Category Archives: Lutheran

Pluralism Summer Week 8: Society of Friends (Quaker)

laura headshotNext up in our summer of “religion and politics” is Laura Magnani from the Quaker tradition. Laura is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program in California and has worked on criminal justice issues for over 35 years. She wrote “America’s First Penitentiary: A 200 Year Old Failure in 1990” and co-authored the AFSC publication, “Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System” in 2006. She is also a  nationally known expert on solitary confinement. We are honored to have her as a speaker in our summer series.

A few words about First United:effc5190d0f805a4130997d6703a5eef

Our 5:00 service is decidedly interspiritual. This means that, while we are rooted in the
Christian tradition, we beleive that  spirituality is at the heart of all the world religions. This shared spiritual heritage enables us to go beyond the differences in our theological beliefs and traditions. In other words: all are welcome!

Pluralism Summer is an initiative of First United Lutheran Church, a progressive church, rooted in the Reformation tradition, which says that the church, our worship, and our music must always be re-forming. We believe that it’s more important to ask the questions than to know all the answers.

We believe that, as theologian Hans Kung wrote:
“There will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the religions.  There will be no peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.”

We believe our wisdom will only be enhanced by continued conversation with all of our neighbors. Together we work for peace, justice, and the good of all people and all creation.


Pluralism Summer: Week 4

Sue Englander/John Durham weddingI’m particularly happy to welcome two guest speakers this coming Sunday. Ed Driscoll and Jim Lichti are members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. When we chose the topic of religion and politics as the theme for this summer’s series, I knew I wanted to include someone from one of the historic peace churches. We’ll have a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) later in the summer, so we’ve really been blessed.

The great thing about Ed and Jim, though, is that there’s a personal connection with First United, through our music director/administrative assistant, Orion Pitts. Plus, Orion and I both grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so we’re familiar with Mennonites, particularly their conservative dress and oft-mistaken identification with the Amish.

It will be great to hear from these “west coast” Mennonites and hear their perspectives on faith and politics, especially on this Independence Day weekend.

Pluralism Summer is an initiative of First United Lutheran Church, a progressive church, rooted in the Reformation tradition, which says that the church, our worship, and our music must always be re-forming. We believe that it’s more important to ask the questions than to know all the answers.

We believe that, as theologian Hans Kung wrote:
“There will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the religions.  There will be no peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.”

We believe our wisdom will only be enhanced by continued conversation with all of our neighbors. Together we work for peace, justice, and the good of all people and all creation.

The INTRAfaith Conversation at Synod Assembly


Last week The INTRAfaith Conversation went to the annual assembly of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

At least for an hour.

My presentation was one among a group of offerings  during the Saturday afternoon workshop time. It was a decidedly truncated version of my workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, but it was just as stimulating – and affirming of my assertion that this is a wanted and needed conversation in the church today.

Some recurring themes:

  • How can we talk non-judgementally/non-dogmatically to young people about their faith/God questions?
  • How can we understand baptism in a non-exclusionary way?
  • If other religions are valid, why did Jesus have to die?
  • What is the goal of evangelism? Is Christian mission about conversion?
  • How can we express our Christian identity, unapologetically but not offensively?
  • What do we do about language in our scriptures, liturgies, hymnody, etc. that imply Christian superiority?

Great questions!

And as I always say: there are no cookie-cutter answers to these questions. However the answer to the question of methodology is conversation. If you want to know how to get a conversation  started, check out The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? It’s a congregation-friendly way of getting started.
And if you have questions, comments, stories to share, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you!

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Are the Days of Doing Evangelism Over?

I read an interesting blog post the other day called Why Progressive Christians Can’t Evangelize, which critiques the accompaniment model adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In Global Mission for the 21st Century, the ELCA defines accompaniment as:
walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. The basis for this accompaniment, or what the New Testament calls koinonia, is found in the God-human relationship in which God accompanies us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The blog author, however questions whether most of us have seriously reflected on the who, what, why, and whether of Christian mission. In other words: why do we think it’s a good thing to share the gospel in the first place? And while he doesn’t disagree with the need to be sensitive to our history of colonialism, he does warn that “our fear of colonialism is performed daily in our tepid to non-existent faith-sharing.”

