Anne has kindly invited me to your Bible Sunday Service this
evening to speak about my recent experiences of volunteering in India and
specifically how I relate God’s Word to my time there. India
is a country with over 1.2 billion people which equates to 17% of the world’s
population. In India there are 415
living languages, 28 different states and worshippers of 6 major religions. One
third of the World’s poor are estimated to live in India - In 2010, the
World Bankreported that 32.7% of the total Indian
people fall below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 per day while 68.7% live on less
than US$ 2 per day.
Before volunteering there I realised that I would
witness poverty and culture that would both disturb and enthral me and that my
senses were going to be bombarded with new sights, sounds, smells and tastes
....my taste buds were excited about the prospect of constant curry!
However, no amount of stories or
photographs from others could prepare me for the richness of delight and
discomfort that I would encounter in India and through which God could open up
my heart with His ever gentle presence.
The purpose of my trip was to volunteer for
almost 4 months with a wonderful, multi-faith, charitable organisation called
Maher. Maher is based in Pune, in
the state of Maharashtra, and has over 30 centres across India supporting and
rehabilitating abused women and children and giving them the potential for an
improved quality of life. My time was largely spent in a centre called Vatsalyadham that specifically homes and rehabilitates women with mental health issues and learning
So how do I relate my faith and the Word of God
to my experiences in India? The
readings we heard today both centre on love – a word we hear often in Christian
circles. The verses of 1st Corinthians are especially familiar to many of us, having heard the passage often read at weddings....and in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he beautifully expresses how
we are being rooted and grounded in love, God’s love through Christ – this love
which we cannot expect our minds to comprehend fills us with the fullness of
God!!!!! Paul seems to be emphasising that it is God’s Spirit within us that
enables us to love.....
We talk of love so often in our culture that it’s
lost much of its richness, complexity and depth yet if we take the time to
meditate on 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, we can maybe get a glimpse of just how
difficult it is to be loving in the way the Bible describes – in fact we may be
more familiar with experiencing its opposite both in ourselves and in others we
relate to. It is sobering to contemplate how we are so often impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant and rude, insisting on our own way, irritable and resentful, rejoicing in
others’ wrong doings and unable to bear suffering, unbelieving, hopeless and
lacking in endurance when times get tough!! Surely it’s not human love but only
God’s perfect love for His children that can be as 1st Corinthians
Sometimes as Christians we may feel that to be loving is almost a
rule of our faith........after all Jesus highlights love as the first
commandment so maybe we attempt to fix and change ourselves in order to be more
loving to others. Maybe we also
try to fix and change others, or certainly their circumstances, to demonstrate
our love to them........or maybe we criticise ourselves and others at times when
we know that we, or they, have not appeared loving.
Ironically, life, and particularly my experience in India, is
teaching me that it is when we accept our human-ness – our lack, our weakness,
our limits in making a lasting difference, our own unloving and unloved self and
when we let go of our will and need to fix, fight or flee from our circumstances
that we are most open to God’s love deepening in our hearts through faith. I
believe that it is in such acceptance that the Spirit’s power within us can
accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine in our ‘ministry’.
If we can face the reality of life in all its suffering and the reality
of ourselves, shadow self and all, then we will be more present to the fullness
of God within us and all around us.
In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr
describes suffering as ‘any time you are
not in control.’ He goes on to
say “There must be, and, if we are
honest, there always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot
fix, control, explain, change, or even understand.
....Suffering...... reveals the constant problem that we are to
ourselves, and opens up new spaces within us for learning and
Rohr is suggesting a wonderful paradox – suffering, or not being
in control, is likely to reveal on one hand the constant problem that we are to
ourselves .....and therefore to others.....in other words how unloving we can
be, yet, on the other hand, it opens up space within us for real learning and
So what did my experience in India teach me about love? My time there wasn’t actually about
making a personal difference in alleviating poverty......much as that might make
me feel helpful and useful.
Clearly as Christians we are called to loving service but it’s
important to realise that service can sometimes be self-serving and self-centred
if it comes from a place of needing to be the fixer, needing to remain in
control or feeling that we are there to help“the other”.
