Monday, August 19, 2013

In no particular order 2) Being Church

7 years ago when I visited India, it was very much as part of my ministerial development. My brief was to learn from the life and experiences of clergy in the Church of South India - and I hope I did so.
Mostly, though, I was completely blown away by the experience of being in India - the sights, sounds, smells...the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality I received wherever I went. There were also some important lessons about letting go of my own children for a while and learning to spread my wings just as they were spreading theirs...

This trip, my official brief was to support and co-lead the group of teenagers in our care - but ironically, I was far more conscious of the reality of the world-wide Church as the Body of Christ and of all that we have in common, and the fact that I wasn't tied to a particular church, even for a short time, enabled a wider experience of church life in different contexts.

There were many special conversations and times when the sense of unity in Christ was so strong it was the biggest single reality - but I'd like to share four particular highlights, that enlarged my vision and helped me to visualise the worshipping Church as Good News.

The 1st was on our first Sunday in Karnataka, when we were prised away from the home comforts of the CSI Guest House in Bangalore to be given a glimpse of the reality of life in rural India, as we visited Chickballapur, Gangasandra (where our hosts in the CSI hostel for boys even gave up their beds for us) and, the next morning, Tumkur.
This was exciting for many reasons - not simply the presence of a random Temple elephant whom we passed by the roadside as we hurried to church.
The REALLY exciting thing, for me at any rate, was that one of the four churches our group visited that day was presided over by my friend Revd Rachel Priyarani....A reunion with Rachel was one of my greatest hopes for this trip to India - and to find myself directed to the bathroom "in the pastor's house over there" and discover that SHE was the pastor in question was a complete delight! A happy hour catching up and sharing memories in her kitchen while she made a huge pile of chapattis to feed our group reassured me that this was a real friendship - not simply the product of my own longing to feel connected with the ministry of the church here. Later that evening, after I had preached to her evening congregation - who had warmly welcomed the whole group and produced the inevitable flowers for all of us - she gave me one of the best gifts of all. After the prayer of consecration, she handed me the ciborium and dropped to her knees beside me - enabling me to give her the Sacrament, and then to share it with each one of her congregation. That evening, of course, the congregation included our own band of pilgrims - and it was hugely important for me to give them Communion by name at this early point in our journey together. The evening service at Bishop Gill Church is held in English, which made it easy for us to feel at home - but for me it was the warmth of Rachel's smile and her grace in welcoming me to share her ministry that made the difference. I've been privileged to spend time with her now on 3 different occasions, twice in India and once here in England. My hope and prayer is that our friendship is now so confirmed that it is unthinkable that we'll not meet again - though sometimes I could do with a rather smaller world.

In contrast, my other highlights in worship were in churches where we couldn't understand a word of what was going on. The first was in the Tamil church of the Good Shepherd in the Kolar Gold Fields, where we were warned that the congregation on a Thursday evening would be small - and highly traditional. Not a word of English was spoken during the course of the service, during which we mostly sat on floor mats (men on the right, women on the left) and listened as the congregation sang the traditional hymns and lyrics, with their tabla, harmonium and Indian bells - but I think each one of us was caught up in the atmosphere of focussed prayer that surrounded us. There was never a moment of doubt that deep and faithful worship was going on - which it was a privilege to be involved in. Incidentally, that "small" congregation numbered around 60 - with an age-range from twenties to eighties..The young Indian woman praying beside me somehow carried me in her prayers without our exchanging a word throughout - and I'll not easily forget the lovely stillness of her presence.

Finally, 2 Sundays ago, I found myself preaching once again - this time at Christ Church Hosur. Again the service was in Tamil, so I had the slightly disconcerting experience of pausing at the end of every sentence to allow a translation - while having absolutely NO idea whether the translator was actually sticking to my script at all. Apparently he mostly did - but couldn't resist expanding on some points. As Tamil seems to be a more involved language than English, even a direct translation took quite a while - which meant that my "about God, about 10 minutes" sermon was miraculously expanded to fit the longer slot that Indian congregations expect. Earlier in the trip, one pastor told me that if HE had dared to preach for just 10 minutes his congregation would instantly assume that he knew nothing whatever about Scripture - and be phoning complaints to the bishop without delay. 
This, however, was not what made it a memorable Sunday.
This church has a history of resisting women's ministry and it will be many a year before an ordained woman can pastor there. Though I had no idea at the time, I was making history in preaching - and later I found that I was pushing a few more boundaries, in blissful ignorance.

