Interfaith, Multifaith, Shared Faith.

Last week many people around the country gathered in interfaith commemorations of the tragic events in Paris earlier this month and at annual celebrations of gratitude around the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  I have a long history of participation and attendance at such events.  I can tell you that one of the most special interfaith service I attended was in of all places the grounds of Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA.  The piece of land owned by the state of Georgia and grounds of a former penitentiary and now a university brought together a variety of religions for a service that honored all and shunned none.  Great attempts were made to be inclusive enough for a Southern Baptist and Jew to stand next to each other and get a feeling of connection.  But that is not the norm. Often through ignorance or cultural myopia there are times that those who are charged to speak for the entire congregation of mixed faiths might pray in the name of, or invoke their vision of godness to the exclusion of others.  Other times there are those who chose to focus on Scriptural passages that exclude or denigrate the other.

Multifaith expressions in services are difficult.  In part because prayer is highly personal even when one is a prayer leader.  Our faith traditions are remarkably segregated when we gather for prayer. Even within a single faith the diversity of expression of prayer can be enormous.  A Hasidic synagogue looks nothing like a typical Reform synagogue but may have expressions different from even other hasidic synagogues.  Think of all the denominations of Christianity.  In that same Milledgeville it took me weeks to figure out the two Baptist churches may not always play with each other on issues of theology.  How then can we expect people to work together on creating something that feeds those who believe in one God, many Gods, No God or are unsure of what God is?  Actually it is quite simple.

The term interfaith is not how we should focus our energies, but on Multifaith.  The true goal of interfaith work is not to blend us all into one lump of an indistinguishable bland worldview, but to celebrate the many paths people take in there pursuit and/or relationship with God or Godness.  So why not celebrate it.  A model would be to allow for many person expressions of prayer in the service.  Have an invocation, benediction and if there is a sermon or message be strictly for all faiths.  Wipe it clean of any sectarian references.  Try to be universal and if a speaker can't or won't then find someone who can.  It is not hard to not make those things about yourself or your faith.  Don't leave someone out.  But then allow room for people to express themselves in their own faith tradition.  Allow for prayers in Jesus' name as long a there are prayers from many places of faith. However make those explicit that these are not prayers that we are looking for the whole group to say "amen".  Diversity is not about simply including minority faiths in a majority service nor is about taking deeply held beliefs off the table but embracing that which we all find comes from our heart.  That which we all find most precious.

I am never comfortable when at a meeting someone prays to Jesus for me or worse expects me to pray to Jesus with them.  But I can understand that they feel the need to pray to Jesus, and it is simple to leave me out of it.  However if the intention is to be inclusive then it would be rude and counter-productive to do that as much as it would be for me to pray the Alenu as a vision of the future.  (A prayer that calls on all the world to believe as we do).

Multifaith is difficult but not impossible if only we can have open dialogue about what it truly means and how we can express it in our actions and services.  People coming together around the idea of being thankful for the gifts we have, giving to those whose cups are less full, or remembering those lost in a tragedy and holding out hands to comfort those grieving are wonderful.  Maybe when we are away from the last time we did it we can think about it seriously and try to do better the next time.  If need help, 20 years ago there were some clergy and lay people in a small college town in Georgia who got it right.  Let's look for that.

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