Committed to Faith in a Multifaith World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Mobeen Vaid

Few things have found themselves subject to scrutiny more than faith in the modern era.  Faith is often viewed as the cause of civil strife around the globe, and the prescriptions of faith are routinely portrayed as primitive or otherwise incompatible with the dictates of contemporary civil society.  Such portrayals are exacerbated at times by media portrayals that disproportionately cover fringe adherents of faith espousing puritanical fanaticism rather than normative religious practitioners, though I suspect the latter would not make for much of a story on the news (as a Muslim, such portrayals certainly weigh heavy on my mind).

The aforementioned dynamic has resulted in a posture of defensiveness by religionists determined to maintain their faith-based convictions, which has led many dedicated religionists to dogmatism, zealotry, and, at times, isolationism. In its most pernicious form, this defensiveness consumes people, entrenching them in discourses native to their own faith denomination with little regard to the alienation it causes to those in their surroundings.  Characteristics of this attitude include what Brian McLaren refers to as a penchant for dualism (black/white thinking), essentializing the other, and eagerness for denominational one-upping as opposed to serving God.  Please don’t misunderstand my point; it is not that eschatology, theodicy, ontology, and the many other cognate studies of theology lack relevance, but rather that the nascent student or religious practitioner, exposed to these subjects with no context, has little regard for how to translate medieval discourse in a way that is meaningful to his or her congregation, or in a manner that accounts for the socio-cultural context in which its being conveyed.

The classical Muslim jurist and theologian, Nuʿmān ibn Thābit, more commonly known by his teknonym Abu Hanifah, is reported to have once rebuked his son for debating theology with a classmate. His son was shocked by such a rebuke, for Abu Hanifah was renowned for his ability to debate religious issues with his students and fellow scholars, and responded by saying that he found the rebuke hypocritical given Abu Hanifah’s debating posture. Abu Hanifah replied by saying, “when we debate, we aim to discern truth from falsehood. When you debate, you debate for the satisfaction of victory.”

This negotiation – one of an intransigent ideology with the dictates of pluralism – is perhaps the most prevalent pitfall for any religiously committed individual aspiring to study and preach in a multifaith environment. Indeed, anyone born and raised within a solitary religious tradition with little to no exposure to competing views will find it difficult to entertain the potential that other faiths contain within them profound truths. That, although you may not feel the need to subscribe to other faiths, you can respect them deeply is a process of maturation that few undertake. And yet it is this very problem that needs addressing the most; in a multifaith society, when faith is finding itself subject to examination, we need to learn to engage with one another in a meaningful way.

This engagement requires one to not only tolerate, but understand the convictions that lead and inform the decisions of those around us.  If “love thy neighbor” – the Golden Rule and common to all the great faith traditions – was described by Jesus as the greatest commandment in Mark, then it follows that an essential prerequisite to love must be understanding.  How can it be possible to love one whom you know nothing about? About whom you hold suspicion, enmity, and misunderstandings? The objective here again is not consensus, but understanding, and through understanding, love.

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded to me by the NEXT Church team to provide this modest contribution, and pray that it is of benefit to those who read it.  Indeed, God knows best.


 

Mobeen VaidAlong with serving as a Campus Minister for the Muslim Community at George Mason University, Mobeen Vaid works as a community activist in the DC Metro area teaching classes, delivering sermons, and participating in interfaith programming.  Mobeen is currently completing his Masters in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with a concentration in Muslim-Christian Relations.

Advent Devotions

Here are some devotionals recommended by our Church Leader’s Roundtable for personal and congregational use!

Multi-Media Resources for Advent

Looking for media to complement your Advent worship services? Here are some resources for videos, pageant scripts, storytelling, and sanctuary decor!

VIDEO

PAGEANTS

STORYTELLING

DECOR

  • Create a star by drilling holes in a piece of plywood. Hand out glow sticks to congregants, and invite them to come forward to light the star.
  • Feature a Jesse tree: plant a dead branch in the middle of the sanctuary and decorate with ornaments representing the old testament stories leading up to Christ’s birth.
  • Make candle-light services safer for kids by offering battery-operate candles for little ones to hold.

ACTIVITY STATIONS

  • Try targeting experiential learners (millennials and toddlers alike!) with an interactive Advent experience. Create contemplative prayer stations that are sensory driven–textures (straw or hay from the manger, lamb’s wool, pine needles), tastes, smells (frankincense, myrrh, pine, cinnamon), and sounds that connect to the holiday season and the Christmas story.

