Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Countdown: Christmas Day

So the day came and went, or at least, it will do so in a few minutes time. And then, it will recede into memory and become another day shared with friends and family. Like always. Each year we go through the same cycle and each time we experience the same varied emotions: anticipation, excitement, relief, and finally, nostalgia.

Sometimes the unexpected can creep in, and disappointments can ruin an otherwise festive mood. But those are exceptions that we are not prepared for, and are not expected to do so anyway. None of us are ever prepared for the type of unusual that brings sadness or exasperation because it is not in our nature to include such possibilities.

Seven years ago, no one quite expected the tsunami to wreak havoc on any post-Christmas celebrations planned. It took everyone by surprise, brought untold tragedy to millions, and now has become something of a metaphor for large scale devastation. Whenever a tragedy becomes a metaphor, it is on its way to be forgotten. Everyone ends up remembering the scale of the horror, and end up focusing on the feelings evoked and the sensations experienced when they heard the news. The painful process and hard work involved in organising relief efforts and creating much needed awareness lasts as long as the tragedy remains in the news, and gets forgotten as soon as the next big tragedy captures everyone's attention.

And the cycle continues.

It is also the end of my Christmas countdown for this year, and it should be another year before I commence my next installment. A year is too far away unless you're talking about 2010 which came and went very fast. Or so I felt this year, and many of my friends felt the same way.

I was quite encouraged by the response, satisfied by the support, inspired to be more regular in my blogging. Christmas is a time when so many moods, thoughts, ideas, feelings come together that one has to sit down and work those thoughts out, examine them closely and try to make sense of them.

I'm not quite sure if I succeeded but the countdown was a small effort in that direction.

A Merry Christmas to all of you, and a blessed new year as well!!!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 1 Day to Go

I still remember that night very clearly as if it was only yesterday.

I was doing my college in Bombay and staying in a hostel that was attached to this college. The Christmas holidays had begun and I was looking at the possibility of another Christmas away from home. I was already a three year veteran in 'spending Christmas away from home' and it never felt good. It's not supposed to anyway. Christmas like most festivals are best celebrated with one's parents in one's house in one's hometown.

It was Christmas eve and I knew I had to do something.

While sipping tea with a hostel mate, I thought, why not go out of the city and visit my brother who was studying/ staying in a college town that was six hours from Bombay. At first I dismissed the idea as too fanciful but the more I thought of it the more it became appealing.

However, the only problem was that I didn't make a train reservation, which would make it hard for me to get a seat. I could get a direct bus but I hated (and still do) overnight bus journeys, and so the only option was to take the only available train at midnight. It was a slow train that will take more than 6 hours to reach the neighbouring city of Poona that ordinarily takes around 3 hours by a fast train. My plan was to take the train to Poona and then undertake a 2 hour bus journey that will take me to my brother's college town.

I bought the ticket on this slow train and boarded it with my limited luggage. As expected there was no seat available since almost all of the seats were taken and most people had to manage by sitting on the floor or in the aisle or wherever they found space to park themselves. I didn't choose my spot but found myself - quite accidentally - sitting outside the loo.

It was nauseating to say the least, and the claustrophobia one experienced was way too horrid beyond words. The train was jam packed and even where I was seated, I had to recline at an angle so as not to touch others and stay comfortable. And if this wasn't enough, a group of men entered the train and started singing some vulgar songs to amuse themselves.

It was probably my worst Christmas eve, and as I sat there I imagined what my parents might be doing, and what my church in Bahrain will be up to. And then it occured to me that, perhaps, far from being my worst Christmas eve, it was perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences ever. great things to come out of the course.

Yes, I was uncomfortable at having to spend my Christmas eve at such a horrible place, and I could only think of my family and friends who would be celebrating their Christmas in church or at their home. And then, as I sat there, a thought occured to me that, perhaps, I was getting a glimpse of the first Christmas.

Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus in an even worse place, and had cattle and oxen as room mates. It's not possible that Mary and Joseph must have enjoyed the idea of a delivery in a stable. They were both told by the angel that the Child was special, and so I'm sure, they must have expected a slightly better service.

As my train crawled slowly to Poona afer a tiresome all night journey, I had to run to catch a bus. After all, three hours is a lot better to reach my destination unlike the other train that leaves at mightnight or thereabouts.

I did reach my brother's hostel and had to dress up quickly and join him on his Christmas plans. It was one get-together after another that lasted the entire day and a little bit of the next night as well.

But I can't forget that Christmas eve because it gave me a glimpse of what Mary and Joseph may have gone through. And this alone, transformed the trip into an awesome experience.

Christmas Countdown: 2 Days to Go

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1: 50-53

For many people, Christmas like most other festivities is all about food, and in many ways it is. Most of our favourite Christmas memories revolve around the things we eat and drink in the company of people we love. It is these memories that stay with us for a long time, and provide a template for the way we choose our celebrations.

