Apollo 8 at 50: In the beginning

On Christmas Eve 1968 the astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first people to orbit the Moon.

The Rev. Mark W. Ohlemeier Five-minute read.   Resources
Earth Rising. Image credit: NASA

On Christmas Eve in 1968, three American astronauts became the first human beings to travel to another world. The Apollo 8 crew — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders — had made the quarter-million mile journey from the Earth to the Moon, a hazardous voyage through the deadly vacuum of space. Even though this mission would be overshadowed seven months later by the first manned Moon landing, the flight of Apollo 8 was a remarkable technological achievement. And it was made even more memorable by the way in which the crew decided to mark this historic event.

The astronauts wanted to do something special during their live television broadcast from lunar orbit, and had been contemplating it for weeks prior to the mission. They considered several different ideas, such as rewriting the words to “Jingle Bells” or “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” with a space-moon theme, but that idea didn’t seem to fit the occasion. They attempted to draft a message of world peace, but everything they came up with seemed too hollow. Just a few days before launch, however, they knew that their dilemma was solved thanks to a suggestion made by a friend of the crew.

As the Apollo 8 spacecraft circled the Moon on that Christmas Eve, millions of people on Earth tuned in to witness the broadcast. The astronauts pointed out the contrast between the lifeless surface below them and the tiny, blue orb outside their window that was home to all known life in the universe. Then, each man took a turn reading the first few verses from the book of Genesis:

1 In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, …

These mortal men, as they moved through the dark void of space, had an unprecedented view of creation and chose to mark the occasion by praising the work of the Creator.

The year 1968 was a troubled time in American history: the conflict in Vietnam was still raging; riots at the Democratic National Convention and elsewhere had caused millions in damage; and the country reeled from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But the mission of Apollo 8 and its message from the Moon offered hope to a divided country and an uncertain world. Fifty years later, while we face our own conditions of national and global anxiety, we can reflect upon the mission of Apollo 8 as a time when the world came together as one, if only for a brief moment, as the crew wished everyone “good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”  

The Rev. Mark W. Ohlemeier serves as Assistant Rector at Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, Missouri.

Loving as Christ Loved the Church: An Apologia for Gay Marriage

Fr. David argues that the Good News of Christ Jesus — Good News for all people, gay and straight — makes no distinction between them when it comes to monogamous lifelong committed relationships.

The Very Rev. David Kendrick Eight-minute read.   Resources

Lanora and Gates kneel at the Altar rail at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Springfield.
Image: Facebook

On Saturday, January 20th, I celebrated and blessed my first same-sex marriage, which was also the first at St. John’s. If you had told me I would have done this 10 years ago when I was first ordained I would have had a hard time believing you. If you had told me 20 years ago that as a layperson I would even have attended a same-sex wedding, I would not have believed you. And yet I have done just that.

The vast majority of my parishioners are either supportive or at least accepting of this. But a few have questioned whether, to paraphrase Richard Niebuhr, I’m putting Culture above Christ by linking the Church to a social movement for gay rights rather than standing for the truth. This article is an adaptation of a longer pastoral letter in which I tried to explain why that is not the case. But justifying this to my local parish alone is not enough. I promised at my ordination to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel (from the Old English God-Spell—Good News) of Jesus Christ. And so, I here proclaim that the Good News of Christ Jesus—Good News for all people, gay and straight—makes no distinction between them when it comes to monogamous lifelong committed relationships.

Twenty years ago, it seemed to me that Holy Scripture commanded two righteous ways of sexual expression. One was a lifelong marriage between a man and woman. The other was more a sublimation of that sexuality, namely lifelong celibacy in anticipation of that day when there will be no need for exclusive relationships because, standing in God’s glory, we shall all love each other equally. That was how I read Jesus’ teaching on marriage and celibacy in Matthew 19:1-12.

I deceived myself and others by my supposed compassion for those whom I took at their word that their attraction to the same gender was as much an instinct as mine to the opposite gender. By no means was their attraction a sin, I insisted, just their acting on it.

But the more I studied Jesus’ teaching, in Education for Ministry before Seminary, in Seminary, and after Seminary, the deeper and deeper understanding I was given of Jesus’ teaching on human sexuality. And the more and more convicted I became over the chains I was willing to place on my gay brothers and sisters. Jesus was being asked about marriage at a time when it was only between men and women, but his words should not be fixed to the cultural presumptions of that audience, time and place.

Having just heard Jesus say that they can’t divorce their wives at will, his male disciples then ask if they should be like Jesus,

1910His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Matthew 19:10

In other words, must we be celibate like you Jesus? To this Jesus answers,

1911“Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it.” Matthew 19:11a

Quite obviously, no human being can possibly give such a gift to another human being or impose it. Only God can give the ability to accept lifelong celibacy, and only “those who can accept it should accept it,” (Matthew 19:12) Jesus concludes.

While he may have been speaking to straight males, I concluded that Jesus’ teaching should be applied equally to those whose desire for union with the same gender is as much an instinct as the instinctive desire of heterosexual persons. I was also convicted of my cruelty in presuming to impose an obligation of lifelong celibacy on a certain group of people when I would never have considered imposing that burden on myself or those like me. If anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, discerns the gift and call of celibacy from God, who am I to judge? But who am I also to judge those who have not discerned from God the ability within themselves to abandon the worldly hope of an exclusive loving relationship?

Lanora and Gates are Married, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Springfield.
Image: Facebook

And so, I came to believe that Jesus would no more impose lifelong celibacy on homosexual persons than he did on heterosexual males. And I came to this belief not by ignoring the words of the Gospel, but by reading more deeply, the Word made flesh (John 1:14) speaking through the human authors of Holy Scripture.

But marriage? One might pastorally accept and even bless a monogamous gay relationship. But marriage as the outward and visible sign of God’s grace and Christ’s personal presence? Gay marriage a sacrament? What would I say to a gay couple asking not just for a blessing (which I and most priests are rather profligate about giving) but for the public celebration of their commitment as sacramental, a sign and vehicle of God’s grace and Christ’s presence?

More than once since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in July of 2015, homosexual couples have asked to be married at my parish church. Each time I explained the longstanding rule in my parish that at least one of them must be an active member of the parish. Thus, as with any other couple, a gay couple would need to visit us, get to know us, kneel before the Bishop and be either confirmed or received before I could consider their request. Gates Wagner and Lanora Samaniego fitted that description perfectly.

In May of 2016, the St. John’s Evangelism Committee proposed that we participate as a sponsor of the Greater Ozarks Gay Pride Festival, and the Vestry voted to do. So, on Saturday, June 18th, just one week after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, we went to our gay brothers and sisters rather than wait for them to risk coming to us on any given Sunday not knowing how they would be received. And it was there that I met Lanora and Gates.

Soon after we met at Pridefest, Gates and Lanora made their first visit. Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, they took to our Anglo-Catholic parish like fish to water. They were received into The Episcopal Church by Bishop Field that November. They are both active in the Outreach Ministry Group, and the Evangelism Committee. And their Friday yoga class has helped parishioners and others in pain. In short, Lanora and Gates fully committed themselves to this parish before asking me to officiate at their marriage.

I agreed to do the same premarital counseling with them as I do with other couples. Once they had completed that counseling and I was convinced of their mature commitment to each other, I found myself with Saint Philip the Deacon on that wilderness road with the Ethiopian Eunuch who asked in so many words — What is to keep me from the Sacrament of Baptism? (Acts 8:26-40). Simply because he had been picked as a newborn to serve the Ethiopian Queen, and his testicles crushed with a stone, this Eunuch could be drawn to the One and only God of Israel, and even go to Jerusalem as a religious pilgrim. But as a disfigured eunuch (and not of his own choice) he could never be a Jew by the Law of Moses. As that eunuch asked Philip, so I heard Gates and Lanora asking me — What is to keep us from the Sacrament of Marriage?

What exactly makes marriage a sacrament of God’s infinite grace? “[Marriage] signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church,” the Priest says in the opening declaration of the Marriage ceremony. Underpinning this teaching are the words of Saint Paul to the Ephesians:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:25, 32.

In the patriarchal society of Paul’s time, it makes sense that these words were directed to husbands, whom prevailing culture said should assert authority over their wives (an idea Paul paid lip service to while emphasizing much more the husband’s obligation to sacrifice himself for his wife if necessary). Understanding more fully the equality of male and female, the Church today calls both people in a marriage to love each other as Christ loved the Church and died for that Church. That is what makes a marriage Christian, not the gender or orientation of the two persons involved.

Seeing that Christ-like love in Lanora and Gates for each other, and their commitment to that part of Christ’s Body the Church called Episcopal, I was able to look at Paul’s words to the Ephesians about the “mystery” (in Latin, sacramentum) of marriage more deeply than the culture in which they were written, the same way I had looked at Jesus’ words in Matthew. And I could see no reason why something that no person chooses determined whether their love for each other was sacramental. And so today, they are Lanora and Gates Samaniego.

None of this has been about surrendering to the Culture. It has been about hearing the Word of God who is with God and is God speaking eternal truth through the human words of Holy Scripture across the millennia. It has also been about God the Holy Spirit opening our minds to a new interpretation of those human words.

1612“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:12-13

I believe that same-sex marriage is one of those things that has come. And I cannot say no to those whose monogamous love is no different based simply on their gender. To God’s grace and truth through Jesus Christ I offer my mind, and my heart, and those in my care whose love for God is at least equal to mine.

The Very Rev. David Kendrick is Southern Dean and Rector at St. John’s, Springfield.

Reflections on the Diocesan Convention

A story of mixed emotions encountered during the diocesan convention.

Mike McDonnell Five-minute read.   Resources

Mike McDonnell, St. George Episcopal Church, Camdenton speaks during the Finance Team’s presentation Image credit: Gary Zumwalt

In early November, Mtr. Laura Hughes, my wife Maureen, and I spent several days at The Diocese of West Missouri’s Annual Convention. The convention, for the most part, was very enjoyable with the exception of the last three hours which I have told people was absolutely mind-numbingly excruciating.

However, it was to all of us, I believe, a worthwhile expense of our time to attend, and finally, after 11 years I am getting a handle on understanding the process of how the Episcopal Church operates on a diocesan level. Having said this, I am not writing about the convention, but the emotional experience I had while attending. Three times I experienced tears rolling down my cheeks and a great twisting of my heart and soul.
I haven’t fully worked out the impact of these emotions or even the why, but they did happen, and I feel they occurred because of the profound presence of the Holy Spirit.
I was deeply moved by reading the November 3rd edition of the USA Today Newspaper. There was an article, by George Schroeder, about a six-year-old boy, Will Kohl, who had undergone a heart transplant.  Will was diagnosed, before he was born, with a significant heart abnormality: ‘hypoplastic left heart syndrome’ in which the left ventricle is severely underdeveloped.  He had been at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children Hospital for 295 days (as of Nov 3) and 44 days since he had his new heart.  Will has undergone several treatments that were stop-gap measures designed to get him to a point in his life where he could receive a new heart.  At 3 ½ years old, Will was placed on a waiting list for a new heart. Since that time, he had to be placed on a Berlin Heart (artificial heart) and suffer the disappointment of finding a heart, but discovering later that it was unsuitable. Ultimately, the hospital located for him a suitable heart. 

This is just one heart-wrenching story about the dozens of children at the Stead Children’s hospital. What makes this story a little different is not Will’s or the other children very serious conditions, but what happens on Saturdays during the Iowa football season. You see, the hospital is built next to the Iowa Kinnick Football Stadium.  On the 12th floor of the hospital, there is a huge window overlooking the stadium. It is where patients gather with their parents on game day. As the families look-on, the huge crowd of 68,000  suddenly turns toward the hospital (including the visiting team), and looking-up begin to wave at all the kids and their parents.  This Saturday happens to be a night game, and as the kids are looking down from their 12th-floor perch, they see thousands of cameras and cell phones flashing. The kids with their parents enthusiastically return the wave. The gratitude expressed by the kid’s and their parents through their broad smiles will move you to tears and remind you that love can be found in the middle of a sporting event. Kudos to the University of Iowa!

On Saturday I watched a presentation showing how the Episcopal Church is working with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks. We were shown a video, prepared by the Council of Churches, explaining how they reach out to the community to assist those in need. One of the stories in the video was about a young woman who was holding tightly on to her “wiggling” child, as she conveyed her thanks for the assistance she received. As she looked at the camera, I heard her voice cracking with emotion as she sincerely articulated her deep appreciation. We live in a world filled with cynicism, but at this very moment, I saw pure gratitude. There was no sign of entitlement in her voice, nor was there anyone whispering that she should not have gotten pregnant if she could not afford a baby. There was heartfelt gratitude and thankfulness that someone showed her love and thought she was worthy of being helped.

Finally, during Friday evening’s Ordination and Reception Mass we sang (and I say that very loosely for me) two of my favorite Hymns: “Holy Ground” and ”I, the Lord of sea and sky.”  Now in itself, that would be nothing extraordinary, but for some mystical reason my soul was stirred by the words in “I, the Lord of  sea and sky.”  In all three verses, the Refrain is repeated following the three questions, as follows:

1st verse, Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send;

2nd verse,  I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?;
3rd verse, I will give my life to them. Whom shall I send?
The Refrain after each is: “Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord?”

To any of you who know me reasonably well, you will know one of my questions to myself and others I speak with, is about recognizing when Jesus is whispering to us, specifically about what we are called to do.  It has been a question I asked myself countless times during my life and to be honest, I have never, ever been satisfied with my self-answers. However, maybe the answer to my lifelong question is always to be open to God’s call and his request for me to use my gifts for him. Maybe some of that answer for you and me lies in the totality of the Refrain; “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” Consider what St. Francis is attributed to have said,

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.

So my question for you to consider when you hear that quiet whisper is, “Is it I, Lord who you have called?”

Mike McDonnell is co-founder of the Lake of the Ozarks Stop Human Trafficking coalition, and member of St. George Episcopal Church, Camdenton.


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Reframing “Religion” from Belief to Belonging

The Jesus Movement arises from the sacred Gospel story in which we participate.

Vern Barnet 10 minute read.   Resources

… The Palm Sunday parade, the Maundy Thursday washing of feet, and the Good Friday adoration of the cross … are no more superstitious than a client following a therapist’s suggestion to “place your deceased mother in this chair and tell her how you miss her.” Image credit: Gary Allman

I see crowds of young people arriving at a nearby church as I walk to the bus stop on my way to the Cathedral Sunday mornings. I admire this thriving church’s ministry to my neighborhood.

Doing interfaith work in the community for 35 years convinces me that there ought to be different churches because people have different needs. Different religions are gifts to us, not threats.

Still, I doubt that most young people, whether they attend church or not, are conscious of how our culture frames religion and limits their ways of accessing the most sacred treasures of faith. I worry that we Episcopalians are unintentionally hiding the treasures we cherish. I reckon a good number of the young people I see would be astonished and grateful to learn about our evolving Episcopalian tradition.

1. Cultural framing

To most media, religion is regularly told as conflict, abuse, and other forms of oppression, and even anti-science. I need not give examples. The “nones,” the expanding number of folks with no faith affiliation, often explain their rejection of organized religion with a sense of righteousness, unsullied from the institutional corruption the media report. “I can be spiritual by myself,” they sometimes claim.

Many “nones” reject religion because they find it incredible, superstitious, or repulsive. “Do you really insist that God sent those Ten Plagues to the Egyptians and killed their innocent firstborn children and animals?”

For some who do go to church, the motivation is personal guilt, or to make or connect with friends, to enjoy musical entertainment, and so many other reasons. One of my students wanted to survey his church to find out why people attended. He received answers such as the church is nearby, the windows are pretty, the preacher is friendly, the grandmother helped found the church — none of the responses concerned the stated beliefs of the church. Which is profoundly ironic since most people associate religion with beliefs. When I was asked by the Kansas City Star to write a weekly religion column (which I did for eighteen years), my column’s name was “Faith and Beliefs” even though I told my editors beliefs are not important in most religions.

For example, to be Jewish, you don’t need to believe anything. You can be a good Jew and an atheist. You simply need to have a Jewish mother. You can believe in one god, or no god, or 330 million gods and be a good Hindu. The Buddhist Heart Sutra denies the basic doctrine of the Buddha to teach that what is important is not belief but practice.

Scholars sometimes identify dimensions of religion with four C’s: Creed (belief), Cultus (rituals), Community, and Code (moral expectations). Different faiths and different adherents may emphasize one or two of these dimensions over others.

Nonetheless, the persistent modern framing of religion as belief is, in my view, problematic.

2. The Sacred Story

As the great late sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, an Episcopalian, has demonstrated in a lifetime of scholarship, religion is a sacred story. Most scholars, I think, agree. The four C’s are ways of understanding, reenacting, sharing, and behaving in harmony with the story.

Since the time of the first Book of Common Prayer, 1549, the meaning of “belief” has changed. Then it meant something more like “trust” or “commitment to.” When a wife says of her husband, or a producer says of one’s actor, or a partisan says of one’s candidate, “I believe in them,” this is not so much a factual statement as a declaration of relationship. “Belief” derives from the same Latin root as libido, desire, and is akin to the German liebe, beloved. It’s not about facts. It’s about a bond.

When I say I believe in Jesus, I am not affirming any historical or theological speculation; rather, I am belonging to Him. Instead of a virtual faith confined to a compartment of my mind with answers to theological questions, Jesus becomes the Bread and Word for my whole life.

The 20th Century Anglican poet T. S. Eliot theorized that the power of 17th Century poets like John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is in part due to the fact that they wrote before the “dissociation of sensibility,” when thinking and feeling were still united. Then belief and be-love were the same.

Believing in the Christian story is not singularly an intellectual decision. When I recite the Creed, I am outlining a cosmic story of salvation in which I am involved, not a scientific proof (The Latin word credo has many meanings including “to entrust.”)

Belief in the shallow sense of cerebral assent hinders us from understanding who we are from stories. This is so, even of fiction. Anglicans defended the fiction of Elizabethan theater against the Puritans who decried the stage because it was not true. The enjoyment and benefit of fiction, from Aesop’s fables to your favorite movies, arises from encountering them with a “willing suspension of disbelief,” in the phrase of Anglican poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Another Anglican poet, W. H. Auden wrote, “It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character in a novel; one can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.”

Our story is genuine, and we participate in it and are formed by it. The Palm Sunday parade, the Maundy Thursday washing of feet, and the Good Friday adoration of the cross, as examples, are no more superstitious than a client following a therapist’s suggestion to “place your deceased mother in this chair and tell her how you miss her.” Neither is about facts so much as about a relationship which ritual appreciation or therapeutic methods may deepen.

So we can tell that story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt as a spur to our evolving questions about how to live in the light of the Gospel.

3. What Episcopalians Can Offer

To the “nones,” we can offer a spiritual reframing service. We can replace a superficial, virtual frame of religion with what is genuine. God is not an HD display idea; God is reality. Over the virtual we chose embodiment. Christ is incarnate. Religion is less as an inventory of disputed facts and more as a sacred story. Instead of religion focused on concepts, we offer a faith embracing and balancing creed, cultus, community, and code, each dimension of the holy narrative.

Since becoming an Episcopalian seven years ago, I’ve often visited with young people about what they desire in religion. From these conversations, I am convinced our living heritage offers what the future needs. Reframing is the first step.

Young people want to participate, belong to an open tradition that requires something of them, something like the ancient meaning of “belief.” In a future article, I’ll suggest how our tradition of table and word offers fulfillment, but the way we present our faith may yet be clarified and our mission in the Jesus Movement enhanced.

Vern Barnet’s latest book is Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire. He previously wrote for The Kansas City Star.


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Can Knowing Other Faiths Deepen Our Own?

Understanding friends from other faiths can enrich our own lives as Christians.

Vern Barnet 10 minute read.

Church Bell Tower, Pyrgos, Santorini, Greece Image Credit: Matt Bishop. Original Image

It’s an affair of the heart. You meet these compassionate people doing good things. You want to know them, to understand the faiths that give their lives meaning. They are not Christian. You remember what Jesus told us about a Good Samaritan who worshipped in a tradition other than His own.

Such people are the best answer to the question, “Can I learn about other religions without watering down my own Christian beliefs?”

I’m old enough to remember the days when folks were warned, and even prohibited, from worshipping with others. We’ve come a long way toward tolerance, but we have a long way to go before we see religious pluralism as a gift, not a problem, a blessing, not a threat. The political use of religious prejudice darkens the world and demeans the religious urges in every human being, and deprives us of many of God’s gifts.

“He who knows one religion knows none” declared Max Mueller, a 19th Century scholar of comparative religion. To make the same point, I slightly paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: “What knows he of England who only England knows?” We understand our own country better by traveling abroad. We know our own town better by having visited other places. We grasp our faith more securely by encountering and learning from others.

Anglican T. S. Eliot wrote what many regard as the most profound Christian poem of the last century, “The Four Quartets.” Eliot read several languages, including Sanskrit. His poem draws upon not only Christian mysticism but explicit Hindu teachings to illumine both.

I thought I knew what church bells meant. Bells routinely say, “The service is about to begin.” I heard them here; I heard the cathedral bells in Europe. In fact, I had the job of ringing a chapel bell when I was a student.

