Precious in the sight of Yahweh is the death of his saints – Holy Bible
An elderly gentleman, dressed in a white Maharashtrian kurta, a long flowing shirt that extends well below the knees, alights at Pune railway station and walks towards the exit on the first platform. A group of Sindhi men and women, descendants of refugees from the Sindh province of Pakistan, quickly gather around him to pay their respects. Taken by surprise, he gestures with his hand to indicate something is amiss.
Devotees of Sadhu Vaswani had mistaken him for one of their spiritual gurus on his way to their campus, which was not far from the railway station. How could they have known that this guru was a Christian missionary who identified himself very well, in attire and mannerisms, with the Maharashtrian people he had chosen to serve?
Pastor Ninan would laugh heartily each time he recounted this incident. Of course, many Syrian Christians resemble the Sindhi. It is difficult to tell them apart. However, Pastor Ninan’s commitment to identifying himself with the local culture set him apart from other Malayali pastors who served outside Kerala. “Hudson Taylor adopted Chinese clothes and hairstyle,” he would remind us.
We learn of the need for practising “incarnational” missions in textbooks of Missiology. Pastor Ninan tried to live it out. His gentle, loving demeanour and his characteristic smile added to his appeal. I wouldn’t have blamed those Sindhi folks if they had, on that day, garlanded him and escorted him to their ashram despite his protests!
Pastor Ninan moved to Maharashtra from Udupi in Karnataka in 1969. The Holy Spirit had instructed him, Head north! Therefore, the Ninans headed north to work in a mission hospital in Daund, a tiny town known for its prominent railway junction. They did not stick out like a sore thumb in that small town.
Given their simple living, few would have guessed that the couple hailed from prosperous, landed families in central Travancore. Chirathalattu Ninan Ninan was the youngest son of Ninan, a landlord. In the late 1940s, he went to college—a rare privilege in those post-war days.
By the 1970s and ’80s, most of young Ninan’s classmates at the prestigious United Theological College (UTC), Bangalore, were serving as clergymen in various mainline churches of Kerala. A few of them were bishops. But this school-teacher turned missionary was led by God along a different path.
UTC has long been the stronghold of liberal theology. In the 1950s, conservative evangelical scholarship in Indian seminaries may not have been as developed as it is today. German theologians filled the world with their doubts about the divine origin of the holy scriptures. They questioned the veracity of biblical accounts. A whole generation of theologians got swept away in that flood. Ninan was no exception.
However, he experienced a true spiritual conversion while he pursued his Master of Theology program in New Testament Studies. As a result, Ninan shook away the liberal theology in which he had been marinated for half-a-dozen years. Ninan had no choice but to discontinue his M.Th. just a few months before his final examinations. He set out on a path less trodden by becoming a missionary in Udupi, Karnataka. From there, a few years later, he set out to Maharashtra with his wife and two sons, the younger of whom was just two years old.
Hundreds of people in India and abroad will testify to the loving, sacrificial outreach of the Ninans. Whilst writing this, Dr Preeti Sudha, an entrepreneur in Bangalore, called to let me speak to her 78-year-old Dad. Mr Bowaj (Boaz) requested me to make a note of his story for the sake of posterity. Mr Bowaj said:
I am a retired central railway service employee. I worked at the Daund Junction in the mid-1970s. One day, as I cycled along a dirt street, I saw a man clad in white kurta-pyjama giving bananas and a bun to a leper. He had a Bible under his arm and a cloth bag on his other shoulder. I have heard of people donating money towards charity. I had never seen a man bend over to feed a leper. Even though I didn’t have the time to stop and enquire, this scene got etched on my mind.
I was a member of the Church of North India (CNI). Due to scandals caused by leaders and priests, I became an atheist. We had lost our two-and-a-half-year-old son. We were unable to have children. I was depressed; I even considered committing suicide. Our driver suggested, “Why don’t you meet Pastor Ninan? He’s a godly man. He will pray for you.”
We went to the mission hospital in Daund. We met Dr. (Mrs) Ninan and left a word with her. Pastor Ninan visited me at our Railway staff quarters the following week. That’s when I realized it was he whom I had seen with the leper. His life had preached to me long before his words reached me. He obeyed Jesus’s command – “Go and do likewise” – given concerning the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He tried his best to love God and to love his neighbours.
