Ubuntu: Christ’s Challenge for Breaking Dividing walls

Text: John 4: 5- 26 (Jesus and the Samaritan Woman)

The Message

The Philosophy Of Ubuntu is a very beautiful  one. To demonstrate this point there is a very popular story that I read in one of my mails.

An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself. So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away. The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?” Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am what I am because of who we all are.

ubuntu

In the passage in front of us Jesus does what he does best. He breaks down the barriers prevalent in his time. In the beginning of Chapter 4 we see that Jesus left Judea and was travelling back to Galilee. He passed through Sychar which is a Samaritan City. Normally when people travelled from Judea to Galilee, they avoided the Samaritan territory. To find that out let us look into a little bit of history.

Back in 722 BCE the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians. To avoid rebellion the Assyrians moved some people out and moved others in. The area became known as Samaria. A couple of centuries later when the leaders of the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned to Jerusalem after some 50 years of exile, they regarded the people of Samaria as having

fallen away from true religion and so rejected their offer of help in rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. In pique the Samaritans did their best to sabotage the building efforts. Relationships deteriorated further and the Judeans came to regard Samaritans in a negative way on both racial and religious grounds. The situation was not helped by the Samaritans building a rival Temple on Mount Gerizim. Nor were things made easier when a Judean army destroyed that Temple in 110 BCE. Meanwhile Samaritans tried to disrupt festivals in Jerusalem. So by the time of Jesus the two peoples tried to avoid each other. Most Judeans travelling between Galilee and Jerusalem would take a diversion to the other side of the Jordan River in order to avoid setting foot in Samaria. That Jesus goes through Samaria and finds time to talk with this Samaritan woman shows him to be confronting a wall of prejudice. So when Jesus sitting near a well, asking a Samaritan woman water to drink was a huge scandal. Therefore the question of the woman makes sense . “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John 4: 9.

But Jesus engagement with a Samaritan shows His vision of the Kingdom of God that is inclusive. In his conversation of Water, that is also the need of the Samaritan woman, He offers her water that is eternal. Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4: 14) Jesus definitely was drawing on the image of Psalm 42: 1 “As The deer pants for water, so my soul longs after you.” As in this life we long for many things, many philosophies and material possessions but nothing satisfies us. It is only the Eternal water offered by God that can satisfy the thirst of our soul which will then become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. This joy of intimacy with God Jesus was offering a Samaritan Woman, who as a Samaritan was cursed in Jewish temples and who as a woman was not considered even part of the worship. Today our witness has been tarnished by our divisions. The more we have ethnic, class, caste and religious divisions we will be like what Jeremiah said “For two evils hath My people done, Me they have forsaken, a fountain of living waters, To hew out for themselves wells — broken wells, That contain not the waters.” (Jeremiah 2: 13). In division that we have fostered, we have forsaken God who unites all of us. The question we need to ask ourselves is the Church with all its division a broken well that has run dry?

In my seminary days my first assignment was at Vengazha Mar Thoma Church which is a Dalit Church. The idea of a Dalit Church in the fold of the larger Mar Thoma Church is long debated. But when will we learn to overcome these artificial barriers rather than just justifying it? The Division between a Church in the urban set up and the church in the Mission Field is also very glaring. The same liturgy is used with everything similar but if one asks the question “Are they integrated in the larger circle of Mar Thoma Church”, the answer is a strict no. Let me give an example of my own experience. Guwahati mar Thoma Church now has only 5 families of the Mar Thoma. The nearby C.N.I church has 56 families and more. They have people from various tribes and class. As a Parish Priest I find it a big failure on my part where we have kept the ethnic Malyalee Mar Thoma Identity intact instead of turning more inclusive where there are good examples of inclusion in a Church with whom we have full communion.

The second prejudice that Jesus broke was evident with the reaction of disciples who returned with food

‘Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”’ (John 4: 27). A Jewish man speaking in public to a woman who also was a Samaritan was another scandal. This reaching out of Jesus to their mind was not appropriate.  30 kms away from Pune, there is a place called Mukti Mission which was founded by Pandita Ramabai for the upliftment of women and child widows. Pandita Ramabai was a Sanskrit scholar who was given the title Pandita for her command over the Hindu Scriptures. Ramabai experienced a spiri­tual crisis as she realized that “all texts were agreed that women of high and low caste, as a class, were bad, very bad, worse than demons, as unholy as untruth; and that they could not get moksha (salvation) as men.” This deeply disturbed her. For further studies in 1883 she decided to travel to London for studies and stayed with the Anglican Sisters at Wantage. One day she heard the bible reading of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. This was her point of enlightenment. The approach of Jesus to a woman was enough for her to make her choice. In her fight for empowerment of women she knew the faith in Jesus and his gospel is the only answer. She was baptized in the Church of England.  Through Mukti Mission she rehabilitated more than 3000 women and girls. As her love for scripture grew she became the first person to translate the Bible into the language of Marathi.

