Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Yesterday, the Friday Fellowship (which started as a weekly time of praise and worship, but is now spreading its wings) team visited the girls home run by the local church. There are about 60 children there and we had a wonderful time of singing, sharing, skits and a message, followed by dinner. The thought of children in need has been staying with me for the last few weeks, ever since I watched the movie 'The Kite Runner'. Having (to my embarrassment, I must confess) not yet read the book, I was quite moved at the presentation of the grim realities that face so many children on our planet. Amy, who has read the book, tells me that it is even more graphically presented there. But the time in our orphanage was certainly not what I expected. The children all looked so happy and really encouraged me with their effervescence and excitement. There was none of the doom and gloom that were depicted in the movie - rather, I left there with a feeling of having been blessed.

As I sat and let my mind wander during the message, (which being in Khasi, went right over my head), I was reminded of John Bradford's famous words - There, but for the grace of God, am I. Bradford was a Christian reformer who lived in Britain in the early 1500s. Known and beloved by all as a devout and compassionate Christian, he was so obviously set apart that in college at Cambridge, he was called 'Holy Bradford'. (And this was not in the disparaging sense that present day young people use it - in my college days the actual term used was 'white mafia'!!). After his studies he was ordained a priest and became a roving minister preaching the gospel. When Mary Tudor, a Catholic, came to the throne of Britain, persecution of the Protestants became very strong and Bradford was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was there for nearly two years, spending the time preaching, writing and systematically studying the Bible. During his imprisonment, he is said to have seen a group of prisoners being taken for their execution and made his now-famous remark - There, but for the grace of God goes John Bradford. He too was destined to suffer the same martyr's fate and it is said that just before being burnt at stake, he asked for forgiveness of those he had wronged, offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him and then remarked to the person tied to the stake with him, 'We shall have a merry supper with the Lord tonight'. Though there are some doubts about the attribution of this quote to him, it is now commonly used and has been modified by many, including Sir Winston Chrichill who said of the pompous Sir Stafford Cripps (known to all of us Indians for his infamous Cripps mission), 'There, but for the grace of God, goes God!!'

The powerful Bradford confession while conveying humility and gratefulness, also implies the tendency to think of oneself as better-off than someone else. While in college and blessed with the idealism of youth, I believed that nothing was impossible to anyone who had a dream and worked hard towards it. So much so, that I even invited 2 older boys from the village we had our community posting in, to stay with me in the hostel for a few days, so that they could experience the feeling of being in a medical college and be inspired to study hard and get there themselves!! I like to believe they had a good time, but with the realism (some may say cynicism!!) that comes with age, it is difficult for me to believe they actually made it to a medical college somewhere.

And yesterday sitting in the childrens home, surrounded by eager and excited faces (and not the dull and sunken ones I had expected), I realised that God's blessing to His children can never be counted in the material terms that we humans often base our lives on. His blessing is His love to our hearts that makes us sing whatever the circumstances (see Pradeep's latest post for a similar thought). While everything that we are and have are certainly His gifts, the mark of a true follower is the inner joy and peace that shine out whatever the circumstances. While I may never understand why those 66 children need to spend their lives not knowing the protection of a human father, never being able to utter the word 'Mama' and always knowing that they were not the 'same' as the majority of their classmates, I do know that their joyous faces and voices shone forth the love of God in a way I may never be able to do. As I sat there I knew in my heart that those little children were touching the heart of God with their songs and their smiles, while I, with my fancy education, so-called accomplishments and perceived stability was just a pretender who had a long way to run to His open arms. How hard for the rich man to enter the Kingdom.....

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Amazing grace

Yesterday (July 24th) was the 285th birth anniversary of John Newton. From the time I read his biography with my mother when I was probably 9 or 10 years old, the story of this man and then later, the words of his beautiful hymn have ministered deeply to me, as they have to so many other believers. The story of (in the words on his tombstone) 'an infidel and a libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, (who) was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.' The story of deep inner forgiveness and awakening that called him to write those words that strike right to the centre of our being - Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me. The story of a man who said at age 82, 'My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour'.

The story of Newton's life is well known and documented (two good biographies are here and here), but I recently learnt that there is an interesting theory on the origin of the melody for Amazing Grace. Originally entitled 'Faiths Review and Expectation' and written to go with a sermon that Newton preached, this beloved hymn is believed to have been inspired by 1 Chronicles 17:16 which reads 'And David the king came and sat before the LORD, and said, Who am I, O LORD God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?'. There is no record of the original melody as hymns were not written to sheet music at that time. However, all authentic versions of the hymn give credit to Newton only for the words and not the melody. The tune that is most commonly associated with the hymn is called 'New Britain' and its origin is unknown. This tune is written in the pentatonic scale, which has only 5 notes (compared to the usual 7). The pentatonic scale is the one used in most of the Negro Spirituals and is believed to have been brought over from Africa by the slaves. The theory (which is inimitable explained by Wintley Phipps in the video below posted here by WNYChristianRio) is that possibly John Newton heard the melody being sung by slaves he was ferrying to America and later set it to the words of this song which tells the story of the inner journey he made from being the captain of a slave-ship to being one of the greatest proponents of Abolition in the United Kingdom.