In fact, my experience in India was one where,
for the majority of the time I was not in control and it seemed as if God took
me beyond the limits of my own skills and resources -
I didn’t speak Hindi or Marathi, the most common languages spoken in Maharashtra; I needed to rely on the
staff at Maher to communicate where I would be that day and what I would be
doing.....and often times this information came very last minute or not at
all. I had no control over
transport or timing and waiting around became a frequent activity. I had very
little control in avoiding head lice, in having electricity or hot water or in
struggling with repeated bouts of violent sickness in the early hours of the
morning. Many everyday things like
bathing and washing clothes took much more energy than ever before and with the
women, I wasn’t able to counsel them, offer them better living conditions or
take away the pain of their pasts which for many was rape, abandonment and
extreme prejudice. I became very
aware of parts of myself which I didn’t like, especially as I fought and reacted
to the lack of control, to the poverty around me, to the frustration of being
unable to fix anything. However,
it was in those times when I got to the limit of my own resources, let go of
trying to help or fix or control my day to day life and simply accepted the
circumstances that I was in and my own very human reactions to them that I
experienced God’s loving and gracious presence and could BE present to whomever
I was with in that moment. The
flow of divine love and grace was the gift I could rest in when I chose to
accept the reality of life, with all its challenge and paradox, rather than
trying to fight or fix it. It was
then that I felt truly able to open up my heart, mind and senses to whomever I
shared life with rather than seeing them through the perspective of my own
agenda. Again in Falling Upward Richard Rohr states “Faith
is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it – even
before we change it.”
My time at Maher gave me the opportunity to share
simple presence with the women when they had morning chai, walked up and down
the yard for exercise and ate their meals. The simplest of tasks gave the deepest
opportunity to BE with these women and to allow them to BE with me – feeding
Puri the 9 year old girl, painting or doing jigsaws with the women, playing very
dodgy football, musical chairs or dancing with a group of women and
children. It was at these
simplest of times that the Divine loving presence, the Circle of Life, the
Sacred Dance that we entered into went far deeper than any differences in
language, faith and culture. ....no-one was trying to fix or control......we
were simply present. Such loving
presence also deepened relationship between the volunteers, once we realised
that we had more to learn than those we were ostensibly there to
An organisation in the United States called
Journey into Freedom arrange ‘Trips of Perspective’ to enable Christians to
leave lives where they are surrounded by people with similar incomes, education,
and values, lives where they feel generally comfortable and safe and to travel
to areas of poverty in the world.
They state ‘we believe that when
we call ourselves students and followers of Jesus we no longer have the option
of not seeing and dealing with the reality of the way others live.
We have to keep putting ourselves in situations that stretch, challenge
and disturb us so our own hearts are broken into, cracked open and, despite
ourselves, we are changed.......
and they add:-
We are often asked ...“What
do you do on your Trips of Perspective?”. The truth is that we do very little
except try to be present to the moment.
We waste a lot of time doing nothing – or so it seems.
We feel useless and insignificant a good deal of the time.
We don’t see much result from what little we do accomplish, and in
reality things don’t change much as a result of our being there.
But our goal is to be present to those who travel with us, present to
those we have the opportunity to meet, and present to the reality of how others
live life. We go on such trips to learn about ‘being
I believe that it is in being present to the reality of our lives
and to those we share life with, no matter how uncomfortable, that God’s love
can work deeply in our hearts, helping us to accept the situation we are in, the
people we share that situation with and to love and accept those parts of
ourselves that we would rather deny or
The Christian life, the Gospel is all about love and suffering –
and it is so often in accepting the reality of that suffering, being present to
it or to others who suffer rather than in always trying to fix or change it that
we can experience the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for
us and through us.
Another related quote from Pastor and Social Activist Gordon
an insatiable desire to FIX things.
To fix ourselves and to fix others, to fix any problem we see before
us. I am often asked, “What can I
do? What am I to do?” and I often respond, ‘ Do nothing.
Just be. You have already
done what is needed’. Doing is to
flow out of BEING. First I must
learn to be. That is our first
task, to learn to be present to ourselves. To touch our own deep inwardness and in
those deep inner places touch the inwardness of one another and then, at last,
we can be in community with one another.
The world will be blessed by presence, not by desperate attempts to fix
So, yes as Christians we are called to loving service but more
importantly we are called to surrender to the deepening of God’s love in our
lives, God’s presence. Generally,
it is not success and power that enable this love to grow but suffering and
acceptance of weakness. We cannot
all go to India but we can allow God to crack open our hearts in situations
where we are not in charge or in control, where we are not known and our
presence seems irrelevant, where there are people and situations which we cannot
deal with, fix or change.
In coming back to the UK I have returned to familiar cultural
surroundings but life continues to provide different situations, whether in
personal relationships or practical issues, where I find myself trying to fix
outcomes to avoid lack of control.
In each circumstance I have the opportunity to recognise my human
limitations and receive the Holy Spirit’s invitation to let go and accept the
reality of life, the only place where Love can teach, guide and lead me.
On this Bible Sunday let us remember that the Word of God is
centred on loving relationship which is deepened through being present to real
life in all its mysterious paradox – this is where the Divine Loving Presence
invites us, prays with us, rests with us, changes us.
Let us finish by contemplating the words of Paul’s prayer – “I
pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is
the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ
that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of
Now to him who by the power
at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask
or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all
generations, forever and ever.