Thursday, September 28, 2017

Christians and Interreligious Dialogue


I've just returned from Austria and Germany where I had a delightful time reconnecting with friends and engaging in lively discussion with colleagues (^ that's me, third from the left)! For the past two years, I have been a part of the United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Training initiative where I have learned about dialoguing with those who think, believe, and act differently than I do. As I’ve entered into community with other Methodist young adults, clergy and laity alike, I’ve learned invaluable lessons about loving my neighbor. Historically, the UMC has prioritized ecumenical (inter-denominational) conversation and cooperation. Churches like the one I serve have created opportunities to serve with, worship with, and build friendships with other denominations as we recognize the importance of the unity among the many member of the body of Christ.  However, we have much work ahead as we brave the frontier of interreligious relationships. In an increasingly divided world, this kind of conversation and understanding of one another is more important than ever. Here are a few of my own reflections on how to connect with non-Christian brothers and sisters who live among us.

  1. They are not as different as we think they are. Very easily we look at somebody who appears different than whatever we consider the norm and think of them as other. That woman wearing a scarf (hijab) or that man wearing a round hat (yamaka) on their head represents the abnormal, the strange, the weird, the different, or the threatening. Fear of the unknown goes a long way in dividing us and keeping us from loving our neighbors. Why not sit down and have a conversation with someone who looks different than we do and find out just how much we have in common? I have often discovered that my Jewish and Muslim friends have much more in common with me than I ever expected. We share interest in social issues and passion for the other, we have similar taste in movies/music, and we seek to live in peace with others. It is important to be able to acknowledge how we differ while affirming the things we share. When we are able to seek out that which we share, we begin to see “the other” as “us.”
  1. Listening goes a long way. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of opinions. Sometimes I share them and sometimes I don’t. Though I do not claim to be perfect in this area, I do strive to be discerning about when I should open my mouth and when I should use restraint. When I don’t share my thoughts or opinions it is not because I don’t have them or they’re not valid. It’s not because I’m avoiding conflict, though that happens from time to time. Most often, when I exercise restraint, it’s because I am genuinely trying to understand another person’s perspective that differs from mine. Period. I don’t try to understand so that I can refute, I don’t try to understand so that I can argue my perspective. I seek to understand so that I might be able to respect and appreciate the other person for the image of God in which they are made (just like I am). A Greek philosopher once said, we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Perhaps we could benefit from doing just that.
  1. Jesus himself had something to say about interreligious work. He spoke of an interaction between two people of different faiths. Perhaps you know the story of the good Samaritan that Jesus uses to answer the question, "who is my neighbor?" The Samaritan-Israelites and Jewish-Israelites did not get along — they were of different religions. Jesus spoke to a group of Jewish-Israelites about a Samaritan-Israelite man who had mercy on another human being who was hurt on the side of the road. The man on the road likely did not share similar beliefs with him, but he chose to take pity on him in spite of their differences. This Samaritan-Israelite man wasn’t of the majority religion of the region but he did what a good Jewish-Israelite should have done in that situation — he “showed [the hurt man] mercy.” Perhaps we can learn from this unlikely hero. It seems that judgment has no place in our love of neighbor. Why don’t we try being people of mercy?

As always, I have a long way to go in my practice of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but I’m excited about the journey. Until next time — auf wiedersehen!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday: Grieving All That is Lost


     We're ending this year's Lenten journey this week. Three days away from Easter, it's really tempting just to jump to resurrection, but it's equally as important for us to stop and grieve what is lost as Christ empties himself and gives all of himself for us on Good Friday. As I think about Christ's journey to the cross, I can't help but to think of his disciples and friends. What were they thinking? What were they feeling?


    Oh, do I empathize with them! As there have been people, habits, traditions in my life that have died I have felt that hopelessness of life without them, that fear of what's next, that doubt of the goodness of life without them. I ran across psalm 44 this morning, and it made me say, yes. This is it. This must have been something like what they were experiencing, as it is often what we experience in our own walk with God. Maybe it will be of help or of some comfort to you, as it has been for me:

