Tag Archives: theology of interfaith cooperation

6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

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“I will, with God’s help”

As a member of The Episcopal Church and someone involved in their ecumenical and interreligious work on a national and global level, I have begun to delve deeper into my own tradition for sources that nurture our work to foster mutual understanding amongst our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

While The Episcopal Church has an important historical legacy for building interfaith understanding and relationships – one that I cannot fully go into here – I have found that one of the best places for Episcopalians to begin interfaith work is, you guessed it, our liturgy.

In the Anglican tradition we hold fervently to the motto “praying shapes believing”. It comes from the Latin: lex orandi lex credendi, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It means that the words we utter together to God hold profound weight in our life. Verbal and communal markers, they carve deeper into the bedrock of our belief through repetition until our hands and feet respond to the flood.

Just as a stream wends its way through rock and soil to carve a path, gradually building its momentum and depth into a river, so also I believe our liturgy can embed itself in us, molding and moving us into action, directing and expanding our imaginations, hearts and wills towards a greater collective theological and social consciousness.

So if our prayers, beliefs and actions are so closely knit together, then what are we praying?

This is exactly where I, and many others past and present, have found the words of the Baptismal Covenant to be a deep well and foundation for enabling, fashioning, and sustaining our work to build bridges and mutual understanding amongst those of other faiths.

I was baptized as an infant so I do not recall the memory well (or at all). But I hold this liturgy dear today, knowing that my family and community prayed it over me all those years ago so that I can now claim it as my own, confirm the faith of my baptism, and strive to live out these promises moving forward.

The Baptismal Covenant is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the hallmark resource which embodies the corporate, liturgical, sacramental and ordered Anglican moral vision (the 1979 version is distinctly Episcopal). It is comprised in true catechetical form: it begins with an affirmation of belief in the classical Christian doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and then includes a question-and-answer format with five ethically-driven questions at the end.

It is this question-and-answer portion which I find particularly compelling, and offer it here as a guiding prayer, resource and resolve for crossing the borders of difference and ministering in interfaith contexts.

Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People       I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

As we continue to renew our faith this Easter season, it is my hope that Christians of all backgrounds would find the boldness to make these promises over and over again – only and always with God’s help – and let the praying shape the believing as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those most different from us.

Carrie Diaz-Littauer is a member of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is currently an editorial consultant for various international and ecumenical NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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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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From polemicist to peacemaker

John publicity photo

John W. Morehead
Guest Author

Recently Greg Damhorst asked me if I’d be interested in submitting an essay to the relaunch of Faith Line Protestants, and I was all too happy to do so. The topic I wanted to interact with is my theology of interfaith cooperation, and where I find my motivation to engage in this process the way that I do.

I am in a very different place in regards to interreligious encounters than I was years ago. Previously I worked for one of the larger ministries addressing “cults,” those new religions considered heresies, and toward which an apologetic refutation was presented, often in the name of evangelism. This seemed like the best and most biblical way to engage members of such groups, and I spent countless hours with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, exploring and refuting their doctrine from my Evangelical perspective. I also taught many Christians to do the same as a guest speaker in churches across the country.

But I have always been fairly self-critical, and widely read, and this eventually led to discomfort with this confrontational way of engagement. The more I set aside popular apologetic volumes and read the history of Christian missions, missiology, sociology of religion, and religious studies, the more I felt like I was creating a caricature of various religious groups, and being needlessly confrontational in interaction with their adherents. I eventually experienced a paradigm shift, moving from “cults” to cultures, and came to see people in new religions, and world religions too, not so much as members of deviant religious systems, but as people involved in dynamic religious cultures.

But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.

This is most striking with a consideration of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is especially illustrative. He breaks with his own religious community’s taboos concerning a frowned upon religion, he informed about his conversation partner’s religion and culture, he demonstrates respect rather than denunciation (while retaining disagreement), and his exchange involves listening as well as presentation.

Through a careful reassessment of the example of Jesus I came to embrace a different way of interreligious engagement. My concern for orthodoxy has not diminished, but my confrontational orthopathy (theology of emotion and attitude) has transformed into a benevolent one. In my shift from polemics to peacemaker (Mt. 5:9) and ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I now try to pursue more faithfully the imitation of Christ in our multi-faith world.

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Eats Well with Others

What does eating have to do with evangelism? If you grew up going to church, then you likely grew up attending church potlucks (or pitch-ins, or covered dishes—or, whatever they were called in your hometown).  Christian churches everywhere host meals on special occasions or following worship in the spirit of fellowship.  This practice is rooted in one of the basic tenets of our faith—that when we break bread together we are celebrating the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered us his flesh and blood (bread and cup) as a sign of his covenant with humanity. In order to follow Christ, we Christians eat together.

Long before Jell-O salad and deviled eggs, Christian communities came together to share the Lord’s Supper. But early Christians didn’t always break bread in the spirit Jesus showed.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the followers of Christ in Corinth for eating in an unfaithful way: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

In order to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul points out that we cannot merely gather together; we have to gather in a spirit of hospitality and humility. No one can go hungry or thirsty at the Lord’s Supper. Paul goes on to say: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” My New Testament professor, Dr. Brigette Kahl, says that the very definition of what it means to be Christian is to be a “co-eater”. To be a Christian is to eat with others; to wait for others; to sacrifice our own comfort for the comfort of others; to be one who sets a wide table at which everyone is welcome.  For Paul, this is no small command. Those who eat in an “unworthy manner” will face judgment and risk condemnation.

In our religiously diverse world, Christians are called to eat and fellowship with those of all faith traditions and backgrounds. We are called to extend the Lord’s Table beyond the church walls in order to make the example and teachings of Jesus a reality in our world. Interfaith cooperation is about being with others; in Christian terms, it is about eating with others. Evangelicals and all Christians embody the life and sacrifice of Jesus when we seek communion with all of the “others” around us, despite our differences.

 

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