Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Make lent a pleasant experience

Church members differ in the way they observe lent. Some follow all the diet restrictions, some a few and some none at all. The prayers also follow the same route. But the question is who is the good lenter? The one who follows all diet restrictions and says all the prayers or the one who doesn’t see things as diet restrictions but as a way to share what is there with others and who is pleasant and happy while observing a lent?

This brings us to one of the important and yet often ignored aspects of lent. Jesus is clear when he says how fasting should be observed and how one should look while observing a fast. In Mathew 6:16-18 he says “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It is not to show others but to show our God in private as to how we are conducting our lives. Our fasts and lents look forced upon us and mostly everyone looks like they have a heavy burden upon them which they are struggling to carry and finally do so because they are forced to.

This is why the Lenten season is not a pleasant experience in many of our households. It is a time when children remember that not only do they not get fish and meat during lunch and dinner, but their father and mother put on tantrums and let loose their tempers because they are being forced to fast and lent. Their face shows they are not happy and in the process they also don’t make others around them happy. There is also the habit of people which makes them think that if they have to fast and lent, then the entire family has to do it, whether they do it willingly or not.  This makes revisiting lent every year a terrible experience because children and youngsters don’t have anything nice which they can associate with lent. It makes us a community which is very bitter with lent and with God who we think makes us undergo lent. This is reflected in how people look while they are observing a lent. It also appears to friends, colleagues and family that people who are on lent are moody and angry. So our lent appears to others as having the contrary effect to what lent is intended for.
This is why we must make add ons to substantiate the usual lent because our way of observing it makes others wonder why we observe lent in the first place! What could be some of the simple and yet essentials things we could do so that others will look forward to us observing the great lent every year?

1. Smile at those around you- a simple smile can put others at ease and suggest that we are in a good mood as well. Imagine how it would be if we maintain a grim face and say that we are on lent? Psalm 126:2 says “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” Smiling at those around us and looking confident is a way of showing others that the lent is doing great things for us and it is not weakening us but strengthening us from within.

2. Spend time with your family- one thing that comes out frequently in families is when the husband and wife who are also the father and the mother will tell each other and their child/children “Please try and understand. I have lots of work to finish.” Lent should be a time when we are with our family. We can cut down or cut out T.V., the internet, social media and work brought home and spend quality time with our family and even friends. Imagine how the children will feel if that happens. They will look forward to every lent because they know their parents will be finally available for them. They will glorify God for times like lent. We can cut out and slow down to ensure that we have more time for our family. At these times our diet will not be a concern because we will have people who matter around us and they will fill our stomach with their presence. 1 Timothy 5:8 says “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Observing lent does not mean cutting away from family and friends but rather making time for them in an otherwise stressful life.

3. Forgive others and seek forgiveness-  Matthew 5:23 and 24 says “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Having something against someone is like having a mill stone around our neck. We won’t be able to pray when we are thinking about someone who we term as an enemy. It also becomes an additional baggage to carry and we won’t be able to observe lent when this additional baggage is there. Reconciliation is a must and without this lent is of no use. Lent without reconciliation is a way of lying to ourselves that all is well when nothing actually is. Lent minus reconciliation will be a way of justifying not reconciling with someone. It is because the lent will be seen as purifying the person who is observing the lent and demonizing the person with whom reconciliation is not sought. This is a wrong way to observe lent as it justifies our position and takes away the sheen of lent. We must ask forgiveness if we have done something against someone and we must be ready to forgive someone who we feel has done something against us.