We have heard it, God, with our own ears;
our ancestors told us about it:
about the deeds you did in their days,
in days long past.
You, by your own hand, removed all the nations,
but you planted our ancestors.
You crushed all the peoples,
but you set our ancestors free.
No, not by their own swords
did they take possession of the land—
their own arms didn’t save them.
No, it was your strong hand, your arm,
and the light of your face
because you were pleased with them.
It’s you, God! You who are my king,
the one who orders salvation for Jacob.
We’ve pushed our foes away by your help;
we’ve trampled our enemies by your name.
No, I won’t trust in my bow;
my sword won’t save me
because it’s you who saved us from our foes,
you who put those who hate us to shame.
So we glory in God at all times
and give thanks to your name forever. Selah

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.
You’ve made us a joke to all our neighbors;
we’re mocked and ridiculed by everyone around us.
You’ve made us a bad joke to the nations,
something to be laughed at by all peoples.
All day long my disgrace confronts me,
and shame covers my face
because of the voices of those
who make fun of me and bad-mouth me,
because of the enemy who is out for revenge.

All this has come upon us,
but we haven’t forgotten you
or broken your covenant.
Our hearts haven’t turned away,
neither have our steps strayed from your way.
But you’ve crushed us in the place where jackals live,
covering us with deepest darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to some strange deity,
wouldn’t God have discovered it?
After all, God knows every secret of the heart.
No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—
it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter.

Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord?
Get up! Don’t reject us forever!
Why are you hiding your face,
forgetting our suffering and oppression?
Look: we’re going down to the dust;
our stomachs are flat on the ground!
Stand up! Help us!
Save us for the sake of your faithful love.

     Darkness, grief, loss, questioning -- they are all a part of our walk with God this day. Take a moment to remember your loss today, knowing that resurrection and new life are on the horizon.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

What's with burning palms for ashes?

Today I burned last year’s Palm leaves to be used for this year’s ashes. Curious about how that happens? We’ll just say, it’s a process (see pictures at the end of the post). As I burned and burned and stirred and burned, I reflected on a question I ask myself every year:

“Why are last year’s palms burned to be used for this year’s Ash Wednesday’s ashes?”

After all, we’ll be celebrating Palm Sunday toward the end of the Lenten season. What’s the deal with burning the palms now at the beginning? I’ve searched the internet and I’ve not really found a good answer to that question (of course, that could be due to my own “googling” capabilities). I can’t say I’ve got it all figured out, but here are a few things I’ve pondered. 

Palm Sunday is all about the excitement and anticipation of Jesus coming into Jerusalem. The people recognize he’s the messiah, the one who will be taking down the powers that be to save them. They are shouting his praises saying, “hosannah!” They’re excited because they don’t know what their salvation will actually mean. They don’t know that Jesus will have to suffer and die a criminal’s death. They don’t know the heartache and hopelessness they’ll feel before he has risen. They don’t know what has to happen for their salvation through the messiah. But for now they’re excited. That excitement, then hopelessness, then excitement at Christ’s resurrection speaks so much to our human journey and our liturgical one. 

During Lent each year we give something up or take something on so that we might walk a little closer with Christ. The Easter comes and we celebrate the fullness of relationship that Christ offers us, the life we have been given through him. We promise we’re going to keep up whatever it is we’ve been doing because it’s been so life-giving for us — we’ve seen the light! We have good intentions, really, we do. But somewhere along the way, life gets in the way. We stop going to that bible study we went to during Lent. We stop praying at lunch like we had been doing intentionally. We start wasting our time watching Netflix instead of improving our minds or our relationships. We had good intentions, but we mess up. It’s inevitable. That joy we had that reflected the excitement of our Palm Sunday and Easter lives has now dissipated. 

It’s been almost a full year since our last intentional season of putting ourselves in a better posture to receive God’s blessing. We’ve come back to square one. We know it’s going to be tough, but we must start again, with repentance and remembrance that we are human, that we need God. So we burn last year’s palms. Burning — a symbol of cleansing. These ashes of last year’s excitement and renewal are coming full circle to mark us as people who have repented, who seek renewal, who are beginning again to look for the salvation and life offered by Christ. May we remember that as we receive ashes today. 

“From dust you have come, from dust you shall return; repent and believe the gospel!”

Prayers for a meaningful Lent! - Rev. McSwitz

In case you're interested in my making ashes process, here it is:

 First you start with 6 or 7 palms...        then you cut them up and put them in a jar.

Next, you burn them...                            until they look like this.

Then you put them in a blender...           until they look like this.

After sifting them, and doing the whole process again, you've got...

Ashes for Ash Wednesday! So there you have it -- that's my process. :) Happy ashing!