Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation

semper-reformanda1About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. –
                                                            Bishop Mark Dyer

Change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as “emergent,” “post-denominational,” “post-modern” and “progressive” attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what we should keep and what we should give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At First United’s rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus.

The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included  both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Gen X and  if we’d just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We actually bought a program like this in my former congregation.

We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant! We envisioned our little congregation in a Northeast rustbelt city grow1381770_10201458045106340_670873635_ning by 200-400%. Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the laws and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot. Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our preschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighborhood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some twenty years after our venture into church growth. The congregation is still small, but they’ve partnered with a congregation in the suburbs and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration last year, one of the things I enjoyed most was the cookout held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree. Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings.

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society*,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

Imagine my delight in arriving at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to work on my doctorate in this area and discovering a course called “Martin Luther and Buddhism”! In the class I became immersed in a fascinating convergence of Lutheran and Buddhist teaching. I was mainly interested in learning about a tradition other than mine. After all, I knew about Lutheranism. But to my surprise, the primary benefit of the course for me was an invigorating renewal of Luther’s theology of the cross. Through study of the Buddhist concept of dukka (suffering), I was able to reimagine the central symbol of Christianity that I had not been sure I could espouse any longer. My rummage sale item could still be a keeper.

• What is an aspect of the Church that you would like to give away?

• What do you definitely want to keep?

• What are some components that you think might be redeemable with some work?

 

*Phrase coined by Bishop John Shelby Spong to describe those who have left the church

 

(excerpted from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?_

 

 

New Review of “The INTRAfaith Conversation”

she likes it“As a Christian who has been engaged in the interfaith movement for over 25 years, I found myself intrigued by The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? (2016). Susan Strouse’s book explores the importance of intrafaith conversations as a path to deeper and more meaningful interfaith conversations. Strouse writes from her personal experience as a Lutheran pastor introducing interfaith to her own congregation, sharing the stories she has collected along the way, supplemented with a depth and breadth of remarkable research.”

Read the rest of the review in the October edition of The Interfaith Observer here.

Kay Lindahl, founder of The Listening Center, is a skilled presenter and workshop leader1472002254936 who teaches that listening is a sacred art and a spiritual practice. She is the author of the award winning book, The Sacred Art of Listening. Kay is also a dedicated spokesperson for the interfaith movement and is on the Board of Directors for Women of Spirit and Faith, an Ambassador for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a past trustee of the Global Council for the United Religions Initiative, and is Past Chair of the North American Interfaith Network. Lindahl has presented her work in diverse settings – local, regional, national and international. Locally she has created programs, board retreats, training for spiritual directors, in-service training for non-profit organizations and lectures on college campuses. She is the founding president of the The Interfaith Observer (TIO) Board of Directors.

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The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job: An INTRAfaith Case Study

16mag-16hawkins-t_ca1-superjumboThe New York Times Magazine ran an article in its October 13 edition entitled “The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job”. It’s the story of Larycia Hawkins,  the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian  liberal arts college. Dr. Hawkins lost her job after a controversy that began with her intention to wear a hijab during the Advent season, in solidarity with Muslims.

You can read the article here. It’s an important story on many levels, not the least being race and gender. But my point in posting  it here is that it’s a perfect example of the necessity of intrafaith discussions among Christians of differing theological perspectives.

Dr. Hawkins identifies as a Christian. Her Christianity allows her to make the statement she made by wearing the hijab. The administration and many alumni of Wheaton College have a different interpretation  of Christianity. Many students and faculty members were understandably upset with Dr. Hawkins’ “mutual place of resolution and reconciliation”  departure.

Rather than dismissing this popular, well-qualified educator, would it not have been wiser to use the controversy as an opportunity for an intrafaith conversation?

 

Help Me Create a Christian Float for an INTRAfaith Parade

macy_s_thanksgiving_marching_band_-_vertOur diverse religious environment can be disconcerting for many people. Author Kenneth J. Gergen once described the disorienting effects of pluralism as that of a “relentless parade.”

But another author, Theodore Brelsford turns the negative-sounding observation into an opportunity for imagination and creativity:

It occurs to me that one way to respond to a parade which seems relentless is to build a float and join in.

So OK, let’s do it! Let’s say we’re building our float. In the festive context of the celebration of diversity, what should our Christian float look like? What symbolic images might we in63c6ac4ee1a4cedb05b14099ed8a44fcclude, and what is it that those symbols symbolize?”

I tried this out at my workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions last October. After an hour of telling stories and surfacing issues and questions, we began putting symbols for our float up on newsprint. It was a lively, fun exercise. Not everyone agreed on each symbol – not even a cross. Someone wondered if we might have to have more than one float. Unfortunately, time ran out. These conversations do take time. But I discovered that Brelsford’s metaphorical float idea is a good one.

rmt16773So what’s your symbol? Let me know what image conveys to you the heart of the Christian message. Maybe it’s a traditional church-y one. Or maybe it’s something no one would ever expect to see in a  stained glass window.

Attach a picture if you have one – and a little explanation of why this symbol is meaningful to you. If I get enough, maybe I can create an intrafaith parade right here on this blog!

To get us started, here’s one of my favorites. One of the gospel of John’s “I am” sayings, has Jesus s2492729_origaying “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Of course, in these “I am” passages, John wants to connect Jesus to the great “I AM” of Exodus.

I don’t want to get into christological matters right now (happy to at other times, though!); I don’t have to believe in the formulations of the Nicene Creed  in order to appreciate the metaphor. What I see in the vine imagery is that we are all connected to the Source of Life – and we are all interconnected with one another.  So a vine goes onto the float.

Now – what say you?