Pandita Ramabai saw a Jesus who had place for women and was concerned about their salvation and worship. But the same church that follows Christ even in the 21st century is divided over the role of women in the Church. Patriarchal mindsets still find justification for keeping women in their places. According to the BEM Document which was adopted by the faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in Lima, Peru in 1982 agrees that women have a role in the ministry of the Church. It simply meant women are fit for ordained ministry. The Mar Thoma Church officially responded to the BEM document as follows

“The document calls for ‘a deeper understanding of the comprehensiveness of ministry which reflects the interdependence of men and women’. We wholeheartedly support this concern. The male-dominated social order which one encounters in many parts of the world is partly a reflection of technologies used by these societies which are dependent more on muscle power than brain power. The modern developments in science and technology liberate women partly because human mastery over nature is now dependent more on brain power than muscle power. Women now are able to share responsibilities which were formerly exclusively male. This change in society must be seen as an act of God. This must be reflected in increased sharing by women in the priestly ministry of the Church. However, the Mar Thoma Church presently has barriers due to custom, culture, tradition on allowing women to share in the ordained ministry of the church. It is earnestly hoped that these will break down as men develop greater consciousness of the change of times and women become willing and open to new challenges that God is opening before them. At the same time we also earnestly hope that ways will be found so that the ordination of women does not create new barriers on the way to mutual recognition of ministry and sacraments.”

So the gist of this statement is that the Mar Thoma Church is theologically fine with women ordination but it is our culture and customs that stand as barrier. How long will we be satisfied with such answers is a question we need to ask ourselves.

As I began the meditation on the concept of Ubuntu which is very connected to the imagery of Body of Christ which is beautifully explained by Paul in 1 Cor 12: 12, 13 ‘ For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.’  Let us realize that there are many divisions that are taken for granted. As a Body of Christ we are called to break dividing walls and be participants in the inclusive Kingdom of God.

P.S. As a Priest of the Mar Thoma Church, the above criticisms are written with deep awareness that I am deeply responsible for the division and inequality in the Church that I conveniently criticize about.

Also Pls check this Video by the Youths of St. Peter’s Mar Thoma Church, Delhi

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

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Vimala Bai and the Tale of Raksha Bandhan

Vimala Bai, a maid who looked after me as a Child is someone who holds a very special place in my life. I have written about her in detail but the chapter that was written did not have a closure. But before I go further let me copy paste some parts of my previous write up so that I can put the entire experience and narrative in perspective.

ImageImageImageVimala Bai lived in a slum in a place called Sangamwadi in Pune. Our house was just half a kilometer from her house. One day after her work at my place I accompanied Vimala Bai to her home. She tried to discourage me as she knew this would not be acceptable. But I insisted.  I really loved the place and the swing that was outside. She asked me if I wanted food and as a child I had never learned to say no. The dal and rice I had was of a different league. To this day the dal she made has had no parallel. I loved the way she cooked. My mother used to make food for me but after eating Vimala Bai’s food, I knew where my preference lied. When my mother came home, she was happy that I had eaten the food she (my mother) made and had wasted none. She never realized that the food she made was exchanged with the daughters of Vimala Bai, Rekha and Radhika, and their food I had. Radhika was just a year elder to me and we played together. She was the one who taught me to fly a kite and I must say I was a very poor student. She taught me all the childhood games like Blindfold, Chor Police, Dhapandi Stop and what not. I started becoming very popular in their house and I loved being there. I loved the attention and respect that I got. Every holiday I used to be at their place living life with abandon. During Raksha Bandhan , Vimala Bai asked permission from my  mother, if Rekha and Radhika could tie rakhi on my hand. My mother agreed and there I was beaming with joy with 2 rakhis. The ladoo that you get after the Rakhee is tied was my favorite part. My mother used to buy gifts for both my sisters for whom now I was a Rakhi brother. This ritual continued every year.

Paradise could not go on for long. I, as a child fell ill quite often and the diagnosis of a very worthy neighbor was my frequent trips to the slum. My mother could not agree to this but my health was important for her. So indirectly she informed Vimala bai not to take me to her home. This was a big setback for me. Everything that I associated with joy and fun was in that slum, in the small house of Vimala Bai. But disobeying and rebelling is how childhood is explored and I broke the sanction imposed upon me, time and again. Vimala Bai tried to dissuade me but I did not relent. I found a roundabout way to go to their home where my neighbours would never suspect my going. I made it a point to go there every Saturday as Vimala Bai used to make ‘Sabudana Khichadi’ which is my favorite dish to date. She always made it a point to bring a ‘Dabba’ full of Sabudana Khichadi whenever she made it. She always called me “Monu” as that was what I was called as a kid.  But a day came when we left Sanghamwadi for good. Now we had a flat of our own and we were far from the abode where my childhood took wings.I missed Sangamwadi and especially the adventures of going to the house of Vimala Bai. The only consolation was that Vimala Bai continued coming to our new house.  But her health started to take a back seat. She informed my mother that she could not continue for long. Finally the last day dawned upon us. After 6 long years of having her around it was too difficult to digest the fact that she would not be around. My attachmet was that profound. I still remember that I refused to come out when she was leaving for the last time.  I was inconsolable. When she walked out, I rushed to the balcony to say good bye with a heavy heart. But there was one connection still left.  Radhika and Vimala Bai came on every Rakshabandhan day so that Radhika could tie me rakhi. This helped us to relive all the moments. This went on till I was in my 6th standard. When they came I felt embarrassed and I kind of indicated through my body language that ‘I was not liking this’. I don’t know why I did that. It puzzles me.  From next year they stopped coming. I know my attitude might have really hurt them and I recently told my mom “I wish I had not done that, I want to see her again.”

Honestly, I feel that the innocence of my childhood had faded and now the discrimination of people took seed in me. That is the only reason why I guess unconsciously or subconsciously I showed reluctance. I guess I did not want to associate myself with my maid. After writing about her I knew that this incident was the biggest act of humiliation that I inflicted on a lady who took care of me like a mother.