Christ the King: Lessons and Carols Liturgy

Thanks to LeAnn Hodges for sending us this liturgy for Christ the King Sunday that takes a Lessons and Carols approach to teaching the liturgical calendar!

WE GATHER AS THE PEOPLE OF GOD

FOR YOUR REFLECTION The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. ~ Joan Chittister

WELCOME

OPENING VOLUNTARY CALL TO WORSHIP

L:         Who are you?
C:         I am a child of God.
L:         Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”
C:         Let us, God’s children, answer God’s call.
L:         Let us worship God, our Creator and Savior.

OPENING PRAYER
L:         Let us pray:
C:         God of majesty, you love us more than we can imagine. In Jesus Christ you reconciled the whole world to you and claim us as your own, so that we may live as Christ’s body on earth. We give you thanks for the lives we have been given. We pray in your holy name, great Trinity of Love. Amen.

* OPENING HYMN “We Gather Together” #336

WE LISTEN TO GOD’S WORD

Advent

Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ: preparation to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, to receive faithfully the risen Christ who comes to us in Word and Spirit, and to await with hope Christ’s coming in final victory. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”

Dates of the Season: Advent is the four weeks, including the four Sundays, before Christmas Day.

Colors for the Season: The color is purple, which symbolizes both penitence and royalty.

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

Hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” #88 (Stanza 1) O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that morns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Christmas Season

Christmas Season is the time of celebration, thanksgiving, and praise for God present with us in Jesus Christ. Christmas Day was first celebrated on December 25 in Rome sometime between 336 and 354 C.E. A pagan winter solstice festival, the birthday of the unconquered sun, was already celebrated on December 25. Christians adopted that date to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. Christians have often adapted and transformed the customs of the world around them.

Dates of the Season: Christmas Season begins with Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and continues through the Day of Epiphany, January 6.

Colors of the Season: White and gold

Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

Hymn: “Joy to the World” #134 (Stanza 1) Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Epiphany

The word Epiphany is from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “manifestation.” On the Day of Epiphany, January 6, we celebrate Jesus being revealed to the world and the visit of the wise men, the first gentiles to whom he was made known. Scripture doesn’t say how many wise men came to Bethlehem. At various times tradition has set the number from two to twelve. However, because three gifts are mentioned, we usually think of three wise men or Magi.

Celebration of Epiphany: When January 6 falls on a weekday, churches that do not have services on the 6th may celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday before or after.

Colors for Epiphany: White and gold

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Hymn: “What Star is This, with Beams So Bright” #152 (Stanzas 1 & 2)

Lent

Lent is a season of preparation for the celebration of Easter. The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon lencten, which means “spring,” the time of the lengthening of days. At first Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism on Easter Eve. Eventually, Lent became a time of reflection and self-examination for all Christians.

Days of Lent: Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Saturday before Easter. Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays. Sundays aren’t counted because Sunday always celebrates Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

The Color for Lent: Purple, a royal color that also signifies penitence and preparation.

Scripture: Mark 8:34-37

Hymn: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” #223 (Stanza 1) When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count by loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

Good Friday

In Old English usage good meant “of God.” Good Friday is God’s Friday: Jesus’ death shows God’s salvation.

The Date of Good Friday: Good Friday is the Friday before Easter.

Colors for Good Friday: The worship space is either void of decoration and color, or black is used.

RECONCILIATION
L: With sincere and repentant hearts, let us name our sins against God and one another. Join me as we pray in silence.

SILENCE FOR INDIVIDUAL PRAYER AND MEDITATION L: Amen.   ASSURANCE OF FORGIVENESS
L:         This is the good news: God remembers!  Not our sins, not our foolish lives, not our rebellion. God remembers us –  and redeems us!
C:         God prepares the way for us – the way to grace, to hope, to new life.  Joyfully, we offer our thanks to God. Amen.

SINGING WITH THANKSGIVING “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” #223 (Stanza 4) Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Easter Season

The Easter Season, also known as the Great Fifty Days, begins at sunset on Easter Eve and continues through the Day of Pentecost. At this season we celebrate with joy Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit on the first Easter (John 20:22-23) and on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

Date of Easter: Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or next after March 21, the spring equinox. Easter can be any time from March 22 through April 25. The date may differ in Orthodox Churches.

