Monday, 1 September 2014

Cross stitch

We have a new picture on the wall.  For a short time at least.

Sheba's latest cross-stich is up for a short time.  We are about to give it away to a dear person in our church - but for now here is the latest artistic offering from my wonderful wife!

The framing is a tiny bit haphazard - but since I already complained twice about it - and they tried 3 times, I think we will just have to live with it.

But far more to the point - this was one of the verses that helped me understand that Sheba was the person whom I should say 'I do' to.  As we come up on 15 years on the 15th of Dec this year, I realise just how much of a prophecy come true this has been!

Book list

I am reading "Freedom at Midnight" again - this time aloud to Asha and Enoch on the days they are here for lunch (school holidays and Saturdays).  It's just as good as it was when I discovered it as a 13 year old.

The joy of reading this book again got me thinking about some of the books which were door-openers to new worlds in my younger days.   And then last week one of the current memes circulating on facebook has been asking people to make lists of books.   So here I am on a Sunday night thinking about which books have influenced me the most?

Now that I have crossed two score and five years - it's hard to disentangle which books have really influenced me.. but here are some of them at least. 

Number 1 is and will continue to be the Holy Bible (I prefer the 1984 NIV version - but try to read other versions occasionally - currently I use the ESV and The Message as well).  In fact, the more I read it (and I do a lot) the more it shapes me.

And after this 'Book of Books'?  Well now, here we go...

"The Chronicles of Narnia" (I keep changing my mind about which one I like the best) - CS Lewis
"What's So Amazing About Grace?" and "The Jesus I Never Knew" - Philip Yancey
"The Power and the Glory" - Graham Greene
"The Lord of the Rings" - JRR Tolkein
"Midnight's Children" and "Shame" - Salman Rushdie
"Cry the Beloved Country" - Alan Paton
"Gilead" and "Home" - Marilynne Robinson
"Freedom at Midnight" "O Jerusalem" and "Is Paris Burning?" - Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins
"The Idiot" and "Crime and Punishment" - Fyodor Dostoyevski
"Amusing Ourselves to Death" - Neil Postman
"Resurrection" - Leo Tolstoy
"Till We Have Faces" - CS Lewis
"The Wind in the Willows" - Kenneth Grahame
"Shadowlines" and "In an Antique Land" - Amitav Ghosh
"This Momentary Marriage" - John Piper
"The Soccer War" - Ryzard Kapuscinski
"Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" - Eric Metaxas
"Savaging the Civilised" and "The Unquiet Woods" - Ramchandra Guha
"Weapons of the Weak" - James Scott
"War in Heaven" - Charles Williams
"Red Sea Sharks" - Herge (hard of course to choose which Tintin book is my favourite, but this one ranks up there)
"To Kill a Mockingbird" - Harper Lee
"Screwtape Letters" - C.S. Lewis
"History of the Second World War" - Winston Churchhill
"The Man Called Intrepid" - William Stevenson
"Carry on Jeeves" (and many others like it) - P.G. Wodehouse

and of course "The Landour Cookbook." I have been up writing this post because the banana nut cake which I made from TLC has been rising in the oven.  The good news is that is has come out wonderfully!

So, there we have it, a kind of portrait of me in books.

There are of course many other books, friends which I have made along the way, but I think these are the books that have stuck with me.  Most of these tomes are ones that I come back to again and again.  Though I do not have the joy of re-reading them a lot (the re-reads tend to be the ones that I am trying to get Asha and Enoch hooked on)  these would be the most likely to bubble up in conversation....

I wonder, gentle reader, what books have shaped you?

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

On the healing of the mind

The year my German grandfather Willi Fischer was born - 1901 - a hospital was started in Thane for the mentally ill.  Today it is the largest mental hospital in greater Mumbai's 16 million plus area - a government run hospital on some 72 acres of land in the middle of the city - and with 1450 patients admitted for care and an outpatient load of something like 150 patients per day.

Last Friday I had an opportunity to go inside the hospital campus - because I was accompanying Dr. Samuel Pfeifer - a renowned psychiatrist and author from Switzerland.  He was in town to speak at a one-day conference on Christian Approaches to Mental Health which was held at Bethany Hospital over the weekend.  And so the doors opened for us to visit.

