I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
As an intern Psychiatric social worker (yes, I am cool you see), I was assigned a Halfway Home called Chaitanya for the mentally ill. Every morning I had to start a session where basic skills like combing hair, brushing teeth, how to shave, buttoning up shirt, saying good morning was instilled. Due to the mental illness, their basic skills broke down and Halfway home is a place that tries to integrate people with mental illness into the society where they can live their lives in the best possible way. So one day after the routine after saying bye, when I was about to leave, Mr Vivek, one of the inmates, met me at the door. He said “Sir, I appreciate your inputs on a daily basis. It is very helpful. But you are a man of double standards.” I looked at him with disbelief and my mouth wide open could have swallowed an elephant. He continued “You tell us to be hygienic by shaving, but look at your ugly beard and you tell that we should always be pleasant and greet each other. But when we come for lunch you never greet us and you always look sad and unpleasant. You should smile and moreover practice what you preach.”
The above incident punctured my ego beyond recognition and also reminds us what Paul so wonderfully says. We have set of ideals that we preach, believe and want to live by, but keep failing. I have lived with my inner struggles all my life. Some struggles keep nagging me.
I have asked myself about my personal life and the civil wars going on in me seems to be raging every day. I have come up with the following observations about it. I do want to be more spiritual. Honest, I am a priest. I am supposed to be a spiritual leader. I do want to pray and have a closer walk with God. I want to have a deeper interior life with God. When I wake up in the morning, I want to be able to sit down and pray, read the Bible. When I go about my meditations, I want to concentrate on my prayers and not have so many random thoughts that come wiggling in between my sentences of prayers. What do I do? I want to lead my worship with utmost sincerity without bothering about my voice and presentation. But my thoughts are distracted and my focus is on myself than on God. I do put a lot of effort into my sermon, but it is more to please people than to deliver the powerful word of God. I want to do what is right. I actually demand my youths and parish members to pray and read the bible daily. But do I do it? That which I want to do, I confess to you, I don’t do.
Throughout my life, I have wanted to live a simpler life style, as a means of identifying with the poor and the oppressed of the world. To have compassion on people who are poor and deprived. But when I see them that compassion evaporates and I have devised new justifications to hold on to my “hard earned money”. And I find myself accumulating more books and goodies around the house. And my practice of giving is far from being consistent. It fluctuates according to my whims. I want to do what I perceive to be right, to do what I perceive is God’s will for our lives, but do I do it? No. What is wrong with me?
I want to live a life not ruled by gadgets and social media. But the opposite is true. I always need a phone to fidget with. Either the laptop or my mobile is always a necessity. I need to message someone on Whatsapp or keep updating inane nonsense on Facebook. And also I lecture on how these things are ruining our lives and therefore one should regulate the use. But is that what I do? No, not at all. Even though I know it is wrong I keep indulging.
Jimmie Carter, when he was President of the United States and also the most famous Bible teacher in the Baptist church, made the front page of TIME magazine by confessing he still had feelings of lust, even though happily married. He didn’t want to have such feelings. Neither do I, as I believe one should not objectify women. But I nonetheless do have feelings of lust. What do I do?
So I come to the conclusion that I am not a worthy person. I must not be a very good Christian. Worse still I am a horrible priest. I must be a weak Christian. I must be a compromising Christian. I must be a sinful, imperfect Christian. What is wrong with me? Why are there so many contradictions living inside me. What kind of a man is this that lives inside of me? These are the ramblings of my mind.
We all know that the man who wrote Romans 7 was the Apostle Paul. Here he was at the very high point of his life. Fifty-five to sixty-five years old; a mature Christian; he had been a Christian for some twenty to twenty-five years. Here was the Apostle Paul who prayed fervently, who worked mighty miracles, who wrote numerous letters to the churches. Here was Paul who spoke courageously before governments, kings, and rulers. Here was Paul who was tossed into prison, beaten and stoned. Here was Paul, the most mature person of the Christ-centered life, at the high point of his Christian journey. In contemporary scenario it would be like Lionel Messi, the winner of 5th Ballon d’Or saying “I do not know how to play football. I am learning to play it. Similarly Paul says, “I don’t get it. I do the things that I hate. And the very things that I want to do, I don’t do. That which I don’t want to do, I do. What is wrong with me? What a wretched person?”
