Wednesday, March 25, 2015

May peace burn our insecurities away.

Peace is difficult to comprehend especially when one comes across Jesus’ exhortation that “I have not come to make peace in this world.” What is peace and should we undertake an effort to understand and establish peace during lent?

Peace can be seen from the context of being peace that is available from God in times which are confusing and lost. “May the peace of God that exceeds all understanding be with you.” Peace need not make sense but peace also gives sense and direction during very confusing and difficult times. The loss of a dear one and the confusion and blankness it brings about cannot be settled with anything else but the soothing peace from God. This is a peace which is offered as a prayer to us in times of need.

Peace can also be seen from the context of what we offer to others as a negotiated and thought out offer and even a less thought out but never the less sincere offer. This is peace that seeks to do away with conflict and bring about an honoured, respectful and mutually enriching atmosphere of trying to live with each other. In the first case we receive unceasingly and in the second case we ask for continuously. Peace is an uninterrupted time of calm. But many a time it is a calm before a storm. It can also be that peace is what we see on the outside while the inside is brimming with unrest. What then can lent be in terms of peace? Is it a time where we try to be at peace with ourselves and others? Is it also a time where we are holding our emotions through lent or stoking our inner hurts so that we burn them out forever?

A woman or man of God can and should be peaceful. Proverbs 16:7 says “When a man’s (sic) ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Peace and trust in God go along side each other. One cannot do away with peace and maintain one is close to God because we are missing an integral part of God in our lives. It is not to remain quiet and bring about peace but to exorcise our inner demons and disturbing thoughts and bring about peace in the process. Peace is not at hand without suffering and Jesus reminds us of that. In St. John 16:33 he 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.” Peace then becomes more than what we experience in this world. Maybe we won’t experience complete peace in this world. But the peace of God allows us to see a pattern to the suffering we face and to come out of it and have an inner peace initiated by God.

Peace then becomes not what is imposed on us. Lent should rather be a time to trust in the immense power of God to bring peace in us. It is an extended invitation to be at peace with ourselves and our contexts by being at peace with God. Philippians 4: 6-7 says “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” This is not what we can make sense of but what may pass all our understanding and yet bring understanding in our lives.

This lent we can try for such peace where we are brought into understanding our lives in terms of what God is doing for us. Peace is out of this world because it is difficult to accomplish but in our effort to do that peace becomes this worldly rather than other worldly. We can’t work on the short comings of others but we can burn our own insecurities and negative feelings and bring about a peaceful stillness after that. Lent offers us an opportunity to try for a peaceful existence by being at peace with ourselves primarily and calling upon God so that others be at peace with us. Amen.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The bent woman as a lenten pointer to liberation

In the gospel according to St. Luke 13:10-17 the woman with an infirmity for 18 years catches Jesus’ attention in the synagogue while he is teaching there. Jesus tells her that she is set free of her ailment. She stands straight and praises God. Jesus sets right what is perceived as a promise which has been bent to the extent of breaking but still hasn’t been fulfilled. But despite Jesus doing what should have been done ages ago, the leader of the synagogue is bitter with Jesus for having cured on the Sabbath.

Did the leader want the woman to stand straight or did he not? Was his problem the Sabbath or the woman standing straight? Jesus calls this thinking hypocrisy. You got to do what you got to do! There is no special time for that. The liberation of people belonging to the lower strata of society and the problem of women being pushed away from the main stream is always set aside for an opportune moment.

This moment becomes promised liberation. Perhaps the woman was coming regularly to experience liberation. But she was denied it citing laws and regulations. It is in essence a feeling of having the cake (apple or bread) and not being able to eat it. Jesus changes this promise of liberation to actual liberation. Liberation cannot be words and promises blocked by culture, traditions and auspicious occasions. It has to be offered when someone seeks it through words, actions or even silence.

Jesus is angry at the lack of interest in the well being of the woman who has aspired to see and experience life like everyone else. When this takes place the community leader expresses his clear displeasure. Jesus exposes the leader’s actual problem though. Is it the Sabbath or is it what is done on the Sabbath that is problematic to the leader?

