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?
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.