It was an interesting post. But what followed made it even more so. In the “Comments,” a reader confessed to his or her own struggle with the issue:
 I firmly base my life on the death and resurrection of Jesus (or try to), and believe that through my baptism into Christ’s death, I will share in a resurrection like his. HOWEVER, I am not convinced that everyone needs to be a Christian . . . if I meet, say, a Buddhist, who has found meaning, and a spiritual path, and is exhibiting “good fruits,” why should I attempt to “evangelize” her?

And that is the INTRAfaith question!

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.”

Documents such as “Global Mission for the 21st Century” and “Accompaniment” that are available from my denomination (and I am sure from others) are important teaching tools. But I don’t know how many of our congregations are using them.

The conversation needs to happen at the grass roots. And a fine place to start is with the experiences that most of us have had with people of other religions and cultures. The question is no longer “if I meet a Buddhist (or a Jew or a Muslim, etc.),” but when I do . . . then how am I to think about evangelism?

When you go out with your evangelism team to knock on doors on your neighborhood and a man in a turban answers – or a woman in a hijab – or a man in a yarmulke – or a monk in saffron robe, what are you going to say?

There are, of course, several theological options. And you’ll probably find a variety in your own church. It’s not only an interesting question for pastors to ponder, it’s a necessary one for the whole church as we ponder together the place of Christianity in a multi-religious world.

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.

Book Launch: Coming Soon!

she likes itIt’s almost here. This is just the draft cover. We have one more proof-reading to do. And then – book launch!

For the past several weeks, I’ve been publishing excerpts here on this blog. If you’ve liked what you’ve read, I hope you’ll be interested in reading the entire book.

Why did I write this book?

I’m a pastor (Lutheran) with over twenty-five years of parish experience. I’ve also been involved in interfaith work in both western New York and the San Francisco Bay area. I received a doctorate degree in interfaith education from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in 2005.

In the course of my work I’ve noticed that many Christians who are open to other religious traditions become confronted with the exclusive claims of Christianity. In the midst of our wonderful religious diversity, many questions have arisen. Members of our congregations struggle with texts such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” They wonder about the commandment to “have no other gods before me.” They are unsure what to make of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Our interfaith awareness has now led us to the intrafaith questions.

Through my doctoral work I became aware of the great amount of work being done at the academic level. Works on theology and biblical criticism abound in the seminary library. But, in spite of this leap forward into new ways of thinking about God, Jesus, scriptural interpretation, mission, etc., especially in relation to other religions, there’s hardly anything coming down to the congregational level.

My purpose in writing the book is two-fold:

1) to address the interfaith issues facing congregations and provide a resource for local Christian congregations to enter into relationships with their neighbors of other faiths; and

2) to provide a process of theological and christological reflection in order to help Christians address the intrafaith questions that inevitably arise as a result of their interfaith encounters.



A Question of Identity

imagesWay back in the 1980s, when I was doing my year of internship in a large Lutheran church, I had the opportunity to observe my supervisor conduct a rehearsal for a Jewish-Christian wedding. When the wedding party arrived, someone reminded my supervisor that he had agreed to remove the Paschal candle from the front of the church.

I was appalled. I remember thinking, “But this is a Christian church; this is who we are. We shouldn’t deny that!” I never mentioned it to my supervisor and missed an opportunity to discuss the issue. At the time, I was forming my own pastoral identity, steeped in “correct” theological beliefs and church practices, so I may not have been open to a more expansive view at that time.

Decades later, however, I look back and see the question of identity as a crucial one with which the church of today must wrestle. It’s part of both the interfaith and intrafaith landscapes. And it is an ongoing process! Even now, when officiating at a wedding at the chapel at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, I flinch a little when we pull the drapes over the cross in the front of the church. It’s like telling Jesus to turn his back for a little while.

Identity is important. How can I make my way in the world if I don’t know who I am? If I’m confused or if I allow myself to be swayed by someone with a stronger sense of self, I risk losing myself completely. Boundaries are a big part of identity. Part of an infant’s growth process is discovering where she ends and her mother and others begin. We’ve learned that poor boundaries lead to all kinds of dysfunction in individuals, families and organizations. So it is no wonder we become alarmed when we feel that our identity as Christians has been eroded. We feel threatened, under attack from all directions – secularism, science, a new generation that does not find the same meaning in the institutions in which we were raised.