The ban on cow slaughter in a particular state in the country has brought in a lot of criticism. One strong criticism is that a cow has more protection in India than a woman. To make a more appropriate statement, a cow has more value than a woman! Jesus asks the community leader “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” 'And should not this woman be liberated?' Jesus points out a very similar point that we are facing in our age. Don’t women have the value of an animal?

Jesus’ reaction to the woman offers us a wonderful model to follow this lent. Liberation of the oppressed should be now and not later. Lent is an opportunity to say that our dietary restrictions are going to make us spiritually strong to raise our voice against the oppressions we observe in and around us. Lent is not a time to bow down but a time to allow Jesus to straighten us and liberate us. Amen.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Be human and forgive for a true Lenten experience

Forgiveness is a critical part of our spirituality which we are not able to control and use properly. The reason for this is that we are filled with expectations of what we want from various people around us. The closer people are, the more are our expectations. We also give to others expecting something in return. Lent cannot be a time when we lent ourselves to get something in return. It is a process of self-examination and self-cleansing whereby we let go of our expectations and are willing to forgive seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, meaning as many times as needed, almost till our expectations are extinguished.

In St. Matthew 18:21-22 Peter wants to know the rule to be followed. Jesus gives him the sense to be undertaken. Lent for us becomes a 50 day routine where we would like to fulfill certain prayer timings, diet restrictions and feel we have fulfilled something by doing this. Seldom do we realize and are willing to accept that lent is a big teacher of how we should conduct ourselves not just for 50 days but the rest of our lives. Peter wanted to be absolved and wanted to know that he was doing the right thing. Jesus puts up a new challenge in front of him and reminds him of the journey he has to undertake in all probability till death.

Forgiveness has to come from top to bottom and cannot be expected bottom to top. The one who wants authority, position and a place of honour has to go through the process of forgiving wholeheartedly and continually. So much that forgiveness will become part of one’s life and a natural reaction to what someone does to us. We are always trying to teach a lesson to someone and forget that lent is a time to teach ourselves first. We are not teachers who are supposed to punish and change someone but learners who are supposed to forgive and change ourselves. Perhaps what Jesus said to Peter is very important considering Peter was going to take up leadership in the church. This leadership according to Jesus could not be taken forward with rules but had to break the rules!

In today’s life forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for the clergy and laity alike. We simple refuse to forgive, and behave with others keeping something in mind well into the lent and well after it. Confessions are often filled with the disability to forgive and the final acceptance that “after all I am a human being!” Jesus becoming human for the sake of humanity shows us what a human being is capable of doing. Even as Jesus was human and divine at the same time, he suffered on the cross and felt the pain. He did not use his divinity to escape from or move beyond the pain. The “after all I am a human being” comment does not give us an excuse but rather puts a responsibility on us. Jesus reminding Peter is Jesus reminding us today that if we would like to develop, move forward and take over leadership roles, we have to claim the fact that we are humans and we are capable of forgiving instead of saying after all I (we) am a human being!

This lent it would be meaningful to try and write to people, talk to them over the phone, meet them, or even do something symbolic to suggest to them that we are indeed sorry for anything that we have knowingly or unknowingly done to them and reach out to those who are trying to say sorry to us and tell them that we forgive them for whatever misunderstanding has happened. This is not an act of meekness but an act of courage where we are willing to accept the power of humanity reignited in us by Christ Jesus. Jesus answers Peter and Jesus answers our lent today by telling us to forget and forgive. We are human and we are capable of forgiving. Amen.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The persevering woman who offers us crumbs of faith for Lenten sustenance

The Canaanite woman in St. Matthew 15:21-28 approached Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter. His disciples who resemble us tell him to send her away as she is an irritant and keeps shouting. Jesus in an effort to converse says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the story starts here. The woman expresses her faith which is unrelenting perseverance. She finds the solution to Jesus’ problem of not being able to look beyond where he has been sent. The woman in her desperation but with unrelenting perseverance points out that in breaking comes out the solution for the problem. There is enough for everyone and everyone has a right to sustenance. This she courageously points out to the amusement of Jesus. Perhaps it is her eye for detail based on her experience on running the household which makes her point out this wonderful solution.

