Category Archives: Religion

What to Do with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?

i-am-the-way...

In virtually every workshop I’ve ever led about interfaith matters, someone asks the question: “What about when Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me?”

Here is an audio version of the interview I did with Steve Kindle of Pastor to Pew a few years ago. We talk about my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But mostly it’s my take on John 14: 6 and how taking the intrafaith  question seriously is a necessity for today’s church. 

You can also see the video here.

 

 

For Dorcas, Rachel, and All Good Shepherds

shutterstock_1084294370Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I’m always a little flummoxed by the day because I’ve never seen a real-live shepherd. I mean, I get it; the job of a shepherds is to take care of sheep. But I’ve often wondered if there couldn’t be an updated version, you know, one that modern people could relate to. I did see a couple examples (forgive the exclusive language):

A Programmer’s Psalm 23shutterstock_705197296

 The Lord is my programmer,
        I shall not crash.
    He installed his software
        on the hard disk of
        my heart;
all of his commands
        are user-friendly.
His directory guides me
    to the right choices for his name’s sake.
Even though I scroll
    through the problems
        of life,
I will fear no bugs,
    for he is my backup.
His password protects me.

An Architect’s Psalm 23

shutterstock_525927412The Lord is my architect,
        I shall not be mis-proportioned.
    He makes me enclose
        beautiful spaces,
he builds me erect in tranquility,
    He restores my
        deteriorated parts.
He puts me together
        to reflect righteousness
    for his namesake.
Though I am overshadowed
    by skyscrapers and cathedrals,
I will fear no evil,
    for you stay attentive  to me;
your pencil and creativity,
    they comfort me.

But they don’t really do the trick, do they? The shepherd image somehow works, even for 21stcentury, urban dwellers. How can that be? Maybe we can get a hint from Allstate. I almost always mute the sound when commercials come on TV. But there are some I actually like. Like the ads for Allstate Insurance that feature a character named Mayhem.Unknown-1

In one, a man is driving in his car and his cell phone starts buzzing. But the phone has fallen and gotten stuck between the seat and the console. As it keeps buzzing, the man keeps trying to get at it. Mayhem, who we can see lying underneath the seats where the phone would be, is goading him on: “Cold, warm, warmer . . .” until BOOM, the driver rear ends the car in front of him. “Jackpot!” exclaims a triumphant Mayhem.

Now, I’m pretty sure you know there’s no man on the floor hiding the guy’s phone – but you get the message. He symbolizes mayhem. Even if you’ve never dropped your cell phone and rear-ended a car as you frantically tried to find, there’s a whole series where “Mayhem” wreaks havoc in someone’s life. It’s a very effective way of tapping into the common human condition – stuff happens. The good news according to Allstate is: you’re in good hands.

Same message as the Good Shepherd. We know that neither God (23rdPsalm) or Jesus (Gospel of John) is a literal shepherd. But like “Mayhem,” the Good Shepherd (the anti-Mayhem?) hits us in the middle of our human condition. We get the message. The good news according to John: we’re in good hands. God cares for us, lovingly, faithfully, consistently. We matter to God. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we see that most clearly. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theo-logical language, is very powerful and moving. The 23rd Psalm is a prime example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” 

Now, today I’m going to focus on women as shepherds. Particularly one woman. In the passage from the Book of Acts, we learned about a woman named Dorcas (Greek), also known as Tabitha (Aramaic). You might recognize the name Dorcas as part of a trio of women commemorated annually on October 25. The official title for the day is: “Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe – Faithful Women.”

Saint_Tabitha
St. Tabitha (Dorcas)

But hold up a minute. Because we’re reading in English, it is very important to know that Luke identifies Dorcas with the Greek word ‘mathetria.’ You might wonder why that’s so important. Here’s why. Dorcas is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.”

Hmm. Isn’t it interesting that “when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry,’ but when Tabitha (Dorcas) performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works .’ 

“Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries (and in some churches, even today).”   Sermon Seeds

Scripture, of course, identifies many women who play important roles of shepherding and leading (even without the designation‘mathetria’).  And they come by it honestly. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as a shepherd, including the feminine aspect,
Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs in your arms, and carrying them in your bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep. 

Shepherds care for the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus followed that job description, and we follow his example. In Jesus’ time, one of the most vulnerable of God’s flock was the widow. In today’s story we know that Dorcas conducted her ministry among the widows of her community. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice.

The frequency of these urgings suggests that God’s will was not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. So what does Dorcas do? She makes clothing for them. In the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on. The emphasis in the story is her discipleship among them. She is their pastor.

