Thursday, April 28, 2016

A New Religious Experience for an Old Religious Guy

When I get a Sunday off from church I often worship with another local Lutheran congregation near our house on Saturday night so I can sleep in on Sunday morning. But last week, when our daughter Sandra suggested a family outing to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey, I thought this would be a cool way to spend the Sabbath. My ignorance of Eastern religion is pretty expansive, and this seemed like an adventure to me.

The Mandir is located in the center of a huge compound off Route 130 in the middle of the Garden State. Once you turn off the main drag and enter the compound you’d swear you had left North American and arrived in the Indian subcontinent. The elegantly maintained grounds we experienced were filled with people who were either Indian or of Indian decent. Crowds of slender, cheerful people with beautiful coffee-colored complexions strolled towards the holy marble temple. Some wore Western-style attire, but many were dressed in traditional Indian costume—the men attired in knee-length, light-weight tunics and the women adorned in magnificent saris in dazzling yellows and purples and reds. Occasionally we got a glimpse of some of the holy men with shaved heads and saffron robes. Foreheads were decorated with the mysterious red dots. The crowds chatted in the language of the Old Country—Hindi or Malayalam or some other dialect. The number of Occidental folks could be counted on our fingers. It was, indeed, like being in a foreign land, and I confess to feeling slightly self-conscious at first.

My Anglophile sense of humor was tickled to notice vestiges of the old colonizers which still linger within this strange culture. As shoes are not permitted to be worn within the Mandir temple, separate rooms of shelves are supplied to deposit the footwear of “Ladies” and “Gents.” In the parking lot, a group of young lads were seen playing cricket—as unlikely a sight as one could ever expect to see in New Jersey. We were greeted by a middle-aged docent who possessed such refined, charming manners and impeccable speech one would almost think he had stepped out of the Indian version of Downton Abbey. I remembered that India is home to more native English speakers than any other country on earth, and a British influence still runs deep.

The Mandir itself—made of solid Italian marble—is one of only two such structures in the world. The other marble Mandir is in India. A video in the vestibule informs visitors of how the marble was selected for its strength and beauty, then shipped from Italy to India where it was carved by brilliant craftsmen. Brilliant, however, is too inadequate a word to describe the work on these stones. Every visible surface is elaborately decorated with delicate and intricate carvings. There are lotus flowers, elephants, peacocks, representations of deities, geometric shapes, and all manner of elegant designs woven together in the stately magnificence of the rock. The entire temple structure is enclosed in a superstructure which protects the marble from the New Jersey climate while still permitting adequate natural light to illuminate the luster of the carvings. The delightful sari-clad narrator on the video suggests that this outer building serves as a visual reminder that the true Mandir is “within.”

After familiarizing ourselves with the rules—chief of which is to observe silence—we entered the Mandir itself. Once within the marble structure I felt a splendid feeling of peace and tranquility. Indeed, rarely have I had such a feeling of the presence of the sacred as I had within this Indian holy place. The aroma of a fragrant and pleasing incense was apparent, but I could not locate its source. The sense of contentment was almost incongruous with the onslaught of images in the marble. Immediately one is overwhelmed by the vastness of the carvings. My eyes could not possibly take in the multitude of artwork; nevertheless, the sense of well-being overcame the sensory overload. In the presence of so much beauty, one is forced into stillness. I imagined the power this loveliness had was from the love of the men who had created it.

Since the multitude of carvings was too grand to properly experience, I decided that I’d just slowly stroll through the arches and under the beautiful domes and pick out one or two images to contemplate. The Mandir’s essence forces one into a slow, meditative mode. I had not come to people-watch, but I couldn’t help but observe the behavior of other visitors. Some seemed to approach the experience as tourists. Some were trying vainly to hush noisy children. Most, however, appeared to be religious pilgrims. A splendid lotus pattern dominated the marble floor of the temple directly below the central dome. Worshipers sat around the perimeter of the circle, legs crossed or kneeling, meditating or praying.

I made a tour of the various shrines and paintings which surrounded the room. Before some of the shrines were white collection boxes, oversized versions of the ones one might see on the candle rack of a Catholic church. Some pilgrims dropped in donations. A bouquet of flowers was offered on one of these boxes. Some people bowed reverently before the images in the shrines. Some stood in prayer, gently patting the palms of their hands together in devotion.

The colorful paintings depicting scenes of deities from the sacred texts of this culture had a curious effect on me. I loved the brilliant colors and the attention to detail, although the style of painting reminded me a bit of comic book art. It struck me that the gods represented in these artworks all appeared to be smiling. There was a sense of joy in these devotional works which I rarely—if ever—notice in Byzantine, medieval, or renaissance Christian art. I realized that the experience of being within the Mandir could be summed up for me in one word—happiness.

Before leaving the Mandir I took a moment to stand on the periphery of the lotus and admire the beautiful domed ceiling above it. Since I’d not been to church that morning, I figured this was as good a place as any to say a few prayers of my own.

Back in the vestibule I was reunited with my wife and daughter (and my shoes). We agreed that this had been a moving experience, and we were glad we had shared it. The British-mannered docent thanked us and reminded us that we were welcome to return at a less crowded time and he would give us a personal tour.

I truly value this time within the holy walls of a culture which seemed, on the surface, to be so different from my own. I felt it was a religious experience. There is, after all, only one God, and God may speak with many voices. I reflect that beautiful shrines, chanting, holy silence, floral offerings, and burning incense are not unheard of within my own faith. But, I am more than content to be a confessing, Trinitarian Christian in the Lutheran tradition, and have no desire to change my religious ways. I do lament, however, that the respect the visitors had shown for the Mandir is sadly lacking in my own congregation. I would that my flock would be a bit more considerate of the sacredness of our worship space.

Perhaps we should remove our shoes before we enter?

If you're interested in the Mandir, link to its website by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Divine Upgrade (Reflections on Easter 6, Year C)

My wife just bought a new laptop computer, and the extremely pleasant young person at the Apple store showed us how to turn it on and log on and do some of the nifty stuff a new computer does these days. When we got home, my bride found she was having trouble logging on to the internet. Now, I’m pretty much a Luddite. It’s a miracle I can even figure out how to turn on a light switch let alone use a computer, but—beaming with technological pride—I was able to show her what I remembered the nice young man in the store had demonstrated. A few mouse clicks and yabbadabbadoo! My mate was surfing the net like Bethany Hamilton at Waikiki.

Of course, there’s still lots of stuff I don’t know how to do on a computer (I don’t even know what a spreadsheet is, and I certainly wouldn’t know how to create one!), and I’m a bit embarrassed to possess a machine that’s smarter than I am. I’m really grateful for those tech support phone numbers and for my daughter who works in IT and the teenage girl in my parish who spiffs up my computer every time it starts to go slow. It’s good to have smart, tech-savvy people around to troubleshoot.

What would be even better would be me getting my act together and learning how to use the machine myself. Have you ever heard the saying, “The learning doesn’t start until the lesson is over?” If the teacher is always around to help and correct, we have no reason to learn on our own, to develop our skills, or to grow as human beings. It’s only after the teacher has gone that we really come into our own.

That’s a lesson I take away from the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Easter 6 (John 14:23-29). Jesus knows he’s not going to be around much longer (in the flesh, anyway), and he tries to let the disciples know that this is actually a good thing. Something wonderful is going to happen as a result of his absence. These poor slobs are going to transition from being disciples (students of Jesus) to being apostles (ambassadors for Jesus). They won’t require the physical presence of Christ any longer because they will continue in his Word, and in this divine Word he will always be with them.

Yes, it is true that a loss is painful. Every change, every bend in our life’s river means the loss of something which once was. It’s natural for these boys to fear being without their rabbi. But Jesus tells them not to fear but to rejoice. This is all in the Father’s hands (vv. 27-28). Sometimes we in the church panic when a beloved pastor or other key leader leaves or retires, but these transformative events set the stage for us to grow in new directions while we build on the past. Think of the losses in your life—changes and transitions which may have seemed hard to bear at the time but have led you to where you are now. Pretty cool, huh?

But what’s really cool about this passage is the promise that we will never really be without Jesus. Think about it: are you ever really without someone who has inspired or taught or loved you? My dad’s been deceased for over a quarter of a century, but when I hear one of his favorite hymns in worship I hear him singing just as if he were standing beside me. And Jesus is just like that.

If I can’t figure out how to download the software for my new printer, I can make a toll-free call and a nice tech support person will talk me through the problem. When my heart is lonely and confused, no call is necessary. My support has already made his home with me.

Blessings, my friends!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Saint of the Month: Howard Brooks (Reflections on Easter 4, Year C)

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

So how are you? Are you still rejoicing? Still amped up with celebrating the resurrection of our Lord? I hope so. Easter is, after all, a pretty long festival in our liturgical calendar. It lasts for fifty days, but, when you think about what it means, we have no reason to stop the party—ever.

So far our Sunday Gospel lessons have been stories of a post-resurrected Jesus. This Sunday, however, we get a reminder of what a resurrected Jesus means for us. It’s simply this: our life is eternal. Death has been conquered, and we are living in the reality of eternity. We belong to God in Christ, and no one and no circumstance is going to change this. Our shepherd knows every sheep in the flock, and he’s got our backs. Our life is eternal. Our problems are temporary.

Personally, I think this is pretty good thing to keep in mind as life—even during Easter season—can hurl some pretty gooey slop our way. Sometimes I just pine for that promise of eternal rest when I try to fight off the weariness of parish ministry and all of its relentless personal and financial challenges. I wish I could take a little break after the onslaught of Lent and Holy Week, but I have Ministerium matters which need attending, people who need visiting, our annual church fair, and a growing number of non-member funerals which this week include a joint service for an engaged couple killed in an auto accident. This stuff just doesn’t let up.

Fortunately, I can take comfort in the promise of scripture when I confront my own sense of bereavement.

Yesterday, Howard Brooks, a dear friend to my wife and myself, was called home after ninety-six brilliant years here on earth. If you ever met him, you would certainly adore him every bit as much as we did. A more lovable man never drew breath. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more engagingly joyful smile. I would go so far as to describe Howard’s countenance as iridescent. When his smile was aimed at you, a smile of your own would have to follow. The man radiated a benign good will which transcended the bitter experience of his young adulthood.

Howard served in the U S Navy during World War II on the cruiser USS Houston. In her second engagement against the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Houston was sunk off the coast of Java. Two thirds of her crew were lost with the ship. The remaining survivors—to a man—were captured by the Japanese. Howard Brooks became a POW in the merciless jungles of Burma, forced into slave labor to build a railroad for the enemy. Oppressive heat, malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, injury, infection, the death of comrades, and the brutality of his captors were Howard’s 24/7 companions for three and one-half years. Survival in this hellish environment was nothing short of miraculous for the men who endured it.

My wife, Marilyn, met Howard and his wife, Silvia, at a community function a few years ago. Marilyn, who is involved with several veterans’ organizations, spotted Howard’s USS Houston ball cap and began a conversation with him. She quickly learned his story. I’m glad she did, as knowing Mr. and Mrs. Brooks has been an utter delight. We’ve shared meals and outings and hosted each other in our homes. I never recall Howard seeming fatigued. He was always charming, interested, and ready to share his erudite learning. Marilyn and I were particularly pleased with the relationship he had with our daughter, a US Army vet. The two hit it off as colleagues. Howard’s personality seemed ageless.

I was always astounded by his vitality and good humor. While touring a museum I once remarked, “Howard, you walk as fast as I do.” He replied, “Yes, but not as far.”

What was his secret? When asked how he had been able to live through the nightmare of his captivity, Howard declared that he never lost faith that he and his buddies would one day be rescued. He never feared that he had been forgotten, and he never doubted the righteousness of the Allied cause. In later years, he found in his heart forgiveness for his captors, and I have never known a man so free from bitterness.

Faith and hope and forgiveness and love. The qualities of Howard Brooks must be the characteristics of all who are in Christ. Marilyn and I will certainly miss Howard, but we rest in the blessed assurance we shall see him again. The sting of death is swallowed up in victory.

“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Howard. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the company of all your saints in light. Amen” (from Occasional Services, Augsburg Press, 1982)

Rejoice, fellow sheep. Christ is risen.

PS- If you wish to hear Howard’s courageous story told in his own words, please click here.

PPS-I plan to introduce a shipmate of Howard’s as next month’s Saint of the Month in honor of Memorial Day, so keep watching!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Boatload of Images (Reflections on Easter 3, Year C)

Wow. I really love this Gospel lesson assigned for Easter 3 in Year C (John 21:1-19) There’s a boatload (pun intended) of possible meanings and ideas here. It’s also a story full of sensory images—a bunch of naked dudes fishing on a lake in the middle of the night, 153 fish in a net and guys straining to haul it in, a charcoal fire and a toast-and-fish breakfast by the lake shore, an emotional interaction between Jesus and Peter, and the sad foreshadowing of Peter’s eventual martyrdom. Yup. Lots of stuff here.

Let’s start with Peter and the other guys going fishing. It makes perfect sense. After all, they were fisherman before they met Jesus. Now, however, Jesus has died and is resurrected but doesn’t seem to want to hang with them like he did before. He only shows up sporadically—mysteriously appearing in locked rooms. So what do they do? I guess Peter just hits the default switch in his brain and goes back to his home town and the life he knew. The trouble is, it isn’t like it was before. This also makes perfect sense. Can any of us ever have an experience like the disciples had with Jesus and then just go back to the same ol’ same ol’?

