Monthly Archives: April 2016

Interfaith Worship in a Christian Church


I received a Raku pottery “dream jar” last Sunday as a gift from First United  in honor of my 11 years of ministry there. The instructions that came with it are to “write down your dearest dreams and place them in the earthen vessel.”

In a very real sense, I already have my dream job. I’ve been able to explore my own questions of theology and Christology among people who also want to explore those questions. Together we have created worship services that reflect our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a multi-religious world

For the anniversary celebration on Sunday (which included recognition for our music director of 21 years, Orion Pitts), the congregation wanted to have a special worship service. They specifically wanted to invite all the guest speakers from other religious traditions we’ve had over the past fews years, as well as our members, friends, family and colleagues.

Orion and I assumed that we’d have our usual Sunday service, with the appointed readings for the day, etc., but that at some point someone would get up at some point and say nice things about us. It turned out, though, that the invitation that went out said that it would be an “interfaith service.”

That put me in a quandary. While our regular service is always interfaith-friendly, it’s still very much Christian. So should we redesign the whole thing to be completely interfaith, asking guests to participate in readings and/or rituals from their own traditions? Or should we just do what we normally do and explain that non-Christians were welcome to join in as much as they felt comfortable? And what to do about Holy Communion?she likes it.jpg

Added to the pressure I felt was the fact that the day would also include the launching of my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. So with interfaith dignitaries in attendance, my reputation was on the line (or so I thought)! Right here was a case study for the next edition of the boo.

Well, the service turned out beautifully. But it did take some thoughtfulness and intentionality. I decided that the way to go was with an emphasis on interspirituality rather than interfaith. “Interspirituality” is a term coined by the late Wayne Teasdale, who described it as “a religious perspective that draws on the mystical core of the world’s religions.” The heart of interspirituality is the recognition that there are many approaches to the spiritual journey. The key is the prefix “inter.” The essential spiritual interdependence of the religions exists because of the essential oneness of being and reality. All religions are part of the one cosmos in which everything is interrelated. “Inter” implies an openness and eagerness to communicate with people of other faiths, to learn from the wisdom of their traditions, and to assimilate that which is useful for one’s own journey.

The liturgy that Orion had put together was already there, so that was no problem. So the first question was about the readings. The gospel reading for the 5th Sunday of Easter was just perfect: John 13:31-35, which includes the verse from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. And you are to love one another the way I have loved you.”

But I decided to forego the texts from Acts and Revelation. Instead I chose an excerpt about interspirituality from an article by Wayne Teasdale. I divided it into sections and asked some of our interfaith guests to take turns reading. The second reading was a poem, “The Way Back, The Path Forward” from Light Reading: Selected Poems from a Pilgrim Journey by the Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs. Charles is an Episcopal priest; until his retirement he was the founding executive director of the United Religions Initiative; and he is now Senior Partner and Poet-in-Residence for the Catalyst for Peace foundation. He’s one of the most interspiritual people I know. His poem was perfect for our occasion. For the psalm of the day we used Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms by Norman Fischer.

The next dilemma was Communion. I had no problem including Communion, as long as we were able to articulate that we believed it to be an all-inclusive ritual that is bigger than Christianity. So I wrote an article in our newsletter to make that clear ahead of time. And I also made an announcement to that effect both at the beginning of the service and at the invitation to receive the bread and wine. Of course, everyone was free to partake of anything in the service to the extent they felt comfortable.

So it all turned out great. But it’s definitely  a study in interfaith and intrafaith awareness, sensitivity, and action. You may or may not agree with all of our decisions, but I hope this will get your creative juices flowing about how you would go about planning interfaith worship in a Christian church.



More Book News

51GBQ6enMPL._AC_AA160_It’s gratifying to see that intrafaith is finally becoming part of the interfaith scene. Another new book has taken on the question of how we “live and witness as Christians in a multi-religious world” (Presiding Bishop Emeritus Mark Hanson on the back cover).

I am humbly proud to be included in a chapter by Jonathan Brockopp entitled “Exploring the Uncomfortable Questions.” Several years ago, I had responded to an article in The Lutheran magazine asking for case studies from congregations that illustrated these questions. Two of my stories were selected. Both of them are also included in my own book (you can read Elsie’s story in a previous post, but you’ll have to buy my book for the other).