It was a sobering sight.  To see so many who were suffering from maladies of the mind.  We know that something like one in four of us will have some kind of mental illness over our life-time.  Depression - in its various forms - is probably the most common one.  I quickly run out of fingers and toes when I try to count the loved ones I know who have struggled or are walking through the dark valley of depression.

We were taken around the green campus - and shown a few of the wards.  The place is very much in the prison-solid-black-stone mould of the early Victorian era.   We were shown a male ward where 53 inmates were in one large room.  Some mattresses on the floor, some on bed frames.  The sheets were being washed we were told.   Locks on the doors.  Bars on the windows.  Men standing and sitting.  "It is past their breakfast time so they are inside" was what we were told.

Two orderlies per 80 patients.  One nurse.  The hospital uses ex-inmates who come back as volunteers to keep order.  20 doctors sanctioned for 1450 in-patients.  Only 6 of these are psychiatrists.

What can be done with such numbers?  With such a paucity of funds and human power.

And yet this is the main place for mental health.  We saw scores in the OPD.  Parents with young men.  Women being escorted by others.  We also saw plenty of police.  Many of the admissions are accompanied by a court order.

One woman came in to see a senior doctor.  She was accompanied by her two daughters.  The doctor looked at the file and asked where the girl had been for the past 7 years.  "We have been showing to some private doctors" said the woman, rattling off the names of a number of them.  "So Dr. so-and-so sent you here for admission" said the senior doctor.  "Yes" said the mother.  Of the two daughters, it was now clear who was the patient.  A plump woman who looked to be in her late twenties, the patient said "Doctor, I don't want to come here.  It is not a good place."  "Listen" said the doctor, "I am not writing anything, I am only talking with your mother.  Look, I am not writing anything" she said showing the patient her patient file.

Was the doctor lying?  I don't know.  The mother had clearly come to get her daughter admitted.  The brief glimpse I had of her was of a woman with much sorrow and burden.  And the brutal briefness at which all this took place.  Mind-spinning.  And yet this is how so many lives and destinies are shaped.   How much time can you give when you have 150 patients to see in a day?

How different from Dr. Samuel Pfeifer's clinic Sonnen Halde (Sunny Hill) near Basel in Switzerland.   68 beds.  10 psychiatrists.  Nurses galore.  About Rs. 30,000/- per day.

A world of a difference in some ways.  But then again one thing remains the same.  Both places have people who are in need.  As Dr. Samuel said a number of times - just living in a beautiful affluent place like Switzerland does not mean that everyone is mentally healthy.  In fact the mental morbidity is probably the same in Switzerland and urban India!  And just putting a person in a beautiful room does not make the person well (though it no doubt is better than putting a person into a dungeon like prison cell).

Which is why Dr. Samuel was with us.

To help us understand both the breadth and depth of mental illness around us - as well as to look at ways we can make a difference - especially using our Christian faith and praxis.

The conference was wonderfully attended with the lower-basement of the Bethany hospital full.  A good 100 plus folks in the room as the day spun by.   We were blessed to have Dr. Samuel as the main speaker - and also have Dr. Raja Paulraj from Mussoorie share and Dr. John K. John from the Biblical Counselling and Training Institute in Delhi chip in as well.

Some of the take-homes were:

Take home No. 1:  There is a lot of mental illness in India.  And we still are so afraid to even call it by its name.

Here is a video that our colleagues at Emmanuel Hospital Association have made on mental health in India.

Take home number 2 - that at the base of any and every mental health intervention has to be compassion.   This is what Jesus had - and what so few of us exhibit.  This is why we want to hide away the mentally unstable - why we wish that 'others' will do the work.  Why we want to send the folks we know who are suffering from mental illness far away.

But at the same time, it is precisely the knowlege that a person is loved and accepted - despite the challenges that they are going through - which is most important.   We see this in Jesus - His ability to accept and bring into his group people who were clearly misfits in other contexts.  Revolutionaries, cranks, folks who had gone through demonic possession...

Take home number 3 - the most important part of healing of the mind has to take place in a caring community.   Mental illness is just not something that will disappear if you close your eyes and hope it goes away.   In fact, many of us who suffer with various levels of mental illness may never achieve the 'normalcy' that everyone wants.  Even after therapy and treatment.

