Category Archives: Theology of Interfaith Cooperation

Season after Epiphany, an Interfaith Meditation

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 2:12 (NRSV)

I know not all Protestant traditions follow a liturgical calendar, but for those of us that do, we are currently in the aptly named Season after Epiphany.

Epiphany was celebrated by most Protestants on January 6th.  It is the time when we celebrate when God made flesh in Jesus Christ was visited by three wise people.  Before arriving to the birth place, the three wise ones visited Herod, Roman-appointed puppet governor of Judea.  To make a long story short, Herod was threatened by the small baby Jesus because people were referring to the child as the King of the Jews.  Herod killed many children in Judea in an effort to protect his power and the wise people decided to not revisit Herod, instead taking “another road.”

I think this is inherently a call from the Bible to be engaged in interfaith cooperation against the injustices of the world.  The wise men, sometimes referred to as astrologers, were from lands abroad.  Church tradition notes that they may have been from three different continents.  They were most-likely not Jewish.  It’s hard to say what tradition they practiced or why they came to the baby Jesus or why they listened to the dream that warned them about Herod.  Despite all these uncertainties, I have been dwelling continually on what that other road was like.

Sure, there are the geographical questions, but what about the life questions?  As someone who is both a religious leader and an interfaith leader, I feel like my ministry is filled with opportunities to take other roads.  Interfaith cooperation is not about doing the same old thing, it is doing an entirely new thing.  We encounter injustice and suffering in many different ways in the world in which we live.  Are there other roads that we can join people who might not think the same way we do, but surely are capable of loving in the same way?

My hope and prayer is that this post serves as a motivation to begin thinking outside the box.  Encourage your own faith community to reach out to other faith communities or non-religious groups to get involved in a larger issue.  I am making it a part of my ministry to intentionally work with other faith groups for service projects.  Sometimes it seems difficult to find the time to do such things, but when we think of it as taking another road it shifts our mode of thought.  Interfaith cooperation is not a simple action, but an entire paradigm shift in how we think about and engage in the world around us.  Let us reap the wisdom from these wise ones of ancient times and not be afraid to take another road to see what can be.

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Prophets, Questions, and a Dream

As we continue to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, check out this Sojourners post by Joe Kay, “Prophets, Questions, and a Dream.”

Here’s a taste: “Prophets are always asking questions. Tough questions. Unsettling questions. Questions that they pose to themselves, then try to answer by how they live.”

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Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

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Born Again Christian + Interfaith Activist = Not Mutually Exclusive

This blog originally appeared on Talking Taboo, a forum for Christian women to explore the unspeakable experiences of their faith.

There’s a moment when I meet someone new and I’m asked what I do for a living where I look down at my watch and calculate whether or not I have enough time to explain that I work for an interfaith organization – and what that means for me as a born again Christian.

I’m a medium sized town Baptist girl from North Carolina. I made my profession of faith when I was nine years old by asking Jesus to come into my heart and hopping into our church’s beloved “dunking booth” to be baptized. I’m a born again Christian who does interfaith work for a living at an organization in Chicago called Interfaith Youth Core, which seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, and I’ve been at it now for almost seven years. When I tell some of my Christian brothers and sisters what I do for a living, I get a range of reactions: furrowed brows, polite head nods, enthusiastic reactions, and challenging, critical statements about my chosen career path. Here are some of most common examples of push back I get within my own community and how I respond:

 “You aren’t a real Christian if you do interfaith work.” There are common misconceptions about interfaith work – that it means everyone should all be a part of one big religion or it implies that everyone essentially believes the same thing we’re just taking different paths. Neither of these definitions describes the interfaith movement I belong to.  At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between folks of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist – and you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe). We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that hunger is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together.

“Interfaith work isn’t biblical.” There are many biblical arguments for interfaith work. My friend and IFYC alum Nick Price, former InterVarsity staffer and pastor in training, wrote a three part blog series on sharing his theological framework for interfaith cooperation. My theology of interfaith cooperation starts at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to an expert in the law who wants to know how Jesus defines the “neighbor” that you are called to love as you love yourself. There are four Greek words for love in the Bible – the specific word for love used here is “agape” which means a full and complete love. And who is our neighbor? In the story, the Samaritan, who was someone from the oppressed group in that time, showed compassion and mercy to the Jewish man who was robbed and left for dead. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of caring for your neighbor especially when that person is from a different background and tradition from your own. Engaging in interfaith work gives me that opportunity to love and serve alongside those that are my neighbors, as well as to talk about Jesus as the inspiration for my life.

