Monthly Archives: February 2008

Relaxing in Sri Lanka: Day One: Colombo – Kandy

It is nothing to do with CTS, but while we were in Sri Lanka we had a second little holiday. Two nights in the centre of the Island. Telling you about it will at least help encourage you that if you are given half a chance Sri Lanka is a place you must visit!

Shop in a Kandy street

Shop in KandyThe first part of the Colombo to Kandy road runs through the urban ribbon that seems to spread along most of Sri Lanka’s lowland main roads. It’s fascinating for the visitor to watch all the little shops, so many like miniature Alladin’s Caves full to overflowing with different items for sale. The clothes – somehow often brighter than the restrained colours that the people around mainly choose, though in every town there are a few peacocks in bright striking saris – and the food shops are the most interesting. The range of lovely vegeatables and spices are almost as varied and decorative as the range of sari cloths. The streets, in town and out, are busy with busses (hundreds of them), tuk-tuks (here called trishaws), motorised carts, and the occasional cars and bullock carts, as well as people. Men intent on business, or chatting idly, older folk moving slower, children going to school (or busy not going home too soon after school), the younger boys and girls often accompanied by a parent or grandparent (for safety in the busy traffic?).

The lake at Kandy

img_2702.jpgSoon after we started to climb steeply to Kandy we turned off to the Elephant Orphanage. We were not quite sure what this would be like, the elephants in the tourist camp in Thaland had been somewhat sad beasts. Actually it was lovely. First in the light of the early morning sun over the hills, we watched the bigger elephants being fed piles of leaves and small branches. Then some of the babies, shoulder height only, getting milk from bottles – they have now quite a few babies born at the orphanage, as well as injured or troublesome beasts arriving at the reserve. Then down to the river where the group (50 – 60 animals of all ages and sizes) congregated to be washed down (elephants are otherwise permanently covered in mud and dust), drink, chat together in small groups, or for the younger and more adventurous head off to the far side in the hope of greener fresher food! We spent far longer than I’d have thought likely watching the elephants and have lots of video that our great-nephew Joe enjoyed watching with us.

Traditional dancers at Kandy Cultural Centre

dancers.jpgFrom there we climbed to the outskirts of Kandy, where we stopped at the botanic gardens. They are beautiful, and very well tended and labeled. Many of the trees in one section planted by a whole world of celebrities, from politicians and heads of state to Yuri Gagarin the Soviet cosmonaut (with thankfully no Holywood or reality TV names among them as far as we could see!) Here we saw some of the spices for which Sri Lanka is famous growing – nutmeg and mace come from a small yellowish fruit on trees somewhat like plumbs.

All through the gardens there were courting couples walking decorously, occasionally hand in hand, occasionally seated chatting seriously, the gardens are an accepted place where one can be “alone” but in plain sight, so a convenient place to explore the potential compatibility or to discover deeper beneath the surface attraction of a potential spouse!

At one edge of the gardens we came across a film crew. We were unable to walk across the suspension bridge – even though it had been signposted almost since the gate – as they were shooting a bevy of brightly dressed girls there. Nearby were a troop of monkeys, scampering across the ground, or swinnging rapidly through the branches. More video that we – and Joe – enjoy watching. Sri Lanka has just three species of wild monkey: Grey Langur, Toque Macaque & Purple-faced Langur (or Bear Monkey). We think these were Toque Macaques.

At the centre of Kandy there is a beautiful man made lake – ordered up by one of the ancient kings with an eye for beauty. It, together with fine architecture from both ancient and more recent times (the cooler climate encouraged the rich and powerful to build) makes the centre of Kandy one of the most beautiful city centres anywhere.

Sri Lanka

beach1.jpgSri Lanka is shaped like a tear drop off the south of India. It is just a little smaller than the Republic of Ireland (a quarter the size of NZ). It has a population of around 20 million (Ireland is 3.5 million, and NZ about 4). This relatively high population is significantly centred in several large cities, and threads of urban development along the main roads.The coast is fringed by attractive beaches, and delicious fish curries are a highlight of the delicately spicy cuisine – every dish we ate was pleasant, and several were superb. The highlands in the centre of the island rise to over 2000m (6,560 feet). Here some of the best tea in the world is grown.

Kandy vegetable shop

img_2684-1000.jpgThe main exports are agricultural, supplemented by gemstones and garments. The main religious groups are Buddhist 70%; Hindu 15%; Christian 8%; Muslim 7%. The Christian community has a long history, back to early missions like that which founded the Thomist churches in India. There are especially large enough numbers among the educated elite, so despite being a minority they practically ruled the country in the first years following independence.

This combination makes evangelistic or missional activities somewhat problematic among today’s Christian minority. Churches are often more inclined to undertake social support roles, which are valued by government agencies and the local majority communities, rather than risk causing dissention with their neighbours by active evangelism.

Small town street

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It is sad that such a beautiful and plentiful island suffers from tension between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. The long-running civil war has been relieved only by a couple of lengthy ceasefires in the 90s and again earlier this decade. The most recent ended at the start of this year, and Independence Day was marred by a bomb blast which killed a number of school children. This caused appreciable anxiety among the population of Colombo at the start of our visit, though by the end since no more tragedies had followed things were less tense.

