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Re-post: Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 18, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

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. 

Re-post: 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 month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

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 University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

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.  

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.

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. 

Why Do Presbyterians Cross the Road?

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 Mick Burns

An Imam, a Rabbi, a Baptist pastor and a Presbyterian Minister crossed the road…

…to the first tee.

interfaithGolf

They were teamed up to play golf at an interfaith fundraising event. After introductions were made at the first tee, these religious leaders were informed that it was going to be a “skins” match. They were all a bit nervous and afraid to ask for a definition of a “skins” match. Was it even proper for a spiritual leader to ask about skins?

No, it is not a joke. This really happened!

It was my first real interfaith experience years ago when I became involved with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion in the Detroit Metro Area. It was an enjoyable fundraising event. Hanging out with the Rabbi, the Imam and another pastor was a delight. Introductions and friendships were being made as religious leaders made room in their schedules to reach out to one another and make a difference by modeling a way forward.

Leaving Michigan I moved to the Fairfax area in 2009. Not long after my move I was befriended by a local Imam who showed up at my office door. Since then we have shared meals, and on two occasions, members of our congregation have joined members of his mosque for dinner as we broke fast during Ramadan. Naturally, I was excited to hear that noted Christian pastor, author, speaker, and activist Brian McLaren was coming to speak at George Mason University in October. The topic was related to his recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World. It was a pleasure to hang out with some like-minded leaders at the event at GMU sponsored by “Arise Campus Ministry.”

As I learned back in Michigan, when four religious leaders cross the road together, even to play golf, good things can happen and good things do happen. It was not different this time. Several members and friends from local Presbyterian congregations are meeting and discussing McLaren’s book. They formed their own group called, “Presbyterians Crossing the Road,” and are thinking about ways to continue interfaith dialogue in our community. Soon Interfaith services will take place on Thanksgiving Eve; one continuing a long tradition, another beginning a new one.

Two main questions were posed in the promotional material for the McLaren event. Can you be a committed Christian without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths? Is it possible to affirm other religions traditions without watering down your own?

Why do Presbyterians cross the road? Answer: To get to the other side of interfaith dialogue.

As very busy religious leaders, it is becoming more and more difficult to find time for things outside the life of the church, even though we have all heard the mantra to be “missional.” The fact is, running our churches takes a lot of time. However, interfaith work is worth our investment.

Brian McLaren’s work about interfaith relations is extremely helpful in that he reframes the conversation for us today. He reminds me of Walter Brueggemann. To me, part of Brueggemann’s genius is about how he uses language to reshape our thought. He is not satisfied with all the “theological jargon” of past Old Testament scholarship and he continues to come up with fresh new ways of re-framing our theological explorations. In a similar way McLaren’s genius is in reshaping our conversation for today.

As you know, McLaren and those in the emergent church movement have not been thrilled about the limitations of familiar clichés and pat answers to handle the tough problems in our world. In his book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, he outlines a path for Christians that helps us engage the contemporary world. He believes in the concepts that “hope happens.” When we cross the road with people of other faiths, hope happens. Brian McLaren reframes a host of theological doctrines as a way of engaging persons of other faiths without sacrificing our own beliefs In Jesus Christ.

When I served a church in Moorhead, MN my wife and I played in both indoor and outdoor co-ed soccer leagues for over thirteen years. Our team captain was a professor of plant sciences and people would come from all over the world to do a Ph.D. in advanced durum wheat genetics, etc. under his tutelage. As a result, we also happened to get some of the best soccer players from all over the world to play on our team. After thirteen years I counted that we had played with players from over 45 different countries. The best times were not just on the soccer fields. Once a month we gathered for potluck; a good Minnesota tradition. Everyone brought a dish to share from their home country. Our captain, a Christian from Syria, made the best hummus and baba ghanoush I have ever tasted. A Muslim teammate from Pakistan brought some amazing curry chicken, another Muslim friend from Iran would make Persian Fesenjun. Our Latin American friends from Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay would not only share their wonderful food, they would share their passion for dancing, and those who wanted to learned a few more steps.

We played side by side with Bosnians who fled to this country to avoid ethnic cleansing. Over Turkish coffee we heard stories of religious hatred and malice from one gifted Bosnian player who lost most of his family to the war. It is amazing what happens when people break bread and hang out together. We learn, we grow and we prosper.