 “You’ll get converted if you do interfaith work.” Engaging in interfaith work has only strengthened my identity as a Christian. Many non-Christians have asked me questions about my faith story and different tenants in my tradition that have challenged me to go back to my Christian community to get answers. My favorite question was from a young Muslim girl who wanted me to explain the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus. Learning about other traditions hasn’t made me want to convert or let go of my faith, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, when I learned that many of my Muslim friends pray five times a day and I juxtaposed that against my paltry two prayers a day, that inspired me to take a hard look at my own prayer life and consider how often I’m spending time with my Lord and Savior. Another example was when I first started at IFYC and encountered a Catholic mother who was reticent to send her son to our programs. He was barely interested in church as it was, she explained, and she didn’t want him coming away from the faith. After spending time with folks from other traditions and talking about his faith in a new way, this sixteen year old kid came home and expressed an interest in going to seminary. She promptly called our office and asked if we could get her other son immediately involved in our programs.

I believe the Christian community has a biblical calling to interfaith work. I also believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. I don’t have to compromise my deeply held beliefs to engage in interfaith work. I am a born again Christian. I am an interfaith leader.  I do interfaith work not despite the fact that I’m a Christian, but I do it because I am a Christian. Many other folks in the Christian community are starting to recognize the importance of engaging in interfaith work. I invite you to join us.

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What makes Evangelicals Different?

I appreciated this piece over at HuffPo by Brett McCracken. He wrties,

Evangelical difference should not be about retreating from or picking battles with the culture, but rather embracing the path of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship,” a commitment to living in the footsteps of Christ, even if it means living out of the mainstream of culture.

This is a good reminder for me to consider how I am “set apart” as a Christian while interacting in a relevant way with the world around me. That is why the contributors at Faith Line Protestants are so committed articulating our theology of interfaith cooperation. I do not engage in interfaith cooperation and dialogue so that I can “shed the baggage of my grandmother’s religion,” but rather to (as McCracken writes) “genuinely and passionately follow after Christ, manifesting through their lives something refreshingly different.”

At least that is my hope.

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Mission Trip Potential

This summer, I went on two mission trips with my church youth group through Sierra Service Project.  SSP was founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodists (now it is more ecumenical) who wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to serve with others in rural and urban communities.  Last week, we slept on a gym floor in Chiloquin, Oregon, where we served members of the Klamath Tribes (a few weeks ago, we were in Susanville, CA serving the Susanville Indian Rancheria).  All of the youth are split up from the church groups they came with and put into work teams.  My team helped stack firewood and painted a shed for an elderly woman with painful arthritis.  The work teams labored from 9am to 4pm everyday, shared a simple PB&J lunch at the worksite alongside a midday devotional, came back to shower, and then participated in evening programs, which included cultural programming from a representative of the Klamath Tribes.  Oh, and lest I forget that the youth have their cell phones taken away on Day 1.

We had a wonderful time learning from our homeowners, about God, and more about each other, but there was one thing that really amazed me about the SSP experience: the youth bonded very quickly.  There was something magical about a gym floor being the great equalizer.  On the first night, the staff encouraged everyone to take off their “cool jackets” and put on their “social sweaters” instead.  There was programming that talked about dismantling stereotypes.  The theme of the week was “Just Love, Just Serve,” which connoted the idea of a simple (of course, we know its not that simple!) love of our neighbors and also love and service that enacts justice for all in our world.  The youth participants really took this to heart and a very welcoming environment was developed quickly.  After six days, there were tears in many youth and adult eyes, knowing that this glimpse of God’s love in human community was over until next summer.