And here is where the caring community has to come in.   We need to care and love, even if the person does not meet up to the standards that people have for what is considered 'normal' and 'desired.'   A person is precious even if they do not fit in as we all would like to.  This is where the Church has to play its role.  Dr. Samuel pointed out that in many cases of adult onset scizophrenia, the person who has undergone treatment can not just 'go back to work.'  They will need to have some kind of activity that is less stressful and demanding than what they may have done before - while at the same time being loved and affirmed for who they are.

Who is able to do this?  Not surprisingly, the majority of places who offer such support for people who are dealing with scizophrenia in Switzerland are linked with church groups.  

So where do we go from here?

Well, one thing we know is that the challenge of mental health in our country is only growing.

Unsurprisingly, I got a call from a colleague of ours yesterday.  She has a sister who is being treated for scizophrenia.  Do we know of any place where she could live for longer term?

I don't.  The 1450 inmates of Thane Mental Hospital is obviously not the place to send this lady.   I asked the woman whether her church could start a small set up where her sister could stay, maybe with one or two others who are going through the same situation - and with the supervision of a person from the church.  "That is impossible" said our colleague.

Is it?

The good doctors - Raja and Samuel share a point at the seminar!
One of the things that we heard from Dr. Raja Paulraj is for the need of community mental care.   Most of the care needed is not of the acute hospitalisation kind - but of steady, loving support and caring supervision of long-term treatment.

One of the things our work brings us in contact with is mental illness.

We see so much of it that we almost don't recognise it.

Someone has said that just receiving an HIV positive diagnosis is itself equivalent of a mental illness episode.

Most of our friends who are HIV positive have gone through - or are going through depression.  All have had suicidal thoughts at some time.  Some have made steps to act on them (thankfully only few actually went through with their plans - and some of these were saved too).

But each person is precious.  Would that we will be able to sensitively and joyously help move all of us who need healing of the mind forward into the fullness of what God wants of us.  We need our psychiatrists for certain portions of this journey, but we need so much more - men and women who will care for the weak, shelter the timid, provide structure for the unruly, be patient with everyone (cf 1 Thes. 5.14).   We need a compassionate heart that puts love into action.  And we cannot do this alone - we need each other as a body.  To laugh and to cry and to pray and to continue to care and value even when it is hard and inconvenient and everything in us cries out to care for ourselves... but that is just where the love of God kicks in the strongest.

The writer of Hebrews signs off the book by exhorting us at the beginning of the 13th chapter to 'remember those in prison as if you were with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves are suffering' (Heb 13.3).

This is especially true for all who are living through mental illness.  If you have already experienced it - well you know that often dark road.  If you have not, then it's time to open your eyes and heart and experience the empathy and compassion that Jesus had.   And to love our neighbours (even those who are struggling with mental illness) as we want ourselves to be loved.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

4 lives

We have four very sick people tonight at JSK.

And for once Sheba doesn't have to go to do a night round.  Instead she is sitting with Asha and going over her physics.

Our sick friends are on the mend.  As much as we can expect.  And more.

Each one a 'basket-case' in the eyes of others.

'Balram' (all names changed of course), had been in a top hospital for almost 3 months.  He was brought in a coma and has a hospital file the thickness of a novel.  How much his family would have paid for all that hospitalisation...

Balram has had a tracheotomy - and today we had an ENT specialist in to take a look at it.   We have looked after Balram for a week now at the centre.  His brother, father and wife have lovingly cared for him. Over the last few days he has started responding a bit, but still is in a state which no-one wants to be in.

We are prepping the family to take him home.  That is what the big hospital doctors told them too - but the difference is that we have been able to see some small but real improvements in his quality of life.  The love and care he has received has built confidence in the family too.  We know that they want to see Balram walk out.  That may not happen - but we want them to be able to care for him without having to always be in a hospital setting.

In another room is a man who came in gasping.  Prakash's oxygen saturation levels were disasterously low.  He was dying for lack of air - his damaged lungs and the pneumonia he was suffering from.  Our indefatiguable Anil Edwards had got him admitted at JSK on a late night last week.  We thought it likely that that Prakash would not wake to see the light of the next day.

