Friday, January 01, 2016

And what the highway told me...

Sometimes unexpected people impart invaluable lessons...

I was in Bombay recently and needed to go somewhere that involved a two-hour taxi ride (one way, that is) to my destination. 

I could either just sit and stare out of the window and take some random shots of this-and-that as I usually do or I could indulge in some small talk with the taxi driver, and also, take some pictures.  

The second option seemed more interesting since it'd give me a peek into how people in the taxi driver's demographic view India. 

Currently, there has been a lot of talk  about intolerance and imposition of certain 'values' into the body politic and I was curious to know how taxi drivers like Mishra thought of these changes.

Of course, one had to be careful while approaching such a subject. One can't possibly come right out and ask a total stranger if he thought Modi was subverting the secular and tolerant nature of India.

So I asked him about his life, how long he has been in the city, what his dreams are, where's home... questions that could be turned into 'small talk' if things get a bit heated but also could be used to assess the larger picture and get an understanding of the person's worldview.

There have been reports of 'chauvinists' who dislike people from Mishra the taxi drivers's ethnic group from settling in Bombsy and making a living. They feel that Bombay must be a city for Marathi language speakers and others should stay out if necessary. Some taxi drivers were also beaten up and some students arriving into the city were also attacked.

Mishra, on the other hand, remarked that he had been in the city for the past 20-25 years and regards it as home. His children did their schooling here and that he raised his family in the city that he now regards as his real home.

As an expat who has lived in Bahrain my entire life I can totally understand these sentiments and it's probably because of my own background that I have never felt compelled to agree with views of political parities such as Shiv Sena or MNS - even though they seem to champion the cause of my own 'ethnic group.'

Bombay has always been a city built by immigrants from other states and I suppose it's stories of ordinary people like Mishra who have provided the engine for the city's growth.

Later he told me that he was the only poorly educated person in his family.  Both his father and grandfather were professors in the big university and were scholars in their field. His siblings were also in prominent positions after acquirig degrees.

And then through his earnings as a taxi driver, he made sure that both his children received proper education. Hence his daughter is now an MA in English Literature and working as a lecturer in some college. She's also married to a man who finished his MBA and is now working for a multinational. 

His younger son is currently studying at Cambridge, which I later understood to be a school offering an ICSE syllabus as opposed to the local state board syllabus. 

The local state board schools are a lot cheaper and sadly aren't very strong in their content. And so for a person like Mishra, sending his son to an ICSE school must have been quite a sacrifice but one that he didn't seem to mind.

According to him, education was an investment not only in the future of one's child but also in the future of the country.

Educated people are the ones who are better able to see things clearly and offer solutions to improve things, he said.

And then I asked him if getting a degree is all that's required to be as 'educated' as per this definition.

Not at all, he exclaimed and asked me to look outside.

He pointed out to so many people on motorbikes without any helmets or any protective gear.

Look at them, he said, they are all breaking the rules without even realizing they are endangering their own lives through this reckless behavior.

The government or any political party, he added, doesn't benefit by this rule. If people wear helmets it only serves to protects them from possible danger to their own life.

I turned and saw that there were so many people on the busy highway without any helmets. And this was no ordinary highway, it had lot of fast cars and trucks hurtling across and the danger was a real possibility.

There were couples and even families riding without helmets. I even saw a woman wearing a long sari and her husband wearing a 'lungi' and I thought  - suppose the sari or the 'lungi' gets caught in the wheel? 

And the weirdest one of all... a couple on a bike where the man was wearing a helmet but his female companion wasn't. Obviously he bothered more about his safety than that of his female companion!

Mishra also noticed the same couple and said, If these people don't even care about their own life... how do you expect them to care about the country?

His words tore into my thoughts as I was looking at the couple who were not just inappropriately dressed but also without helmets.

Mishra continued and this time was more passionate... look at all these people, he said, they must all be properly educated and so they know the difference between what is good and bad, what is safe and what is risky, and yet they choose to ignore what is so obvious. If educated people behave like this... what do you expect the illiterate people to do? What example are they setting?

He didn't stop.

And look at them again. They must be people with enough money so it's not like they can't afford to buy helmets but somehow they don't feel the need. It's as if they feel that spending money on something that protects their life is not really worth it.

How can you expect such people to think about the country, its future and to see themselves as contributors to its growth and development?