Every country and culture that celebrates Christmas has its own food tradition. Anywhere you go, there are bound to be sweets and savouries that define the season. For many people, a Christmas meal would be incomplete without a stuffed turkey or mommy's biryani. It is these little things that bring warmth to Christmas festivities, and bring with it all the cherished memories that bring a smile to our face.

While Christmas does revolve around food, we need to step back and look at another world that's out there. This world lurks quietly behind all the familiar landscapes that dot our cherished memories. It is necessary for us to remember that this world comprises the anonymous millions for whom Christmas Day will be another hungry day in the sun.

When I read these words of the Magnificat that Mary uttered, I couldn't help thinking that unlike some TV commentators who think of social concern as a great evil, the Bible on the other hand, disagrees with this viewpoint. In Mary's prophetic utterance, the plight of the hungry is not dismissed as inconsequential and equated with radical politics, but brings the assurance that 'they will be satisfied with good things' and - horror of horrors - the 'rich will be sent away empty.'

It's not that there is anything wrong with being rich, but apparently severe judgement is reserved for the self-centred, self-satisfying, arrogant and full of themselves 'rich'. Any justification for selfish behaviour will meet a sorry end since it will not meet with divine approval. The late Mother Theresa said it best when she described her work with the 'poorest of the poor' as something beautiful for God.

I felt it was necessary to look at some of the data collected from the United Nations World Food Programme. It gives us an overview of the current statistics on world hunger that we can use to understand the situation better. It provides a horrid picture of how miserable the things are at the moment.

925 million people do not have enough to eat - more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;
(Source: FAO news release, 14 September 2010)

98 percent of the world's hungry live in developing countries;
(Source: FAO news release, 2010)

More than 70 percent of the world's 146 million underweight children under age five years live in just 10 countries, with more than 50 per cent located in South Asia alone;
(Source: Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, UNICEF, 2006)

10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths;
(Source: The State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 2007)

The cost of undernutrition to national economic development is estimated at US$20-30 billion per annum;
(Source: Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, UNICEF, 2006)

t is estimated that 684,000 child deaths worldwide could be prevented by increasing access to vitamin A and zinc
(Source: WFP Annual Report 2007)

Undernutrition contributes to 53 percent of the 9.7 million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries.
(Source: Under five deaths by cause, UNICEF, 2006)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 3 Days to Go

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:19

Christmas is all about memories.

It's what gives the season its festive significance: the company of family and friends gathered over a traditional Christmas meal, the unwrapping of presents, the singing of carols on a winters night, the sharing of sweets and goodies, the joy and laughter that punctuates the air, and the love and warmth that one experiences throughout the month.

If we try hard enough, it's quite possible for us to recall in detail how we spent our Christmas-es through the past ten, twenty, whatever number of years. This is not only because Christmas Day occurs only once a year but more so because the celebrations are intrinsically linked to the memories we have of some of our deepest relationships.

For many people in the world today, however, these memories are not necessarily pleasant. It can be a cruel reminder of the days before the divorce, of days when one or both parents were together, of days when they had friends who loved and cared, of days when they had a job or a business or a sizeable income, of days when they were rarely alone.

For them, there's nothing merry or happy about Christmas but a sad reminder of how their life hasn't really matched their expectations. It's a depressing time since everywhere they go the festive decorations in shops, malls and restaurants are all about being together with loved ones. The very things they wish to avoid and want to forget.

Sometimes the kind of childhood we've had can have a huge bearing on our celebrations. If it was a happy childhood where we were the centre of our family's love and affection, then, we are most likely to want to replicate a little bit of that which we experienced a long time ago. It can also work the same way if our childhood memories are sad and bitter, making us want to make up for all that we feel we have lost.

However, Christmas is not only about the memories we've had, but it's also about the Christ Child who was born in a little town of Bethlehem a long time ago. He came to 'heal the broken hearted and bring freedom to the captives.' It is with these words that He began His work and preached His message of love. These words got the attention of people who were outside the religious establishment and gave them hope. It made them see their life a little bigger than what it was and made them dream big.

For Mary, the memories of that first Christmas remained etched forever in her mind, and it is said that she pondered them in her heart. As she stood at the cross watching Christ suffer, I wonder if she remembered all the events of that first christmas: the long trek to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, the surprise visit by the shepherds and the wise men, and the words of the angel that she would be part of one of the biggest miracles.

Those memories must have given her hope that all was, probably, not lost when she saw Christ suffer on the cross. It's the memories that must have helped her and the memories that, perhaps, gave her strength. And maybe when she saw the resurrected Christ it was those memories that reminded her that her hope was not in vain.

Question is, what are our memories? And what are we doing with them?

Christmas Countdown: 4 Days to Go

Do unto others as you would have them do to you

Luke 6:31

We like to consider ourselves as a tolerant bunch of people.