We invited her for my wedding and she came a day earlier. She was so excited to see me in the Cassock of a priest. She hugged me and lovingly called “Arre Monu, Tu kitna bada hogaya.” (You have grown so big). I was very overwhelmed. She kept looking at me. After sometime she went. But still this  visit did nothing. I  knew for sure there was something more to our story. There is something more.

On 20th August 2013 I arrived in Pune. It was the day of Raksha Bandhan. And out of nowhere my mother said “It is Raksha Bandhan, let us visit Vimala.” This statement caught hold of me. I absolutely said yes. At around 5 pm we started to call her. There was no response. I kept calling her after every 15 minutes. This ritual happened till 9 in the night. I was so disappointed. 9 is just too late to go. This was just not how I wanted this to turn out. My wife knows I can be very annoying if I begin to Sulk. Around 9:30 there was a call on my mother’s phone. Eureka. It was Vimala bai. I picked the call and spoke to Radhika. But she did not understand who was on the line. I spoke to Vimala bai after that. She was all thrilled. She told me to come right away. I said “Bohot late hua. (It is too late)”. She said “Tu aaja, late nahi hua hai( You come, it’s not too late)”. I was all excited. I told my parents and wife that we are going. And all of us were game for this as they knew how much this meant to me. After having dinner we set out to Sangamwadi. I just can’t articulate my excitement or my state of mind. It was a journey that needed healing. The guilt that I had needed a closure. But it was just not about my guilt alone. It had multiple layers and textures. When I was driving through Sangamwadi, nostalgia hit me. The place had changed beyond recognition. But there were some landmarks that still evoked memories. Outside a place we saw Vimala bai standing. She guided us to her house. This was not the same place that I went as a child. It was a different place. It had one room with a small place marked out as Bathroom. I met Radhika. She looked very different now. Vimala bai was deserted by her husband long back. Similarly Radhika too met with the same fate. She works in a military canteen. But this is a temporary post. Vimala Bai still works as a maid in Koregaon Park. Vimala Bai was seeing Soji for the first time. She placed her hand on her signifying her blessings. She told my mother with a beaming smile “Bahu Bohot Achii Hai (Daughter-in-law is very good)”. For next some minutes she just kept looking at both of us. I still was in a daze. I was just so happy to see her and Radhka. But she now looks very weak. She made tea for us and asked me “Monu, idli sambar kayega (will you eat idli sambar)” which I just smiled and refused. Then she told my mother that she learnt to make idli sambar from her (my mother) and I added that my mother learnt to make Sabudana Khichadi thanks to Vimala bai. We all had a laugh. Then she said “Monu abhi bada hogaya to Rakhi bandhana pasand hai kya nahi, malum nahi (You have grown up and I do not know if you like if Rakhi would be tied on your hand)”. This did prick my conscience and I said “Main yaha meri behen ke haath se Rakhi bandhwane ke liye hi aaya hu (I have come here so that my sister could tie rakhion my hand)”. She beamed and signaled Radhika to get the Rakhi. Radhika prepared the Aarti with the Diya, Rakhi and the kumkum with rice. When she did the aarti it was like a snapshot from childhood. This was so surreal. My eyes started getting very moist. After the aarti was over she tied the rakhi and gave me a ladoo which I always enjoyed eating. I looked at the Rakhi and felt so happy. I felt immensely blessed. Then as custom I gifted Radhika. My parents had a broad smile. But it was not over. Next they called Soji. I kept wondering what that was for. Aarti was done to her. And a new saree with rice filled in it was given to her. I was surprised. “Hamare ghar mai pehele baar aayi na, ye ek garib aurat ka dua hai. Hamare ghar se khali haat koi nahi jaata (You have come for the first time to our home. This is a poor woman’s gift. Nobody goes empty handed from our home)” I was totally moved beyond imagination. She had no clue that we were coming. But still she had a gift for Soji. And she told Soji “I worked for them and looked after Monu, but more than money what remains is the love that still remains.” I looked at her very fondly and said “Kya mai prarthana kar sakta hu (Can I pray for you)”. And I prayed in Hindi which I am not very familiar with. But when the prayer ended I felt very peaceful. We said goodbye and left.

When I now reflect this incident I am deeply overwhelmed that I could amend my wrong doings. The broken thread of relation was again mended by the delicate threads of Rakhi. This story will always remain with me. It has taught me a whole lot of things. I thank God for the gift of relations and the possibility of forgiveness and healing. I now completely believe that no matter what mistake one makes in life, God gives us an opportunity to make amends. It may seem very insignificant but such events in life help us realize “Life truly is amazing and beautiful.” All one needs to do is accept that “I have done what I should not have done and I have not done what I should have done (sins of omission and commission).” 

For those interested in reading my earlier write up about Vimala bai can find te link here  https://merinmathewz.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/she-helped-me-steal-away-to-my-neverland/

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

Are You Trying? Really?

Text: 1 Timothy 4: 6- 10

If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding%nd the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Message:
On 23rd  June 2011, I became the Deacon of the Mar Thoma Church and on 11th July 2011, the same day of my birth 29 years ago, I was Ordained as the Kasheesha (Priest) of the Mar Thoma Church. When I celebrate the two years of my ministry I need to ask myself is there anything to celebrate about. After the many Qurbanas and Sermons, how much have I changed? After writing so many meditations, have I become a better disciple of Jesus?  Well the excuse that I can come up with is “I have tried.” This to my mind is a very common excuse that we exercise. I have ever been listening sermons after sermons to be like Jesus, to follow him, going to camps and dedicating myself and then coming back to just being my old self. And all I had an excuse was, “You know, I tried.”