Colors of the Easter Season: White and gold  

Scripture: Luke 24:1-9

Hymn: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” #232 (Stanza 1 & 2)

Pentecost

Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, comes from the Greek word for fiftieth, pentekoste. Greek-speaking Jews called the Jewish Feast of Weeks the Day of Pentecost. Acts tells how the anxious and fearful disciples, who had gathered on the Day of Pentecost, were filled with the Holy Spirit and thereafter preached boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Date of Pentecost: The fiftieth day after Easter.

Colors for Pentecost: Red or red on white. Red, the color of fire, represents the Holy Spirit.

Scripture: Acts 2:1-4, 41-43

Hymn: “On Pentecost They Gathered” #289 (Stanza 1) On Pentecost they gathered quit early in the day, a band of Christ’s disciples, to worship, sing, and pray. A mighty wind came blowing, filled all the swirling air, and tongues of fire aglowing inspired each person there.

Season of Pentecost

The Season of Pentecost, called Ordinary Time, is a period of growth. Churches emphasize Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. They engage issues of daily life and concerns of the community, nation, and world. The Season comes after we have remembered Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday and celebrated his resurrection on Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Easter and Pentecost.

Dates of the Season: From the day after Pentecost through the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent.

Colors for the Season: The basic color is green symbolizing growth in Christ. White is used on Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, and Christ the King Sunday.

Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20

Hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God” #643

Christ the King

This last Sunday of the Christian Year celebrates the coming reign of Jesus Christ.

Date of the Season: The Sunday before the Season of Advent begins, and the last Sunday of the Season of Pentecost.

Colors for the Season: Gold and white  

Scripture: Psalm 100

Hymn: “Raise a Song of Gladness” #155 Raise a song of gladness, peoples of the earth. Christ has come, bringing peace, joy to every heart. Alleluia, alleluia, joy to every heart! Alleluia, alleluia, joy to every heart!

WE RESPOND TO GOD’S WORD

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

OFFERING The Call to Give
L:         Let us offer ourselves and our gifts to God, with gratitude and praise.

* SINGING WITH THANKSGIVING

Response        “Rejoice”

* PRAYER OF DEDICATION
L:         Let us pray:
C:         Holy God, use us, and these gifts, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and honor your presence in all people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

NEWS OF THE COMMUNITY

* HYMN TO SEND US FORTH “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” #82

* CHARGE AND BLESSING

CLOSING VOLUNTARY Please be seated for silent reflection.


For a great reflection on the liturgical year (and another source of inspiration) check out Jerome W. Berryman’s The Complete Guide to Godly Play Vol. 2!

"No Practice" Christmas Pageant

Thanks to LeAnn Hodges for sharing this Pageant with us at the Online Church Leaders’ Roundtable!

Overview: The following is written to serve as a come-one, come-all, “no practice” Christmas pageant. The participants move and respond to lines prompted by the Narrator. The script is adapted from Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the gospel narrative in his book The Message.

Cast:

  • narrator
  • Mary, Joseph and Jesus 
  • Herod 
  • camel 
  • camel herder 
  • shepherds – congregation
  • angels – congregation
  • wise people 
  • star

Props:

  • star
  • halo each for angels (50)
  • head scarf for sheepherders (50)
  • crown for Herod
  • camel costume (for two)
  • chair for Mary
  • manger for baby
  • 3 crowns, 3 capes, 3 gifts for wise men
  • Reserved seats for worship leaders & cast

The Pageant

The Narrator speaks from __________________. Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the camel, the star, Herod, and the wise ones are in the narthex, ready to enter from the back.

Narrator’s Introduction

Following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we hear about visits from shepherds, angels and the wise. This morning we will re-tell the story involving everyone. Shepherds will be all of you with cloth headbands, and angels are all of you who have halos. In the pageant you will be directed to say short lines by saying: the angels said, or the shepherds said, then you are simply invited to respond by repeating your lines.

Gabriel’s Announcement, Luke 1:29-38

Narrator: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph and the virgin’s name, Mary. (Mary enters and comes in and stands ______________________.) Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her: “Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty. Beautiful inside and out!” And the angels said, “God be with you.”
Angels: God be with you.
Narrator: She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. “Mary, you have nothing to fear,” the angels said to her. “God has a surprise for you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call him Jesus.” As angels often do, the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”
Angels: Do not be afraid.
Narrator: After a short discussion with the angel, Mary knew it would be OK, saying “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me, just as you say.” Then the angel left her. (Mary departs, returning to the narthex.)