It's something we believe in so strongly without even thinking that, perhaps, our actions may not exactly match the rhetoric. And yet, we persist in the assumption that tolerance is what guides our interactions with people outside our family, ethnic, social and cultural circles. We believe that by being tolerant the way we are, our actions are doing their bit to help civilisation be the force for good that it's supposed to be, that we are part of the solution and not the problem.

And yet, just a cursory glance over the last 20-30 years will reveal a completely different picture. We can't help but notice a remarkable increase in attitudes and viewpoints that are not just harshly intolerant of 'other' viewpoints or lifestyles, but have crossed the threshold of decent disagreement and turned violent.

This is odd because we are supposed to live in an enlightened age, that somehow we have reached intellectual superiority that differentiates us from other species, and that a combination of education, technology and culture has made us rise above and conquer our primal instincts. And yet, the beast within finds a way to assert itself and leave claw marks all over.

We find a way to make rash generalisations about people groups without even thinking that it is such an intellectually flimsy exercise. I don't wish to give any examples of these generalisations because it would be pointless doing so since every generation has come up with its own bogeymen. Besides, the point of this piece is not to provide a laundry list of generalisations or reiterate something that's common knowledge.

Hence, it makes one curious to see the feeble efforts that some people make in addressing the problems of intolerance. Political correctness is one of those actions being undertaken by those who believe centuries of misunderstandings can be resolved by using different words altogether. It's as if tolerance and open-mindedness is made possible by making a switch in one's vocabulary.

Now it's not as if I dislike political correctness because, in some ways, I do like what is being done in some areas. In some instances, it provides the simplest remedy to correct sexism and other assumptions based on gender. However, when the word Christmas is boycotted to avoid not hurting other minority groups, it is political correctness gone too far and gone absurd.

It is the mark of a civilised society that every people group and cultural entity must feel included in the community that they are part of. They must never feel excluded or threatened in any way because that would undermine the progressive nature of society that we all believe we live in.

But I'm not sure if removing Christ from Christmas and calling it Winterval or Happy Holidays or Festive Season will necessarily do the trick. Christmas is, after all, a celebration of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, and calling it something else would simply negate the 'reason for the season' as it were.

And being someone who lives in a Muslim country, I know for sure that not many people here are offended by "Christmas", and are in fact, amused by what the politically correct denizens are trying to do.

If the main issue is to allow minority groups to feel 'accepted' and develop a sense of belonging, then, one has to do lot more than just 'boycotting' the word Christmas. There has to be substantive work that involves communication, interaction, involvement and acceptance. It doesnt mean one has to sacrifice what one believes in or dump what one holds sacred just to be more accommodating, it just means allowing the other group the space to be what they are and to do what they must.

It also means making no racial assumptions and recognising other ethnic and cultural groups for what they are... as real people!

In the final analysis, being accommodative simply means giving space without losing one's convictions. And also involves doing something that Jesus recommended: Do unto others as you would have them do to you

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 5 Days to Go

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Luke 2:16-18

We are living in an information hungry world.

There is no dearth of outlets for accessing all types of information - the type we must know, the type we have to know, the type we needn't know, the type we can do without, the type that's really unnecessary, and the type that no one really bother.

At the click of a mouse or the touch of a remote, we can be assured of immediate enlightenment, and can just get up and kiss ignorance goodbye. Or at least, that's the promise.

At a certain level, we can agree with the Chinese blessing that we are living in interesting times, and there's no denying that we are.

The ancient Egyptians had the library in Alexandria which was supposed to be the storehouse of all the accumulated knowledge of the time. Today, we don't have to travel too far to read about things we know nothing about or have to search through libraries to gain knowledge about a subject. All we need is a search button, key in our query and get to read all that there is to know whether it be in the form of a text, video or audio.

Wikileaks has shown that even the once inaccessible is no longer taboo and can be available whenever we want. Of course, whether or not this information is really necessary for our consumption is another matter altogether. But the fact of the matter is, the information is there.

Never in the history of civilisation was so much information so easily available for the entire human race. This alone places us in a very peculiar position because we can no longer blame some elitist group for monopolising all the information channels and conspiring to leave the masses ignorant. This argument no longer applies since even the mighty Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made its course syllabus available to everyone.

The trouble with the abundance of information is that looking for wisdom and knowledge in all of this is like searching for a needle in a haystack. The question is, what are we really doing with the information we receive? Are we doing our bit to transform that information into knowledge? Are we becoming any wiser or staying perpetually ignorant?

TS Eliot expressed these ideas quite eloquently in The Rock where he pointed out

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The shepherds received the news about the Christ Child's birth, and they went ahead to see for themselves what had taken place in a manger. They saw, they believed and told others about it. They didn't just use the information for their consumption but went ahead a step further by telling others about it.