My mother was an athlete in her school days. There were stories that are now part of family folk lore of how fast she was. The best that I managed was in 8th Standard , I came 4th among 6 runners and felt very proud about it. Once in our school there was a selection for long distance running and I now knew this was my chance. God has a purpose for my life. The date was set and we had to run 10 rounds of the ground. All the friends interested started to train accordingly. I started doing sit ups one day and gave up. After a week or so the day arrived. I prayed and said “I am going to try.” We were all at the starting line. Ten rounds. That’s all. Once I cross the line, I too would be a legend. On your marks. Get set. Whistleeeeeee. And I went for the dash. I was coming first as I started with great speed. At the end of the first round, all the other athletes were far behind. Second round starts and suddenly I just can’t breathe. My leg is too stubborn. I tried harder to convince it. But it was just that. I was trying. Half way through the second round, I just could not take another step. As this was not a race but just a qualifying round, half way through, the gate that led us outside the ground came and I silently faded out. With that faded my every illusion of dreaming of having any career in athletics.

But I realized that trying was just not enough. One needs to train wisely not only in athletics but also in matters of faith.   In the passage above set before us for meditation, Paul uses the image of Athletics  when he says in vs 7-8 “Train yourself in Godliness. For, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Paul’s audiences were very familiar to Athletics as Corinth was the site of Isthmanian games, second only to Olympics in Ancient Greece. To enter these games one had to undergo 10 months of intensive training failing which one could be disqualified. Keeping this in mind Paul says “discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” 1 Cor 9: 27.

One of the crudest comment I got as a youth was when one of my friend said “You are Eloquent in your sermon.” I was beaming already till he completed his statement. “But it is just words.” It just shook me up. It still shakes me. Are my sermons just words? Or am I training to be transformed by Christ? The right beginning is to believe that merely by ones will power one cannot start being the faith that one preaches. The first thing that Alcoholics are taught in their self help group Alcoholics Anonymous is that one cannot become sober just by wishing to be so. For that One needs to follow the 12 steps principle of Alcoholic Anonymous. I have adapted these 12 principles for our journey in faith.

a)“Knowing our powerlessness to implement our faith in a world full of distractions.”

b) Believing that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to discipleship.

c) Making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we have come to understand Him.

d) To make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

e) Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

f) Being entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

g) Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.

h) To make a list of all persons we have harmed, and therfore willing to make amends to them all.

i) To make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

j) Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong to promptly admit it.

k) Seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

l) Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we would carry this message to our fellow travelers in faith and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

It is indeed a sobering fact to use the techniques of Alcoholics in the journey of faith. But I guess the struggle to practice our faith is as tough or even tougher than the struggle of an alcoholic to remain sober. Last Saturday as I was preparing for the Holy Communion, I started to read a 17th Century Book called “The Practice of the Presence of God” written by a Cook in a monastery who was known as Brother Lawrence. This book was compiled after the death of brother Lawrence who wrote letters to his friend about his spiritual training and discipline. “I have radically practiced the Presence of God in the most mundane affairs of my life. I do not like to cook but I pray ‘Lord, let this be pleasing to You and You alone. ’  After cooking again I pray thanking God. Every waking minute I live just to please my Master and therefore very waking moment in my life is now a prayer. It took me 10 years of sufferings to reach here but my deep sense of communion and love of God has deepened. I live only to please Him.” These verse touched a cord deep within. I was visibly moved. Have I trained myself to feel the presence of my Lord in every waking minute of my life? Do I strive to please God or I long for the approval of the people around? Is my life a prayer? Why do I get so irritated after I preach about patience? Why do I become judgmental after preaching about Love or hearing a sermon on it? Why do I fall into temptation soon after I have resolved to lead a virtuous life? Well these questions work as an inventory to know where I stand as a disciple.

In U.S after the 2nd World War, At Madison’s square, New York, Chuck, Bill and Chris were the three youths who brought the Gospel of comfort to a nation bruised with war and the after effects of Depression. It is said Chuck Templeton had a deep captivating baritone voice. His narration of the sermon kept the audience spell bound. His Conventions were well attended and his voice was the talk of the town. In 1950s Radio became a huge business. Chuck was offered a post as a News Broadcaster for his enviable voice. Initially he rejected it to concentrate on his ministry but later accepted the offer. He soon became a celebrity News Reader. He started to ignore his ministry and later on in an interview he professed “Lack of Conviction about his Christian faith which has forced me to discontinue my ministry.”

Chris Broff had unbelievable humor. People were glued to their seats once he started to speak. It is said his sermons never had a dull moment. And then he fell in love with a girl. He was rejected time after time. He started drinking. Became an alcoholic and died at a very young age. A man of promise and conviction lost the plot.

The Third man was Billy Graham. I admire Graham more for his tenacity and focus in ministry. He was a man f spiritual discipline who lived and preached his faith. Three young promising stars started ministry in difficult times. But only one completed the race. It is not how well you start, but how tenaciously you run with discipline and finish the race.

