There are hundreds of thousands of worlds below and above ours,
and scholars grow weary of seeking for God's bounds.
The Vedas proclaim with one voice that God is boundless.
The Semitic books mention eighteen hundred worlds;
but the Reality behind all is the One Principle.
(Sikh Morning Prayer)
Wednesday 11 November, 2009
Yesterday was a particularly interesting encounter and event that I had been looking forward to. It took place at the Helligandskirken, Holy Ghost Church. Though not the cathedral, it is probably the best known Lutheran church in Copenhagen. It was formerly, before the Reformation, the home of a religious order that did hospital work, and was also the place where the famous Danish philosopher Soren Keirkegaard was baptised. (It was hardly a "leap of faith" at the time; he was baptised as an infant.) The church complex went on and on, room after room after hall and corridor and chapel.
There we met Rev Dr Shanta Premavardhana, who is the head of the dialogue department for the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Dr Shanta is a very erudite man, originally from Sri Lanka, as he says, a minority Baptist growing up among Buddhists and Hindus. That is what led him to have a passion for dialogue, and in his present position he travels all over the world engaging in interfaith dialogue and fostering programs where there is tension. Before we met he and the others were discussing a new initiative in Pakistan, for instance, where tensions are so high between Christians and Muslims. After doing his graduate work in Hinduism and Buddhism at Northwestern University in Chicago, Dr Shanta stayed on there as a pastor in Hyde Park, living about a block away from the Obamas, whom he knew. He told a story of then State Senator Obama being late for a community organizing meeting that Dr Shanta had organized. He had to call Senator Obama and scold him for being late (he had actually forgotten the meeting). He loves telling folks how he had to scold the President of the United States. He also said that they all said about Barack Obama that one day he was going to be President. He knew the infamous Reverend Wright too, and scolded Mr Obama again because he had to drive right by Dr Shanta's church on his way to Rev Wright's. "You should go to church in your own neighborhood!" he said.
It was just co-incidental that Dr Shanta was in town at the same time I was, and Agnete had the idea that we should do some kind of presentation together. We all met upstairs in one of the many meeting rooms at Helligandskirken and put together a rough outline of what we might do, that he would tell stories about his encounters with various religious groups and I would sing songs from the various traditions, but we would leave it a bit to improvisation. At the event itself we actually did pretty much as planned with little deviation from the order we had picked. He told a Jewish story about the importance of... stories! I explained and sang "Lead Me From Death into Life." He talked about the Bhagavad Gita and then I sang "The Great Mother" from the Tao te Ching. He talked about images of God as mother and I sang "When Israel Was a Child." He talked about God as merciful and the misuse of religion to beat people up, and I sang "Bismillah." He talked about the brahmaviharas of the Buddhism, accenting especially compassion and loving-kindess, and I sang, of course, "Compassionate and Wise" to end. After we finished that part we took a short break before reconvening to field some questions, great questions, I might add, and a lively discussion. There were at least two theologians in the crowd. It was very well received and folks seemed to really enjoy the interaction between the two of us. We both agreed that this would be a great way to spread the message of the World Council of Churches.
Pastor Leif had taken us all across the street for dinner before the event. It was an unexpected delight: a Moroccan restaurant owned and operated by a gentleman named Suhail who was a friend of Leif's. I won't begin to describe the menu but it was authentic Moroccan cuisine with its incredible mix of spices and flowers. Anyway, apparently Suhail was intrigued by what we were up to because I noticed him slip in the room toward the end of the first part, and we had a great conversation about many things during the break. This is the 21st century, and if proof were needed of globalization, here was an Indian Persian man, running a Moroccan restaurant in Denmark. Agnete is supposed to take me sight-seeing on Saturday and Suhail is going to try to join us for some of the day, but for sure invited us to come for dinner again that night.
Tomorrow morning I am going to the mothership of Danmission for the first time, to lead a prayer service and then meeting with the staff in a meeting billed as "seeing the beauty of the religious other and dealing with difficult theological questions." Agnete is quite invested in this particular encounter, to share me with her co-workers and shed some light for them on what it is she does by meeting someone else who does it in his own context. And then I get on a train for a three hour trip to the city of Aarhus where I have a concert tomorrow night and some other work the next day before returning here to Copenhagen on Friday