The civil war has meant that considerable resources are used for the military and police, and development has been slower than in other Asian countries. There is a huge gap between the sophisticated elite and those who lack such “internationally” marketable skills. Mobile phones are widespread, and fairly affordable. Broadband Internet is available and 3.5G phones with broadband access are widely advertised on hoardings in the city.

img_2759-1000.jpgPerhaps because they are not “traditional” churches in Sri Lanka, and therefore less worried by losing acceptance in the eyes of the non-Christian community, the Assemblies of God are active in evangelism and church planting. We saw small, and occasionally very large, AoG buildings almost wherever we went. This is also reflected in the composition of CTS, which a good number of AoG staff and students as well as members of “traditional” churches.

CTS with its mix of Sinhala and Tamil, traditional and new churches, pastors and lay people in influential professions is already playing a significant role church life in Sri Lanka. The class I taught represents this strategic importance, Yohan works in University ministry, Suhasha and Cheryne are teachers and Savitri a mother, Sriskandarajah pastors in a new(ish) congregation while Sarath has resigned as a Salvation Army officer as he wants to plant new churches, Prashan and Nina work for development agencies, Noeleen is an engineer while Naresh and Perez are in marketing and advertising.

Thus CTS has a key role to play in the future of Christianity in Sri Lanka. Bringing together key leaders (lay and pastoral) from the traditional churches with some from the newer Christian communities should help the traditional churches as they struggle with their identity as both minority citizens of Sri Lanka and citizens of heaven. It is also well-placed to offer a stiffening of good relevant theological thinking grounded in the historic Christian tradition for the more “enthusiastic” newer communities, who can risk getting “carried away” from normative Christianity by their very enthusiasm.

If you watch this short touristy video, or enjoy photos of beaches and hills, please pray for the country and its people.

The MA at CTS

The MA at CTS is aimed at providing another level of training for people who already have a basic Theology degree, and at offering professionals with a degree in another discipline to do some deeper theological thinking, and hopefully integrate their faith and their profession whilst rapidly gaining basic theological understanding. The people in my class agreed to be videoed briefly introducing themselves (in no special order) they were [I am having trouble with these links, somehow if the page loads blank the first time pressing F5 loads the video on a second go – go figure!]:

As you will see if you watch the videos (which are quite small size so should download quite well for most people) they reflected these two goals. Having such a double focus is a bit of a compromise, however by allowing people who do not have previous theological qualifications to do some undergraduate courses it seems to work rather well. Certainly this group were operating at a level similar to that of a University of Auckland Honours year class or the first year of a TCGS Masters.

When added to the basic Sinhala, Tamil and English medium undergraduate programmes this MA could provide some substantial stiffening of the theological muscles of the local churches!

CTS: the new building

Last year CTS dedicated the superb new four storey building. There are different administrative and teacher’s offices on each floor, as well as communal spaces: classrooms, meeting rooms, library, prayer room etc..

CTS fine new buildingCTS fine new building
Classroom on ground floorclass.jpg

CTS teaches in Sinhala, Tamil and English so that students can benefit from study in their mother tongue, or from access to the wider international theological literature. Since it can be difficult for students outside Colombo to get to the Colombo centre, and particularly so for students from the North of the country (the main Tamil area) the college also runs courses taught by staff from Colombo at a number of regional centres.

library.jpgOn the ground floor has also three smaller classrooms seating 20-30 students. (A college that teaches in three languages needs more rooms rather than larger ones!) The library houses the loan collection on the first floor and the reference section above. As with teaching, the library holdings are in English, Sinhala and Tamil. librarian.jpgSome books are not yet shelved since though the building is complete furnishing is ongoing. Next to the reference section is a computer lab, which again is currently still being equipped but will enable students to access Internet and other electronic resources.

The site is just a few meters from the busy Kohuela road junction and on several bus routes, I did not however take photos from the road because there is a police station opposite and in the current security entrance.jpgsituation photographing near government installations is not tactful!

break.jpgStudents gather outside in the breaks and are served tea & coffee. Snacks are also served for evening classes, to keep attention levels high.

Prof. G.P.V. Somaratna – CTS’ research professor

Last night’s class showed a lively engagement with the book of Ruth, and seemed to enjoy putting the detail we examined on Saturday to work in building interpretations and readings of the whole work. Today is my turn for a rest, while Barbara teaches at a mental health centre.

Prof. G.P.V. Somaratna with a small sample of his work!

Prof. G.P.V. SomaratnaI used the morning to take photos of the superb new CTS building, and to chat a bit more with some of the staff. One of the exciting things for me (given my life-long interest in Christian communications and especially education) was listening to Prof. G.P.V. Somaratna, CTS’s Research Professor. He is an enthusiast, who rises early and works into the night, when I visited his office he was correcting proofs of a Sinhala Study Bible that the Bible Society is publishing (in several volumes, so that people do not have to try to afford the whole thing all at once). The Study Bible is a team project, but Prof. Somaratna is also preparing single-handed a Bible Encyclopedia in Sinhala, several volumes have already appeared, but the work is not yet complete. He uses several good recent works published in English, where necessary checking information with other more specialist works, but writes articles freshly so that they are not only in Sinhala language but also fit the needs of local readers. The volumes cost about 1,000 Rs each, or three or four longish rides in a three-wheeler taxi.