While this book is from a decidedly Lutheran perspective and responsive to some specifically Lutheran considerations, there’s a lot of good material. As a Lutheran myself, I’m happy to see my church taking these challenging questions.

Is Jesus the Only Way to Salvation?

Excerpted from The Intrafaith Conversation:

Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation? When Rob Bell published his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in 2011, his answer in essence was “No.” Accusations of heresy immediately began to fly from Bell’s evangelical community.

Bell anticipated their criticism in the book:
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

Whether or not you agree with all of Rob Bell’s conclusions, he has certainly highlighted the challenge for Christians today as we come into contact with those of other  religious traditions (as well as many within our own).

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Who is the ‘we’ in ‘the God we serve’? Yale scholar takes up Christian-Muslim question

Yes, this is the question. As I address in my book, in light of our interfaith relationships, Christians must undertake a thorough exploration of who and what Jesus was/is for us.

A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice:

275168-Miroslav-VolfMiroslav Volf, founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, is visiting Oklahoma City as guest lecturer for the McGaw Lectures at Oklahoma  Christian University.

OC leaders said the Yale scholar’s presentation tonight, April 12, is free but people were required to request tickets for admittance and all of the tickets have been distributed.

Obviously, there’s widespread interest in Volf’s lecture, likely because his presentation is to be based on his 2011 book “Allah: A Christian Response.” In it, Volf, Yale’s Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, addresses the question “Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?”

Volf took some time today to answer a few questions on this thought-provoking topic:

Q: Why did you decide to write your book “Allah: A Christian Response”?

A: The occasion for writing the book was a conference we had organized around the question of what binds Muslims and Christians…

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Beyond Tolerance

Jo-Mead-Beyond-ToleranceTolerance … usually has an elitist lining; either an elitist lining in the sense that you can be tolerant because for you it is not that important, or an elitist lining of noblesse oblige I know, but I cannot expect the other to know as much as I do. – Krister Stendahl.

Words matter. The meanings of words also change. Consider the ongoing discussions about the differences between interfaith and multifaith or between interfaith and interreligious. That debate is a topic for another book, but it points to the evolving picture of this work.

We could say the same of the word “tolerance.” I’ve often seen the “Practice Tolerance”tolerance3 bumper sticker, with “Tolerance” spelled out with symbols of the world’s religions, and know that it’s meant to be an inclusive sentiment. When Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he spoke of “a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity.” Since the Congress was the first formal gathering of representatives from both Eastern and Western traditions, it is easy to understand why he paired persecution and intolerance in his speech. Tolerance was then a great improvement over prejudicial beliefs and actions.

But there are problems with the word tolerance. It can imply a willingness to put up with something disagreeable or disliked. If I say that I tolerate you, I convey a very different thing than if I say that I admire or respect you. The issue came to the fore in the global arena in the year 2000 at the United Nation’s Millennium Religion Summit. As reported by Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the head of the Hindu delegation proposed that the term “mutual respect” be substituted for the word “tolerance” in the Summit’s final document “Commitment to Global Peace.” According to Malhotra, the words became a fierce topic of debate, in which adherents of the Abrahamic religions were strongly challenged to respect the non-Abrahamic religions as equals. Mere tolerance was not enough.

This was not a matter of mere political correctness. Christians, by agreeing to go beyond tolerance to mutual respect, begin to swim into the deep waters of church teachings about salvation. Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict), head of the Vatican delegation, objected strongly to the wording of the resolution, “mutual respect” won the day. However, the Vatican quickly issued a statement that affirmed that while “followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Inherent in these challenges is the Christological question: in light of our religious
diversity who and what is Jesus? If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

It is not merely a matter of political correctness at the congregational level either. The question of tolerance or respect may relate to our willingness to be open to the real people we meet in interfaith encounters, to engage in dialogue which goes beyond tolerance. As Swami Dayananda and Cardinal Ratzinger found, however, moving from tolerance to mutual respect is not without challenges.

(This is an excerpt from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?)