They applied it to their lives, gained knowledge about the Messiah's birth, and became wiser as a result. They could have kept the news to themselves because, after all, they were mere shepherds and not expected to be conversant in such matters.

As I said before, we are living in an information rich world. We have available at our finger tips everything that we need to know about most things. What are we doing about it?

Are we using this information to strengthen our knowledge about people groups, diverse cultures and other countries/ nationalities? Or are we using information to perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce our prejudices, and solidify our biases?

If that be so, we run the risk of turning these interesting times into an absolute tragedy.

Christmas Countdown: 7 Days to Go

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

Isaiah 61: 1

Loneliness appears to be a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In many ways, the very word seems to capture the spirit of the age we are in: inspiring songs, providing material for books and movies, and acting as a muse to countless artists.

It's not as if people never felt lonely in previous centuries, but it's just that the theme never really dominated the cultural landscape as much as it does today. Although one must admit that it was Shelley who said it better when he wrote, 'our sweetest songs are those that speak of our saddest thoughts.'

However, the nineteenth century when Shelley wrote those words was a different era altogether when the private and the personal were not placed under the microscope with the same unequivocal passion with which it's done today. Sadness and sad thoughts were meant for either quiet contemplation, and shared only with near and dear ones. Most importantly, the community (in all its various forms) acted as a great cushion against the pressures individuals may have faced through isolation.

Of course, there have been people who complained about the excesses of the community, of having to live under its dictates and suffering its consequences, expressed frustration of having to lose one's individuality under the strong identity that the community gave. And there are many such stories of the individual struggle against the community whether it was the nation state, organised religion, the head of the family, gender stereotypes and what have you.

However, it was only after the mid-twentieth century that we began to see a gradual but steady dismantling of the community's hold over people's lives. The cultural, political and economic forces that were unleashed around this time further strengthened this drift towards autonomy and independence.

Now this particular drift towards autonomy and independence has been a good thing especially in the political sphere, and more so, in allowing people to be less tethered to restrictive social norms and conventions. It has enabled people to be themselves, to be free to act on what they believe, and make decisions based on their convictions. At least, that's the broad idea but the reality is a different matter and can be taken up for another discussion.

But then, again, taken at its extreme, this drift has also given rise to a 'me-first' mentality that values the individual above everything else. As long as my needs, my desires, my feelings, my this, my that is taken care of, then that's all that matters. Me first, others later, much, much later.

Technology has further helped in speeding up this development, and the 'i' in the iPod, for instance, clearly shows who takes pride of place in this universe.

Now if we multiply this mentality many times over, then, we get an idea of the kind of mindset that defines the popular mood. It's the kind of mood that believes in the primacy of one's own need above all. It has also driven consumerism to be the powerful force that it is, and fueled the economic crisis into the devastating tragedy that it became for many people. Satisfaction of one's need NOW even if it means living on borrowed money and even if it involves inability to pay for it.

In such an environment, the individual remains adrift in the social sphere and John Donne's 'no man is an island' remains nothing more than an idea than a fact. Set adrift like a plank of wood on an ocean, individuals begin looking for connections that can bind them and lead them to the mainland. And if 'me-first' is a priority for the majority, then the search for the mainland remains an eternal quest.

It is basically a return to the primal need for community, to belong to a group, to be part of something that's larger than themselves. Urbanisation fueled large scale migration from the country side into cities where being a stranger and living anonymous lives became a norm and not an exception. Technology made physical contact with other individuals almost redundant and unnecessary.

As a result, loneliness became a natural outcome of this process, and began defining the mental and cultural landscape of the contemporary world in which we exist. The only way this trend can be reversed is when we put an end to putting ourselves first, and start looking at others for a change.

It is possible and may require a nudge or two, but the question is, will we do it? Or are we going to spoil it by asking, what's in it for me?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 8 Days to Go

"... the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Luke 2:15

The search for authenticity is a quest that will never really go out of fashion. There’s something magical about it. Bringing together the drama and excitement one associates with pirates out on a treasure hunt or knights on some mystical expedition, this pursuit becomes – for many – an adventure that takes them into their very soul.

Or at least that's what it's supposed to do.

We like the authentic for what it represents. We like the way it remind us of how things ought to be, and in the way it gently nudges us away from scrambling after things that are fake. What the authentic essentially does is to demonstrate the futility of the counterfeit, the lie that masquerades as truth, and the falsehood that acts as the pretender to the throne.

It is, perhaps, indicative of the times that we live in that the real has in many ways become a novelty. There are so many substitutes that seem so much like the real thing but is not. And yet, we get fascinated by the fake not only because its affordable but because it is available.

Its amazing how for many people the pursuit for the authentic becomes something less of a serious effort because there is no need for it. If the substitutes can do it, why go for the original? Or for that matter, if it's inconvenient to get hold of the real experience, why bother?

