Francis Mathew in India

Dear Friends,

This week, Francis Mathew in India reminds us that God proclaimed good news of great joy through humble shepherds and calls us to reserve a spot in our lives for the lowly.

India has a rich and ancient Christian heritage. According to tradition, the Apostle Thomas planted the first Indian church in modern-day Kerala, along the subcontinent’s southwestern coast in 52 AD. Today, India’s Christians number 28 million and live primarily in the country’s northeastern and southern states. According to a 2011 census, India’s 1.38 billion-strong population is 80% Hindu, 14% Muslim, 2% Christian, 2% Sikh, and 1% Buddhist. In recent years, the Hindu nationalist agenda of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has threatened the democracy’s religious freedoms, emboldening violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities. This May, the northeastern state of Manipur was plunged into four months of bloodshed when Hindu extremists from the Meitei majority attacked peaceful protesters from the Christian Kuki minority, killing at least 160 people, displacing tens of thousands, and destroying thousands of homes and hundreds of churches.

 
Francis is pursuing a PhD in Old Testament from Bristol Baptist College through the University of Aberdeen (UK). His dissertation contends with the silence of God in Old Testament rape narratives. Francis’s research will guide the Indian Church’s pastoral response to victims of sexual abuse, as well as its faithful advocacy in contexts where women, and especially minorities, face increasing violence. For instance, this year’s prolonged violence in Manipur also focused a global spotlight on gang rape and brutality against women.
 
Francis received mentoring from Dr. Havilah Dharamraj, who serves as Academic Dean at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS), a partner of the Vital Sustainability Initiative, and who has contributed to the Women’s Peer Leader Forum. Prior to his studies, Francis ministered with Mercy Vineyard Church in Bangalore, India. He also served for nearly a decade with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in Lonavala in western India and Shillong in northeastern India. Francis is married to Medonuo Zhotso.
 
Francis shares the following devotional and prayer requests:

A Spot for the Lowly

“The singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” These are the words of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and author, highlighting the pluralism in India. In my opinion, the same could be said of the Christmas season in India. From north to south and east to west, every cultural and denominational expression of the Christian faith in India puts its own unique spin on Christmas festivities. Nevertheless, the birth of Jesus remains the central feature.

I was raised in a conservative Christian tradition that never celebrated Christmas in church. It was just another day for us. It’s not that we denied the birth of Jesus. Rather, the church simply understood that this truth had to be lived out in gratitude every single day of our lives. This meant that the indulgence and pomp concentrated around a special day had to be left out. And if we ever mildly enjoyed a plum cake or my mom’s special chicken stew and appamat home, it was often kept hush-hush. 

In contrast, my wife grew up in a society where the Christmas season has always been a big deal. Churches and homes would prep for weeks in advance leading up to the big day. Streets would be lit, homes would be decked up, and people would be in their best outfits as they joined in the festive spirit. The aroma of sumptuous meals, the joy of corporate singing, and the laughter from happy gatherings are hard to evade. But behind the smiles, one may find hearts aching from the strain of Christmas splurging on family finances.

As a family, I think we’ve managed to strike a balance in our own Christmas celebrations. We’ve tried to stay away from both denial-like piety and wasteful extravagance. We strive to be intentional in celebrating Jesus’ birth and the promise of an upside-down kingdom and alternate reality. 

Shepherd of Gundal Dam by Joseph D’Mello (Unsplash)

According to Luke’s Gospel, on the night when Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord appeared to a bunch of shepherds in a region close to Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-20). They were watching over their flocks and chattering away as usual. But then the angel appeared, sending them into a state of shock, and announced the good news of the birth of the Messiah in the line of King David, a shepherd himself. The shepherds are then invited to go and witness this truth for themselves. No sooner had these frail shepherds regained their composure that they were enthralled again by the first choral carol sung by angelic hosts:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace among those whom he favors!

It is said that the profession of a shepherd in Israel during the first century was not an elite one. Imagine a rough-looking person dressed in garments that smelled like sheep and sweat. Shepherds were often viewed with disgust and suspicion. Yet, the invitation to the first-ever Christmas party was given to these lowly shepherds – and not to the so-called elites of the time. How subversive and countercultural was this birth proclamation, so unlike those of the rulers of the day! The first Christmas celebration reserved a spot for the lowly. And that speaks volumes about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. 

In the words of Mary, the King of Christmas will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things (Luke 1:52-53). Did the shepherds catch a glimpse of this vision when they saw the baby Jesus in the manger? It would seem so, since they departed with songs of praise and a ray of hope for a better world. 

At our church, we wear our finest Christmas garments and visit our church members’ homes with joyful carols to celebrate King Jesus. At the same time, we also ask ourselves: Is there anyone out in the open streets and alleys who needs to hear this good news of Jesus?

Indian Curd Rice by Sumeet B. (Unsplash)

At our home, my wife and I put up the lights and decor and cook some of our favorite dishes. But we often ask ourselves: Whom shall we invite this year to share the table with us?

I sincerely hope that our Christmas celebrations, both in our homes and in our churches, will include a spot for the lowly, so that all may get a glimpse of this King Jesus as the One who uplifts us and fills us all with good things in His kingdom. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Prayer Requests

1. I would appreciate your prayers for my ongoing PhD research and writing, so that I can continue to be diligent and creative in my work. 

2. Please do pray for wisdom and strength as my wife and I navigate various responsibilities at home, our local church, and SAIACS.

Francis Mathew

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