An interesting fact is that the town of Joppa where Dorcas lived was where Jonah had 224px-Dublin_St._Patrick's_Cathedral_Ambulatory_Southern_Section_Window_Raising_of_Dorcas_by_Saint_Peter_2012_09_26been called to go to the hated Assyrians. This seems to have been a place where ministry happened on the margins of society. Dorcas ministered with women that society routinely overlooked. They had obviously become a close-knit community. When she died, these women came together to grieve her death – and then miraculously her restoration to life.

This is one of the several ‘restoration to life’ stories in the Bible. They are hard to deal with sometimes because they cause us to wonder ‘why that person and not this person?’ That question was certainly on many peoples’ minds last week after the tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. If you’re not familiar with her, she was the 37-year old mega-popular Christian writer, blogger, and speaker. Her ministry on the margins was with exvangelicals, those who have left evangelical Christianity for a more progressive church. Rachel herself had moved away from being an evangelical Christian to becoming Episcopalian. For many exvangelicals, she modeled the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

Rachel entered the hospital in April with flu-like symptoms, and then had a severe 440px-Rachel_Held_Evansallergic reaction to antibiotics. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma when she developed seizures. When they attempted to wean her from the drugs maintaining her coma, the seizures returned. Her condition worsened in early May and her doctors discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died on Saturday, May 4th, leaving behind her husband and her children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month. I imagine that Mothers Day will not be a happy occasion for them.

And I imagine that the many faithful people who were praying so hard for her recovery – and today hear this story of the restoration to life – will wonder, “why not Rachel; she was every bit the shepherd/minister as Dorcas.”

Sometimes these Bible stories really hit us where we live – and die. I remember the Sunday after ministering to a couple who had lost their baby to SIDS, when the first reading was the story of Elijah restoring life to the son of the widow of Zarephath and the gospel reading was the one in which Jesus brings back the only child of the widow of Nain. It seemed as if the lectionary was playing a cruel joke on us that week

These are the times we really wrestle with our faith and our understanding of scripture. It’s impossible for us to know the mechanics of healing. Living as we do with both faith in the healing power of God and knowledge of modern science, we wonder. When I was a hospital chaplain in Buffalo, NY years ago, there was a patient who had been declared brain dead. There was no possibility of recovery. But her family, all very devout Christians, believed with all their heart that she would be healed – not unlike the Oakland teenager whose family refused to have her removed from a ventilator after being declared brain dead. I know from working with the family in Buffalo the fine line I had to walk between faith and medical science.

So I wouldn’t want us to get so embroiled in these questions that we can’t answer that we lose sight of some truths that we can know. First Dorcas, though raised up by Peter at this point in time, would eventually die. Death is part of our human condition. We take a whole Easter season to celebrate the fact that death does not have the last word, that it is the gateway into life eternal. What we see in all of these restoration stories is the power of God at work through prophets like Elijah, through Jesus, and through some of the shepherds who followed in his path.

But the one I want to raise up today, on this day that we honor mothers and others who give motherly care, is Dorcas: not only ‘faithful woman’ but a mother of the church, disciple, shepherd, pastor.  And all the disciples – women and men – who show us what a shepherd of God’s flock looks like and acts like, so that we can do the same – go out into the margins and care for the most vulnerable of our community. And we do so without fear, knowing we are in good hands – in life and in death. Believing with all our hearts:

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me 
all the days of our lives,
and we will dwell in God’s house forever.

Amen

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room.

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked.

Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them.

Peter first made everyone go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive.

This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.

John 10:22-30

The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Porch, when the Temple authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The work I do in my Abba’s name gives witness in my favor, but you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”

 

Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer?

Unknown-1Fifty years ago, my friend’s mother was in a bad car accident. She hung between life and death for several days. I remember begging God to heal her; I truly believed that God could do it. But she died. And I wondered. 

Today, in the wake of the death of Rachel Held Evans, many people are wondering. On Facebook and other social media, I’m hearing the pain of those who had been praying so faithfully and diligently for her recovery. Some are expressing anger at God. Others are having a crisis of faith. And some are asking the question, “What’s the point of prayer?” 

As painful as that question is right now, it is the right question. 

Rachel Held Evans holds a particularly important place in the inter-Christian conversation. An evangelical Christian, who moved into a progressive-evangelical space, and then on to becoming a member off the Episcopal Church, she modeled for many the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

I’m not familiar with enough of her writings to know what she thought about prayer. But I do know that her death has brought the subject into the foreground for many people, especially those still in theological transition. And to be fair, it’s not an issue just for exvangelicals. Mainline Christianity hasn’t really grappled with it yet, either. 