Hence, we have fake products that are sold for a lot less than what we would pay for the original. We use artificial ingredients to give the flavour of the original without having to taste the real thing. We go for the virtual tour and the virtual anything because it spares us the trouble of getting up from our feet.

However, all these things can be justified in some way or the other because health reasons and financial situations may sometimes force such adjustments in our life. The biggest danger lies when the fake becomes part of our identity, starts defining our existence, and makes it hard for us to recognise who or what we really are.

I've often wondered what the shepherds were thinking when they went to the manger in Bethlehem. They were told by choirs of angels that the promised Messiah was born that night and they went ahead to check for themselves. What were they thinking? Was this really the promised Messiah that they saw wrapped in swaddling cloth? Was this the real deal? Was this frail infant that they saw going to be the most authentic experience of the divine they would ever get to see on the dusty plains of Palestine?

And yet, despite the many questions that they may have had... they went ahead to find out for themselves if this message was truly authentic or another wild goose chase. The scriptures record they were pleased with what they saw and spread the news all around.

However, the great thing about the shepherds was that they took the time to explore and make the discovery for themselves. Question is, how many of us take the trouble to find out things for ourselves instead of being spoon-fed? How many of us take that first step and resist holding back? How many of us side step the authentic and remain satisfied with the fake?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 9 Days to Go

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancĂ©e, who was now obviously pregnant.

Luke 2: 1-5

It looks like I've already missed a day, and now I got some serious catching up to do. Oh well, c'est le vie!!!

In any case, I wish I'd written this post yesterday because of the fact that the United Nations have declared December 18 as the International Migrants Day. It would have been so apt considering the day and also on how relevant it would have been with the chosen topic.

It was in 1990 that the UN General Assembly officially adopted the international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families. It is a day that provides intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to rally together to disseminate information on human rights and fundamental freedom of migrants, share experiences, and undertake action to ensure the protection of migrants.

The day is also seen as an opportunity to recognise the contributions made by migrants to both their host countries as well as to their home countries.

In many ways this is widely seen as a contemporary problem even though history is full of stories of migrations of all kinds. It's just that in recent years, the issue has become an urgent matter because of large scale human rights violations, stories of abuse and exploitation, and perhaps, a greater awareness of the problem as it exists and the need to limit it.

It's not as if migrants weren't treated unfairly in earlier centuries because that would be an unfair assumption. We are, perhaps, living in one of history's most 'well informed era', and that alone, perhaps, accounts for a greater awareness of the situation. And perhaps, much more than that, the need to address it in ways that would protect the rights of the vulnerable.

Migrants are viewed differently by various sections of both their host and home countries. Some view them as parasites that come in hordes to take away jobs and livelihood of the 'sons of the soil' while others view them as exploitation material since they are most likely to do any job that's available. There are few who view them in a positive light by recognising the potential to contribute positively to the good of the community.

If in earlier centuries, migration was an option that only the adventurous and the desperate would pursue, it is not so today. Globalisation has broadened employment opportunities, and extended the marketplace beyond the limits of one's geographical territory. There is a greater interaction between people of all nationalities and cultures, and has necessitated a greater mingling for work, residence and recreation.

And on top of that, we also have economic, political and ideological migrants who choose to leave (or flee, in some cases) to other countries because what they believe or stand for places them at a greater risk. Leaving the comfort of their home, hence, becomes a necessity.

Joseph and Mary were migrants of a different sort. They had to go to Bethlehem for the census and it appears that they had to stay there for a lot longer duration. And then, when they had to flee to Egypt because of the threat to the baby Jesus' life, their stay in Egypt placed them under the same category as countless refugees who do the very same thing in equally horrid situations.

Now the Christmas story is also about another migration, and that of Christ's decision to come and live on earth as a man. In both cases, it was a journey that had to be undertaken even though there was considerable inconvenience on the way.

It is easy to categorise the Christmas story as another example of migration, and as discussed above, it certainly is. I remember John Hubers, the pastor of my church in Bahrain once preached on Christ as the ultimate expatriate, and the message certainly shed light on the 'otherness' that He may have experienced on earth.

However, any discussion on migrants and comparisons to the Christmas story would be meaningless unless it teaches us to be more sensitive to the 'others' who come to work and live in our communities. Xenophobia is not the exclusive privilege of only a few ethnic communities but - if news reports are to be believed - affects almost all people groups around the world.

There are always 'reasons' given to complain about people coming in, turning respectable streets into slums, transforming entire neighbourhoods into a dump. It is easy to complain but the challenge lies in showing empathy, being understanding, and doing work that would help and not hinder integration.

It would, perhaps, be one of the best Christmas gifts we can give to the community, and one that can actually bring about a positive transformation. But for that to happen, we need to get out of the shackles of 'what's in it for me' and experience the freedom of 'what's in it for everyone.'

Christmas Countdown: 10 Days to Go

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him...."

John 1: 10, 11

Alienation is an uncomfortable experience.

