Posted by: Andrew | September 10, 2015

Being on (someone elses) Pilgrimage

A short while ago I was privileged to be taken to Amritsar and the Punjab by Sikh friends in Birmingham. I went as a guest of the Birmingham Faith Leader’s Group in their inter-faith trip to Sikh holy sites and especially the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was this my first trip to India, so travelling round the Punjab seeing both city and rural life was amazing – I can’t wait to go back.

I’ve been asked by many people what was the highlight of the trip, and there were many – almost too many to choose from. But what really stands out in my memory and what impacted me most deeply was being there whilst my Sikh friends were on a spiritual pilgrimage. They didn’t go just as tourists, or treat the various Gudwaras as interesting historical places of worship, rather they went to worship at places which for them were holy and had deep spiritual and historical significance.

One event stand out in particular. One was at about 11pm when a few of us went back to the Golden Temple. Every night of the year volunteers perform Seva (service) by cleaning the entire temple inside and out. They start at about 10pm and go right through to early morning. Inside the actual temple they take down the drapes and polish the gold and clean everything. This is done by a team of about a dozen who seemed to work with little or no direction or management but each just did the job which had, presumably been allocated to them earlier. However, whilst they were doing this a group of women and men sat singing their worship, again it was all informal and spontaneous but it was done with such passion and intensity that it transformed the atmosphere of the temple.

I sat there, as a Christian, listening to songs that I didn’t understand (my Punjabi is sadly non-existent) and watching people clean the temple. Now I’ve been part of church cleaning groups, and participated in many worship times, but never combined and never ones quite like this. There was something very powerful about the way that service and worship came together seamlessly they were both as important as each other. But there was also something that moved me spiritually in the intensity and sincerity of the event.

This sense of being moved by the worship and spiritual journey of others happened a few other times as we visited different sites and Gudwaras that were particularly significant. It raised a number of questions for me both theological: What does the Trinitarian God of the Bible make of their worship to the One God (but definitely not in Trinity)? and personal :What is it that I’m feeling in the moment of being moved by the worship of others in ways and language that are totally unfamiliar to me?

In many ways these are still questions that I’m grappling with. One of the reasons for writing this blog now is that I’ve been invited to go to a Shia Muslim pilgrimage to Iran in a few weeks and want to be able to reflect on that in the light of this trip to India and my own faith.

It’s easy to say ‘well we’re all worshipping the same God so of course it’s moving’ yet that is to avoid the very big differences in our understanding of God and how he deals with the world. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and came to earth fully God and fully human. That sense of God taking human form runs counter to Sikh understandings of God as far as I know. Furthermore I believe that God creates us to have one life wherein we can choose to follow ad worship him or not, and that when we die there is the possibility of being in total closeness to God in what gets called heaven (I realise that these are really simplistic descriptions, but hey it’s a blog post not a theology book). Whereas my Sikh friends explained to me their belief in the transmigration of souls so that a soul has many millions of lives. So whilst we may all be seeking to offer worship to God there are some profound differences in our understanding of God and how God relates to us.

So what do I think, I think I experienced genuine worship and a reaching out to God? Maybe, like Jesus encountering the Roman Centurion, I can describe this a great faith. Perhaps what I experienced spiritually is what I teach people cognitively, that life is not a simple as we’re ‘in’ and they’re ‘out’, we’re the Holy ones they’re the sinners in need of salvation. In Luke 4 Jesus reminded people that God blesses those outside of the Judeo (and now we would say Christian) tradition, and he nearly got killed for it! He told stories of Good Samaritans, and made sure his disciples met (and learnt to love) people other than fellow Jews. All this I’ve taught for years and know it and believe it. Perhaps in the Golden Temple the Sikhs helped me encounter and experience it spiritually as well.

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