I began my own process of re-thinking the meaning of prayer when I first heard Bishop John Shelby Spong speak back in the late ’90s after the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A lot of what he said was new to me. Some of it really challenged my belief system. Some of it made so much sense, it was positively liberating. 

One of his stories really hit me between the eyes. He talked about the time before death5278262-John-Shelby-Spong-Quote-If-you-re-really-thinking-prayer-can-stop of his first wife. Because her husband was a bishop in the Episcopal Church, there was a sizable prayer chain in operation for her healing. When she lived 6 ½ years longer than had been expected, some people credited those prayers. But Bishop Spong began to question a God whose actions were influenced by social status. I remember him comparing the prayer chain for his wife and the small number of prayers for the woman dying in a village in Somalia (I don’t know if that’s correct, but it sticks in my mind as the country he named. I don’t think it matters; you get the point).

What kind of God listens to the prayers of hundreds and decides to act, yet ignores the plight of those who can’t muster up enough “prayer warriors”?

His question made sense. That wasn’t the kind of God I believed in any longer. But then, what is prayer? Why should we pray? How should we pray? After a book study at my church on Why Christianity Must Change or Die, a long-time member in her 70s came to me with a statement and a question: “I wish I  had read this 50 years ago!” and “But then, what do we do about prayer?”

Exvangelicals and mainline Christians moving into progressive Christianity have the same responses. There is initial excitement in discovering a form of faith that makes much more sense. But then come some hard questions as we navigate away from old understandings into uncharted waters. 

Thankfully, some have gone before us to do some of the charting. Bishop Spong is a great resource. Any writer or speaker coming from a process theology standpoint is good. Praying for Jennifer by John Cobb is great because it explores the different ways of thinking about prayer in story form. God Can’t, a new book by Thomas Jay Oord, is another helpful way to grapple with our question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. 

I still believe in prayer. In my next post, I’ll talk about my own take on the subject. 

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Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: the Pope Said So!

Angelico,_san_francesco_fa_la_pova_del_fuoco_davanti_al_sultano_21219 CE: St. Francis and the Sultan
This year marks an important date in interfaith history. Eight-hundred years ago, as Christians and Muslims were in the midst of fighting the fifth crusade/jihad, St. Francis of Assisi had a remarkable 
visit with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. You can read more about that historic event here

What I really want to talk about is another, much more recent, historic meeting. Last month, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and met with  Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. What transpired is just as momentous as the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan.

2019 CE: The Pope and the Imam
On February 4, Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signed a document on improving Christian-Muslim relations called “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. Pope_Francis_and_Ahmed_el_Tayeb_grand_imam_of_al_Azhar_signed_a_joint_declaration_on_human_fraternity_during_an_interreligious_meeting_in_Abu_Dhabi_UAE_Feb_4_2019_Credit_Vatican_Media_It begins:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace . . .
By beginning this way, the document (hopefully) puts to rest the idea that we do not worship the same Deity, whether we call that Deity God, Allah, Ground of our Being, or Nameless One. 

The really stunning part comes two-thirds of the way down. Tucked into a list of convictions essential for upholding the role of religions in the construction of world peace, is this statement:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.
(I know. I have to temporarily suspend all of my convictions about exclusively male language for God. But the implications of the statement are too big to ignore.)

It’s Been Done Before
While potentially provocative, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has made such a
declaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Regarding Islam, it said:
The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

16mag-16hawkins-t_CA1-mediumThreeByTwo440Remember the brouhaha at Wheaton College a few years ago when one the professors was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims? It was also about quoting the Pope: “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her reference was to: Meeting with the Muslim Community at the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui (Central African Republic) on November 30, 2015. 

Pushback!
There has been criticism of these pronouncements. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a warning about the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” In 
“Dominus Iesus,” the future Pope Benedict XVI said
This truth of faith (that Christ is the salvation of all humanity) does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism
“characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.

Of course, the Protestants also got into the act. Hank Hanegraaff, known as the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio show has said that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” And the evangelical Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry unequivocally states that Christians and Muslims do not adore the same God, and that the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam.”

Now granted, these are positions from the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. I have problems with both sides on issues other than this one. But I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to further our interfaith awareness and acceptance.

What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
tcpc_logo_tag.pngBy calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. 

The INTRAfaith Conversation
Agreeing to this statement, though, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the dilemma that exists within these statements, pro and con. I give Cardinal Ratzinger just a tiny bit of credit because he attempted to engage the elephant in the living room: what about Jesus?  I don’t agree where he comes down, but he did engage the question. 
Pope Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kami didn’t get into knotty questions, such as the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity.