Its impact cannot be easily measured and neither can one quantify the depth of pain one can go through upon feeling alienated. It affects people at the most fundamental level, and that is, make them feel less belonged, unwanted and invisible.

Gregarious beings that we are, alienation becomes a denial of what characterises us as individuals and as a species. Sociologists have long described us as social animals, and it is this very essence of being social animals that gets tarnished as a result of being alienated from others.

In other words, it disproves what John Donne said in his poem that 'no man is an island' because through alienation we become nothing more than archipelagoes floating in a friendless ocean.

Maybe that's a bit too harsh but when one looks at alienation as a wider phenomenon, one can understand why it is also one of the most defining features of contemporary life.

Today there is a greater technological convergence that has made long distance communication easier, cultural interaction made more feasible, and great distances bridged through faster airline connections. However, despite such progress, loneliness, isolation and alienation haven't disappeared altogether but have increased considerably.

Intolerance of the 'other' (whoever or whatever that may be) has pushed people to seek and embrace homogenity. The worldwide web and satellite tv haven't exactly made people learn more about other cultures despite all the information easily available. It has, instead, made people tune in to information and entertainment channels that they are in agreement with. While easier airline connections may have increased the tourism industry, one look at some of the travel brochures will indicate that the itineraries are planned to ensure that the tourists enjoy the 'familiar' in the 'food and accommodation' arrangements.

This is just one aspect of the issue that I'm talking about, and perhaps, one that has given a rational twist or even justification to the existence of archipelagoes. After all, people are more comfortable in the company of individuals with whom they share some sort of cultural and intellectual affinity. Hence, they should never be faulted if they choose to isolate those who are different because they'll have nothing to talk about, nothing to contribute, nothing to strengthen relationships.

Hence, the alienation that they go through should be accepted not only as 'normal' but as something that's good for them. Or so the reasoning goes while insisting that it's nothing personal. It's natural, we're told, and asked to accept the conditions as they are.

When one looks at the Christmas story in this context, one gets a better understanding of why Christ was ultimately 'despised and rejected' by people He called His own. God in flesh was alienated by people He created and made to suffer the agony of the cross. And in that singular moment, He was able to identify with millions of people who are alienated by others on account of factors they have no control over.

The Christmas story is essentially that of reconciliation between God and humanity, the perfect making a connection with the imperfect, the righteous with the unrighteous.

The question is, what does this teach us about our responsibilities? What should our response be to the 'others' in our midst? Will we choose to continue alienating 'others' who are different? Or will we forget about our 'selves' for a moment and actively reach out to those who have been made to feel isolated and lonely in the world we live in?

Our response and our action will determine whether or not it will be a merry christmas for them or just another lonely day in December.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 11 Days to Go

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

You can't go wrong with a peace pledge. It's everyone's favourite cause even though the exact specifics of what that peace involves is often not made very clear. Inter-governmental bodies, however, are quite sure that - at the very least - it must involve cessation of armed hostilities. And one must agree that it's a reasonable enough condition for peace, and one that fully and rightly deserves the attention of all the diplomatic corps put together.

And then, there are those for whom peace is not only a song and a poetry but it is their muse -- inspiring, challenging, nudging them. It does have a nice ring to it. 'Give peace a chance' does make sense whichever way you look at it, and for protesters with flowers in their head it can be - and very often is -- their calling.

However, having a desire is one thing and seeing concrete results is another beast altogether. Humanity as a race or a species (whichever way you may want to see it) hasn't had much of a success in achieving peace. It has remained an elusive dream almost like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Countless committees have been formed, myriad summit meetings have been held, thousands of emergency sessions have been organised but nothing of substance has been achieved.

The 'war to end all wars' (1914 - 1918)that took place nearly a hundred years ago provoked governments to action and tentative steps were taken to put humanity's bloody past behind once and for all. Casualties in the range of 15,000,000 and some say the loss of an entire generation in western Europe became reason enough to want to do something.

However, the League of Nations became a toothless tiger and whatever efforts were made were not sincere enough and soon in a matter of two decades, the Second World War with its 63,000,000 deaths became another reminder of how incorrigible we as humans really were.

Further statistics on this page provides additional body count of deaths through wars in the post-war era. Fact of the matter is, the numbers do speak a different story than what the chants for peace would like to hear.

While there has been tremendous progress in the post-war era to look at conflict resolution in creative and non-violent ways but the real battlefield -- the heart -- hasn't been sufficiently addressed. This is because peace is as much of a moral and spiritual issue as much as it is a matter for governments to be concerned about. And for most parts, these issues cannot be tackled merely by signatures on a document or a rubber-stamp on a declaration.

What needs to be done is to rise above the shackles of self interest and desire for self gratification, and move into determined paths to calm the raging storm within. As much as we like to do so, the hurdle, most often, is what this journey will ultimately unravel. Self discoveries have a way of doing that because mirrors, for most part, provide a stark reflection of what we really are than we want to be.