Carol 16 (stanzas 1 &3)   The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came The angel Gabriel from heaven came, His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame; “All hail,” said he, “O lowly maiden Mary,” Most highly favored lady, Gloria! Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, “To me be as it pleases God,” she said, “My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name.” Most highly favored lady, Gloria!

The Birth of Jesus, Luke 2:1-7

Narrator: About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancé, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.

Away in a Manger #115 (After song, Mary, Joseph and Jesus enter, going to the chair located ___________________.)

The Shepherds and the Angels, Luke 2:8-18

Narrator: There were shepherds camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angels said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Angels: Don’t be afraid.
Narrator: Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger. At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praise. The angels said, “Glory to God!”
Angels: Glory to God!
Narrator: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him. As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the shepherds talked it over. Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us. The sheepherders said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem.”
Shepherds: Let’s go to Bethlehem!
Narrator: The shepherds left and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. The sheepherders said, “Angels told us of the Christ child.”
Sheepherders: Angels told us of the Christ child.
Narrator: All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

“The First Nowell” #147 (Stanzas 1-4) (During the singing of stanzas 3 & 4, Herod walks up the center aisle, and stands in the middle of the aisle, half way down to the front. Star is carried in after him, and the camel and then the wise men down the center aisle to face Herod.)

The Gifts of the Wise – Matthew 2:1-11

Narrator: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory–this was during Herod’s kingship–a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. The wise asked, “Where can we find the newborn king of the Jews?”
The Wise: “Where can we find the newborn king of the Jews?”
Narrator: They had observed a star in the eastern sky (narrator points to the star held by ___________) that signaled his birth. When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified–and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” They told him “Bethlehem.” Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. (Herod moves into the midst of the wise men and pretends to talk with them.) Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.” Instructed by the king, they set off. (The wise and star move down the aisle to the front of the congregation.)  

Anthem “We Three Kings of Orient Are”     Arr. Mark Hayes

Narrator: Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: they were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! They entered the house… (The star and the wise go to the holy family. The star stands behind Mary and the wise kneel then present his or her gift to Jesus; Mary and Joseph thank each of them.) …and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Narrator: As the wise of old gave their gifts to the Christ Child, we too have gifts to bring, the gifts of our lives, in service to the one who willingly comes to dwell among us.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (While we sing, congregation brings thanksgiving offering of food/money forward)

Narrator: The shepherds and wise ones returned to their homes and the angels returned to heaven, glorifying God and rejoicing in the mercy of God! Christ is born!

“Joy to the World” #134 – Standing

Christmas Trivia Quiz

Need an Advent activity for your youth? Challenge your group to this quiz based on the biblical account of the Christmas story. (From Youth Specialties, modified by Mark Davis)

1. What did the Innkeeper tell Mary and Joseph?
a) We have no room for you here.
b) You may stay in my stable.
c) Why don’t you try the Holiday Inn?
d) A and B.
e) None of the above.

2. Who told Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem?
a) An angel.
b) Caesar.
c) A voice in a dream.
d) Elizabeth.
e) None of the above.

3. What did the angels sing to the Shepherds?
a) Handel’s “Messiah.”
b) “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will to all.”
c) “We wish you a merry Christmas.”
d) Nothing.

4. What are “Magi?”
a) Wise men (persons).
b) Astronomers.
c) Astrologers.
d) Oriental Kings (Queens).
e) None of the above.

5. How many Magi came to see Jesus?
a) One.
b) Two.
c) Three.
d) Two hundred and sixty four.
e) Who knows?

6. What is “myrrh?”
a) A perfume.
b) A burial ointment.
c) Money.
d) None of the above.

7. What kinds of animals were in the stable?
a) Monkeys, goats, and narwhals.
b) Cows, sheep, and donkeys.
c) Reindeer, rabbits, and elves.
d) None of the above.

8. How did Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem?
a) A limousine (with all the ‘fixins’).
b) They walked.
c) She rode a donkey, he walked.
d) Helicopter (“Marine One” to be exact)
e) Who knows?

9. What is a “Heavenly Host”?
a) A person who serves drinks in heaven.
b) An angel choir.
c) An army in the heavens.
d) An angel committee, similar to the “Congregational Care Committee.”