And then it begins to dawn on us that one of the marks of a mature Christian is the awareness of this struggle with evil in our lives. To be honest about this civil war within us shows our confidence in our living relation with our Lord. It is to struggle with evil until our day of dying. We all struggle. We all say to ourselves, “O wretched person that I am.”
So is Paul giving us an excuse to live a wayward life? We see that the very depressing chapter 7 ends with “Thanks be to God- through Jesus Christ our Lord..” (vs 25a). What does that mean? The Chapter 7 makes us ready for the glorious promises of Chapter 8. Let us see what it is
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again;rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15-17)
Paul reminds us of our identity as Children of God. It is the Holy Spirit that has brought us to adoption and calls us into a relation with our God where we call him, “Abba Father”. We are like the prodigal son who keeps leaving the Home of the father and the communion. But Spirit helps us to confess and come to our senses and return to our Lord who reaches out with outstretched arms to receive us. Paul reminds us our thirst for Grace.
I remember a time when I was struggling to make a decision to go for ministry. Many people knew I had dedicated my life for ordained ministry and here suddenly I was backtracking. I must admit I had lost my focus; I questioned my capability and my commitment and was very confused. The struggle was very harrowing and my reservations for ordained ministry had become very vocal. Some of it was a defense mechanism to wriggle out of the situation. This created a lot of tension in my life. But I must highlight the role of my parents who were very disappointed at my wavering decisions. But in spite of that I can’t forget the confrontation with my parents which I thought would be very ugly. But my dad always surprised me and still surprises me. He precisely said these words when I was feeling the worst about myself, “Mon, we are proud that you are our son. We see that you are struggling. We are with you in whatever decision you make. We wish you take the right decision. We love you and as parents we will support you the best that we can.” Tears still well up when I remember those words. In the scorching heat of loneliness the word “Mon (malayalam for son)” was like the waters of the streams that gushed into my soul. I am sure God is daily calling us “Mon/Mol” when He sees our endless struggle. He promises us that His grace will fill the vacuum of our hearts. Like the Samaritan woman who wanted to know which mountain to scale in her effort to please God. Jesus reminded her, “Lady, forget about the mountain and concentrate on the fountain that is available inside you through the Spirit.”
Baptism affirms our identity as Daughters and Sons of God and at Holy Communion, Christ calls us to His table as a loving mother calls her children to have food at the dinner table. In Mar Thoma Liturgy the procession for Holy Communion starts with liturgical song “Daiva Suthar Naam Aai Iduvan, Jeevikal aayi nadanapol…”. The song is a call for all the confused and burdened people who were condemned to beastly (jeevikal) living because of our struggle with sin. But Christ has called us as his children (Daiva Suthar), where he offers His body and blood to nourish our parched souls.
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church,
Kolar Road, Bhopal
Matthew 3: 13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Early Church pictured Jesus going down or dipping in the River Jordan, and as he comes out of the water the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the voice speaks from Heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17).Reflecting on this, they soon began to make connections with the Creation story which involved Water and spirit. At the beginning of creation, Genesis tells us, there was watery chaos. And over the watery chaos, Holy Spirit was hovering. There is watery chaos, there is wind of God’s spirit. Out of the watery chaos comes the world. And God says ‘This is good.’ This is how St Paul connected Baptism of Jesus to the Creation account and therefore gave the apt title to Christian life as New Creation. So the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s New Creative work. Just as Jesus came out of the water, receiving the the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God gives a new identity saying “This is my son/daughter, whom I love; with her/him I am well pleased.”
There is a tribe in Sierra Leone called the Himba Tribe where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind.And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him.And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it. And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee,someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song. In this African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything to prove yourself or usurp what is not yours.
God is singing the original song at our Baptism where he says “You are my beloved son/daughter.” That is our identity and we should often be reminded of the original song.
What is the significance of Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus restores the creation to its purpose of ‘It is good’. When Jesus who restored humanity to the Original love song of God, entered into the river Jordan, symbolizing entry into the chaos of the human world. Jesus entered into our level, where things are broken, shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and risk, to give birth to a New Creation of humanity. So when we share in the baptism of Jesus, it is not going to be a life that is going to be successful and in control of things, but it is going to be a life that reaches out from the pain of brokenness and loneliness (chaos), to be touched by the hand of God. So where do we find the Baptized? In the midst of brokenness, pain, death, illness, risk, in short “in the neighbourhood of chaos.”Being baptized means to be lead to where Jesus is. Therefore baptism means being led to the chaos and neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its identity and destiny. But more so, Baptism touches the depths of not just outside chaos, but also the chaos of her or his own life. Because the chaos is not just outside but also there is a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized person should have the honesty and courage to look at the chaos inside and should combat the chaos outside. If this is so, baptism does not confer on us a status that makes us special or a claim of privilege. It is a claim a new level of soladiruty with other people through Christ. Therefore Baptism never is a convocation or graduation ceremony for the privileged elite, but it is an entry into the messy, needy, contaminated world with Jesus. When Jesus rose from the water, it symbolizes that, through the resurrection of Christ, we will also overcome the forces of death and destruction. Baptism opens us to the chaos of the world and at the same time it opens us to the Holy Spirit. Baptism opens up to the brokenness and pain of the world and also gives us the joy of communion, with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It helps us listen to the voice of God, constantly reminding our identity as His beloved.
Now we have wasted a lot of energy, debating the validity of infant baptism and adult baptism. We have turned baptism into a validity contest of who is right and who has the entry visa to Paradise. That is how we completely miss the point. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4) It calls for a complete identification with Jesus. . Church identifies Jesus to have lived a threefold identity: the prophet, priest and king. Baptism calls us to live a life identifying with these 3 roles. We do not see ourselves in such a perspective. Let us analyse these 3 roles
- Prophet: We have reduced a prophet to just foretelling the future. But biblically if we analyze, the role of a prophet is to challenge the community to be what it is meant to be. So the baptized person, reflecting the prop[hetic role of Jesus Christ is a person who needs to be critical, a questioner. A person who asks, “Have you forgetten what you are here for?” “Have you forgotten the gift God gave you?” Prophetic role reminds us that we are God’s beloved and therefore questions the human practices in the wake of our identity. Prophetic role is a risky role as we pose uncomfortable questions to ourselves and to people around us, commiting ourselves to the identity that God has given us. We hold each other accountable to our faith and action. Prophetic role is not just about having a private life of faith, but a faith that overflows to combat injustice, discrimination and suffering. Let us remember our prophetic role.
- Priest: The role of a priest in Old Testament is one who interprets God and humanity to each other. Priest was seen as somebody who builds bridges between God and humanity when that relationship has been wrecked; somebody who by offering sacrifice to God recreates a shattered relationship. This is the priestly role Jesus espoused and we can try to identify with that role of being peacemakers and bridge builders. We offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:2). In a world characterized by brokenness and estrangement, Baptism calls us to the priestly role of building bridges between communities, races and people from different hues
- King: King is a one who had the freedom and power to shape the law and justice of society. King is a one who had the power to bring to fruition what he wishes to see. While prophets are those who break dividing walls and dismantle new structures, kingly role calls to build alternative structures. Kingly role calls us to shape our lives and human environment in accordance with the justice of God. We are part takers of the freedom and liberty that God gives us to make the world a better place.
So Baptism is not just a vain speculation of whose Baptism is valid, but it initiates us to a life of playing the role of Prophet, Priest and King. We live in times of mediocre faith that makes us feel that one must just tag along. Baptism is just seen as a societal necessity. There is a theory called Pygmalion effect. In the Greek mythology Pygmalion is a sculptor from the city of Crete. His statues were very popular and he was deeply admired. There were many girls who wished to marry him but he refused to do so. One day he sculpted a beautiful woman. It is said he fell in love with this statue. He kept telling the people of the city that the statue of the woman is his wife. People thought he had lost it to call a statue a stone, as his wife. It is said that his constant love and affection on the statue gave breath to the sculpture and the lifeless body came to life. Pygmallion effect says that any person ordinary, if endowed with expectation, love and responsibility can rise up perform beyond expectation. Through baptism, ordinary humans like us are endowed the love and expectation of our Lord to rise up to live the divine-human life of discipleship consisting of the roles of Prophet, Priest and King.
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhopal
Ps: This article is adapted from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book ‘Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer
Matthew 1: 18- 25
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
I may be the last of the remnant generation who grew up on the steady and bland diet of watching Doordarshan, as my father refused to give in to my endless rants to subscribe cable TV. So I tried all the tricks to tune in cable TV as very grainy versions I could manage by wasting my time on the terrace, trying endlessly to make the TV antennae and the cable wire meet. Don’t ask me what was the science or the logic of it. Sometimes it worked and most times it did not, which is not surprising. To cut the long story short, I had to live on endless nonsense on DD like Alif Laila, Alibaba when my friends discussed ‘Friends’ and ‘Bold and the Beautiful’. My friend asked me what is my favorite serial, and I remarked “Rukavat ke liye khed hai: Sorry for the interruption”. And he looked puzzled. It was just my attempt of being sarcastic as a teenager, I had to paint everything in dark by exaggerating. The transmission of the programme went off air, with rainbow colors on your screen and a very annoying tone accompanying, right at the time of an interesting cricket match, when the ball is in the air and you kept guessing what happened and there comes the most hated lines “Rukavat Ke liye khed hai: Sorry for the interruption”
In our lives we have certain calculations and goals that we set. These become your milestones in life. After my graduation I will try to write GRE and study abroad. In another 2 years I should get a job to pay off my loans. By the age of 27, I should get married. As my friend Wret used to say “Dude I wanna earn real quick and fast and before you give that awful judgmental look, I wanna earn so that I can retire by the age of 35 and then chill.” So we all have such expectations, dreams, desires that give meaning to our pursuit for happiness. But more often than not, life is not privy to our dreams or our goals. We hit roadblocks. Expectedly or unexpectedly one fails in a subject, fails to get the job she/he dreamed of. One loses a job with lots of loans and dues to clear. Dreamt of a fairytale wedding and ended up in a nightmare. A near one dies, leaving a huge vacuum in our lives. These are all the scenarios and even more when life gets seriously interrupted and God is not kind enough to say “Sorry for the interruption”.
Joseph too had very ordinary dreams. Dreams to get married to his beloved and have a quiet family life. And his betrothed Mary comes up with the news of being pregnant. What a scandal? And even more she comes up with a weird explanation. She says that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. Who would believe it? He could see people talking about it. When in the market he could imagine the stares that he would undergo. Life is seriously interrupted. And he has two options in front of him. One is to expose her so that she is publicly stoned as per the law, and the other is to silently divorce her.
When life gets interrupted, we get anxious to fix it. We are dismayed that our own expectations hurt us and resolve never to expect anything. The hurt of betrayal is a deep wound. And to top it all, the endless questions and stares of the people to deal with. And divorce it is. Joseph decides that the first thing that he will do tomorrow is to get rid of Mary silently. With great clarity he knows that he is now in control. And then he goes to sleep. Sleep is very tricky. You are just not in control. I unrealistically set the alarm at 5 AM. But sleep rules me down to fail my New Year resolution to wake up early. When we used to go to youth camps my friends were afraid to sleep next to me as I kick those who sleep next to me and snore annoyingly and to top it all, I used to even talk. My only consolation was that another friend of mine sleep walked. I cannot say I will not snore, or kick or talk while asleep. Soji seems like a gladiator to have put up with all this. In sleep, we are not in control of the dreams that come to us. So when Joseph was not in control, in a dream, an angel invaded him saying “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 20-21). He is now to decide, whether to be compelled by his hurt, the stares and talks of the people or to consider the gentle whisper of God in the night to accept Mary as his wife and to protect the child. It is a matter of interpretation. One who’s cynical can easily rubbish this off and work from the logic of hurt and revenge. But Joseph interpreted the dream accordingly and acted upon it. Michael J Marsh beautifully says that Joseph had to let go off the fear, anxieties, and imagined scandals and let God take control. He emptied himself and became the womb that would protect Mary and the child from the rage of Herod and the stares of the community. His interpretation led to a creative action. Christmas is the story of two wombs where Mary offers her womb to bear the Child Jesus and Joseph who emptied himself and became the womb. When life interrupts let us not succumb to knee jerk reaction. Let us submit to God by letting go off our anxieties, worries, panic and wait for God to talk in the silence of night, in the deafening pain of waiting.
Joseph realized the scandal was not that Mary was pregnant, but the scandal was that God is in our midst. Scandal is not about the question of faithfulness of Mary but the divine faithfulness of God who would condescend to be man. God would be installed in our midst. God is in our midst. God is here. He is Immanuel. But in circumstances like the above, he seems absent. He seems distant. How do we make sense of Immanuel? The question is are we emptying ourselves to bear the message of God to reach out to people in pain? If this statement makes no sense, let me close with an illustration.
Rev E.J. George is a stalwart priest of the Mar Thoma Church. My first experience of him was when I was rushing to the Kottayam Market to buy vegetables for the seminary mess. Achen, who had never met asked me if I am from the seminary. I answered in the affirmative. He asked me all my family details. And I very impatiently kept answering him. And I thought this would finish with the answers, so that I can be back on track, buying vegetables, I was wrong. In midst of the market, he held my hands and prayed. I was shocked. I never knew somebody would pray for me in midst of a busy market. My rush was over. I had deeply felt the presence and nearness of God. If this was not enough, in 3 days time I get a postcard addressed to me from E.J.George Achen with a quote on it and assurance of prayer for my parents. But that’s not where the story ends. It is only the beginning of another beautiful strand of story. My cousins Mary and Susan lost their mother on 26th November 2014. My cousin Rev. Mathews George and I received this news when we were at the Annual Clergy Conference. I recollected the 13 months struggle that this family went through when Kunjumol aunty suffered from Cancer. But I was truly amazed at how aunt and the entire family faced this. Mary and Susan tried their best with prayer and service to prolong their dear mother’s life. Even Babu Uncle was hopeful and realistic. Everytime she succumbed to a series of illness, the trend was she would overcome it and comeback by God’s grace. So when in the end of November when she was seriously ill with a lot of complications, we all hoped that she would once again triumph. More so, both the daughters hoped this would be the case. But it was not to be. When we reached Mumbai at our aunt’s house, we were moved to see the mortal remains of our dear aunt and heartbroken to see the tears of our cousins. Once the funeral service at home was over, we were ready to head towards the church. My cousin Mathews George Achen, Mary, Susan and myself were in the same car. It is at that time Georgie aka Mathews George achen told us that while he was rushing home from the Annual Clergy Conference at Kozhencherry, Kerala, he happened to meet Rev E. J. George Achen. When Georgie tried to excuse himself by saying that he was rushing to the funeral in Mumbai of his aunt, Achen insisted to know more. He asked about the daughters and family. And after hearing all this, E.J. George achen took two hand written notes from his Bible to be given to the daughters. The note is a poem that is credited to anonymity. The poem “He takes only the best” is as follows.
“God saw she was getting tired
And a cure was not to be
So he put his arms around her
And whispered, ‘Come with me’
With tear filled eyes we saw her
Suffer and fade away
Although we loved her deeply
We could not make her stay
A golden heart stopped beating
Hardworking hands put to rest
God broke our hearts to prove to us
He takes only the best”
After reading the note, both daughters were deeply surprised. How could an achen who is a complete stranger talk to them miles away directly to their hearts? Mary quipped “This poem is the answer to our prayer. God definitely has spoken to us.” I could see how much this great gesture had partly healed the sisters. Achen who is ready to stop and know about others, who writes small notes of healing and comfort for people he has not seen, became the womb that carried the message “Immanuel, God is in midst of this. He is here”
(The photo inserted is the photo of the note given by Rev E.J. George)
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhopal