people from various strata of society. One cannot and should not put this down as fluke, luck or a rare miracle. It is not every day that a political party wins 67 out of 70 seats!

There can always be conspiracy theories that the AAP won because of RSS support or that the Congress party did not bother to put up a fight because they thought that the AAP can take care of the BJP for the next five years in Delhi and be a thorn in the flesh of the Central government as well. One cannot deny the fact that the AAP worked pretty hard, did their home work and worked among various classes of people who are usually ignored by parties.

But what does such a victory do for the church? Is there anything we can learn from it and should we embark on that journey at all? The church is close to politics as it is also involved with thinking about governance, is concerned about the welfare of people and always wants to bring about change for the better in various places. One cannot therefore separate the church from politics completely and say that the church should never come close to politics and politicking.

What were some of the simple models followed by the AAP which can also be followed by the church? One should know that there is no question of one following the other but to rather understand that both the church and political parties are trying to work for the welfare of the people. Firstly, the AAP worked with people in the grassroots and took their concerns seriously. It was just not to impose things on them but to ask them what was needed and how things could be accomplished. Not listening to people and taking their opinion suggests arrogance and the church should never be arrogant and thrust its views on people. Rather the church should know what the people want by talking to them on a regular basis and arranging for meetings to interact with people who have common jobs and find it hard to make a living.

Secondly, the AAP stressed on positive campaigning rather than negative campaigning. They talked mainly about what they were going to do and had an extensive manifesto for everyone to check. There were moments when the media dragged them into comparisons and asked specific questions on personalities and candidates in other political parties. The AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was quick to steer away from comparisons and questions on opposing candidates. Instead of dwelling at length on them he dwelled on his party and their work. On asked about Ms. Kiran Bedi he said that she was a nice person. This brought in a good response from the voters. The church should understand that we don’t need to criticize each other and other people and instead can concentrate on the good that the church is doing. Going positive can help the church to concentrate 100% on its own plans and work instead of concentrating on someone else for the entire period. Criticizing others and what they do and follow is not how one must believe in God but rather one should concentrate on one’s own positives and work for the betterment of society.

Thirdly, the ability to say sorry should not be seen as a weakness but as an act of strength and character. The AAP made a mistake by stepping down after 49 days in their first shot at running the government. The first thing they did while campaigning was to admit this and say sorry. The church can correct historical wrongs and correct what may have been a wrong decision based on wrong assessments. A decision once taken need not stay for the sake of our own egos but can be rectified considering the general mood of what is right and wrong. Showing that anyone can make mistakes makes us ordinary and vulnerable but also appealing to those who form the actual support base of the church. One wrong cannot be made true by subsequent wrongs to cover up the original wrong.

Fourthly, one should be able to move with the times and trends. The AAP used the internet and the social media to a great extend to get in touch with people, understand political trends, get new supporters, and explain their programs to people. This brought about a great change to how politics was made to enter into the office, study and even bedroom of the individual voter. The internet was also used to announce meetings, give key information and influence people. This reaching out helped to interact with people. The church can do well if it reaches out to the young generation by speaking their language and hanging out where they do too. This may not be limited to the church but in youtube, whatsapp, facebook, blogs and virtual spaces. Keeping out of spaces frequented by the youth will also mean losing them completely in the long run.

Finally, the AAP believed in what they were doing and even gave religious overtones to it. The bible says that one must pray believing that the prayer has been answered. St. Mark 11:24 tells us “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The AAP leaders and party workers believed that their dream would come true even though they were written off as one time wonders. The church has times when it ceases to believe in itself and more so in God. So much that we belittle and limit the wondrous powers of God. The Delhi victory can become a Delhi belly, the rumblings of which can be felt in other states and institutions including the church. The church will definitely do well to reclaim the simple yet powerful truth of faith and belief.

Be humble, work hard, say sorry when at fault, understand the feelings and aspirations of people and be one of them, believe in yourself and in the positive shades of the people around you and above all, trust in God for God to carry you through. Should I say more?! Isn’t it time for a church of the common people to arise from within exclusive expressions of the church?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Love can perform wonders

Tonight the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church embarks on a fifty day lent going through various aspects of human frailty while looking to God in the hope that God will never forsake us.The bible reading for today's Eucharist service St. John 2:1-11 invites us into Jesus' first miracle initiated by his own mother. But aren't we usually missing the point of the miracle when we look at other aspects of the miracle even when one aspect stands out?

1. Love should be above everything- Jesus and his capability of loving everything around him was fabulous. Instead of going along with the societal notion that money flies even above the eagle, Jesus shows that love flies above everything else. Jesus’ love for God’s creation and the mutual love of Jesus with the two blessed forms of the trinity expresses his love for the creation of God. Even when the wine runs out and there is a panic which also makes the mother reach out to her son, Jesus shows what love can do.

The people who were asked to wait upon Jesus are told to fill the stone jars with water. They know what they filled and so does Jesus. But Jesus loves the water and it leads to the transformation of the water. How far can we transform others towards the benefit of all, with our love? Will we remain stone jars or will we offer ourselves for transformation with the love Jesus offers us?

2. Love defines our relationships- We are given a chance to love others through a network created for us through God. We have our family and several members of our family, friends and acquaintances to love and show love to. Jesus had declined Mother Mary’s offer to help the house of celebration. But the plea of Mother Mary was not an ordinary plea but a plea covered with love. This was the love for her son. When she asks her son to help the hosts, she transfers her love for family to new heights. Jesus feels this love and even though he clarifies that his time is not up, he finally performs a miracle. It is a miracle initiated by love.

Jesus uses the stone jars to show this aspect of love. The stone jars filled with water were used for purification but were used for outward purification. The stone like feeling one had remained with outside purification. So Jesus uses the stone jar to show that the love of his mother towards him and his love towards humanity can change the stoniness of the jar and transform that into something life giving and something which can bring happiness.

Even as Valentine’s day brought about the usual commercial activity and hue and cry about erosion of cultural values the story of Fr. Valentine and his commitment towards couples in love and his love towards them takes us to the path of love. Even when the emperor asked the men in the kingdom to forgo marriage for the sake of war, Fr. Valentine supported true love and brought people together in true love. Love is above and beyond everything and love indeed defines our relationships.
This lent, can we evaluate our lives and truly say that we love God and love God’s creation and the network of family, friends, acquaintances and church that God has given us? Or are we still stone jars filled with water that refuse to transform, all the while claiming to offer purity to others? Amen.

(Excerpts from a sermon preached in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R.Puram, Bangalore.)
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