What’s involved in interfaith peacemaking? This message, shared at Limestone Presbyterian Church on July 15, 2012, answers that question, at least from my own experience.
Text: John 14: 1-7
Good morning Limestone friends! It’s good to worship with you again, and I’m glad for this opportunity to share with you a ministry like the one that Paul talked about in his letter to the Romans, a ministry of reconciliation. As the bulletin indicates, last year presbytery commissioned me as an Interfaith Peacemaker. What does that mean? Well, let’s take the idea in two parts: first commissioning, and secondly the ministry of interfaith peacemaking.
If the Holy Spirit puts in your heart an idea to perform a certain ministry, you may want to take that idea to the church and ask them to approve it, and support you in it. I learned this, incidentally, from Quakers, with whom I worship in silence about every other Sunday. Quakers who have experienced an inner call of the Spirit go to their meeting for guidance and support. I went to the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and told them, “I want presbytery to commission me as an Interfaith Peacemaker.” They said, “What’s that? We can’t find it in the Book of Order.”
So I explained: “I want to help people of different faiths get to know each other and become friends. We have been having interfaith dialogues for years, and that’s great! They help to promote understanding and tolerance, but they don’t go far enough. They don’t build friendships. I want to build interfaith friendships. People of different faiths are fighting and killing each other all over the world. I want to build a preventive fabric of friendships so that that doesn’t happen where I live. Especially I want to reconcile the sons and daughters of Abraham: Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I want to make local Jewish and Muslim friends. I want our friendship to become contagious. I want to use my blogging and film making skills to tell about our friendship, to publish it far and wide. The internet is trumpeting so much hate, and recruiting young fighters. I want to use the internet for interfaith peacemaking! Please commission me as an Interfaith Peacemaker. I want to be responsible and accountable in this work, and I want presbytery to support me in it.”
In usual Presbyterian fashion, a subcommittee was formed to study the request. It met, deliberated, and recommended approval. To make a long story short, in May of 2011 presbytery commissioned me as an interfaith peacemaker, unanimously! How much your support means to me, fellow Presbyterians! Thank you, Elders of Limestone PC, for listening to my call, and affirming me in it.
How does one begin to make friends across faith lines? At the beginning of this commission, I knew one Jewish rabbi and one Muslim imam. How to widen the circle? Well, I kept my eyes and ears open to find counterparts in other faith communities who were also eager to make interfaith friends. A breakthrough came when my wife noticed a blurb in the Wilmington News Journal about the Muslim Professionals of Delaware, a small organization that is helping young Muslims get educated and find jobs. At the end of that article I read, “We want to reach out to others who are interested in interfaith activities.” Bingo!
I called the number listed and had coffee at a the Newark Dunkin Donuts with six guys in their thirties: engineers, computer wizards, a chemist. I discovered that one of them is a photographer, like myself. I invited him to my home for dinner. He introduced me to a group ofTurkish Muslim grad students at the University of Delaware. They belong to an organization called the Rumi Forum. Rumi was a thirteenth century Afghan poet who is widely read today.
At the end of this month my wife and I will dine with Rumi Forum friends when they break their month-long Ramadan fast. That annual dinner is called Iftar. It features not only feasting, but story telling and singing.
My wife and I have dined in a similar way with Jewish friends, at their Passover Seder meal. Again, story telling, and singing. The way to get invited to such joyful and educational occasions is to reach out to someone else who is reaching out, and say, “Let’s have coffee.” Interfaith peacemaking is built upon friendships.
And friendships are built by sharing stories. In the time that remains, I’d like to share my story about my interfaith journey.
I don’t ever recall being converted to an interfaith point of view. I seem to have been born to it. In my early teens I asked Ted Weissinger, my Sunday school teacher at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, whether certain people were damned to hell simply because they were born into Buddhist families. (It never had made sense to me that a benign Creator would condemn millions of persons for losing in a lottery.) To Mr. Weissinger’s credit, he admitted that he knew little about Buddhism, and so, wasn’t prepared to answer my question. He encouraged me, though, to learn more about Buddhism in my school library.
His example of un-anxious honesty, open mindedness, and gentle encouragement, was in fact all the answer I needed.
