Monthly Archives: November 2016

Can We Cross INTRAfaith Boundaries?

divisionsI happened to see a question submitted to answers.yahoo.com: “What is the difference between interfaith and intrafaith boundaries?”

Someone replied: “There is no such thing as intrafaith boundary.”

I was relieved to see that of the six responses to that reply, all were thumbs-down.

If we didn’t know that Christianity has intrafaith boundaries, we certainly know it now that election polling results are in.

According to The Washington Post, 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN), even though a group of 100 evangelical leaders posted a declaration before the election stating that they would “not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that (HWSNBN) has consistently and deliberately fueled . . .” Divisions within evangelical Christianity continue to widen, as Jim Wallis, evangelical author and founder of  Sojourners, said he felt Christians who voted for Trump “ought to be embarrassed.”

Progressive Christianity, of course, is used to being out of the mainstream. But now, many are declaring a new area in American Christianity. In What Progressive Christians Need To Do To Take Back Their Faith, Pastor Jacqueline Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan declares, “Maybe what’s happening is progressive people of faith are finding ways to connect around our shared beliefs that all people are children of God. All of those people are joining together right now, we’re crying together, plotting and planning how to resist together. That to me is the new religion, the new Christianity.”

Emerging Church leader Benjamin Corey suggests that progressive Christians should start evangelizing  among other Christians: “We need to continue converting Christians to following Jesus. We need to create disciples, and reach evangelical Christian Americans with the gospel of Jesus.”

piocs_-00_without-background_christian-cross-special-design-pin-with-usa-flagSome are even calling for a new “confessing church” like that in Germany, when pastors and churches banded together to resist the Nazi regime. For example, Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent in the Wesleyan Church, said “I wonder if we may be heading toward a confessing church as opposed to a nationalistic church.”

The question is: will Christians of differing stripes be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another?

sg_dividedMany are advising that we must reach out across the boundaries and listen to those with whom we disagree. I can’t argue with this; it’s what I advocate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But most of what I’ve been hearing is “not yet.” The shock and anger are too raw.

What shape will Christianity take in this new era? Will we be able to cross our intrafaith boundaries? It was difficult before the election; it’s even more so now.

Time will tell.

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Why Not an Interfaith Advent?!

In my  book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I suggest times of the church year when doing something with an interfaith flavor might be appropriate. In this month’s issue of The Interfaith Observer, Vicki Garlock gives us another wonderful option.

LIGHT, BIRTH STORIES, AND FEASTS

Interfaith Options for Christians at Advent

By Vicki Garlock

For Christians, another Advent season will soon be upon us. As one of the quintessential periods in the liturgical calendar, it might seem like the wrong time to be thinking about interfaith efforts. It’s a feeling further heightened by the encroachment of numerous secular obligations. Who has time for “the other” right now? I tend to view things from a slightly different perspective, though, and I think Advent offers a great opportunity to bring a bit of interfaith into your household. Here are a few ideas to get started.

Light to the World

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

An Advent wreath – Photo: VG

For Christians, Advent is a time of anticipation. Many churches mark that time by lighting candles on an Advent wreath for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas/Jesus’ birth. With all four candles lit by Christmas Eve, the wreath burns brightest just when the nights are at their longest (at least in the Northern hemisphere).

The Advent wreath therefore serves as a visual reminder that Jesus, for many, is a light to the world. This is most clearly stated in the first few verses of the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5, NRSV translation]

Interestingly, the Qur’an also refers to the message of Jesus as a light.

And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him. We sent him the Gospel. Therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him, a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. [Surah 5 (al-Maida), verse 46, Yusuf Ali translation]

So an easy way to make your Advent more interfaith is simply to use “Light” as your theme. It’s no accident that Christmas falls around the same time as the winter solstice, and many Advent/Christmas practices are derived from the ancient pagan traditions of Northern Europe. Teaching your kids about the winter solstice through books, recipes, and crafts is a good place to begin.

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The Winter Solstice (written by Ellen Jackson and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis) and The Shortest Day (written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jesse Reisch) are both good book options. And even though Circle Round (by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill) was published in 2000, it’s still a great go-to book for crafts and activities. Because pagan traditions are grounded in our relationship with the earth, focus your activities on plants currently available in your geographical area. Create a small home altar and decorate it with winter fruits and greenery. Bake some pumpkin seeds or flavored nuts. You could even teach older kids how to can/freeze food to last through the winter.

Hanukkah is another one of those light-related holidays that happens at this time of the year. Start with one of the many books available. There are board books, like the Hanukkah “touch and feel” book by Roger Priddy and My First Chanukkah by Tomie dePaola, for toddlers. For slightly older kids, you’ll find pop-up books covering the various Hanukkah traditions, like lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidel. One book, Maccabee! (written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by David Harrington), even portrays the legendary brothers who took the temple back from the Seleucids, as super heroes. Hanukkah books are found in most local libraries, and many craft/discount stores now sell Hanukkah-related products. You can also find resources at your local synagogue, which offers a great excuse to visit with your kids!

Advent Stories from the Islamic Perspective
Another way to make your Advent more interfaith is to read Islamic versions of typical Advent stories. For example, many Muslims are familiar with the story of Mary/Maryam being told she is pregnant with Jesus/Isa (sometimes spelled Eesa). In that account, Hannah, Maryam’s mother, promised to dedicate her unborn child to God/Allah. Years later, as a young woman serving in the temple, Maryam was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would give birth to a son. Some of the story can be found in Surah 19 (called Maryam) of the Qur’an.