In a Bible study that followed, Pastor Ninan spoke from John 5:41. I was shocked to learn that Jesus did not desire the honor of men. I had thought that God craved people’s worship and reverence. Instead, this verse says that the God who loves us expects us to love Him in return. I surrendered my life to Jesus, thanks to this godly man. In 1975, Uncle Ninan fasted and prayed for forty days so that we would be able to have a child. God gave us two children.
After serving the people of Daund for a few years, the Ninans moved to the city of Pune. Dr (Mrs.) Ninan, or Dr. Ninan as she was known, worked for several years with the N. M. Wadia Hospital in the inner city. It was during this time that the Ninans planted a church in Pune. Later, they moved to Kedgaon, a village seventy-five kilometres east of Pune, to work with the reputed Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission. Dr Ninan headed the Mission’s hospital till she was 80 years old. Pastor Ninan continued his work in Pune city, shuttling between Kedgaon and the city several times a week. Each regular passenger and vendor on Daund-Pune passenger trains knew him. He was kind to everyone.
Unaware of the changes that had come about in the world of theology in the latter half of the twentieth century, Pastor Ninan remained dubious about the value of theological education. Incidentally, his reputation for encouraging youngsters to enter ministry without theological studies led my father to invite him to our house in 1993. That year, I secured admission to the Southern Asia Bible College. Due to opposition from my family, I could not pursue that program. Pastor Ninan came to Kochi to meet me. That visit led to an unexpected but blessed turn of events. Our families became relatives through the marriage of his younger son and my sister!
Reservations regarding theological education did not keep Pastor Ninan from valuing Bible study. He loved books. He would not hesitate to sell real estate to buy books! His treasured collection of books was out of bounds, even to close friends. “In the ancient Catholic Seminary in Aluva, the librarian locks a certain room after admitting eager readers lest they should escape with a valuable book,” he once told me. If only I had followed that principle, I would not have lost some of my precious books, I told myself.
Pastor Ninan was well-versed in biblical Greek. On one of our journeys to his ancestral home in Ithithanam, he bought me my first Greek textbook—Dobson’s Learn New Testament Greek. Many months later, the two book lovers were at an exhibition of Christian books on Pune’s East Street. I splurged Rs. 500 from my meagre allowance on a Greek-English Inter-linear New Testament following Pastor Ninan’s recommendation: “That’s based on the Received Text, the very Greek New Testament used for the translation of the King James Bible.” Were we surprised when he gifted us the complete, unabridged version of the Young’s Analytical Concordance on our wedding day? Not at all.
Pastor Ninan believed there were enough resources in India to fund Christian mission work. Not only did he refuse gifts or financial support from foreigners but also from Indians who worked outside India. He would not even dine with them! And, even when he did accept any gift, he was careful. “I just accept monetary gifts for my immediate needs, as and when the Lord provides. If we accept an amount beyond our needs, we might grow greedy,” he once told me.
In 1995, I moved to Pune to pursue higher studies. I stayed with the Ninans for several months. Their home was always a refuge to friends and strangers alike. I gratefully remember their love and hospitality. Whenever I felt lonely in Pune, I would rush to the railway station and board a local train to Kedgaon. My sister and her family lived there. That was an added incentive. After a ninety-minute train ride, I often reached the doctor’s bungalow in Mukti Mission well past 10 pm. Who knew then that, fifteen years later, we would live in that same bungalow serving God alongside Mukti Mission, albeit for a short while?
During 1995-’96, I ministered with Pastor Ninan in his church. We travelled hundreds of kilometres on my motorcycle, in local trains, and autorickshaws. We visited people in their homes or hospital rooms. Once, Pastor Ninan said, “Let’s go to Brother Sambhaji’s house.” When we reached there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Sambhaji family lived in a tiny house behind a vegetable shop they ran in a slum. Pastor Ninan sat on the floor. He was sixty-three back then. I had no other way but to do what he did—sit on the dirty cement floor. A swarm of flies was all over the place. Sambhaji’s six little children sat around us. The youngest, an infant, was with the mother. Pastor Ninan taught them a few things from the Bible, and he prayed for them. Such was his dedication to the ministry that he never made the poor uncomfortable with anything he said or did. Unlike preachers of “prosperity gospel,” he presented Jesus Christ to them as their loving Saviour who saves them from their sins—not as a panacea for their temporal needs. His focus on Jesus Christ was so infectious that the poor folks he ministered to learned, in turn, to lift their gaze from earth’s miseries to heaven’s treasures.