And then there’s the reality of religious diversity. Just look at the panicked responses to “the war on Christmas.” My Facebook page this past season was filled with challenges to dare to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”

This anxiety isn’t unique to Christianity. Sylvia Boorstein, who is Jewish, reflects on the popularity of Buddhism:
“. . . I think the alarm people express about Buddhism has more to do with instinctive fears about tribal survival than philosophical error. . . Doing an action that another group does . . . arouses concern. I think it’s the natural, self-protective, genetic response of tribes.” [1]

Our Christian tribe is anxious. We lament the decline in membership in our churches and try to figure out how to attract new people. We worry about how to pay for the expenses of the staff, buildings and programs we’ve come to expect as necessary parts of being “church.” We live in survival mode and when we can no longer afford these perceived necessities, we count ourselves as failures.

For many in the Church, interfaith encounter seems superfluous or downright threatening. However, I believe that our tribe will be in trouble, not because of all the other tribes out there, but because we will not have figured out who we are in the midst of them. In family systems terms: we must be self-differentiated while remaining connected. Just as this is the way to health in personal relationships and families, so it is with the Church.


[1] Boorstein Sylvia. That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 135-6.




Hidden Inheritance: A Lutheran Pastor’s Discovery of Her Jewish Roots

51f-80kdFpL._AA160_I just finished reading Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark’s book, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith. And I was deeply affected by on it several different levels. Her story begins when, out of the blue, she learns that her grandparents had been Jewish. Not only that, they’d been sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp by the Nazis, where her grandfather died. The revelation was even more confounding because her father had been (she thought) a life-long Lutheran: baptized, confirmed, and very active in his congregation. Pr. Neumark, raised in this setting, went on to seminary and has served as a Lutheran pastor for 30 years. 

The book is powerful, just on the merits of a heart-wrenching story of the Shoah (her preferred designation) and its aftermath. It also stirred things up for me personally, a Lutheran pastor with a name that had been changed generations ago from the “Jewish” spelling. I’ve never been able to get any good answers about this, just speculations, and any relatives who might have known more are now gone. Could there be a Jewish great-grandmother or great-grandfather on my family tree? Quite possibly. As difficult a journey that Neumark had to undertake, I envy her a bit in the discoveries and self-discoveries she experienced.

The third level of interest is the intrafaith questions Neumark raises. Her first chapter is entitled “Crossing Over,” and I smile because I learned my intrafaith methodology from John S. Dunne’s 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.

Neumark certainly has had a crossing/ passing over and coming back experience, but I would call it a far deeper experience than a spiritual adventure. More like a spiritual earthquake.

Take the sacrament of Holy Communion. While visiting ancestral villages in Germany, she learned that in 1510, Neumark Jews were expelled under the charge of desecrating the host. She laments,”How is it possible that I, descendant of these Jewish outcasts, stand at the altar every Sunday, saying prayers of blessing over bread and wine and repeating the words, “The body of Christ given for you” “The blood of Christ shed for you” as I place the host in the hands of my congregants? I’ve done it for 30 years now without thinking of those slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews, who died over a perversion of this very sacrament. Now, I cannot do it without their painful presence beside me.”

And on the sacrament of Baptism. “As a pastor who has perfumed hundreds baptisms, rejoicing at every single one, I find myself in a very unexpected and undesirable place. My grandparents drowned their Judaism so their children might rise as newly created Germans, pure as any Aryan. Baptism can even be seen as an assent to Nazi propaganda; being a Jew is no good. What can we say when . . . baptism itself is a demonic act that defies God? How can I unreservedly find my identity at the font?”

At one point, she asks, “With this legacy, how can I be a Lutheran pastor?”

Pastor Neumark does not leave us in the depths of this despair. She allows us to listen in as she works through this painful “coming back” to Christianity. But when she says, “I’m getting stuck here and I wish the Church would pause to get stuck with me,” I want to say that I wish we would, too.

Recovering and honoring the Jewish roots of our Christianity is long overdue. For Lutherans, acknowledging and understanding the dark side of our history, is a necessity that should never be glossed over. We should view our scriptures and rituals taking these into account.

 I feel privileged to have read Pastor Neumark’s story. But I also believe that it isn’t necessary for all of us to have similar life-changing revelations in order to bring our “coming back” insights, questions, struggles, and learnings into our churches.

This is how I find I can be a Lutheran pastor. And I’m glad that Heidi Neumark is one, too!