St. Paul talked about hamartia being one of the primary obstacles in our quest to achieve the fullness of life that we were created to enjoy as well as to experience lasting inner peace. Hamartia is a Greek word that can be understood on two levels. One, that deals with the tragic flaw in a heroic character that ultimately leads to his/her downfall, and two, that of an archer missing the mark and losing the laurels as a result.

It would be no exaggeration to say that we were created for great things, that we as a species were bestowed with intellectual greatness that brings with it tremendous responsibilities. What we have done - as history would attest - is squander it all away and scarred the world we are living in. Hamartia has taken over and messed up our ability to achieve that fullness we desire and bring that peace we seek.

In this tumultuous world, the birth of the Prince of Peace in an obscure little town of Bethlehem, and His words of love shine like a flickering candle in a raging tempest. However, His command to deny ourselves and take up our crosses each day to become the vessels of love and righteousness can be a bit inconvenient for most of us.

We like our transformations to be painless, scar free and without any setbacks to our comfort zone. But peace comes with our price, and like all noble things worth fighting for, it demands 'our life and our all'.

Question is, do we think it's worth it?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Countdown: 12 Days to Go.

I don't know if I'll succeed this year but I'm going to try anyway.

Last year, and I think, even the year before, I started this "christmas countdown' series that was loosely inspired by that silly Christmas song: the twelve days of Christmas. I felt the urge to highlight contemporary issues that are somehow related to the Christmas story, and what better way than to tie it all in a countdown, of sorts.

I was reviewing the series I wrote last year, and realised that I was late by a day in starting the series last year. Looks like I'm doing the same again this year. Some things really don't change, do they? Anyway, better late than never at all as the wise men would say.

Christmas is really a strange combination of events. On the one hand there is the spiritual dimension that is celebrated across churches all around the world - that of God becoming flesh and coming to earth as a baby, but there is also the commercial and economic dimension one cannot ignore. This is the season that retailers, mall owners, restaurants, tv networks, entertainment gurus are all waiting for.

'tis the season of giving, we are told, and retailers are only too glad to assist us in the giving provided our our purchasing power and credit card limits match our generosity. And if there are any limits, then, businesses are only too glad and ready to provide solutions in the form of easy installments.

Most Christians that I know are uncomfortable with this excessive commercialisation of this sacred event. If you've read my blog last year and the year before, you would have noticed that I myself wasn't too enthusiastic about it either. Now it's not that I've had a change of heart since then, but I wonder if there is possibly a common ground somewhere even though God and mammon are polar opposites.

It would be a stretch, I know, to bring together the extremes of consumerism (that finds its peak during this season) with the piety and solemnity one associates with the birth of the Christ Child in a lowly manger in an obscure little town of Bethlehem.

The original Christmas story is the exact antithesis of everything that's being done in the name of Christmas in recent years. Poverty, depravity, abandonment, homelessness, rejection, oppression as well as celebration of meekness have been an intrinsic part of the gospel narrative. One simply can't get away from this aspect of the Christmas story because it not only gives us a better understanding of Christ's work on earth but helps us understand the meaning of His sacrifice.

Now words like sacrifice are not the first thing that come to our mind this season. This is the time we like to indulge in the best of food, the best of 'drinks', the best in fashion, the best in entertainment... it's a time to satisfy our desires with the best that the world has to offer, and create memories of the good times that will, hopefully, last forever.

However, the cross and the sufferings at Calvary cannot be wished away no matter how hard we try. Christ's journey on earth may have begun in Bethlehem but it's purpose was death on the cross and the eventual resurrection. So there was a bit of a tragic element even though the 'meek and mild' Christ Child was to rise again from the dead.

Now the question is, how can these spiritual elements find their common ground in what has essentially become a hedonistic fiesta?

I may not have all the right answers that could satisfy everyone because it will really be difficult and some would say, quite unnecessary. The twain can rarely meet because the focus behind both are different.

'Tis the season of giving, after all. And I think, perhaps, one way to honour Christ would be to emulate the way He gave of himself, and to be more 'giving' even during our moments of indulgence. Instead of turning this into a 'me and mine' feast, we could perhaps look beyond our limited circle and consider for a moment those groups that are lacking in the things we take for granted.

We could, of course, make the retailers happy as well by making purchases that could be turned into investments in other people's lives and in making them happy.

In other words, we can use this time to look for needs that we can meet, happiness that we can bring, joy that we can share, love that we can spread to all those around.

In doing this, we might just bridge the two Christmas-es together, and perhaps, make a small difference in the lives of people who might be waiting for a miracle.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little baby doll

There was something really dry about her. The wavy strands of her uncombed hair tucked carelessly in her scarf looked like dry twigs reaching hungrily for the sky. Her face like a parched mud wall looked somewhat forlorn as her eyes began to scan the floor of the massive food court where she sat all by herself like a forsaken island.