Some of Prof. Somaratna’s work including two volumes of The Sinhala Bible Encyclopedia

The Sinhala Bible EncyclopediaProf. Somaratna is a historian by initial training, with a PhD from the University of London. He taught at the University of Colombo for 38 years, and headed the department of History and Political Science there. He also MA degrees in Theology and Missiology, and has taught at Fuller and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Singing an old song?

This morning, going to Hendala Baptist Church to preach (an engagement organized at the last minute), we learned again the truth of the old Disney World song: “It’s a small, small world!” We thought we knew no one in Colombo, so it hardly mattered which church had invited us.

Sadly our camera batteries ran out this morning, so we have no photos of the church or the people, so here is the view from the top floor of the fine new CTS buildingctsviewa.jpg

CTS had arranged a driver to take us to Hendala, but he did not know just where the Baptist Church was located, so as we got closer he stopped a few times to ask directions. Our first hint that this was a special visit came when we stopped the third time, and were just beginning to wonder if we were even in the right area of this big sprawling city. At that moment a car coming the other way down the narrow street pulled over, and despite some hooting from behind us the passenger jumped out, and hurried over to us. Then we spotted his pastoral collar, he was the pastor of Hendala on his way to a celebration elsewhere.

The church is in an area which was a separate village until the sprawl of Colombo arrived that far, but is now fairly built up. They have a new building, and a hall near by where they conduct various service and mission activities. The service was fairly “traditional” and formal, but the welcome and the speakers were warm. I preached on Psalm 22 – not an easy text, but one which did not involve too much modification to an existing sermon to adapt the stories and illustrations which are so often culture specific!

As a visiting speaker I always try to find some “link” to make at the start, in this case the only connection I could find was my parents’ friendship with Sydney and June Perera, and the way their daughter Chitra was like a sister in our home for several years. Since the Pereras left Ceylon in the 1960s this seemed a tenuous link.

However, after the service a distinguished gentleman greeted me delightedly, he was a life-long friend of Sydney’s and had visited them in London – we noted his name to pass on greetings and began to feel less strangers in a strange land. Over a Coke in the vestry we then discovered that another lady was his cousin, and as the conversation progressed we discovered too that a BMS missionary couple who retired to Budleigh Salterton (where my parents lived) had been pastors of the church a few years back.

Three personal links, three sets of greetings to carry to the UK, and a promise that we must return again and spend longer “next time” we are in Colombo!

Start of teaching at CTS

CTS seems a thriving and lively institution, dedicated to providing training where the previously existing colleges in Sri Lanka did not reach. It serves Evangelicals from the traditional denominations (there are a couple of Methodists and an Anglican in the class I’m teaching) and from the Assemblies of God (the biggest single group).

The beach near GalleThe college has a lively vision for training that equips students not only (or even, if I’ve got it right, primarily) for pastoral leadership but often for part-time ministries or simply to be effective intellectual Christians in their workplace. So, also in my class there are two or three out of the dozen who work in advertising and PR, as well as the pastor of an AoG church and a guy who works in the University ministry supporting Christian students in the four or five Universities in Colombo.

CTS teaches in both Sinhala and Tamil as well as English and is committed to making resources available in these languages. To achieve this as well as encouraging busy teachers to write, and in the MA program equipping Christians to think and write, they have a “research professor” whose work in primarily writing. CTS has extension centres in both Sinhalese and Tamil parts of the country to which teachers from Colombo go to deliver short intensive programs.

“My” class is part of the MA program which is intended either to build on a previous theology degree giving students sharper skills in biblical studies or missiology (the two majors offered) or to equip people with degrees and careers in other disciplines to think theologically (biblically or missiologically). A focus of the goals of the programme is also to equip them share their thinking through writing and other means and so communicate theological thinking more widely in the church.

fisher.jpgThe security situation, with the cease-fire having ended at the start of the year, is a concern to many people. On the day we arrived all the schools in Colombo proper were closed, (though not those in the “outlying districts” of the city) because the previous day had been Independence Day, and terrorist actions were feared. The college is opposite a police station, and as our class was beginning we were asked if anyone had a car parked in the street outside – later we heard that the police had towed the offending vehicle, presumably it was harmless! Most people in the city are living their lives normally. However, some have become a bit nervous. I expect that as in Belfast in the 70s (with the IRA and UDA bombings) it is the long term mild increase in tension that will tell most on most people. So please pray for the peace of this city of 3-4 million people. It is the capital and by far the largest in a country the size of Ireland with a total population rising from 20 million.

Today, following last night’s 6pm – 10pm class, we have a full day’s teaching, and then this evening we will share a meal with Jonas (who is responsible for the MA programme) and those students from the class who are available. So it really is an intensive start to my part of the course!

Our introduction to Sri Lanka was more leisurely, with a lovely day and a half on a beautiful beach outside Galle. The high tide mark was just below our deck and we slept to the sound of breakers.