Profound words, indeed... and for me, in particular, these thoughts answered the big question I had about India's trajectory under the current dispensation.

It really doesn't matter if the current Modi government is promoting inept and unqualified persons to head educational and cultural bodies... as long as there are ordinary people like Mishra out there who are passionate about the idea of real education and ambitious about it... there's nothing to worry about. Absolutely nothing. And that's something to be happy about.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Children of a bruised reed

These are not the best of times for people of faith.

It doesn't matter what faith group you are part of or what denominational affiliation you hold. As long as you are a card carrying member of the 'faith' community, you are somehow immediately labeled as obstinate, stuck-in-the-past, intolerant or as pathologically regressive and unyielding to change.

Somehow no one imagines there can be any  redeeming features amongst those of us who believe in some sort of a deity and are members of an organized religion.  It's as if the moment we make a declaration of faith, we are surrendering any claim to reason and compassion and forsaking our capability of making rational choices.

It's rather strange to come across this perception because for many of us the life we live is so unlike what most people from the other side of the fence imagine it to be. Far from being a crutch and some sort of escapism, it is - as a matter of fact - a life that involves doing exactly opposite what our senses yearn. It is certainly not a paradise on earth that we live because the easiest thing to do would be to surrender to the 'ways of the world' but then we don't... not out of some sort of supernatural fear but knowing that the narrow way however hard and torturous is the road to life.

And this is the dilemma that the 'religious' find hard to explain because on the one hand we are apparently living in a cuckoo land as a means of escaping from reality, and then on the other hand we struggle daily to be 'holy' in a world where such spiritual terminologies are fast losing their meaning, relevance and even need. The easiest thing to do would be to renounce this life of a pilgrim and choose the road already taken but we don't do that.

We stay on the road and persevere against all odds in clinging to that which we believe will make us whole. And empower us to be a ‘salt’ and ‘light’ to a world that’s grappling for answers to some of life’s burning questions.

Now it may seem that this kind of constant struggle would somehow make us more endearing and less threatening, and perhaps even elicit some sort of a friendly pat on the back, too. No such thing. Instead, we are seen as troublemakers and - sad to say - we have no one but ourselves to blame.

On the face of it, a desire to love God should make us more godly in the way we talk, in the way we conduct our lives and in the way we approach each and every situation. Our yearning to be holy and our desire to be spiritual should inspire us to live such lives that draw people towards something noble and pure. Sadly, things aren't going in that way.

When the irreligious blame us for being judgmental, intolerant and arrogant they aren't making it up. Some of us can be pretty articulate in expressing our intense dislike for anyone or anything that doesn't toe our line. And am not talking merely about those on the extremist wing that only understand the language of an AK47 in scoring debating points.

I am also talking about those whose Pharisee like approach have made spirituality extremely repulsive not because of what it is but by the way people associated with it have made it out to be.  It’s as if there’s this immense urge to turn piety into a competitive sport rather than an inward journey towards increased humility. 

And not to be outdone, there are these countless stories about political posturing by religious bigots, outlandish claims by religious fanatics and tales of abuse committed by those in authority that have only complicated matters even further.

We can't deny that there exists in our midst people who take rather extreme positions that somehow appear to be too ludicrous or terribly cruel, inhumane and merciless… in other words, embarrassing!  

It is rather hard to explain or even comprehend how people who claim to be godly appear to be the ones who are pretty loud in denying mercy to those in need. They appear to hold on to their positions with such ruthless obstinacy that any deviation is regarded as downright evil rather than a tireless struggle that everyone goes through anyway.

Now I don't mean to say that those in the faith community should have an open door policy whereby they end up accepting any and everything that goes on. There has to be a line drawn in declaring that which is sinful and ungodly. However, that will be another discussion altogether.

My problem is with inconsistencies that I see amongst those in the faith community - inconsistencies that are painfully apparent to anyone who cares to observe objectively, and ones that are making the irreligious draw incorrect conclusions about our walk with God. But more to the point, it is also drawing people away from God especially those who have a deeper longing to be godly.

This dichotomy between what people say and do, and impose on others is nothing new. Jesus Christ experienced the same problems when He was on earth since majority of His detractors were the religious fundamentalists of His time. These were people - like the religious fanatics of today - who clung on to the orthodoxy of dogma that applied a rigid social structure of 'us and them,' who evaluated piety by how one dressed or behaved, who insisted in a hierarchical pattern that was sustained by patronage, and who bullied the weak and vulnerable into a lifetime of servitude.