It wasn’t as if she was alone. She definitely had company or so it would seem to anyone casting a curious glance towards her. She was certainly surrounded by people all around her. There was laughter, there was cheering, there was movement of hands waving, and also, the delightful sight of children boisterously running around in between tables and chairs.

She watched all this activity with the indifference of one merely tolerated. She sat aloof from the rest of the group not because she wanted to but because she felt it was the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s best not to impose oneself, she thought to herself, even though words people use may give the impression that one is longed for and wanted every moment of the day.

She had learned long ago not to get fooled by impressions. People may joke with you and laugh with you or even hug and kiss you but that does not necessarily imply intimacy of any kind. It could just be a formality to mask the inability to say anything substantial or to hide that sense of not wanting to get too close and simply satisfying oneself with mere appearances.

She wished she had known all this when she had first come to the house to live and work nearly two or three years ago. It would have certainly saved her from many disappointments in those first few months. She smiled at the memory of those days when she was so naive that she would believe anything anyone would say. And they did. It was like a joke for everyone but she learned her lesson well and soon withdrew into herself. It wasn’t as if the teasing stopped but only that she became harder within and stopped caring what people said.

Her mistress got up and gave her a packet of French fries because – as she told everyone at the table – the fries were way too fattening and she didn’t want to run the risk of losing her figure. After all, some sacrifices had to be made to keep husband dear on the leash. All the women at the table laughed wholeheartedly at this joke while the men simply sniggered and tried to change the subject.

She took the packet and thanked her mistress as she always did and was expected to do. She took a small bite and couldn’t help wondering why something fattening was bad for her mistress but was supposed to be OK for her. Whoever gave them this ridiculous idea that girls in her position were not keen on looking good and had serious reservations about eating anything available?

It was not just politeness and fear of losing her job that made her not refuse the fries but it was hunger. She was watching them eat all sorts of delicious food and it was making her hungry. Everyone seemed so absorbed in their conversations and enjoying each others company that it didn't seem to matter to them that, perhaps, here was someone sitting in a corner who might actually appreciate good food.

But then, again, it would be hard to blame them since her presence there was merely accidental. Her job was to keep the children in check and ensure that the baby in the pram didn't cry. The children were somewhat out of control since they were in the mall but the baby was her primary responsibility. And these days, the baby was so unpredictable and would wake up and cry at anytime. This was one of the reasons why her mistress wanted her to come along since it would enable her to give attention to her friends and not get distracted by the baby.

It wasn't as if she didn't like her job. She was always fond of babies and little children ever since she was young. Being the oldest sister of three mischievious brothers gave her considerable head start. She smiled when she remembered the old days: getting hugs and kisses from her dad and uncle, the surprise sweets from her aunts, the bike rides with her older cousins, and the great difficulty with which they taught her how to ride a bike reminded her of a time when she was treated like a youngster that she always was.

"No matter what happens and no matter how big you become in life," her oldest cousin once told her during a family gathering, "you will always be our little baby doll."

A single tear drop fell on a single potato stick and she hurriedly wiped her eyes with her arms. She was glad no one noticed but even if anyone did she was sure no one would have bothered. She was just a hired helper and not someone special that her family was absolutely sure she was.

Her mistress' husband once told her that she was special and it made her smile. He told her that it made her look good and for a moment she felt a sense of belonging to this new household. She thanked him as clumsily as she could and hoped he would notice how grateful she was for this compliment.

But then he touched her in a way only a man should but mustn't. He had crept in her room late at night and said he wanted to see her smile. She knew something was wrong and it wasn't just because of the strong smell but in the way he looked at her. She tried to smile but couldn't and began to cry. He pushed her against the wall and forced himself on her while his hands grabbed every piece of her flesh. She wanted to scream but no voice came out of her mouth just silent gasps while her body shivered with fright.

After he had finished, he warned her not to tell anyone about this and that if she ever opened her mouth he would kill her. She believed him. She felt helpless and unclean, and wondered if somehow she was responsible for making him do this with her. It had to be me and no one else, she thought to herself, after all, why would a man like him want to touch someone like her?

Tears began to flow from her eyes again as she looked at everyone else in the table enjoying themselves. She took another bite of her french fries and thought of her family far away. She knew what they'd be doing that evening and it made her want to cry even more. They would be celebrating her 15th birthday and wishing she was there with them.

The baby in the pram made some noise and when she turned to look, the baby began to giggle excitedly upon seeing her face. It made her smile and she wanted to give the baby a big kiss. However, just as she tried to pick the baby up she felt a strong urge to throw up and wanted to run to the nearest restroom.

She turned her face away but it was too late.

The floor was a mess and as she looked around and saw what she did, she lost all her balance, collapsed to the ground, and began to sob uncontrollably.