But wake he did.  And every day since.  And miracle of miracles - after going through 2 bottles of oxygen a day - Prakash can now breath... I was about to say normally.  Not quite normally, but at least without O2 assistance.

Prayers.  Love.  Treatment.  Prayers.  Love.  Repeat.  Repeat.

Kamala is painfully, horribly thin.   When we first met her she weighed a pitiful 19 kgs.  Has she gained weight?   What she has gained is a smile.  A beaming smile from her emaciated face.  She comes to the morning devotion in she sweater, barely able to walk on her own, her TB mask in place and her eyes shining above it.

Is Kamala a saint?  Well, let's say she is not the easiest person to serve.  The folks from the church who are taking turns every day to care for Kamala are finding this out.  She has her moods.  She demands things.  But serve they do - in the simple humble way they can.  They are learning, however, that love does not always mean giving things that are demanded.

How long will Kamala continue with us?  We are prepping her and the church folks to take her home.  She has been started on her TB meds.  She has at least a small appetite.  She has been blessed with prayer.

Venkat couldn't walk when he came.  His teenaged son is caring for him beautifully.   On the last 2 mornings he has made a short walk down the hall.  He came to prayers this morning with his urine-bag in tow.

What a privilege to be a small part of these lives.

Each person who gets admitted has their own stories.  Their own issues.  And these are shared at various levels with their care-givers and others.   Those with strong family / social ties clearly get better quicker - live longer - survive more bitter dips than others.

But even getting admitted is a challenge.  We had a lady come today with a pleural effusion.  Her mother was lecturing our doctors that they did not tap her daughter on the right side.  We wanted to admit her, but had to send her away because of the complex set of demands that cropped up.  Alas, caring is not always simple.

So there we have it.  It's 10.51 PM and all is not well in the world.  But the Kingdom is coming.

Can you hear His footsteps closing in?  He is found among the poor and broken, the complex and torn.  He walks the faeces-smeared streets under dim puddles of light, looking for the dawn.

He gathers the basket-cases - and makes something beautiful.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Trek 77 - guest post by Christa Eicher!

Not many in this world have a mother who goes on a high-altitude trek in her advanced years!  Well - Stefan, Premi and my-goodself do!

Here is Mum's story of her latest adventures!

TREK  77

No, it is not my 77th trek – but my trek at age 77 !

How did it all start? Friends of ours from Chandigarh visited us at the end of June this year. As they talked about an upcoming hike in the Himachal Pradesh Himalayan mountains I got very excited and as a result they invited me for the trek.

So, during the month of July I went every day for l or 1 ½  hours walking up and down the Tehri Road in Mussoorie to get myself fit for the trek. It also became a prayer walk.

I left Dehra Dun on June 30th by bus and was very welcomed at the home of Scott and Anita at Chandigarh. Anita told me, that Scott (47 and their daughter Hope, 18) were very fast hikers!! This confirmed my  suspicion: how will I keep up with them? However,  I was immensely relieved, when she told me, that Scott and Hope needed to have a lot of time together to talk, as Hope just had returned from the US for a short time and that I would be walking with the guide, at my pace.

In the guest room was a picture on the wall with the following text:
“The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you”  2 Thess 3:3

That was exactly for me and I was so encouraged by it. I claimed this promise for my trek. We left the next morning by car for Naggar,  the start of our trek.  It was almost a day’s drive. We stayed in a very nice hotel for the night.

At 6:00 am Bintu, our guide was ready for action. Our plan to get a mule did not work out. Bintu had instead arranged for 3 porters. I had everything in my backpack,  but there was a lot of luggage with readymade food packages (also for the porters), 2 tents etc. We started out at 6:30 am. Right from the beginning we walked straight up the steep mountain. 

After a while, we had breakfast on  the trail.  We continued to walk up and up the mountain, taking small rests in between to drink some water and eat some trail mix. 

We were in beautiful woods with different kinds of trees. Certain fallen leaves sparkled in bright green color with orange dots. There was so much to enjoy! Anemone flowers appeared more and more often as we went up.

After many hours  of climbing we emerged out of the trees and entered  beautiful green meadows, full  of anemone flowers spreading like a white carpet. We continued on a small path from one meadow to the next, always higher and higher. Finally, we reached the top where some makeshift tents ( 2/3 stone wall with one yellow plastic sheet on top) of shepherds greeted  us.  We soon enjoyed glasses of delicious chai which was mostly  made out of  rich buffalo milk.