As people of faith, we need to focus on training to be Disciples of Jesus. We have tried enough. We need to be effective witnesses of Jesus. Or else the words of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan will ring true. “Christians are ordinary people with extraordinary claims.” Let us dedicate ourselves in the training of Godliness and faith. May God give us the grace. Amen.

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrain Church

Guwahati

 

Just Chill???.. No. Be Still

Text: Psalms 46: 10

 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;

    I will be exalted among the nations,

    I will be exalted in the earth.”

Message:

My mother says that the word that I used the most when I was a child is “Bore Adikyuvaa” (I am getting bored). I just could not sit in one place. It was a nightmare for her to take me to church as I found ‘sitting still’ impossible. Instead of Worshiping God, she was busy policing me. She says “Whenever I used to take you to church, due to exhaustion, the next day I would inevitably fall ill.” ‘Being still’ was an art I knew nothing about. But I realize that this word ‘Bore’ has gained currency in a time when there are so many options that cater to release us from our boredom. But when we look back there is no word for boredom in ancient or Biblical Greek. Some suggest that this word came into English dictionary only after the Industrial Revolution. In a world of smartphones, ipods, ipads, micro-slim televisions and play stations we have learnt the art of getting bored. Why so? It is said that the man today has become so distant from himself that he dreads being alone or doing nothing. The culture around has put so much emphasis on ‘doing’ that ‘doing nothing’ is wasting time. Sitting still is unproductive. You need to perform. You need to prove yourself. This emphasis on activity and productivity is what has made us look at old age, disability, and sickness with such dread and disdain. Humans are sadly being defined by what they produce and not by “Who they are”.

But what happens to people if they are alone or they are in solitude. Psychologist Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi (pronounced as chick-sent-me-high) has done research on people where people are asked to set their alarm on a random time when they are alone. People are asked to write what they are thinking, doing or feeling when that happens. His conclusion on how people respond to being alone and still is very revealing. “When people are left alone, undistributed by noise or activity, their mind naturally drifts toward an awareness of discontent, a sense of inadequacy, anxiety about the future, and a chronic sense of self- preoccupation. Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. When we are left alone, with demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, it begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing.” He further adds “To avoid this condition, people are naturally eager to fill their minds with whatever information is readily available, as long as it distracts attention from turning inward and dwelling on negative feelings. This explains why such a huge proportion of time is invested in watching television, despite the fact that it is rarely enjoyed.” If this diagnosis is precise which I feel is true, then our greatest fear is to be with ourselves. We do not avoid people or situation as much we avoid ourselves. Our addictions to gadgets, televisions, Twitter, Facebook, all help us to avoid knowing who we really are. We are strangers to ourselves.

It is in such a scenario that the Psalms 46: 10 says “Be still, and know that I am God…”. For us who have lost the art of ‘being still’ is it a wonder that we feel God is too distant and far away. This is why sitting down and reading the Bible is such a herculean ordeal. It is boring. This is why praying is not easy. Prayer is a time when we become aware of the thoughts that bother us. Prayer is the time when we become aware of our anxieties. It is uncomfortable. Prayer is not just an endless litany of our needs. It is also a time to open ourselves to listen to the voice of God that says “Be Still, and Know that I am God..” It is a time of knowing ourselves. It is the moment of surrender where we tell God “Take me as I am.” It is a time where we set apart the mask that we carry around. It is the moment where we are aware of our vulnerabilities and woundedness. Herman Hesse says “We hate in others what we hate in ourselves the most.” When we see the trait in others that we dislike in ourselves, we transfer our hate to others. We have found a scapegoat. We will keep running away from ourselves. Prayer is the time where we become available to God and ourselves. As a child I remember a story that has left a deep impact on me. This story I heard when I was in the Standard 3. So it is adapted according to the way I interpreted the story as a child. “There was a boy called Jim. It was his practice to come back from school and go to the nearby chapel and pray. He did this very regularly. The sexton of the Chapel noticed this boy coming every day after school to the Chapel. He was pleased to see the devotion of the boy. But he also noticed that Jim just spent 10 seconds at the Chapel. The sexton thought of confronting the boy on the duration of time he spends in prayer. Next day Jim comes to the Chapel. He kneels down and after 10 seconds he was on his legs. At the door he had the Sexton waiting for him. “Hello sonny”. Jim smiled back. Sexton continued “I see you come everyday to the Chapel. Very good. But I see you pray just for 10 seconds. That is not very good. Don’t you have more time for the Lord?” Jim smiled and replied “Uncle, I do not know any long prayer. I come here and surrender myself to the Lord by praying ‘Jesus, this is Jim.’” The sexton did not know what to say after listening to Jim. Days after Jim continued coming to the chapel to pray. One day when he was on his way back, Jim met with an accident where he suffered from a head injury and fracture in the right leg. He was admitted in the hospital. One day when the doctor came for rounds he asked the Nurse “Two days back when I came for rounds, everyone around was blaming us and cursing. The mood here was very heavy. But now I see smile on the peoples face in this ward. What exactly happened?” The Nurse replied “Ever since the boy Jim came to the hospital, everyone just sees smile on his face. He has a head injury and a fracture. But still he keeps smiling and his smile has become infectious.” The Doctor approached Jim “My boy I am happy to see you. But I wonder with the pain that you have how do you manage to smile?” Jim replies “Doctor, everyday I pray to my Jesus saying ‘Jesus, this is Jim.’ In my hour of pain, in the time when I am alone I can hear Jesus saying to me ‘Jim, this is Jesus.’

