Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Redemption: The Spirit of Humility, Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Easte

We are in the middle of the perhaps the most important week in the Christian calendar.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday - commemorating Jesus' triumphant entry to Jerusalem and ends on Easter Sunday or Resurrection Sunday with an empty tomb and appearances of the Risen Lord, first to Mary Magdalene and then to others.

But between a triumphal entry and a glorious resurrection lie rejection, betrayal, denial, pain, humiliation and death.

In the midst of these dark events, these moments of suffering, as humankind's worst attributes are brought to the forefront, we are given a precious gift.

As we are reminded of how low we can go, how greed for wealth, lust for power and the fear that causes us to brutalise those different from us, we a given glimpses of the strength of love.

In the face of tyranny, we are shown humility.

At the moment of injustice, we receive forgiveness. And surrounded by conflict we experience reconciliation.

The humility of Christ during Holy Week is reflected in his washing of his disciples' feet.

Christ performs a lowly task generally done by the lowliest servant in the household. Jesus says of this in verses John 13: 13-15:

"You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. "

This statement by Jesus can apply both to earthly relationships of masters and servants as well as to a human's relationship to Christ.

We find in the pages of the gospels descriptions of how Jesus approached His relationship with God the Father.

He was always submissive to the Father in everything.

Beyond this, God the Father is the greatest servant in the universe. In our behalf, He sustains everything we depend on for our very lives.

In John 13:14, Christ says, "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."

The common explanation for this is that it teaches us to learn humility by doing good for others, by doing acts of service or kindness for our brothers and sisters, our neighbours and the stranger.

The lesson is one of humble servant-leadership.

As I reflect on the leadership crisis in my community of faith, which his reflected in society in general, I can't help wondering if we have missed the mark by grooming people for leadership rather than servant-hood.

Our nation needs to groom servant-leaders who lead by example, saying do as I do, rather than do as I say.

On Monday night, we of Dudley Circuit reflected on the first "word" of Jesus on the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It makes sense that the first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness. That's the point of the cross, after all.

Jesus is dying so that we might be forgiven for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God for eternity.

But the forgiveness of God through Christ doesn't come only to those who don't know what they are doing when they sin.

In the mercy of God, we receive his forgiveness even when we do what we know to be wrong.

God chooses to wipe away our sins, not because we have some convenient excuse, and not because we have tried hard to make up for them, but because he is a God of amazing grace, with mercies that are new every morning.

For those of us who profess to be Christians we are challenged with not only asking forgiveness from those we have wronged but also with the sometimes very difficult task of forgiving others, even when we are in the midst of suffering, oppression or still healing from physical, emotional and spiritual wounds.

We are called to transform the pain and fear of wrongdoing through the healing and positivity of love.

On Friday we will complete the journey to Golgotha and the cross. We recall the sixth "word" from the cross, "It is finished."

The work of salvation is complete and reconciliation between humankind and God is possible through the sacrifice of the Christ.

When Jesus said "It is finished," surely he was expressing relief that his suffering was over.

"It is finished" meant, in part, "This is finally done!"

If you have watched the film "The Passion of the Christ" and witnessed the visualisations of the brutal torture and execution of Jesus, it is a relief when it is finished.

But the Greek verb translated as "It is finished" (tetelestai) means more than just this. Eugene Peterson captures the full sense of the verb in The Message: "It's done . . . complete." Jesus had accomplished his mission.

He had announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God. He had revealed the love and grace of God.

And he had embodied that love and grace by dying for the sin of the world, thus opening up the way for all to live under the reign of God.

To finish the "unfinished business" in our nation will require much more sacrifice.

It will require us to be humble, to recognise and celebrate our shared human diginity in the midst of our struggles.

It requires us to forgive our oppressors, no matter hard we find it to do so and to open our arms in trust and reconciliation with them no matter how painful.

This is the price of redemption for our nation. And if our whole nation is to be redeemed, we must all collectively commit to finishing this work.

In peace and with love I extend to you an invitation to join us at Dudley Church in Toorak for a Good Friday service with a difference (Friday 2nd April at 9am) and a combined Easter Sunday sunrise service with Dudley and Wesley Churches at Ratu Sukuna Park (Sunday, 4th April at 6am).

May your Easter be blessed with the appreciation of what one can do for the good of others and the joy of the victory of love over fear, manifested in the Risen Christ.