4. Concentrate on your lent instead of preaching to others about their lent- there is a tendency in households to advise others about lent and how it should be done. All the while the person preaching is not trying to observe a meaningful lent by himself/herself. This suggests a very sadistic approach from our part. Fasting and lent should never be imposed on someone. It should come from within and we can inspire people to lent but not force them to! Many a time we are bothered about what others are doing instead of concentrating on our own lent. Lent should not be seen as making us holier than others and thereby seating ourselves on a pedestal. Rather lent should be seen as a time when we work on our faults and short comings. We must at all times during lent prevent ourselves from judging others as that will lead to a meaningless exercise of fasting and lent. Instead we should at all times concentrate on our short comings. In many houses the elderly and parents get into arguments with children and youngsters saying that the entire house will be on lent and the head of the house has decided that. What would be more appropriate is to show others the change in us by observing lent. Isaiah 58:3-7 says “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

5. Improve on the Lenten experience- there should be a meaningful reason for everyone to be part of lent. For some eating vegetarian food is not a struggle. For others not eating at all is no big deal as they don’t eat when they work anyway. In such cases there should be more acts of lent which should be practiced. These include abstaining from social media, cutting down smart phone usage, not watching television, doing a carbon fast (which means not using vehicles which emit carbon and thereby contributing to a clean environment), carbohydrate fast, keeping silent and meditating on our life and those around us, calling up friends and family we never usually speak to and keeping in touch with people, asking friends and family whether they need any help in paying bills, getting a government job done for an elderly couple, help with tuition, asking for prayer requests that one can pray over and cutting down on anything that we perceive as harming us. Drinking too much will only weaken us and doing drugs will only confuse us. When we want to strengthen the lent experience we should also stop things which weaken our body and which will ultimately prevent us from doing good. In Matthew 4 Jesus fasts 40 days and he is tempted by the devil. The devil does not talk about small things but about power. The devil tests the standing and power of Jesus by asking him to turn the stones to bread, asks Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angels can come and save him and finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain and tells him that if Jesus worships the devil, he will give him all the kingdoms of the world.

So when we lent, if people come and entice us with the promise of power and authority, it means that we are observing lent well. If on the other hand we are always judging and preaching to people about how they should observe lent, something is wrong somewhere. Jesus maintains his cool and composure even after 40 days of fasting. All he says is “Away with you Satan”. He does not talk about his own fasting and does not enter into an argument. He knows that several people are counting on him and so he disassociates himself from power and authority which is on offer to him. This should be the power of lent. To say no and to say it strongly. To know that many people depend on us reforming ourselves. And to lent with joy and happiness never for a moment thinking it is a burden but using that as a way of letting go of all burdens.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lent: A time to go hungry

St. John 2:1-12

As we enter into lent, the passage St. John 2:1-12 is of essence to us. We may wonder what a celebratory passage linked to a wedding will give us leading to lent. But at the same time it offers us a few great things for lent. LENT very simply put can be expanded to mean “Let’s eliminate negative thoughts”. Many a time this one thing can make the Lenten experience meaningful and leaving out this one aspect will negate everything else we do.

Mother Mary, Jesus and his disciples go for a wedding at Cana and in between Mary tells Jesus that the wine is over. Jesus’ reply suggests negativity by saying what is it to us that the wine is over. Mother Mary on the other hand tells the helpers to do as Jesus says. It has positive thinking written all over it. Jesus then shows us an important thing to follow during lent. He asks the helpers to fill the six stone jars with water. We also are capable of doing this. But what happens later suggests what Jesus actually did. He tells the helpers to take the water to the steward and make him taste it. The helpers know it is water. But the steward doesn’t! After tasting it he calls the bride groom and says that usually people give inferior wine after the guests have had some, but in this case it appears that the best was saved for the last.

In our lives we do a lot of charity. But should the model of our charity be changed during this lent? Jesus suggests so. He does not simply listen to his mother and do something. They may have not brought any gift for the wedding. But Jesus gives the best gift possible for him at the time by turning the water into wine. Do we give our best for charity? Isn’t the word charity itself coined to suggest that we are doing a favour to someone? Our help or rather our responsibility during lent is to give our best to the church, to the people and to those who need food, shelter and clothing. This is not a charity but this is our responsibility. Mother Mary is also asking us to provide our best. This lent, can we start off by saying that we can indeed give our best.