We live as if everything will remain as it is now. But we ‘will’ face sickness. We ‘will’ get old. We ‘will’ lose all things of ‘doing’ that define us today; our job, our beauty and our possessions. Then we will be left only with ourselves. But we dread ourselves. It is time we surrender our fears in prayer. It is time we come as we are in front of our God in prayer.  Let us discern the presence of God. Let us ‘Be Still’ and Know that He is God. 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

 

 

 

 

Prodigal Son: Reloaded

 

Text– Luke 15: 11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Message

 This passage is very popularly known as Prodigal Son and even more popularly as Mudiyanaya Puthran (in Malayalam). In all common sense what is left to talk about this parable that one has not heard? So I would offer some random thoughts to think aloud rather than a meditation. So let us begin.

1)      Why have we loved the title ‘Prodigal Son’ so much that it has become unquestionable to think of an alternative title? I feel the explanation given my Philipose Mar Chrysostom Veliya Metropolitan is profound. I paraphrase his thoughts here. It is human nature to label and subjugate. We derive pleasure to give a negative label as this negative label is from which we derive our positive identity. Simply put if there is an alcoholic in our vicinity, we will always call him so, as there is a cheap thrill and self righteousness we derive from him being alcoholic and we being so called teetotalers. It is a matter of having a binary logic. Our common languages where we ridicule the fat, the short, the dark are all extensions of this curious human nature. Funny thing about this parable is that the Son in the parable is restored and redeemed but still we call him ‘Prodigal’. In this regard I feel the focus one needs to pay is on the Love of the Father that is inclusive and inviting. Can’t we call this parable as “The Parable of the Loving Father.”

2)      The most hidden figure in the parable is the Master of the farm. One can imagine him gleefully rubbing his hands seeing the vulnerabilities of the son away from his country. The stranger for whom the pig is evil and an abomination is asked to look after it as he has no other choice. There are many similar figures in our cities that thrive on vulnerable migrants who have no choice but to engage in acts that nullify their dignity and personhood. There are a huge amount of migrants fueling the economy of the cities by doing works under substandard living conditions. For eg., the large labour population at the construction sites is a case in point. As it is said ‘they build homes to be homeless’. Mark Hovarth in his project ‘Invisible People’ captures the plight of the migrants and the homeless very beautifully. Bishop Sam Mathew of the Church of South India very rightly points out that the Church is very conveniently silent on this gross exploitation of the so called people of “Lesser gods”.

3)      In a much lighter vein, the pigs of the farm had a complaint against Homo Sapiens Sapiens. One said “You humans treat us with utter disdain, as if we are the scum of the Earth. You make fun of us; we are the symbol of all evil.” The other one argued “Is it fair to have such a position after reading the passage of the Prodigal Son (intentionally retained)? The son when with you humans was profligate and wild but as Luke 15: 17 says when he was in our company ‘He came to his senses’. We became instrumental for his return to his Father.” It is said that the Council of Pigs passed a Bill to protect “Animal Dignity and Sanity” and “No Eating Human Faeces” movement was called to draw attention to their plight. (The ones who felt revolted at this nonsense can have the magnanimity to forgive me. I am pressurized by PETA to include this).  

4)      When we read this parable we tend to read it in isolation. But we need to realize that Jesus is responding to an accusation. Let us see what it is. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”(Luke 15:1,2). It is in accusation of extending fellowship to the so called sinners that Jesus responds with a series of parables out of which this parable is the last of it. For the Pharisees and Scribes, God was only for the righteous and the pure. But Jesus here was introducing a Radical God who runs after sinners to redeem them. He not only waits for the sinner to return but he runs to him to accept him as he is. Jesus countered labels like sinners that entrapped people from being transformed. He focused on a God whose love was greater than the sin of the sinner. We live in a society that is fatalistic. We have no hope in reconciliation and transformation. We are also convenient with theories like “He is from that community, he will not change. It is in his blood” or very common label “They are cultureless people; we cannot hope much from them”. It is ironical for people like us that most of the times we take the position of the Pharisees and reject the message of Jesus that is inclusive and accepting. Is there a God like this? Yes there is a God like this.

5)      The Elder son is symbolic of ‘us’ who live by self righteous claims. It is these tendencies that make us more exclusive and help us highlight our boundaries. The Elder son took credit for being not like his younger brother. So when his younger brother was accepted back he felt cheated and threatened. Shankarshan Thakur narrates a true story. In a Village there was a nine year old boy from a low caste. He used to sing very well. So one day the temple authorities decided to call him to sing bhajan at the temple. The boy was completely elated when his mother informed him about this opportunity. His mother oiled his hair, gave a good bath, and made him wear a white kurta and dhoti. She put tilak on his forehead and neatly combed his hair and kissed him to do his best. The boy entered the temple and bowed in front of the elders. He was just about to take his seat to sing, when an elder caught his hand. He ruffled the boy’s hair and tore his kurta and told him “You forgot you are from a lower caste and you tried to be like us. Be where you are, know your place”. The boy choked with tears and ran home and told his mother, “One day with this ruffled hair and myself clothed with banyan I will rule this land”. This boy was none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Let me conclude quoting a controversial placard outside a Church in New York that read “Only Sinners Permitted”. I think that very much captures the core of this eternal parable of love, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

Why God Why???

Text: Luke 13: 1-5

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.