This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Understand my words

The Fiji Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My family all enjoy watching the Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Rush Hour, movie series.

One of the scenes in this action-comedy is when Chris Tucker's character assumes, wrongly, that because Jackie Chan's character is from Hong Kong, he cannot speak English. Hence the famous line, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" spoken with a comic over-emphasis.

Of course the joke is eventually on Christ Tucker's character when he finds out that Jackie Chan's character can speak English but chose not to, leading to an interesting point being made on racial stereotyping and the assumptions we make.

I suppose I am used to people making wrong assumptions about me because of my surname or my chosen vocation. I do not mind being asked if I eat beef every time I order a cheeseburger.

I am thick-skinned enough not to take offence by the odd comment that I have betrayed my "Indian-ness" and my (sur)name by not only being a Christian but by having the gall to become a Methodist minister; although I do point out that my grandfather and namesake converted to Christianity and neither he nor my father found it to be a betrayal of their "Indian-ness" but more an affirmation of their humanness.

However, I do find it strange that some people who have known me on a first name basis for more than two decades now add a forced formality to our conversations by insisting that they address me as talatala or reverend.

Recently my son, Francisco-Xavier, has experienced a similar type of assumption. As a newcomer to primary school, Francisco-Xavier was excited to write another chapter in the Bhagwan history of attending a school in Toorak.

As we discussed the subjects he would study, the issue of vernacular classes came up. A number of options were put forward to him by his teachers. The first was to take English 2, while the second was to take Hindi.

Francisco-Xavier was most disappointed. He had been hoping to learn Fijian. He put forward his argument to his parents and then to the teacher:, that he can learn Hindi at home from his grandma and more English from his mother (because she teaches English, not because her maiden name is Pickering) and because he was from Rewa and so should learn Fijian. Francisco-Xavier takes pains not only to explain to people his full name (Francisco-Xavier Tuisawau Benjamin-Shri Bhagwan yes, it is a mouthful and no, we did not think it would be when we named him) but also to explain his heritage so that people understand him better. He explains that both his parents have roots in Rewa (daddy in Vuci and mummy, being a Pickering, in Lomanikoro).

I faced a different struggle in learning the languages of my heritage. My parents decided that it was better for school and work (including writing columns in newspapers and magazines) that my sisters and I have English as our first language.

While that had its advantages it, compounded with a lack of formal vernacular lessons at school, meant that we had to learn Hindustani through the dialogues of our favourite male and female Indian actors and that my introduction to the Fijian language outside of the basics were insults. It took me a while to work out what Kai idia lia lia meant and how it did not really work if I used it on one of my i-Taukei classmates.

My first Hindi sermon, consisted mainly of phrases used by famous Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan and theological terms.

Thankfully, I can now speak less laughable Hindi than I did two years ago and my work with the Methodist Indian Division, ensures that it should improve with practice. In the same manner, my work at the Davuilevu Theological College helps me improve my Fijian.

There are many people in Fiji who are tri-lingual, speaking their own vernacular and then the language of their cultural neighbours as well as English. Some speak the three major languages because of the foresight of their parents; while for some it is just because they lived in a rural area and learned it to communicate with their Indo-Fijian or i-Taukei neighbours.

In urban areas this takes place to a certain extent. We are multi-cultural in our friendships and relationships but the common language for many is still one that is foreign. So we translate our thoughts from Hindi to English and then from English to Fijian and vice versa with the effect that something may get lost in translation.

At Davuilevu Theological College, the students in their outreach program, learn basic Hindi words and theological phrases along with Hindi bhajans (hymns), with the Rotuman language also being introduced in this manner. While this is essentially a tool for evangelism, it provides a key element in the process of fostering respect and understanding in a pluralistic society. Recently at the funeral for a lay pastor, who was also the husband of the first Indian female Methodist Minister (currently studying at Davuilevu) the students sang a Hindi bhajan. The beautiful rendition by predominantly i-Taukei students touched those in attendance who were mainly Indo-Fijian.

Recently as I went for a regular floating session at the National Aquatic Centre, I watched the students from the Gospel School for the Deaf communicate with their teachers and each other through sign language.

I thought to myself, "If only we all learned to sign then there would be no loss in translation. 'I love you' would mean the same thing to all of us'."

There is a need for our children not just to be taught their own language, but the language of the others. Churches, religious societies and community groups can hold formal classes or create informal spaces for languages to be learned. This is a crucial step in building bridges in a fractured nation.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the desire to understand your neighbour.