During his long absence from Pune in 1995, Pastor Ninan entrusted the church to my care. That was my first pastoral assignment. I was single. Just twenty-six years old. I wasn’t aware that a few senior members of that church resented Pastor Ninan’s decision to let an unmarried young man lead the congregation. Once at a wedding in Pune Camp, a senior pastor from Mumbai requested anyone from the audience to read aloud a scripture portion. I sprung to my feet and began reading the passage from Paul’s epistle. The pastor interrupted me and asked, “Brother, are you married?” I was stunned. So were the guests. To avoid a scene, I just sat down. Of course, I wondered, “If Paul, being single, could write about marriage, why can’t I, being single, read it out aloud?” Such were the times. And yet, Pastor Ninan ignored such petty objections as much as he could, considering God’s undeserved favour on me.
I am grateful to God for the privilege He granted me to know Pastor Ninan up close. Everyone saw him smile and laugh. Not many might have seen him cry or angrily scold someone, only to apologize soon after. At times, I saw him heartbroken. In 1995, during a crisis, his father-heart was in smithereens. He would spend extended times in his private den crying and praying for his dear ones. He would then have obtained the strength to do what was right before God, even though it went against his preferences. Watching him execute his role as a father, I learned that one of the privileges of fatherhood is the opportunity to take a peek into the sorrowing heart of the Heavenly Father who cried: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.’”
Pastor Ninan admired Pandita Ramabai and her work. He never wasted any opportunity to discuss her work to inspire fellow Christians. I am grateful to him for taking me and my family on a conducted tour of Mukti Mission, even to Pandita Ramabai’s grave. That influence stayed with me. Recently, I created searchable electronic versions of Ramabai’s book The High Caste Hindu Woman and her biography Pandita Ramabai: The Story of Her Life from archival copies.
Ramabai died after she completed her mission of translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Marathi. She died peacefully during her private time of prayer one morning. Her friends found her on her knees. I remember Pastor Ninan saying this to me several times. Although he suffered from amnesia, God honoured his servant’s desire for a peaceful death. My sister called me to say, “Appachan died during his sleep this morning.” Praise be to God for honouring the desires of his beloved. Precious in the sight of Yahweh is the death of his saints.
Postscript: Full Disclosure
I do not wish to present this as a hagiography because I do not believe in hero worship.
In 1995, I left Pastor Ninan’s church because a senior member in that fellowship insisted on excluding me from ministry just because I was young and single. I continued to remain in touch with the Ninans.
I pursued theological education a few years after we left Pune. I am grateful to God for that opportunity. I strongly recommend theological education for all leaders. We do not forgo secular education because we know it is essential for the success of our people in various professions. Similarly, theological education plays a vital role in creating well-equipped Christian leaders.
Besides, I believe that every member of the Body of Christ must undergo training to interpret and apply the Bible correctly. Lack of appropriate training can lead to imbalances and inconsistencies. At its worst, it can lead to disastrous results. Along with the tendency to remain exclusive from other churches, it can insulate a group from positive influences. In extreme cases, it can even lead to a toxic environment of spiritual abuse.
It pains my heart to see that the growing church of India is like a vast ocean that is just ankle-deep. The deeper Christian life is not just about increasing the intensity of spiritual discipline or prayer. We need a deeper understanding of the Word. It does not necessarily come with repeated reading of the Bible year after year.
Sticking exclusively to the King James Version of the Bible is a liability. The KJV is a unique and beautiful translation. However, if a church condemns every translation except the KJV, it is a great disservice to its members. I pity those who restricted themselves to the archaic language of the KJV throughout their childhood and youth. They could as well have read the Bible in a foreign language. Over the years, I have come to read the English (and Malayalam) Bibles in as many versions as possible, thanks to the world wide web. No single version is perfect.
Finally, God is our Judge. May we all have the humility to study the lives of His faithful servants so that we may hold on to all that is good.