It is interesting that Jesus’ disciples want to ease out the woman and Jesus states a fact. But the woman is not willing to give up. She identifies crumbs as the way out of the situation. Her daughter needs help and the very basic help of sustenance. But none are willing to offer her that. Is there a way out? No one else thinks so. But Jesus offers a rope to hold on to when he says that no one gives dogs what is meant for the children. This is a clear indication of reality. But the woman is not willing to give up. She goes on and expresses her resilient faith making Jesus remark “Great is your faith.”

There was a way out of the deadlock. Jesus offers a possibility and the woman changes it into her opportunity. The dogs live out of the crumbs from the master’s table. What faith indeed! As we celebrate International Women’s Day we should realize that men haven’t given women their due! Men continue to argue that it is not their work. Women have now come into the position of asking for their rights and what is justly theirs. We should understand that men have treated women as second class citizens. But can we continue like this? It is one thing to say that we should follow the cultural changes that are taking place in society. But we should also look at the message in the bible and how we have not been able to get the real message out.

Women have not even been offered the crumbs when in fact the table is equally theirs. We have been like the disciples showing eagerness to sideline the woman and branding her as an irritant. But in reality women deserve much more. Can’t we at least follow Jesus’ model of offering life to the woman by healing her daughter and offering much more than the crumbs? Isn’t lent a time of unrelenting perseverance and resilient faith? Shouldn’t God accept us and tell us “Great is your faith”? Or are we going to be stuck in the temporal limitations of what gender is perceived as?

Jesus could come out of it despite it being part of his culture, traditions and belief. His blessing is an acceptance of the woman and her faith. It is saying yes to the smartness, faith, perseverance and resilience of the woman. Can we on International Women’s Day do this and continue to do this on other days as well? Amen.

(Preached on March 8, 2015 in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K. R. Puram, Bangalore.)

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Second picture courtesy

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Value education for a value enhancing lent

Values are a part of human life. We learn values from parents, peers, friends, teachers and the church and other religious places. Values are important for every generation to be in touch with each other and to show interest in all aspects of their life. Media education is done in some schools to make children media literate. Similarly value education can be done to make children well versed in values and how we should live life. Values are regard of what is important in life. When the things that you do and the way you behave match your values, things are good.

Values help us decide what job to choose, what compromises we should make and whether we should be traditional or have a modern outlook to life. Value education is the process by which people give value to others by way of education at home, in schools, colleges and religious places. Value education helps people determine how to treat others, what is respect, who are the old and new and what attitude to follow in life. Value education sometimes becomes a part of Sunday school education in churches but can also be a part of special education done in churches and schools.

Lent becomes a good time to help everyone to focus on what their values are and whether they are following it in their lives. It is also a time to introspect as to what our values really are and whether we have been misled into wrong values. It is a time when we can check all that we have been doing and would like to do in the future.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. How do we teach about women as part of value education in schools and religious places? Are women supposed to be looked down upon, weak and befitting protection from men or are women equal to men and befitting respect from men for who they are? Value education helps us to identify what we have been doing and how women have been portrayed in our text books. The furore over the documentary “India’s daughter” mentions such things as our culture, our women, our dignity. But what are women and how should be they treated in this country? Is there a value education for all children where boys especially are taught that girls are equal to them and the same creation of God? Or are religious places and education institutions getting it wrong somewhere?

How could an incident like December 2012 happen where a young girl and promising doctor Jyoti Singh was brutally killed and the perpetrators feel that she was being taught a lesson in values? What values do Indian culture and religious culture portray if this is the case? Can we escape by saying that we are not part of this or should we wake up this lent to say that we will teach good values to our children so that such incidents don’t repeat themselves in modern day India? 1 Timothy 4:7-8 says “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

How can such brutal acts happen in India you ask yourself and then you ask “How can such inhuman acts happen daily in a place which calls itself very religious”? This lent we have to as men, women, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters introspect what our values are. Are we a brutality waiting to happen? Can we train ourselves in Godliness and factor in the value of human life and all its complexities? May lent help us to instill values in us and regain the lost values inside us. Jyoti do, jyoti do, jyoti do Prabhu. Jeevan do, jeevan do, jeevan do Prabhu. (O Lord, give light. O Lord, give life.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lent to love: Valentine to Va(Wow)-lent-time!