This article is the sole opinion of Reverend JS Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pick Up the Pieces

Written on Tuesday 16th March and published in The Fiji Times on Thursday 18th March, 2010

As we listen to and read reports of Hurricane Tomas, our thoughts go to our safety and the safety of our loved ones. We learn, with horror, of the destruction caused by wind, wave and rain; of lives lost or changed forever.

We learn, with relief, of miraculous escapes, of good people opening their doors and their hearts to shelter their neighbours (both literal and Biblical neighbours). The information we received helps us make decisions in the immediate situation as well as influencing our outlook on life in general.

As I sit in an old Methodist-mission quarters made out of Oregon timber early last century, my thoughts and prayers go to all those who are considered essential servants at this time, who leave behind their families and, perhaps, their fears to ensure that our basic needs are provided. Having worked previously in public service, commercial and State media organisations, I have had the opportunity to be part of the essential service of providing information during times of natural (and national) disasters.

The dedication of reporters, photographers, videographers, announcers and support staff in providing relevant and immediate information is something that goes beyond the usual journalistic competitiveness, or ego, to get the biggest story or the latest pictures.

It is during these situations that the professionalism, perhaps better termed as dedication to vocation comes through. Even with ongoing tension between State and media, personal and even professional disagreements are put aside for the sake of the nation.

As Tropical Cyclone Tomas became Hurricane Tomas, many people I spoke to began to make comparisons with Hurricane Bebe of October 1972 and Hurricane Katrina which hit the southern coast of the United States with devastating effect in 2005. My mother and father often shared a story of how the Volkswagon Beetle they were in almost got washed away off a flooded road in the aftermath of Hurricane Bebe. Many of us have heard similar stories or remember these events and many more know of Hurricane Katrina, the deaths during the hurricane, during the flooding that followed and due to the lack of immediate response from the US Federal Government.

When the closure of schools was announced on Friday, some questioned the decision as an overreaction. I am sure that those views have since changed as people were given time to prepare for what is now known as Hurricane Thomas.

Three months after Hurricane Katrina, Martha Paskoff Welsh of the Century Foundation wrote on the negatives and positives in terms of the response to the hurricane. Her views give us food for thought as we prepare ourselves to pick up the pieces and help those severely affected by Hurricane Tomas.

In terms of the negatives, Welsh writes that all levels of US government ... local, state, and federal ... failed to respond adequately or efficiently. Some, though, were worst than others. Here are a few lowlights: "Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director, Michael Brown asked staff "Can I quit now? Can I go home?" in e-mails to staff while some 20,000 New Orleans residents were left unnoticed without food or water at the New Orleans Convention Center. Brown resigned shortly thereafter. With the mayor of Gretna, Louisiana's blessing, the police chief used shotguns to stop hundreds of weary, dehydrated New Orleans residents from crossing the bridge into Gretna to escape the submerged city. The mayor justified refusing the refugees because he said he had to protect his town. Hurricane Katrina revealed that America was still not prepared for a disaster, natural or otherwise. New Orleans was one of the nation's largest cities and there was advanced warning that the hurricane was going to hit. Still, local, State, and federal officials could not communicate with each other, in some places for several days, after the storm. There was terrible communication among Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and the White House in the days before the storm hit."

In the midst of confusion and despair, Paskoff Welsh finds positive actions and responses, which serve as inspiration for those of us who are not as affected by Hurricane Thomas as our fellow Fiji-Islanders in the Northern and Eastern Divisions.

She highlights the responses of ordinary American people: "lemonade stands to celebrity telethons, from housing refugees to sending tractor trailers filled with supplies to the Gulf Coast, American generosity and humanity was at its best."

In the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, scores of nations throughout the world pledged their support and assistance with the recovery and rebuilding effort. Support came from throughout the world: Qatar pledged $100 million in assistance; Sri Lanka, which is still recovering from 2004's tsunami, offered $25,000 in aid; and even Fidel Castro offered to send medical support staff and supplies. Non-governmental and civil society organisations also played a major role in providing relief and rehabilitation. The American Red Cross provided more than $2 Billion in aid with volunteers and officials often reaching the affected communities in Louisiana and Mississippi long before government officials did. Habitat for Humanity built new homes for many of the residents left homeless after Hurricane Katrina.

