is a chapter in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, in which I describe some of the groups now included in the interfaith scene.
These groups include . . .
Atheists and Humanists
Since the book was published in 2015, there have been a lot of new developments. I was aware of the wide range of definitions for atheists and humanists when I wrote the book. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the further exploration, expansion, and definition of these terms. I’m not much interested in the fundamentalist atheists, who are just as dogmatic as the religionists they criticize. But I am drawn to those who are exploring the boundaries of who and what God (or Being or Presence or no word at all) is.
Probably the most public lately has been Gretta Vosper, the self-professed Atheist who is a pastor in the United Church of Canada (I wrote about her in Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?). In 1997, four years into her call to West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, she preached a sermon called “Deconstructing God.” At that point, she defined herself in a more “not this” manner, declaring that she did not believe in a theistic God. Then in 2013, she moved from non-theism to atheism after she read about the plight of Pakistani bloggers who faced punishment as blasphemers for questioning the existence of God. For her (according to her website), “god is a metaphor for goodness and love lived out with compassion and justice, no more and no less.”
In 2017, I met Carrah Quigley when we presented a workshop together at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. Carrah identifies as a Spiritual Humanist. According to the Church of Spiritual Humanism, this is a “religion based on the ability of human beings to solve the problems of society using logic and science . . . using scientific inquiry we can define the inspirational, singular spark inherent in all living creatures.” Spiritual Humanism is natural, not supernatural.
From what I’ve read, it seems that the main focus of Christian Atheism is the life of the historical Jesus and the system of ethics drawn from his teachings. Although, regarding the subject of God, there is some divergence. While some do reject the idea of God altogether, others dismiss the belief in a supernatural, interventionist God. According to the author of What Does It Mean to Be a Christian Atheist?, “I still believe in ‘God.’ What I do not accept is belief in a theistic deity, a ‘being’ that created the universe, holds the universe together, or exists in or apart from the universe.”
Of course, Bishop John Shelby Spong has written and spoken much about the death of theism, and I greatly appreciate his insights about coming to reject the belief in a supernatural power. I don’t think he calls himself an a-theist; he’s more inclined to dismiss as inadequate these words for our experiences of the Divine. The experience is what is important. In this sense, I have no qualms about calling myself an a-theist. Especially since he doesn’t reject the reality of mystical experiences of the Holy, as do some who adhere only to the ethical teachings of Jesus.
However, at the end of the day, I still resonate most with Teilhard de Chardin’s panentheism, in which all creation exists within a ‘divine milieu.’
Still, I am intrigued by the ongoing exploration of what we mean when we think about God (the Divine, Spirit, or no name at all). The freedom to go outside the bounds of our traditional (and limited) understandings enhances not only our own spiritual/ethical life, but our communal life as well.
The interfaith world benefits from the presence of those who do not fit the definition of “religion.” The intrafaith scene can benefit as well, if we get past our prejudices (especially when we don’t know the broad range of these groups) and listen to their stories.
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 23
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 choicesfor 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
The 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.
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.”
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 been 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 allergic 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.
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.
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.”
Fifty 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 death 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.
There’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitledA Tribute to Bill Lesher.
William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.
I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:
“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.” (bold emphasis mine)
In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”
Dunne wrote: “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.”
Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with new insights and understandings.
There is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”
Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).
Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.
So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.
Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.
But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”
Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.
The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.
And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”
In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.
And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.
So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.
You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.
This is a partial reprint of theQ&A columnpublished each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder ofThe Christian Left.I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion.
Kay from Florida, writes: I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?
Dear Kay, Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.
Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic ofcontemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”
When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those fromThe Inclusive Bible.)
Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.
I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.
Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.
Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.
The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.
I know. I know I know. I’m the cheerleader for conversation among people who have differences of opinion. Mostly I talk about religion – how Christians of various stripes can come together and learn to respect one another’s differences. Lately I’ve been convinced that this is the same process that can help us bridge out political divides as well.
But I’ll be honest. Right now it’s just too hard. These past six months have been so wearing, so discouraging, so maddening. Yes, this week I’m encouraged by the defeat of the latest version of “get rid of Obamacare.” But oh what it took to get there. Only three brave Republicans stood up for what I am sure many more knew what was right. The whining of Mitch McConnell after the vote only served to highlight the lunacy of what politics has become. No, it didn’t start with #45. But we have certainly sunk to unprecedented depths since he took office. Add to this dis-ease the ranks of evangelical Christians who have bought into this madness.