Secondly, lent should also be a time when we provide the most basic of needs of human beings and that is food. Jesus provides wine so that the people had something to drink. And this should not be seen as strong wine but wine for subsistence and celebration. Can we start a kitchen for the poor, or cook in our houses and give to those who are hungry? Lent does not mean living comfortable lives and eating vegetarian food but giving to others till it hurts us. Jesus did his first miracle when Mother Mary asked. It was not his time but he does it. It hurts for him to do it and that is why the quality of the wine was exceptional. We should similarly lent till it hurts. Our lent could be giving ourselves in sacrifice or our lent could be lending something to others till it hurts us, or our lent could be helping the church till it hurts.

There is a Sri Lankan priest I know. The interesting thing about him is that he works among the poor and refugees. One thing he does week after week and not just during lent is to cook food for his congregation, which comprises very ordinary people. He cooks the food on Saturday evening and takes service on Sunday morning. After service he serves the food that he cooked to the people who attended the service. His work is not something simple and it is not just charity. Rather he shares and eats with the people who are there. His giving hurts so much that he does not have money for his needs and the needs of his family. Can we lent like this?

To sum it up, our lent should be an experience. We should not just be concerned about the diet and eating vegetarian food but helping others with food and shelter till it hurts us. It is not just our stomach which should growl in hunger but our body, mind and soul which should feel the hunger that others feel every day of their lives. May this lent make us experience hunger and reach out to people who are hungry and helpless. It is not easy to help them but if we are ready to be hurt and hungry, we can easily help them. Wishing you a lent which will make us go hungry so that others may be fed. Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine’s day : A spiritual explanation of a popular celebration

Valentine’s day has over the years become a celebration used to sell cards, flowers and goodies meant for couples to exchange. Many shops convert entire floors into Valentine’s themes with red being the dominant colour. There are also many groups which come out against the celebration, calling it a Western import and a blot on Indian culture. This being the case it always comes out, with or without the story of St. Valentine, as an unwanted and avoidable youth celebration.

But just like Father’s day, Mother’s day and even Independence day and Republic day celebrations are a remembrance of several things, Valentine’s day is also a remembrance of something. From that perspective Valentine’s day can also be a learning for age groups other than the young and single.
Love and relationships are also cornered as something which single women and men do and it is seen as having nothing to do with married couples and the aged. So much that love is not seen as a significant aspect of marriage but instead fidelity, faithfulness, morality and longevity are. This brings me to the point that celebrations about love should be seen as an opportunity to reenergize and reevaluate existing relationships.

The criticism of celebrating Valentine’s day is always centered around the fact that it has nothing to do with a marriage or a serious relationship going towards marriage but is rather a non-serious attempt of couples professing their love to a losing cause. This is why Valentine’s day is looked at with animosity and this is also why love marriages are looked at with animosity by traditional families. Even though times are changing, this animosity still exists and parents are worried about such celebrations. But if such traditions become part of family exercises in which the aged, middle aged and young are a part of, then this animosity will change.

What does the bible say about love? 1 Corinthians 13:13 says “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” and it shows that love is the foundation of all religions. 1 John 4:7 says “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” again suggesting that without love we cannot know God and this is a clear message to families who are against love. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” meaning that our very salvation is based on the fact that God loves us. The basis of every family and church thus must be love. We must do everything on this basis and whenever we question love, we are questioning God God’s self. Learning from this, we can question commercialization in society but we can’t question love, we can question erosion of true love but we can’t question love, we can question love which ferments abuse in relationships based on gender and caste but we can’t question love.

In today’s culture perhaps the biggest problem is that religion overall and Christianity specifically is adjusting itself to popular notions of security, gender relations, caste, race and class. A Valentine’s day celebration is an opportunity to pray and write that love is not a problem but the abuse of love in unequal relationships is. We need not jump onto the band wagon of love haters and groups which question love but rather need to read the bible closely and meditate on what God wants us to do.

In this context a Valentine’s day prayer would be
Lord of love, help me to pray for love that I may preach and live the gospel of love which Christ Jesus did. God of love, help me to be in active relationships of love in my house, school, college, work place and church which will make me sacrifice for the benefit of others. Holy Spirit, help me question love haters who reject couples and relationships, and thereby lead us together to spread the love of God on the cross. Amen.   

Picture credit: 4mygodsglory.wordpress.com