The boys in the boat aren’t catching squat until Jesus shows up to direct them. Jesus gets them to do the old thing in a new way, and suddenly they get an abundance of blessing. Personally, being a kind of nostalgic guy myself, I love that they go back home to Galilee. It always seems healthy to me to look back from time to time and see where we’ve come from and where God has led us. I love this quote from T.S. Eliot:
 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. - T. S. Eliot

Having Jesus in our lives gives us a lens through which we can see ourselves and make sense of who we are. We might view our life and family and achievements through some other lens like career advancement or wealth or interpersonal relationships, but we’ll only get a distorted picture. Seeing ourselves through our relationship with Jesus will put everything into perspective.

The comic aspect of this Gospel pericope is Peter’s little swim in verse 7. The Bible says that he was naked—probably stripped down to his Fruit of the Looms to do hard work on this sultry night—and yet he puts his clothes on to jump in the water. You’d think the guy would have enough sense to either wait until the boat reached the shore (and it was only a few oar strokes away) or jump overboard as he was and leave dry clothes to change into later. But no. Good ol’ rambunctious, impulsive Peter gets dressed and then leaps fully clothed into the sea to swim to Jesus. I don’t know what the Gospel writer intended to show by this verse, but I can only interpret it as zealous, silly, unselfconscious joy in the Lord.

Another odd thing about this story is the fact that Jesus is not immediately recognizable. It’s not until the miraculous catch of fish in verse 7 that the Beloved Disciple figures out that the guy on the shore to whom they have been speaking is Jesus. Even when the guys get to shore with their huge catch in verse 12, there is some question as to who their breakfast host might be. What’s up with this? Are they still doubting the resurrection? Does Jesus not look like Jesus? There’s similar confusion for Mary Magdalene in chapter 20 and for the disciples of Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. Maybe we don’t always immediately know when we’re encountering Jesus. You think?

The really cool aspect of this story for me is Jesus’ conversation with Peter while they’re enjoying their breakfast by the lake. My pal Pastor Ben Krey reminds me that, in the Greek, there are two different words used for love in this passage. Jesus asks Peter in verses 15 and 16, “…do you love me?” The phrase in Greek is “agapas me?  This is translated in my Greek-English interlinear as “lovest thou me?” Jesus uses the word agape for “love.” This word means the highest form of love: sacrificial, unconditional love. It is, essentially, God’s kind of love. Peter, however, responds with “filw se, which the interlinear translates as “I have affection for thee.” The Greek word Peter is using is filia, which can also be translated as “brotherly love.” If we were to make the distinction, the dialogue in John 21:15-17 might read something like this:

Jesus: Simon Johnson, do you love me divinely—even more than these other guys?
Peter: Yes, Boss. You know that I love you like my own brother.
Jesus: But do you love me divinely? Like God loves?
Peter: You know I do. I love you like a brother.
Jesus: Okay. Simon Johnson—since you put it that way—do you really love me like a brother?
Peter: Boss..! You know everything. How can you ask me that..? You know I love you like a brother!

Maybe Peter just doesn’t get that divine love thing at first (do any of us?), so Jesus puts it in Peter’s terms. Regardless of the word we use or the concept we have, the message is the same: feed the sheep. If we truly love Jesus, that love must manifest itself in care for our brothers and sisters.

Finally, I love the warning Jesus gives Peter in verse 18. When we’re young, we gird our loins and go where we please. Not so when we’re old. Verse 19 explains that this refers explicitly to Peter’s eventual martyrdom in Rome.

I always remember the first time I was called upon to preach on this passage. It was at the now-defunct Lutheran Deaconess Mother House. Many Lutherans don’t even know about these wonderful women who once wore habits, lived in community, and addressed one another as “Sister.” There aren’t many around these days as we’ve been ordaining women to Word and Sacrament ministry since 1970. Why be a nun when you can be a priest? But I digress.

When I preached to the elderly sisters at the Mother House, many were confined to their rooms and listened to the service over an intercom system. I thought of elderly folks in nursing homes, places much less comfortable than the home were the Deaconesses would spend their final days. Who would voluntarily want to give up home and independence and dignity just to be warehoused? For some of us, we will stretch forth our hands one day and someone will take us where we do not wish to go. It will be solace if we know we have done our share of “sheep feeding” while we still could.

God bless. Thanks for stopping by this week.