He said: I am but a messenger from your Lord that I may bestow on you a pure boy. She said: How shall I have a boy, when no mortal has touched me, nor am I an unchaste woman?” He said: Thus it shall be; your Lord said: It is insignificant for Me; and: We shall assign him as a Sign to humanity, and as a mercy from Us. It was a decreed command. [Surah 19 (Maryam), Verses 19-21, Laleh Bakhtiar translation]

The Qur’an is non-narrative, for the most part, but Muslims do read stories to their kids based on Qur’anic passages. A good, kid-friendly version of Gabriel’s announcement to Maryam, the subsequent birth of Isa, and Isa’s first days can found here. Note how in the Islamic narrative, Isa is able to talk at birth. On the right is a kid-friendly video of the birth story. The video is seven minutes long, but the narrative about Zachariah, Mary, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus’ first words are in the first 5 minutes (before the quiz). For interested adults, a more complete version of the story, with specific excerpts from the Qur’an, can be found here.

Birth Stories from Other Faith Traditions

You can also make your Advent more interfaith by focusing on amazing birth stories from other traditions, several of which include the idea of a virgin birth. One of the most popular comes from the Buddhist tradition. According to that narrative, an elephant with a lotus flower was responsible for Queen Maya’s pregnancy of Gautama Buddha. In most versions, the Buddha takes seven steps as a newborn infant. In some versions, angels appear and the baby Buddha speaks (much like Isa does in the Islamic narrative). The Life of the Buddha site has kid-friendly narratives of Queen Maya’s elephant dream and the Buddha’s birth. Finally, the 8-minute video above, in English, tells the story.

Add an Intrafaith Twist
If an interfaith Advent seems too far removed from the spirit of the season, you might want to focus on various Advent practices within the Christian tradition. One of the most notable is the Nativity Fast observed in the Orthodox tradition from mid-November until Christmas Eve. Here the word “fast” does not mean a total absence of food. Instead, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil, except on certain days of the week. The specifics, if you’re interested, are complex but fascinating and can be found here.

As many Orthodox moms have discovered, the Nativity Fast diet is closely related to a vegan diet, which means many families break out their vegan recipes for the holiday season. One post offering great Orthodox Advent recipes can be found here, but you can also simply search the internet for vegan recipes that you and your kids might enjoy. Just make sure they don’t require any oil if you really want to stick with the rules!

In Short…
It’s easy to assume that Advent offers few or no opportunities to interact with other faith traditions. After all, the entire focus is on preparing for the arrival of Jesus. However, a little creative thinking reveals several possibilities. During this unsettling time of the year – when the pendulum swings wildly between “traditional Christianity” and “rampant commercialism” – consider a move away from both ends of the continuum, and bring a bit of interfaith into your holiday season.

Life Among the Ruins

screen480x480I will admit that the past few days have left me with a mix of emotions from depression to anger and back again. Yesterday, it was anger mixed with just plain grouchiness. Plus I was stressed because I wasn’t getting enough work done due to (see above).

Then a wondrous thing happened. About forty young people arrived at church along with their teacher to learn about Lutherans. The  group was from the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution. The class is “What Is Catholicism?” and is a requirement for all students. So it was a pretty mixed bag of Catholics and Protestants (no Lutherans, though). They were visiting various Christian churches and our place on the schedule followed a field trip to an Eastern Orthodox church.

Their teacher had emailed me earlier to confirm and had warned me that his class was feeling pretty upset by the election results, so we might want to deal somehow with that. So my colleague, Anders Peterson from Middle Circle, and I set up a space with a few candles and planned some songs and readings that we could use, depending on the needs of the group.

The students arrived with the kind of energy that only young college students have. Once we got them all settled in, we read a statement and call to action from The Charter for Compassion:

the invitation has arrived
to step into our courage
and our full humanitycharter_brand_transp_orange_medium
from this day forward
the harm can only unfold
and multiply and spread
with our silence
with our consent
with our participation
we will not be silent
we do not consent and
we will not participate
in legitimating violence, lies and division
the love that we are
the love that connects us all
the love that bends history
even in this dark moment 
towards liberation 
We are one 
we are many and
we are one
it is time 
dear friends 
the revolution of love
must be completed 
And it is only possible 
if on this day
we commit our lives 
to walking the hard road 
because there is now only one way forward 
So it was a good time of camaraderie and healing. But then it also became a real example of  how intrafaith conversations can work. I told my Lutheran faith story; Anders told his. Then we asked if the students had any questions. And they did.
For example, they wanted to know:
  • the process used in Christian-Jewish dialogues that led to repudiation of anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther and expressions of sorrow and repentance
  • the differences in Communion practices between Lutherans and other Christian churches – what kind of bread, for example
  • who was allowed to receive Communion
  • our understanding of baptism
  • why we don’t use the Nicene Creed (which is a First United decision, not a pan-Lutheran one)
  • could Lutheran ministers get married

There were many nods of agreement, but there were also a few exchanges of differences, for instance in the use of the Creed.

But it was all done with good will, curiosity, and respect. A real intrafaith encounter! It warmed my heart on an otherwise bleak day. People of differing backgrounds and practices coming together to learn about one another can only contribute to peace in the world.

A revolution of love! Yes!

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Is Religious Diversity Making Us Less Religious?

imagesAccording to a recent article in the Christian Century (Sept. 28, 2016), one reason America has become less religious is our religious diversity.  It goes on to say:
Although religious pluralism is not necessarily the cause of declining religiosity, it does expose people to ideas and prices that challenge their faith. 

All I have to say is, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The story of Elsie (see blog post from December, 2015) is a perfect illustration of the above quote – and further rationale for engaging in the intrafaith conversation.

This is not simply an interesting add-on to the work of ministry today. It is integral to the message we preach and preach, the mission we promote, and the church we want to become.

A big thanks to all of you who are reading the book in your churches and passing it along to friends.  Keep the movement going!