You see, once again the pastor of the church generously invited me to give Communion to his entire congregation.

All 1000 of them.

It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer number of hands was overwhelming in itself. Though I have been part of congregations of that size before, at ordinations or at Greenbelt for example, the norm in those situations is to have several stations for Communion. Here, every single man, woman and child came and knelt at the altar rail, and opened their hands so that God could fill them.
And SUCH hands
The soft white hands of my fellow travellers
Brown hands
The work hardened hands of some elderly men 
A few hands with deformities - missing fingers, at least one fearful scar gouged right across the palm
Hands knarled by arthritis
The chubby hands of children
All of them stretched out, - and me, ME given the joyous task of offering what they were asking for.

At the door afterwards there were many requests for blessings, many babies placed in my arms so that I could pray for them, many many moments when the language barrier faded to nothing as I was asked to do what I'm ordained to do - to pray, to reconcile, to bless.

For me India is, supremely, a place of hospitality - and in that church on that morning I glimpsed for a moment the faintest echo of the endless hospitality of God - who places himself, literally, in the hands of whoever asks.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Father against son and son against father" - words for Trinity 12C at St Matthew's

51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

That may sound rather too close to the current state of the Church of England – divided over women bishops, gay priests, fracking and a whole let else besides – and if it does, it probably does not fill you with hope or joy.
We tend to think that to be set against something is always bad – that harmony and unity are goods to be pursued at all cost.
But sometimes, you know, it's worth taking a stand AGAINST something
In India I spent a lot of time singing the sort of Sunday school songs that my own mother learned in childhood – songs that are, for the most part, considered far too old fashioned for the sophisticated children of 21st century Gloucestershire...One such was “Dare to be a Daniel – dare to stand alone”
and perhaps that's closer to the spirit of today's gospel than the infighting of the institutional church.
Sometimes there are things worth standing up for – whatever the apparent cost.
Let me tell you a story – not from this visit to India, but from my previous adventure there 7 years ago.
I'd spent some time wrestling with the legacy of the British Raj.
Was it something to applaud or mourn?
To be honest, I'm still not sure.

Disturbingly, to be white still seems a passport to instant respect.
A blessing from English hands is valued more than an Indian one, and to the young Indian to be westernised is to be to sophisticated and successful.
That’s a real issue –for westernisation brings as many problems as blessings.
However, nothing is ever quite straightforward in India. Just as soon as you think you've got a handle on something, fresh light shows new perspectives – and I'm still not sure whether the work of the British in India is something to cherish or to lament.
Some of my Indian friends, though, are quite clear about it.
People like Andrew a Sunday school worker with Church of South India.
Like 70% of Indian Christians, Andrew's family is dalit, - the untouchable caste that is still seen in some areas as barely human, the lowest of the low,valued so much less than those beasts that Hindus revere as gods.
But his grandfather converted to Christianity, following what amounted to a miracle – a miracle that both gave him a great deal and cost him a great deal too.
Grandpa was employed by a British tea planter, a Christian who held daily prayers for his household...but grandfather, a devout Hindu, was not convinced.
He liked his employer, valued the kindness that was offered to all the staff, but remained steadfast to the faith of his own ancestors. Then one day he had an accident at work, breaking his treatment was some days journey away, and by the time he arrived gangrene had set in and amputation seemed inevitable. Surgery was planned for the following day, and he lay in great pain and utter desolation. How could he hope to support his family as a cripple? What could he do in in the face of such ruin? Where could he turn.
As he lay there on his hard hospital bed he noticed a picture of Jesus, which the face familiar from pictures in his employer's home...
In some desperation prayed
"I am in too much pain. If you are indeed a god, act."
That night his pain did not keep him awake, and instead he slept deeply and dreamed vividly of two men in white who came to him and assured him that Jesus had indeed healed his leg. In the morning, astounded doctors found that the gangrene had gone, the broken bone was whole and, not surprisingly, grandfather converted to Christianity on the spot.
Wonderful, life changing stuff – but carrying within it the seeds of another change – the sort that sets father against son and mother in law against daughter in law.
His grandfather's conversion meant that he was rejected by his own community, driven from the family home, threatened with violence, subjected to scorn and vitriol.
Even today, when Andrew returns home to his village, he is ostracised, out cast.
But, he says, it is worth it.
For Andrew, Christianity represents an open door, an escape route from the confines of the eternal cycle of karma to freedom and dignity as a child of God.
There are, you see, some things that are more important even than family unity.
You may never find yourself having to stand against those whom you love for the sake of your faith – but today's gospel reminds us that following Christ should never be an easy option. To be honest, if it has never yet cost you anything, you might need to ask yourself whether you're actually living as one of his disciples – or just coming along to a pleasant religious social club.
Think about that.
About what it is in your faith that might inspire you to hold fast no matter what...for Jesus emphatically does not promise an easy ride.
He does, though, promise life everlasting.