10. What was the sign that was given to the Shepherds?
a) A “Yield” sign.
b) A star.
c) A baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.
d) An angel choir.

11. What does the Gospel according to Mark tell us about the Christmas story?
a) Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the coming of the shepherds.
b) Gabriel’s visit to Joseph and the coming of the Magi.
c) The Griswolds’ visit to Wally World and the coming of Christmas.

12. True or False: Mary and Joseph were married when Jesus was born.
T
F

13. This quiz is:
a) Fun.
b) Stupid.
c) Nauseating.
d) All of the above.

14. Discussion Question: What is the central meaning of Christmas?

How my Muslim Friends Helped Me Become a Stronger Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Amy Beth Willis

One evening during my Senior year at Emory University, my friend Nasir, a practicing Shia Muslim, asked me pointedly, “If Jesus was God incarnate, why did he plead with God on the cross, ‘Oh Lord, Why have you forsaken me?” Perplexed, I struggled to respond, recognizing that he had brought up a critical difference between the Christian and Islamic understandings of Jesus. His question prompted a lively, late-night discussion centered around theological differences between Christianity and Islam. Throughout my years at Emory, conversations like these transformed my faith identity in ways that resound today.

At Emory I was blessed to become friends with people from multiple faith traditions different from my own: Catholic, Hindu, Reformed Jew, and Sunni Muslim, to name a few. Through their eyes, I began to not only learn about the traditions and beliefs of other faiths but also to respect and learn from them deeply. I fasted with my Muslim friends during Ramadan and attended Navratri celebrations with my Hindu friends. One weekend, I attended Friday Shabbat at the Hillel center, discussed the Quran on Saturday, and went to a Methodist service on Sunday. I was joyfully immersed in multiple cultures and faiths.

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Conversations about faith with friends of other faiths forced me to articulate and understand Christianity in a way that going to church never had. Moreover, I had to grapple with exclusivity of my Christian upbringing’s understanding of the path to God. Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor gained new meaning: how could I love my friends and also believe their souls were destined to eternal torment? I was forced to reckon with the purpose of Christianity if not to help others know Christ.

These relationships led me to a Christian faith much stronger and deeper than I had known: a faith rooted in the praxis of working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace on Earth. This faith affirms the sacredness of Jesus as God incarnate, a hope for all people, but is inclusive of all those that seek the divine. This stronger faith also pushes me to seek the divine in other faiths. Now, I could beautifully end a hopeful thought with “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Now, I could watch the devotion of fellow students to the Hindu goddess Durga and find beauty and depth in this female vision of God. Now, I could cheerfully sing “When we eat we say Bismillah (In the name of God), when we’re done we say Alhamdullillah (Thanks be to God),” a tune taught to American Muslim children in the same manner I was taught, “God is Great, God is Good, let us thank him for our food.” Engaging in these practices furthered my relationships with my friends that confessed these faiths as their own.

This benevolent and strong Christian faith allows me now to work in an interfaith advocacy context on Capitol Hill at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness as a Young Adult Volunteer. I can articulate the Christian theological rationale for caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border, while I learn the Jewish rationale. Our voices for political change are stronger together.

If we seek a more just and peaceful world, we must seek understanding between and among faiths. In a more diverse and globalized world, these kind of interfaith and intrafaith relationships are the first steps on a path towards global reconciliation. Misunderstandings fuel wars, death, and destruction around the world. Muslim rebel groups clash with the majority Buddhist government in Thailand; Protestants and Catholic communities are still separated by “Peace” walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland; the state of Israel continues to forcefully push the boundaries of its illegal settlements into the olive farms of Palestinian farmers.

By developing strong relationships with people of other faiths, I am able to birth into this world my understanding of the kingdom of God—people of all faiths joining together as one human family, seeking peace and justice as one. This is the Christian identity I can now proudly claim.


 

Amy Beth WillisAmy Beth Willis is a 2nd year Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA) in Washington, D.C., having served her first year in Tucson, AZ. A born and bred Baptist, she hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and is passionate about music, education, zumba, and her amazing family and friends.

 

What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s Lecture at George Mason earlier this month.

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being Love, but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is Yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.

