Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reading the Book

I love reading the Indian Express.  Here in Laltipur, it comes a day late.  So I read yesterday’s paper which reports on events of the day before. 

But it’s not for the up-to-date log on what our dark world is churning through that I read the paper.  The Express has voices.  The op-eds curate a variety of viewpoints (including talking heads from the current regime) – and there are lovely summaries where basic data about how our nation is presented, analysed and explained.  And then to top it off there is a page each day that reprints 2-3 articles from the Economist.  (No, I have not been paid by Indian Express to put this blurb up – but any cash sent this way will be accepted gratefully).

On the 15th of July Ramesh Venkatraman wrote a thought-stirring piece Let’s talk about the Book which looked at the European Reformation and gently suggested that something similar take place for Islam.  It’s been raining here in Lalitpur and so after a few paper-less days, today two arrived and I got to take a dekko at Javed Anand’s response to this (Islam’s reform: Way to goIE 19.7.2017).

Javaid Anand zeros in this passage as the fulcrum of what he wants to say: 

Venkataraman quotes the philosopher Anthony Appiah as saying that the reform of Christianity 500 years ago was greatly facilitated by the fact that on encountering morally ambigious, contradictory or problematic passages, ordinary Christians who started reading the Bible for themselves decided on “which passages to read into and which to read past.” 

Simply stated, the reformists chose to ‘cherry pick’ from among the passages of the Bible, embracing what was appealing, skirting around what seemed appalling.”

I am not at this point going to address the main purpose of Javaid Anand’s article – but would rather step back and suggest humbly that my three friends Venkataraman, Appiah and Anand have got the issue of Bible-reading in the European Reformation half right and totally wrong.

Yes, common people reading the Bible was *the* seismic shift that brought about reform to the Christian church (reform which is still needed at so many levels).   Luther’s genius was to translate the Bible into the language of the people (German in this case) and combined with the spanking-new technology of the movable metal-type printing press, whole Bibles, portions of the Bible, sermons, tracts, bromides, letters and counter-letters started swirling around Europe.  One obvious fruit of this was the press which 500 years later I hold in my hand in the form of my beloved Indian Express and which allows me to have a (at least one-sided) conversation with Venkataraman, Appiah and Anand et al

A strong case can be made that Bible translation was thebiggest reason for the shift to a post-colonial world.  Wherever Bibles were translated, local people got presses in their own language (Bengali, Hausa, Bantu, Tamil) – and not the languages of power (Persian/Urdu, English, French).  Local communities learned to read, schools sprung up, local newspapers began being printed.  No wonder the British authorities in India spent umpteen efforts to suppress the ‘vernacular press.’

But this is not my point of departure from Mr. Javaid Anand’s take on events in Europe 500 years ago.  More than the technology of getting information out, I believe it was the actual process of reading the Bible together as Scripture, of meditating on it, debating it, applying it.  Of wrestling with the disparity between what is written and what a common life is like.  Of sharing and discovering in community which brought substantial changes to how we see the world.

Javaid Anand has picked up on what he calls “cherry picking” – looking for what is good and disposing of the rest.  The problem with that is:  what if someone else choses different cherries?  How do you know what is true?   A generation ago tonsils and appendices were removed willy-nilly as early surgery under anaesthesia gave the opportunity to ‘remove vestigial organs’ before the became inflamed later and caused you problems.   Well, we are still just discovering the myriad complexities of each organ.

If you have the write to pick and choose whatever strikes your fancy, then how can you be sure of anything?  There has to be a basic belief that the Bible is actually revealed truth for it to make any sense.   There have been cherry-pickers in the past – Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.  His view of God was one of a ‘Supreme Being’ who has left humanity long ago to our own devices.  The idea of the Supreme Being having anything to do with us in the here-and-now was embarrassing to Jefferson and so he published his own new-and-improved version of the Bible.  Every ‘miraculous’ event neatly cut out.  Vestigial organs for Mr. Jeff it seems.  Unsurprisingly there have been not many takers for his ‘cherry-picked’ version of Christian hope.

What makes the Bible so compelling to so many and why does it continue to be translated into various un-scripted languages around the globe?   Why do so many of its principles find their way into the broad spectrum of human excellence?  Why do different generations encounter it and come away changed?

One of the keys is in the process of belief and discovery in community.   You have to believe that something is true for it to have any authority and meaning in your life.  And yet, so many things seem so confusing that to find truth we are blessed when others are there along with us.  Joint discovery and mutual learning allow us to change.  Europe 500 years ago underwent a seismic shift when the Bible began to be read by the people.  Some of the outcomes were pretty ugly, but so much of what we treasure today as good and true flowed from these various streams of faith communities who were discovering and applying the Bible into their lives in vibrant ways.

Reading is a precious gift.  Deep reading, like in the ‘olden days’ seems to be evaporating.  Our house is full of books, but sadly, I seem to read so little these days.  PhilipYancey feels the same way.
But in my last trip up to Shanti Kunj I picked up a little gem.  “A New Motive for Living”  is the story of Venkateswara Thyaharaj whose grandfather Subbaiyar had been the dhikshitar (spiritual teacher) of the Maharaja of Travancore.   I am purposefully working through this gentle saint’s life and have been touched with many of his deep insights.

Here is Thyaharaj’s take on the Bible:

God has always had a wonderful plan for his world and not least for this land of ours.  To fulfill it he recruits, not demigods and astral beings but people like you and me… In the Bible.. God recruits men and women with nothing to boast of but his mercy and the change it is making in their proud hearts. 
Again and again I returned to that treasured Book, to its frankness about men’s faults and yet its disclosure of God’s amazing destiny in store for those who turn to Him.  How, I asked myself, in today’s darkening world can we fitly respond to God’s disclosure of his purposes for mankind?