In no particular order -reflections on my 2nd visit to India. 1) Multi faith society

I was intrigued when I got home from Bangalore on Wednesday to see that the media was busy reporting Rowan Williams' recent interview in which he suggested that UK Christians claiming persecution should reflect on the true persecution that their brothers and sisters in other lands experience and, not to put too fine a point on it, "grow up".
I'd very much agree with the former ABC...there is a wealth of difference between being asked not to wear a cross at work and facing actual physical violence, and I've come home impressed by the way that different faiths seem to co-exist quite peacefully, even respectfully, in Karnataka.

In India, Christianity is very much a minority faith - owned by just 2% of the population - and of course in some parts of the country it IS under threat. Just google "attacks on Christians in Bihar" to read about the sort of persecution that the early martyrs might have encountered. However, in the diocese of Karnataka Central, and particularly in that great melting pot that is the city of Bangalore, things seem very different. 

We were there during Ramadan, at a time when you might have expected tensions to escalate. After all, nobody is at their best when trying to function on an empty stomach - but we encountered neither sight nor sound of religious tension. Instead, wherever we went we heard stories of co-operation between neighbours that reminded me of the idealised community we imagine was the English village of yesteryear.
Out at Kannapura, Revd Shilpa told how her Hindu neighbours were great supporters of the tiny church that meets in her home, how they always attended harvest and Christmas celebrations and would work alongside her congregation to raise funds for the new church building that will soon become a reality.
In Bangalore, almost every school we visited welcomed children of all faiths, many had special arrangements in place for Ramadan but not one of them compromised their Christian identity even for a second. Thus it was that at the CSI Zenana Mission School one morning we found ourselves singing Sunday school choruses my mother learned at the feet of CIM missionaries in Chefoo before WW2 with a congregation of 100% Muslim children - in the shadow of a Hindu Temple arch. 
The whole multi faith situation in microcosm.

I asked repeatedly if there were any problems, any tensions - and was assured that no, the Church was respected and appreciated. When I pushed a senior cleric as to why this should be so he summed it up very neatly
"For you in the west, the cross is seen as a sign of victory. Here in India it is a sign of service. Our neighbours respect us because they know that we will work tirelessly for the well-being of the community. If we do that because of our faith, then our faith is worth reverence..."

Perhaps that's the issue which should concern those Christians who feel that that they are being oppressed in 21st century Britain. Have we done anything to EARN the respect and love of our neighbours - or do we, by treating them with suspicion and alarm, pave the way ourselves for misunderstanding and division? 
Perhaps we should focus rather more on love in action and less on imagined slights.Who knows, perhaps if we visibly loved our neighbours, they might feel more inclined to love us!