 


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

 

Not That Kind of Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 
By Jessica Tate

two faces copyIn a workshop last month, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World, Brian McLaren talked about people leaving Christianity (and other religions) because they refuse to be hostile toward other people and faiths. He lifts up author Anne Rice as a prime example. In 2010, Rice “quit Christianity,” saying that she refuses to be “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-science” and “anti-Democrat.” “Today I quit being a Christian,” Rice wrote. “… It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

There are many examples of the Christians to whom Rice refers. The book banners. The funeral protestors. The Quran burners. Most Presbyterians I know will quickly say, “but I’m not that kind of Christian.” And we aren’t. But those of us that aren’t that kind of Christian aren’t terribly vocal about the kind of Christian we are.

A number of years ago I was part of The Scandal of Particularity — a group of Jews and Christians pulled together by the Institute for Reformed Theology and the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. The group gathered regularly over two years to build relationships and re-examine the central religious concepts of our respective traditions.  The organizers believed that neglect of these central concepts contributes to the loss of the center of religious life — either to religious extremism or benign faith.

The group of thirty that gathered for The Scandal of Particularity was divided equally between Jews and Christians and consisted of a mix of seminarians, scholars, lay people, clergy, educators, and community leaders. I learned — through our conversation, our debate, and our cultivated friendships — that my understanding of faith tradition and my practice of living faith is strengthened as I articulate where my Christian community finds meaning and authority and how we interact with the world as Christians. In other words, the dialogue forced me to name the core convictions of my faith in a diverse group of people, and to do so among people who, while different than me in faith background, are people for whom I care, respect, and admire.

One exciting aspect of this gathering of Jews and Christians (and one that distinguished this group from many other interfaith dialogue groups) is that our time together focused not on what our two traditions have in common, but rather on the particular and distinct claims that are made by Jews and Protestant Christians in six central concepts. Together we explored:

  • the ways divinity is revealed at Sinai and in Christ;
  • the authority of sacred texts;
  • the (competing?) claim to be “the people of God;”
  • the divine presence in Israel and in the person of Christ;
  • the importance of religious space as it is practiced in worship and prayer; and
  • the role of religious people and communities in the public sphere.

Through discussions and wrestling with central concepts of faith together we broke down prejudices, we clarified misunderstandings, and we learned together the particular points of difference around which we could not compromise.  These points, we discovered, are the core convictions of our faith traditions—and joyfully, they often led to respect rather than hostility.

From the earliest gospel writers, Christianity has a troubling history of defining itself against Judaism. Often in our scriptures Jewish leaders like the Pharisees are used as dramatic foils for Jesus. It is not uncommon to hear contemporary Christians say things like, “the Pharisees promoted a system of purity; Jesus promoted a system of compassion.” That is a false dichotomy. Or, as my Jewish friends might say, “If a religious leader is favoring purity over compassion, she’s a bad Jew.”

These conversations and relationships helped me see the importance of Christians defining ourselves around the life-giving grace of God that we experience in Jesus Christ, not by the ways we are distinct from Judaism (or any other group). It also helped me realize the importance of articulating our faith in ways that make sense beyond our “tribe.”

The incredible benefit and gift I’ve taken from the work of this group of Jews and Christians is a clearer understanding of who I am as a Christian. I left this group with a set of core convictions about my own faith tradition that are based on who I am rather than who I’m not:

  • I am a believer who trusts the promises God has made to God’s people throughout history, to Israel and to the church.
  • I believe the scriptures are the authoritative narrative by which we come to know these promises.
  • I trust God’s grace is made known through God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.
  • I believe I am called to gather in community with others to offer thanks and praise to God for creating, redeeming and sustaining this world.
  • I trust the Holy Spirit continues to guide me to work with others for justice and compassion in this world.

As a result of these clarified beliefs, my posture toward those who are different from me has shifted. I need not be intimidated by others’ beliefs. I need not assert my own as better than theirs. I need not worry that diversity is code for “anything goes.” I need not be fearful that respecting different beliefs somehow compromises my own — in fact, I’ve discovered that respecting beliefs of others inspires me to be more committed to my own.

I want to be the kind of Christian whose faith is deep, sure, humble, joyful, and propels me to work in the world for justice, peace, and abundant life.

After quitting Christianity, Anne Rice went on to say, “My faith in Christ is central to my life…. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

To that I say, “amen!,” and I hope to be the kind of follower whose faith —in the ways I articulate it and act on it in the world — doesn’t make people want to quit, but invites others to come and see that this good news I know and try to live is indeed good.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.

Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan.