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Ecumenical and Interfaith News – November

(Submitted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Pacific Southwest Region, Disciples of Christ, and the Southern California Nevada Conference, United Church of Christ)

The Hospitality of the Disciples

        St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”   Paul’s emphasis on hospitality set a direction for the whole Church down through the centuries.  The Disciples of Christ have made a point, in tour denominational life, of being hospitable.  That was much in evidence at this year’s annual gathering of the Pacific Southwest Region at University Christian Church, San Diego.   Delegates were happily impressed with the extra lengths gone to by many members of the host church to welcome them, orient them, make them feel comfortable.  Thank you!

         It is one thing to extend hospitality to members of one’s own fellowship—those who share the religious ideas and practices with which we are already familiar.  It’s another thing entirely to be hospitable to those Paul calls “strangers”—those from outside the fellowship.  Hospitality to strangers means helping them feel that they are no longer strangers.  This, too, happened at the annual gathering.  An ecumenical guest, Father Avedis Abovian of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church, and an interfaith guest, the Venerable Shu-yu Shi of the Mayahana Buddhist community in Taiwan, were present at the invitation of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the region.  Both were invited to speak to the gathering at the very beginning of the day.  Both presented the greetings of their respective communities.  And both were warmly welcomed, indeed embraced, in the course of the day by delegates wishing to speak with them and express their joy at their presence among us.

      Father Abovian is the youth director for the Western Diocese of his church, which is in communion with other Orthodox churches such as the Coptic Church of Egypt.  As Father frankly pointed out to us, his church, an ethnic church, is a very different kind of body than the Disciples of Christ.  The Armenian people underwent a genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century, so their church has become for them a primary way of affirming their separate, specific identity as a people.  They also have a very different understanding of communion than we do, which made it difficult for him to participate in our closing communion.  Still, he said to us that there was much his church people could learn from the Disciples, and that he was very glad to be among us.

     Venerable Shu-yu told us of a dream of a friend in which he saw Buddha and Jesus holding hands.  She went on, “I hope we too can join hands and communicate with one another with compassion and wisdom.”  She spoke of the 21st century as an “amazing time” when our different religious traditions can “join together, communicate more deeply, and help one another.”  Shu-yu is committed to the monastic life, which, as in the Roman Catholic Church, involves celibacy (Father Abovian is married with children.)  She is in the United States writing a doctoral dissertation on the nature of mind according to the thought of one of China’s great Buddhist thinkers. 

      Two guests, both undeniably spiritual people, both undeniably different not only from us but from one another (Father Abovian with an official clergy beard, Venerable Shu-Yu with a shaved head)—and in this very difference the God who animates us all is present to help us learn and grow.  The Pacific Southwest Region did itself proud in the area of hospitality on October 22.    EIRC hopes and urges that the UCC Conference begin the practice of inviting such guests to its annual gatherings.

       This phrase has become very common in contemporary America—to the point of a new acronym being born: SBNA.  When an individual refers to herself as SBNA, she usually means that she finds religion, i.e., “organized religion,” i.e., what happens in churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., unsatisfying, lacking, perhaps somehow inauthentic.  Such people feel they can be on a spiritual path and have spiritual experience and integrity more or less on an individual basis, all by themselves, or at most by occasionally participating in different religious groups, but not committing to any.  Over a quarter century ago, the American sociologist Robert Bellah identified this phenomenon as characteristic of a highly individualistic society.  He gave the case study of a young woman named Sheila who had not found what she was looking for spiritually in the church and so had decided to follow “Sheilaism.”  The SBNR mentality does seem more common among the younger generation, and maybe also more common among Caucasians than among minorities.
           For those of us committed to the institution of the Church, it is perhaps easy to make fun of the “spiritual but not religious” mind set.  We see how this kind of spiritual individualism can shade quickly over into spiritual narcissism, a kind of preoccupation with and boasting about one’s own spiritual experience and insights.  Those who know the gospel of Christ understand that this doesn’t help anyone or anything.  Still, we need to listen carefully to the SBNR people.  They have some good points to make about the way our church life can become too routine, formalized, comfortable, shallow.  Those of us in the free churches such as the UCC and the Disciples especially have to ask ourselves if our emphasis on the freedom of the individual Christian to decide for themselves what they believe and what they don’t believe in Christian teaching might have contributed to this SBNR detachment from religious community.  Can we maintain our freedom of religious opinion and yet keep our freedom responsible and responsive, always able to look away from ourselves and our own needs because we are concerned to build up the whole Body of Christ, which is what the Church, at bottom, thankfully is?

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