OK...I've been home a week , and am very aware that more processing needs to happen fairly swiftly, before I lose touch completely with the India experience amid the Advent avalanche. At the moment, if I'm honest, its impact seems to be mostly that of a large road-block that's hindering me from re-engaging with the people I'm called to serve here and now in CK. I know that I've left part of my heart in a parish in Bangalore (CSI Zion Church, if you're interested) - but I simply mustn't allow this to impede my ministry here.
After all, that would be to negate the whole point of my visit.
Before I left, many people asked what I was going for,- and a similar question was put by the diocesan bishop of Karnataka Central when we arrived. "What is your agenda for the month?"
Our official brief was "to learn from the pastoral ministry of the CSI,- with the implicit hope that this would impact (positively) on the whole way we do ministry when we return home" but at the moment I'm finding the differences in context and delivery so huge that making sense of the lessons is almost beyond me.
It's not simply that the church in India is completely committed to vigourous social engagement, though it's very inspiring to see the many wonderful projects, schools, hospitals and rescue schemes that the diocese runs. (More of these later, I expect)
I both loved and hated the response of Nirmala Vasanthakumar, "Bishop Amma" (as the wives of CSI bishops are known) "If the church doesn't do these things, then the church is irrelevant" - because it's not easy to hear such a stark truth about oneself,- but I believe she's right.
Quite what I do with this reminder now I'm back in the affluence of CK is another matter. I'm haunted by the knowledge that, when we attended the launch of a new project for street children, I was thanked for our parish's contribution to the funding...and hadn't actually remembered we were supporting it, because the annual donation of £100 was so insignificant in our budget that the PCC simply wrote a cheque, with no need to fundraise, and thus without any sense of ownership or involvement at all. That didn't and still doesn't feel particularly admirable to me, so to be garlanded and celebrated for our generosity was distinctly uncomfortable.
But that's not the main difference between our churches.
It's nothing to do with the differences between a church that operates on the "gathered" model, and represents a minority faith, as opposed to the C of E, which continues to operate on the assumption that everyone living within the parish is our responsibility, if they've not explicitly opted to belong elsewhere.
Certainly, it was both helpful and challenging to realise that the majority of the people I met outside the Indian churches had less than no knowledge of or interest in Christianity...Now where have I heard that before?
Of course India is a famously spiritual place. One of my most significant meetings during the past month was with a dozen elderly ladies who had all converted from Hinduism, and clearly saw their faith in Christ as the logical conclusion of many years of devoted Hindu observance. They had all been "continually in the Temple" and this laid the foundation for what came next...which also makes sense in the current climate of spirituality shopping that we're assured is part of contemporary western culture. I wish there had been opportunity to talk directly with practising Hindus. As I visited Christian homes, the many holy pictures and statues displayed with pride had a distinctly similar aura to the Hindu shrines we passed on street corners, and sometimes in worship it felt as if at any minute something older than the Christian church might emerge from somewhere beneath the surface of the liturgy. This was specially true when the Tamil congregations used traditional lyric music alongside their hymns. Their singing communicated with parts of me that I didn't even know existed,- perhaps because I was totally ignorant of both the meaning of the words and the musical form. For whatever reason, being part of a congregation worshipping in this way was a hugely liberating experience.
I suspect, though, that I'm not explaining myself well at all, as I'm not in any way suggesting that Indian Christianity is only a veneer, but rather that I was made specially conscious of the common nature of the search for God, whatever its context.
Far from being superficial, the faith that I encountered was quite simply and non-negotiably real, the foundation of everything that happened, every day, from the death of a child to the purchase of a new car.
So, I guess the most overwhelming difference between the church here and there is that, quite simply, all the congregations I encountered in India obviously believe in God and expect prayer to change things.
To spend a couple of hours in worship on Sunday, and then another 45 minutes praying with all sorts of people, in all sorts of different situations (some of which I couldn't begin to understand, as my Tamil is conspicuous by its absence - but that mattered not a jot) was a completely new and wonderful experience for me. To have elderly ladies automatically dropping to their knees at my feet having asked me to pray was perhaps the most humbling thing that has ever happened to me.
To come home without knowing the "end" of so many stories is terribly painful.
I did say that I'd left part of myself behind.