A long time ago, I owned a beat-up 1969 Chevy Nova that I paid less than $700 for in the hope that that old car would last long enough to get me through my undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t get around to doing my undergraduate degree until I was 32 years old, when I enrolled in the Religious Studies program at UBC. I was living in a shabby basement apartment, where the rent was cheap, but the parking was non-existent. If I was lucky, I’d find a parking spot in the alley behind my apartment. Walking in that dark alley at night was more than a little scary. Often, as I was hurrying through that dark alley, I would see this old woman who was living rough in a makeshift tent. It wasn’t much of a shelter, just some cardboard held together by old clothes and torn grocery bags.
The old woman and I never spoke to one another. After several weeks of seeing one another in that back-alley, we would quietly nod in recognition of one another. I knew that she belonged in the neighbourhood and she knew that I belonged in the neighbourhood. Neither of us was comfortable in the back alley at night and it seemed almost comforting to see a familiar face, rather than running into some totally unknown stranger.
One morning as I was hurrying off to class, I heard the old woman moaning underneath her makeshift tent. I am ashamed to say that her moans frightened me, and I dashed to my car, unlocked it as quickly as I could, and drove off to the university so that I could continue my study of the religions of the world. The irony was not lost on my and I was ashamed.
I had some brilliant professors at UBC who taught me all sorts of things, but none of those wise professors ever taught me as much as one of my fellow students taught me. My classmate Sannidhi taught me more about religion than any professor. Sannidhi is a Hindu who I suspect has traveled this earth in many incarnations. Sannidhi possessed wisdom beyond his 20 years of age. To this day, some of what I learned from Sannidhi, I continue to try to teach others. It was Sannidhi who taught me the Hindu understanding that all gods are but pale imitations of the ONE God who lies at the very heart of all that IS. It was from Sannidhi that I first learned the Hindu description of the MYSTERY that we call God, that I have come to love above all other descriptions of the DIVINE ONE. I’ve shared this description with you many times: “God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also.”
Despite the difference in our ages and backgrounds or maybe because of them, Sannidhi and I became study partners. Together, we navigated the murky waters of Religious Methodology as we tried our best to move beyond our own religious practices so that we could learn from the religious practices of others. Sannidhi often spoke about his home in India and how he couldn’t wait to show me what India was really like.
One evening I offered Sannidhi a ride home in my car. To this day, I’m not sure whether or not he was teasing me or if he actually was seriously impressed with my old Chevy. I remember him running his hand over its white vinyl roofand making a sort of tutting sound as his head bobbed from side to side and he expressed his admiration for such a fine mode of transport. Driving along, our conversation about the nature and reality of God was so engrossing that I invited Sannidhi to stop off at my place for a cup of tea so that we could continue our conversation. That’s how we ended up talking to the old woman who live lived in the back-alley behind my basement apartment. turns out her name was Joanna. In just a few moments, Sannidhi had learned that she liked milk and just a touch of sugar in her tea. I myself had never dreamed of offering the old woman a cup of tea. Sannidhi never dreamed of not offering her a cup of my tea.
Sannidhi could not understand my agitation. He kept reminding me that I and Joanna are ONE and the same. “Joanna is a woman and I you are a woman.” This fact together with the knowledge that Joanna was her name failed to impress me. Indeed, I must confess that I was annoyed with Sannidhi for introducing me to the old woman. As long as she was just an old woman sleeping rough, I could acknowledge her existence without being touched by her presence. I did not want to be touched by this woman’s presence. But, I was too ashamed to share this information with Sannidhi. I remember thinking, Sannidhi is a Hindu from India. How could I expect him to understand how I, a Christian from Canada felt about the woman who lived in the back alley. So, I let Sannidhi prattle on about how I and this old woman, and indeed he Sannidhi are all ONE but I didn’t really know what on earth my Hindu friend was really talking about.
“When they had eaten their meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon ben-John, do you love me more than these?”
Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time Jesus put the question, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”
Peter said, “Yes Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”
Jesus replied, “tend my sheep.”
A third time Jesus asked him, “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked,
“Do you love me?”
A third time.
So he said, “you know everything, Rabbi.
You know that I am your friend.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
It is not easy to hear the demands of LOVE. It is not easy to respond to the demands of LOVE. It is not easy to be LOVE in this world of ours. And yet, it is so very simple to hear, respond, and be LOVE in the world, as simple as a cup of tea.
Before I learned from Sannidhi, I didn’t really undersatnd who Jesus was talking about when he said “Feed my sheep.” Don’t get me wrong I knew exactly what Jesus is saying in this story. I’d read it dozens of times. I’d studied it in church. I’d heard all sorts of sermons about Jesus’ teachings to love our neighbours. I knew all about Jesus’ compassion, but I knew nothing about what it means to be compassion. If I’m honest, I suppose I was far more comfortable with flocks of sheep with which I have more in common; sheep who belong to the same flock that I belong to. Even though, I know that in Christ we are all ONE, that in Christ there is no longer a distinction between people and that caring for Jesus’ flock means caring for everyone, it is a whole lot more comfortable caring for people I feel comfortable with.
We humans are a tribal lot. We find it so much easier to ignore the plight of a fellow human if they don’t happen to belong to our tribe. How else do you explain child poverty, homelessness, famine, genocide, or any of the countless atrocities that happen over and over again, all around the world and yes, that happen in our own neighbourhoods? We say we love Jesus. “Feed my sheep.” says Jesus. Do we assume that Jesus’ means some special sheep somewhere? If we are ONE in Christ, then all of us are Jesus’ sheep.
In our long conversations, Sannidhi would often tell me that I would not find the answers I was searching for in the books we were struggling to read. Sannidhi insisted that just as Jesus taught, I would find the answers I was seeking within my very self. He would often encourage me to look deep inside myself so that I might discover that the transcendent God for whom I long for is actually the immanent ONE who lives within us all. I always loved the sounds of Sannidhi’s sentences, but I could never feel their meaning inside of myself and so the ONE for whom I longed for continued to elude me.
Sannidhi is right of course. I have never, no matter how hard I’ve tried, and I have tried, believe me, but I have never been able to find the ONE I long for in books. I have however, found hints about the object of my longing in the stories people tell about their encounters with the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being.In his book, A New Harmony the Scottish mystic John Philip Newell tells a story about his first trip to India.
“One day,” says Newell, “as he sat in a garden in Bangalore, he was approached by an elderly Indian gentleman. The gentleman greeted Newell kindly and they entered into conversation. After a few pleasantries, in which Newell learned that elderly man was a retired banker, the man said with a gentle sideways wagging of his head, “I have one question for you. Who are you?”
Newell sensed that he was not asking what what his name was, but wanting to feel his way into the conversation, Newell said, “My name is John Philip.”
To which the Indian gentleman replied, still kindly nodding his head from side to side, “I was not asking you what your name was. I was asking who you are?”
So Newell said to him, “I come from the same ONE you come from.”
This pleased the gentleman well enough and they proceeded with their discussion in which the gentleman described for Newell the heart of Hindu wisdom. He spoke of the Self within all selves and of true self-knowledge as consisting of an awareness that our selves are rooted in the ONE who is at the heart of all life. He then said, with an even more emphatic wagging of his head, ‘I must be going now, but I have one final thing to say to you. You are God. And until you realize you are God, you will not be wise, you will not be happy, and you will not be free. Namaste.’ And off he went.”
I come from the same ONE as you come from; the ONE who lies at the heart of all being; the ONE in whom all life is rooted. Namaste: the God in me, greets the God in you.”
The morning after Sannidhi introduced me to my neighbour, I could not dash off to school without first bringing Joanna cup of tea, tea with milk and just a touch of sugar. The gesture didn’t come easy to me. I’m ashamed of the way in which I handed Joanna her tea. I sort of grasped the cup by its rim and held it out so that Joanna could take the handle without ever risking the possibility that Joanna might actually touch my hand. I did not want to be touched by her. After several weeks of serving Joanna tea, it seemed only prudent to leave my car unlocked when I parked it, so that Joanna could sleep in the back seat. Each morning on my way to school, I would surrender a cup of tea in exchange for the repossession of my car.
That old Chevy Nova didn’t make it through my final year at UBC. It became hopelessly un-road-worthy and I had to replace it with an old orange Ford Fiesta, which I managed to buy for just $300. Sannidhi decided to finish his studies at home in India and together we devised a cunning plan for that old Chevy Nova. I transferred the ownership to Sannidhi the day before he left for India. Together we abandoned the Chevy on a lot just under an overpass not far from the back alley. We parked the Chevy Nova, locked it up and then gave the keys to Joanna. That old Nova provided a home for Joanna long after Sannidhi, now its rightful owner, returned to his beloved home in India.
I didn’t see much of Joanna after she moved into the old Nova. Gone was our morning Tea service. I moved out of the neighbourhood. But for several months I would scan the neighbourhood looking for her as I drove past. Eventually the city towed the old Nova away and with it went my opportunity to meet the God who dwelled within Joanna.
We are all ONE, inextricably linked, sheep of the same flock, and we will not be well, we will not be whole, as long as an old woman sleeps rough on the streets of any city. We cannot know our ONENESS with the DIVINE MYSTERY as long as we recoil from touching the suffering of the earth and her people. I was afraid to let Joanna touch me. I never let her teach me her story. I never did find out what daemons haunted her and drove her into the back alleys of the city. I was afraid of Joanna and of her daemons. That fear caused me to miss an encounter with the HOLY ONE who dwells in her.
The suffering of the world is enormous. I’m not sure if I have what it takes to let the suffering of the world touch me. It feels a bit like holding on to a teacup from the upper edges so as the thirsty ones cannot touch me. And yet, we come from the same ONE as they come from; the ONE who lies at the heart of all being; the one in whom all life is rooted.
Before he returned to his home in India, Sannidhi blessed me by sharing with me the meaning of his name in Hindi. To learn the meaning of one’s name is a lifelong quest not just for Hindus but for many people who trace their ancestry back to the Ancient Near East. Sannidhi comes from Hindi words that mean, sacred place, or holy temple. Sannidhi told me that it was both an honour and a grave responsibility to bear a name that speaks the truth not only about the body that he inhabits, but the truth about the person he is, a sacred holy place. Sannidhi touched me with his gentle grace and challenged me with his holiness.
I have been scarred by his touch, changed forever. I remain challenged by his holiness as the God in me longs to meet the God I find in those whose suffering frightens me. Fearful daemons live in me and separate me from myself and those who live around me. I suspect that fearful daemons also live in you. What will it take for us to evict our daemons?
I don’t have an answer. We do have this story, our story of the risen Christ beseeching us to feed and to tend. We are all Sannidhi for we are all a sacred place, a holy temple. We are called to recognize that we are ONE and in our ONEness to recognize the ONE who dwells in those we see as other. Namaste, Shanti, Peace. The ONE in me greets the ONE in you. Namaste, Shanti. Namaste.