Individuals and celebrity locals did their bit too. Harry Connick, Jr., the New Orleans native son was one of the first "officials" on the ground in New Orleans after the hurricane hit.

He was seen on national television without an entourage walking through the streets, dispelling rumours and news stories that the city was overrun by looters and rapists, and helping to expose the overwhelming sense of desperation and destruction in New Orleans. When the storm passes, and we take stock of the devastation, counting the cost and thanking the Divine for what remains, our nation needs to come together. All communities need to reach out over the political, cultural, ethnic, social and economic divide and help those who need to rebuild their homes, their businesses, their schools - their lives. The State will play its part, foreign countries and partner agencies will do their part. What will you do?

May the rest of your week be blessed with safety, security and the commitment to be a positive force in the wake of the negative storm.

* This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Celebrating the Strength of Women

Published in the Fiji Times - Wednesday 10th March, 2010

James Brown sang, "This is a man's world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl."

I reflected on this phrase as my son Francisco woke up and immediately on working out the date (March 8), proceeded to wish his mother and sister (and even me), "Happy International Women's Day!"

My son continues a proud tradition from his father, being raised in a household of feminists and although we were not able to attend the Reclaim the Night march because of a pastoral emergency, Francisco was able to celebrate an occasion that is important for his grandmother, mother, aunt, niece, and now even little sister.

Having just celebrated International Children's Day the day before (March 7) and given his uncanny interest, at 5 years old, in human rights (thanks to a RRRT DVD "Know Your Rights") Francisco was happy to show his support for the women ("grown-ups" and "grown-downs") in his life.

Last Friday was also a significant day for women, with the World Day of Prayer being celebrated in more than 170 countries and regions. The focus this year was on Cameroon with the women of Cameroon preparing the service material on the theme Let Everything That Has Breath Praise God.

The service while organised by women is for all and, in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, at Dudley Church in Toorak, Suva, it was pleasing to see the number of men in attendance and also to acknowledge the number of men that stayed home to look after, organise and feed children at home, so that mothers could participate in the service.

In attendance at the Dudley Church WDP service was the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. According to Ratu Epeli, the World Day of Prayer provided, "a good opportunity for us as a nation to reflect on the important role of women (our mothers, grandmothers, aunties and sisters), and to recognise and acknowledge their great contribution to nation-building and national development in our quest for building a better Fiji for all."

He went on to add that although women are still being marginalised in certain areas, it must be acknowledged that changes in the ingrained attitude and perception against women are taking place at a steady pace.

"In Fiji, women are at liberty to join civil society organisations and some the most active civil society organisations which exist in the country are those headed by women. Representation of women in decision-making bodies continues to be a major challenge. To give you an indication, in government women hold about 17 per cent of senior executive positions, mainly in the social sectors. This is too low," he said.

Ratu Epeli called on the church, as a pillar of the nation's spiritual development and growth to take the lead role in the fight against crime and other social ills that are threatening our communities:

"Our gathering this morning and other church activities, I am sure, would help pave the way for dealing with the monumental task of crime prevention, poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS prevention, youth promiscuity, drug and substance abuse, to mention some. With our deep faith in God and our collective committed efforts, I am optimistic that we shall overcome."

The prayer service on Friday and the activities, including the Reclaim the Night march on Monday (as well as Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director), allow us a glimpse at the organically multi-faceted nature of women, which is often overlooked or deliberately ignored in patriarchal societies, where strength is measured by brute force (ignoring the fact that women have a higher pain threshold then men, or perhaps taking advantage of it), rather than the ability to bear hardship and endure, or the depth of compassion, and the capacity to nurture.

The motto of the World Day of Prayer movement is "Informed Prayer and Prayerful Action". Through World Day of Prayer, women affirm that prayer and action are inseparable and that both have immeasurable influence in the world.

This year, as part of the Decade to Overcome Violence, the World Council of Churches, the World Student Christian Federation and the World Alliance of YWCAs have joined together to create a Lenten Bible Study titled, Cries of Anguish, Stories of Hope: A Global Struggle to end Violence against Women.

This study empowers people through stories about women around the world who are working to overcome violence.

The three bible studies released so far focus on the Dalit women in India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo where rape has been a systematic weapon of war, and Colombia home to 4 million internally displaced persons, the second highest in the world (after Sudan). You can learn more at

The Christ calls us to follow him and preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18-19). All of us, men and boys especially, but women and girls too, are called to free those shackled by oppressive social structures, open our eyes to the abuse perpetrated in the name of tradition and culture, stand in solidarity with the victims of injustice and be instruments of love and peace.