Although, as I have said, I seem to have been born to an interfaith point of view, I’m nevertheless grateful for having been raised in a family and church that encouraged me to establish friendships with people unlike myself. My father was in a men’s auxiliary of the YMCA, and occasionally he invited Y leaders from other countries to live in our home for a while. I will never forget Salvatore Navaria, a guest from Sicily, who spent a number of weeks with us. He was very strange in a delightful way. When my mom served him breakfast cereal he would always eat it dry and drink the milk separately. And when he ate a sandwich he always took it apart, eating the bread apart from the innards. So, at an early age I realized that people have very different customs, and although these may be quite important to them, they aren’t at all important in defining who they are at a deeper level. This was quite obvious to me, without having learned it in school or church, or at a parent’s knee.
As I look back on a life of study and work I realize that there was in me from the beginning a fascination with folk different from my own. Along the way I made major life decisions which intensified this leading, like moving away from Wilmington to the global metropolis of Miami, Florida.
But the most formative of these broadening experiences I did not choose, namely, the year I spent as a combatant on the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta. In 1970, serving as a military advisor to the South Vietnamese navy , I lived ashore, got to know the local farmers and fishermen, and was invited often to participate in their religious ceremonies. I was the guest in several fishermen’s homes when they celebrated the death days of their ancestors, burning incense and leaving gifts of food for them, arrayed with care upon crude tables under thatched roofs. I attended an animist ritual held near a whale carcass that had washed up on the river’s edge. I wore with gratitude an amulet of Buddha, given to me by a Cambodian who had emigrated to Vietnam and joined the navy there. It would protect me from bullets, he insisted. I needed all the help I could get!
Abundant help eventually did come, through a channel with which I was familiar. I prayed to Jesus to give me courage to endure, and that prayer was answered dramatically. I had an experience of Jesus with me, which consoled me entirely and filled me with deep joy and peace. I resolved, if I survived the war, to go to seminary, and become a pastor. However, even though I had had this peak experience in connection with Jesus, which many a Christian understands, I did not in any way discount or denigrate my experiences of sacred spirit through other channels.
Some years ago I helped to start an interfaith e-group called “Many Candles, One Light.” I have always believed that the same Spirit moves all people to reconnect to the source of their being. We do so according to the metaphorical tools which birth and our upbringing confer, and also according to the creative energies of our own imaginations. But, the same light illumines all. We are many candles, but we carry the same light.
Now, you may wonder how I reconcile this broadly inclusive view to the gospel verse which we heard this morning, where Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” Doesn’t that mean that people have to become Christians in order to experience the presence of God? Some Christians think so, but I do not. I do not because I have made friends with devout people of other faiths, and I have found them to be no less godly than I. They are not latent Christians, either. I’ll not speak of them that way to save a dogma. No, they are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Bahais. There are also atheists and agnostics among my spiritual friends. They are full of good will, a readiness to help others, and reverence for creation, but they are unable to wrap their minds around the notion of a personal deity. I will not condemn them for the way they arrange the metaphysical furniture.
I could discuss with you at length my understanding of John 14:7, and am willing to do that over coffee, but not now. (Sigh of relief). Suffice it to say I learned in seminary that there are four sources of authority in a Christian life: the Bible (we Presbyterians are prone to put most of our eggs in that basket); secondly, the tradition of the church (Catholics like that one); thirdly, the Holy Spirit (the Quakers emphasize that one); and finally reason. Since I was trained as a Presbyterian, for many years I favored, especially in a good fight, the primacy of Scripture. But I am not just a Presbyterian theologian anymore. I have sat in silence with Quakers, and learned to trust my spiritual experience more. The silent Quakers are mystics, and so I have discovered, am I. So I have come to use sacred scriptures differently, less like a debater, more like a seasoned soul who trusts with greatest confidence his own experience of the Spirit within.
I know, I know, such a Christian walk has proven dangerous in the past. But there are errors made in all traditions. Cleaving to the Bible does not save us from them. The one thing that is to be most trusted, as Paul taught, is love. Where love abounds, even if it is not in a church or mosque or temple, there, one may be sure, is the presence of God.