They were all about peacemaking – and props to them for that!

UnknownIt is left to us to wrestle with our inherited Christologies (as well as doctrines, creeds, liuturgies, hymns, prayers, etc.) in light of our desire to live in peace and harmony with our religious neighbors. As Kristin Johnston Largen  wrote in Finding God Among Our Neighbors, . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.” In other words, who/what is Jesus in an interreligious context? 

Such wrestling is what I attempt to facilitate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?

Pope Francis and the Imam have given us a lot to think about. 

Let’s talk!

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ELCA’s Inter-Religious Commitment

One of the workshops I attended at the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR) in November was At theunknown-1 Intersection of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations. One of the reasons that session appealed to me (among the 15+ other offerings at the same time) was the moderator of the panel was Kathryn Lohre, executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations for my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

She is also one of the members of the task force that created Inter-Religious Commitment: A draft policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is a new social statement that will be considered at our national church gathering this coming August.

Here’s the PWR workshop description – and if you’ve read my book or anything else on this blog, you’ll understand why it was right up my alley (bold type is mine):

In the midst of rapid changes in our global religious landscape, Christian churches, denominations, and councils of churches are increasingly exploring what it means to be Christian — and to seek Christian unity — in a multi-religious world. New approaches to interreligious relations are emerging, and focus is being given to understanding complex forms of religious and spiritual identities, practices, and communities. All of this is raising important and timely questions about the challenge of Christian supremacy in interreligious spaces and relationships.

The panel also included Donna Bollinger, executive director of Religions for Peace USA; André Lavergne, Assistant to the Bishop for ecumenical and interfaith matters for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; Karen Thompson, minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the United Church of Christ; and Paul Tché, president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada.So, I thought, here were some heavy-hitters for the mainline churches on the interfaith scene. I wanted to hear about how we Christians were going about navigating all the issues inherent in engaging with our multi-religious milieu. And I wasn’t disappointed. That is, until the Q&A time.

One of my gripes about the Parliament is that there’s never enough time to really engage in a topic after a workshop or presentation. The conversation that began after this one could have gone on for hours. Although unfortunately it got sidetracked by a couple of guys, members of non-Christian groups, who thought it necessary to “mansplain” how we Christians could get around our issues. By the time I got to ask my question, our time was almost up.

What I wanted to know was this: how are the interfaith departments in our denominations working with other departments to promote the idea that interfaith  – and of course I’ll also emphasize intrafaith – engagement is not simply an add-on to all the other work that goes on in our churches? Understanding our religious diversity – and our response to it – is a necessity for our work in Christian education, evangelism, seminary training, to name a few. Most of the clergy I know are overwhelmed with the day-to-day stuff that leading a congregation entails.

Plus, in the midst of the down-sizing of the Christian church, many congregations are anxiously trying to figure out how to stay open. Interfaith dialogue seems to be a luxury they cannot afford. But my premise is that it is not a luxury. In fact, as the church learns how to be present in the 21st century, albeit smaller, it will have to add interfaith and intrafaith engagement to its toolbox.

So I’m excited about the upcoming presentation of Inter-Religious Commitment: A draft policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at our Churchwide assembly in August. Although I do have some questions, as well as suggestions for implementing the document. But that another post. Stay tuned.

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World Interfaith Harmony Week

wihw-website-logo-min

Now that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity  has ended, how about expanding the vision outward? Create some good news in the world by creating or participating in an event for World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins February 1. 

What is World Interfaith Harmony Week?

World Interfaith Harmony Week was first proposed at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan. Just under a month later, on October 20, 2010, it was unanimously adopted by the UN and henceforth the first week of February will be observed as a World Interfaith Harmony Week.

World Interfaith Harmony Week is based on the pioneering work of The Common Word initiative. This initiative, which started in 2007, called for Muslim and Christian leaders to engage in a dialogue based on two common fundamental religious Commandments; Love of God, and Love of the Neighbour, without nevertheless compromising any of their own religious tenets. The Two commandments are at the heart of the three Monotheistic religions and therefore provide the most solid theological ground possible.

World Interfaith Harmony Week extends the Two Commandments by adding ‘Love of the Good, and Love of the Neighbour’. This formula includes all people of goodwill. It includes those of other faiths, and those with no faith.

World Interfaith Harmony Week provides a platform—one week in a year—when all interfaith groups and other groups of goodwill can show the world what a powerful movement they are. The thousands of events organized by these groups often go unnoticed not only by the general public, but also by other groups themselves. This week will allow for these groups to become aware of each other and strengthen the movement by building ties and avoiding duplicating each others’ efforts.