St Augustine famously said, 'do not judge a philosophy by its abuse', and this remains - in my opinion - to be a very important guideline in how one assesses faith communities worldwide. I am aware that each and every faith or religion is based on strictures or dogmas that aren't necessarily complementary and that genuine differences do exist. However, this is not the place to discuss those differences and perhaps it requires another essay altogether.

What I believe that this guideline should help us do is to make us study each and every philosophy and/or religion in detail before any conclusions can be drawn. Instead of rubbishing every member of the faith community as regressive because of outlandish claims made, it's better to study claims and evaluate them in the light of their dogma and scriptures. And then, make further evaluation based on historical and textual contexts to see if the crazy talk is 'scripturally' based or just plain ranting from a religious nutcase.

And yes, this is relevant not only for those who are irreligious but also for those who are in the faith community and end up making wrong conclusions about people from other religions. It's important to study what people believe and then see if their language and actions match their doctrine, and if not, call it for what it is - an error!

However, these are not easy times and am aware no one is going to bother going through the trouble of studying doctrine. And am aware that there will be people who will continue to rely on their preconceived notions no matter what, but there's nothing we can do about those who remain obstinate in their positions.

I do feel that St Paul has possibly one of the best responses to religious pride and arrogance. His words written in a letter to a church in Corinth that was full of people who didn't walk the talk highlights what is - by and large - the most important benchmark to evaluate holiness, piety and spirituality:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Riting Nglish in SMS :)

I was spring cleaning yesterday and came across this old article I had written for my column in UOB News & Views (January 2004).  I was a bit amused by what I wrote and thought it was pretty relevant even today.  Now spring cleaning is something I enjoy if it involves 'looking around old stuff' and not 'cleaning' per se.  One feels a bit like losing a part of oneself when one has to throw things away - things that remind you of the past and take you to those places that you wish you could return to. I know that sounded so sad but then it's really not all that tragic.  I love keeping stuff and love the sense of connection to the past that old stuff brings. Anyway, enough with my rambling and here's the article...

Language purists often decry the corruption of the English language through SMS and email. The argument goes that the so-called messages passed to and fro via this media cannot be considered English.  They aren't just spelt incorrectly but there, also, appears to be a total absence of syntax, punctuation and grammar. And to make matters worse, the messages don't even look English!

But this argument has a curious history and goes back, at least, fifty or sixty years since popular culture became an intrinsic part of people's lives through cinema, radio and television. Back then, it was popular culture that was vilified for its so-called corrupting influence and blamed for promoting slangs and colloquialisms in everyday speech.

Of course, the nature of popular culture was also undergoing a seismic shift during this period of time and the reaction was understandable. Entertainment was becoming less elitist and market forces became a determining factor in deciding what's in and what's out. And as far as language was concerned, the prescriptive approach found no takers and soon culture began to find its inspiration in imitating the sounds and rhythms of the common man.

Hence, standard English, for example, was no longer seen as the lingua franca of popular culture but became just another means for denoting character of a particular social class and/or, a particular type of education.

In this context, the so-called English used in SMS and email raise certain valid questions.

Are we looking at a dialect spoken by a new sub-culture? Does this dialect require such linguistic anarchy to justify its existence? Is this a shining example of the way people communicate in the twenty-first century? And most importantly, are we faced with a new linguistic tool for today's popular culture?

But before we ponder hard over these question, it is worthwhile to remember that, sometimes, laziness plays a crucial role in mangling grammatical forms and in omitting punctuations. Economics of space, connection speed and the crushing need to rush through time are, also, seen as fellow culprits.

But if we are honest enough we need to ask ourselves: no matter what, can we truly justify the absence of grammar and punctuation in our need to communicate as quickly as possible?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A look back

We have already reached the end of 2013 and are staring into all the possibilities that 2014 has to offer. And for most of us, it's a bit of  surprise that this day has come so soon and so fast. Of course, that's not really true since - as is customary with 'years' - it had to undergo the entire cycle of 365 day, 52 weeks and 12 months.

And yet - quite strangely - it does seem like the year has gone by very fast. I remember saying something on similar lines last year when we were saying goodbye to 2012 but must admit that 2013 certainly went on a stampede.