The top was enveloped with mist, we could not see anything except the nearby meadows. The shepherds told us, that  because of the Monsoon, only in the early morning the mountains could be seen.

We pitched our tents. Scott and Hope stayed in a big one, I in a small one, where I just fit in. We enjoyed an early  pre-cooked supper (rice and chole) which our 3 men heated up,  tasty!  We also  drank each a big glass of  hot milk which we had bought.  Because we all were tired, we planned on an early night.  As much as I tried to sleep, I just could not. Next to my tent was a tent of the local shepherd women. They seemed to be enjoying a relaxing evening. They sang, laughed and talked loudly till almost midnite.  The men shepherds in their tent on the other side also talked loudly till late . . .

After a short night, I woke up around 5:00 am and sure enough, saw the snow mountains on two sides with a beautiful sun rise. But quite soon, the white mist and clouds covered them again.

Breakfast  (magi noodles)  finished, we started out and hiked on up  to the pass (3,660 meters). On the way 
 up and on top we discovered the most beautiful meadows of hundreds of different colored flowers, lush grass interspersed with different kinds of herbs. No wonder the cattle grazing up there looked so healthy! 

Everywhere we looked, we were surrounded by beauty. I especially liked the “forget-me-nots”, so blue in color and high (half my size).  We stayed  for a half hour in the pass, trying to soak in as much as possible of God’s amazing creation.

As we continued our trek we entered a very unique tunnel, made out of pink flowers (Impatiens or Balsam)  which reached up to our heads. It took us 10 minutes to walk on a very small path through this flower tunnel. 

Now begun the real adventure ! Fortunately, we were totally ignorant of what we were going to face. . .  

At first, there was hardly any path. We jumped from one boulder to the next. This led us to a river bed, which we had to walk in, trying not to fall in the water. After some time, we walked next to the river, but there was no path and the long descent was extremely steep.  

After a while it started to rain and we begun to  slip and slide on the wet stones. All of us fell at various points.  Scott and I  both fell into a huge stinging nettle bush and my arm was like on fire with many blisters. One of our porters (Meherchand)  had an immediate remedy. He plucked some fresh hashish leaves (the plants were growing all around us), rubbed it between his hands and then applied the juice on my blisters.  It sure helped to ease the pain.

Wet and tired we arrived at our next camping place. Our legs felt like jelly! This trek is supposed to be done in 4 days, but we did it in 3 because of lack of time! We had a nice hot meal and a steaming cup of chai and disappeared in our tents.  I looked forward to a good long sleep !! Our porters stayed in a school room nearby. No sooner had I settled in my little tent, trying to spread out my wet clothes from the day to dry, when it started again to rain.  It started with a drizzle, but soon it was coming down in buckets. It poured rain throughout the night, with the result, that  in the morning I found 5 centimeters of water had collected.  I shoveled it out with my wet clothes.  

On learning of my miserable night, Scott was immensely apologetic.  The tent must have lost its rainproofing.  But after a good hot cup of chai and another one of black coffee with 2 granola bars I was refreshed and ready for the day.

We begun our last hike with our wet clothes in plastic bags and walked through the village of Manala, then down, down, down on a well paved path to the river and again up, up, up, to Bashona where a jeep was waiting for us.

Scott wanted very much to go to Manikaran to take a bath in the hot springs. This town is a holy place for Hindus and Sikhs.  All along the road we saw hundreds of bikes with young men on them. They wore orange bandanas and often had orange flags stuck on their bikes. They all seemed quite high. There were masses of them in Manikaran. We did not have a bath in the hot springs as the water was almost boiling.
After lunch in one of the hotels, we drove back to Shat where we changed cars and went to Naggar. There we picked up Scott’s car and said good bye to our 4 helpers (Meherchand, Heralal, Bubneshver and Bindu) I gave each one a small gift as I so appreciated them, as we had become such good friends. We proceeded from there to Manali and stayed in a very posh hotel, Johnson Lodge (Your Perfect Host in Manali).  What a  difference between  my last night in the rain and this one !