Most of us have already crossed the road of interfaith relationships or we probably would not be reading a blog on NextChurch. Part of the way ahead is to continue on this path as a model for the society in which we live. With the rise of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Christians need to step up and help others that are trying to cross the road, but are afraid of what might be on the other side.

 


 

The Rev. Dr. Michael P. BurnsThe Rev. Dr. Michael (Mick) Burns as served as the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, VA since July of 2009. He served Presbyterian churches in Beverly Hills, MI, Moorhead, MN, Grand Haven, MI and Willmar, MN before coming to Northern Virginia.

Mick is married to Joni, a teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools. They have been married for 35 years and have two sons and two grandchildren. 

“Will You Kiss the Leper Clean?” — On Ebola and Our Tribes

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 MaryAnn Mikibben Dana (This post was first published on October 16th on MaryAnn’s blog, The Blue Room. )

President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.

-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, “Inauguration, Part 1″

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.

McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species—a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world’s major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our “tribal paint.” Sometimes that’s literal identifying marks—gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it’s a religious or political doctrine to define who’s in and out.

And we band together against common enemies and threats. “When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves,” he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness.”

There’s evidence that this tribalism is hard-wired. Young children naturally gravitate to people who are like them, racially and socially.

Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It’s interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being “without sin,” or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?

Sure, it’s the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary—because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.

Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed… often followed by the sotto voce comment: “I just hope it doesn’t come here.”

Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings,“There is no more far away.” We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we’ve not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.

As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it—stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.

Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who’s lost 10 members of their family.

One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.

“They tested the baby, and the baby was negative,” says Purfield. “But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.

“So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box,” she continues.

Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.

“They couldn’t just watch a baby sitting alone in a box,” Dynes says.

The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called “The Summons” by John Bell. It’s been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, “kissed the leper clean.” But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did—I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not helpful for the good ones to die—we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.

But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.

~

*Why did they cross the road? To get to the “other.”

 

 


 

mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor, writer and co-chair of NEXT. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

Strong Benevolent Faith Identity

By Marranda Major

I have taken it for granted that interfaith dialog has been a vital part of my spiritual formation. I was fortunate to have church mentors who encouraged my curiosity about other faiths and one Sunday school teacher who even devoted an entire year’s worth of curriculum to letting us explore world religions and the diversity among different Christian beliefs. During that year, my teacher often quoted Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, “test everything that is said, hold on to that which is good,” (5:21). That idea was huge for preteen Marranda and highly influential in shaping my worldview to be open, curious, and inquisitive. Learning how other religions relate to the divine and trying out different spiritual disciplines and practices helped me to become more rooted in my faith. I’ve never doubted how valuable these interfaith conversations were in shaping my Christian identity; but I have questioned what I have to offer to these discussions when there are so many Christian voices already at the table.

At my small liberal arts college, I had a very different experience of being one of few Christians present in discussions of faith. It was a bizarre sensation to be in theology seminars where very few (if any) students publicly identified as Christian. Within the intellectual conversation surrounding the violent history of the Church as an oppressor, it was easy to detach my beliefs and experiences of my home church from the institutional Church. When my classmates demanded a Christian response to critiques of hierarchical structures in the Church that have promoted sexist, racist, imperialist ideologies for the past millennium, I was not prepared to answer.

I struggled to own my public identity as a Christian, and I know I’m hardly the first person to be challenged to articulate my faith. A 2010 Pew Research report shows that Christians make up 31.5% of the world’s population: statistically, we are living in a more diverse, pluralistic society and our public faith identity is becoming ever more important. This November, writers for the NEXT Blog will take on strong benevolent faith identity and explore what that looks like in the public sphere.

 

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

This topic is inspired by a recent conference in which NEXT Church partnered with George Mason University’s ARISE campus ministry as well as several Northern Virginia area churches to bring Brian McLaren to speak about Christian identity as examined in his books Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World and Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. The conference was open to local clergy and church leaders as well as GMU faculty and students. Most of this month’s contributors attended and will be blogging about the ideas struck them from McLaren’s talks, small group discussions, and dialog with the interfaith panel.

Have you had an interfaith encounter that informed your faith? What does your public Christian identity look like? Tell us in the comments section and join us this November as NEXT writers explore strong and benevolent faith identity!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda is the Young Adult Volunteer serving with NEXT Church.