Message:

This text was the Gospel Reading of the Mar Thoma Lectionary on 29th Jan 2012. I was to give the sermon in my Home Parish, Immanuel Mar Thoma Parish, Vishrantwadi, Pune. I was literally struggling to speak from this passage which I found was very disturbing. On January the 13th 2012, I received a text saying that Philip uncle, age 75 and aunty aged 71 met with a terrible accident after a Regional Convention and aunty died on the way to hospital and uncle had sustained some serious injuries. This couple had been foremost in all the church activities and uncle even at the age of 75 was a leader of utmost zeal.  Why did this happen to Philip Uncle’s family? Why do innocent people die? Why do good people have so much of sufferings? Why do people we know and love so much have terminal illness? With all the faith and belief, such questions haunt us and disturb us.

When we look at the text we see a set of people gathered around Jesus who informed him of the dastardly act of Pilate and his soldiers who slaughtered the Galileans who had gone to offer sacrifices to the temple and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. The common belief was that only sinners encountered violent deaths and such deaths were in proportion to their deeds. The people must have concluded that, those who died in the temple deserved such a death in accordance to their sins.  But Jesus rejects such a belief. He asks them “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus affirms that those living are none better than those who are dead. Jesus knew that those alive were as good as dead. So he asks them to repent. What he meant was to reorient their sinful and selfish lifestyle to the hope of resurrection and life and to live with the purpose God created them for. To be a light and to spread the light. Repentance is asking God to lead us from darkness to light, from ways of death to ways of life.

When tragedies happen in our lives, we ask the question “Why God?” and we have every right to ask it. But the trouble is we stop at that. We feel victimized and overwhelmed by the circumstance. Let us transform our question from “Why God?” to “What should I do God?“.  And Jesus answers this by asking us to repent. Unfortunately, our traditional understanding of repentance, is, just to affirm our sins and be pathologically sin conscious. But repentance is much more profound and positive. Our faith is cornered on the premise of certainties. Every tragedy reminds that there are many things beyond our reach and control. Repentance is acceptance of our finitude. Repentance is also reorientation. We in our self assured lifestyle have to step out of our comfort zones. Let us identify how our life can make a difference to the people and society around us. How can we be the messengers of Love, Hope and Reconciliation which defeats forces of death and affirms life symbolized by the Resurrection of our Lord.

“What a friend we have in Jesus” is an eternal hymn that comforts and challenges us. Let us learn about the lyricist of this great hymn. Joseph Scriven was an Irishman who completed his academics in Dublin. Life was on song. He fell in love with a woman and harbored dreams of a married life. A day before the wedding, the bride-to-be drowned, leaving Joseph hapless and heartbroken. He reconciled with it again and fell in love with another woman. He got engaged to her but she too fell ill and died. This was too much for him to handle. Later, he came to know his mother was ill and to encourage her, Joseph wrote the poem “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Joseph was a broken man. He must have asked “Why God, Why Me”. But he did not stop at that. He asked “What Should I do God?” And he answered the call to be a comfort to the poor and needy people in Dublin. Out of his experience of pain and brokenness, he reoriented his life to be a healer to bruised souls and people of broken spirit. His song stands a testimony that declares to all the broken people “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Image

Faith is how we respond to life. There may be many things in life we find unfair and compel us to ask “Why God, Why Me?” Let the Resurrection of Jesus help us to overcome this helplessness to conquer hate with love, bitterness with reconciliation, dejection with hope. “What should I do God?” What is your response?

 

Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church
Guwahati

Magnificat: The Daring Vision of Mary (On The Occasion of 15 Days Lent Remembering the Life and Dedication of Mary)

 

Text: Luke 1: 46- 55

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

Message:

“From the Silence of Chaos God breathed the Music of Creation”. When we look at Mary’s life we know that the proclamation of Gabriel plunged her life into utter silence of chaos. Her calculations in life had gone topsy turvy. Dreams shattered and confusions multiplied. But in the midst of all this she surrendered herself to the Mystery of God by saying “I am the Lord’s Servant. May everything you have said about to me come true.” This opening up to the possibilities of God transforms her Silence of Chaos to Music of Creation. In such a background let us explore two dimensions of the beautiful song of Mary.

The initial part of the song “Harks about Amazing Grace of God”. “For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name.” (Luke 1: 47-49). Mary aware of the responsibility that she has been called to, is also aware of her inadequacy in being an instrument for God. Being profoundly aware of God’s grace prepares us to be open to the possibilities of God. In a conversation with my fellow batch mate and Asst. Vicar of St. Thomas Mar Thoma Church, Karol Bagh, Rev Jijo Varghese narrated to me a fascinating story. Alex Haley is the Author of the colossal work “Roots” which traces 12 generation of his slaves ancestors that were traded from Africa to America in the 15th century. Journalists interviewed him at his office. They dealt with the pain of being Black and the success of the Book “Roots”. In the office one of the Journalist saw many photos gracing the walls of his office. But there was one odd photo frame that stood out. Journalist out of curiosity asked “Dear Alex I can understand the family photos and the photos of your personal glory but the one photo where a turtle on top of a fence post beats me. What is the significance of this photo?” Haley poignantly replied “ In times of such personal glory where my book is doing so well this photo reminds me of a profound truth. This turtle definitely has not climbed on the fence post, there is somebody who has placed it up there. When I look book this photo reminds me that it is not by merit that I have reached here. The grace of God, prayers of my family and encouragement of people have placed me here. This gives me perspective.” Like Mary let us be aware of our humble state from which God has lifted and placed us to do His will. God has placed us not in a position of privilege but in a place of responsibility to be his instrument, to be his witness.