Our drive back next day to Chandigarh was without any problem. Scott is a very good driver. The Lord was true to His promise in 2 Thess 3:3:  “The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you.”    I am so thankful  for the opportunity I had to do this unique trek.

Yours in Christ,  

Christa Eicher

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

God send

Has it only been 4 months now?  It seems like we have known Emmanuel and Mokshaa and their lovely son Vo-way for ever!

This family literally walked into our lives in mid March this year - and moved to Thane just in time for Mokshaa to celebrate her birthday with ours (she slips in her B-day on April 3rd - right between mine and Sheba's).

And since then we have been with this family virtually every working day.  And some times more than once a day at that!

We are so touched by Emmanuel's deep intelligence, his love for others, his joy in worship and his willingness to work and serve however, wherever, in whatever way he can.   We are so glad for Mokshaa who has joined JSK as a doctor and for her caring for patients.  We are so glad to see little Vo-way grow and develop.  We are so glad for the next baby who is clearly due sooner than later!

What a treasure this family is.  They have quietly but firmly cemented themselves into our lives.  They are the real deal. 

In years past we prayed for a doctor to join us.  It seemed an impossibility given how hard it is to get nurses.  Now we have two doctors.  And not just any run-of-the-mill medicos.  Folks who have vision and calling.  Folks who can take things forward.

At Jeevan Sahara we are going through some choppy waters as we have a new challenge of balancing our books and revisiting our core calling and activities.  Through this process, we have Emmanuel and Mokshaa along with us, encouraging us, making courageous and sacrificial choices of their own, trusting in our common Lord.

We are deeply grateful for this amazing family. 

They may even be the definition of the word 'God-send.'

Sunday, 10 August 2014


At the back of the room sat an emaciated lady.

We will call her Kamala.  She is in her mid thirties.  A widow.  With kids.

She was admitted at our JSK centre earlier this week.  On weighing her she was found to be only 19 kgs.

That is less than a 5 year old should weigh.

With all the advances we have in our great country of India-  we still come across people totally wasted by HIV.

But perhaps I should rephrase that.  We did not come across her.  A group of people who are part of a church community in a neigbouring part of Mumbai did.

They not only found Kamala. They took her in.  And seeing her total emaciation, they brought her to us.  Along with her beautiful children.

There seemed hardly anything we could do.  Kamala's lungs are ravaged by TB.  She had no appetite.  She was a barely living skeleton.

But she had people who loved her.  A new family had adopted her.  The church people who brought her became her attendants.  They gathered resources.  They took turns to be with her.  They prayed with her.  They had her kids stay with their pastor (where they still are).

Four days later, Kamala is still with us.   She is still painfully thin.  But since she was admitted, she has started eating.  She came to the gospel meeting this evening.  Sitting in the back row, wearing her TB mask.  She has started taking her medications.

"I had lost my hope" she told me when I visited her bed side a bit later, "but now I have hope that I can walk out healthy."

Kamala has advocates.  People who are stepping in for her.  The folks from this church are no super-humans.  They are simple people who love Jesus.  The couple who was here this evening were a shining example of this.  Husband and wife with matching smiles.  Beautiful, genuine smiles that shimmered with joy from within.

What a privilege to serve along people like this.  Both the broken who are being mended - and those who are moving forward in faith and reaching out to people around them.

We lost two people the week before.   Sunday night.  Monday night.  And then we had almost a week of no admissions at the Jeevan Sahara Kendra.  With our costs being so high - you wonder whether you should keep going.

We prayed that God would send us the people He wanted us to minister to.    He answered.  On Tuesday one man was brought.  On Wednesday Kamala was admitted.  On Friday two more very, very sick men came.   Our hope is that each one of them will not only survive, but that they will be able to tell of what God has done for them.  It seems so impossible.   One man has been in top hospitals for 1.5 months and is in a semi-coma.  Another was gasping and is currently on oxygen.

But then we have Kamala.  Will she pull through?  We hope.  We pray.  We serve.

Total respect for our sacrificial nursing team of Agnes and Yerusha and their support staff in Dipali and Sunita.  Total awe for Sheba as she takes the calls and is helped by Dr. Mokshaa.  Tears come to my eyes when I see the love and support these church members are giving Kamala Total thanksgiving for our Lord who allows us to serve in these desperate / impossible situations.