Recently Amy and I watched the stately, historical movie 'Amazing Grace', which is the story of William Wilberforce and his struggle to abolish slavery. John Newton is portrayed in the movie as being afraid to confront his past as a slave-ship captain for a very long time. In fact, even after his conversion, he continued as a slave-ship captain and when he retired due to an illness, he invested money in the slave-trade for some time afterward. Though he changed his views on slavery much earlier, it was only at the end of his life that he finally could talk and write about it. He published a forceful pamphlet entitled 'Thoughts on the slave trade' describing the horrific conditions on the slave ships, which was circulated widely and considered one of the last nails in the coffin of slavery in the UK.

A recurring thought recently, has been this danger - that though I may believe in God and truly want to follow Him, I may knowingly or unknowingly stay with my sinful nature and all that it brings with it. The transformation that sets me apart as a true disciple remains far away. As I read Paul's account of his conversion in Galatians 1: 11-24, it occurred to me that without heavenly revelation, we may be fervently striving to follow God, but may be on completely on the wrong track. The conversion from Saul to Paul comes only by this divine revelation. Only when the scales fall from our eyes can we know 'the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance and the surpassing greatness of His power' (Eph 1:18,19). We need this revelation. Individually and as a body of Christ. This is my daily prayer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The wettest place on earth

When we were preparing for our class 10 examinations, our geography textbooks all said that Cherrapunji was the wettest place in the world. Then suddenly there was a news report in the paper of a new place with an even more difficult name that had recorded more rainfall over the year. At that time we were living in Madras, where every time it rained (which was very rarely), there was a major upheaval with flooding of streets, increased rates of water-borne diseases and sometimes (joyfully) closure of schools. So whenever we imagined the 'wettest' place, I thought of some dark and dingy wetland that was perpetually flooded and generally a terrible place to be!! It has really been a great blessing that we have come to live in this place and in the process discovered what must be one of the most beautiful places on earth (in addition to being the wettest!!) Thanks to the mountains, there is never any flooding and the rain, though often constant in the months from March to September, is light, causing little or no disturbance to daily life. My sympathies are with Assam and Bangladesh where our rainwater gets collected (not that they need any more - they get enough of their own!!). This picture of Bangladesh taken from Cherrapunji shows rain falling falling from a cloud and the ever-present floods!


So is Cherrapunji still the wettest place on earth as widely advertised in tourism brochures, or is it Mawsynram, a village not far from Cherrapunji but in a different cluster of hills.
Neither it seems, as over the last decade or so, the changing world and local weather patterns have made the matter one of great debate. Mount Wai-'ale-'ale, one of the Hawaiian islands and 2 places in Columbia are vying for the 'honour'. A good article on this debate can be found here. The Guinness Book credits Mawsynram with the highest recorded rainfall in a year at 26,000 mm in 1985. However, in recent years there has been less and less rain and amazingly, both Cherrapunji and Mawaynram have shortage of water in the winter (courtesy of extremely poor rainwater harvesting). This interesting article on the haphazard methods of measuring the rainfall may explain the high recordings of rainfall in the past, but it is certainly true that for more than 6 months of the year, there is almost continuous rainfall.

We decided to set the debate at rest for ourselves by making a trip to Mawsynram about a month ago. On a Sunday morning we set out with Amy taking a hand at the wheel after a long time as the roads were almost empty. That was a great opportunity for yours truly to enjoy the beauty without bothering about the road (except for the rare occassions when another vechicle appeared and we almost lost our lives!!). I will not attempt to describe the landscape as words will not do it justice. But scenes like the one below were unfolding every 50 metres or so and we were moved.
It was a cloudy day and though we are now getting used to it, driving into a cloud still remains an awe-inspiring experience (as well as one that is extremely difficult to capture on film!!)
Mawsynram may or may not be the wettest place on earth, but it certainly is a land of waterfalls. Nearly every turn of the road revealed a new and unique one and we were fortunate to stop at one of the most beautiful of them for our picnic lunch (thank you, Amy!). As we sat and watched the thin film of water falling like a curtain of silk and heard the gentle splash as the droplets fell into the water below, we felt a surreal atmosphere in the place. How wonderful that God has made these places and times when we have the opportunity to stop running and commune with Him in the depths of our being.
The pictures do not do justice to the beauty of that moment.....
We travelled on and discovered more waterfalls and more beautiful sights. As we returned through the clouds, I thought how wonderful it would be if we could spend our lives in a place like this. Where perceiving God seems so much easier and a life of quietness and contemplation seems so much closer. That is our prayer, O Lord...

After a long hiatus...

I thought long and hard before beginning this blog. Many of my friends had begun similar endeavors with great gusto but had sooner rather than later, fallen by the wayside. I too, nearly suffered the same fate!! It seems that life has many things that pull us in different directions and staying centred is often difficult. (Not that my posting this means that I am anywhere near 'centredness'!!) But I have another excuse as well. I spent some time with the question of existential angst that would surely trouble any self-respecting web-logger. Why do I do it?!! Is there a streak of exhibitionism that calls me to open my heart and mind to all and sundry? Or do I have the elitist notion that my thoughts and words are of such great import that the world should hear them? The dilemma over the answer to this question kept my blogging in limbo for all this time. After much anguished (!!) deliberation, I decided that I should write again. For no lofty reasons, I confess. Merely the realisation that there is some catharsis for me in this process. Especially if I do not keep rechecking to see how many comments I have received!! And also, being a quite poor in the other forms of communication, my family and close friends can take a peek into the meanderings of my mind and the beauty of 'Megh'alaya - the Abode of the Clouds. And so, this blog is resurrected (probably not for the last time!!). May it not die too soon!!