Some say it is to do with one's age - the older we grow the busier we get and time passes in a whirl, as it were. While still others say it has something to do with the busy lives we lead that leaves us little or no time to pause, and hence, we barely notice the year passing by. And then there are those who feel it has something to do with the earth's rotation picking up speed and hence we feel the year going so fast.

Alright. I just made the last thing up because the subject seemed to be crying for it.

Anyway, whatever be the reason, the truth of the matter is... we have just seen one entire year pass by with the blink of an eye, and who knows, the next year will be just like that... or maybe faster.

The question is, what are we going to say about the year when we are in December 2014? Are we going to breathe a sigh of relief that another horrible year has gone by? Or are we going to pant with the excitement of an athlete who just won a marathon? Or are we simply going to shake our heads and say, another spectacularly boring year in which nothing happened.

Well, we dont know what the new year holds but we do know it's right there in the corner. It would be easy to imagine it's not there but we can't. We have to accept whatever comes our way and make the best of what the year brings.

It could be death, it could be life, it could be illness or it could be health and an overflow of goodness and blessings flowing our way.

All we can do is trust God in knowing He is there no matter what the circumstances, and do our best in fulfilling our role in the drama of life. And maybe do that with as much sincerity and generosity as possible so that if we die and meet our maker, He'd look at us and say, 'well done, my good and faithful servant...'

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Anatomy of an assault

These are not the best of times to be a single, straight Indian guy.

We've been getting a lot of bad press these days and certainly not for any good reason. Somehow there's just excessive news of how Indian men have attacked women, sexually assaulted them or conspired with the authorities in whitewashing their misdeeds.

Somehow it's made out that we are such incorrigible entities that we can't be trusted and so the government in its usual high handed manner feels that the best possible remedy is to censor what we see - assuming that blocking access to titillation will miraculously free us from the urge to do something terrible.

Then there are the moral watchdogs in society who feel that separating us from women altogether will nip things in the bud, and women will be all the more safer by not having 'us' around.

And as if not to be left behind, there are the gurus of political correctness who fall back on semantics to address the issue.

Of course, it can't be denied that most of these remedies (for want of a better word) have worked in some way or the other in highlighting the problem but they've only offered short term solutions - like band-aid over gangrene. The real issues still remain untouched because.... frankly I wish I knew why!!!

But then again, when you read news of young women and even five year olds being brutally raped with their private parts violated.... it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this is not about sex alone, it's not about the gender issue alone, and it's not about the inequality of the sexes that have caused this horrible mayhem in supposedly 'modern' societies.

It's true that - outwardly, at least - the action does suggest sexual hunger may have played a part and that the motivation was partly driven by the assumption that they are 'men' and they can do anything they want with a 'woman' they want.

But let's get one thing clear lest we throw the baby with the bath water - sexual desire does not lead to assault because that's not how desire and longing works. I am not even going to say that this is not how it works amongst 'normal' people because that would give the impression that there are two distinct ways to express desire and would give credence to all that the moral watchdogs have to say.

Let's be clear about one thing though. Sexual desire and longing do not lead to private parts being mercilessly violated but instead they lead to music, flowers, chocolates, candlelit dinners, long walks, sentimental mush that drives strong men weak in their knees, and a promise of a lifetime of fidelity, love and loyalty.

Sexual desire in its proper framework would naturally lead to men wanting to love, care, protect and respect their women. Yes, it often - and should obviously - lead to marriage or a lifetime of commitment. There has to be a sense of responsibility so that the woman realises that she is cherished for the person she is and not just enjoyed for the body she has.

Respect is - most often - a neglected word in most discussions on the topic these days. A man who respects a woman will never dare to hurt her. A man who respects womanhood will never dream of seeing women as objects for consumption and violation. A man who respects humanity will never consider assaulting another person with whatever tools he can get his hands on.

Somehow this lack of respect has also led to lack of civility in society and a breakdown of communication not just between genders but also between everyone.

To put it more bluntly, this absence of respect has created violent monsters who speak the language of assault to show who's the boss. They aren't interested in gently navigating the complexities of sexual dynamics or propping up their best side when they see a woman they like.

All they want to do is attack who they see as a weak person so that their supremacy (for want of a better word) is maintained.

Let's not bring sex or gender issues into the discussion or even insist this is only a very "Indian" or an "Asian" problem. Doing so would not only be a racist generalisation but also simplifying matters when we shouldn't. All we end up doing is perpetuating the myth that any single "Indian" or "Asian" man who likes a woman is capable of such horrors.

Commoditising women and treating them as objects for consumption and violation is a global phenomenon. And obviously, it leads to behaviour that somehow validates these assumptions.

If we are serious about confronting the issue, it's vital that rape and other forms of sexual assault be treated in the same way we react to other forms of physical torture.

It's not about sex and certainly not about issues related to men and women but about violent individuals who use the most grotesque form of torture to attack another helpless individual.

And I - like many other single men I know - are totally disgusted by what these individuals seem to do.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Looking at residues

It has been quite a while since I've put my blog to some serious use. Not that I didn't have anything to say or that I had lost my urge to speak about things. Far from it. So much has been going on. So much is happening that needs to be written about, argued over, discussed but then life has a way of intervening and messing things about.

And so what should be written becomes another empty page: unsaid, unsung and left to vaporise like water splashed on asphalt on a hot summers day.

I guess my excuse is time: too little of it to spend on things I want to, and too much of it spent on things that I have to. Being as elusive as a summer breeze, time disappears soon enough and before we know it there's an incredible backlog of all the things we should have done but didn't.

Of course, you'll agree that this is applicable not just to things like writing a blog but to life in general.

Life is filled with so many of these unfinished tasks that we begin with great passion and enthusiasm but then somewhere along the way something complex and inexplicable happens and our drive sputters to a halt. Or just loses steam as if some unseen force decides that too much enthusiasm is not a good thing.

However, when one looks back at one's life and examines all that has transpired, then, it is often 'moments' and not 'tasks' that produce a twinge of regret. The thing about tasks is that one can pick them up again from where one has left. An unfinished novel just needs to be written. A musical instrument that one started to learn simply needs a time slot for the lessons to be continued. A diet regime can be started again with patience and determination just like what one would do with exercising in the gym.

The same does not apply to moments that have disappeared. Love unexpressed at the right time is gone forever. Helpful deed not done when needed loses its effectiveness when one does the same thing at a later date. Justification or clarification not given at the moment when asked becomes meaningless when delivered much later. Little or no effort made in bringing reconciliation in a damaged friendship runs the risk of ruining the relationship forever

I am sure many of us can think of many more such unfinished 'tasks' and unfinished 'moments'.  In a strange and twisted way, our life is incomplete without them, and yet, our lives are filled with them. They gives our lives its shape and its contours. And in many ways, influences the journey our character undertakes in acquiring its depth and gravitas.

Regret is a natural response to such 'unfinished' situations but I wonder if its helpful. The alternative would, of course, be to look at these situations not as tragic ruptures but as potentials for growth -- not seeing the unfinished as the end of everything but as a chance to begin again with fresh energy and unbridled enthusiasm. Or in other words, to complete them again with wisdom acquired in the intervening years.

Question is, will we do what we must or look for another excuse for not doing anything?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

4 Days To Christmas - Noel

In another two years time, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War or The Great War as it was then called till Hitler rolled his wagon into Poland and ignited the second.

It's rather ironic that the war waged under the naive assumption that it would be 'the war to end all wars' began at the beginning of the bloodiest century in human history.

However, in the midst of the savagery of this war that saw the death of millions of young men on the battlefield, there is also a story of hope and peace.

I find it so inspiring that I repeated it last year, and don't mind repeating it again as long as I continue writing these Christmas countdown posts.

It's an unusual story and comes across as almost unreal and yet it's true. Somehow the most inspiring real life events are a bit like that - you can't believe it could be possible but then again you can't deny it.

I won't say much about it except leave you to read the lyrics below which explains what really happened that Christmas eve many years ago.

What I really like about it is that it sums up what Christmas is all about or should be - peace and reconciliation with a bit of joyous festivity thrown in for good measure.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

5 Days To Christmas - Fellowship

We are supposed to be social animals, gregarious entities who find pleasure in the company of one another.

We were created that way, too.

Our entire being is meant to belong and not stay in isolation. Not as islands cast adrift in an ocean of apathy but as as an archipelago that finds its identity in being recognised as part of something bigger than itself.

However, loneliness is a reality for many people in this day and age. To them being part of the collective is a desirable reality that does not correspond with the painful reality they experience day in and day out.

Our modern lifestyle hasn't helped matters much either. The human touch is often the most neglected component in most communications, and technology has made it possible to engage without actually being in touch.

In such a scenario, the unconnected individual loses his or her bearing and finds it impossible to find connections.

In earlier societies where the community was everything, the search for connections was irrelevant because the community helped in establishing those connections.

And now left to the individual, the same process becomes a tiresome journey involving many pitfalls of pain, frustration and disappointment.

It just isn't the same to do it all by yourself when once it took a village to accomplish everything.

This spectre of loneliness is so pervasive that it is often reflected in songs and in much of our art and films. There is a sense that being alone and lonely is the state of every man and woman in the 21st Century, and that everyone must deal with it as best as one can.

Trouble is, not many can - or want to - deal with it. They see their loneliness as an aberration and not as something typical of this day and age.

Christmas is a time when their loneliness becomes even more acute. This is so because the overall emphasis on families and loved ones getting together for a christmas meal is a rude reminder of what their life truly lacks.

In such a context, it would be necessary to reflect on the first Christmas that announced the birth of Immanuel - God with us. This idea of God being near and not far away or remote from the pressures of modern life is a comforting and soul strengthening thought.

But while we do so, it would be equally helpful to remember what the Apostle John wrote about Christ - He came to that which was his own but his own received him not.

In other words, sharing not just our humanity but also the loneliness we experience after being rejected.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

6 Days To Christmas - Light

I am a little behind schedule with my posts because I was not well but let me see how best I can speed up.

The ability of light to dispel darkness is, perhaps, one of those powerful metaphors that suffers from being overused.

It's sad, really.

The imagery is just right to make a point: a tiny flicker of a candle devouring darkness by its mere glow and revealing what was once hidden.

However, what happens with such overused metaphors is that one loses sight of its significance and it becomes nothing more than a tired cliche.

But it doesn't in any way alter the truth behind what the imagery suggests.

Like serendipity, it becomes a moment of discovery, of new insights suddenly becoming more relevant, of ideas moving away from theoretical notions into something real and tangible.

The Christmas story is also about light entering the world, to bring hope to a people perplexed by their inner darkness, and to reveal that hamartia need no longer be the defining feature of humanity.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

The words of prophet Isaiah written a few centuries before the birth of Christ gives a sense of the Messiah's mission.

The words bring a sense of comfort and a sense of belonging especially in knowing that the divine light is not remote or beyond our reach but has chosen to inhabit our soul provided we allow Him to.

However, Christ also said 'let your light shine that people may see your good works...'

Hence, being a repository of light can also be a challenge because one is not expected to glow for oneself but to reflect God's goodness in our world.

There's so much of darkness in the world - the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, healthcare is not accessible to everyone, the language of violence appears to define political discourse, hunger and lack of education has reduced some people groups into abject poverty, and in some countries corruption appears to be the 'normal' state of affairs for all business transactions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg but the challenge remains - what are we doing about it? Will we bring our light into these areas of darkness? Will we reveal the evil for what it really is or remain silent? Or will we follow the example of the cross by pursuing truth and righteousness no matter the cost?

And that's the challenge.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

7 Days To Christmas - Love

We are creatures of love but we also happen to be the most unloving race on this planet.

It's a weird paradox and one that defies all sense of logic. On the one hand, we demonstrate such extreme emotions of love that finds expression in works of art, literature, architecture and acts that warms our heart and soothes our soul.

And then, on the other hand, we commit acts of extreme cruelty, develop weapons that inflict the most severe pain, oppose people on the basis of superficial factors like colour or ethnicity and applaud policies that bleed rather than heal the poor.

And we claim to do all this in the name of love or its many variants.

Love can be quite tricky that way. It expects us to rise above ourselves, think of the other as more deserving of the best we can give, and disturbingly enough, touches the very heart of God because God is love.

The trouble is, human imperfection or hamartia as the writers of the New Testament put it, comes in the way and warps our expressions of love into something totally unrecognisable from its original intent.

Hamartia - or tragic flaw - describes the state of humanity as one that has missed the mark in becoming what God has intended humanity to be - creatures made in the image of God, reflecting His love through acts of kindness that breathe life into an aching world.