The second half of the song is a “Melody of a new dream, a new vision, a new beginning.” From vs 51 Mary Sings of a New future. This song portrays that God has already brought down rulers from the throne and lifted up the humble as a thing of the past. We should remember when she sang this song Herod was still on the throne. Threat of Herod later drives her as a refugee to Egypt along with Joseph and baby Jesus. So here she was singing in faith of a new future and a new possibility where the humble will be lifted up while the Herods of the world will be dethroned. She sings of a time when the hungry will be filled and the rich sent away empty handed. Mary lived in the context of Roman imperialism where the power is all that mattered. There were many like her who were hungry, who were just statistics in the Roman Census. With all the negativity surrounding, she saw a vision of new beginnings, new possibilities and new hopes. Today we live in times of Breaking News that has numbed our senses. News of scandals, riots, sexual abuses, scams and wars have made it impossible to believe that we can make a difference. The brutality of mankind has today deprived us of any hope. Slowly we have started to believe that “Nothing is going to Change. There is no hope.” We seem to have given up. In such a context let me introduce you to the Third blessing of the Mar Thoma Liturgy.” MAY THE GRACE AND MERCY OF THE HOLY AND GLORIOUS TRINITY, + UNCREATED, SELF-EXISTENT, + ETERNAL, ADORABLE AND ONE IN ESSENCE, BE WITH YOU ALL + FOR EVER.” Rev Eappen Varghese, the Professor of Church History at Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Kottayam says that the “ Glorious, Holy, Uncreated, Self Existent, Eternal, Adorable, One in Essence quality of the Trinity is contrasted with the World that is Unholy, Created, Dependent and Fragile.” So the Third Blessing points to the beyond element that helps us to rise over the negativity, cynicism and pessimism that surrounds our times. The Third Blessing is a Blessing and a responsibility to dream of a new future. When the world says there is no hope, we are called to be the messengers of hope. This dream may look baseless and illogical. But one needs the madness to believe in God and the future that he holds. Can there be a world where there will be no war? A Nuclear Free world? A world free from human trafficking? A world free of discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes? A world where there will be no caste discrimination? World free of Gender discrimination? World that embraces the disabled, the deviants and the marginalized?

If the above is foolishness I am a follower of a fool who was the Son of the Woman who sang the Song. He in his foolishness preached in his sermon like this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 3-12)

On the Occasion of 15 Days Lent where we remember the life and dedication of Mary, Mother of Jesus, let us too “Hark about the Amazing Grace of God” and hum the “Melody of a New Dream, a New Vision, a New Beginning”. Mary calls us to be foolish enough to believe that the grace of God is sufficient for us to dream, to have a vision. In my First year in seminary I remember meeting an incredible person called Dayabai.I was mermerised by her attire and her gait that was in complete identification with the tribal people that she works with. Her front tooth is broken and her face is wrinkled. Interacting with her we found out that her name was Mercy Mathew and her house is in Pala. She dedicated her life to be a Nun and she became one. Later she realized that she was a misfit and left that path. She took up studies in Social Work and was challenged beyond comparison.After imbibing knowledge from universities, Mercy travelled to Madhya Pradesh to become a part of the adivasis there. Initially it was pretty difficult for her to gel with them. For that Dayabai turned herself into a Goondur local. She changed her dressing style, her eating habits, her language; she even worked on every small detail like the way she walks, talks, sits, stands etc.

For five years she stayed at the house of the Sarpanch of Goondur, until the adivasis themselves built a house for her. She taught them, built wells, hand pumps, schools and all the other necessities that the Goondur clan weren’t aware of. She went out into the public to give them a taste of knowledge and power, to teach them how to live and let live. Dayabai conducted street-plays, satyagrahas, speeches, taught them to sing, dance etc. No weather scared her, no one cared for her, but Dayabai shouted aloud the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The day that changed Mercy to Dayabai was when she saw a nine-year-old boy killing a chick. She spoke to this boy for a long time inquiring why he did the brutal act, what affected him so much? Apparently, this boy witnessed the brutal death of his mother and sisters. He hid behind a basket and did all he could to stay silent. His silence resulted in the death of his family. Mercy realised that he was simply the tip of an iceberg. 


The same day, she saw an advertisement for volunteers to Calcutta to help refugees from Bangladesh. She didn’t think twice before venturing out to do just what her heart told her to. There she took care of people with small pox, chicken pox, dengue and even more contagious diseases.

Dayabai, from then on, worked for Goondur and till date, has been fighting for them. She lives alone but with nature and a dog and a cat to keep her company. She cultivates oranges, blue berries, papaya, spinach, gram, peas, and almost all types of vegetables possible. She breeds hen, horses and cows in her very own land. The words that had the deepest impact on me were her words “Every time i partake in the Eucharist, I am reminded of the broken body and blood shed by my Jesus. This inspires me to be his disciple and to be ready for any sacrifice for the fight for justice and rights of his people.” Like Mary, Dayabai too is foolish enough to think that in midst of all the chaos and mayhem of the world by the grace and empowering of God, we too can dispel the forces of darkness. May this lent help us introspect our life of discipleship and may we be foolish enough to believe that the existing reality of the present world is not the final truth. There is hope and we need to strive for the world that is filled with justice, mercy and peace that our Lord preached and announced its arrival by Imagecalling it the ‘Kingdom of God.’

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati