Monthly Archives: December 2015

Epiphany Magi(c)

Epiphany is a really good time to introduce both interfaith and intrafaith themes to a congregation.

The story of the magi in Matthew’s gospel is a perfect example of “passing over and coming back,” the concept introduced in John Dunne’s book, The Way of All the Earth:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion.

“It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

The Magi, who I like to believe Matthew would have envisioned as Zoroastrian priests, passed over into Judaism in order to honor a sacred moment in that religion. A non-canonical text from the sixth century, The Arabic Infancy Gospel of the Savior, tells the story this way:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judaea, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zeraduscht* had predicted; and there were with them gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored Him, and presented to Him their gifts. Then the Lady Mary took one of the swaddling-bands, and, on account of the smallness of her means, gave it to them; and they received it from her with the greatest marks of honour. And in the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey; and they went away, following the guidance of its light, until they arrived in their own country.”
*Zeraduscht is a form of Zarathushtra, the founding Prophet of Zoroastrianism

In Matthew, the Magi passed over and then crossed back to their own home and their own religion. I imagine a version of the story, in which these Zoroastrian holy ones brought back learnings and insights about Judaism that became part of their own practice.

But I also imagine an intrafaith discussion on the way home. “I agree with this.” “But what about that?” “How does that fit in with what Zoroaster teaches?” These Magi might help us to follow the star of Wisdom be our into our own intrafaith journeys.

This Epiphany, how might you and/or your congregation pass over into, learn about, and experience a different tradition?

How might you and/or your congregation cross back into Christianity and delve into the insights and questions that arose from that encounter?

Blessed Epiphany, O Wise Ones. Journey well!

Christmas in the Qur’an

Some years ago, a seminary student told me that, according to some of her professors, the interfaith Christology question is going to be the “next big issue” confronting the church. Theologian  Kristin Johnston Largen, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, has picked up the banner. In her book Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, she writes:
“. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”

It’s already happening in our Christian/ Muslim book study. As we began reading Islam’s Jesus by Zeki Saritoprak, we Christians soon realized that there’s a whole lot about Jesus in the Qur’an, particularly about his birth. Check out the story of the Annunciation:

“And mention in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place facing east. She placed a screen from them; then We sent to her our angel (Jibrael, or Gabriel), and he appeared before her in the form of a man in full human form. She said: 
’I seek refuge with The Most Beneficent God from you, if you do fear Him.’ The angel said: 
’I am only a Messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ The angel said: ‘So it will be, your Lord said: ‘That is easy for Me: And to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us ‘, and it is a matter already decreed.'”—Qur’an 19:16-21

As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is called the Messiah (al-Maseeh) at least nine times in the Qur’an. But, we had to ask, what does ‘messiah’ mean? We already knew that there are differences between the  Jewish and Christian messianic job descriptions. And so it is with Islam. The Qur’an indeed identifies Jesus as the Messiah, a messenger who will bring justice, prosperity and peace. But it does not agree that the Messiah is the son of God.


Indeed, they are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.’ (5:72)
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. (5:75)

Now, for orthodox Christians, the answer is clear-cut. Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of

God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very

God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things

were made.”


But many Christians are reexamining the Jesus of the Nicene Creed. Coming from both our expanding knowledge of the cosmos and of other Christologies from other places and people, we’re no longer satisfied with outdated “substance” language.

We’re also not satisfied with dualistic separations between human and divine, heaven and earth, and matter and spirit. As we think more about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, the question of who and what Jesus was and is comes into play. 

Personally, I find great meaning in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ. I value both. And find that this Christology can be very interfaith-friendly. 

We’ve only begun to delve into these ways of talking about Jesus with our Muslim book study friends. I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the group are all on the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum. How we will explain some of these non-orthodox ideas and how they will receive them remains to be seen. 

The importance of this study, in my opinion, is not only the interfaith dialogue we’re having between Muslims and Christians, but also the intrafaith one we’re having among ourselves as we work through our own answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?”







A Very Cosmic Christmas

41F-iLEWyyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished reading the updated version of Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest. I read the original when it was published back in 1997 and was excited to see additions to the story.

I was especially interested in the chapter about the Cosmic Mass – one of my best discoveries when I  moved to the Bay Area. Back then, as recounted in the book, TCM was held monthly at the Historic Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland. There I was introduced to the spiritual paths of creation spirituality, drawn from the traditions of the mystics: via positiva, via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa. 

I was just beginning my doctoral work in matters of interfaith and intrafaith, so TCM was a mind-blowing example of how a traditionally Christian ritual (a mass that includes Communion) could be expanded to be inclusive of all people, all traditions, and even all of creation.