 

 

 

 

 

Gergen, Kenneth J., The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (NY: Basic Books, 1991), quoted in Theodore Brelsford, “Christological Tensions in a Pluralistic Environment: Managing the Challenges of Fostering and Sustaining Both Identity and Openness,” Religious Education, (Spring 1995): 176.

Brelsford, Theodor, “Christological Tensions in a Pluralistic Environment: Managing the Challenges of Fostering and Sustaining Both Identity and Openness.” Religious Education, 90, no2 (Spring 1995): 174-189, 188.

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

Not That Kind of Christian!

backto3It’s a tough time to be a Christian. More and more, we’re being forced to choose what kind of Christianity we shall be identified with. Evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, traditional, conservative, liberal: the labels aren’t that simple.

In this presidential election campaign, a rift has split evangelical Christians. The candidacy of Donald Trump has required many evangelicals to do theological gymnastics to defend their candidate. Even after the release of the video which graphically revealed Trump’s ugly, misogynistic character, his defenders stood fast. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s Faith Advisory Council, said Trump is “still the best candidate to reverse the downward spiral this nation is irotaten.”

But other evangelicals disagree. In a letter published on September 28 (so even before the video was made public), about 100 evangelical Christian leaders, including Rachel Held Evans and Jim Wallis, condemned Trump’s candidacy. Some snippets from “A Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump:
Wallis and AOS book, 2.jpgWe believe that racism strikes at the heart of the gospel; we believe that racial justice and reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus.
We believe the candidacy of Donald J. Trump has given voice to a movement that affirms racist elements in white culture – both explicit and implicit.
We . . . simply will not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that Donald Trump has consistently and deliberately fueled.

Although I don’t agree with all of the theology expressed in the letter, what I like about it (besides its condemnation of Trump) is its unapologetic Christian witness. They clearly do make the disclaimer of “not that kind of Christian”:
A significant mistake in American politics is the media’s continued identification of “evangelical” with mostly white, politically conservative, older men. We are not those evangelicals. The media’s narrow labels of our community perpetuate stereotypes, ignore our diversity, and fail to accurately represent views expressed by the full body of evangelical Christians.

But they also clearly say what kind of Christians they are. We progressives often fail to do that. We’re very good at saying “not that kind of Christian!” but not always so good about putting our beliefs out there. So in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, here’s my declaration:

As a progressive Christian, I am a follower of Rabbi Jesus, who consistently taught that the realm of God is near, within us and around us. My role as a citizen of my community, country, and world is defined by the example of Jesus, which includes boundary-crossing, inclusivity, and prophetic witness in the face of oppression. It is also defined by the teachings of Jesus, which include compassion, forgiveness, and concern for the “least of these.”

I also believe in the mystical body of Christ, which I do not see as limited to Christianity. One might call this the Cosmic Christ, the Tao, the Universe, or Buddha Nature. In this body, in which all things are interconnected, there is no separation between divinity and humanity, humanity and the rest of creation, male and female, body and spirit, etc., etc. My connection to this great web of life is what gives me the inspiration and ability to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Therefore, as a progressive Christian, I cannot condone the misogynistic behaviors, the racist rhetoric, or unethical business practices of Donald Trump. I just can’t imagine what Jesus those evangelicals who continue to make excuses for him follow.

I am unapologetically (not arrogantly, exclusivistically, or obnoxiously) Christian – just  not that kind. 13722038_975213099262133_1521863844_n

 

 

 

 

INTRAfaith Relationship: It’s Complicated

 

its-complicatedOne of the options on Facebook for announcing your relationship status is “it’s complicated.” And for some people, entering into interfaith relationships can be complicated, if not downright threatening. Then add in the need for intrafaith conversation  and things can get really challenging. For this reason, I love this poem/prayer by C.S. Song.unknown-2

Choan-Seng Song is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. I had the privilege of being part of a theological discussion group during my doctoral studies there. Professor Song opened my eyes to other ways of looking at Christianity, specifically through an Asian lens. Once I realized how thoroughly western my theology and Christology was, a new way into interfaith thology opened up before me.

51matoyngwl-_sx331_bo1204203200_But Dr. Song is not just an academic. He’s also a pastor. And, in my opinion, nothing expresses this more than this poem/prayer, which was published in the PSR newsletter. I’ve used it innumerable times in workshops as a way to reassure people just entering into interfaith and intrafaith relationships that discomfort is to be expected, in fact it’s perfectly normal.

A PRAYER: It Is Difficult, O God

It is difficult, O God
it was much easier before
we lived in our own world
we took that world for the entire world
we believed we were your chosen people
with special privileges and advantages
we thought we had nothing to learn
from people who were different from us
in what they believed and how they lived
but suddenly all these people are all over the place
they come to live in our midst
they speak all sorts of languages
they practice different faiths
they even dress differently.

It is complicated, O God
it was much simpler in the past
we lived among like-minded people
we used to understand each other
we ate the same food
we shared the common thoughts
we even acquired the same habits
we seldom ventured out of our compound
we were contented with what we knew
but all of a sudden the walls that separated us from other people crumbled
we have lost control of our life
we are afraid we are no longer master of our own destiny.

But it has never been easy for you, O God
it has never been simple for You
You have always dealt with a world of wonderful plurality
with many people and many nations
with many cultures and religions
with women as well as men
with children as well as men and women.

But instead of complaining, You enjoy it
instead of becoming upset, You delight in it.
Though it is still difficult for us
help us, O God, to enjoy it with all its multiplicity
though it is still too complicated for us
enable us, O God, to cope with it
with the spirit of gratitude and wonder
and inspire us to know ever more deeply
the mystery that is Yours
the truth You alone can disclose to us.