Since SSP is a Christian organization, many of the themes had a scriptural basis.  Each workgroup developed a covenant based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind…”).  We had discussion and an art project based on Micah 6:8.  On a spiritual walk, we interpreted the Lord’s Prayer and discerned what God might be trying to tell us directly.  The last night ended with a Love Feast, an old Methodist ritual (we are known for our potlucks, after all!), where we served each other in community a sweet treat (vanilla wafers and peanut butter, in this case) to show how sweet God’s grace is in our lives.  Overall, it was a well-blended mix of faith, love, and service with enough take-aways to continue similar work in our local church settings.

For myself, I know that United Methodist camping ministry has been a huge part of my faith formation.  It is where I was affirmed most and where an inkling of my own call to ministry began.  There is just something about getting away from one’s quotidian life and taking an adventure with little expectations and seeing what you can discover about God and yourself.  For teenagers and young adults, these experiences are priceless.

Being an interfaith leader and a contributor for this blog, my SSP experience got my intellectual and dreaming wheels turning.  What would be the benefit of weeklong (or longer) camping/service trips with an interfaith focus?  Would there be a benefit?  I think there would be immense benefit, but such a program would have to be very tactful and intentional.  Much like faith formation in any tradition, forming a young person for leadership in a religiously diverse world is not to be done halfheartedly.  Needless to say, I think organizations like Sierra Service Project have a really good model from which an interfaith focus could begin.

Are there any thoughts from other interfaith leaders out there?

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Interfaith Work is Child’s Play

I have heard Jesus’ famous statement in Matthew 18 about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven many times, but this verse has taken on special meaning for me over the last few months. Unlike many other seminary students who use their long summer break to take extra classes, work for a local parish, or even complete their Clinical Pastoral Education–I decided to take another route.  I have spent the entire summer babysitting.

I work for a few families each week and, with some other odd jobs here and there, have managed to make it a more than full-time gig. To be honest, babysitting has been more challenging than any other job I’ve held. Of course it is fun and enriching in many ways, but it can also be draining, frustrating, and confusing. When Jesus instructed us to become like little children did he mean that we should throw temper tantrums when our caretakers refuse to buy us ice cream (after we already had an ice cream earlier in the day!)? Did Jesus mean that we should refuse to go to bed until someone has read us every single book we own, sung us all of our favorite songs, and made several trips to the kitchen to get us water and snacks even after we’ve brushed our teeth? Did Jesus mean we should refuse to share our toys with other kids at the park, or say mean things to our siblings? Okay, enough complaining. I know that Jesus meant he wanted us to become trusting, open-hearted, and earnest in that way that is difficult for even the most thoughtful adults, but seems to come to kids so naturally. Jesus wanted us to have the kind of awe for God’s creation that is part of each child’s journey through the world. But maybe Jesus also knew that children don’t always fit the angelic trope that many readers of Matthew 18 would like them to.  Children fight, lie, cheat, and do mean things, just like the rest of us.

Matthew 18:4 continues: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus actually instructs us to become “humble” or “lowly” like children, to become small. Despite their eccentricities, children are undeniably humble. They ask tons of questions and they aren’t afraid to say so when they don’t understand. They let their curiosity and their imaginations lead them into new relationships and new experiences, regardless of difference. One of the girls I babysit makes friends everywhere we go by approaching a child and asking: “How old are you?” After the child answers, she says: “Oh, I’m four. Not four and a half, just four. Do you want to play with me?” She is bold and confident, but so completely childlike in her direct approach to friendship.

I think we Christians can learn from children as we explore interfaith cooperation. As we strive to become like children, let us learn to take a couple steps back. Let’s ask questions, let’s seek out new friendships without letting our judgments and intellects get in the way; let’s figure out how to play and work together.

 

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Listen to Barbara Brown Taylor on the Good Samaritan

If you’re looking for a mid-week sermon fix, check out this powerful message delivered by Barbara Brown Taylor at Riverside Church in New York City last Sunday.

Here’s a preview:  “I became a Christian in my twenties and I was always told to get my beliefs in order before I did things…but based on the story of the Good Samaritan, I wonder if things don’t work the other way around.  Maybe our lives are designed to upset our beliefs, not to reinforce them.”  Click on the link to hear the whole sermon: “The Right Answer”

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