So no, I’m not inclined to talk with “the other side.” I’m too angry. I know there are good people over there, but I’m afraid I just can’t listen to them right now with any kind of charity. This may be an indictment of my own spiritual malaise, but I believe in full disclosure. For me, the primary goal of life right now is spiritual.
Every day I get a thought for the Day based on my Enneagram type from the Enneagram Institute. Here’s yesterday’s: What would happen if you expressed your Virtue of Serenity today? How would you think, feel, and behave?
So here’s my answer:
I will acknowledge my anger. Too many people have told me throughout my life, “Now, Susan, don’t be angry.” I refuse to “eat” my anger and silently accept bad behavior. It’s not good for my emotional or physical health. Having said that, I will also try not to act on that anger inappropriately. When I am with someone with whom I disagree, I will be respectful while speaking my own truth.
I will cut myself some slack. If I’m not ready to dialogue, then I’m not ready. This is an important learning for me as I seek to encourage others. I remain committed to dialogue when I am ready, however I acknowledge that we all may need to take a break at one time or another.
I will keep up the Resistance. This is a great channeler of righteous anger. And I’m overjoyed to hear of the impact that grassroots organizing and protesting is having.
I will limit my exposure to the unending news cycle. I read and watch enough to know what’s happening from trusted sources and stay away from endless commentary. And I will look for and celebrate good news. It is out there. Good people doing good things. This makes me happy.
And the most important thing of all: I will continue to maintain and nourish my spiritual practice. It may seem counter-intuitive that deep breathing and silent meditation can inform how I respond to the dysfunctionality all around me. It may seem to be an escape from it all, but it is not. It’s the ground from which my way of being in the world springs. When I realize that my anger is getting the best of me, when I’m not able to feel charitable toward those with whom I disagree, I know it’s time to retreat for a while into sacred space. I discovered the week after the election that the peace I found in my practice was what gave me the ability to face the new reality that had been unleashed. So I must contiunue to seek the serenity that I can find there.
Now I know that I have the luxury of serving a congregation that is deep blue. I have friends and colleagues who are in what are now called “purple churches” and they have to remain in relationship with people of varying opinions and beliefs. But I think my advice would be the same.
The time will come when we’re able to talk. If that time is not today, that’s OK, too.
Since I’ve taken over as coordinator for Pluralism Sunday, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.
Former coordinator Jim Burklo sent me his files with participating congregations, names of clergy, and email addresses going back to the beginning in 2007. I figured the first thing to do was update the list. So out went an email to 1) introduce myself and 2) ask if they wanted to remain on the distribution list. As you’d expect, a flood of mailer-daemons immediately filled my in-box. There were also a few messages from former participants who were now retired from ministry and didn’t want to continue.
But the surprise was in the messages from former participating clergy who asked to be removed because their congregations emphasize pluralism on a regular basis anyway. I brought this to our worship planning team and found that they agreed. They wondered why we would have one Sunday a year to celebrate religious diversity when we did that all year round.
Well now, I thought, this is an interesting development. I’ve just taken over as coordinator of Pluralism Sunday and my own congregation wants to opt out. Even though for the past four years, we’ve had not just Pluralism Sunday but Pluralism Summer – 12 weeks of guests from a wide variety of traditions (I guess if you put it all together, we’ve actually had 48 Pluralism Sundays in those 4 years alone!).
And we’re not really opting out. Our liturgy has continued to transform into a more interspiritual – although still rooted in Christianity – format. For this year, we’ve decided to have something during the year around the holy days of other religions, inviting some of our interfaith friends back to share their traditions.
Then it occurred to me that something is happening here. It’s clear that some clergy and congregations still need to be encouraged to dip their toes into interfaith waters, especially in the context of Sunday worship. But it’s also becoming clear that many have moved beyond the toe-dipping stage and are swimming in the deep water. And I think these clergy and congregations have something to contribute: resources, experiences, collective wisdom, etc.
So I’m wondering if we need to be thinking about Pluralism Sunday 2.0. I know that I’d appreciate discussion on being a Christian church seeking to embrace pluralism. Issues around liturgy, biblical interpretation, hymnody come to mind. Also addressing questions and concerns in the congregation thoughtfully and pastorally.
So the next stage is to revise the website. And not only update information about this year’s Pluralism Sunday, but add a 2.0 page as well. I hope those congregations who’ve opted out will opt back in and participate. I hope that others will join in, too.
I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.
Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.
The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.
In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.
And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)
But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?
If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did – that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.
So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:
The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
The Mystic Heart
It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .
About 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 growing 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?_