When I became the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco, I began to incorporate these ideas into our own rituals. Even though my attempt to have the congregation enter into the via negativa didn’t work as well in our setting, I did discover that many people remembered my explanations of the four paths (maybe it worked better than I think!).

This month, I was finally able to attend one of the Cosmic Masses now being held in different locations in the area. And I am so glad that I did! The theme was “Embracing Darkness and Light” and altars had been created around the room: one for the Christian Christmas story (with the addition of a Qur’an, which includes the story of the birth of Jesus), one for Kwanza, one for Hanukkah, and one for the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice.

As we entered into the via creativa, the blessing and distribution of the bread and wine of Communion, I realized just how brilliantly Matthew Fox has transformed what has been an exclusive in-house ritual into a radically inclusive one. TCM is theologically and liturgically grounded, yet reaches out into new ways of expressing ancient wisdom and truth.


I fully intend to continue bringing ideas from TCM into my own preaching, teaching, and worship planning. Not that we’ll ever be able to recreate what Matthew Fox and his team are able to do. But I believe that it’s important to adapt the wisdom we learn from others into our own settings.

Which brings me to Christmas. I’ve come to the realization that the myth of the birth of Jesus is an archetypal story that can appeal to a wider audience than just Christians. It can even appeal to those Christians who can’t subscribe to the orthodox teachings of the Church or to a literal reading of the gospel stories.

But if we’re going to appeal to people of other traditions, and to the “church alumni association” (as Bishop John Shelby Spong calls those who have left), and to the “spiritual but not religious,” and to the people in our own congregations who just don’t buy all the things they were taught they had to believe – then we’re going to have to make some changes in the way we present the story. This is the intrafaith work of which I am so fond. And I have to say that this work has enabled me, after many years of liturgical Scrooginess, to reclaim the Christmas story.

And one of the best resources for seeing how it can be done -and is being done – is to go and experience a Cosmic Mass. And read Matthew Fox’s book!

The entire book is, of course, well worth reading and inspires more ideas for this blog. Another post might be the implications of changing our baptism liturgies to reflect a theology of original blessing rather than original sin. Although – back to Christmas – we changed the first scripture readings in the traditional Service of Lessons & Carols from the ones that set up the story of “The Fall” as the reason for “God sending Jesus to save us from our sins” to one of original blessing.

Speaking as a parish pastor, down here in the trenches, there are ways, great and small, that we can change the Church.

And as we do so, in the tradition of TCM, may we dance!  Have a very Cosmic Christmas!


pictures from


The Intra-faith Conversation: In Memory of Elsie

Elsie LearyI’m launching this new blog as a way to begin an intrafaith conversation (yes, I said intrafaith, spellcheck).  For over 10 years now, I have been convinced of the necessity of taking seriously the questions that arise from our interfaith encounters.

One of the defining moments that launched me on this  quest was a conversation with Elsie, a member of the congregation I was serving at the time.

In the days after 9/11, our adult forum wanted to study the world’s religions and they decided on Hinduism as their first venture into an interfaith encounter. In light of the fact that we would be looking at another tradition solely through our own lenses, I asked the group if they would be open to inviting a Hindu guest to one of our sessions, someone who was willing to share her story as well as answer any questions. Their answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions.

However, after the session one of the participants, Elsie, asked if she could stay and talk about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. If she accepted the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

Elsie had presented me with both a pastoral and a theological quandry. And so my venture into the intrafaith conversation began. It led to enrolling in the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley (part of the Graduate Theological Union) and getting a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2005. While my thesis is entitled Crossing Over and Coming Back: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World, I have always referred to my work as The Elsie Project. Elsie died in 2007 and when my book on this subject is published, it will be dedicated to her. I will always be grateful to her.

And so, I hope this might be a beginning to an ongoing discussion. To get us started, a few words about the difference between interfaith and intrafaith. The most concise explication I’ve found comes from GTU professor Judith Berling’s book Understanding Other Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. While geared towards the academic setting, it’s also valuable for our purposes.

She describes the two poles of the interreligious learning process as:
1) understanding another religion faithfully (this is interfaith), and
2) reappropriating Christian tradition in light of new understandings and relationships (this is intrafaith).

John Dunne, in The Way of All the Earth, goes even deeper: “What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. (interfaith)

“It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion.” (intrafaith)

I am in complete agreement with Dunne’s assessment: “Passing over and coming back . . . is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

I hope that many of you will follow this blog and join in the adventure.