How indeed?  How in deed? 

This is our life story – and one that continues to live out the beauty, and at times messy grappling with divine love and human perfidity, with the mist of so much of what happens around us and yet the piercing clarity of having our own beings revealed in the light of revelation. 

Sheba and I continue to read the Bible and be read by it.  We invite you to join us on this journey of discovery, as we join others in different places and times who are living in the light of the Book. 

a Bible study at our Lalitpur home last year

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Our supreme need

This week is a turning point for us.  Three of our dear friends, three amazing colleagues have stepped out of the HBM hospital, and Sheba and myself find ourselves in the position of being the Medical Superintendent and the hospital leader respectively.

Mr. Biju Mathew - who has for the past decade poured his heart and strength into building up HBM Hospital is as its administrator and leader is taking a 3 year leave of absence from our parent organisation EHA... and helping out another struggling mission hospital in South India.   Dr. Tony and Dr. Asangla Bishwas have been asked to take up the challenge of serving with a larger medical team at Chhattarpur Christian Hospital, our sister concern 3 hours away from us in Madhya Pradesh.

Biju Mathew sharing at Dr. Tony and Dr. Asangla's farewell this weekend - we already bid Biju and his wife Anu farewell 2 months ago,  She and the kids are at the school she is teaching at, while Biju came back to help us work out the transition 
It has been very hard to say good-bye to our friends.  My eyes have been moist many a time over these last few weeks.  And my heart carries the grief of separation.

And so we are two.  Our kids are far away from us in Mussoorie and back in Mumbai. We are in a large empty house.  And currently we have empty homes for neighbours: Biju and Anu's now empty home is next to us and opposite that is the home till recently occupied by sis. Sujatha, our nursing superintendent who moved at the beginning of this month.

Our hospital is currently being run with two doctors.  Sheba is now serving as the med superintendent and Catherine has joined us after finishing her MBBS from CMC Vellore.  They are on call every other day.  Last night there was a man admitted in a very poor condition - semi-conscious - a tribal man whom the big government hospital opposite us had discharged late at night and told to go to a bigger hospital in Jhansi - 100 kms away from us.  Sheba admitted him and prayed and treated.  Amazingly he is still alive and has started talking again.  Another tiny preterm baby was born and Sheba supervised the bagging to keep the child alive in our nursery.  A woman came after a miscarriage and Sheba helped her by performing a DNC.  Today she had her diabetic clinic and the waiting hall had the health teaching posters which we developed earlier in the year.   Our days are packed and yet we are on a fine line, working in a hospital which has gone through some very deep financial waters, with no clear end in sight.  Can we keep going in this way?  Will other doctors join us and move things forward?  So many questions...

Over the past few days, I have been trying to come to grips with the intricacies of hospital management.  As I step into this role of the acting SAO (for how long?) I am taken aback at all the different things that Biju has been doing to keep this ship sailing forward.  As it is I am less than happy about how we are faring with our community work in the villages, and now this...  a feel like a huge wave of different regulatory compliances, income tax assessments, stock and cash verifications and other sundry tasks is going to break over me and wash me out to the deep blue...

And yet, we are so blessed.  Monday night we gathered for our weekly prayer time and were joined by trainees from our Community Lay-leaders Health Training Course - a 20 day residential session for the year-long course that equips grass-root level folks to reach out to their communities through health promotion and simple cures.  Amazing to see how God has helped us start this up here at HBM this year.  Today I went over and talked to 30 young people who will be interning with us this year as part of their practical social work experience from the Lalitpur Bible Seminary.  What potential each young life has.

The work remains massive.  So many possibilities - so many opportunities - so many challenges.  Over the last week there have been a number of times when I felt very, very overwhelmed.  The old hymn comes very much to mind:

We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day Thy grace to know

And yet in all of the turmoil, we do have hope.  We are being shaped into something else.  Not quite the way we expected it, and with so much more to go, but God is clearly at work.

We want to share with you, gentle reader, one of the many gems from Geraldine Taylor - a pioneering missionary to China (who married Dr. Howard Taylor - Hudson Taylor's son - and wrote the classic book Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret).  While speaking in 1901 in New Orleans, Geraldine Taylor said this which speaks directly into our hearts these days:

"At a time of conference, we cannot but realize afresh the greatness to which God has called us. We know not fully the purpose of God in calling us together, we know not what the outcome may be, but to some extent we realize the solemnity of the occasion.

Before us the great map of the world lying in darkness, above us the opened heavens and Him who sits on the throne saying: "All power is given to me.... go ye therefore."

Too often in seeking for help we forget the source of power. 'Power belongeth unto God.'  Too often we are taken up with people and with work, with calls made upon us, with what we can do and what we cannot do, with our plans and projects and so on, to the exclusion of Him alone, who is the great Worker.

Oh, this morning let us sweep all this away and come to God, face to face with God only, realizing that the place whereon we stand is holy ground.  This is our supreme need, not money, friends, openings, sympathy, enthusiasm, good meetings, a going concern; but Himself, the living God, the Fountain of all fullness.

Would that the Holy Spirit now, in this quiet hour, might take full possession of our hearts, showing us afresh our great need, showing us afresh our great God."

From the remarkable book: Mrs. Howard Taylor: Her Web of Time  p. 177

Monsoon clouds over the Thyle Residence - of which the second phase (2 more flats to add to the 6 we dedicated in Feb this year) is being built in the midst of the deep uncertainties our hospital is going through. God is so good, He's so good to us!