The tragedy is that, we've paid more
attention to our baser instincts, insisting on its invincibility and believing in the 'virtue' of selfishness rather than to the selflessness God expects.

The result is a world torn apart by anger and hatred, where creeds like 'unto thine own self be true' are used as excuses to avoid caring for the socially disadvantaged, and where narrow and parochial world views are made to seem more important than the command to love our neighbour as ourselves.

In such a world, the Christmas story is not just a pretty picture on our cards. It is also a divine promise that all is not lost -- that Love finds a way to redeem humanity and undo the curse of hamartia.

It is the story of a Messiah who came to love the unlovable, give them His all, and provide an example of selflessness that can be emulated.

The problem is, this call for love remains but a cry in the wilderness... will we take up the challenge or continue giving hatred and cruel indifference the pride of place in our hearts?

8 Days To Christmas - Joy

Joy is an exclamation mark!

There's no other way one can best describe a word such as joy. It's not as blunt, curt and to-the-point like a period. Or somewhat diffident and cautious but with an impulsive sprint in its foot like a comma.

Joy cannot be whispered in hush tones or stated matter of factly. That would be too polite and would seem a little bit like a stuck up courtier behaving with decorum. It has to be shouted and screamed with the kind of delirium that some might mistake for insanity.

Joy does that. Or at least, it's supposed to do so.

Being joyous must involve being lost for words. If one can explain it in a perfectly formed and grammatically sound sentence, then, perhaps one hasn't got it as yet. It's not a rule as such but as indicators go, it'd be a sign.

There are moments in our life when joy can be the only valid response. Anything else can hardly match the leaps our heart would be taking when we're struck by joy.

Christmas is meant to be a season of joy. It's in the carols we sing. It's in the family get-togethers where memories are made. It's in the warm hugs and kisses we share with those we love and care.

And it's also in the news of the Christ child born in an insignificant Palestinian town of Bethlehem - a birth that would herald freedom to those shackled by sin's clutches, peace to those tormented by the inner demons of anxiety, and a group of social nobodies out in the hillside tending to their sheep given the privilege of being the first to hear this news.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

9 Days To Christmas - Peace

Peace is a song, a chant, a cry, a reason to protest or an excuse for some sort of action.  For many people, peace can be one or two or all of these things. And for still others, it's an idea worth preserving and fighting for.

Whichever way one looks at it, peace invariably finds itself on the top of everyone's agenda. One can't go wrong if peace remains the core rationale for any activity. It sounds great on paper and makes the ones talking about it feel and look good. Sometimes the most outrageous military exercise can be undertaken in the name of peace, and that somehow, is often used as a means to toast themselves as saints.

In fact, some of the most tyrannical dictatorships that have been known for exporting terrorism claim to do so in the name of peace. Or at least, their atrocity projected as a necessity to bring about peace.

Peace, in this context, is often viewed as a combination of a ceasefire and cessation of violence. Or as a resumption of trade ties and establishment of economic partnership. In other words, transforming adversaries into economic allies.

It is assumed that this change in equation will silence the guns forever because of a shared stake in economic gain. And it makes sense because war and violence do not produce the right environment for boosting the retail and tourism trade, for instance.

But there is another peace that no trade or political agreement can ever help achieve. It is to do with the war that burns in the hearts of men and women everywhere -- the fear and anxiety that makes being alive a living hell for some people, the agonising insecurity that drives others to uncontrollable fits of rage and jealousy, and the aching loneliness that renders their very existence to be totally meaningless.

Peace, for many people, is not a brownie point to be gained the way governmental bodies negotiate treaties. It is the very water that the hot burning sands of the desert crave during the summer months. It is a need as urgent as the air one breathes, the water that quenches our thirst, and the food that  strengthens and nourishes us.

Peace is also something that ties in very well with the Christmas narrative. It is something that we need to remind ourselves in between the many distractions that can shift our minds elsewhere during the season.

Christmas marks the birth of the Messiah who was also known as the Prince of Peace. In fact, the angelic choir burst out in the night sky and announced to the shepherds: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace on whom His favour rests.'

It was, as if, a declaration was made that peace need no longer inhabit the realm of wishful thinking but has now become possible for those who seek it.

However, it is vital to note that to give to the world the 'peace that passes all understanding', the Messiah had to walk a road of pain and grief or as Prophet Isaiah put it:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.