But as a young man visiting Japan, at a Shinto shrine, I saw a child swinging a rope with a striker at the high end to hit a gong. I learned that the noise was intended to awaken kami, the divine, so that kami would pay attention to the devotee. Paradoxically the noise awakens the devotee to the presence of kami. What seemed like a silly, even superstitious, act of waking kami was in fact how kami awakened the devotee.

In a fresh way, I saw that the church bell does not merely call us to church, but also can awaken the presence of the sacred in us; the bell is not just an external ringing but also an internal resonance. It is not a Pavlovian alarm compelling us to go somewhere; it is rather a signal awakening us from self-centered slumber.
Let me move from that childish awakening to three examples of how my Episcopalian faith has been enriched by knowing something of other traditions.

1. Christianity and Buddhism

Perhaps one of the most important sustained interfaith dialogues of our time was begun between Christian and Buddhist monastics. What two religions could be more unlike? Christianity proclaims a Creator God while Buddhism instead speaks of Emptiness, the Void, with no beginning, no Creator, only ongoing, interrelated processes, none of which rules without being ruled. Even more strange is how the two faiths understand personhood. Christianity assumes we are individual souls, each with one’s own eternal destiny. Buddhism denies the soul as a separate and everlasting personal existence.

With such striking contractions, what’s there to talk about? The monastics discovered they could talk about their experiences. From such conversations, the Christian practice of Centering Prayer has been rediscovered.

While the language and images differ in each tradition, the differences themselves illumine the similarities. When Meister Eckhart (1260-c1328) said, “I pray God to make me free of God,” was he pointing to the Buddhist experience of the Void? Is the Void a way of being alert to the dangers of defining and limiting God by our own conceptions? Does this bring us back to that enigmatic answer when Moses asked for God’s name, and God said something like, “I will be what I will be”? Can we look at our own scriptures in a new light?

As for the Buddhist teaching that the self is empty, consider Philippians 2:7: “Jesus emptied Himself” that he might reveal God’s glory. If Jesus is our model, then must we not also empty ourselves? Can we use Buddhist skepticism about selfhood to advise us to look at our tendencies toward self-centeredness?

2. Christianity and Confucianism

I like to think that the Anglican style is a Confucian form of Christianity. Both traditions lay importance on education and emphasize the unifying beauty of ritual as a way of honoring and experiencing the sacred.

Some years ago, I was in San Francisco during a Chinese New Year parade. Large inflated plastic sages bowed endlessly from pulled strings like giant puppets atop the floats. That’s the problem with Confucianism, I thought: insincere show, people being polite even when they despise each other.

But I’ve come to see that sometimes acting with courtesy can arouse a more generous attitude toward others. Even if we are moody, observing the forms of etiquette guards against offending others and thereby protects us from others reacting against us. We don’t want to infect our friends with disease; why infect them with the vagaries of our emotions? (Of course, those closest to us deserve to know how we are doing, but we don’t have to tweet it to everyone we’ve ever met and hope to meet.)

Social and liturgical rituals do not depend upon transient feelings. Rituals remind us that feelings are for feeling, but we need not make decisions based on them. Rituals enable us to practice the way we really want to be. The sharing of God’s abundance with others in the Eucharist is a model for how we want to live our lives, beyond our momentary failures to perceive God’s constant grace.

Confucianism became rigid and unable to adapt to changing environments. It is an object lesson for us to be sure that our rituals remain living expressions of Christ’s love, and not dead letters and futile forms, monuments which have lost meaning. Yet the impulse of Confucianism remains salutary.

3. Christianity and Islam

Our Christian indebtedness to Islam is untold. Here l can only hint of why it can help us renew our own faith.

In today’s culture, Christianity has often become a form of narcissism, sometimes expressed as “I believe in God, but I don’t need a church for me to know Jesus.” But we also believe that the Church is the Body of Christ. United as one body, our life together forms us into the life of Christ to do God’s will.

We together create or destroy the social conditions for the kind of life God wants for us. No major religion today is clearer than Islam that we as individuals affect each other. Sharia, so terribly misrepresented in the media, is really the directions for a society of justice and peace. Islam’s teachings about how we best relate to each other can enable us to recover insights within our own tradition that strengthen our faith and witness.

By making friends with those of other faiths, we also refresh the wisdom and the heart of our own.

Vern Barnet’s latest book is Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire. He previously wrote for The Kansas City Star.