* This article is the sole opinion of Reverend JS Bhagwan and not that of the newspaper or any organisation Mr Bhagwan is associated with. Email:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Good Ideas

Published in the Fiji Times - Wednesday 3rd March, 2010

Bob Gass, an American-based Christian pastor, broadcaster and author of several books including the devotionals, "The Word Today," writes that, "Good ideas come from God, so ask Him for one.

The world's been blessed by those who did."

He offers as an example, anaesthesia: how would you like to be operated on without it? "That is the way they did it until a Scottish doctor named James Young Simpson introduced something he called "artificial sleep".

As a student at Edinburgh University he was attracted to surgery because he was troubled by the pain and mortality rate experienced during operations.

As a result of reading 'And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam...' (Genesis 2:21 NKJV), Simpson thought chloroform might be the answer. He first experimented on himself.

Finally, in 1847, the first three operations with chloroform took place. One of the patients, a young soldier, enjoyed it so much that he seized the sponge and inhaled again.

"It was just too good to be stopped," he aid."

According to Gass, Simpson encountered some initial opposition.

"Some thought it was a sin to interfere with nature. 'Hand me the Bible,' said Dr Simpson. 'This is how God operated on Adam.'

Simpson made speeches, wrote letters and pamphlets and tried to convince those who opposed him that this was the way forward.

In a setback, when three deaths attributed to chloroform were reported from other hospitals, Simpson was able to show them that they were not applying the anaesthesia correctly.

The tide turned when Queen Victoria gave birth to her eighth child under chloroform and declared that she was 'greatly pleased with its effect'."

I should mention here that I am in no way endorsing the concept of sniffing of substances (pun pun) for enjoyment or escape from reality.

The point is that a good idea is not an idea that benefits just yourself (perhaps at the expense of others), or that has only a short term benefit, with long term problems - those are the ideas that we say, "it seemed like a good idea at the time," (like that extra tanoa or two of yaqona when you know you've all had enough and have to get up early in the morning).

Some definitions (Merriam-Webster online dictionary) that we can apply to ideas that "good" are:

"of a favorable character or tendency"; "suitable", "fit"; "not depreciated"; "commercially sound"; "that can be relied on"; "profitable"; "advantageous"; "wholesome"; "of a noticeably large size or quantity"; "well-founded"; "true"; "honorable"; "choice"; "virtuous"; "right"; "commendable; kind"; "benevolent"; "competent"; "skillful"; "loyal"; "close"; "free from infirmity or sorrow".

If we take these definitions into consideration, an idea that is "good" needs to be an idea that is positive, virtuous and benefits the greatest number for the longest time.

A truly "good" idea then, must not be limited to just one person, or just one group but the whole - not just me, or my community, but everyone and by extension everything.

This may sound very idealistic, but is it not important for us to have ideals? Is it not important to measure our ideas by the weight of our values and principles? Many ideas, from the simple to the grandest of schemes fail to meet these basic criteria of a "good" idea, because of a simplistic understanding of "good".

Perhaps we are short-changing ourselves when we, either out of desperation or a lack of deeper reflection label our mediocre ideas as good ideas.

This happens when we rush, clutching at the first idea that comes to us, without thinking it through. A good idea is also of no use if it remains just that, an idea. The value of a good idea is more than just the outcome of the idea.

It is the effort you are willing to put into taking that idea from a mental or metaphysical plane into the physical.

How good you think your ideas actually are, determines how hard you are willing to work to bring it.

Many positive affirmations, and flashes of brilliance are never acted on.

I often wonder whether we allow ourselves to be distracted or whether in fact we are conditioned to act only on ideas that are simple and take less work.

I am not suggesting that every good idea needs to be complex.

The simplest of good ideas sometimes has the most impact.

What is important is that we take time to evaluate where our ideas are coming from and what they mean for us and for others. A good idea, a divinely-inspired idea is one that blesses others. We all contain the divine spark, we all are able to have good ideas. All we have to do is to open ourselves up to the possibility, reflect on the purpose and then act on it.

May the rest of your week be blessed with good ideas and the courage to act on them.

This article is the sole opinion of Reverend JS Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that Mr Bhagwan is associated with.