We have already entered into another blessed lent looking at ourselves and trying to figure out where we stand. This initiative of the UTC worship committee is indeed a good one as it gives a time for a theological community like ours to pray for each other and pray for ourselves. There is sometimes a mis-notion that theologians and pastors need no prayers. We all need prayers and we all need to know that we are not perfect and that lent is a time to work on our faults and accept others with their faults because in accepting others we are accepting ourselves!

As an introduction we are looking at traditions which continue to live in our midst but will also look at how traditions have evolved and why this is an important aspect of tradition itself. Valentine’s day came with no preplanned bang before the start of lent in some of the Christian denominations. So much that it was an emotional drain on youngsters to start off lent because they were wasted even before the start of lent.

But the Valentine’s day tradition offers us a link to lent and a reason to lent as well. This we understand from the story behind Valentine’s day. The Emperor issues an edict that soliders should preferably not marry as this would make them weak soldiers and if at all they could have several women so that they would love none. Valentine took the risk of marrying couples in love and thereby also gave them the opportunity to be committed to one another. The Emperor jails Valentine and he heals Julia, the daughter of the jailor Asterius. Before his execution he writes a letter to her and signs off as Your Valentine. Interestingly the heart, and the love have been taken over by a commercial frenzy on February 14 and the sacrifice and real purpose of Valentine have been left behind. Perhaps it will serve us well to pick up the crumbs and understand lent through that.

Va-lent-time is an exclamation that this is something we do by our own will and that this is something we do diversely. Every Christian tradition has some form of lent and that cannot be discounted in any way. Every Christian tradition also understands that lent has several things to offer them and through diet, manner, character and life restrictions each one tries by himself or herself to lent and live. The Orthodox (Syrian, Oriental and other) churches fast, lent and give alms and pray that lent without practice of alms giving and helping the poor is no lent at all. The idea is not to be self righteous though it is misconstrued that lent makes one self righteous. On the other hand lent makes one humble, self critical and analytical. Food restrictions are to tone down desire on several levels as prayer for the soul over food for the body takes center stage.

This lent in UTC we are trying to figure out sins which we are committing and which we have to stop doing by fasting and praying. They are sins against humanity and community. This is a perfect time to tell ourselves that we are sinning and we need help to stop. It is not a lent to rectify and renew others but a lent to change and offer a leash of life to oneself. St. John Chrysostom says that “It is folly to abstain all day long from food, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness.” Lent to love is to love ourselves to the point of saving ourselves to offer food and nourishment to others.

Churches should become the best place one wants to go to. Pastors should be the first person someone wants to meet at a difficult time. Lent can help for attaining this goal. But the biggest corruption of lent has been to think that lent makes us better than someone else and our lent is the best and most perfect lent. If we start thinking like that our lent has been wasted. Stop abusing lent and start loving it.

Get dirty this lent
Undergoing lent and the thoughts that we have while doing it are the reverse of what we have on mind. St. Luke 5:12-16 talks of the person with leprosy who asks Jesus to make him clean. We usually try to make ourselves clean during lent. Our practice of lent is to have diet restrictions, prayers and a life style to suggest that we are clean by ourselves and cleaner than others. There is an addiction towards being clean and more so to be cleaner than others. But what does Jesus do? What was he supposed to do? He was in all probability expected to ignore the person with leprosy because Jesus was clean while the leper was perceived as un clean.