You can find ideas for events here.

 

 

The Intra-faith Quandary of John Allen Chau

go-therefore-and-make-disciples-of-all-nations-matthew-2819a

The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world? 

The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma. 

“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.

He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And w
hat is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.

So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Emmaus_a0000402Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples  walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.

On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the  mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” 

The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right? 

The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters? 

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Christianity on the Spot

IDP-2018-graphic“Can I put you on the spot?”
That was the question asked by the woman who came up to me after the International Day of Peace brunch at Pacifica Institute.

I might have been the only Christian in the room. I’m not sure about that, but of all the people who spoke and identified their tradition, most were either Jewish or Muslim. But I was the one who was there in a clergy collar, was introduced as a reverend, and had stood on the stage to42487030_597514903998950_2624665346493120512_n offer a peace blessing after brunch. 

Can I put you on the spot?”
“Of course,” I said, pretty much guessing at what the question would be.
“What do you think about these Christians who are supportive of Trump?” 

I knew it! Immediately the anger rose up in me – not at my new friend, but at the awful predicament we Christians are in. I explained about the growing divide between us. On one side are some evangelicals who are trying with all their might to hold onto a dying theological worldview which embraces tribalism, exclusivity, individual salvation, and a hierarchical/patriarchal ordering of the world. On the other side are those who are leaning into a new paradigm of interconnectedness, interdependence, interspirituality, and inclusivity. 

I also shared my theory that the reactivity we’re witnessing in both religion and politics is due to the fear engendered by this shift. In a way, I can sympathize. Theologian Hans Küng calls what we’re going through a “Macro-Paradigm-Shift,” affecting all of our institutions on a global scale. Some characteristics of the emerging paradigm are:

  • It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total cosmos.
  • It’s an age of dialogue, not monologue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponent, but in order to listen,  share and learn from one another. 
  • It will be characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth itself.
  • It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy (which produced the ‘substance’ language of the Nicene Creed), we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters.

I get it; change is difficult. Even when I’m in full agreement with a change in my own life, I still feel discomfort as I go through it. So I get the resistance to change. I can even sympathize with it to a point – but not with the reactionary, knee-jerk attempts to hold back the flow of history.

As a Christian, it is helpful (although sometimes frustrating) to be in an interfaith setting. Seeing myself through the eyes of a Jew, Muslim, Pagan, or Atheist reveals the intrafaith spot we’re in. It’s not enough to vehemently declare, “I’m not like those Christians. We have to define ourselves by who we are. 

At another interfaith gathering last week, a Jewish woman spoke up and said that she was usually more comfortable with Muslims because the issue with Jesus never comes up; with Christians, you just couldn’t be sure. Once again, I felt the desire – the urgency – to promote a different kind of Christianity than the kind that turns people off. 

The divide is growing and we are on the spot. How will we contribute to peacemaking in our churches, communities, and world – as Christians of a new paradigm?

Remembering Swami Vivekananda: We Need INTRAfaith Harmony

pranab“Need for intra-faith harmony, says ex-Prez”
is the headline in The Pioneer, the second oldest English language newspaper in India.

Remembering Swami Vivekananda’s historic appearance at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions, held in 1893, many notable personalities, including former President of India Pranab Mukherjee organised a interfaith meet at Vivekananda Mission on Wednesday to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the historic speech.

Celebrating the anniversary,  Mukherjee said,
“There is perhaps a need for intrafaith harmony
even more than the interfaith harmony.”

Vivekananda’s historic speech  has been remembered and celebrated by many across the country every year.

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The INTRAfaith Conversation in Islam

“The Shoe Is On the Other Foot: Pluralism and the Qur’an” is a terrific article by Professor Jane Smith from Harvard Divinity School. She raises the question of whether or not Islam itself can find a way to live out the pluralism that many are persuaded is at the heart of the Qur’an’s message. She writes:

It seems to me that the future of Islam, at least as I understand it in the American context, has much to do with the way that Muslims figure out how they are going to position themselves on the question of pluralism. That we all live in a religiously differentiated society is a given. But is that a good thing in the Muslim perspective? While Muslims struggle to be truly accepted by Christians, Jews, and other groups in America, can they promise the same in return? And if so, at what level?

This is the crux of the intrafaith conversation within Islam. Mostly the same kind of questions as within Christianity. The content of the issues is different but the process is essentially the same. 

You can read the whole article here.

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