But the clean Jesus does an interesting thing by stretching out his hand and touching the unclean person. This is a true model for Lenten practice. If we cannot offer cleanness to others our cleanness becomes suspect. The entire essence of purity, cleanness and holiness somehow prevents us from reaching out to those who are branded as impure and un clean. This important observation of reality has to be part of our Lenten experience. Jesus gets dirty and also reflects a certain ughhh from people to suggest that he did something which was not acceptable. We have it as part of our sermons but such dirty acts of faith which are actually good acts of faith are left in the script and don’t go to the field.

The eeeggh and uuuggghhh have to be part of our process of getting mud on our hands during lent so that we are prepared for real ministry. Identifying inward beauty is something we haven’t been able to grasp despite knowing fully well that our spiritual guidance suggests us that. Love cannot be limited to what we are taught is beautiful. Love has to be acts of love like Jesus showed. It did not matter to Jesus how the person looked anymore. Can lent bring about such love? Can we lent ourselves so that love indeed becomes blind as they say it?

Fasting against corrupt practices
Lent is a protest. When everything is accepted and goes a certain way it is to say that I don’t want to be part of a uniform way of thinking as I feel this could be disruptive of the gospel. Protest is not a bad word. Perhaps the images in our mind of protests which have become violent make us identify the word protest with something bad. Protest is to say that there is another way of doing things and we would like you to try it out. St. Mark 2:1-12 contains the story of a unique protest. Four people bringing a paralyzed man discover that they cannot bring the man to Jesus because of the crowd and so they find a unique way of letting him to Jesus. Jesus is impressed and helps the man. There has to be a discernment to do good whenever possible. Lent is a time when we enable ourselves to able others.

We usually talk a lot about lent and sometimes it even sounds like we are doing it because someone is forcing us to. But there are others who are not forced by anyone and yet commit to lenting their own lives. Irom Sharmila is one such courageous woman who has fasted for 15 years of her life starting from November 4, 2000. When many of us complain and undergo the lent experience because it is a part of our traditions, Sharmila has made a tradition out of her fast against unjust structures. Her fast is not for her self glory and purification. It is for the repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Her usual practice of fasting once a week in her usual life turned into a lifetime fast because she protested against the killing of innocent people from her state. What do we call her fast? Is our fasting and are our lents close to the deep spirituality of Irom Sharmila’s fast where she has made herself into a vegetable for the sake of others?

The people carrying the paralytic get a deep sense of spirituality to break the line and do something so that justice may be gained. This then becomes a traditional endeavor for us to follow. Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed for the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern, what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. Irom Sharmila has proved that love goes beyond love of the self into uncertain and unknown territory. The people carrying the paralytic where going through unknown territory and yet love makes them do something so crazy that even they had no logical explanation for it. Can we lent that we become crazy enough to follow Christ through unknown ways?

Depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings
St. Luke 6:31 says “Do to others as you would have others to do to you.” Deprivation is a part and parcel of traditional lent. But deprivation is not an act of weakness but an act of strength where we give up something so that those who are deprived may have it. We crave for a lot of things but many a time these cravings are not justified. They are what we take from others and have. Can we take from others and justify that? We obviously can’t and lent becomes a time when we can say that I would like to deprive myself of these unjustifiable cravings which deprive someone else of what is their share.

Lent becomes something to undertake, the stronger you are. This could be a reason why children, elderly folk and even nursing mothers are allowed to skip lent in some traditions. Lent is something you do in your strength and not in your weakness. It is what we give away and not what we take away. If we have received out of lent it is not completely justified. If on the other hand we have given away out of lent, it is justified. It goes along with the song “The weak say I am strong and the strong say I am weak.”

Lent in this sense is not a sadistic effort at saying we have done something great but a spiritual effort in saying that we have tried to become what God wants us to be and this is not sacrifice but the way God wants it to be. 1 John 4:8 says “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.” How clear a verse this is, how truthful an advise this is?

Lent becomes our natural action towards loving others, caring for others and ensuring God’s justice to be done. It is our deep spiritual engagement with God by loving others and letting them know that we are depriving ourselves of unjustifiable cravings so that they may have and have abundantly. We are invited to love and love beyond anything we know. Amen.

(Preached yesterday in the UTC Ziegenbalg chapel, Bangalore for the first Lenten Lantern service.)